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


Briefly Noted: Pichon's Pygmalion Passion (CD of the Month)

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Bach, St. Matthew Passion, J. Prégardien, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on March 25, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902691.93 | 2h42
Raphaël Pichon's ensemble Pygmalion, founded in 2006, is another early music group I have been following closely in recent years. Although they have yet to make the trip to Washington, we have had plenty of chances to hear them via stream and recording. The group has released some fine Bach discs over the years, all with a specific goal in mind. As Pichon put it in an interview about their newest recording, "When I founded Pygmalion, I had a single certainty, one big dream: that we would give our first St. Matthew Passion for our tenth birthday." That is exactly what happened in 2016, with most of the musicians who ended up being recorded on this excellent set at sessions in April 2021 at the Philharmonie de Paris.

Pichon calls this "a consciously choral performance," with the solo singers also serving as section leaders in what is an exquisite choral sound. As the finishing touch, fifteen young singers from the Maîtrise de Radio France take the chorale tunes woven into the complex textures of the opening and closing movements of Part I, a part marked by Bach as "soprani in ripieno." The solo parts range from very good to excellent, with soloists from each choir taking the arias as Bach indicated and some of the characters named in dialogues given to other chorus members. The two superb sopranos, Sabine Devieilhe (whose solo album with Pygmalion has also been in my ears recently) and Hana Blažíková, lead the topmost sections of Choir I and II, respectively, as well as splitting the soprano arias.

Mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is sublime in "Erbarme dich," as she was when she sang with Ensemble Correspondances recently. (She sang with the Maîtrise de Radio France in her youth, which is a nice connection to the young performers in the group now.) Julian Prégardien takes the part of the Evangelist with authority and beauty of tone, while baritone Stéphane Degout brings a plangent resonance to the part of Jesus, wreathed in its halo of strings. The instrumental contributions are all lovely, especially the soft flutes. The continuo realization has a pleasing variety, split among organ, harpsichord, and theorbo, all used quite inventively. Pichon has thought deeply about this massive score, which he has spoken about in interviews. There is no small chorale or bit of recitative that does not reflect the conductor's care for it, such as the last chorale in the work, "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden," performed by the singers alone after the death of Christ. This marvelous rendition is both full-textured and brimming with the intimacy of historically informed performance practice.


Briefly Noted: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

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Brahms / Shostakovich, Piano Quintets, Olga Kern, Dalí Quartet

(released on March 1, 2022)
Delos DE3587 | 71'56"
It is good to see that Olga Kern is recording again. For her first disc since 2012, she has teamed up with the Dalí Quartet in two monuments of the piano quintet repertoire. The tracks were captured in 2019 in Norfolk, under the auspices of the Virginia Arts Festival, for whom Kern serves as director of chamber music. The Brahms selection, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, is a monument of the chamber music repertoire, but this rendition is too brash and forceful to hit the mark. Brahms was careful to note that three of the four movements are not to be taken too fast. Kern and the Dalí Quartet give the Scherzo a blistering air of excitement but rush through the other three movements and miss the wistful qualities of the music.

The other selection, Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G Minor, makes for much better listening and mostly for the same reasons. The Lento first movement bristles with searing intensity, from both Kern and the quartet. The strings-only sections of the second movement are lush and contained, with Kern's rumbling octaves adding an air of distant menace. This quintet's Scherzo, a happy-go-lucky romp with plucky melodies that turn a little maniacal, could not be more different from the one composed by Brahms. Yearning string lines sing sweetly in the Intermezzo, accompanied by soft pizzicati or pulsed piano chords. Kern's bold touch at the keyboard propels the finale, which subsides to an understated finish.

Shostakovich composed the Piano Quintet just before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1940. Born and trained in Russia, Kern broke a year-long Twitter silence earlier this month to demand an end to the brutal Russian war in Ukraine. As she explained in her message, her grandfather was from Ukraine, and her family had a connection with Kharkov, one of many cities recently bombed. She also toured with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in 2019. Kern became an American citizen in 2016 and is now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Her son, Vladislav Kern, is also a pianist who graduated from Juilliard's pre-college program in 2016. Mother and son have even performed together in recent years.


