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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   February 23 - March 8, 2011

MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 7 - Piano Concerto / Cantate / Icare (Hoek, Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
(Naxos: 8.572157)

MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 7 - Piano Concerto / Cantate / Icare (Hoek, Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)

First, in case there's any confusion: this was originally released on Marco Polo as Volume 6 for reasons we don't need to discuss. On Naxos it's now Volume 7 in the series of Markevitch orchestral music. Suffice it to say that all of the same music is here, and it's great stuff. Markevitch was only 17 when he completed his Piano Concerto in 1929, but there's nothing immature about it. The outer movements are motoric and neoclassical in the manner of Hindemith, while the central march recalls Kurt Weill, or perhaps anticipates the finale of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. The piano writing is mostly in two parts, with lots of rhythmic displacement (especially in the first movement, which freely mingles 6/8 with 3/4). Martyn van den Hoek gives a sparkling performance of the solo part--perhaps my only quibble is that he could have made a bit more of the allargando leading into the first movement recapitulation, but this is a very tiny point.

Cantata, to a text by Jean Cocteau, was a Diaghilev commission, one of his very last. Composed for soprano, male choir, and orchestra, once again the style (especially the chorale at the end) recalls Weill and the German school of the 1920s, even though the work's French origins will naturally bring to mind Roussel and Martinu. Soprano Nienke Oostenrijk sings with a pleasing tone, not always the case with unfamiliar contemporary music, and once again Lyndon-Gee delivers amazingly confident performances given the trickiness of the idiom.

Icare is arguably Markevitch's masterpiece, one of the great ballets of the 20th century. The version given here is the composer's revision of 1943, one with slightly clarified textures, a touch more melodic interest, and no quarter-tones. It's tempting to say that he was trying to sweeten the pill, but the truth is that both versions are perfectly valid and the overall impression isn't hugely different. The music is fabulous, and a few split chords for full orchestra aside, Lyndon-Gee and his team do it full justice. The conductor is particularly adept in the constantly changing tempos of "Icare and the Birds". The fateful flight itself has the right relentless intensity (and a bit of Prokofiev in his "mechanical" mode), while the concluding "Death of Icarus" is unforgettably ethereal, and all the more moving in its lack of sentimentality.

These performances are all extremely well engineered. In the Concerto the solo piano is well balanced within the orchestral texture (it plays along with the ensemble much of the time), and in the Cantata the vocal forces project the text well without obscuring the instrumental lines. It would have been nice, though, if the conductor's full name appeared somewhere on the tray cards--you need to look at the excellent notes to find it. If you don't know Markevitch the composer, this is probably the best place to start. [Note: Special thanks to Boosey & Hawkes for making available scores of the works that have not yet been published in Study format.]

David Hurwitz,, January 31, 2011

PFITZNER, H.: Orchestral Songs (Begemann, North West German Philharmonic, Tausk)
(CPO: 777552-2)

PFITZNER, H.: Orchestral Songs (Begemann, North West German Philharmonic, Tausk)

CPO already has recorded the complete Pfitzner Lieder for voice and piano, surely not one of the label's best-selling projects. This disc suggests that the music deserves more serious attention, at least from Lieder fans. The performances here are wholly wonderful and show this fitfully inspired composer in the best possible light. His scoring is invariably deft and colorful, and his tunes are ingratiatingly singable.

Pfitzner isn't known for his sense of humor (my colleague Bob Levine memorably described his monumental opera Palestrina as "Parsifal without the laughs"), but just listen to De Heinzelmännchen (The Little People), an adorable fairy-tale tone poem for voice and orchestra lasting around 10 minutes. It's the biggest number in the program (there are 18 in all), full of good humor and vocal high-jinks, brilliantly exploiting a large orchestra. At the opposite end of the size scale come the brief but opulent Op. 4 Heine settings. Two others among the poets most frequently encountered: Eichendorff and, of course, Goethe ("Wanderers Nachtlied", "An den Mond", and others).

Baritone Hans Christoph Begemann is about as fine a Lieder singer as we have any right to expect. His voice is smooth and even throughout its range, and he knows how to characterize a text without shouting, crooning, or otherwise indulging in the usual Lieder singer's book of irritating tricks. In large pieces such as the ballad-like Herr Oluf (text by Herder) he captivates with his story-telling ability and sense of drama. The accompaniments under conductor Otto Tausk couldn't be more aptly judged, or more finely engineered. If you enjoy the orchestral Lieder of Mahler and Strauss, then this disc is a must.

