CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Briefly Noted: Sudbin's Beethoven (CD of the Month)

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L. van Beethoven, Sonatas, op. 110-111 / Bagatelles, Y. Sudbin

(released on March 1, 2019)
Bis BIS-2208 | 62'53"
Yevgeny Sudbin has long been a favorite here at Ionarts, for his delightful recital discs devoted to single composers, especially Domenico Scarlatti, Scriabin, and Haydn. As far as Beethoven, the Russian-born pianist has only recorded the piano concertos so far, until this disc pairing the last two Beethoven sonatas with the six Bagatelles of op. 126. These are all pieces composed in the last half-decade of Beethoven's life, and they are all rather compact, expressive, and highly unorthodox. This sits quite nicely in the area of strength for Yevgeny Sudbin, who excels in picking out the most exquisite details through the means of an unflinching technical assault on a score.

The movements of the rather short op. 110 sonata are, in some ways, like four bagatelles (with the Adagio and Allegro portions woven together in the third movement), and Sudbin plays the piece to the hilt, bringing out the quirky sides of each one. The second movement especially, with its snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt ("Our cat has had kittens") and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich ("I'm a slob, you're a slob"), is fast and witty. The concluding fugue is a tour de force of clarity in the voicing of each appearance of the subject, on one hand an intellectual exercise and on the other, moments of levity that lighten the weight of the tragic Adagio.

Moods pass quickly across the face of the op. 111 sonata, given maximum contrast by Sudbin in this powerhouse performance. The Allegro outbursts are intense, hammered but with differentiation of voices, and the dreamy sections distant and meditative. The "Arietta" is poetic and hushed, its individualized variations again recalling a kinship with the form of the bagatelle. Sudbin avoids turning the dotted-rhythm variation into an anachronistic "boogie-woogie" (pace Jeremy Denk), as Beethoven never heard swing rhythm after all. The late Bagatelles of op. 126, far from being throw-away trifles, are late-period miniatures, experimental kernels heard in more expanded form in larger pieces of the same period, including parts of the sonatas included on this disc. Sudbin mines them for every quirk and bizarre turn of phrase.


Dip Your Ears, No. 228 (Jean Muller's Starts Fine New Mozart Sonata Cycle)

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sonatas K332, K281, K331, K570
Jean Muller (piano)
Hänssler Classic

This is the opening shot of a new cycle of Mozart sonatas—which, going by the Mozart Piano Sonata Cycle survey on ionarts and counting a few incomplete ones—should be the 84th such cycle! Needless to say, with such competition, both historic and new, it’s hard to leave a mark. While these four very soberly, beautifully played sonatas—never precious or dainty; never romanticized—make a very good impression (along the lines of Alicia de Larrocha, which should be high praise, indeed), they don’t make a splash like the recordings of William Yun’s on Oehms did. What remains is a disc of some of Mozart’s most popular works (including the “Alla Turca” sonata) that display Jean Muller as the very fine but not quite titillating pianist he probably is.


On ClassicsToday: The Finest Modern Recording of the Mieczysław Weinberg Piano Quintet?

The Stamic Quartet’s Great Weinberg & Bloch Combo

by Jens F. Laurson
For it being one of the absolutely great chamber works of the 20th century, there aren’t actually that many good recordings of the Mieczysław Weinberg Piano Quintet. I have yet to listen to the Attacca Quartet’s and the Silesian String Quartet’s most recent releases, but... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: Technical Finesse From The Sitkovetsky Trio in Mendelssohn

Superbly Played Mendelssohn From The Sitkovetsky Trio, But Something’s Missing

by Jens F. Laurson
The Mendelssohn Piano Trios live an existence in fame-limbo: not neglected but not quite part of the hard core of piano trios that the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Dvořák, and Schumann occupy. Within Mendelssohn’s œvre they don’t have the beaming geniality of the... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Zimmermann's Violin Concerto

