Lalo: Symphonie espagnole (CD review)

Also, Ravel: Tzigane; Saint-Saens: Havanaise; Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy. Howard Zhang, violin; Takuo Yuasa, Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia. Naxos 8.555093.

The composers are French and Spanish. The violinist was born in China. The conductor is Japanese. The orchestra is Hungarian. Naxos pressed the disc in Canada. And Naxos originated as a German-based operation, pressing most of its discs in Germany. They don't call Naxos an international company for nothing.

Anyway, you could do a lot worse than spending what Naxos or a secondhand vendor asks for this splendid reissued disc of French and Spanish music. The young violinist, Howard Zhang, was born in Shanghai in 1984, and moved to the U.S. in 1989. He is dynamic and virtuosic; the accompaniment from the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia under the direction of Tajuo Yuasa appears fairly refined and accommodating; and, best of all, the sound is among the best Naxos has done.

The Symphonie espagnole is especially engrossing, not only because it doesn't get recorded nearly as often as it should but because Mr. Zhang plays it so enthusiastically. Despite its title, the so-called "symphonie" is actually a concerto for violin, and as such it amply displays the violinist's prowess with his instrument. Zhang is quite brilliant, and if his fervor sometimes overrides his subtlety, well, it's the spirit that counts. The performance is full of energy and verve, directly and simply communicated.

The Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Sarasate pieces show Zhang's less passionate side as well, yet still display a good deal of showmanship. While there are already many fine recordings of the Tzigane, Havanaise, and Carmen Fantasy in the catalogue, Zhang's interpretations are at least as persuasive as most of them.

Naxos's sound is wide ranging and reasonably natural. It was only when I put on an old disc of the Symphonie with Tortelier, Fremaux, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 1976) that I noticed the extra clarity, definition, and bite in the older recording. But given that the older disc, issued on EMI's Studio label, no longer seems available and is probably hard to find, I have no hesitation recommending this Naxos issue at an affordable price.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne. PentaTone PTC 5186 479. 

The last time I visited the German classical violinist Arabella Steinbacher, she was doing the Bruch Violin Concerto for PentaTone. Now she's back with the last three of Mozart's five violin concertos, this time accompanied by Daniel Dodds and the Festival Strings Lucerne. For those of you not acquainted with Ms. Steinbacher, she has won several important international violin prizes, she has recorded over half a dozen albums, and she was a recipient of an Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation scholarship.

Ms. Steinbacher tells us in a booklet note that "It was finally time for Mozart. These concertos have been with me since early childhood, forming an important leitmotiv throughout my career. Since I associate many memories with them, I feel they are very close to my heart." Fair enough. But understand she is up against formidable competition in these pieces, particularly from Anne-Sophie Mutter (DG), Lara St. John (Ancalagon), David Oistrakh (EMI), and Arthur Grumiaux (Philips), among many others. Still, if one is looking for an especially warmhearted, elegant, and graceful account of these concertos, done up in quite good SACD sound, Ms. Steinbacher neatly fills the bill.

There are some pluses to the album right off the bat. First, Ms. Steinbacher provides three of the violin concertos on the program whereas most other discs offer but two. As Shakespeare's Friar Laurence would say, "There art thou happy." Second, Ms. Steinbacher performs with the Festival Strings Lucerne, one of Europe's finest chamber orchestras, lean enough in size to offer a zesty and fairly transparent accompaniment. "There art thou happy." And third, PentaTone's engineers deliver the sound in both stereo and multichannel, depending on your playback equipment and your personal preference. "There are thou happy."

But most of all, I think people will be happiest with Ms. Steinbacher's performances, which are perhaps not as passionate as some but certainly as heartfelt. She begins the program with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, which Mozart wrote along with all five of his violin concertos in Salzburg in 1775 when he was only nineteen years old. Mozart was more of a piano guy, so he didn't take the violin concerto very far before he died. Nevertheless, because he died relatively young, who knows what he may have done with the genre had he lived another thirty or forty years. In any case, No. 3 is fairly typical of the form, with an Allegro, an Adagio, and a closing Rondeau Allegro. It is not particularly adventurous, but it is Mozart, which means it's always charming.

Ms. Steinbacher's way with the Third Concerto is very much in the manner of Anne-Sophie Mutter's famous recording with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. This is no surprise, I suppose, given Ms. Steinbacher's past association with Ms. Mutter's Foundation. In any case, her playing is lively and attentive but sweetly flowing as well, with a nice balance in the outer movements between being too fast and furious and too slow and sentimental. In the quiet Adagio her violin tone is wonderfully lyrical and singing, reminding us of the work's strong connections to the theater.

Next up, we find the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218. Despite its similarity in classical structure to the Third, the Fourth Concerto is a bit more romantic and sinuous than the Third. The Fourth may also be more familiar than the Third to some listeners, which means listeners may have more predetermined conceptions about it. Whatever, Ms. Steinbacher's violin tone is always sparkling, the rhythms resilient and alive, the slow movements heavenly. She handles the closing movement of No. 4 in a particularly delightful manner, making it one of the lightest, most sprightly you'll find.

