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  Critics' Picks

This week’s great reviews from the leading specialized magazines, quality dailies and online review sites.
 (26 May – 8 June)

Vocal Recital: Dondalska, Katarzyna - KARLOWICZ, M. / MONIUSZKO, S. / CHOPIN, F. / VIARDOT-GARCIA, P. (Keep talking to me ?)
(Telos Music: TLS1009)

Vocal Recital: Dondalska, Katarzyna - KARLOWICZ, M. / MONIUSZKO, S. / CHOPIN, F. / VIARDOT-GARCIA, P. (Keep talking to me ?) In the Polish history of music Chopin is far from alone; he is only alone in having an international reputation – at least until we reach the 20th century. At that point Karol Szymanowski entered the world stage. After the Second World War a great number of important Polish composers came to the fore: Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Gorecki, maybe also Kilar.

On the present disc we are treated to three 19th century composers from roughly three consecutive generations. The youngest of them, Karlowicz, spills over to the next century. Adam Nowak’s excellent liner-notes give an historical overview of the century from a song-writing point of view. It seems a bit illogical that the music on the disc is presented in reverse order. Not that it matters very much. None of the three can be counted as really important song composers and Chopin’s songs were not intended for public performance. They were published posthumously by his family as Op. 74 but they were written over a long period of time. Moniuszko, who was only nine years younger than Chopin, was first and foremost the ‘father figure’ of Polish opera and his Halka is regarded as the country’s national opera. Karlowicz composed in many genres during his short life; of these genres his songs must be regarded as peripheral.

This is however no criticism of the disc and its content. All the songs here are extremely enjoyable, melodically attractive and charming. It would be a dull world indeed if we always had to listen to masterpieces and brood on underlying meanings. The Edwardian and Victorian song treasury has attracted generations of listeners in England. Erik Satie’s cabaret songs have embellished many a song recital with the audience leaving the hall humming. So these Polish songs should be attractive for simple listening pleasure.

Karlowicz is perhaps the least personal of the three but I enjoyed every one of his songs. Z nowa wiosna (tr. 12), a delicious little waltz, not unlike Satie, is something for my short-list of unknown gems with which to surprise musical friends.

Moniuszko also wrote several pieces in 3/4 time. His melodic inspiration flows even more richly than that of Karlowicz and one feels a strong individual behind them. Try track 17 Grozna dziewczyna, rhythmic and with some syncopation, or track 19 and 20, Kwiatek and Kotekor and even more attractive, track 24 Dalibógze; all so alive and personal.

Chopin’s songs are better known. Even so they could hardly be called standard works. Their popularity hardly registers against that of Schubert, Schumann or Brahms. The typical Chopin melodies we know from his piano works are just as attractive here and the elegance is undeniable.

The last five songs are very special. The legendary singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia, who was also a highly skilled composer, arranged a dozen of Chopin’s mazurkas for voice and piano with texts by Louis Pomey. She simply wanted some good melodies to show off her vocal brilliance. With this in mind she elaborated the vocal line quite extensively to dazzle audiences with her coloratura. Chopin reputedly admired her transcriptions – and rightly so. They are delicious!

Whether Katarzyna Dondalska will reach the fame of Pauline Viardot-Garcia is hard to predict but she is a rapidly rising star in the operatic world; she was a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World in 2001. Technically she is well equipped: the voice in itself is attractive – though rather monochrome. She phrases musically and has a fine sense of nuance. Her coloratura is accomplished and she sails effortlessly up in the blue in the concluding mazurkas. She obviously loves these songs and she is partnered by an excellent pianist, Holger Berndsen. The recording is lifelike but I would have preferred the piano to have been a mite further back. I get the feeling that the singer is standing behind the instrument instead of beside it. This slight qualm is perhaps more a question of personal taste.

The texts are printed in the booklet but there are no translations. For a non-Polish listener it is hard to get to grips with the content of the poems. The Viardot-Garcia transcriptions are, on the other hand, settings of French poems.

The disc gave me a lot of pleasure and I will be interested to hear Katarzyna Dondalska again, maybe in operatic repertoire.

Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International, April 2010

Mankell: Piano Music (Christensson)
(Phoenix Edition: Phoenix184)

Mankell: Piano Music (Christensson) The name Henning Mankell may strike a bell with some of our readers. As a Swedish author, Mankell is widely known for his Kurt Wallander novels, some of which have been filmed. This Mankell (1868-1930), the author’s grandfather, will be a discovery to many of our readers since precious little of his music has been available before.

Mankell worked for many years as a piano teacher and music critic. In 1917 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. As a largely self-taught composer, he is primarily a romantic, with influences on his style extending to the impressionists and beyond. All the music in this set is from his last years (1922-1930), and most of it is slow in tempo, moody, and rather sad. Sampled in small doses it can be expressive and enjoyable, unless you need some cheering up. Titles are as one would expect: ‘Waves’, ‘Summer’, ‘Evening Mood’, ‘Tempest Mood’, and ‘Slow Waves’. As nature portraits they are more serious than the usual salon pieces.

The Fantasy-Sonatas (1,3, and 6) are made of sterner stuff and last about a quarter hour each, as does the Ballad. They are rambling, structurally diffuse edifices that make occasional use of the whole-tone scale. I found myself losing patience sometimes and longing for some striking ideas beyond warmed-over Liszt or Scriabin (no Mystery Chord). My ears did perk up when the tempo accelerated a bit. Much of this music comes across as a wellintentioned and creative improvisation—the kind that conservatory students like to do between writing fugues and other exercises. I have no doubt that Mankell had all the right intentions and notates his desires with clarity of purpose. They just fail to communicate much to me after three listening sessions.

Anna Christensson sounds like she has immersed herself in this music, and it is hard to think of any other pianist bringing greater clarity to it. Notes and sound are both good.

