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


On ClassicsToday: Roberto Prosseda in the Deceptively Un-Rare Mendelssohn Piano Concertos

Prosseda Splashes Sunshine Over Mendelssohn’s Piano Concertos

by Jens F. Laurson
Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto in G minor is hardly a youthful effort, seeing that at 22 Mendelssohn was already a grizzled veteran and roughly one third into his entire compositional career. Still, it’s a brilliant, frothy little thing that fits right in there with... Continue Reading


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)

available at Amazon
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


Briefly Noted: Half-Adapted Bach Sonatas

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Gamba Sonatas (arr. for viola and harpsichord), A. Tamestit, M. Suzuki

(released on August 23, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902259 | 44'32"
Johann Sebastian Bach's three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are one of the curious delights of his catalog. The instrument, in the family of softer antecedents to the violin and relatives, was on its way out even in Bach's time. Thanks to the historical instruments movement, we now have plenty of excellent performances of these works available on the original instruments. That makes this arrangement for viola, but still accompanied by harpsichord, mostly a curiosity.

Although violist Antoine Tamestit has recorded and played some Bach in his career, he is not a musician often associated with early music. His sound here is quite luscious, using a Baroque-style bow (Arthur Dubroca, 2010) on the Stradivari viola ("Mahler," 1672) he regularly plays. He partners with harpsichordist Masato Suzuki, son of the pioneering early music conductor and keyboard player, who is carrying on his father's work with Bach Collegium Japan.

The musical chemistry is not always settled, pristinely balanced as each player solicitously makes room for the other's important lines but not always locked into place rhythmically. They present the three sonatas in reverse numerical order, which leaves the best, the G major sonata, for last. Besides the gorgeously rendered third movement, one of Bach's simplest and most moving, what the duo gives a charming surprise to the end of the first movement, which unwinds like a clock at the end of its spring. A single movement, an arrangement of the aria “Ergieße dich reichlich” from the cantata Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5), is the runaway favorite of the disc.


On ClassicsToday: World-Première Orchestral Songs From Ernő Dohnányi

World-Première Orchestral Songs From Ernő Dohnányi

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Given its 1944/45 date, the Second Symphony that Ernő Dohnányi—a.k.a. Ernst von Dohnányi—wrote, is an arch-conservative, anachronistic, post-Brahmsian work: A behemoth of grand romantic gesture in four movements. Brass, wind, and timpani push the symphony into hard-edged action with the opening subject of a very properly constructed sonata-form first movement. It’s all a bit mighty and on the nose but it also has that late-romantic appeal that you know you either love or don’t, depending on how you react to Pfitzner or Zemlinsky (whose work is more chromatic) or Joseph Marx or the like... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: John Eliot Gardiner’s Revolutionary Berlioz?

Gardiner’s Revolutionary Berlioz? Take The Good With The Ugly

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Berlioz: “An acquired taste, but what a taste worth acquiring!” as David Hurwitz points out in his review of the “Philips 50” release of John Eliot Gardiner’s Messe solennelle. Indeed. And even if you think you’ve acquired the taste, Berlioz can still be unwieldy and brittle to the ears. In a way, this box of Gardiner’s Philips and Decca Berlioz recordings showcases both sides of the Berlioz conundrum: The invigorating side that makes you wonder why he is not played more often—and the elusive one, that makes you wonder why he is so famous... [continue reading] (Insider content)

On ClassicsToday: Piotr Beczala’s Lohengrin from Bayreuth (Blu-ray)

Herr Tesla’s Adventures in Brabant—Piotr Beczala’s Lohengrin (Blu-ray)

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

This is neither a Lohengrin to seek out for its direction, nor to avoid because of it. As drama, it can’t begin to touch the rats of Hans Neunefels that populated Bayreuth’s previous Lohengrin, already a modern classic. Arguably it’s even a bit lame, but it’s also very pretty and (perhaps involuntarily) traditional. This leaves plenty room to focus on the performances—which is a good thing, as I will elaborate below... [continue reading]


Briefly Noted: Accented Bach & Co.

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach et al., Concertos, Les Accents, J. Brégnac, E. Laporte, S. Marq, T. Noally

(released on August 16, 2019)
Aparté AP206 | 70'18"
For many performers, any experience of the Baroque period was often limited to the music of J. S. Bach. Happily, the early music movement exploded the possibilities by opening up the repertory and the ways of understanding it. The historically informed performance ensemble Les Accents, founded by violinist Thibault Noally in 2014, provides an example.

On the group's new disc, two of Bach's violin concertos (BMV 1041 and 1056R) are set against an array of similar concertos for various solo instruments by composers Bach admired: Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729), Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771), Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), and Christoph Förster (1693-1745). The last composer's Violin Concerto in G Minor receives its premiere recording, and two fine concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann round out the program. Bach does not so much stand out from his surroundings as fit right in.

The playing is all technically superlative and full of character. Noally takes the violin solos, shadowed by his colleague Claire Sottovia in the double-violin concerto of Telemann. The other soloists are even more polished: Jean Brégnac's subdued traverso, Emmanuel Laporte's perky oboe, and the snappy recorder playing of Sébastien Marq. The sound, recorded by Little Tribeca in the Eglise de Bon Secours in Paris in 2017, feels close, so that you get the grit of bow against string, sharp inhalations of the traverso and recorder players, and the sensation of sitting in the front row.


