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

17.12.20

Best Recordings of 2020


After a hiatus last year, it is time for a list of classical CDs that were outstanding this year. This is the ionarts list of the Best Classical Recordings of the Year:

Preamble


I’ve been doing some form of “Best of the Year” list since 2004. 2019 was the first time I slipped. Here’s my attempt at redemption. Granted, my overview of new releases is no longer quite what it was in the days I worked at Tower Records. But the idea of a “Best of the Year” list, if one clings too literally to the idea of “Best” is daft even under the most ideal of situations. It’s of course just short for: “These are a few of the things that I liked” and used, as I’ve been fond of writing in past iterations of this list, because “10 CDs that, all caveats duly noted, I consider to have been outstanding this year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. Because I skipped 2019, I will include some releases from that year on this list. If you are looking for past lists, here they are:

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2008—"Almost" | 2009 | 2009—"Almost" | 2010 | 2010—"Almost" | 2011 | 2011—"Almost" | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

Pick # 10


L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 1-9, Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Naxos 8.505251


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, The Symphonies
Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra,
Naxos

I wanted these to be on the aborted 2019 list and they definitively belong on it. Yes, we have way too much Beethoven – and 2020 was one of the worst offenders, with it being the 'Beethoven Year' and every artist with ten fingers or access to a baton bringing out a cycle of the sonatas or the symphonies. In the concert halls, at least, Corona saved us from a Beethoven overkill that would have ruined our appreciation of the composers for decades. But just before all that happened, Adam Fischer and his now privately funded Danish Chamber Orchestra come out with something that stands out from the 178+ other cycles we can choose from. These are unpretentious, lively, quick-witted yet totally sober readings that manage to be free of any exaggeration and superbly exciting at the same time. Fischer situates his Beethoven in the near-ideal middle between the stale routine of playing these damn things over and over again on one side and the interventionist re-inventors of the wheel on the other. This is roughly the space Jukka-Pekke Saraste and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra occupy (review: Precious Vanilla), or the fairly recent and excellent second Blomstedt cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Except that Fischer’s band is smaller, more nimble, and a touch more alert which – as might be expected – shifts the focus of strengths towards the earlier symphonies. Like Blomstedt and most other conductors these days, Fischer chooses swift tempi. More to the point: Fischer opts for mediating tempi: quicker slow movements and moderately paced fast movements. The result is Beethoven unassuming and disheveled, and very lovable. A more detailed review will follow on ClassicsToday eventually. But it’s definitely the Beethoven Cycle of the Beethoven year!

Pick # 9


R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al., Ondine 1312


available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al.,
Ondine

Here’s an all ‘round terrific disc of off-the-beaten-path Schumann from Ondine, coupling his Ballade op.140 for soloists and chorus with the Adventlied and – an intriguing filler in the middle – Schumann’s reworking of the Bach Cantata BWV 105. The Adventlied is, inexplicably, a world premiere recording. Where has it been hiding? It is Schumann at his most Mendelssohnesque. Meanwhile it’s good to know that even Schumann agreed that Bach’s stupendous Cantata BWV 105 is a masterpiece among masterpieces. Creating this performing version he certainly suggested as much. And he didn’t super-juice it: he held back and limited himself to modernizing the instrumentation to suit his players. It’s not adding to Bach but as the imaginative buffer between the two marvelously Schumann pieces is very welcome. With Carolyn Sampson participating, deftly accompanied by the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Aapo Hakkinen, this disc is a winner that I’ve been wanting to write about for over a year. Consider this the teaser.

Pick # 8


J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio , Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus, Bach Stiftung B664


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus,
Bach Stiftung

Befitting the season, a Christmas Oratorio makes this list. The new release from the St. Gallen Bach Stiftung is perfect in just about every way. Perfection – in a technical sense – isn’t everything, of course, especially when it’s closer to anodyne than riveting. But in this case, the live recording (you’d never know!) has all the spirit of most of this outfit’s releases and absolutely terrific singers starting with alto Elvira Bill (who has appeared on the last three Christmas Oratorios I have reviewed) and tenor Daniel Johannsen who has established himself to the point where neither “young” nor “up and coming”. (I’ve just checked: He’s older now than Werner Güra was when he recorded “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden”.) A review will follow on ClassicsToday soon and be linked then. By the way: if you haven’t sampled their Cantata-cycle het, but want to, you would do well to start here, with volume 30!

