Classical Music RECORDINGS (Sept. 1995): Reviews

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting

BARTOK: Bluebeard’s Castle

Szendrenyi, Struckmann; Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Inbal

DENON 78932 (60 mm)

Performance: Big

Recording: Revealing

Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartok’s only opera, a powerful single act of psychological music drama, has had numerous revivals over the years and more than one memorable recording. The rooms in the castle are the dark recesses of Bluebeard’s mind, and his wife, Judith, who tries desperately to fling open the doors, is ultimately trapped behind them. That may sound like old-fashioned Freudian hokum, but, in fact, as transformed by Bartok’s stunning score, the piece is extraordinarily effective. The biggest problem is that the libretto is in Hungarian, and the vocal writing is profoundly wrapped up in the sound of that strange language. A translation is probably desirable on the stage but doesn’t seem to work in a recording.

The solution here involves a strong Hungarian singer as Judith, soprano Katalin Szendrenyi, and a vocally and dramatically outstanding German, baritone Falk Struckmann, as Bluebeard. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony may not be a major-league outfit, but under conductor Eliahu Inbal — the real star of the production — the performance has size, and the recording throws considerable light on Bartok’s most colorful and evocative work.

== = = ==

Maestro McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin, conductor

Bobby McFerrin, best known as a jazz and pop vocalist and composer, has now made his debut recording as an orchestra conductor. “Paper Moon,” released by Sony Classical in mid-July, features McFerrin conducting the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and his overture to The Marriage of Figaro as well as in excerpts from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. McFerrin also displays his unique talents as a vocal “instrumentalist” by performing the solo part in Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto, Boccherini’s String Quintet No. 1, Fauré’s Pavane, and Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile and joining the orchestra’s principal cellist as one of the soloists in a Vivaldi concerto for voice and cello.

= = = =

BRAHMS: Clarinet Quintet

WEBER: Clarinet Quintet

Stoltzman; Tokyo String Quartet

RCA 68033 (67 mm)

Performance: Fine Weber

Recording: Agreeable

Some twenty years ago the young Richard Stoltzman and the Cleveland Quartet made an irresistibly warm and compassionate recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. The remake at hand with the Tokyo Quartet is not irresistible. It is impeccable in respect to technical assurance, but somehow a little less convincingly Brahmsian. I get the feeling that Stoltzman and his associates this time around felt they should take a more overtly dramatic approach, and in so doing came off sounding constrained and “uptight.” There is drama in the work, to be sure, but it is drama on Brahms’s own, generally expansive terms, which seem to have been rejected here in favor of a more objective or more externalized view that simply doesn’t work as well.

Weber, on the other hand, is certainly taken on his own terms in his somewhat lighter but downright adorable quintet; everyone involved seems to be wholeheartedly and uncontrivedly relishing its affectionate good humor. There is simply no more fetching current version of this work. The sound is generally agreeable in both concertos, though the cello might have been a bit more in the picture.

BRUCKNER: Chamber Works


SONY 66251(76 mm)

Performance: Conscientious

Recording: Very clear

Historically informed string-instrument performances are the stock in trade of L’Archibudelli, the Netherlands-based group of players centered around cellist Anner Bylsma, who is here joined by violinists Vera Beths and Lisa Rautenberg and violists Jurgen Kussmaul and Guus Jeuken drup. The CD comprises all of the rare chamber works by Bruckner, whose output was otherwise almost wholly devoted to the symphonic and ecclesiastical.

The four-movement String Quartet in C Minor dates from 1862, a period that also saw completion of Bruckner’s first orchestral work, the Overture in G Minor. Along with a rondo in the same key, the quartet makes for pleasant listening, with sporadic glimpses of the mature composer in the middle movements and some real virtuoso writing in both the finale and the appended rondo.

The String Quintet in F Major dates from the end of the 1870’s, when the composer was taking a breather from the stormy drama of the Fifth Symphony, not only by this brief detour into chamber music but also by way of the most amiable yet enigmatic of his nine mature symphonies, No. 6. I side with those who find the quintet, for all its absorbing episodes, something of a misbegotten symphony. Heresy or no, I keep wanting to hear a full orchestra, or at least a full symphonic string body. As is almost al ways the case with Bruckner, the heart of the quintet is in the richly textured polyphony of its slow movement. The episodic last movement has a decidedly symphonic ending. The remaining work on the CD, the somewhat rough-hewn, Land/er-like D Minor Intermezzo, was composed as an alternate to the quintet’s scherzo; while pleas ant, it is not as individual in character.

