Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier (1896) is based loosely on the life of a poet-victim of the French Revolution, evoking the era in classic verismo fashion. Its immediate success rescued Giordano’s sagging fortunes, then haunted him by having set a standard he was unable to equal again. James Levine’s recording of some eight years ago still sets the standard, although the new version under Riccardo Chailly (London) is expertly sung and spiritedly performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. As the doomed poet, Luciano Pavarotti captures all the important manifestations of the role if not its heart, while Monserrat Caballé is in fine voice as Maddalena, and Leo Nucci makes an especially effective Gérard.
Katia and Marielle Labeque are heard in Gershwin’s An American in Paris, the first recording of the composer’s duo-piano version (Angel). The liner notes relate the curious tale of how this manuscript remained unpublished and in private hands until just a few years ago, the only such instance regarding Gershwin’s two-piano arrangements of his concert works. It’s indicative of the sisters’ admiration for the composer that they played a role in ensuring the score’s publication. Moreover, their performance of it is full of passion and eloquence; dazzling in its technical prowess, deeply thoughtful at the same time.
French-born Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s musical output was large and varied, ranging from the moving dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bucher (1938) to the novelty tone poem Pacific 231 (1924) depicting a locomotive. Of his five symphonies, the Third and the Fifth are the most important, each a disquieting piece of music reflecting his thoughts on the Second World War and the Korean War. As neither is heard often, new recordings of them, on a single disc, by Charles Dutoit and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, are most welcome. The Third in particular is a powerful incantation on the horrors of war, and these forces capture full measure of its combative vision (Erato/RCA).
Often a recording of a familiar concert work will be notable not for interpretive point-making but for delivering exactly what’s expected. Such is the case with Vladimir Ashkenazy’s version of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (London). The sheer emotional power of this music needs no stylish embellishments but demands heartfelt commitment. Partnered with Bernard Haitink leading the Vienna Philharmonic, Ashkenazy provides it, in a performance balancing tenderness and nobility in just the right proportions.
Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music are heard in two familiar Haydn symphonies, the Military (No.100) and the London (No.104). For Hogwood, period instruments and authentic performance practices mean illuminating the music rather than embalming it. Stripping away the usual string overlay by adopting an ensemble of some 40 players brings to center stage the musical line as we’ve never heard it before. One hopes this is the start of an integral set of the Haydn symphonies, one with the fresh, durable appeal of Hogwood’s Mozart symphony cycle (Oiseau Lyre).
Previously released recordings of Haydn concertos are usefully paired on a single disc to showcase a trio of contemporary virtuosos. The versatile Wynton Marsalis is certainly technically proficient in the Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major, though his reading isn’t warm enough for our taste. No such problem exists for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose delineation of the Cello Concerto in D is notable for the consistency of its tonal beauty and for its elegance. And in the First Violin Concerto, Cho-Liang Lin offers a spry reading with just the right sprinkling of musical accents (CBS).
The combination of poetic feeling and intellectual strength informing Schubert’s Trout Quintet is skillfully delineated by the Guarneri Quartet and pianist Emanuel Ax (RCA). There is an attractive rhythmic freedom to this version that’s wholly natural, detracting not a bit from the work’s more reflective elements.
Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto receives a vital performance from Kyung Wha Chung and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti. Covering the ground with unfailing skill and conviction, Chung balances the work’s inner beauty with its earthier elements, the Chicago players providing support that’s atmospheric yet clear in detail. Bartóks mundane First Concerto is the fill-up (London).
Klaus Tennstedt leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Dvorák’s Symphony No.9 (Angel), an interpretation that truly scales the heights—lyrically intense, intensely spiritual, rock solid in its emotional grounding, Several unusual touches—including the clarinet sharing prominence with the English horn in the largo’s famous theme—add to the disc’s appeal as a thoughtful, eloquent account.
