girl-penguinBach, Carl Philipp Emanuel

For a great many musicians and composers in the mid-to-late 18th century, it was Carl Philipp Emanuel (or C.P.E.) Bach and not his father Johann Sebastian (J.S.) who was widely known, admired and lauded for his genius. History has proven that the senior Bach was certainly an important composer, and a great one, but from the 1820s through the mid-20th century the rising star of J.S. had a deleterious effect on C.P.E., and he was unfairly shoved to the side by history. The truth is that, although C.P.E. had two very distinct careers and musical styles—the rather conservative music he was forced to write for the court of Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, later Frederick the Great, and the wildly inventive music he wrote in his middle to old age. Old Freddy was an enlightened and compassionate ruler but very reactionary in his musical tastes. He played the flute, well enough to pass muster with some professional musicians but not quite at the highest technical level. C.P.E. Bach was one of his two court composers, the other being Johann Joachim Quantz. Frederick preferred Quantz’s music because it was more conventional and easier to play, but by default C.P.E. had to write music that was simpler and more regularly structured than he liked.

He “broke out” of this mold once he left Frederick’s service, after long and difficult negotiations, in 1768 to assume his godfather Telemann’s position as director of music in Hamburg. Here, in addition to turning more of his energies towards religious and choral music, he broke out of his mold and started producing an astonishing series of brilliant symphonies and concertos that literally stunned the music world. These later works, described as “empfindsamer Stil“ or “sensitive style,” had brilliant orchestration, spiky and unusual harmonies, radical shifts of tempo and key, and in the case of the symphonies often connected movements. As Kapellmeister he also revived works by Telemann, Graun, Haydn, Handel and his father. In short, he was a little human dynamo whose innovation and energy were the wonder of Europe, particularly considering his age (between 54 and 74) at the time.

C.P.E. BACH: Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu / Hillevi Martinpelto, soprano; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Choir of College Vocale, Ghent; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor / Cello Concertos, Wq 170-172 / Anner Bylsma, cellist; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Gustav Leonhardt, conductor / Concertos No. 1-6, Wq 43 (Hamburg Concertos) / Melante Amsterdam; Bob van Asperen, harpsichordist/conductor / Concerto in F for 2 Keyboards, Wq 46 / Tini Mathof, harpsichordist; Ton Koopman, harpsichordist/conductor; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra / Fantasia in C, Wq 61 No. 6; Rondos, Wq 56 Nos. 1 & 5; Wq 57 Nos. 1 & 3; Wq 58 Nos. 3 & 5; Wq 59 No. 4; Wq 61 No. 1 / Alan Curtis, fortepianist / Flute Concertos Wq 22, 166-169 / Konrad Hünteler, flautist; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra; Ton Koopman, conductor / Oboe Sonata in G minor; Oboe Concertos, Wq 164-165 / Ku Ebbinge, oboist; Ton Koopman, harpsichordist/conductor; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra / Organ Sonatas, H 84-87, H 133-134 / Herbert Tachezi, organist / Sonatas No. 1-6, H 24-29, “Prussian” Sonatas; Sonatas No. 1-6, H 30-35, “Wurttenberg” Sonatas / Bob van Asperen, harpsichordist / Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Wq 183/1-4; String Symphony No. 5, Wq 182/5 / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Gustav Leonhardt, conductor / Warner Classics 256463492

4-and-a-half-fish

This large, exhaustive, yet somewhat scattergunned set will give you an excellent cross-section of C.P.E. Bach’s work during his Hamburg period (as well as the excellent Organ Sonatas from his latter-day Hanover period). Not all of the orchestras and conductors are created equal; some have much more straight tone than others; but there is enough here by musicians who really know what they’re doing, such as Alan Curtis, Bob van Asperen and Gustav Leonhardt, to give you a good idea of what Emanuel Bach was all about. Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra is a bit more straight-toned than I normally like, but he was a pretty energetic conductor and thus sometimes compensated for his orchestra’s lack of expressivity. The only real downer in this set is the disc including Herbert Tachezi’s leaden, uninspired readings of the organ sonatas, which is why I prefer the recordings of Iain Quinn (see Organ Sonatas below), although you will also find Emmanuel Pahud’s recordings of the Flute Concertos Wq 22, 166 & 169 far more exciting than Konrad Hünteler’s (see Flute Concertos below). All in all, however, a real bargain of works from Bach’s great Hamburg period, 13 CDs for $40 ($3 per CD). You can’t go wrong at that price.

C.P.E. BACH: 6 Clavier-Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, Wq 55; Clavier-Sonaten including Rondos, Wq 56-57; Clavier-Sonaten with free Fantasias & Rondos, Wq 58, 59, 61 / Pieter-Jan Belder, fortepianist/clavichordist / Brilliant Classics 94486, also available for free streaming on Spotify

5-fish

A superb collection of Emanuel Bach’s keyboard sonatas by one of the most respected interpreters of today. This 5-CD set is available in hard copy for a ridiculous $15, as downloads for $10, or for online streaming absolutely free (see above).

C.P.E. BACH: Flute Concertos: Wq 22, 166, 169 / Emmanuel Pahud, flautist; Kammerakademie Potsdam; Trevor Pinnock, conductor / Warner Classics 825646496433

6-fish

These performances are so exciting and explosive you won’t believe your ears. Part of it is due to the extraordinarily virtuosity and musicality of Pahud, but a great deal of the credit also goes to Trevor Pinnock, who gets the most thrilling playing out of the Kammerakademie Potsdam you will ever hear in your life.

C.P.E. BACH: Keyboard Concertos / Miklos Spányi, harpsichordist/fortepianist/tangent pianist; Concerto Armonico; Peter Szűtz, conductor as below:
Vol. 3: Concertos Wq 6, 18 & 18 / Bis CD-767
Vol. 4: Concertos Wq 9, 13 & 17 / Bis CD-768
Vol. 5: Concertos Wq 11, 14 & 19 / Bis CD-785
Vol. 20: Concertos Wq 46 for 2 Keyboards, Horns & Strings; Wq 47 for Harpsichord, Pianoforte & Strings, Wq 47; Sonatine in D for 2 Harpsichords / add Cristiano Holz, harpsichordist; Tamás Szekenady, fortpianist

6-fish

Over the course of two decades, Hungarian keyboardist Miklos Spányi and conductor Peter Szűtz embarked on the monstrous project of recording ALL of Emanuel Bach’s keyboard concertos. Spányi, a particularly lively player, keeps things interesting by switching between harpsichord, fortepiano and tangent piano for the various concertos, while Szűtz’ conducting is consistently enlivening and exciting. And what music it is! almost an embarrassment of riches, the worst you can say about some of these concertos is that they are merely very good whereas most of the others range from great to mind-boggling. Your choice of CDs to acquire will, of course, depend on your interest in Classical-era keyboard concertos, your shelf space, and of course your extraneous funds. My own personal recommendations are listed above, but your own taste and preferences may vary.

