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  Highly Reviewed Recordings

   December 29 - January 11, 2011

CHOPIN, F.: Mazurkas (Mirian Conti)
(Steinway and Sons: Steinway30003)

PISTON, W.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 (Harlem Quartet)

Best known for her advocacy of Latin-American composers, Mirian Conti's first project for the newly launched Steinway & Sons label is given over to Chopin's complete Mazurkas. Fusing instinct and intellect, Conti clearly has thought these amazingly inventive and diverse pieces through insofar as tempos, tone color, voicings, and ornamentation are concerned. I'll cite one cogent example: Conti begins the C-sharp minor Op. 33 No. 1's unaccompanied modal melody in an unusually soft and offhanded manner. Once the left hand enters, the pianist increases intensity not so much in volume as by way of subtle legato phrasing, where notes seem to overlap by a split second, as if attempting to make the piano notes slide into each other in the manner of a singer. There's plenty of zest and abandon in the giddy D-flat major second theme, yet it is tempered by Conti's discrete pedaling and careful observance of Chopin's often ignored rests. However, she catches you off guard with a few strategically placed bass-note sforzandos. Thousands of similarly fetching details abound throughout this release.

Notice Conti's hushed approach to Op. 7 No. 1's strange third theme, and how she peppers her conversational shaping of Op. 24 No. 2's main theme with a slight yet stinging accent. Op. 59 No. 3's lusty momentum and pronounced dynamic contrasts recall Martha Argerich's similarly epic reading, while Op. 63 No. 3's canonic voices manage to sound distinct from each other without any underlining on the pianist's part. Conti's aforementioned legato technique particularly stands out in two A minor Mazurkas--the Op. 17 No. 4 and the "Notre Temps" without opus number.

Conti provides program notes that delightfully interweave personal anecdotes and well-researched musical discussion. The engineering accurately reflects the generous, full-bodied sonority that Conti produces in concert, although the congested loud climaxes and slightly dry ambience typify what I suspect to be a large piano recorded in a small room.

Jed Distler,, November 15, 2010

PISTON, W.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 (Harlem Quartet)
(Naxos: 8.559630)

PISTON, W.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 (Harlem Quartet)

The first thing you notice in listening to this recording is the beautiful individual and ensemble sound of the Harlem Quartet. Walter Piston's music recalls that of Roussel and, above all, Martinu, especially in his penchant for driving, syncopated allegros and brooding, chromatic slow movements. Many performers have a tendency, as with Martinu (and Hindemith, and other "neoclassical" composers), to hack and slash their way through the quick movements with choppy articulation and a general disregard for that warm, singing timbre that remains the acme of fine quartet playing. The problem to some degree afflicts the only serious competition in this music, the Portland Quartet cycle on Northeastern. So it's wonderful to report that the Harlem Quartet inflects rhythm and phrases with a naturalness and ease that lets the music blossom and breathe. Without ever softening its sharp edges, the group's basic sound is a consistent pleasure all by itself--just lovely string timbre with no grunting, groaning, and gasping to get in the way.

Now for the music. Piston has a reputation for being an "academic" composer on account of his preference for non-programmatic forms and his success as a textbook writer. This is unfair. He was, to be sure, an "absolute" musician, fastidious in his craftsmanship and somewhat severe in style, but his music is nonetheless personal and striking in its directness and purity. This is particularly the case with his quartets. The works on this disc have three movements each, and none lasts longer than a pithy 17 minutes. Within these compact pieces lies a world of expression, with the slow movements of the First and Fifth quartets being particularly intense.

Harmonically this music can be elusive: Piston sometimes employs twelve-tone themes, as in the Fifth quartet, but almost always within a broader tonal framework. The dissonance never piles up to the point of incoherence. This is what some critics object to: Piston's music is always controlled, never "over the top"; it's just good, clean music. But there must be a place for this in the libraries of serious collectors, and if you're one of those, then these beautifully played and engineered performances are for you. I look forward to hearing more from the Harlem Quartet, and not just in Piston.

David Hurwitz,, November 10, 2010

STENHAMMAR, W.: Serenade / Florez och Blanzeflor / Ithaka / Prelude and Bourree (Fredriksson, Gavle Symphony, Koivula)
(Naxos: 8.572186)

STENHAMMAR, W.: Serenade / Florez och Blanzeflor / Ithaka / Prelude and Bourree (Fredriksson, Gavle Symphony, Koivula)

The performances here are all very good, but it's the total program that makes this disc so interesting. Florez och Blanzeflor and Ithaka, both to texts by Oscar Levertin, are ballads for baritone and orchestra lasting about 10 minutes each. They belong to the same tradition as Sibelius' Luonnotar, and the music, though hardly as distinctive as that of the Finnish master, really is very fine. Ithaka, in particular, with its evocation of a turbulent sea, is particularly atmospheric. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson has a somewhat grainy baritone that sounds very good in loud passages but turns somewhat tremulous in softer sections. This bodes best for Ithaka, with its more heroic cast.

The interlude from Stenhammar's cantata The Song is fairly well known, and its gentle lyricism works well in this context. The Prélude and Bourrée is a world premiere, as the work (which dates from 1891) was only recently discovered. The main theme of both of its movements reveals a certain family resemblance to a tune in Grieg's Holberg Suite--I leave it to you to discover exactly which section. Not a major piece by any means, but it's unfailingly charming, and at nearly 15 minutes it's by no means a mere "chip" off of the master's workbench.

