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Dip Your Ears, No. 226 (Marie-Claire Alain's First Bach Cycle)

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J.S.Bach, Organ Works

Marie-Claire Alain (1926—2013) is the only organist to have recorded the complete* organ works of Bach’s thrice and have all those cycles appear on CD. She didn’t live to see it, whereas Lionel Rogg, who has recorded three cycles but had only one appear on CD as of yet, still has chance, seeing that he is still very much alive. On the ionarts Bach Organ Cycle Survey, her Second (on three favorite organs of hers) and Third cycles (on historical instruments) are given a rare ionarts’ choice recommendation: The first for being an excellent introductory / generalist cycle and the second for being performed with the same consummate skill but with a more interesting, individualistic organ landscape. There’s something about French organists when they get it right in Bach: Sensuality married to structure. Other favorites of mine include André Isoir and Alain-student Olivier Vernet. (Equally, when they get it wrong, they can turn out the absolute worst in Bach… and by “they” I actually only mean the very recently deceased Jean Guillou – a genius on the instrument in so many ways – but a real-time train-wreck in Bach.)

Marie-Claire Alain’s first traversal doesn’t quite make my top-recommendation list, but it is good to have around for the completist and inveterate Bach and organ-music lover. The cycle is centered on a series of modern Danish Marcussen & Sons organs that had all just been built around the time she recorded them. The result is a clear and fairly bright sound throughout with a lot of diversity within that (admittedly narrow) spectrum. It undusted an organ sound in Bach, that had, at the time, become thick and dark and crusted like a medieval painting where the grime and dirt of centuries had been taken for a characteristic of the real thing. Jed Distler, who reviewed this set for ClassicsToday (where the other two Alain cycles are also given reference status), is right in pointing out the still greater clarity (in recorded sound, instrument character, and playing) this set features over Alain’s subsequent takes. That’s perhaps most surprising when it comes to the recording quality, which is, with very minor exceptions (a few cases of extraneous noise; one off-kilter note that wasn’t re-recorded), exceptional – certainly a lot better than either of Helmut Walcha’s roughly contemporaneous cycles.

While Alain herself has apparently called these her “most instinctive” interpretations, they are actually rather straight-laced, linear readings without quirks or youthful liberties (Alain was 33 when she got started on them) and, if anything, understated. One neat aspect of this cycle is that it rigorously included all the works then assigned to Bach, even those that weren’t by Bach: A virtual survey of the Bachwerkeverzeichniss of the 60s. How nice to see that Warner/Erato’s re-issuing extends far beyond the most obvious classics in their (now huge) back catalogue. Nicer still: That a budget release such as this got excellent liner notes (the original ones from Marie-Claire Alain) in three languages.


On ClassicsToday: John Elliot Gardiner's LSO Mendelssohn

CD From Hell: Gardiner’s Bloodless Mendelssohn Symphonies

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Mendelssohn is sometimes given short shrift for being a “nice” composer: Harmless, untroubled, and glib. That’s partly because the well-adjusted, prosperous, level-headed, and successful Mendelssohn doesn’t conform to our still ruling romantic ideal of the troubled, struggling, excess-driven, or mad genius. Mozart would have made the better Romantic composer; Mendelssohn the better Classical. On the Beethoven-Schumann-Liszt scale of romanticism, about the only thing Mendelssohn got right was dying young.... continue reading [insider content]

Sound samples below:


On ClassicsToday: Ratas del Viejo Mundo & "Ossesso"

Obsessed Rats: Wondrous Voices From Olden Times

by Jens F. Laurson
In case you are sifting through your residual Spanish from college, your rough translation is correct: This early music group calls itself Rats of the Old World, a HIP rat pack founded in 2017 by Floris De Rycker, cruising the authentic-performance scene with the bent... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Debussy Feast

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C. Debussy, Late Works, I. Faust, X. de Maistre, A. Melnikov, M. Mosnier, J. Perianes, J.-G. Queyras, A. Tamestit, T. de Williencourt

(released on October 5, 2018)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902303 | 54'02"
During the First World War, Claude Debussy began a series of six instrumental sonatas. Although he managed to complete only three of them, he planned for the set to range into unusual combinations, including one for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, and another for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. The project would conclude with a sonata for all of the instruments featured in the series up to that point. Each of these late sonatas is a marvel of economy, a startling variety of harmony, rhythm, and texture compressed into three-movement tours de force, each one lasting under twenty minutes. Within just a year of finishing only the third sonata planned in the series, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy died of colon cancer, in the midst of the German army’s bombardment of the city of Paris.

