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


On ClassicsToday: LSO Beethoven - Great Names, Pleasant But So-So Performances

The Reasonably Splendid And The Ho-Hum in LSO-Beethoven

by Jens F. Laurson
Maria João Pires is a treasure, no question, and in Beethoven’s high-classical Second piano concerto it’s great to hear her make the most of what could be considered the weakest link of Beethoven’s set of five. What works in her favor is that Pires achieves... Continue Reading


On ClassicsToday: A Most Magnificent Lambkin!

Stölzel: Good Enough for Bach, Definitely Good Enough for Us

by Jens F. Laurson
If you’ve heard enough Beethoven and want to switch it up, there are Wilms, Raff, Cherubini, et al. If you’ve heard enough Brahms, there are composers of extraordinary if secondary excellence like Bruch, Gernsheim, Herzogenberg, etc. And any baroque composer with a vaguely Italian name... Continue Reading
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Briefly Noted: No. 9, No. 9, No. 9...

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, Madrigals, Book 9 / Scherzi Musicali, Delitiæ Musicæ, M. Longhini

(released on March 8, 2019)
Naxos 8.555318 | 74'37"
We noted the first part of Marco Longhini's complete recording of the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi over a decade ago. That project has finally come to its conclusion with this final volume, recorded in 2006 but oddly only made available now. Longhini's cycle is unusual in that he leads an all-male vocal ensemble, with excellent support from a small consort of instruments. The results may not be perfect musically, but the effect is quite charming to the ear.

Longhini's edition of these last madrigals, as well as the sometimes madrigal-like "jests" of the collection called Scherzi musicali, thus had to accommodate the range of male voices. Countertenor Alessandro Carmignani has to reach to the top of his range (at least up to E, for example in Bel pastor, or Handsome Shepherd, whose fair eyes) and bass Walter Testolin down to the basement of his. All six men are versatile and skilled in adding daring ornaments to their lines, including in elaborate scales.

In a way, given the masculine viewpoint in the texts of these pieces, even when written in a woman's voice, the all-male voicing seems apt. The instrumental playing is, if anything, even better, starting with a sinfonia by Biagio Marini that opens the disc. Two violins are including not that frequently, but the continuo realization, divided among harpsichord, organ, theorbo, and Baroque guitar, adds considerable variety. Longhini's direction focuses on rhythmic vivacity and clarity of polyphonic imitation, making for many dancing delights.


Dip Your Ears, No. 233 / Ionarts CD of the Month (The New Victoria Standard)

available at Amazon
Tomás Luis de Victoria, Tenebrae Responsories (from Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae)
stile antico
Harmonia Mundi

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) is known to a wider audience for his magnificent six-part Requiem. The Tenebrae responsories, eighteen motets for four voices a cappella, are not as relatively lush but they make for a sparse, serious late renaissance delight that early-music buffs will gladly embrace. This is territory already traveled by the pioneering Tallis Scholars (Gimell) who were so many a listener’s introduction to the world of Victoria and his contemporaries. For the emotional footprint the 'Tallisians' have left, they are still the reference. But 28 years haven’t passed without advances among early music acapella ensembles and Stile Antico is one of those groups that are setting the present-day standard.


On ClassicsToday: Gerhaher in Top Form for Schumann!

No Question: The Finest in Schumann Lieder

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

If you think that language, text, and story matter above all when it comes to fully enjoying art-songs and Lieder, there is only one singer that will fully satisfy you: Christian Gerhaher. Over the last 10, 15 years Gerhaher and his ingenious partner on the piano, Gerold Huber, have set a new, entirely unrivaled standard for the interpretation of Lieder. (That’s not to dismiss Matthias Goerne—who comes across more readily on disc than Gerhaher—or Florian Boesch et al.)... continue reading here [insider content]


On ClassicsToday: Daft Name, Great Recital - Groissböck's Cardiac Arrest

Becoming Darkness: A Bass Lied Recital

by Jens F. Laurson
Famous Lieder cycles—two of which we usually know with mezzos and altos—are here interpreted by Günter Groissböck, a still fairly young bass who has made a name for himself with his physical stage presence and civilized, dark, virile-but-warm voice. On the stages of the Salzburg... Continue Reading


Briefly Noted: Schütz's Resurrection

available at Amazon
H. Schütz, Auferstehungshistorie / Easter Motets, La Petite Bande, S. Kuijken

