April 16, 2015


Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Gil Shaham, violin. Canary Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1; Fauré: Elegy in C minor; Lalo: Cello Concerto. Kim Cook, cello; Philharmonica Bulgarica conducted by Valeri Vatchev (Saint-Saëns, Fauré) and Grigor Palikarov (Lalo). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Zemlinsky: The Mermaid—Symphonic Fantasy; Sinfonietta. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).

Sibelius: Complete Works for Mixed Choir. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Heikki Seppänen. Ondine. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Sometimes the sheer beauty of the sound on a recording is the first thing that strikes a listener, particularly if the recording features music that is well-known and familiar. This is the case with Gil Shaham’s excellent new Canary Classics release of Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006. These are works that Shaham has played for decades: all modern virtuosi consider them standard works as well as a pinnacle of the violin literature. They are also ones he has thought carefully about, as his comments and analyses in this release’s booklet make clear. And they are pieces for which Shaham – better known for his performances of 19th- and early 20th-century music – has modified his usual approach to his instrument. Here he plays the 1699 Stradivarius “Countess Polignac” violin with a Baroque bridge (made by Adam Crane) and Baroque bow (by Marcus Laine). He uses wound-gut strings, not ones of traditional sheep gut, but Shaham is not striving for historical accuracy in these performances: he is chasing his own personal vision within and around Bach’s, an approach that permeates his interpretation, which features playing that is sensitive to the soft passages as well as the louder, more-forthright ones. The Baroque bow is lighter than the ones Shaham usually uses, making it easier to play passages of these Bach works more quickly – and Shaham takes full advantage of this, presenting some tempos that are very speedy indeed. The entire set of these works runs 118 minutes here, which is really extraordinarily speedy. Ilya Kaler’s set, for example, is a full 30 minutes longer, and Jaap Schröder, using a Baroque violin, takes 25 minutes more. This means that Shaham’s version seems, on the face of it, to be a once-over-lightly; but in reality it is no such thing. There is some initial shock at hearing the overall speediness of the tempos, but the relationship among the movements is so clear, the relative pacing of them so well done, that Shaham quickly becomes convincing in these interpretations and sweeps listeners into a world in which the dances really do sound dancelike while the serious slow movements, fugues and the Ciaccona of Partita No. 2 all come across as weighty and very carefully considered. They also simply sound beautiful, not only thanks to the inherent loveliness of the violin’s tone but also because Shaham makes expressiveness – at a level appropriate to this music – a priority throughout his readings. This is a truly lovely and highly engaging recording that captures listeners with sonic beauty and keeps them with its skilled and thoughtful interpretative insights.

     Kim Cook’s interpretations of Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Lalo are not as revelatory as Shaham’s of Bach, but her new MSR Classics release is also a recording in which the loveliness of the sound of the solo instrument is immediately apparent and is a big part of the CD’s attractiveness. The Saint-Saëns is a particular pleasure here, very well-paced in a tightly knit performance in which Cook’s handling of the virtuoso passages flows so naturally and with such apparent effortlessness that the music’s lyrical charm emerges as an organic rather than created element. Saint-Saëns once famously said that he produces music as an apple tree produces apples, and that is just how Cook’s handling of this familiar concerto from 1872 makes it sound. Fauré’s Elegy, written for cello and piano in 1880 and orchestrated by the composer in 1897, is a primarily meditative and thoughtful work; it gives Cook plenty of chances to showcase the wonderfully warm sound of her instrument while also allowing the mood change in the middle of Elegy, in a section filled with passion, to emerge with intensity and drama. As for the Lalo concerto, which dates to 1877, it is inherently somewhat less effective than the Saint-Saëns, being more episodic and calling on virtuosity more for its own sake than because of the emotional needs of the material. For this display piece, Cook shows just how well she can handle the Spanish rhythms and fast scale passages without losing the fine sound that she evokes from her instrument throughout. The sheer beauty of the cello and skill of Cook’s playing are the attractions here, although there is less of a sense of delving deeply into this music than in the other works – in truth, there is less depth to be had in this concerto. Where this well-recorded release is not quite at the top level is in the orchestral accompaniment: Cook deserves an ensemble with a sumptuous tone that complements hers, but the Philharmonica Bulgarica is not it. The orchestra is certainly serviceable, as are its two conductors on this disc, but there is nothing scintillating about any of the accompaniment, nothing more than workmanlike in the conducting. The result is a CD that highlights the soloist to an even greater degree than might be expected – a state of affairs that will delight listeners from a sheer aural standpoint, but that leaves something to be desired interpretatively.

