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Dip Your Ears, No. 252 (Céline Frisch’s Goldberg Variations Re-Issued)

available at Amazon
Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations
Céline Frisch (harpsichord)

In a Goldberg Variation survey from about ten years ago, I wrote that “Richard Egarr, who impresses with feeling and his soft touch, outplays the fairly similar Céline Frisch, who also includes the 14 Goldberg canons (although in a version for chamber group, not on the harpsichord as does Egarr) and the two songs on which the 30th variation, the Quodlibet is based. The alpha disc, a CHOC de Le Monde de la Musique 2001 and Diapason d'or 2002 winner, is highly interesting for that reason, but the Goldberg Variations themselves cannot stand out in a crowded field. On the mellow side, they compete directly with the ultimately more expressive Egarr.“

I’m sitting in front of the re-release now, and appreciate what was then Céline Frisch’s first recording for Alpha a good deal more. Or I hear it differently now. The field is obviously still as crowded, but good harpsichord versions do stand out of the market and Frisch’s is at least one of the more interesting. She’s got a free, knotty, agogic way that I struggle to describe. Essentially it’s a stagger – that really enhances the feeling of the harpsichord’s plectrum plucking away at the string. Then again she does that throughout, in determined and unflinching manner, and I can see how this might sound one-dimensional to some. Those would be better off with Keith Jarrett, whose stagger on his very intriguing (and harpsichord-unorthodox) recording (ECM) is far more flexible. Frisch’s intra-phrase rubato is contrasted with a steady pulse of the Variations that keeps her on track. It makes her recording not one I would recommend to those seeking an ear-charming introduction to the Goldberg Variations played on the harpsichord (Egarr or Pierre Hantaï are better suited for that), but the determined harpsichord-loving Bachian should find it a delight.

That alluded-to inclusion of extraneous, Goldberg-related pieces could be the kicker to what is already one of the more satisfying Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord. And indeed, the inclusion on a second disc of the 14 Canons on the First Eight Notes of the Bass of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087 (so far, so rare and good, thanks to Céline Frisch’s superb period band, Café Zimmermann) and the two German songs used in the Quodlibet of the Goldberg Variations: “Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben” (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away”) and “Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g'west” ("I have been away from you for so long”) is most welcome. But unfortunately Dominique Visse, a character-counter-tenor whom I enjoy greatly in action, sings it in a mock-comic of faux-historic way (and with bad German), which rather ruins the listening to a popular, however comical, folk-song which I would much rather have sung straight. But that’s grumbling about the bonus encore.



My Uncle, Harpsichordist: Session 001 (Jean Françaix)

I grew up with the records of my uncle’s (him performing, that is)—most memorably Scarlatti sonatas and some baroque sonatas for harpsichord and recorder. A few years ago I stumbled across a stack of copied CDs—taken from those out-of-print LPs and home-recordings—and grabbed them for memory’s sake. To my great intrigue, I found several discs devoted to works from the 20th century… which made me realize what a pity it is that I never talked about music with my uncle.

It might just be of interest to present the tracks of these recordings here, as a little personal musical (living) memorial. He was, after all, a formative person in my life, impressing on a kid of five, six, seven years the joys of collecting and tasting wine, eating and enjoying mushrooms and zucchini (garlic was the key to my palate then and it still is), and… Scarlatti.

Here’s track №.1:

Jean Françaix (1912-1997), L’insectarium pour Cembalo: La Scolopendre | Der Tausendfüßler | The Scolopendra (1:48)
Performance by Detlef Goetz-Laurson, 1980

Score: Schott
Commercial Recording: N/A (Apart from an OOP 7-inch single by Marga Scheurich)
Premiered in 1957, by Wanda Landowska.


On ClassicsToday: Classic Stravinsky-Bach Recording from Kavakos & Nagy

Under the Radar: Bach-Stravinsky From Kavakos

by Jens F. Laurson
Since his emergence at the 1985 International Sibelius Competition, Leonidas Kavakos has always been among the most promising violinists of his generation, capable of greatness (his Sibelius, most strikingly) but not always consistently so (his Mozart, which he insisted on also conducting). This 2002 recording... Continue Reading


Dip Your Ears, No. 251 (Meet Lise Davidsen, the next Hochdramatische)

available at Amazon
Lise Davidsen sings Wagner & Strauss
Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Make no mistake about it: The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, from little Stokke at the southern end of the Oslofjord, is *the* “Hochdramatische” of the near future. That much has been clear pretty much from the moment she stepped onto the stage of the Zurich Opera earlier this year, to give her first performance of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser – which she has already since reprised the rôle at the Munich Opera and the Bayreuth Festival. This debut recording on Decca, with the first-class backing of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen, cements the impression. If she’s the future, though, that’s not to say she has already arrived. As much as the Wagner and Strauss bits on this disc give her an opportunity to display her grand, blossoming voice, they also suggest that she hasn’t that much to say, yet. Her raw talent – at the base of which lies her effortlessly big, steely, single-edged voice – needs yet to be tempered by character or, barring that, depth of characterization. Especially in the opening “Dich, teure Halle”, Elisabeth’s prime cut aria in Tannhäuser, Davidsen comes across as shrill and overly dramatic, like someone with something to prove… more intent on shattering the Wartburg’s crown glass windows than expressing joyous anticipation and the lifting of a long-carried burden.

