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


Dip Your Ears: No. 270 (Shadowy Cello Sonatas)

available at Amazon
C.Schumann, Mendelessohn Frère et Sœur, G.Jenner
Lorenzo Meseguer (c), Mario Mora (pf)
(Eudora SACD 2204)

Clara, Fanny, and Gustav in the Shadows

“SHADOWS” is an album combining two single-movement works for cello and piano by Fanny Mendelssohn (Fantasia in G minor) and Clara Schumann (Three Romances op.22) with two cello sonatas, Felix Mendelssohn’s Second Sonata and that of the Brahmsian Gustav Jenner (also in D major). The title of the CD, goes the argument in the booklet, comes from the fact that each composer lived in the shadow of another. The gals in that of their brother and husband, respectively, and Jenner in that of Brahms, whose only student Jenner had been. Fair enough: While it might be argued that Clara Schumann was not much less – if at all – famous than her husband at the height of her concertizing career, at least as a composer she certainly wasn’t a known quantity. With Felix Mendelssohn, the claim is stretched too far. Only because he was “denigrated by some European musicologists in the early 20th century, in part because of his Jewish origins”, doesn’t mean that Mendelssohn, the man who invented classical music as we know it (from the conservatory system to the figure of the conductor to the idea of repertoire; salvaging Bach as a bonus) and who wrote a slew of masterpieces that were never not loved and acclaimed, has, for all the accusations of an excess of facileness or not pushing musical boundaries, ever been in anyone’s shadow.

But no matter, the music matters, not the title of the CD. And the performances are splendid, indeed. Cellist Lorenzo Meseguer has a surefooted, none-too-sweet tone and gorgeous round low notes that come out very nicely on the Eudora recording, which is proximate to the instruments (more so than, say, the fine Naxos recording with Maria Kliegel and Kristin Merscher) but leaves enough air. The second-movement pizzicatos are nearly as coy as those of Pieter Wispelwey’s (with Paolo Giacometti on Onyx) while Mario Mora’s piano part – naturally, given he is playing a modern Steinway – is more supple than Giacometti’s 1837 Érard. The tempi are not extreme in either direction, although the Adagio is certainly milked for its wistful beauty… if not as wickedly as Christophe Coin and Patrick do, who make it sound as though Tzimon Barto broke into a fortepiano shop. (In a good way, I suppose, although that’s bound to be rather subjective.) The finale is a nicely contrasting firecracker and the contrast. Comparison to a golden-oldie favorite of mine, János Starker and György Sebők on Mercury, make Meseguer’s cello appear comparatively prominent – perhaps more a question of engineering than playing.

The Mendelssohn may be the main ingredient of this CD, but the USP is probably the shadowy composers in front and after him, where there’s little competition. Only two other recordings exist of the fine Jenner sonata; only four of the beautiful Fanny Mendelssohn Fantasia which is here given all its considerable worth. Both, Jenner’s work, which is very obviously (but also very deftly) post-Brahmsian, and Fanny’s piece, are reasons to tune in. The key is not to be turned off by the Three Romances which, after a few minutes of vapid beauty, become so obviously trite that they’re hard to bear: ambling melodies in the cello connected by clichéd phrases and clumsy chords. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.



Briefly Noted: Schumann for Four and Five (CD of the Month)

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Schumann, Piano Quartet/Piano Quintet, I. Faust, A.K. Schreiber, A. Tamestit, J.-G. Queyras, A. Melnikov

(released on November 24, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902695 | 52'42"
Many musicologists have described Robert Schumann's youthful piano quartet and piano quintet as twin works, not least because they were composed in the same key, E-flat major, and within a few weeks of one another. Neither of these pieces, early experiments by Schumann with pairing his favorite instrument, the piano, with different combination of string instruments, lasts over a half-hour, but the young composer, still only 19 years old, laid the foundations for many later examples of both of these still relatively rare genres.

This delectable new release assembles a dream team for these exemplary works: violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Antoine Tamestit, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov. All play on historical instruments, with the strings all made roughly around the year 1700, as early as 1672, in the case of Tamestit's Stradivarius viola. Melnikov plays on a historical fortepiano made by Ignace Pleyel (Paris, 1851), technically constructed after Schumann composed these pieces, but that is a minor point.

