Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) conducting his oratorio "Seven Gates of Jerusalem" at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, in 2001. Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The best new classical albums: November 2019

Recording of the Month

Facce d'amore – Giovanni Battista Bononcini, Giovanni Antonio Boretti, Pietro Francesco Cavalli, Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, George Frideric Handel, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Matteis, Giovanni Maria Orlandini, Luca Antonio Predieri, Alessandro Scarlatti

Jakub Józef Orliński, countertenor

Il pomo d'Oro

Conductor: Maxim Emelyanchev

Recorded at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, on March 15-21, 2019

Released on November 8, 2019 by Erato/Warner Classics

Facce d'amore, "Faces of love" follows Jakub Józef Orliński's first solo album, Anima Sacra, which moved Gramophone magazine to announce that "This is a voice with a big future", and The Sunday Times, having extolled the "the unearthly beauty of Orliński's tone, his pearly coloratura and fabulous breath control", to say, "He's only 28, but this is a special voice to look out for". It brings a switch from the sacred to the personal and passionate. As the Polish-born, New York-trained countertenor says, the programme – which includes eight world premiere recordings – comprises "operatic arias that tell a story, showing a musical picture of a male lover in the baroque era – not only the positive side, like joyful or reciprocated love, but also anger or even madness". Spanning some 85 years of the baroque period, the arias on Facce d'amore are by Handel, Cavalli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Bononcini, Conti, Hasse, Orlandini, Predieri and Matteis. Orliński is again partnered by the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d'Oro and their Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The new album brings a switch from the sacred to the personal and passionate. As the Polish-born, New York-trained singer explains: "On Anima Sacra I wanted to take listeners on a spiritual journey through an entire programme based on sacred music of the 18th century. The idea behind Facce d’amore is a bit different".

The programme – which includes an impressive eight world premiere recordings – comprises "operatic arias that tell a story, showing a musical picture of a male lover in the baroque era. They focus on totally different aspects of love – not only the positive side, like joyful or reciprocated love, but also the side where the characters are possessed by anger or even madness".

The album, which spans some 85 years of the baroque period, includes arias by major figures like Handel, Cavalli and Alessandro Scarlatti, by composers whose names have regained currency over recent decades, like Bononcini, Conti and Hasse (who wrote the virtuosic "Sempre a si vaghi rai" – one of the album's world premieres – for the legendary castrato Farinelli), and by relatively obscure names like Orlandini, Predieri and Matteis. As for Anima Sacra, the bass-baritone Yannis François advised on the conception and compilation of the programme for Facce d'amore, while Orliński's performance partners are again the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d'Oro and their Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

A great deal has happened in Jakub Józef Orliński's career since the release of Anima Sacra, which has taken his name around the world. The New Yorker magazine has summed him up with the headline "A millennial countertenor's pop-star appeal", while his assumption of the title role in Handel's Rinaldo at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in August 2019 led the Financial Times to write that: "Jakub Józef Orliński is the new countertenor on the block. In the short time that he was been singing at the top level he has matured at speed and his Rinaldo is the number one reason for catching this run of performances".


See also

“Facce d'amore” – New album from Jakub Józef Orliński

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Symphony for Solo Piano & Concerto for Solo Piano

Paul Wee, piano

Recorded August 2017 and May 2018 at Hall One, Kings Place, London, England
Released on November 1, 2019 by BIS

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Alkan's Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano have appeared together on a single disc. The aptly named Symphony comprises four études (Nos. 4, 7), and its companion Concerto a further three études (Nos. 8, 10), from Alkan's set of Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, his Op.39, published in 1857. The movements of both works are linked by a progressive tonality, each written in a key a perfect fourth above its predecessor. Those of the Symphony move from C minor to F minor, B flat minor and E flat minor; the Concerto from G sharp minor to C sharp minor and finally to F sharp minor.

Here I must declare an interest: I am one of those who firmly believes that Alkan is a genius on a level with Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz, and that the Symphony and Concerto are two high points in the entire literature of the piano. Many, I know, disagree with that view. Perhaps this recording might persuade the doubters to give them another hearing because, on several levels, it is quite extraordinary.

Alkan's Op.39 Études are way, way beyond the reach of most pianists, and to the best of my knowledge only five pianists have recorded both the Symphony and the Concerto – Ronald Smith, Jack Gibbons, Stephanie McCallum, Vincenzo Maltempo and Marc-André Hamelin. The performances on this disc equal and sometimes surpass all five. That is astonishing enough; but what is almost incredible is that the soloist Paul Wee is not a professional pianist but a highly successful international commercial London lawyer.

The precision of his attack, the clarity of the part-playing, the linear focus and structural grasp of each movement of the Symphony are quite thrilling to experience – and when Alkan marks the final movement Presto, Wee takes him at his word. The first movement of the Concerto – 72 pages and 1,343 bars in length, making it longer than the entire Hammerklavier Sonata – is a roller coaster utilising every conceivable pianistic effect. There are few moments of respite. Wee's technical command is awesome by any standards but he is no mere note-spinner, adding his own drama and colour to the bravura writing while being equally alive to the moments of lyrical repose. The spontaneity and drive of his playing smash the sterile confines of the studio. It is urgent, committed, compelling. In the finale (marked alla barbaresca), Wee's brilliant tone and clarion-clear bass lines present a clear contrast to Hamelin's smoother-toned, more patrician reading that is not, unlike Wee's, relentlessly aggressive.

But, frankly, this is one of those discs I feel disinclined to niggle over small discrepancies and matters of personal taste. It will certainly be one of my Discs of the Year. It could become a classic. A tip of the hat to producer Jeremy Hayes and sound engineer David Hinitt, as well as to Bryce Morrison and Mike Spring for their seminal roles in the venture – and to Robert von Bahr of BIS for taking a punt. But most of all to the remarkable Paul Wee on his recording debut.

Source: Jeremy Nicholas (

Anamorfosi – Gregorio Allegri, Luigi Rossi, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Mazzocchi, Antonio Maria Abbatini, Marco Marazzoli

Vincent Dumestre, theorbo and direction

Le Poème Harmonique

Recorded in June 2018 in Baume-les-Messieurs, France
Released on September 27, 2019 by Alpha Classics

In Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa may have woken up one morning to find that he had been transformed overnight into a giant insect, but in the story of music history there are few such hard borders. In fact, it's pretty much one long slide from beginning to end. On the way there are famous moments, nodes that define a style, but even between seemingly opposed categories there is often a veritable riot of frictionless trade. This is a programme which delves deep into the slippage between sacred and secular through a host of exquisite works appropriated and transformed for Counter-Reformation interests. The title, "Anamorfosi" ("anamorphosis") is drawn from the visual arts, a deliberate distortion that requires the viewer to occupy a particular perspective or vantage point. In short, this is one of the best programmes that I have encountered in recent years, both in concept and execution, and it begins with an icon of early music, Allegri's Miserere.

Broadly speaking, there are currently two types of Miserere recordings: choral, King's College – inspired performances usually situated alongside works by Palestrina and other papal chapel luminaries. Such readings are generally the reserve of English consorts specialising in Renaissance vocal polyphony, such as The Tallis Scholars. Increasingly, however, Allegri's alignment with the Renaissance is problematised as performers explore the practice of vocal ornamentation that the young Mozart felt no need to notate in his transcription of 1770. In fact there are now several excellent recordings – which I dub "nu-wave Allegri" – employing Baroque-and-beyond ornamentation (not to mention moveable high Cs) as they attempt to recapture the infamous papal chapel practices documented by many a Grand Tour diarist. This latter category already boasts an incredible exploration of 19th-century practice by Ensemble William Byrd (Naïve/Ambronay, 2001) and some delicious Baroque ornamentation from A Sei Voci (Naïve, 9/95). Now Vincent Dumestre joins the fray with his vivid and compelling examination of permeability in the Baroque's sacred-secular membrane. Viewing ornamentation as a corruption of Allegri's simple homophonic textures (akin to architectural trompe l'œil) leads him and his performers down some fanciful and spectacular routes.

The singing is text-focused from the outset, plainsong is demonstratively declaimed and homophonic passages work up a furtive urgency until they spawn flurries of ornamentation clustered around references to our human vulnerability. The singers of Le Poème Harmonique are clearly accomplished virtuosos, as were the Roman singers of Allegri's time; their filigree passagework is nimble and flexible; and, importantly, the sopranos never fail to sparkle. These ornamentations, at times, transform quite radically the familiar homophonic architecture of the work: frequently they create mouthwateringly dissonant suspensions the frisson of which is not lost on our modern and conservative ears. This really is an Allegri Miserere to treasure.

