Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Previous Life: My New York Times Classical Recording Reviews - Part Three

Here are the last of my 1980s-vintage reviews of classical recordings for the Sunday New York Times arts section.

April 19, 1987


Many recordings of pre-Classical music used to be sold in what amounted to plain brown wrappers with such plain brown titles as ''Monody, ca. 1600 - Research Period VII'' (and many, though by no means all, of the performances were monochromatic, too). If this left little doubt about the high-mindedness attached to the whole operation, it also probably discouraged casual purchases, limiting the audience to those already in the know.
Things have changed. Without trying to guess whether this is a case of cause and effect, we can easily see that eye-catching packaging and more imaginative performances and programming have accompanied the development of a broader audience for Medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque music.
Some of the most engaging of recent releases have come from Hyperion, a London-based company that for some time has had a loyal following here in the United States, but which remains relatively unfamiliar to the mass of listeners. Some past Hyperion disks have been called ''Sitting by the Streams,'' ''Love and Languishment'' and ''A Feather on the Breath of God,'' the latter (CDA 66039) an exquisite sampling of the music and verse of the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and well worth seeking out.
That recital was put together by Christopher Page, the director of the Gothic Voices ensemble. He and his group are also responsible for two more recent Hyperion titles, both devoted to 15th-century courtly songs by composers including Guillaume Dufay, Francesco Landini, Binchois and (maybe) Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, himself: ''The Garden of Zephirus'' (early 1400's) and ''The Castle of Fair Welcome'' (later 1400's) - compact disks CDA 66144 and 66194 and available on LP and cassette as well.
In their poetry and their music alike, these songs employ images and forms fixed by convention; while fine, they are genteel and even cool. The smooth, mostly unaccompanied, vocal performances reflect this, which is generally admirable and appropriate, although where the text is less staid (as in the anonymous ''En amours n'a si non bien'' on the ''Castle of Fair Welcome'' album) a more abandoned rendition might be suitable. On the whole, though, the music and the audience are well served indeed by these atmospheric readings.
Another Hyperion ''theme'' disk is ''Time Stands Still'' (Hyperion LP A 66186; CD and cassette also), a recital by the soprano Emma Kirkby and the lutenist Anthony Rooley. This is a program the two have often performed live (most of this album was taped at a concert at Forde Abbey, Dorset, England), and it is a beautifully devised three-quarters of an hour of Elizabethan songs with lute, all on the subject of time and change. The poetic impact here is far more direct; few periods have equaled this for touching the heart.
Both the singing and playing are peaceful and accomplished; Ms. Kirkby applies embellishment with a light, knowing hand. Her range of vocal color is narrow, but when tonal hue is altered, the effect, though subtle, is telling, as in the phrase ''Peace, peevish bee'' in Dowland's ''It was a time.''
Hyperion devotes great attention to its liner notes, and good, clear essays (often by the scholar-performers themselves) place the music in cultural and literary context, enhancing our pleasure in listening to it.
Among the big labels, DG's Archiv division offers an unusual survey of English organ music from the 16th to the early 19th centuries (compact disk 415 675-2; available also on LP). Simon Preston plays works by such composers as Byrd, Purcell and Samuel Wesley , joined by Trevor Pinnock in the Wesley C major duet for organ. Two organs are used, one dating to around 1605 and the other to about 1790. The music is diverse and interesting, as are the instruments.

May 24, 1987


Antonin Dvorak is celebrated at once for being a musical proponent of Czech (or pan-Slavic) nationalism and for his cosmopolitan career. After he achieved fame in his late 30's, his services as composer and professor were much in demand all over Europe, Britain and the United States; indeed, some of his most popular works were conceived in America.
If a single work can be said to have led to this international celebrity, it must be the first set of eight Slavonic Dances (Op. 46), whose wonderful melodies and stimulating rhythms created a sensation at the Dresden premiere in 1878. Around the same time came the three Op. 45 Slavonic Rhapsodies; later, by popular demand, Dvorak published another eight Dances (Op. 72 of 1886), rather more refined and clever. Beyond their melodies and rhythms, of course, there is not a great deal here or elsewhere in Dvorak's output that is especially Slavonic or Czech. Orchestration and harmony are very much in the mainstream of European composition: there is little to match, say, Mussorgsky's distinctly Russian, if idiosyncratic, sound.
In a sense, the Slavonic Dances and Rhapsodies are less than wholly ''national,'' as they amount to translations of ethnic material into a more general language; yet they are no less pleasing to listen to for that. The Dances were originally composed for piano duet, but, although a couple of recordings of the keyboard versions are available, they are known principally as orchestral works, and it is as such that they may be heard on two Philips compact disks (416 623-2 and 416 624-2; available also on LP and cassette), nicely performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur.
The first volume contains the Op. 46 Dances and Rhapsodies 1 and 3; on the second we find the Op. 72 Dances and the remaining Rhapsody, No. 2. It is good to have both sets available, but on separate disks, allowing the purchaser to choose either or both as he likes. If a wilder performance would have been better in some of the more boisterous numbers, such as No. 8 of Op. 46, on the whole Mr. Masur conducts with the requisite power (as in the grander passages of the Slavonic Rhapsodies) and the orchestra plays with bite and drive.
At the time of the first Slavonic Dances, Johannes Brahms was among those who encouraged and assisted Dvorak; later he was an admirer of much of the Czech composer's work, and he is quoted as marveling at Dvorak's writing for the cello in the B minor concerto (Op. 104 of 1895). There are many recordings of the work, and two more have recently been added to the list, one by Yo-Yo Ma and one by Mstislav Rostropovich. Both are very good, and it is not easy to choose a favorite.
Mr. Rostropovich has about half a dozen recordings of this concerto to his credit; this latest (on an Erato LP, NUM 75282, and available on cassette and CD as well) is with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. The cellist's technical and musical powers are, as ever, impressive, and this loving performance expresses all the varied moods of the work, but without ever slipping into excess. From the intense entrance in the first movement to the sweet nostalgia of the third, all is as it should be.
The Boston Symphony is in fine form, too; the little solo horn passage at the work's beginning is lovely. Unfortunately, there are technical flaws in the recording: the cello sounds very forward, sometimes masking the orchestra and often out of balance with it. Also on this disk is Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, where Mr. Rostropovich's gifts as a virtuoso are further displayed.
The balances are more natural-sounding on the brighter CBS LP, with Yo-Yo Ma and the Berlin Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel (IM 42206; cassette and CD available too), and at times both conductor and cellist employ very interesting turns of musical phrase. Like Mr. Rostropovich, Mr. Ma plays masterfully and with incision, although tuning lapses are a slightly more frequent problem. The remainder of the recording is devoted to two other works of Dvorak: ''Silent Woods,'' Op. 68, No. 5, and the Op. 94 Rondo for Cello and Orchestra. Both are lyrical and pretty.
While each of the two disks has a lot in its favor, Mr. Rostropovich's more idiomatic reading is probably the more attractive, but only by a bow-string's breadth.
On a far smaller scale, Musical Heritage Society has published a recording of Dvorak's String Quintet in G major, Op. 18, played by members of the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble (MHS 7462L; available also on cassette). Unlike most string quintets, this one employs a double bass instead of a second cello, which gives it a somewhat darker cast.
Also atypically, the piece is composed of five rather than the customary four movements (although when it was published in a revised version as Op. 77 it lost its second movement, ''Intermezzo''). It is certainly not on the level of the best of the composer's string quartets, but it is vivacious and atmospheric, and is given an excellent performance here.
This disk, incidentally, is filled out with a little piece for solo flute accompanied by four horns: ''The Woodbird,'' by Albert Franz Doppler, who was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1821. Doppler was highly successful in his day as a flutist and conductor, but his light has dimmed to the merest glimmer of renown. Well, fair's fair: There is an anonymous 19th-century parody of Poe's poem ''The Bells'' that laments ''The long protracted tootelings of agonizing toots/ Of the flute, flute, flute, flute,/ Flute, flute, flute.'' The author probably had bird-song music like this in mind, with its never-ending trills and scales and tweets. Mellow horn harmonies flow under the flute's caroling, the overall effect reminiscent of nothing so much as a Victorian boarding house, with the Orpheus Glee Circle rehearsing in one room and a determined amateur flutist carrying on regardless in another. It's kind of pretty, actually, and very well played by Alan Cox.