C.P.E. BACH: Geistliche Gesange mit Melodien (5); Geistliche Oden und Lieder (9); 42 Psalmen und Melodien, Wq 196: Aus (Psalm 130), Die Himmel ruten (Psalm 19), Preis sey dem Gotte (148) / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Jörg Demus, tangent pianist / DGG Archiv 2533058

6-fish

 

One of the finest yet least-well-known of Fischer-Dieskau’s dozens of recordings is this album of C.P.E. Bach lieder and psalms accompanied by Jörg Demus. This is extremely interesting music, leaning much more towards Beethoven’s style of song writing than Mozart’s; but then again, Beethoven was a huge admirer of Emanuel Bach.

C.P.E. BACH: Die letzten Leiden des Erlösers / Christine Schäfer, soprano 1; Ellen Schuring, soprano 2; Anette Elster, contralto; Thomas Dewald, tenor; Roman Trekel, baritone; Raphael Alpermann, organist; Halle Madrigalists Choir; C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orch., Hartmut Haenschen, conductor / Euroarts DVD 60808

5-fish

This magnificent and formerly-ignored religious cantata, The Last Sufferings of the Savior, is perhaps just a bit more religious in tone and a shade less innovative than Emanuel Bach’s Magnificat, but still a highly recommendable piece. Had it been written by Haydn or Mozart instead of C.P.E. Bach, music critics would be salivating over it. Once again, Haenschen—like his colleague Helmuth Rilling—gives an impassioned and beautifully-shaped performance without resorting to straight tone, and his cast of soloists are first-rate. There is also an alternate performance with sopranos Christiane Oelze and Christina Landshamer, contralto Anke Vondung, tenor Maximilian Schmidt and baritone Trekel on CD, Berlin Classics 300575BC, but I personally prefer this one.

C.P.E. BACH: Magnificat in D / Venceslava Hruba-Freiberger, soprano; Barbara Borneman, contralto; Peter Schreier, tenor; Olaf Bär, baritone; Berlin Radio Choir; C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orch.; Hartmut Haenschen, conductor / Berlin Classics 1011

6-fish

When Emanuel Bach’s Magnificat first appeared on LP in the early 1970s, critics were stunned to discover that it was as great as the one his father had written in the same key. Hartmut Haenschen, then in the vanguard of young conductors who insisted on lean orchestral sonorities in early music, is thankfully one of those who does not subscribe to the false religion of Straight Tone, thus you can always trust his recordings for proper musicality, phrasing, dynamics and excitement.

C.P.E. BACH: Organ Sonatas: Wq 65 No. 32; Wq 70 Nos. 2-6 / Iain Quinn, organist / Naxos 8.573424

6-fish

This recording of C.P.E. Bach’s rarely-heard organ sonatas is simply fantastic. Welsh organist Iain Quinn really tears into them and relishes in their odd musical form and colorful use of stops. Virgil Fox would have had a ball with these!

C.P.E. BACH: Sonatas, Wq 55/1-6 / Preethi de Silva, harpsichordist/clavichordist/pianist / Centaur 3279

5-fish

One of several fine albums of Emanuel Bach’s keyboard sonatas from his earlier Berlin period, played for all they are worth by the excellent but little-known Preethi de Silva. The sonics are also terrific on this disc.

C.P.E. BACH: Symphonies: Wq 183 Nos. 1-4; Wq 182 Nos. 1-6 / C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orch.; Hartmut Haenscne, conductor / Phoenix Edition 443

5-fish

Although this 2-CD set has a fairly short playing time and duplicates four of the symphonies conducted by Gustav Leonhardt in the Warner Classics boxed set, Haenschen’s performances are just so exciting that it’s worth getting, and the six symphonies Wq 182 are even more exciting than the Wq 183 set.

C.P.E. BACH: Violin Sonatas: in D, H. 502; in B min., Wq 76; in C min., Wq 78; Clavier-Fantasie mit Begleitung einer Violine in f-sharp min.; Arioso per il Cembalo e Violino in A, H. 535 / Leila Schayegh, violinist; Jörg Halubek, harpsichordist/tangent pianist / Pan Classics 10305

5-fish

A superb album of Emanuel Bach’s innovative writing for the violin, played fairly well despite the adherence to straight tone. The great French violinist Amandine Beyer is even better in the Violin Sonata H. 512 in her collection on Zig Zag Terrotoires (see Beyer in collections).

Bach, Johann Sebastian

J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue / Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin; Stefan Mai, conductor / Harmonia Mundi 902064

5-fish

J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue / Stephanie Ho, Saar Ahuvia, pianists / New Focus Recordings FCR181

6-fish

 

Certainly the knottiest and least approachable of all Bach’s works, Die Kunst der Fuge ended up being his last work: the final fugue was left unfinished when he went to have the cataract operation that inevitably killed him. (Remember my favorite moral: Stay away from doctors!) The great master of fugues probably intended this work strictly for study; certainly, no one in the 18th century ever bothered to actually perform it. In fact, when Bach’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel finally scraped up enough money to publish it and try to promote it, it sold all of 53 copies in three years! They ended up losing money on the venture.

Of course, many musicians, from single instrumentalists to groups of various sizes and instruments, have played and recorded it since. Part of the problem most listeners have had with the music is its consistently slow pace, deliberately chosen by Bach so that even amateur keyboardists could follow the different strands of the fugues clearly. Most listeners prefer instrumental groups because the different instruments have different timbres, thus allowing the music to be heard even more clearly. So do I, and in my experience this is undoubtedly the most engaging performance of all. The music may still put you off, but Stephan Mai and his original-instrument band play it with so much feeling and energy that it becomes more appealing. Now, your reaction may indeed vary from mine, but I went through six other recordings of this piece and none satisfied me as much as this one.

Then, a few years later, I reviewed this absolutely delightful duo-piano recording by Stephanie and Saar. They make the music dance, and sing, and play it with a light touch and a light heart. So if you really prefer an instrumental group doing it you need to get the Mai recording, but if you don’t mind two pianos (I didn’t), the latter recording will satisfy your needs.