This superb Miserere performance sits alongside lesser-known and rather ingenious contrafacta. These are works that were originally secular – madrigals and dramatic recitatives – pieces which, in short, had already become famous in their original contexts before being transformed by swapping in a sacred text as the church harnessed the power of the very music of actors and theatres that it sought to suppress. An arresting example of this comes from the mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik, who gives an absolutely gripping performance of Luigi Rossi's Un allato Messagier, a poetic lament on the death of Christ which was formed by an anonymous author who re-texted Rossi's "Lament of the Queen of Sweden on the Death of her Husband" (Un ferito cavalier). Of the secular original I have long admired Suzie Le Blanc and Tragicomedia (Challenge Classics, 2001) for their crisp intensity; and here, in this sacred reworking, Zaïcik maintains a similarly crisp edge to her mourning but constantly undercuts it with deeper, purpler hues. Much encouraged by the superb instrumentalists, this is a performance all enthusiasts of Roman cantatas will find spellbinding. Followed by Monteverdi's mesmeric Si dolce è' l martire (a re-texting of Si dolce è' l tormento) with a sparklingly bittersweet performance from soprano Deborah Cachet, the genius of the programme is clear by the third piece.

The instrumentalists excel in Abbatini's luxuriant little Sinfonia that begins with a beautiful cornet solo by Adrien Mabire. But perhaps nothing better sums up the beguiling sounds of Seicento Italy than Mazzocchi's Breve è la vita nostra, with its opening trio of outrageously sensuous sopranos weaving a delicious polyphonic web that is then cleverly contrasted with an admonishing fugal figure. This is an album so nuanced you can almost taste it.

Source: Edward Breen (

Le Poème Harmonique, with founder Vincent Dumestre, celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. Their latest album entitled "Anamorfosi" focuses primarily on baroque works that have been transformed lyrically from their secular incarnations to the sacred variants. Together they deliver 77 minutes of captivating and colorful music in a carefully paced and innovative program.

Dumestre throws open the doors, illuminating the direction of this richly inventive musical journey to 17th century Rome, with Allegri's undoubted masterpiece "Miserere". Listeners should dispense with all ideas of how Allegri's Miserere should be performed; from examples such as the classic interpretation of the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge to the purity of the Tallis Scholars rendition. For Le Poème Harmonique, Allegri's Miserere is not a stand-alone piece, it's the starting point of a journey from which they carry the listener, onwards through a program of at times hypnotic reverence. Delving deeper beyond the simple harmonies of the "Miserere", the group finds something new in their clashing quasi-improvised embellishments. Opening an album with such an unorthodox rendition, one takes note of Dumestre's musical knowledge, creativity and ability to captivate.

Two solos pieces follow in this musical sequence, growing organically from the starting point, containing the same natural sense of improvisation. Luigi Rossi's "Un Allato Messagier" (track 6), which began its life as the lament "Queen of Sweden on the death of her husband" ("Un ferito cavalier"), as the informative booklet highlights. Lyrically adapted by an anonymous author, this hybrid of aria and recitative is emotionally evocative, sung by mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik. Following on in a seamless transition is Claudio Monteverdi's aria, "Si dolce è' l martire", with soprano Déborah Cachet. The consistency in the style of diction becomes immediately apparent, the Italianate pronunciation unifies not only the sequence thus far, but the entire album as one progresses through. One senses a complete unity between the players and Cachet, culminating in the last line "for your heart has captivated me!", which is delivered with sincerity and musical conviction.

Returning to a psalm setting, using the techniques of falsobordone (harmonized Gregorian chant), is an anonymous setting of "Domine, ne in furore tuo" (8-10). Beginning with an A Capella section, comparable to the opening Allegri, its central section with instrumental accompaniment has a carefully balanced cornet solo, which is beautifully executed. Careful attention is played to the voicing, the tenor line comes to the fore unintrusively, highlighting the refinement and attention given to the inner polyphonic lines.

Domenico Mazzocchi's "Breve É La Vita Nostra" (track 11) brings some well-placed drama with its contrasting textures. The "sinfonia"’ to "De La Comica Del Cielo" by Antonio Maria Abbatini (12) provided the instrumental group with their moment to shine. Fitting perfectly into the musical sequence, it evolves into "Chi Fà" by Marco Marazzoli. This brings some secular operatic drama to this sacred music, characterized by highly stylistic solos from, amongst others, Nicholas Scott and Marc Mauillon.

The final sequence returns to Monteverdi. The penultimate piece is a reworking of the madrigal "Dorinda, ah, dirò mia", "Maria, Quid Ploras". Adding a rich instrumental accompaniment, it is elevated to a celestial plain of beauty and majesty. The final work, which may be familiar as "Altri canti di Marte" from the eighth book of madrigals, is reworked as "Pascha concelebranda" (17-18). It brings a celebratory and uplifting close to a highly engaging recital.

Alpha has recorded this album with due care and engineered it to a very judiciously balanced sound. The acoustics of Baume Abbey, France, add to the atmospheric ambiance, giving the music a sense of context. The instrumental accompaniments are exquisite and bring an intrinsic sense of style throughout. Not an album to cherry-pick from, this is a complete musical experience to be savored. The flawless programming on this album is coherent and diligent, each work having an essence, big or small, to the Allegri "Miserere". But as the musical journey evolves, there is a drama and reverence, maintaining a sense of momentum and intrigue. The musical standards from both singers and instrumentalists are at the zenith of period performance, making this a highly commendable release.

Source: Leighton Jones (

Maurice Ravel: Miroirs, & La Valse (transcription Maurice Ravel for solo piano) | Igor Stravinsky: Danse infernale, Berceuse et Finale from The Firebird (transcription Guido Agosti for solo piano), & Three Movements from Petrushka (transcription Igor Stravinsky for solo piano)

Beatrice Rana, piano

Recorded on May 19-21 & September 5, 2019, at Teldex Studio, Berlin
Released on October 25, 2019 by Warner Classics

Since her silver medal at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, I've followed the career of Beatrice Rana with great interest. When introducing friends who aren't musicians to her recordings, I usually mention a couple of things. Rana, who is the daughter of two professional pianists, tells the story that, when she was very young, it was easier for her to communicate with the piano than with speech. She is as authentic as they come and plays everything, be it the Goldberg Variations or the Prokofiev Second, as though nothing in the world could be more important. Rana's new Warner release, recorded in June and September of this year, beautifully captures pre war Paris with Ravel's Miroirs and two of Stravinsky's ballets for Diaghilev, with La valse thrown in as a post-war snapshot.

Though we had a taste of Rana's Ravel in Gaspard de la nuit on her first recording after the Cliburn (Harmonia Mundi, 2/14), the pieces here underscore the originality of her approach to the composer. Her seemingly infinite variety of touch, particularly at the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum, stands her in good stead, say, with a piece such as "Noctuelles", where acutely differentiated levels of pianissimo make it difficult to distinguish the protean flight of the moths from the dust in their wake. Rana communicates her musical imagery with an ease and economy that belies its power. The heat in "Oiseaux tristes" is almost palpable, muting the birds' song as it wilts the entire landscape. Even a threadbare warhorse such as "Alborada del gracioso" emerges freshly vibrant with a blend of uncommon harmonic emphases and kinetic vitality.

As evocative as the Ravel pieces undoubtedly are, the two Stravinsky ballet transcriptions belong in a category that can only be described as conjury. When all is said and done, you may ask yourself, as I did, where did these brilliant colours evoking Bakst come from, this protean energy punctuated by such rhythmic authority, these reserves of power? Or perhaps find yourself pulling out your Monteux or Boulez to see if the orchestral originals could really sound so prosaic in comparison.

There's no question that Rana is an immensely resourceful pianist who can pull off dazzling effects when warranted. But it is her sane, thoughtful music-making, inerrant in focus, often strikingly original and always from the heart, that sets her apart. Not many 26-year-olds in my experience can boast artistry so satisfyingly complete.

Source: Patrick Rucker (

Beatrice Rana, second-prize winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, releases a new Warner Classics recording of works by Ravel and Stravinsky. Her performance is nothing short of stunning: flawless technique serves as a backdrop for her mature interpretation of both composers. Rana's Ravel does not just illustrate the programmatic nature of the pieces, but tells a vivid story. Her Stravinsky takes to the heart the essence of orchestral transcription, using the piano to not only convey the nuanced timbres of different instruments, but also its power to represent a full orchestra's richness.