Pick # 7


Hans Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz, Ensemble Modern 043/44


available at Amazon
H.Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz
Ensemble Modern

This year I am not splitting the list up into new and re-releases. But as a nod to the tradition, I must include this re-release of a classic recording which I am so glad to have back in the catalogue: The premiere (and still best) recording of Hans Zender’s Winterreise with Ensemble Modern. My review for ClassicsToday here: Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Pick # 6


Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein, Myrios MYR025


available at Amazon
Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein
Myros

When Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein performed Enoch Arden at Vienna’s Konzerthaus in late 2014, it was a quiet high-point of the season. The disc is about as good. Granted, the text of Strauss’ monodrama is quite important, so English-speakers not inclined to read along in the booklet will probably want to look to Glenn Gould and Claude Rains version for Sony. But for the rest: they’ve got a new reference version. The declamation of Ganz is worth hearing even just for how its musical and dramatic qualities, senza parole so to say. A fitting musical memorial for Ganz, who passed away in early 2019. My ClassicsToday review here: Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein.

Pick # 5


Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker, Ramée RAM1808


available at Amazon
Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker,
Ramée

Here’s another album that scores on memorability over perfection. It’s over the top, in some ways, and fabulous for it. Ancient music keeps it grounded; the wild acoustic makes it ring in your head like you’re in a grand gothic cathedral. Or a well. Depending on your mindset. What the Old-World Rats (what a name!) deliver here, singing a variety of Italian Madrigals belaboring the subjects of Love and Affliction, is glorious and just the right touch of weird. “The inflection of notes, the tuning, the character of old instruments like psaltery and kanklės… it all contributes to a sense of gentle alienation. Is this Orlando di Lasso, Vincenczo Galilei, Friulian traditional music (sung in the old language) or are we already on to Arab or even African shores? You could let yourself be distracted by any numbers of unorthodoxies on the album “Ossesso” but it’s much easier and more gratifying to sit back and indulge.” To quote my review at ClassicsToday: Obsessed Rats—Wondrous Voices from Olden Times.

Pick # 4


J.S.Bach, Keyboard Works and Transcriptions, Víkingur Ólafsson, DG 4835022


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, A Recital, Víkingur Ólafsson,
DG

Like the Beethoven Symphonies , this is a release that would have been on last year’s list, also… and it’s too good and memorable to miss out on. It’s really just a supremely tasteful Bach recital by a wonderfully talented pianist who is just as satisfying in recital as he is on disc. But that’s enough. As I’ve said in my ClassicsToday review (Icelandic Bach With Heart and Panache): “It’s taken 13 years for a Bach-on-piano recital disc to have come along to match Alexandre Tharaud’s.” That is the hightest praise I can give. As a bonus, not that this need matter for your purely musical enjoyment: Víkingur Ólafsson won’t annoy you on Twitter, if you follow him, which you should at @VikingurMusic.

Pick # 3


L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al., Naïve 7083


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al.,
Naïve

This is a recording I don’t think I’ll ever forget – and if it’s for the mandolin variant of that 1970s Hot 100 smash hit of Walter Murphey’s: A Fifth of Beethoven (also known for its notable appearance in Saturday Night Fever). But no, actually, this is good and memorable all around, elevating some of Beethoven’s B-Music to A-levels. And a recording that memorable deserves a high entry on this list, even if it isn’t perfect. My review at ClassicsToday here: Beethoven for the Mandolin.

