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Music Reviews - Classical and Jazz - No. 52 - May, 2005

CANTELOUBE: SONGS OF THE AUVERGNE • VERONIQUE GENS, ORCHESTRE NATIONAL DE LILLE, JEAN-CLAUDE CASADESUS

NAXOS 8.557491 (also available as an SACD)

 

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The history of music is filled with one-off composers who would have faded into obscurity had they not written a few works so memorable and engaging that we return to them again and again. Such is the case with Marie-Joseph Canteloube de Malaret (mercifully known as Joseph Canteloube), a pupil of Vincent d’Indy.

Most of Canteloube’s classical compositions remain virtually unknown. Rather, it is his Songs of the Auvergne (Chants d’Auvergne), five sets of folk-song arrangements for voice and orchestra composed between 1927 and 1955 that have earned him widespread recognition. Canteloube bathed songs collected from France’s Auvergne region (just south of the country’s geographic center) with broad washes of orchestral color, using brilliant instrumental highlights to illuminate their enchanting lyric beauty and naïveté.

Just as every soprano with the pipes to do them justice longs to tackle Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, so have countless lyric sopranos and high mezzos recorded the Songs of the Auvergne. The songs “Baîlèro” and “Brezairola” (Lullaby) are especially popular, their long-breathed, wistful lines providing balm for the soul. Even singers who do not possess the verve required to convince in jaunty melodies such as “Malurous qu’o uno Fenno” (Unfortunate is He Who Has a Wife) – Kiri Te Kanawa comes to mind -- have set down treasurable interpretations of “Baïlèro” and other soothing gems.

The latest entry in a recorded lineage that began in the 1930’s with Madeleine Grey’s earthy interpretations of songs from Canteloube’s first four sets (Pearl) comes from soprano Véronique Gens and the Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus (Naxos). Not only has Gens provided consistently distinguished singing in René Jacobs’ award-winning Mozart recordings, but Naxos has flattered her artistry by issuing an audiophile quality hybrid SACD disc.

Orchestrally, the recording is a major achievement. Casadesus makes the most of Canteloube’s billowing colors and shimmering effects, intelligently pinpointing solo instruments to underscore words and melodic intervals. As much as I favor Karina Gauvin’s recent, beautifully recorded interpretation with chamber orchestra (CBC Records), the use of the larger orchestral forces Canteloube intended brings greater pleasure. Canteloube junkies enamored of Netania Davrath’s incomparably charming versions of the songs (Vanguard Classics), sung in authentic dialect with an unpretentious, somewhat thin little girl voice that sounds far more like a peasant’s than a diva’s, don’t realize how much more there is to Canteloube’s music when his orchestral writing receives its proper due.

Unfortunately, Gens’ timbre is ill suited to these works. She can be quite touching in “La delaïssádo,” a song about a shepherdess deserted by her lover (although Arleen Auger and Frederica Von Stade can tear your heart out), but mostly she sounds like either a patrician Countess summarily displaced to the lowlands or a slightly dowdy soprano who is pushing too hard. There’s much beauty to her singing, but the voice type works best in other contexts.

At Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent 60th birthday gala celebration, the great Frederica von Stade amazed her audience by singing two of Canteloube’s gems with a voice and spirit that belied her age. After Flicka’s “Uno Jionto Postouro” (A pretty shepherdess) wept for the lover who had deserted her with heartbreaking hollowness, her “Lou Coucut” chirped away with enough energy to power every clock on the planet. I don’t have von Stade’s early Auvergne recordings on CD, but memory declares them superb. Arleen Auger (Virgin Classics) and Victoria de los Angeles (EMI) offer comparable contrast and spirit – Auger, recorded two years before her death, tears me apart in “La delaïssádo” -- while the far more even, low-keyed Karina Gauvin offers singing so beautiful and heartfelt as to make Canteloube’s music a portal to heaven’s gates.

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EBONY BAND AMSTERDAM: HOMENAJE A REVUELTAS • CHANNEL CLASSICS SACD CCS-SA- 21104

 

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In the astounding music of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), the joy and exuberance of Mexican life and its virtually phantasmagoric shadow side of superstition, Catholic repression, and suffering go hand in hand.

Revueltas was a true original. A violin player from age eight, he matured to tour the southern United States and Mexico as a violin soloist and conductor in the 1920s. Coming to the attention of composer Carlos Chavez, he was summoned to work with the Orquestra Sinfónica de México to help create music with a distinct national identity. In the ten years following, he produced a large body of colorful compositions with a distinctly Mexican and revolutionary flavor.

