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

21.9.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 254 (Marx: The Romanticist Manifesto)

available at Amazon
J.Marx, Piano Concertos,
Bochum SO / Steve Sloane
Naxos

Hallelujah, Marx is back! It was only a matter of time before the once popular but eventually wildly out-of-fashion ultra-conservative Viennese composer would enjoy a little mini-renaissance… or two or three. Joseph Marx’ music is “a sort of cross between Delius and Korngold” (Hurwitz). That sounds actually quite good – and, in fact, if you are into the never-truly-in-fashion heavy post-romantic genre, you will find much to love here. You won’t mind that it’s music with a high caloric count but relatively little nutritional value. Or, as Hurwitz put it: “Music in which the closer you listen, the less you actually hear.” Well, some Marx is better and some Marx is worse, and if you avoid the lesser examples of his output, he qualifies as a #SurprisedByBeauty-composer in my book.

Jed Distler’s review of the original release on ClassicsToday


So it’s good news that Naxos is bringing back the out-of-print ASV recordings of the composer back… recordings that were instrumental in putting the Bochum Symphony and their long-long-long time conductor Steve Sloane on the map of (obscure) music lovers around the world. Specifically, we are looking at the re-issue of the piano concertos… which are – just – among the better examples of his output. There’s the grand, aptly named Romantic Piano Concerto. Jorge Bolet loved it, Marc-Andre Hamelin recorded it. And here is the US-French pianist David Lively (a one-time fourth place finisher in the Queen Elizabeth Competition) taking a crack at it. The 40-minute behemoth concerto embeds the soloist firmly into the orchestral texture (with relatively little separate classical-mode give-and-take going on). The grand romantic opening gesture could make any Hollywood score blanch. It moves on to be variously brooding (a rare flavor in happy Marx), dancing, and triumphant flavor with a few longueurs between, but not too many. Hamelin and Vänskä’s Hyperion account, actually the older recording, is a crisper take. Lively (nomen non est omen) and Sloane are closer to overegging the pudding with their leisurely but admittedly luxurious approach.

Jorge Bolet Plays Marx’ Romantic Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta


Castelli Romani, Marx’ second piano concerto, follows in a similar vein, although the more obvious aural paragons to the inspired epigone Marx are Respighi, Lehar (listen for Land des Lächelns-parallels in the opening), and perhaps Bax. It is full of wide-eyed Italianate clichés and sounds no more serious-minded than a tourist, glass of cheap Chianti in hand, on a busy piazza enjoying the heck out of the setting. You’ll be half-surprised the concerto doesn’t just break out into song, “Mamma Mia!”-style. But then there’s something to be said for its frolicking air, if you are not allergic to that stuff. And it keeps everything tighter together than the Romantic Concerto… making it far less prone to meander. The Bochumers aren’t the greatest band in the world, but they are an example of how very high the standards of a well-lead third tier German orchestra are.

7/8








20.9.19

My Uncle, Harpsichordist: Session 002 (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 №.2:




Jean Françaix (1912-1997), L’insectarium pour Cembalo: La Coccinelle | Der Marienkäfer | The Ladybird (1:45)
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.

19.9.19

On ClassicsToday: Knappertsbusch Conducts Wagner & Brahms at the Theater an der Wien

Slow Flow Beauty: A Tribute To Hans Knappertsbusch (Blu-ray)

by Jens F. Laurson
KNAPPERTSBUSCH_WPh_Theater-an-der-Wien_LVB_Wagner_Backhaus-Nilsson_ARTHAUS-MUSIK_ClassicalCritic_ClassicsToday
This Blu-ray titled “A Tribute to Hans Knappertsbusch” is a tribute by virtue of showing, not telling, what the conductor was about. There’s no documentary element, just two live broadcasts of concerts that Knappertsbusch gave with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Vienna Festival-Week in the... Continue Reading





18.9.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 253 (Blomstedt's Terribly-Reasonably-Delightful Mozart)

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Symphonies 40 & 41,
BRSO / Herbert Blomstedt
BR Klassik

The instinct is to love and adore everything that Herbert Blomstedt conducts and records. Naturally. He really is and always has been a marvelous conductor and the fact that Europeans are only realizing this after he turned 90 makes it a heartwarming story, somehow. Certainly, Blomstedt deserves the attention and he is the real deal. (See also: Forbes.com: The Subtle Miracle Herbert Blomstedt And Bamberg's Cathedral Tour Of Bruckner) But he’s not a magician, either. Which is why this Mozart recording of the last two Symphonies, Nos. 40 and 41, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is simply—only—very, very good… but no revelation.

