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No. 38 - Classical and Popular Music - April, 2003

Jason Serinus

 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Music Reviews No. 36.
 
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JS Bach: Keyboard Partitas 1, 3 & 6

Piotr Anderszewski, piano

Virgin Classics 7 24354 55262 5

 

 

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Listening to the first notes of Piotr Anderszewski’s new recording of Bach’s lovely Partita No.1, one senses a special artist at work. There’s a softness to his touch, a gentleness bordering on reticence, which makes the beauty of the opening Praeludium linger in the mind even as the music moves forward to the jaunty pace of the subsequent Allemande.

Keyboard artist Piotr Anderszewski launched his international career at the age of 22 when he performed Beethoven’s immensely challenging Diabelli Variations in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1991. A slew of lauded international appearances and recordings followed, culminating in Anderszewski’s receipt of the 2002 Gilmore Artist Award. The Gilmore Artist Award (billed as “most generous” financial award granted in the musical arts) is only presented to exceptional pianists who possess broad and profound musicianship and charisma, desire and can sustain a major international concert career, and are considered capable of making “a real impact on music.”

In acknowledgment for his many performances throughout the UK, Piotr Anderszewski has been honored with the 1991 Royal Philharmonic Society’s "Best Instrumentalist" Award. (Previous winners of this prize include such extraordinary artists as Murray Perahia, Itzhak Perlman, and Andras Schiff). Anderszewski has also been awarded the prestigious Szymanowski Prize for his interpretation of that composer’s music, and has received support from the Miami-based Patrons for Exceptional Artists Foundation.

A listen to Anderszewski’s three most recent recordings suggests the depth of musicianship that select U.S. audiences heard during his March tour. His first Virgin recording, a 2001 traversal of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for solo piano, earned France’s Diapason d’Or and Le Choc Monde de la Musique awards, and immediately became Gramophone magazine’s recommended recording of this much-recorded opus. Anderszewski’s personal relationship with the work, which the Connecticut audience will experience first hand on the 25th, has also been captured on film by noted cinematographer Bruno Monsaingeon.

Anderszewski’s second Virgin disc, which spotlights him playing and conducting Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 24, was second runner-up for the 2002 Gramophone Instrumental Award. His latest recording, featuring three of Bach’s six Partitas for solo keyboard, includes the one he will play on his US tour, Bach’s Partita No.1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825.

Because Bach wrote his Partitas for the harpsichord and/or clavichord, many artists play them on the modern piano with the limited dynamic range and pin-point sound of its more modest predecessors in mind. The silvery-toned harpsichord, for example, has no ability to alter dynamics, while the slight-voiced clavichord’s dynamic and tonal expanse cannot approach the grander reaches of the modern piano.

There is certainly no hint of the harpsichord in Anderszewski’s Paritas; he unashamedly embraces the concert grand’s vast range of tone and dynamics. In contrast to Glenn Gould, a pianist as famed for his unbelievably fast, perfectly precise finger work and eccentric (if not downright wayward) interpretations as for his irrepressible vocal self-accompaniment, Anderszewski chooses slower tempos. Of the three Partitas on Anderszewski’s disc, Nos.1, 3, and 6, only the opening Toccata movement of No. 6 is played faster than Gould’s version. In No.1, the lightest and most immediately attractive of the Partitas, Anderszewski’s considerably slower playing comes across as soft and heartfelt where Gould astounds with percussive accuracy.

Bach’s Partita No.1 of 1726, one of his earliest keyboard “exercises,” is filled with joy and light. As is the case with all his Partitas, each movement save the opening Praeludium is based on a dance form. In Anderszewski’s hands, the Praeludium is voiced with extraordinary warmth, Even as the pace increases in the Allemande, the sweetness of the opening remains. The succeeding Courante is quite inward, its pace seemingly determined more by the artist’s emotional response than Bach’s specific sequence of notes.

The Sarabande, executed at the exceedingly slow pace of 6:14 (Gould’s is 3:08, while a recent recording by the excellent Vladimir Feltsman is 3:53), transcends the mere mechanics of pianism to impress as a hallowed act. Then come the two short Minuets, played with a sense of inevitability that culminates in such sweetness that you would think that faeries are dancing on the keyboard. All this leads to the final Gigue, whose beginning is voiced with a touch equally vigorous and precise. Yet even as Anderszewski reaches the final bars of Bach’s 18-minute masterpiece, he again softens, leaving us with the sensitivity with which he began. It’s a marvelous act, sure to delight, and hints of the revelations awaiting those fortunate enough to have heard him in person.

