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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   October 6 - October 19, 2010

VIEUXTEMPS, H.: Fantasia appassionata / Ballade and Polonaise / Fantaisie-Caprice / Greeting to America (Keylin, Slovak Radio Symphony, Mogrelia)
(Naxos / 19th Century Violinist Composers: 8.570974)

VIEUXTEMPS, H.: Fantasia appassionata / Ballade and Polonaise / Fantaisie-Caprice / Greeting to America (Keylin, Slovak Radio Symphony, Mogrelia) Misha Keylin Returns to Music of Belgian Master Vieuxtemps

Henry Vieuxtemps (1820–81), one of the greatest violin virtuosos of all time, started his career as a prodigy, making his Paris debut at age nine. His Vienna performance of Beethoven’s Concerto, at age 14, earned high praise from Robert Schumann. Two years later, Vieuxtemps began to tour Europe, Russia, and America, playing concerts almost daily for four decades. Like many virtuosos, he wrote prolifically for his instrument, producing seven concertos and many shorter pieces, some written specially for America, such as the last one on this record.

In 1873, a stroke robbed him of the use of his right arm, but he continued to teach and compose until his fourth stroke—and perhaps a lifetime of overwork—caused his untimely death.

Vieuxtemps’ compositions, including those featured on this new recording from 40-year-old violinist Misha Keylin, alternate brilliant bravura passages with lyrical melodies, like those of earlier violinist/composers, but their orchestrations are richer and more colorful.

The four dazzling showpieces on this disc exploit every instrumental resource and demand utmost virtuosity, a quality that Keylin has in abundance.

Winner of numerous international competitions, the Russian-born and US-raised violinist is a former student of Juilliard grand dame Dorothy DeLay.

He already has recorded Vieuxtemps’ complete violin concertos (seven in number) on a critically acclaimed and commercially successful 1999 three-CD set for the Naxos label. He surmounts the technical hurdles of the works recorded here with incredible ease—his facility is unlimited, his intonation flawless.

The melodies sing and soar.

Though its intensity never changes, his tone is beautiful, even in the topmost stratosphere.

He plays the second piece on a famous Stradivari, instead of his own 1831 Gagliano violin. The difference is imperceptible, proving that it’s the violinist who makes the sound, not the violin.

Edith Eisler,

MESSIAEN, O.: Visions de l'Amen / DEBUSSY, C.: En blanc et noir (Oppens, Lowenthal)
(Cedille: CDR90000-119)

MESSIAEN, O.: Visions de l'Amen / DEBUSSY, C.: En blanc et noir (Oppens, Lowenthal)

What a great idea to pair two major 20th-century French two-piano works, both composed in wartime. More importantly, Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal prove an inspired pair, pianistically speaking. Throughout Visions de l'Amen's seven movements the pianists navigate the composer's tricky rhythms and frequently thick textural hurdles with impressive ensemble exactitude, uninhibited dynamism, and cogent organization of melodic and decorative elements. One good example of this can be found in the third movement, Amen de l'Agonie de Jésus, where, in the Bien modéré section, the second piano's fortissimo tune is perfectly contoured against the first piano's chords in the same register (left-hand forte, right-hand mezzo-forte). Similarly, the duo's long-lined animation and textural diversity in the seventh movement prevents the music from sounding long-winded and from bogging down.

Oppens commands the first piano part's big chords and wide leaps with the utmost solidity, definition, and rhythmic focus, and always knows when to dominate and pull back. Lowenthal has all of the good tunes (as well as the bad ones; I still cannot get through the second piano's sickly sweet fourth-movement solo without wincing), and he relishes accents more than certain of his discographical competitors. He also allows himself freedom in solo passages when expressively appropriate, such as in his ever-so-slight yet heart-quickening accelerandos under certain crescendos in the second movement.

In contrast to the lean and streamlined profile characterizing the Kontarsky brothers' reference recording of Debussy's En blanc et noir, Oppens and Lowenthal opt for full and generous sonorities, even when playing quietly. Although they seemingly employ as little sustain pedal as possible, a mellifluous yet strong legato quality emerges from massive chords, rapid bass-register rumblings, and fleeting flourishes. Who said you can't be impressionistic and clear at the same time? Save for slightly congested climaxes, the full-bodied engineering is excellent. Lowenthal's superb, highly informative annotations add further value to this desirable release.

Jed Distler,, Augsut 24, 2010

CHATMAN, S.: Due East / How sweet and fair / Nature Songs / Voices of Earth / Time Pieces / Elves' Bells / Unseen Buds (Washburn)
(Centrediscs: CMCCD13608)

CHATMAN, S.: Due East / How sweet and fair / Nature Songs / Voices of Earth / Time Pieces / Elves' Bells / Unseen Buds (Washburn)

It's not as if Canadian composer Stephen Chatman hasn't been around awhile; the University of British Columbia professor has won many awards and has written numerous commissioned works--symphonic, chamber, solo piano, and choral (including all of the pieces on this program). It's just that some of the recordings of his music are not as easily available as they might be, such as those featuring his two earlier sets of Canadian-themed works Due North and Due West. And that's a shame because this is a composer whose music is not only original but is immediately ingratiating, challenging yet eminently singable and likewise a profoundly engaging experience for the listener.

