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

5.5.21

On ClassicsToday: New Beethoven Concerto Cycle from Mitsuko Uchida

 Mitsuko Uchida’s Second Beethoven Concerto Cycle

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Beethoven_Piano-Concertos_UCHIDA_Rattle_BPH_BPH-SACDs

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Mitsuko Uchida’s slightly-under-the-radar cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the artless Kurt Sanderling (Philips/Decca) is one of my favorites for its almost self-effacing musicality and the orchestral precision that translates into lightness without sacrificing oomph. On Classicstoday.com Jed Distler praised the “Emperor” as ranking “with Schnabel, Solomon, Kempff, Arrau, Fleisher, and Gieseking among [the] finest recorded versions.” Naturally, Uchida’s new cycle elicited my interest. (Read the entire review at ClassicsToday)

4.5.21

On ClassicsToday: A Vikingur Retrospective, Musicianship over Hype

 Triad: Víkingur Ólafsson’s Greatest Hits

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

BACH_GLASS_RAMEAU_Triad_Vikingur_DG_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Triad, the latest release by Icelandic pianist Vikingur (Heiðar) Ólafsson, isn’t a new album. It’s simply a fancy repackaging of his last three main releases for Deutsche Grammophon. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if all three of those releases weren’t absolute corkers. There’s a disc of Bach–transcriptions both original, third-party, and by Bach himself–that was an easy 10/10 choice when we reviewed it here (see reviews archive). Both of the other two albums are similarly lofty achievements... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday

3.5.21

On ClassicsToday: Wonderful Józef Elsner String Quartets

 

String Quartet Discoveries: A Polish Haydn?

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

ELSNER_Jozef_String-Quartets_Op1_NFM_CD-ACCORD

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

This disc of the first-ever recordings of the String Quartets Op. 1 Nos.1-3 by Józef Elsner (1769-1854) is not the first disc of Elsner string quartets, but it marks the first time I took note of a name I’ll now never forget. They are such good works, much in the vein of Haydn, that I fell in love right away. But could they really be that good? Perhaps I was getting carried away. Yet on the tenth–or fifteenth–hearing they still hold up. These are varied, mature classical string quartets of the first order, not second tier also-rans... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday)

25.4.21

For Your Consideration: Oscar-Nominated Short Films

For a film industry devastated by the coronavirus, the nominees in the major categories of the Academy Awards felt of lower quality as a group. Not really a surprise as most Americans have not seen a movie in an actual cinema for over a year, and the rules on qualifying for the awards were relaxed to allow entries from streaming platforms. At the top of the pile for this critic was The Father, which should win Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Christopher Hampton and daring French author Florian Zeller, from Zeller's play), Film Editing, and Actor in a Leading Role (for Anthony Hopkins). Also noteworthy were Nomadland, which should win Frances McDormand the award for Actress in a Leading Role; Mank, for Cinematography; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design; Minari for Original Screenplay and Actress in a Supporting Role for the hilarious Yuh-Jung Youn; Sound of Metal for Sound; and the charming, disturbing Another Round for Best Director and International Feature Film.


 

On the other hand, the short films nominated for awards in their three categories were of a remarkable quality this year, or perhaps it is just that they are at their normal level and shine by comparison. The movies up for Animated Short Film took on subjects tragic (If Anything Happens I Love You and Genius Loci), whimsical (Burrow), and weird (Opera). The most charming, watchable nominee in this category was Yes-People, the entry from Iceland written and directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson. A microcosm of existential desperation and human coping set in an apartment building, the film develops several stories in a deceptively compact eight minutes.


Among the nominees for Documentary Short Subject the entries were intensely personal, including A Love Song for Latasha (commemorating the shooting of Latasha Harlins in a Los Angeles convenience store in 1991), Hunger Ward (filmed inside the famine crisis in Yemen), and Do Not Split (shot from behind the lines of the Hong Kong democracy protests). Near the top was Colette, a searing look back at a very uncomfortable topic in France, the resistance to the Nazi occupation, involving the meeting between a young historian seeking to document the era and an elderly woman who fought in the resistance. Their visit to the concentration camp where the older woman's brother was killed is overwhelming to watch. The winner for me was A Concerto is a Conversation, a love song between jazz pianist and composer Kris Bowers and his grandfather, whose sacrifices and triumphs over racism laid the foundation for the younger man's success.

