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Give the Gift of Music 2008

If you are looking for some good music to give as holiday presents, here are some suggestions from the best of this year's reviews of recent releases. (Jens has some suggestions of his own.) There are religious and secular options, vocal and instrumental, and music of different periods and types. Each disc is accompanied by an excerpt from my review: click the link to continue reading. As always, if you buy a CD from Amazon after clicking on a link found here, part of the profit goes to Ionarts, at no extra cost to you. Happy Holidays!

Available from Amazon
Pergolesi, Missa Romana / Scarlatti, Messa per il santissimo natale, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

Naïve OP 30461
This recent release brings together two lesser-known Mass settings made for churches here in the Eternal City. Alessandro Scarlatti called his third setting of the Latin Ordinary the Messa per il Santissimo Natale, a Mass for Christmas Day, completing it in 1707 while he was maestro di cappella at St. Mary Major. It is the Scarlatti that most appeals to me in this pairing, a setting of all five Latin movements and with a more sustained style than Pergolesi, whose Mass, like many of his other pieces, is a string of pretty tidbits. Rinaldo Alessandri conducts with his accustomed rhythmic verve and attention to clean attack and release. He continues to indulge in a few old tricks, rarely allowing any slowing down in a movement’s final bars and ending in many cases on a short, clipped chord. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Melchior Neusidler, Lute Music, Paul O'Dette

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907388
The sound is captured well, with a minimum of extraneous fret noise and so on, played on three different lutes -- an alto lute of six courses (the least pleasing sound of the three, a little tinny), as well as six-course and eight-course lute, the latter corresponding to demands Neusidler made in some of his works for deeper notes. Is this an essential purchase for anyone other than lute fanatics? Probably not, but it would make a savvy, cultured Christmas gift, especially since it has a little set featuring German melodies for Advent (Herr Got, nun sey gepreyset) and Christmas (Joseph lieber, Joseph mein). Even for the general listener, this music provides excellent background sound, which is exactly how the lute was often used: O'Dette notes that Neusidler played for the Fugger family at banquets and dinners, as well as during a sleigh ride at least once. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Debussy / Poulenc, Sonatas, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexandre Tharaud

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902012
Two leading performers of the young generation of French classical musicians, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud, will be playing in Washington in the coming week. In nearly back-to-back concerts at La Maison Française, Tharaud will revisit his latest recording, the Chopin preludes, and Queyras will play with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Their collaboration on disc continues with this new oh-so-French release, combining the cello sonatas of Debussy and Poulenc, with a few rich viennoiseries off the dessert cart. Most of Tharaud's recordings make a point of combining old and new, and the program of this CD makes reference to the nationalistic embrace by many French composers of historical French music. In a sense, Tharaud has followed in their wake, by releasing knock-out recordings of Couperin and Rameau, and acknowledging how the historically informed performance movement influenced his career. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Martha Argerich: Music for Two Pianos (Brahms, Lutosławski, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky)

EMI Classics 50999 2 07623 2 2
Over the last several years, a number of videos have been embedded in our pages featuring Martha Argerich and other pianists (Nelson Freire, Evgeny Kissin, Lilya Zilberstein, and others) playing four-hands or two-piano pieces, mostly in live recordings from the Lugano Festival, concerts in the series she organizes, known as the Progetto Martha Argerich. This disc puts many of those two-piano performances, recorded live at the Lugano Festival between 2002 and 2005, onto a two-CD set priced to move, to put alongside the series of chamber music CDs from Lugano released by EMI in the last several years. Some of the fiercest playing comes from Argerich's pairing with Gabriela Montero, on Rachmaninov's second suite (op. 17). The two have similar temperaments, pianistically feisty and a little unpredictable, and the combination in this devilishly difficult music is mercurial. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Schubert, Quartettsatz / Der Tod und das Mädchen, Jerusalem Quartet