     Cook would have sounded even better if accompanied by an ensemble as good as the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and a conductor as sensitive as John Storgårds – at least on the basis of a new Ondine SACD of music by Alexander Zemlinsky. The symphonic fantasy The Mermaid (Die Seejungfrau), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Mermaid, absolutely demands warm, effusive tone and an orchestra able to play this work as if it had been written by Richard Strauss – whose tone poems it in fact resembles, although Zemlinsky’s fantasy is far more extensive and really qualifies as a symphony in all but name. The Helsinki players rise to the occasion from start to finish, and Storgårds’ interpretation has all the sweep, drama, passion and intensity that the music demands – which is to say, quite a lot. The work is in three sections, corresponding more or less to symphonic movements, and can be difficult to hold together as it explores elements of the Andersen story (some of which are apparent, even though Zemlinsky withdrew his original detailed explanation of what certain portions of the work referred to). Storgårds sees the piece as a connected whole, a dramatic cantata-without-words that tells a story through use of a large orchestra and very adept scoring. Zemlinsky was primarily a composer of dramatic music, and that certainly shows here – with Storgårds bringing out and even somewhat over-emphasizing the intensity of feeling in a way that, like the orchestration, makes this work seem akin to those of Richard Strauss, with which Zemlinsky was quite familiar. This is the world première recording of a new critical edition of the score by Anthony Beaumont (who has himself conducted and recorded it): this version restores some five minutes of music that Zemlinsky cut, for unknown reasons, before the piece went into rehearsals for its January 1905 première. The restored material, which occurs in the middle of the second section/movement, fits so well that even listeners who know The Mermaid already may be surprised at the seamlessness of its inclusion – although it does have a climax that stands out quite distinctly. It is interesting to hear this version of The Mermaid along with another world première recording, that of a chamber-orchestra version of Zemlinsky’s much later Sinfonietta. This piece dates to 1934; the chamber version was created as recently as 2013, by Roland Freisitzer. The Sinfonietta requires an orchestra whose sound is nearly the opposite of what The Mermaid needs. Sinfonietta is spare music, lean and concise, its structural elements showing through clearly – even more so in the chamber version than in the original. The Helsinki Philharmonic manages to change its sonic colors quite effectively here, and Storgårds does as good a job of bringing out the Second Viennese School elements of Sinfonietta as he does with the late Romanticism of The Mermaid. The result is a recording that showcases two very different sorts of sound from the very same ensemble, both of them equally effective and appropriate – and both very well recorded indeed.

     Another new Ondine release dispenses with instruments altogether, but still offers tonal beauties that are immediately attractive and remain so throughout. This is a two-disc set of the complete works for mixed choir by Sibelius – an element of his musical life with which listeners accustomed to his symphonies and theatrical music may be wholly unfamiliar. Speaking of world premières: this is the first-ever recording of the totality of this music, and would be welcome on that basis alone. But there are other reasons to be grateful for it: the music itself, while not always substantial, is almost always interesting, and the singing is so accomplished, so smooth and elegant, that listeners need not know the Finnish and Swedish words at all in order to enjoy the effect of the performances. The words are readily available, though: they are included with the recording, as are English translations. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, one of the finest of its kind, is led here by one of the leading Finnish choir directors, Heikki Seppänen, who has conducted a large number of professional choirs in Finland and elsewhere. Many of these pieces are quite short, running from 30 seconds to a minute or so; but others are more substantial – Sibelius shows himself capable of writing quite a variety of choral music and focusing on subjects from the patriotic (To the Fatherland, Festive March, The Song of the Men of Uusimaa) to the educational and comparatively mundane (March of the Primary School Children, The Way to School, School Song, and even Three Songs for American Schools). The unusual repertoire, the very-high-quality performances, and the exceptionally fine sound of the choir combine to make this release, occasioned by the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth, a genuinely enthralling one for listeners interested in some Sibelius music that is decidedly out of the ordinary.

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