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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   December 15 - December 28, 2010

CASELLA, A.: Notte di maggio / Cello Concerto / Scarlattiana (Andreini, Noferini, Sun-Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
(Naxos / Italian Classics: 8.572416)

CASELLA, A.: Notte di maggio / Cello Concerto / Scarlattiana (Andreini, Noferini, Sun-Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)

Notte di maggio is a gorgeous, impressionistic tone poem for voice and orchestra dating from 1913, making it one of Alfredo Casella's early works. Full of yummy, non-functional harmony, it exudes atmosphere. Olivia Andreini has an attractive timbre that wobbles on most sustained notes, making the work less appealing than it ought to be, but she never turns downright irritating. The work itself, in any case, is consistently fascinating, and the rest of the program is splendid too.

The Cello Concerto is one of Casella's late pieces, vaguely neo-classical in outline but wholly original melodically and harmonically. Its slow movement is curiously compelling, while the finale, which the composer described as sort of a cello version of "The Flight of the Bumblebee", lives up to its billing in this virtuoso performance by cellist Andrea Noferini.

Scarlattiana, for piano and orchestra, remains one of Casella's most popular works, for obvious reasons. The music is scintillating and full of fun, the piano writing brilliant but never facile. With five movements lasting about half an hour, the piece really is a major piano concerto, and while it has been lucky on disc, it ought to be played live more often. Sun Hee You handles the solo part with complete confidence, and as with the other discs in this series, the Rome Symphony Orchestra under Francesco La Vecchia plays the music with the kind of uninhibited enthusiasm that it needs. A beautiful disc, and one that collectors should snap up without delay.

David Hurwitz,

SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 12 (Struhal)
(Naxos: 8.570745)

SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 12 (Struhal) Viennese pianist Gerda Struhal, virtually unknown in the United States, might change your attitude about Domenico Scarlatti. Especially on the piano, as opposed to harpsichord, most players have emphasized their brilliance and local Spanish color. It's easy to write off the music as fun, but not very nourishing.

Struhal finds both lyricism and substance in the 19 sonatas on this disc. The composer's standard quirks make each piece instantly recognizable as his. Yet you find yourself making comparisons to Mozart or Schubert – representatives of a much later generation. Listen to the beautiful G major Sonata, K. 547, and notice how rich it seems. Or take note of the clanging dissonances in the G minor, K. 93 – pungent and almost dangerous-sounding. These are the only available piano performances of some of these works, but even the familiar ones sound new.

Lawson Taitte,, October 5, 2010

BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043 and 1056 (Oliveira, Gruesser, Arco Ensemble)
(Artek: AR-0054-2)

BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043 and 1056 (Oliveira, Gruesser, Arco Ensemble) Bach, Violin Concertos performed by Elma Oliveira and the Arco Ensemble (Artek). Oliveira has made a lot of appearances in Buffalo, and I am used to hearing him in person. In concert, he is gripping and a little frightening, with his shaved head, glower and intensity. On disc, even in a live recording, I was surprised to find he sounds gentler. Oliveira conducts and performs three Bach concertos here, and the sublime Concerto for Two Violins inDMinor. I have heard other performers dig into the music with more gusto. But then Oliveira has an intensity of his own, sailing through a melody with a rapt honesty. What ravishing music the Largo from that concerto is. Once I remember Buffalo’s Configuration Dance danced to it. The dance was beautiful, but I kept having to close my eyes, because the music can’t help but win out. Again Oliveira conquers with a light touch. Light, but intense. Eva Gruesser plays the other violin. Four stars.

Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News, October 31, 2010

PAJAK, A.: Sounds of HIV (Sequence Ensemble)
(Azica Records: Azica71260)

PAJAK, A.: Sounds of HIV (Sequence Ensemble) University of Georgia graduate student Alexandra Pajak's new instrumental CD draws inspiration from an unlikely source -- HIV.

"Sounds of HIV," released by Azica Records on Oct. 26, is a 17-track, 52-minute long musical adaptation of the fatal virus' genetic code. Pajak assigned pitches to the four basic nucleotides in DNA -- A for Adenine, C for Cytosine, G for Guanine and D for Thymine -- but the score contains much more than these for notes. Pajak explained the process to AOL News:

I stayed very loyal to the DNA. Every segment of the virus was assigned music pitches that correspond to the segment's scientific properties. The sounds literally reflect the nature of the virus... There was a lot of logic involved in this. I also broke down 20 amino acids and proteins and assigned pitches to those. I used the A-minor scale for the amino acids based on their level of attraction to water. So, when you hear this CD, you're literally hearing the entire genome of the HIV virus.