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B. A. Zimmermann, Violin Concerto / Photoptosis / Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony, L. Josefowicz, A. Komsi, J. Packalen, V. Rusanen, H. Summers, P. Tantsits, J. Uusitalo, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, H. Lintu

(released on February 8, 2019)
Ondine ODE1325-2 | 73'45"
Bernd Alois Zimmermann's music can be relentless, which does not necessarily make for pleasant listening. Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu's new disc of some of the composer's orchestral works, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, brings out the technicolor weirdness of Zimmermann's style, cast in 12-tone rows, generally dissonant. A booklet essay by musicologist Mark Berry, who has written about Zimmermmann for the New York Times, provides savant historical background.

Leila Josefowicz is incendiary on the solo part of the Violin Concerto. Although the work has been recorded before, she plays it with an arresting immediacy and restless edge, not lingering over the middle movement, for example, as long as Thomas Zehetmair did over a decade earlier in his recording. The second movement is positively surreal, especially the slightly creepy passage for violin solo over celesta, and Zimmermann's menacing quotation of the Gregorian sequence Dies Irae, heavily clustered with dissonance.

It is paired here with the tone poem Photoptosis, a late work for large orchestra before the composer's suicide in 1970, after years of health problems and depression. Inspired by the vibrant blue paintings of Yves Klein, it is a hallucinogenic exploration of clashing dyads, including a sunburst of sound that introduces several quotations from other composers. The first is the "chaos chord" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the simultaneous sounding of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, a nod to Zimmermann's unconventional use of the 12-tone technique here and throughout his oeuvre.

Zimmermann reworked his violent opera Die Soldaten as a compact vocal symphony, about 40 minutes in length. This disc offers a rare recording of this symphony, but it is essentially just excerpts that represent the dramatic arc of only the first two acts, using just six characters spread throughout the human vocal range. Therefore it climaxes, so to speak, with the ensemble scene combining the wordless love scene of Marie and Desportes, to one side, with the conversation of Stolzius and the old ladies on the other. Soprano Anu Komsi displays considerable vocal strength as Marie Wesener as does bass Juha Uusitalo as her father.


In the US Catholic Herald: Sonatas to help you pray the rosary

Sonatas to help you pray the rosary

Whether you listen to this as absolute music or as the background to deliberate contemplation, you have a
choice of some excellent recordings
Catholics who love the rosary may be unaware of an extraordinary aid to their prayer: the Rosary Sonatas, by the Bohemian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.
Biber was employed in the Austrian and Moravian towns of Graz and Kroměříž before entering his service in Salzburg, where he would compose the grand and glorious Missa Salisburgensis on the occasion of the 1,100th anniversary of the Salzburgian archbishopric in 1682. The great 18th-century musicologist Charles Burney wrote that “of all the violin players of the last century Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period”. [continue reading]


In the US Catholic Herald: Grand motets worthy of a king

Grand motets worthy of a king

Louis XIV Gate at Versailles (Max Pixel)
Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) succeeded Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of Louis XIV and was in charge of dinner music, where he provided oodles of deliciously entertaining baroque muzak. Good as that music is, if you want to turn it up a notch, go seek out de Lalande’s Grand Motets, where you will notice that greater things come of praising the Lord than trying to accompany roast pheasant with candied bacon-apples on a purée-of-gooseberry sauce velouté. [continue reading]


Dip Your Ears, No. 227 (Te Deum for the Successful Sacking of Freiburg)

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Henry Madin, Te Deum pour le Victoires de Louis XV; Diligam Te, Domine
D.Cuiller, Stradivaria, Les Cris de Paris

The liner notes start: “Henry Madin is and will remain famous for having [been...] sous-maître de la musique de la Chapelle du Roy.” Hold it right there. Madin is not famous in the least, he’s utterly unknown. However, if modern fame is in the cards for him, this recording will prove the catalyst! What a terrific discovery this French near-contemporary of Bach’s (1698-1748) proves to be. The Vice-Master of Music at Versailles (following Delalande in that position) served Louis XV and established himself as an expert writer of Grand Motets, the lavish, large chorus-employing form that Lully established and Rameau, J.J.De Mondonville et al. perfected. The massive 45+ minute Te Deum is an affirmative, glorious example of French baroque. With its timpani-whacking, trumpet-blowing glamour it’s reminiscent, briefly, of truly famous Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Te Deum.