This disc brings together a dream team of musicians, some of them French, to record those three completed sonatas as part of a Harmonia Mundi project to mark the centenary of Debussy's death. Each of the three sonatas receives an ideal interpretation: the limpid and playful violin tone of Isabelle Faust accompanied by Alexander Melnikov in the Violin Sonata; the balanced, engaging narration of cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras accompanied by pianist Javier Perianes in the Cello Sonata; and the outstanding combination of flutist Magali Mosnier, harpist Xavier de Maistre, and violist Antoine Tamestit, all performing on historical instruments, in the triple sonata. Pianist Tanguy de Williencourt adds short character pieces for piano as amuse-gueules to clear the palate after each of these more substantial main courses.


On ClassicsToday: Sunday-Morning Mozart from Seong-Jin Cho and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Sunday-Morning Mozart from Seong-Jin Cho and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

by Jens F. Laurson
When I heard Seong-Jin Cho perform in the final of the 2015 Chopin competition, he and his E minor concerto stood out for a “velvet brawn and a big, smooth sound” and “a long, thick stream of unrelenting beauty”. But not having heard earlier rounds,... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: The Fisherman and His Wife; Othmar Schoeck’s Fine Dramatic Fairytale Cantata

The Fisherman and His Wife: Othmar Schoeck’s Fine Dramatic Fairytale Cantata

by Jens F. Laurson
Among neglected 20th-century composers, Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) is one of the really great ones. Not only for his style of lyrical late romanticism—long-derided but en vogue again (i.e., his violin and cello concertos, his songs)—but also for his strand of romantic modernism where I rank... Continue Reading

Dip Your Ears, No. 225 (Dvořák’s Works for Violin & Piano)

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Antonín Dvořák, Works for Piano and Violin
Ivan Zenaty (violin), Igor Ardasev (piano)
Audite SACD

Dvořák’s works for violin and piano are not as widely known or regularly performed as you might think, given the A-list popularity of the composer and the popular and mainstream instrumental combination. Presumably that’s due to the lack of a body of major works to drive the interest: A handful of strong sonatas, perhaps, might have done the trick. In fact, there is only one Violin Sonata proper of Dvořák’s, and that’s not the strongest work among the lot. Jaroslav Smolka’s superb liner notes don’t pretend otherwise: without particular architectural grandeur, a heightened sense of innovative contrasts, violinistic virtuosity or dramatic tension, this dreamy-lyrical work lacks in ambition what it offers in lovely music... but such lovely music!

Ivan Zenaty (violin) and Igor Ardasev (piano) perform these pieces charmingly without overdoing it on the sugar. The Sonatina op.100, written for his children, fits in with its aim at home music-making and lack of a ‘grand concertant’ ambition. But it’s a tuneful and memorable thing and fills a very entertaining 20 minutes with that popular American-Czech idiom of Dvořák’s that he also used in works like the “American” Quartet and “From the New Worl” Symphony. The catchy Romantic Pieces op.75/1 are given a bit of an edge and could benefit from a bit more bloom. The fairly popular Mazurek op.49, here in its piano-and-violin original, wouldn’t be harmed if the piano’s part were taken with greater brilliance and less accompanying decorum. The sound on this 2006 high-resolution recording is very good and neutral, perhaps favoring the violin a bit over the piano. Low-key splendor, all in all.


Briefly Noted: In a Strange Land

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In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile, Stile Antico

(released on January 11, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902266 | 71'10"
We have been following the British choir Stile Antico for over a decade at Ionarts. They are the inheritors of the work of the Tallis Scholars among the younger generation of early music singers, and each CD they release, especially of music from the English Renaissance, has been exquisite. Their latest disc is no exception, in pieces by William Byrd, Peter Phillips, and Robert White. The theme of this program is especially poignant: it brings together composers who found themselves alienated, either in foreign lands (John Dowland, Peter Phillips, Richard Dering) or as Catholics in Protestant England (William Byrd, Robert White).