Rana's interpretation of Miroirs shows her solid understanding of Ravel's musical style, so heavily based upon harmonic color. Composed between 1904-1905, Ravel dedicated each movement to a member Les Apaches, an avante-garde group of artists of which he was a part. Each movement is a vignette; what Rana does so well is observing Ravel's idiom while still giving each piece its distinct character, ranging from impish (Noctuelles) to melancholy (Oiseaux tristes). Of particular note is her Une Barque sur l'océan, which has the diaphanous quality of Gieseking (1954) but that adds an excellent balance of melodic lines. Her playing presents an interweaving of different melodic threads, each of a different personality. In a most nuanced way, she expresses the chiming upper voice, the resonant middle notes and the arpeggiated flowing accompaniment. through her sensitivity, a listener can easily picture what Ravel's title suggests. She also pays detailed attention to harmonic color changes throughout. Another impressive movement is Alborada Del Gracioso (track 4). Where an interpretation like that of Bertrand Chamayou (Erato, 2016) expresses the graceful, perhaps humorous nature of the jester (the title roughly translates to "Morning Song of a Jester"), Rana's interpretation is fiery. Her opening (try the first 30 seconds) is measured and rhythmic along the lines of Gieseking and shows incredible clarity with crisp and snappy notes, giving way to bursts of passion (0'39"). The quieter middle section maintains difference of character in different registers and is a well-thought out contrast with the outer-lying sections.

Rana's La Valse is both beautiful and exciting. It shows good establishment of the waltz rhythm from the start, which becomes essential to the motion of the entire piece. From the performance aspect, this can be a bit tricky given the low register of the piano and soft dynamic; however, her notes are clear and articulated. This in fact goes for all the notes she plays: unlike Debussy, Ravel writes in an interestingly mathematical fashion with specific note groupings. Rana manages to reconcile this specificity with the fluidity that the waltz requires. Her clear articulation is partly due to wise pedalling. Where Yeol Eum Son's recording (Decca, 2016) uses a little too much pedal at the opening, Rana is mindful, almost sparing in her usage. Each phrase is given ample care from start to finish; this is especially true in her right hand which sings coyly, with a charming and almost pleading nature. The only issue with Rana's phrasing is the slightly exaggerated ritardando, done at the ends, which can get a little predictable. A recording that balances good phrasing and rhythmic continuity well is Ruth Laredo's (1982, CBS Classics); her interpretation takes very few bends in tempi but still reflects the spirit of the waltz.

Rana puts forth a solid 3 movements of Petrushka, but it is her interpretation of the first movement that shines. Although her opening could use more of the shrill quality of the high winds in the orchestral version (something that Pollini in his celebrated 1971 DG recording does very well), her playing speaks to the fullness of the ensemble. At the same time, it expresses the delicacy of the piano's upper register (1'04" - 1'17"). The first movement in particular can end up being played for virtuosity's sake, but Rana's interpretation is powerful while always putting good sound quality at the forefront.

The highlight of her Stravinsky interpretations is certainly The Firebird. The arrangement is by Guido Agosti, an Italian pianist who studied with Busoni. This piece is nothing short of a pianistic nightmare in terms of difficulty, but Rana demonstrates absolute mastery of it. In the Danse Infernale (track 6), her virtuosity comes through naturally. As in Petrushka, she pays attention to the orchestral basis of the piece, using all registers of the piano to represent a wide variety of orchestral timbres. She does a very good job with transitioning smoothly between different characters and sections of the movement; this is done very well between middle lyrical section back into the rhythmic section (2'44"). The Berceuse is lyrical, sensitive and has many delicate shades of color.

The pianistic writing of the transcription poses a challenge to a performer: the melody is essentially written between two layers of accompaniment, so there is a lot of manoeuvring needed between the two hands. Rana not only executes this seamlessly, but manages to incorporate a high level of expressive phrasing that mimics the plaintive nature of the bassoon which introduces the melody in the orchestral version.

The sound engineering of the CD complements Rana's performance, highlighting her clarity throughout. The liner notes too are well done, as they feature Rana's own words about each of the works and gives the listener her honest and evocative insights.

Source: Azusa Ueno (

Antoine Brumel: Mater Patris | Josquin des Prés: Missa Mater Patris | Noel Bauldeweyn: Missa Da pacem

The Tallis Scholars
Conductor: Peter Phillips

Recorded at Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Released on November 1, 2019 by Gimell

As one of the most important accounts of Josquin's Masses in recent decades, Peter Phillips' albums with The Tallis Scholars continue to sparkle and inform. Already in these pages I have admired the clarity of vision and consistency of sound that this ensemble bring to his works; but with this new album there is a particular sheen to the performance that places it among their recent best.

Phillips recently wrote how he feels each of Josquin's Masses has its own "sound world" (The Musical Times, autumn 2018). As we approach the end of his recording project, this comment comes into sharper focus, and particularly so in the case of Missa Mater Patris. One can argue that this is a late work on the grounds it is potentially a lament for Brumel, who died around 1512 and whose motet provides the model. But also, as Phillips suggests, this "forthright" and "bracingly simple" style could be the refinement of a lifetime's work. One could say that of this performance as well: it is scored for low voices and these singers find a warmth in the homophonic writing that blooms into an unhurried grandeur. Compared with Chanticleer (7/94) this is a much tighter ensemble in both tone and phrasing, and there are several outstandingly well-controlled spans of two-voice polyphony. Listen especially for the way these singers glide through the exotic chord-chains in the Sanctus: I can't help but be reminded of the confident sweep of the Andrews Sisters. This is glorious stuff indeed.

Missa Da pacem was once thought to be by Josquin and recorded on LP as such several times in the early '70s, until it was shown to be by the little-known Noel Bauldeweyn. Phillips includes it in his cycle as an exercise in tracing Josquin's influence. It's worth it for its especially beautiful Agnus Dei III, which is sung here with charm and tenderness.

Source: Edward Breen (

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61 | Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Conductor: Robin Ticciati

Recorded on October 30-31, 2018, at Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin (Sibelius), and on November 16-17, 2018, at Philharmonie Berlin (Beethoven)
Released on September 13, 2019 by Ondine

What we have here is by my calculations Christian Tetzlaff's third recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, the first two under Michael Gielen and David Zinman respectively. Having reviewed the latter in these pages back in June 2006, I noted then that "the main stumbling-block on so many rival recordings of this work is a sort of romantic reverence, a trend challenged by Zehetmair, Kremer and others. For all its many moments of profound repose, Beethoven's Violin Concerto is a forthright, heroic piece, with boldly militaristic first movement tutti and a rollicking finale which Tetzlaff invests with numerous added colours. Following on the heels of Zehetmair, Kremer and Schneiderhan, [he] performs the violin version of the cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his piano transcription of the work, a playful excursion and a snug fit for his overall interpretation". This choice of cadenza has apparently been Tetzlaff's preferred option from the age of 15.

Little has changed during the intervening years, at least in principle. Listening to Tetzlaff flying side-saddle through the Concerto last November (when this superbly engineered recording was made at Berlin's Philharmonie), often with the utmost agility, reminded me that at the work's premiere the composer's violinist colleague Franz Clement – who was sight-reading Beethoven's hastily finished solo part – is said, by some, "to have interrupted the concerto between the first and second movements with a solo composition of his own, played on one string of the violin held upside down". Now do hear me out on this point. Tetzlaff may at times excitedly rushes his fences, but in collaboration with Robin Ticciati and his alert Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, he transforms aspects of what so many have treated as a sort of Holy Grail (ie loftily reverential) into a beer tankard, the sense of unhinged inebriation gaining most froth in the outer movements' playful cadenzas, which run wild in the first movement and ratchet up extra excitement for the finale. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard a more excitable account of that closing Rondo. Here, as Tetzlaff himself says in a fascinating booklet interview, "the seriousness or solemnity sometimes surrounding the work is [also] completely suspended". Of course, viewed as a whole the Concerto still emerges as the mighty edifice that it is, but it's good to have a dose of typically Beethovenian rough-and-tumble thrown in as ballast.

The first movement's serene central section (played in tempo) allows for a welcome spot of repose and elsewhere Tetzlaff's sweet, delicately spun tone contrasts with, or should I say complements, Ticciati's assertive, occasionally bullish accompaniment. The Larghetto is beautifully done, its effect underlined through the sheer energy and character of the outer movements. There's never any doubt that what you're listening to is a real concerto, a battle of wills, more in line with Zehetmair and Brüggen (who use Wolfgang Schneiderhan's cadenza with timpani) or Kremer and Harnoncourt (a cadenza incorporating piano) than with the likes of Perlman, Zukerman or Kennedy. Who knows: maybe this is roughly what Beethoven originally had in mind? It's possible, even probable. One thing's for sure: never before has this indelible masterpiece sounded more like a profound precursor of Paganini.

If Beethoven's Concerto emerges as uncompromisingly provocative, Tetzlaff's Sibelius also errs on the side of danger. As risk-taking performances go, this one will have you clinging to the sides of your seat. Comparing it with his Virgin recording with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard is especially instructive: in the finale's opening, the ever-attentive Ticciati follows Sibelius' wishes by cueing a gradual diminuendo before Tetzlaff enters, whereas Dausgaard carries on pounding at full throttle. Then again, in the passage leading to the second subject (from around 0'44"), under Ticciati Tetzlaff sounds as if he's clinging on for dear life. Sibelius throws down the gauntlet by requesting a very fast tempo and Tetzlaff rises to the challenge. I shan't pretend that the effect is entirely comfortable (the Dausgaard option sounds marginally safer) but it’s undeniably exciting. The Concerto's opening is candidly emotional, with imaginatively deployed varieties of attack (a Tetzlaff speciality) and Ticciati again engaging his soloist with the utmost intensity, lunging fearlessly at Sibelius' dynamic writing, whether the deafening growl at 7'07" or the movement's fiercely driven close. As with the Beethoven, Tetzlaff is at his lyrical best in the Adagio. Both performances sidestep interpretative convention without either offending or displacing their finest rivals. In many respects, a real knock-out.