J.S. BACH: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6 / Le Concert des Nations; Jordi Savall, conductor / Hänssler Classic 98009

5-fish

The first five of the six Brandenburg Concertos are among the most popular and often-performed of all Bach’s orchestral works, and there has been no lack of recordings over the years (the first great recording, believe it or not, dates from 1928, Anthony Bernard conducting the London Chamber Orchestra on Brunswick 78s). My previous favorite versions, before discovering this one, were the recordings by Benjamin Britten and Gustav Leonhardt, and I would never criticize either one, but to my ears Jordi Savall just goes one step further in terms of engagement and enthusiasm. And once again, we have here an early-instrument orchestra that ignores the “standard” HIP sound—whiny-sounding violins, flat dynamics, no inflections—to give us joyous, almost bouncy renditions of these highly attractive pieces. This is a virtually perfect recording in every respect!

J.S. BACH: Cantatas, as noted below. Labels and CD numbers not always given because they all come from different sources; check online for availability, including free downloads or streaming.

Cantata BWV 8, “Liebster Gott: Duch weichet” / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Choir of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Karl Förster, conductor

Cantata BWV 21, “Seufzer, Trännen, Kummer, Not” / Kathleen Battle, soprano; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Anthony Newman, harpsichord; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; John Nelson, conductor / Sony Classical 46672

Cantata BWV 37, “Wer da gläuber und getauft wird” / Lilo Rowles, soprano; Ingrid Lorenzen, contralto; Helmut Krebs, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; RIAS Chamber Choir & Orchestra; Karl Ristenpart, conductor

Cantata BWV 41, “Lass Uns, O Hochster Gott, Das Jahr Vollbringen” / Eileen Farrell, soprano; Bach Aria Group; William H. Scheide, director

Cantata BWV 47, “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedrget” / Agnes Giebel, soprano; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; RIAS Chamber Choir & Orchestra; Karl Ristenpart, conductor

Cantata BWV 51, “Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen” / Emma Kirkby, soprano; Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpet; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor / Philips 411458 (also see Magnificat in D)

Cantata BWV 56, “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; RIAS Chamber Choir & Orchestra; Karl Ristenpart, conductor

Cantata BWV 58, “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” / Eileen Farrell, soprano; Norman Farrow, bass; Bach Aria Group; William H. Scheide, director

Cantata BWV 73: “Herr, wie du willt, so schicks” / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Choir of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Karl Förster, conductor

Cantata BWV 79, “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” / Agnes Giebel, soprano; Lorri Lail, contralto; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; RIAS Chamber Choir & Orchestra; Karl Ristenpart, conductor

Cantata BWV 84: “Ich bin vergnücht mit meinen Glücke” / Magda Lászó, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Hermann Scherchen, conductor

Cantata BWV 115: “Ach schläfrige Seele, wie? ruhest du noch?” / Eileen Farrell, soprano; Norman Farrow, bass; Bach Aria Group; William H. Scheide, director

Cantata BWV 158: “Der Friede sie mit Dir”/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Choir of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Karl Förster, conductor

Cantata BWV 201: “Phoebus & Pan” / Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor

Cantata BWV 202, “Wedding” / Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor OR Kathleen Battle, soprano; Ravinia Festival Orchestra; James Levine, conductor

Cantata BWV 206, “Glide, playful waves” / Christine Schäfer, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, contralto; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Michael Volle, bass; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor

Cantata BWV 208, “Hunt” / Sibylla Rubens, soprano I (Diana); Eva Kirchner, soprano II (Pales); James Taylor, tenor (Endymion); Matthias Goerne, bass (Pan); Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor

Cantata BWV 211, “Coffee” / Christine Schäfer, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Thomas Quasthoff, bass; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor

all of the above  4 1/2 to 5 fish

I know that fans of the historically-informed historicals will have a coronary over most of the recommendations above, particularly Germans who, believe it or not, absolutely detest Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and think that he ruined everything he sang by over-italicizing the words, but as a Bach singer I believe he was unparalleled. In fact, odd though it might sound, when he sang Bach he placed the voice lower than normal and sounded much more like a bass than a baritone, which was all to the good. But do not underestimate the musical acumen of such conductors as Ristenpart, Scheide (who led the Bach Aria Group in New York for many years), Förster, Rilling or Levine, and do not sneer at the Bach singing of Eileen Farrell, who devoted much of her career to his music and in fact ended up as a choir contralto singing a lot of his music. These are, for the most part, deeply moving performances, and I for one prefer my Bach deeply moving.

You may also note that I’ve left a lot of the religious cantatas off this list. You bet I have, because, as B.H. Haggin pointed out, most of them were “written to order” on a weekly basis by a hard-pressed Bach who could certainly write music in his sleep and turn out a well-crafted score but actually wasn’t very inspired for most of these. I’ve always felt that the Cantata No. 51 was the exception, a work that Bach had a lot of fun writing because it exploited the bright voice of a boy treble (although such a voice rarely sings it nowadays) and trumpet. I have, however, included nearly all of the secular cantatas, which I happen to enjoy a great deal, particularly the “Hunt,” “Coffee” and “Wedding” cantatas.

J.S. BACH: Choral Preludes
BWV 599-612, 645-647, 651-660, 690-693, 701-706, 708-716 / Jean Guillou, organist / part of boxed set of Bach Organ Works, Dorian 92104

5-fish

BWV 705-708a, 710, 733, 750, 752, 756. 758, 762, 765, 1085 / Margaret Phillips, organist / part of Regent 308

5-fish

 

Two different approaches by two entirely different organists, yet both are interesting and valid. Jean Guillou, now 86, plays his own beloved organ on all of these and sometimes introduces ornaments or improvisations not written by Bach. Margaret Phillips, a British organist, plays her Preludes straight on a series of authentic European organs. The common ground is that they both play with enthusiasm and life. You may, of course, find and enjoy other versions that you like, but these are my choices.

J.S. BACH: Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue, BWV 903; Goldberg Variations; Italian Concerto, BWV 971 / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / EMI 610082

4-fish

J.S. BACH: Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue, BWV 903; Sonata for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord No. 1 in G, BWV 1027*; Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in c min., BWV 1011* / Zuzana Růžičková, harpsichord; *Janos Starker, cello / Hänssler 93.726

5-fish

 

Two absolutely great recordings of the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue, and both by harpsichordists with rich, full tones  which the HIP aficionados simply can’t stomach. Waaah, waaah, waaah, cry baby, cry. These are superbly singing performances that bring joy to the listener. Have yo forgotten what joy in listening is like? Why, yes, I believe you have. The Landowska disc, taken from mid-1930s performances, only gets 4 fish because of the limited mono sound and because her performance of the Goldberg Variations was truncated to fit 78-rpm discs, but not due to performance quality. With the Růžičková CD you also get a terrific performance of the Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 by Janos Starker and an equally great version of the Sonata for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord No. 1 by both artists.

