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Give the Gift of Music 2009

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 is also counting down his Top 10 Discs of the Year.) There are religious and secular options, vocal and instrumental, and music of different periods and types. Each disc is accompanied by an excerpt from our 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
David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion (inter alia), Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier

Harmonia Mundi HMU 807496
The New Music at Carnegie Hall project commissioned David Lang to compose a work for Paul Hillier's vocal chamber ensemble Theater of Voices. A regular with the Bang on a Can collective, Lang began with an ingenious idea for a text to inspire a substantial and almost exclusively vocal composition (the four singers also play a few percussion instruments that are sparsely added to the texture), overlaying the story drawn from Hans Christian Andersen's Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (The Little Match Girl, trans. Jean Hersholt) with the crowd and congregational responses of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The result, The Little Match Girl Passion, is something like a musical version of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a work of art that somehow joins the anguished misery of human existence -- the heartless, pointless death of a poor little girl on a Danish street on a cold New Year's Eve (and by extension, our existence, all of us) -- to the suffering of Christ and thus to the sublime mystery of God's mercy. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Assisi Christmas Cantatas, R. Ziesak, R. Friedrich, I. Danz, L'Arte del Mondo, W. Ehrhardt

Phoenix 149
This disc of Christmas cantatas from Assisi would surely pass muster as a gift for a more discriminating palate. The focus is four obscure works for soprano and orchestra, plus one for soprano and alto, discovered in the archive of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi (the courtyard of which is featured on the cover), here given their world premiere recordings. Most of the composers are hardly known quantities, including Francesco Maria Benedetti (1683-1746), Giuseppe Maria Pò del Finale (fl. 1700), Ferdinando Antonio Lazzari (1678-1754), who were all Franciscan friars in Assisi's Sacro Convento. The principal vocal attraction is Ruth Ziesak, whose flinty but agile soprano has many qualities in common with another German singer, Simone Kermes (who has also recorded with L'Arte del Mondo, the fine German early music ensemble featured here). Throw in an unknown motet for soprano by Porpora and two instrumental works (an unknown sonata by Alessandro Melani and the much-loved Christmas Concerto by Corelli), and you have a very intelligent gift for that music lover in your life. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Chants d'Est, Sinfonia Varsovia, S. Wieder-Atherton

Naïve V 5178
Wieder-Atherton has been performing music from her new CD of Slavic music, Chants d'Est, in Europe, but with an ensemble other than the Sinfonia Varsova heard on the disc. In a One on One interview for Playbill Arts, Wieder-Atherton said that she conceived the program as "a journey of 24 hours," beginning with an arrangement of the Nunc dimittis from Rachmaninov's Vespers (so, a journey that begins in the darkness of late evening, I guess). The regions and peoples visited in this nocturnal peregrination include Hungary (Dohnányi's Ruralia Hungarica), Russia and Ukraine (Tcherepnin's Tatar Dance and Prokofiev's devastating The Field of the Dead from Alexander Nevsky), and Czechoslovakia (Franck Krawczyk's adaptations of Janáček's Moravian Folksongs and Martinů's Variations on a Slovak Folksong). [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Mahler, The Complete Symphonies, L. Bernstein

Sony Classical 88697 45369 2
The presentation of this new remastered re-release of Leonard Bernstein's cycle of the Mahler symphonies, on twelve discs from Sony, is impeccable, with clear and elegant arrangement of the volumes, liner essays from Tim Page (new and laced with LP nostalgia), Bernstein himself (a reprint of the famous essay "Mahler: His Time Has Come"), and Erik Ryding, as well as plenty of photographs of the vivacious conductor. The audio engineering of the new set began with locating the original master tapes of the recordings, digitally mixed to get the best possible result while staying as faithful as possible to the sound of the original sessions. At a price of a little over $5 per disc, anyone who does not already own some version of the Bernstein cycle should find this re-release very attractive. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
James Ehnes, Homage (DVD and CD), with pianist Eduard Laurel

