June 2, 1985
NEW DISKS REVEL IN BACH'S VARIETY
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
AN OUTPOURING OF BACH DISPLAYS VARIED ARTISTRY
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
JEWISH MUSIC FROM THE PAST
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
FESTIVE VESPERS MUSIC BY MONTEVERDI
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
THREE HOURS PASS SWIFTLY IN A NEW 'ST. MATTHEW PASSION'
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
GIFTED PIANISTS TEST THEIR METTLE
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
RECORDINGS; DIFFERENT APPROACHES ILLUMINATE BEETHOVEN'S CELLO SONATAS
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
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
RECORDINGS; THE BAROQUE: RECORDER, FLUTE AND OBOE
By EDWARD SCHNEIDERFor 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
HOME VIDEO; RECENT CASSETTES
By EDWARD SCHNEIDERGilbert 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
ANCIENT PRAGUE'S MODERN DISKS
By EDWARD SCHNEIDERPrague, 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.