J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Marlis Petersen, soprano (Soprano I); Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano (Soprano II); Anke Vondung, alto; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Franz-Josef Selig, bass; Stuttgart Gachinger Kantorei; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor / Hänssler Classic 98274 (2 CDs)

5-fish

 

A couple of days ago, I listened to multiple recordings of the Bach Mass in B Minor because I was somewhat disappointed with the one I had (Augér, Murray, Lipovšek, Schreier, Scharinger on Philips). And boy oh boy, what a weird trip that was! I heard both Historically Infected Performances, with their whiny straight-tone violins and choruses with no vibrato that sounded like a MIDI (sometimes I wonder if these performers realize just how utterly DISGUSTING they make music sound?), and Bad Old Days performances with their “rounded” rhythms, sensuous phrasing, and pompous, overly-religious approach. And several, like the Karl Munchinger, Robert Shaw and Georg Solti versions, in between. Oh, yes, I tried and tried to like the Gramophone’s whoop-de-doo favorite Mass, John Eliot Gardiner, but I’m afraid that he has become something of a leathery old coot in his performances since the mid-1990s. No longer are his performances flowing as well as energetic; they are simply cold, glassy and choppy. You may like that, but I don’t. Among the other conductors’ versions I heard were Scherchen (both his mono and stereo recordings), Brembeck, Müller-Bruhl, Celibidache, Giulini, Richter, early and late Karajan, Ohrwall, Ericson, Daus, later Gardiner (on SDG), Max, Ozawa, Seymour, Budday, Rifkin (one to a part? no thanks), Christophers, Biller, Junghanel, Marriner, Herreweghe, Beringer, Bruggen, Suzuki, Butt, Hickox, Kuijken, Rademann, Bernius, Funfgeld, Fasolis, Allwood, Radu, three by Rilling, Straube, Minkowski, Jacobs, Parrott, Corboz, another one by Schreier, Mauersberger, Kuijken, Mortensen, Jochum, Klemperer and Herreweghe. Is that enough Masses in B Minor for you? It was for me.

Now, mind you, two of these came close for me: the Beringer and the Funfgeld. But the Beringer uses the Windsbach Boys’ Choir which, though very, very good, didn’t quite satisfy me, and the recorded sound is a little too ambient, with goopy echo around the soloists, chorus and orchestra. As for Funfgeld, his performance is mostly spectacular in both musical feeling and clarity of lines; he uses a HIP orchestra that doesn’t sound revolting, and terrific soloists. But I don’t really like hearing the opening “Kyrie” taken at a little over nine minutes—that’s just too fast for me, considering the feeling of the piece—and although his chorus starts off “Cum sancto spiritu” like gangbusters, they slow it down a bit in order to get all of that breathtaking counterpoint in cleanly. That didn’t cut it for me.

But then I listened to the most recent (2005) Helmuth Rilling performance, and was hooked. This was not as romantic as his first recording from way back when nor as cool as his mid-1990s version, also for Hänssler Classic. Interestingly, he uses a HIP orchestra here but manages to get them to phrase like musicians, not like automatons, and as a chorusmaster Rilling is perhaps unmatched in this repertoire. His chorus is stupendous from start to finish in both technical execution and feeling. As for the soloists, they take a middle approach to the music, not quite as overly-reverential as in earlier recordings of the Mass and not quite as “peppy” as, for instance, Beringer’s and Funfgeld’s soloists (both of which are wonderful, although Beringer’s singers are gold-plated stars while Funfgeld’s are not that well known).

J.S. BACH: St. John Passion / Juliane Banse, soprano; Sabrine Goetz, soprano (Ancilla); Ingeborg Danz, contralto; Michael Schade, tenor (Evangelist); James Taylor, tenor; Matthias Goerne, bass (Jesus); Andreas Schmidt, baritone; David Stingl, bass (Petrus); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, conductor

5-fish

 

The “junior” Passion of Bach contains much excellent music but is somewhat harder to pull off in performance as it is not quite as theatrical or riveting as the one of St. Matthew. Prior to hearing this recording I was very fond of Monica Huggett’s version on Avie, but the coldness of her straight-tone strings and the obtrusive and inauthentic singing of a falsetto countertenor were no match for this heartfelt performance by Rilling with an all-star cast of singers who are emotionally involved and committed.

J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion / Elly Ameling, soprano (Arias, 1st Maid, Pilate’s Wife); Marga Höffgen, contralto; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Tom Krause, bass; Peter Pears, tenor (Evangelist); Hermann Prey, baritone (Jesus); Heinz Blankenburg, baritone (Peter, Priest, Pilate); August Messthaler, bass (Judas); Stuttgart Hymnus-Boys’ Choir; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Chorus; Karl Munchinger, conductor / Decca 414057

5-fish

Yes, I’m changing my choice for the St. Matthew Passion. I originally started with Otto Klemperer, moved to mid-1990s Helmuth Rilling, then to Peter Dykstra before running across this recording which I hadn’t remembered existed. Why this magnificent performance has taken a back seat to the contemporary versions by Klemperer and Karl Richter I’m not sure, but upon listening carefully to it I think I have one answer. This performance is actually much closer to today’s HIP style. The strings play with a light vibrato in sustained passages (which is historically correct as opposed to straight tone) but use straight tone in rapid passages, particularly the violin obbligato in a couple of the arias. Münchinger also used a real viola da gamba to accompany the secco recitatives instead of a modern cello and mixes a boys’ chorus with an adult choir, and if you listen through headphones you’ll hear all sorts of little orchestral details that you simply don’t hear in the Klemperer, Richter or Rilling versions.

