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Andrew R. Barnard (Leola, Pa United States)
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Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 3
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 3
Price: £10.23

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Refined, self-effacing interpretations from Andsnes with crystal-clear sonics, 5 Jan 2013
It's been two years now since Leif Ove Andsnes' last CD came out. Formerly contracted with EMI, he's switched over to Sony Classical. This CD is a taste of things to come, as it's not only his first disc with his new label, but it's the first of his Beethoven concerti cycle with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Andsnes is a pianist I saw live twice and have followed with enthusiasm. He's starting his cycle out with the 1st and 3rd concerti. Sony is making the effort seem adventurous by entitling it "The Beethoven Journey".

Oh, and I forgot to mention the conductor, which is Andsnes himself. This isn't his first endeavor of the sort, having put out three CDs of Mozart and Haydn with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. This shouldn't be news, but the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a few rungs higher on the ladder than its Scandinavian rival. It doesn't take long until this is evident; Andsnes couldn't ask for more sophisticated chamber partners.

But the very fact that Andsnes is choosing a chamber orchestra instead of a regular orchestra and conductor proves that he wants intimacy. This isn't an authentic performance by any means, though. Andsnes has a firm technique that he showcases with authority and his accompanists are full and commanding. It's a very classicist affair; no romantic excesses, please. What, then, is the vision that leads our Beethoven journey?

Simply put, Andsnes wants to present the concertos in their glory without letting himself get in the way, to use a clichéd line of the purists. He favors reticence over flamboyancy, lyricism over excitement. Sensitive sounds abound with the utmost clarity. Sony's sound is what we expect in 2012 and they pick up subtleties everywhere. But as much as Andsnes' laidback refinement appeals to me, I'm not sure he's exposing a personality that turns these concertos into anything revolutionary. I wonder if that's intentional.

Should these concerti be viewed in this light? That's the question I've been struggling to answer. I can't give a concrete answer, but I feel that greatness requires more than beautiful playing and perfect sound. All the same, you can't deny the attraction of Andsnes' approach. There's a certain cold purity that grabs the ears. Everything is crisp, perfect. I'm reminded of Perahia's set with Haitink and the Concertgebouw. Andsnes seems more committed than Perahia, though, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is more exuberant than the Concertgebouw was for Haitink. And the sound is indescribably better.

I'll pass the question on to you: is authoritative perfection coupled with lyricism what we want in Beethoven? If you answer yes, this CD beckons you and your wallet.


Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Price: £13.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Passionate, unburdened Mahler songs virtually beyond praise, 5 Jan 2013
Everything about this disc is so great that I feel like shouting at the start of my review. These Mahler songs are full of exuberance and raw emotion, and when musicians give their all, we're in for a life-changing experience. That's exactly what happens here. I agree with the reviewers who single out Thomas Quasthoff as the star of the show, but without him this disc would still be indispensable.

When Claudio Abbado is hit with inspiration, he conducts with spontaneity and his sincerity is tear-jerking. Thankfully, that's the mood he's in here. The Berliners play with the highest level of conviction, finding sensitivity while still showcasing their famed might. I sense urgency, even desperation in some of the bleaker songs, but Abbado never loses sight of the inner purity of the music. Glorious freedom abounds, which enables the music to come across without any feeling of show. Yet there's always throbbing emotion, sometimes so cogent that the music floods your whole being. I'm not sure if I've ever heard any Mahler performance that takes as much advantage of the composer's gift of ravishing melody.

Thomas Quasthoff is a singer like no other, but here he outdoes himself. Each song comes alive pulsating with the character of the moment. Words can't describe his richness, a depth that commands the listener's attention. If he doesn't send noble feelings coursing through your veins, nothing ever will. Annie Sophie von Otter isn't on the same level, but her voice is well suited to these songs. Once again, we witness a musician who is willing to be committed to Mahler's world. She evokes moments of pure joy, but it's her bittersweet quality that gripped me the most.

I can't possibly express how much I love this disc. Every musician is giving their all, and these are marvelous songs from Mahler to begin with. Giving the highest praise to this disc isn't enough.


Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski) (LPO: LPO-0064)
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski) (LPO: LPO-0064)
Price: £9.65

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jurowski flows with mesmerizing Russian youthfulness--a must listen, 5 Jan 2013
Vladimir Jurowski is just one of those young Russians who boast major positions in England. Thankfully, the London Philharmonic keeps up with the fiery Russian, releasing several recording on its own label since he took over in 2007. I eagerly anticipated this release of the Tchaikovsky 4th and 5th symphonies, hoping to find new ideas and Russian passion from a conductor who isn't for the faint-hearted. Now that it's here, how has Jurowski fared?