While L’Archibudelli’s musicianship can not be faulted, the recording, done in what seems like a small but nicely airy church, is very clear and bright, notable more, for an almost analytical sorting out of linear elements than for a sonic blend. The music really needs both qualities.

DEBUSSY: La Mer; Nocturnes; Jeux; Rhapsody for Clarinet

Cohen; Cleveland Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Boulez


Performance: Superb

Recording: Spacious

Pierre Boulez has by now rerecorded with the Chicago and Cleveland Sym phony Orchestras on Deutsche Grammophon most of the Debussy, Bartok, and Stravinsky works he recorded twenty-five or thirty years ago in Cleveland, New York, and London for what was then Columbia Records, and the new versions have superseded the earlier ones in every respect. The new performances benefit, of course, from glorious orchestral playing and spacious digital recording, and Boulez has added a welcome degree of interpretive warmth to the insights and technical precision he has always brought to this music. The three big works on this new disc benefit enormously from all of those developments.

In his earlier recording of La Mer Boulez took a curiously deliberate view of the middle movement (“Jeux de Va goes”). The new performance is nearly as slow, and almost certainly the slowest among current recordings of this section, and yet this time the pacing seems only mildly “expansive” — neither at odds with the imagery in the music nor the breakdown—and the grandeur of the work’s final section is quite remarkable.

So is everything else in this collection. There is certainly nothing hinting at deliberateness in the Nocturnes, which move with an otherworldly lightness and grace, nor in the still under-acknowledged Jeux, which is not merely X-rayed as it was be fore but comes off as a work of great communicative power. Franklin Cohen, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, brings a high level of distinction to the Clarinet Rhapsody to round out a truly outstanding issue.

GLASS: La Belle et la Bête

Soloists; Philip Glass Ensemble, Riesman NONESUCH 79347 (89 mm)

Performance: Musically magical

Recording: Excellent

Philip Glass’s first music-theater work based on films of Jean Cocteau, Orphée, was more or less a traditional opera, but La Belle et la Bête (the non-Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”) uses live performers to accompany the original film. There is an aspect of Glass’s work that might most simply be called “music as magic.” The incantatory and transformative qualities of his style lend themselves perfectly to fairy tales and other otherworldly subjects, and this one is perfect material for his imagination.

= = = = = =

Schumann and “The Romantic Generation”

Two of this year’s most appealing piano releases have come out at the same time, complementing each other not only in respect to repertory (none of which is directly duplicated), but in per forming style as well. The repertory link is the music of Schumann, to which Abdel Rahman El Bacha’s Forlane disc is devoted in full. A somewhat broader link is a shared view of the music produced in the quarter-century that followed the death of Beethoven. Charles Rosen’s illuminating and enjoyable MusicMasters CD, “The Romantic Generation,” released around the same time as his new book The Ro mantic Generation: Music 1827-1850 (Harvard University Press), also includes some small works of Chopin and Liszt.

Rosen’s book itself comes with a CD, and three of the performances there are duplicated on the MusicMasters recording — Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan, his piano arrangement of Chopin’s song My Joys, and one of Chopin’s own nocturnes. Along with another Chopin nocturne and Liszt’s transcription of his own song Die Loreley, the MusicMasters CD offers one of the richest of Schumann’s sets of “characteristic pieces,” the Davidsbündlertänze. Rosen plays the first edition of this big suite, which, as he points out in his annotation, is richer in “fantastic details” than the revised version. He does not go in for any sort of empty showmanship in the Liszt or Schumann pieces, but in going for substance he does not neglect tonal beauty either.

El Bacha, a 36-year-old Lebanese who won the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition at 19, shows a similar seriousness toward the musical integrity of the Romantic era’s defining works and is likewise equipped with technical resources that enable him to devote his energies to interpretation and communication. His Schumann program is an imaginative one — the Sonatas No. 2 and No. 3 (the so-called Concerto without Orchestra) framing the Waldszenen — and his response to it is refreshing. His touch is light, his sense of proportion is unfailing, and every phrase shines with a radiant, clarifying intimacy that is never at odds with the music’s essential vitality. In short, he gives the impression of unlimited confidence and belief in these works.

The sound is first-rate on both discs.