Pick # 2


H.G.Stölzel, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (Passion oratorio 1731), Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, Glossa 924006


available at Amazon
H.G.Stölzel, Passion oratorio, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra,
Glossa

This is such terrific music and so sympathetically performed and well recorded that it is bound to be the first of many Heinrich Gottfried Stölzel works you will want to hear. If, in fact, this is your first one. There is no (baroque) composer other than Bach that wrote no weak pieces. But at their best the Telemanns and Hasses and Zelenkas can be as good and, for being different, offer some extra enjoyment. And the same goes for Stölzel and this Passion oratorio in particular. Listen to “Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld”. Treat yourself! My review at ClassicsToday here: Good Enough for Bach, Good Enough for Us.

Pick # 1


Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, naïve 7080


available at Amazon
Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone,
naïve

Vivaldi operas have lagged behind those of Handel’s in appreciation and Il Tamerlano a.k.a. Bajazet (RV 703) perhaps even more, because its pasticcio composition style did not fit in with the Urtext and unity-of-the-artwork type of musicological purity that reigned in the last few decades. This perception might have begun to change, slowly, after Fabio Biondi’s fabulous 2005 recording came out. It turns out that it’s a masterpiece and the custom of stitching an opera together from previous hits of his own, newly written music, and arias from other composers – mainly Hasse and Giacomelli – doesn’t hold it back, it aids this work! Vivaldi giving his music, in the Venetian style, to the good guys but his colleagues’ more flashy Neapolitan-style music to the baddies adds welcome variety. Vivaldi’s intended point about the superiority of the former is, alas, undermined by the Red Priest having been too fair and using the finest that his rivals’ had on offer: two of the absolute show-stealing arias aren’t his. But we don’t care, the music is great and this new recording of the Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone is just what the opera deserves; rivalling (or complementing) Biondi’s, easily. A must-listen for 2021, if you haven’t yet. Review forthcoming.


OK, let’s cheat. Or make up for the lost year of 2019. I simply have to mention a few more recordings, now that I’ve started. Here they are:

17.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: "Mozart’s Violin"

Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

A new recording of Mozart‘s violin concertos should bring something special to the table. Musically, that goes without saying, but that’s not what the marketing department employees at record labels are paid to ensure. The thing better have a hook–or “USP”, to use their jargon. Here, that unique selling point–doubly necessary, since no one outside of Vienna has ever heard of the violinist (Christoph Koncz is one of the concertmasters of the Vienna Philharmonic and therefore Viennese royalty)–is the instrument. Mozart’s own instrument, to be sure. Dusted and despeckled from its museum slumber and with the life fiddled back into it, it is the nominal star of this production. You might be right to think that this bodes badly for the venture, because–PR blather aside–it matters exactly squat in the making of a recording of violin concertos by Mozart–or anyone else–even if it featured the most beautiful-sounding Guarneri ever made... [continue reading]

12.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Tartini Delights

Tartini Delights With Chouchane Siranossian

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
HAYDN_and-the-Harp_GLOSSA_ClassicsToday_ClassicalCritic_Jens-F-Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Giuseppe Tartini has two things working against him: He’s not Vivaldi; and when acknowledged at all, he is often reduced to his Devil’s Trill Sonata (incidentally referenced in the slow movement of the D. 56 concerto, featured on this disc). The Naxos Music Library–to use a random measuring stick–features a respectable 250 items of his (on most of which he is mere filler). Vivaldi: Eleven times as many (and on most he’s the star). But Tartini’s concertos are terrific and sufficiently different from Vivaldi’s that they ought to exert considerable pull on any music listener interested in baroque concertos... [continue reading]

10.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Matthew Passion in Treble-Trouble

Treble-Trouble: A Forgettable Matthew Passion From King’s College

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
A Forgettable Matthew Passion From King’s College

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

From the pedestrian opening chorus with its questionably delightful mix of all-over-the-place choristers, this Matthew Passion is utterly non-competitive and of interest really only to the proud parents and relatives of the little performers. The pitch ambiguities and tempo of said opening chorus and the muffled sound might make you think you accidentally grabbed a recording by Günther Ramin (Thomanerchor, 1950s) from your shelves and they cast all that is to come in a mediocre light...