According to Scientific American, Pajak -- who has embarked on similar projects in the past -- became interested in HIV when the genome was sequenced in 2009. The ambitious composer says that starting with a scientific blueprint provides a helpful structure, but that working with -- in this case -- 9,181 nucleotides is not easy.

After months of composing, Pajak recruited the band "Sequence Ensemble" to record her album.

Part of "Sounds of HIV"s proceeds will go towards AIDS research at the Emory Vaccine Center, and AOL reports that AIDS Institute representative Carl Schmid is excited about the project - "Anything to raise awareness and educate the public about AIDS is a good thing. By connecting AIDS to music, the album could even help reduce the stigma associated with the disease."

Author not credited,, November 8, 2010

HOWELLS, H.: St. John's Magnificat / Choral Music (St. John's College Choir, Cambridge, Nethsingha)
(Chandos: CHAN10587)

HOWELLS, H.: St. John's Magnificat / Choral Music (St. John's College Choir, Cambridge, Nethsingha)

Herbert Howells' music provides little comfort for listeners looking for a pretty melody, polite harmony, or airy texture. And the fact that most of it is choral and created for practical use in church, be it anthems, requiem, or service music, doesn't mean that it is either easy to sing or allows congregants to rest comfortably in their Sunday seats. But there is a sustained power and nerve-touching beauty that runs through nearly all of his work--the opening A Sequence for St. Michael is a perfect example of Howells' style--and its impact is always impressive and often profound. And even after the thorniest or most argumentative harmonic passage, he has a way of miraculously winding things up with a surprising yet absolutely satisfying cadence.

This fine recording includes some rarely heard pieces and a couple of what are claimed to be world-premieres--the chant based on Psalm 142 and the curiously-named A Grace for 10 Downing Street--neither of which is a "premier" representative of Howells' work but nevertheless will appeal to completists. The highlights are undoubtedly the aforementioned Sequence, described in the notes as an "extended motet", and the equally substantial (10 minutes) By the Waters of Babylon, for baritone solo, violin, cello, and organ, set to the familiar text from Psalm 137. (See if several sections of the latter piece don't remind you explicitly of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.)

Two of Howells' most popular works are here as well--the Christmas anthem A Spotless Rose and the sensuous Like as the Hart--and it's hard to imagine hearing either of these too many times. Unfortunately, conductor Andrew Nethsingha adopts a too-heavy pulse and so plods through what should be the flowing lines of the former, but Like as the Hart is superbly, sensitively sung. In fact the singing is all we expect from this illustrious choir, its full-bodied overall tone (complemented by its "round" boy-treble sound) and excellently balanced ensemble a pleasure to hear, from the most powerful exultation to the finely sculpted final cadences. (I wonder why the organist is not credited on the works with organ accompaniment.) Soloists are all very good, and the recorded sound properly dynamic and detailed. Recommended.

David Vernier,, October 11, 2010

RESPIGHI, O.: Concerto in modo misolidio / Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (Mustonen, Finnish Radio Symphony, Oramo)
(Ondine: ODE1165-2)

RESPIGHI, O.: Concerto in modo misolidio / Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (Mustonen, Finnish Radio Symphony, Oramo) Respighi was proud of his Concerto in modo misolidio, and rightly so. It's a beautiful work, full of attractive melodies and effective writing for the soloist, and it deserves more exposure on the concert stage than it gets. This is hands down the best performance it has received thus far on disc. It's so typical that Mustonen (rather like Leopold Stokowski), who can be so perverse in his performances of the standard repertoire, offers such a faithful rendering of the piano part when confronted with a novelty item. This isn't to suggest that his performance lacks imagination or spirit: just the opposite. However, Respighi gives the soloist so much to do (much of the part is written on three staves) that there's certainly less room to fool around gratuitously, and so Mustonen doesn't.

