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No. 37 - Classical, Jazz, and Show Music - March, 2003

Jason Serinus

 

Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio

 

In Full Swing

 

Featuring Wynton Marsalis and Jane Monheit

 

Sony Odyssey SK 87880

 

 

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5

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Sonics

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At 41, Mark O’Connor’s reputation as a first-class jazz/folk violinist and versatile composer is assured. "In Full Swing", released to coincide with O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio’s January through May U.S. tour – including a prestigious February performance with Marsalis and Monheit at Jazz at Lincoln Center – confirms that, in many ways, O’Connor is the rightful successor to his teacher and “biggest violin hero,” famed French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

It’s not that they have the same sound. A romp through a modest sampling of Grappelli’s hundreds of recordings, made over a span of more than 50 years, reveals an artist whose technique is as light on its feet as his mind is quick to improvise. The sound is more Old World than new: glistening, sometimes silvery thin, occasionally a bit edgy, but always viscerally and emotionally gripping – a sound reminiscent of that produced on the classic recordings of Bohemian and gypsy violinists. O’Connor, in turn, sounds more polished, more “modern.” At least as heard on this disc, his tone is smoother, fatter, and impeccably accomplished. That he plays an 1830s Vuillaume violin with Zyex strings, and that his fingers seem nearly as agile as Grappelli’s, certainly helps.

The members of the group have very different backgrounds. Paris-born Grappelli, the son of a philosophy teacher of Italian origin, originally made his living playing Mozart on the piano as accompaniment for silent films. O’Connor, in turn, whet his feet in the American folk tradition, and was as influenced by Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson as by the Parisian jazz master. Grappelli may have jammed with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, but O’Connor has premiered his Double Concerto with violinist Naja Salerno-Sonnenberg, made a number of Appalachian recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, and seen the recent premiere of his a cappella Folk Mass written in commemoration of 9/11.

In Full Swing is a ten-cut, 57-minute tribute to the Quintette du Hot Club formed by Grappelli and gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in Paris in the middle of the 1930s. O’Connor composed the foot-tapping title cut and the “Stephane and Django” tribute; all but two of the other selections are arranged by him. Many are expectedly upbeat, others, such as “Misty” and “As Time Goes By” are in a slow, lyrical vein.

O’Connor and his fellow trio members, guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr, are wonderful musicians. Just listen to how beautifully O’Connor plays beneath and around sensational vocalist Jane Monheit on J. Burke’s “Misty.” When Monheit sings “a thousand violins begin to play,” one cannot help but smile at the 1000 twists and turns that O’Connor brings to his fiddling.

Monheit’s vocals on four of the selections, including a solo on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” are alone worth the price of admission. Equally superb is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who solos on “Tiger Rag” and joins Monheit and crew for Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and Braham’s “As Time Goes By.” This disc is a delight from start to finish.

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Robert Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3

 

The Zehetmair Quartet

 

ECM New Series 289 472 169-2

 

 

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5

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Founded in 1997 by Salzburg-born violinist and conductor Thomas Zehetmair, the Zehetmair Quartet frequently receives rapturous reviews for their playing. Led by the 41-year old Zehetmair, whose discs of Beethoven and Szymanowski Violin Concertos have received international recognition, the Quartet has recently appeared on PBS-radio’s Performance Today and completed a 10-day whirlwind U.S. tour that included Washington DC, Dallas, New Haven, Chicago, New York City, and Vancouver. On April 28, Zehetmair will join pianist Mitsuko Uchida for a dual recital in New York City.

The Zehetmair Quartet’s interpretive gifts are amply displayed in their just-released ECM recording of Robert Schumann’s String Quartets No. 1 and 3. Schumann wrote all three of his string quartets in the summer of 1842, two years after he had celebrated his marriage to his young bride Clara by composing no less than 138 songs. Romantic to the core, the quartets, spill over with soaring melodies, surges of passion, and the characteristic swings between ecstasy, heartfelt tenderness, and pathos that reflect, not only the emotional landscape of romantic composers, but also Schumann’s particular state of manic-depression. It was in fact shortly after composing the Quartets that Schumann’s mental condition further deteriorated, to the point where, with the assistance of Clara and his friend Johannes Brahms, he eventually had himself committed to the sanitarium where he lived out the remainder of his life.

