March 2024 Classical Record Reviews

Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite
Manuel De Falla: El retablo de maese Pedro; Harpsichord Concerto
Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado, cond.; Benjamin Alard, harpsichord
Harmonia Mundi 902653, CD (reviewed as 24/96). 2024. Alexandra Evrard, prod.; Vincent Mons, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Many music lovers associate Stravinsky's music for Diaghilev's ballet Pulcinella as a defining composition in the post-WWI neo-classical movement. Few know that Diaghilev initially chose De Falla as the score's composer. Diaghilev turned to Stravinsky after the overcommitted Falla was forced to turn down the commission.

While Stravinsky was composing Pulcinella, whose captivating themes were drawn from the music of Pergolesi, Parisoti, and two other 18th century composers, De Falla set to work on his chamber opera El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show). With a libretto drawn directly from Cervantes's Don Quixote and themes from older music, the lively opera premiered in 1923, three years after the Pulcinella premiere. It's a major find, performed beautifully by a fine cast: three Spanish singers, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Benjamin Alard on harpsichord.

Pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who played for the chamber opera's premiere, became the dedicatee for De Falla's final, 13-minute composition. The short first movement begins hilariously as its incessant mechanistic assault jumps like a jackrabbit on steroids. The second, slower movement mocks formality. Its grand procession lumbers under the weight of its pomposity, at one point seemingly bowing its head in embarrassment. All returns to frolic in the light, Commedia dell'arte–meets–vaudeville final movement.

In this excellent recording filled with verve, light, humor, and beautifully delineated rhythms, Alard plays one of the few surviving 16' register Pleyel "Grand Modèle de Concert" harpsichords built for Landowska and played at the concerto's 1926 premiere. A must hear.—Jason Victor Serinus

Pierre Génisson: Mozart 1791
Pierre Génisson, clarinets; Concerto Köln, Jakob Lehmann, cond.; Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano
Warner Classics/Erato 5419773233 (reviewed as 24/96). 2023. Maximilien Ciup, prod./mixing/mastering; Aurélien Marotte (Meudon), eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

So many recordings of Mozart's music appear annually that it's hard to know where to start. But the moment I heard the luscious blend of Pierre Génisson's full and warm-sounding period and modern clarinets, basset clarinets, and basset horn with Concerto Köln's period instruments, I was hooked on Mozart 1791. Génisson's sound is so smooth, liquid, and ingratiating that it bears comparisons with that of Richard Stoltzmann (whom I heard from row one of Berkeley's Hertz Hall) and other fabled clarinetists. His breathing and action are extremely quiet, and the playing subtle, nuanced, and remarkably free of edge.

The program is "curious," to say the least. In addition to the famed Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622, beautifully played on basset clarinet in A, Génisson and Concerto Köln join mezzo Karine Deshayes for Sesto's "Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio" and "Ecco il punto, o Vitellia... Non più di fiori" from La Clemenza di Tito. It can take a while to warm to Deshayes's idiosyncratic voice, which is neither as sumptuous (Horne) nor as emotionally compelling (Baker) as some. But once Deshayes begins to embellish at lightning speed, she's in a class all her own.

Of the vocal selections arranged by Bruno Fontaine for clarinet and orchestra, the most successful is "Voi che sapete," where Génisson melds winning naivete with fascinating embellishments. The beginning of "Come scoglio" flops because a clarinet can never express Fiodililigi's rock-solid, emphatic declaration, but it compels once the music starts to move. "Soave sia il vento" is lovely; the "Lacrimosa" from the Requiem, with Fontaine on organ and Fender Rhodes, is a trip but hardly tear-inducing. A guilty pleasure but one that could top your playlist.—Jason Victor Serinus

Tellefsen: Piano Concerti 1–2
Kalkbrenner: Grande Marche interrompue par un orage et Suivie d'une Polonaise
Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano/conductor)
Hyperion CDA68345 (CD). 2024. Annabel Connellan, prod.; Ben Connellan, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

The First Concerto of Norwegian composer-pianist Thomas Tellefsen (1823–1874) reflects extensive training with Chopin in its predominantly linear writing and swatches of extended, freestanding solo. Often, the orchestra punctuates the start of a new section; piano then takes over, or it will join the piano at the cadences of a chorale. Otherwise, the aesthetic is a less concise, less flashy Mendelssohn. The finale meanders, but I appreciated its unexpected mood changes.

