Patricia Barber: The Cole Porter Mix
J. S. Bach: The Six
Brandenburg Concertos. Richard Egarr, harpsichord and leading
the Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461 (Hybrid disc)
Rather than the typical period-instrument chamber orchestra, this ensemble uses one player per part. That scale has benefits in the extreme transparency of the presentation as well as allowing Egarr's highly imaginative continuo to be savored fully. And in the Fifth Concerto, Egarr's playing is spectacular, as engaging as any I have heard. Both this and the other most popular Brandenburg, the Second with its dazzling trumpet solo, make great demo tracks. But, for that matter, all of these concertos are splendidly performed. The recorded sound here is outstanding, certainly up to Harmonia Mundi's typical very high standard. Even if you have other good performances of this glorious music, you won't go wrong adding this set. It goes right to my top shelf. -- Wayne Donnelly
Ludwig van Beethoven: The
Complete Piano Sonatas. Artur Schnabel
No collection is complete without Schnabel’s pioneering cycle of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and when they come in a bargain box like this, you can excuse the lack of liner notes. Recorded in the thirties when the great man was in his fifties, the razor-sharp reactions, crushing power of his climaxes, and all-surpassing poetic insight are a revelation even today. Schnabel was not infallible, and those looking for a perfect technique will look elsewhere. This set is for those who want to get to the very heart of the music, from the man whose understanding of Beethoven is second to none. Schnabel is particularly fine in early Beethoven, which some taker less seriously than the mature compositions. Sound quality is rough as you would expect, but these transfers are relatively clean. -- Phil Gold
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral";
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos.
1,2,3. Leopold Stokowski conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Cala provides an invaluable service by releasing on CD one of the greatest of all recorded performances of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the Pastoral), with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony. RCA’s 1954 recording captures the joy, the rhythmic energy, the imagination of the performance, which features a daringly slow but overwhelmingly beautiful “Scene By the Brook,” a spectacular thunderstorm, and pastoral delights throughout, with superb wind soloists and strings. An amusing bonus from the original LP is “Sounds of Nature,” in which Stokowski compares Beethoven’s stylized “realisms” with the actual sounds of a brook, a thunderstorm, and birdcalls. Three Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies with Stokowski and the NBC fill out the disc. -- Joe Milicia
Johannes Brahms: A German
Requiem. Christine Schaefer, soprano; Michael Volle, baritone; James
Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival
Chorus. (hybrid disc)
Boston Classics joins, among others, Chicago's CSO Resound label in issuing live in-concert recordings, and this is an auspicious debut. The text of the "German Requiem" is sung in German, and the text is not from the Catholic liturgy but from an assemblage of biblical texts.
Levine's performance -- of the BSO's 2008 season opener -- captures the excitement of the occasion. The two soloists are vocally and interpretively excellent, and with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the orchestra deliver a compelling experiemce. Levine's conception is inherently dramatic, even theatrical, with felicitous shaping and pointing of the text. The superb sound is stereo and multichannel SACD, but I have heard only two-channel SACD. -- Wayne Donnelly
Another historic recording but this time the 1961 sound quality is superb. Esoteric has remastered this and some other fine Decca performances for stereo SACD/Hybrid release at top price. Istvan Kertesz is captured at the height of his powers in a radical performance of this much loved work. He takes risks all over the place, with significant rubato, sudden tempo changes, extremes of dynamics, and spotlighting of unexpected details. It all hangs together marvelously and will make a splendid Christmas gift for the audiophile who has everything. -- Phil Gold
Joseph Haydn: Piano Sonatas (Vol. 1). Marc-André Hamelin
I bought this set after hearing Hamelin live in Toronto and it captures perfectly the magic of the occasion. I’ve seen almost all the world’s top pianists, and it amazes me that Hamelin doesn’t share the fame of lesser artists like Lang Lang or Kissin. Everything he plays he turns to gold. Often it’s modern music by composers we have barely heard of, but here he turns to a major composer, Haydn, albeit one whose piano music is for the large part neglected. I can’t wait to hear his Beethoven. This Haydn set is a delight, unparalleled virtuosity completely subservient to the composer’s text. Direct, affecting and outstandingly well articulated, this recording is of star quality. --Phil Gold
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G. Major. Miah Persson,
soprano; Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra (hybrid disc)
Few conductors match Fischer's ability to illuminate the most subtle and transient details of scoring, tempi and dynamics without sacrificing drama. And few orchestras equal the BFO's ability to respond so convincingly to their leader's vision.
The world of the Mahler Fourth is one of innocent fantasy, capped by the childlike lyrics of the last movement. These performers illuminate telling details of orchestration and phrasing, giving this familiar score new freshness and excitement. Soprano Miah Persson phrases her lines with the simplicity and innocence the text calls for.
