When reviewing new music it is always helpful to know the composer's other works as much as possible. Trying to get a handle on William Bolcom's music has included recent reviews of his opera A View from the Bridge and his song cycle Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This new recording of Bolcom's compositions for cello contains several delights and opens windows on the composer's personality and style. Capriccio has very dissonant sounds alongside a zippy Brazilian Gingando, complete with a 3-3-2 rhythm section in the last movement. The first cello suite, a somber and biting work for the unaccompanied instrument, is drawn from music Bolcom originally composed for Arthur Miller's 1995 play Broken Glass (add the subtitle to the suite now). Recorded by a team now associated with the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University -- two faculty members and one recent alumna -- the performances are strong and have benefited from personal contact with the composer. According to the note by cellist Norman Fischer, the performing editions heard here are based on annotations directly from the composer, changes that will likely be incorporated into revised editions of the scores.
William Bolcom, Complete Works for Cello, N. Fischer, J. Kierman, A. Moore (8.559348, released October 30, 2007)
We have lavished much praise on Bartók's opera A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára, from the staged version at Washington National Opera last season to a 2005 concert version and many others. It is an essential opera of the 20th century, historically speaking, and even more essential because it is dramatically compelling and, to these ears, musically gorgeous, not at all the kind of dissonance one might expect from the name of Bartók. In terms of my favorite version, Éva Marton and Samuel Ramey (CBS Masterworks) outpaces Jessye Norman (DG), both of which suffer from having one of the singers not working in Hungarian as a native language. (The Kertész recording from Decca Legends, while fine, has neither role sung by a Hungarian.) That is far from the only criterion, of course, but Hungarian singers, as well as Hungarian orchestras and Hungarian conductors, tend to have an edge in this work, having generally been introduced to it in the womb.
Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Bournemouth SO, M. Alsop (8.660928, released November 20, 2007)
Add to the host of other versions, many of them no longer widely available, this generally good recording from Marin Alsop's tenure in Bournemouth, with two relatively young singers. The Hungarian Judith, Andrea Meláth, and Czech Bluebeard, Gustáv Beláček, are not the best one could imagine for either role, but they are featured well against Alsop's amply proportioned orchestral fabric. The producer notes that the sound has been engineered to make the singers seem like they are progressing spatially through the seven doors, which strikes me as unnecessary for a concert recording. At Naxos rates ($9.98), this disc edges out the versions mentioned above, but only by a couple dollars since just about all of them can be found at reduced prices.
We have had the chance to hear Marin Alsop live conducting Brahms with the Baltimore Symphony: although I was baffled by her third symphony in 2005, things seem to have improved considerably, judging by Michael's favorable review of her fourth symphony. The time difference may help explain the improvement, since the BSO had, by the time of Michael's review, moved beyond its initial opposition to Alsop's tenure as Music Director. Alsop has claimed, in an interview with our own Jens Laurson, that she is known in Europe more for her Brahms and Dvořák than her work championing contemporary composers. It is obviously better to judge Alsop's Brahms in Baltimore now, when she has buried the hatchet with the players. This recording, which concludes a complete cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the London Philharmonic (all in live concert settings), gives one a chance to appreciate Alsop's work with this most traditional composer in Europe. It is extremely hard to make a new recording of something like the Brahms symphonies that matters, and this fourth symphony does not stand out all that much. It is accompanied by something of greater interest, new arrangements of some of the Brahms Hungarian Dances by Peter Breiner, a Naxos commission. Conductors and concert programmers may want to have a listen to them for possible encore material.
Brahms, Sy. 4 and Hungarian Dances, London PO, M. Alsop (8.570233, released September 25, 2007)
Longlist: Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
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