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Highly Reviewed Recordings

August 10 - August 23, 2011

BORODIN, A.P.: Symphonies Nos. 1-3 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
(Naxos: 8.572786)

BORODIN, A.P.: Symphonies Nos. 1-3 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

If you're looking for a stellar disc containing all three Borodin symphonies in top-notch sound (the Third left incomplete, its two movements orchestrated by Glazunov), then look no further. Gerard Schwarz and his players seem to have developed a real affinity for Russian music, as their previous Rimsky-Korsakov disc suggests. The First Symphony sounds unusually cogent and masterly in their hands. Listen to the bite of the lower brass in the outer movements, and hear the plaintive songfulness of the woodwinds in the Andante. It's a true Russian sound.

The same idiomatic characteristics enhance the Second Symphony's gutsy opening string theme, while the finale simply explodes with color and energy. Borodin's Second is one of those works that everyone takes for granted, but its compact 25 minutes or so comprises one of the very best Russian symphonies of any period. It has enjoyed many fine performances, but this one is every bit as good as the best of them, and as already noted, the sonics are splendid. Don't hesitate for a minute.

David Hurwitz,

Vocal Music (American) - WHITE, B.F. / CAREY, H. / PHILE, P. / BILLINGS, W. (Rose of Sharon: 100 Years of American Music) (Frederiksen)
(Harmonia Mundi: HMC902085)

Vocal Music (American) - WHITE, B.F. / CAREY, H. / PHILE, P. / BILLINGS, W. (Rose of Sharon: 100 Years of American Music) (Frederiksen)

When the end of 2011 comes, this masterpiece from Joel Frederiksen and his Ensemble Phoenix Munich will reside among the best of what undoubtedly will be a formidable mountain of first-rate vocal-music recording projects. I have to say that this kind of program was unexpected coming from this bass singer/lutenist/guitarist. What, other than something that inspired his interest during the time he spent studying and performing in the U.S. in the '90s, would have possessed this extraordinary artist to organize such a program around the "wide range of music composed between the War of Independence and the Civil War"? This is the sort of thing we used to hear from world-class American ensembles such as the Baltimore Consort, Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata, and even in a couple of notable ventures, from Anonymous 4.

This trove features a varied selection of music--30 pieces in all--that's smartly presented to keep things interesting, mixing solo, duets, and various ensemble combinations both to show each song to optimal effect and to fully utilize these exceptional voices and instrumental players. However you characterize Frederiksen's voice--it's described in the notes as a "coloratura basso profundo" (now there's a unique category!)--you have to admit you've never heard any bass possessing quite this timbre, so agreeably warm, sensuous, expressive, and that also blends so well with its soprano, alto, and tenor ensemble partners.

We've heard much of this repertoire before--Shaker hymns, shape-note tunes, Civil War songs, anthems by the thoroughly unremarkable William Billings--but there are some unfamiliar gems here as well, and the performances are invariably infectious, tasteful, creatively arranged, and worthy of repeated listening. The liner notes by Frederiksen are detailed and informative, and include full texts in a separate booklet. This is a collection to treasure both for its historical content and for the sheer pleasure of the voices.

Frederiksen's opening unaccompanied rendition of the Shaker spiritual Lay me low is an irresistible call to this celebration of early American music, and the closing Hear, O Lord, when I cry, a 19th-century anthem by Philadelphia composer/Moravian Church organist Massah M. Warner for four a cappella voices, makes an equally compelling benediction. The spirit and tradition of this music is almost entirely lost now, but as one who grew up with first-hand experience of camp and revival meeting songs and hymns, and who was present for part of Joel Cohen's Shaker music recording project, I have to say that this current effort to bring this music to life has a genuine air of sincerity and reverence--and if nothing else, it's certainly enlivening and entertaining. Frederiksen is an amazing musician and a uniquely gifted singer, and for that reason alone you shouldn't miss this.

David Vernier,, July 1, 2011

SMETANA, B.: Ma Vlast (Malaysian Philharmonic, Flor)
(BIS: BIS-SACD-1805)

SMETANA, B.: Ma Vlast (Malaysian Philharmonic, Flor) Download of the Month

[‘It’s hard not to recommend this issue, and for the inveterate collector of Má Vlastdiscs, this album will be a special delight’. - see full review by Brian Reinhart]

Smetana’s patriotic hymn to home is a glorious work, so it’s always a pleasure to hear it in toto rather than just the ubiquitous ‘Vltava’. I’ve had my eye on this BIS release for a while, as the label is well known for showcasing the talents of out-of-the-way orchestras; look how they’ve single-handedly raised the profiles of the São Paulo and Singapore bands, both of which have produced a slew of fine recordings. The Malaysians made a terrific impact with their BIS box of Rimsky-Korsakov under Kees Bakels (BIS-CD-1667/8), so I had high hopes for this Má Vlast, conducted by music director Claus Peter Flor.

