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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   November 3 - November 16, 2010

MESSIAEN, O.: Livre du Saint Sacrement (P. Jacobs)
(Naxos / Organ Encyclopedia: 8.572436-37)

MESSIAEN, O.: Livre du Saint Sacrement (P. Jacobs) American organist Paul Jacobs is such a phenomenal talent, not only technically but in how he manages to coax every conceivable colour out of any instrument he confronts. The man who became head of the organ faculty at the Juilliard School at the age of 27 (in 2004) has made a specialty of the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Here, in a two-CD set, her presents the pinnacle of Messiaen's contribution to the organ repertoire, the Book of the Holy Sacrament, 18 meditations he completed in 1984 that transcend time, space, sound and conventional notions of musical narrative. As titular organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, Messiaen's output is directly tied to the Roman Catholic Mass as well has his own deep spirituality. Jacobs recorded this music in the incense-filled, neo-Gothic time capsule that is the Church of St. Mary-the-Virgin near Times Square in Manhattan, with its generous reverberation and fabulously massive Aeolian Skinner organ. Divorced from the atmosphere and environment that this music was written for, these tonally daring meditations and transports come across as dense and difficult. With eyes closed and mind cleared of everyday cares, it is music that can insinuate itself into the deepest recesses of the soul.

John Terauds, Toronto Star

SEREBRIER, J.: Symphony No. 1 / Nueve / Violin Concerto, "Winter" (Callow, Karr, Quint, Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus, Serebrier)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559648)

SEREBRIER, J.: Symphony No. 1 / Nueve / Violin Concerto, José Serebrier is obviously a very talented composer, and it's good that Naxos is giving him the opportunity to record his music under optimal conditions. The First Symphony is an impressive piece of work, especially for a Uruguayan teenage musician of just 18. Like most of Serebrier's work, there's a lyrical side to much of the material that's quite winning, but the style and "feel" of the music, its single-movement form, and its alternation of melodic episodes with powerfully rhythmic outbursts are quite modern as well as personal.

However, perhaps the two most enjoyable large works here are the Violin Concerto "Winter" (another single-movement piece lasting a bit more than 15 minutes, and wonderfully played by Philippe Quint) and the Music for an Imaginary Film (2009). Actually the film was real; it just became imaginary when a strike forced its cancellation and Serebrier got stuck with the music he had already written. It's extremely colorful and fun.

The two short "tango" pieces have obvious appeal as encores or musical "calling cards", and the only relative disappointment concerns the Double Bass Concerto, which also features a speaker (nominally the soloist, but here Simon Callow), chorus, and players stationed all over the hall. I totally sympathize with Serebrier's attempt to do something experimental and interesting with what is basically a hopeless assignment, but still... Happily, it only lasts 13 minutes, and the performance is terrific, if you're into this sort of thing. Indeed, given Serebrier's gifts as a conductor there's nothing to criticize here regarding the performances, and the engineering is very good also. Recommended wholeheartedly.

David Hurwitz,

SUK, J.: Zrani (Ripening) / Symphony in E major, Op. 14 (New London Chamber Choir, BBC Symphony, Belohlavek)
(Chandos: CHSA5081)

SUK, J.: Zrani (Ripening) / Symphony in E major, Op. 14 (New London Chamber Choir, BBC Symphony, Belohlavek) Czech composer Josef Suk was one of Dvořák’s most celebrated pupils, and the relationship between the two was so close that Suk fell in love with and later married Dvořák’s daughter in 1898. Suk’s early music affectionately betrays the influence of his teacher. The Symphony No 1, completed in 1899, sometimes veers close to Dvořák pastiche but is still a fresh, lovable work – lilting dance rhythms and clean, Brahmsian orchestration never quite compensating for the lack of really original melodic invention. Its 40 minutes pass agreeably but you struggle to remember much afterwards. Suk’s next symphony, Asrael, followed in 1906 and is a much more cogent piece, a memorial to Dvořák and to Suk’s wife Otilie, who died tragically young in 1905.

The huge symphonic poem Ripening, composed between 1912 and 1917, is a more striking and passionate work still, Suk’s musical language now more sophisticated and harmonically adventurous, with an impressionistic translucency in the orchestral textures. Suk wrote of Ripening that "I immerse myself once more into the joys and tragic shadows of life". Seven linked sections start slowly before building to an immense fugal climax. Just when you’re expecting a grandiose Elgarian apotheosis comes the calm final section, opening with a brief, magical contribution from an offstage female chorus. It’s hugely impressive, heartfelt music and given an exemplary reading by Jiří Bělohlávek’s BBC forces, reminding us just how good they can sound in this repertoire. Gloriously rich Chandos recording too.

Graham Rickson,

VIVALDI, A.: Armida al campo d'Egitto [Opera] (Alessandrini)
(Naive: OP30492)

VIVALDI, A.: Armida al campo d'Egitto [Opera] (Alessandrini) Naïve's ambitious plan to record all Vivaldi's operas is a happy one: now marking its tenth issue (about one-fifth of the known works), the project makes one wonder what else is lying in the vast Turinese archives awaiting performance. Rinaldo Alessandrini, founder and leader of the superb, spirited Concerto Italiano, led the series' much-hailed L'Olimpiade in 2002 and now takes the helm of Armida al Campo d'Egitto (1718), the final product of the thirty-nine-year-old Vivaldi's initial Venetian theatrical flowering.