And yet this performance has the same kind of emotional depth that both Klemperer and Dykstra imparted to the music, with better tempos than the former and better and more consistent soloists than the latter. Tenor Peter Pears, considered the pre-eminent Evangelist during the 1960s and ‘70s, reprises that role here from the Klemperer set. I know there are some people who think that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Klemperer is the greatest exponent of the role of Jesus, but I find Hermann Prey consistently interesting. As good as Nicolai Gedda was on the Klemperer set, Fritz Wunderlich’s tenor solos are even better sung, and all the other soloists are superb. Perhaps one reason I ignored it was due to the presence of soprano Elly Ameling, who I always found extraordinarily boring in lieder, but much to my surprise her singing here is far livelier and more involved than I’ve ever heard her before or since. Tom Krause, who for some reason never quite achieved the widespread recognition he deserved as a superlative bass-baritone, sings the bass arias while the even more underrated Heinz Blankenburg (see my review of his Figaro in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) is excellent as Peter and Pontius Pilate.

The one singer who seems to come in for the most criticism today is contralto Marga Höffgen. Why? Because she has an even, regular but noticeable vibrato. So what? Back in the 1950s/60s, a great many fine German singers had an even but noticeable vibrato, among them Rita Streich and Elisabeth Grümmer. The real reason Höffgen gets slammed is because of the preponderance of hooty pure-voiced singers nowadays, including countertenors, who listeners and critics have been told to prefer. I’ll take Höffgen’s deeply expressive singing over theirs any day of the week.

So here you have it, a classic recording. It is also available on YouTube in two different incarnations: one, the complete performance in one huge sound file but, weirdly, only in monophonic sound which distorts the voices and eliminates the stereo separation of the choirs, and second, beautiful stereo files available in eight large chunks. But the latter omits two recitative passages from Part 1 (“Und da sie den Lobgesang” and “Petrus aber antwortete”) and repeats a chorus in Part 3, so be forewarned.

J.S. BACH: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin / Mark Kaplan, violinist / Bridge 9460 A/B (2 CDs)

5-fish

From the first notes of this new release, I was worried by the fact that Kaplan seemed to take these pieces at not merely a leisurely pace but a granitic one, almost like Otto Klemperer’s recording of the Bach St, Matthew Passion.

But like Klemperer’s Passion, Kaplan creates here an entire world of feeling and emotion. For him, these are obviously not just Bach pieces to be played but major, monumental structures to be explored and savored, note by note and phrase by phrase. By the time you finish just one complete Sonata, you are emotionally drained, but you realize there are two more sonatas and the three partitas yet left to hear.

It is difficult to describe in words exactly what Kaplan does with this music; an objective description really isn’t enough, but I will try. To begin with, he plays in a more modern style. Kaplan plays a 1685 Stradivarius called “The Marquis” after the Marchese Spinola whose family owned this instrument for generations, and although he does not use straight tone, he does employ a light, fast vibrato which gives the illusion of straight tone without sacrificing beauty of sound. More importantly, to my ears, is that he knows how to “build” each piece, using both its structure and its emotional message (to him) to convey something far, far deeper than what one sees in the naked music. It is as if every note, every phrase of these monumental works has something to say to Kaplan and, in turn, he has something to say to you about them.

It took me a while to figure out who Kaplan’s tone reminded me of. It reminds me of Isaac Stern, but Stern in a really fired-up mood. I have to say that I was never much of a Stern fan, not because he couldn’t play the violin well—he certainly could—but because I found most of his performances very generic-sounding. There is nothing generic about Kaplan; on the contrary, he is an individualist of the highest order.

When Kaplan played the entire Sonatas and Partitas over two evenings at Ostin Hall in Los Angeles in October 2000, at a time when he was on the faculty of UCLA, Los Angeles Times critic Richard S. Ginell praised him for his “near-perfect intonation, even in the most treacherous multiple-stopped chords; expressive rubatos in the slower dances; sufficiently graceful rhythm in others. He could dig trenchantly into the Sonata No. 2’s great Fuga, finding the climaxes and crunching them with satisfying, robust attacks.” This is perhaps a bit more of a “macho” description of what Kaplan does in this music than I would say, but it’s very close. In style, he seems to me to combine the best of the Italian and German approaches to violin playing in that his long-lined passages have extraordinary lyricism yet do not collapse under the weight of the slow pace he chooses, while the fast movements have the brightness of sound and that identifiable “lift” to the rhythm that the best Italian violinists can bring to this music.

Prior to hearing Kaplan’s recording, my benchmark performances in these works were the ones recorded by the great Dutch violinist Sigiswald Kuijken way back in 1981. They were, I believe, the very first recordings made of these works using straight tone, and Kuijken was able (as so few Historically-Informed violinists can do) to make the violin sing without sounding whiny. Going back and relistening to Kuijken’s performances after hearing Kaplan’s, I still find much to admire insofar as the unusual approach is concerned (there is, as I’ve said many times, no conclusive evidence that 18th-century violinists played with constant straight tone or even mostly with straight tone), but because he is using constant straight tone, Kuijken is physically incapable of achieving the kind of emotional impact that Kaplan brings to this music.

Now, I’m not saying that no straight-tone violinist can achieve anything close to what Kaplan gives us, but I’m not holding my breath, either. Regular readers of my reviews know my philosophy: it’s the musical approach, not the instrument or the technique used, that brings a piece of music to life. If you don’t really love the music and get deep inside it, all your audience is going to hear is a nice progression of notes, possibly played with a good legato and spiffy stops but not much more. I’ll take an artist—a real artist—like Kaplan over a more clinical approach any day of the week.

J.S. BACH: 6 Suites for Solo Cello / Yehuda Hanani, cellist / Town Hall THCD51

6-fish

 

J.S. BACH: 6 Suites for Solo Cello / Zuill Bailey, cellist / Telarc 31978

6-fish

 

A conundrum: two recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, both being awarded six fish. Why? It’s a long story. About 18 years ago, when I was about to attend a symposium for student cellists on the Bach Suites, I was telling Hanani, who was the professor leading it, that my experiences with listening to the cello suites was not a happy experience. He explained to me how they were structured and how he, in particular, went out of his way to make sure that all the inner voices were heard clearly and offered to send me a copy of his recording. I accepted, and was bowled over. Never had I heard so much passion and life in these works! So naturally, this became my gold standard recording.

Then, about nine years later, I was asked to review Zuill Bailey’s new recording of them for Telarc and, if I liked it, interview him about the recording. I didn’t think anyone else would even equal Hanani, let alone surpass him, but much to my surprise Bailey’s performances were mesmerizing in an entirely different way. When I talked to him I asked him if he alternated between vibrato and straight tone, as so much of the playing sounded vibrato-free. He explained to me that no, he used a constant quick vibrato, in some passages keeping it very light with the intention of “hypnotizing” his listeners while playing certain movements. Furthermore, he had tried this out in live performance prior to recording the suites. As I say, the musical approach is very different—Bailey does not put as much emphasis on the inner voices as Hanani, and his tempi are often a bit slower—but it is a hypnotic performance, one you will never forget. I own both. Do you need to do the same? No, not really, but hopefully the descriptions I’ve provided above will help you decide between them.

