Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto RV 253 "La tempesta di mare"; Concertos RV 565, 522, and 580 from "L'estro armonico." Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45565-2.

Another Four Seasons? Exactly what we needed, eh? Even back in 2003 when Virgin released this disc we already had enough recordings of this warhorse to supply everyone in a small town with a different copy, And did we really need another one from a period-instruments group that had just recorded the piece about ten years before? The answers, of course, were and remain decisive "maybes."

Fabio Biondi's previous recording of The Four Seasons was on Opus 111 (OPS 56-9120), winning several awards in Europe and for good reason. It was breathtaking in its tempos, spectacularly exhilarating from the very opening pages yet maintaining a remarkably smooth pace throughout, with only occasional lapses of ensemble. This more-recent recording from Europa Galante, released in 2003 by Virgin Veritas, sounds just as exciting, just as creative, just as vivacious, and just as rewarding, the composer's little tone poems taking on exceptionally vivid proportions. Biondi and his players are still hell bent for leather, of course, and the performance standards are, if anything, even higher, with the conductor-violinist using early original manuscripts to provide more-elaborate scores than we usually hear (love those bass slaps). Particularly if you liked Biondi's earlier recording and you're a big fan of fast-paced early-music readings, you'll want to consider this disc.

Be aware, however, that Biondi does, as I say, take things rather quickly, and some listeners may feel he's simply trying to attract attention to himself by outpacing the competition, literally. There is also the question of whether fast tempos can do justice to the nuances of Vivaldi's creations, the birds and animals and weather and such. That may be; but the proof is in the pudding, and there is no denying that whether or not Vivaldi intended for musicians to play his music as speedily as Biondi and some others do, Biondi's rendition of it is spellbinding in the extreme. Besides, music experts have been debating for years what tempos Baroque composers really wanted, one part of the historically informed crowd proposing that nineteenth-century Romantic conductors unduly slowed down the tempos, and others claiming that if the tempos were actually meant to be as fast as some orchestras today play them, hardly any but the most virtuosic eighteenth-century ensembles would have been able to execute them. Who knows.

My advice, for what it's worth, is for listeners to consider owning multiple recordings of this work, which, given its range of tonal colors, conductors can interpret in so many different ways.

As important as the performance is that Virgin's sound is actually a slight improvement over Opus 111's, the earlier recording being a tad too bright and reverberant for my taste, masking some inner detail. This newer disc is still a touch bright and without as much low-end support as I would have liked, but its clarity is outstanding and its clean outlines are a revelation.

Now comes the rub: When I compared Biondi's recording to those of several other period-instruments groups, I felt the newer Philharmonia Baroque recording with Nicholas McGegan won the day for its sparkling, well-balanced performance and absolutely state-of-the-art sound. What's more, the Sparf/ Drottningholm (BIS) and Kuijken/La Petite Bande (Sony) recordings also seemed to me as competitive as any other, their recording sonics just as clear as Biondi's and their low end warmer and more natural. In fact, the McGegan, Sparf, and Kuijken recordings remain my top favorites not only for their sound but for their imaginative touches in matters of rubato and dynamics. Other old favorites, like Lamon (Sony), Parrott (Denon or Virgin), and Pinnock (DG Archiv), are also quite attractive but seem a touch bland alongside McGegan, Sparf, Kuijken, and Biondi.

Finally, for those listeners not yet converted to period instruments and seeking a Four Seasons on modern instruments, Marriner (Decca) remains of interest, as do I Solisti Italiani (Denon), I Musici/Michelucci (Philips), Perlman/LPO (EMI or Hi-Q), Silverstein/Ozawa/BSO (Telarc or LIM), Jansen and Ensemble (Decca), and others.

JJP

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


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (CD review)

With an assortment of cadenzas. Jerome Lowenthal, piano; Carl Topilow, unnamed orchestra. LP Classics 1008 A/B (2-disc set).

My Random House Dictionary defines a cadenza as "an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised, introduced near the end of an aria or a movement of a concerto." I mention this at the outset because that's the idea behind this recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. That is, Beethoven wrote cadenzas for the first and third movements of the concerto, and since Beethoven's time other composers have offered their own. On the present album pianist Jerome Lowenthal has gathered together twenty such cadenzas by eleven different composers and presents them along with the concerto itself on two compact discs. The idea is to hear, compare, and enjoy these various cadenzas from the nineteenth century to our own. It does, indeed, make for fascinating listening, especially in the capable hands of Mr. Lowenthal.

