October 08, 2015


Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2; Berceuse, Op. 57; Mazurkas—Op, 17, No. 4; Op. 24, No. 1; Op. 63, Nos. 2 and 3; Op. 68, Nos. 2 and 4. Adolfo Barabino, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lee Reynolds. Claudio Records. $16.99.

French Music for Harp—Works by Fauré, André Caplet, Philippe Schoeller, Marcel Lucien Tournier, Debussy, and Bruno Mantovani. Sivan Magen, harp. Linn Records. $21.99 (SACD).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8; Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra; Liszt: Les Préludes; Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.

Prokofiev: Cinderella. Mariinsky Ballet & Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky Blu-ray Disc+DVD. $42.99.

Jan Jirásek: Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols. JITRO Czech Children’s Chorus conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $16.99.

     There is an underlying gentleness to Italian pianist Adolfo Barabino’s performances of Chopin, and it permeates his fourth release on Claudio Records – even in the Second Piano Concerto, which it can certainly be justifiable to interpret in more dramatic fashion than is heard here. Barabino opts for a lyrical approach, bringing out the warmth and lucidity of the music and in so doing making this early work (the first of Chopin’s two concertos to be composed, although the second to be published) more forward-looking than it usually appears to be. There is a certain meandering quality to the interpretation, both Barabino’s and that of the London Symphony Orchestra under Lee Reynolds: the music is never exactly directionless, but it does not have as much get-up-and-go as in other readings. The result is a pleasant but not exceptional recording – and a disc on which the solo piano music is more attractive than the piano-and-orchestra offering. In the Berceuse recorded here, and the six Mazurkas, Barabino’s laid-back style is more effective. In these short works he brings out all sorts of nuances, voices and emotional expressions, keeping the rhythms fluid and the pacing sensitive and sensible. The Chopin recordings by Barabino present a not-always-coherent mixture of pieces, as this volume shows: the discs seem to be aimed at people who are, or will become, fans of Barabino, and simply want to hear how he handles Chopin. They are not for listeners interested in a single disc with the two concertos, or a disc focusing on the mazurkas, and so on. This makes them of limited appeal to all the listeners who already have recordings of Chopin by the many fine interpreters of his music. Barabino’s offering here is mainly interesting for the warm, singing quality he imparts to these disparate works.

     Warmth and beauty are much in evidence as well in Sivan Magen’s recital of French harp music on the Linn Records label. The works here span more than a hundred years and are offered in a way that will be most attractive to those simply wanting to hear how fascinatingly varied harp music can be. United by a sensibility that sees the harp as highly expressive and emotionally varied, the pieces are otherwise quite different in their technical requirements and structure. The musical bookends here, the works that open and close the SACD, are by Fauré: Une chatelaine en sa tour, Op. 110, and Impromptu, Op. 86. Between them are Divertissements à la Française and à l’Espagnole by André Caplet (1878-1925); Esstal by Philippe Schoeller (born 1957); Sonatine, Op. 30 by Marcel Lucien Tournier (1879-1951); the second and third movements of Estampes by Debussy, in Magen’s own arrangement; and Tocar by Bruno Mantovani (born 1974). The mixture of Impressionism and contemporary sensibility here proves interesting in that it shows how little the communicativeness of the harp has changed in more than a century: even the deliberately modernistic works have something old-fashioned about them, and the delicacy of the harp comes through in every piece, with harpist Magen – like pianist Barabino – searching for the lyrical elements in every work, finding them and accentuating them. The recording bogs down a bit from time to time, with an hour of solo harp lacking the aural diversity of an hour of music for the piano. And not all the works are equally effective: Tournier’s Sonatine, for example, is well-made in traditional three-movement form, but its stop-and-start central slow movement seems always on the verge of going somewhere without ever arriving; and Schoeller’s Esstal seems rather self-indulgent in the way it suspends delicate high elements above sustained bass tones. As a sampler of expressive harp music with a French accent, though, the recording is an attractive one.