Saudi Arabia to Sponsor Teatro Della Scala and Sit on Board


On ClassicsToday: Elijah @ Theater an der Wien with Calixto Bieito & Christian Gerhaher

Tearing Through Wet Cardboard: Calixto Bieito & Christian Gerhaher Take On Elijah In Vienna

March 5, 2019 by Jens F. Laurson
Vienna, February 20, 2019—For opera that’s lightly coated by the dust of centuries, Vienna’s State Opera House is just the thing: A marvel of a musical museum with mainstay works in workmanlike productions and with – all too often – surprisingly shoddy musical contributions. Anyone looking...  Continue Reading

Pictures from the production below:


Ionarts-at-Large: The Hagen Quartett in Shostakovich, Dvořák and Schubert

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DSCH, String Quartets 4, 11, 14
Hagen Quartet

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A.Dvorak, Cypresses, "American Quartet
+ Kodaly, String Quartet No.2
Hagen Quartet

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Schubert, Trout Quintet, Death & the Maiden Quartet
Hagen Quartet + James Levine & Alois Posch

Hagen Quartett Reviews on ionarts:

Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett II

Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 4 )

Dip Your Ears, Addendum 48b (X-Ray Beethoven) [2005]

The Hagen Quartet increasingly seems like a holdover from a bygone time where classical superstars were fewer but bigger, about four record companies ruled the classical high seas, recording contracts were naturally exclusive, and new releases a real event. Itzhak Perlman, Misha Maisky, the Emerson Quartet, Martha Argerich – to mention three still-active acts, are representatives of this age of mythic musical dinosaurs… and the Hagen Quartet belongs, too. They once set the standard for hyper-precise perfection; a sort-of Pierre Boulez of String Quartets.

There have been several crops of string quartets who have since equaled these technical standards to the point where they alone are no longer all that noteworthy. The Hagen Quartet’s UPC of über-perfection that not even the similarly pioneering Alban Berg and Emerson Quartet could rival is therefore no more – also because the quartet’s ability has declined not only in relative but also absolute terms. No one is cheating age, and the first violinist of the ensemble, Lukas Hagen, least of them – having been the quartet’s weak point in the last half decade or so.

That should be put to the test in their recital on Saturday, March 2nd, at the Mozart Hall of Vienna’s Konzerthaus, seeing that Shostakovich’s Fourth String Quartet was first on the bill. The sublime hall – one of the best for chamber music (with a capacity of 700, fine acoustics and bright blue and beautiful interior) – was filled to the brim, with extra chairs put on stage to accommodate the demand: The result of the Hagen Quartet have built themselves a following with regular appearances and their own cycle of concerts over the course of well more than a decade.

The Shostakovich started out with Lukas Hagen’s fittingly dark, matt, husky tone and enormous pressure he put on the notes in the introductory quartet. He did just fine for a movement and more before being notably squeezed to the edge of his increasingly small comfort zone in the Andantino. Clemens Hagen, still an anchor for the foursome (a brief flat moment in the Schubert aside), shone with moments of his singularly light-yet-resonant tone. For three movements the interpretation was a bit like excellent painting by numbers, more beautiful than intense, but the accumulating energy of the finale – if not boisterous at least insistent – amounted to something.