The Zehetmair’s interpretation of Schumann’s gorgeous First Quartet in A minor emphasizes its emotional jaggedness. Playing all but the first movement faster than a competing recording by the Eroica Quartet (Harmonia Mundi), and the entire work considerably faster than the St. Lawrence String Quartet (EMI), the Zehetmair’s tight sound contrasts with the lusher performances of the other ensembles. In the Zehetmair’s hands, Schumann’s music doesn’t simply soar and sigh; it jerks from one melodic idea to another, as though it romantic ripeness conceals an instability that cannot help but surface. While there is certainly something to be said for the warmer, riper sound of the other groups, the cumulative effect of the Zehetmair Quartet’s interpretation, especially their brisk concluding 5:33 fugal Presto (which they play almost a minute and a half faster than the St. Lawrence String Quartet), is to leave the listener on the edge of their seat.

Schumann’s Third Quartet, like the First, abounds with song-like melodies, their variations reminiscent of the manner in which Schubert developed some of his most memorable melodies, e.g. “The Trout” (“Die Forelle”) and “Death and the Maiden” (“Der Tod und das Mädchen”) into unforgettable chamber music masterpieces. In the Third, the Zehetmair’s bracing interpretation radically outpaces competing versions, with several movements performed almost a minute faster. Listening is aided by ECM’s customary atmospheric sonics, and a complement of authentic instruments crowned by Zehetmair’s Stradivarius.

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The Call of the Phoenix

The Orlando Consort

Harmonia Mundi 907297

 

 

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5

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They call themselves “the boyz.” If only all the boys on the block made sounds as beautiful as these.

The four men of the a cappella Orlando Consort assembled in 1988 at the impetus of the Early Music Centre of Great Britain. Initially formed to perform repertoire from the years 1050 to 1500, their recordings have so far brought them a prestigious Gramophone award, a slew of award nominations, and a tour schedule that includes the U.S. in November and January.

The reasons for the consort’s success become immediately apparent from the first cut of this generous 18-track disc. Performing rare 15th century English church music, the men offer a clarity of diction, rhythmic vitality, and sheer beauty of sound that makes the sacred character of their music thoroughly convincing. This is singing so polished and so filled with veneration that its hymns of praise, mainly to Mary, truly lift the spirit. Especially outstanding are the voices of countertenor Robert-Harre Jones and tenor Charles Daniels, both of whom are known from their work with The Tallis Scholars

The music on "The Call of the Phoenix" was written during the development of the contenance angloise, the period in English music between 1420 and 1500 prized for its fluid polyphony and systematic consonance. The writing is distinguished by a much smoother, more suave sound than that heard in the earlier writing of the Middle Ages. Thanks to the disc’s intelligent programming, the development of the contenance angloise can easily be traced in the changes of style between John Dunstaple’s “Salve scema” and Walter Lambe’s “Stella celi.”

In the next year, the Orlando Consort will follow the lead of the Hilliard Ensemble by collaborating with the jazz quartet 'Perfect Houseplants' and the contemporary Dutch ensemble, The Calefax Reed Quintet. If you cannot catch them live, Harmonia Mundi’s customary superb recording technique delivers a sonically convincing sampling of their vocal beauty.

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ADonizetti: Lucie de Lammermoor

 

Dessay, Alagna, Tézier

 

Orchestre & Choeur de l’Opéra National de Lyon, Evelino Pidò

 

Virgin Classics 7243 5 45528 2 3

 

 

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With few new complete opera recordings appearing these days, the release of a new version of Donizetti’s classic tale of love and madness is cause for excitement. That Virgin offers for the first time Donizetti’s 1839 French revision of his 1835 Italian Lucia (now Lucie) arouses even greater interest.

Donizetti made many changes to his score before the French premiere. Not only are the roles of the chaplain Raimondo shortened, and that of Lucia’s maid Alisa cut entirely, but music for other characters and scenes is also revised. Most striking are the omissions of Lucia’s Act I cavatina “Regnava nel silenzio,” her Act II scene with Raimondo, and several orchestral episodes; some of Lucia’s (Lucie’s) coloratura is also simplified. This may not sound like a big deal, but when opera queens expect necklaces of diamonds and instead receive strands of pearls, disappointment is the order of the day.

