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

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: ?

“Haydn and the Harp” is a delightful disc of music written for the harp based on works and themes of Haydn by the composer’s contemporaries, as well as compositions of Haydn’s where the harp can (or was always meant to) be an alternative to the piano. All the music is tied in some way to Haydn, either biographically or musically. Exupère de La Maniere, for example, grabbed a theme from Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 (“La Roxelane”) and sent it through the variation-wringer for harp solo. Ditto Sophia Dussek with “God Save Emperor Francis”, the tune best known from the slow movement of the Op. 76/3 string quartet or the German national anthem. Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, meanwhile, created a virtuosic “Petite mosaique” of famous melodies from The Creation for harp solo... [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]

10.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Matthew Passion in Treble-Trouble

Treble-Trouble: A Forgettable Matthew Passion From King’s College

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
A Forgettable Matthew Passion From King’s College

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

From the pedestrian opening chorus with its questionably delightful mix of all-over-the-place choristers, this Matthew Passion is utterly non-competitive and of interest really only to the proud parents and relatives of the little performers. The pitch ambiguities and tempo of said opening chorus and the muffled sound might make you think you accidentally grabbed a recording by Günther Ramin (Thomanerchor, 1950s) from your shelves and they cast all that is to come in a mediocre light...

...And then there is bass William Gaunt, whose “Am Abend da es kühle war” and following aria (“Mach dich, mein Herz, rein”) are simply exquisite, as good as any on disc. He delivers it with just the right mix of a lyrical, natural, and gentle approach and melts your heart instantly...[continue reading]

8.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Splendid Contemporary B-flat Major Brahms Concerto

Splendid Contemporary B-flat Major Brahms Concerto From Lars Vogt

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Lars Vogt Schubet Ondine

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Together with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt–in his fifth year heading the orchestra across the shore from Newcastle–got to record the Brahms piano concertos for Ondine. Anyone who reads a chamber orchestra’s and Brahms’ name on the same CD cover and might briefly flinch, fearing undernourished, pseudo-historically informed performances with an economically expedient small band–conducted from the piano at that (another couple thousands in savings!)–need not worry... [continue reading]

6.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Schubert in Love (or gone Wild?)

Schubert Gone Wild

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Schubert in Love

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Here’s a recording the success of which depends entirely on how you approach it. If you think of it as a classical Lied recital that experiments, you’ll likely regard it as an experiment gone wrong. Come to it as a folk-blues-country-jazz-crooner album (or whatever genre you might associate it with) that happens to pay homage to Schubert–or better still, with no expectation whatsoever–it might just tickle you in all the right places... [continue reading]

5.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Pierre Henry’s La Dixième Symphonie – Hommage à Beethoven is a work of the genre where a modern composer takes an ancient model and weaves a modern cloth around familiar and loved structures, hoping thereby to benefit from the soothing sense of the familiar and–ideally, maybe–opening the ears to a few new sounds courtesy of their own creation. It has become quite popular, too: It’s easier to sell–and play–such music to and for an audience that would otherwise be more skeptical of sheer avant-garde music. The old masters inspire respect from within; the audience’s tolerance increases notably... [continue reading]