The recorded sound is marvelous. Tonal balances are perfect, dynamic range exceptionally revealing, especially on the micro end; and we get a suitably wide and deep soundscape. I believe any real Mahler fan needs Fischer's interpretation to learn just that much more about this masterpiece. -- Wayne Donnelly
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and
Chloe (Complete Ballet). James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony
Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (hybrid disc)
Levine’s first (1991) recording of Ravel’s masterpiece was a disappointment in every way. The Vienna Philharmonic proved yet again that it could sound perfectly ordinary when uninspired. The sound was congested at the top and shallow on the bottom. Worse, Levine’s interpretation was superficial and needlessly hard-driven. He seemed completely out of touch with the spirit of the music.
This new concert performance is more than just an improvement; it’s one of the great recordings of the score. Working with what remains “the best French orchestra in America,” Levine’s reading is theatrical, athletic; the music sparkles with sensuous detail. There’s not a moment here that isn’t fully, vividly realized. The chorus sings with youthful abandon, and the very realistic sound is spectacular. There are many great recordings of this music from the past, but those looking for a modern version need look no further. -- Max Westler
Schoenberg & Sibelius Violin Concertos. Hilary Hahn,
violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra
This CD won a 2008 Grammy for Best Solo Instrumental Performance with Ensemble. The Sibelius is a very popular concerto, but the Schoenberg is seldom played, and widely considered too "thorny" for popularity. Hahn clearly disagrees, and she and Salonen make it sound more mainstream than any performance I can recall. They turn the spiky opening movement's dense, fragmentary themes into a flowing, compelling musical narrative. The following, less daunting movements are splendidly realized, Salonen's insights perfectly complementing Hahn's uniquely lyrical conception.
In the Sibelius, Hahn is less romantically fervent than many, but Sibelian to the core, emphasizing the work's deep spirituality rather than its romanticism. Again, Salonen and the Swedish orchestra are perfectly in step. Superb sound. --Wayne Donnelly
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43;
Bernard Haitink conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (hybrid disc)
The Fourth was for too long Shostakovich's lost symphony. When he completed it in 1936, the composer was in the doghouse of the Soviet authorities, who objected to his increasingly modernist, "decadent" tendencies. The symphony was not performed until 1961, and it may still be the least known of his symphonies.
Haitink's profoundly penetrating interpretation makes a strong case for the Fourth as one of the three or four best Shostakovich symphonies.
I have heard the concerts preceding every CSO Resound release. This recording captures with admirable accuracy the sound of the CSO in Symphony Center. This splendid-sounding Shostakovich Fourth has no real competition. (2008 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance) -- Wayne Donnelly
Antonio Vivaldi: The Four
Martin Pearlman leads his Boston players out of the gate with tremendous panache and energy. Their take-no-prisoners approach to this well-traveled score brings it wonderful freshness and impact. I rank this recording at the top of the heap; in any case, you won't be bored. Violin soloist Christina Martinson plays with enlivening spirit and vitality, and the generic slight tartness of her baroque violin is touched with just a bit of sweetness -- most impressive!
The two Geminiani concerti grossi that fill out the disc are "after" the Opus 5 of Arcangelo Corelli. They too receive wholly engaging performances. I would love a recording by these forces of the complete set -- and of their inspiration as well.
In two-channel SACD I don't recall a better-sounding release from this label. The perspective is fairly close-up, and clearly renders inner details. The vitality of the recording perfectly matches that of the performance -- both are demo quality! -- Wayne Donnelly
Dudamel coducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela may have received mixed reviews for their Mahler and Beethoven, but their Fiesta disc of Latin American music has deservedly received nothing but superlative praise. The program includes works by four Venezuelan composers, all worth getting to know, as well as such famous pieces as Ginastera’s Estancia Suite and, for an encore, the Mambo from West Side Story. DG captures the orchestra with all of its rhythmic energy, youthful swagger, and full-of-character wind solos. The players are literally young but quite mature in technique and alertness. --Joe Milicia
Bartoli, mezzo soprano; Adam Fischer conducting La Scintilla.
Cecelia Bartoli, with sensitive backup from the period-instrument orchestra La Scintilla under Adam Fischer, offers a thrilling portrait of one of the great divas of the 19th Century, Maria Malibran, while providing a delightful education along the way. Choosing 14 arias and scenes sung by or written for Malibran, Bartoli gives us rarities composed by the singer herself, her celebrity father (Manuel Garcia), Mendelssohn, and several now-obscure Italian bel canto composers, plus familiar arias by Bellini in unfamiliar mezzo arrangements. Bartoli’s virtuosity, wit and sheer vocal beauty are on display throughout the nearly 80 minutes of music, and the handsome and information-packed booklet is an extra value. -- Joe Milicia