Source: Rob Cowan (

See also

Christian Tetzlaff: “I think Sibelius did for his century what Beethoven did for his”

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op.61 | Septet for Violin, Viola, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, Cello and Double Bass in E flat major, Op.20 | Variations on Folk Songs, Op.105 & 107 for Piano and Flute or Violin ad Libitum

Leonidas Kavakos, violin & direction

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks

Recorded in Munich, at Philharmonie im Gasteig, on March 27-29, 2019, and Studio 1 of BR, on May 10-12, 2019
Released on October 18, 2019 by Sony Music

"Beethoven mania" continues in this insatiable frenzy for labels to endlessly issue new recordings for the forthcoming composer's anniversary. Another violin concerto comes fast on the heels of Christian Tetzlaff's outstanding and insightful rendition with Robin Ticciati and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. In this case, Leonidas Kavakos directs the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks from the violin. Tetzlaff pairs his with the Sibelius concerto, Kavakos completes his album with a trio of Beethoven's chamber works – the early septet Op.20 and two late settings of folksongs variations from Op.105 and 107.

Across all the three movements of the concerto, Kavakos' performance is one of the most expansive on record. Taking the composer's marking of allegro ma non troppo, the tempo is very broad. Decreased speed allows for greater rhythmic clarity such as the juxtaposition of semi-quavers and triple quavers passages. Contrasts of piano and forte from Kavakos' bow are subtle, but this is a part of his style, as illustrated in his Brahms sonatas album with Yuja Wang. The cadenza chosen is the one based on the piano transcription of the work, with timpani. Kavakos elaborates with extra by adding multiple stops and double trills, sending the levels of virtuosity required to play this into the stratosphere.

Taking almost three minutes more than Tetzlaff, there is a different feel to the Larghetto central movement altogether, as Kavakos creates a stillness with his tempo, which is closer to an adagio. A mostly convincing rendition, Kavakos is so engrossed that there are momentary losses of orchestral direction and whilst taking liberties at the end of phrases, he occasionally holds the last note slightly longer than indicated. The third movement, marked allegretto, is again broad. Tetzlaff's brisker speed has a two-in-a-bar feel, whilst Kavakos' 6/8 meter is strongly pronounced. The two cadenzas at bar 99 (2'21") and bar 278 (7'37") are substantial, and are more succinct in Tetzlaff's version.

Kavakos' beautifully shaped phrases dovetail with those of the orchestra with a melodious and lyrical tone and a gentle vibrato. Some may find the orchestral palette of a previous age, the large body of strings creates a richness with a warm sonority, vibrato matching the color, but not the intensity of Kavakos'. Textures are clear and distinguishable, Sony's engineering allows clarity with beautifully balanced woodwind – especially the bassoons.

The septet Op.20 for clarinet, French horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass, a huge success for the young Beethoven, is a relative rarity today. Kavakos, with the principals of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, give a sophisticated performance of this work. Each of the six movements is aptly paced, with more articulate playing and contrasting dynamics than the concerto. The balance between the players is good, though Kavakos occasionally dominates, in the first and fifth movements especially, when wind players have more significant musical ideas. The Nash Ensemble have similar tempos to Kavakos, but with greater equality between the players (though their older recording lacks the clarity and atmospheric acoustic). Throughout the work, the players bring a sense of unity, which would have provided an appropriate end to the album.

But there's more: five sets of variations based on folksongs follow – the third set from Op.105 and four sets from Op.107. In these Kavakos is joined by pianist Enrico Pace. Whilst variations are stylistically played with a sense of fun, they feel misplaced after the septet and bring the album to an anticlimactic conclusion.

Kavakos in the concerto and piano variations is recorded slightly too close for comfort, but the overall balance is very good. Recording locations are well-chosen with enhancing acoustics. Kavakos' Beethoven concerto is in the same vein as Brahms, leaden with romanticism. He brings a distinction which may be too slow for some, but is considered and executed with certainty nonetheless. For a slimmer tone overall, with vibrancy and a more exciting approach, Tetzlaff is preferable, with cadenzas which are more stylistic and who's orchestra benefit from Ticciati's imaginative conducting.

Source: Leighton Jones (

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos

Kati Debretzeni, violin

English Baroque Soloists
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

Recorded on December 7-11, 2018, at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Released on November 15, 2019 by Soli Deo Gloria

There are many recordings of the Bach violin concertos, in different combinations; I have and enjoy quite a few of them. Take one look at the personnel involved in the new SDG recording and you will understand why I had to add it to the list and review it. Sir John Eliot Gardiner's complete recordings of the Bach sacred cantatas, made live in their pilgrimage year, are one of the top recommendations, alongside Masaaki Suzuki's set for BIS, and his recording of the Brandenburg Concertos is also a prime consideration.

In fact, Gardiner conducts only the first two Brandenburgs, leaving the remainder to Kati Debretzeni, soloist and leader throughout. I wrote in January 2010 that the decision to leave her in charge for numbers 3 to 6 was amply justified. A pluralist by merit, she was also the solo violinist for another very fine set of the Brandenburgs, with the European Brandenburg Ensemble and Trevor Pinnock. So that's a triple whammy in disposing me to hear the new SDG recording.

I had hardly finished hearing the end of BBC Radio 3's Building a Library recommendations for the E major Concerto when I noticed an advertisement for the new album. I didn't hear the whole review, but I have no problem with the recommendations: for period-instrument performance Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque (November 2011/1), Pablo Valletti and Café Zimmermann (Alpha) or Isabelle Faust and Akademie für alte Musik (Harmonia Mundi). For modern-instrument performance with a sense of period style, Janine Jansen and Friends (Decca) or René Capuçon with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

To these I would add two older recordings which, though by no means HIPP, are stylish and still worth having: David Oistrakh (DG Originals, or DG Galleria, or Alto) and Arthur Grumiaux (Decca). These are not the only ones, but they will do very well to be getting on with.

Many will prefer one-to-a-part performances of these concertos. It's not a matter that I make an article of faith, but the small-scale English Baroque Soloists on SDG make for an ideal compromise, with three first and three second violins, two each violas and cello, one double bass and harpsichord. Certainly, the balance between ensemble and soloist is well maintained throughout, thanks, of course, in no small measure to the recording engineers. Astronomers searching for Goldilocks planets – not too hot or not too cold – will find the musical equivalent here.

I said that I had no problem with the Building a Library first choice of Rachel Podger with Brecon Baroque in the E major, BWV 1042, and that's the version that provides my benchmark for both it and the a minor concerto on the new recording. It's especially appropriate that I listened to both in 24/96 format. They differ in their couplings, however, the Channel Classics offering two other reconstructed violin concertos from the keyboard set, BWV 1055 and BWV 1056. And though the English Baroque Soloists ensemble is slightly larger than that of Brecon Baroque – the latter fielding one each first and second violin, viola, cello, violone and harpsichord – the difference in practice hardly affected my judgement.

In fact, I find it very difficult to plump for one at the expense of the other. Both are beautifully played, excellently supported by ensembles which include accomplished soloists in their own right, and very well recorded. Both are guaranteed to transport all but the most obstinate Bach-hater – is there such a being? – to Elysium.

That includes the slow movements, an important point in all recordings of these concertos. Traditionally, both the andante of the a minor and the adagio of the E major were squeezed for every last drop of sentiment. The trick is to move the music along without dragging it out, yet still find the emotional content. I think that Podger scores in that regard in the a minor, at a pace which better represents the andante marking, but I don't want to make too music of it. Debretzeni's account certainly brings out the emotional power, and honours are about even in the E major.

Just to complicate matters, what is meant by "Bach Violin Concertos" is something of a variable feast, as we have seen from comparing the Podger and Debretzeni recordings. Mostly we are offered the two "regular" concertos for solo violin, in a minor and E major, but after that it's a free for all – some add the Double Violin Concerto, BWV1043, others one or more of the keyboard concertos in arrangements. On the new SDG we have two of these, BWV 1052 and BWV 1053, the latter in a new arrangement by the soloist Kati Debretzeni. Scholarship suggests that the keyboard versions which we have were arranged by Bach himself from originals with the violin, oboe, or violin and oboe, so reverse engineering is wholly acceptable.

