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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   January 12 - January 25, 2011

MARTINU, B.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 - Nos. 1, 2, 4
(Koukl, Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, Fagen)

(Naxos: 8.572373)

MARTINU, B.: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 - Nos. 1, 2, 4 (Koukl, Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, Fagen) Bohuslav Martinu grew up in what is now the Czech Republic, came to maturity as a composer in Paris and lived in the United States during most of his final years. He left so much music behind – most of it extremely attractive – that performers and audiences have been slow to take it all in.

This second and final Naxos volume of his five piano concertos makes you wonder why these entertaining pieces aren't at least as popular as Prokofiev's comparable concertos. Both composers turned out music that's fun to listen to and shows off a virtuoso's skills.

With any 20th-century composer, it's always tempting to look for connections and influences. Here, the Concerto No. 1 first brings to mind the neoclassical Stravinsky in his Pulcinella mode, and indeed the concerto was written soon after the Russian's ballet. But the central section of the first movement has that open-air quality of Aaron Copland's populist style – which Copland didn't create until a decade later. The slow movement and finale pull out all the big-gun pianist stops.

The Concerto No. 2 has a grandeur that makes you wonder how history might have been changed if Martinu had moved to Hollywood rather than New York and Princeton. Again, Stravinsky seems just over the horizon, but the earlier Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. The Concerto No. 4 finds Martinu reminiscing about his Central European roots. Even the ghost of Brahms seems to be wafting about.

Giorgio Koukl, a Czech expatriate living in Switzerland, already recorded Martinu's solo piano music for Naxos. He's enormously impressive here, as is the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic (of Zlin, Czech Republic) under American maestro Arthur Fagen.

Lawson Taitie, The Dallas Morning News, December 8, 2010

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC - PERSICHETTI, V. / SCHUMAN, W. / BOLCOM, W. / FINE, I. / FOSS, L. (University of Texas Chamber Singers)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559358)

AMERICAN CHORAL MUSIC - PERSICHETTI, V. / SCHUMAN, W. / BOLCOM, W. / FINE, I. / FOSS, L. (University of Texas Chamber Singers)

Perhaps this disc should bear the title "American Choral Music, Volume 2", as this same choir--a world-class group in every respect--released a similarly interesting, well-chosen, and impeccably-sung program of American works (by Ives, Corigliano, Persichetti, Foss, and Copland) for this same label in 2007 (type Q11034 in Search Reviews). Choral music fans should be very grateful to James Morrow and his excellent young singers, not only for the exemplary choral performances but for documenting repertoire that inexplicably remains rarely recorded.

Vincent Persichetti's Mass could function equally well as a liturgical or concert piece, and its vibrant harmonic character--that somewhat ambiguous yet still tonal melding of modal aspects with added- and subtracted-note triadic structures, sometimes described (in the latter 20th-century) as "modern-classicism"--works very well with the timbres of voices, and after hearing the University of Texas Chamber Singers' absolutely dead-on rendition, you just want to go out and perform the work yourself. It's as finely written and attractive a piece of 20th-century sacred music as you'll hear, and it's not so difficult as to be beyond the reach of serious amateur choirs.

William Schuman's Carols of Death, set to texts by Walt Whitman, are in their own way just as affecting and memorable as the Persichetti, even if the technical demands for the singers are that much greater and likewise the challenges for the listener. William Bolcom's The Mask (the program's most recently composed work), a song cycle with piano based on poems by African American poets, shows a (mostly) skillful integration of sung texts and music, engages the ear and emotions with its clever references to ragtime and blues--and features one movement of solo piano, which is among the disc's highlights. In the first movement the piano sometimes seems superfluous or even irrelevant to the choral parts, and the piano's clamorous bass just sounds excessive (a clue to this very percussive quality may be found in the texts, but these are only available online).

The earliest work on the program, Irving Fine's The Hour-Glass, sets six poems by 17th-century English poet Ben Jonson. Not only is this by far the most virtuosic group of pieces on the disc, but Fine's text-setting is the most imaginative and effective and masterful. The soloists here are outstanding. Finally, Lukas Foss' Psalms are typically easily accessible (not that there's anything wrong with that!) but also typically just a bit frothy (a word I always find myself using with this composer), but you can't help but love the Psalm 23, which gently, peacefully closes the disc, the sopranos floating a lovely high-A. The sound, from a church in Austin, Texas, is sensitive and true to the singers and (except for the one above-mentioned instance) to the piano(s). A superb and important addition to the catalog--highly recommended.

David Vernier,, December 13, 2010

SCHUBERT, F.: Schone Mullerin (Die) / Auf dem Strom (Behle, Bjelland)
(Capriccio: C5044)

SCHUBERT, F.: Schone Mullerin (Die) / Auf dem Strom (Behle, Bjelland) A year and a half ago I reviewed Daniel Behle’s debut recital and had only praise for it. I concluded the review thus: ‘A recording of Die schöne Müllerin is scheduled for June this year and I can hardly wait for its release.’ Well, here it is and it was worth waiting for.

