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Classical Music - No. 35 - July, 2002

Jason Serinus


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BACH: MUSIC FOR SOLO VIOLIN - JOSEPH SILVERSTEIN - IMAGE RECORDINGS IRC 0201

To celebrate his 70th birthday, Joseph Silverstein, Principal Guest Conductor of Seattle's Northwest Chamber Orchestra, as well as Conductor Laureate of the Utah Symphony and member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, has recorded Bach's complete music for solo violin. Consisting of three Sonatas and three Partitas, these compositions, along with Bach's six solo cello suites, rank among Bach's greatest masterpieces.

While Silverstein's technical assurance is never in question, his playing frequently pales when compared to recordings from other artists. Partly this is due to the recording itself, whose lack of air, color and life further sabotages playing that does not consistently engage. A case in point is the famed Partita No. 2 in D minor, which has recently been celebrated in the chart-toppingMorimur recording from violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM). Silverstein may play a prized Guarneri del Jesu violin so cleanly that not a squeak can be heard - Poppen squeaks like crazy, and lacks Silverstein's technical perfection -- but Silverstein's opening dance movement "Allemande" feels leaden when compared to Poppen's.

Silverstein's playing pales when put up against Arthur Grumiaux's famed, mostly faster 1961 recording (Philips Duo). Even when Silverstein almost equals Grumiaux's speed in the third movement "Sarabande," it is Grumiaux who expresses Bach's dance rhythms to perfection; his far more substantial playing is also more pointed and incisive, with greater dynamic range, color and tempo variation.

It is difficult to conclusively judge Poppen's playing, because some of his tempi - his second movement "Corrente" and fourth movement "Gigue" are slower than anyone else's -- seem dictated by the choral/solo violin juxtaposition of the Morimur project. His final "Chaconne," however, with a tempo midway between Silverstein zippy 12:41 and Hahn's drawn out 17:47, includes a triumphant passage that makes it all worthwhile.

The 17-year old Hilary Hahn (Sony) takes a far more romantic approach than these other violinists, with the opening Allemande and concluding Chaconne played notably slower than anyone else's. While these movements barely sound like dances, Hahn's her use of vibrato, alteration of dynamics, and exceptional fluid singing tone are so heartfelt that one cannot help but fall in love with her playing. Ultimately, it is to Grumiaux and Hahn that many will wish to return.

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LOU HARRISON - KEYBOARD WORKS - LINDA BURMAN-HALL, SOLO KEYBOARDS - NEW ALBION 117

What a great birthday tribute. As 85 year old Lou Harrison enters yet another productive phase of his remarkable composing career, San Francisco's adventurous New Albion Records gifts him and all with this generous compilation of Harrison's unusual keyboard works.

Ever the political and musical maverick, Harrison joins his fellow composer, the late Harry Partch, in writing keyboard music that intentionally eschews "traditional" twelve-tone tuning. As Harrison explains in the liner notes,

"Although for several centuries keyboards were made that presented more than twelve tones, the hypnosis of twelve has continued, and continues to spread wherever "Western" culture settles inŠ Linda and I have become part of [the] apostasy from the dull gray of industrial twelve tone equal temperament and worked together to take back to ourselves as artists the natural right to tune pieces in ways that are fitting, appropriate, or enhance musical beauty."

The determined team of Harrison and Linda Burman-Hall present their generous helping of keyboard works on a variety of harpsichords, as well as on tack piano (which uses thumbtacks in the hammers to create a sound similar to the harpsichord) and fortepiano. Pitches and tunings vary. The result is a strange sonic universe, whose unusual relationships between notes leave listeners without the usual tonal anchors that enable one to find home. Although for some the experience may summon forth feelings of being lost at sea, for others the adventure reveals new tonal landscapes formerly obscured by twelve-tone hegemony.

The disc opens with a piece written expressly for Burman-Hall, the Sonata for Harpsichord (1999), played on a French double harpsichord. Composed of three contrasting movements based on modal scales, the work offers Harrison's usual exuberance, but with harmonics equally strange and captivating. The same can be said forVillage Music, a recent compilation drawn from works written between 1941 and 1989, and played on a Spanish single-manual harpsichord with an "occasional" tuning created just for the occasion.