BWV1053, if not played with keyboard solo, as published, is sometimes performed as an oboe concerto, but there is another recording of a violin arrangement (in D) from Viktoria Mullova with Accademia Bizantina and Ottavio Dantone (Onyx). I enjoyed this, even by comparison with other then recent recordings from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS), Petra Müllejans (Harmonia Mundi) and Podger (see above) in DL News 2013/10.

The concerto makes sense with a violin soloist, transposed down to D, though Debretzeni admits in the notes that "in all probability [it] was never a violin concerto". No matter if it works, and it did for me, though I revel in all the permutations that the music of Bach and Handel, both inveterate borrowers and re-arrangers, often throw our way, and I certainly wouldn't wish to be deprived of the keyboard version. In fact, Mullova and Debretzeni use slightly different arrangements of this concerto; the latter explains how she has also borrowed from the same music as recycled by Bach in two cantatas.

Heard in conjunction with the new SDG recording, Mullova's and Dantone's slightly slower tempi sound more deliberate. That doesn't mean that they are stodgy, especially in the finale where there is very little to choose, but it does mean that I ended with a slight but clear preference for Debretzeni and Gardiner in the one work common to both which sets them apart from most recordings of these concertos. I listened to the new SDG in 24-bit sound and to the Onyx in 16-bit, but I don't think that was the sole reason for my preference. If the idea of BWV1060 arranged for violin and harpsichord, rather than as published for two harpsichords or as usually reconstructed for violin and oboe, appeals, there's no reason not to choose the Onyx.

Mullova and Dantone, like the new recording, offer four concertos: both contain the "regular" concertos in a and E, BWV 1041 and 1042. Here, too, the Onyx timings are very slightly slower than those on SDG, though the differences are less noticeable than in BWV 1053.

The SDG and Channel Classics booklets are head and shoulders above that which Onyx provide for Mullova and Dantone – an inadequate affair which, for example, doesn't tell us the number of performers in the Accademia. Both SDG and Channel are honest in admitting that neither BWV 1053 on the former or BWV 1055 on the latter were likely to have been composed for the violin originally.

Rachel Podger writes of the E major concerto as life-enhancing and that's exactly how both she and Kati Debretenzi make it sound, with its companion in a minor hardly far behind. The different couplings of these two recordings give me the perfect excuse to duck the choice and advise buying both. Even then, you still need a recording of the concerto for two violins, BWV 1043.

That's where my third choice, Isabelle Faust on a 2-CD set, effectively a 2-for-1 offer, comes in, with a coupling of BWV 1041, 1042, 1043, 1060, Suite No.2, two trio sonatas and cantata movements that offers it all. Simon Thompson called that "remarkable and refreshing" and I'm not about to quibble. It's available in very good 24/96 sound from, with 24-bit still on offer for the same price as 16-bit when I checked, at the competitive price of $19.98. It's a measure of the quality of the work and of the three performances that I was able to play Isabelle Faust's E major concerto immediately after hearing the Podger and Debretzeni recordings without any feeling of satiation – and then went on to listen to the rest of the album.

Overall, with the greater wealth of material on offer, at much the same price as its competitors, I suppose it's Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für alte Musik that would have to accompany me to that Desert Island. But if the Fates were to throw in the new SDG or the Channel Classics, that were a consummation devoutly to be wished. Forgetting about coupling complications, the new recording is up there with the best. Even the cover picture is spot on, with Bach's music unfurling as beautifully and as inevitably as a fern in Spring.  My usual warning about checking prices is especially important: there is a very wide disparity in what is being asked for this CD as I write.

Source: Brian Wilson (

Henry Purcell: King Arthur, 1691

Anna Dennis, soprano
Mhairi Lawson, soprano
Rowan Pierce, soprano
Carolyn Sampson, soprano
Jeremy Budd, high tenor
James Way, tenor
Roderick Williams, baritone
Ashley Riches, bass-baritone

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Conductor: Paul McCreesh

Recorded on January 14-18, 2019, at St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Released on October 25, 2019 by Signum Records

The Gabrieli Consort & Players have been developing ideas about King Arthur (or The British Worthy) for nearly a quarter of a century. Winged Lion's book is illustrated cleverly with photography of quintessentially English landscapes and scenes related to themes in Dryden's words (Cornish tin mines, Stonehenge, North Sea fishermen, cricket on the village green, Morris dancing and a Yorkshire flock of sheep). Numerous writings immerse the reader in the latest Purcell scholarship on the origins of the opera, critical thinking that has informed the new bespoke performing edition by Christopher Suckling and Paul McCreesh, while an admirably clear synopsis explains how Purcell's masques and songs fitted into the play, and six musicians provide insights into their research-informed approaches to performing Purcell's music afresh.

The problematic sources of the music (none of which are autographs) have been reappraised thoroughly. The duet "You say, 'tis Love" is considered incongruous in its customary position in Act 5 just before the patriotic masque, so it is relocated to the end of Act 4 after the passacaglia "How happy the lover". The usual final song and chorus in praise of St George is not in 17th-century sources and unlikely to be authentic Purcell, so it is replaced by an adaptation of superior music from Dioclesian ("Sound Heroes, your brazen trumpets sound", Jeremy Budd's high tenor in dialogue with high-wire solo trumpet). I regret the omission of a few short internal orchestral passages from a couple of songs on grounds that their style is "untenable" but the oddly interrupting section for strings during Cupid's "'Tis I that have warm'd ye" is repositioned logically into the song's prelude.

Two authentic trumpet tunes are omitted but ample compensation comes from the insertion of a suite from Amphitryon (an immediate surprise prior to the usual Overture) and a rondeau from Distress'd Innocency (it shares rhythmical common ground with its preceding lively chorus "Come, shepherds, lead up a lively measure"). An aire from Bonduca segues aptly into two Sirens imploring Arthur to "come and bathe with us an hour or two" (the hero has his work cut out to resist the beguiling earnestness of Carolyn Sampson and Anna Dennis), and a zesty rondeau from The Old Bachelor is interpolated before the masque of British prosperity is inaugurated by Roderick Williams's suave Aeolus ("Ye blust'ring brethren").

The band's use of low pitch (A=392Hz) suits the idiomatic use of high tenors rather than modern countertenors on the alto parts. Playful recorders and chuckling bassoon are made to sound as if onstage in "Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying" (sung by Dennis and Mhairi Lawson with a sly hint of knowing innuendo), while drums and silver trumpets without modern vent holes sound as if behind the scenery in "Come if you dare" (sung gregariously by James Way). The precisely balanced string band (three per part) has bass violins on the lowest part instead of cellos (likewise, there is no anachronistic double bass); the use of unwound all-gut strings set up with equal tension and French-style bow holds are vital elements that enhance delightfully subtle string shading. Theorbos, guitars and harpsichord accompany singers without bowed string bass instruments – an approach that provides a whispered discretion to the trio "For folded flocks" – but seldom play in orchestral pieces; Purcell's fully textured part-writing works beautifully without plucked continuo in the shaded aire that opens Act 2 and the tenderly phrased solo strings that introduce "Fairest isle" (Sampson's impeccable declamation of Venus's blessing of Britain replete with lovely embellishments).

The eight soloists with two additional singers form an excellent chorus that is adept in every context, whether depicting heathen sacrifices, quick-fire calls between competing evil and good spirits in "Hither this way" (Philidel's tricky solo part made to sound easy by Sampson), soft seductiveness in "How blest are shepherds" (its phrases given plenty of time to breathe by McCreesh) and the gorgeous passacaglia "How happy the lover". A quintet of rough-around-the-edges bystanders is roped in for the refrains in "Your hay it is mow'd", its ringmaster Comus characterised convivially by Williams.

The Frost Scene is given a charming performance by Rowan Pierce's gleeful Cupid and Ashley Riches's thawing Cold Genius; the tempo of the chorus of Cold People "quiv'ring with cold" is on the slow side. Throughout the opera McCreesh's speeds are relaxed rather than driven – no bad thing, to my mind, and it results in Dryden's wonderful poetry being acted with personable clarity, and the lucidity of musical gestures ensures that affection and intimacy are hallmarks of a performance that conveys a humane smile.

Source: David Vickers (

No one likes to be predictable but, at the risk of repeating myself, this is yet another Gabrieli release that it is my pleasure to praise to the skies.

In many ways this sees McCreesh back on territory with which he has been associated for decades. Rather than blockbusting, scale-bursting performances of Berlioz or Mendelssohn, this is a historically informed reconstruction of Purcell's great semi-opera, so forces are small and textures are transparent; but the reconstruction is done with such sensitivity and sympathy that it is elevated into the realm of the extraordinary.

King Arthur has a famously tortured history which makes an urtext pretty much impossible. It was conceived as part of a paean to the Stuart monarchy, but came to be composed only after the Glorious Revolution once James II had been deposed by William and Mary. So while it's partly innocent patriotic propaganda, Purcell was compelled to tone down its loyalist message, which led to several changes of mind in its production and performance history.