SCHUMANN: Davidsbündlertanze

CHOPIN: Two Nocturnes; “My Joys”

(arr. Liszt)

LISZT: Reminiscences de Don Juan; Die Loreley

Charles Rosen (piano)

MUSICMASTERS 67154 (73 mm)

SCHUMANN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3; Waldszenen

Abdel Rabman El Bacha (piano)


(63 mm)

Pianist Charles Rosen

= = = = =

But what a difficult task Glass has set himself! Replacing the original soundtrack of a film, with singing where there was spoken dialogue, requires Glass to set, and the performers to sing, every single line of the original in a quasi-lip-sync style. It is not just a matter of timing. Spoken dialogue in variably moves along much faster than normal sung text; thus, everything in this opera has to be quick, beyond recitative, breath less in its pacing. The result is that there is almost no chance for lyric expansion in the voices. All the musical development must be left to the orchestra, and even the orchestral music, although more varied in pacing than the vocal parts (you can sing quick syllables against slow music), tends to stay on the move as it tries to keep up with the film.

In live performance and also in this re cording, the opening scenes seem, if not quite frenetic, perpetually out of breath.

And the problem is exacerbated by the classic difficulties that confront non-French singers trying to sing in French; sometimes you feel they can barely spit out the syllables. Eventually, though, both singers and audience adjust and begin to get wrapped up in both story and music. Even a small relaxation of the pace creates a big lyric feeling. Glass’s clear linear/harmonic style has real affinities with Cocteau’s classical clarity; both artists play continually with strong emotions captured within very severe restraints.

Glass’s theater music works best when it involves his own ensemble of winds and keyboard instruments, here augmented by a string section and brass. There are no stand outs in this ensemble cast, although John Kuether’s uncanny ability to switch vocally between the Father and the Moneylender is striking. The somewhat goody-goody character of Beauty, the unrelentingly intense pariando of her part, and the linguistic difficulties all leave Janice Felty hovering on the edge of a difficult role. Gregory Purnhagen, who sings both the Beast and Beauty’s would-be lover Avenant (who turn Out to be, more or less, two aspects of the same creature), shows a somewhat surer command of French; he also has the best opportunity to create character through music, and he makes something of it. The ample booklet contains an interview with the com poser and full texts and translations.

GRIEG: Piano Concerto; Symphonic Dances; Elegiac Melodies; Peer Gynt Suites; Holberg Suite; Lyric Pieces

Poblocka; Polish Radio Symphony, Wojciechowski

CONIFER/BMG 51750 (two CD’s, 153 mm)

Performance: Pristine!

Recording: Excellent

Put this budget-price two-CD Grieg collection down as a real sleeper even though the public is not exactly crying for yet another recording of the Piano Concerto or the two Peer Gynt Suites. My anticipatory “What, again?” feelings turned to enormous satisfaction and pleasure as the relatively unknown pianist Ewa Poblocka launched into the concerto with a combination of beguiling warmth and impulsive vigor that simply disarmed all criticism.

There was never any letdown through out the set, either on Poblocka’s part or by the excellent Cracow-based orchestra under the direction of Tadeusz Wojciechowski. The orchestral pieces, ranging from the all too familiar Peer Gynt excerpts and Two Elegiac Melodies to the boldly scaled Sym phonic Dances, are all performed as though they were written yesterday, with pristine freshness, verve, and poetic sensibility. The dance movements of the Ho/berg Suite are featherlight, and there is a deeply moving pathos in the fourth movement.

In many respects the most surprising parts of this collection are the eight excerpts from the Lyric Pieces, all originally written for piano. Listen to the magical Evening in the Mountains from op. 68 and the amazing proto-Debussyian Bell Ringing from Op. 54. The recording is just fine, with brightness and punch, and plenty of warmth in the strings.

LEHAR: The Merry Widow

Studer, Bonney, Terfel, Skovhus, others; chorus; Vienna Philharmonic, Gardiner


439911 (79mm)

Performance: Creamy

Recording: Rich

If you still regard the early-music scene the way a steak eater thinks of tofu, the idea of musicological revisionist John Eliot Gardiner conducting The Merry Widow must seem breathtakingly perverse. Surprise! He provides all of the schmaltz and Viennese sensibility anyone could want, though not without significant emendations.

Normally, The Merry Widow is per formed with only the piano score; apparently an orchestral score simply doesn’t exist, or didn’t until Gardiner had one made from parts supplied by the Lehar estate. It makes all the difference. Numerous orchestral de tails emerge, giving the whole operetta a much greater sense of musical foreground and background. In many ways, Gardiner achieves a sumptuousness to equal that of Herbert von Karajan’s 1972 account, though when he tarries over a passage here and there, it’s with a much greater sense of purpose. Those who know Gardiner through his unyielding Beethoven symphony set won’t believe this is really him.