Onyx 4038
A good option for that violin nut in your life. James Ehnes, whom we last heard in the area at a 2007 concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recorded this recital of demanding morsels of the virtuoso violin repertory on the Marsick Strad and eleven other extraordinary instruments from the Fulton Collection. He plays on six Stradivarius violins (La Pucelle, 1709; Baron d'Assignies, 1713; Marsick 1715; Baron Knoop, 1715; Duke of Alba, 1719; Sassoon, 1733), one Pietro Guarneri (Shapiro, 1698), and two del Gesù (King Joseph, 1737; Lord Wilton, 1742), as well as three violas, a Gasparo da Salò from around 1560, a Guarnerius (Count Vitale ex-Landau, 1676), and a Guadagnini (Rolla, 1793) -- of the latter, violas have never sounded so good. He matches them with some of the world's finest bows, which Dr. Fulton also collects, made by François-Xavier Tourte and Dominique Peccatte. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Chopin, Piano Sonatas 2/3 (inter alia), Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67706
Chopin has figured in the recital programs and even recordings of Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, but this is the first time that he has devoted an entire disc to the Polish composer and pianist's pianist. Since Hamelin has not played any Chopin on his area recitals, in 2004 and an unscheduled substitution for Krystian Zimerman this past April, I had not given his interpretation of Chopin much thought until this recent release in Hamelin's fine series of recordings for Hyperion crossed my desk. Not only is Hamelin's playing extremely virtuosic, but here as noted of his recording of the Ives Concord Sonata, he is willing to push that extraordinary technique to the breaking point in the interest of a daring, dramatic interpretation. So while there is plenty of extraordinary Chopin on disc, this is the sort of Chopin that, far from wilting in a wan, tubercular introspection, grabs you by the collar and shouts to the rooftops. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Four Centuries of Chant, Anonymous 4

Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907546
For almost twenty years after four women came together in 1986 to found a group dedicated to the performance of medieval chant and polyphony, Anonymous 4 was a fixture on the shelves of early music collectors. Their trademark sound was noted for its clarity, faultless unity of intonation, and pure and translucent vocal color, and they created programs that were both beautiful on the auditory surface and of considerable musicological interest, due to the guiding hand of one of their members, Susan Hellauer. Their new CD features no new material but is instead a repackaging of the monophonic tracks from ten of Anonymous 4's earlier albums. So, Anonymous 4 fans who might think, quite understandably, that the group has released a new recording do not need to rush out to buy this disc. On the other hand, someone looking for an introduction to the sound of Gregorian chant could do a lot worse than this lovely compilation, rather than one of the many wildly selling chant discs from the monks of Solesmes or Santa Domingo or elsewhere. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Lully, Atys, G. de Mey, G. Laurens, A. Mellon, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

Harmonia Mundi HML 5901257-59
In the 1970s, a young American musician named William Christie, having received degrees at Harvard and Yale, decided to move to France. His goal was to pursue an interest in the reconstruction of Baroque music in historically informed performance, but moving to France also helped Christie avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam, to which he was vehemently opposed. In 1979, in an event whose 30th anniversary is being celebrated with this re-release, Christie founded a group of promising musicians who shared his interests, under the name Les Arts Florissants. Through Charpentier Christie came to work on the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who jealously drove Charpentier out of the opera business. For the 300th anniversary of Lully's death, in 1987, Christie was chosen to help create a staged production of one of the composer's tragédies en musique at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Christie chose Atys (1676), according to him, "for its libretto -- it was the purity and the absolute beauty of the text that attracted me." [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Kate Royal, Midsummer Night, Orchestra of English National Opera, E. Gardner

EMI 50999 2 68192 2 8
Kate Royal has followed up brilliantly on the success of her debut recital album for EMI, with this selection of mostly 20th-century opera excerpts, called Midsummer Night. The program is likely to be of greater interest to the serious collector, alluring rarities -- like Walton's Troilus and Cressida, William Alwyn's Miss Julie, Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights, as well as pieces by Britten, Barber, Messager, Korngold -- rather than tired favorites. Her voice continues to impress my ears -- as it did live during her first U.S. appearance (reviewed by Jens), here in Washington in 2006: well-aimed if not all that overpowering (no need for that yet, so no pushing), with transparency throughout its range and the true intonation that makes it devastatingly effective in the modern repertoire (think Dawn Upshaw). [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Bach, Music for Lute-Harpsichord, E. Farr