(released on April 5, 2019)
Accent ACC24355 | 57'
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) incorporated the musical style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with whom he studied in Venice, into the Lutheran church music he wrote in Dresden. Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande have released this charming selection of the composer's Easter-themed music cleverly in coordination with that feast this year. The pieces, four shorter motets and a longer Easter Oratorio, show the ingenious ways that Schütz turned the concerto style to his advantage. In Weib, was weinest du?, the Easter dialogue between Mary Magdalen and the risen Christ, the four voices provide a multiphonic dialogue of the two interlocutors, layered on top of one another. At the moment of recognition ("Maria! -- Rabboni!"), Schütz uses unexpected harmonic progressions to underscore Mary's surprise. For some reason Kuijken omits the Christ ist erstanden von dem Tod, Martin Luther's Easter hymn, which Schütz appended to the motet.

Schütz uses Gabrieli's cori spezzati texture, two SATB choruses played off one another, in Singet dem Herrn and in the shorter Ich bin die Auferstehung, with its emphasis on the word "nimmermehr" (whoever believes in me shall never die) through contrapuntal iteration. In Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt, dance rhythms percolate through the seven-voice texture. The longer Easter Oratorio provided Bach with part of the blueprint for his longer Passions, with the tenor Evangelist's narration accompanied by three violas da gamba, for example. This piece is drier in style than the more focused motets, with long stretches of recitative for the Evangelist and little snippets for the other characters, often portrayed by two or three voices together. Kuijken and his organist, Mario Sarecchia, provide most of the continuo realization with simplicity. A tight ensemble of singers handles the vocal pieces, one to a part, with only some overly nasal tone in the tenors to spark minor complaint.


Dip Your Ears No. 232 (Julian Steckel Galant Splendor)

available at Amazon
Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, Cello Concertos
Julian Steckel (cello), Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Susanne von Gutzeit
Hänssler Classic

Galant music – the musical period into which Bach’s sons fall – has a reputation of being empty frills and noodling excess: the tedious bridge between the blissful baroque and classical period. That’s partly because of our lack of familiarly with the style. Alas, the proposition to become familiar with the style, presumably consisting of spending endless hours over the course of years with that music, doesn’t seem a particularly appealing solution to the problem, either. Unless, of course, one gets to hear works like these CPE Bach Cello Concertos! ARD Music Competition Winner Julian Steckel presents them masterfully, in very lively and sensitive dialogue with the responsive, quick-fire Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. The A-minor concerto especially has a somber tone that even pre-shadows the romantic cello concertos to come. When it comes like this, Gallant music does, why then everyone should be happy to better get acquainted with the style.


Briefly Noted: Gade in German

available at Amazon
N. Gade, Erlkönigs Tochter (Elverskud) / Fünf Gesänge, S. Junker, I. Fuchs, J. Weisser, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Concerto Copenhagen, L. U. Mortensen

(released on March 15, 2019)
Dacapo 8.226035 | 54'11"
Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890) contributed some wonderful music to the ballet Et Folkesagn (A Folk Tale), performed so memorably at the Kennedy Center by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2011. Gade's father-in-law, composer J.P.E. Hartmann, composed the fairy music in the second act. Around the same time Gade wrote this dramatic cantata, Elverskud, inspired by the Scandinavian folk ballad Elveskud.

The story concerns a young man, Oluf, on the eve of his wedding. Not heeding his mother's warning, he is lured into the Elf-Hill, where the Elf-King's daughter invites him to dance with her. When he refuses to dance with her, she curses him so that he will die the next day. He rides home and dies in his distraught mother's arms. A variation of this story, known in many different versions, inspired Goethe's poem Erlkönig, set so memorably to music by Schubert.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts his early music ensemble Concerto Copenhagen in the first recording of this piece in the German translation that Gade conducted many times around the German-speaking world, making him famous. They perform the 1864 expanded orchestration, which Gade used in the performances he conducted but did not incorporate into the published versions of the score.

The women's chorus for the elf-maidens is quite wonderful, drawing on the Mendelssohn fairy-music scherzo style, with the Elfking's Daughter sung by the evanescent soprano Sophie Junker, including some satiny, sighing high notes. Mezzo-soprano Ivonne Fuchs is a concerned, matronly Mother, and baritone Johannes Weisser a cloddish Oluf. The Danish National Vocal Ensemble sings the extensive choral part, also featured in the less pleasing Five Songs, choral pieces set to German poetry, included on the disc.

No texts or translations were printed in the booklet, a major disappointment, crowded out by a fine essay by Niels Bo Foltmann, editor of the Gade Edition, printed in English, Danish, and German. One can, however, download the texts separately.