What the subsequent four movements of Dvořák’s Cypresses Quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden showed, was that the once trademark transparency and inner glow has given way to a denser, thicker sound, more sonorous and ‘woodier’. That didn’t necessarily suit the Dvořák (largely low-energy pieces that are admittedly difficult to pull off with any great panache), where “I Know that My Love to Thee”, “Death Reigns in Many a Human Breast”, “The Old Letter in My Book” and “Thou Only, Dear One” (plus “Thou Only, Dear One” as an encore after the Schubert) never came across as more than a musical afterthought – a long lull between Shostakovich and Schumann, achingly sincere at best and insufficiently endowed with life and spark.

Lukas Hagen, with his intonation softening and too often falling back onto a forced and congested sound, gently, subtly squeaked in distress like a Maiden might, faced with death. The middle voices, Rainer Schmidt, violin, and Veronika Hagen, viola, were on the passive side – not breathy nor hollow as one might wish in the Schubert Quaret’s second movement, but with tenderness and gentle detail. The playing was altogether short of a distinct ‘interpretation’ or, to spin it positively, free of excessive fingerprints. The Hagen Quartet aren’t spinning their


On ClassicsToday: Vilde Frang & Friends Perform the Enescu Octet

Look Mom, No Conductor! Brilliant Enescu Octet With Vilde Frang & Friends

by Jens F. Laurson
The octet of musical acquaintances on this disc, who were all lured to magnificent Schloss Elmau—a luxury spa-hotel right beneath the Bavarian Alps with its own renown music series—is a who’s who of the young generation’s finest musicians. Apart from front-woman Vilde Frang, there’s Gabriel... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: Drums and Dances - Gothenburg Symphony’s Viennese Outing

Drums and Dances: Gothenburg Symphony’s Viennese Outing

March 2, 2019 by Jens F. Laurson
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (or Göteborgs Symfoniker; @GbgSymfoniker on Twitter and @goteborgssymfoniker on Instagram—our social media service; you’re welcome) has been on a two-week tour of Europe with two and a half programs and its newish, young chief conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali. The tour, which started in Stockholm and ends in Salzburg on March 1, is—along with their new Sibelius recording on Alpha—something of a débutante ball, a coming-out party. And where better to dance than in Vienna, their penultimate stop, where the orchestra showed up at the Konzerthaus, which is, in all manner except the fame, Europe’s Carnegie Hall....  Continue Reading

Briefly Noted: Bewitched by Opera

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L'opéra des opéras, Le Concert Spirituel, K. Deshayes, K. Watson, R. van Mechelen, H. Niquet

(released on January 11, 2019)
Alpha ALPHA442 | 74'10"
Do not let the silly cover art turn you away from this deserving new release led by French early music specialist Hervé Niquet. It is a selection of arias, choral numbers, and instrumental pieces from a range of operas by Rameau, Charpentier, Marais, Leclair, Campra, Francoeur, Mondonville, and names even more obscure. Not content with merely a random assortment of music, Benoît Dratwicki has chosen and arranged the pieces to create a new short opera, recorded in the Opéra Royal de Versailles in 2017. Dratwicki, the artistic director of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, took the idea from the gesture of Louis XIV when, in 1671, the Sun-King requested that Lully create a Ballet des ballets, bringing together excerpts from the 30-some ballets the composer had performed before his court.

The plot dreamed up for this makeshift opera suits, more or less, the excerpts from lots of different operas. A prince is in love with a princess, sung by tenor Reinoud van Mechelen and soprano Katherine Watson, respectively. The former has a sweet, sighing top well suited to the high-set haute-contre writing in French opera, while the latter sings with an edge sharpened by an active vibrato. The couple's love is thwarted by a wicked sorceress, sung with reedy, malevolent force by mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes. (Hervé Niquet thought this triangle of characters similar to that found in the television show Bewitched, and thus the album cover was born.) If anything, the instrumental playing exceeds the singing in beauty, not least the magisterial Passacaille from Lully's Armide, which concludes the disc.


