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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   February 9 - February 22, 2011

DAUGHERTY, M.: Route 66 / Ghost Ranch / Sunset Strip / Time Machine (Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop, Mei-Ann Chen, L. Jackson)
(Naxos: 8.559613)

DAUGHERTY, M.: Route 66 / Ghost Ranch / Sunset Strip / Time Machine (Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop, Mei-Ann Chen, L. Jackson)

Michael Daugherty manages to have his musical cake and eat it too. His music's eclectic "pop" elements rub shoulders with thoroughly modern compositional techniques. Time Machine, for example, requires three conductors, but its various textural layers and rhythmic complexities never sound confused. Indeed, its ticking woodblocks sound very much like Daugherty--something similar occurs at the start of Ghost Ranch, inspired by paintings by the always marvelous Georgia O'Keefe. Both this latter work and Sunset Strip are triptychs in the grand tradition of Ives (Three Places in New England) and Debussy (La mer).

Route 66, by contrast, is a seven-minute cross-country travelogue, and one of Daugherty's best-known works (after the expansive Metropolis Symphony). Marin Alsop has established herself as a champion of Daugherty's music, and performs all of it with obvious commitment. The Bournemouth orchestra, particularly its brass section (horns and trumpets), makes the most of the numerous solo opportunities that Daugherty offers the players. Naxos' engineers do an excellent job capturing the music's wide range of colors and, in Time Machine, its spacial elements. No reservations whatever--this is just excellent.

David Hurwitz,

WEINBERG, M.: String Quartets, Vol. 2 - Nos. 7, 11, 13 (Quatour Danel)
(CPO: 777392-2)

WEINBERG, M.: String Quartets, Vol. 2 - Nos. 7, 11, 13 (Quatour Danel) Classical Lost and Found: String Quartets In The Shadow Of Shostakovich

Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (also spelled Vaynberg) was of Jewish decent, and the only immediate member of his family to get out of Poland alive, following the Nazi occupation of 1939. Initially he fled to Minsk, but as the Nazis “panzered” into Russia, he moved further east to Tashkent in 1941.

While there he sent a copy of his first symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich, who was so impressed he invited him to Moscow, where Weinberg would go in 1943, and spend the rest of his life. But in some respects he jumped from the Nazi frying pan into the Soviet fire, considering his music was ignored for years by the hard-line cultural establishment.

To make matters worse, in 1953 his Jewish associations and Stalin's anti-Semitic policies led to his imprisonment. But Shostakovich interceded again, writing a letter to the authorities gaining his release.

He became a close associate of Shostakovich, stating at one point, "I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood." This is apparent in Weinberg's 17 string quartets, three of which are performed on this new album by the young Danel Quartet. The music has much in common with Shostakovich's string quartets, but they’re not just retreads. They may speak the same language, but it’s with an entirely different accent.

Weinberg's fifth quartet, from 1945, is atypically in five movements, titled "Melody," "Humoresque," "Scherzo," "Improvisation," and "Serenade." There's enough variety and informality in the music to make it more of a suite. The hyperactive moments smack of Shostakovich's second quartet, but there's an emphasis on melody that's purely Weinberg.

Weinberg’s prescient ninth quartet, from 1963, would seem to indicate the influence between these two composers went in both directions. There are passages that anticipate ideas in Shostakovich's tenth, eleventh and twelfth quartets, written in 1964 and 1966.

The most progressive music on the album is Weinberg's fourteenth quartet, from 1978. The irascible opening movement is a dogfight between the cello and first violin, with its dissonance and sudden silences. The quartet is a unique creation, but it could also hint at what Shostakovich might have come up with had he lived longer.

Having apprenticed under the renowned Amadeus Quartet, the Brussels-based Danel Quartet has since become one of today's finest, specializing in outstanding lesser known repertoire. Their commitment to the music is evident in these stirring performances as well as on their three previous Weinberg releases for the CPO label. Bring on the rest!

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.

Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found,, January 12, 2011

VERDI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Muti)
(CSO Resound: CSOR9011006)

VERDI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Muti) Yes, it really is all that.
This much-lauded live recording of Verdi’s Requiem, recorded in January 2009, provides some idea of what the new partnership of Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is capable ofon its finest nights.

Rarely will one hear the opening notes of the Requiem steal in with such a refined expectant hush (or such immaculate diction as rendered by the CSO Chorus). But what is most striking in this performance, released on the CSO’s own Resound label, is the overall atmosphere of relaxed dignity and solace that permeates every bar under Muti’s direction – the awesome power of the ‘Rex tremendae’; the light-footed nimble grace of the ‘Sanctus’; the unearthly radiance of the ‘Agnus Dei’.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard choral singing and diction as clear in any live performance or recording of this work as Duain Wolfe’s CSO Chorus provides here. While majestic, the music unfolds naturally with a flowing, unforced eloquence. Yet there is no lack of drama or knife-edged intensity, as with the ‘Dies Irae’’s celebrated choral drop into the abyss, which is even more potently jarring than usual here.

Although generally admirable, the soloists prove more variable than their colleagues in the orchestra and chorus. I prefer a darker, deeper voice than Ildar Abdrazakov’s in ‘Mors stupebit’, but the Russian bass sings with great feeling and expressive poise, his large instrument surprisingly flexible. Mario Zeffiri possesses a fine plangent tenor, albeit a bit on the light side with an intermittent wobble. Barbara Frittoli’s pure, rich soprano offers some of the finest solo moments of the performance, somewhat mitigated by her precarious climactic note in ‘Libera Me’.

No complaints about Olga Borodina, whose rich-toned mezzo anchors the quartet. The Russian singer is consistently sensitive to the text, with the most expressive and idiomatic vocalism, striking considering she is one of the non-Italian soloists. Despite individual quibbles, the four singers prove a wonderfully cohesive and nicely contrasted quartet with a magnificent account of the ‘Offertorio’.

Riccardo Muti’s debut recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a world-beater; one of the finest accounts of Verdi’s mighty Requiem on disc. Hopefully, it is a harbinger of further great things to come from this new and exciting musical partnership.

Lawrence A Johnson, The Classical Review, January 24, 2011

Komeda, Krzysztof: The Innocent Sorcerer
(Jazzwerkstatt: JW104)

Komeda, Krzysztof: The Innocent Sorcerer Polish saxophonist Adam Pieronczyk pays tribute to his to his country's jazz pioneer, Krzysztof Komeda (b.1931, d.1969), with Komeda: The Innocent Sorcerer.

Pianist/composer Komeda is better known for his film work, in the United States, than for his jazz work. The title of the CDis taken from the soundtrack he composed for the 1960 Andrezej Wadjda film of the same name. He also wrote music for films of Ingmar Bergman and, most famously Stateside, for Roman Polanski films including A Knife in the Water(1962) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). For jazz fans familiar with Komeda, it is most likely in the context of his mentoring trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

Adam Pieronczyk, born in 1970, shines a sparkling light on the work of Komeda without trying to imitate the master. Rather than employing piano, he chooses guitar, for a sound that lightens the moods and buoys up the atmospheric Old World drift of his beautiful, sometimes amorphous music.

The opener, "Wicker Basket," written for a Polish cartoon, has an introspective and slightly morose mood. Spacious and laconic, Pieronczyk's tenor sax adds a haunting quality that counterpoints Nelson Veras' light-toned acoustic guitar. "Kattorna" is from another soundtrack, and was included in Komeda's best-known album, Astigmatic (Polski Nagrania Muza, 1966). The leader's soprano sax gives the tune an astringent tang.

Lukasz Zyta's percussion work on "Kattorna"—and throughout the album—is quirky and masterful. He approach is crisp and succinct, as much punctuation as it is propulsion. He eschews big cymbal splashes and employs a variety of instruments that are difficult to identify since his contribution is so well incorporated in the ensemble. The dry shimmer of maracas and the jangle of a tambourine play into the beat, as well as the flat click-clack of a manual typewriter on the ominous "Sleep Safe and Warm," from Rosemary's Baby; there are times it sounds as if he is using kitchen utensils to create a controlled clamber on pots and pans, with remarkable skill and finesse.