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Ninna Nanna ca. 1500 - 2002

Montserrat Figueras

Alia Vox AV 9826

 

 

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Historically informed interpretations of medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music characterized by an elevated, almost ethereal sense of refinement have become the hallmarks of ensemble Hesperion XXI's numerous recordings. Formed in 1974 by conductor and bass viol virtuoso Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI (originally called Hesperion XX) is as equally prized for its impeccably played instrumentals as for its frequent collaborations with Savall’s wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras.

The purity of Figueras’ instrument can be heard on Ninna Nanna (Alia Vox AV9826), a new 18-track disc showcasing her singing six centuries worth of lullabies in at least ten languages. The disc is accompanied by a thick brochure that offers translations in eight languages. (Alia Vox, Savall’s own label, must spend a fortune to ship these discs).

To these ears, Figueras’ voice seems most suited to plaintive expression. Produced with minimal vibrato, the mournful quality of her haunting instrument excels in conveying the asceticism and sadness frequently expressed in early music.

In selection after selection, from the anonymous Sephardic cradle song “Nani, nani” composed ca. 1500 to two contemporary lullabies composed by the Estonian émigré Arvo Pärt in 2002, Figueras’ clarity of enunciation, even vocal production, and sheer beauty of sound frequently prove seductive. Selections such as the opening “José Embala o Menino” (Joseph Rocks the Infant), an anonymous Portuguese lullaby that includes the line “how often [Mary] is heard to sing when in her heart she weeps,” seem ideal for her instrument. So too are the anonymous Berbère “Berceuse Amazigh” (“The moon is very sad…Happiness is with others”), William Byrd’s “Come, pretty babe” (“thy father’s shame, thy mother’s grief”), and Johann Rriedrich Reichardt’s “Dors mon Enfant” (“Your hapless mother has sorrow enough”).

However, ask Figureras to perform German composer Max Reger’s 1912 “Mariä Wiegenlied,” a romantic lullaby that depicts the Virgin Mary singing to her infant Jesus, and the soprano comes up wanting. Lacking the incomparable charm and silvery, angelic tone that soprano Elisabeth Schumann brought to her magical recording of the work almost 60 years ago, Figueras’ attempts to smile fail to convince. The lyrics of Reger’s little gem may speak of the sweet scent of roses and sounds of laughter and birds, but one cannot help feel that Figueras’ mournful Virgin Mary is haunted by advance knowledge of her infant’s future crucifixion.

In a spring US tour that takes Hesperion XXI, Savall and Figueras from Cambridge and New York to La Jolla and Berkeley by way of Kansas City, the artists will explore the improvisatory instrumental dance music of 15th and 16th century composers Ortiz, Sanz, and de Ribayaz. Some of their program can be previewed on La Folia 1490 - 1701 (Alia Vox 9805), a marvelous recording that showcases how Savall’s highly sophisticated sense of color and space elevates even the simplest compositions to the level of high art. Figueras’ vocal selections from José Marin’s 17th century Tonos Humanos (Alia Vox 9802) will balance out the program. Both discs, as well as two other Hesperion XXI classics, are slated for April 8 re-release in superior sounding SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) format. Music lovers who do not act fast enough to secure tickets to Hesperion XXI’s frequently sold out programs will find solace in sampling either these discs or some of the other 100 or so recordings that feature Savall and assorted ensembles.

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Evelyn Lane and Conchita Supervia in Evensong

Bel Canto Society VHS BCS-0526 (available from http://www.allegro-music.com)

 

 

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Why does this VHS of an obscure, 83 minute, 1934 B&W movie deserve your attention? For one major reason: it affords us our only opportunity to see rare footage of the astounding Spanish mezzo-coloratura Conchita Supervia.

Born in Barcelona on December 9, 1895, Conchita Supervia made her début at the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires at the age of 15. A year later, she created the role of Octavian in the Rome premiere of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. So astounding was her artistry that within another year she was playing the mature roles of Carmen and Dalila.

Treasured most for her extraordinary way with Rossini and Spanish song, Supervia was so revered for her vocal intensity and infectious joie de vivre that once, in a rehearsal for the scene in Rossini’s La Cenerentola where Cinderella is driven to the ball by stagecoach, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham ran onstage, threw himself before her, and offered to play the horse.