Due East is a set of four songs (lyrics by Tara Wohlberg) that focus on Maritime themes--a brutal Nor'easter, a whale diving in the harbor, a sailor's farewell to his "lovely Nancy", the life of a fisherman--and each is a little gem that captures the spirit of the texts while respecting all good choral singers' appreciation for well-crafted material.

Chatman seems to have a thing for bells, and nature, and mechanical things like clocks and a mysteriously unidentified "magical" machine. I'm certain that no one has ever made such a catchy, fun song out of the words "Ding-a dong, Ding dong, Bong" (Elves' Bells), nor a more irresistibly exciting vocal evocation of the sound of clocks--with nothing more of a text than "tick tock boo bee bong cuckoo sing chaka dong thug-a thug ting". You have to hear it. Chatman's A Magical Machine, commissioned by the phenomenal choir of Pennsylvania's Central Bucks High School West, is a virtuoso piece of writing that again perfectly captures a spirit of fantasy and "flashing, buzzing, humming" energy.

More "traditional" works make up most of the program, their harmonic character not far from other of today's popular composers--from John Rutter to Eric Whitacre, for instance--but like all of the best choral music writers, Chatman has a knack for choosing excellent texts, which obviously set a creative spark that's fueled by keen ideas and solid technique. Most of the pieces are a cappella, but several include an accompanying instrument--piano, violin, clarinet; the two songs with clarinet, Go, Lovely Rose and To Daffodils, are among the disc's highlights.

The Vancouver Chamber Choir is one of North America's finer vocal ensembles, with many excellent recordings to its credit. This is another, with only the occasional intonation lapse (A Magical Machine) or balance infelicity (Voices of Earth) or incongruity with an instrumental partner (the violin in I Saw Eternity). But these last two could be more a quirk of the writing than the fault of the performers. In all this is a terrific program of very attractive music, much of which deserves far wider exposure on recordings and concerts. (And happily, the notes list all of the publishers!) [8/17/2010]

David Vernier,, August 17, 2010

SIBELIUS, J.: Violin Concerto / The Bard / The Wood Nymph (F.P. Zimmermann, Helsinki Philharmonic, Storgards)
(Ondine: ODE1147-2)

SIBELIUS, J.: Violin Concerto / The Bard / The Wood Nymph (F.P. Zimmermann, Helsinki Philharmonic, Storgards)

Frank Peter Zimmermann offers a fresh and exciting view of the Violin Concerto, less sentimental than some, with swift tempos, and in particular a dazzlingly quick finale. His phrasing is sometimes a touch angular, particularly in the first movement, and this usually works well, putting an arresting slant on tunes we feel we've heard a million times before. Only the very opening misfires a bit: yes, it's marked mezzo-forte, but it's also marked "dolce ed espressivo", and Zimmermann's somewhat wiry tone is neither. But as soon as the performance settles down, about a minute in, it's smooth sailing and very enjoyable listening.

The couplings further elevate the claims of this release on your purse. Neither work is very well known. The Bard, contemporaneous with the Fourth Symphony, is one of Sibelius' most elusive tone poems: beautiful and sad, with its elegiac harp solo and climactic brass calls. The Wood Nymph has had only one previous recording, an excellent one from Vänska and the Lahti Symphony. The newcomer uses the recently published critical edition--the work was neither revised nor printed in Sibelius' lifetime, though it's a vintage piece from the same period as En Saga, to which it bears some resemblance. I secured a copy of the manuscript while working on my Sibelius book, and it's an absolute mess as Sibelius left it. Hopefully publication of a clean text will allow the piece to become as popular as it deserves to be.

John Storgards, now music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducts all of this music with unaffected mastery. It goes without saying that the orchestra knows the music (although The Wood Nymph remains a novelty), but they play superbly nonetheless. Like his predecessor, Leif Segerstam, Storgards is himself a violinist, and few composers benefit more from having a string player on the podium--not so much for the tunes, but in getting the sections to articulate those typically Sibelian, "cross-hatched" accompaniments that propel the music forward and energize its textures. The engineering is generally excellent, particularly in the concerto, although a touch dry in the bass. This one's a keeper. [8/19/2010]

David Hurwitz,, August 19, 2010

BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6 (English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner)
(SDG: SDG707)

BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6 (English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner)

Despite active recent Bach recordings, most notably the cantatas, John Eliot Gardiner says he had resisted recording Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos until now because only Nos. 1 and 2 benefit from a "non-performing instigator" to conduct, the others being chamber works.

That's changed now that he's hand-picked an expert ensemble that he coaches when not conducting. Here the attention is on reacting to the Brandenburg's dance and rhythmic elements in the manner dancers play with and off each other; the music's essence Gardiner says.

The music of course is exhilarating in its variety, zest and unalloyed pleasure. The performances here no less so, with playing that lifts you from your seat with the thrill of fresh discovery and probing theatrics. Solo violinist Kati Debretzeni steals the spotlight, in large part because Bach gives her the role, but all the soloists acquit themselves brilliantly. An essential Brandenburg set right up there with the very best.

James Manishen,

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