Soprano Cheryl Studer creates a sexy, coquettish Hanna by reining in her Wagnerian pipes. As Danilo, the bright young Danish baritone Boje Skovhus portrays his Act II rejection by Hanna with an unusual gravity that gives the opera’s action a stronger dramatic counterpoint. Soprano Barbara Bonney is an elegant Valencienne and baritone Bryn Terfel an appropriately blustery Baron Zeta.

MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Battle, Von Stade, Dench; Tanglewood

Festival Chorus; Boston Symphony, Ozawa


Performance: Musically splendid

Recording: Likewise

Musically, this is a beautiful issue. Frederica von Stade, who sang the Second Fairy’s music in German in the lovely Ormandy recording on RCA Victor, is every bit as persuasive in this English-language version. Kathleen Battle, the Tanglewood Chorus, and the orchestra are similarly com mitted. Seiji Ozawa is obviously in love with the work; he even helped edit the spoken text for a single narrator — and there’s the rub.

Kurt Masur’s recent Teldec recording of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music was spoiled for most Anglophone listeners by having narration in German. Ozawa’s, which otherwise exudes more charm than Masur’s, is also spoiled by the narration even though it is in English. Actress Judi Dench has distinguished herself in the theater, but there is just too much of her here in relation to the music. I’m put off by all the intensity, by the jarring entrances, and by her pauses after each line of verse, irrespective of expressive sense. It doesn’t help, either, that in many of her segments she seems to have been recorded from the depths of a cistern.

Ozawa’s singers and players are recorded handsomely, and some listeners will not be distressed by the narration. My own feeling is that this glorious music works best either in the context of the play itself, with its various characters taken by different actors, or as a pure concert work with the barest mini mum of spoken material or none.

MOZART: Three Fantasies (K. 396, 397, and 475); Piano Sonata in C Minor (K. 457); Adagio in B Minor (K. 540)

Valery Afanassiev (piano)

DENON 78945 (69 mm)

Performance: Intriguing

Recording: Lifelike

All five works here are in minor keys, and three of them bear the title “fantasy,” which might have suited the K. 540 Adagio as well. More than an hour of dark, minor-key Mozart in Valery Afanassiev’s hands may be rather too much — in fairness, though, the monotony may reflect more on his programming sense than on his playing. Of course, no one has to listen to all of any recorded collection at one sit ting, and this one may be worth trying in shorter takes.

As with his earlier recordings, Afanassiev has provided bizarre annotation consisting largely of philosophical-autobiographical-confessional essays and “poems” sprinkled with references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and citations of his own other writings. If you don’t look at the annotation you may well find that his performances are intriguing, credible statements of the music (if you do read it, you may feel he succeeds musically in spite of himself). He has no apparent technical problems, he clearly knows the material, and he only occasionally belabors a dramatic point. He presents the C Minor Fantasy (K. 396) in the unfinished form in which Mozart left it; the piece is certainly more poignant that way than with any of the conclusions that have been suggested. There is, in fact, a good deal more poignancy than bluster in these performances, and the exceptionally lifelike piano sound is quite a boost.

PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas

Cens, Martin-Degor, Berg, others; Les Arts

Florissants, Christie

ERATO 98477 (52 mm)

Performance: Superb

Recording: Natural

PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas

Boll, Kirkby, Ainsley, others; Chorus and

Academy of Ancient Music, Hogwood

L’OISEAU-LYRE 436 992 (52 mm)

Performance: Luxuriously cast

Recording: Excellent

Few pre-Mozart operas deserve so many wonderful recordings as Dido and Ac- fleas. And though neither of these two new ones is as vividly characterized as Nicholas McGegan’s on Harmonia Mundi with Lorraine Hunt, William Christie’s set on Erato offers soprano Véronique Gens as the most vocally lustrous Dido on the early-music scene, and Christopher Hogwood’s set on L’Oiseau-Lyre has all manner of musicological alternatives even though its music-making is one-dimensional.

While some of Christie recordings have emphasized polish at the expense of expressiveness, this is not one of them. Dido’s famous “When I am laid in earth” has a near- shattering emotional impact thanks to the funereal pacing — and also to Gens’s regal vocalism, which so naturally conveys the gravity of the situation. Instrumentally, Christie makes much of the harmonies, colors, and dance-like rhythms. And while there is a welcome French accent to the playing, the singing is idiomatic and unaccented.

