January 2023 Classical Record Reviews
Nielsen: Symphonies 4 (The Inextinguishable) & 5
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Fabio Luisi, cond.
Deutsche Grammophon (16/44.1 download). 2022. Bernhard Güttler, prod.; Mikkel Nymand, eng.
Luisi serves up forthright yet unusually cultivated Nielsen. His suave manner, a bit like Rattle’s, smooths the music’s rougher edges; he doesn’t overplay, literally or figuratively, such characteristic gestures as the obsessive short motifs (ostinato, indeed!). In contrast to the Briton, Luisi does this without sacrificing propulsion, energy, or vivid color, making for more stylish, idiomatic performances. Attacks are strong and alert, played as surges rather than sharp “hits.”
The Inextinguishable, for once, sounds more like an actual symphony than a loosely structured sequence of episodes. In the alertly addressed first movement, the plaintive woodwind chorale is clearly the official second theme; a rousing tutti, not an actual recap, caps the development, and the joyous outpourings subside into the simple, folklike Poco allegretto. The Poco adagio‘s anguished opening threnody sets off the calmer passages. Luisi and the players nail the tricky metrical scansions of the finale’s theme, maintaining its graceful curve even as the music becomes turbulent.
Not everyone will appreciate the conductor’s restraint in the Fifth. The repetitive violin motif brings an anxious undercurrent to the straightforward theme. The famous, obsessive snare drum solo re-surges, as it should, to disrupt the warm, full-throated Adagio, but Luisi still gives the long musical line priority. The Presto fugue, building into a thudding, ominous peak, becomes the great juggernaut here. The basically triumphant conclusion sounds not entirely convinced. Once again, Luisi has the metrical irregularities well in hand.
Save in the Inextinguishable‘s opaque final climaxes, the engineering is impressive in the old Decca analog way (a compliment). Mild bass emphasis adds richness; soli are spotlit, notably the rich-toned bassoon. The brass choir is “deep” and brilliant, without harsh edges.Stephen Francis Vasta
Mozart: The Prussian Quartets
BIS-2558 (Hybrid SACD, reviewed in its native format as 24/96 WAV). 2022. Andrew Keener, prod.; Oscar Torres, eng.
Grounded in the music of the Western European masters, from Haydn to Mendelssohn, the 17-year-old Chiaroscuro Quartet now turns its period instruments to Mozart’s Prussian Quartets. Composed, presumably, with thoughts of a reward from King Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cellist king of Prussia, the quartets find Mozart at his fecund peak. The same good humor and sublime melodies heard in his contemporaneous opera, Cosi fan tutte, pour forth in a rich abundance of variations.
From the start of String Quartet No.21 in D major, the quartets abound in loveliness, the playing sprightly and alive. The musicians, including Alina Ibragimova on first violin, delight in showcasing their instruments’ colors and timbres as Mozart passes melody lines back and forth with a twinkle in his eye. In the second movement, with its brief allusion to Mozart’s adorable song “Das Veilchen” (The Violet), the Chiaroscuros play so softly that it’s a wonder they manage to maintain tonal color and bloom, and with such apparent ease. The closing movement is a joy.
It gets better. The opening of String Quartet No.22 in B flat major is remarkably hushed. Instrumental balance remains ideal at all volume levels. Mozart sounds as if he’s having the time of his life discovering one variation followed by other. Don’t miss the little chirping figures as you approach the four-minute mark in the third, zippy Minuet movement.
The final quartet, No.23 in F major, is the essence of mellifluousness. Colors are delicious as ideas pass from instrument to instrument. Listen to the beauty of Claire Thirion’s cello as the instruments whisper to each other in the Andante. It’s the aural equivalent of the best videos you’ve ever seen of sweet fuzzy animals playing together in blissful innocence. Heavenly, simply heavenly.Jason Victor Serinus
Mahler: Symphony 5
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, David Bernard, cond.
Recursive Classics RC5956731 (CD). 2022. Jennifer Nulsen, prod.; Isaiah Abolin, Thom Beemer, Lawrence Manchester, engs.
I questioned whether a “chamber symphony” could do justice to this score. But, according to the booklet photo, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is a full-sized orchestra, and it produces the heft and mass needed to fill out Mahler’s grand sonorities.
Working within a dry acoustic, the engineers serve up a natural, ungimmicked frame. The opening trumpet fanfare comes up with impressive, round depth, as does the Scherzo‘s obbligato horn. Woodwind and horn soli are precisely placed on the stage. Focused bass lines ground it firmly.
David Bernard brings out plenty of the score’s character. The opening dotted rhythms are oppressive in their weighty deliberation; the strings’ somber march, while more transparent, remains weighted, and the second theme all but grieves. The Scherzo‘s second group, slightly selfconscious, is affectionately laid-back. The Adagietto, once it settles, flows in a single purposeful arc; even the big downward swoop is kept within bounds. The Finale is best, vigorous and gracious by turns, the strings bold and confident in the “scraping” fugues. Conversely, the arrival of “sunlight” in the second movement almost passes unnoticed, and the Scherzo‘s tricky passages don’t quite stay coordinated.
The players approach the score’s demands with a certain doggedness. The second movement’s turbulent opening remains earthbound; so does the Scherzo after a nice, buoyant start. Elsewhere, they want to push forward, and the conductor pays insufficient attention to layering the textures: Uniformly thick, up-front sonorities dilute the climaxes’ impact.
This performance would have brought me to my feet in the hall, but it faces much high-octane competition on record. Still, it’s worth considering for audiophiles because of the superior sound.Stephen Francis Vasta
Julia Bullock: Walking in the Dark
Nonesuch 695267 (auditioned as 24/192 WAV). 2022. Matthew Bennett and Dave Rowell, prods., Dave Rowell, eng.
Walking in the Dark stopped me in my tracks. First, there was the arresting beauty of Julia Bullock’s voice: dark and soulful at bottom, solid at the very top, a conveyer of commitment and belief. Then there’s the subject: Samuel Barber’s great Knoxville, Summer of 1915, with the UK’s venerable Philharmonia Orchestra, surrounded by Bullock and Christian Reif, her pianist-conductor husband, in six songs addressing elements central to life during the pandemic.
The opening song is an arrangement of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby,” which Nina Simone recorded live at The Village Gate in 1961 with an inimitable shake of vibrato at the end of key phrases. Bullock starts with “When out of men’s hearts, hate is hurled,” which Simone sang at the end, singing with a wide-open heart.
First recorded the year before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, Connie Converse’s “One by One” arrives with sweet, fragile, heartfelt highs. Reif’s pianism is spare, sophisticated, and ideally paced.
At the abrupt beginning of John Adams’s “Memorial de Tlatelolco” from El Niño, fury and outrage descend on listeners like a hammer strike on a hot anvil. “City Called Heaven”a traditional Black Spiritual of the enslavedprecedes a far deeper performance of Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” than Nina Simone recorded on Silk & Soul in 1967. Then comes one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard of Knoxville, Summer of 1915.
If you thought Eva Cassidy said it all in their recordings of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” you need to hear Bullock’s take. Bob Ludwig’s mastering and Nonesuch’s unsquashed dynamics make you wish the great dramatic sopranos of the 20th centuryFlagstad, Farrell, and Nilssonhad been blessed with such excellent engineering.Jason Victor Serinus
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