On ClassicsToday: Angel Heart; CD from Hell!

Leave No Cliché Behind: Luna Pearl Woolf’s Be Still My Bleeding Angel Heart

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

The beautifully and lavishly packaged Angel Heart is marketed by Pentatone as a “music storybook”. At its center is a tale by Cornelia Funke, the author best known for her Inkheart Trilogy of teen-novels, which is read by Jeremy Irons. The music is by Luna Pearl Woolf: a real person and, conspicuously, the wife of Pentatone artist and executive cellist on this disc, Matt Haimovitz. Generously judged, the assembled artists produce a polished little Gesamtkunstwerk in a post-Goth fairytale look, replete with postcards and lavish booklet. It’s a straightforward little story about a girl with a heartache who enjoys a visitation by an angel with whom she takes a short trip, meeting spiritual friends along the way who sing a few numbers, both original and traditional, and eventually mend her heart by way of musical quilt before 70 minutes are over. The feel-good factor is high... continue reading


On ClassicsToday: Rachel Podger’s New Bach Recording

Rachel Podger Plays Bach’s—Wait For It—Cello Suites!

by Jens F. Laurson
When Rachel Podger recorded the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin—for the second time—in 2001, it was a subtle-yet-radiant effort; certainly one of the finest and most endearing recordings of these works and perhaps one of the first to meaningfully transcend the Historically Informed... Continue Reading


Latest in the Catholic Herald: ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ (Guttenberg's Passion)

‘Truly this was the Son of God’

The Crucifixion (1635-1665), by Alonso Cano
    I was moved to tears by a visionary approach to Bach's great Passion, says Jens F Laurson
    It was a little before Easter 2008, and I had only just begun to grasp that my life in the United States, where I had spent the previous dozen years, had come to an end. Back in my native but estranged Munich I was: lonely, though still writing for Washington’s Classical Music radio station.
    It was then that my boss at WETA 90.9FM reached out and asked if I wanted to join him on a cross-European train trip. The goal was to see in performance as many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthew Passions and productions of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal – traditionally an Easter opera for its prominent Good Friday music episode – as possible; all within the space of a fortnight. It turned into two of the most memorable and cherished weeks of my life. Fascinating in its own right, this is not that story.

    Continue reading here or in the Magazine...


    Briefly Noted: Elgar's 'Caractacus'

    available at Amazon
    E. Elgar, Caractacus, E. Llewellyn, E. Llŷr Thomas, R. Wood, C. Purves, A. Miles, Orchestra of Opera North, Huddersfield Choral Society, M. Brabbins

    (released on March 29, 2019)
    Hyperion CDA68254 | 96'17"
    Edward Elgar came to wider public attention with the premiere of the Enigma Variations. Leading up to that piece was a series of choral works, mostly about episodes drawn from medieval and ancient history. The last of them was Caractacus, the heroic British chieftain who resisted the Roman conquest of the British Isles. Ultimately, he was captured and taken as a prisoner to Rome, where an eloquent final speech convinced the emperor to lighten his sentence from execution to life imprisonment.

    A personal connection brought the subject to Elgar's mind, as first his mother and then Elgar himself stayed for a time near the Malvern Hills, where local legend held that Caractacus had made his last stand. The music is of varied quality, with some embarrassing bombast in the patriotic final scene, not least because of the homespun poetry of the composer's neighbor, Henry Arbuthnot Acworth. The best parts are the colorful orchestration of the druid scenes, especially the picturesque "Woodland Interlude" leading into the third scene.

    This performance, led by Martyn Brabbins with the Huddersfield Choral Society, is perhaps not ideal, as some of the vocal soloists sound a little strained. At over half the price of its only real competition, the re-released recording led by Richard Hickox, this is a lovely way to explore the lesser-known Elgar back catalog.


    New York City Ballet enters the next phase

    Gonzalo Garcia and Sterling Hyltin in Jerome Robbins, Opus 19/The Dreamer. Photo: Paul Kolnik

    New York City Ballet returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night, as it has done regularly since 1974. Everyone involved with the company seemed a little nervous, starting with a slightly awkward pre-curtain announcement from newly appointed artistic director Jonathan Stafford and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan. They took the reins after longtime ballet master Peter Martins retired from the company in 2018, following allegations he had abused dancers both physically and sexually. Martins denied the charges, and an internal investigation by the company did not corroborate them.

