Sarasate: Opera Phantasies (SACD review)

Volker Reinhold, violin; Ralph Zedler, piano. MDG 903 1819-6.

First, a word about the artists, about whom you may not know much. Since 1989 violinist Volker Reinhold has been the concertmaster of the Mecklenburg State Orchestra, which performs operas, operettas, musicals, ballet, and concerts at the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin, Germany. According to his Web site, Mr. Reinhold "has gone on to perform a wide range of solo assignments and to dedicate himself intensively to chamber music. Additionally, for some years he has often assisted as a concertmaster with several Northern German orchestras. He has a special predilection for the virtuosic violin literature, above all Fritz Kreisler and also Pablo de Sarasate. He has incorporated practically all of the former's music into his repertoire. For many years he has performed successfully with his regular piano partner Ralph Zedler." Mr. Reinhold performs on a 'Mougeot,' a French violin from the nineteenth century."

In 1999 pianist Ralph Zedler graduated from Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. He worked regularly in the singing classes of Liselotte Hammes, Klesie Kelly, Kurt Moll, Edda Moser. From the autumn of 1999 to January 2011 Mr. Zedler was engaged at the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin as soloist and Ballettrepetitor, participating in over seventy productions of opera, operetta, musical, oratorio, and ballet. Since 2011 he has worked at capital Opera, the smallest Opera Berlin devoting himself to the repertoire of forgotten one-act plays. Mr. Zedler's concert career has taken him along with prominent figures such as singers Agnes Giebel, Ulrich Hielscher, Jean van Ree, and Edda Moser.

On the present album, Reinhold and Zedler devote themselves to six of the opera fantasies of the Spanish composer and virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). As you know, Sarasate loved to dazzle his audiences, and what better way to do so than by playing some of his own transcriptions of already famous music. The program Reinhold and Zedler present here includes concert-fantasy arrangements for violin and piano of Carmen (Bizet), Die Zauberflote (Mozart), Der Freischutz (Weber), Martha (Flotow), La forza del destino (Verdi), and Romeo et Juliette (Gounod).

First up on the agenda is Sarasate's Concert Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, as good a curtain raiser as any. Just don't expect a whiz-bang, gung-ho interpretation along the lines of a Ruggiero Ricci in his famous old Decca set. Reinhold and Zedler are more moderate than that; they don't try to generate a ton of excitement or dazzle the listener with their pyrotechnic skills. Their Carmen Fantasy sets the tone for the rest of the program by sounding traditional, well judged, thoughtful, and expressive. Now, this doesn't mean that the musicians don't have a good time with it. Indeed, it's all quite vital and pleasantly exhilarating. They simply don't go after the "wow" factor that must be so tempting in a work like this (although, to be fair, they end the piece in a flurry of emotional flair).

And so it goes, with Reinhold's violin carrying the day and Zedler's piano accompaniment always lending firm support. I can't say I liked some of the more-literal passages they take, yet they more than make up for it with the tasteful sensitivity of their playing. As this is mostly opera music, the players ensure that we hear the singers behind the notes, the violin and piano doubling for any number of voices from quiet solos to big choral numbers.

Of all the works on the disc, I think I enjoyed the Magic Flute Fantasy best of all. There's a delicacy as well as a zest about Mozart's music that Reinhold and Zedler capture brilliantly. Here, it also becomes clear that the two performers have been collaborating for years, their parts working beautifully, seamlessly, effortlessly together.

Another thing the players do well is make these fantasies work as a whole. Under the sympathetic guidance of Reinhold and Zedler these are not merely medley pastiches of starts and stops on familiar tunes. Instead, each fantasy sounds like a self-contained work with flawless transitions to help it appear all of a piece. Fascinating.

Producers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm and recording and mixing engineer Holger Schlegel made the album in just about every audio format you can think of on a single disc: CD, SACD, DVD, 2.0, 5.1, and 2+2+2. OK, that last one got me, too. Unfamiliar with the format and with no information about it in the accompanying booklet, I had to look it up. Turns out that 2+2+2 utilizes all six channels on an SACD layer to present music not just in two channels front and two channels back but two channels up and down as well. So 2+2+2 captures all the reflected sound of a musical event in a true three dimensions. However, I have my SACD player hooked up only in two channels, so that's the way I listened: first in two-channel SACD and then for a few minutes in regular two-channel CD. In these modes, the sound was quite good. I can only imagine how much more interesting 2+2+2 might be.

Anyway, the two-channel stereo is very dynamic, with huge outbursts from the piano especially. It's never more or less than natural, and it makes a vivid impression on the listener. The engineers have picked up the room ambience nicely, with a mild and unobtrusive resonance lending a lifelike air to the proceedings. There is also a pleasing bloom on the instruments that further lends to the realism of the presentation.

JJP

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


Gottschalk: Piano Music (CD review)

Cecile Licad, piano. Naxos 8.559145.

People used to call the American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) the "Chopin of the Creoles," and for good reason. He was not only a sensation in the U.S., he was the toast of Europe and much acclaimed by Frederic Chopin. Gottschalk's New Orleans upbringing and Paris schooling were a perfect combination for the kind of then-new piano music he presented to his audiences, a half century foreshadowing ragtime, Scott Joplin, and jazz.

Of the one hundred or so short piano pieces Gottschalk wrote, this disc includes sixteen of them, representing a varied roundup of his most-popular and most-influential works. Filipina classical pianist Cecile Licad plays them with vigor, vivacity, and sensitivity, yet it's a performance style that may or may not have been what Gottschalk had in mind since there is no clear tradition of playing the man's music. By comparison, Alan Marks on a similar collection from Nimbus plays many of the same pieces at a slightly more traditional pace. In any event, Licad's sometimes leisurely, sometimes highly animated manner seems well suited to Gottschalk's more-lyrical and more-outgoing compositions.