...And then there is bass William Gaunt, whose “Am Abend da es kühle war” and following aria (“Mach dich, mein Herz, rein”) are simply exquisite, as good as any on disc. He delivers it with just the right mix of a lyrical, natural, and gentle approach and melts your heart instantly...[continue reading]

8.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Splendid Contemporary B-flat Major Brahms Concerto

Splendid Contemporary B-flat Major Brahms Concerto From Lars Vogt

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Lars Vogt Schubet Ondine

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Together with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt–in his fifth year heading the orchestra across the shore from Newcastle–got to record the Brahms piano concertos for Ondine. Anyone who reads a chamber orchestra’s and Brahms’ name on the same CD cover and might briefly flinch, fearing undernourished, pseudo-historically informed performances with an economically expedient small band–conducted from the piano at that (another couple thousands in savings!)–need not worry... [continue reading]

6.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Schubert in Love (or gone Wild?)

Schubert Gone Wild

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Schubert in Love

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Here’s a recording the success of which depends entirely on how you approach it. If you think of it as a classical Lied recital that experiments, you’ll likely regard it as an experiment gone wrong. Come to it as a folk-blues-country-jazz-crooner album (or whatever genre you might associate it with) that happens to pay homage to Schubert–or better still, with no expectation whatsoever–it might just tickle you in all the right places... [continue reading]

5.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Pierre Henry’s Epigonic La Dixième Symphonie

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Pierre Henry’s La Dixième Symphonie – Hommage à Beethoven is a work of the genre where a modern composer takes an ancient model and weaves a modern cloth around familiar and loved structures, hoping thereby to benefit from the soothing sense of the familiar and–ideally, maybe–opening the ears to a few new sounds courtesy of their own creation. It has become quite popular, too: It’s easier to sell–and play–such music to and for an audience that would otherwise be more skeptical of sheer avant-garde music. The old masters inspire respect from within; the audience’s tolerance increases notably... [continue reading]

3.11.20

On ClassicsToday: Fine Christmas Oratorio With Boys From Stuttgart

Fine Christmas Oratorio With Boys From Stuttgart

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
Bach Weihnachtsoratorium

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

The easiest way of telling that Thanksgiving is near is when new releases of the Christmas Oratorio start rolling in. A look from desk to calendar quickly confirms this. Here we have Handel’s Company and the Stuttgart Hymnus Choirboys, along with a cast of lesser-known soloists. What have they to say about these six cantatas that we should listen up? Is this recording with trebles going to be as wet a squib as the just-reviewed Kings’ College Matthew Passion?... [continue reading]

2.11.20

Dip Your Ears: No. 262 (#GoldbergReflections)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach et al., Goldberg Reflections
Niklas Liepe / NDR RPO / Jamie Phillips
(Sony Germany)

There’s no dearth of Goldberg Variations in all shapes and forms. If you want to stick out of the crowd, and you haven’t Deutsche Grammophone’s marketing department behind you, you better do something pretty special. That’s what Niklas Liepe is trying to do, on this Sony-issued recording. For starters, the 30-year old is a violinist, not a keyboard player. Further, he doesn’t just play Andreas Tarkmann’s arragnement for string trio, orchestra and harpsichord (in essence a beefed-up Sitkovetzky arrangement), he also combines the 13 Variations which he chose for his project (plus the opening and closing aria, of course) with eleven newly composed, semi-precious Relflections-on-Variations. Hence the title of the record: #Goldberg Reflections.

From composers like Dominik Dieterle, Moritz Eggert, Friedrich Heinrich Kern, and Stephan Koncz, all the way to the fine epilogue of Konstantia Gourzi’s, we get an air of Piazzolla, wafts of glass-harmonica, and Schnittke-like molten intermezzi which, in their own, largely introvert ways, dance around the temple that is Bach. The fact that the actual Goldberg Variations morph into neo-baroque suites, brings them a few steps closer to some of these new compositoins. Open-eared Bach-lovers will find the whole project rather enjoyable; a diversion that’s certainly more diverting than hearing just yet another new recording of the real thing. The fact that Liepe performs his sometimes solistic, sometimes chamber-embedded parts impeccably – as do the strings of the NDR Radio Symphony Orchestra Hannover (themselves texture-enriched by the recurring harpsichord) – further helps the venture be a very happy listening-experience.