June 28, 1987


There may be music that has been recorded more often than the nine symphonies of Beethoven, but it certainly doesn't look that way sometimes. Consider, for instance, a stack of recent LP's and compact disks, containing performances led by Riccardo Muti, Klaus Tennstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas and Gerard Schwarz.
Mr. Tilson Thomas, who was recently appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, has taken the rather daring step of using the comparatively small forces of the English Chamber Orchestra and the Tallis Chamber Choir to perform the grandest of the Beethoven symphonies, the Ninth (''Choral''), paired with the Eighth on a new two-CD set from CBS (M2K 39711, all three formats).
From the opening bars of the Eighth Symphony, the impression is one of clarity, with fresh tempos and an exciting sense of drive. Inner voices - whether rhythmic figuration in the lower strings or countermelodies in contrapuntal passages -come over in a way they rarely do when played by ''full'' orchestras. Mr. Tilson Thomas gives detailed attention to phrasing, although greater delicacy would have been welcome in the second and third movements of the Eighth Symphony. Also welcome would have been a more secure violin sound: in louder sustained playing things sometimes sound a trifle shaky.
Mr. Tilson Thomas's reading of the Ninth opens in a most effective anticipatory mood, and the performance remains arresting through the deliberate pace of the second movement and the lovely lyricism of the third. Then, the final movement makes a tremendous effect, the absolute precision and focused tone of the Tallis Chamber Choir's singing proving once again that you don't need 250 singers and players to do justice to full-scale choral works. All four vocal soloists acquit themselves with credit, although the baritone, Gwynn Howell, deserves special praise.
Also employing a smaller than average complement of players is the performance on Delos D/CD 3013 (CD only), in which Gerard Schwarz leads the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in Symphonies 1 and 8, and the London Symphony Orchestra in the overture to ''Prometheus'' - a full-value disk. Partly because of the smaller ensemble, certain details emerge here that can be lost with a larger, lusher orchestra. For instance, the rapid triplet string figures in the final movement of the Eighth come across as written, not verging on an undefined tremolo. Attacks are sharp and contrasts marked. Especially if you are partial to the more fibrous tone of an orchestra such as this one, you should enjoy this release.
In a more conventional vein, Riccardo Muti leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in lyrical readings of Symphonies 1 and 5 (Angel LP DS-38331; CD and cassette also). The orchestral sound is of a caressing warmth, with a dark, solid string timbre and coherent, focused wind playing, all well captured on this excellent pressing. There is no lack of musical tension, but nothing is exaggerated; the smooth tone of the performances is set by the seamless way in which the opening figure of the Fifth Symphony is tossed from instrument to instrument. Even where the playing is forceful it is never brash.
The sailing is not quite so plain in Klaus Tennstedt's renditions of the First and Eighth Symphonies with the London Philharmonic, on Angel LP DS-38286 (CD and cassette also). There are times when the string section - inherently less warm-sounding than the Philadelphia Orchestra's -slips into inaccuracy, with some frankly sloppy rapid passages and glissandos; a conductor who decides that a group of strings is going to slide from one note to another must ensure perfect synchronization. Still, there are plenty of well-considered details here, especially in the colorful Sixth (the ''Pastoral''), and Mr. Tennstedt is not to be ignored by those who accumulate Beethoven symphony recordings.
There are fewer complete recorded cycles of all 16 Beethoven string quartets than there are of the symphonies, and though such sets are not exactly rare, it is a pleasure to welcome the first three installments of a new edition (on compact disk only) by the Toronto-based Orford String Quartet. Volumes III, IV and V have been released as Delos D/CD 3033, 3034 and 3035. The five remaining disks are expected later in the year. So far, this is a very fine set indeed. Volume III contains Op. 59, No. 1 and Op. 18, No. 5; Op. 59, No. 2 and Op. 95 are found on Vol. IV; and Op. 59, No. 3 and Op. 74 on Vol. V. It is axiomatic that high technical skill is a prerequisite for truly satisfactory performances of any music - at least for performances one is listening to rather than participating in for fun, where anything goes. For example, like many other composers, Beethoven often employed very complex harmonies both for their own effect and to make the transition from one tonal territory to another.
Out-of-tune playing by one or more members of a chamber group not only can sound excruciating but also can disorient the listener during a transitional passage, making things seem very uncomfortable and illogical. Andrew Dawes, Kenneth Perkins, Terence Helmer and Denis Brott make up the Orford Quartet, as they have for some two decades. Their technical skills are impressive, and they play in tune, which means first of all that they do not distort the music.
But more than that, they possess uncommon musical sensibilities and dynamism. Where some quartets pride themselves on tonal homogeneity, each of the players and instruments in the Orford has something of a personality. Just one aspect of this: It is easy to hear the difference between the first violin and the second, which is nice when the musical ball is being passed back and forth between them. Yet the group's blend is exemplary, with a rich, warm aural structure buttressed by total musical unanimity.
A single word for these performances might be ''passionate,'' but with virtually none of the excess -even carelessness - that word could imply. (Indeed, there is as much elegance and delicacy here as unbridled exuberance.) To be sure, there is some brinkmanship, as in the minuet of Op. 59, No. 3, where rhythmic freedom comes perilously close to rhythmic inaccuracy. But in general, the derring-do yields musical dividends, and the rare flaws are a small price to pay for such heartfelt playing and stimulating listening.

July 19, 1987


OperaFest A Gala Concert at the Zurich Opera With Jose Carreras, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Gwyneth Jones, Alfredo Kraus, Lucia Popp, Mara Zampieri and other artists. Video Artists International. 92 minutes. $59.95.
Operatic galas are popular video fare; for one thing, unlike many complete operas, they fit on a single cassette; for another, they are composed of short segments, making for easy viewing. This one, from the 1984 reopening of the Zurich Opera, is very good of its kind, with music including arias and ensembles by such diverse (if not unexpected) composers as Offenbach, Wagner, Dvorak and Mozart; the final act of ''Carmen'' and a movement of Stravinsky's violin concerto (danced by the Zurich opera ballet). Alfredo Kraus stands out for his elegant musicality and Thomas Hampson and Gunther von Kannen for the joviality with which they perform a comical extract from ''Don Pasquale.''

July 26, 1987


Classical Images: A Concert in Nature New Philharmonic Masterpiece Orchestra. Kultur. 45 minutes. $29.95. Stormy surf crashing to the strains of ''Swan Lake''; icicles melting to the melodies of Mozart; ducklings paddling, in slow-motion circles, to Schumann: ''Soothing'' is the word Kultur International uses to describe this program of outdoor scenes and classical favorites. Well, there's nothing much stimulating about it, so their characterization is apt enough. The pleasant orchestral and piano selections (snippets and single movements for the most part) are played without great distinction, and the hi-fi sound lacks the sparkle it should have. Had the visual aspects of the production been spectacular, one could easily have lived with the pedestrian music, but a typical PBS documentary is far more beautiful to look at - if not as relaxing.

August 2, 1987


Roger Sessions: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Rhapsody for Orchestra. Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Christian Badea, conductor. New World Records CD NW 345-2.
As a teacher no less than as a composer, Roger Sessions made an enormous impact on the American university music scene, especially from the mid-1930's. One acknowledgment of his uniquely influential position is the comparatively large number of his compositions that are performed live and on recordings.
The works on this new addition to the Sessions discography are not exactly emotional music, but nevertheless remain very expressive; Sessions makes use of intricate orchestral figuration and texture (some of it almost thematic in function), but for all the complexity there is no sonic heaviness. This release is part of New World Records' commendable Recorded Anthology of American Music, and represents also the recording debut of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, which acquits itself with great credit in this difficult music; its music director, Christian Badea, leads serious performances of considerable intensity.

September 6, 1987

RECORDINGS; Music That Looks Both Forward and Back

The diversity of musical styles employed by ''serious'' 20th-century composers is enormous. Think of Puccini's ''Turandot'' and Berg's ''Wozzeck''; it is almost unbelievable that they should both have had their first performances in the space of a year. But the question of which is more ''contemporary'' is a difficult (and maybe irrelevant) one. Despite a common feeling that forward-looking art is somehow more ''artistic'' than traditionalist art, the fact is, of course, that the bulk of the music written over the last 100 years - however original and imaginative it may be - follows a time-honored tradition of pleasing harmonies and instrumentation, of tried and true forms and rhythmic structures.
Who could be more of a 19th-century romantic (in his music at any rate) than Richard Strauss, who died as recently as 1949? Listening to his ''Symphonia Domestica'' (1903), one is struck by how similar it is in its musical language to the composer's later works. A recent CBS compact disk (MK 42322, 66 minutes; available also on LP and cassette) pairs the ''Symphonia'' with Strauss's Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra, both played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta (Daniel Barenboim is the pianist in the Burleske). The single-movement domestic symphony is meant to portray a typical day in the life of the Strauss family. It is comical and expressive, if overblown at times; one can just about imagine a turn-of-the-century Robin Leach narrating an earlier version of ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' (''And now, after a busy day at the burnished black Bosendorfer, it's bedtime in this beautiful Bavarian bower''). The performance is convincing, affectionate and altogether pleasant, making the most of the great variety of color, texture and thematic material. The Burleske does not merely dip into a pianist's bag of tricks; it is a pianist's bag of tricks. Mr. Barenboim here plays it adeptly and with the requisite conviction.
Somewhat more modern in musical language, but hardly less romantic in spirit, are the works of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). On a couple of Supraphon compact disks, Vaclav Neumann leads the Czech Philharmonic in good readings of Martinu's Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6 (33C37-7760, 57 minutes) and Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (33C37-7868, 64 minutes). The Cello Concerto No. 1 was written in 1930, but was revised in 1939 and again in 1955. After a grandiose introduction, the work draws on folk elements, moving through a plaintive second movement where the cello plays an evocative line over a slowly shifting accompaniment, and ending with a festive dancelike finale. Concerto No. 2 dates from 1945, when Martinu was in the United States. It is hard to say whether the music sounds homesick, but we certainly hear the influence of Copland in the first movement's use of the orchestral strings and in its peaceful atmosphere. The cellist on these disks is Angelica May; her playing is stylish and frank, although tuning sometimes goes astray in rapid passages.
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6 also have American connections. The Third was composed in Connecticut in 1944 and the Sixth was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gave the piece its first performance, in 1956. Mr. Neumann turns out well-paced, solid performances, capturing the full range of these works, which encompasses the tragic sound of the opening of the Third and the rushing tumult of its finale (almost Philip Glass-like!). The Sixth is well served also, from the agitated ''danse macabre'' of its second movement to the quiet lyricism with which the work closes.
In many quarters, Carl Nielsen is considered a very remarkable composer, largely for his innovative approach to tonality. In two of his earlier works, however, we hear little of this harmonic individuality: CBS MK 42321 (48 minutes, all three formats) contains Nielsen's Symphony No. 1 (Op. 7, 1892), played by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his Little Suite (Op. 1, 1888), with the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, both under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Mr. Salonen pays great attention to dynamic and rhythmic detail and does a good job sustaining the musical line in slow tempos, but the music is not a true test of a conductor's mettle. The final movement of the suite begins with a slightly awkward, ponderous andante; that of the symphony is excited without being exciting.
Now, if it is true excitement you want, you can turn to a Centaur release (CRC 2020, 49 minutes; compact disk only) of the String Quartets Nos. 3 and 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich, the first volume of what Centaur plans as a complete Shostakovich quartet cycle. The music of these five-movement works is jagged and dramatic, with appealing melodic outlines and a most effective use of the contrast between jarring dissonance and gentle tonal song. The Manhattan String Quartet plays with all requisite precision and intensity; their ensemble shines in difficult passages such as the second movement of quartet No. 3, with its wonderful staccato rhythmic patterns.
Having begun with the programmatic ''Symphonia Domestica,'' we may as well end with another, quite different, descriptive work: Olivier Messiaen's 1940 ''Quartet for the End of Time,'' a mystical evocation of -well, of the end of time. It is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, as is the work with which it shares this release (Delos CD 3043, 63 minutes, compact disk only), Bela Bartok's ''Contrasts.'' The ''Quartet'' is a complex, weird work that sets a definite atmosphere; for Messiaen, time ends not with a bang, but with a peaceful flight of rainbows. The Bartok, commissioned in 1938 by the clarinetist Benny Goodman and the violinist Joseph Szigeti, could hardly be more different. It is angular and wild (but nonetheless melodic), with pizzicato figures over waves of broken piano chords. Both pieces present difficult challenges to the performers, and Chamber Music Northwest meets them ably. To cite but one member of the group, David Shifrin handles the prominent clarinet part with musicianship and flair.