Jurowski opens the 4th Symphony with clear, vibrant horns. It becomes evident that Jurowski has his orchestra in wonderful shape, with detailed playing helped by the wonderful recorded sound. Interpretively, Jurowski isn't going for full-out tragedy. He isn't ominous, like Karajan in Berlin. I don't mind, though, due to his mesmerizing lyric abilities. The natural flow reminds us that a Russian is at the podium. It's tough to balance this towering movement without becoming overblown or tepid. Jurowski manages very well, leaning towards gentility without losing tension.

The 2nd movement is even better, dripping with tangs of bittersweet longing and the most affectionate phrasing. We're not wallowing in sentimentality, yet we're emotionally drawn. Moving to the pizzicato Scherzo, Jurowski is still alert, even though we don't have the luxury of higher class strings. It's the trio that comes alive, with chirping woodwinds that threaten to turn our symphony into a ballet.

Since Jurowski's view of this symphony isn't overtly tragic, the finale is more of a joyful romp than a long awaited triumph over despair. By now you will have decided whether Jurowski's youthful, energized view is a worthy one. If, like me, you answer in the affirmative, you will be floored by this appropriately sunny finale, sparkling with child-like wistfulness. In the end, count this 4th a winner, thanks to Jurowski's lyricism that mixes with unbounded youthfulness to create the perfect environment.

Jurowski retains the same fundamental outlook in the 5th Symphony. He's excitable without any excesses. Sometimes I wonder if he's moving too briskly, actually. There are abrupt cut-offs in the 1st movement (one spot seems to be a recording glitch) and the climaxes in the 2nd movement are hurried. These are only minor complaints, however, as there's an involvement that decidedly places this reading above average. Once again, his conducting flows with Russian vigor, an approach more meaningful than the popular habit of going for sheer orchestral brilliance.

While the whole performance has many merits, the greatest attraction is the finale. Fireworks abound, but they come from a heart that throbs with dark passion. I'm reminded of Gergiev's all-out involvement on his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. We're hurled along, gasping for breath yet fully caught up in the enormity of victory. What more could one want?

I'm pleased to endorse both these readings as ones that qualify for greatness. Jurowski may not stress pathos as much as his rivals, but he overflows with Russian vigor that makes his sunny readings stand out.


Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony
Tchaikovsky - Manfred Symphony
Price: £9.32

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jurowski turns the Manfred into a real event--scintillating in every way, 5 Jan 2013
Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" Symphony hasn't received the accolades that the rest of his symphonies have; many committed Tchaikovsky conductors never record it. It's no lackluster composition, however. Jurowski, the talented young Russian conductor who is bringing new life to the London Philharmonic, has shown himself a capable maestro, but can he make a strong case for Tchaikovsky's undervalued symphony?

In order for a conductor to lead a successful performance of this symphony, he should believe in it. If a conductor finds the work dull, there's a high chance his interpretation will also be dull. But when Jurowski lets the opening chords come forth with chilling grandeur, it's clear that he has confidence in the glory of the music. He doesn't try to understate the terror Tchaikovsky sprinkles throughout the score. He goes beyond what's required of him, in fact. I wasn't prepared for such fiery conducting; there's loads of Russian passion. The London Phil isn't the world's greatest orchestra, but they respond with invigoration to Jurowski's leadership. There's always a feeling of electricity that the LPO's in-house label picks up wonderfully--expect great sonics.

While Jurowski's power is worth the price of the whole disc, that's only part of the attraction. Intense as he is, he finds room for charm. Without coming close to underplaying the climaxes, he finds room for an innocence that is almost childlike in its trustful expectation. This is most apparent in the 2nd movement where the music rarely touches the ground. There are moments balletic in texture. But particularly incredible is Jurowski's ability to make the most of the character of each movement while always having a grasp of the overall vision. There's a feeling of inevitability throughout yet the sensitive details we pick up on our journey are galvanizing. (I've felt much the same way about the best work of another great Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev.) By finding many varied moods throughout, Jurowski achieves a feeling of great freshness. In short, this reading is spectacular from beginning to end, with moments of unbearable excitement mixed with ones of stirring beauty. I can't find any drawback but am hopelessly impressed, finding it impossible to stop raving.

