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Highly Reviewed Recordings

November 14 - November 27, 2012

CHRISTMAS CHORAL MUSIC - A Ceremony of Carols (Toronto Children's Chorus, Bartle)
(Marquis Classics: MAR-327)

CHRISTMAS CHORAL MUSIC - A Ceremony of Carols (Toronto Children's Chorus, Bartle)

Joining in the Toronto Children’s Chorus’ 25th anniversary celebration in 2003, Marquis Classics made a good decision to reissue on one CD some of this world-renowned choir’s best Christmas music recorded for the label. The primary works—the world-premiere recording of John Rutter’s Dancing Day cycle (from 1990) and Benjamin Britten’s perennial favorite A Ceremony of Carols (from 1991′s Mostly Britten CD)—both feature treble voices with harp accompaniment, and suffice it to say, these are exemplary performances that demonstrate the highest standard of musicianship and ensemble singing, and the kind of treble vocal tone that any choir director would give his conducting arm for. Just listen to the unison singing in Healey Willan’s setting of “The Huron Carol” or to the perfectly in tune unison and part-singing in the “Personent hodie” section of the Rutter—or virtually anywhere else, for that matter!

The disc contains several other works, three of which have not been released on CD before—the lovely opening track “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen”, Holst’s “I saw three ships”, and the program’s closer, “Alleluia” from J.S. Bach’s Cantata 142. The ambience of the Holst in particular suggests that it may have come from a concert recording, but in general the sonic perspective is ideal and the engineering is absolutely first rate (well, the harp could be less prominent in Britten’s “This little Babe”). And before I forget, Gillian Howard’s solo in “That yongë child” is to treasure. Highly recommended.

© 2012

SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, "Die Forelle" (The Trout) (Braley, G. Capucon, R. Capucon, Causse, Posch)
(Virgin Classics: 0724354556357)

SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, Can there ever be too many recordings of Franz Schubert’s most felicitous work, the “Trout” Quintet? Not when they are as exuberant, as intoxicating, as joyful as the one presented here by pianist Frank Braley, violinist Renard Capucon, violist Gerard Causse, cellist Gautier Capucon, and double-bassist Alois Posch.

Schubert wrote this little gem while vacationing in the town of Steyr in the north of Austria, a town he loved. But he apparently only wrote it for his own and his friends’ amusement because he never published it, and no one ever performed it in public in his lifetime. Still, it has proved enduring, and practically every chamber group in the world has since played and recorded it.

The present recording finds five people performing it who have played it together many times before. Yet unlike so many of the fine, mature recordings of the piece by artists like Brendel, Curzon, Richter, Ax, and the like, it’s a delight to hear what is so consciously a youthful performance by five relatively young, albeit rather well-known, European artists. After all, Schubert wrote it when he was only in his early twenties himself and at a happy time in his life. One might expect as much from its performance.

Almost every movement shows a vigor and cheerfulness that is hard to resist, although, curiously, the final movement, marked “Allegro giusto,” is hardly that. It’s only here that the quintet of players slow down, catch their breath so to speak, and end on a relaxed, though still cheerful note. The easy knock against the performance might be that it’s too glib, too superficial, and that’s true; however, we have to remember that the “Trout” is mostly surface glitz, anyway. If you want profound, try Brendel.

Accompanying the “Trout” is a set of variations on the song “Trockne Blumen” from the composer’s song cycle Die schone Mullerin. Schubert wrote it just a few years before his early death, and it contains more than a passing note of melancholy. The disc concludes with the very brief, very simple, and very beautiful quintet arrangement of “Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen,” another song setting of a poem, this one “celebrating the peace of the soul,” as described by Adelaide de Place in the disc’s informational booklet. It has a delicately expressive “Ave Maria” feel to it, and it’s a shame it lasts less than two minutes.

While the sound is not too spectacular and oddly seems to favor the left side of the stage, it is quiet and well balanced. All in all, I enjoyed this version of the “Trout” when I first heard it, and it continues to please, even if it is not at the top of the pile.

- John J. Puccio, © 2012 Classical Candor

BATISTE, A.E.: Organ Music (Le dompteur d'orgues) (Innocenzi)
(Aeolus: AE-10731)

BATISTE, A.E.: Organ Music (Le dompteur d'orgues) (Innocenzi)

Going to church in 19th century France was a trip. Organists were known primarily for improvisation, and the liturgy only permitted limited time for original music-making. Many of these improvisations were in the style of (or directly quoted) popular tunes of the day by the likes of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Auber, Meyerbeer, and their contemporaries. One of the most popular items, and the standard by which both organists and their instruments were judged, was the “Orage,” or storm, a splendid example of which is presented here. Most of these were also improvised, but Batiste had the courtesy to write one of these improvisations down in the form of an Offertoire (I kid you not). It’s quite impressively imitative and realistic, at least at the incredibly violent climax.

Obviously this appeal to the popular taste aroused the ire of the more doctrinaire and tasteful proponents of French liturgical music. Edouard Batiste (1820-1876), who taught at the Conservatoire from the age of 16 and wrote the standard text on Solfège, had his own unique solution to this problem. He transcribed for organ, in abbreviated form, all of the slow movements of Beethoven’s symphonies, giving them names such as Communion, Offertoire, and Elevation. Thus, the funeral march of the Eroica became an “Offertoire funèbre,” while the Adagio of the Fourth Symphony became an “Elevation.”