Drawing upon the gestures, textures and forms of traditional Spanish music, Six Sonatas for Cembalo (1943) is tuned in Baroque well-temperament and played on French double harpsichord.Incidental Music for Corneille's Cinna (1957), played on tack piano, employs tuning which pulls the rug out from under the so-called "totalitarian tonal regime" of equal temperament (which Burman-Hall suggests frequently masquerades as democracy).

On the lighter side, Harrison describes his final "Round" from A Summerfield Set (1988), which he dedicated to the Summerfield family's recently born son, as "appropriately a bit childish." One of the Three Earlier Works for Solo Keyboard, "A Twelve-Tone Morning After to Amuse Henry" (ca. 1944-1945), was presented as an impromptu musical jest to Henry Cowell, Harrison's mentor, friend, neighbor, and fellow maverick musician.

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JOHN FITZ ROGERS - TRANSIT - MICHAEL NICOLELLA, ELECTRIC GUITAR - GALE 02-003

One thing is for certain: this recording will engender strong reactions. Some will agree with the liner notes' pretentious prose, which suggests that this collaboration between Rogers and Nicolella provides "an electrifying sonic network of speed and synthesis, a forty-four minute panorama of intangible miracles." Others will find themselves screaming at Transit's dizzying drive, at such sections as the three and a half minute "V," which begins with programmed sounds resembling a recording sped up half way to infinity, only to end with Nicolella's electric guitar further hammering the point home.

In Transit, composer Fitz Rogers, showing the influence of Led Zeppelin, the Steve Miller Band, and Jim Hendrix, weds his computer-generated organs, pianos, drums and array of fantastic sounds to the astounding musicianship of his chosen collaborator, guitarist Michael Nicolella. Playing three guitars, a 1998 Fender Stratocaster, 1979 Gibson Les Paul Custom, and 1954 Guild X-150 archtop, allied with various amplifiers and stompboxes, the Seattle-based Nicolella is a virtuoso wonder.

Transit begins slowly, with several minutes of quasi-celestial computer-generated sounds. Once the guitar enters, however, the mood changes, as the conflict and chaos of earthbound existence rise to the fore. The work is studded with frequently stunning juxtapositions, its unapologetic commentary destined to either enrapture or force one to run for cover while invoking the names of Bach, Mozart and the entire Hindu panoply.

In many ways, Transit seems an appropriate commentary on life in the 21st century. After all, in a world where Easter night channel surfing takes you from Charlton Heston's Moses proclaiming God's commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," to fresh footage of Israeli politicians screaming for vengeance; where George Bush, who stole the Presidency, condemns Fidel Castro for not holding free elections, far more than hard driving irony and Strauss waltzes are in order.

Parts of this virtual symphony seem ecstatic, others funereal. Its pace and multi-layered chaos will either energize you or give you a headache. Either way, or both, it must be heard.

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JOHN WILLIAMS - THE MAGIC BOX - SONY SK 89483

This well-recorded, natural sounding disc presents one of the West's foremost guitarists playing pretty music related to Africa, Cape Verde Island and Madagascar. Joined on various tracks by the African Children's Choir, three Caucasian musicians, and Cameroon-born Frances Bebey, guitarist/composer John Williams offers a "magic box" assortment of fifteen well-recorded, major keys lovelies.

Although one rarely associates the guitar with the music of Africa, the instrument was first introduced to the continent and its islands by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. However, because Africa already had an indigenous assortment of unique string instruments which created sounds more central to its culture, it was only in the 20th century, as Western cultural influence followed Christian missionaries into the heartland, that the guitar began to assert itself in African popular and traditional music. Indeed, Williams' instrument's very timbre seems light years removed from the drums and chants that we associate with traditional tribal rituals.

Williams, who arranged all but two of the tracks, composed several selections, mostly based on traditional songs. Five pieces including the title track are by Bebey, who plays and sings his new piece "Engome." One cut is by Jean 'Bosco" Mwenda, originally from Zaire; two are by Paul-Bert "Rossy' Rahasimanana, composed for a documentary film on Madagascar.