Briefly Noted: Jupiter and Lea Desandre

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Amazone, L. Desandre, Jupiter, T. Dunford

(released on September 17, 2021)
Erato 190295065805 | 75'37"
Last Sunday, the early music ensemble known as Jupiter made its maiden appearance in the Washington area, with a stupendous all-Vivaldi concert at the Phillips Collection with mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre. (Although unreviewed in Washington, the group's debut at Carnegie Hall on Thursday received a well-deserved laudatory review in the New York Times.) Founded in 2018 by the talented lutenist Thomas Dunford, this crackerjack group has already released two fine albums. Following their debut disc in 2019, an exciting selection of Vivaldi arias and instrumental pieces for Alpha, this program of music inspired by the theme of Amazons came out last fall on the Erato label. Their Phillips recital was a mixture of repertory from the two.

The Amazons, presented often as the stuff of legend in Greek mythology, were likely based on real warrior women among the Scythians, as shown by recent research. Yannis François helped mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre design the program, selecting examples from Amazon characters in French and Italian Baroque operas, many of which had never been recorded before. Percussionists Keyvan Chemirani and Marie-Ange Petit add a touch of exotic savagery to some of the tracks, including the opener, "Non posso far" from Provenzale's Lo schiavo di sua moglie. A wind machine and thunder sheet set the scene for the storm sinfonia from Georg Caspar Schürmann's Die getreue Alceste, and castanets make "Sdegni, furori barbari" from Pallavicino's L’Antiope into a fandango. The two arias from Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte make as fine a climax as they did at the Phillips concert.

The arias are often paired in fast and slow combinations, like the two from Mitilene, regina delle Amazzoni by Giuseppe de Bottis, featuring both Desandre's rapid-fire melismatic technique and luscious legato line. In one of several memorable guest appearances, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli soars in tandem with Desandre in the marvelous duet "Io piango / Io peno" from the Bottis opera. Soprano Véronique Gens joins with Desandre in a scene from Philidor's Les Amazones, and William Christie contributes a Passacaille in C by Louis Couperin, shadowed by Dunford on therbo. Virtuoso Jean Rondeau, who serves as the group's regular harpsichordist, improvises a postlude to one aria and performs the dance "L’Amazône" from François Couperin's Second Livre. A curious Thomas Dunford original, Amazones, rounds out the disc, although it is not listed in the booklet or provided with translations like the other vocal pieces.


Briefly Noted: Albert Roussel's...operetta?

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A. Roussel, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, M. Lenormand, M. Gomar, L. Komitès, Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes, D. Corlay

(released on March 1, 2022)
Naxos 8.660479 | 78'56"
How many delightful surprises are left in the oeuvre of Albert Roussel? The chances to hear the French composer's music in live performance remain sadly limited: we have written warmly of his opera-ballet Padmâvatî and his marvelous score Le Festin de l'Araignée, both performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in recent years. Because he had both a conservative education in historical counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum and an interest in jazz and Asian music, his music tends to be erudite and unclassifiable.

Among the least expected works of Roussel is a rather absurd operetta, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, premiered the Czech Republic in 1936 and then at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1937. The composer died a few months later, but in 1964, at the request of Roussel's widow, the librettist cut it from its three-act original form to a compact single act. Marcel Mihalovici adapted the music for this revised version, in some ways a response to critics who had found the composer had trouble "adapting himself to simplicity."

Benjamin El Arbi and Mathieu Franot founded Les Frivolités Parisiennes in 2012, with the goal of reviving lesser-known light French musical comedies. This disc is the world premiere recording of the one-act version of Tante Caroline, made from a live performance in June 2019, at the L'Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet in Paris. The titular aunt of the venal family in this farce was, somewhat scandalously, a prostitute. She apparently enjoyed much success in her chosen career, as she amassed an impressive fortune.

Now that she is dead her three greedy nieces, who normally keep their distance out of propriety, show up hoping to inherit. Tante Caroline's will stipulates that the wealth will pass to the child of whichever childless niece can produce an heir within a year. Much of the middle nonsense is cut, leading to the conclusion, in which one niece is reunited with her illegitimate son, whom she gave up before taking religious vows. To everyone's surprise, the young man now serves as Tante Caroline's chauffeur, and the old lady has the last laugh.

The orchestra sparkles under the baton of Dylan Corlay, with a capable cast of singer-actors. Bass-baritone Till Fechner excels in both vocal and spoken patter as the lawyer, Maitre Corbeau, and Marie Perbost displays a limpid light soprano as Lucine, Tante Caroline's maid, especially in the pleasant little aria "Mlle Irene d'Anjou." Sadly there is no libretto included with this recording, and none to be found online, making this mostly of interest to francophone listeners. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has made available a portfolio of newspaper clippings about the work.