For the benefit of those of you who may not know Mr. Lowenthal, his Wikipedia page describes him as an American classical pianist, a member of the piano faculty at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was also chair of the piano department. Additionally, Lowenthal is on the faculty at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. He made his debut at thirteen with the Philadelphia Orchestra; then, returning to the United States from Jerusalem in 1963, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2. Since then, he has performed with such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuri Temirkanov, Leonard Slatkin, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Monteux, and Leopold Stokowski. He has played sonatas with Itzhak Perlman, piano duos with Ronit Amir, his late wife, and Ursula Oppens, as well as quintets with the Lark Quartet, Avalon Quartet, and Shanghai Quartet.
His studies included lessons with Olga Samaroff in Philadelphia, William Kapell and Eduard Steuermann at the Juilliard School in New York, and Alfred Cortot at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He was a prizewinner at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels (1960) and the Busoni Competition, and he is frequently a judge in international piano competitions.

So, here's what we have on the two CD's under review. Disc one contains the piano concerto itself plus two cadenzas by Beethoven, first and third movements; then first and third-movement cadenzas by Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Hans Von Bulow, Johannes Brahms, and Camille Saint-Saens. Disc two contains the concerto again, this time with first and third-movement cadenzas by Frederic Rzewski, Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Ernst Von Dohnanyi, and Nicolai Medtner.

As for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote it between 1805 and 1806, premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. For most of us, it's the concerto on the album that matters and how Mr. Lowenthal plays it because if he doesn't do it justice, none of the following cadenzas would make much difference. Fortunately, Lowenthal does do the piece and the ensuing cadenzas justice.

The concerto begins with a brief piano solo, projected with authority by Mr. Lowenthal. He handles the solo part with authority, and the orchestra provides a gentle, restrained accompaniment. But it's really Lowenthal's presence one needs to consider. He displays a complete mastery of the piano while offering an unmannered performance. You won't find any histrionics here, nothing that would set his playing apart as eccentric or showy. It is a charming realization of Beethoven, virtuosic yet reserved. As an interpretation, Lowenthal's reading may lack some color, but that isn't the point. He is not trying to impose his own personality on the music but let it speak for itself. In particular, he is trying to show and compare the various cadenzas, which requires him to be as objective as possible. So, yes, his is a fine, honest realization of the work.

Now, about those cadenzas. The first of these are by Clara Schumann. They seem steeped in high Romanticism, yet they are fairly plain and graceful, too. Although Beethoven left instructions that the third-movement cadenza be short, Schumann's is relatively lengthy (only Rubinstein's is longer). Whatever, it tends to repeat earlier material from the concerto, giving it a more unifying quality than most such cadenzas. Her pieces are quite charming.

Anton Rubinstein was among the more-controversial pianists of the nineteenth century, loved by most listeners, hated by others. His cadenzas reflect this attitude, being some of the most forceful in the collection, his third-movement cadenza seeming to go on forever.

Hans von Bulow was a contemporary of Rubinstein and an equally gifted composer-pianist who left definite, and sometimes contradictory, impressions on his listeners. Understandably, his cadenzas are also strongly enlivening.

Then there's Brahms. These cadenzas sound as though they belong in one of Brahms's own concertos yet have a sweet, touching quality about them, too. The third-movement cadenza is brief and to the point; Beethoven would surely have approved.

Disc one ends with cadenzas from Camille Saint-Saens. They seem almost impressionistic by comparison to the previous cadenzas on the album. Still, they are lovely, and Lowenthal plays them lovingly.

For the main performance of the concerto on disc two, Lowenthal gives us a new first-movement cadenza by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) that he wrote just for Lowenthal. However, Rzewski requested that Lowenthal play it with improvisation and spontaneity. Lowenthal says he complied, and while it's as effective a cadenza as any, it clearly betrays its modern origins in its less melodious, slightly more discordant structure. I think it works better on its own than integrated into the Beethoven work.

Ferruccio Busoni won first prize in a competition with, among other things, his Beethoven cadenzas, and they helped launch his career. They are among the more vibrant of the cadenzas on the program.

Leopold Godowsky was another important pianist-composer of the early twentieth century, and his cadenzas struck me as being rather ornate, well embroidered as it were. They are a little more showy than the others, perhaps because Godowski himself enjoyed impressing his audience with his own skills.