At the risk of sounding like the grinch who stole Christmas, this disc offers confections so sweet as to seem far removed from present-day realities. Indeed, at its crossover nadir, when the African Children's Choir adds its voice to John Williams' homogenized guitar and panpipe arrangement of "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika," the anthem of the African National Congress that derives from a Christian hymn, images surface of perpetually smiling darkies tap dancing their way through Hollywood while the Klan marched through the Carolinas. Listening to this music, one would never know that the African continent is ravaged by AIDS, that millions are dying of starvation, and that the red soil of Madagascar has become so over-farmed and eroded that, seen from on high, the former Paradise looks like it is bleeding into the sea. Lovely as background music for din din, too cream-filled for a major course.

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GERARD SOUZAY - CHANSONS, LIEDER AND OPERA -- PEARL GEM 0159

Born in 1918, baritone Gerard Souzay graced the recital stage for over 40 years. This indispensable disc reissues his first lp recordings from 1950, performances that helped him gain prominence as the premiere interpreter of French chanson of his generation.

Although Souzay appeared in opera, the first selection, a monotoned reading of Handel's aria "Si, tra I ceppi" (Berenice), leaves no question that art song offered him greater opportunities to utilize his many gifts. The next track, Beethoven's great lied (song) "In questa tomba oscura," shows him at his best. Filled with light and shadow, the plethora of soft tones perfectly supported by the breath, the degree of subtle dynamic variation and shading, and, most importantly, the singer's total emotional involvement give life to the plea of the departed soul who begs for peace from within the grave.

Souzay's sense of total immersion is palpable in his recordings of ten Fauré chanson (including the four L'Horizon Chimérique). Recorded with accompanist Jacqueline Bonneau, these performances are as idiomatically and emotionally perfect as some of the Fauré interpretations by soprano Maggie Teyte, whose career was winding down just as Souzay's was gaining momentum.

The disc also includes treasurable performances of three Debussy chanson, three songs from Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, and six lied by Schubert. Later on, Souzay recorded stereo versions of the Ravel, some of the Fauré, and Schubert's "Der "Doppelgänger," "Heidenröslein," and "Erlkönig," but these monaural recordings find him in freshest and sweetest voice. Every lover of the song repertoire who does not own the original LPs will want this disc.

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THOMAS QUASTHOFF - EVENING STAR: GERMAN OPERA ARIAS - DG 289 471 493-2

BRYN TERFEL - WAGNER - DG 289 471 348-2

If you've attended one of 43-year old German bass-baritone Quasthoff's Bay Area appearances, you know the beauty of his voice and the extent of his interpretive mastery. His 37-year old Welch bass-baritone contemporary Bryn Terfel, who most recently presented a Cal Performances recital, possesses a larger voice: round, powerful, luscious, and capable of darker but equally seductive sounds.

The differences in the way these men use their voices is as great as the physical contrast between the two - Quasthoff, whose mother took the harmful fertility drug Thalidomide, is way under 5 feet, and moves awkwardly, while Terfel is a towering bear of a man who seems to have moved beyond his back problems. Terfel tends to rely heavily on word painting, sometimes laying it on too thick; Quasthoff eschews over-interpretation, combining economy of expression with a marvelous mastery of summoning the right tone and energy to express the emotion at hand. Expressed differently, Terfel can seem to color words from the outside, while Quasthoff's palette seems a natural extension of his inner sensibilities.

In these discs of operatic arias, the contrast between Quasthoff and Terfel becomes apparent in the one selection they share in common, Wolfram's "Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande (The Song to the Evening Star)" from Wagner's Tannhäuser. Given ideally transparent and expressive support by conductor Christian Thielemann and the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Quasthoff delivers a rapt performance, sounding transported as he prays to the Evening Star to help guide a departed soul on its flight from earth to heaven. Terfel, receiving less-than-poetic support from Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker, sounds too occupied with underscoring the meaning of every word to fully embrace the essence of heavenly transcendence. Even though it is Terfel who seems more equipped to meet Wagner's vocal demands, it is Quasthoff who convinces.