Finally, we get the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, sometimes called the "Turkish" concerto. Mozart claimed No. 5 his personal favorite. According to the composer's wishes, Ms. Steinbacher alternates an energetic mood with a dreamier, more gentle atmosphere. People of Mozart's day tended to think of the concluding Rondeau as being in a "Turkish" style, but if anything it sounds more Gypsy-like, and Ms. Steinbacher plays it that way.

Ms. Steinbacher's performances will not disappoint her fans nor fans of Mozart in general. And the jewel case comes packaged in a light-cardboard slipcover.

Producers Job Maarse and Hans-Christoph Mauruschat and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the album at Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, Switzerland in September 2013, and PentaTone released it on the present hybrid two-channel/multichannel SACD in 2014. Remember that hybrid SACD's contain a regular two-channel layer playable on any standard CD player, an SACD two-channel layer playable on an SACD player (the mode to which I listened), and a multichannel SACD layer playable on an SACD player and, preferably, three-to-five or more speakers.

One of the first things that strikes the listener about the sound is the room ambience, a light but pleasant resonant bloom that sets off the sound of the relatively small ensemble. It provides a golden glow to the occasion that is quite fetching. Otherwise, the sound is somewhat close and big, warm, ultrasmooth, a little lacking in overall depth but wide across the stage and easy on the ear. The violin placement puts the soloist front and center but not too much so, and the instrument feels well integrated into the rest of the ensemble without making it the absolute center of attention.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Bach & Vasks: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Bach: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, BWV 1041 and 1042; Vasks: Violin Concerto "Distant Light." Renaud Capucon, violin and direction; Celine Frisch, continuo; Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Erato 08256 463232 2 7.

Right off, you have to ask the question, Why would French violinist Renaud Capucon choose to pair Baroque composer J.S. Bach's two solo violin concertos with a violin concerto by modern composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946)? I mean, any potential buyer of the album familiar enough with classical music to want the Vasks piece would surely already own multiple favored copies of the Bach works. And the price of the disc seems awfully high for the Vasks concerto alone.

So, let's allow Mr. Capucon to tell us in his own words why he chose the coupling he did: "A gap of almost three centuries lies between these two composers. One was born in Germany in 1685 and the other in Latvia in 1946. Their music is very different. But in both cases the music has: purity of line, apparent simplicity, celestial harmony. Little remains to be said about Bach, but a great deal remains to be said about Vasks. Bringing them together on the same album seemed natural to me. Like an echo: one responding to the other. These works have in them a search for the absolute as well as moments of Grace. This is music which brings calm, which revitalizes, which gives hope. And the most striking thing of all is the humility of these two composers in the service of beauty." Fair enough.

Anyway, Capucon begins with the familiar: Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 BWV 1042 and the Violin Concerto No. 1 BWV 1041. Capucon takes the outer movements at what I would describe as elegantly quick tempos, with an emphasis on consistently gentle rhythms. No breakneck speeds here nor any unnecessary lallygagging. The effect is radiant and sweetly glowing, at the same time vibrant and alive. The slow inner movements are abundantly expressive, too, while occasionally lacking in the lyrical grace I've heard from a few other performers. Nevertheless, these are fine interpretations, always reminding us of Capucon's poignancy and virtuosity. If it was purity and simplicity the violinist was after, I'd say he succeeded.

One of the other delights of the program is the work of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Established in 1981 and based in London, they have quickly become one of the finest small ensembles in the world. What's more, with over 250 recordings to their credit, they have become one of the most well-known chamber orchestras around. The ensemble seems always to be at one with the soloist, whether they're actually playing along with him or not. Their accuracy and control are remarkable, their understanding of the music and its atmospheric shadings always in evidence.

Then we get the companion piece, Vasks's Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra "Distant Light," composed in 2003. We learn from a booklet note that Vasks and his family suffered a great deal because of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his country, and that his music often reflects that experience. We also learn that fellow Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer greatly influenced him, and Vasks dedicated "Distant Light" to him. The work should evoke and underline distant memories, some of them pleasant, many of them melancholy if not downright grave.

I'm sure more educated ears than mine could hear the similarities between the Vasks and Bach concertos, but, alas, I could not. This isn't to say, however, that I didn't enjoy the Vasks concerto a good deal. With a commanding performance from Capucon, the music alternates between mostly quiet, contemplative, introspective moods and more nervous, sometimes folk-inflected states.

Producers Alain Lanceron and Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi recorded the album at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, Aix en Provence, France in December 2013. With this recording you get clarity above all. The ensemble is small, so it shows up with excellent definition and detail, and the violin, while a tad forward, sounds well integrated with the group. In other words, the soloist is clearly in charge sonically but not dominating. There is a modest degree of room resonance, plus a reasonable sense of depth that also help the music to appear lifelike. Overall, the sound is smooth, moderately warm, and only a trifle bright.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.