March 1, 2012
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Lara St. John, violin; Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp
Ancalagon ANC 139 (64 min 39 s)
Marie-Pierre Langlamet and violinist Lara St. John play two violin-harpsichord and three flute-harpsichord sonatas note for note with a twist—the harpsichord parts are covered by Langlamet, principal harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, harp does not give that crisp, even tone associated with Bach. Its lightness also diminishes the contrapuntal play between the keyboard and soprano instrument, so that the violin becomes the star attraction (although this is also due to recording technique). The Sonata in G Minor for flutehas the best balance, perhaps because it’s scored for neither of them. At any rate, St. John’s finely-played performance deserves focus as she clearly has an affinity for the cadence of Bach. The more subdued keyboard part isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either; Langlamet is a first-rate musician and her harp breathes a lilting freshness into the pieces. Its timbre also lends an appropriately stately aura. St. John says that she so prefers the harp that she doesn’t “think [she’ll] ever be able to do these again with keyboard.” Whether or not you’ll agree, this disc gives the rare joy of rediscovering pieces in a new context. For that reason alone it will prove rewarding for Bach lovers. (See our interview with Lara St. John here.) Crystal Chan
Shuffle. Play. Listen.
Matt Haimovitz, cello; Christopher O’Riley, piano
Oxingale OX2019 (CD 1: 71 min 56 s, CD 2: 60 min 58 s)
Shuffle.Play.Listen. is a mix of classical, film, pop, rock, and jazz music from the last century. Stripped to Matt Haimovitz’s cello and Christopher O’Riley on piano, genres blur; Stravinsky rocks and Blonde Redhead recalls Romantic lieder. The transcriptions are O’Riley’s, who’s already released piano albums of his pop transcriptions, notably of Radiohead (here there are two Radiohead songs). If anything, the common genre is fusion, whether it be composers incorporating traditional music—Martinů’s Variations on a Slovak Folksong, for example—jazzy prog rockers like John McLaughlin exploring Indian harmony, or indie-poppers like Arcade Fire who embrace classical instruments. Dizzy yet?
O’Riley proves a gifted writer for cello as well as piano. Haimovitz is a master of his instrument; O’Riley’s got him nearly teetering off his soundboard with transcriptions of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo soundtrack and there’s not a squeak. Janáček’s Pohádka is the haunting standout from the first disc and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Dance of Maya, complete with a boogie piano solo, is the one from the second. That’s the funny part—this attempt at a postmodern, borderless listening experience is divided into ‘classical’ and ‘pop’ discs; it’s more like a curated mix tape than a pre-loaded iPod. But that can be easily fixed if you take the title to heart. Crystal Chan
Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor (Valentiniano), Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano (Fulvia), Sonia Prina, contralto (Ezio), Mayuko Karasawa, soprano (Onoria), Topi Lehtipuu, tenor (Massimo), Julian Prégardien, tenor (Varo); Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Virgin Classics 5 0999907 092923 (2CD: 146 min 53 s)
Often neglected by the dictionaries, Ezio, dramma per musica (1750) is one of around thirty operas of different genres composed by Gluck before the major operatic reform set in motion by Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). It is an opera seria in the customary style in which secco recitatives alternate with da capo arias, creating repetitions and dialogues often left unjustified. Metastasio has peppered his libretto with romantic rivalry and political jealousy between the emperor Valentiniano and General Aetius (Ezio), the very same who put Attila and the Huns to rout. History tells us that the emperor had Aetius murdered, but here the librettist preferred to write a happier ending. Nonetheless, there is much to admire here, especially Se povero il ruscello, a beautifully orchestrated aria sung by the perfidious Massimo whose daughter Fulvia is loved by the two most powerful men in Rome. Although the finales to the three acts also reach a certain climax, it is not enough to call this opera a complete success. The line-up of soloists does quite a respectful job, although Sonia Prina’s portrayal of Ezio is rather weak. Alan Curtis conducts and directs both the pit and the stage with praiseworthy care. Alexandre Lazaridès
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live: Works by Gabrieli, Bach, Revueltas, Prokofiev, Grainger and Walton
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass
CSO –Resound CSOR 901 1101 (64 min 46 s)
In the days when Adolph Herseth led the trumpet section (1948-2001) the Chicago Symphony brass playing was the stuff of legend. It is still a fine brass section but without Herseth’s commanding presence it is far less thrilling and far less distinctive. Surely the conductors had something to do with it too. Reiner and Solti encouraged that aggressive and penetrating sound while more recent conductors have something else in mind. The programme on this disc is not very imaginative. Walton’s Crown Imperial March is loud without being exciting, and the Eric Cress arrangement of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor sounds curiously unidiomatic. Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is a quirky set of pieces but sounds better in its original wind band version. Come to think of it, nearly all the music on this CD is a transcription of a piece quite familiar in its original and better version. The CSO Brass would have been better off choosing some of the many fine works actually written for brass. Paul E. Robinson
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6,
Symphony No. 12 “The Year 1917”
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Naxos 8.572658 (69 min 38 s)
Petrenko and the RLPO are working their way through a cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies and the results, so far, have been impressive. But the latest installment features two of the composer’s least-played symphonies and the performances are variable. For the Symphony No. 6, I much prefer Leonard Bernstein’s slower tempi and more nuanced approach with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG DVD B0006578-09). And the sound is better too. As for the Symphony No. 12, it depends on what one thinks of the piece. It is intended to honour the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin. In 1961 when Shostakovich composed the symphony he had little choice except to do what he was told or risk serious punishment from the authorities. But Shostakovich nearly always found a way to express his own doubts and misgivings about the Soviet system. The Symphony No. 12 is full of brooding and ends with a triumphalism that is so chromatic and abrasive, listeners at the premiere must have wondered what they were hearing. Petrenko and the RLPO do a fine job of bringing out the composer’s conflicted feelings. Paul E. Robinson
Rachmaninov: The Bells Op. 35,
Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Symphonic Suite Op. 60/Bernstein: Candide Overture
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
ICA Classics DVD ICAD 5038 (62 min 5 s)
André Previn has never been the most charismatic of conductors and over the years his gestures and podium demeanour have taken on an increasingly weary and disinterested character. At the same time, there has never been any question about Previn’s enormous musical gifts as pianist, composer and conductor.
This DVD brings together BBC television broadcasts from the 1970s when Previn was at the height of his fame in England as conductor of the London Symphony. The performance of the Bells is taken from a 1973 Proms appearance with the LSO Chorus in top form and three of England’s leading vocal soloists: Sheila Armstrong, Robert Tear and John Shirley-Quirk. The performance is given in English—Previn recorded it later in Russian—and it is excellent. Unfortunately, the camera work is only rudimentary.
From 1977—just four years later—we have a much more imaginative presentation of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite. The BBC put much more work into making sure cameras were on musicians actually playing important solos. Paul E. Robinson
Translation: Jérôme Côté