Dip Your Ears, No. 226 (Marie-Claire Alain's First Bach Cycle)

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J.S.Bach, Organ Works

Marie-Claire Alain (1926—2013) is the only organist to have recorded the complete* organ works of Bach’s trice and have all those cycles appear on CD. She didn’t live to see it (whereas Lionel Rogg, who has recorded three cycles but had only one appear on CD as of yet, still has chance, seeing that he is still very much alive). On the ionarts Bach Organ Cycle Survey, her Second (on three favorite organs of hers) and Third cycles (on historical instruments) are given a rare ionarts’ choice recommendation: The first for being an excellent introductory / generalist cycle and the second for being performed with the same consummate skill but with a more interesting, individualistic organ landscape. There’s something about French organists when they get it right in Bach: Sensuality married to structure. Other favorites of mine include André Isoir and Alain-student Olivier Vernet. (Equally, when they get it wrong, they can turn out the absolute worst in Bach… and by “they” I actually only mean the very recently deceased Jean Guillou – a genius on the instrument in so many ways – but a real-time train-wreck in Bach.)

Marie-Claire Alain’s first traversal doesn’t quite make my top-recommendation list but it is wonderful to have around for the completist and inveterate Bach and organ-music lover. The cycle is centered on a series of modern Danish Marcussen & Sons organs that had all just been built around the time she recorded them. The result is a clear and fairly bright sound throughout with a lot of diversity within that (admittedly narrow) spectrum). It undusted an organ sound in Bach that had at the time become thick and dark and crusted like a medieval painting where the grime and dirt of centuries had been taken for a characteristic of the real thing. Jed Distler, who reviewed this set for ClassicsToday (where the other two Alain cycles are also given reference status), is right in pointing out the still greater clarity (in recorded sound, instrument character, and playing) this set features over Alain’s subsequent takes. That’s perhaps most surprising when it comes to the recording quality which is, with very minor exceptions (a few cases of extraneous noise; one off-kilter note that wasn’t re-recorded), exceptional – certainly a lot better than either of Helmut Walcha’s roughly contemporaneous cycles.

While Alain herself has apparently called these her “most instinctive” interpretations, they are actually rather straight-laced, linear readings without quirks or youthful liberties (Alain was 33 when she got started on them) and, if anything, understated. One neat aspect of this cycle is that it rigorously included all the works then assigned to Bach, even those that weren’t by Bach: A virtual survey of the Bachwerkeverzeichniss of the 60s. How nice to see that Warner/Erato’s re-issuing extends far beyond the most obvious classics in their (now huge) back catalogue. Nicer still: That a budget release such as this got excellent liner notes (the original ones from Marie-Claire Alain) in three languages.


On ClassicsToday: John Elliot Gardiner's LSO Mendelssohn

CD From Hell: Gardiner’s Bloodless Mendelssohn Symphonies

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Mendelssohn is sometimes given short shrift for being a “nice” composer: Harmless, untroubled, and glib. That’s partly because the well-adjusted, prosperous, level-headed, and successful Mendelssohn doesn’t conform to our still ruling romantic ideal of the troubled, struggling, excess-driven, or mad genius. Mozart would have made the better Romantic composer; Mendelssohn the better Classical. On the Beethoven-Schumann-Liszt scale of romanticism, about the only thing Mendelssohn got right was dying young.... continue reading [insider content]

Sound samples below:


On ClassicsToday: Ratas del Viejo Mundo & "Ossesso"

Obsessed Rats: Wondrous Voices From Olden Times

by Jens F. Laurson
In case you are sifting through your residual Spanish from college, your rough translation is correct: This early music group calls itself Rats of the Old World, a HIP rat pack founded in 2017 by Floris De Rycker, cruising the authentic-performance scene with the bent... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Debussy Feast

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C. Debussy, Late Works, I. Faust, X. de Maistre, A. Melnikov, M. Mosnier, J. Perianes, J.-G. Queyras, A. Tamestit, T. de Williencourt

(released on October 5, 2018)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902303 | 54'02"
During the First World War, Claude Debussy began a series of six instrumental sonatas. Although he managed to complete only three of them, he planned for the set to range into unusual combinations, including one for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, and another for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. The project would conclude with a sonata for all of the instruments featured in the series up to that point. Each of these late sonatas is a marvel of economy, a startling variety of harmony, rhythm, and texture compressed into three-movement tours de force, each one lasting under twenty minutes. Within just a year of finishing only the third sonata planned in the series, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy died of colon cancer, in the midst of the German army’s bombardment of the city of Paris.