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901990
Just when you thought that people should stop recording something as familiar as Schubert's most popular quartets, the Jerusalems' new disc of nos. 12 and 14 shows that the best performers prove the invalidity of such assumptions. This disc may not demand that someone who already owns one or two recordings of the Death and the Maiden quartet also buy this one, but it stands out as an exceptionally fine performance. The so-called Quartettsatz, the C minor fragment Schubert managed to finish of what would have been his twelfth string quartet, is played with anxious tension in the agitated opening theme. At the same time there is an admirable dolce restraint to the pianissimo sections, especially the pizzicati of Kyril Zlotnikov, playing the Sergio Perresson cello formerly owned by Jacqueline du Pré and on loan from her husband Daniel Barenboim. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Lully, Psyché, C. Sampson, K. Gauvin, Boston Early Music Festival, P. O'Dette, S. Stubbs

cpo 777 367-2
The fine series of operas from the Boston Early Music Festival, recorded by Radio Bremen, continues with this 3-CD set made during last year's performance of Lully's Psyché. Lully had a life-long fascination with the story of Cupid and Psyche, setting it first as a court ballet with Isaac Benserade in the 1650s and then turning to it again for a 1670 ballet, whose divertissements were reworked as the framework for the full opera recorded here. Last year's BEMF release, Lully's Thésée, was very good, but this production strikes my ears as even better, largely because of a stronger cast. The score has a startling range of music, including one of the most extended lament scenes in Baroque opera, the so-called Plainte italienne, a scene sung in Italian and accompanied by extra recorder players on stage. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Purcell, Keyboard Suites and Grounds, R. Egarr (harpsichord)

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907428
Richard Egarr's playing is top-notch to my ears, although he has come in for some less than enthusiastic descriptions in recent reviews: "far from what one could call flashy" (Handel organ concerti), "leisurely" (Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier), even -- lowest of the low -- "musicologically valuable" (Mozart fantasias and rondos). Well, I take it all back after listening to this absorbing new disc of Purcell's under-played keyboard suites. For pieces that are not all that much, in terms of technical demands, Egarr presents their best side, playing each movement with a sense of theatrical panache on his Joel Katzman instrument (made in Amsterdam in 1991 after a 17th-century Ruckers instrument). It is clear from the performances that Egarr cherishes these eight suites, finding in them, as he puts it in his liner essay, "harmonic, melodic and textural twists, oddities, and eccentricities that are deeply and uniquely rooted in a land that seems to specialize in the zany," ranging from "wonderful beauties" to "heart-breaking depths and earthy 'fish-slapping' humour." [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Ludus Danielis, Dufay Collective, W. Lyons

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907479
The feast of St. Daniel was celebrated on July 21 in the Catholic calendar, but this medieval play was most certainly associated with the so-called Feast of Fools, a time at the end of the calendar year when the subdeacons and young people took over many cathedrals (from December 30 to January 1 -- references in the play to Christmas, in the conductus for Daniel of the Darius half, for example, confirm this). The voices used were presumably all male, something that this recording does not follow (not that it has to). The casting of solo parts misses one of the big jokes in the play by having soprano Vivien Ellis sing the role of the queen. That the role was sung by a male voice seems certain, and the comic effect was probably heightened in the faux-solemn conductus that hails her arrival, identifying the cross-dressed actor as "prudens styrpe" (the chaste stem) and "haec virago" (that virago, or large, domineering woman). [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Bach, Cantatas BWV 27, 84, 95, 161, Collegium Vocale Gent, P. Herreweghe

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901969
Herreweghe has organized many of his cantata releases around a liturgical theme, and for this disc he brings together three of Bach's cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel reading for that feast, which usually falls somewhere in September, was the story of Jesus raising the son of widow of Nain from the dead. Told in Luke 7:11-17, it is one of three resurrections that Jesus performed in the Gospels: he comes across a funeral procession near the gate of the city of Nain, feels compassion for the bereft mother, and orders the dead son to rise from his bier. Bach's cantatas do not meditate on the joy of the mother who has incredibly regained her son from death; rather, their texts focus on the son and the door to joy that death represents for the believer. The attempt seems to be to put the listener in the role of the corpse lying on the bier, as in BWV 95, "My funeral hymn is already prepared; Ah, that I might sing it today!" [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Terezín | Theresienstadt, A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber, D. Hope, B. Risenfors, I. Hausmann, P. Dukes, J. Knight