At the end, I'm left wondering why we don't hear this symphony more often. In any event, only the most cold-hearted doubter will be able to resist the thrill of this ravishing new recording.
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Bartůk: The Piano Concertos
Bartůk: The Piano Concertos
Price: £10.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boulez finds true meaning in Bartok; his array of soloists and orchestras is staggering, 5 Jan 2013
This Bartok disc is unusual as it's no everyday event that a conductor records with three different orchestras and three different soloists, with the intent to release all the material on one disc. But what Boulez has done is doubly remarkable in that he has used only the best orchestras (Chicago, Berlin, London) and has three star virtuosos to work with (Zimerman, Andsnes, Grimaud). Boulez is a master of modern music; the only concern listeners may have is that he will be too clinical, unable to be directly emotional.

The 1st concerto is the most unmerciful of the concerti, full of grinding dissonances and highly percussive. Krystian Zimerman plays with conviction and finds a way to make the work enjoyable without smoothing out its many outbursts. Boulez leads Chicago and naturally there's no lack of might. This isn't a piece meant to be polite, and both conductor and soloist realize that full well. While Boulez is direct and to the point, I didn't sense anything clinical. Everything is crystal clear and direct. This is a dazzling performance with fully committed playing everywhere.

We find ourselves in Berlin for the 2nd Concerto along with Leif Ove Andsnes, a sensitive pianist with a technique matched by precious few. This concerto isn't as ominous as its predecessor; there are traces of jollity in all the movements. Andsnes is the perfect pianist for the concerto, tackling its enormous challenges with ease while still having time for fun. Boulez connects with him wonderfully; it's tough to tell who is the main show. The Berliners have as much power as Chicago, but they're more adventurous and individualistic. The thrill of hearing this concerto played with such vigor and enthusiasm is tremendous. Boulez lets every detail come across and the Berliners couldn't have done a better job; they're voiced impeccably. Every moment has its own unique quality, but there's always a feeling of vision. When such great musicians are giving their all and caught in marvelous modern digital sound, it's impossible to give too much praise.

The 3rd Concerto is the most light-hearted of them all. Helene Grimaud is the pianist along with the LSO. Here what catches the ear is beautiful phrasing. There is a lilting romantic quality to this performance that is ravishing. Grimaud is confident without sounding harsh. Some will think she's too graceful but I think there's value in finding love in the work. Boulez always maintains a strong sense of structure that balances out the feeling of fancy. I can see merit in a more aggressive approach, but I would certainly miss the heartfelt urgency witnessed here. Beautiful as it is, there's no sign of any weakness. Power is shown; it's just that there's always a lyric backdrop. As with the other concerti, conductor and soloist blend perfectly.

Boulez finds a way to imprint individuality into these concerti. What's so amazing is that he does so with different musicians in each case. He successfully keeps his own personality without fighting the flexibility caused by switching musicians.


Symphony 4
Symphony 4
Price: £12.60

4.0 out of 5 stars Abbado doesn't lapse into blandness, but he doesn't storm the heavens, 5 Jan 2013
This review is from: Symphony 4 (Audio CD)
Abbado is in many ways a completely uninhibited conductor, one who doesn't struggle with empty show. Yet he can struggle being hesitant to imprint personality of his own. What makes him a tough case to solve is that he can rise to the occasion and blow us away with his insight (his Berlin Mahler is beyond words) only to later give a reading that is bland and lacking interest. When inspiration hits him, he's up there with the greats, so I'm a devoted fan, yet I can't predict just when he's going to be sensational.

This Tchaikovsky 4th is somewhere between his two extremes as a conductor. It's certainly not dull, yet this isn't the Abbado who almost trembles with excitement as he bares his soul. Don't expect the fire of Karajan, who let the symphony's fate come forth with chilling clarity. Abbado is measured, at times balletic, choosing sensitivity over terror every time. Chicago is a mighty orchestra, which keeps the music flowing, but prepare for a smooth opening movement. Abbado is nearly light as he maneuvers through all the tosses and turns. I don't see how this adds up with the desperate plight Tchaikovsky was in when he wrote the work. Thankfully, the rest of the symphony isn't as ominous as the opening movement, so Abbado's gift of charm is more in place. There's beauty and lyricism that keep the music interesting. Since Chicago is a world-class orchestra, they pick up on Abbado's detailed touches and play with astonishing finesse. This isn't a boring performance, but it's not unforgettable, either.

Abbado doesn't change his ideas much in the Romeo and Juliet Overture. There are no surprising new ideas, but Abbado doesn't try to smother the thrills. Chicago is a joy to hear and Abbado finds meaning in the devotion of the two lovers. I do wish for more throbbing emotion, however.

In all, these are fine readings that are beyond competent. For those wanting fiery interpretations, there are more options, particularly Karajan.