     There is attractive playing as well on a new EuroArts DVD featuring the Berlin Philharmonic – and no wonder, given the consistency of this orchestra’s excellence. The video recording of this April 1998 concert at Staatsoper Unter den Linden, however, raises yet again the question of whether a DVD of an orchestral concert adds much to it, in comparison with a CD – indeed, whether it adds anything at all, or perhaps even detracts from the music. The issue is inherent in the visual medium: at a concert, each audience member decides where to look and when, how and on what to focus visually as well as mentally and emotionally; but with a recording, the visual impression is dictated by whatever the video director chooses to highlight at any given time – so viewers must go, visually, where the presentation takes them (unless they close their eyes, which defeats the purpose of having a video!). In this particular case, the visuals add nothing to the quality of the performances, even when four horn players (Dale Clavenger, Stefan Dohr, Ignacio García and Georg Schreckenberger) stand in front of the orchestra as soloists in Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra. There is nothing particularly visual about the tonal warmth and interpretative skill of the soloists, nor is there anything especially interesting to see in Daniel Barenboim’s conducting when the video focuses on him. There is, however, much worth hearing here: the Schumann has attractive bite and bounce, and the rest of the music – all of it quite familiar – is presented with sure-handed skill in top-quality performances that never hint at the frequency with which these musicians have played these works over many years. Barenboim brings little that is interpretatively new to Beethoven’s Eighth, and the Liszt and Wagner showpieces are really designed more for impact than for musical profundity, at least when taken out of their symphonic-poem and operatic contexts, respectively. Taken as a whole, this is a very well-played concert with some genuinely exhilarating moments for the ear – if not for the eye.

     On the other hand, the Mariinsky Ballet & Orchestra recording of the Alexei Ratmansky choreography of Prokofiev’s Cinderella definitely needs visuals to be effective. Just how effective a viewer/listener finds it will depend on how he or she reacts both to the music and to Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography. The music is highly chromatic (unlike that for the composer’s more-accessible Romeo and Juliet), and many numbers do nothing to advance the action. The characters are not particularly gripping, either: the good ones are dull and the evil ones simply grotesque. The usual setting of Cinderella is at an 18th-century court, either French (because the story comes from Charles Perrault) or Russian or both. Not so for Ratmansky, whose design dates to 2002. The time of the action here is the 1920s/1930s; the set is urban, steel-framed and austere; there is a bit of a feeling of the film Metropolis about the proceedings; and the choreography, in addition to classical ballet, uses contemporary movements and a touch of mime. The grotesquerie is certainly present: the corps de ballet prances about at the ball in a twisted, vaguely unsettling manner that leads to an awkward conga; Cinderella’s stepsisters move in spiky, exaggerated ways that highlight the dissonances of the score; Cinderella’s stepfather is a drunk, and her fairy godmother is a bag lady. So many elements are outré that Diana Vishneva as Cinderella commands the performance, narrating the tale with her arms and eyes as well as with the easy fluidity that she brings to all her movements. The gradually increasing confidence that she displays in Act II is especially well communicated. There are charms aplenty here, but also questionable elements. For example, the four seasons are men in bright face paint and over-the-top wigs, and the Prince is dressed at the ball in a cheap-looking white suit. There is a sort of Stalinist feeling to the overall production that does not wear particularly well, although it certainly sets off Vishneva’s lovely, elegant movements: they clearly do not fit in this world. Valery Gergiev directs the production with his usual intensity, and it is good that the score is given largely uncut (although the Andantino of the Summer Fairy is dropped and replaced by the Grasshoppers and Dragonflies variation). The Mariinsky Orchestra plays with wit and bite, the cackling of the woodwinds and declamatory sound of the brass being particular highlights. This is an unusual Cinderella that will certainly not please everyone, but those willing to adjust to its oddities – which include some start-and-stop dance moves that look sloppy until it becomes clear that they are deliberate – will find it a salutary experience that is well worth both seeing and hearing.

     The gentleness and warmth of Prokofiev’s Cinderella exist almost wholly within the title character. Those seeking such feelings on a more extended basis – and looking for some seasonal music that differs significantly from the usual – will be pleased with a new Navona CD entitled Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols. That title may make it seem as if these are traditional carols of a particular region, but not so: the 20 works here were written by Jan Jirásek (born 1955), a well-known creator of film music who has also composed in various classical forms. For these modern carols, all written in Czech, Jirásek keeps the music determinedly tonal and simple, exploring multiple emotions among the carols – but only one feeling at a time. He complements the superb voices of the JITRO Czech Children’s Chorus under Jiří Skopal with neat little instrumental touches: a bit of percussion here, a smidgen of brass there, and various electronic and toy-instrument sounds both here and there. Although there are certainly devotional elements in some of the music, the overall impression is one of playfulness: the wonderfully sweet-voiced children’s chorus is at its best in the lighter carols, the occasional solo voice emerging from the group (as in, for instance, Hey Happy Tidings) adding to what is almost the sense of a playground group bouncing about enthusiastically, barely able to contain itself while experiencing the pleasures of the season. The only real weakness of this disc is that there is a bit too much of it: 67 minutes of similar-sounding singing, with instrumental effects that initially seem highly unusual but that soon become repetitious, is just too much to listen to straight through. Of course, no one has to do that: interspersing some of these Jirásek carols with some more-traditional ones from other recordings will enhance the delights of all the music and help make the Christmas season a time for tidings of great joy.

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