Deutsche Grammophon 477 6546
This recital disc, anchored by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, brings together seventy-some minutes of rarities, jewels of sound both gloomy and sentimental from the early 20th century. This is music by composers less known than they should be, although not all of them are major discoveries that call for further investigation. The songs are sung, with exquisite diction and concentrated tone, by von Otter and another favorite Lied singer, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher. Their respective collaborating pianists, Bengt Forsberg and Gerold Huber, are among the best, most refined practitioners in the field today. The selections range from the bluesy cabaret (Karel Švenk and Martin Roman) to the sugary tones of Austro-Hungarian operetta (Adolf Strauss and an adaptation of Emmerich Kálmán), from the simplest strophic songs in line with Schubert (Ilse Weber) to more cutting-edge examples of avant-garde trends (worthy sets by Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas). The result is a most convincing cross-section of emotions, embracing the optimistic, the despairing, and the brutally analytical. [Continue reading]

For a particularly thoughtful gift, combine this CD with the upcoming live performance of music from it, by Anne Sofie von Otter, Daniel Hope, and Bengt Forsberg (April 30, 7:30 pm) in the Music Center at Strathmore, sponsored by Vocal Arts Society, although tickets appear not yet to be on sale.

Available from Amazon
Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts

RCA Red Seal 82876-68560-2
As you might expect, the sound of live concerts broadcast on radio, recorded non-professionally, and digitally remastered leaves something to be desired. Still, in spite of the hiss and crackle, the distortion, the occasional lacuna, these discs allow you to reach back to 1953 and hear a legendary pianist at the height of his powers, undertaking demanding pieces that he did not have the chance to record in studio. A missing part of the third movement of the third Rachmaninoff concerto had to be filled in with a patch from a 1948 performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (the Australian orchestra on the radio broadcast is not identified). Similar audio surgery had to be performed on the Bach A minor suite (BWV 818), with the Allemande recorded in 1947. Kapell's Bach, still a couple years before Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, crackles with energy. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Haydn, The Creation, S. Piau, M. Padmore, Gabrieli Consort, P. McCreesh

Archiv 477 7361
McCreesh, ever careful about his performance practice choices, has opted to try to recreate what it is likely that Haydn had in mind. Namely, the overblown style of oratorio he had heard in London, with large orchestras and choruses, which was recreated in the earliest performances of the work in Vienna. That may not sound all that inviting, but he augments his Gabrieli Consort and Players by partnering with young musicians from Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. The sound is large but still refined and musically sensitive, of a sort that tempts one to forget about the label of historically informed performance (HIP) altogether. Just like Christie, McCreesh has called on five soloists, single-casting the often doubled roles. Singing Uriel, who is more or less the oratorio's main narrative voice, is the exquisite Mark Padmore, a British tenor in the Ian Bostridge vein. This is a thoroughly English Uriel, contrasted by the ever so slightly French-tinged English of Sandrine Piau's Gabriel. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Magdalena Kožená, Ah! Mio Cor: Handel Arias, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon

Archiv 477 6547
We have admired Magdalena Kožená's recordings many times before at Ionarts. The Czech mezzo-soprano's latest disc of Handel arias forms a pleasing diptych with her earlier release of Italian cantatas by Handel with Mark Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre. This was her first collaboration with Venice Baroque Orchestra and Andrea Marcon, a set of pieces performed in live concert in Brussels (review by Martine Mergeay) and elsewhere in 2007. (The recording was made in Toblach's Gustav Mahler Saal in 2006 and was released last year in Europe.) Kožená's voice is well suited to the transparency and incisiveness of historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles, and Marcon's is one of the best in the field today. The voice can have an intense grain to it, especially toward the top at full volume (as in Alcina's "Ah! mio cor!"). This is only one color that Kožená pulls from her palette to illustrate the range of emotional states in these arias, mostly from operas and a few from oratorios. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
F. Chopin, Preludes / F. Mompou, Alexandre Tharaud

