July 2012 Classical Review Roundup

Janice Watson/Dagmar Pecková/Peter Auty/Peter Rose/London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Antonin Dvořák: Stabat Mater, Op. 58
Dvořák’s Stabat Mater was born out of personal tragedy; its inspiration, if that is really the right word in the circumstances, was the death of all three of the composer’s children. This beautiful, heartfelt masterpiece is not heard as frequently in concert as it should be, but has been very well served on recordings.
Before Järvi’s arrived, I had three: the classic 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording by Rafael Kubelik, Giuseppe Sinopoli’s lush 2000 concert recording (also on DG), and Telarc’s last recording of the choral conductor par excellence, Robert Shaw. All are superb, but Järvi offers such a different yet compelling take on the piece that this recording, from an October 9, 2010 concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, can also be highly recommended.

One thing that sets it apart is that, unlike the aforementioned renditions, it fits on a single CD. This is not unique, but it is rare. Some of the other one-disc versions just squeak under the 80-minute mark, but Järvi’s lasts a mere 67:08. Now, this will not be to everyone’s tastes; some may feel the emotional depth of the work is slighted here. If so, Sinopoli’s 87:34,Shaw’s 85:12, and Kubelik’s 84:12 all provide catharsis in abundance. What Järvi’s more taut delivery of the work provides, in spades, is drama, and listeners who find those other versions sluggish will thrill to the tensile urgency heard here.

The four soloists are excellent. I especially enjoyed the creamy power of mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pecková (she’s particularly lovely in Quis est homo) and the rich, full timbre of bass Peter Rose. Some might find Pecková’s vibrato in Inflammatus et accensus a bit wide for comfort, but its operatic feel fits the dramatic slant of Järvi’s interpretation. The choir and orchestra are superb as well, and the sound is of course quite realistic.

Oficina Musicum/Riccardo Favero
Testamentum (Giovanni Legrenzi: Missa Laurentana Quinque Vocibus, etc.)

Legrenzi (1626-1690) was an important Italian Baroque composer who has been overshadowed by those who came after him, some of whom were his pupils (including Antonio Vivaldi, Antonio Lotti, and probably Antonio Caldara) or were influenced by him, in particular by his contributions to the development of the trio sonata. However, during his lifetime he was better known outside of his professional circle as a composer of opera and church music. Oficina Musicum’s previous Legrenzi album focused solely on choral music, but the somewhat unusual program on this album mixes sonatas and choral music. The first recording of the Mass noted in the heading is the most important piece here, but by putting together what could have been the music for a church service (which would have included instrumental interludes such as sonatas), Oficina Musicum is able to both provide more variety and give us a cross-section of Legrenzi’s output, making this a fine introduction to his work.

Stuttgart Chamber Choir/Frieder Bernius
Otto Nicolai: Herr, auf dich traue ich: Psalms

Frieder Bernius, one of the great choral conductors of our time, explores some lesser-known repertoire here; most of the pieces on this somewhat misleadingly titled album (not all the works here are Psalms) are first recordings. Nicolai (1810-1849) is famous as the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic and as the composer of the opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor(The Merry Wives of Windsor, based of course on Shakespeare’s play); it’s nice to hear something else by him for a change. There’s nothing game-changing here, but fans of Romantic a cappella choral music will enjoy this fare, which is similar to that of his almost exact contemporary Felix Mendelssohn, though at times a bit more harmonically lush a la Brahms. It’s quite beautiful, and Bernius and his choir are the perfect exponents. My only complaint is that only three of the twelve short pieces of his 1847 collection Liturgy No. 1 are included here; on an album of just 50:35 duration, the whole set could have fit easily, and the three that are heard are among the most distinctive music here.

Yvonne Kenny/Robert Tear/Stephen Roberts/London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Richard Hickox
George Dyson: The Canterbury Pilgrims/At the Tabard Inn/In Honour of the City

Chandos has been honoring the late Richard Hickox, who died four years ago, with a series entitled The Hickox Legacy. Before this volume, they’d sent me a two-CD set with two works by John Tavener, but while CD 1's We Shall See Him As He Is offers moderately attractive music, the self-important, long-winded, pompous, and pretentious Eis Thanaton is garishly unlistenable. Hickox's legacy is conveyed far more enjoyably on this two-CD set (at a two-for-one price). Dyson was the sort of composer the British love: musically conservative and often composing on Brit-centric topics. His monumental choral work The Canterbury Pilgrims (1930) made him famous. Later he added to it a lengthy instrumental overture, “At the Tabard Inn,” using themes from the earlier work; it opens this set. Filling out the second disc is his first major choral work, In Honour of the City (1928). While the sections for solo vocalists are more noodley than melodic and thus lack the appeal of the transcendent choral parts and the relatively daring instrumental stretches, overall it's an impressive work within the context of the English choral tradition, and it's performed vividly by an exception set of soloists and the home team ensembles.

H.J. Lim
Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas
(EMI Classics)

This has been a controversial release, but solely for its price: $9.99 for a set of the complete (with one proviso) sonatas. How dare EMI (supposedly) cheapen Beethoven with such a gimmick!?!? Well, that's BS. With no manufacturing costs to speak of, more digital "box set" releases should be this price, especially for up-and-coming artists. The classical industry must move to disconnect digital and physical pricing if it hopes to not utterly alienate the youth market. I don't see too much difference in principle between Lin's cheap Beethoven cycle and the famous cheap Beethoven cycle of my youth, Alfred Brendel's on Vox.

The main differences between Lim and Brendel? Even though it's got download-quality sonics (traditionalists and audiophiles will be happy to hear that EMI's releasing it on CDs at the end of August), Lim's cycle sounds better than the Vox set did. Hooray for progress! And, frankly, I find her performance more to my taste than any of Brendel's monochromatic performances, whether on Vox or, later and more expensively, Philips. This set is a brilliant career-booster for Lim not only because its price made it an instant hit, but because her audacious interpretive ideas --which never go too far or seem merely capricious -- deliver this familiar music with infectious verve that makes it fresh again. She does not include the two early sonatas that were published without Beethoven's permission but that are included in all other complete sets, but they are no great loss.

Susan Alexander-Max
C.P.E. Bach: Prussian Sonatas

C.P.E. Bach’s (1714-88) highly expressive keyboard sonatas were ahead of their time. Surprisingly, the available recordings of this set are on either clavichord (the composer’s favorite keyboard), or on modern piano, so Alexander-Max, a New Yorker specializing in music of this period, fills a gap by using a ca. 1790 Hofmann grand piano for this 1742 set, which generates an amount of power between the other available choices. She takes every opportunity to indulge C.P.E.’s love of dramatic emotion with lots of tempo manipulation and dynamic contrast, which somewhat compensates for the lesser impact of the instrument. While I prefer the modern piano, anyone who appreciates C.P.E. Bach’s sonatas should hear them on this period instrument. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.