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Highly Reviewed Recordings

July 11 - July 24, 2012

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies Nos. 9 and 15 (Stuttgart Radio Symphony, Boreyko)
(Haenssler Classic: CD93.284)

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies Nos. 9 and 15 (Stuttgart Radio Symphony, Boreyko) Two of Dmitry Shostakovich's most enigmatic symphonies appear on this 2012 release from Hänssler Classic, and because their surface gaiety masks more ominous undercurrents, they make a fascinating pair of works to study and compare. Originally planned to mark the end of World War II and celebrate victory over the Nazis, the Symphony No. 9 in E flat major became instead a thinly veiled critique of Stalin, Soviet oppression, and the waste of human lives; the outwardly cheerful tunes seem to be deliberately frivolous and occasionally martial, but not so much that they obscure the many passages of bleak despair and gloom. Shostakovich had good reason to conceal his true feelings in this manner, especially since Stalin had expected a monumental work on the level of Beethoven's Ninth and become critical of the composer's motives, so the symphony was laced with ambiguity and irony, as a kind of defense against attack. By 1971, Stalin was long dead and Shostakovich's expression was no longer hindered by threats to his safety or life, but he had been so practiced in musical evasion and deception, the Symphony No. 15 in A major became his most elusive symphony, almost out of habit. Quotations from Rossini, Mahler, Wagner, and Shostakovich's own music give this piece the quality of a musical joke or game, but there's no mistaking the dirge-like tone of much of the writing, and the strange, mournful tone makes it seem retrospective and fatalistic. The live performances by Andrey Boreyko and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra are vibrant and colorful where needed, particularly in the first movement, but because so much of the music leans toward darker moods and austere scoring, the musicians also play with restraint and control to preserve the intended air of uncertainty. The sound of the recording is exceptional, with fine definition and credible dimensions.

-By Blair Sanderson,

Opera Arias: Piau, Sandrine - GRETRY, A.-E.-M. / LULLY, J.-P. / CAMPRA, A. / CHARPENTIER, M.-A. / CAPUA, R. da / SACCHINI, A. (Le triomphe de l'amour)
(Naïve: OP30532)

Opera Arias: Piau, Sandrine - GRETRY, A.-E.-M. / LULLY, J.-P. / CAMPRA, A. / CHARPENTIER, M.-A. / CAPUA, R. da / SACCHINI, A. (Le triomphe de l'amour) After her recent forays into 19th- and 20th-century song, Sandrine Piau's latest album marks her return to Baroque music with a programme of monologues about love from 17th- and 18th-century French opera. This is a vast subject, too complex to be contained on a single disc, and this feels a bit like a whistle-stop tour through a colossal and at times unfamiliar repertory. The tour also gets off to a bumpy start, with a formidably difficult aria from Grétry's L'Amant Jaloux that brings with it some aspirated coloratura and a couple of uncharacteristically shrill high notes. Things mercifully then settle down, and Piau gives us extracts from Lully, Rameau and Rebel at their most ravishing, together with rarities by Favart and Sacchini, all of them delivered with that rapturous, floating tone that makes her so special. Jérôme Correas and Les Paladins are fabulous in this repertory, and there are some lovely dances by Rameau woven in between the arias. Beautiful stuff that leaves you wanting more.

- By Tim Ashley,, June 7, 2012

MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Lieder ohne Worte / Variations serieuses (Korstick)
(CPO: 777519-2)

MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Lieder ohne Worte / Variations serieuses (Korstick) Michael Korstick’s Muscular Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words lend themselves to diverse interpretive viewpoints. For example, the gentle, cameo-like refinement and rumination characterizing much of Livia Rev’s 1986 Hyperion set (reissued by Helios) differs from both Daniel Barenboim’s intense, subjective DG cycle and the rippling, fleet-fingered Frank Van De Laar performances on Brilliant Classics. Michael Korstick is closest to Barenboim in conception, if not necessarily in detail.

Compare, for example, Barenboim’s rhetorical pulse modifications in the E-flat Op. 53 No. 2 alongside Korstick’s headlong intensity. By contrast, Korstick makes heavy weather of the A minor Venetian Gondola Song’s melody/accompaniment textures to the point where the basic pulse crumbles, while Rev’s similarly slow tempo is better sustained. Although Korstick’s fingerwork in the Spinning Song hardly matches the breathtaking evenness of Rachmaninov and Hofmann, at least he comes closer to the composer’s Presto marking than his more cautious contemporaries do. However, Korstick does convey Op. 62 No. 2’s scampering brio and almost opera buffa nature better than most. Furthermore, Korstick also can spin out ravishing and shapely lyrical lines when so inclined, as his eloquent and gorgeously shaded G major Op. 62 No. 1 bears out.

No complaints regarding Korstick’s solid, well-integrated performance of the Variations sérieuses, except for the metallic patina that renders loud passages ugly and pounded out. In this sense I prefer the remarkable suppleness and tonal variety that Perahia and Thibaudet achieve, not to mention Richter’s astonishing though dimly recorded live 1965 performance from the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the classic Cortot and Horowitz shellac versions. While no single complete Songs Without Words cycle on disc is consistently excellent, Korstick’s best performances hold interest and deserve attention.

- By Jed Distler,

CHAPLIN, C.: City Lights (City Lights Orchestra, Davis)
(Carl Davis Collection: CDC015)

CHAPLIN, C.: City Lights (City Lights Orchestra, Davis) Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film, City Lights, is treasurable in a different way and is deemed by many to be his masterpiece. Although made in the early era of “talkies,” the movie is silent – a deliberate decision by Chaplin, who felt his character, the Little Tramp, communicated best in mime.  But Chaplin wanted to make a movie with synchronized sound, using the same technology that allowed actors to speak in sync with film, and City Lights became that movie – his first with the sound synchronized.  Chaplin created the music himself, leaving it to arrangers to write it down and orchestral players to perform it.  The whole project was something of an oddity, and Carl Davis’ handling of the score is one as well.  Davis transcribed all the music to allow it to be performed by orchestras that he conducted.  Then, for this recording on his eponymous label, Davis had a group dubbed the City Lights Orchestra listen to the original recording of the film score, which had been made in 1931.  From Davis’ transcriptions and that original recording, Davis and his musicians learned the instrumental style of the period and the way in which each piece was cued into scenes from the film.  The ultimate oddity of this recording is that it really wants to be a DVD, so carefully has Davis put the entire project together.  But even in CD form, the music has a great deal to say, even to listeners who do not know City Lights or remember it only vaguely.  The music is simple, straightforward and heartfelt, communicating emotions clearly and with considerable warmth and style.  It is not great music, certainly, but it is expressive and often surprisingly subtle for a film score. Chaplin was writer, producer and director of City Lights as well as the film’s composer, and there is no doubt that he saw the movie as a totality.  This CD provides only one piece of the total film experience, but it is a piece that stands surprisingly well on its own and shows Chaplin to good effect in a musical light – one in which he is very rarely seen.

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