In 1936, Revueltas became secretary-general of the League for Revolutionary Artists and Writers and visited Spain to show his support for the anti-fascist movement. Seeing his hopes for freedom seemingly defeated by the darkening political landscape, he returned to Mexico disillusioned. He continued to compose and drink excessively until he died of pneumonia at age 41.

Performed by the Ebony Band of Amsterdam on this superbly recorded hybrid SACD (offering the option of multi-channel playback with sound so good that, even on regular CD players, MP3s sound like trash in comparison), the disc begins with one of Revueltas’ most famous compositions, Sensemayá. Usually heard in its spectacular orchestral version, this short, savagely rhythmic piece about the ritualistic killing of a poisonous snake is offered in its original form for 15 instruments.

Most striking is the final work on the disc, the three-movement Hommaje a Frederico García Lorca, a tribute to the great Spanish homosexual poet who was slain in 1936 by fascist soldiers. The first movement, Baile, starts mournfully, but quickly transitions into a bizarre carnival burlesque of Mexican peasant music. (Russia’s Alfred Schnittke wrote works in a similar vein much later in the century). After the mournful Duelo por Garcîa Lorca, the concluding movement, Son, presents a distinctly exuberant Mexican celebration around a gravesite. This is a great, beautifully recorded music that honors a voice that must be heard.

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TWO GREAT SINGING ACTRESSES

ANNE SOFIE VON OTTER: MUSIC FOR A WHILE: BAROQUE MELODIES • DG B0003460-02

 

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Having heard mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter live three times in the past year, most recently on April 27 in Mozart’s final opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito at the Met, my admiration for her versatility and artistry have continued to grow. Some have disparaged her gorgeous CD collaboration with Elvis Costello, suggesting that pop singing (including her forthcoming recording of ABBA and her coy San Francisco Christmas recital encore of “Santa Baby”) provides an easy way out for a vocalist past her prime. But save for a tight high B-flat in her Met performance of Mozart’s “Parto, parto,” I have heard nothing to suggest that the just-turned 50-year old singer is in decline.

Von Otter’s latest solo recording finds her in splendid vocal and histrionic estate. Variously accompanied by Jory Vinikour’s authentic harpsichord & chamber organ, Jakob Lindberg’s theorbo, lute & Baroque guitar, and Anders Ericson’s theorbo, the program reminds us that, as much as she has won prestigious awards for CDs of song programs dedicated to Brahms, Grieg, Schumann, Chaminade, French and Swedish composers, and Costello, von Otter’s legacy of baroque recordings that began with Monteverdi and Bach in 1987 has won her two awards for her Handel.

Some singers approach Baroque music with politeness. Not von Otter. Guided by scholarly research into period practice, she launches into Benedetto Ferrari’s jovial “Amanti, io vi so dire” (Lovers, I can tell you that it is much better to flee from a pretty woman…) with jocular passion, whooping it up like a female in hot pursuit. That she manages to maintain a coherent musical line while underscoring Ferrari’s multiple shenanigans is much to her credit.

Von Otter quiets down as appropriate for many of the ten songs by Purcell and Dowland that comprise the bulk of the program. With her accompanists eschewing conventional string bass continuo to provide what the liner notes call “greater intimacy” (i.e., increased prominence for the voice), Purcell’s “Sweeter than Roses” and Dowland’s pristinely accompanied “In darkness let me dwell” are lovely. But when she turns Barbara Strozzi’s “Udite, amanti” (Hear, lovers, the cause oh god, that brings me to tears) into over-the-top melodrama, Anne Sofie von Otter’s imprimatur as a singing actress comes to the fore. With the inclusion of some wonderful instrumental solos – Vinikour’s harpsichord in Bernardo Storace’s Ciaccona is especially fine – this is a great disc for baroque-lovers.

MARIA CALLAS: LIVING AND DYING FOR ART AND LOVE • TDK DVUS-DOCMC

 

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This compelling 60-minute BBC production, directed by Steve Cole, intersperses excerpts from rare footage of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi’s famed 1964 Covent Garden Act II of Puccini’s Tosca (plus vocals and stills from other performances of the period) with commentary from such renowned singers as Grace Bumbry, Placido Domingo, and Gobbi himself. Additional insights from conductor Antonio Pappano and most importantly, director Franco Zeffirelli, make the DVD indispensable.

As many times as I’ve seen footage of Callas and Gobbi in Covent Garden’s fully staged Tosca Second Act, I have never appreciated it more than in this context. To witness Zeffirelli hoarsely describe how he coached Callas, and then immediately see her amplifying his direction, illuminates her genius better than 20 other Callas biographies and documentaries combined. Not only do we learn from Zeffirelli and Gobbi what was staged and what was spontaneous, but Bumbry, Domingo, and Pappano (plus other artistic luminaries that include Dame Judi Dench) offer an additional level of appreciation that further deepens our ability to assess Callas’ achievement.