This disc brings together a dream team of musicians, some of them French, to record those three completed sonatas as part of a Harmonia Mundi project to mark the centenary of Debussy's death. Each of the three sonatas receives an ideal interpretation: the limpid and playful violin tone of Isabelle Faust accompanied by Alexander Melnikov in the Violin Sonata; the balanced, engaging narration of cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras accompanied by pianist Javier Perianes in the Cello Sonata; and the outstanding combination of flutist Magali Mosnier, harpist Xavier de Maistre, and violist Antoine Tamestit, all performing on historical instruments, in the triple sonata. Pianist Tanguy de Williencourt adds short character pieces for piano as amuse-gueules to clear the palate after each of these more substantial main courses.


On ClassicsToday: Sunday-Morning Mozart from Seong-Jin Cho and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Sunday-Morning Mozart from Seong-Jin Cho and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

by Jens F. Laurson
When I heard Seong-Jin Cho perform in the final of the 2015 Chopin competition, he and his E minor concerto stood out for a “velvet brawn and a big, smooth sound” and “a long, thick stream of unrelenting beauty”. But not having heard earlier rounds,... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: The Fisherman and His Wife; Othmar Schoeck’s Fine Dramatic Fairytale Cantata

The Fisherman and His Wife: Othmar Schoeck’s Fine Dramatic Fairytale Cantata

by Jens F. Laurson
Among neglected 20th-century composers, Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) is one of the really great ones. Not only for his style of lyrical late romanticism—long-derided but en vogue again (i.e., his violin and cello concertos, his songs)—but also for his strand of romantic modernism where I rank... Continue Reading

Dip Your Ears, No. 225 (Dvořák’s Works for Violin & Piano)

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Antonín Dvořák, Works for Piano and Violin
Ivan Zenaty (violin), Igor Ardasev (piano)
Audite SACD

Dvořák’s works for violin and piano are not as widely known or regularly performed as you might think, given the A-list popularity of the composer and the popular and mainstream instrumental combination. Presumably that’s due to the lack of a body of major works to drive the interest: A handful of strong sonatas, perhaps, might have done the trick. In fact, there is only one Violin Sonata proper of Dvořák’s, and that’s not the strongest work among the lot. Jaroslav Smolka’s superb liner notes don’t pretend otherwise: without particular architectural grandeur, a heightened sense of innovative contrasts, violinistic virtuosity or dramatic tension, this dreamy-lyrical work lacks in ambition what it offers in lovely music... but such lovely music!

Ivan Zenaty (violin) and Igor Ardasev (piano) perform these pieces charmingly without overdoing it on the sugar. The Sonatina op.100, written for his children, fits in with its aim at home music-making and lack of a ‘grand concertant’ ambition. But it’s a tuneful and memorable thing and fills a very entertaining 20 minutes with that popular American-Czech idiom of Dvořák’s that he also used in works like the “American” Quartet and “From the New Worl” Symphony. The catchy Romantic Pieces op.75/1 are given a bit of an edge and could benefit from a bit more bloom. The fairly popular Mazurek op.49, here in its piano-and-violin original, wouldn’t be harmed if the piano’s part were taken with greater brilliance and less accompanying decorum. The sound on this 2006 high-resolution recording is very good and neutral, perhaps favoring the violin a bit over the piano. Low-key splendor, all in all.