David Hurwitz,

(Jazzwerkstatt: JW098)

WORLD SAXOPHONE QUARTET: Yes We Can Yes, the World Saxophone Quartet Can

Yes We Can is the most jolting, swinging, all-round best album by the World Saxophone Quartet in nearly 20 years.

WSQ, which was formed in 1977, still has at its core two of the founding members, David Murray on tenor sax and Hamiett Bluiett on baritone. The alto parts, which have shifted over the decades, are taken up here by Kidd Jordan and James Carter (the latter also on soprano at times). They’re all playing at peak power.

In its original guise, with Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake on altos, WSQ was the signature jazz band of the 1980s, the spearhead of a spontaneous “neo-classical” movement (as critic Gary Giddins dubbed it), which combined the avant-garde’s passionate expressionism with the wit, grace and beauty of myriad traditional forms.

Much of this movement was captured on the Italian Black Saint label, as were the quartet’s seminal albums (especially RevueW.S.Q., and Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music), though their most voluptuous work, the 1986 Plays Ellington, appeared on Nonesuch.

Hemphill, a master of stretched harmony, was the band’s driving force, and his departure a few years later, due to illness (he died in 1995 at the age of 57), left a painful gap. The band darted off in different directions, sometimes as the frontline of much larger groups, and many of their albums came off stiff and uncertain. (Notable exceptions include Requiem for Julius in 2000 and Breath of Life, which featured singer Fontella Bass, in 1994.)

Yes We Can, which was recorded live in Berlin two years ago, is the first album since Hemphill’s death that exudes the spirit and virtuosity—the controlled frenzy—of the original era. It starts with “Hattie Wall,” a Bluiett head-shaker that the WSQ has long used as a concert opener and closer, but I’ve never heard a zestier, more ecstatic version than this, either on record or live (I’ve seen the group in concert at least a dozen times, including in its heyday).

The highlight, though, is the title song, written by Murray, as an anthem to Barack Obama, and it’s a stirring, swaying, irresistibly gorgeous piece of music. Someone should program an evening of jazz at the White House and hire WSQ to play it.

This is getting to be an old band. Bluiett was nearing 70, Jordan 75, when the album was recorded; Murray was 54; even the group’s wunderkind, Carter, had turned 40 (and playing with much more discipline than he’d shown of late). But there’s hardly any group out there that sounds younger.

The album is out on the German label Jazzwerkstatt. I bought it at Ray’s Jazz, on the third floor of Foyles (a terrific record store inside one of the world’s greatest bookshops), while on vacation in London a couple months ago. Just this past week, Naxos has started distributing the label in the U.S.

Fred Kaplan,  Jan 30, 2011

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

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

Johan Halvorsen spent most of his career writing for the theater, which is probably why his music sounds so effortless, colorful, and well, efficient. This isn't meant to be disparaging. Rather, all of these pieces get right to the point, and none outstays its welcome, not even the Second Symphony, which clocks in at a bit under half an hour. It's conservative, harmonically and formally, but the music really works--it's a pleasure from beginning to end, and wholly convincing. This performance also is the first to correct the zillion errors in the printed score that have gone a long way to preventing the work from entering the repertoire, where it surely belongs.

The other pieces are all, in one way or another, ostensibly Norwegian in sound in a manner quite similar to Grieg. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. What sane person dislikes Grieg? The Suite ancienne, to the memory of Holberg, has every bit as much charm and freshness as Grieg's Holberg Suite, while the other three pieces all feature solo violin. Marianne Thorsen plays splendidly, while Neeme Järvi leads his Bergen forces in performances that are graceful, vibrant, and in the Suite and the Symphony, the last word in impetuosity and excitement. With terrific sound, if you don't know this music, you're missing something special.

David Hurwitz,

Opera Arias (Contralto): Lemieux, Marie-Nicole - MASSENET, J. / CHERUBINI, L. / HALEVY, F. / BERLIOZ, H. / MORWSER, A. / THOMAS, A. (Ne me refuse pas)
(Naive: V5201)

Opera Arias (Contralto): Lemieux, Marie-Nicole - MASSENET, J. / CHERUBINI, L. / HALEVY, F. / BERLIOZ, H. / MORWSER, A. / THOMAS, A. (Ne me refuse pas) You have to respect a singer who is at her best in the music of Berlioz. French-Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has that distinction in this French aria collection, which is notable for her poised, intimate delivery of "Premiers transports," from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, and even more for a dynamic "Je vais mourir" (Les Troyens) with a well-focused, emotionally wrenching adagio. The soft lines of "Connais-tu le pays," from Thomas's Mignon, confirm a gift for lyrical singing in the shimmering, spine-tingling tradition of Claire Croiza and Maggie Teyte.