Finally, we get the cadenzas of Ernst von Dohnanyi and Nicolai Medtner, both composer-pianists of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Of the two, Dohnanyi appears more to adhere to Beethoven's original ideas and Medtner to stray off to his own ground. Lowenthal admits that Medtner's cadenzas are his favorites, and while I cannot entirely agree with him, certainly Lowenthal gives them a worthy showing in bravura style and refinement.

Producer/editor Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre made the recording in Cleveland, Ohio in 2007, and LP Classics released it in 2014. The sound comes across beautifully balanced, not only left and right but among the instruments, with no frequencies standing out or recessed and the piano realistically centered, neither too close nor too distant. Smooth and polished, the sonics are half the pleasure one gets from the album, the piano well defined amidst a lightly reverberant acoustic.

JJP

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


From the Imperial Court (SACD review)

Music for the House of Hapsburg. Stile Antico. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807595.

Stile Antico (ancient style) is a relatively small British choir of about a dozen singers who specialize in music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Founded in 2001, they have made all of their records so far for Harmonia Mundi, this latest called From the Imperial Court and featuring music written for the ruling Hapsburgs of the 1600's.

A booklet note explains that the Hapburgs were one of Europe's most extraordinary ruling dynasties, controlling "greater or lesser portions of Europe from the 11th century until 1918, their heyday coinciding with the supreme musical flourishing of the 16th century." They "essentially ruled Spain, Germany, Austria, Burgundy and the Low Countries" throughout the century. As "successive generations enlarged their power and territory, they gathered around themselves the leading composers of the day." Thus, Stile Antico have chosen what we must assume is some of the best of the music written for the House of Hapsburg in the sixteenth century: eleven selections from as many different composers, each item exquisitely handled.

Some listeners may know the composers, all born in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, but I found most of them new to me. Names like Cristobal de Morales, Thomas Crecquillon, Thomas Tallis (ah, finally a familiar name), Josquin Desprez (fairly familiar), Ludwig Senfl, Nicolas Gombert, Pierre de la Rue, Jacob Clemens non Papa, Alfonso Lobo, and Heinrich Isaac.

I won't try to describe each piece; the booklet notes do a good job in that regard, providing a background on the composition of each work in addition to texts and translations. While most of the music is in the form of motets--polyphonic songs, usually on Biblical or similar prose texts and meant for use in church services--the various court composers involved in this recording wrote most of the music we hear for events of state, such as occasions celebrating newly acquired lands and power. Well, they were that kind of people: church and state entwined. At least one composer, de la Rue, hung around writing "soulful music" for a despondent and "increasingly insane" widow. Wonderful stuff.

Favorites? Yes, I of course. I enjoyed Morales's opening "Jubilate Deo" for its spacious grandeur. Crecquillan's "Andreas Christi famulus" has a likable luxuriousness about it. Desprez's "Mille regretz" has a touching simplicity about it (and apparently King Charles liked it, too, as it was also one of his favorite songs). A few of the selections were a little too mournful for me, but the motet "Versa est in luctum," which Lobo wrote for his own funeral, is quite lovely. Then, too, the closing number--Isaac's "Virgo prudentissima"--sounds beautifully elaborated.

But picking favorites seems superfluous. It's really the splendid singing that counts here, and all of it is wonderful. Although there are only a dozen singers in Stile Antico, they sound almost like a full choir, their voices blending so well, the harmonies so exacting, the tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. I think I could listen to them sing anything. For the record, they are Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, and Alison Hill, sopranos; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield, and Cara Curran, altos; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, and Matthew Howard, tenors; and James Arthur, Will Dawes, Thomas Flint, and Matthew O'Donovan, basses.

Producer Robina G. Young and engineer and editor Brad Michel recorded the music in Direct Stream Digital at All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak, London in October 2013. One can play the resultant Super Audio CD in two-channel stereo on a regular CD player or in two-channel or multichannel on an SACD player. I listened in the two-channel format and found the results more than satisfying.

Probably the most striking thing about the recording besides the fact that it's clear and detailed is how prominent the acoustic stands out. The ensemble members actually appear to be in a reverberant hall with a healthy decay time, the ambient bloom giving the voices both a richness and a sense of place. Yet, as I say, this setting never interferes with the clarity of the voices, which always project a healthy transparency. Perhaps the upper midrange is a mite forward, seeming a tad too bright on occasion, but otherwise there's a fine balance involved.

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.