The cast, headed by French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay and EMI’s tenor hope of the decade, Roberto Alagna, promises more than it delivers. Dessay has cancelled many performances in the last twelve months, with ill health and vocal problems variously cited as the cause. Recorded in January 2002, she certainly sounds in good vocal estate. But compared to some of our most lauded Lucias of the last half-century, Dessay comes up wanting. It’s not that her voice isn’t beautiful and her top solidly in place; rather, her emotional commitment, as well as her phrasing, seem more generalized than inspired.

One has only to listen to recordings by any of Dessay’s “rivals” to discover what is missing from her interpretation. Beverly Sills’ Lucia (Rudel cond.), recently remastered on Westminster, remains the most imaginative of the lot. Wonderful throughout, Sills’ brilliant use of rubato, shading, iridescent tone, and coloratura display truly suggest a descent into madness. She may possess neither the glorious, shining E flat nor the ravishing trill of Joan Sutherland (Bonynge cond), but Sills’ response to Donizetti’s score is so alive that no one in their right mind will complain. Callas, heard in her famed 1955 live performance conducted by von Karajan, also astounds with a combination of vocal instability, feather-light runs, deeply felt pathos, and steely, solid high E flats.

Each of these women is supported by a conductor more imaginative than Evelino Pidò, who frequently makes Donizetti’s tunes sound more um-pah-pah than need be. (When a melody is admittedly pedestrian, note how Bonynge whips through it with excitement). Also disappointing is tenor co-star Roberto Alagna. Alagna certainly has the notes and commitment, but his throatiness and occasional gruffness show sorry evidence of singing too many heavy roles. Alongside Callas’ thrilling di Stefano, Sutherland’s gloriously-voiced Pavarotti (in her second recording), and Sills’ accomplished Bergonzi, Alagna delivers a performance more dutiful than memorable. Listening to Sills, Sutherland and Callas in ensemble, specifically in the famed Sextet, the vocal superiority of their co-stars and conductor, combined with the greater satisfaction afforded by Donizetti’s Italian version, instills renewed fondness for their classic recordings of Donizetti’s masterpiece.

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Renée Fleming & Bryn Terfel: Under the Stars

 

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Paul Gemignani

 

Decca 289 473 250-2

 

 

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Attention justifiably turns to this major label disc of Broadway solos and duets. Sung by two of the most sought after opera singers on today’s stages, soprano Renée Fleming and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, the compilation offers such a contradictory mixture of gorgeous vocalism and over-the-top histrionics as to give new meaning to the well-worn saying, “there is no accounting for taste.”

Terfel is marvelous. A bear of a Welshman who is famed for larger-than-life portrayals, the artist’s ability to aurally swell in size while simultaneously supplying more of the vocal beauty he emits in soft passages is extraordinary. He’s also a natural in show tunes, the occasional overemphasis his largess of character lends to words in a Schubert song more often than not appropriate for the popular idiom. Terfel’s natural, unforced diction is especially laudable.

Soprano Fleming certainly impresses vocally. Given that this disc comes on the heels of her Grammy-nominated Bel Canto recording of coloratura gems, graced as it is by multiple high E-flats and perfectly executed trills, she astounds by sounding equally rich and beautiful in her low register. What is at the least off-putting, however, and too often appalling is her sometimes syrupy, afternoon soap opera crooning, especially when wed to frequently self-conscious enunciation that has not entirely freed itself from the realm of operatic English.

If you have ever thought than Mandy Patankin was over the top, wait until you hear Renée. You may be won over by Bryn’s initial voicing of “Nothing’s gonna harm you” on Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, but you’re likely to feel the axe fall when Renée chimes in with “No-one’s gonna hurt you.” Especially frightening is her solo rending of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I. Is this the evil Witch of the West trying to fool us into thinking she’s the real thing? And when Renée begins the disc’s Stephen Sondheim medley from Passion with “I wish I could forget you,” you may find yourself nodding in agreement.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no absolute reason why you should avoid this 15-track compilation that travels from the peaks of Cole Porter to the swamps of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Fleming and Terfel are fine artists, with some of the most appealing, well-recorded voices you’re likely to encounter. Their total commitment, enhanced by orchestral arrangements perfectly suited to their interpretations, is quite impressive. It’s just that Hallmark’s most soupy offerings seem demure in comparison to some of these artists’ most egregious excesses.

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Turnage: Fractured Line Etc.

