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


Briefly Noted: Schumann for Four and Five (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Schumann, Piano Quartet/Piano Quintet, I. Faust, A.K. Schreiber, A. Tamestit, J.-G. Queyras, A. Melnikov

(released on November 24, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902695 | 52'42"
Many musicologists have described Robert Schumann's youthful piano quartet and piano quintet as twin works, not least because they were composed in the same key, E-flat major, and within a few weeks of one another. Neither of these pieces, early experiments by Schumann with pairing his favorite instrument, the piano, with different combination of string instruments, lasts over a half-hour, but the young composer, still only 19 years old, laid the foundations for many later examples of both of these still relatively rare genres.

This delectable new release assembles a dream team for these exemplary works: violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Antoine Tamestit, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov. All play on historical instruments, with the strings all made roughly around the year 1700, as early as 1672, in the case of Tamestit's Stradivarius viola. Melnikov plays on a historical fortepiano made by Ignace Pleyel (Paris, 1851), technically constructed after Schumann composed these pieces, but that is a minor point.

Even though it was composed slightly later, the quartet is the lesser work to my ears, but its slow movement, with ardent cello solos here played subtly by Queyras, is nothing short of gorgeous. Schumann's piano quintet, however, has always struck me as one of the most perfect pieces of chamber music ever written. This performance, with Anne Katharina Schreiber joining on second violin, is going to be rather difficult to improve on, and it is certainly in competition with Melnikov's own recording of the same pairing from a decade ago (with the Jerusalem String Quartet) and the version made around the same time by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. The second movement surprises, both by the detached, somewhat brisk pacing of the funeral march and the understated rubato of the B section. The use of historical instruments and the individual strengths of each player put this disc a notch above.

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Briefly Noted: Distler's Modern Christmas Oratorio

available at Amazon
Hugo Distler, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, Adam Riis, Concert Clemens, Carsten Seyer-Hansen

(released on November 1, 2023)
OUR Recordings 6.220684 | 40'17"
available at Amazon
Athesinus Consort Berlin,
Klaus-Martin Bresgott
This recording of Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, while not the first, is the one that finally made me study this sadly lesser-known work. Many choral musicians, myself included, know Distler's austere arrangement of the late medieval tune "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." This larger piece for unaccompanied SATB choir uses that tune to unify its 40 minutes of music: many verses of it are sung, interwoven with the Gospel account of the Nativity, sung in chant-like unaccompanied recitative by several soloists.

In this sense, the piece is akin to one of Bach's chorale cantatas, just without solo arias, but it also has much in common with the sacred music of Heinrich Schütz. The ingenuity of the chorale device reaches its climax when the chorale is touchingly interwoven with the part of the dialogue where Mary sings the words now known as the Magnificat, as if all souls ever born are present in that moment to praise Mary's submission to God. Shortly after, in another brilliant moment, there is a verse with the basses on a lullabye ostinato ("Eia, eia, eia"), soothing the newborn Jesus laid in the manger.

The Evangelist, on this disc the refined tenor Adam Riis, gets the bulk of the recitative between choruses, with other singers from the choir appearing as the angel Gabriel (high soprano), Mary and Elizabeth (mezzo-sopranos), and Herod and Simeon (basses). The main competition for this disc is the 2015 recording by the Athesinus Consort Berlin, conducted by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, who is also the editor of the critical edition of the score that appeared the same year (Carus-Verlag, 2015). Individual soloists may be slightly better on one disc or the other, but the overall performance of the Danish choir Concert Clemens on this new disc, directed with great sensitivity by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, is more moving. In particular, the disc's resonant sound preserves the sense of hearing it in an open space with acoustic ring, the Skt. Markus Kirken in Århus, where it was captured last year.

Distler composed this gorgeous piece of modern sacred music in 1933, as his life became entwined with the fate of the Nazi party. Born in Nuremberg, the young German composer had done collegiate studies at Leipzig Conservatory but was forced to withdraw from them for financial reasons in 1931. He took a job as organist at the church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck and got married in 1933. That same year he joined the Nazi party and left written records, documented by historians, showing his support for the regime. Distler rose to better positions in Stuttgart and eventually Berlin, but the Nazi party eventually turned on him, labeling his music "degenerate" and threatening to conscript him into military service. In 1942, at the age of 34, he committed suicide in Berlin.

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Briefly Noted: Merry Charpentier Christmas

available at Amazon
Charpentier, Messe de Minuit, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé

(released on October 13, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902707DI2 | 80'52"
The French early music group Ensemble Correspondances has quickly become a favorite. For that unusual Christmas gift, conductor Sébastien Daucé has put together a most entertaining Noël program on this new release. In splendid performances, it pairs Marc-Antoine Charpentier's more familiar Messe de Minuit, a setting of popular Noël melodies to the Ordinary of the Mass, with two of the same composer's oratorio-like dramatic motets for Christmas.

In his excellent booklet essay, Graham Sadler notes a musical self-borrowing not often commented on, in which Charpentier based the "Gloria" movement of the Midnight Mass on the music that went with a parallel text in his motet In nativitatem Domini canticum, H. 416. Having always been struck by the beauty of this moment in the Mass, so much more reflective and introspective than the general take on the "Gloria" text, I was delighted to learn of this connection with the earlier work, which I did not know at all.