[Robert Levine's ClassicsToday review, similar but ultimately coming down more positively, can be found here: Magnificent Debut Recital By Lise Davidsen]

At the best of times, her voice gleams and shimmers like a Damascus steel: Hard but gleaming. Impressive? Very much. Pleasant? Not really. When she drops down to strike softer tones, though – towards the end of “Allmächt'ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen!”, the improvement is striking. That’s not really surprising, because it nearly always is highly impressive to hear huge voices sing softly. It’s what makes Jessye Norman’s account of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, despite glacial tempos, so marvelous: High-powered stratospheric lightness. There are hints of this in “Morgen!”, the iconic last of the Four [not last!] Songs op.27, where Salonen’s and the Philharmonia’s diaphanous garment drape Davidsen’s concentrated (rather pointed and slightly forced) ease to a combined gorgeous effect. The warmth that creeps into her voice for “Wiegenlied” is even more heartening, because it suggests that Davidsen’s palette is much wider than what is, for the most part, on show here. Her Four Last Songs, finally, are promising but not enough in their mildly anodyne ways to nudge any of your favorites off their pedestal. Not the double-creamy Norman, not the historical gem that is Lisa Della Casa’s much lighter, gleaming take, nor Janowitz with her voice of flattened silver. In songs like “Morgen”, “Cäcilie”, and “Wiegenlied”, the exuberant agility and sheer lust for life of a youngish Diana Damrau is far more gratifying. But if you want to hear the next big thing in this (and heavier) Fach, listen closely to Lise Davidsen all the same.



On ClassicsToday: LSO Shostakovich 8 Remake Succeeds With Noseda

LSO Shostakovich 8 Remake Succeeds With Noseda

by Jens F. Laurson
Snidely put, Gianandrea Noseda only conducts Italian and Russian works. (He’s musically and linguistically fluent in Russian after having lived and worked in St. Petersburg for years.) It’s a pretty limited repertoire, but one that he often does well. And when he does it well... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Christie's latest, best "Poppea" (CD of the Month)

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Monteverdi, L'incoronazione di Poppea, S. Yoncheva, K. Lindsey, S. d’Oustrac, C. Vistoli, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on August 30, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HAF8902622.24 | 186'38"
Claudio Monteverdi is something of an obsession of mine, particularly his final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea. It is a work under review here in myriad versions, somehow never tiresome to these ears. William Christie and his ensemble Les Arts Florissants have performed and recorded the work before, not among my favorite interpretations. This live recording, made at the Salzburg Festival in 2018, finally captures the American conductor's best work on this seminal piece. Its release coincides with the ensemble's 40th anniversary celebrations.

Christie has assembled a cast this time that is not merely optimal for each role but that blends together in a pleasing whole. As the amoral principal characters, Poppea and Nerone, soprano Sonya Yoncheva and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey have a collective vocal luster that seduces, especially in the famous duet "Pur ti miro" at the opera's conclusion. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac makes a biting Ottavia, with baritone Renato Dolcini as a resonant, moralizing Seneca.

In a booklet interview, Christie explains why he does not always want to use countertenors in castrato roles, although he has found an alluring examplar of this voice type in Carlo Vistoli for his Ottone. The instrumental component, reduced to minimal forces, turns on a dime to move with the singers, with Christie leading from the harpsichord rather than conducting. Operas in this period rely so heavily on recitative that it can be quite boring if not performed with instrumental variety and lively unpredictability. For example, in the third scene of the first act, when Poppea and Nero waken after a night of love-making, Yoncheva's handling of the lines beginning "Signor, deh, non partire" purrs with sleepy desire.

Besides the rich continuo section, pleasing and virtuosic solos come from a few instruments added to the texture, especially Sébastien Marq on recorder and crisp, focused cornetto playing by Jean-Pierre Canihac and Marie Garnier-Marzullo. While occasional misalignments are to be expected in a live recording, especially in this chamber-like arrangement without a conductor, the verve of live performance makes up for the occasional problem. Although the pictures of the production by Jan Lauwers are beautiful, it was clearly not for everyone.


On ClassicsToday: A (Very!) Fine Messiah From Václav Luks and Collegium 1704

A Fine Messiah From Václav Luks and Collegium 1704

by Jens F. Laurson
To say that there is no dearth of recordings of Handel’s Messiah is putting it mildly. Even granting that every generation needs its interpretations of the classics, there is a glut. On the downside, not all of them are very good. On the upside, choice is a beautiful thing and there is bound to be... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: How Good is Karl Böhm's Alpine Symphony?

Karl Böhm’s Alpine Symphony Revisited

by Jens F. Laurson
Although the modern collector won’t necessarily be inclined to see it quite that way, Karl Böhm was the go-to conductor of “authentic” Strauss performances in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the one who was in intimate contact with the composer, knew his wishes, and was... Continue Reading