It will surprise no one to learn that McCreesh explains all of this in his booklet note. What is noteworthy, however, is the accessible detail with which he and his colleagues do so. Not only do we get a summary of the work's history, but we also get an explanation of the thought processes behind the set's approach to the string playing, the bass lines, the trumpets and the singing. It's remarkably generous, and it's all encased within a hard-back book that fans of this Winged Lion series have come to know and love.

The orchestral picture is delightful. The string playing is vibratoless but warm, with transparent textures and attractive openness. The winds are beautiful during Aeolus' scene, and the guitar and theorbo give a real kick of energy to the continuo playing. Dances are a key part of the work's structure, and the many instrumental movements move with impeccable bounce and sensitivity, culminating in a rousing final chaconne.

The singing is really marvellous, too. It's informed by historical practice, and performed by some of its finest practitioners; but there is never a hint of the academic about it: this is music performed out of pleasure, with the aim of giving pleasure to the listener. James Way, for example, is an alluring delight in How blest are Shepherds, surely one of Purcell's most winning arias, and Roderick Williams sings his several roles with bluff assertiveness, his warm baritone coming through at every point. Jeremy Budd adds great colour at the top, and Ashley Riches underpins the soloists with strength (and a good dose of humour as the Cold Genius), while the sopranos at the top sing with pellucid beauty, particularly Rowan Pierce and Anna Dennis, who makes a rather lovely siren at the beginning of Act 4. Carolyn Sampson is every bit as hot in the siren stakes, and she sings a beautiful Fairest Isle. Mhairi Lawson, as a sea nymph, won't be outdone by either of them.

There is also a lovely sense of the collective to the enterprise, too, such as the sense of mischievous playfulness to Hither this way, the chorus of Philidel's spirits in Act 2, and the other choruses have a pleasing fullness to them, not least the rustics in the fifth act, all of whom sound as though they are having a whale of a time.

The booklet contains the full text, of course, but, in a lovely touch, it also includes a beautiful selection of photographs of English scenes that range from Morris Dancers and Brighton pier to the Northumbrian coast and the summer solstice at Stonehenge. English rather than British scenes, I note; something which isn't entirely in keeping with the opera's rhetoric about "Britain" (not "England") and the girding of this isle. It would have been nice to have had some pictorial input from Scotland and Wales; but if this is all I can think of to complain about then that should tell you enough about how good this set is. It is a presentation of the highest quality, which is also what I said about their last release. Like I said, nobody likes to be predictable, but...

Source: Simon Thompson (

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo

Thomas Zehetmair, violin

Recorded in August 2016 at St Gerold in Austria
Released on November 15, 2019 by ECM

Violinists will sometimes delay recording Johann Sebastian Bach's "Sonatas" and "Partitas" for solo violin until they feel they have mastered the music and even let it become second nature to them. Not so Thomas Zehetmair, who, with guidance from his mentor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, first recorded the "Sei Solo" in 1982 for Teldec, then waited almost four decades before revisiting them for ECM New Series. This time span has permitted Zehetmair sufficient space to reevaluate Bach's masterpiece and to present the music with a mature appreciation of its contrapuntal intricacy and expressive depth. Zehetmair played a modern violin for his early set, but for this 2019 double-disc, he plays two Baroque violins with replica bows: a 1685 South Tyrolean instrument for the partitas, and a ca. 1750 Joannes Udalricus Eberle for the sonatas. The sonorities he produces on these violins are subtly different, the 1685 contributing a bright edge to the partitas and the 1750 a warm resonance to the sonatas, all smoothed somewhat by the resonant acoustics of the priory church of St Gerold in Austria. Zehetmair uses the sound space to determine dynamics and to shape his phrases, and his lines seem to float with an airiness that is rare in studio recordings. Even though the use of Baroque instruments and techniques may make this rendition seem like a historically informed performance, it is rather more of a personal take with thoughtful borrowings from period scholarship, a combination to be expected of one of classical music's most eclectic and versatile performers.


The Mathilde Album – Anton Webern: Langsamer Satz | Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No.2 | Alexander von Zemlinsky: String Quartet No.2

Quatour Arod
Elsa Dreisig, soprano

Recorded on April 23-29, 2019, at Théâtre populaire romand, Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Released on October 4, 2019 by Erato/Warner Classics

Come for the sex, stay for the music. That would seem to be the implication behind the title of the Arod Quartet's album, referring as it does to Mathilde Schoenberg's affair with the painter Robert Gerstl. It's salutary to remember Mahler's dedication of the Eighth Symphony to Alma, in the middle of her affair with Walter Gropius. Having won Mathilde back, Schoenberg did the same with the Second Quartet – on a fraction of the symphony's scale but of inversely greater significance for posterity.

The devoted Webern put in a word for his teacher, and the album opens with a flexible and delicately shaded account of the Langsamer Satz which Schoenberg had set him as an exercise in 1905. The quartet employ a wider range of vibrato than on their fine debut album of Mendelssohn (11/17), including much expressively rich pure tone, yet the octaves and unisons are still breathtakingly clean, like mountain air, the soft playing (as at the main theme’s reprise, 5'55") exquisite, the evocation of place and space – in this case a flower meadow, walking with the cousin Webern would come to marry – deeply sympathetic.

There follows what would usually count as the main event on such an album, the Schoenberg, full of subtle rhythmic humour in the ironically folk-tinged Scherzo and more judiciously placed pure tone to contrast with the refined warmth of the "Litanei", where close-miked detail and restrained phrasing hint at an unconsummated relationship with Verklärte Nacht. Set a little further back in the mix, Elsa Dreisig moves distractingly between channels but sings the George poem with exemplary diction and a chaste firmness of tone that leads well into the "other world" of the finale.

I said usually. On this occasion the limelight is stolen from Schoenberg by Zemlinsky, who did not so much teach him as set him on his path to genius, and by a simply irresistible performance of his own, satisfyingly complex Second Quartet. Here the roles are reversed, and the Arod's single-minded clarity of purpose allows us to hear Zemlinsky coming to his own terms with the harmonic discoveries of his reluctant and recalcitrant revolutionary. This music requires little excuse to become overheated, and it is much to the Arod's credit that they resist the temptation to press the bow into the string until really decisive moments such as the orchestrally scaled climax to the first section (3'30") or the frenzied close to the scherzo section, which introduces an unmistakable quotation from Verklärte Nacht in a gesture of fulfilment typical of the proud but generous Zemlinsky. The coupling is as unique as it is insightful, and comparisons would seem beside the point: it's an outstanding album.

Source: Peter Quantrill (

Georg Frideric Handel : Brockes-Passion, HWV 48

Elizabeth Watts, soprano
Robert Murray, tenor
Cody Quattlebaum, bass-baritone
Gwilym Bowen, tenor 
Tim Mead, countertenor 
Ruby Hughes, soprano
Nicky Spence, tenor
Rachael Lloyd, soprano
Morgan Pearse, baritone

Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music
Director & harpsichord: Richard Egarr

Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, on April 11 & 17-18, 2019, and at Barbican Hall, London, on April 19, 2019
Released on October 4, 2019 by Academy of Ancient Music

This new release on the Academy of Ancient Music's in-house label is the culmination of a two-year exploration of Handel's little-performed passion setting. Part of the process was the creation of a new performing edition that involved examining 15 manuscripts and publications in four countries, a labor of love done by AAM oboist Leo Duarte. The recording was made in conjunction with a series of concerts celebrating the 300th anniversary of the first known performance in Hamburg during Easter Week 1719.

The recording is housed in a sturdy sleeve-box with a hardback book featuring extensive notes and articles about the work by Egarr, Duarte and several Handel scholars, including Dr. Ruth Smith, Dr. Bettina Varwid and Jane Glover, as well as the complete libretto. The Passion performance takes up the first two CDs, while the third CD contains alternative movements and the premiere recording of the completed movements using Charles Jennen's English translation. All this material is exceptionally valuable for helping the listener appreciate what is surely one of Handel's least known masterpieces: indeed, this is only the fifth recording of the work (the CPO label is releasing a recording of the work next month).

Of course, the most important aspect of any new recording is the actual performance, and Egarr and his musicians do not disappoint. Brockes' libretto is unusually direct and at times even gruesome, surely with the intent of making the listener actually experience Christ's agony and feel responsible for that suffering. There are innumerable examples throughout the work, but as an example, after Peter denies Jesus three times and the cock crows, Peter runs away and castigates himself (Track 37) saying "What unbearable agony overwhelms my spirit... my bowels screech on glowing coals", moving into an aria (Track 38) in which he refers to himself as "...scum... weep, you scum of humankind... weep blood, sulking singer". Visceral and violent imagery indeed, and inescapably human.