1/10






27.9.20

Briefly Noted: The Dover Quartet Starts on Beethoven

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets (Vol. 1), Dover Quartet

(released on July 18, 2020)
Cedille CDR90000-198 | 154'56"
It begins. The Dover Quartet's programs in Washington have not featured much Beethoven yet, including their last (canceled) appearance at the Kennedy Center in April. The single glimpse of their approach to this most revered string quartet composer was the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, played as an encore at their Washington debut. It was "a light-filled performance like a hymn of peace," according to my review: clearly, the experience whetted my appetite.

Finally adding to their excellent but limited discography, the Dovers have launched a complete traversal of the Beethoven quartets with this 2-disc set of the six quartets of op. 18. It is an exceptional beginning to what promises to be one of my favorite cycles. They would not supplant my two favorite approaches to the Beethoven quartets, the fiery Takács Quartet and the mellow, gut-strung Quatuor Mosaïques (incomplete), but they are in their company.

Overall, the Dover feels not as brash as the Takács, less impetuous because there is not that slight edge of rhythmic uncertainty, exciting but unsettling. The time and care are worth some slightly slower timings, as in the sweetly affecting slow movement of Op. 18, no. 1, but the group also avoids tempos as expansive as those sometimes chosen by Quatuor Mosaïques. The least pleasing to my ear is their no. 4, too anguished in the first movement and frantic Menuetto, but balanced by the sweetly dancing Scherzo in between them.

At the same time, there are few string quartets in which all four cylinders, as it were, fire with such uniformity, as in the relaxed finale of no. 4, capped by an exhilirating Prestissimo coda, striking just the right contrast between the two tempi. Grace and balance are the Dover's greatest strengths, as in the poised and sunny no. 5, with its melting slow movement of extended variations.

For a few years now the Dover Quartet has been one of the ensembles I never want to miss hearing live. Among other cultural devastations, the coronavirus seemed poised to wipe out the entire second half of the group's residency at the Kennedy Center, which began in 2018. Last week, the Kennedy Center announced that 50 listeners will be able to hear the Dover Quartet, joined by the Escher Quartet in an octet program, October 20 on the Opera House stage. Sadly, that concert will not be livestreamed to a broader audience.

For other music to hear this fall, see my pandemic round-up of live and streamed concerts at Washington Classical Review.

13.9.20

Briefly Noted: Christmas in the Pandemic Summer

available at Amazon
Christmas Carols, SWR Vokalensemble, M. Creed

(released on August 10, 2020)
SWR Classic SWR19094CD | 59'10"
How keenly music's absence is felt during the pandemic struck me recently listening to this little disc. It is nothing spectacular in terms of programming: an hour's worth of English Christmas carols. The singing is excellent, done in beautiful sound by the SWR Vokalensemble, about thirty voices in size, under the direction of Marcus Creed.

A German choir stealing the lunch of their British colleagues is fair payback for the perennial "Christmas Around the World" programs heard every year, and the English pronunciation here is impeccable. A tribute, this, to the teaching of their English-born director, an alumnus of both King's College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, whose tenure with this distinguished radio choir ended this summer.

The group's women sound better on their own (in Emily Elizabeth Poston's rich Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, for example) than the men, who are featured less. The same applies in solo voices heard, although on this account the more demanding writing, as in The Fayrfax Carol of Thomas Adès, taxes both equally. The echo quartet in Britten's gorgeous A Hymn to the Virgin, happily, is top-notch. The effect of this simple but effective carol service is a sweet reminiscence of the days before coronavirus (the recording was captured in the fall of 2018). Sadly, it is also a bitter reminder that we may spend a bleak Christmas without "the playing of the merry organ" or "sweet singing in the choir," in the nostalgic words of the The Holly and the Ivy.

