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Highly Reviewed Recordings

April 20 - May 3, 2011

BRUCH, M.: Violin Concerto No. 1 / Romanze, Op. 85 / String Quintet in A minor (Gluzman, Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)
(BIS: BIS-SACD-1852)

BRUCH, M.: Violin Concerto No. 1 / Romanze, Op. 85 / String Quintet in A minor (Gluzman, Bergen Philharmonic, Litton)

Vadim Gluzman must be one of the two or three finest violinists currently active, and we can only hope he stays loyal to BIS and doesn't waste his talent at one of the so-called "major" labels. He plays the Bruch concerto as if it were a completely new discovery, with a level of fire and passion that beggars description. He has no weaknesses: perfect intonation, beautiful tone throughout his range (even in double-stops and passagework), expressive intensity that never becomes maudlin or tasteless in the Adagio, and a keen sense of rhythm and phrasing that allows the finale to go like the wind but still have shape. In short, this is as fine a performance of this much-too-frequently played piece as any in the history of recorded sound, and Gluzman is backed by an equally bold and exciting accompaniment from Andrew Litton and his Bergen orchestra, which seem to be entering a "golden" phase of their partnership.

Happily, the couplings make this a release of well above average interest on an entirely different level. Both works are rarities, but also consist of some really fine music. The Romance in F major is simply a lovely single movement for violin and orchestra, but the late quintet (1918) is a masterpiece. You'd never know it for a late work at all: it's a vibrant, passionate, but compact essay in Bruch's conservative romantic style, and certainly none the worse for that. Gluzman, who is as fine a chamber player as he is a soloist, has gathered together an equally dynamic group of companions and they play the music with a brilliance and spontaneity that makes its current neglect totally incomprehensible. It only remains to be said that BIS's SACD sonics are state-of-the-art. A mandatory acquisition.

David Hurwitz,

BRITTEN, B.: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra / Symphonic Suite, "Gloriana" / 4 Sea Interludes (Murray, P. Watkins, BBC Philharmonic, Gardner)
(Chandos: CHAN10658)

BRITTEN, B.: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra / Symphonic Suite,

These are outstanding performances, as good or better than the composer's own. Edward Gardner tears into the Four Sea Interludes with uninhibited excitement. It's great to hear the high violins and flutes in "Dawn" swooping and soaring like the gulls that they're supposed to be evoking. "Sunday Morning" has an infectious bounce, while "Moonlight" casts a rapt stillness abruptly shattered by perhaps the most vicious storm on disc. It's one of those versions you will listen to and say, "Finally, that's the way it should go!"

The suite from Gloriana is still a comparative rarity, which is a pity, as the music really is first-rate Britten. But then, so is the opera; why anyone cares that it flopped at its premiere is beyond me (the Queen allegedly was not amused, as if her opinion matters). The Lute Song is very nicely sung by Robert Murray, but the version for oboe rather than voice strikes me as more appropriate within the context of the symphonic suite as a whole. Granted, Britten used Peter Pears, but that was an opportunity for him to give his partner something to do while on tour.

Finally, there's the Cello Symphony: a tough, somewhat gnarly work that receives a performance every bit as fine as Britten/Rostropovich, which still remains the benchmark version. Paul Watkins and Gardner somehow make music out of the low, grotty opening, pacing the movement as unerringly as did Britten himself. The finale works its way up to a generously life-affirming conclusion, and Watkins does a wonderful job with the lengthy preceding cadenza. In short, this release is a major entry in the Britten discography, and the sonics are every bit the equal of the interpretations.

David Hurwitz,, March 30, 2011

FUCHS, R.: Serenades Nos. 1 and 2 / Andante grazioso and Capriccio (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, C. Ludwig)
(Naxos: 8.572222)

FUCHS, R.: Serenades Nos. 1 and 2 / Andante grazioso and Capriccio (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, C. Ludwig)

Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) is best known today as the composition teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Enesco, Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and just about everyone else who happened to be at the Vienna Conservatory from the late 19th century onward. As a composer he earned the respect of Brahms, probably because Brahms didn't feel threatened by him, and was totally forgotten after his death. During his lifetime he was best known for his string serenades, two of which feature on this recording, along with the late (and quite substantial) Andante and Capriccio Op. 63.

Let's get straight to the point: the music is wonderful--gracious, tuneful, not a note too long, and an unalloyed delight from first note to last. Yes, it's not "heavy" or "serious", but really, who cares? If you like Dvorák's or Tchaikovsky's string serenades, or Grieg's Holberg Suite, or Sibelius' Valse triste, then you are going to love this disc. The performances are perfect: flowing, rhythmically clean and snappy, immaculately tuned, and affectionately phrased. It just doesn't get any better, and the sonics are pristine. The Viennese, of course, have always been suckers for light music, but that only made them particularly discerning. They went crazy for Fuchs. Check out this disc and find out why.

David Hurwitz,, March 28, 2011

BERG: String Quartet / Lyric Suite / WOLF: Italian Serenade
(Naxos: 8.557374)

BERG: String Quartet / Lyric Suite / WOLF: Italian Serenade

Perhaps it's the passage of time, or it's simply the New Zealand String Quartet's embracing, unselfconscious style and illuminating technique, but the atonal sounds of Alban Berg's String Quartet Op. 3 sure seem a lot closer to late-19th century romanticism than they did 40 or so years ago when listeners in my generation first paid attention to Berg's music. And since the work was written almost 100 years ago, that's as it should be, as is the fact that it's now much easier to get past the larger and still-challenging sonic picture to appreciate the inner textural and motivic details.

Of course, our ability to really hear and follow what's going on depends on the performance--and these four musicians may be the best on disc (surpassing the Leipzig and Pražák quartets) in all-important matters of linear clarity, dynamic shading, and sustaining the developmental tension throughout Op. 3's two long, difficult movements. In the Lyric Suite, ensemble unanimity and precision in the increasingly fast odd-numbered movements is critical, and the New Zealanders not only accomplish this but also never forget the intrinsic drama and emotional intensity that haunts this music, especially impressive in the Allegro misterioso and Adagio appassionato movements at the heart of the work.

Indeed, as you listen to these works afresh, you not only marvel at the individual players' virtuosity, but you also have to appreciate that the relatively warm yet pleasingly "edgy" quality to the sound and the oneness of spirit in the interpretations come from the highest-order functioning of the well-integrated collective parts of a mature, vital body--that is, a string quartet that's been together a long time, each member sharing life and breath in the music they make together. This is one reason we listen to the great string quartets--and besides the chance to hear Berg's fascinating and formidable scores again, that's the reason you shouldn't miss this extraordinary recording. (Incidentally, before Naxos releases this quartet's upcoming Mendelssohn cycle, the label might want to correct its misspelling of cellist Rolf Gjelsten's name.)

David Vernier,, September 13, 2007

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