The main competition in this work comes from Tozer/Downes on Chandos, a good performance that nonetheless sounds more than a touch stodgy next to this one. It takes some five minutes longer, almost all of it the central slow movement and concluding passacaglia. Mustonen and Sakari Oramo's extra energy in these movements pays huge dividends, effectively belying any view of the work as pretty but formally ungainly and lacking excitement. This is certainly the version to choose to get to know the concerto, particularly if you're coming to it for the very first time.

Only the coupling prevents this disc from getting the very highest rating. Actually, this is an excellent performance of Fountains of Rome, very well played, and glitteringly captured by the engineers. But there are many such, and it's a skimpy disc-mate, bringing total playing time only to 53 minutes. It would have been so much nicer to have some more neglected Respighi--my vote would have gone to a new version of Metamorphoseon, which shares a similar aesthetic to that of the piano concerto, or perhaps even the similarly modal Concerto gregoriano for violin. Still, as the finest version available of the main item, this disc will be self-recommending to Respighi fans (and piano buffs too).

David Hurwitz,, October 18, 2010

ORFF, C.: Antigonae [Opera] (Sawallisch)
(Profil: PH09066)

ORFF, C.: Antigonae [Opera] (Sawallisch) In its radical austerity, Carl Orff's Antigonae is a work quite unlike any that came before it. Orff (1895–1982) wrote the opera twelve years (and a World War) after his 1937 "scenic cantata" Carmina Burana; even though it is punctuated with relentless ostinatos that echo the propulsive rhythms of the composer's most famous piece, Antigonae, which had its premiere at the 1949 Salzburg Festival, offers nothing like the same Technicolor splendor. Even Oedipus Rex, clearly a forebear, comes nowhere near its asceticism; by comparison toAntigonae,Stravinsky's monumental essay in neoclassicism is as lush asRosenkavalier.

Antigonae's orchestration is spare, even minimal — brass, wind and percussion, with double basses as the only string instruments and a piano used primarily for percussive effect. But the musical strategy of the work is even more uncompromising than its orchestral texture. An exact, line-by-line setting of Friedrich Hölderlin's 1804 translation of Sophocles's tragedy, it makes little use of motivic development. Much of the text is declaimed on a repeated tone, with occasional octave leaps for emphasis. Stepwise motion is used for expressive effect, to mimic the patterns of human speech, not as part of a musical argument. A brief choral paean to the god of love at midpoint is Orff's only bow to lyricism. Elsewhere, musical invention — or even interest — is not part of his scheme.

In fact, Antigonae is probably best considered not as a conventional opera but as a bold presentation of the Sopho cles–Hölderlin text, with the composer acting less as an auteur than as a metteur en scène — the insightful director imposing his distinctive reading. By dictating the rhythm and pitch of the players' speech, he exerts more control over the performances than even the most commanding stage director could summon. The stylization imposed by singing suits the ritualistic nature of the material and lets Sophocles's tragedy emerge with stark, elemental power.

In the present recording, taken from a 1958 radio broadcast, conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch finds tempos that suit the hieratic nature of the piece, letting his performers declaim expressively within a rock-steady rhythmic framework. Martha Mödl sings the title role; her complex, mature tone, with its hint of sourness, hardly suggests the "bridal child" described in the text, but she sings with tremendous authority, making palpable Antigonae's will and sense of moral purpose.

Her antagonist, Kreon, is arguably the work's central figure: it is his hubris that brings on the tragedy, and it is he who, like Oedipus, suffers at the denouement from the unseen consequences of his deeds. Baritone Carlos Alexander, through the commanding lucidity of his declamation, effectively renders the high drama of the king's tragic fall. Paul Kuen, singing the wheedling Watchman, displays the gift for characterization that made him a leading Bayreuth Mime. Fritz Uhl was famously an underpowered Tristan on Solti's recording of the Wagner opera, but here he scores in the more lyrical role of Kreon's son Hämon. William Dooley, later a Met stalwart, wields his mellifluous baritone as the leader of the chorus.

The recording suffers from boxy radio-studio sound, subpar even for its vintage and painfully congested at climaxes. Profil has included no libretto — a terrible drawback in a work this unfamiliar. (I followed along with an English translation of the Hölderlin text.) But the quality of the performance itself makes this set recommendable as a worthy introduction to Orff's fascinating work.

Fred Cohn, Opera News, November 2010

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