This is not to say that Supervia’s voice and prima donna will were not controversial. Possessed of a strong, prominent vibrato, wickedly characterized as a rattle by the New York record salesman I encountered over 30 years ago, hers was an amazing sound that continues to astound. Deep on bottom, free on top, and strong throughout, the voice was expressed with a thrust and verve that resound of Spanish/gypsy roots. The only modern mezzo who approaches Supervia in imagination and vitality, if not in vocal color, is Cecilia Bartoli.

Married to a brilliant intellect, Supervia’s voice was employed with utmost skill, alternately growling, purring, seducing, pouting, pleading, and taunting. Performing in an era when no one would bat an eyelash when she and a fellow Spanish soprano recorded German duets from Der Rosenkavalier in Italian, the mezzo knew little of “correct” Mozart style or historically-informed embellishments. Instead, she bent tempo and phrasing to her will, speeding up and slowing down as would a large cat stalking its prey. The results are irresistible.

Supervia made well over 100 recordings before dying in 1936, at the height of her fame, from complications during childbirth. Many of her discs, such as her hilarious rendition of Sharp’s “Oh no, John,” sung with an unforgettable cockney accent tinged with Spanish roots, and her set of Gennai’s four Canzioncine, charming children’s songs written for her which feature spoken introductions and animal sounds (Pearl GEM 0184), have long been considered collector’s items. Supervia was also the most passionate Carmen of her time, and equal to Elisabeth Schumann in the wealth of expression she brought to her few recordings of Mozart.

Back to Evensong. Supervia appears all to briefly toward the end of the film, playing an aging soprano’s rival in a staged production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Dressed to the hilt, and sporting a larger than life bonnet, the mezzo sings “Musetta’s Waltz” while delightfully dancing about, flirting with her male admirers, and batting her fan in their faces. Her physical beauty is complemented by such a wealth of exaggerated vocal and physical expression as to suggest none other than an operatic Carmen Miranda.

Supervia also sings bits of three Spanish songs, including Valderde’s “Clavelitos” which she recorded at least twice (GEM 0184 and GEMM CD 9975). While she’s drowned out by Evelyn Lane’s prima donna tirades, what we can hear makes us long for more.

What about the rest of the film? British musical star Evelyn Lane looks wonderful, sings quite well, and becomes more convincing as the hackneyed plot gradually affords her opportunities to act real. Australian tenor Browning Mummery and German actor Kortner (who starred in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box) also make welcome appearances. But the story, loosely based on the ascent and descent of Australian soprano Nellie Melba, is one of those predictable jobs best seen late at night while chewing lots of popcorn. It’s a period piece to be sure, but Supervia’s cameos, which by themselves rate a 5, are timeless.

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Opera Obsession! Act II

Opera d’Oro’s Greatest Hits

OPD 1002

 

 

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Less than a year ago, I enthusiastically endorsed Opera d’Oro’s “Act I” Opera Obsession! compilation of mostly live operatic arias and scenes. Drawn from the label’s extensive catalogue of complete operatic performances, the sampler’s $2.99 list price for over 78 minutes worth of music makes pondering purchase a no-brainer. 

As might be expected, selections sung by the biggest names provide the raison d’etre to part with such a huge sum in tough times. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti begins the proceedings as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, singing the duet “O Mimì, tu più non torni” with Sesto Bruscantini. In this 1969 Rome performance conducted by the late Thomas Schippers, Pavarotti’s beauty of tone, ardour, and intelligent phrasing -- the latter not always a given, especially later in his career - combined with excellent sound and a self-recommending Mimi from the young Mirella Freni, whet the appetite for the complete recording ($11.98 list). Pavarotti also scores big time in a 1970 Rome “Ingemisco” from Verdi’s Requiem, his fellow singers Scotto, Horne, and Ghiaurov, conducted by Claudio Abbado, making purchase equally tempting.

Shirley Verrett’s appearance does not convince that she was the greatest Carmen of the last century, but her 1973 “Près des ramparts de Seville” duet with Placido Domingo, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, finds the second of our “Three Tenors” in most heart-igniting voice. Nor are he and Pavarotti alone in this regard. Yet another tenor, Richard Tucker, does not usually impress as the most subtle or beautifully voiced of artists, but his “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from a 1973 La Juive elicits such a strong sense of personal identification from this former Cantor as to render it the most convincing performance of Halévy’s aria I have ever encountered. 

Opera d’Oro’s catalogue is thankfully blessed with at least five live opera performances by the incomparable soprano, Montserrat Caballé. In one of two excerpts provided herein, the diva blows the socks off Cilea’s “Io son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, choosing to extend the final word of text rather than, as did the role’s creator Magda Olivero, make a drama and a half of her penultimate utterance. (Caballé’s co-star, whom we don’t hear on this compilation, is none other than Domingo).