Daucé rounds out a Christmas Eve celebration with a number of charming selections, including two of Charpentier's instrumental settings of Noëls used in the Mass. The setting of "Laissez paître vos bêtes" for recorder consort is an absolute delight, as is a motet for the elevation of the host, excerpted from a longer work by Charpentier's contemporary, Sébastien de Brossard, a real find for music directors looking for something unusual to program next month. The disc ends with one of Charpentier's versions of the Te Deum, H. 147, likely used during the Christmas season at the Jesuit church of St. Louis in Paris, where Charpentier was maître de musique. Sung at the end of Matins, it would have directly preceded Midnight Mass.

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A Survey of Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycles

► An Index of ionarts Discographies

Continuing my discographies, this is a survey of - hopefully - every extant recorded cycle of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. For now, I have listed them alphabetically by conductor. This is not as interesting as listing them chronologically, but it gives a quicker overview of conductors having done multiple cycles. (If anyone knows how to construct a working html/css table that I can sort by either year or name, do let me know! I'm still failing with that for my LvB Symphony Survey.) I do not, by and large, include incomplete cycles (which is to say, not all Symphonies 1-6)... but then I make a lot of exceptions, anyway. "+M" indicates the presence of the Manfred Symphony.

I'll happily grant that Tchaikovsky is not my favorite composer and that I never went through a near-obsessive phase with his symphonies as I did with Mahler, Bruckner, DSCH, Sibelius, or even Martinů. But it's still great music and I do find myself viscerally reacting to performances. It's just that I then either find them great (rarely) or outrigh boring.

I am sitting on the data for several new discographic entries under work. Ring cycles, Mahler, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven symphony cycles, Mozart Piano Concerto and String Quartet-cycles, among others. They take an awful lot of time to research, however, and even more time to put into html-presentable shape. And even then they are rarely complete or mistake-free. Neither will this one be, and every such post is also a plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae.

I am explicitly grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize for any bloomers. (Preferably on Twitter, where I'll read the comment much sooner than here, but either works!) Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful when I have sets that I have missed (such that only ever appeared on LP, for example) pointed out to me. I have not listened to them all, but favorites are indicated with the "ionarts choice" graphic. Ditto recommended cycles by ClassicsToday/David Hurwitz. Links to reputable reviews are included where I thought of it and could find any. With hundreds of links in this document, there are, despite my best efforts, bound to be some that are broken or misplaced; I am glad about every correction that comes my way re. those, too.

Enjoy and leave a comment in some form!

Edits Nov.6.2023: The Survey wasn't five hours hold that I had already been kindly reminded of two oversights (thanks, Decca & Danny!) Zdeněk Mácal's cycle on EXTON with the Czech Phil vand Alexander Sladkovsky's 2019 cycle w/the Tartastan NSO have been added.

(Survey begins after the break, if you didn't land on this page directly)


Briefly Noted: Noseda's cycle of Walker sinfonias

available at Amazon
George Walker, Five Sinfonias, National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda

(released on September 29, 2023)
NSO0007D | 65'17"
Gianandrea Noseda had planned to lead a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The twist was that the NSO would perform all nine symphonies in just three weeks, beginning in late May of 2020, a plan wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Fate intervened further with the murder of George Floyd that month, igniting a national reaction that led the NSO and other classical music institutions into self-reflection about representative programming. The eventual cycle, led by Noseda from 2022 to 2023, was a pairing of Beethoven with symphonies by African-American composers George Walker and William Grant Still.

One of the benefits was this complete cycle of the five sinfonias of George Walker, all recorded live in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under Noseda's fastidious baton. Remarkably, for all the effort and time involved in bringing this composite cycle to completion, this single disc clocks in at just over an hour. None of the Walker Sinfonias is longer than about fifteen minutes, and the most slender is the one the NSO itself commissioned in 2012, when the esteemed American composer was 90 years old, Sinfonia No. 4. Walker's subtitle, “Strands,” refers to the way he interwove two spiritual melodies (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll”) almost imperceptibly into this one-movement piece, which the NSO took on its 2023 visit to Carnegie Hall. Sinfonia No. 2 stands out among the Walker symphonies for its originality, especially the short second movement (“Lamentoso e quasi senza misura”) where a mournful flute solo is accompanied by enigmatic clusters and melodic snippets from the cellos and even guitar.

Sinfonia No. 3 has a percussion-laden third movement bustling with rhythmic activity, reminscent at times of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. However, like Sinfonia No. 1 and portions of most of these pieces, a disappointing sameness and arid quality prevail. Sinfonia No. 5 ("Visions"), premiered after Walker's death in 2018, has the most overt programmatic elements of the five. While Walker was working on the piece, in 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, after which the composer added words to the symphony, spoken by a soprano, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The composer's last symphonic statement thus took up the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States, made more explicit by a video by Frank Schramm shown at the premiere, including ocean scenes and photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston.

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