On ClassicsToday: Sibelius of the Rising Sun. Watanabe's Denon Cycle

Akeo Watanabe’s Sibelius Cycle On Denon

by Jens F. Laurson
Amid the Japanese embrace of Western classical music, certain composers seem to resonate particularly well with Japanese conductors and audiences: notably Beethoven, Bruckner, and Sibelius. This might be gleaned from the fact that Takashi Asahina alone recorded six Bruckner and seven Beethoven cycles while the... Continue Reading

See also the Sibelius Symphony Cycle Survey.


Dip Your Ears, No. 250 (Knob-Fiddling Beethoven from Wolfgang Mitterer)

available at Amazon
W.Mitterer + Ludwig v. B., Nine In One,
All mixing, editing, composing, re-arranging Mitterer
Original music performed by the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano & Trento (G.Kuhn)
(col legno)

Didn’t Glenn Gould tell us that a child’s fiddling with the knobs of the home stereo was the first step in a creative act? He might have loved Wolfgang Mitterer. Or maybe not. But on the album “Beethoven: Nine in One”, that’s pretty much exactly what Mr. Mitterer, organist, composer, and “electronics specialist”, delivers. Take briefest splashes of Spanish guitar. Electronic sound bits that might be from another TRON remake. Abbreviated e-guitar riffs. And themes from Beethoven Beethoven Beethoven symphonies. All nine of them. Every major theme from every movement, ordered by movement and crammed into 56 minutes: An Attention Deficit Disorder suffering listener’s digest of the symphonies infused with the spirit of the Electric Light Orchestra’s take on Roll Over Beethoven.

The result is unnerving and annoying one minute, then titillating and cute the next… then enervating again. At its most intriguing, it sounds like flickering aural visions of Alex DeLarge, the protagonist from Clockwork Orange. Most of the rest of the time it sounds as though several recordings of Beethoven Symphonies are being simultaneously fast-forwarded in an audio show-room. If you have always wanted to experience that, this CD – I hesitate to call the arrangement on it a “composition” and, in fairness, so does its creator – is the easiest way to come by it. Concentrated listening to it gets old quickly; as a background track at night it’s weirdly transfixing, given sufficient tolerance for the weird. Wolfgang Mitterer’s symphonic source material for the mix is Beethoven Cycle from that the disgraced Gustav Kuhn’s recorded for the same label and which is at last put to some good – or questionable… depending on your view – use.



Briefly Noted: Refined Brahms

available at Amazon
Brahms, Violin Sonatas / C. Schumann, Romance No. 1, A. Ibragimova, C. Tiberghien

(released on August 30, 2019)
Hyperion CDA68200 | 71'06"
Both Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova and French pianist Cédric Tiberghien have impressed these ears in recital and on disc. Their recording and performing history as a duo goes back a decade, too, including discs devoted to Beethoven and Mozart. This year they have branched out into the Romantic period, first with a disc of French composers (Ysaye, Franck, Vierne, and Lili Boulanger) and now with the three violin sonatas of Brahms, officially released later this month.

Tiberghien's interpretation of Brahms has already struck me as on exactly the right wavelength, an assessment borne out by the transparency, smoldering burn, and rhythmic verve of his playing here. Ibragimova floats above the turbulence of the keyboard part with limpid tone, spot-on intonation, and impeccable awareness of contrapuntal interplay. In particular, the way that the two musicians let go together in the extended hemiola-complicated passages affords a suspended freedom from the barline that is just delightful.

There is force where force is needed, but always in balance between the two musicians so that neither has to over-compensate. The emotional vulnerability hidden in the violin sonatas, through references to some of the composer's intensely personal songs, comes across well. The program is capped by a lovely lagniappe, the first of Clara Schumann's Romances, op. 22. It is worth noting that Clara Schumann, who had received a manuscript copy of the first Brahms violin sonata from the composer in 1879, later told him “she wished the last movement to accompany her into the beyond.”


Dip Your Ears, No. 249 (Cologne Mahler Cycle, Take Two)

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Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.5,
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne / F.X.Roth
(Harmonia Mundi)

Ten years ago, the Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra released a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with their then-Music Director Markus Stenz. It turned out to be an excellent new recording (of a whole cycle) by the orchestra that premiered that Symphony in 1904. Now the same orchestra has recorded it again with their new music director François-Xavier Roth, also beginning a new Mahler cycle. Again the result is excellent. Interestingly enough it is Roth, who often flirts with period performance, who delivers the more slightly more conventional, slower reading. Most notably in the Adagietto where Stenz takes under nine minutes; Roth two minutes longer. But the transparency is top-notch; there is a pleasant and elegant lightness to the playing: The scoring never feels thick (nor anemic). Of course there are a good number other fine recordings of this symphony available, too. But if you have any inclination or rationalization to try this new cycle-in-the-making, there’s no reason not to start here.