The choir goes somewhat outside its comfort zone with the affecting part-song arrangements of lute songs by Dowland, Flow, My Tears and In this trembling shadow cast. The results are impeccably balanced homophony, with crunchy cross-relations underscoring emotional peaks. The same is true of a modern piece, The Phoenix and the Turtle by Huw Watkins, premiered by Stile Antico in 2014 and set to an eccentric text possibly revealing the Catholic sympathies of one William Shakespeare. In that context we must place the impassioned dissonances of Bird's ultra-personal motet Tristitia et anxietas or of Quomodo cantabimus, the same composer's musical response to Philippe de Monte's motet Super flumina Babylonis, both about people marooned among non-believers oppressing them.


Dip Your Ears, No. 224 / Ionarts CD of the Month (Pettersson Symphonies)

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Allan Pettersson, Symphonies 5 & 7,
Christian Lindberg, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra

Allan Pettersson (1911 – 1980) was one of the great symphonist of the 20th century whose fate it was to become relatively unknown. There’s no shame in this; he shares it with fellow great symphonists Eduard Tubin, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Edward Rubbra, Vagn Holmboe, Erland von Koch, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Kurt Atterberg, William Alwyn, Havergal Brian, and Rued Langgaard: An eclectic but eminently musical crowd, committed to beauty. You won’t find him in concert halls (the way of such rehearsal-intensive box office poison), so record labels have to cleave the gap. CPO has recorded the 16 completed Pettersson symphonies with a variety of orchestras and conductors and now BIS is doing the composer proud with this ongoing cycle by Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra (who added the incomplete, unpublished ‘Zeroëth’). Here they are in the Fifth and Seventh.

Pettersson writes riveting symphonies that develop slowly but effectively. He likes the space the form symphony affords him and explores it. Without movements, they are one continuous development… more (the Fifth) or less (the Seventh) dividable into distinct sections, which puts Pettersson, at least superficially, in the proximity of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. The spirit of Mahler’s Tenth breathes through large swaths. Although reasonably successful and earning him a lifetime stipend from the Swedish Government, his Fifth Symphony (as well as previous and subsequent works) was panned by critics for not really being modern at all. His use of tonality and consonance offended the academic sensibilities of the time.

Still, neither the Fifth nor the Seventh – as close to a blockbuster as Petterson ever wrote and much promoted by Antal Doráti – are ever easy-listening. The Fifth starts with beguiling and fragile, faintly reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question. It’s as if all the suffering in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music was expressed with the means of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony. The Seventh, even more than other Pettersson symphonies, is riveting and grueling, damn serious, with a grim view of the human condition and a severe grip on the listener’s lapels. Intermittently the sky brightens through waltzing elements: a mix of respite and wistfulness. With hypnotic energy, the work moves along a path of slow, ever-increasing tension – like the best of a Shostakovich slow movement. “Lindberg builds those long, tense climaxes with greater clarity and no loss of sheer power.” (Hurwitz)

Indeed, Lindberg, the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and BIS Records have devoted themselves to the “Allan Pettersson Project” which intends to perform and record all of Pettersson’s important works in standard-setting interpretations. Despite the competition – even from the same orchestra on the same label – that seems to pan out nicely. Right behind the recording of the rather more optimistic of the Barefoot Songs (BIS 1690), this release – what with the two Symphonies being among the most accessible ones – is an ideal entry point into the sound world of Pettersson. Surprised-by-Beauty Music!


On ClassicsToday: Nicolas Stavy's Muscular Romanticism in Fauré (10/10)

A Fabulous Fauré Piano Music Primer

by Jens F. Laurson
If, as pianist Daniel Grimwood has suggested, it is true that “it is hard to name another composer who enjoys such renown in his homeland yet such neglect elsewhere” and that this is allegedly because “his sound-world…is so Gallic that any listener without French sensibilities... Continue Reading [Insider content]


Briefly Noted: Brahms as Early Music

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J. Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, C. Sampson, A. Morsch, Cappella Amsterdam, Orchestra of the 18th Century, D. Reuss

(released on January 4, 2019)
Glossa GCD921126 | 70'26"
The German Requiem is perhaps the greatest work in the oeuvre of Johannes Brahms, or at least my favorite. Completed in its final form in the wake of his mother's death, the piece reveals the normally reticent Brahms at his least guarded. In recent years, various conductors of historically informed performance ensembles have tried to get to the bottom of what the composer may have had in mind with the piece, by going back to the instruments of the period and following the metronome markings Brahms later attached to each movement. None of these versions has quite satisfied: John Eliot Gardiner, twice, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique (1991, 2012); Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Arnold Schoenberg Choir; or Philippe Herreweghe with La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale.

Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss, a group growing in my admiration recently, have succeeded. The sound with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in this live recording is golden and balanced, with Reuss not slavishly following the metronome markings but taking the main lesson they seem to offer, that the slow movements not be too glacial and the fast not too frenetic. As stated in the liner notes, the markings as a whole indicate that this is music for meditation on its Biblical words, rather than for dramatic titillation. This seems like just the right approach for a composer who always plays his cards close to this chest, and the results agree. The incomparable Carolyn Sampson provides maternal consolation in the fifth movement, and German baritone André Morsch is both subtle and prophetic in the other solos.

The weight of the piece rests on the chorus, however, and the Cappella Amsterdam delivers the full range of dynamics with pure and balanced sound, nicely matched to the smaller punch of the orchestra. One moment in the first movement knocked me over the first time I listened to this disc. At Rehearsal E, Brahms suddenly leaves the alto section of the chorus alone at the return of the opening theme. Most conductors bring that line out by having the altos sing louder than Brahms indicate (piano). Reuss leaves his women's sound quiet, exposed almost like a single voice, a magical effect of emotional vulnerability.


Dip Your Ears, No. 223 (Vadym Kholodenko's Scriabin)

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Alexander Scriabin
, Preludes, Etudes et al. for Piano
Vadym Kholodenko (piano)
Harmonia Mundi

The Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, 2013 gold medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano competition (and sufferer of unfathomable tragedy) performs select compositions of the wildly sensualistic Alexander Scriabin on this disc: in chronological order with the two central Fourth and Fifth Sonatas as the pillar on this journey through the composer’s easy-to-follow progression. He does this in polished, well-behaved manner on a Fazioli. I don’t mind subdued Scriabin – assuming it leads to a richness of color and atmosphere; nebulous, seductive and otherworldly. Scriabin at his best is an all-absorbing sensory experience. Unfortunately such performances are extremely rare. (Håkon Austbø, Yevgeni Sudbin, Mikhail Pletnev and Alexei Lubimov come to mind.)

Here, I am not so sure if the threshold is met. Kholodenko’s sensitive playing comes pretty close and makes for an incisive introduction to Scriabin’s piano music, but I am left wanting a bit more sensuality and (or) lick of the dark flame. Then again, he has plush sensitivity down pat and I am already intrigued to re-listen. Jed Distler on ClassicsToday finds the performances low-voltage – perhaps more disappointingly so than I do – but enjoys “the smaller, lyrical Preludes, such as in his lovingly flickering performance of Op. 16 No. 2, or in the gorgeous way that he projects Op. 16 No. 3’s long arching phrases across the footlights.” Scriabin-lovers might want to sample.


Briefly Noted: Vivaldi x2

We are reviving Ionarts as a place to post occasional reviews of recent recordings. Watch for posts from JFL on Wednesdays ("Dip Your Ears") and me on Saturdays ("Briefly Noted").

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Vivaldi, Concertos for Two Instruments, La Serenissima, A. Chandler

(released on July 20, 2018)
Avie AV2392 | 75'32"
This little spark plug of a Vivaldi disc did not quite make the cut for my best of last year list. The repertory is perhaps not all that exciting, but these are crackerjack performances of seven concertos for two instruments, a form that fascinated Vivaldi more than most composers. Somehow this is my first time reviewing La Serenissima, the English period instrument orchestra founded in 1994. They had me from the first track, with the spunky Concerto for Two Horns in F Major, RV 539. Soloists Anneke Scott and Jocelyn Lightfoot are spirited in the bouncy first movement, but they also play with tender, melting legato in the slow movement.

Director Adrian Chandler takes the solo violin part in two concertos for violin and cello, partnering with his lead cellist, Vladimir Waltham. Peter Whelan has all kinds of rustic fun on the solo bassoon part in a Concerto for Oboe and Bassoon, and the program ends with the extravagnatly named Concerto per S.A.S.I.S.P.G.M.D.G.S.M.B. The crazy title, long a mystery, seems to be short-hand for a noble patron. Following the advice of Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot and others, Chandler's edition has restored the complete parts to the horns, likely Vivaldi's first use of the instrument, which Vivaldi later gave instead to other instruments.