September 27, 1987


Claudio Arrau: The 80th Birthday Recital Vol. 1 of the Claudio Arrau Signature Performance Series. Video Artists International. 111 minutes. $49.95.
In 1983, the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau marked his 80th birthday with a recital at Avery Fisher Hall, playing Beethoven's ''Waldstein'' and ''Appassionata'' sonatas and pieces by Debussy, Liszt and Chopin. It is good to have a video record of a performer who is without question a major figure in our generation, especially when the performances are so lyrical and secure. There is narration by Martin Bookspan, and interview segments with Mr. Arrau. We hear him speak of the importance to music-making of physical relaxation. Watching him on this well-produced tape, we see clearly how he puts this view into practice in his own expressive interpretations.

November 1, 1987

RECORDINGS; A Lively Diversity Marks a New Label

When the CD catalogue of a small independent record company features such dissimilar entries as ''Lisztronique: Electronic Performances of Music by Franz Liszt,'' four volumes of Bach preludes and fugues with the organist Anthony Newman, and ''Larry Adler Live at the Ballroom,'' you just know that a lively imagination is at play behind the scenes. The catalogue is that of Newport Classic Ltd., of Providence, R. I.; the imagination belongs to Lawrence Kraman, the firm's founder and principal producer.
Newport Classic began last year with a batch of all-digital releases in cassette format (LP's were never part of the plan), and compact disks soon followed, with the participation of Shape Audio Products, which manufactures the CD's in its Maine plant. Of the two dozen or so current releases, quite a few are immediately appealing, and some grow on you, but virtually all are at least interesting.
''Larry Adler Live at the Ballroom'' (NC 60019, available on CD and cassette, as are almost all the other Newport Classic recordings) falls squarely in the first category; the range of tone Mr. Adler coaxes out of his harmonica is simply astonishing, and his musicality is unfailing. In selections by Gershwin, Rodgers, Bizet and others, he is accompanied mainly by the pianist Ellis Larkins, but also by Gershwin, Rachmaninoff and Youmans, through the intermediary of the reproducing, or player, piano.
In fact, an entire disk (''The Performing Piano,'' NC 60020) is devoted to piano rolls played on the complex Ampico B reproducing piano. The rolls were cut by Rachmaninoff, Paderewski, Lhevinne, Schnabel, Cortot and Nyiregyhazy and contain favorite virtuoso pieces. As interesting as it is to compare the pianists' styles and as good as the playing is, it is impossible to escape the feeling that something is missing - that a degree of subtlety has been traded off for the excellent digital sound. Still, piano fanciers will not want to miss this release. (And violin fanciers would do well to seek out NC 60014, ''Romancing the Violin,'' on which Eugene Fodor's sweet, singing tone is ideal for the romantic selections featured on the disk.) Keyboard music holds an important place in the Newport catalogue, doubtless because of an ongoing collaboration with Anthony Newman, who appears as pianist (on both modern and 18th-century pianos), harpsichordist and organist, and as conductor and composer, too. His four volumes of Bach preludes and fugues (NC 60001 to 60004) are excellent, and a program of Poulenc's Organ Concerto in G minor, de Falla's intimate Concerto in D for Harpsichord and Mr. Newman's own Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (NC 60017, with the Pennsylvania Sinfonia under Alan Birney) is just lovely. Listeners who do not know the Poulenc or the de Falla will be pleasantly surprised by their delicacy; the less than perfect ensemble playing of the five instrumentalists joining Mr. Newman in the harpsichord concerto does not undermine the overall effect.
With Stephen Simon conducting the Philomusica Antiqua of London, which uses historical instruments, Mr. Newman has also recorded Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 5 (NC 60031, 60007 and 60027, paired respectively with the Choral Fantasy, the Mozart C-minor Fantasy and the Egmont overture) on a copy of a Graf fortepiano of 1815.
These are stylish and elegant performances in their own right, but the CD versions of the first and fifth concertos are important in another way. When compact disks were first marketed, much was made of their indexing facility, whereby a virtually unlimited number of points within the main tracks could be accessed by listeners, if their CD player had the appropriate feature - and if the manufacturer inserted the necessary indexing codes on the disk. The value of this capability is enormous for students and for all those uncertain about classical or other musical forms, because it enables the listener to shuttle back and forth between index points in an effort to hear the relationships between the sections of a movement.
While many CD players have an index button, few current disks are indexed. It occurred to Newport's Mr. Kraman that by indexing a piece of music, he could provide a useful guide to its construction. In these two releases, that good idea is implemented. Index points have been placed along the way at the appearance of the various themes, at the beginning of the development, recapitulation and coda, and so forth. In the choral fantasy, for instance, each variation is flagged. This has no effect on the way the disk performs, unless the listener chooses to use the capability. Certainly, these and future structurally indexed releases should have their place in school and university music courses, especially if study scores can be prepared with the index numbers marked in the printed music.
All is not instrumental, however, in the Newport catalogue. There is a delightful disk of 16th- and 17th-century chorale settings by Michael Praetorius with a vocal quartet and the New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble (NC 60021), and the Sine Nomine Singers provide a spirited recording of Handel's ''Israel in Egypt'' (cassette 30005/1-2, and soon to be released on CD). And, in his capacity as a conductor, Anthony Newman leads the Brandenburg Collegium Orchestra and Chorus in Bach's ''St. John Passion'' (NC 60015/1-2). The vocal soloists are very good indeed, especially Jeffrey Thomas, tenor (Evangelist), and Julianne Baird, soprano. There are, however, some jagged moments in exposed choral passages, and there could be greater savagery in the more dramatic choral utterances.
To date, Newport Classic has not been particularly strong on liner notes, which have tended to be sparse; this is noticeable in the ''St. John Passion,'' where the text and track timings are printed on a single legal-sized sheet, far easier than a booklet to mangle or mislay.
Newport Classic has also released a little jazz and a little chamber music, and plans to release more. Additionally, the future holds a complete Chopin piano cycle. In New York, these disks can be found at a number of outlets, including Tower Records, and wider distribution is sure to follow. Up-to-date information about availability can be obtained by writing to Newport Classic Ltd., 106 Benefit Street, Providence, R. I. 02903.

December 6, 1987

SOUND AND RECORDINGS; Gershwin: His Music Is in Vogue - Still

To say that we are in the midst of a Gershwin boom is like saying that an American-food fad is in progress: It's not as though ''The Man I Love'' and jambalaya have been out of favor all these years; it's just that the big guns among writers and practitioners are now turning their very conspicuous attention to what always were highly esteemed - and worthy - items. Such vogues have good and bad effects, but the wise consumer can avoid both bogus Cajun restaurants and poor musical performances while reaping the benefits of all the increased activity.
So far as Gershwin is concerned, among those benefits are two EMI recordings of his songs and theater music featuring the conductor John McGlinn and, in the case of the songs, the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. Both make use of orchestrations employed in the original Broadway, London or Hollywood versions, the bulk of them by Robert Russell Bennett and others, but a few by the composer himself. Some of these were discovered only recently in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, N.J., but even those whose existence was known have rarely been used in recent recordings.
Gershwin's most popular, and probably his greatest, compositions are his songs. Many listeners will be used to versions featuring lush orchestrations or intimate, wistful piano accompaniments. These listeners will be surprised when they first hear ''Kiri Sings Gershwin'' (EMI compact disk CDC-7 47454 2; also LP and cassette). Listening to Ms. Te Kanawa singing these 15 numbers, most of them well known, they may think, ''This can't be the Great Gershwin: This sounds like something from Broadway!''
Well, it is, of course, something from Broadway, and once we get over the shock of hearing the pit-band sound of ''The New Princess Theater Orchestra,'' the comparatively speedy tempos and the lively, almost bluff, singing, we realize that we are hearing this music as it was written. Ms. Te Kanawa does a fine job: she does not sound at all like a prima donna condescending to toss a few inconsequential treats in the general direction of her adoring fans; rather, she sings with high energy and a true sense of style. The only phony thing about this recording is the ''semi-pop'' engineering, which tampers with the vocal and instrumental balances and attempts to add ''ambience'' to performances that would have sounded all the better for having been left alone. The companion recording (EMI CDC-7 47977 2,; all three formats) is titled ''Gershwin Overtures.'' Like ''Kiri Sings Gershwin'' it is furnished with good historical liner notes by Mr. McGlinn. It also shares the other disk's verve and style. If only collections of overtures didn't leave you with that feeling of unsatisfied anticipation after each selection!
Many of Gershwin's favorite and most popular songs were compiled by the composer in a 1932 collection of short, snazzy piano arrangements titled the ''George Gershwin Songbook.'' In 1970, the composer/arranger Hershy Kay assembled most of those songs into a score for the late George Ballanchine's New York City Ballet. ''Who Cares?'' with its slick orchestrations, is slight but colorful and pleasant stuff, and it has been recorded on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's own label (RPO Records/ MCA Classics compact disk MCAD-6216) along with the original Paul Whiteman Band version of ''Rhapsody in Blue.'' Both here and in the solo versions of the four numbers from the Songbook that Kay omitted from ''Who Cares?'' the pianist is Andrew Litton, who also conducts the performances. He does a first-rate job, as does the clarinetist Prudence Whittaker, whose nice, lazy opening glissando introduces a clean, spunky reading of the Rhapsody.
In 1934, a young oboist named Mitch Miller played in an orchestra that toured with Gershwin in performances of his instrumental music; half a century later he is bringing what he recalls of Gershwin's style to an Arabesque recording (Z6587, CD and cassette), conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and pianist David Golub in ''An American in Paris,'' ''Rhapsody in Blue'' and the Piano Concerto in F. Mr. Miller knows the music - and the recording business - inside out, and these are nice performances: lyrical and romantic, as in the beginning of the Concerto in F, but not afraid of raucousness, as in the later portions of the Rhapsody. Mr. Golub has a good, crisp keyboard technique; he displays considerable rhythmic flexibility, sometimes capricious, but generally appropriate.
On a completely different tack is an RCA recording by the Canadian Brass titled ''Strike Up the Band'' (6490-2-RC, all three formats). There is more Canadian Brass than Gershwin in the tricky arrangements by Luther Henderson (apart from the grand melodies); for instance, the introduction to the title song features a punning reference to ''Alexander's Ragtime Band.'' The snappy, popular playing of this ensemble remains as it always has been - snappy and popular - and this is an entertaining 50 minutes of good tunes.
Just as entertaining, and somehow more in step with the music, is the Jim Cullum Jazz Band's disk of comprehensive selections from ''Porgy and Bess'' (CBS MK 42517, 71 minutes, all three formats). The quite marvelous traditional jazz arrangements take us through almost the entire opera, capturing its moods in a genuine, delightfully laid-back, way.
Related to the Gershwin craze (and possibly to the fried okra blitz too, in a kind of back-to-home-grown-produce way) is a renewed interest in the American musical theater in general. Record companies have been investing heavily in time, talent and money in such projects ''South Pacific,'' ''West Side Story,'' ''My Fair Lady'' and ''Carousel.'' The ''South Pacific'' disk reminds us that at his best Richard Rodgers was a very appealing composer, indeed. Unfortunately, a recording of three Rodgers ballets (Polygram CD 829 675-2 Y-1, 60 minutes; available also on LP and cassette) does little to reflect that quality.
The program is interesting: two dance sequences from the 1936 musical ''On Your Toes'' and a half-hour ballet commissioned in 1939 by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, ''Ghost Town.'' Here again, original orchestrations (by Hans Spialek) are used, which means that a 60-member orchestra plays ''Ghost Town,'' while a smaller pit band tackles the ''On Your Toes'' selections. The conductor of these two nameless orchestras is John Mauceri, who led the 1983 Broadway revival of the latter work. ''Ghost Town'' is given a flat, somewhat perfunctory reading, though this does not obscure its evocative qualities and solid construction. ''La Princesse Zenobia'' and ''Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'' from ''On Your Toes'' get more animated performances, but the oddly hollow sound of the recording takes the edge off them.

