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Highly Reviewed Recordings

June 1 - June 14, 2011

RACHMANINOV, S.: Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (The) (Klava)
(Ondine: ODE1151-5)

RACHMANINOV, S.: Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (The) (Klava)

Refined, reverential, and yet specially charged in its sincere, soulful human expression--not to mention its gorgeous choral sonority--this may be the finest performance on disc of Rachmaninov's unique setting of the hymns, psalms, prayers, and litanies that make up the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Latvian Radio Choir not only possesses the rich-colored tone (those altos!) and substantial vocal range (those basses!) to convincingly sing the expressive and texturally varied numbers in this hour-long version of the work, but also leaves no question as to its collective, deeply felt understanding of the meaning of the texts and of the overall service itself.

Throughout the Second and Third Antiphons, for instance, you can't help but just be caught up in the sheer beauty of the music and in the responsiveness of the ensemble to conductor Sigvards Klava's nuances of phrasing and dynamics. How can you not be moved and impressed by the lovely sound, perfect blend, and vibrant timbre in the Communion Verse "Hvalite Gospoda"? Yes, this is not just a functional liturgical work, but a masterpiece of high artistic quality as well. The recording in Riga's Dome Cathedral allows Rachmaninov's sensuous melodies and gripping harmonies plenty of room to blossom while preserving top-to-bottom balance and clear detail of each vocal line. Essential!

David Vernier

HAYDN, J.: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Bavouzet) - Nos. 19, 20, 32, 48, 50
(Chandos: CHAN10668)

HAYDN, J.: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Bavouzet) - Nos. 19, 20, 32, 48, 50

This second volume in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Haydn sonata cycle is every bit as outstanding as the first. As previously, he ornaments repeats liberally and observes second-half repeats, playing the codas (if any) only the second time around--a very intelligent decision. Indeed, it works so well that I would be surprised if this doesn't turn out to be one of those "authentic" performance practices that no contemporary sources discuss because it's so obvious on purely musical grounds.

Highlights include the splendid D major sonata (No. 50), the quick outer movements of which Bavouzet invests with irresistible energy. He's equally adept in the slow, songful adagios, particularly the one that begins Sonata No. 19 (in E minor). It's also remarkable how much like updated Scarlatti Sonata No. 32 (in G minor) sounds in Bavouzet's hands. Also as before, the sonics are as brilliant and natural as the playing. A wonderful recital, from first note to last. [4/27/2011]

David Vernier, April 27, 2011

BIZET, G.: Clovis et Clotilde / Te Deum (Jovanovic, Do, Schnaible, Pas-de-Calais North Regional Choir, Lille National Orchestra, J.-C. Casadesus)
(Naxos: 8.572270)

BIZET, G.: Clovis et Clotilde / Te Deum (Jovanovic, Do, Schnaible, Pas-de-Calais North Regional Choir, Lille National Orchestra, J.-C. Casadesus) Early Bizet does not get much earlier than the two brief works heard here. The composer's cantata Clovis et Clotilde, about Christian Frankish royalty, was the winning entry in the 1857 competition for the prestigious Prix de Rome. As Berlioz testily observed (after winning the prize himself, in 1830), the nineteenth-century French judges favored correctness over originality, and Bizet at nineteen must have impressed them with the work's restrained patriotic theme, well built and varied melodies, elaborate vocal lines and resourceful orchestration. Once in Rome, he obliged the French Academy with a cannily constructed Te Deum,a more rousing but still complex work, crowned with a very comme il faut choral fugue. Both these junior efforts are solidly revived here by the stalwart Jean-Claude Casadesus and his northern French musicians.

To modern ears, proto-Bizet offers another type of reward. The theatrical flair of his later operas is more than just intimated here. Clovis et Clotilde, predictable in story line and vocally fairly conventional, often seems more operatic than oratorical; dynamic accompanied recitatives flow in and out of the arias and ensembles in a good show of spontaneity, and entrances are often sudden and surprising. The melodies themselves transform their formulas with an overall flexibility in response to text: an adagio grows restless; inner tension begins to erupt. Nothing is static.

Like Berlioz and many others, Bizet was economical with his early efforts, recycling nuggets from both these works into his operas. But even if we did not recognize Clotilde's cantilena "Prière! Prière!" from its avatar inLes Pêcheurs de Perles, the vibrant Bizet stamp is all over these early numbers.