Even though it was composed slightly later, the quartet is the lesser work to my ears, but its slow movement, with ardent cello solos here played subtly by Queyras, is nothing short of gorgeous. Schumann's piano quintet, however, has always struck me as one of the most perfect pieces of chamber music ever written. This performance, with Anne Katharina Schreiber joining on second violin, is going to be rather difficult to improve on, and it is certainly in competition with Melnikov's own recording of the same pairing from a decade ago (with the Jerusalem String Quartet) and the version made around the same time by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. The second movement surprises, both by the detached, somewhat brisk pacing of the funeral march and the understated rubato of the B section. The use of historical instruments and the individual strengths of each player put this disc a notch above.

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Briefly Noted: Distler's Modern Christmas Oratorio

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Hugo Distler, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, Adam Riis, Concert Clemens, Carsten Seyer-Hansen

(released on November 1, 2023)
OUR Recordings 6.220684 | 40'17"
available at Amazon
Athesinus Consort Berlin,
Klaus-Martin Bresgott
This recording of Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, while not the first, is the one that finally made me study this sadly lesser-known work. Many choral musicians, myself included, know Distler's austere arrangement of the late medieval tune "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." This larger piece for unaccompanied SATB choir uses that tune to unify its 40 minutes of music: many verses of it are sung, interwoven with the Gospel account of the Nativity, sung in chant-like unaccompanied recitative by several soloists.

In this sense, the piece is akin to one of Bach's chorale cantatas, just without solo arias, but it also has much in common with the sacred music of Heinrich Schütz. The ingenuity of the chorale device reaches its climax when the chorale is touchingly interwoven with the part of the dialogue where Mary sings the words now known as the Magnificat, as if all souls ever born are present in that moment to praise Mary's submission to God. Shortly after, in another brilliant moment, there is a verse with the basses on a lullabye ostinato ("Eia, eia, eia"), soothing the newborn Jesus laid in the manger.

The Evangelist, on this disc the refined tenor Adam Riis, gets the bulk of the recitative between choruses, with other singers from the choir appearing as the angel Gabriel (high soprano), Mary and Elizabeth (mezzo-sopranos), and Herod and Simeon (basses). The main competition for this disc is the 2015 recording by the Athesinus Consort Berlin, conducted by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, who is also the editor of the critical edition of the score that appeared the same year (Carus-Verlag, 2015). Individual soloists may be slightly better on one disc or the other, but the overall performance of the Danish choir Concert Clemens on this new disc, directed with great sensitivity by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, is more moving. In particular, the disc's resonant sound preserves the sense of hearing it in an open space with acoustic ring, the Skt. Markus Kirken in Århus, where it was captured last year.

Distler composed this gorgeous piece of modern sacred music in 1933, as his life became entwined with the fate of the Nazi party. Born in Nuremberg, the young German composer had done collegiate studies at Leipzig Conservatory but was forced to withdraw from them for financial reasons in 1931. He took a job as organist at the church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck and got married in 1933. That same year he joined the Nazi party and left written records, documented by historians, showing his support for the regime. Distler rose to better positions in Stuttgart and eventually Berlin, but the Nazi party eventually turned on him, labeling his music "degenerate" and threatening to conscript him into military service. In 1942, at the age of 34, he committed suicide in Berlin.

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Briefly Noted: Merry Charpentier Christmas

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Charpentier, Messe de Minuit, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé

(released on October 13, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902707DI2 | 80'52"
The French early music group Ensemble Correspondances has quickly become a favorite. For that unusual Christmas gift, conductor Sébastien Daucé has put together a most entertaining Noël program on this new release. In splendid performances, it pairs Marc-Antoine Charpentier's more familiar Messe de Minuit, a setting of popular Noël melodies to the Ordinary of the Mass, with two of the same composer's oratorio-like dramatic motets for Christmas.

In his excellent booklet essay, Graham Sadler notes a musical self-borrowing not often commented on, in which Charpentier based the "Gloria" movement of the Midnight Mass on the music that went with a parallel text in his motet In nativitatem Domini canticum, H. 416. Having always been struck by the beauty of this moment in the Mass, so much more reflective and introspective than the general take on the "Gloria" text, I was delighted to learn of this connection with the earlier work, which I did not know at all.