"Le Banjo," the piece that opens the recital, stands out for its expressive manner. So does "The Dying Poet," very well executed here for two reasons: Because the booklet note says it was the most-famous piano work of the Civil War era, an interesting facet of American musical life; and, as important, because it bears an uncanny resemblance to "After the Ball," the popular song Charles K. Harris wrote in 1892 using virtually the same melody. Well, copyright laws were nonexistent in those days and Gottschalk was long dead, so who was to complain?

Among the other pieces in the collection are "Pasquinade," a forerunner of twentieth-century jazz tunes, and "The Union," a paraphrase of national airs like "The Star Spangled Banner," "Yankee Doodle," and "Hail Columbia." Ms. Licad plays them all with intelligence and grace, although, as I say, it remains a question whether pianists of Gottschalk's day would have played them as she does.

The sound is very good, too, and one cannot go wrong for the modest price Naxos charges. However, while the Naxos disc sounds like a very good piano recording, the Nimbus disc I mentioned earlier sounds like a very good piano, period. There's more air and more natural sparkle to the Nimbus recording, elements that set it apart from the ordinary, even if the disc does cost considerably more than the Naxos product. Decisions, decisions, all of them good ones.

JJP

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


Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Sakari Oramo, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS BIS-2028.

You can always expect a solid performance from conductor Sakari Oramo, particularly when he's conducting his own orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The question is whether Oramo's recording of Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies is any better than a number of rivals who have already proved their worth, conductors like Blomstedt, Bernstein, Ormandy, Berglund, Horenstein, Jarvi, and others. The answer is a definitive, Who knows? Oramo's readings certainly appear competent, although I can't say they are as exciting, as sensitive, or as thoughtful as the ones from the competition.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was one of Denmark's most-prolific and distinguished composers, writing six symphonies, two operas, three concertos, and a ton of songs, hymns, cantatas, and orchestral, chamber, and keyboard music. He wrote his Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, in 1916 with the First World War raging in Europe, so you can expect it to be one of his more-dramatic works. He gave it the title "The Inextinguishable," a name he said referred to "that which is inextinguishable" or "the elemental will to live." Nielsen went on to say in a preface to his symphony that the piece expressed "the Elemental Will of Life." A few years later, he wrote, "If the whole world was destroyed, Nature would once again begin to beget new life and push forward with the strong and fine forces that are to be found in the very stuff of existence.... These 'Inextinguishable' forces are what I have tried to represent."

Nielsen opens the symphony with a rather fiery, agitated Allegro, which Maestro Oramo handles well enough. It doesn't quite develop the kind of intensity I'd like, but the conductor does play up the differences in tempo nicely as the music swells, ebbs, and flows. Still, a little more tumult might have helped to establish the context of the conflicts.

The second movement Poco Allegretto, which flows uninterrupted from the first movement, is a kind of tribute to peaceful, bucolic simplicity, the sort of quiet and tranquility Nature ultimately seeks. Here, Oramo well captures the mood and paints an appropriately sweet picture in leisurely style.

The third and fourth movements return us to high drama, and it's here that I think I prefer Herbert Blomstedt (Decca) over Oramo. In the present performance, Oramo isn't quite as intense as Blomstedt, even though Oramo seems to move along at a slightly faster clip. I don't hear quite the emotional charge from Oramo that the music needs; instead, it appears more matter-of-fact, which isn't bad, mind you, just not as involving.

Sakari Oramo
That said, Oramo nonetheless concludes the symphony on a properly victorious note, with a glorious drum battle at its climax. Nature does, indeed, triumph in the end; the Earth abides. And Oramo has his day.

Nielsen premiered his next symphony, No. 5, Op. 50, in 1922, and despite a rocky start with the public, it became one of his most popular compositions. Because he wrote it just after the close of the Great War, he included in it elements of contrast, good and evil, war and peace. Like No. 4, the symphony is obviously dramatic.

Nielsen marked his Fifth Symphony in two movements and six segment notations: Tempo giusto, Adagio non troppo, Allegro, Presto, Andante un poco tranquillo, and Allegro, perhaps another indication of the somewhat enigmatic nature of the work. While the Fifth Symphony is obviously a direct outgrowth of the Fourth, the Fifth Symphony is also a force unto itself.

Anyway, Oramo expresses the tone of the music as well as most anybody. It's a more atmospheric piece than Nielsen's previous symphony in that it conveys more differing states of mind, sometimes moving from one state to another in surprisingly jarring ways. Oramo maintains these transitions clearly yet smoothly, never allowing the music to sound merely like a series of starts and stops. Again, Oramo ensures that despite the music's rises and falls of energy, all ends in optimistic, life-affirming joy, the orchestra playing beautifully for him throughout.

Producer Jens Braun and engineers Matthias Spitzbarth and Thore Brinkmann recorded the music at Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden in August 2012 and June 2013 for hybrid CD and SACD playback. As usual with BIS, we get a fairly detailed, highly dynamic, and reasonably ambient sound, at least from the two-channel SACD layer to which I listened. It's a mite closer than I expected, though, slightly thinner, and a bit less dimensional in terms of depth. Nevertheless, these are minor concerns when the midrange transparency is so good and the overall impact so pronounced. Bass and treble extremes are adequate for the occasion, and the timpani sound splendid.

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.