Album Reviews

Classical music CD reviews

Marco Borggreve/file 2010


(Harmonia Mundi)

Sure, it’s still Christmas season, but you’ve got to be thinking ahead to the next big Christian holiday. It’s hard to imagine a better way to do so than with this superb collection of Easter and Holy Week music by Stile Antico, which now finds itself at the apex of early-music vocal groups. Central to this recording are a pair of settings of “Woefully arrayed,” an imagined reflection of Jesus on the cross. William Cornysh’s version, from around the turn of the 16th century, leads off, building from a somber opening to something close to affirmation. In the middle of the CD is John McCabe’s setting, written for Stile Antico in 2009. McCabe takes the Cornysh version as inspiration but produces biting, dissonant music that exists in a completely different rhetorical world. It’s the group’s first venture into contemporary music, and it’s brought off with the same level of insight and tonal richness that Stile Antico brings to centuries-old material.

Of that there is plenty here, including John Tavener’s elaborate setting of “Dum transisset” and Thomas Tallis’s “O sacrum convivium,” whose orderly exterior hides a wealth of pungent harmonies and dexterous word painting. Perhaps the most enjoyable works on “Passion and Resurrection” are the shortest and simplest: Orlando Gibbons’s “Hosanna to the son of David” and William Byrd’s “In Resurrectione tua.” A minor quibble is the church acoustic, the reverb of which threatens to swallow the immediacy of Stile Antico’s sound, one of the principal pleasures of this group. That aside, this is another strong entry in the annals of this immensely talented group.

Stile Antico performs at St. Paul Church on April 5, part of the Boston Early Music Festival concert series.



(Sony Classical)


There is no salon Chopin in this studio disc (with a live performance of the F-minor Piano Concerto) from Khatia Buniatishvili. The 25-year-old Georgian tears into her program with a passion. Every moment seems spontaneous, yet each piece has a clear outline and has been carefully thought out. The opening C-sharp-minor Waltz, Op. 64 No. 2, lilts as if a couple were actually dancing. The B-flat-minor Sonata (with no repeat in the first movement) reminded me of Guiomar Novaes’s performance from the 1950s, with its alternation of stormy rapture and repose, its jackhammer Scherzo, the implacable, inexorable tread of its Marche funèbre, and then the whirlwind 75-second Finale.

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The F-minor Ballade is headlong. Buniatishvili doesn’t sit on the harmonic pulse points the way Ivan Moravec does, but there’s still time for reflection — just before the explosive coda, for example — and the coda itself is translucent. The concerto, with Paavo Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris providing focused support, has almost too much drive, with a torrential Larghetto and then an Allegro vivace finale that goes like gangbusters. But the way she brings out the dance rhythms even in the opening Maestoso makes other pianists seem desultory. The disc ends with a slow, moody performance of the Op. 17 No. 4 A-minor Mazurka. Passagework is glittering throughout; pedaling is discreet. There’s also a five-minute bonus video, “Warsaw — Paris,” that you can play on your computer, a kind of music video where Buniatishvili, backed by excerpts from the disc, frolics at the seashore, floats in a bathtub, flies high on a swing, and takes the train from Warsaw to Paris.



Leila Josefowicz, violin

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

(Deutsche Grammophon)

J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for composition, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, which he conducted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in April, was written as a farewell and love letter to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra he led for 17 pathbreaking years. It is that rarest of pieces, in which emotional force, technical virtuosity, and compositional innovation are united, making it one of the most thrillingly complete recent works by a major composer.

The concerto is the centerpiece of this CD, played by its dedicatee, Leila Josefowicz, and the Finnish Radio Symphony under the composer. It opens with the solo violin in perpetual motion, surrounded by quizzical commentary coming from the multi-hued orchestra. Eventually the music drifts into stasis, melodic fragments suspended over a beating timpani in a way that distantly recalls Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The third movement is a Mahler scherzo retrofitted for a dance club; interjections from a drum set drive the music into what Salonen has called “a latex-clad disco queen.” The finale is an agonized search for a resolution that comes only at the final moment, in the form of a chord totally unrelated to everything that preceded it. Out of nowhere, loaded with possibilities.


Josefowicz puts all the fire into her performance that made the Boston performance such a dynamic experience. The CD also contains “Nyx,” a 2011 work for orchestra — it’s organic and carefully planned, a contrast to the concerto’s shifting moods. Both provide ample backing for the idea that Salonen is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable musicians alive.



Latvian Radio Choir

Vox Clamantis, Sinfonietta Riga

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra

Tönu Kaljuste, Conductor

(ECM New Series)

“How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” That is a question the mystically minded Arvo Pärt has said he often asks himself when composing.

Now 77, Pärt has remained remarkably prolific and active in recent years, producing instrumental and choral music of cosmic spirituality for organizations, venues, and ensembles all over the world. A survivor of Soviet persecution and forced emigration from his homeland, Pärt has written numerous choral works setting Latin (Te Deum, Magnificat, Berliner Messe) and Russian (Kanon Pokajanen) texts reflecting the German-Scandinavian, Russian Orthodox, and Lutheran influences that have dominated the rich cultural-musical life of the Baltic nation of Estonia and its capital, Tallinn, where he has spent much of his life.

For his latest recording, Pärt has collected eight different works for various combinations of instruments and singers in four different languages: Russian, Latin, French, and Estonian. This nourishing anthology, handsomely produced and annotated, demonstrates Pärt’s wide range and ingenuity in combining various instrumental and vocal forces to illuminate a text’s inner life.