Indeed, what comes across most clearly in this performance is that this is an intensely human Passion. Just listen to Cody Quattlebaum's portrayal of Jesus in his Gethsemane prayer (CD 1, tracks 15 & 16), where the bass-baritone conveys both Jesus' desire to do God's will but also Jesus' real human fear about the suffering to come. Likewise, Gwilym Bowen makes Peter's guilt unbearably intense, just as Brockes surely intended. Particularly powerful is the short duet between the Daughter of Zion and Jesus (CD 2, track 4), where the frustrated daughter challenges Jesus to respond to Pilate's arrogant questioning with righteous anger. Jesus' response ("No, I wish to show you how with silence I restore what you lost through prattling") finds Quattlebaum now fully committed to Jesus' sacrificial role. The Daughter of Zion, masterfully sung by Elizabeth Watts, carries a lion's share of solo singing that encompasses a wide gamut of emotional states. Each soloist relishes Handel's operatic writing, painting the emotions in bold and authentic colors, without ever descending into cloying sentimentality.

While the orchestral playing is beyond reproach, the listener may sometimes wish the chorus to more fully inhabit their characters. In the exchanges between Pilate and the crowd (CD 2, tracks 5 to 9) their singing is always beautiful, even as they demand the death of Jesus. What would Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir, or McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort make of these same passages? The same passages in Neumann's Carus recording (2010) offer greater characterization, in part because his choir is slightly larger than Egarr's (17 members compared to 20, respectably), bringing an extra weight and power to the choral sound. This passage, perhaps, would be more impactful with a more dramatic forward momentum, shortening or eliminating pauses between sections.

But these slight misgivings are quickly forgiven in a performance that gets so much right. Particularly impressive is how Egarr sustains the dramatic thread through the final movements, despite what is arguably too many commentaries from the Daughter of Zion and other Faithful Souls. Overall, this is an engaging and impressive performance, captured in immediate, well-balanced sound, with a wealth of ancillary materials that will make this recording a first choice for many listeners.

Source: David A. McConnell (

Manuel de Falla: El sombrero de tres picos | El amor brujo

Carmen Romeu, mezzo-soprano
Marina Heredia, cantaora

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado

Recorded in April 2019 at L'Auditori, in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Released on September 20, 2019 by Harmonia Mundi

El sombrero de tres picos was first performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at London's Alhambra Theatre in the summer of 1919, so this new recording from Harmonia Mundi is very much intended as a centenary celebration. In a booklet note, Pablo Heras-Casado expresses his admiration for the score, and indeed for Falla's output in general, and asks that we consider it alongside Petrushka, Daphnis et Chloé and late Debussy as some of the most original music of the 20th century. Few, I suspect, would disagree, but what’s really unmistakable here is the enthusiasm with which he conducts it, and the sheer exhilaration of the response he elicits from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

He gives us a high-voltage interpretation, rich in detail, and strong on dramatic and narrative momentum. Rhythms are wonderfully precise, textures very sensuous throughout, the latter helped immeasurably by the vivid, immediate recording, though it also catches the occasional in-breath from Heras-Casado in moments of excitement. The fanfares and shouts of "¡Olé!" that form the effective prelude set the tone with their energy and panache. The big set pieces – the Miller's Farruca, his Wife's Fandango – have tremendous fire, and the elation of the final Jota is irresistible, though equally striking is Heras-Casado's relaxed treatment of the Seguidillas at the start of scene 2, when the Corregidor is out of the way and danger temporarily averted. It's a superb achievement that more than holds its own beside the versions by Frühbeck de Burgos and Dutoit, both widely regarded as benchmarks.

Heras-Casado's interpretation of E Amor brujo, in contrast, is comparatively reflective, if at times remarkably intense – closer, perhaps, to Giulini's reined-in approach than to Dutoit's more extrovert flamboyance. We're more overtly aware of Falla's Russian and French influences here, both in the brooding echoes of the opening of Firebird in the evocation of the Gypsy encampment near the start, and the swaying, Ravelian Pantomima, where the MCO strings sound very sensual and the mood is seductive in the extreme. There's bravura playing in the Ritual Fire Dance, which is pungent, weighty and rather sinister, though Heras-Casado firmly places the emotional climax at the end, as the Dance of the Game of Love and subsequent sunrise chase the phantoms and terrors of night away. His flamenco singer is Marina Heredia, her voice raspy, lived-in and knowing, her way with the text impeccable. Some might still prefer Dutoit's greater bravado in this work but Heras-Casado, nevertheless, gives us another outstanding performance that ranks among the best.

Source: Tim Ashley (

Manuel De Falla's "El sombrero de tres picos" ("The Three-Cornered Hat") is immediately arresting, Casado setting an animated "Allegro ma non troppo" tempo with weighty timpani strokes answered by enthusiastically shouted "Oles" from the orchestra. An especially effective moment happens after the singer's line "The devil may have dozed off, but he can wake up again", later in this striking opening movement. Once again, the players answer with "Ole", but this time in a sleepier, less enthused manner. It is this kind of thoughtful attention to detail and storytelling that makes this performance so successful. Casado and his players seem to be having the time of their lives, reveling in their exploration and realization of the score, and that enthusiasm completely draws the listener in.

At a little over 36 minutes, Casado's interpretation is one of the fastest on record, yet nothing ever feels unduly rushed or glossed over. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra offers crisp playing of virtuosic unanimity, at one with Casado's vibrant interpretations. The performances are complemented by Harmonia Mundi's vivid recording, analytical yet warm, capturing a wide-ranging soundstage with plenty of front to back presence.

The orchestral playing is fantastic; especially noteworthy is the playing of the solo winds. Just listen to the cheeky playfulness of the Bassoon in Track 3, (2'38", answered by sweetly singing strings) or the beguiling English Horn and Clarinet playing in the "Neighbor's Dance" (Track 5). The strings are just as impressive, capturing every subtle mood shift with complete conviction. The balance between winds and strings seems ideal, and it would be interesting to see how large the string sections are (Harmonia Mundi does not list the orchestral players in the booklet). Despite having only a small amount of music, mezzo-soprano Carmen Romeu proves to be a thoroughly engaging and passionate, partner in the storytelling. In short, this performance thrives on vividly conveying the ballet's story of a Miller, his wife, and the Corregidor intent on stealing the Miller's wife away. Casado galvanizes his players not so much retelling the story, but inhabit it.

Casado brings the same theatrical bearing to his performance of "El amor brujo". Dutoit's Montreal recording has served many critics as a benchmark for almost three decades, but a comparison with this new performance by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Casado leaves the Montreal recording sounding somewhat distant and muddy, Dutoit seems To focus on polish and refinement at the expense of full engagement with the ballet's story.

Yvan Nommick's liner notes detail Falla's goal of capturing the authentic Gypsy spirit in his writing: "I have tried to ‘live’ it as a gypsy, to feel it deeply, and I have used in it no other elements than those which I believed to express the soul of that race". In keeping with this desire for an authentic sound, flamenco singer Marina Heredia performs the sung portions of the ballet. Some listeners may find this off-putting, because her singing style is rawer and more pushed when compared to the classically trained singers (in Dutoit's recording, mezzo-soprano Huguette Tourangeau). Yet in the context of Casado's interpretation, her sound is well suited to the music and uniquely alluring.

Excellent performances and interpretations in stunning sound. Hopefully Harmonia Mundi can convince these performers to record more music by Falla; even better, given Heras-Casado's wide-ranging tastes in repertoire, some lesser-known Spanish repertoire. Despite the rather short playing time (62 minutes overall for a full price), with performances this captivating, strongly recommended.

Source: David A. McConnell (

Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartets No.2 in A major, Op.68, No.7 in F sharp minor, Op.108, & No.8 in C minor, Op.110

Pavel Haas Quartet:
Veronika Jarůšková, violin
Marek Zwiebel, violin
Jiří Kabát, viola
Peter Jarůšek, cello

Recorded in 2019
Released on October 25, 2019 by Supraphon

Shostakovich's Second Quartet is remarkable for its sheer insistence. Long stretches of the first movement are sustained at a constant forte or fortissimo, the first violin's recitatives in the second movement push way past the expressive pain threshold, and to call the finale's accumulating variations inexorable would be an understatement. The Pavel Haas register all this to the nth degree, and I would have been inclined to hail this one of the finest of all recorded accounts had they only brought more coiled tenseness to the shadowy outer sections of the Waltz third movement.

The recording quality is correspondingly striking in its combined focus and spaciousness, but in a way that serves to highlight what is missing in the playing as much as what is there. In the Seventh Quartet the last movement is certainly terrific in its urgency and savage attack. But I don't think anyone listening to the opening movement without a score would guess that its notated dynamics hardly ever rise above mezzo-piano – the Pavel Haas rarely even fall to that level. And the central Lento is somehow too much at ease with itself for a movement so bleak and lonely in its texturing (almost literally so, since the scoring is reduced for the most part to two or three lines).