Despite a voice in prime health, Terfel disappoints through most of his recital; the man sounds as though he has yet to find his way into the heart of Wagnerian conflict and passion. Comparisons with his recording of "Die Frist ist um" from Der Fliegende Holländer reveal a far more crushing sense of tragedy in the gorgeously voiced 1937 live performance of Herbert Janssen (with Reiner), and more convincing drama from James Morris (far more satisfyingly conducted by James Levine). And when heard alongside the classic Hans Hotter/Georg Solti recording of Wotan's "Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!" from Die Walküre, the Terfel/Abbado partnership seems to merely skim the surface.

Terfel has been quite cautious in adding Wagner to his repertoire; he first sang Wolfram in 1997, and will not tackle the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger before 2003. Given that Janssen's voice rapidly declined after the Met forced him into heavy Wagnerian roles, and Hotter and Morris were both sounding worn at the time of their respective recordings, Terfel's reluctance is more than justified. Let us hope that he continues to devote his resources to repertoire more suited to his voice and temperament.

Lest you think that Quasthoff lacks personality, by all means listen to his buoyant interpretations of multiple roles from Lortzing'sZar und Zimmermann and Der Wildschütz. Quasthoff , who offers plenty of outspoken character during his recitals, knows how to channel his gifts in service to operatic interpretation. This is a wonderful disc, with singing that will serve as a model for years to come.

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SCHUMANN * BEETHOVEN * BRAHMS - WILHELM KEMPFF, PIANO - ORFEO C 570 011 B

Some artists perform music; others present us with entire universes, taking us on mental, emotional, and spiritual journeys far removed from the level of mechanical reproduction or technical perfection. Wilhelm Kempff is such an artist.

This priceless, sometimes hard to find disc, available from http://www.qualiton.com, features the great pianist in his sole live Salzburg Festival concert, held in the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria on July 31, 1958. While the first selection, Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, was recorded by Kempff commercially, the other two pieces, Ludwig von Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 and Johannes Brahms' Sonata in F, Op. 5, were not captured in the studio. Thus the disc holds inestimable historic value, offering us our only opportunity to hear Kempff perform two works central to his career. Recorded when the pianist was 63 and at the height of his powers, what the mono recording lacks in midrange richness it more than delivers in poetic interpretation.

Kempff was schooled in the 19th century tradition, a method of interpretation that allowed for far more poetic license, rubato, and shading than is normally encountered on today's stages. The man was born when enough of the environment that spawned these compositions was still intact to enable him to understand these works on the deepest levels. As a result, his core romantic repertoire - Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms - sings with a heartfelt truth that makes it highly prized.

Thankfully, Austria was blessed with several critics who witnessed this performance and the effect it had on the audience. Here is the assessment of Otto Sertl, as recorded in the Salzburger Nachrichten on August 2, 1958:

"In our age, which is apparently so averse to all romanticism, [Kempff] cares for the miraculous blossoms of German piano poetry without the slightest concession to any new objectivity - and with that, brings practically any audience Š unconditionally under his spell. Schumann's perhaps richest piano work, his Op. 17, originally bore the somewhat mysterious title of "Obulus" with the three sub-headings "Ruins - Triumphal Arch - Constellation" before it was renamed "Fantasy" by Schumann himself. In Wilhelm Kempff's hands, the gushing passion of these Romantic visions sounds wildly demonic, its idyllic final song most tenderly poetic.

Kempff grabs his audience even more directly in that high-Romantic showpiece, the Sonata, Op. 5 of Johannes Brahms. Brahms hardly knew, at the time, how to contain the abundance of his thoughts in the repeatedly interrupted form of the sonata. The young man wrote his "Song of Love and Death" with his life's blood, the blood of his so often veiled heart, with powerfully masculine yet almost always dark, wistful notes. The German pianist, today over sixty, became twenty again with this work. He does not know the slightest hesitant consideration whilst facing the dangers of the first movement's chord agglomerations or the demonic Waltz-Scherzo's arpeggios, and stretches the backward-glancing Intermezzo's pianissimo to a hardly audible trace."

 

  - Jason Serinus -

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© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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