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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 7 May 1998

Discs of the Month/ Disques du mois

J.S. Bach: Cantates pour alto BWV 35, 54 & 170
Andreas Scholl, countertenor
Philippe Herreweghe / Orchestre du Collegium Vocale
harmonia mundi HMC 901644 / SRI

cd-js.jpg (3789 bytes)It is always a pleasure to recommend a new recording featuring 31-year-old German countertenor Andreas Scholl. His previous album, German Baroque Songs (HMC 901505), remains one of the most ravishing early music recordings of all time and since then he has gone from strength to strength. Now he offers three of Bach’s four cantatas for solo alto (probably written for an exceptional boy soprano). The liner notes tell us that the soaring alto voice in 18th century German church music represented the Holy Ghost. In these cantatas the ecclesiastical message is of the dreary Protestant sort -- sinfulness, guilt, damnation -- but the music is fascinating and dramatic, running the gamut from simple recitative to ravishing lullaby ("Vergnügte Ruh’!" BWV 170) to coloratura arias ("Mir ekelt mehr zu leben" BWV 170, "Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben" BWV 35) that are quite at odds with the prudish texts. Herreweghe’s leadership is spirited, the Collegium Vocale orchestra plays impeccably, and the organ and harpsichord continuo is a delight. A free 35-minute Portrait of Andreas Scholl CD with highlights from his previous harmonia mundi recordings completes this irresistible offering.

Hans Werner Henze: Undine
Oliver Knussen / London Sinfonietta
Deutsche Grammophon 453-467-2

cd-henze.jpg (11087 bytes)It is hard to believe that this is the world premiere recording of Henze’s impressive three-act ballet Undine, written for the English choreographer Frederick Ashton in 1957 and premiered by Margot Fontaine in 1958. This is great music -- programmatic, as ballet music often is -- but also potent, sophisticated, atmospheric and accessible. The fairy tale of the water sprite in love with a mortal man has inspired numerous musical creations (Dvorak’s Rusalka, Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, Lortzing’s Undine, etc.). Undine, which Henze called a "wonderful Nocturne about Love and Beauty," belongs with the masterpieces of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Henze, a German resident in Italy since 1953, imbues his evocative score with Mediterranean light and shadow, scents and sounds of water, forest and air. The rich, shifting neoclassical orchestration displays fertile invention and conjures up a panoply of visual tableaux. Knussen and the London Sinfonietta give a definitive performance. The recording is very clean, acoustically ravishing, detailed, balanced, with fine spatial distribution of the sections. Excellent notes (including excerpts from Henze’s own diary) in English, French and German complete this superb offering.

(c) La Scena Musicale