Hogwood’s Dido, Catherine Bott, initially seems vocally thin for the role, though she is ultimately satisfying by virtue of her verbal nuances. Elsewhere, Emma Kirkby is happily cast as Belinda, especially when she matches pipes with Julianne Baird in the cameo role of the Second Woman. In general, this recording is luxuriously and innovatively cast, with a male Sorceress (David Thomas) and a boy soprano as the First Sailor (Daniel Lochmann). There are even authentic sound effects (mostly thunder) borrowed from Baroque-era machines at the Drottningholm Court Theater, though they sound more like offstage car accidents.

Hogwood has also plugged all of the holes that musicologists have found in the score with dances and ritomelli derived from existing music in the opera. The Christie recording plugs only the Act II finale, rounding out the opera’s tonal scheme with an animated, gloating witches’ chorus written by Bruce Wood in the style of Purcell. Though some might frown on the practice of inserting newly composed music, it’s the most dramatically effective solution.

= = = = =


PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet, Suite

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chung


Prokofiev made three suites out of the score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Myung-Whun Chung has drawn on all of them to make a fourth. This is a big-size effort recorded in the Concertgebouw hail itself. Alas, Chung’s selection of numbers, the glossy, brilliant style of the performance, and the fatness of the recorded sound have the curious effect of acoustical overkill, making the music seem alternately bombastic and trivial.

SCHUBERT: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8

Helsingborg Symphony, Ostrowsky

DISCOVER 920213 (64 mm)

Here’s a fine budget CD that not only intelligently pairs Schubert’s two “tragic” symphonies, but also presents them in readings imbued with both verve and passion. Virility and sensitivity are displayed throughout No. 4, called the “Tragic”; I especially like the weighty menuetto. The performance of the truly tragic “Unfinished” (No. 8) is deliberate and highly charged in the first movement, heart- clutching in the second. Israeli-born Avi Ostrowsky bears watching. He has his fifty Helsingborg musicians on their toes all the way. Excellent sound.


TALUJON 001 (60 mm)

Talujon starts out this self produced re cording debut with a whopper reading of the Cage Third Construction and then goes on to a knife-edge performance of Part I of Steve Reich’s Drumming, Dean Drummond’s tricky Dirty Ferdie, and a few items from the quartet’s own bag of tricks including four players on a single marimba, vibrating metal dipped in water, even a bit of collective wit billed as Their Four and Sow Three (the music is as odd as the title). If you want this exciting and amusing album you will probably have to write directly to Talujon at 140 Riverside Dr., #9C, New York, NY 10024.


RCA VICTOR 62711 (70 mm)

Frederica von Stade has long made a specialty of early twentieth-century French art songs, and she brings her usual verve and charm to bear upon the ones in this generous collection. Her voice sounds whitish and thin at moments of stress, however, and she is just a touch heavy- handed with feathery-fine trifles such as Satie’s Trois Melodies and the Poulenc miniatures she has selected. Martin Katz gives her expert support on the piano, and the recorded sound has a pleasing resonance.

= = = = ==

SCHUBERT: Schwanengesang; other songs

Holzmair; Cooper

PHILIPS 442 460 (77 mm)

Performance: Beautiful

Recording: Excellent

Recitals have become endangered species in our musical landscape, but we can always hope for a turnaround with artists like the Austrian Wolfgang Holzmair in our midst. It’s the beauty of the voice it self that first grips the listener: a light baritone of moderate size and range, used with great skill and refinement. Within a relatively limited dynamic scale he displays a sensitive pointing of words and abundant coloristic variety. Songs of an intimate nature, like Die Taubenpost and Frohlings Sehnsucht, bring out his artistry most impressively, but he doesn’t slight the bitter Heine songs either, capturing the wrenching despair of Der Atlas and the ghostly aura of Der Doppelganger. At the risk of carping, I do find his temperament a shade too placid, too concerned with sheer beauty of sound. A bit more defiance in A ufent ha it and a jauntier approach to Abschied would be welcome.

Five additional songs on texts by the Schwanengesang poet, Johann Seidl, and two additional rarely heard songs on poems by Ludwig Rellstab (Lebensmut and Herbst), all dating from Schubert’s final year and thematically attuned to the spirit of the cycle, complete the program. Imogen Cooper, a distinguished concert pianist in her own right, is an outstanding collaborator.

Source: Stereo Review (09-1995)

Prev. | Next

Top of Page   All Related Articles    Home

Updated: Monday, 2016-09-26 21:16 PST