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Briefly Notedest: Some of the Year's Best Recordings

I wish I could listen to and review more new recordings, but there are just too many crossing my desk. Below are the six new releases that really stuck with me this year.

available at Amazon
Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della beata vergine. Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (Harmonia Mundi HMM902710.11)
Claudio Monteverdi is a favorite composer, and there is no piece of his greater in my estimation than the Vespro della beata vergine. The Vespers of 1610, as the piece is sometimes known, has been reviewed in these pages many times, both in recordings and live. In other words, it would take a lot for me to be surprised by a new recording of this piece, but that is precisely what conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble, Pygmalion, have done in their newly released recording.

available at Amazon
Franz Schubert, Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt (Ondine ODE1394-2D)
Lars Vogt delayed checking into a hospital in 2021 for further analysis of the cancer that would eventually take his life last September. Instead, he traveled to Bremen to make the first part of this double-album of Schubert's chamber music with Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja Tetzlaff. In addition to the two numbered trios is the Notturno, a single slow movement possibly composed for and then removed from the first piano trio. Vogt wrote that it "feels a little bit like everything, at least in my life, has developed toward this Trio in E flat major.”

available at Amazon
Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole. Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexandre Tharaud (Harmonia Mundi HMM902315)
Alexandre Tharaud has not visited Washington since 2015, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras was last here in 2017. The two esteemed French musicians have continued their long and fruitful collaboration in a striking new Baroque album, with delightful transcriptions of Marin Marais’s pièces de viole, originally for viola da gamba and continuo, for cello and piano. The performances, in the spirit of Baroque elaboration but taking full advantage of modern dynamic range and harmonic content, are delightful.

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Malheur me bat. Gli Angeli Genève, Stephan MacLeod (Aparté AP338)
One cannot have too many recordings of Josquin's cyclic Masses, at least not yet. The complete set by the Tallis Scholars remains hard to beat, but then along comes Gli Angeli Genève with this new release of a program centered on the elusive Renaissance composer's Missa Malheur me bat. The sound, recorded at the Eglise Saint-Germain in Geneva, is less aggressive than the Tallis Scholars, who recorded this Mass only about a decade ago: slightly smaller in number of voices, but also more intimate, more rarefied and refined.

available at Amazon
Pietro Locatelli, Violin Concertos / Concerti Grossi. Isabelle Faust, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (Harmonia Mundi HMM902398)
If you've heard of Locatelli, it is likely as part of a list of other 18th-century violinist-composers in the mold of Corelli and Vivaldi: one of those Italian -i names. At most, early music groups will include a Locatelli piece along with more famous composers in a program from time to time. So be prepared to be wowed when you take in the latest disc from Il Giardino Armonico and the mesmerizing violinist Isabelle Faust, which is devoted entirely to the works of this under-played composer.

available at Amazon
Gabriel Fauré, Nocturnes and Barcarolles / Dolly Suite. Marc-André Hamelin, Cathy Fuller (Hyperion CDA68331/2)
Marc-André Hamelin has made a name for himself by playing extremely difficult music with ease and musicality. The latest in the Canadian-born pianist's excellent series of deeply probing recitals of unusual music, all on the Hyperion label, is devoted to Gabriel Fauré, specifically to all thirteen of the French composer's Nocturnes and all thirteen of his Barcarolles. Solidifying the qualifications of this double-CD set as the best to own is the addition of a lovely rendition of Fauré's Dolly Suite, with Hamelin's wife, Cathy Fuller, on the primo part.

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Dip Your Ears: No. 271 (Danish Choral Gems)

available at Amazon
Carl Nielsen
sung by
Danish National Choral Ensembles
Conductors: Michael Schonwandt, Phillip Feber, Susanne Wendt
(dacapo 8.226112)

Easy-on-the-Ears Choral Nielsen

The song vocabulary of Denmark was created in large part by Carl Nielsen, who has some 300 songs and about 100 choral compositions to his name. It’s an occurrence that – in the listening and better yet in the singing! – fuses high art with popularity in the literal meaning of the word. If you like choral music, easy-on-the-ear tunes, then these 25 hymns and choral songs of Carl Nielsen’s in wonderful, mostly calm, occasionally bracing performances by the various Danish National Choruses, are just the ticket. The selections are evenly distributed between pieces for mixed, male, and childrens’ (including girls’) choirs. The adult ensembles are splendid; the kids are very good but not quite as exceptional. With “Kom Gudsengel, stille død (“Come, God’s angel, silent Death”) a more complex, particularly dark but exquisite and clouded gem, for alto, tenor and bass, is at the center of the program. The Nordic, ever so slightly wistful air, lingers amid these works as it does – albeit more subtly – with similar pieces by Grieg. Lightly stirring and gently swaying – with the mist of a nostalgic past, where singing still united congregations and generations wafting by – Carl Nielsen shows himself with a popular and deft touch that adds to the perception we may have of him as a symphonist.


Shakespeare Theatre's Age of Aquarius Beatles Musical ('As You Like It')

Jennifer Lines (center) and cast in As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo: Teresa Castracane Photography

Shakespeare Theatre Company is offering its own cheery December production, in answer to all the Nutcrackers and Messiahs and carol sing-alongs, to drive away the winter doldrums. It has revived an updating of Shakespeare's As You Like It, set in the 1960s and first conceived by Daryl Cloran for Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. Seen Wednesday evening at Harman Hall, this antic, technicolor production weaves together a critical mass of Beatles songs, often just salient excerpts, with the Shakespeare text. The grafting process required some heavy cuts to the play, which could be a plus or a minus, depending on your disposition.