Carmen's "Habanera" and Dalila's "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" have alluring shape and sensitive coloring, though some technical issues intrude. In Saint-Saëns's long descending line, the breathing is obtrusive, and there's an awkward register break at the bottom. The voice heard in Néris's aria from Cherubini's Médée seems to have little in common with Lemieux's Didon portrayal; the urgent recitative-like interlude is effective, while the extended legato has a bothersome quaver, just where you might expect the delicate balance that Véronique Gens achieves in her recording of the same aria.

Vocal discomfort becomes more persistent in the other half of this collection, which takes the artist into stark dramatic terrain. The exhumation of Halévy's "Sous leur sceptre," from his now forgotten Charles VI, is welcome, and Lemieux is sensitive to its moods. She makes good use of her lower register in the introduction, but the shaky cabaletta becomes a struggle, with its trills almost shouted. The obscure but hair-raising scene from André Wormser's even more obscure Clytemnestre (1875), evoking the queen's guilt-ridden nightmares, is similarly uneven. 

In two arduous samples of Massenet vérisme, Lemieux earns a split decision. Her Charlotte, in "Qui m'aurait dit la place," casts a poetic spell in citing Werther's writings that more than compensates for any intermittent harshness. But the album's title cut, the stormy "Ne me refuse pas," from Hérodiade (an uninspired mezzo counterpart to "N'est-ce pas ma main," from his Manon), is far rougher — a clear case of miscasting, even though Lemieux caps the frantic recitative with a firm high A. Temperament and emotion are there in abundance, but these qualities are conveyed too often in the form of vocal distress. Each shift from vehemence to quiet pleading comes as a relief to the listener. 

Despite blemishes, the recording feels more like a series of excerpts from complete performances than a standard studio recital. Brief appearances by collaborators — bass François Lis and (in the Carmen andRoméo numbers) the choristers of Le Jeune Choeur de Paris — lend atmosphere, modestly, and France's national orchestra does much more than that. Conductor Fabien Gabel firmly supports Lemieux's dramatic instincts — even where they might better have been tempered.

David J. Baker, Opera News

PIERNE, G.: Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 12 / Ramuntcho Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Mena)
(Chandos: CHAN10633)

PIERNE, G.: Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 12 / Ramuntcho Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Mena) The name Ramuntcho comes from a novel from 1897 by Pierre Loti. The two suites performed here derive from Pierné’s incidental music from a stage production of the story. This tells of an eponymous hero who returns to his village after military service, only to find his bride-to be in enforced confinement to a convent. The story ends with Gracieuse dying, torn between the choice which she has to make between God and her lover. Pierné’s score delivered more than the rather melodramatic tale would seem to indicate possible, but he made full use of the regional colour in the story, conjuring the pungent Basque atmosphere with confident ebullience in theOverture. There are intensely beautiful moments, such as the scene inLe Jardin de Gracieuse, the interaction of the two main characters depicted by a duet of flutes which move lyrically over a bed of strings, harp and warm wind chords. Moving theatricality is drawn out ofLa chamber de Franchita, in which the hero’s sick mother lies, close to death. This desolation is punctured by the livelyFandangowhich follows, recalling earlier village dances. The second suite opens with another sprightly piece, evoking the folk-character of a cider house. The piety and sober gloom ofLe Couventfollows, rich in the kinds of parallel progressions which Poulenc used in his opera on the Carmelites. The whole thing closes with aRhapsodie Basque, which opens with a funereal tread, but gradually picks up tempo in a kind of review of the play in reverse. Whatever the nature of the story, this is very fine music and fully capable of standing alone as a concert work. The perfectly balanced sonorities of the BBC Philharmonic do it magnificent justice.

This is a very fine disc indeed. Beautifully recorded and performed, Juanjo Mena has a seemingly effortless control of every subtlety in these scores, and as previously mentioned the cause of Gabriel Pierné should be greatly enhanced with this release. The biggest item is thePiano Concerto, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s storming of the CD catalogue continues apace. Everything here is well worth acquiring though, and this is a programme with no fillers.

Dominy Clements,

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