Caballé returns in a less than ideally recorded 1968 broadcast of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, singing the beloved “Un bel di, vedremo.” In her first vocal bloom, her occasional idiosyncracies amount to nothing when heard aside such gorgeously spun pianissimos and strong climactic phrases. This is a great performance.

For me, the big discovery of this set is the tenor of Alexander Oliver in Massenet’s rarely heard “ah, qu’il est loin, mon pays” from Sappho. Oliver may not have the strongest top, but his tone is so warm and healthy at the start of the opera as to make me want to hear much more of him.

Opera d’Oro inexplicably omits Maria Callas’ name from the cover, but her famed 1955 live “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma is gorgeously and securely sung. If I am less won over by the contributions of Margherita Rinaldi and Peter Schreier, and the selections afforded Marilyn Horne and Nicolai Gedda, I still find so much of value in this compilation, combined with some fine mastering on the better-captured performances, as to welcome this disc with open arms.

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Freedom: The Golden Gate Quartet & Josh White at the Library of Congress (1940)

Bridge 9114

 

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Winner of the Indie Award for Best Historical Recording of the Year, the musical and social impact of this never-before-released performance cannot be overstated. “A Program of Negro Folk Song with Commentary,” presented at the Library of Congress on December 20, 1940 as part of a four-day festival celebrating the 75th anniversary of the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the concert stands as an example of America’s double standard: a country that sponsored a celebration of slavery’s abolition in a racially segregated city, and feted artists who were otherwise not allowed to sit in the front of the bus.

It was certainly a departure to present this program in an austere government venue that traditionally hosted classical concerts. (Only the year before, the Daughters of the American Revolution had banned contralto Marian Anderson from performing in D.C.’s Constitution Hall, resulting in Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the DAR and Anderson’s triumphant performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). Equally striking were spoken commentaries interjected between selections by Dr. Sterling Brown, a poet who delivered his message with the authority of an elder statesman; Dr. Alain Locke, godfather to the Harlem Renaissance; and Alan Lomax, famed folk researcher and archivist.

The masterfully sung concert, presented intact, was performed in three parts. The first, consisting of six Negro spirituals, began with a stirring rendition of “Freedom,” a song oft repeated during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The second part featured five blues and ballads, interspersed with striking “What are the Blues” and “The Social Song” commentary by Sterling Brown. The last part, five reels and work songs, included such classics as “Old Dan Tucker” and ”Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”

The impeccably voiced Golden Gate Quartet was founded in 1930 when four male students at Norfolk, Virginia’s all-black Booker T. Washington High School began harmonizing in a barbershop. Originally specializing in Negro Spirituals, the quartet late branched out to include gospel music. By the time they reached the Library of Congress, their creamy, velvety sound had generated a Victor Bluebird recording contract, a performance in Carnegie Hall, and regular nationwide CBS live broadcasts from New York.

Josh White (1915-1969) began his singing career as a companion and guide to a group of blind gospel and blues performers. By 1940, he had become one of the most respected solo performers in his field; recorded numerous Christian/Gospel songs, blues, and folk numbers; and shared the stage with “Ole Man River” bass and freedom fighter Paul Robeson in the show John Henry.

In our time of increased racial division and unjust deportation of middle easterners, Sterling Brown’s chilling account of how the great blues singer Bessie Smith died because she could not gain admittance to a white hospital gains new meaning. Equally telling are his description of the blues as “the poor man’s heart disease” and the “Negro’s song of frustration,” the nervous laughter accompanying his commentary, and Josh White’s moving rendition of “Silicosis Blues.”

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Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5

Andrew Manze, violin; Richard Egarr, harpsichord

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907298.299 (2 discs)

 

 

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Just as the “high baroque” style of composition was approaching its peak, 47-year old Italian composer, teacher, and violinist Arcangelo Corelli published his set of twelve violin sonatas. The auspicious date was January 1, 1700. If Corelli’s successors, who included his students Geminiani and Vivaldi as well as Bach and Handel, took the baroque style of melodic, highly ornamented composition one step farther, it was in no small part because they had as their foundation Corelli’s pivotal violin sonatas. Indeed, as violinist Andrew Manze postulates in his highly articulate liner notes, in the same way lovers of bel canto opera date 20th century performance style as “Before Callas” (BC) and “After Callas” (AC), so too can baroque sonatas be defined as pre- or post-Corelli.