These transcriptions are fascinating not only historically; they provide a very interesting take on contemporary performance practice. Batiste presided over the Merklin-Schütze organ in St. Eustache (1854), one of the largest in Paris. That instrument no longer exists, but a very similar instrument by the same builder, from 1857, in original condition and recently restored, exists in the Iglesia Catedral de Santa Maria in Murcia, Spain, and it is this instrument that Swiss/Argentine organist Diego Innocenzi has chosen for his splendid program. A specialist in the French romantic repertoire, his performances on this particular instrument are probably as close as we are going to get to the sound of mid-19th century organ music in France.

Some of these transcriptions, such as the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth (one of the very few non-”liturgical” items) are simply hopeless; the instrument just can’t spit out the notes quickly enough. Batiste’s Grande sortie on the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, which reduces the piece to about eight minutes with an extended bit of the Adagio interpolated, will sound incredibly but captivatingly strange to anyone who knows the original. One of the most fascinating aspects of Batiste’s transcriptions is that he indicated very detailed registrations, including a superabundant use of the Tremulant, which is the organist’s equivalent to vibrato. It’s everywhere, even to the point where the instrument sounds like a theremin or Hammond organ.

Check out the sound clip below of the Offertoire in A, a.k.a. the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and consider also that Batiste was ideally placed to transmit the authentic tradition of Beethoven performance in France. The orchestra of the Paris Conservatory, after all, was founded by Habeneck in the late 1820s specifically for the purpose of producing Beethoven’s symphonies. On the vibrato question, at least, Batiste’s transcriptions may well be as close to real authenticity of sonority as we are likely to get, and of course they completely contradict the nonsense coming from today’s period instrument performers.

In any case, Innocenzi is a splendid player who clearly seems to be enjoying himself in this very enjoyable music. Even Batiste’s original compositions (disc one of this two-disc set), while obviously not on the level of Beethoven, are unfailingly colorful and tuneful. They were enormously popular in their day, and not just in France, but also as far as the United States. After Batiste’s early death in 1876, his music fell into oblivion along with all of the rest of the theoretically tasteless productions of the mid-century generation of French organists. We can only be grateful to Innocenzi and the folks at Aeolus for reviving this neglected repertoire niche, and presenting it to us in a superbly engineered, intelligently annotated project. For serious collectors and Beethoven fans, this is essential listening.

© 2012

PETTERSSON, A.: Symphony No. 6 (Norrkoping Symphony, C. Lindberg)
(BIS: BIS-1980)

PETTERSSON, A.: Symphony No. 6 (Norrkoping Symphony, C. Lindberg) Almost a year ago to the day we told you about a BIS disc that was a must for fans of Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911–1980, see 26 October), and here’s another! While the earlier one premiered the first of his seventeen symphonies, this new hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), release is devoted to his neglected sixth, and blows away what little competition there is from both the performance as well as sound standpoints.

In a single hourlong movement contained on one track, it must rank as among the most individual symphonic creations to come from a twentieth century composer. Granted it does make considerable demands on the listener to be fully appreciated, however it’s well worth the effort. To these ears it seems to be in five contiguous arches, and in hopes of making it a bit more digestible, the starting times for each are given.

The symphony occupied Pettersson for four years during the 1960s (1963–66), which was an extremely difficult time for him. He was not only at a stylistic crossroads, but also began experiencing the first acutely painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, which would plague him for the rest of his life.

All this distress seems to inhabit the ominous opening measures of the first arch [00:03] played by the low strings. Some of the motifs that will infect the entire work appear, and then an agitated theme [03:27] spiked with those short insistent riffs (SIRs) that are a Pettersson trademark. This is subjected to an anguished extended metamorphic development in which more SIRs help stitch the music together.

More low strings then begin a threatening percussion-accented second arch [18:30] with strange birdcall-like SIRs [18:45]. The music builds to a couple of horrendous crescendos, the last trailing off into a series of pedal points and drum rolls.

A brass chorale then announces the symphony’s third arch [25:05] that’s probably best described as an agonized meditation. This fades into a more melodic fourth arch [37:59] which commences with a melancholy aria. It’s based on a tune borrowed from the last of the composer’s twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943-5) entitled “Han ska släcka min lykta” (“He Will Extinguish My Light”).

A reserved elaboration somewhat reminiscent of spun-out Richard Strauss (1864–1949) follows, and transitions into a fifth and final arch [47:51]. Its SIRs-riddled sedate opening soon erupts into convulsions with percussion-accented twitches from the brass and an explosive catharsis for full orchestra. The music then trails off to almost nothing, and the symphony ends in an epilogue [56:35] of peaceful resignation, allaying the gloom that seemed to characterize its opening measures.

Holding the listener’s attention in great expanses of music such as the first movement of Mahler’s third symphony has always been a challenge for conductors. And at only a few seconds short of an hour, that’s certainly true of the monster monolithic symphonic rumination here. But as on his previous Pettersson release for BIS (see above), conductor Christian Linberg is completely in sync with the score, and turns it into a riveting listening experience. The indefatigable Norrköping Symphony Orchestra serves him well in a performance that reveals every nuance of this emotionally convoluted work.

Made at the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, the stereo tracks project a generous soundstage in a warm acoustic well suited to the extreme dynamics of Pettersson’s at times violent music. Calling for a large orchestra, the BIS engineers have captured in demonstration-quality sound every detail of this intricate score.

The instrumental timbre is very musical in all three play modes with clear bright highs and deep tight bass. That said, the violins do sound a bit more natural on the SACD tracks, and the multichannel one will give you a front orchestra seat. Those with home theater systems may well find it preferable to the stereo tracks. 

– Bob McQuiston, © 2012 Classical Lost and Found

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