February 14, 1988

RECORDINGS; Back Before Bach, There Was Bach

The musical and procreative fecundity of the Bach family is legendary, but it is often assumed to have begun with the most celebrated Bach of all: Johann Sebastian. The fact is, however, that there were Bachs in the music business well before J. S. was so much as a tune in his parents' sketchbook. Their history was later chronicled by Johann Sebastian in family annals and an ''Altbachisches Archiv'' (''Archive of the Earlier Bachs''), in which he collected such of their compositions as he was able to assemble. The extant cantatas of these grand-uncles, uncles and other kin have now been recorded by Musica Antiqua Köln under Reinhard Goebel on a superior two-CD set from Archiv (419 253-1/2, also on LP).
This release is full of surprises, all pleasant; most of the music would be worth listening to even if it were by some 17th-century Johann Doe - one wonders why it took so long to commit it to disk - and the performances are excellent, with crystal-clear singing and playing and an exemplary sense of style.
Many of these solo and ensemble cantatas, notably the delightfully melodic works of Johann Michael (1648-1694), son of grand-uncle Heinrich and father to J.S.'s first wife, Maria Barbara, recall the vocal concertos of Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz; they are thus very much in the musical mainstream of their time, which flowed directly from Italian sources. But the most striking item in this collection is by Johann Michael's elder brother, Johann Christoph (1642-1703): ''Meine Freundin, du bist schön,'' which is a wedding cantata with a sensuous text drawn from the biblical ''Song of Songs.'' The protagonists are young bourgeois, and it is somewhat comical to think of them speaking these highfalutin lines. But the beautiful music effaces any possible absurdity, especially the remarkable ciacona, a set of variations over a repeating ground bass. The solo violin part here and elsewhere in the piece reaches Monteverdian heights of virtuosity and is played wonderfully by Reinhard Goebel.
More rarities, these from the 20th century, are to be heard on EMI CDC 7 47663 2 (also on LP and cassette), which contains sacred choral works by Arnold Bax and Gerald Finzi, composed between 1921 and 1952. Both composers used old texts, mainly English, but some Latin too, and belonged to what might be called the chromatic sentimentalist school of English composition. The focused, precise singing of the choir of King's College, Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury, is a pleasure to listen to; articulation is so distinct that, even though the choir is fairly large and was recorded in the resonant environment of the college chapel, virtually every word can be understood. Some listeners may find the music - particularly the Finzi - on the soupy side, but the singing and organ playing (by Richard Farnes) are so committed and enthusiastic that even diehard devotees of the austere may be convinced.
The same might be said of the choral motets of Anton Bruckner, recorded by the Dresdner Kreuzchor, Martin Flamig, director, on Capriccio 10081 (all three formats). These brief Latin-language pieces, mainly unaccompanied, but some with organ or instrumental parts, could certainly find a place in the repertory of many church choirs. They have a vaguely Victorian sound, with slippery harmonies a la ''Sweet and Low''; again, the well-trained choir does a good job of persuading all but the most skeptical listeners.
Also from the German Democratic Republic comes a diskful of hymns and psalms by Franz Schubert, including a Hebrew setting of the 92d Psalm (sung with the most bizarre pronunciation you'd ever want to hear). The poker-faced readings are by the Berlin Radio Orchestra and Chorus under Dietrich Knothe, and several vocal soloists, including the tenor Peter Schreier. Even if the performances are stiff, they are accomplished, and the works are tuneful and attractive; the recording (Capriccio 10 096, all three formats) can fill a gap in any Schubert enthusiast's collection.
Less out of the ordinary is Haydn's ''Nelson'' Mass (No. 11, in D minor). Two recordings of the work were recently added to the Haydn discography, both, coincidentally, by British conductors leading German radio orchestras (one from the Federal Republic and one from the G.D.R.).
On an EMI compact disk (CDC 7 47424 2, all three formats), Neville Marriner conducts the Leipzig Radio Orchestra and the Staatskapelle of Dresden in a dramatic performance, brightly and clearly recorded. At times there is heaviness where delicacy is called for (as in the ''Qui tollis''), but the playing and singing are generally incisive.
A more lyrical, though no less stirring, rendition is provided by Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Philips 416 358-2 (like the Marriner, 40 minutes long, but with very different pacing; all three formats). The sound of the Bavarian chorus is richer than that of the Dresden group, but overall it is difficult to choose between the two disks.
To leap back to the 13th century and onto the less familiar ground of medieval Spain, the Martin Best Ensemble has put together a spirited program of ''Cantigas de Santa Maria'' by King Alfonso X, the Wise (Nimbus compact disk NI 5081). To say the Cantigas are devotional paeans to the Virgin Mary is to put too pious a complexion on them; many of those chosen for this collection (out of a total of some 400) are highly entertaining anecdotes about such miracles as the wondrous restoration of a lost beefsteak, and optimistic tales of forgiveness (including the divine pardoning of a triple infanticide, not to mention the eyebrow-raising reinstatement of her virginity). Musicians do not have a great deal to go on concerning how this music would have been performed 500 years ago; they have to follow their instincts. Martin Best's instinct is to enjoy himself, and it is hard to fault him for that.

A Previous Life: My New York Times Classical Recording Reviews - Part Two

Here is the second of three posts containing my archive of New York Times recording reviews from the 1980s - a time when LPs and cassette tapes were giving way to CDs.