There is more subtlety in their Eighth Quartet, and perhaps if I had tried this first I would have been more sympathetically attuned to their tremendous clarity and wide expressive range. Hearing it after the Seventh, however, I was more inclined to find some of their expressive turns once again a little too blatant and some of their fast playing too keen to over-sell the violence, almost as if back-transcribing from the string orchestra transcription. Do we really need so much inadvertent col legno rasp in the second movement, for instance? I do like their decisions on articulation here and in the danse macabre third movement, though equally I wish these could have been projected within more consistent tempos. There is some lovely playing in the three slow movements. But, overall, a near miss, I feel.

Source: David Fanning (

The Pavel Haas Quartet has made a name for itself with a solid discography of, among others, Czech composers. In a new Supraphon release, it takes on a new project, recording Shostakovich String Quartets 2, 7 and 8. These quartets, which deeply mirror the composer's own life and deep conflicts, present quite the musical challenge for any ensemble. In a recent interview, the group mentions having a close personal connection to the quartets and that they represent a "spiritual cross-section of [the composer's] entire life". This sentiment is well reflected in their playing. What the Pavel Haas Quartet brings to the forefront incredibly well are the nuanced emotional facets of the quartets, ranging from irony to tragedy, to madness.

Written in a little under three weeks in 1944, Quartet No.2 Op.68, portrays Shostakovich at odds between political circumstance and personal conviction. With the Soviet-German War underway, Shostakovich was put in a government retreat to write this quartet along with his Piano Trio (Op.67). What is reflected in the quartet is not so much a commentary on the war as a reflection of his own cognitive dissonance, and this is what the Haas quartet so effectively reveals. Its interpretation of the first and third movements are notable. In the former, the performers show the vibrant multi-dimensionality of emotions, ranging from the robust A major opening to the menacing nature of the middle section. With so many character changes, a significant challenge for any group is to keep the energy flowing throughout. The ensemble does this impressively. Despite the plethora of dissonances in Shostakovich's writing, the players also maintain good sound quality, one that prevents the notes from sounding too abrasive but that still captures their jarring nature. In the third movement, the musicians capture the odd lilt of the waltz with the subtle and well-harmonized waltz accompaniment against the ebb and flow of the melodic line. The cello in particular is very expressive and complements the macabre nature of the movement. What is most striking about the performance is that it leaves the listener in a constant state of suspense, always toeing the line between controlled energy and uncontrolled fury (Track 3, 2'02" onwards).

The String Quartet No.7, Op.108 (written in February-March of 1960) shows a different Shostakovich, one grappling with a deep personal loss of his wife Nina to an illness. The shortest of the three quartets, the musical texture is also the most sparse, making the subtlety of expression particularly difficult to achieve. Despite this challenge, the ensemble constructs a good overall architecture, especially in the first movement; there is a distinct differentiation between the sparse, ironic beginning and the anguished lyrical section in the middle of the movement. The interpretation borders a little on the calmer side when compared to other recordings. It could perhaps better capture the subtleties of the movement's nervous quality as the Borodin Quartet (Erato) does or the devilish humor that the Emerson Quartet (DG) expresses in the beginning. Despite this, what stands out is this group's excellent ensemble playing: the bowing technique is precise and coordinated, showing an even and crisp of articulation across all parts.

Quartet No.8, Op.110 was written just a few months after No.7, and is probably the most momentous in this program, reflecting cataclysmic events in Shostakovich's life: joining the Communist party against his own will amidst pressure from the Russian government as well as the manifestations of a neuromuscular degenerative disease. The composer at this point is in a state of dark melancholy, pondering life and death. The Haas quartet perhaps provides its finest and most dramatic interpretation of all three quartets here. The fugal opening of the first movement with the famous DSCH motif is meant to create a sense of dark mystery. This opening is perhaps a bit too forward in the Haas interpretation as compared to the opening performed by the Beethoven Quartet (Melodiya) with its more nuanced sense of gloom and foreboding. However, the group very effectively channels dramatism by juxtaposing the extreme nature of Shostakovich's writing in the attacca second movement: the change in character between the gloomy first movement and the furious second is so well executed that its jarring nature nearly catches the listener off guard, driving the entire movement to sound electrifying. The third movement (track 10) is also interpreted impressively, in particular 2'09"-2'50": the violin bowing is done so subtly that it creates an eerie presence against the melodic line.

The sound engineering of the album is excellent. It presents a very live recording (in studio conditions) that captures not just the clarity of the ensemble playing but also the more candid aspects: the listener can hear the scraping of the bow against the strings and even the breaths of performers, which add to the raw emotions that Shostakovich presents in his music.

Source: Azusa Ueno (

Benjamin Bernheim – Jules Massenet, Gaetano Donizetti, Charles Gounod, Giuseppe Verdi, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Godard, Hector Berlioz, Giacomo Puccini

Benjamin Bernheim, tenor

PKF – Prague Philharmonia
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume

Recorded in Prague, at Municipal House, Smetana Hall, in August and September 2018 & May 2019
Released on November 8, 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon

French tenor Benjamin Bernheim's star continues to rise with the release of this debut album, arriving only a few months after the signing of his long-term exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Raised in Geneva, Bernheim studied at the Lausanne Conservatoire, then the Opernhaus Zürich's Young Artists' Program, eventually becoming part of its ensemble. His career shifted into high gear in 2015 and in the last few years he has performed in several major opera houses across Europe, including London's Royal Opera House, the Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Vienna State Operas, as well as America's Lyric Opera Chicago.

His new recording opens with "Pourquoi me réveiller" from Massenet's Werther. Bernheim show great sensitivity, using a varied vocal palette and his effortlessly spun lyricism to convey the text. His builds an impressive first climax at 1'25", easily scaling back to sotto voce in the next phrase, displaying impressive vocal technique. Particularly moving is how he varies his color and intensifies his tone each time he asks, "Why awaken me, O breath of spring?".

Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore" follows, sung with a disarming sincerity, expressive without ever veering into melodramatic. Again, listen to how easily Bernheim changes his vocal color to reelect the change in text, especially beginning at the 2-minute mark. Indeed, the French arias prove to be the most musically satisfying offerings, with consistently gorgeous tone and impeccable diction wedded to thoughtful and mature engagement of the text. It is especially gratifying to hear two selections from Godard's "Dante", music that deserves to be better known and certainly benefits from Bernheim's passionate and intelligent advocacy.

Concerns creep in with the two selections from Verdi's "La Traviata" (Tracks 6 and 7). Bernheim's performance of "Lunge da lei" is thoughtfully earnest but lacks interpretative fire, only partially capturing the "passionate spirit and fire of youth". Perhaps Bernheim is choosing beauty of tone at the expense of textual expression? His Tchaikovsky only confirms this impression: in "Kuda, kuda, kuda vi udalilis" from Eugene Onegin, an older man reflects on "the golden days of my youth" and struggles with aging. Bernheim communicates that regret fitfully; turn to Andrey Dunaev, accompanied by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Alexander Vedernikov on Pentatone for a fuller, more convincing portrayal. The Pentatone recording also features more vivid and characterful orchestral playing; indeed, the Prague Philharmonia and Emmanuel Villaume offer attentive and beautiful playing that is just a bit bland and non-descript. This issue is further exacerbated by the recording itself, which lacks any sense of front to back depth, and, especially when listening with headphones, has a slightly synthetic engineered sound.

Similar issues can be heard in Track 9, "Ella mi fu rapita!" from Verdi's Rigoletto. Compared to a recent performance by Jonas Kaufmann, accompanied by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Marco Armiliato on Decca, it is Kaufmann who more vividly characterizes, at time even allowing his sound to become less than beautiful to more fully capture the emotional import of the words.

The album ends with an engaging and gorgeous performance of "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme. This is music that certainly plays to Bernheim's strengths and his reading has a gentleness and naivety that completely capture the passionate wonder of falling in love.

Liner notes offer a shallow interview with Bernheim but provide no notes on the music itself. Text and translations are provided. Despite a few under characterized moments (which will surely deepen as he performs these roles on stage), performances overall are consistently impressive. Certainly, this album shows Bernheim to be an exceptionally gifted and communicative artist, of whom great things can be expected.

Source: David A. McConnell (

The albums were chosen by the owner and blog editor of "Faces of Classical Music", Alexandros Arvanitakis.

More photos

See also

The best new classical albums: January 2020

The best new classical albums: December 2019

The best new classical albums: October 2019

The best new classical albums: September 2019

The best new classical albums: August 2019

The best new classical albums: July 2019

The best new classical albums: June 2019

The best new classical albums: May 2019

The best new classical albums: April 2019

The best new classical albums: March 2019

The best new classical albums: February 2019

The best new classical albums: January 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2018

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