November 2020 Classical Record Reviews

Eric Whitacre: The Sacred Veil
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Eric Whitacre
Signum SIGCD630 (CD), 2020. Elaine Martone, prod.; Fred Vogler, rec. eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The Sacred Veil is a commissioned piece but also a labor of love. The cantata sets poems by Whitacre's friend, Charles Anthony Silvestri, who was coming to terms with the premature death of his wife, Julie. The score also sets three of Julie's writings and two of the composer's own poems.

Whitacre's "modern Romantic" idiom takes in agreeable dissonances for expressive effect. His vocal textures are consistently transparent as he fashions coruscating sonorities or plays with rhythmic contrasts. The crescendos through anguished chords in "You Rise, I Fall," while perhaps obvious, build effectively. The composer's response to the texts is sensitive but generalized—I picked up more of the libretto's emotional content by reading it. With its piano-trio accompaniment, the piece, despite its scale and craftsmanship, remains redolent of a community chorus.

The performance, though, is excellent. I think of "professional choruses" as ad hoc and minimally rehearsed, but the Los Angeles Master Chorale opens soft-focused but precise attacks into gorgeous, warm tones that vibrate, praise be, with varied colors. Tenors pass smoothly in and out of the top without losing support. The chantlike unisons are lovely, and the occasional special effects—the women's almost-electronic "oo"s in "Home"; the wordless moans in "You Rise"—come off expertly. The singers project the words well when the settings permit.

From its first entrance, the Los Angeles Master Chorale surrounds you in room-filling sound in frontal stereo. There is no audible distortion at climaxes—no stridency—just appealing naturalness.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Beethoven: 9 Symphonies
Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic
Deutsches Grammophon 479 8721 (9 LPs). 1980/2018. Hanno Rinke, prod.; Hans Weber, Klaus Scheibe, engs.; Emil Berliner Studios, remastering.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic performed and recorded the Beethoven symphony cycle during their '77, '78, and '79 seasons. These live performances have been available without pause since their initial release in 1980. The news here for audiophiles is the remastering. The original LP box set of 1980 was renewed, retaining the cover but with new lacquers cut at half-speed from the master multitrack analog tapes at Emil Berliner Studios.

The LP box set is a numbered, limited run of 1750 copies, so find one soon. Symphonies 1 through 8 are sourced from the original, 1" 8-track tape, recorded live in Vienna's famous Musikverein hall. Symphony No.9 was recorded on 2" 16-track tape in the Wiener Staatsoper. These multi-miked recordings were among the last significant all-analog productions in the Beethoven symphony discography. The sound of the LPs? Rich, powerful, detailed. Huge, wide, and deep stereo stages, kick-ass bass, stunning brass, lovely highs from winds and strings.

All the fine tech here is at the service of Bernstein at his mature peak, with an orchestra he trained to do his bidding whether he was stamping his feet or conducting with his eyes. Beethoven himself might as well be from Brooklyn; he's capable of punching you in the face if that's what it takes to get your attention. Likewise, Lenny is relentlessly physical, a pit-bull that won't let go of his emotional bone.

"I offer this cycle to all music-loving ears as a testament of faith and of my most profound reactions to this greatest of all composers," he writes on the box. Thank you, Lenny.—Sasha Matson


Beethoven: The Piano Concertos
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, pianist/director.
Chandos SACD CHSA5273-75 (Recorded and auditioned as a 24/96 FLAC download). Rachel Smith, prod., Torbjörn Samuelsson, eng., Jonathan Cooper, mastering.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

There are no surprises on this airy, superbly recorded, high-resolution set. Bavouzet, whose last disc for Chandos received a Best of the Month award from one of the British music magazines, shows himself attuned to Beethoven's sound world. Leading the 39-person Swedish Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard of a Yamaha CFX Concert Grand—the nine-foot Yamaha whose chiming treble helped make his live, prepandemic performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the Seattle Symphony so dazzling—he turns in sensitive, flexible performances of all five concertos.

The piano concertos showcase Beethoven at his most melodic. Bavouzet, working with a chamber orchestra whose weight proves ideal for these works, seems to relish every note, including the lengthy cadenzas. For one of countless examples of Bavouzet's mastery, listen to how beautifully he paces the heart-touching middle movement Andante of Piano Concerto No.4. He has you holding your breath as he transitions from the hushed, sacred slowdown at movement's end to the propulsive, perfectly accented affirmation at the heart of the final Rondo (Vivace). The transition from the unforgettable Adagio of the final "Emperor" Concerto to its triumphant finale is equally memorable.

To round out the set's three discs, Bavouzet joins four of the orchestra's players, led by Urban Svensson, in the delightful, 25-minute Grand Quintet, Op.16, for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn. The ending is smiles all around, as fresh as can be.—Jason Victor Serinus


Shostakovich: Symphonies 5, 1
Gianandrea Noseda, London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live LSO0802 (2 CDs). 2020. Nicholas Parker, prod.; Jonathan Stokes, Neil Hutchinson, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Gianandrea Noseda's Shostakovich Fifth stands out for its strong rhythmic foundation. The tempi are not particularly slow—although the first movement's terraced, precisely gauged accelerations are conservative—but they are securely grounded, generating cumulative tension with forthright, seamless connections between sections.

Noseda limns the symphony's episodes with character. The severe Allegretto is a grimmer waltz than usual; the pizzicato recap is spectral, the final oboe solo deliciously teasing. The patiently unfolding Largo ends thoughtfully. The Finale's accelerations are impulsive; the tutti at 2:55 is joyous, the horn solo reflective, and the closing perorations carry a hint of disquiet.

