August 2021 Classical Record Reviews

J.S. Bach: Cello Suites
Justin Pearson, cello; Pedro Silva, 5-string cello; Katherine Rockhill, piano
Chasing the Dragon VALLP014 (5LP). 2021. Mike and Franáoise Valentine, prods.; Matt Sartori, Petronel Butuc, John Webber, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Here, skilled musicians take a back seat and the recording takes the wheel: five LPs of solo (and near-solo) Bach recorded with a single stereo array of tubed, AKG C12 clones (by Flea), vintage Focusrite pres, and a Sony reel-to-reel connected up with Nordost cable. Lacquers were cut on a Neumann VMS 80 lathe and vinyl was pressed at Optimal. The recording engineer (Mike Valentine) is a 15-year BBC veteran. Webber, the mastering engineer, is most familiar (to me) for his 2020 Atlantic remaster of John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

The musicians are skilled but not well-known. Silva, the five-string cellist, and Rockhill, the pianist (the set includes Schumann's piano-accompanied version of Suite No.3), are graduates of the Royal Academy of Music. But this set belongs to Pearson, principal cellist and artistic director of London's National Symphony Orchestra. You may have heard him playing the cello solos in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. His sound is broad and elegant. His interpretations are mainstream to my ear—although what he does with the arpeggios in the Suite No.3 Prelude is distinctive, and there are other distinctive moments.

The suites were recorded in a rich church acoustic—or rather, two rich church acoustics, due to COVID. With just two microphones, mike placement is crucial but also a matter of taste. The sound is gorgeous, broader and more diffuse than, say, Starker's. The set comes in a beautiful box with an illustrated booklet and a paperback book: The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin. A nice, if expensive, package.—Jim Austin


Beethoven: Hope Amid Tears: Beethoven Cello Sonatas
Emanuel Ax, piano; Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Sony 690197 (24/96 FLAC). 2021. Steven Epstein, prod.; Richard King, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

A good 33 years after their first early digital recordings of Beethoven's five sonatas for piano and cello and variations on themes from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma reunite for a second, far better recorded go-around. Sounding nothing like slowed-down elders, their wholehearted embrace of joy in the second movement of Sonata No.2 in G Minor, Op.5 No.2 reflects a mature understanding that bliss opens a portal to the divine.

The music and music-making are equally marvelous. Ax's touch is as light as a feather; other times, it glows with the same warmth that characterizes Ma's approach to all except the most vigorously bowed passages. But as joyful as both men can be, neither shies away from the deep sadness and sense of farewell that permeate sections of the later sonatas. Beethoven's hearing was deteriorating when he composed the Sonata in A Major, Op.69. Although he wrote "Amid tears and sorrows" on the copy he dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, most of those tears don't emerge until the two final Op.102 sonatas of 1815. In Ax and Ma's hands and hearts, the tragic angst in parts of Op.102, No.1 brings us face to face with Beethoven's plight and the light that glowed even stronger amidst tragedy.

Some of Beethoven's later melodies seem like old friendships whose beauties deepen each time you encounter them. If you think you know The Magic Flute, wait until you experience Beethoven exploring how far he can go in his fabulous 11 minutes of variations on "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen."—Jason Victor Serinus


Brahms: Symphony No.3, Serenade No.2
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCSSA43821 (CD). Jared Sacks, prod. and eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ***½

I couldn't help thinking that Iván Fischer didn't trust the symphony. In the tricky first movement, he's attentive to details like the pulsing string afterbeats—though, when the horns get them, it's a bit unsubtle. But whenever he tries to lean into important arrival points, or to set them up with rubato and agogics—even heading into the recap—coordination becomes tentative.

The plausible Andante pushes slightly rather than flows, and the second theme is self-consciously shaped. The strings' legato, conversely, projects easily through the reed decorations, and they expand nicely into the surging peaks. In the Poco allegretto's great melody, the lean, nasal cellos disappoint—a far cry from Szell's dusky intermezzo, though the recap's mournful horn compensates a bit.

The finale, finally, lets more and varied orchestral colors weave and shine through the sonority, highlighting the woodwinds in the quieter passages. But Fischer makes the coda a bit too clear: Instead of hearing the outline of the simulated theme, we hear its separate musical strands, like seeing not a full Impressionist painting but the individual daubs of paint.