In the Live Action Short column, The Letter Room was strong, starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Two Distant Strangers put an odd, almost witty spin on the issue of police murders of black men in the United States. The strongest nominee is The Present, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi. It tells the story of the humiliating day-long journey made by a husband with his young daughter to buy a new refrigerator as an anniversary gift for his wife. This seemingly mundane outing is complicated because the man lives in the West Bank and must pass Israeli Checkpoint 300, near Bethlehem, to reach the store. One early morning scene was actually filmed guerrilla-style at the checkpoint, with the actor among actual Palestinians waiting to cross.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight at 8 p.m.

9.3.21

Dip Your Ears: No. 263 (Klieser's Baroque Horn Arias)

available at Amazon
Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, "Beyond Words"
Felix Klieser / Chaarts Chamber Artists
(Berlin Classics)

Felix Klieser’s latest release, “Beyond Words”, is a trip up and down the most beloved and touching Bach-Haendel-Vivaldi arias and choruses, arranged for his instrument and chamber orchestra. “Vergnügte Ruh”, “Lascia ch’io pianga”, “Gloria”, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Ombra mai fu”, and “Hallelujah”: If you can whistle it, it’s included here. Except that Klieser does not whistle the tunes, he performs them beautifully on the French horn. The result sounds a bit like a collection of known-unknown baroque trumpet concertos, except a good deal mellower. Festive, comforting. Working well enough even in the most predictable arrangements and very nicely everywhere else, the result is an unintentional must-have Christmas-CD.

The Chaarts Chamber Artists, a Switzerland-based modular pick-up ensemble, provide the band. Although they don’t play themselves into the foreground, they’re essential in the disc’s accomplishment of grand pleasantry: Supple and pliable, with beautifully flowing tempi exactly where we’d expect them in 2021; neither sluggish nor rushed. The cembalo – the liner notes don’t divulge who’s at the wheel (perhaps Naoki Kitaya?) – sounds particularly juicy and judicious. Finally there’s Klieser’s mellifluous play with which he regales us. Beautifully muted and executed with casual panache, “Sielant Zephyri” from Vivaldi’s Filiae Maeste Jerusalem – with the dotted string accompaniment reminiscent of “Winter” – is a beautiful, warm-timbred, dark-toned example. And that’s the story for the whole entertaining hour of music. An album for an occasion, equally suitable to close listening and letting it drift into the background, guilt-free.

P.S. If you did not already know: Klieser plays the horn with his feet. But that’s really neither here nor there: The playing would be impressive even if he had hands to do it with.

8/9






17.12.20

Best Recordings of 2020


After a hiatus last year, it is time for a list of classical CDs that were outstanding this year. This is the ionarts list of the Best Classical Recordings of the Year:

Preamble


I’ve been doing some form of “Best of the Year” list since 2004. 2019 was the first time I slipped. Here’s my attempt at redemption. Granted, my overview of new releases is no longer quite what it was in the days I worked at Tower Records. But the idea of a “Best of the Year” list, if one clings too literally to the idea of “Best” is daft even under the most ideal of situations. It’s of course just short for: “These are a few of the things that I liked” and used, as I’ve been fond of writing in past iterations of this list, because “10 CDs that, all caveats duly noted, I consider to have been outstanding this year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. Because I skipped 2019, I will include some releases from that year on this list. If you are looking for past lists, here they are:

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2008—"Almost" | 2009 | 2009—"Almost" | 2010 | 2010—"Almost" | 2011 | 2011—"Almost" | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

Pick # 10


L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 1-9, Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Naxos 8.505251


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, The Symphonies
Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra,
Naxos

I wanted these to be on the aborted 2019 list and they definitively belong on it. Yes, we have way too much Beethoven – and 2020 was one of the worst offenders, with it being the 'Beethoven Year' and every artist with ten fingers or access to a baton bringing out a cycle of the sonatas or the symphonies. In the concert halls, at least, Corona saved us from a Beethoven overkill that would have ruined our appreciation of the composers for decades. But just before all that happened, Adam Fischer and his now privately funded Danish Chamber Orchestra come out with something that stands out from the 178+ other cycles we can choose from. These are unpretentious, lively, quick-witted yet totally sober readings that manage to be free of any exaggeration and superbly exciting at the same time. Fischer situates his Beethoven in the near-ideal middle between the stale routine of playing these damn things over and over again on one side and the interventionist re-inventors of the wheel on the other. This is roughly the space Jukka-Pekke Saraste and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra occupy (review: Precious Vanilla), or the fairly recent and excellent second Blomstedt cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Except that Fischer’s band is smaller, more nimble, and a touch more alert which – as might be expected – shifts the focus of strengths towards the earlier symphonies. Like Blomstedt and most other conductors these days, Fischer chooses swift tempi. More to the point: Fischer opts for mediating tempi: quicker slow movements and moderately paced fast movements. The result is Beethoven unassuming and disheveled, and very lovable. A more detailed review will follow on ClassicsToday eventually. But it’s definitely the Beethoven Cycle of the Beethoven year!