The First Symphony moves along, with sprightly dotted rhythms, but it plays as more serious than quirky. The first movement's waltzy second subject doesn't scan quite right, but otherwise everything there is shipshape. The scherzo, launched attacca, offers a controlled skittering into a firm, headlong climax. The slow movement is broadly lyrical yet uneasy; the helter-skelter finale, attentively played, builds to a bracing final Presto.

The strings' soft-edged attacks and sculpted sonorities are a pleasure. Trumpets inject pinpoint brightness, and the solo in the First's finale is carefully matched to the woodwinds. The solo violin is a chameleon: now sweet, now guardedly vibrant, now wistful.

Resplendent sonics reproduce brasses with depth while crisply placing the expressive reeds and quiet percussion. Textures are beautifully layered in both scores. The harshness that marred the climaxes of Noseda's recent Eighth is absent.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Gyda Valtysdottir: Epicycle II
Ólöf Arnalds, Daníel Bjarnason, Úlfur Hansson, Jónsi, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, others
DiaMond/Sono Luminus SLE-70012 (CD). 2020. Gyda Valtysdottir, Jónsi, prods.; Albert Finnbogason, Úlfur Hansson, others, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Cellist Gyda Valtysdottir emerged as part of a wave of crisp, precious, sometimes great Nordic pop in the wake of the phenomenal success of Björk, alongside such acts as Röyksopp and Sigur Rós. Following múm, her first recording project, Valtysdottir has released solo albums with wider scope and more of a focus on her cello.

Epicycle, from 2016, retained the atmospheric production and music-box moods of múm, applying it to compositions by Prokofiev, Hildegard von Bingen, Schubert, Messiaen, Crumb, and Harry Partch. On Epicycle II, the focus is on solo and small-ensemble works by living Icelandic composers.

The album intersperses classical composers with names from pop and jazz. Daníel Bjarnason's Air to Breathe offers beauty reminiscent of Valtysdottir's recording of Messiaen, while María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's Octo works in slow cycles similar to those of the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Mikros, by Anna Thorvaldsdottir—who has received well-deserved attention since relocating to New York, then London—is, as its title suggests, all too brief. Experimental bassist Skúli Sverrisson, songwriters Úlfur Hansson and Ólöf Arnalds, and Sigur Rós's Jónsi and Kjartan Sveinsson contribute lighter tracks that are nonetheless integral to the whole.

The sound is up to Sono Luminus's high standards. The production might seem heavy, or it might just go with the landscape. Either way, the album works beautifully, like a suite of icy mist.—Kurt Gottschalk


Augustin Hadelich: Bohemian Tales
Augustin Hadelich, violin; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Jakub Hruša, cond., Charles Owen, piano.
Warner Classics 527476. (Auditioned in 24/48, CD also available.) Sebastian Braun, prod., Dvorák Concerto; Peter Urban, eng., Dvorák Concerto; Antonio Oliart, prod. and editor for the rest.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

The poetic beauty of Italian-German-American violinist Augustin Hadelich's musicianship mesmerized me and John Atkinson when, years back, we heard him play Beethoven's Violin Concerto in Dallas's Meyerson Hall. Here, he brings out the core emotional truths in music by three of the great Czech composers of the romantic era: Antonín Dvorák, his son-in-law Josef Suk, and Leos Janácek.

With an exceptionally soulful lower range, soaring highs, and intense commitment, Hadelich sings with drama and passion. His violin, placed prominently in a less-than-transparent orchestral mix, sounds urgent in the opening movement of Dvorák's Violin Concerto and heartfelt in the ensuing Adagio. Thanks to Hruša's idiomatic conducting, the concerto sounds as if written for these forces.

Hadelich shifts from Munich's Philharmonie im Gasteig to the Fraser Performance Studio of WGBH, Boston, where the sonics are better. He and pianist Charles Owen embrace the drama in the first movement of Janácek's Violin Sonata, wrap themselves around the heart-touching melody of the second, and stun with a close in which beautiful, nostalgia-laden melodies are punctuated by the gunfire of invading Russian troops. Equally touching are Dvorák's sad, repetitious Larghetto from 4 Romantic Pieces and Suk's early 4 Pieces Op.17. A popular Dvorák song transcription and Fritz Kreisler's unforgettable take on the composer's Humoresque cap a wonderful recording.—Jason Victor Serinus

Ortofan's picture

... the 2018 release and it is just being reviewed now?
Or, is this a newly remastered version since the 2018 release?

volvic's picture

Been meaning to buy the new Bernstein Beethoven box set but they were back-ordered everywhere I looked. Prices also varied from one site to the next. Yesterday on my bday I decided to use my $150 Academy Records gift certificate and found a pristine box set from the 80s for $24.99 - A No Brainer!!! Can't wait for a listen.

Sasha Matson's picture

I was late to the party with this remastered Bernstein/Beethoven Symphonies LP set. As the header said- done in 2018. I'm glad I snagged one a few months back, and hope those interested can as well. If not, I hope Emile Berliner/DG will do another run if the pressing parts allow. The main thing though are the performances; the recording will sound fine regardless of format, depending on your system. A permanent place in my collection going forwards!(And you can find some of these same series of performances filmed, with excellent sound, on You Tube.) -S.M.

volvic's picture

But I always wanted to hear them the way they were intended to be heard and that is through a good turntable. Although they do now sound very good pumped through a computer audio set up. Are they the best Beethoven cycle? No probably not but they are certainly one of the top ten in my opinion. It remains to be seen whether DG will stamp out another batch, just glad I got an original set from my fav record store yesterday. I find a lot of the recordings that I am after are always back ordered, in particular the Karajan/Mahler 9 and Bernstein Mahler recordings from Analogphonic recordings.