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Album Reviews

Spinning local: strong new discs by Boston artists

Mozart: “Coronation” Mass

Handel and Haydn Society;
Harry Christophers, conductor (Coro)

Haydn: “THE Creation”

Boston Baroque; Martin Pearlman,
conductor (Linn Records)

By this point Boston’s embarrassment of riches in the early-music department requires little elaboration. While the Boston Early Music Festival brings a steady stream of talent from distant lands, the city’s two main period-instrument bands — the Handel and Haydn Society, and Boston Baroque — toil fruitfully each season in local concert halls. Each has also made new commitments of late to bolstering its profile beyond Boston through recordings.

Harry Christophers, artistic director of H&H, brought to the job his own Coro label, first created as a vehicle for his United Kingdom-based chorus, the Sixteen. Coro has now also become a home for Christophers’s work with H&H, or, more specifically, what amounts to a trilogy of Mozart recordings. After the Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Coro has brought out this fall a new H&H account of the composer’s “Coronation” Mass, recorded live at Symphony Hall during performances last April.

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The disc captures the vitality and theatricality Christophers has made a hallmark of his work with the H&H chorus, here sounding particularly full-throated and forceful. Among the soloists, Teresa Wakim, an H&H chorister since 2003, steps into the spotlight beautifully, rendering the mass’s closing Agnus Dei in particular with a delicacy of phrasing and a melting purity of tone that make it a highlight of this release. Rounding out the disc are Mozart’s motet “Exsultate, Jubilate” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, giving H&H’s seasoned period-instrument orchestra its own turn in the spotlight.

For its part, Boston Baroque, after years of recording for Telarc, has now begun a new partnership with the European label Linn Records, commencing with a sparkling new recording of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” Ever since Haydn’s day, the piece has often been performed in English for English-speaking audiences, but music director Martin Pearlman argues that the original German version “fits the notes more convincingly,” despite the fact that the libretto itself draws principally from biblical sources and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” He makes a persuasive case with help from the chorus, here at its nimble best, and his admirable soloists: Amanda Forsythe, Keith Jameson, and most impressive of all for his wedding of burnished tone with expressive nuance, Kevin Deas.

JEREMY EICHLER

John Harbison: “Winter’s Tale”

Boston Modern Orchestra Project;
Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound)

Conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s propensity for reviving forgotten works here meets a piece itself concerned with reclamation. John Harbison’s 1974 “Winter’s Tale” adapts Shakespeare’s fantastically dimensioned lost-and-found story: The irrational jealousy of King Leontes results in the demise of his wife and son and the banishment of his daughter, evils magically reversed after a 16-year penitential interval. Harbison’s hiatus exceeded even that: After the opera’s 1979 premiere, he waited another three decades to hear the full score again, in a BMOP concert presentation.

Harbison’s first opera already has much of his musical flavor: subterranean chugging rhythms, wide-interval vocal writing, intricately woven harmonies with chromatic tang. The dramatic effect, especially in recording, can be tableaux-like, much of the characterization expressed through static rhetorical styles and pantomime. The exception is Leontes: Buffeted by his changeable impulses, his mutable music pulls the opera into his orbit — as does Harbison’s libretto, excising subplots and comic relief to stress Leontes’s redemptive trajectory.

The recording thus benefits enormously from baritone David Kravitz, who invests Leontes with both enough sonorous gravity and enough quick-change musical fluency to lift the character beyond brittle or didactic. The entire cast is reliable, and filled with enough familiar local expertise — Janna Baty, Aaron Engebreth, Pamela Dellal — that one wishes Boston’s operatic scene were robust enough to give Harbison’s score a fully staged chance. Until then, Rose and BMOP fill the gap with flair.

Matthew Guerrieri

Chopin: The Mazurkas

Russell Sherman (Avie; 2 CDs)

“Like cannons hidden beneath flowers” was Schumann’s assessment of Chopin’s mazurkas, and if that seems excessive for a folk dance, consider that Poland’s national anthem is a mazurka. Besides, this dance, in triple time with variable accents, is not simple: It slides, it glides, it clicks its heels and stamps the floor, it flirts and teases. Chopin poured Poland’s soul, and his own, into 51 mazurkas, and they get a virile, extroverted reading in this new set from New England Conservatory artist-in-residence Russell Sherman, who recorded them in Jordan Hall in 2007, when he was 77. His interpretations are intense, intellectual, rhythmically pointed, and sparely pedaled, with a strong (sometimes too strong) left hand that can create a salon feel. The three subsets of mazurka — mazur, kujawiak, and oberek — are well distinguished, and Sherman creates a full range of moods within his generally brisk tempos. On occasion I missed the lingering inflections of Andrzej Wasowski and the seductive subtleties of Ivan Moravec and Halina Czerny-Stefanska, but Sherman’s direct, thoughtful approach and attention to the complexities of Chopin’s chromatism and polyphony will repay repeated listenings.

JEFFREY GANTZ

KURTÁG/LIGETI: MUSIC FOR VIOLA

Kim Kashkashian, viola (ECM)

Any project by New England Conservatory violist Kim Kashkashian is welcome, but this new CD of works by György Kurtág and György Ligeti is of special interest. Kashkashian has been playing Kurtág’s music for some 20 years, and only someone with that level of immersion in this composer’s hermetic, skeletal works could bring out the expressivity she does here. “Signs, Games and Messages” is an ongoing series of epigrammatic pieces for solo viola in which the syntax runs from stray melodic gestures (“Letter to Vera Ligeti”) to teeth-grinding dissonance (“Chromatically saucy”). Kashkashian has an infallible sense for when to constrict the usually beautiful tone of her instrument to communicate the music’s aggressive darkness.

Where Kurtág is compressed, Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola Solo is spacious, though equally discomfiting. Rarely has a series of melodic lines from a single instrument — rising and falling through its range — felt as cryptic as the one in “Hora lunga,” the opening movement. The technical demands of all this music — especially its dynamic and coloristic shades — are significant, and Kashkashian’s handling of them exquisite. But what’s most vital is how urgently she conveys the music’s hidden dimensions, something referred to in Wolfgang Sandner’s program note: “Behind every note played are many others that are merely felt.”

David Weininger

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