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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   October 20 - November 2, 2010

CORIGLIANO: Red Violin Caprices (The) / Violin Sonata / THOMSON, V.: 5 Ladies / Portraits (Quint)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559364)

CORIGLIANO: Red Violin Caprices (The) / Violin Sonata / THOMSON, V.: 5 Ladies / Portraits (Quint)

It says something good about our contemporary musical life that major works such as these are available in multiple recordings. This is a wonderfully smart coupling: two major works both based on theatrical scores. Phantasmagoria comes from the opera The Ghosts of Versailles, while the "Red Violin" Concerto has its origins in the film of the same name. The concerto already has been recorded, splendidly, by Joshua Bell and Marin Alsop for Sony Classical, but its coupling, Corigliano's Violin Sonata, while apt for the composer's fans, isn't as much fun as this one. Corigliano is, first and foremost, a splendid writer for the orchestra.

Furthermore, Michael Ludwig's solo work certainly compares favorably to Bell's. He's completely at home in the work's atrocious technical demands, and in the whirlwind scherzo and the rustic finale he even brings an extra measure of pyrotechnical dazzle. JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalo players also put on a virtuosic display, clearly relishing the many opportunities that Corigliano gives them to strut their stuff. Phantasmagoria truly is, well, phantasmagorical. The whole production is engineered with vivid but unobtrusive naturalness. A total winner.

David Hurwitz,, September 21, 2010

Cello and Piano Duos - MYASKOVSKY, N. / SCRIABIN, A. / SCHNITTKE, A. / RACHMANINOV, S. (Russian Music for Cello and Piano) (WarnerNuzova Duo)
(Cedille: CDR90000-120)

Cello and Piano Duos - MYASKOVSKY, N. / SCRIABIN, A. / SCHNITTKE, A. / RACHMANINOV, S. (Russian Music for Cello and Piano) (WarnerNuzova Duo) Cello virtuoso Wendy Warner and Irina Nuzova’s first CD is an elegant evocation of the Russian romantic soul, leading off with Nikolai Miaskovsky’s second Sonata, of which the duo is particularly proud. It has been recorded more than ten times, the label claims, but “never before by American musicians on American soil, or on an American label.”

You have to admit, it is an intriguing approach to marketing.

The rest of the CD is a lesson in creative programming. Alfred Schnittke’s “Musica Nostalgica” is an ideal aural palette cleanser in between cello great Gregor Piatigorsky’s transcription of a moody Scriabin étude and Prokofiev’s own transcription of his Cinderella’s Act Two pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince Charming, who have just discovered each other at the ball.

The big Rachmaninov Sonata brings up the rear to remind folks just who is boss.

From the beginning of each movement, Warner goes straight to the music’s melodic soul with a disarming simplicity and laid-back breadth of line, but not so much so that she doesn’t have anything left when the really big emotional moments arrive. Nuzova throughout is an equal partner in establishing and luxuriating in the Russian romantic clime.

The liner notes by Andrea Lamoreaux, music director of 98.7 WFMT-FM, Chicago, are rich in detailed technical and contextual information. His observations are infused with a knowledge of the divergent paths represented not only by Piatigorsky and Rostropovich, but also by a more historical figure, Anatoly Brandukov, to whom Rachmaninov dedicated his Sonata.

Laurence Vittes,

BARTOK, B.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 (Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Noseda)
(Chandos: CHAN10610)

BARTOK, B.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 (Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Noseda) Bartók’s first two piano concertos were composed for himself to play on tour. The First opens with a series of musical grunts, growls and belches. It’s so uningratiating, so defiantly unlyrical, and it has rarely sounded so entertaining as it does here. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s performance is dazzling , with every punchy chord nailed with precision. And Noseda’s accompaniment is exemplary, with Bartók’s quirky percussion writing given deserved prominence. The eerie woodwind processional in the slow movement is slinky and disconcerting, and the finale is thrilling. The Second Concerto, first performed in 1933, sounds even better, its first movement just a shade brighter; a riot of overlapping jazzy brass fanfares and virtuosic piano writing. Bartók sounds a little more unbuttoned in this work, and the central movement’s disconcerting string chords provide a necessary respite before the Allegro molto at last unites soloist with full orchestra and closes with a brash shout of joy.

 How different is the Third Concerto, written by the ailing Bartók in his New York exile – the final bars still needing orchestration after his death in 1945. Less virtuosic, less dissonant, it’s still a beautiful piece, but a melancholy one – the fires burning less brightly and boldly. The slow movement’s soft chorale is sweet and consoling, and there’s a moment of sheer wonder near the end of the last movement, as the piano responds to growling lower brass with a delirious final flourish. These are seminal works, and if your piano concerto recordings only stretch to a bit of Mozart or Rachmaninov, you need this CD.

Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk

VERDI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Muti)
(CSO Resound: CSOR9011006)

VERDI, G.: Messa da Requiem (Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Muti)

Ravishing orchestral playing and choral work combined with an unmatchable understanding of Verdi makes this, despite some issues with regard to the soloists, a very important addition to the Verdi Requiem catalog.