"Crazy Girl" is the album's most lighthearted tune, as bright as a situation comedy theme song. "After the Catastrophe" scratches and drones into a gloomy soundscape, with Pieronczyk's soprano injecting some gathering hope.

It is said that Krzysztof Komeda injected a fresh, European aesthetic to jazz. Adam Pieronczyk reveals a fresh side of the pioneer's artistry with Komeda: The Innocent Sorcerer, a magnificent and compelling recording.

Dan McClenaghan,, January 22, 2011

STEFFENS, W.: Guernica and Other Paintings - Picasso, Munch, Bosch, Chagall
(Labor Records: LAB7084)

STEFFENS, W.: Guernica and Other Paintings - Picasso, Munch, Bosch, Chagall Various composers, most notably Scriabin have tried to translate music into colour andvice versa. The challenge of the next step when music portrays an image has been irresistible to a much larger range of composers. Music inspired by landscapes is one thing (I think of Hadley’sThe Hillsand Bax’sTintagel) but what about music inspired by paintings? There are plentiful examples including Rachmaninov’sToteninsel(Böcklin), Mussorgsky’sPictures(Hartmann), Granados’sGoyescasand Louis Aubert’sTombeau de Chateaubriand.

Walter Steffens was a composition student of the Busoni pupil Philip Jarnach in Hamburg. His OperaUnder Milk Woodbased on the ‘play for voices’ by Dylan Thomas was written for the BBC. He has for the last five decades been gripped by expressing paintings in music. There are more than a hundred such works based on paintings by Bosch, Rubens, Chagall, Picasso, Klee, Munch, Aubertin, Soto, Penck and Schumacher.

His music isau faitwith dissonance but this is not ultra-ivory tower material. HisGuernicais an elegy which also picks up on his memories of the Allied bombing raids on his home cities of Aachen and Dortmund. It is hoarse, humming with abrasion and overarched at the start, by a siren. The viola is by no means a passive presence. It plots a raw course through the destruction and finally finds peace. The date of the recording is not given but given the hiss (for this track only) it must be analogue. The brief but intenseSiguiriyais for mixed choir and draws on Munch and Lorca, images and poetry. The singing is densely volatile and flammably operatic. It can be heard as a violent counterpart to Penderecki’sHiroshima Threnody.Pintura del Mundostarts with the peaceful but far from bland disposition of the closing pages ofGuernica.This orchestral piece is tense; it groans and brays with horror. TheDialoguefirst movement tends towards stasis. The chittering and birdsong of Bosch’s nightmare insects and feathered horrors can also be heard. The music gathers wild pace in the second and last segment:Magog. The solo organ work,Le Cantique des Cantiquesis the most extended piece here at some forty minutes. Marc Chagall’s ‘Song of Songs’ is the inspiration. It is complex and emotional, dignified, awed and occasionally shuddering with horror or wild-eyed with growing hysteria (part V, tr. 11, 6:33); not that there isn’t a great deal of gentle and calming music. The idiom is not particularly difficult if you are comfortable with Messiaen. Friedhelm Flamme is the organist. He has already made many CDs for CPO in his survey of North German baroque organ music. For the same label he also recorded organ works by Duruflé and Langgaard.

The movements of Le Cantique des Cantiques are:-

Prolog: Sch'ma Israel (Höre, Israel) 6:17 (Hear, O Israel / 5. Moses 6,4-9)
I. Nordwind erwache! Südwind herbei! 4:08 (Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south / The Song of Songs 4.16)
II. Ich schlafe, aber mein Herz wacht 9:48 (I sleep, but my heart waketh / The Song of Songs 5.2)
III. Am Tage seiner Hochzeit 3:46 (In the day of his espousals / The Song of Songs 3.11)
IV. Zieh mich mit dir, jauchzen wir und jubeln 5:59 (Draw me, we will run after thee: we will be glad and rejoice in thee / The Song of Songs 1.4)
V. Stark wie der Tod ist die Liebe 10:17 (Love is strong as death / The Song of Songs 8.6).

