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Highly Reviewed Recordings

March 23 - April 5, 2011

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Scheherazade / Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
(Naxos: 8.572693)

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Scheherazade / Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) This is spectacular, an effort in which everyone has put their best foot forward. Gerard Schwarz leads with an unerring sense of when to be expansive, when to indulge in romantic gestures, and when to step on the gas pedal and let the music explode with passion. The Seattle Symphony sounds world-class, with great woodwind soloists (especially the oboist), punchy brass, and a satisfying blend of precision and expression. The recorded engineers have hampered solo violinist Maria Larionoff with too much reverb, but they have also captured the proceedings in a full orchestral sound which starts with crackling tuba and satisfyingly present double basses and builds upward in a richly layered sound-picture. At times the orchestra sounds uncannily like an organ.

This Scheherazade very nearly beyond praise; aside from the reverb which surrounds the violinist (but nobody else, oddly, except briefly the solo clarinet in the second movement), everything goes right. The opening movement’s seascape builds with slow, steady fervor until the climaxes reach feverish degrees of intensity. The “Kalender Prince” contrasts the lush wind solos with fierce, violent outbursts: when the central section opens, watch out. The percussionists are precisely on-rhythm and boldly project their parts. The love-scene slow movement isn’t as lavish or sensual as it could be, but it flows naturally and benefits from those superb wind soloists. (It can’t be mentioned often enough that oboist Ben Hausmann makes his every solo unforgettably tender.) And the finale, enlivened with a rumbling bass drum, starts with an atmospheric festival and concludes with Maria Larionoff’s most heartfelt solo work of all.

Mostly, it’s thrilling just to hear a performance this good in sound this good. Probably there are a dozen orchestras which have played this well in this music in past decades (though, to my mind, approaches like Ansermet’s are too fast and Haitink’s too colorless), but Naxos’ crystal-clear sound quality takes things to a new level. How satisfying it is to hear the tubas lending oomph to the opening outburst of the finale! How delightful it is to really feel the bass drum, or to hear the harp serenades like something from a dream!

Brian Reinhart,

HANDEL, G.F.: Flavio, re di Longobardi [Opera] (Curnyn)
(Chandos: CHAN0773-74)

HANDEL, G.F.: Flavio, re di Longobardi [Opera] (Curnyn) Flavio is not among Handel's psychological masterworks: Nicola Haym's comedy with tragic highlights (one character kills his father-in-law in a duel) traffics in romantic and career rivalries complicated by avoidable misunderstandings. But the music proves highly enjoyable, despite its largely generic responses to conventional texts.

First heard in 1723 at London's Royal Academy of Music, the opera was revived only once in Handel's lifetime, in 1732. Then Flavio lay dormant until it was disinterred in 1967 in Göttingen. New York City Opera staged it in 2003 with David Walker and Bejun Mehta in the two key alto castrato roles, Flavio and Guido, originated respectively by Gaetano Berenstadt and the legendary Senesino. The character of Flavio has appeared on the Met stage recently, as he is the son of Rodelinda and Bertarido and thus the (mythical) King of Lombardy.

The work gets a splendid performance from adept stylist Christian Curnyn and a largely British cast. (The fine, fluent Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupic sings Vitige, created by the brilliant Margherita Durastanti, the first Sesto in Guilio Cesare.) In a structurally rare development for Handel, the opera opens with a duet for the second couple, Vitige and Teodata (Hillary Summers). Tim Mead's smooth tone and technical facility render the strong-whimmed Flavio pleasantly. Guido, the more profound lover of the two, has the opera's best sustained number, "Amor, nel mio penar," made familar to modern audiences on Drew Minter's Handel disc. Welsh countertenor Iestyn Davies, headed for a Met debut next season in Rodelinda, handles the aria, the lovely concluding duet ("Deh, perdona, o dolce bene") with Welsh soprano Rosemary Joshua's excellent Emlia, and the whole part with sonorous, fluid tone.

David Shengold, Opera News

STRAVINSKY, I.: Sacre du printemps (Le) (The Rite of Spring) / Petrushka (1911 version) (Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)
(BIS: BIS-SACD-1474)

STRAVINSKY, I.: Sacre du printemps (Le) (The Rite of Spring) / Petrushka (1911 version) (Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)

In a previous review (well, several) I mentioned the fact that a lot of basic repertoire is being recorded merely to take advantage of SACD multi-channel technology, often with no justification either interpretively or sonically. Of course, a great performance is its own justification, and here, happily, we have just that, as well as state-of-the-art sonics that will thrill high-end audiophiles (at least so I assume, as I am not one of them but was mightily impressed). As with most BIS recordings, the dynamic range is very wide, and the volume needs to be set higher than usual, but once that's done everything snaps into focus and the result is stunning whatever your preferences: regular stereo, SACD stereo, or surround.

Andrew Litton has the Bergen Philharmonic playing at a world-class standard. Sure, they don't have the crushing power of the biggest American or European orchestras, but Litton compensates (to the extent necessary, and it's really not) by turning in high-voltage readings of both works, full of excitement and textural nuance. In The Rite he reminds us that despite the extremes of volume and dissonance this is still a folk-music-based work. The tunes (or bits of them) really sing, with such vibrancy and freshness that you might think you are hearing them for the first time.