Briefly Noted: In a Strange Land

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In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile, Stile Antico

(released on January 11, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902266 | 71'10"
We have been following the British choir Stile Antico for over a decade at Ionarts. They are the inheritors of the work of the Tallis Scholars among the younger generation of early music singers, and each CD they release, especially of music from the English Renaissance, has been exquisite. Their latest disc is no exception, in pieces by William Byrd, Peter Phillips, and Robert White. The theme of this program is especially poignant: it brings together composers who found themselves alienated, either in foreign lands (John Dowland, Peter Phillips, Richard Dering) or as Catholics in Protestant England (William Byrd, Robert White).

The choir goes somewhat outside its comfort zone with the affecting part-song arrangements of lute songs by Dowland, Flow, My Tears and In this trembling shadow cast. The results are impeccably balanced homophony, with crunchy cross-relations underscoring emotional peaks. The same is true of a modern piece, The Phoenix and the Turtle by Huw Watkins, premiered by Stile Antico in 2014 and set to an eccentric text possibly revealing the Catholic sympathies of one William Shakespeare. In that context we must place the impassioned dissonances of Bird's ultra-personal motet Tristitia et anxietas or of Quomodo cantabimus, the same composer's musical response to Philippe de Monte's motet Super flumina Babylonis, both about people marooned among non-believers oppressing them.


Dip Your Ears, No. 224 / Ionarts CD of the Month (Pettersson Symphonies)

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Allan Pettersson, Symphonies 5 & 7,
Christian Lindberg, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra

Allan Pettersson (1911 – 1980) was one of the great symphonist of the 20th century whose fate it was to become relatively unknown. There’s no shame in this; he shares it with fellow great symphonists Eduard Tubin, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Edward Rubbra, Vagn Holmboe, Erland von Koch, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Kurt Atterberg, William Alwyn, Havergal Brian, and Rued Langgaard: An eclectic but eminently musical crowd, committed to beauty. You won’t find him in concert halls (the way of such rehearsal-intensive box office poison), so record labels have to cleave the gap. CPO has recorded the 16 completed Pettersson symphonies with a variety of orchestras and conductors and now BIS is doing the composer proud with this ongoing cycle by Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra (who added the incomplete, unpublished ‘Zeroëth’). Here they are in the Fifth and Seventh.

Pettersson writes riveting symphonies that develop slowly but effectively. He likes the space the form symphony affords him and explores it. Without movements, they are one continuous development… more (the Fifth) or less (the Seventh) dividable into distinct sections, which puts Pettersson, at least superficially, in the proximity of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. The spirit of Mahler’s Tenth breathes through large swaths. Although reasonably successful and earning him a lifetime stipend from the Swedish Government, his Fifth Symphony (as well as previous and subsequent works) was panned by critics for not really being modern at all. His use of tonality and consonance offended the academic sensibilities of the time.

Still, neither the Fifth nor the Seventh – as close to a blockbuster as Petterson ever wrote and much promoted by Antal Doráti – are ever easy-listening. The Fifth starts with beguiling and fragile, faintly reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question. It’s as if all the suffering in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music was expressed with the means of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony. The Seventh, even more than other Pettersson symphonies, is riveting and grueling, damn serious, with a grim view of the human condition and a severe grip on the listener’s lapels. Intermittently the sky brightens through waltzing elements: a mix of respite and wistfulness. With hypnotic energy, the work moves along a path of slow, ever-increasing tension – like the best of a Shostakovich slow movement. “Lindberg builds those long, tense climaxes with greater clarity and no loss of sheer power.” (Hurwitz)

Indeed, Lindberg, the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and BIS Records have devoted themselves to the “Allan Pettersson Project” which intends to perform and record all of Pettersson’s important works in standard-setting interpretations. Despite the competition – even from the same orchestra on the same label – that seems to pan out nicely. Right behind the recording of the rather more optimistic of the Barefoot Songs (BIS 1690), this release – what with the two Symphonies being among the most accessible ones – is an ideal entry point into the sound world of Pettersson. Surprised-by-Beauty Music!


