02_Doni_Lute.jpgLivre de Luth de Gioseppe Antonio Doni
Sylvain Bergeron
ATMA ACD2 2724

This lovely album has the poetry and wisdom needed to fuel the imagination of all romantics out there. But that is not all – it is also a fine display of Sylvain Bergeron’s mastery on a 14-string archlute and a testament to the abundance and variety of Italian lute music from the onset of the 17th century.

Gioseppe Antonio Doni was most likely an amateur lute player, possibly of noble descent, who compiled the manuscript of early 17th-century lute pieces into the collection known today as The Doni Lute Book. This collection, well known among lute players but relatively obscure among larger music circles, consists of almost 100 pieces by several different composers, including Doni’s teacher and lute virtuoso Andrea Falconieri as well as Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Giuseppe Baglioni and Archangelo Lori.

According to the liner notes, Sylvain Bergeron first encountered the book in his early days as a lute student and has continued to enjoy the collection ever since. For this recording Bergeron chose 25 compositions from the manuscript and grouped them into five sets, according to tonality and mood, thus creating a musical portrait of characters and colours. All sets but one contain Toccatas (some of them virtuosic and with daring modulations) and among many Correntes, there are some that are alluring illustrations of dreamy tenderness.

The relative simplicity of these pieces brings out the delicacy of Bergeron’s marvellous sound – here is the refined and astute player who brings tales from the past to his captivated audiences.

03_Rameau_Indes_Galantes.jpgRameau – Les Indes galantes
Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset
Alpha 710

It has always surprised me that, whereas musicians are concerned with the use of baroque performance practices in their realizations of 18th-century music, so few directors are interested in the use of baroque stage conventions. Of the operas I have seen, those directed by Gilbert Blin at the Boston Early Music Festival provide the only exceptions. In this production of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, it is always clear that this is a modern conception by the director, Laura Scozzi. The opera opens with Hébé, the goddess of youth, dressed in a very revealing slip. She is joined by a troupe of nude dancers who give physical expression to their sense of joy. But on two occasions, an apple is tasted, a not too subtle warning that the fall is imminent. The fall arrives when Bellone, the goddess of war (the part is scored for a baritone) arrives on an all-terrain motorized vehicle. He is followed by a motley crew of ecclesiastics and men in football shirts. The male dancers are then given chainsaws and they move away. The main scenes in Rameau’s opera present us with exotic worlds: Turkey, Peru, Persia, America. In this production we see these worlds in terms of modern tourism in which faraway countries are linked through air travel. At the very end of the opera the dancers return and they are now joined by a very pregnant woman, also nude. Is there a suggestion here that we have moved beyond experience to a higher innocence?

Christophe Rousset conducts with real bite, unlike William Christie, stylish but sedate, in the earlier CD (Harmonia Mundi), in which Rousset played the harpsichord continuo. The outstanding singer is the French-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul. We hear her as Hébé, as the Inca princess Phani and as the slave-girl Fatima. The Canadian baritone Nathan Berg is good in the role of the Inca priest Huascar.

Schoenberg – Gurrelieder
Barbara Haveman; Brandon Jovanovich; Thomas Bauer; Gerhard Siegel; Claudia Mahnke; Johannes Martin Kränzle; Gürzenich-Orchester, Köln; Markus Stenz
Hyperion CDA68081/2

Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire; Documentary: Solar Plexus of Modernism
Salzburg Festival
Belvedere 10125 

02a_Schoenberg_Gurrelieder.jpgGurrelieder, songs of Gurre, is one of the most exotic expressions of the late romantic era. The work, set to Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Gurre Sange, grew from a modest song cycle for two voices and piano into a giant cantata demanding an orchestra of twice the normal size, a triple male choir, a full choir and five soloists of post-Wagnerian capabilities. Not to mention a kitchen of iron chains. Beginning with the 1932 live Stokowski/Philadelphia and then the 1953 René Leibowitz (a pupil of Schoenberg)/Paris recordings, there are now 24 versions on CD and another on one DVD, almost all recorded in public concerts. For decades the work was considered unperformable and probably unsaleable (as did our own TSO in 2000, abruptly cancelling scheduled performances), undoubtedly because of Schoenberg’s role as the high priest of modernism whose music would not attract audiences. Nothing could be further from the truth, for this is the crowning glory of the high romantic, post-Wagnerian period.

This new performance is a product of the highest refinement of every aspect from individual players and ensembles inspired by a conductor who most clearly understands the innermost workings of this piece. The five soloists, whose names are not familiar, are perfectly cast and well understand the nuances of their roles. As the work resolves, the additional Sprechstimme role here receives a definitive performance, Kranzle naturally observing the implied pitches and occasionally breaking into actual singing as he announces the most glorious sunrise in all music. Quite an event. This whole production is a triumph not only for the performance but for the work itself which is now actually becoming popular.

The entire experience is captured in a recording of extraordinary clarity, balance and dynamics including the thunder of this vast array. It’s all there without any audible spotlighting. I consider this to be a most significant release and thoroughly recommendable.

02b_Schoenberg_Pierrot.jpgWhen Igor Stravinsky was asked to name an important musical work of the beginning of the 20th century, he replied that “Pierrot Lunaire is the solar plexus of 20th century music.” Schoenberg’s melodrama and its era are discussed and illustrated on the DVD including illuminating commentaries by an impassioned Mitsuko Uchida and the four other members of the chamber group that she assembled for this live performance from the 2011 Salzburg Festival.

The actual performance has all the intensity and passion imaginable; however, vocalist Barbara Sukowa is not a trained singer but an actress. Without the discipline of a finely tuned vocal technique so essential in this complex genre, she is but an actress playing a role. Not even close to good enough. Pity, because the well-prepared documentary is valuable.