Such is the case with the polyrhythmic Procession of the Sage, while the conclusion of Part One will lift you out of your seat. In Part Two, the battle between the Stegosaurus and the T-Rex (oops, that's Fantasia, isn't it?) packs a huge wallop but also sounds somehow musical, while the final sacrificial dance, lean and mean, doesn't wimp out in the post-mayhem coda.

If anything, Petrushka is even better, certainly the best recording of the 1911 original scoring since Boulez/New York many decades ago. Litton shapes the music of the two outer tableaux with unflagging imagination, and the Bergen players are with him every step of the way. It's amazing to hear passages normally treated mechanically, such as those repeated-note string refrains in the opening scene, actually phrased and given purpose. In the two central tableaux, all that gestural stuff between Petrushka, the Moor, and the ballerina, really sounds like something meaningful is happening between them. You can visualize the action in your mind; there are no dead spots at all. In short, this is as colorful and intelligent a reading as you will ever hear, and it deserves the highest possible recommendation.

David Hurwitz,, February 28, 2011

FRANK, G.L.: Hilos / Danza de los Saqsampillos / Adagio para Amantani / Quijotadas (ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, Frank)
(Naxos: 8.559645)

FRANK, G.L.: Hilos / Danza de los Saqsampillos / Adagio para Amantani / Quijotadas (ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, Frank) Alias' debut disc, featuring Gabriela Lena Frank, was well worth the wait
A Frank Assessment

The Alias Chamber Ensemble is arguably the most venturesome classical music group in Nashville. Since its founding in 2002, this outstanding virtuoso ensemble has presented nearly a dozen world-premiere performances. Its wide-ranging programs, moreover, feature everything from little-known Renaissance-era pieces to contemporary works that seemingly owe more to rap than to Rachmaninoff.

Just about the only place Alias hasn't ventured with its music is the recording studio. At least, that was the case until last month, when Alias released its first album, a CD on the Naxos label devoted to the music of Gabriela Lena Frank.

A California-based composer and pianist, Frank, 38, finds inspiration for her music in her multicultural background. Her mother is a Peruvian of Chinese descent and her father is an American of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage. Not surprisingly, Frank drew on Peru's rich musical culture to compose three of the four works on Alias' new CD. The fourth piece pays homage to Cervantes' 17th century Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Without question, the most ambitious piece on the disc is Hilos, a work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano composed specifically for Alias last year. The title means "Threads" and alludes to the kaleidoscopic beauty of Peruvian textiles. Frank has even referred to it as a kind of Peruvian Pictures at an Exhibition.

Like Mussorgsky's Pictures, Hilos is an episodic work, consisting of eight short movements with descriptive titles such as "Charanguista Viejo" (Old Charango Player) and "Danza de los Diablos" (Devil Dance). The music is remarkable for its shimmering, transparent textures. It's also full of vivid sonic images, such as the violin scratch tones in "Charanguista" that suggest an old man singing.

A gifted pianist, Frank joined Alias violinist Zeneba Bowers, clarinetist Lee Levine and cellist Matt Walker to give Hilos a riveting rendition. Frank performs the work's bold tremolos and quicksilver glissandi with power and sparkle. Bowers, Levine and Walker respond with playing that is both passionate and spontaneous.

John Pitcher, Nashville Scene, March 3, 2011

Opera Arias - VERDI, G. / DVORAK, A. / MOZART, W.A. / PUCCINI, G. (Verdi Opera Scenes) (Radvanovsky, Hvorostovsky)
(Delos: DE3403)

Opera Arias - VERDI, G. / DVORAK, A. / MOZART, W.A. / PUCCINI, G. (Verdi Opera Scenes) (Radvanovsky, Hvorostovsky) World-class Verdi sopranos and Verdi baritones are in short supply nowadays. American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky are among the elites in this area.

I have seen them separately as well as together in Il Trovatore. Radvanovsky recalls Callas with her intensity and spectacular high notes and Hvorostovsky has matinee idol looks and an elegant vocal style. The two have toured together and Delos has just released Verdi Opera Scenes, a recording of a concert they gave in Moscow in 2008 with the Philharmonia Orchestra of Russia, conducted by Constantine Orbelian.

In the recording the pair perform duet scenes from Verdi's Il Trovatore, “Un Ballo in Maschera” and “Simon Boccanegra.”

Verdi was an innovator by writing baritone-soprano duets while the convention at the time was tenor-soprano duets. He also created highly emotional scenes dealing with a variety of relationships. In the “Ballo” duet, a husband confronts his wife with her purported infidelity and threatens her with death. She pleads with him for a chance to see her son once more before her husband stabs her.

The “Simon Boccanegra” excerpt is the recognition scene in which the Genovese doge is reunited with the daughter he lost during her infancy. In Il Trovatore, the heavy, Count di Luna, promises beautiful Leonora that he will spare the life of her lover if she agrees to yield to him. These scenes are so intense that a listener might think they were taken from performances of the operas rather than a staged concert.

Hvorostovsky also sings “O Carlo, ascolta,” the death scene from Don Carlo. As encores Radvanovsky performs the beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka and a wrenching “Vissi D’arte” from Tosca (which she sang at the Met earlier this season) and Hvorostovsky contributes a seductive Serenade from Don Giovanni. The audience was equally enraptured by both singers, as was this listener.

Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky will be on stage together in Il Trovatore with tenor Marcelo Alvarez at the Metropolitan Opera on April 20, 23, 27, and 30.

Barry Bassis writes about music, theater, travel, and dining for various publications.

Barry Bassis, The Epoch Times

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