Elgar: Cello Concerto,  Sea Pictures
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Sea Pictures
Offered by Music-Shop
Price: £27.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why has this album been hyped?, 17 Nov 2012
It's rare that all listeners unanimously agree that a recording is a gold standard. But it's as difficult to find someone who doesn't think Jacqueline du Pre has the best Elgar Cello Concerto on record as it is to find someone who thinks the earth is flat. Such unequivocal praise from all musical realms seems eerie. Classical music fans just don't agree like this.

But it's no wonder everyone is bowled over by this disc. With effortless authority, it solves all the challenges the work poses. For those with limited familiarity with the Cello Concerto, it is Elgar's masterpiece, imbued with nostalgia and a sense of regret. It's personal, even private, with moments of otherworldly reflection that asks for no distractions. Due to the work's melancholic nature, if an interpreter presents any reticence, the mood becomes gloomy and ponderous instead of rich and soul-searching. On the other hand, if the interpreter moves too quickly, we lose sight of the depth of meaning Elgar instilled, finding ourselves wandering without decisive meaning.

Du Pre succeeds because she finds the perfect balance. She gives her all, with ravishing soul, yet she's patient, holding on and never letting go too soon. Her passion is unrestrained, but it's bent to serve her comprehensive view of the work as a whole. And that vision is one encapsulating Elgar's heartfelt sadness while showcasing intensity that nearly pulls us along. We're never hurried, though. The determination that pours out of du Pre's cello keeps us looking ahead, and even when we're mourning, we can see a ray of hope in the distance. She is also blessed with committed accompaniment from Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO. Both conductor and soloist join together to create an environment full of electricity. Barbirolli finds his perfect place, adding his own input while letting du Pre take center stage. I can't think of any drawbacks to this recording whatsoever. It seems perfect, which is why it has such devoted fans.

We don't leave the legendary realm when we move to the Sea Pictures, where Barbirolli is joined by Janet Baker. This is a calm, almost pastoral reading, but one that throbs with intense emotion. Baker's singing is almost beyond praise, unfolding naturally but with a full thrust of personality that's mesmerizing. The atmosphere is undeniably religious, somber but full of awe. In all, this is an intimate reading that is sure to warm the heart.

Barbirolli is alert and in top form in the Cockaigne Overture. He finds variety, avoiding the temptation to turn the overture into a long Pomp and Circumstance. He believes in the piece, and his genuine conducting would be hard to beat.

If you're one of the few listeners who don't own this magnificent disc, join the crowd and buy it. The praise it has garnered is deserved, every bit of it.


EMI Masters - Cello concerto / Sea Pictures
EMI Masters - Cello concerto / Sea Pictures

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why has this album been hyped?, 17 Nov 2012
It's rare that all listeners unanimously agree that a recording is a gold standard. But it's as difficult to find someone who doesn't think Jacqueline du Pre has the best Elgar Cello Concerto on record as it is to find someone who thinks the earth is flat. Such unequivocal praise from all musical realms seems eerie. Classical music fans just don't agree like this.

But it's no wonder everyone is bowled over by this disc. With effortless authority, it solves all the challenges the work poses. For those with limited familiarity with the Cello Concerto, it is Elgar's masterpiece, imbued with nostalgia and a sense of regret. It's personal, even private, with moments of otherworldly reflection that asks for no distractions. Due to the work's melancholic nature, if an interpreter presents any reticence, the mood becomes gloomy and ponderous instead of rich and soul-searching. On the other hand, if the interpreter moves too quickly, we lose sight of the depth of meaning Elgar instilled, finding ourselves wandering without decisive meaning.

Du Pre succeeds because she finds the perfect balance. She gives her all, with ravishing soul, yet she's patient, holding on and never letting go too soon. Her passion is unrestrained, but it's bent to serve her comprehensive view of the work as a whole. And that vision is one encapsulating Elgar's heartfelt sadness while showcasing intensity that nearly pulls us along. We're never hurried, though. The determination that pours out of du Pre's cello keeps us looking ahead, and even when we're mourning, we can see a ray of hope in the distance. She is also blessed with committed accompaniment from Sir John Barbirolli and the LSO. Both conductor and soloist join together to create an environment full of electricity. Barbirolli finds his perfect place, adding his own input while letting du Pre take center stage. I can't think of any drawbacks to this recording whatsoever. It seems perfect, which is why it has such devoted fans.

We don't leave the legendary realm when we move to the Sea Pictures, where Barbirolli is joined by Janet Baker. This is a calm, almost pastoral reading, but one that throbs with intense emotion. Baker's singing is almost beyond praise, unfolding naturally but with a full thrust of personality that's mesmerizing. The atmosphere is undeniably religious, somber but full of awe. In all, this is an intimate reading that is sure to warm the heart.