Casadesus, who recorded a notable Damnation de Faust for Naxos and is energetic and colorful here, is not new to the cantata, having led a concert performance in 1988 with Montserrat Caballé that turned up on disc (Apex 7489952). The other singers from that cast (Gérard Garino and Boris Martinovich) have far more style and substance than do tenor Philippe Do and bass Mark Schnaible. While Caballé was inconsistent at that point in her career, as is the promising Katarina Jovanovic here, she was still Caballé, and she was ideal in the slow music. One argument for this Naxos version is the accompanying Te Deum, which most Bizet admirers will find irresistible, whereas the Apex set instead includes the early symphonic work Roma. 

David J. Baker,

Vocal Recital: Gauvin, Karina - FAURE, G. / RAVEL, M. / DEBUSSY, C. / POULENC, F. / HONEGGER, A. / VUILLERMOZ, E. (Fete Galante)
(ATMA Classique: ACD22642)

Vocal Recital: Gauvin, Karina - FAURE, G. / RAVEL, M. / DEBUSSY, C. / POULENC, F. / HONEGGER, A. / VUILLERMOZ, E. (Fete Galante) The pairing of an established solo pianist with a lieder singer is nothing new, but results have always been mixed. András Schiff and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, for example, proved responsive partners for Cecilia Bartoli, while Daniel Barenboim did not. Here, Marc-André Hamelin shows that a fine musician is always a fine musician. He is far better known as a virtuoso soloist in the flashiest, most difficult finger-busters of the piano repertoire (something he already was in 1999 when, oddly enough, this newly-released album was recorded). But it turns out that he's also attuned to the subtleties of Ravel's refined piano writing in the Five Greek Songs. Hamelin is tender in the spare chords of "Là-bas, vers l'église," deliberately mechanical, like the figures on a clock, in "Quel gallant m'est comparable," and patient in "Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques," which he starts as if it were a pencil sketch before lightly filling it in. He is an unobtrusive but helpful partner in Poulenc's "Reine des mouettes," he catches the winter's chill with astute pedaling in Debussy's "Le tombeau des Naïades," and he is peaceful and dreamy, but never motionless and dull, in Fauré's "Mandoline." When the big virtuoso guns need to be called out for moments such as the coda to Poulenc's "Paganini," of course, there's also some heavy artillery.

Karina Gauvin's voice is consistently enjoyable. She sounds ripe and solid in "Mandoline," and there's real body to the tone, even in quick songs such as "Paganini." Soft top notes in Debussy's "Clair de lune" are soft but completely supported. And she's also a real musician, one who controls a lovely rubato over the steadily rippling triplets in Ravel's "La réveil de la mariée." After you enjoy the way she tenderly sings the word "voilà" in Poulenc's "C'est ainsi que tu es," you can look in the score and see that Poulenc wrote "tenderly" over it. The youthful quality of her voice adds a new layer to two of the song cycles. In Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, the sound of a high, light, girlish voice in its lowest register adds a frisson to the sexual awakening intimated. There seems to be more behind the song than ever. In the bleak, rueful "C," from Poulenc's Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon, the effect of such a pure, youthful tone is initially disconcerting, but ultimately Gauvin in her own way shows the heartbreak of it. In the first book of Debussy's Fêtes Galantes, Gauvin offers a "Fantoches" that is humorous but never cheap. As a result, the three songs of the cycle seemed to fit together better than they ever have. For generations, some singers have fiddled with the published order of the songs, trying, unsuccessfully, to get such a good result. The only slight reservation about Gauvin's performances on the album is that she is too eager to speak, rather than sing, the last lines of patter songs. 

The trend in song recitals lately is toward single-composer programs, and there's a lot to be said for immersion in a composer's world. But there are also rewards to a smorgasbord. In the French division, Frederica von Stade's 1993 "Voyage à Paris" album was a fabulous survey of six composers. (It's one of her best records, and she made a lot of good records.) More recently, Stéphane Degout's set of melodies, also by six composers, is a fine addition to the table. Gauvin's French recital, which bears comparison with the best, also offers a few new discoveries to go with the chestnuts. Honegger's Salustre du Bartas is enjoyably Satie-like, both in music and in poetry. And Émile Vuillermoz's settings of French and Canadian folk songs are highly effective. Gauvin sings with infectious enthusiasm and real skill at varying the stanzas. Hamelin, as you would expect, navigates the Canteloube-style accompaniments with aplomb. 

William R. Braun,

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