Pick # 9


R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al., Ondine 1312


available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al.,
Ondine

Here’s an all ‘round terrific disc of off-the-beaten-path Schumann from Ondine, coupling his Ballade op.140 for soloists and chorus with the Adventlied and – an intriguing filler in the middle – Schumann’s reworking of the Bach Cantata BWV 105. The Adventlied is, inexplicably, a world premiere recording. Where has it been hiding? It is Schumann at his most Mendelssohnesque. Meanwhile it’s good to know that even Schumann agreed that Bach’s stupendous Cantata BWV 105 is a masterpiece among masterpieces. Creating this performing version he certainly suggested as much. And he didn’t super-juice it: he held back and limited himself to modernizing the instrumentation to suit his players. It’s not adding to Bach but as the imaginative buffer between the two marvelously Schumann pieces is very welcome. With Carolyn Sampson participating, deftly accompanied by the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Aapo Hakkinen, this disc is a winner that I’ve been wanting to write about for over a year. Consider this the teaser.

Pick # 8


J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio , Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus, Bach Stiftung B664


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus,
Bach Stiftung

Befitting the season, a Christmas Oratorio makes this list. The new release from the St. Gallen Bach Stiftung is perfect in just about every way. Perfection – in a technical sense – isn’t everything, of course, especially when it’s closer to anodyne than riveting. But in this case, the live recording (you’d never know!) has all the spirit of most of this outfit’s releases and absolutely terrific singers starting with alto Elvira Bill (who has appeared on the last three Christmas Oratorios I have reviewed) and tenor Daniel Johannsen who has established himself to the point where neither “young” nor “up and coming”. (I’ve just checked: He’s older now than Werner Güra was when he recorded “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden”.) A review will follow on ClassicsToday soon and be linked then. By the way: if you haven’t sampled their Cantata-cycle het, but want to, you would do well to start here, with volume 30!

Pick # 7


Hans Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz, Ensemble Modern 043/44


available at Amazon
H.Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz
Ensemble Modern

This year I am not splitting the list up into new and re-releases. But as a nod to the tradition, I must include this re-release of a classic recording which I am so glad to have back in the catalogue: The premiere (and still best) recording of Hans Zender’s Winterreise with Ensemble Modern. My review for ClassicsToday here: Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Pick # 6


Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein, Myrios MYR025


available at Amazon
Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein
Myros

When Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein performed Enoch Arden at Vienna’s Konzerthaus in late 2014, it was a quiet high-point of the season. The disc is about as good. Granted, the text of Strauss’ monodrama is quite important, so English-speakers not inclined to read along in the booklet will probably want to look to Glenn Gould and Claude Rains version for Sony. But for the rest: they’ve got a new reference version. The declamation of Ganz is worth hearing even just for how its musical and dramatic qualities, senza parole so to say. A fitting musical memorial for Ganz, who passed away in early 2019. My ClassicsToday review here: Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein.

Pick # 5


Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker, Ramée RAM1808


available at Amazon
Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker,
Ramée

Here’s another album that scores on memorability over perfection. It’s over the top, in some ways, and fabulous for it. Ancient music keeps it grounded; the wild acoustic makes it ring in your head like you’re in a grand gothic cathedral. Or a well. Depending on your mindset. What the Old-World Rats (what a name!) deliver here, singing a variety of Italian Madrigals belaboring the subjects of Love and Affliction, is glorious and just the right touch of weird. “The inflection of notes, the tuning, the character of old instruments like psaltery and kanklės… it all contributes to a sense of gentle alienation. Is this Orlando di Lasso, Vincenczo Galilei, Friulian traditional music (sung in the old language) or are we already on to Arab or even African shores? You could let yourself be distracted by any numbers of unorthodoxies on the album “Ossesso” but it’s much easier and more gratifying to sit back and indulge.” To quote my review at ClassicsToday: Obsessed Rats—Wondrous Voices from Olden Times.

Pick # 4


J.S.Bach, Keyboard Works and Transcriptions, Víkingur Ólafsson, DG 4835022


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, A Recital, Víkingur Ólafsson,
DG

Like the Beethoven Symphonies , this is a release that would have been on last year’s list, also… and it’s too good and memorable to miss out on. It’s really just a supremely tasteful Bach recital by a wonderfully talented pianist who is just as satisfying in recital as he is on disc. But that’s enough. As I’ve said in my ClassicsToday review (Icelandic Bach With Heart and Panache): “It’s taken 13 years for a Bach-on-piano recital disc to have come along to match Alexandre Tharaud’s.” That is the hightest praise I can give. As a bonus, not that this need matter for your purely musical enjoyment: Víkingur Ólafsson won’t annoy you on Twitter, if you follow him, which you should at @VikingurMusic.