Now it’s rare for big symphony orchestras to play Mozart well and for the uncluttered lines, for the reasonable lightness, for the crisp attacks and the beautiful unimpeded flow, this gets very high marks. Repeat-fetishists (you know you’re out there!) get their full due, too! You could think of this as modernized Krips or updated Fricsay (perhaps the two best in yesteryear Mozart) or as not-quite-there HIPsterdom, failing to reach the ‘see-through textures and flamboyance’ (Robert Levine) of a René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi) or the in-your-face explosiveness of a Matthieu Herzog (naïve) or—though he hasn’t recorded any symphonies yet—Teodor Currentzis. Or you simply think of it as a civilized best-of-both-worlds take that is bound to greatly please most while deftly avoiding all the pitfalls that plague nearly all modern Mozart: Tedious drudge or wilfull exaggeration.

It turns out that that works very well in “40”, which comes across as the vivacious alpine brook it is. It works a smidgen less well in “41”, which sounds the broader stream it also is… but without carrying more water to make up for the increased width of the musical riverbed. A certain kind of stateliness creeps in, that’s more Beethoven Sixth than Bach Christmas Oratorio-meets-Rite of the Spring (as I like to imagine it, with fireworks going off in the finale, and a big brassy punch right into the kisser). That’s where I prefer me some over-the-top excellence (Hello, M.Herzog!), after all. Not that you’d much mind, in the moment, listening to the excellence of Blomstedt (a.k.a. “Günter Wand 2.0”).

Despite five years between the two recordings, the very fine Herkulessaal-sound and acoustics are the same… unless that subtle subdued quality of the “Jupiter” is an outgrowth of a subtly different recording quality, after all.

8/9


Blomstedt on ionarts:


Orchestrated Delight from Leipzig, jfl, 10/19/04

Dip Your Ears, No. 37 (Strauss Indulgence, jfl, 7/7/05)

NSO with Blomstedt, CDT, 2/17/12

Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 5 ) - Anton Bruckner Cycle • Bruckner VIII. Quietly Fabulous, jfl, 8/8/14

Blomstedt and Ax return to the NSO, CDT, 2/27/15

Ionarts at Large: Blomstedt and Pires in San Francisco, RRR, 3/1/16









17.9.19

On ClassicsToday: Mahan Esfahani’s Intriguing Goldberg Variations

Mahan Esfahani’s Intriguing Goldberg Variations

by Jens F. Laurson
BACH_GoldbergVariations_Esfahani_DG_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic
From the start, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani deviates from the well-worn, well-known embellishments and grace-notes in Bach’s Goldberg Variations as we know them through Grandmaster Glenn Gould and just about everyone since. The easily irritable Esfahani knows he isn’t the first to record these works, but... Continue Reading




16.9.19

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

Prosseda Splashes Sunshine Over Mendelssohn’s Piano Concertos

by Jens F. Laurson
Mendelssohn_Piano-Concertos_PROSSEDA_deVriend_DECCA_Jens-f-Laurson_ClassicsToday
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





15.9.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 252 (Céline Frisch’s Goldberg Variations Re-Issued)

available at Amazon
Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations
Céline Frisch (harpsichord)
(Alpha)

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.

8/9





13.9.19

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.

12.9.19

On ClassicsToday: Classic Stravinsky-Bach Recording from Kavakos & Nagy

Under the Radar: Bach-Stravinsky From Kavakos

by Jens F. Laurson
KAVAKOS_NAGY_Stravinsky_Bach_ECM_ClassicalCritic_ClassicsToday
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





11.9.19

Dip Your Ears, No. 251 (Meet Lise Davidsen, the next Hochdramatische)

available at Amazon
Lise Davidsen sings Wagner & Strauss
Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Decca

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.

7/8









10.9.19

On ClassicsToday: LSO Shostakovich 8 Remake Succeeds With Noseda

LSO Shostakovich 8 Remake Succeeds With Noseda

by Jens F. Laurson
SHOSTAKOVICH_Sy8_Noseda_LSO_LSOlive_SACD_ClassicalCritic_ClassicsToday
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






7.9.19

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.

6.9.19

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
HANDEL_Messiah_LUKS_Collegium1704_ACCENT_ClassicsToday_Classical-Critic_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





5.9.19

On ClassicsToday: How Good is Karl Böhm's Alpine Symphony?

Karl Böhm’s Alpine Symphony Revisited

by Jens F. Laurson
STRAUSS_Alpine-Symphony_BOEHM_Dresden_DG_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic
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