Behle, who studied with his mother, the dramatic soprano Renate Behle, has a beautiful, light lyrical tenor voice, suave in pianissimo, agile in faster passages and with surprisingly powerful fortes.Ungeduld(tr. 7), which he also sang on his debut disc, has all the intensity needed to express the eagerness and impatience.Tränenregen(tr. 10) is so flexible and natural in expression andMein!(tr. 11) has true élan. But even more impressive is his restrained singing in songs likeDer Neugierige(tr. 6), where his legato is so well controlled and his half-voice is ravishingly beautiful.Die liebe Farbeis sung like a caress andTrockne Blumenbegins like a whisper. But it is not only the technical execution that impresses. He also has something to say about the songs, though he avoids the too explicit word-painting that has characterized Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s readings. Behle lets the words make impact through clear diction and unforced naturalness. In this respect he has so much in common with Jan Kobow, whose recording of this cycle has been my favourite since it was first issued. Kobow decorates the vocal line with some embellishments but not excessively so. He is also accompanied by a fortepiano which gives a crisper background. Sveinung Bjelland, playing on a modern instrument is however just as good and the only interpretative quirkiness – if that is what it is – is some quite heavy ritardandi. But this is very much a matter of personal taste and is in no way a hindrance to enjoying the music. Speeds are fastish without being rushed. I compared timings with Christian Elsner in the Naxos complete Schubert cycle and with one or two exceptions Behle was the faster, Elsner taking almost one and half minutes longer for the last songDes Baches Wiegenlied.

It was a brilliant idea to includeAuf dem Strom, a very good song too rarely encountered in recital and on recordings. The main reason is the need for an extra musician, and what else can the horn-player perform, unless he plays some horn sonata? The horn part is quite testing and is not just some nice background embellishment. There is a parallel inDer Hirt auf dem Felsenwhere the clarinet, the voice and the piano form a chamber music trio. The mellower French horn matches well the tenor voice and Behle sings with glow and power.

The recording is spotless and with good liner-notes and the sung texts with English translations printed in the booklet this is a high-quality product. There is no shortage of good recordings ofDie schöne Müllerinand if we concentrate on only tenors the list is impressive: from Aksel Schiøtz in the 1940s, via Peter Schreier, Nicolai Gedda and Ian Bostridge to Jan Kobow. This new recording has to be included among the top contenders, where also Christoph Prégardien’s recording from 2007 also is among the foremost interpreters (Challenge Classics CC72292).

Let’s hope there is more to come. Why notDichterliebenext time? But while waiting for that issue thisMüllerinshould win admirers around the world.

Göran Forsling,

HALVORSEN, J.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Bergen Philharmonic, N. Jarvi)
(Chandos: CHAN10614)

HALVORSEN, J.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Bergen Philharmonic, N. Jarvi) Has there ever been a conductor whose recorded catalogue has included as many cycles and sets of compositions across as wide a field of repertoire as Neeme Järvi?Andwith such palpable success. For sure he has been fortunate in that the orchestras he has recorded with and the companies making the discs have always demonstrated the very highest production and performance values. However the inescapable fact is that Järvi is blessed with the gift of recreating in the studio an energy and thrill of discovery that eludes all but the very finest conductors. This new disc – another series mind – Volume 2 of the orchestral works of Johan Halvorsen - embodies all of the best virtues of the Järvi/Chandos creative partnership. Yes I know the criticism of a certain brusqueness verging on the superficial has been levelled at his conducting – perhaps with some justification in his Bruckner and Mahler - but for the music recorded here the result is a disc brimful of sparkling energy which presents this music in its best possible light.

No, Halvorsen is not a major forgotten master but he is a fine craftsman with a gift for melody. That being said there are a couple of musical highlights here which touch an emotional nerve with some power. In particular I’m thinking of the 4thmovement of theSuite Ancienne Op.31a[track 4] –Sarabande. Øyvin Dysband in his very informative liner-note makes the link – verging on respectful tribute – this music makes to the same titled movement in Grieg’sHolberg Suitebut Halvorsen’s writing for a full orchestra allows for a climax of real power. Fantastically played here by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra which throughout the disc is on top form. With engineering and production in the ‘dream-team’ hands of Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens I would say this is one of the best-sounding discs I have heard from Chandos in some time with an ideal balance between detail, power and ambience. The twenty-five minuteSuite Ancienne Op.31ais the rarest work presented here and also the best. Originally written as a series of entr’actes for a production of the playThe Lying-in Roomby the 18thCentury dramatist Ludvig Holberg, it inhabits the musical world of the light orchestral suite all but lost as a genre today. Halvorsen is a bit of a musical magpie; the openingIntratabustles with the same kind of energy and humour that inhabits the RespighiAncient Airs and DancesorThe Birdsor perhaps more so the Scarlatti/TomasiniGood Humoured Ladies– although it should be pointed out that Halvorsen uses original melodic material. Dysband spots an echo of the ProkofievClassical Symphonywhich I had noted before reading the liner. Also, the theme used in the second movementAir con variazioniand his treatment of it had me thinking of the DvorákSymphonic Variations– meltingly beautiful oboe playing here. But please do not take from the above paragraph a sense that this is a cobbling together of other composer’s best bits. Rather wonderfully, for all the influences digested or otherwise, the result is an absolutely charming work – I can see why Halvorsen counted it as one of his very finest compositions.