Daucé rounds out a Christmas Eve celebration with a number of charming selections, including two of Charpentier's instrumental settings of Noëls used in the Mass. The setting of "Laissez paître vos bêtes" for recorder consort is an absolute delight, as is a motet for the elevation of the host, excerpted from a longer work by Charpentier's contemporary, Sébastien de Brossard, a real find for music directors looking for something unusual to program next month. The disc ends with one of Charpentier's versions of the Te Deum, H. 147, likely used during the Christmas season at the Jesuit church of St. Louis in Paris, where Charpentier was maître de musique. Sung at the end of Matins, it would have directly preceded Midnight Mass.

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A Survey of Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycles

► An Index of ionarts Discographies

Continuing my discographies, this is a survey of - hopefully - every extant recorded cycle of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. For now, I have listed them alphabetically by conductor. This is not as interesting as listing them chronologically, but it gives a quicker overview of conductors having done multiple cycles. (If anyone knows how to construct a working html/css table that I can sort by either year or name, do let me know! I'm still failing with that for my LvB Symphony Survey.) I do not, by and large, include incomplete cycles (which is to say, not all Symphonies 1-6)... but then I make a lot of exceptions, anyway. "+M" indicates the presence of the Manfred Symphony.

I'll happily grant that Tchaikovsky is not my favorite composer and that I never went through a near-obsessive phase with his symphonies as I did with Mahler, Bruckner, DSCH, Sibelius, or even Martinů. But it's still great music and I do find myself viscerally reacting to performances. It's just that I then either find them great (rarely) or outrigh boring.

I am sitting on the data for several new discographic entries under work. Ring cycles, Mahler, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven symphony cycles, Mozart Piano Concerto and String Quartet-cycles, among others. They take an awful lot of time to research, however, and even more time to put into html-presentable shape. And even then they are rarely complete or mistake-free. Neither will this one be, and every such post is also a plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae.

I am explicitly grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize for any bloomers. (Preferably on Twitter, where I'll read the comment much sooner than here, but either works!) Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful when I have sets that I have missed (such that only ever appeared on LP, for example) pointed out to me. I have not listened to them all, but favorites are indicated with the "ionarts choice" graphic. Ditto recommended cycles by ClassicsToday/David Hurwitz. Links to reputable reviews are included where I thought of it and could find any. With hundreds of links in this document, there are, despite my best efforts, bound to be some that are broken or misplaced; I am glad about every correction that comes my way re. those, too.

Enjoy and leave a comment in some form!

Edits Nov.6.2023: The Survey wasn't five hours hold that I had already been kindly reminded of two oversights (thanks, Decca & Danny!) Zdeněk Mácal's cycle on EXTON with the Czech Phil vand Alexander Sladkovsky's 2019 cycle w/the Tartastan NSO have been added.

(Survey begins after the break, if you didn't land on this page directly)


Briefly Noted: Noseda's cycle of Walker sinfonias

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George Walker, Five Sinfonias, National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda

(released on September 29, 2023)
NSO0007D | 65'17"
Gianandrea Noseda had planned to lead a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The twist was that the NSO would perform all nine symphonies in just three weeks, beginning in late May of 2020, a plan wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Fate intervened further with the murder of George Floyd that month, igniting a national reaction that led the NSO and other classical music institutions into self-reflection about representative programming. The eventual cycle, led by Noseda from 2022 to 2023, was a pairing of Beethoven with symphonies by African-American composers George Walker and William Grant Still.

One of the benefits was this complete cycle of the five sinfonias of George Walker, all recorded live in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under Noseda's fastidious baton. Remarkably, for all the effort and time involved in bringing this composite cycle to completion, this single disc clocks in at just over an hour. None of the Walker Sinfonias is longer than about fifteen minutes, and the most slender is the one the NSO itself commissioned in 2012, when the esteemed American composer was 90 years old, Sinfonia No. 4. Walker's subtitle, “Strands,” refers to the way he interwove two spiritual melodies (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll”) almost imperceptibly into this one-movement piece, which the NSO took on its 2023 visit to Carnegie Hall. Sinfonia No. 2 stands out among the Walker symphonies for its originality, especially the short second movement (“Lamentoso e quasi senza misura”) where a mournful flute solo is accompanied by enigmatic clusters and melodic snippets from the cellos and even guitar.