11.8.20

Dip Your Ears, No. 261 (Satie Vexation)

available at Amazon
Erik Satie, Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
(BIS)

Erik Satie’s Vexations is an aptly named work that you have to have heard in order to know that you’ll never need to have heard it. Simple, repetitive, and demanding endurance from the performer, not skill. 18 notes, harmonized, inverted. Just one page of brutalist-simplistic music, but rinsed and repeated – by disingenuous fiat of the composer’s pen – 840 times. The Vexations deserve to be recorded for the archive’s sake, because everyone ought to have the chance to reject this misinterpreted gag of a composition on their own; the only other reason to perform them is to achieve a cheap if exhausting publicity stunt.

It delivers all the stupefying effect without any of the ‘transportive’ qualities of a Philip Glass film score and is bound to inflict pain on anyone of musical sensibility. You’d be just as well off drinking a bottle of cheap booze for such a dulling of your senses. It is, in short, an exercise in masochism and no spin of its alleged “Zeb Buddhist” qualities (as the work’s first champion, John Cage, suggested) or of it being a “study in immobility” (so would be staring at paint dry) can salvage the thing. It’s ironic and telling that Satie, derided for his best music as a mere ‘salon composer’, should be celebrated by some for his worst. Sort of goes to show that if you pump up the crazy just enough, someone will be there to declare you a genius. The truth is that we don’t know what Satie’s intent was when he scribbled the page of music and the absurd instructions down; sarcasm is as good as any; a mocking musical jest of sorts. If you listen to the whole thing, though, the joke’s on you.

That said, what about the performance? For starters, Noriko Ogawa plays on a beautiful sounding Érard, beautifully recorded. For some 70 minutes she is merciless in her rigor and – though I dare not say “refreshingly” – brisk. At the tempo she takes for 142 variations, she’d be done with the whole thing in six (SA)CDs. A far cry from the alleged aimed-at goal of 24 hours, that Satie may have had in mind. (For that, you’d have to go to Jeroen van Veen’s download of the whole thing on Brilliant Classics.) In any case, carping about this would be akin to the joke of two ladies in a restaurant complaining: “The food’s terrible here.” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” But no have fears: Happily, the artist and record label have the good sense to consider this nod towards Satie’s Vexations exhaustive and final, which it more than is. Late in the game, Noriko Ogawa adds some more obvious dynamic variation and shifts in voicing and eventually also the tempo, speeding things up as if to come to a quicker end. If you’ve made it through those 75 minutes, the last five might induce chuckles of relief and acquiescent glee. But three quarters of an hour seem a high price for that.

At the heart of taking this seriously at all is the John Cage dictum that “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Well, if something is boring after 80 minutes, you could double down until you lose your mind or have invested so much time that you cannot allow yourself to consider it having been time wasted. Eventually, I suppose, Cage will be right. But will it have been worth it? I suggest sticking to Virgil Thompson’s take on the matter, instead: “Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”

1/10






15.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
VIVALDI_Violin_concertos_8_CHAUVIN_NAIVE_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Unless you are a cetologist, all whales of a species look alike to you. The seasoned eye, meanwhile, will take one glance at a disappearing dorsal fin and immediately conclude: “Oh, look, there’s Laura!” Same thing with Vivaldi violin concertos: The more we indulge, the greater the differentiation and joy. Having arrived at Vol. 63, Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition does just that with this exemplary disc: Six seldom recorded concertos, all of theatrical quality but for the calm and simpler RV 321, all late Vivaldi, written sometime after 1724... [continue reading]

13.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Best Recording of Hans Zender's Superb Winterreise

Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
ZENDER_Winterreise_ENSEMBLE-MODERN_ClassicsToday_ClassicalCritic_Jens-F-Laurson1

