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Highly Reviewed Recordings

December 28, 2011 - January 10, 2012

Chamber Music - LULLY, J.-B. / COUPERIN, F. / MARAIS, M. / REBEL, J.-F. / RAMEAU, J.-P. / LECLAIR, J.M. (A French Soiree) (Trio Settecento)
(Cedille: CDR90000-129)

Chamber Music - LULLY, J.-B. / COUPERIN, F. / MARAIS, M. / REBEL, J.-F. / RAMEAU, J.-P. / LECLAIR, J.M. (A French Soiree) (Trio Settecento)

Trio Settecento--Rachel Barton Pine, John Mark Rozendaal, and David Schrader--is back, and this time the focus is music of the French baroque (previous releases covered baroque Italy and Germany; next comes music of 17th-century England). The rap on French baroque music is that it's fussy, heavily accessorized with chichis and swirls and pouff-y ornaments, preciously formal and stylized for the formal and stylized court of Louis XIV. This perception, while certainly understandable, undoubtedly has resulted in the music's relegation to a sort of members-only underground fringe of the period-instrument/early music revival movement of the last 20 years. Outside of a few backrooms of the recital circuit, or a handful of rare, novelty opera-house reconstructions, the general public doesn't get to hear many live performances of this music--not so different from when it was originally performed--so when we do get a recording, it's gratifying that, as it is here, it's done with such respect for the clever compositional devices, pointedly emotional expressions, and the special nuances of the various dances and sonata movements. Ornaments? Yes, scads of them; but they aren't gratuitous frills. These three players know how to integrate them into the melodic and harmonic context as they should be, so they're an enhancement rather than a distraction.

Which brings us to this superb trio, experienced not only in the genre but as ensemble partners, who play on a very special set of instruments: Rozendaal leaves his cello aside in favor of his other instrument, a viola da gamba--a 1743 French bass viola da gamba to be exact; Schrader employs a copy of an 18th-century French harpsichord whose full-bodied resonance is very nicely balanced with the ensemble; and Barton Pine plays her "original, unaltered" 1770 Gagliano violin. The presence of these instruments is not insignificant: as Barton Pine explains in the very informative liner notes, "French baroque music is highly idiomatic to the instruments for which it was written." To this end the trio went so far as to set the pitch at A=392, as much for historical authenticity as for its decided effect on the instruments' resonance and resulting collective sound. The result is a celebration of the tonal qualities of these instruments as well as of the sophisticated and eminently repeatable musical selections and the virtuosic performances.

You could best find a summary of all that's great about this program in the final Leclair sonata, where Barton Pine demonstrates her stunning command of style, of virtuoso technique, and her obvious joy in playing this "glorious, ornate, and refined" music, which she refers to as "incredible repertoire". The ensemble shows its impressive cohesiveness in both style and substance in the two tricky Sarabandes by Couperin; Rozendaal is amazing in the Marais "La Guitare"; and if anyone wanted to offer a clinic on baroque ornamentation, Barton Pine's effort here would be the definitive demonstration. Yet I can't emphasize enough the solid, unwavering communicative skills shown by these musicians, which culminates in one of this year's more enjoyable--and replayable--recordings. The sound matches Cedille's usual high standard, captured in the fabulous acoustics of the Nichols Concert Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago. Highly recommended.

David Vernier,

DOHNANYI, E.: Sextet / PENDERECKI, K.: Sextet (Ensemble Kheops)
(Fuga Libera: FUG585)

DOHNANYI, E.: Sextet / PENDERECKI, K.: Sextet (Ensemble Kheops)


‘Although apparently difficult to play, the music isn’t as forbidding as you might expect.  Echoes of Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Shostakovich and (to my ears) Weill abound,  the opening march-like figure leading on to motor-driven virtuoso writing and some fierce rhythms (odd stopped notes on the horn are like wasp-sings bothering the texture).  This teeming invention spills over into the 20-minute second movement, where the mood eventually settles to something far quieter and darker, through the extraordinarily beautiful closing moments offer a semblance of light, rather like the end of Bartok’s last quartet does.   As for the Ensemble Kheops, no praise could be too high:  unbelievably, they sound as if they were born to play both works.  They’re not only technically superb but wholly convincing interpreters, and the crystal-clear recorded sound matches their playing in its excellence.” 

Rob Cowan, Gramophone

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano and Orchestra Works (Complete) (Shelley)
(Chandos: CHAN10695-98)

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano and Orchestra Works (Complete) (Shelley)

” this year I was even more taken by Beethoven’s piano concertos as recorded by Howard Shelley—a true musician’s musician, of whom I’ve long been a great admirer.”  -- David Threasher, Gramophone

“Unlike a certain Italian maestro’s Beethoven symphony cycle, this new set of concertos has appeared with relatively little fanfare.  Andy yet there are several reasons to shout about it.  One is that, besides the usual five concertos, there’s the Choral Fantasy, the Triple, the purported original finale for the B flat Concerto and Howard Shelley’s own reconstruction of the early E flat Piano Concerto, which is receiving its first recording.  And then there’s Shelley himself: a pianist whose quiet musicality and unobtrusive virtuosity shine through everything he touches.” 

Harriet Smith, Gramophone

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Capriccio espagnol / Overtures (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
(Naxos: 8.572788)

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Capriccio espagnol / Overtures (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) (Excerpt)

Largely thanks to Valery Gergiev’s programming and recording at the Mariinsky, Rimsky’s operas are seeing something of a resurrection in popularity and it is good to have three of the overtures appearing on a bargain priced CD. All are played with considerable aplomb and do a fine job of whetting one’s appetite for the full scores. There is little that Schwarz can do to enliven the rather more prosaic Overture on Russian themes, but he offers an attractive account of the composer’s orchestration of the radical student song Dubinushka. It may not supplant the old favourite Ansermet recording where thrilling thwacks on the bass drum from the Suisse Romande’s timpanist urge the radical young protesters along, but it certainly benefits from Naxos’s state of the art recording.

As Brian Reinhart pointed out, these Seattle Symphony recordings of Russian virtuoso showpieces are an excellent illustration of the amazingly high standards being achieved by other previously unheralded orchestras all over the globe. So what I want to know now about Schwarz and his musicians is what exactly are they on?

Rob Maynard,

DVORAK, A.: Love Songs / Echo of Songs / Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 (Kucerova, Eschenbach)
(Avie Records: AV2234)

DVORAK, A.: Love Songs / Echo of Songs / Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 (Kucerova, Eschenbach)


“A great programming idea, this- couching the predominantly lyrical A major Piano Quintet in the context of love songs, both as originally conceived and as transformed into various Cypresses for string quartet….  No complaints whatever about the playing of the Thymos Quartet, who prove animated narrators of these heartfelt confessions, nor in the mostly vivacious ‘second’ quintet.  But the real star of the show is pianist Christoph Esenbach, whose accompaniments in the songs truly amount to added commentaries and who is the ideal playing partner in the Quintet, softening his touch whenever his colleagues need to take the lead, then asserting himself according to the dictates of the musical moment.”

Rob Cowan, Gramophone

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