 

Evelyn Glennie, Peter Erskine, Christian Lindberg

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

 

Chandos CHAN 10018

 

 

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What a racket! The opening of Another Set To for trombone and orchestra, the first of four premiere recordings on this disc, wastes no time in voicing one of its main themes, a “waah, waah, waah” kind of splatter that seems a perverse cross between a howling infant and a maddening taunt proffered on a children’s playground. Trombonist Christian Lindberg may very well be, as declared by the international readership of The Brass Bulletin, one of the ten greatest brass players of the twentieth century, a man whose artistry has inspired composers of the status of Schnittke, Xenakis, Berio and Takemitsu to write concertos for him. (Over seventy concertos and a great many solo works have been composed for Lindberg). Nonetheless, that does not make this piece of music, nor any of the other three pieces on the disc, easier to listen to.

Many listeners will groove to the music of British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960). It’s large scale, hard-edged, reminiscent of much cacophonous jazz, and frequently dark. Certainly it attracts star soloists and conductors. Evelyn Glennie, heard hear joining percussionist Peter Erskine for Turnage’s Double Percussion Concerto “Fractured Lines,” is the first percussionist to successfully sustain a full-time solo career. Glennie’s twelve solo CDs, seventeen collaborative discs, two Grammys, and a Classic CD award have helped generate over 100 performances a year. She has in fact stated that if she had to take one instrument to a desert island, it would be the snare drum. It’s thus no surprise that someone with this view of paradise would find herself drawn to Turnage’s darkly sensational, anything but sedate music.

Erskine began his career at the age of eighteen with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and has since played with Weather Report, Ensemble Modern, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. He leads his own trio, tours extensively, and has recorded 400 albums, one of which won him a Grammy. As for the distinguished BBC Orchestra, it will devote this year’s annual composer weekend to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage, the Orchestra’s Associate Composer.

None of this, however, changes the fact that my partner’s pooch, the estimable Baci Brown, found himself more comfortable retreating to the kitchen when Turnage’s music began to fill my living room. Maybe he’s been fed too much Mozart, Schubert, and Donizetti of late.

This 56-minute CD contains a fine essay and revealing interview with Turnage that provide much insight. For example, the composer says of the annoying Another Set To that while it’s “quite argumentative… the thing I’m pleased about is that compared with a lot of my pieced it’s optimistic and extrovert.” Optimism comes in many forms.

Elsewhere you’ll learn that Four-Horned Fandango has been heavily revised since it was first performed by the horn section of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle in celebration of EMI’s 100th birthday. Silent Cities for orchestra, a revised version of variants surrounding a tune by John Scofield that were originally composed for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, begins with a section titled “Nagging and obsessive.” It may end “Smooth and serene,” but the nagging impressed me the most.

To summarize: impressively tailored music, definitively performed, challenging for some, satisfying for others, definitely worth exploring.

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Dvorák: Piano Quintets in A, Op. 5 & Op. 81

 

Ivan Klánsky - Prazák Quartet

 

Praga PRD 250 175

 

 

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5

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Thoughts of Czeck composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) inevitably summon forth expectations of felicitous melodies that flow forth like fresh, sparkling water from a deep and abundant source. Known for assimilating the “dumka,” “polka,” and other Slavonic folk dance idioms into romantic classical forms, Dvorak was so adept at reflecting the popular heartbeat of a region that he was able, during his brief stay in America, to compose his somewhat convincing, and unquestionably beautiful, “New World Symphony” and “American” String Quartet.

Dvorak wrote two piano quintets, both in the key of A. The first, his Op. 5, was composed in 1872, at a time when he was playing viola in the Prague Provisional Theatre Orchestra. It was only after 1876, when Brahms discovered him and the orchestra’s conductor Bedrich Smetana championed his works that Dvorak began to become known beyond Czechoslovakia and to develop a mature style of composition.

The original first movement of the early quintet reflected the influence of Wagner. Dvorak abandoned the work shortly after its premiere, eventually misplacing the original manuscript. It was only in 1887, after obtaining a copy from a music critic, that he created the revised version heard on this recording. In the process, the composer eliminated over 170 bars of music, including 150 Wagnerian-influenced bars in the first movement. Though he never published his revision, the project inspired Dvorak to compose another Piano Quintet in A, his Op. 81, in the same year. Considered a masterpiece of romantic composition, it is this piano quintet that is most frequently programmed in concerts.

