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.

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