Pick # 3


L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al., Naïve 7083


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al.,
Naïve

This is a recording I don’t think I’ll ever forget – and if it’s for the mandolin variant of that 1970s Hot 100 smash hit of Walter Murphey’s: A Fifth of Beethoven (also known for its notable appearance in Saturday Night Fever). But no, actually, this is good and memorable all around, elevating some of Beethoven’s B-Music to A-levels. And a recording that memorable deserves a high entry on this list, even if it isn’t perfect. My review at ClassicsToday here: Beethoven for the Mandolin.

Pick # 2


H.G.Stölzel, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (Passion oratorio 1731), Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, Glossa 924006


available at Amazon
H.G.Stölzel, Passion oratorio, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra,
Glossa

This is such terrific music and so sympathetically performed and well recorded that it is bound to be the first of many Heinrich Gottfried Stölzel works you will want to hear. If, in fact, this is your first one. There is no (baroque) composer other than Bach that wrote no weak pieces. But at their best the Telemanns and Hasses and Zelenkas can be as good and, for being different, offer some extra enjoyment. And the same goes for Stölzel and this Passion oratorio in particular. Listen to “Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld”. Treat yourself! My review at ClassicsToday here: Good Enough for Bach, Good Enough for Us.

Pick # 1


Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, naïve 7080


available at Amazon
Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone,
naïve

Vivaldi operas have lagged behind those of Handel’s in appreciation and Il Tamerlano a.k.a. Bajazet (RV 703) perhaps even more, because its pasticcio composition style did not fit in with the Urtext and unity-of-the-artwork type of musicological purity that reigned in the last few decades. This perception might have begun to change, slowly, after Fabio Biondi’s fabulous 2005 recording came out. It turns out that it’s a masterpiece and the custom of stitching an opera together from previous hits of his own, newly written music, and arias from other composers – mainly Hasse and Giacomelli – doesn’t hold it back, it aids this work! Vivaldi giving his music, in the Venetian style, to the good guys but his colleagues’ more flashy Neapolitan-style music to the baddies adds welcome variety. Vivaldi’s intended point about the superiority of the former is, alas, undermined by the Red Priest having been too fair and using the finest that his rivals’ had on offer: two of the absolute show-stealing arias aren’t his. But we don’t care, the music is great and this new recording of the Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone is just what the opera deserves; rivalling (or complementing) Biondi’s, easily. A must-listen for 2021, if you haven’t yet. Review forthcoming.


OK, let’s cheat. Or make up for the lost year of 2019. I simply have to mention a few more recordings, now that I’ve started. Here they are:

17.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: "Mozart’s Violin"

Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

A new recording of Mozart‘s violin concertos should bring something special to the table. Musically, that goes without saying, but that’s not what the marketing department employees at record labels are paid to ensure. The thing better have a hook–or “USP”, to use their jargon. Here, that unique selling point–doubly necessary, since no one outside of Vienna has ever heard of the violinist (Christoph Koncz is one of the concertmasters of the Vienna Philharmonic and therefore Viennese royalty)–is the instrument. Mozart’s own instrument, to be sure. Dusted and despeckled from its museum slumber and with the life fiddled back into it, it is the nominal star of this production. You might be right to think that this bodes badly for the venture, because–PR blather aside–it matters exactly squat in the making of a recording of violin concertos by Mozart–or anyone else–even if it featured the most beautiful-sounding Guarneri ever made... [continue reading]

12.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Tartini Delights

Tartini Delights With Chouchane Siranossian

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
HAYDN_and-the-Harp_GLOSSA_ClassicsToday_ClassicalCritic_Jens-F-Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Giuseppe Tartini has two things working against him: He’s not Vivaldi; and when acknowledged at all, he is often reduced to his Devil’s Trill Sonata (incidentally referenced in the slow movement of the D. 56 concerto, featured on this disc). The Naxos Music Library–to use a random measuring stick–features a respectable 250 items of his (on most of which he is mere filler). Vivaldi: Eleven times as many (and on most he’s the star). But Tartini’s concertos are terrific and sufficiently different from Vivaldi’s that they ought to exert considerable pull on any music listener interested in baroque concertos... [continue reading]