All of which brings us to the main item, the Serenade, arguably Stenhammar's orchestral masterpiece (alongside the Second Symphony). The performance here is very good, unerringly paced by Hannu Koivula--but the truth is that the Gävle Symphony just isn't up to the level of, say, the Gothenburg Symphony for Järvi on DG or (preferably) BIS. It's not so much a question of technical prowess as it is sheer weight of sonority, of the strings particularly, but also the trumpets, which sound a bit timid. For example, the huge climax at figure 48 in the scherzo contains one of the work's very few triple-forte moments, but the orchestra simply hasn't got the necessary dynamic range. This is only evident on direct comparison to other versions of the work, and the sonics as such are just fine. So if this issue isn't likely to bother you, I can recommend this disc, particularly for the imaginative program.

David Hurwitz,, November 15, 2010

KORNGOLD, E.W.: Symphony in F sharp major / Much Ado about Nothing Suite (Strasbourg Philharmonic, M. Albrecht)
(PentaTone: PTC5186373)

KORNGOLD, E.W.: Symphony in F sharp major / Much Ado about Nothing Suite (Strasbourg Philharmonic, M. Albrecht)

This is, hands down, the best-engineered performance of Korngold's masterful symphony yet released, and that means a lot. Looking at the score, what strikes the eye immediately is not how lavishly Korngold deploys his resources, but rather how efficiently and economically. The secret of that special orchestral (and now thought of as "Hollywood") sheen results from remarkable chord spacing between strings and winds, and above all from rhythmic displacement--from having the parts slightly out of synchronization with each other. The result creates fluidity without density, and by placing, say, a harp glissando where you least expect it, Korngold gives the impression of richness when in fact the size of the ensemble is not at all extravagant. All of this is particularly easy to hear in this wonderfully clear and present recording.

Happily, the performances also stand among the finest available, and that means Kempe/Munich (Varèse Sarabande) and Welser-Möst/Philadelphia (EMI). Marc Albrecht has the strings playing with virtuoso abandon, in the first two movements especially, both of which present some truly difficult challenges in terms of ensemble coordination. More importantly, Albrecht has a real feel for the structure of the music. The first movement and finale seldom have sounded so cogently paced, as well as expressively powerful.

The truth is, if you compare all of the work's extant recordings, the timings among them are not significantly different. What matters is the internal relationship between formal sections, and it is here that Albrecht really excels. This, plus the clarity of his bass lines and incisive feeling for rhythm, gives the music an urgency and vitality that are the very opposite of the tired, late-Romantic decadence that Korngold stereotypically represents. The result is tremendously beautiful, moving (try that perfectly flowing Adagio!), and satisfying. The suite from Much Ado About Nothing makes an ideally apt and absolutely delightful encore, but it's the performance of the symphony that makes this disc special. Listen, and dare yourself to admit that it's not one of the truly great 20th-century works in the medium.  [11/15/10]

David Hurwitz,, November 15, 2010

PIAZZOLLA, A.: Sinfonia Buenos Aires / Aconcagua / 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires (Binelli, Tianwa Yang, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)
(Naxos: 8.572271)

PIAZZOLLA, A.: Sinfonia Buenos Aires / Aconcagua / 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires (Binelli, Tianwa Yang, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

The works on this disc span much of Astor Piazzolla's compositional career, from the Sinfonia Buenos Aires of 1951 to the Concerto of 1979. The latter has a title, "Aconcagua", the highest peak in the Andes, but it was not given by the composer. All of this music is stunning, and it's marvelously performed here. The best-known work, naturally, is an arrangement: Las Cuatro Estaciones, here in the version for string orchestra by Leonid Desyatnikov.

I have to confess that I prefer a more varied scoring in this music, but it would be very hard to beat this performance for clarity and beauty of texture. Tianwa Yang handles the solo violin part with aplomb, digging into the "dirty" sounds--the glissandos and other effects--with relish, but without ever coarsening her tone as so many others routinely do. There's elegance here as well, and she finds it. The result is that the "Spring" fugato, for example, has amazing rhythmic definition but also a very welcome lightness and freshness.

The Bandoneón Concerto offers a perfect marriage of Piazzolla's tango-saturated melos with large-scale form. It's worth recalling that the composer spent several years studying with Alberto Ginastera, as well as Nadia Boulanger, and all of his music in whatever form betrays a very high level of compositional craft. Daniel Binelli plays the solo part extremely well, and he's perfectly balanced against the larger ensemble. He also participates (to a lesser degree) in the Sinfonía Buenos Aires, in which the influence of Ginastera is very evident (and entirely welcome).

This early work is thrilling: a blend of Latin rhythm, soulful melody, explosive percussion, and now and then a touch of Stravinsky. The finale will blow you away, and there are some haunting timbres in the slow movement featuring the combination of bandoneón and woodwinds. The Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero plays all of this music with the necessary guts and also a welcome degree of polish. The players sound completely at home in the idiom, and Guerrero delivers bold, uninhibited interpretations across the board. This is just a great disc of colorful, distinctive orchestral music, and it belongs in every collection.

David Hurwitz,, November 11, 2010

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