The sung words are not printed in the leaflet. This is a good foldout effort with an essay by Christopher Zimmermann.

Steffens takes with utmost seriousness the transcribing of music from paintings. The results are fascinating and can hold the attention without fore-knowledge that what you hear began as something seen by the composer.

Rob Barnett,

BACH, J.S.: Cantatas, Vol. 18 (Gardiner) - BWV 32, 63, 65, 123, 124, 154, 191
(SDG: SDG174)

BACH, J.S.: Cantatas, Vol. 18 (Gardiner) - BWV 32, 63, 65, 123, 124, 154, 191 After being knighted by the Queen of England, after having been ordained Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, after winning more Gramophone Awards than anyone else, there are few challenges left to a musician. But endeavoring to perform the entirety of Bach’s nearly 200 church cantatas—all in just one year—is an audacious next step. This is what Sir John Eliot Gardiner did in 2000. Fortunately for those not present to witness it, the quixotic project was painstakingly documented.

In late December, ten years after the feat, Soli Deo Gloria (via Naxos Records) released the final albums of a beautiful 27-disc series, and what conductor and project director Gardiner aptly dubs his “Pilgrimage.” For this week’s Chicago Symphony guest-conducting appearances, Sir John has left his Bach scores back home in England, but there is no mistaking that the expedition continues to affect every aspect of the early-music expert’s life.

“It’s a bit like playing a computer game. Suddenly you get a whole lot of extra bogies and hazards that you’ve got to deal with,” Gardiner tells us by phone from Italy. He explains that no amount of planning can account for the sicknesses, contract kerfuffles and financial squeezes inevitable with such a mammoth project. The way the 67-year-old cheerfully speaks of the many difficulties threatening to derail the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, it is evident that the conductor continues to be in awe that it was ever completed. He humbly credits the artistry and sheer tenacity of his Monteverdi Choir (a group he founded in 1964) and the English Baroque Soloists (a period-instrument orchestra he founded in 1977). Performing all of Bach’s extant church cantatas mandated a killer weekly itinerary: a preliminary concert Saturday, a performance Sunday, a return flight from the performance city (initially the German towns where Bach lived and worked) Monday, and rehearsals for the next gig Tuesday through Friday.

Bach himself was on a similarly tight deadline of near-weekly composition and performances. “But then, it was him, not me!” Gardiner exclaims with a chuckle.

Budgets restricted Gardiner to a single rehearsal inside each performance venue—which made recording a constantly mutating, harrowing endeavor. The variation in size and acoustics of each church had to be wrangled by Dutch recording group Polyhymnia, as well as Sir John’s wife, producer Isabella de Sabata. The granddaughter of Italian maestro Victor de Sabata, she would be the only “pilgrim” to make the entire 12-month journey apart from her husband. “It was a hell of a headache for my wife,” Gardiner says with pride, “She’s done a damn good job.”

Certainly an accurate assessment, if an understatement, of this undertaking. The curious should dive in with the series’ first CD, which includes one of the highlights of the entire set, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (BWV 20). The transformative execution of Bach’s setting of the Last Judgment finds the composer at his most startlingly grave and operatic. For his Thursday and Saturday performances at Symphony Center, however, Sir John steers his baton into the 20th century. Audiences are treated to the opportunity of witnessing the versatile conductor navigating one of the most virtuosic pieces in the orchestral repertoire, Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” The work is like a massive concerto grosso, with each section of the orchestra featured in thrilling flourishes throughout, in a kind of radical, virtuosic democracy. But it’s a molehill compared to Bach’s Everest. We ask Gardiner if he is slating any future enterprises on the scale of the cantata pilgrimage. Gardiner interrupts, “There’s nothing along these lines, I promise you!”