J.S. BACH: Violin-Keyboard Sonatas, BWV 1014-16, 1018 / Yehudi Menuhin, violinist; Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / A Classical Record 45 (mono: live, December 20, 1944)

4-fish

J.S. BACH: Violin-Keyboard Sonata No. 4, BWV 1017. BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G. SCHOENBERG: Phantasy for Violin & Piano, Op. 47 / Yehudi Menuhin, violinist; Glenn Gould, pianist  / Sony Classical 52688

5-fish

 

The first disc listed above comes for home-recorded lacquer discs made at Town Hall in December, 1944, when Menuhin and Landowska created absolute magic with Bach. The only drawbacks are the boxy sound and the fact that they decided to omit one of the five violin-keyboard sonatas so as to not make the program too long and to be able to balance it, two sonatas in each half of the program. They were signed to record the complete sonatas for RCA Victor, but the last year of the War and their busy schedules prevented them from recording any but Sonata No. 3. Menuhin did record the full dive sonatas with Louis Kentner for Victor/HMV, but although the performances were very fine they just missed the magic of the performances with Landowska on harpsichord. Many years later, around 1966, Menuhin also recorded the “missing” Sonata No. 4 in a CBC broadcast with Glenn Gould, and magic was again made, so if you get these two discs you’ll have outstanding performances of the full set by Menuhin.

J.S. BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier / Gianluca Luisi, pianist / Centaur 3040-43

6-fish

My first choice for this huge masterpiece was Wanda Landowska; then it was Glenn Gould; then Vladimir Feltsman; and now it’s Gianluca Luisi, but somehow I don’t think I’ll find a better performance anywhere. As Luisi told me when I interviewed him for the release of this set, “My playing is as clear as a mountain stream.” And so it is. Exquisite in every respect.

Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann

Only one picture of Bach’s oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, exists, and in it he looks like the jolliest and most relaxed Bach of all. But reports indicate the opposite, that he was stubborn, difficult to deal with, and in some ways the most reactionary and old-fashioned composer of all of J.S. Bach’s children. Yet some of the music he wrote is quite good, thus we will recommend some of it here.

W.F. BACH: Keyboard Sonatas: in F, Fk deest; in D, Fk 3. Keyboard Concerto in G, Fk 40. Ouverture in Es, Fk deest. Menuett in F, Fk deest. Fantasias in D minor, E minor / Léon Berben, harpsichordist / Carus 83346

5-fish

A very fine collection of some of W.F. Bach’s keyboard works, showing his elegance and style, very well played by Berben.

W.F. BACH: Sinfonia in D, Fk 64. Adagio & Fugue in D min., Fk 65. Harpsichord Concerto in E minor, Fk 43*. Sinfonia in F, Fk 67 / *Raphael Alpermann, harpsichordist; Akademie für Alte Musik; Stephan Mai, conductor / Harmonia Mundi HMC901772, or listen for free on Spotify

5-fish

Wilhelm Friedemann’s symphonies were entirely different from those of his brothers: not as forward-looking as Johann Christian or Carl Philipp Emanuel, yet much more in a sort of French galant style than the orchestral suites of his father. Stephan Mai isn’t the most exciting conductor in the world, but he does get the Akademie für Alte Musik orchestra to play these works with considerable charm and elegance, qualities often missing from many HIP performances nowadays. Harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann is a specialist in music from this period, and it shows in his splendid performance of the Harpsichord Concerto.

Balakirev, Mili

BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata in B-flat min. Rêverie. Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat. Islamey. LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. Also includes music of Lyapunov / Louis Kentner, pianist / APR 6020

5-fish

 

Louis Kentner, a brilliant pianist born in Austria but raised in Hungary, emigrated to the U.K. in 1935 and remained there for the rest of his life. He made a good many recordings, including the Bach Violin-Keyboard Sonatas with his brother-in-law Yehudi Menuhin, but is scarcely known in the U.S. except for his phenomenal recordings of Nalakirev and Lyapunov, collected here on this 2-CD set. Despite their being mono sound (recorded in the late 1940s), the playing is of an extraordinarily high level and will simply blow you away.

Barber, Samuel

Samuel Barber, talented but not quite a genius, was nevertheless a master of small-form music. His Adagio for Strings, three Essays for Orchestra, Andromache’s Farewell, Dover Beach, Knoxville Summer of 1915 and various songs are all gems, while his full-length operas are generally long-winded without saying very much. Eventually this caught up with him financially as well as personally when his opera commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera, Antony and Cleopatra, was a complete bomb. Expecting revenues from A & C that never materialized, Barber sadly fell into financial and personal decline. He had to move to smaller and less amenable apartments, his health failed, and he died at age 70. It was a sad end for a man who had come from a good family—he was the nephew of esteemed Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer, who used her friendship with Arturo Toscanini to get his Adagio and first Essay for Orchestra performed by the Maestro with the NBC Symphony—but never quite understood his limitations. Nevertheless, Barber’s smaller-scale music is very fine indeed, inspired as well as well-crafted, thus we need to include him here.

BARBER: Adagio for Strings / NBC Symphony Orch., Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming here

4-fish

 

Even with the defective, boxy sound, I still find Toscanini’s performance of this piece to be the most moving and emotional ever given. You are, of course, free to find whatever recordings please you better. I’ve not found them. 4 1/2 fish due to the boxy mono sound.

BARBER: Excursions, Op. 20 / Christopher Harding, pianist / available for free streaming here: I. Un poco allegro; II. In Slow Blues Tempo; III. Allegretto; IV. Allegro molto

5-fish

 

Barber’s wonderful, and oft-ignored piano suite Excursions was apparently written under the influence of Gershwin’s Three Preludes, for they are surprisingly jazzy little works that have a tremendous effect when played with the right swagger, as Harding does here.