Fischer relaxes into the Serenade as he didn't into the symphony. The flowing, quickish first movement stays on the right side of the line, its incisive accents gently cushioned. The conventionally weighted second, and the third, are nicely tinted, with enough shafts of light to vary the third's dark coloring. The fourth has a lovely uplift and lightness; the fifth is perky and pastoral. Vivid wind timbres illuminate the performance; so does the mildly ambient sound, with a boomy bass pizzicato or two.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Nino Rota: Chamber Music
Éric Le Sage, Emmanuel Pahud, others
Alpha746 (24/88.2 download). 2021. Louise Burel, prod.; Jean-Marc Laisné, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

Indelible memories of Rota's film scores for Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Coppola have obscured his reputation as a composer of merit. Of the close to 100 albums on Tidal and/or Qobuz that contain Rota's music, only a handful are devoted to his classical compositions. While Rota never aspired to the timeless profundity of Beethoven, his artfully crafted chamber music displays an endearing mastery of color, whimsy, delight, and melancholy.

This recording, set down in the confined acoustic of the Salon Festival International de Musique de Chambre de Provence, features pianist Éric Le Sage, clarinetist Paul Meyer, flutist Emmanuel Pahud, violinist Daishin Kashimoto, and seven other players. Nine are at their colorful best in 24+ minute Nonetto, which took almost 20 years to complete. In this mature work by a protégé of Toscanini, you'll hear shades of Fellini in the first movement, and an Italian version of the Keystone Kops running through the final Vivacissimo(!). But in between, you'll experience some lovely, touching, and unquestionably endearing music. I especially enjoyed the big buildup to nowhere at the end of the second movement.

Rota was already known for his film scores when his second emergence as a promising classical composer took place in 1943, when he was 32, with the arrival of the Piccola offerta musicale. Dedicated to one of his teachers, Alfredo Casella, the 4-minute work displays a delicious understanding of instrumental color. The Trio for flute, violin, and piano is a far more serious work, at least at the start, and each short piano prelude is a gem. Strongly recommended.—Jason Victor Serinus


Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos.4 & 6
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
LSO Live LSO0867. Andrew Cornall, prod.; Neil Hutchinson, Jonathan Stokes, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Listeners accustomed to Vaughan Williams in his pastoral and folksong modes will find both these symphonies disconcerting. No.4 flings out jagged, edgy episodes one after another; even in less agitated passages, unstable harmonies and irregular meters perpetuate a general unease. The Sixth, supposedly mirroring the horrors of World War II, is more formal—its third movement is a recognizable ABA scherzo—but equally unsettled: A laborious control renders the quiet passages ominous, after which the outbursts are the more stark and terrifying.

Pappano, a Briton by birth, applies his operatic temperament to these scores' dramatic intensity. Rhythmic energy, in themes and accompaniments, propels the music forward, and he's attentive to color: Note the seamless transition from tenor sax to bassoon in the Sixth's Epilogue. The various walking-bass patterns keep the mood off-balance. The Sixth's conclusion evokes desolation and finality, and the conductor meets the Fourth's relentless turbulence head-on. He shapes the Scherzo's metrical patterns with assurance and imbues the Finale with a hearty swagger—though I'd not swear everything there lines up precisely.

The LSO plays confidently. The woodwinds—the Fourth's plaintive oboe and solitary flute; the Sixth's English horn and tenor sax—are striking. The strings sustain the extended pianissimo of the Sixth's Epilogue/ superbly.

The engineering is vivid; the ambience, for all the churning, doesn't obscure detail. Brass eruptions register with depth; in the Sixth's first movement, the reeds are dramatically "placed" center stage. At some peaks, highs turn harsh.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Ortofan's picture

... of the performance/interpretation of a given work, such as with the Brahms symphony recording, it might be useful to have the reviewer specifically cite other recordings (by label and catalog number) in which the performance/interpretation is deemed to be better aligned with his/her taste.

SteveDisque's picture

Thanks for your comment and suggestion.

Space limitations unfortunately preclude that kind of recommendation or comparison.

If I say that I still find Szell's one of the finest performances -- though the engineering is hardly the finest -- that should tell you most of what you want to know.

Beyond that, I prefer musically informed performances where the conductor isn't "trying as hard" as Fischer was here. Those that immediately come to mind are Abbado/Dresden (DG) and Ormandy/Philadelphia (Sony). I've never heard Haitink's Third (LSO Live), but, if it's as good as his First, it'd be spectacular.

Catalog numbers, BTW, effectively became moot when the majors sped up the delete-and-reissue cycle to try to wring more market share from their product. (I remember referencing a Callas CD for which I found no fewer than four catalog numbers -- none of which were active at the time!)