A recent recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique conducted by James Conlon (Erato/RCA) may not displace some of the more famous versions in Schwann, but it does provide a refreshing change by being more or less a straightforward account, without the usual sonic razzle-dazzle. Tempos are unforced, and the dynamic range is wide without overcharacterization, the Orehestre National de France covering this familiar ground with resilience and conviction under the young American maestro.
The Berlioz song cycle Les Nuits d’été is paired with Debussy’s La Damoiselle éluein new performances by Frederica von Stade (CBS). Always a pleasure to hear, her singing is perfectly controlled, convincingly natural, meticulous in detail, flawless in intonation, and to-the-point in capturing the expressive essence of these seductive works. Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony are her able partners.
Lorin Maazel’s version of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony is a promising account that falls short, for while the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is silky smooth and clear in texture, tempos are stretched to the point where they fail to support the music. The result is an interpretation lacking in inner detail and without the requisite emotional wallop. Jessye Norman and Eva Marton are the soloists (CBS).
Perhaps the novelty has worn off for many listeners, but we continue to be entertained by Michael Tilson Thomas’ series of Beethoven symphony recordings featuring the English Chamber Orchestra, which is much the same size as the ensembles that performed in the composer’s time. The latest issue offers the Symphony No.7; and while we’re not about to abandon our versions featuring contemporary-sized orchestras, the effect of balancing winds and strings and the totally different emotional response engendered by familiar music played as energetically, if less powerfully than we’re accustomed to, make this experiment worth continuing (CBS).
For all his conducting strengths, Simon Rattle is off the mark in his two recent Rachmaninoff recordings. Rarely has the Op.45 Symphonic Dances come off as flat-footed as under Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Angel), and more recently, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he plods through the Symphony No.2 (Angel) without style, rhythmic vitality, or disciplined playing.
What appear to be first recordings of wind ensemble works by Carl Maria von Weber are performed by a group of French musicians under the direction of Jean Claude Malgoire (CBS). Including six waltzes, a march, and a breezy concertino for oboe, the music is pleasant enough if not in the same league with Weber’s better known showpieces for winds. The performances are proficient.
Two new versions of Prokofiev’s perennial tale Peter and the Wolf illustrate the wide range of recordings currently available. With Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic, narrator Itzhak Perlman offers a soothing, straightforward account that will please purists (Angel). At the opposite extreme is actor Dudley Moore, who puts on quite a show with the Boston Pops, John Williams at the podium, using a clever, hip adaptation of the narrative written by Larry Gelbart. It’s a disc that will keep adults tuned in along with the kids (Philips).
Albinoni’s Il nascimento dell’Aurora (“The Birth of Aurora”) is an opera-like festa pastorale, using the myth of Daphne and Apollo to celebrate and commemorate a royal birth. Whose birth and even the name of the librettist are lost to history, though fortunately not the music itself, which is glorious—alternately graceful and spritely—and gloriously played by II Solisti Veneti, Claudio Scimone conducting (Erato/RCA).
Rameau’s one-act opera Pygmalion(1748) is a cheerful piece of music with an unfortunate propensity to attract leaden performances. With the forces of the English Bach Festival, conductor Nicholas McGegan does much to help, offering a contemporary outlook by keeping things moving at a lively pace. Even if the dances tend to be undifferentiated from each other, at least there’s little time to dawdle over the inane plot (Erato/RCA).
Even purists will warm to Bob James’ interpretation of Rameau’s music on the LP called simply Rameau (CBS). What began as Christmas presents for friends resulted in an album of pieces de clavecin arranged for overdubbed synthesizer, creating unusual orchestral effects. The net effect is wholly individual, utterly charming.
For a rousing good time, there’s nothing like a Sousa march—or a clutch of Sousa marches, as in the collection Hands Across the Sea (Angel). Here are stalwarts like “Sound Off’ and “The Thunderer” and rarities like “Pride of the Wolverines,” all captured in crisp digital sound and performed in authentic style by the Band of H.M.Royal Marines, Lt. Colonel G.A.C. Hoskins in command.