Looking at Halvorsen’s compositional dates comes as something of a shock. TheSuiteabove dates from 1911 and the symphony on this disc from 1924. But trying to fit him onto the great musico/historical time-line does no-one any great service. This is all music that would sit very comfortably around 1880 and not sound radical then. Best to enjoy it in its own right and not worry about the core-conservatism it espouses. The remainder of the disc comes into direct competition/comparison with performances by the Oslo Philharmonic under Karsten Andersen – with violinist Terje Tønnesen – released on the Norsk Kulturråds Klassikerserie label in 1988. Direct comparisons are fascinating. In the solo works Tønnesen is consistently faster than the Chandos violinist Marianne Thorsen. Both players, I should stress, are very fine indeed but my feeling is that Tønnesen’s instinct is right. Halvorsen was a violinist himself so he knows his way around a fiddle and had played the national dances of both Sarasate and Wieniawski giving him a practitioner’s understanding of how to fuse the folk element to the virtuosic. But where I think it works against him is that the musical mother lode of the Norwegian folk-material for all its earthy energy doesn’t sit easily with the flamboyance demanded of the 19thCentury virtuoso. So the result is some great ‘original’ material onto which is grafted virtuosic gestures; they lack an organic unity. Tønnesen’s fractionally more vigorous indeed earthy approach – and rather rougher style – actually helps distract one’s attention from that inherent tension in the chosen musical form. These are works that will never make it into the concert hall any more. Running at just ten and a half minutes theThree Norwegian Dancessimply do not fit into any modern-day programmer’s frame of reference. Which is why we should be all the more grateful for this new version. Again, the performance oozes quality – in pure engineering terms outclassing the earlier Norsk disc by a country mile. If you have any kind of weakness for virtuoso violin music with a nationalistic slant you will find much to enjoy here. Of the concertante works the reflectiveChant de la Veslemöyis the most charming – a kind of vocalise for violin and strings. Thorsen takes a full minute longer than Tønnesen which in a piece which lasts only 3:30 in the slower version is a huge difference. Thorsen is – not surprisingly – far more reflective and poetic, Tønnesen’s rather forthright and literal style which paid dividends in the dances andAirsounds too plain here and is not helped by the closer miking.

Which leaves the 1924Symphony No.2 ‘Fatum’. Halvorsen’s idea of fate here is much the same as Tchaikovsky in hisSymphony No.4.Dysband likens the fate motif to the opening of Mahler’sSymphony No.6but this time I cannot agree. Yes there is a similarity to the melodic outline but I think this is just trying to give it significance by association. Again differences in timings can tell only part of the story but Järvi shaves over five minutes off Andersen’s playing time with the first movement alone counting for three of those minutes. Not having access to a score I’m cautious about asserting that both performances play exactly the same number of bars or even notes – this new recording takes advantage of a new critical edition which – apparently – corrects errors which number in the thousands[!] But that aside this is Järvi in his musical element – the performance dynamic and thrusting, full of excitement and verve. In his hands the work is transformed. What under Andersen sounds earnest and often dull here becomes powerful and compelling. Not that Järvi is simply fast, he is still able to turn lyrical phrases with real grace and affection – try the second movementRomance[track 12]. Ultimately, I’m still not convinced this is a great work. Given Halvorsen’s theatrical background I feel his strength is in the field of the pictorial and programmatic. Hence, I feel the form of the suite suits him better than the abstract symphony. Perhaps that was why he needed the idea of ‘fate’ to hang the concept of a symphony on. However, by running for less than half an hour in this performance it does not outstay its welcome and there are many pleasures to be had along the way. Halvorsen’s orchestration is always well-crafted if never remarkable. Certainly the Bergen players sound as though they enjoy playing their parts – at the risk of becoming repetitious – the quality of the playing on this disc is one of its great pleasures. I will be interested to see if Volume 3 of this series includes theScenes from Norwegian Taleswhich is the filler on the Andersen disc as opposed to theSuite Anciennehere. That is a gem of a suite full of character and national colour and a work that would be meat and drink to the team on this disc.

So a disc of the very highest quality and certainly one which will make me seek out the Volume 1 I missed and look forward to Volume 3. Musically enjoyable if not life-changing but another bull’s-eye for the prodigiously comprehensive Neeme Järvi.

Nick Barnard,

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