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901982
This program, no less inventive than Tharaud's previous ones, is centered on the op. 28 preludes, mostly conceived during Chopin's fatal trip to Majorca. Schumann described these quasi-fragmentary pieces as "sketches" or "ruins" of more fully developed etudes. The ambiguous name chosen for them (preludes to what?) gives the impression of paired major-minor improvisations that lead only to each other, in an endless cycle of fifths always circling back on itself. Tharaud writes in the notes about how he sees the Preludes only as a set, and that comes across, for example, by the way he takes no. 22 attacca from the end of no. 21. The most curious point to my ears in the cycle's continuity is the cadence on an F dominant seventh chord at the end of no. 23, setting up not B-flat but no. 24 in D minor. In the liner notes, Tharaud describes the set as "shot through with violence and death," restless with a sense of fear even in the most serene movements. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Schoenberg / Sibelius, Violin Concertos, Hilary Hahn, Swedish RSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Deutsche Grammophon 477 7346
What is it with Sibelius these days? We just reviewed Lisa Batiashvili's recording of the Finnish composer's daunting violin concerto, which has been performed a shocking number of times over the last couple years in these parts. Now, an Ionarts favorite performer and Baltimore's favorite daughter, violinist Hilary Hahn, has taken on the Sibelius concerto in a new recording. As further proof of her serious-mindedness, Hahn has paired it with Schoenberg's mostly unknown violin concerto, a work that we have never reviewed live and that is hardly over-recorded. In her charming liner note, Hahn relates that her first attempt to wrap her head around the Sibelius concerto was via headphones, between innings of an Orioles game, and that she had to special-order the Schoenberg score, since no music stores had it in stock. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Heavenly Harmonies (music by Tallis and Byrd), Stile Antico

Harmonia Mundi HMU 807463
The maiden release of the recently formed British choral group Stile Antico, called Music for Compline, was one of my favorite discs of last year. Harmonia Mundi is about to release their second disc, Heavenly Harmonies, 78 minutes of gorgeously sung and recorded Tudor polyphony. It is already highly praised, receiving warm reviews, as well as, soon, the April 2008 Diapason d'Or. The concept combines the two poles of the Tudor period, Protestant and Catholic, with Tallis's simple pieces for Archbishop Parker's rhymed psalter and Byrd's impassioned polyphony for the Latin Mass (motets from Cantiones sacrae and some of the propers for the Mass of Pentecost from Gradualia). Musically, Byrd wins the compositional contest hands down, but his teacher's homophonic settings of the English rhymed psalms can be devastatingly effective (Why fum'th in fight? and Expend, O Lord, my plaint of word are two good examples). [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Dowland, Lute Songs / Britten, Nocturnal after John Dowland, M. Padmore, E. Kenny, C. Ogden

Hyperion CDA676483
This new release from Hyperion is the perfect antidote for the serious listener turned off by Sting's crossover expedition into the Dowland lute songs. What was charitably described here as "not an ideal version of Dowland's music" some decried as mass audience pablum, and with some reason. That type of listener may want to consider this CD as a follow-up gift for that classical-shy someone who enjoyed Sting's Labyrinth, an enticement along the path to the dark side. Considering my recent praise of Mark Padmore's new Handel, it is no surprise that his performance of this baker's dozen of delectable lute songs should get a recommendation. Not least because it presents not only the lachrymose Dowland but the randy, witty Dowland ("Her eye commands, her heart saith No. / No, no, no, and only no! / One No another still doth follow"). Here are all the things that, for better or worse, were missing from Sting's version: exquisite diction, studied and pure pronunciation, warm and burnished vocal tone, endless breath support. [Continue reading]


jfl said...

Yep, this year I'll get around to a Best of 2008 list again. (In case anyone was holding their breath. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Charles. And yes, Jens, some of us are holding our breath. I'm a regular reader from the left coast, so the Ionarts CD recommendations are greatly appreciated. Thanks for another year of wonderful blogging.

Anonymous said...

I especially appreciate the reviews here because you gentlemen seem to have the same excellent taste as myself.

I'm compiling my own personal Best of... list, and of the ones on your list that I've purchased so far, the only one that didn't make at least the prelims is the Purcell. (It's not that there is anything bad about it; it's just that there are others I'd rather include.) But I noticed something on my list which I find repeated on yours. Does Harmonia Mundi have some secret power that allows it to dominate the Best of lists?
(And that's without resorting to the HMGold re-releases this year, which include, inter alia, Bach Cantatas by Herreweghe and O'Dette playing another Renaissance German lutenist.)

jfl said...

I'll do the Ionarts one in a week -- for those who can't wait, I'm opening the 'doors' (like on a German "Advent-calendar") to my top ten (twenty) choices one-by-one on WETA.