Alan Becker, American Record Guide, November/December 2009

Ophélie – Lieder et Melodies
(ATMA Classique: ACD22628)

Ophélie – Lieder et  Melodies The province of Quebec has had of late its disproportionate share of great young vocalists. It could be argued that the commitment to culture and classical music is much stronger there and a greater number of competitions and musical festivals allow the young new stars to shine brighter. It is not just a funding issue, however. The artistic sensibility of both the artists and the audiences there is different. Frequently, European artists make Montreal or Lanaudière their first foray into North America. You can call it a certain je ne sais quoi, but it seems to be working. Case in point – Marianne Fiset. To say that the young soprano burst onto the scene is to understate it. Four awards in a young vocalist category and a Juno nomination for her first record “Melodiya”, a collection of Russian songs and operatic excerpts on the Analekta label, speak for themselves.

On her ATMA disc, “Ophélie”, Fiset lets her voice shine – literally. Juxtaposed against the brilliantly played horn of Louis-Philippe Marsolais, the young Quebecer’s beautiful instrument dialogues through a thoughtful selection of music by Berlioz, Donizetti, Strauss, Schubert and Lachner. The interpretations are engaged, full of understanding and delicacy and the rare combination of horn and voice delights the ear. Much as her Juno nomination is well deserved for “Melodiya”, “Ophélie” (recorded 6 months later) showcases a young artist whose craft is getting better with each outing. Bravo!

Robert Tomas, The WholeNote, May 5, 2010

The Beethoven Project Trio
(Cedille: CDR90000-118)

The Beethoven Project Trio Bach Week Festival: The 37th annual celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach's music concludes with works by its namesake composer, including Orchestral Suite No. 2, Concerto for Violin and Oboe, and "Magnificat." Richard Webster leads the soloists, orchestra and chorus. 7:30 p.m. Friday at Nichols Concert Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $35, $25 for seniors, $10 for children; 800-595-4849,

Beethoven Project Trio: The ensemble — George Lepauw, piano; Sang Mee Lee, violin; Wendy Warner, cello — concludes its cycle of the complete Beethoven piano trios. The program heralds the May release of the group's Cedille recording of a recently discovered early Beethoven trio, whose world premiere it gave last year. 7 p.m. Thursday and May 7 at Nichols Concert Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $20; 312-772-5821, beetho

Chicago Chamber Orchestra: The ensemble under longtime music director Dieter Kober performs Chicago composer Edward McKenna's Violin Concerto No. 3 ("Irish Hymns"), along with Mozart's two G-minor symphonies. 3 p.m. Sunday at Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. (repeated May 9 at Fourth Presbyterian Church); free; 312-357-1551,

Chicago Opera Theater — Cavalli's "Giasone" (Jason): COT's three-year survey of Baroque operas based on the Medea legend begins with this intriguing mixture of myth and farce. Justin Way's new production is dolled up with James Bond-style trappings, circa 1965. Early music specialist Christian Curnyn leads the Chicago period instrument ensemble Baroque Band. 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday (final performance) at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $30-$120; 312-704-8414,

Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The British early music specialist Trevor Pinnock, longtime former director of the English Concert, makes his CSO podium debut with a program of Mozart, Faure and Haydn's Cello Concerto in C. Russian cellist Pavel Gomziakov is the soloist; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; $18-$199. Ludovic Morlot returns to lead the CSO in Martinu's "Frescoes of Piero della Francesca," Debussy's "La Mer" and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist; 8 p.m. Thursday (repeated May 8); $22-$199. Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-294-3000,

Civic Orchestra of Chicago: Edwin Outwater conducts an all-Beethoven program, with soprano Rosalind Lee as soloist. 3 p.m. Sunday at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive; free; 312-294-3000,

Third Coast Percussion: For its season finale, the Chicago-based ensemble gives the local premiere of German composer Wolfgang Rihm's sextet "Tutuguri VI," with Cliff Colnot conducting. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at International House, University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th St.; $10; 248-909-4075, thirdcoast

Turetsky Choir Art Group: Russia's all-male vocal group, whose repertory includes everything from Mozart to Abba, presents a classical and popular program. 7 p.m. Sunday at Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive; $55-$95; 800-745-3000,

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, April 30, 2010

SUK, J.: Piano Quartet, Op. 1 / FAURE, G.: Piano Quartet No. 2 (Faure Quartet)
(Ars Musici: AM232346)

SUK, J.: Piano Quartet, Op. 1 / FAURE, G.: Piano Quartet No. 2 (Faure Quartet) Deutsche Grammophon has previously released two recordings by Germany's Fauré Quartet. Mozart's piano quartets from 2005 was inappropriately heavy, and the 2007 version of Brahms' first and third piano quartets was unaccountably muscular. But in this 2004 release of Josef Suk's first Piano Quartet and Fauré's Second Piano Quartet, the quartet turns in near-perfect performances. Violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sascha Frömberg, cellist Konstantin Heidrich, and pianist Dirk Mommertz are not only as tight, as together, and as vigorous as in their later DG recordings, but far closer to the spirit of the music. That makes sense in the case of the Fauré since the group did, after all, take its name from the French late Romantic composer, and the power, passion, and dedication of the performance is unswerving. The account of the rarely played Suk quartet is no less persuasive, making the achievement all the more impressive since the work is quite youthful -- it's the composer's Opus 1 -- and not nearly as original or as characteristic as his later works. The Fauré Quartet's performances make as compelling a case as has ever been made for the work and give the best proof possible of the group's excellence. Recorded in slightly too close but very immediate sound, this disc is well worth hearing by anyone who admires either composer, or who simply wants to hear superb chamber music performances.

Jim Leonard,, May 2010

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