The updating works best in the Forest of Arden, where the exiled Duke's lines about life in the woods do sound convincingly like something a hippie might say: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." Life is groovy, man, and nature is our university. The tie-dye brightness of a VW bus as backdrop and the band's costumes bring Woodstock to mind. The Dukes, the older usurped in rule by the younger, become Dames, both played convincingly by Jennifer Lines: the usurper as an establishment figure, costumed like Jackie Kennedy, and the elder a long-haired flower child. The decision to amp up the wrestling bit in Act I into a WWE extravaganza, expanded into a preshow entertainment, while fun (with exciting fight direction by Jonathan Hawley Purvis, complete with believable piledrivers), tired long before it was over.

Various 60s types are evoked in the costuming of the characters (colorful costume design by Carmen Alatorre): Orlando, turned into a loveable spaz by Jeff Irving, channels Elvis in his dance numbers; Kayvon Khoshkam's Touchstone wears glittery sunglasses and elevator shoes, a combination of Elton John and Austin Powers; Chelsea Rose's Rosalind and Naomi Ngebulana's Celia sport beehive hairstyles like Natalie Wood; Andrew Cownden's downer Jaques seems like a mash-up of a beat poet and Andy Warhol. The whole affair, kept at a jumpy tempo by Cloran's direction, has the attention span you might expect from an episode of Laugh-In.

If your idea of fun is sitting through two and a half hours of Beatles karaoke, you will surely enjoy the evening. The Forest of Arden has a cover band, made up also of cast members, under the musical direction of Ben Elliott, who plays the country rube Silvius with adorable backwardness. The singing is of varied quality, with the best song of the twenty-three (!) songs turning out to be "Let It Be," sung beautifully by Evan Rein as Amiens and with soft harmony from others in the cast. Audience participation is encouraged, with the cast pausing just long enough mid-lyric for someone in the house to supply a word that everyone knew should be next. Shakespeare included a number of celebrated songs in As You Like It, set by numerous composers over the centuries. This perhaps helps to justify turning it into a musical pastiche, but it is a shame to lose all the Shakespeare songs in the process.

Few would argue that As You Like It is one of the bard's best plays, but if you are expecting to hear all of your favorite scenes, you may be disappointed. The most famous speech, Jacques's "All the World's a Stage," survives the cuts, a rare sober moment as recited by the grumpy Andrew Cownden in what is otherwise a noisy performance continually undercut by pop song interruptions. In the scene in which characters roast Orlando's painfully sophomoric poetry ("If a hart do lack a hind, / Let him seek out Rosalind"), the doggerel is switched out for some of the more insipid lines from Beatles songs. That this works, more or less, is not exactly a strong argument for replacing so many of Shakespeare's words with Beatles songs.

As You Like It runs through January 7.


Dip Your Ears: No. 270 (Shadowy Cello Sonatas)

available at Amazon
C.Schumann, Mendelessohn Frère et Sœur, G.Jenner
Lorenzo Meseguer (c), Mario Mora (pf)
(Eudora SACD 2204)

Clara, Fanny, and Gustav in the Shadows

“SHADOWS” is an album combining two single-movement works for cello and piano by Fanny Mendelssohn (Fantasia in G minor) and Clara Schumann (Three Romances op.22) with two cello sonatas, Felix Mendelssohn’s Second Sonata and that of the Brahmsian Gustav Jenner (also in D major). The title of the CD, goes the argument in the booklet, comes from the fact that each composer lived in the shadow of another. The gals in that of their brother and husband, respectively, and Jenner in that of Brahms, whose only student Jenner had been. Fair enough: While it might be argued that Clara Schumann was not much less – if at all – famous than her husband at the height of her concertizing career, at least as a composer she certainly wasn’t a known quantity. With Felix Mendelssohn, the claim is stretched too far. Only because he was “denigrated by some European musicologists in the early 20th century, in part because of his Jewish origins”, doesn’t mean that Mendelssohn, the man who invented classical music as we know it (from the conservatory system to the figure of the conductor to the idea of repertoire; salvaging Bach as a bonus) and who wrote a slew of masterpieces that were never not loved and acclaimed, has, for all the accusations of an excess of facileness or not pushing musical boundaries, ever been in anyone’s shadow.

But no matter, the music matters, not the title of the CD. And the performances are splendid, indeed. Cellist Lorenzo Meseguer has a surefooted, none-too-sweet tone and gorgeous round low notes that come out very nicely on the Eudora recording, which is proximate to the instruments (more so than, say, the fine Naxos recording with Maria Kliegel and Kristin Merscher) but leaves enough air. The second-movement pizzicatos are nearly as coy as those of Pieter Wispelwey’s (with Paolo Giacometti on Onyx) while Mario Mora’s piano part – naturally, given he is playing a modern Steinway – is more supple than Giacometti’s 1837 Érard. The tempi are not extreme in either direction, although the Adagio is certainly milked for its wistful beauty… if not as wickedly as Christophe Coin and Patrick do, who make it sound as though Tzimon Barto broke into a fortepiano shop. (In a good way, I suppose, although that’s bound to be rather subjective.) The finale is a nicely contrasting firecracker and the contrast. Comparison to a golden-oldie favorite of mine, János Starker and György Sebők on Mercury, make Meseguer’s cello appear comparatively prominent – perhaps more a question of engineering than playing.

The Mendelssohn may be the main ingredient of this CD, but the USP is probably the shadowy composers in front and after him, where there’s little competition. Only two other recordings exist of the fine Jenner sonata; only four of the beautiful Fanny Mendelssohn Fantasia which is here given all its considerable worth. Both, Jenner’s work, which is very obviously (but also very deftly) post-Brahmsian, and Fanny’s piece, are reasons to tune in. The key is not to be turned off by the Three Romances which, after a few minutes of vapid beauty, become so obviously trite that they’re hard to bear: ambling melodies in the cello connected by clichéd phrases and clumsy chords. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.