This is Riccardo Muti's third recording of the work. Listeners familiar with his others (one from 1979; the other from 1987) will recognize a certain "driven" quality to the wilder moments--the Dies Irae, the Sanctus--but elsewhere there is a tenderness that defines the word "cantabile". And the contrasts are marvelous: the very quiet (but still audible) beginning sets the mystical tone, but the word "Kyrie" opens into more passionate prayer, as it should. The strings are ravishing throughout, keeping the singing line pure, and the brass--both distant and from the pit (this was recorded live, and the ambience is stunning)--intones doom and power. You don't often hear brass play with true expression, but they do here.

Muti still brings Toscanini to mind more than any other conductor, but he is more pliable in this performance than that other great Italian Maestro or his earlier self. The chorus, like the orchestra, moves from fortissimo to pianissimo on a dime; their singing is effortless, precise, and filled with attention to the text. The quieter, spiritual sections are remarkable for their aura of stillness and meditation and their outbursts thrill and terrify. It's breathtaking.

The soloists are not quite on that level. Best is bass Ildar Abdrazakov, singing without forcing, allowing his voice to roll forth, and offering an awe-inspiring "Mors stupebit". He lacks the huge sound of Pinza, Christoff, or Ramey, but that's beside the point. Mezzo Olga Borodina is at her most expressive, her voice meshes well with Barbara Frittoli's in the "Recordare", and she is always audible in ensembles. Frittoli's voice has taken on a beat at every volume level: Her soft entrance on E in the "Offertorium" wavers in pitch (one recalls Caballé in the part with astonishment), and while her reading of the "Libera me" is dramatic and involved, that beat invariably intrudes and does some damage. Mario Zeffiri, a tenor new to me, has a fine lyric voice and he uses its lightness to his favor, imbuing the "Ingemisco" with gentle pleading. But I prefer a voice with a bit more breadth: Pavarotti (Muti, 1987) and Björling (Reiner, RCA) strike me as ideal, and they are hardly bullies.

There are more than 80 different recordings of this work available and it is impossible to choose just one or two as ideals. The 1967 Solti is manic, fabulous-sounding, and has soloists to die for (Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti, Talvela); Toscanini (1940) has to be heard (but beware of the sonics); a dark-horse performance led by Robert Shaw (Telarc) is surprisingly chilling and features the lamented, superb Susan Dunn as soprano. Muti (1987) is pretty hot too (and takes exactly the same amount of time as this new performance--89 minutes). The recent Pappano on EMI also is highly recommended. But this new Muti is glorious despite a solo soprano problem; it has just about everything else. 

Robert Levine,, October 4, 2010

LANGGAARD, R.: Music of the Spheres (Dausgaard)
(Dacapo: 6.220535)

LANGGAARD, R.: Music of the Spheres (Dausgaard) In classical music, it would be hard to find a greater individualist than Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Unlike his anti-romantic contemporaries bent on writing "new" music, Langgaard remained rooted in tonality.

But the music on this new disc (from dacapo records) shows how Langgaard pushed the late-romantic envelope, expanding on the impressionistic symbolism of composers like Alexander Scriabin, and expressionism of Franz Schreker.

The three choral-symphonic works on the album span Langgaard's career, from 1916 through 1952. The 24-minute The Time of the End is a four-part, cantata-like compaction of his opera Antikrist and the seven-minute From the Abyss is a mini-requiem set to phrases from the Latin mass.

Oddly enough, the earliest music on the album, The Music of the Spheres (completed in 1918) is the most progressive, and an idiosyncratic Scandinavian masterpiece. Langgaard calls for a huge chorus and orchestra, plus a "distant" soprano and a fifteen-member instrumental ensemble. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who deftly commands the many forces here, brought the giant piece to the BBC Proms concerts last month for its British premiere.

Each of its 15 sections bears one of those quizzical captions Langgaard so loved ("Starlight on a Blue-tinged Sky at Dusk"), and he referred to the whole piece as "A life-and-death fantasia." But really, it's more of a musical stream of consciousness where recurring subatomic motifs and sound patterns are the only hints of any underlying plan.

The first seven sections could be described as galactic mood music, with shimmering strings, exotic organ stops and pounding timpani. No full-fledged thematic ideas here, just a fascinating swirl of melodic nebulosities that pan in and out of audibility. But things get "curiouser and curiouser" in the eighth section when a female soloist with chorus pipes up with a resounding "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la."

Later, the "distant" soprano appears with a tearful song, but it's just the calm before Langgaard's apocalyptic conclusion, titled "The End: Antichrist – Christ." It reflects his preoccupation with false prophets and the end of the world, perhaps brought on by the horrors of World War I.

The composer pulls out all of the stops here, beginning with a monumental crescendo containing what must be the longest choral pedal point and sustained timpani roll in all classical literature.

Music of the Spheres: "The End: Antichrist - Christ"

The singers then vanish as if swallowed up by some passing black hole, which suddenly flares into an orchestral supernova of sound. It quickly burns to a cold, dissonant cinder, ending this extraordinary journey much as it began in the vast emptiness of space. If there was ever any music suitable for a planetarium, this is it!

Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found

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