Only 18 months before the 41-year old soprano abandoned the operatic stage entirely due to vocal decline, she rallied for her Covent Garden Tosca performances. Yes, she emitted a wobble or two, but they are negligible in the context of singing and acting so profound as to render pedestrian much of what passes as drama on today’s stages.

Callas could still produce a vulnerable, sweet tone when called for, all the more miraculous when contrasted with the well of personal suffering that lay at the core of her Tosca voice. Moving with extraordinary freedom, with gestures worthy of a ballerina’s and facial expressions second to none, Callas illuminates Floria Tosca’s tragedy like no other. Thanks to biographical commentary that sets the stage for her incomparable performance, this DVD is a must.

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SUSAN GRAHAM: POÉMES DE L’AMOUR • WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61938 2

 

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The sensual expressiveness and beauty of Susan Graham’s plush mezzo-soprano has earned her well-deserved international reknown. Poémes de l’Amour, her latest Warner release, provides ample evidence that the 44-year old artist is now at the height of her powers. Ably supported by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, Graham delivers incomparable renditions of music by Chausson, Ravel, and Debussy.

Graham has always been at her finest in French repertoire. The reasons lie in the innate warmth and beauty of her instrument, whose sound seems to radiate from her heart, and her temperamental affinity with the introspective sensuality of French impressionism.

Graham’s artistry finds an ideal vehicle in the sensual passion of Ernest Chausson’s extended three movement Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Her presentation of the work’s opening words,

"The air is filled with the exquisite scent of lilacs

whose blossoms cover walls from top to bottom

and perfume women’s hair,

masterfully conveys the mystical atmosphere of Chausson’s universe."

Greatly influenced by the music of Richard Wagner, Chausson dives from the heights of romantic expectation into the abyss of despair. As his expectant lover experiences the death of love, Graham rides Chausson’s waves of emotion as if she were riding the crests of the sea. It’s a gorgeous performance, made all the more special by her ability to illuminate text, not with the obvious verbal underscoring of a Schwarzkopf or Bostridge, but rather with powerful inner conviction and unrivaled tone. Graham’s liquid soft high notes recall the sweet power of Janet Baker’s in her prime.

If the protagonist of Chausson’s Poème rides the waves of emotion, the narrator in Ravel’s Shehèrazade surfs way over the top. Graham’s performance of the 28-year old Ravel’s setting of three exotic poems by the eponymous Tristan Klingsor is so passionate as to leave even Régine Crespin and Ernest Ansermet’s classic version of Ravel’s early masterpiece sounding deficient by comparison.

Every stereotype of Asian culture known to the West, including pot-bellied mandarins holding parasols, princesses with slender hands, and executioners who chop heads with curved oriental swords seems to surface in Shehèrazade’s dramatic extended opening movement. The two shorter sections that end the work are more horizontal in nature, their sensuality ideal for Graham’s artistry. With Crespin’s recording I admired the unfailing beauty of tone and watched the counter on the CD player; with Graham I became enthralled.

The final works on the disc, Claude Debussy’s early Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire, reveal a young composer in search of himself. Berkeley’s John Adams helps Debussy along by orchestrating four of the songs, but the influence of Wagner nonetheless inhibits Debussy from finding his unique voice.

Five years after writing Cinq Poèmes, Debussy débuted his far more distinguished La Damoiselle élue on the same Paris concert that saw the début of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. If the recital thus comes full circle, it has the ever-gratifying Graham and Tortelier’s sympathetic support, rather than engineering that blurs orchestral detail and grants the mezzo’s close-miked voice an occasional edge, to thank for its success.

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TONY DESARE: WANT YOU • TELARC HEADS UP CD-83620

 

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Frank Sinatra is alive and well, returning to the stage in fresh form. Tony DeSare, A new presence on the scene, hails from Glen Falls, New York. He has been singing and playing piano professionally since age 17. With his direct, unmannered style, intimate lower range, clear enunciation, and downright sexy delivery, DeSare comes naturally to those jazz-tinged love ballads that have made woman and beast swoon for the last 70 years.

The title song “Want You” by DeSare and Mark Lee showcases the singer at his fresh, irresistible best. Another team effort, “I’d Have It All (If I Had Drew)” is the title song from My Date With Drew, a multiple award-winning independent documentary slated to hit theaters nationwide. Another winner, “We’ve Got a World that Swings,” originally debuted in Jerry Lewis’ film, The Nutty Professor. These three selections alone guarantee DeSare an audience eager for more.