Edo de Waart leads the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra &Chorus in Harmonium, a 1981 work by minimalist composer John Adams (ECM). This is Adams’ first work with a text—not that it matters much as the Emily Dickinson and John Donne poems are incomprehensible, the result both of the recorded sound and the elongated musical lines. Nonetheless, a printed insert provides the mysterious words, and in the final analysis it’s really the mood that’s important here, and on this point Adams scores. The effect is soothing and celestial—a “moving forward over vast streches of imaginary terrain,” as the liner notes helpfully interpret.
Developed for the home video market and shown on PBS, director Mark Sottnick’s The Velveteen Rabbit ranks as one of the most successful ever video translations of a children’s classic. Instead of animation, which is relatively inexpensive and simple to execute, the producers have told the tale through hundreds of delicately colored hand drawings by artist David Jorgensen. Complemented by Meryl Streep’s sensitive narration and pianist George Winston’s impressionistic music, the result is pure enchantment, as heard in the extended soundtrack recording (Dancing Cat/Windham Hill).
Two acoustic guitars and a violin make a felicitous match in the hands of French master musicians Philip Catherine, Didier Lockwood, and Christian Escoude. Bridging jazz and classical styles, their American debut, Trio (Gramavision), is breezy and warm, Lockwood’s sparing use of the violectra providing a contemporary touch.
If What’s New?, Linda Ronstadt’s collection of Nelson Riddle-arranged fifties standards, was the promise, Lush Life (Asylum) is the payoff. Once again partnered by the veteran conductor, Ronstadt is more comfortable with the material and more willing to mold it to her personal musical style. In the ballads she gets a deeper sense of the “man who got away” sentiments underlying the lyrics, and in three up-tempo numbers she cuts loose with the full range and power of her famous voice, backed by a brassy big band in full swing.
Another pop singer departing from the expected is Barry Manilow, who explores his cafe society jazz roots in a collection of what he calls “saloon songs,” 2AM-Paradise Cafe (Arista). Backed by an all-star jazz group featuring Gerry Muligan and Shelly Manne, Manilow acquits himself handsomely. The material, most of it by the singer, is first-rate and includes two effective duets with some real pros: “Blue,” with Sarah Vaughan, and “Big City Blues” sung with Mel Torme. Banded together so that the songs run together without a break, the disk lacks only variation; an instrumental showcasing Manilow’s piano playing would have been welcome.
Hot House Flowers, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ survey of standards with string backdrop, is a disappointment. From the opening strains of “Stardust” to the closing notes of “I’m Confessin, ’ “the territory is familiar and Marsalis’ lack of fresh ideas is evident (Columbia).
Among the many reissues in the budgetpriced Original Jazz Classics series are two old favorites. The Vince Guaraldi Trio pro-vided the jazz counterpoint to the folk singers and hipster humorists dominating the mid-fifties San Francisco night club scene. As heard in their 1956 self-titled debut disc (Fantasy/OJC), their musicmaking had originality and verve, standing them in good stead through touchstones like “Django” and nearly forgotten treasures like “Never Never Land,” the beautiful ballad from Broadway’s “Peter Pan.” Portrait of Art Farmer (Contemporary/ OJC), released two years later, documents the celebrated trumpet (later flugelhorn) player in the year Down Beat readers voted him the best new performer. Fronting a group that included his brother Addison on bass, Hank Jones on piano, and Roy Haynes on drums, Farmer demonstrated the lyrical, wholly individualistic style that shaped his successful career.
Here’s an unusual group. Start with violinist Darol Anger and impressionistic pianist Barbara Higbie. Then add mandolin and guitar in the form of soloist Mike Marshall, and string bass, provided by Todd Phillips. Season with the flavor of the Caribbean through Andy Narell on steel drums and you have the Anger/Higbie Quintet, whose Live At Montreux (Windham Hill) is a fascinating amalgam of musical forms, strikingly worked.