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Highly Reviewed Recordings

June 27 - July 10, 2012

DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Music (Stephane Deneve conducts Debussy) (Deneve)
(Chandos: CHSA5102-03)

DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Music (Stephane Deneve conducts Debussy) (Deneve)

This is Debussy in the great French tradition, the sort of playing and conducting that used to be associated with national schools of performance. Of course, StéphaneDenève comes from the right school, but you have to care enough about it to cultivate the aesthetic, and for much of the 20th century French musical institutions did their best to trash everything that was great in the pre-War style. The situation with orchestras was even worse. Not that French orchestras were great in a technical sense; largely they were not, but they were distinctive in a way that was particularly well suited to French repertoire, and they contained superb individual players. This is why orchestras with a similar sonority, such as the Czech Philharmonic, with lean strings and prominent, colorful winds, often with a touch of tangy vibrato in the brass, play the music so well to this day.

What Denève has done is recreate this sonority in his Debussy performances, and the result is marvelous. This is no mean feat. Today’s orchestras do not naturally take to this style of playing, but this less blended, more individual approach was in fact the “authentic” sound of the late 19th and early 20th century. Debussy orchestrates in layers, and however fuzzy or “impressionistic” the resultant sonority, these layers should remain distinct. This means that woodwind timbres must often balance the strings, as they do in this performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, with tellingly supple results. Jeux, that miracle of slithery half-tints and suggestions, really speaks in this performance; it becomes a genuine dance drama rather than a mere abstraction.

Much of Denève’s success also stems from his consistently lively, flowing tempo choices. These Nuages float across the sky with a welcome sense of purpose and emotional point. The concentration of the Scottish wind players here, and throughout the three Images, is particularly impressive. Iberia’s three movements cohere as a single span—clearly Debussy’s intention, but something we seldom actually hear either in concert or on disc. And as for La Mer, well, it’s just as exciting as hell. Try the closing bars in the sample below. The art of playing loud while retaining the integrity of Debussy’s carefully balanced textures is another of those virtually lost arts happily recaptured here.

Chandos has provided terrific SACD multichannel sonics for this production, which may well be headed straight for reference status. A major achievement.

David Hurwitz,

RUGGLES, C.: Works (Complete) (Buffalo Philharmonic, Tilson Thomas)
(Other Minds: OM2020-21-2)

RUGGLES, C.: Works (Complete) (Buffalo Philharmonic, Tilson Thomas) Comparing the limited oeuvre of the recondite New England genius Carl Ruggles to that of his famously prolific friend Charles Ives, the composer Lou Harrison wrote that the individual works in Ruggles's output are "like a family in which each member says to the other, 'Yes.'"  It can also be said that anyone who says yes to American music has to own "The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles," a CD reissue (on Other Minds) of the legendary recordings by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Buffalo Philharmonic, which were originally released on two LPs by CBS Masterworks in 1980.

Ruggles's music, overtly melodic and big-boned, has little of the conventional tonal beauty that Ives's works almost always include, but its (yes) rugged atonality has an austere, polyphonic eloquence that is fiercely persuasive.  Ironically, Ruggles's only piece to join the repertory is his most expensive to produce, "Sun-Treader," lasting (for Ruggles) an eternity of sixteen minutes and scored for an orchestra so large that it would have given Gustav Mahler pause.  Tilson Thomas's other recording of the work, with the Boston Symphony (for Deutsche Grammophon), may be more refined, but most of the pieces here get authoritative performances.  Listeners may treasure the smaller gems more: the brawny yet intimate chamber symphony "Men and Mountains," the haunting "Angels," for brass, or the surprisingly sweet hymn tune "Exaltation," with its deliberate "wrong notes" that link Ruggles to his musical ancestors, the largely self-taught eighteenth century hymn writers of the First New England School.

Russell Platt, The New Yorker

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Diabelli Variations (Staier)
(Harmonia Mundi: HMC902091)

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Diabelli Variations (Staier)

Andreas Staier prefaces Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with an overture of sorts. He opens this release with Anton Diabelli’s C major waltz, followed by eight delightful, contrasting variations on the waltz by composers whom Diabelli invited to contribute one variation apiece for the original benefit anthology. Next, Staier improvises a Beethoven-like interlude that leads right into the most stimulating period-instrument Diabelli Variations recording on the market as of spring 2012. Staier’s unerring tempo relationships, angular phrasing, strong sense of drama, stinging accents, and grand cumulative sweep add up to an interpretation that is painstakingly detailed without sacrificing the music’s grand design. Every note comes alive with meaning and purpose, including Staier’s spontaneous flourishes and whimsical changes of voicing on the repeats.

Right away you’ll notice the variety of nuances and articulations that flavor Staier’s suave and steady dispatch of Variation 2’s chords alternating between the hands. His flexible and buoyant response to Variation 4’s Pocopiùvivace directive leaves Gary Cooper’s relatively earthbound reading at the starting gate, while Cooper’s uneventful repeated-note phrases in Variation 5 fall short of Staier’s rhythmic verve. Staier nails Variation 9’s often vaguely articulated accents, and shapes Variation 10’s dynamic surges and fast chords so that they playfully float over the bar lines.

Staier gauges Variation 13’s silences with the timing of a great comedian. He also takes advantage of his Graf instrument’s built-in percussion stops—discreetly so in Variation 22 (the parody on Mozart’s “Notte e giornofaticar” from Don Giovanni), but the cymbal crash underlining Variation 23’s big chords blatantly distracts from the scampering runs that follow. True, it’s fun to hear, but some listeners may take offense.

However, Staier compensates in the concluding minor-key variations with some of his most tastefully eloquent and vocally informed keyboard work on disc. While I wager that Ronald Brautigam’s forthcoming fortepiano Diabelli Variations may offer serious competition, Staier’s thoroughly engaging and vibrant musicianship warrant no less than our highest rating.

Jed Distler,

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, M.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / 4 Dances for Love's Labour's Lost (Marangoni, Malmo Symphony, Mogrelia)
(Naxos: 8.572823)

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, M.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / 4 Dances for Love's Labour's Lost (Marangoni, Malmo Symphony, Mogrelia) (Excerpt)

The Concert Hall of the MSO in Malmö, Sweden was the venue for these recordings, which project an ideally proportioned soundstage in a suitably reverberant acoustic. While clarity reigns across the entire frequency spectrum, the high end never becomes oppresive. The piano is beautifully captured with well rounded tone perfectly complementing Signore Marangoni's delicate touch, and for the most part remains well balanced against the orchestra. The instrumental timbre is very musical with shimmering highs and profound bass which is exceptionally clean, even in the presence of that bass drum. 

By the way, there are other versions of both concertos, one of which we already told you about (see the newsletter of 30 September 2010). However, this release now goes to the top of the list from both the performance and sound standpoints. What's more, you also get a world premiere, and all at the low Naxos bill of fare! 

Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y120531)

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