Barbirolli is alert and in top form in the Cockaigne Overture. He finds variety, avoiding the temptation to turn the overture into a long Pomp and Circumstance. He believes in the piece, and his genuine conducting would be hard to beat.

If you're one of the few listeners who don't own this magnificent disc, join the crowd and buy it. The praise it has garnered is deserved, every bit of it.


Bizet: Carmen
Bizet: Carmen
Price: £23.42

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kozena's big birthday present from Sir Simon, 5 Nov 2012
This review is from: Bizet: Carmen (Audio CD)
I wonder how this all got started. Magdalena Kozena has enjoyed a successful international career, but how in the world did she land a recording deal to produce a Carmen in Berlin? Is she suddenly our foremost mezzo?

Of course something is suspicious. I wonder if her husband could be behind this. No doubt he was anxious to acquire a birthday present for her that wasn't the usual boring fare. Holding the keys to the most luxurious orchestral environment on earth, why not give her the title role in the classic Bizet opera? She was delighted, no doubt. After all, how many singers get to take a lead role in Berlin? Simon also assured her that he would find a great singer to fill the role of Don Jose: Jonas Kauffman.

The arrangement was admittedly cute, yet the problem is that neither husband nor wife had extensive background in the opera. Rattle is hardly known for opera, and Kozena's soft-contoured voice seems out of touch for feisty, rugged Carmen. So heading into this affair, we have a foreboding feeling that sincerity may not be at its highest.

But considering the team's disadvantage heading into this venture, the result isn't bad at all. By now other reviewers have pointed out the obvious: Kozena doesn't sound novel; she sounds out of touch. Her voice is beautiful, which is the problem--there's never a bratty moment. The singer whose commitment is undivided is Jonas Kauffman, who sings with heartfelt sadness while still sounding big and rich. The rest of the cast is first rate, but none showcase Kauffman's conviction. The Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin is a real joy; we can't complain here.

But I was most curious to see how the man at the podium would fare. First of all, I'm sure everyone wants to know if Rattle is fussy. While he certainly has mannered moments, he seems alert and alive. He doesn't sound particularly operatic, though. In his hands, Carmen veers towards a towering, forward-looking symphony with choirs and singers added. Some listeners will despise such treatment. But he sounds big and daring, with Germanic applications that occasionally makes us wonder if we've wandered over into Wagner. He's blessed with French sensibility, though, which keeps this from being all about bombast. I dare anyone to point to a Carmen where the orchestral accompaniment is half as thrilling.

The problem is that he engrosses himself in the opera's orchestration rather than its plot. Frankly, I don't care, because I'm not an opera fan to begin with. I love the stupendous orchestral playing guided by a conductor who lets every nuance pierce the ear. But most listeners will miss a maestro who makes the story come alive. To summarize Rattle's conducting, it's exuberant and passionate, but not operatic, which can cause it to sound somewhat episodic.

I'm arbitrarily giving this album four stars instead of three because I love the orchestral sound scheme and Rattle's enthusiasm, captured in dazzling sonics by EMI. Listeners will have to decide if it's worth the investment to acquire a Carmen where the lead singer seems uncomfortable and the conductor isn't operatic. If you get this CD, it should be for the vibrant Jonas Kauffman and the otherworldly playing of the Berliners.


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4
Price: £10.52

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Literal but powerful, 29 May 2012
There's something truly catchy about these readings. The very opening of Schumann's 1st Symphony, catches us off guard with its power and dignity. Booming strings and whacking timpani from the Staatskapelle Dresden take their place in a musical landscape that seeks to reach fulfillment by sheer might. For Sawallisch, these are big creations that thrive when treated big.

All the same, Sawallisch is predominately a classicist. Romantic excesses have no place in Sawallisch's world. We witness breathtaking displays of orchestral playing but Sawallisch has a very tight grip. Ultimately, these are literalist interpretations, ones that achieve their success through strict adherence to the score. These are performances that represent a bygone era of intensity, where conductors would lose their temper, breaking batons and violin bows (not that Sawallisch himself is a violent individual).

I'm not sure how to rank these discs, because as much as enjoy the fire, I miss Schumann's sunny lyricism. Instead of letting us hear Schumann's freshness and abandon, the symphonies are transformed into solid creations, almost to the point of being statuary. Is anything gained by avoiding reference to the qualities that defined Schumann as a man, his wandering mind with a boundless nervous energy that ruined his fingers and later his mind? Other conductors find more emotion in these masterpieces; Bernstein and Harnoncourt, while hardly similar, are both gripping.

In the end, the decision must lie with the listener, as there as much to attract us, only some people, including myself, ask for more flexibility.


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