The longest and most significant piece, “Adam’s Lament” (2009), for soloists, mixed choir, and string orchestra, sets a Russian text by the monk Starets Silouan. Adam’s anguished guilt for having lost Paradise through sin is the theme, which becomes a universal plea for forgiveness for the evil mankind has wrought. Recorded in Tallinn’s ancient and resonant Niguliste Church, the Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, and Sinfonietta Riga join forces in a powerful, lyrical performance of this highly personal work, with its constantly shifting sonic textures and agonizing emotional climaxes. Pärt infuses this haunting score with acute sensitivity to every nuance of the devotional text, creating a contrite and humble Adam who symbolizes the eternal need for love and humility.

No less moving is “L’Abbé Agathon,” originally composed in 2004 for eight cellos and soprano soloist, and recorded here in a reworked version for soprano and baritone soloists, with female choir and string orchestra. The French text treats the story of the monk Agathon who carried a leper on his back, only to discover later that the leper was an angel sent to test his faith. The complex interplay between strings, solo voices, and chorus draws imaginatively on traditions of medieval French liturgical style.

Pärt composed the remaining six items at various times and reworked them recently. Four (“Beatus Petronius,” “Salve Regina,” “Statuit ei Dominus” and “Alleluia-Tropus”) set Latin texts and employ minimalist techniques. Two are tiny, enchanting Estonian lullabies, two “little pieces of lost Paradise” (in Pärt’s words) for female choir and string orchestra, one a lilting Christmas song.



(Deutsche Grammophone)

Stephen Chernin/Associated Press
Soprano Elina Garanca.

For her latest recording, the glamorous Latvian lyric mezzo Elina Garanca, now familiar to Metropolitan Opera audiences, has chosen an intelligent and unusual group of arias that showcase not only her seductive, creamy voice but also her substantial interpretive gifts. Singing here in French, Italian, and Russian, she demonstrates why critics have been spilling superlatives in describing her performances in such roles as Carmen, Rosina (“The Barber of Seville”), and Octavian (“The Rosenkavalier”).

The nine arias come from heavy dramatic vehicles and constitute what the liner notes call “an imaginary portrait gallery of beautiful women.” Probably the best known is the femme fatale Dalila from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila,” represented here by her famous Act II seduction aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”). Garanca takes her time in building to the climax, more a thinking man’s temptress than a sex kitten. Her effortless ability to soar from the lower to the upper part of her range and back again provokes shivers. Although classified as a mezzo-soprano, Garanca has a soprano-like upper register, and she never bleats down low, as some mezzos do. She floats down to the high notes, and her voice retains its same quality throughout her range.

These same gifts illuminate Garanca’s approach to a very different sort of character, the virginal Joan of Arc, in the aria “Farewell, ye hills and native fields,” from Tchaikovsky’s little-known “The Maid of Orleans.” Singing the original Russian version (instead of the better-known French one) with clear and poetic diction, her Joan burns with resolve, not hysteria.

The remaining selections include one by Donizetti (from “La Favorite”); three by Gounod (Siebel’s “Faites-lui mes aveux” from “Faust,” Balkis’s reflective aria from “La Reine de Saba,” and a melancholy suicide aria from his first opera, “Sapho”); one from Berlioz (Marguerite’s “D’amour l’ardente flame” from “La Damnation de Faust”); one from Édouard Lalo (from “Le Roi d’Ys”); and one from Nicola Vaccai (Romeo’s aria at Juliet’s apparent death from “Giulietta e Romeo”).

Still in the early phase of her career, Elina Garanca should hopefully be giving us many more polished, refined, and emotionally committed performances on stage and on disc for some years to come.



(Bedroom Community)

The three works by composer Nico Muhly on this album feature an instrument playing against a prerecorded drone, usually an octave or a fifth. “We surround ourselves with constant noise,” writes Muhly in a program note, and these pieces “are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them.” One of the most impressive aspects of these pieces is the variety of relationships that unfold between the “solo” instruments and the drones. In “Drones and Piano” the instrumental material often consists of irregular outbursts, as if the piano were shadowboxing, or making an argument against an implacable foe.

In “Drones and Viola” and “Drones and Violin” the two personae trade places, with the string instrument taking on the static part while the piano, ostensibly the drone instrument, makes quizzical comments. “Material With Shifting Drones,” from the violin piece, shows how skillfully the two functions can be integrated, while the last movement of the viola piece, “Material in a Long Cadence,” is beautifully despondent, the most emotionally direct track on the album. The three instrumentalists — pianist Bruce Brubaker, of New England Conservatory; violist Nadia Sirota; violinist Pekka Kuusisto — play with a terrific understanding of Muhly’s language. All three pieces were released as EPs, and this collection features a bonus track, “Drones in Large Cycles,” a gorgeous, multifaceted flow that shows how versatile this simple musical artifact can be.

Available at nicomuhly.bandcamp



Markus Stockhausen, trumpet

Kathinka Pasveer, flute

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

Karlheinz Stockhausen, conductor


At first glance, this release teems with weird possibilities: Karlheinz Stockhausen, the dark magus of 20th-century music, the guy who put the avant in the avant-garde, confronting two of the sturdiest pillars of the musical canon. How strange would the encounter be?

It’s actually not all that strange, to tell the truth. Yet that makes no less enjoyable these recordings from the mid-1980s. Stockhausen wrote numerous works for his son Markus, a trumpeter, and flutist Kathinka Pasveer, including cadenzas for Haydn’s E-flat-major Trumpet Concerto and Mozart’s G-major Flute Concerto. Those cadenzas are the most unusual aspect of these performances — they test their respective instruments’ ranges and wander into realms Haydn and Mozart would almost certainly not have visited. Yet they never exceed the bounds of taste, and they make the concertos sound Janus-faced, pitched between past and future. So does Stockhausen’s conducting, which is vigorous and assertive, and makes these pieces seem deeper and more robust than in other, more conventional performances. Such are one composer’s insights into the works of others, even when separated by centuries. The two soloists are excellent throughout.