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Highly Reviewed Recordings

April 4 - April 17, 2012

STRAVINSKY, I.: Firebird (The) / Orchestral Arrangements (Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)
(BIS: BIS-SACD-1874)

STRAVINSKY, I.: Firebird (The) / Orchestral Arrangements (Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)

Andrew Litton’s previous disc of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring was sensational, and this Firebird is just as fine. Timing out at about 47 minutes, you might think the tempos somewhat slow, but they’re not, or at least they never sound so. The Infernal Dance is brilliantly played, with exciting, hard-hitting rhythms. Indeed, Litton’s control of rhythm, allied to remarkably clear textures even in the most thickly scored passages, is what keeps the music flowing effortlessly, even in those grotty-sounding pantomime passages that link together the more extended set numbers. Musical scholars have long praised these “in between” moments as containing the most texturally and harmonically fascinating music in the ballet, but the problem is that the addition of the more lyrical, folk-inspired formal dances turns the work into a sort of raisin pumpernickel: lots of bread separating bits of fruit. That’s why Stravinsky jettisoned most of this filler when assembling the various suites. The best performances, though, manage to pace the music so that the entire work sounds like an integrated whole, and that’s what Litton and his Bergen forces achieve. Another small but telling point: the offstage trumpet parts are included in the finale (as with Dohnányi), and they add just that much festive brilliance to the closing pages. There’s no point in discussing individual details further, you have to hear the performance whole.

The couplings also are very imaginative and a welcome change from the usual short Stravinsky items. You get Stravinsky’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird Pas-de-deux, Sibelius’ Canzonetta, and two works by Chopin–the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1, and the Grande Valse Brilliante Op. 18. As with The Firebird, the performances are ideal: ideally paced, limpid in texture, and immaculately played. Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude concludes this really captivating programming. As usual with recordings from this source, the engineering is state of the art. A great disc.

David Hurwitz,

BACH, J.S.: St. John Passion (Daniels, Duncan, Hopkins, Cappella Romana, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Huggett)
(Avie Records: AV2236)

BACH, J.S.: St. John Passion (Daniels, Duncan, Hopkins, Cappella Romana, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Huggett)

Charles Daniels weaves his narration with beguiling eloquence and Tyler Duncan sings ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen’ with poised agility (his counterpart Wolf Matthias Friedrich is heartily extrovert). Huggett’s astonishingly quick pace for the opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ does not prohibit a smooth contribution from Cappella Romana… © 2012 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

David Vickers, Gramophone, March 1,2012

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphony No. 2 / MUSSORGSKY, M.P.: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. M. Ravel) / A Night on the Bare Mountain (Karabits)
(Onyx: ONYX4074)

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphony No. 2 / MUSSORGSKY, M.P.: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. M. Ravel) / A Night on the Bare Mountain (Karabits)

Ukrainian themes are at the core of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, the Little Russian, and Karabits—himself a Ukrainian—makes the distinction in the way that he greets them. Notice how he plays up the rhetoric of the first movement, swelling with pride at each big thematic statement. If there’s a single distinguishing feature of this generously filled disc it’s Karabits’s determination to convey the grass-roots spirit of the themes which breathe life into these pieces, be it the little wedding march recalled in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky or the eminently hummable folksong, ‘The Crane’, which so readily transforms into a tub-thumping apotheosis in the finale, piccolo leading the marching band. This is Tchaikovsky’s ‘Great Gate’ to the Ukraine and the parallel is not lost on Karabits. © 2012Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Edward Seckerson, Gramophone, March 1, 2012

ELGAR, E.: Kingdom (The) [Oratorio] (Elder)
( Halle: CDHLD7526)

ELGAR, E.: Kingdom (The) [Oratorio] (Elder)

The Kingdom, Elgar’s last oratorio, and the second of an incomplete trilogy that began with The Apostles, is not the pinnacle of his career even though it does represent a certain standard of English oratorio. There is much music here that is quite lovely, even immensely inspired in places, but for those allergic to English Victorian lugubriousness much of this work will prove difficult.

Those who think that Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Enigma Variation as representing the best of this composer, or at least his most cosmopolitan, are not far from right. But most of his compositional output is not as these two pieces; most of it, including the symphonies in my opinion, are inundated with that staunch Englishness that turns many off and absolutely enthralls many others. I can’t say I am in the latter group, but neither do I qualify for the former; there are many times when I enjoy this aspect of Elgar’s art, and there is no doubt that he was a very fine composer, if not the height of British music.

Having said this, what to make of The Kingdom? Like I said, there is much to admire here, and I would consider this as the most tightly-knit, dramatic and persuasive choral composition, with the exception of The Dream of Gerontius, that Elgar created. Especially noteworthy is the solo singing, some of the most exquisite he ever wrote, as lyrical as any of his many wonderful songs. So consequently the soloists are vitally important, and this is a very fine group. They probably do not top the classic Boult recording, but overall they match up nicely and the sound on this release is far superior.

For those who love Elgar or this work, this new release will fill the shelf nicely.

Steven Ritter, March 18, 2012

BRUMEL, A.: Missa pro defunctis / CRECQUILLON, T.: Lamentationes Jeremiae (endBeginning) (New York Polyphony)
(BIS: BIS-SACD-1949)

BRUMEL, A.: Missa pro defunctis / CRECQUILLON, T.: Lamentationes Jeremiae (endBeginning) (New York Polyphony)

Four years ago, I last wrote about New York Polyphony, the male vocal quartet who here makes its debut on BIS. The recording was a Christmas program and included the following description: “…these are ideally matched, sensitively balanced voices, warm yet vibrant in the tradition of groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble. And the singing is impeccable–the breathing, the phrasing, all of the ensemble work shows musicians at one with each other and with the music at hand. (Type New York Polyphony in Search Reviews to read the entire review.)

There’s really nothing new to add to that, except perhaps that in the last few years the ensemble has developed even more refined soft singing and–if it’s possible–a more vibrant resonance when they want to emphasize a particularly rich harmonic moment or passage. The fact is, however closely you want to analyze the sound and the performance, you’ll find nothing but reasons to keep listening–and plenty to support an argument for New York Polyphony’s preeminence among today’s male vocal ensembles.

This program of mostly 16th-century works from Franco-Flemish composers suits these voices especially well–for me the expressive range and vocal ensemble technique displayed in Clemens’ Tristitia obsedit me was a highlight (not to mention the gorgeous music itself), along with Josquin’s Absalon fili mi. American composer Jackson Hill (b. 1941) wrote Ma fin est mon commencement for New York Polyphony, and it’s described as “a fantasy on Machaut’s original”; but whether or not you are familiar with that work, the undulating lines, close-textured, modern/ancient harmonic structure, and the phrases that build purposefully to several climactic points–and fully exploiting that vibrant resonance mentioned above–will keep your full attention while leaving no doubt as to this modern (2009) work’s rightful place on the program. This superb BIS production, ideally recorded in a Swedish church, bodes well for what looks like the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

David Vernier,

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