Doyle Ambrust, TimeOut Chicago

BRITTEN, B.: Illuminations (Les) / Prelude and Fugue / Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Les Violons du Roy, Zeitouni)
(ATMA Classique: ACD22601)

BRITTEN, B.: Illuminations (Les) / Prelude and Fugue / Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Les Violons du Roy, Zeitouni) This disc, from the Quebec-based chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roi, begins with one of the finest performances of Britten’s Les Illuminations I have ever heard. Karina Gauvin has just the right voice for the work, strong and clear, brilliantly coloured at all times, but with the ability to be scaled down almost to nothing when the music demands it. And the orchestra and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni have clearly looked at the work afresh. Time and again I was surprised by details of the score, previously unheard but nonetheless there, marked in with scrupulous care by the thirty-five year-old composer. Take the very opening, for instance. The string fanfares are marked to played “like a trumpet” and “close to the bridge”. The Canadian players go further in this direction than I have ever heard, with startling results; and the accented, staccato delivery of the accompaniment to the second song also indicates that there are to be no shrinking violets in this particular world. The third song, “Phrase”, is the clincher. The held string harmonics are superbly articulated, with the gorgeous vocal line culminating in an absolutely ravishing high B flat and following downward glissando. No, there’s only one aspect which disturbs, and though it is a pity, it’s not a reason to avoid this outstanding performance. The singer’s ability to singpianoandpianissimo, and thereby establish some intimacy with the audience, is somewhat compromised by the recording which, though stunningly clear – a huge advantage when the orchestral playing is so accomplished – places her rather too far forward in the overall picture.

The performance of theVariations of a theme of Frank Bridgeis also very fine, if not quite on the same exalted level. Many of the features previously noted are again present. The principal characteristic of the playing is brilliance, and this brings dividends in many of the variations, notably “Aria Italiana” and “Moto Perpetuo”. The “Bourée Classique” is very brisk, perhaps even brusque, and the “Wiener Walzer” carries lots of punch. The high violin line in “Romance” is played with remarkable purity of tone and intonation. The recording again makes it difficult for the performers to establish intimacy with the listener, but in any event I don’t think this is one of their primary aims. The final movement, a composition of astonishing virtuosity from so young a composer, is brilliantly played, but the moment when the music turns back to the theme is too heavily signalled here, and the following passage wherein the theme and fugue are presented simultaneously similarly suffers. In the finest performances, especially the one conducted by Britten himself, the theme creeps in, almost without our noticing, underlining the composer’s mastery of form and dramatic sense. This is an outstandingly fine performance, nonetheless, albeit with perhaps a little too much emphasis on the brilliant aspects of the work to the expense of those more withdrawn.

Britten’s Op. 29 has had a bad press. Michael Kennedy holds the view that the fugue subject is “turgidly worked out”, and Peter Evans, in his monumental study of the composer’s music (OUP 1996) finds it “workaday”. I don’t think anyone would claim it as one of Britten’s greatest works, but it is very enjoyable and it shouldn’t be written off. Each of the eighteen instruments is treated as a soloist, and though the fugue subject itself is not very promising, its working out leads to some exciting writing, and the return of the opening music is dramatic and effective. The work receives a fine performance from these Canadian players. Their high harmonics don’t evoke the same atmosphere of mystery the composer himself did in 1971, but again, the very close recording with little reverberation nor very much sense of space around the sound doesn’t help. I urge readers to give the work a try, though.

The disc ends with the short Tennyson setting, first performed in 1987, but originally written as part of the Serenade, Op 31 and removed by the composer before that work’s premiere. It’s a most beautiful piece, and intriguing too, in that its rocking string accompaniment, slightly transformed, supports the vocal line in the opening song of the Nocturne of 1958. Louis-Philippe Marsolais plays beautifully, but with so little time to create his own musical identity, it is once again the gorgeous singing of Miss Gauvin that lingers in the mind. It makes a lovely, touching envoi for this excellent disc.

William Hedley,

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