I don't think I've ever enjoyed listening to a Vivaldi opera so much. In part this is due to the laudable skill and shimmering liveliness of the orchestral playing and a universally fine cast. But the work itself offers considerable felicity, if not much formal innovation. Alessandrini has "reconstructed" the lost music of Act II, supplying his own recitatives and choruses. Three of the original arias existed as borrowings in other scores; the rest Alessandrini and musicologist Frédéric Delaméa borrowed and adapted from suitable moments in other Vivaldi scores with such wonderful stump-the-experts names as Arsilda, Teuzzone and La Verità in Cimento.

Composers from Lully to Dvořák have used Armida as an opera heroine, and it's scarcely surprising that Vivaldi is among them. Armida's story — for those who didn't catch either the Rossini or Gluck versions performed in the U.S. this year — derives from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata; she's a Saracen princess who ensorcells the Christian warrior-knight Rinaldo, temporarily removing him from the Crusaders' field of battle. In Vivaldi's version, Armida is searching for champions to go against Rinaldo: she's a manipulative, conniving liar, limned with none of the underlying feeling evoked by Lully and Gluck.

The cast is almost entirely Italian (countertenor Martín Oro is Italo–Argentine), which makes the recitatives uncommonly fluent and telling. Sara Mingardo, like Vivaldi a native of Venice, has appeared and recorded widely; she is justly a contralto star of today's historically-informed-performance world. As Armida, she offers a darkly soulful yet agile voice that gives great pleasure in both bravura and sustained music. Mezzo Marina Comparato's Emireno (a general resisting Armida's multiple attempts on his virtue) shows some resinous asperity in timbre but sings with character. Emireno in turn loves the captive princess Erminia, sung with fleet technique and fresh sound by Raffaella Milanesi, the only soprano in sight. Like Mingardo, mezzo Monica Bacelli (Osmira, the Caliph's niece, an invention of Vivaldi's librettist, Giovanni Palazzi) has sung more than many of her colleagues here at mainstream venues, including San Francisco Opera (Lucio Silla, 1991). By and large she retains her ductility and expressiveness.

The score consists mainly of shortish arias (many of them A-B-A in form) and choruses, but the first number for solo singers is a spirited back-to-back duet (much like "Io le dirò che l'amo" in Handel's Serse) for two Islamic warriors immediately attracted by the arriving Armida. The mezzo of Romina Basso (Adrasto) has a pleasing richness and sheen: hers is a name to watch. Oro's Tisaferno may not please those who just don't like the countertenor sound, but he's fluent and stylish, if occasionally given to aspiration. The experienced Baroque baritone Furio Zanasi, as the Caliph, remains one of the few internationally active low-voiced singers to have developed his art to match his higher-flying colleagues. I listened to this excellent Armidafirst without and then (repeatedly) with the libretto; it's recommendable both ways. 

David Shengold, Opera News

MAZZOLI, M.: Cathedral City / A Door into the Dark / I Am Coming for My Things / Like a Miracle / The Diver / A Song for Mick Kelly (Victoire)
(New Amsterdam: NWAM025)

MAZZOLI, M.: Cathedral City / A Door into the Dark / I Am Coming for My Things / Like a Miracle / The Diver / A Song for Mick Kelly (Victoire) These days, chamber-music groups often move far beyond the traditional classical repertoire. From the Ebene Quartet's appropriation of jazz tunes to the Turtle Island Quartet's recent tribute to Jimi Hendrix, small ensembles are deftly side-stepping genre classification. Brooklyn-based Missy Mazzoli and her ensemble Victoire fall solidly into this hard-to-define category with their debut album, Cathedral City. Though all of the members are classically trained, Mazzoli's music has been labeled chamber rock, indie classical, mimimalist, post-rock and even "pseudo-classical."

Cathedral City is complex and imaginative, hooking the listener right at the beginning with the slow, meditative keyboard introduction to "A Door Into the Dark." Mazzoli commands attention through every piece, tying the works together with close relationships in structure and sound. The eight tracks stand alone, but they flow organically into one another.

Mazzoli's music might come across as simplistic, and on one level it is: She uses manageable meters and sticks with basic harmonic building blocks. And if some of her techniques — such as the use of spoken numbers in "India Whiskey" — are reminiscent of Philip Glass, it's because she borrowed the instrumentation of his ensemble as a starting point for herself. It might be tempting to cast Cathedral City into the minimalist camp, but the album is too subtle to pigeonhole.

Just when Mazzoli's sound begins to seem predictable, she tosses in something that snares the imagination. The title track, for example, is based on an uncomplicated melody, with musicians playing in unison. But the listener is drawn in by airy vocal samples and a gentle electro-beat. As the music pulses on, the voices become more prominent, almost masking the fact that the musicians have begun playing a fugue.

Is Victoire's music post-rock, post-mimimalist or pseudo-post-pre-modernist indie-chamber-electronica? It doesn't particularly matter. It's just good music.

Ashalen Sims,

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