Naxos 8.570470-71
Bach's works for lute are one of those odd corners of the Baroque corpus, another example of Bach's encyclopedic musical interests, even for instruments that were on their way out of fashion. Certainly Bach was acquainted with lutenists at most stages of his career, but he did not own a lute and conceived his music for it mostly through the medium of the keyboard. Not long after the new complete set of the Bach lute works by Paul O'Dette met with my approval, this recording crossed my desk, with keyboard specialist Elizabeth Farr playing them on a Lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord. We know that Bach owned two of them, keyboard instruments with gut (and some brass) strings that imitated the sound of the lute, and that he appears to have composed at least some of his "lute pieces" to be played on it. He used keyboard notation instead of lute tablature, and some of the pieces are actually impossible to play on a lute without some creative adaptation. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Vivaldi, La fida ninfa, S. Piau, P. Jaroussky, S. Mingardo, Ensemble Matheus, J.-C. Spinosi

Naïve OP 30410
Naïve continues to release its superlative series of discs called the Vivaldi Edition, the best of what the partnership between musicology and performing ensembles has to offer. Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the Ensemble Matheus, after contributing a memorable 2006 recording of Vivaldi's Griselda to the series, return with this new recording of another unknown Vivaldi opera, La fida ninfa. The secret of Griselda's success was the stupendous cast that Spinosi assembled, and he has done it again with this rescue opera composed by il prete rosso for the grand opening of Verona's new opera theater designed by Francesco Bibiena, the Nuovo Teatro Filarmonico, on January 6, 1732. The singers sound impressive just listed on the page -- Sandrine Piau, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Philippe Jaroussky, Sara Mingardo -- and the results in sound are universally delightful. And, let's face it, the only reason to listen to most Vivaldi operas is for daring and gorgeous singing. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Erik Satie: Avant-dernières pensées, A. Tharaud and Friends

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902017.18
When it comes to a list of recorded achievements made by the age of 40, few pianists have succeeded like Alexandre Tharaud. Since his first recording for the Harmonia Mundi label in 2001, and before that on Naxos, Tharaud has released a series of discs, many of which are essential listening for any collector. He has shown a special affinity for two areas of repertory, the Baroque (Rameau, Couperin, and extraordinary Bach) and French music of the early 20th century (Poulenc and Debussy cello sonatas with Jean-Guihen Queyras, Ravel, Poulenc, and Milhaud), although he has made a very pleasing detour into the 19th century, with discs of the preludes and waltzes of Chopin and some Schubert. When I spoke with Tharaud, informally, after his Washington recital at La Maison Française last October (which I reviewed for the Washington Post), he told me about this new Satie disc, which he had just recorded earlier that spring. The recording has many delights, a few dogs, and much that reinforces my impression of Satie the composer -- witty, quirky, and sometimes off-putting. Certainly, as Tharaud and friends play him, Satie is worth hearing. [Continue reading]

Available from Amazon
Taverner, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier

Ars Nova 8.226056
The first volume of Paul Hillier's series on the music of Taverner and the Tudor era was a warm, clean recording of Taverner's mass on the popular song The Western Wynde. Two years later, Hillier and his Danish choir, Ars Nova Copenhagen, have released the second volume. Recorded around the same time as the first, at 2005 and 2006 sessions in St. Paul's Church in Copenhagen, this program was built around Taverner's other famous setting of the Latin Ordinary, the Missa Gloria tibi trinitas. This six-part polyphonic Mass is best known for having given rise to the genre of the In Nomine (generally for viol consort), discussed in a review last week. Hillier's version is not wanting for competition, but its fleet tempi, perhaps overly so, make it stand out. Hillier has matched the Mass not with another major work but with a selection of shorter pieces that might have accompanied the Mass in its original liturgical setting. Some proper chants and antiphons for the Feast of the Trinity include Gloria tibi trinitas, which was the first antiphon of Vespers on that day and provided the cantus firmus of Taverner's polyphonic Mass. The other polyphonic works are by composers from just before or just after the height of Taverner's career, to round out a typical day in a Tudor period English chapel. These include settings of the Magnificat by Robert Fayrfax (for Vespers) and the hymns Christe qui lux es and Te lucis ante terminum (both for Compline) by Robert White, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis. [Continue reading]

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