This is gorgeous music, filled with carefully balanced harmonic invention and a weight of contemplation that deepens its beauty. What we hear, however, is considerably different than what Corelli originally set down in print. The first published score of Corelli’s sonatas only hints at what he and other 18th century virtuosos made of his music.

The ultimate effect of baroque performance hinged upon spontaneous embellishment, a free, improvisational approach to the printed score similar to the way a jazz musician might approach a classic song by Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen. Improvisation and embellishment are exactly what Corelli and other baroque composers expected of performers. Rarely did they write out ornamentation; when they did, it was intended more as a model than as a blueprint to be slavishly copied.

In Corelli’s case, a second edition of his sonatas, published in Amsterdam in 1710 by Estienne Roger, claims to contain the exact copious ornamentation that Corelli used when he played the twelve slow movements of his sonatas. Rather than copying Corelli’s ornamentation and treating the music as a museum piece, Andew Manze and Richard Egarr bring the sonatas to life by calling upon their own improvisatory skills and vast knowledge of baroque practice to create new versions.

Manze and Egarr are recognized masters of the baroque form. With a discography that includes Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos and Violin Sonatas by Bach and Rebel, their set of Handel’s complete Violin Sonatas received a Grammy nomination, Gramophone Editor’s Choice and was called ‘the finest recording of Handel’s violin sonatas ever made” by International Record Review, while their single disc of Pandolfi’s CompleteViolin Sonatas received both the prestigious 2000 Gramophone Award and a Choc du Monde de la Musique. Their revelatory interpretations are a far cry from the deadly St. Martins in the Fields versions that dominated the early music catalogue of an earlier generation.

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John Adams: A Portrait and A Concert of American Music

DVD-Video

Arthaus Musik PAL 100 323

 

 

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Composer portraits abound these days, and for good reason. A video biography accompanied by shots of composer, collaborators, and performers in action potentially allows deeper access to a composer’s inner world than that afforded by sound alone. A case in point is this portrait of the affable Adams. Offering a 52-minute portrait in Dolby digital 2.0 sound and an 82-minute concert of American music in Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0 surround sound, it can well serve as an introduction to the minimalist style of late 20th century composition.

Long-time Berkeley resident John Adams has long been considered one of the moving forces in contemporary composition. Originally assessed as a member of the same minimalist camp as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, his writing has consistently evolved to include greater melodic inspiration. Equally important has been his desire, manifested in such operas as Nixon in China and Death of Klinghofer, to join the lead of Mozart, Verdi and others in exploring the social and political fabric of contemporary society.

The composer portrait, narrated by Amita Dhiri, moves from an introduction to Adams’ universe to an exploration of his childhood and studies at Harvard. A segment that explores influences on Adams’ music segues into chapters devoted to the oratorio El Nino and the operas Nixon in China, and Death of Klinghofer.  The wonderful El Nino segments, taken from the recently released the 2002 Gramophone Award winning DVD of the oratorio (ArtHaus Musik 100 220), feature Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White.

Accompanied by the Maîtrise de Paris Children’s Choir, London Voices, Theatre of Voices, and Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano, the segments include a marvelous scene with Hunt Lieberson and animated interview with the brilliant director Peter Sellars. Of special interest are the surprised reactions of Adams and his collaborators to the huge amount of controversy that Klinghofer stirred up within segments of the Jewish community. Though the musical interludes may be brief, they also afford an opportunity to explore Adams’ evolution as a composer of distinction.

The Concert of Modern American Music, featuring the Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Jonathan Nott, is a curious affair. As wonderful as the four selections may be -- Steve Reich’s Eight lines (also available in two different audio CD versions), John Adams’ Gnarly buttons 2 for clarinet and ensemble (available in two audio recordings, one featuring the Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by David Robertson), Adams’ Chamber Symphony (available in three different audio performances), and the first and seventh of Conlon Nancarrow’s extraordinary Studies for Player Piano  (usually heard in piano version - be sure to check out Conlon Nancarrow : Lost Works, Last Works (OM 1002-2) available from http://www.otherminds.org) - the absence of Adams as conductor seems most unfortunate. Be that as it may, the Ensemble plays with noted authority, and Nott conducts with delightful fluidity. Personally, I would rather hear this music better reproduced on good two-channel recordings than watch infinite shots of conductor, ensemble and soloists, but the benefits of surround sound will more than compensate for those willing to shut their eyes.
 

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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