BARBER: The School for Scandal: Overture. Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. Essay for Orchestra No. 1 / Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor / Naxos 8.559024

6-fish

 

BARBER: Knoxville, Summer of 1915. Essays for Orchestra Nos. 2 & 3. Toccata Festiva / Karina Gauvin, soprano; Thomas Trotter, organist; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor / Naxos 8.559134

6-fish

In recent years, for whatever reason, Marin Alsop’s recordings have shown a lessened intensity from her earlier work for Naxos, but these earlier recordings from 1999-2002 are absolutely the most exciting Barber you will ever hear. The problem is that neither of the two Symphonies are really that good, nor is the Toccata Festiva; and although Karina Gauvin has an absolutely gorgeous voice, her pronunciation isn’t terribly clear in Knoxville. My recommendation is to purchase the tracks you need to have as individual downloads and create your own album. In addition to the three Essays and the School for Scandal Overture, you will also want Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance.

BARBER: Knoxville, Summer of 1915 / Eleanor Steber, soprano; Dumbarton Oaks Orchestra; William Strickland, conductor / Dover Beach, Op. 3 / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Juilliard String Quartet / Hermit Songs, Op. 29 / Leontyne Price, soprano; Samuel Barber, pianist / Andromache’s Farewell / Martina Arroyo, soprano; New York Philharmonic Orch.; Thomas Schippers, conductor / Sony Classical/CBS MPK46727

4-and-a-half-fish

 

This collection of classic Barber performances, mostly recorded in the 1950s, has scarcely been out of print since it first appeared in the very early 1990s and with good reason. Each of these is a classic account of the music. Just look at the lineup: four of the greatest singers in history, each giving fresh, vibrant performances of the piece they are assigned. My somewhat lower rating is due to the cramped mono sound on most of these.

BARBER: Complete Songs / Thomas Hampson, baritone; Cheryl Studer, soprano; John Browning, pianist; Emerson String Quartet / DGG 0289 435 8672 6

6-fish

 

Finding complete collections of any composers’s songs that are good from start to finish is extremely rare, but this 2-CD set is virtually impeccable. Both Hampson and Studer were in their vocal prime when this set was recorded, and although there may be a song here and there where you like someone else’s interpretation a shade better, nothing on this magnificent set dissapoints. The only “dream team” I could imagine nowadays being any better would be Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Houtzeel, and I don’t see them recording this material. Alas, none of the orchestrally-accompanied songs are here, meaning no Knoxville and no Andromache’s Farewell, but Dover Beach is magnificently sung by Hampson with the Emerson Quartet. A real bargain.

As for a modern recording of Knoxville, the best I’ve heard is the one by soprano Barbara Hendricks with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, which you can stream for free here.

Bartók, Béla

BARTÓK: Allegro Barbaro; 10 Easy Pieces, Nos. 6 & 10; Rumanian Folk Dances; 2 Rumanian Dances; 14 Bagatelles: No. 10, Allegro giocoso; 3 Burlesques: No. 2, A Bit Drunk; Suite, Op. 14; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Sonatina; Petite Suite; 3 Hungarian Folk Tunes; For Children, Vol. 1 (excerpts); Mikrokosmos (excerpts)+; Improvisations on Peasant Songs; 8 Hungarian Folk Songs (7)*; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin & Piano#; 6 Rumanian Folk Dances#; Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet & Piano#^ / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor; +Ditta Bartók Pásztory, pianist; #Jósef Szigeti, violinist; ^Benny Goodman, clarinetist / SCARLATTI: Sonatas in G, K. 427; A, K. 212; A, K. 537; B-flat, K. 70. BRAHMS: Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2. KODÁLY: Hungarian Folk Music* / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; *Vilma Medgyaszay, soprano; *Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor / Hungaroton HCD-32790/91

4-fish

This set, which I consider indispensable for those who like Bartók, presents the composer as pianist in a large cross-section of his own works as well as short examples of how he played Scarlatti, Brahms and Kodály. The reason the sete only gets four fish has more to do with the sound quality, which ranges from mediocre to poor (Bartók made a lot of his records for small labels with inferior sound quality; only Contrasts was made for a major label, Columbia) that performance quality. As I said in my longer, detailed review of this set, almost no one today plays Bartók’s music the way the composer did in terms of phrasing, lyricism and drive, thus these are—despite the variable sound—the preferred recordings of most of them.

BARTÓK: Concerto for Orchestra; Hungarian Sketches; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta / Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor / RCA Living Stereo 61504

6-fish

Classical music critics really don’t agree unanimously on very many recordings of anything, but this is one case where I think we are all of one mind. Fritz Reiner and Bartók’s good friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti, were the ones who persuaded Serge Koussevitzky—who didn’t much like Bartók’s music—to commission the Concerto for Orchestra, but that isn’t the reason why this recording is so good. The reason it’s so good is that Reiner gets deep under the skin of the score, bringing out its varied moods while also highlighting all the musical details. Of all the later recordings, the only one that comes close to this is Georg Solti’s 1965 album with the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca 467686), which I would give five fish, but even with the 1950s analog sound of Reiner’s Living Stereo release it’s still a six-fish performance.

BARTÓK: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / Tatiana Troyanos, mezzo-soprano (Judith); Siegmund Nimsgern, baritone (Bluebeard); New York Philharmonic Orch., Rafael Kubelik, conductor / available for free streaming here. (live: March 27, 1981)

5-fish

BARTÓK: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / Sylvia Sass, soprano (Judith); Kolos Kovats, baritone (Bluebeard); Istvan Sztankay, narrator; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Georg Solti, conductor / Decca 433082

6-fish

 

Two outstanding performances of Bartók’s great one-act opera; neither one is deficient in any way, but the Solti gets six fish while the Kubelik gets only five. The reason is the addition of the oft-omitted narrator, whose low-key but bone-chilling introduction, behind which the opening music slowly comes up, almost has the effect of the opening of the old Inner Sanctum radio program. Both conductors lead their forces with intensity, and if I prefer Troyanos’ singing a bit better than Sass’, I prefer the latter’s idiomatic Hungarian diction. The Kubelik was a live broadcast while the Solti was recorded beforehand and then put to a film where the principals lip-synched their roles. The DVD of the production is, however, simply awful to watch, so don’t even bother seeking it out. Also, the Solti has the advantage of first-rate miking in the studio where every little orchestral detail emerges as clear as a bell, which also contributes to the six-fish rating.

