Schubert: Lieder With Orchestra
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Quasthoff, baritone; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Claudio Abbado, conductor (Deutsche Gramophon)
The interest here lies more in the orchestrations by composers other than Schubert than in the fine live performances of these songs. Schubert sets the standard first off with his limpid scoring of the Romanze from “Rosamunde.” Others honor his genius more or less meticulously. Brahms’ four settings are surprisingly discreet and light. Reger’s seven tend to be rich and dramatic. Berlioz’s single account (“Erlkonig”) is gripping. Liszt’s “Die junge Nonne” is huge, portentous. Britten’s “Die Forelle” is gently witty. Webern’s five settings, alas, are competent student exercises that don’t anticipate his later pointillistic genius. Von Otter is silverly and splendid. Quasthoff’s baritone is amber, pliant and powerful. Abbado conducts with deep sympathy. But for all the exciting expansion, the crystalline originals for piano and voice remain supreme.
-- Chris Pasles
Exciting merger of East and West
Sangan: Michael Nyman Meets Indian Masters
U. Shrinivas, mandolin; Rajan and Sajan Misra, vocals; Sanju Sahai, tabla; Michael Nyman Band; Michael Nyman, conductor (Warner Classics)
Collaborations between classical Western and Indian musicians are far from new. Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar toppled those barriers in the 1960s. Nyman, moreover, follows in the footsteps of other Minimalists, notably Philip Glass and Terry Riley, in his musical trek to India. But that makes the new collaborations here no less exhilarating. In “Three Ways of Describing Rain,” Nyman stays relatively in the background, letting the Misra brothers intone magical melodies over the sweet sonorities of strings and saxes and brass. But when Nyman joins U. Shrinivas, a breathtaking electric-mandolin player, for a half-hour fantasy on a short riff, mandolinist and Minimalist meet in so mutually danceable and sexily seductive a middle ground that it sounds like music is being invented all over again.
-- Mark Swed
The many moods of America
Rainbow Body: Music by Barber, Copland, Higdon and Theofanidis
Atlanta Symphony; Robert Spano, conductor (Telarc)
Works by four American composers -- two familiar, two new -- constitute a lustily played program from a resourceful ensemble led by its 42-year-old music director. Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body” and Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” are craftily engaging tone poems in the quarter-hour genre. Theofanidis’ style seems more urban, Higdon’s more pastoral; both ascend Richard Straussian climaxes with ease and use melody skillfully. Spano achieves dramatic sweep and many luscious details in both Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and the Suite from Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
-- Daniel Cariaga
Rhythmic collage, crystalline piano
Gottschalk: Piano Music
Cecile Licad, piano (Naxos)
First off, let’s drop all that condescending “Chopin of the Creoles” business. Louis Moreau Gottschalk may have applied the mid-19th century European virtuosic piano style of his day to the music of his native New Orleans, Cuba and South America, but he was a true original whose experiments with vernacular rhythms and interesting harmonies anticipated everything from ragtime and hot jazz to Ivesian collage. The sophisticated piano writing is as arresting today as it was a century and half ago, and Licad’s dazzling crystalline tone and riveting rhythmic precision make her ideal for these 16 well-chosen selections. The recorded sound is excellent and so is the bargain price.
On fire for Shostakovich
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”)
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirov Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor (Philips)
Gergiev made this emotional live recording of Shostakovich’s longest -- and at one time, most notorious -- symphony with both of his orchestras shortly after Sept. 11, following an exhausting 3 1/2-day journey from Los Angeles (where he was conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”) to Rotterdam via Mexico. Everyone sounds thoroughly pumped; the brutal first-movement march that Bartok mocked in his Concerto for Orchestra is full of nervous energy with a clipped rhythm, and the central portions of the second and third movements take off like roller coasters. The fourth movement relaxes the pace, but not the emphatic attacks, and in the coda, the huge brass section makes a resplendent sound that speaks neither of bitterness nor triumph. Gergiev has recorded surprisingly little Shostakovich -- his only other disc was a curiously listless Symphony No. 8 -- but this blazing performance makes one want to hear more.
-- Richard S. Ginell
With a guitar taking the lead
Baroque Favorites for Guitar
Sharon Isbin; Zurich Chamber Orchestra; Howard Griffiths, conductor (Warner Classics)
Actually, the title of this CD should be “Baroque Favorites for Guitar and Orchestra.” All the works are transcriptions. No problem with that -- J.S. Bach, for one, routinely rearranged his and other people’s music for different soloists -- and Isbin has rounded up a set of transcriptions that are comfortably and idiomatically geared for a guitarist. She plays two Vivaldi concertos for lute in A major (itself a transcription from a trio sonata) and D major, a Bach concerto that once saw double service for violin or keyboard, the so-called Albinoni Adagio (actually pieced together by Remo Giazotto in the 20th century), and three brief Bach encores. With Isbin’s guitar placed way forward in the mix, everything is impeccably played, yet the disc as a whole comes off as a bit sleepy; the concertos in particular could use more rhythmic zest.
Straining toward accomplishment
Giovanna Casolla, soprano; Masako Deguci, soprano; Lando Bartolini, tenor; Felipe Bou, bass-baritone; others; Malaga Philharmonic and Choral Society of Bilbao; Alexander Rahbari, conductor. (Naxos)
It’s OK to be provincial, and this pleasingly adequate performance of Puccini’s bloody Chinese fable, his final opera, has at least real strength in the leadership of the Iranian-born Rahbari, who keeps it all together solidly. The chorus and orchestra are decent, even in moments impressive. The leading singers are not miscast, but they lack the vocal accomplishment that would make them remarkable. A decent effort, no more.