Sinfonia No. 3 has a percussion-laden third movement bustling with rhythmic activity, reminscent at times of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. However, like Sinfonia No. 1 and portions of most of these pieces, a disappointing sameness and arid quality prevail. Sinfonia No. 5 ("Visions"), premiered after Walker's death in 2018, has the most overt programmatic elements of the five. While Walker was working on the piece, in 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, after which the composer added words to the symphony, spoken by a soprano, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The composer's last symphonic statement thus took up the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States, made more explicit by a video by Frank Schramm shown at the premiere, including ocean scenes and photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston.

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Briefly Noted: Tetzlaff siblings play Brahms Double (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Brahms, Double Concerto / Viotti / Dvořák, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Paavo Järvi

(released on October 1, 2023)
Ondine ODE1423-2 | 60'43"
Earlier this year, I singled out Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff's last recording with Lars Vogt. After the late pianist died last September, the Tetzlaff siblings recorded this program as a memorial to their dear friend in December. They turned to a piece they have played many times before, the Double Concerto of Brahms, as a tribute. The opening cadenza for cello, later joined by violin, is quiet and intimate, with a sense of plaint suitable to the tone of remembrance. The siblings do well in this unusual concerto, where the two instruments, after that opening cadenza, almost always play together, one finishing the thoughts of the other.

Brahms wrote this piece very late in life, for cellist Robert Hausmann and his old friend Joseph Joachim. At that point Brahms and Joachim were no longer on speaking terms, as Brahms had "gone with" (as Larry David put it) Joachim's ex-wife following their divorce. In a gesture of friendship, Brahms meant the piece as a reconciliation, even including a varied form of the F-A-E motif he had used in the movement of the collaborative sonata dedicated to Joachim 30 years earlier. The Tetzlaffs' rendition of the slow movement is especially free and elegiac. Järvi excels at keeping the musicians of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin together with the soloists, giving them room rhythmically and with careful dynamics. The third movement could perhaps be more daring from the soloists, but it has a fine seriousness about it.

Christian Tetzlaff ingeniously pairs the piece with something unexpected, Giovanni Battista Viotta's Violin Concerto No. 22, from the end of the 18th century. It is a piece that Brahms and Joachim both loved. Tetzlaff notes in his booklet comments that Brahms used it as a model for the Double Concerto, including the choice of key (A minor) and some motifs that are borrowed. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann of the Viotti concerto as one of his "very special raptures," and by including it in the Double Concerto, it is a way to recall to Joachim one aspect of their early friendship through this music. The first movement may not much to speak of, other than some showy bits in the solo part, but the second movement is quite gorgeous, in addition to its significance in relation to the Brahms. The younger Tetzlaff gets her solo piece as well, an encore-like lagniappe of Dvořák's "Silent Woods," an Adagio arranged for cello and orchestra from From the Bohemian Forest.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Mythical Recording of the Donizetti Requiem

available at Amazon
Gaetano Donizetti
Messa da requiem
Leonard Bernstein
P.Domingo, K.Ricciarelli, A.Baltsa,
S.Ramey, R.Lloyd
LA Phil, LA Master Chorale
DG 420 574-2

The Record that Wasn't

If you have ever done a reasonably thorough search for various recordings of the gorgeous but somewhat neglected Requiem Mass of Gaetano Donizetti’s, you might have come across a reference to a recording made in 1982, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with a superlative cast of singers (Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Agnes Baltsa, Samuel Ramey and Robert Lloyd) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. To have appeared on Deutsche Grammophon. It is even assigned a catalog number: “420 574-2”.

This all looks fairly plausible. Domingo has either recorded with these artists (Domingo, Baltsa, Ramey, Lloyd) or could have. The catalog number looks legit enough for the early 80s. But why is there no reference to be found to this album outside of Wikipedia, where it was listed among the available recordings for the Donizetti Requiem (since removed) and among the discographies of some of the alleged participants? And why isn’t there a cover of such a recording to be found in the vast vestiges of the internets?

The answer is simple enough: There never was such a recording. Nor is it an innocent switcharoo, perhaps mistaking Donizetti’s Requiem with an extant Bernstein recording Verdi’s. It’s a deliberate, clever, and reasonbably carefully constructed little joke that someone snuck in, almost an “Otto Jägermeier” of Wikipedia. One the one hand, it cost me a few hours of research and I don’t want to be a complete spoilsport, I thought I’d add the graphic element—the cover—to complete the illusion. So here it is. Enjoy the mischief.