03_Shostakovich.jpgShostakovich – Piano Concertos
Anna Vinnitskaya; Kremerata Baltica
Alpha 203

This is a remarkable debut disc from Russian-German pianist Anna Vinnitskaya. The two Shostakovich piano concertos are brilliant and entertaining, parodic and pensive in turn. In the Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35 (1933) soloist-director Vinnitskaya maintains tight ensemble and clear articulation with the Kremerata Baltica string orchestra and trumpeter Tobias Willner. The first movement illustrates Shostakovich’s method of assembling triads, scales and popular songs or classical themes into an ironic crazy-quilt whole, featuring harmonic sidesteps into new keys. In the second movement strings play a wide-ranging lyrical melody with poise, as a muted trumpet in dialogue with the piano does later. The virtuosic finale features Vinnitskaya’s still more rapid-fire piano and Willner’s matching double-tonguing.

In the Piano Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op.102 (1957), Omer Meir Wellber conducts the Winds of Staatskapelle Dresden together with Kremerata Baltica. The first and third major-key movements are tuneful in accordance with Soviet expectations, with military band-style flourishes and plenty of piano scales. The third however has sufficient contrast: it is largely in 7/4 metre, woodwinds are brilliant and French horns a standout, and there is even a quoted Hanon piano finger exercise! Best of all for me is Anna Vinnitskaya’s sensitive high-register playing in the the middle movement, which seems like a reminiscence of childhood. In the disc’s last two works pianist Ivan Rudin joins Vinnitskaya in idiomatic playing of Shostakovich’s Concertino (1954) and Tarantella (1955) for two pianos. Recommended for Shostakovich lovers.

01_Dido_and_Aeneas.jpgPurcell – Dido & Aeneas
Rachel Lloyd; Robert Davies; Elin Manahan Thomas; Armonico Consort; Christopher Monks
Signum Classics SIGCD417

This new recording of Dido and Aeneas could be described as lean. The orchestra consists of five string-players (one to a part with the double bass doubling the cello line) and one theorbo. The chorus consists of eight singers, two to a part. (I am going by the booklet which comes with the CD. There appear to be some uncredited wind players in the Overture as well as guitars in the First Act Chaconne). By contrast the performance conducted by Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi) has an orchestra of 22 players and a choir of 33 voices. The performance conducted by Emanuelle Haïm (Virgin) has a smaller choir (14) but an even larger orchestra (26).

There is a reason for the small forces used here: the earliest performance of the work that can be documented was at Josias Priest’s School for Gentlewomen in 1689. It has generally been assumed that that was the first performance of the work. In 1992, however, two musicologists published an article in which they suggested that the school performance would have been a revival and that the first performance, possibly at court, would have used larger forces.

Many readers will be mainly concerned with the quality of the mezzo-soprano who sings Dido. There are several great performances on record by Janet Baker, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Susan Graham. Rachael Lloyd, on the new recording, is good and there is a wonderful Belinda (Elin Manahan Thomas). I recommend the new recording, especially to those who prefer to hear the opera performed with the numbers that would have taken part in the first documented performance.


02_Sinkovsky_Vivaldi.jpgSinkovsky Plays & Sings Vivaldi
Dmitry Sinkovsky; La Voce Strumentale
naïve OP 30559

This is a disc filled with personality. The multi-talented Russian musician Dmitry Sinkovsky plays, sings and directs his lively interpretations of Vivaldi’s oft-performed four concertos based on the seasons, as well as an operatic scene and secular cantata.

There are so many recordings of The Four Seasons that I cannot claim with any authority that this is the most dramatic out there, but it is certainly the most expressive, demonstrative and exhausting performance of the piece I’ve ever heard. In the notes, Sinkovsky explains his approach as “like a real stage director in the opera house” and it shows. He’s a great player and, as it turns out, a fine singer as well. The two vocal excerpts on the disc make for a beautiful contrast and provide a nice respite from the aggressiveness of the playing in the concertos. In a cheeky bit of bravado, Sinkovsky plays the violin obbligato line as well as singing the aria Ah, ch’infelice sempre. I would love to see that in concert!

Some virtuoso musical personalities are generous and irrepressible, and therefore attractive. There’s no denying that Sinkovsky’s skill, musical intelligence and interpretive senses are off the charts, but I find there’s a gentleness and warmth missing from the mix. Still, he is young and certainly his performances of The Four Seasons are well worth the price of this very fine disc. Just hold on to your hat!


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02_Mahler_Fischer.jpgMahler – Symphony No.9
Budapest Festival Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCS SA 36115

Iván Fischer’s ever-innovative Budapest Festival Orchestra, now in its 30th season, is a unique ensemble. Formed from a core of younger freelance musicians and a modicum of state support it thrives without a musicians’ union or job security. Fischer aptly describes the profile of the BFO as “not a dinosaur but a tiger.”

This sixth instalment of their outstanding series of Mahler symphonies presents one of the finest recordings ever of the Ninth Symphony. The performance of the first movement, virtually a symphony in itself, is revelatory. It perfectly depicts Alban Berg’s description of this movement: “It expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.” The second movement, an archly ironic Ländler, is nattily performed with a curiously bourgeois restraint (the disruptive timpani strokes are barely audible), though all hell breaks out in the contrapuntal near-panic of the subsequent Rondo-Burleske. Time stands still in the intense longing and eventual serene acceptance of the Finale. Rarely have I heard such an exquisite balance within and between the sections of the orchestra; such unanimity of tone can only have been achieved with intensive sectional rehearsals, a luxury most orchestras have long abandoned. The orchestra is equally well served by Jared Sacks and Hein Dekker’s outstanding recording and production. At a relatively swift 75 minutes the work fits on a single disc in a hybrid SACD format. Not to be missed!


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