This work has been lucky on record, with fine, idiomatic versions from Rafael Kubelik at the Prague Spring Festival (Supraphon 11 1208-2), Antoni Wit’s account on Naxos 8.550931 and, a firm favourite of mine, Libor Pešek and the RLPO on Virgin Classics 61223*. All are engaging, but few start as beautifully as this newcomer, the harp figures in ‘Vyšehrad’ simply ravishing. The orchestra are as easeful and illuminating as their European counterparts, every facet of ‘Vltava’ essayed in minute, ear-pricking detail as it grows from gurgling stream to raging torrent. The recording needs to be cranked up a bit before it snaps into focus, those pounding perorations setting new standards for this old warhorse.

And believe me, this performance just gets better and better; granted, rhythms in the epic ‘Šárka’ could be a bit more pliant, but Flor and his band are undeniably thrilling in the huge tuttis. Dynamics are extremely wide without being splashy or self-consciously hi-fi; the sound is also remarkably transparent, with some delectable woodwind and string playing both here and in those idyllic woods and fields. Indeed, this is a uniquely revealing account of Má Vlast, Flor’s many felicities and insights making the piece seem utterly fresh. And what an breathtaking close to ‘Šárka’, the orchestra as incisive as one could wish for.

Tábor, with its quotation from the Hussite hymn ‘Ye Who are Warriors of God’, is especially atmospheric, the tuttis expanding without hint of stress or strain; as for the formidable battery of brass, cymbals and timps deployed here, they’re presented with a rare, frisson-inducing immediacy that’s simply awesome. Has this music ever sounded so implacable, so forbidding? And then there’s the truly monumental, hewn-granite quality to this rendition of Blaník that puts its illustrious rivals to shame, the more lyrical episodes as beguiling as I’ve ever heard. Any concerns that this Má Vlast might lack weight or momentum have long since evaporated, Flor goading his players to a scorching - but not overheated - finale.

Goodness, what a fabulous performance, and how well recorded. BIS have been pilloried on some of the more toxic internet forums for recording their SACDs at 44.1kHz, but this new release should help to silence those harpies and nay-sayers. I must confess I’ve had cause to grumble about some recent BIS recordings, but after this cracking Má Vlast all is forgiven. Indeed, this version goes right to the top of an already teetering pile. Buy it!

Dan Morgan,

SALIERI, A.: Sinfonia, "La Veneziana" / Concertos (Budapest Strings)
(Capriccio: C5087)

SALIERI, A.: Sinfonia, Though often ignored, underplayed, or even reviled, Antonio Salieri is a brilliant composer who deserves to be honored among all the great composers, including his student W.A. Mozart. Fortunately, the Budapest Strings do Salieri's compositions justice on this bright, cheerful album of three works for chamber orchestra. Salieri's Concerto for oboe, violin, cello, and orchestra is simply lovely.

Beginning with a bright, full, assured sound from the orchestra, it invites the listener on a musical journey that is never less than engaging. The soloists play beautifully together, never missing a note. The violinist has a solid core to his sound; it is especially notable in the Cantabile, which is richly textured, even for a slow movement. Each instrument's voice in the orchestra is carefully shaped, and this brings out the counterpoint and various lines in the music. Certainly, the syncopation before the end of the second movement is a bit odd, but Salieri compensates by giving the listener an elegant, concluding movement. The recording quality is excellent, and the musicians come across as confident and assured without being aggressive.

The second work on the album is a double concerto with orchestra. One can hear the bow attacks in the sprightly beginning, contrasting with the fluid agility of the flute and the pinpoint precision of the oboe. All the accents are accurately observed, and the orchestra plays with vigor. The stately Largo that follows maintains a nice pulsing feel underneath the soloists' lines. The flute and oboe play in perfect unison in the Allegretto, with a sense of playfulness. The oboe's articulation is clear, and he, too, is confident and solid in his technique. Oddly, it is the title tracks that are the least noteworthy on this album, though they are certainly well done. One might hear echoes of The Marriage of Figaro in the beginning of La Veneziana, where the strings play together wonderfully. Actually, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the spirit of The Marriage of Figaro drew on inspiration from the teacher. Conductor Bánfalvi draws out an Andantino grazioso that is never dull or motionless (something that often happens in slower movements of orchestral works).

All of this raises an inevitable yet perhaps unfair question: how does Salieri's work differ from Mozart's? One might say that this music feels more mature and textured, whereas the latter very often placed a strong emphasis on melody. But it is best to simply evaluate Salieri's works on their own terms, and if these pieces are representative, they are impressive.

V. Vasan,

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