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Composer/conductor Hans Zender, who died last October (2019), is better known for his “composed re-composition” of Schubert’s Winterreise than for any of his other work. That’s not to sell those other “original” compositions short, or his work as a conductor (a fine Mahler Ninth and excellent Schubert First, among them). It’s simply a credit to how spectacularly well-made his orchestral reworking of the Schubert classic is. Sure, there always will be those who find the idea of futzing with an original masterpiece objectionable. And in many cases where a mediocrity latches onto a work of genius, the critics have a point. Not here... [continue reading]

11.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
HAYDN_and-the-Harp_GLOSSA_ClassicsToday_ClassicalCritic_Jens-F-Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

“Haydn and the Harp” is a delightful disc of music written for the harp based on works and themes of Haydn by the composer’s contemporaries, as well as compositions of Haydn’s where the harp can (or was always meant to) be an alternative to the piano. All the music is tied in some way to Haydn, either biographically or musically. Exupère de La Maniere, for example, grabbed a theme from Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 (“La Roxelane”) and sent it through the variation-wringer for harp solo. Ditto Sophia Dussek with “God Save Emperor Francis”, the tune best known from the slow movement of the Op. 76/3 string quartet or the German national anthem. Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, meanwhile, created a virtuosic “Petite mosaique” of famous melodies from The Creation for harp solo... [continue reading]

9.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Mayseder, a Viennese Bridge Between Classical and Romantic

Mayseder: A Viennese Bridge Between Classical And Romantic

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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The late classical/early romantic Viennese composer Joseph Mayseder is a wonderful discovery whose music is being methodically made available by the Gramola label. He was the concertmaster of the predecessor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and of the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle–an ensemble that still exists (albeit as a loose ensemble of singers and instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the State Opera Chorus) and that performs the musical duties on this disc that couples his musical legacy, a Mass in E-flat major, with an early violin concerto. [continue reading]

7.7.20

On ClassicsToday: Margherita Torretta's Bang-On Scarlatti

Margherita Torretta: Bang-On Scarlatti From Out Of Nowhere

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Scarlatti recitals on the piano are no longer a rarity, but really great ones still are. Since Horowitz’s groundbreaking disc, outstanding recordings have been made by Mikhail Pletnev, bursting-with-wilful fantasy, Ivo Pogorelich absorbed in his dynamic wonder-world, and Sergei Babayan, with refined insight. More recent additions to the top of the heap, many reviewed on Classicstoday.com, have come from Alexandre Tharaud, Konstantin Scherbakov, Zhu Xiao-Mei, and Yevgeny Sudbin. A very recently received new recording of 20 Scarlatti sonatas did not look particularly promising, much less like it might break into the phalanx of a dozen superior discs–rather it seemed more likely to be just another vanity recording by yet another young artist. [continue reading]

6.5.20

On ClassicsToday: Strauss' Enoch Arden in a new Reference Recording

Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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Monodramas are tricky to pull off. The text has to be very good and the music has to be better still, to fulfill its dual duty of underscoring the drama and offering enough interest on its own, when it does pipe up. The results vary: from the rare best, like the ingenious masterpiece that is Viktor Ullmann’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, to the tawdry and banal, like Liza Lehmann’s The Happy Prince (based on one of Oscar Wilde’s lesser efforts). One of the few gems that works quite well is Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ballad by that name. [continue reading]

5.5.20

On ClassicsToday: Josephine Knight in Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Self-Serving Schumann And Lovely Piatti World Premieres

Review by: Jens F. Laurson
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This new release of the Schumann Cello Concerto purports to be the premiere recording of its absolute original version–a faithful reconstruction of the 1850 “Concertstück”. After cellist Josephine Knight found the autograph in Krakow, she set about to discern the differences from the modern version we know, which apparently include some alterations made or suggested by Robert Emil Bockmühl on whom Schumann relied for advice, and several subsequent performers’ changes. She found “hundreds of differences”, mostly accents, dynamic markings, bowings. The notes, but for a handful, are the same, though. She’s since made this her vehicle and this recording is meant to propel the original version–and presumably her–into the limelight. [continue reading]