June 2, 1985



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
The commemoration of J. S. Bach's tercentennial has more or less coincided with the commercialization of the digital compact disk, which may or may not have anything to do with the somewhat surprising fact that in the CD listings in a recent edition of the Schwann catalogue more space was devoted to Bach than to any other composer apart from Mozart. (If you are interested, Mozart won out with 23 1/2 column inches against Bach's 19). In any event, lots of Bach has already been issued on CD and, while there has inevitably been some duplication of popular pieces, there is nothing to match the Baroque overkill represented by the 12 or so CD releases of Vivaldi's ''Four Seasons'' now in the stores. No, the variety of Bach on CD is pretty wide, with vocal, orchestral and solo instrumental works all well represented.
One of the items which has been released and re-released in the CD format is the set of six Brandenburg Concertos; at this writing, there are no less than half a dozen versions from which to choose, all but one of them, in an interesting reflection of what today's listener expects, played on what used to be called ''ancient instruments.'' One battery of these ancient instruments is manned by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the harpsichordist Ton Koopman (two Erato CDs, ECD 88054 and 88055, 50 minutes each - the timings are provided in an effort to show how little of the CD's 74-minute-plus capacity is being used in current releases). Although they feature prominent solo parts, the Brandenburg Concertos are ensemble works, and these are ensemble performances. The orchestra is small (ranging from a maximum of seven violins to a chamber group with one player to a part), yet the phrasing, bite and range of the playing makes as much of an effect in ''big'' works like the second concerto, with its flute, violin, oboe and trumpet solos, as it does in the more intimate sixth, written for violas, violas da gamba and cello alone. It would be difficult to fault the soloists, apart from a bit of trumpet trouble in the upper reaches of the instrument's range and some pitch problems in the second viola; but it is not hard to find a star performer: Mr. Koopman himself. For one thing, his continuo playing is a dream, interesting but discreet. Then, as soloist in the fifth concerto he does a splendid job, full of verve and, in that extraordinary first-movement cadenza, drama. The loving second movement of the fifth is a high point of this set.
In the booklet accompanying his 1982 recording of the B minor Mass (Nonesuch digital 79036, 2 LPs), Joshua Rifkin makes an excellent musicological case for the use in that work of small forces, with but one singer on each ''choral'' part. The recording itself makes an even better musical case for that approach. The same principles have now been applied very successfully to the Magnificat in D (Pro Arte CDD-185, 40 minutes). The members of The Bach Ensemble play and sing with such clarity that we can hear anything we care to listen for, and that same clarity of timbre and rhythm imparts a substance to the sound that makes you wonder why anyone ever bothers hiring a full orchestra and chorus. The D major Magnificat is followed here by an engaging reading of Melchior Hoffmann's German-language setting of the same text. This good, chamber cantata-like version for solo soprano was once thought to be the work of Bach, then that of Telemann, which was far more likely from the stylistic standpoint. It is impossible to resist noting that the opening bars, with their ''kvetching'' in parallel sixths, sound like nothing so much as the introduction to a cantorial number.
Bach entries in the CD catalogue may be dominated by performances on historical instruments, but more traditional readings are not lacking either. On Denon 35C37-7236 (48 minutes), George Malcolm conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in three keyboard concertos, played on the piano by Andras Schiff. The problem here is not one of ''authenticity'': these concertos, especially BWV 1052 in D minor, can work wonderfully well on the piano. This Denon release is simply not up to par: The orchestral playing is lackluster, even sloppy, and Mr. Schiff does not show a great deal of imagination. The disk itself lacks the sonic sparkle one expects from Denon.
We hear two of the same pieces (the D minor, and BWV 1056), but in reconstructed versions for the violin, on EMI CDC 7 47073 2 (51 minutes). They are played by Itzhak Perlman, who also leads the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and who is joined in the C minor concerto for violin and oboe by Ray Still. These are bright, incisive performances; note how the slow movements, especially that of BWV 1056, are atmospheric but still strongly rhythmic.
To return to original instruments, La Petite Bande and its co-founder, the impressive Belgian violinist Sigiswald Kuijken, have recorded the concertos in A minor (BWV 1041) and E major (BWV 1042), together with the concerto for two violins (BWV 1040), on Pro Arte CDD 124 (48 minutes). Even the rather resonant acoustic in which they were taped does nothing to muddle the clean attacks and high energy of these vigorous readings. While partaking of that energy, Mr. Kuijken spins long, poetic legato lines in his solos, and, as leader of the Bande, is unerringly apt in his choice of tempos.
To the extent that Bach ever sounds conventional, he does so in the four Orchestral Suites, or Overtures (BWV 1066-1069), whose most straightforward passages could almost be by a merely brilliant composer, say Handel. The Suites are beautifully played on a pair of Erato CD's (ECD 88049 and 88049, 51 and 46 minutes respectively) by the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Among other things, the way in which the sections of movements are demarcated is most impressive; it is as if a soloist were leading us through them by manipulating the rhythm of cadential passages. Chaste embellishment is applied where appropriate (as it is in the other ''authentic'' performances reviewed here) by instrumentalists who display considerable virtuosity in such perpetual motion passages as the first movement of the third Suite (violin), and the well-known Badinerie in Suite number two (flute).
The final Passepied of the first Suite shares its melodic basis with Bach's setting of the chorale ''Dir, dir Jehovah will ich singen.'' On this recording, the Monteverdi Choir is called into service to provide an uplifting tag to the Suite in the form of a vocal rendition of that stirring hymn.

June 16, 1985



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
As nice as it is to be celebrating J. S. Bach's 300th birthday, it is hard to escape the feeling, when faced with new and repackaged versions of everything from the Brandenburg Concertos to ''The Art of Fugue,'' that one has Bach coming out of one's ears.
Still, there are worse fates, especially when many of the new releases are so good. This is the case at present, and it is true whether your tastes run to musicologically unimpeachable performances on historical instruments or to readings on modern pianos, strings and winds.
Bach played on today's grand piano presents special problems. The danger exists that qualitatively the sonority of the instrument will tend to blur and obscure musical detail, while quantitatively blowing up everything out of proportion. It seems that the greatest players of Bach on the piano have avoided the pitfalls by playing with an intensity so great that an entire musical world is created, into which the pianist is able to draw the listener. Glenn Gould comes to mind in this connection.
On a fine new release from London (411 732-1 - 2 LP's) Andras Schiff does a grand job of creating such a world, playing the six partitas BWV 825 to 830 very much in the right Bach spirit, but never as though he were playing them on harpsichord. To be sure, principles of Baroque rhythmic practice and melodic ornamentation are generally observed, yet it is the pliancy, the lightness of touch, the variety of sound and phrasing that make this recording so evocative, creating an atmosphere of elegant tranquillity. If this is achieved at the expense, for instance, of some of the grandeur we might expect from the French-overture-like first movement of the C minor partita, this is a small price to pay for two hours of Bach that is all of a lovely piece.
It is tempting to say that Christopher Hogwood's recording of the French Suites (L'Oiseau-Lyre 411 811-4, 2 cassettes) represents the other side of the coin, but that would be fair to neither Mr. Hogwood nor Mr. Schiff; each would doubtless be the first to commend the beauty of the other's music. Nor would it really be fair to lay too much stress on the musicological efforts expended in the preparations for this recording, although it is impossible to resist mentioning the tailoring of the system of temperament used for each suite to its particular tonal needs - a sort of ''designer tuning.'' The effect does not exactly hit the listener over the head, but it indeed makes subtle differences, particularly when compared with the equal temperament to which we are accustomed. The brash, rich-sounding harpsichords are worth noting as well. The playing is masterful, ranging from the flowing to the sharply incisive, and with an unswerving rhythmic pulse over which a flexible line is strung.
In any music modeled on dances (allemande, courante, sarabande, etc.), that rhythmic pulse is of paramount importance, even if no one is expecting to choose a partner and dance an antic hay. Readings of the suites for solo cello often fall down in this respect and, whatever its other qualities, the Paul Tortelier version (EMI 7 47090 2 to 7 47092 2, three CD's) is no exception. There is taut beauty of tone and much care in phrasing. There are gorgeous quiet passages, frenetic moments such as the Gigue in the third suite, and splendid legatos. Yet the beat is often hard to find, and there is too frequently a bit of a rush to the end of a movement or section.
Another approach is in evidence in Sigiswald Kuijken's performances of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin (German Harmonia Mundi 1C 157 1999603 - 3 LP's). Here, too, the tone is focused and round, yet it has the edge of a violin scaled and strung in the manner of Bach's time. But in addition, the rhythmic outline of each movement is kept whole; from time to time the result is somewhat mechanical, but more often the playing is crisp, imaginative and affecting.
Since the dawn of recording, we have had Bach played musicologically and romantically. We have had Bach parodied and translated. We have, indeed, had Bach switched on. Now at long last we have Bach as the ancient Arcadians might have heard him. Yes, Simion Stanciu (whose nom de guerre, Syrinx, comes from the name of the nymph from whom Pan wrought his first pipe after she turned into a reed plant), that Rumanian virtuoso on the pipes of Pan, has included a Bach selection on his recent recital (Erato NUM 75187). And what a selection! It is the fiendishly fast flute encore, the badinerie from the B minor orchestral suite. He not only plays it from start to finish without dislocating either his wrists or his cervical vertebrae, but he plays it pretty well to boot. The disk also contains flute concertos by Mozart and Quantz and features the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne under Armin Jordan. The performances are highly unusual, but very nice. It would be interesting to see Syrinx in action sometime: Especially in the fast movements there must be plenty of action to see.

November 10, 1985



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
Considering that comparatively little pre-Baroque music has come down to us in written form and that much of what has survived is connected with Christian worship, it is no surprise that early music by Jewish composers should be scarce. Scholars being what they are, however, a body of knowledge has been accumulated from a wide range of Christian and Jewish sources and a repertory of performable music amassed in both the secular and the sacred spheres.
In 1978, as part of the Paris Summer Festival, Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata performed a program of such works in the Sainte Chapelle. A recording from that concert has been released on Erato STU 71429, entitled ''Chants de l'Exil'' - ''Songs of Exile: Jewish musicians in Europe 1200-1600.'' That may sound a bit like a university extension course, but little here smacks of the academic, apart from the care taken with the performances, which are exemplary.
The program contains 12th-century synagogue chant, examples of medieval secular song by Jews, a group of Jewish folk songs from Spain and a series of 15th- and 16th-century items connected in some way with Jewish life, including some outlandish dances and Banchieri's amusing ''La sinagoga.''
The material sounds nothing like the more familiar Jewish music from Eastern Europe or Israel; it is very much of its time and place and is often fascinating. The Spanish folk songs, which are assumed to predate the 1492 expulsion of non-Catholics, were collected only recently in Morocco. This brings to mind the musical folklorist Cecil Sharp's having found 400-year-old English folk songs alive, well and substantially unchanged in the Appalachians.
The singing and playing are unfailing, with just the right tone set for each and every piece on the record. The instrumental arrangements are lively and imaginative without being excessive, and the singing is spirited and accurate.
With such unusual and attractive music so well performed, it is a pity that the record has been poorly produced. For instance, some things that no doubt worked very well at the Paris concert are obscure on the recording. The opening number is intended to show the similarity between the Gregorian and Hebrew chants for the same psalm text (which it does). The attentive listener will be surprised to find that it is performed thus: a line of Latin, a line of Hebrew, a line of Latin and so forth. Nowhere is this explained. Hebrew texts are strewn about the record jacket without any relation to the order of the program. Translations are incomplete. The purported final number is listed as an ''Agnus Dei'' from a mass composed in the 1500's for the church in which the concert took place. It is not heard on the recording.
Such things are annoying to be sure, but they would be even more so if this interesting disk were less pleasing to listen to.