    The selection of ballets seemed tailor-made for touring, mostly abstract and without any set pieces. Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, was a highlight because of the graceful, searching movements of Gonzalo Garcia in the title role. In the only white costume, he was seemingly all muscle as he sought among the other dancers dressed in shadowy blue-purple (costumes by Ben Benson). Set to the gorgeous music of Prokofiev, the ethereal Violin Concerto No. 1, the shimmering violin solo (played ably by Kurt Nikkanen) mirrored Garcia's dream-like motions, in fascinating color pairings with harp, piccolo, and other instruments. Principal dancer Sterling Hyltin, taking the lead role often danced in the past by none other than Wendy Whelan, was elusive and pretty.

    Other Reviews:

    Sarah L. Kaufman, It’s hit or miss for New York City Ballet in first Kennedy Center program under new directors (Washington Post, April 3, 2019)

    Alastair Macaulay, The Unstuffy Gala: City Ballet Delivers Youth and Style (New York Times, September 29, 2017)
    It made a bracing pairing with George Balanchine's Kammermusik No. 2, with a more abrasive score by Paul Hindemith and somewhat similar costumes in light blue or gray-black, also by Ben Benson. Abi Stafford and the tall, striking Teresa Reichlen excelled as the tandem pairing that shadowed the contrapuntal part of the piano solo from the virtuosic Stephen Gosling, often with hand following hand just as ballerina followed ballerina gesture for gesture. A small group of male dancers, often with interlocked arms, formed complicated shapes echoing the dissonant musical clusters.

    For an appetizer, NYCB brought Composer's Holiday, a commission from the young choreographer Gianna Reisen. The three sections showed a pleasing balance and variety, in a poised, short ballet that moved from intriguing vignette to intriguing vignette. It opened with dancers on one side pointing to a woman lifted in the air, for example, and the first scene closed with a woman hurled into the air just as the lights went dark. The choice of Lukas Foss's Three American Pieces for Violin and Piano (played capably by Arturo Delmoni and Susan Walters) was also savvy, music that is just as enigmatic as the movements Reisen chose.

    Two dancers took falls in the evening, unusual for this company, and only one that looked painful. That was in the otherwise triumphant final work, Balanchine's Symphony in C. It showcased the NYCB corps of women, all in sparkly white costumes, in the active first movement of Bizet's Symphony in C, an early work in Mozartean style. The second movement, with its plangent oboe theme, inspired in Balanchine, that most musical of choreographers, a scene of heart-breaking tenderness, spotlighting in this case the graceful dancing of Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. Through a sleight of hand, Balanchine does not make clear until late in the work just how many dancers are involved. In the fast changes of the finale's episodes, the numbers on stage grow and grow to a delightful climax.

    This program by the New York City Ballet repeats only on April 7, with a different program scheduled for April 4 to 6.

    Babar the Elephant goes to the Kennedy Center

    I grew up with Babar the Elephant. There was nothing that was not to love about the green-suited pachydermian and his friends. There might have been a brief time, in the teenage years, where I wouldn't have actively sought out Babar in a concert hall or a similar such place. But like most silly phases, that, too, passed.

    If you are also not of that brief awkward age of not loving Babar, you might think of heading to the Kennedy Center on Sunday, where Raphael Mostel's orchestral version of "Babar’s Return to the Land of the Elephants", from "The Travels of Babar" by Jean de Brunhoff will be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Steven Reineke, and narrated by Regina Aquino. It was a smash hit when it played at the Philharmonie in Berlin; it looks like Babar might trample all over audiences in Washington, too. It's all happening at the Kennedy Center at 2PM and again at 4PM.


    Dip Your Ears No. 231 (Ben van Osten’s Compleat César Franck)

    available at Amazon
    César Franck, The Organ Works
    Ben van Osten

    Ben van Oosten has recorded just about all the important romantic French organ literature – except that of the arguably most famous (or least organ-niche bound) one, César Franck. This empty spot on the escutcheon has now been filled in, with Oosten not only drawing on his wealth of interpretative and recording-experience but also on the majestic, newly restored Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint-Ouen in Rouen.

    The result is profoundly impressive. In the smaller works, he sets the standard either by default or with ease; in the grand works, he easily hangs with the best of them—whether Olivier Latry or Marie-Claire Alain. One might quibble with the decision to split the Six Pièces (opp.16 through 21) across two discs, but at van Oosten’s tempi, they would not have fit by a sliver. And if they had, that would still be nitpicky.