BARTÓK: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 / Peter Donohoe, pianist; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Simon Rattle, cond. / Warner Classics 54871

6-fish

As I mentioned in my review of Bartók Plays Bartók (artmusiclounge.wordpress.com/bartok-plays-bartok-listen-and-learn/), the composer himself played his works in an entirely different style than we hear most of the time nowadays. The modern trend is to play the piano music, including the piano parts of these concertos, in a very dry, percussive style, but Bartók himself played with a legato style and plenty of “binding” of notes even when the music was very rhythmic. I have never heard any modern-day pianist approach this authentic Bartók style any better than Peter Donohoe does here. He is simply phenomenal, not only in having the correct phrasing for this music but also in being able to cut through its myriad technical difficulties like a hot knife through butter. This complete command of the keyboard allows him to interpret the music, and he does this in a way that is both sensitive and exhilarating in turn. Simon Rattle, who when he is “on” can be one of the greatest conductors in the world, is absolutely wired here. As a Gramophone reviewer said in 1993, Rattle actually makes this music sound “fun,” a great accomplishment.

Of historical recordings, I’ve only really found a couple of versions of the Concerto No. 3 in the same league as these. The first of these is Annie Fischer’s recording with Igor Markevitch and the London Symphony Orchestra, available as both a single disc on Musique Classique and in the EMI boxed set of Fischer’s complete London studio recordings (Warner Classics 2564634123). Fischer, being Hungarian herself, has this music “in her blood” and plays it as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it in my life. The second is Dinu Lipatti’s 1948 live performance with Paul Sacher and an orchestra that doesn’t play much of it very well on Urania 22.122, but don’t be discouraged as Lipatti is superb on it. Both are mono, of course. Insofar as other recordings of the three concertos go, only Geza Anda with Ferenc Fricsay comes close to this Donohoe-Rattle disc. This is a desert island disc.

BARTÓK: The Miraculous Mandarin. Two Portraits* JANÁČEK: Sinfonietta / *Shlomo Mintz, violinist; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, conductor / DGG 445501

5-fish

 

A lot of critics have their favorite Miraculous Mandarin; this is mine. Some people prefer Abbado’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, but I find that interpretation a bit too slick—generally a problem with Abbado in almost everything he conducted in the orchestral repertoire. The Two Portraits is a nice piece if not a particularly great one, like the Janáček Sonfonietta.

BARTÓK: Sonata for 2 Pianos & Percussion / Beryl Rubinstein, Arthur Loesser, pianists; Cloyd Duff, Emil Sholie, percussionists / available for free streaming & download at Internet Archive

5-fish

 

One of the lesser-known but more fascinating of Bartók’s works, this 1950 performance is just as good artistically as the one by Bartók himself with his wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, but in much better sound.

BARTÓK: Sonata for Solo Violin. Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Barnabás Kelemen, violinist; Zoltan Kocsis, pianist / Hungaroton 32515

6-fish

 

Prior to the appearance of this disc, my favorite recording of the two Violin Sonatas was the one by violinist James Ehnes, but Barnabás Kelemen simply blows him away in terms of intensity and Zoltan Kocsis’ pianism almost sounds as if he is improvising behind him. In addition, Kelemen plays the fiendishly difficult Solo Violin Sonata as well or better than anyone else on record. A gem of a disc.

BARTÓK: String Quartets Nos. 1-6. KODÁLY: String Quartets Nos. 1-2 / Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL-2009

6-fish

Since this is the first of several entries you will see in my guide for the Alexander String Quartet, an admission is required. When I was reviewing classical CDs for a major publication, I was sent some recordings for review only if positive. This is a technique that CD review publications use to lure the artist into granting an interview, which costs them advertising money. The critic doing the interview gets paid a little extra for doing said interview (no, I don’t get paid a dime for doing interviews on this blog), but the lion’s share of the money goes to the magazine. Not being someone who indulges in pay-to-play because I feel it compromises my integrity as a critic, I rarely accepted such interviews. In fact, on three occasions I flatly refused to do them because, although I gave somewhat positive reviews to the CDs, I was not enthusiastic enough about the artist or composer to want to bother to do the interviews.

My experience with the Alexander String Quartet was the opposite of this. I was completely bowled over by the CD I was sent and begged to be the one to be allowed to do the interview with the group’s founder and cellist, Alexander “Sandy” Walsh-Wilson. We have since become online acquaintances of sorts and admire each others’ work, but only because of my great admiration for their performances. In my view, they are the premiere string quartet of our modern era.

Thus my rating of their recording of the complete Bartók (and Kodály) quartets, a set that even surpasses the Bartók performances of the Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon. What makes them so special? In addition to an absolutely gorgeous array of tone colors, impeccable technique and emotional commitment—all of which they share in common with other quartets, including the Emerson—the Alexander Quartet has an extra sparkle to their playing in the form of enlivened rhythmic “lift” and drive that I simply don’t hear in most other quartets. No, not everything they do is flawless, but it’s pretty close to that, and in these quartets by Hungarian composers they manage to adapt their sound to the peculiar Magyar rhythms on which this music was based. This isn’t an easy accomplishment, I can assure you, and I think that if you approach the set, as I did, with a completely open mind and objectivity, you will agree with my assessment of these recordings.

I have given them six fish because I have not heard any other quartet, new or old, come close to what they accomplish here in this music.

BARTÓK: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Yehudi Menuhin, violinist; Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor / available for free streaming at YouTube: I. Allegro non troppo; II. Andante tranquillo; III. Allegro molto

4-and-a-half-fish

 

BARTÓK: Violin Concerto No. 2. Rhapsodies for Violin & Orchestra Nos. 1 & 2 / Kyung-Wha Chung, violinist; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Simon Rattle, conductor / EMI 54211

5-fish

 

The thought of Menuhin playing Bartók isn’t half as strange as the concept of Furtwängler conducting Bartók, yet oddly enough, both gave 100% and the result is phenomenal. Only 4 ½ fish due to the dated mono sound, however.

I’ve long felt that, for whatever reason, Kyung-Wha Chung is a sadly underrated violinist, at least so far as public perception is concerned, but her performances here are simply dazzling and Rattle is a very sympathetic accompanist. That being said, I still prefer the Menuhin/Furtwängler pairing in the concerto by a small margin.

BARTÓK: 4 Orchestral Pieces. Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta. Violin Concerto No. 1 / Christian Ostertag, violinist; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 93.127

5-fish

A very different reading of the Music for Strings etc., emphasizing the work’s lyrical qualities. Some listeners have found it wanting “a dark undertone of mystery,” but I do not. It’s more or less a modern digital version of Guido Cantelli’s old performance with the NBC Symphony. The early (1908) Violin Concerto is a bit on the sentimental side, but Gielen brings out deep sadness in the music, while the 4 Orchestral Pieces have bite and venom to spare.

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