November 17, 1985



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
Among all the clear advantages of digital compact disks over conventional LP records, which is the most striking? The convenience of the format cannot be gainsaid: A small disk that need not be turned over is ideal for an age marked by shrinking storage space and growing slothfulness. On the other hand, manufacturers as a group have not yet fulfilled the promise of CD's packed solid with over 70 minutes of music, and many listeners do not consider the improvement in musical reproduction to be earth-shaking -given always that the LP version is in good condition.
But how many real-life LP's are in good, let alone mint, condition? Too often there are clicks, pops and hisses which can only get worse with repeated playings. It is thus the durability and immutability of CD's that more than anything else commend them to many enthusiasts.
These attributes really come into their own with recordings that will be played over and over again, such as the excellent version of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 ''Vespro della Beata Vergine,'' recently released on two compact disks in the EMI Reflexe series (CDCC 47077), 50 and 56 minutes respectively (also available on LP and cassette). Purchased in the LP version it would surely be worn nearly grooveless inside of a year by anyone with the least affection for Monteverdi's wonderful, varied score, so richly does it repay intimate acquaintance.
Andrew Parrott, the director of what might be called the Taverner Complex (Consort, Choir and Players), has taken great trouble to come up with a performing edition of the work that both reflects the latest academic viewpoints and serves the needs of the nonspecialist listener.
As a rule, a conductor's choice of edition is of minimal concern to an audience interested - and quite rightly - more in a good performance that captures the spirit of a work than in the plate-number of the printed source on which the performance is based. But here we are dealing with a collection of vespers music that some scholars have argued is not intended to be performed as a unit at all, so the musicological leanings of the conductor determine not only how the music is performed, but what music is performed as well.
The collection printed at Venice in 1610 is so full of gems that the last thing we want to be told is that our favorite numbers, such as the dramatic settings of texts from the Song of Songs, make no liturgical sense and should be banished. Yet there are those who would see them in limbo on the basis of what they consider to be seemly liturgical practice, and indeed it is correct that the liturgy should inform concert versions of sacred works.
But the most recent research shows that churches in 17th-century Italy had a far more flexible attitude toward putting together a service than had been thought. Maintaining a rigid pattern of ''tones'' - the plainchant equivalent of musical keys - was not a high priority for the priests and organists of the time, and it turns out that the musical and textual breadth of Monteverdi's ''Vespers,'' while exceptional and unusually festive, is neither impossible nor sacrilegious. We, the plain folks in the audience, were right all along.
Purely musical innovations have also been made in this recording, including a wider use of solo voices in what appear to be choral passages, and a downward transposition of the final ''Magnificat,'' which brings it closer in texture to the rest of the score, all in keeping with current scholarship and, certainly, with musical common sense.
Fortunately, all this preparation backs up a performance which is by turns lyrical, fiery, joyous and dramatic, and always elegant and accomplished. The numerous vocal and instrumental artists meet the diverse technical demands of the wide-ranging music with ease, delivering what is surely the most consistent reading of the work in the catalogue and underscoring the dramatic tension so masterfully generated by the composer.
It is almost unjust to single out any individuals here, but who could resist mentioning the soprano Emma Kirkby and the tenor Nigel Rogers? In the last few years, Miss Kirkby has shown herself to be a singer of considerable versatility, whose pure, taut voice has adorned many fine disks of music from the Middle Ages to the Classical period. Mr. Rogers is an old hand at this music (he seems to be almost indispensable to recordings of the ''Vespers''), but he always brings something fresh to his latest interpretation.
Yet if a favorite moment had to be chosen, it would probably not be any individual display of virtuosity, but would be in ''Lauda Jerusalem,'' where the transition from the grand introductory passage to the light, lilting rhythms at ''Quoniam confortavit'' is sheer magic. Let us just hope that claims of CD longevity are not exaggerated.
In modern terms, the word ''operatic'' implies large-scale, sometimes overblown music. In Monteverdi's time this was not so: His late sacred compositions move away from the impressive, glittering sonorities of Venetian church music to the newer, more intimate proportions of the mid-17th-century theater, and a pleasing program of hymns and psalms from the 1640's and 50's has been assembled on Hyperion compact disk DSA66021. Here, Emma Kirkby is joined by Ian Partridge, tenor, and David Thomas, bass, with The Parley of Instruments under Roy Goodman and Peter Holman. The variety in this miscellany is not as great as in the ''Vespers'' of 30 years earlier, but there is expressive beauty aplenty, with apposite vocal fanfares and crunching dissonances. Mr. Partridge's peaches-and-cream voice is, as ever, irresistible.
Then, on French Harmonia Mundi HMC 901108, the Arts Florissants ensemble under William Christie performs the dance work ''Il Ballo delle Ingrate,'' written for the Gonzaga court of Mantua in 1608, and the sestina ''Incenerite spoglie,'' composed around the same time. The people at Harmonia Mundi, bless them, omitted to name any of the performers anywhere on the disk or its package, but the singers and players give a dramatic reading of these works, although one misses the nimble touch of the British groups: While everything is stylish enough, the troupe sounds positively beefy by comparison.

December 22, 1985



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
There is no doubt about it: J. S. Bach's ''St. Matthew Passion'' is a long work. Even an expeditious performance runs to nearly three hours plus intermission, and a lugubrious one can last a lifetime, or so it seems. This has presented problems. Little is known about the performing history of the work during Bach's lifetime, but the famous 1829 performance organized by Felix Mendelssohn as part of his Bach revival was stripped of well over an hour of music in the interests of ''heightening'' the dramatic impact. (The first complete performance of modern times took place as late as 1912).
Nowadays, uncut St. Matthew Passions are the norm, especially on recording; it would take a courageous conductor indeed to excise so much as a note from the score. This is to the good, both because of the current feeling that the composer knows best and because the St. Matthew Passion happens to work very well as it is. Attempts to bolster either the dramatic or the contemplative side of the composition invariably set it off balance structurally and lessen its overall effect.
Peter Schreier, the conductor of the readings on Philips 412 527-2 (three digital compact disks; four LP's, three cassettes), makes no such attempts. Rather, he respects the work's natural equilibrium. For example, dance rhythms abound, and, rather than playing them down as incongruous in a sacred work, he gives them their head and lets them fill the musical function Bach intended for them. When the score bursts out into theatrical ferocity (which can consist of a full-scale chorus representing the angry mob or a single dissonant harmony in a recitative), no move is made to tame it to bring it into line with the gentler portions.
That does not, as it might, make for a disjointed performance; the result is thoroughly satisfying, with the three hours of music passing with hardly a dull moment (only a couple of the bass arias, sung by Robert Holl, plod a little). The soprano Lucia Popp is delightful, and the contralto Marjana Lipovsek has a warm, plummy voice that loses nothing in clarity for all its richness; the tenor arias are sung appealingly by Eberhard Büchner.
But arias constitute only the lyrical and contemplative parts of the ''St. Matthew Passion''; the recitatives and choruses are where the action is carried forward, and any weakness in these areas is unfailingly disastrous. There is no such weakness here. For one thing, the conductor Peter Schreier is fortunate to have one of the foremost Evangelists on the musical scene pretty much on call: the tenor Peter Schreier. It is easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about singers who turn to conducting, but rest assured that Mr. Schreier's voice is as fresh as ever. He has, in fact, been conducting on and off for about 15 years.
His Evangelist tells his tale expressively, but does not emote. This is not opera, and he is merely narrating the story, not living through it. Still, the dramatic climax of the work (when Peter realizes in dismay that he has thrice betrayed Christ) is no less moving for being understated.
Other soloists assigned to recitative duty include Theo Adam as Jesus. Mr. Adam is no newcomer to this score and does a thoroughly credible job, even if a slightly fresher sound might have been more appropriate. As Peter, Andreas Scheibner gives full value to musical contours but still manages a very natural-sounding, almost conversational, declamation; he brings his role to life in a way that is not as common as it ought to be in Bach recitative singing. Then there is Ekkehard Wlaschiha's Judas, which positively drips evil; the characterization stands on the verge of caricature, but stops just short of slipping over the edge.
This Philips recording was a co-production with the East German Government; the good orchestra is the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the choir is the Rundfunkchor Leipzig with the boys of the Dresdner Kapellknaben. The choral work is especially worthy of note. It could (but will not) be criticized for too great an attention to detail: some of the chorales - which, after all, are simple hymn tunes, even if they sometimes contain hair-raising harmonies - are tricked out with endless choirmasterly subtleties of phrasing and dynamics. But still, it is beautiful singing: full-throated, accurate, passionate. You will jump out of your seat at the dissonant cry of ''Barrabam!''
The ''St. Matthew Passion'' makes considerable use of bichoral effects, with discrete vocal and instrumental groups usually placed on either side of the platform. This stereo recording errs a trifle on the side of keeping them too separate at times. Everything sounds natural enough when the whole ensemble is playing, but when there is back-and-forth byplay between groups (as in the opening chorus) the impression is of an auditory tennis match, with the musical ball bouncing from speaker to speaker. This is a minor point, for the levels and balances are on the whole exemplary.
On a smaller scale altogether is another Philips compact disk release (411 458-2; also on LP and cassette), of Bach's Magnificat in D major and his cantata number 51, ''Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen'' for solo soprano and orchestra. Not only are the works themselves smaller, but they are performed by a smaller group, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. The Magnificat is a grand, festive work, with drums and trumpets; it is interesting to note that despite the smaller forces none of the grandeur is lost. Good, precise singing and playing, plus incisive rhythms, will do the trick every time.
The vocalists, choir and soloists alike, have a very pleasing, youthful sound. Some listeners will no doubt prefer bigger, more substantial voices, but no one will deny the stylishness and musicality of these performances.
The solo cantata is sung by Emma Kirkby, prettily if coolly. True success in this short, brilliant work depends as much on fervor as on technique and musicianship, and that fervor is missing. Alison Bury and Roy Goodman, who play the obbligato violin parts in the chorale, are just wonderful, which is particularly gratifying in light of the poor fiddling that continues to plague many performances on historical instruments.