Dvorak’s music comes naturally to the Czech forces heard on this recording. The Prazak Quartet was founded in the mid-1970s by four students at the Prague Conservatory. After winning important competitions in 1978 and 1979, the newly graduated musicians embarked upon a career as a professional quartet. Known for their mastery of the music of Czechoslovakian composers -- they have made multiple recordings of works by Dvorak, Smetana, Suk, Novak, Janacek, and Schulhoff -- they are equally respected for performances of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Zemlinsky) and their predecessors (Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert). The Quartet is currently completing a five-year recording project of Beethoven’s String Quartets.

Joined herein by Czech pianist Ivan Klansky, the musicians deliver exceptionally winning performances. From the opening notes of the Op. 81 Allegro, whose first theme is a classic song-like melody that, once heard, cannot be forgotten, the men seem to have Dvorak’s music in their blood. They understand the romantic give and take of his writing, alternately bubbling along sweetly and surging with the melodic flow in a consistently musical manner that maintains the classical line.

Flattered by a natural, warm acoustic, the Prazak’s rendition of Op. 81 certainly has the edge over a rapidly dispatched, edgy digital transfer of a 1975 performance featuring famed Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny and the Juilliard String Quartet (Sony Essential Classics), and a much slower, sometimes soppy 1990 Firkusny remake with the Ridge Quartet (RCA) that boasts a wide but one-dimensional soundstage. The warmth of the piano and cello are balanced by a sound that is simultaneously sweet and, in its romantic expression, a welcome throwback to an earlier era.

The Prazak Quartet has devoted November 2002 and February-March 2003 to touring the United States. With appearances including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, and a Chamber Music Festival in the Napa Valley, they ended their tour with two mid-March appearances in Costa Mesa and La Jolla in Southern California. The all-Czech program heard in many of these venues featured Smetana’s My Country, Martinu’s String Quartet No. 7, and Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters.”

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Schubert for Two: Gil Shaham/Göran Söllscher

 

DG 289 471 568-2

 

 

0

5

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Eyebrows may raise at the sight of Schubert's instrumental and vocal music arranged for violin/guitar duo. But if we have come to accept Bach's music arranged for every instrument known to humankind, why not give Schubert's a try on guitar, accordion, or whistle?

This is not a collection of the profound Schubert, music that reflects his early knowledge of impending demise from the syphilis he contracted while still a teenager. Rather, it mostly offers a taste of Schubert's sweeter fare, a slice of a composer light on his feet. That "Schubert for Two" has "pleasant classical FM programming" written all over it does not in itself diminish its musical value.

There is sound musical precedent for some of the arrangements on this 16 selection CD. The disc's longest piece (25:30), Schubert's famed three-movement "Arpeggione" Sonata D 821 (1824), was composed so that one Vincenz Schuster would have something to play on his arpeggione, a hybrid instrument invented in 1823 by Johann Georg Stauffer that is a cross between a guitar and a viola da gamba. With its six strings tuned an octave lower than the guitar's, the arpeggione was held between the knees and bowed like a cello. Though the Arpeggione Sonata is usually arranged for either viola/piano or cello/piano, hearing it played on violin and guitar curiously takes it one step closer to and another step away from the work's authentic roots.

Schubert's publisher Diabelli originally issued the 15 German dances D 365 in an arrangement for flute or violin and guitar. Whether Schubert made or sanctioned the arrangement, we do not know. But we are certain that Schubert played the guitar, published a number of his songs with guitar accompaniment, and composed a Quartet for flute, guitar, viola and cello (Koch).

Shaham sounds marvelous. The man, who brought the entire Davies Symphony Hall audience to its feet a year ago when he joined Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for a stupendous performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, here plays far more simply. His Stradivarius' sound remains "old world" in the richness of its lower notes and incomparable sweetness on high, but the playing, with minimal vibrato, is distinctly modern. Shaham is at his most touching in the Arpeggione's lovely central Adagio.

Although Shaham's violin, provided far more resonance than the guitar, dominates the proceedings, Söllscher's modern instrument is well captured, if not with the last ounce of veracity heard on a recent Grammy-nominated disc of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (Telarc). Neither violin nor guitar can approach the emotional range of voice and piano in the program's two songs, the famous "Standchen" (Serenade) and "Ave Maria."

All said, ideal for tea for two or dessert, if not as major fare.

(To see details on my procedure for reviewing music, click HERE.)

 

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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