This début effort receives impeccable support from the great jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, pianist Ted Firth, guitarist Joe Palermo, and a group of seasoned professionals that includes Mike Lee, John Swana, Bob Howell, Vic Stephens, and Brian Czach. Pizzarelli has been performing with DeSare since 2002, and has continually championed the young artist.

Every song on this album feels good. The disc opens with a fabulous rendition of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ “Baby, Dream Your Dream” from the musical Sweet Charity; it joins such standards as “Two for the Road,” “Just in Time,” and “I Wish You Love.”

The final track, DeSare’s enjoyable if not overtly brilliant piano solo on Grandma’s beloved “Five Foot Two,” unites nostalgia and modern romance in an irresistibly handsome package. Tony DeSare will surely bring audiences to their feet as he tours with Harold Arlen’s son in the tribute show Arlen on Arlen and receives nationwide publicity for this seductive disc. His vocal range may not be as wide as Sinatra’s, but his spirit, voice, and way with words are if anything fresher and more universal than an artistry sometimes pitched to the late night cocktail, smoky bar, Vegas crowd.

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MORTEN LAURIDSEN: LUX AETERNA • HYPERION CDA67499 (also available as an SACD)

 

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Morten Lauridsen, born in 1943 in Colfax, Washington, shares with English composer John Rutter the ability to write some of the most uplifting and frequently programmed choral music of the present era. Although not all of Lauridsen’s work is sacred in nature, it is his Christian-inspired music, which rivals Arvo Pärt’s in its ability to capture the transcendent peace and love that are the essence of Christ’s teaching, that most readily touches the heart.

The performances at hand, for which Lauridsen was present, feature the exceptional British choir Polyphony under the direction of Stephen Layton with instrumental support from the Britten Sinfonia. Polyphony is not another of those white-voiced, chaste sounding British choirs whose sacred music performances have a telltale white gloved feel. Rather, thanks to their founding conductor, the choir’s beautifully detailed, expressive singing breathes life and health into Lauridsen’s works. The sopranos are especially radiant, the other voices perfectly matched and balanced. Having been entrusted with premieres of works by such modern masters as Sir John Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Thomas Adès, Layton’s Gramophone Award winning singers are ideally suited for Lauridsen’s music.

Sandwiched between the five movements of Lauridsen’s serene, 27-minute Lux Aeterna (1997) and three equally gratifying, shorter sacred works from the same period (Ave Maria, Ubi caritas et amor, and the oft-heard O magnum mysterium), the CD features Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaisssance Poems (1987). These Madrigali, inspired by the music of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, are quite erotic in nature. Unified by the recurrent symbolic imagery of flames, their sometimes dark and despairing texts provide pointed if not particularly searing counterpoint to the light-filled serenity of Lauridsen’s exalted spiritual music.

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DEVA PREMAL: DAKSHIMA • NARADA 724386029126

 

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“I wake every morning feeling like I’m living in a miracle – where spirituality, creativity, work and love have all come to mean the same thing.”

So writes Deva Premal, best known for her vocals on the top-selling chant CDs The Essence, Love is Space, and Embrace. Years after their release, these albums still rate highly on New Age charts and are heard in yoga studios and centers worldwide.

Although I confess resistance to blond haired Caucasians singing westernized versions of traditional Indian chants and mantras, Deva Premal is something else. Since 1991, she and her partner Miten, followers of the late Osho (formerly known as Yogi Bhajan), have sung the praises of various Indian Gurus (conveyers of the light), Gods and Goddesses with a sincerity and passion that can melt all but a cynic’s heart.

Miten, originally from England, began as a singer-songwriter-guitarist, opening for Fleetwood Mac and Ry Cooder in the ‘70s. Discovering the power of meditation, he left the world of rock behind. He eventually met up with Deva Premal in an ashram. After she spontaneously began singing harmony with him as he sat on the edge of his bed playing guitar, a relationship ensued.

Together, the duo has traveled the world, performing for audiences that have included the Dalai Lama, author Eckhart Tolle, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and the incomparable Cher. They’ve also sold over 400,000 CDs.

I doubt the duo’s early recordings were as processed as this, with major label Narada’s multi-tracked reverb, pop feel, and sundry concessions to marketable gratification. Yet Deval Premal and Miten’s purity of purpose remains strong, perhaps no more beautifully expressed than in “Aad Guray,” Snatam Kaur Khalsa’s modern version of a mantra from the sacred writings of the Sikhs. Another winning track, “Brahma Nandam,” part of the teaching of Lord Shiva to his consort Paravati, describes the guru-disciple relationship as the essential means of attaining Enlightenment.

Yes, there are a few tracks where musical inspiration seems somewhat mundane. Regardless, the devotion with which this duo chants shines through. There is bliss, truth and beauty here.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus  

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