March 2, 1986



Edward Schneider regularly reviews recordings.
Of all Schubert's piano sonatas, the one in B flat is by far the most commonly played, both live and on recording. Yet it remains fresh, interesting and moving even after dozens of hearings. It is a piece to which many pianists have brought many things, and numerous recorded readings have much to recommend them; Alfred Brendel's on Philips comes to mind, as does the version beautifully played by the Hungarian pianist Dezso Ranki and newly released on Denon compact disk 32C37-7488 (44 minutes), entitled ''Ranki Plays Schubert.''
This was actually recorded 10 years ago in Tokyo, when Mr. Ranki was 24 years old, and Denon apologizes for the ''technical insufficiency of the 1970's digital recording,'' but this was hardly necessary, as the noise to which the disclaimer refers is all but inaudible. On the other hand, Denon does not apologize for the youth of the performer, nor does it need to, for this is a highly polished performance. Subtleties of shaping and dynamics reinforce the gently mysterious mood of the work, with its dark trills in the bass, which serve as punctuation or as transitional pivots. In a pair of impromptus on the same disk (Opus 90, Nos. 2 and 3), the pianist displays both power and delicacy, just the combination required.
Mr. Ranki also ''Plays Liszt,'' on Denon compact disk 32C37-7547 (55 minutes): ''Après une Lecture de Dante'' from ''les Années de Pélerinage,'' the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and the Sonata in B minor. All this is het-up, pictorial music, full of tough technical and expressive challenges. Nothing here appears to faze Mr. Ranki, whose playing is loud, forceful and glittery as required without overstepping the subtle boundary into brittleness and vulgarity.
Those technical challenges - for which Liszt, of course, was famous both as composer and as performer - become tougher still in the ''Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini,'' based on the fiendish violin studies of the Italian virtuoso. It is a tall enough order for a pianist just to play through these pieces fluently; to say that a performer has resources to spare to meet the expressive requirements of these etudes is praise indeed. Cécile Ousset merits such praise. On an Angel LP (DS-38259) she tackles the Paganini etudes with verve and strength. The record also contains Liszt's long and complicated B minor sonata. Miss Ousset paces the sprawling score nicely, shining in lyrical and flashy passages alike.
One pianist who has long been able to make the most diabolical Lisztian knuckle-busters sound as easy as ''Chopsticks'' is Jorge Bolet, who adds to his catalogue of recordings a colorful and crystal-clear disk including the ''Totentanz,'' the ''Maldiction'' and the ''Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes,'' all with the London Symphony Orchestra under Ivan Fischer (London compact disk 414 079-2LH, 47 minutes; available also on LP and cassette). Mr. Bolet is in top form here, with his authority and his crisp sound serving him - and Liszt - very well indeed.
Andras Schiff has made his considerable reputation playing music of a rather different sort: Bach, Mozart, Brahms, a little Mendelssohn, where audiences are less apt to view the proceedings as gladiatorial combat and more to listen to the music as music. With Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Mr. Schiff has recorded piano concertos by Chopin (No. 2 in F minor) and Schumann (Op. 54 in A minor), on London compact disk 411 942-2LH, 65 minutes; available also on LP and cassette. The performances are just fine: there is delicacy for Chopin's ornamental flourishes and quiet exuberance for Schumann's understated closing movement; the orchestral playing is warm and idiomatic.
More rewarding is Mr. Schiff's gorgeous Schumann recital on Denon compact disk 32C37-7573 (52 minutes). This contains ''Papillons,'' Op. 2; the C major Arabesque, Op. 18; and the B-flat major Humoresque, Op. 20. The latter is the longest work on the disk, but most compelling is the early ''Papillons,'' a poetic succession of a dozen brief sketches ranging from the breathless magic of No. 9 to the gentle lyricism of No. 5. Mr. Schiff plays the brief initial sketch with perhaps too much rhythmic license, but from then on he shows great flexibility without for an instant distorting Schumann's line; all the variety of ''Papillons'' is reflected in the playing. This is no less true for the Op. 18 Arabesque, where the opening melody is so beautifully shaped without compromising its basic simplicity.
Note that, like the Ranki disks, this recital was originally mastered in what to the Denon engineers must seem like the Dark Ages: 1977 in this case. Fear not. It sounds wonderful.

July 6, 1986



Edward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
Violoncello: What an odd word! The ''ello'' suffix tells us it is a diminutive form, meaning ''little violone.'' (Violone, in turn, is an augmentative word, meaning ''big violin'' - or viol, depending on whom you ask.) Notwithstanding that implication of smallness, the cello is the largest member of the present-day violin family, the double bass being more closely related to the earlier viols. Many would say that it is the most beautiful as well, capable of a range of sonorities unmatched by any other orchestral instrument.
The earliest extant cellos come to us from mid-16th-century Italy, yet it was 200 years before they were taken seriously as solo instruments; while several works for unaccompanied cello date from the first half of the 1700's, the instrument was used principally as a bass instrument - all-important in Baroque music, but low-profile nonetheless. There are some, indeed, who assert that Beethoven's Opus 5 sonatas of 1796 are the first ''true'' cello sonatas, with cello and piano treated as equal partners. That is something of an exaggeration, although they are certainly the earliest in the standard repertory.
Their place in that repertory is reflected by the frequency with which they have been recorded: the Schwann catalogue contains no less than 10 listings. Among these are two performances which could hardly be more diffferent in approach.
The first, a recent release from Denmark (Danacord DACO 231/3, three LP's) featuring Erling Blondel Bengtsson, cello, and Anker Blyme, piano, contains not only the two Opus 5 sonatas but also Beethoven's three later cello sonatas (Op. 69 and the two of Op. 102) and his three sets of variations for cello and piano - two on themes from Mozart's ''Die Zauberflöte'' and one on a theme from Handel's ''Judas Maccabaeus.'' The performers will be familiar to very few American music lovers, but this should not be taken as a sign of unworthiness; Mr. Bengtsson's tone is focused and sweet and his playing sure and nimble. These are tender readings of music which is attractive throughout if not of great substance.
It has taken some time, but the laudable trend toward playing music on period instruments is being extended to post-Baroque composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The benefits of fine performances on appropriate instruments can be great; quite apart from obvious differences in timbre, balances among instruments more truly reflect what the composer is likely to have had in mind. The Beethoven cello sonatas are an example; while the cello has evolved since 1796, the size and tone of its voice have not undergone a radical alteration. The piano, on the other hand, has grown enormously in virtually all ways. The 18th-century instrument was lighter in both construction and tone. It stands to reason that today's piano-cello duo should sound very different from that of Beethoven's time.
The Opus 5 sonatas have been recorded by the cellist Christophe Coin and the pianist Patrick Cohen on French Harmonia Mundi HMC 1179 (LP and cassette), employing an Anton Walter piano of 1785 and a cello built to 18th-century specifications. The performances, while not as fresh-sounding as those of the Danish pair, are full of nuance and technical skill. The relationship between the two instruments is, indeed, markedly different - which is not to say balances are ideal throughout. In fact, it is Mr. Bengtsson and Mr. Blyme with their modern instruments who let us hear more clearly what is happening in the music. This is due mainly to the recording engineers' grotesque exaggeration of stereo effect, at least on the LP version of this release. With the cello and piano coming from opposite corners of the room, it takes considerable imagination to bring them together into a sonic ensemble (headphones only make matters worse).
One of the differences between old and modern cellos is the way in which they are strung: all used to be fitted with gut strings, while the great majority of cellists today choose metal strings (or sometimes a mixture of gut and metal). Stringing has a noticeable if not immense effect on tone, and the young British cellist Steven Isserlis has opted for gut. On his debut recording (Hyperion A 66159), he is joined by the pianist Peter Evans in Brahms's cello sonatas, Opp. 38 in E minor and 99 in F major. These works are fuller in texture than the Beethoven, and benefit from the colorful treatment they receive here. Mr. Isserlis makes lovely sounds; even in pianissimos the tone does not dry out, and his warm legatos are a delight.
There are times, however, when more incisive attacks would be welcome, as in the final rondo of the second sonata - particularly compared with the more fervent versions of the same sonatas by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax (RCA ARC1-7022). The latter may open with a slightly too mannered Allegro non troppo, but are, on the whole, deeply felt and exuberant and are well worth listening to.
Some music commonly played on the cello was not written for that instrument at all. In 1823, Johann Staufer invented a six-stringed, fretted instrument called the arpeggione. During its brief popularity, a small corpus of compositions was assembled, including Franz Schubert's appealing sonata in A minor. The arpeggione has gone the way of the hula hoop (although there exists an Archiv recording of the sonata on that instrument, just as there no doubt remain swivel-hipped exponents of what is surely a quintessential symbol of the 1950's), but the piece works very well on the cello.
On Philips compact disk 412 230-2 (available also on LP and cassette), Mischa Maisky is joined by Martha Argerich, piano, in an enjoyable recital including the arpeggione sonata and Schumann's Op. 73 Fantasiestucke (also written for another instrument, the clarinet) and five pieces based on folk motifs. Where tempos are slow, Maisky and Argerich support their long musical lines admirably; if in allegros they occasionally seem to gloss over the odd detail (while never forfeiting a clearly marked pulse), this does not blemish their intense and manifestly well-considered approach.
If anything, interest in the cello has grown over the years; 20th-century composers from Bloch to Weill have written for the instrument, by itself or in various combinations. A nice survey of mainstream cello music, played by Mari Fujiwara with Jacques Rouvier, piano, is found on Denon compact disk 33C37-7563. Sonatas by Debussy and Shostakovich are beautifully played, with all the emotional twists and turns - from the dreamy turbulence of Debussy's first movement to Shostakovich's demonic second-movement allegro - closely followed. Only Stravinsky's 1932 ''Suite Italienne'' does not fully come up to the mark: while the playing is accomplished, the requisite sense of humor is lacking.