On ClassicsToday: Nicolas Stavy's Muscular Romanticism in Fauré (10/10)

A Fabulous Fauré Piano Music Primer

by Jens F. Laurson
If, as pianist Daniel Grimwood has suggested, it is true that “it is hard to name another composer who enjoys such renown in his homeland yet such neglect elsewhere” and that this is allegedly because “his sound-world…is so Gallic that any listener without French sensibilities... Continue Reading [Insider content]


Briefly Noted: Brahms as Early Music

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J. Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, C. Sampson, A. Morsch, Cappella Amsterdam, Orchestra of the 18th Century, D. Reuss

(released on January 4, 2019)
Glossa GCD921126 | 70'26"
The German Requiem is perhaps the greatest work in the oeuvre of Johannes Brahms, or at least my favorite. Completed in its final form in the wake of his mother's death, the piece reveals the normally reticent Brahms at his least guarded. In recent years, various conductors of historically informed performance ensembles have tried to get to the bottom of what the composer may have had in mind with the piece, by going back to the instruments of the period and following the metronome markings Brahms later attached to each movement. None of these versions has quite satisfied: John Eliot Gardiner, twice, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique (1991, 2012); Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Arnold Schoenberg Choir; or Philippe Herreweghe with La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale.

Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss, a group growing in my admiration recently, have succeeded. The sound with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in this live recording is golden and balanced, with Reuss not slavishly following the metronome markings but taking the main lesson they seem to offer, that the slow movements not be too glacial and the fast not too frenetic. As stated in the liner notes, the markings as a whole indicate that this is music for meditation on its Biblical words, rather than for dramatic titillation. This seems like just the right approach for a composer who always plays his cards close to this chest, and the results agree. The incomparable Carolyn Sampson provides maternal consolation in the fifth movement, and German baritone André Morsch is both subtle and prophetic in the other solos.

The weight of the piece rests on the chorus, however, and the Cappella Amsterdam delivers the full range of dynamics with pure and balanced sound, nicely matched to the smaller punch of the orchestra. One moment in the first movement knocked me over the first time I listened to this disc. At Rehearsal E, Brahms suddenly leaves the alto section of the chorus alone at the return of the opening theme. Most conductors bring that line out by having the altos sing louder than Brahms indicate (piano). Reuss leaves his women's sound quiet, exposed almost like a single voice, a magical effect of emotional vulnerability.


Dip Your Ears, No. 223 (Vadym Kholodenko's Scriabin)

available at Amazon
Alexander Scriabin
, Preludes, Etudes et al. for Piano
Vadym Kholodenko (piano)
Harmonia Mundi

The Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, 2013 gold medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano competition (and sufferer of unfathomable tragedy) performs select compositions of the wildly sensualistic Alexander Scriabin on this disc: in chronological order with the two central Fourth and Fifth Sonatas as the pillar on this journey through the composer’s easy-to-follow progression. He does this in polished, well-behaved manner on a Fazioli. I don’t mind subdued Scriabin – assuming it leads to a richness of color and atmosphere; nebulous, seductive and otherworldly. Scriabin at his best is an all-absorbing sensory experience. Unfortunately such performances are extremely rare. (Håkon Austbø, Yevgeni Sudbin, Mikhail Pletnev and Alexei Lubimov come to mind.)

Here, I am not so sure if the threshold is met. Kholodenko’s sensitive playing comes pretty close and makes for an incisive introduction to Scriabin’s piano music, but I am left wanting a bit more sensuality and (or) lick of the dark flame. Then again, he has plush sensitivity down pat and I am already intrigued to re-listen. Jed Distler on ClassicsToday finds the performances low-voltage – perhaps more disappointingly so than I do – but enjoys “the smaller, lyrical Preludes, such as in his lovingly flickering performance of Op. 16 No. 2, or in the gorgeous way that he projects Op. 16 No. 3’s long arching phrases across the footlights.” Scriabin-lovers might want to sample.