August 24, 1986


For many readers, the word ''recorder'' will evoke a room full of 8-year-olds seated cross-legged in a circle, playing ''Au clair de la lune'' on plastic instruments in several competing tempos and keys simultaneously. One forgets that, despite its relatively low cost and the ease with which simple tunes can be learned on it, the recorder is an utterly serious instrument, with a history going well back into the Middle Ages. In the Baroque era, in fact, music of high virtuosity was composed for it, and it is from that period that most of the well-known recorder music comes.
The past few decades have produced many fine recorder players, including Bernard Krainis, David Munrow and Frans Brüggen, all of them well represented on disk. In recent years several newcomers have emerged, among them Michala Petri, a young Danish musician who has been performing concerts since childhood and who already has a good half-dozen recordings to her credit. She is featured on two compact disks from Philips, one devoted to concertos and the other to sonatas.
The first (412 630-2, 45 minutes, also on LP and cassette) contains works by Alessandro Marcello, Jacques Christophe Naudot, Telemann and Vivaldi. On the second disk (412 632-3, 52 minutes, also on LP and cassette) are sonatas of Vivaldi, Corelli, Diogenio Bigaglia (who was, incidentally, a monk), Bononcini, Sammartini and Benedetto Marcello. Miss Petri's playing is wonderful throughout: the tone is pure and even, musical articulation is clear and nimble, and her breath control, all important, is exemplary, permitting long lines and seamless phrasing.
There is also great variety. In fast movements, the displays of dexterity can be spectacular, as in the second-movement allegro of the Telemann Concerto in F, or effortless and easygoing, as in the final vivace of Bononcini's C Minor Divertimento. Slower tempos reveal the solidity of the respiratory support underlying Miss Petri's playing.
All this technique is complemented by good musical sense; tempos are well chosen and the shaping of phrases apposite and engaging. Yet there are no moments of heart-stopping magic. Admittedly, nothing on either disk would appear on any music lover's list of the 10 Greatest Works Ever Written, but it is all well made and exceedingly pleasant.
Wonders can be - and have been - worked with far lesser material. Whether or not Miss Petri is capable of such wonder-working (and it seems very likely that she is), the problem here lies not with her but in her partners. George Malcolm, who performs with her on the sonatas, is a fine harpsichordist, full of verve, imagination and insight, but the instrument on which he plays lacks resonance and bite, especially in contrast with the bright sound of the recorder. On the other collection, the playing of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Kenneth Sillito is similarly bland and errs on the side of solemnity and heaviness. In a few passages the string playing is simply sloppy.
Many of the most exciting performances of Baroque music today are coming from players employing ''historical'' instruments and techniques; as a rule, they play not at standard concert pitch but approximately half a tone lower (with A tuned to around 415Hz, not the regulation 440 or 444Hz). In interviews, Miss Petri has said that owing to her sense of perfect pitch she is uncomfortable playing with anything other than modern tuning. Other musicians have overcome this undoubtedly daunting obstacle, and it is to be hoped that Michala Petri has the will to do so too, for her assets could be put to far more effective use than they are on these two disks - which are still thoroughly enjoyable for all their flaws.
Another recent Philips compact disk (412 851-2; 47 minutes. Also on LP and cassette) evokes a similar reaction. Here, the Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger plays three concertos (BWV 1053, 1059 and 1055) by J. S. Bach, joined again by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, this time conducted by Iona Brown. As in Miss Petri's recital, the orchestral playing is little more than workmanlike, with a thickness that is disappointing next to Mr. Holliger's state-of-the-art performances on oboe and oboe d'amore. As far as the string sound goes, this is soft Bach, but if you are not bothered by the rounded edges you will get much pleasure from the lovely work of the soloist.
The Swiss flutist Aurele Nicolet has transcribed J. S. Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello for his own instrument, and plays two of them, in G and E flat major, BWV 1007 and 1010, on a Denon compact disk (33C37-7383, 41 minutes. Note that not one of the four recordings mentioned in this article takes advantage of the CD's 70-minute-plus capacity: In this case, for example, one or maybe even two additional suites could have been accommodated.).
The music works surprisingly well on the flute, simply transposed two octaves upward. The only technical problem in the translation is the multiple stopping in the suites, where the cello is required to play more than one note at a time, something impossible on the flute, at least in this type of work (a technique used in some avant-garde music coaxes simultaneous harmonics out of the instrument). With great aplomb and impressive technical skill, Mr. Nicolet skitters fleetly across the notes of a group, giving much the same effect as a broken chord.
Mr. Nicolet generally does a fine job with the quicker dance movements of the suites, but in slower sections falls frequent prey to the temptation to linger on a phrase at the expense of rhythmic pulse. Remarkably, by controlling his tone very precisely, Mr. Nicolet is able to bring out polyphonic texture that is often obscured even by cellists. In short, the overall impact is basically the same as that of a typical good rendition on the cello: similar failings, similar successes. This would be an attractive disk for collectors of cello music, Bach, flute music - or curiosities.

February 22, 1987


Gilbert and Sullivan: Their Greatest Hits Vivian Tierney, soprano; Patricia Leonard, contralto; Geoffrey Shovelton, tenor; Peter Pratt, baritone; Alan Ayldon, bass-baritone. Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra and massed choral voices led by the Royal Choral Society. Marcus Dods, conductor. Vestron MusicVideo. 54 minutes. $29.95.
In 1982, the centennial of Gilbert and Sullivan's ''Iolanthe,'' a benefit concert was mounted at the Royal Albert Hall in London; one of the beneficiaries was the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, and it is sad to recall that the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company has since perished, a victim of British government budget cuts.
In any event, that concert, of which this tape is a partial record, was in the grand English tradition of neo-Victorian galas: There is a 1,000-voice chorus, some of its members dressed in costumes reminiscent of one or another of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas; two actors portraying Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, watching the proceedings and cracking mild jokes; D'Oyly Carte singers turning in very creditable performances of 15 Savoy opera favorites; and miniature Union Jacks in the hands of the choir and audience. Not an ideal theatrical or musical experience, but a pleasant enough hour nonetheless.

April 12, 1987


Prague, that ancient, golden city where the beer is strong and the gravy thick, has long been a center of musical composition and performance. Two hundred years ago, Mozart's ''Clemenza di Tito'' and ''Don Giovanni'' had their first performances there. In the more recent past, Czech composers such as Dvorak, Janacek and Smetana have gained international repute, and the strong tradition continues to this day, with a cohesive musical life that is among the most vital in Europe.
But in today's environment of high-tech digital sound, it is still a pleasant surprise to realize that Eastern Europe is making substantial contributions to the compact disk catalogue. Czechoslovakia, with its state music and record publishing enterprise, Supraphon, is no exception. In 1986, it closed a deal with Denon for the manufacture and distribution of its CD's, and the first fruits of that arrangement are now ripe and available in the United States.
It is no surprise at all, however, that of five recent Japanese-made Supraphon disks (all of them digitally mastered in Czechoslovakia and available on CD only), four should be devoted to music by Czech composers: Dvorak, Fibich, Janacek and Suk.
Leos Janacek's two programmatic string quartets have been much recorded over the years; the present recording by the Smetana Quartet (Supraphon 33CO-1130, 42 minutes) is that group's fourth since 1955. It was taped at a 1979 concert in Prague and makes use of a critical edition of the music by the Quartet's ''newest'' member, the violist Milan Skampa (he joined in 1956, and since then the personnel has remained unchanged). Both pieces were composed in the 1920's and both were inspired by love and the relations between men and women; for Janacek, obviously, these were stormy matters, for the intensity of emotion unrelentingly conveyed is great in the extreme. The performances are masterly and committed, as highly charged as the music itself.
No less impressive technically is the Panocha Quartet, whose members have all studied with their counterparts in the Smetana Quartet and which can thus be considered collectively to be the elder group's protégé. On Supraphon 33C37-7910 (a commendable 70 minutes in length), they play two Dvorak quartets: No. 10 in E flat, Op. 51, and No. 13 in G, Op. 106.
Rarely does one hear such nearly faultless ensemble - listen, for instance to the unisons in the first movement of op. 51 - such seamless legatos or such gorgeous sound. Neither is rhythmic impact lacking. Yet the reading of Quartet No. 10 is somehow too low key; the dancelike second movement seems buttoned up, and much of the fun is missing from the wonderful finale. But fortunately, this reservation does not apply to the G major quartet, No. 13; the Panocha captures all the brooding quality of the second movement adagio, and the quiet intensity of the following fast movement.
For most music lovers, Zdenek Fibich is little more than the answer to a trivia question (''What Czech composer died in 1900 at age 50, having written some 600 works, including seven operas?''). Over time, a handful of his works have come and gone from the Schwann Catalogue, but one could easily live one's life without hearing anything by this prolific musician.
It was therefore interesting to listen to Supraphon 32CO 1091 (45 minutes), which contains Fibich's Symphony No. 1 in F, Op. 17, and his Op. 46 symphonic poem on Shakespeare's ''Tempest,'' very nicely performed by the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky. In both works Fibich displays a pleasant, mild Romanticism; the symphony has placid pastoral elements and plenty of easygoing lyricism, and it concludes with a rousing, triumphant finale flawed only by too many trick endings. It seems that the last movement is half coda. ''The Tempest'' is a colorful tone painting, well served by the warm sound of the orchestra.
The Czechoslovak Government's commitment to music is manifested both in the large number of professional symphony orchestras in the country and in the high quality of the principal ones: By any standard, the Prague-based Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ranks among Europe's best.
The curious English of the booklet accompanying one of these disks has it that Libor Pesek conducted ''the recording for the first performance of 'Don Giovanni' in Prague,'' which would make him a lot older than he looks in his photographs. Whether or not he had the pleasure of working with Mozart and Da Ponte back in 1787, he does a good job with Josef Suk's Op. 29 symphonic poem ''A Summer Tale'' (Supraphon 33CO-1030, 52 minutes), leading the Czech Philharmonic in an effective reading of that colorful work by a man who was Dvorak's pupil and son-in-law and the violinist Joseph Suk's grandfather.
This is no symphonic masterpiece, but it is a well-structured set of sound pictures of wide tonal and emotional range. Not only is the orchestral timbre rich and clear, but the instrumental soloists play beautifully in their brief passages (although the flute tone tends to be somewhat airy and heavy with vibrato). One could fault the recording for excessive clarity: page-turns and other extraneous noises are too apparent.
The same orchestra and conductor, along with the Kuhn Children's Chorus, the Czech Philharmonic Chorus and the vocal soloists Gabriella Benackova-Capova, soprano, and Vaclav Zitek, bass, perform the only non-Czech music in this group of recordings: Arthur Honegger's 1953 ''Une Cantate de Noel'' and Francis Poulenc's ''Stabat Mater'' of 1950.
The latter may be a trifle solemn for many tastes, but it undeniably has its convincing moments, including the wild Cujus animam and the dark processional of the Fac ut portem. The succession of moods and colors is well rendered by choral and orchestral forces, and Ms. Benackova-Capova's lush soprano is a pleasure to listen to.
The Honegger cantata is a work of more general appeal, making use of several French, German and Latin Christmas carols, but not in heavy-handed or obvious ways. The mood of the work lightens progressively from the opening De profundis to the joyful Laudate and Gloria Patri; Mr. Pesek manages the sweep of this progression with great skill. The inner voices of the adult chorus are occasionally out of tune or rhythmically sloppy, but this hardly mars what is in all other respects a striking reading.