The Second Concerto is more volatile. The piano enters on an elaborate, cadenza-like outburst. The orchestra provides taut, compact tuttis and lovely clarinet solos. The first movement shifts modes ambivalently. The finale, after some orchestral indecision, settles into a scurrying tarantella—though the adjustments in and out of the second theme don't feel organic. Shelley's tone in both concerti is weighted and articulate. He shapes everything musically, keeping the chorales simple, vigorously rising to the climaxes.

Kalkbrenner's title is accurate: a Lisztian andante introduction; a miniaturish march passed between piano and orchestra; and a sprightly polonaise that goes on too long. The orchestra covers a wider palette, while the solo offers Shelley scope for technical and coloristic variety.

The Nuremberg Symphony plays capably, though the First Concerto needed more strings, and the high violins can be dry. With the soloist "conducting," a few times the players fell slightly behind. I wondered whether they'd have been tighter with a separate conductor. Hyperion's sonic frame, as usual, is judiciously warm and agreeable.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Mahler: Symphony 8 (Symphony of a Thousand)
Carolyn Sampson, Jacquelyn Wagner (s); Sasha Cooke, Jess Dandy (a); Barry Banks (t); Julian Orlishausen (bar); Christian Immler (bs); Minnesota Chorale, National Lutheran Choir, Minnesota Boychoir, Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS-2496 (SACD). 2023. Robert Suff, prod.; Thore Brinkmann, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Vänskä plays Part I of this behemoth with buoyancy. Dotted rhythms are springy, even the brass interjections have a welcome "lift," and tempo adjustments are judicious. The conductor thus maintains a solid through line, mostly without losing the sense of occasion. The solo-dominated passage in the development stalls—the sonority never coheres—and Vänskä sails seamlessly into the "Veni" recap. Conversely, by picking up slightly for the coda, he signals the home stretch. Here and in Part II, the violin solos are unusually Expressionist and disturbing.

The conductor's approach works even better in Part II's small-group "chamber" episodes. It begins in hushed, patient anticipation—accents at once cushioned and emphatic. The following, gripping passage turns tender, and the midrange chorales have a hieratic solemnity. The first solo, for baritone, arrives firmly. Subsequent episodes are clearly textured. Light staccatos in Jene Rosen aus den Händen aren't quite "festive," but from the women's little fugue to the end, the buildup is logical.

Sampson's soprano is luscious; she and Wagner swap off the high peaks with alacrity and accuracy. Banks, overparted and strained, settles into a fine "Blicket auf!" Bass is authoritative but stiff. Massed choruses are excellent at all dynamics but with a blended hush that doesn't quite cut through on their first Part II entry.

The sonics are the most natural yet; wind soli emerge precisely placed and with depth. The final, well-balanced peroration never becomes overwhelming. I can't imagine Vänskä's restraining it, but neither would the BIS engineers need to use a limiter. A strange shortfall at the end of a marvelous production.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Charles E Flynn's picture

The "Hi-Res FLAC"download is on sale until "01/04/2024" for $10.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

That was over two months ago. But you can stream it on Qobuz, Tidal, and more.

Charles E Flynn's picture


Thanks for your reply. Now you see why I put the date in quotation marks. From the Wikipedia article "Date and time notation in the United Kingdom":

"Date and time notation in the United Kingdom records the date using the day–month–year format (31 December 1999, 31/12/99 or 31/12/1999). The ISO 8601 format (1999-12-31) is increasingly used for all-numeric dates. The time can be written using either the 24-hour clock (23:59) or the 12-hour clock (11:59 pm)."

I know of a case in which a man from Jamaica was fired on his first day at a new job because he filled out a form using the British date convention. A few years later, he was a manager at a bank. A man came in asking about a loan, and the Jamaican man asked him if he remembered firing him. I do not know whether the customer got the loan.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

We routed you people from our shores in 1776. Now you dare tell us how to tell what day it is?

Translation: Thank you for the clarification ;-) Much appreciated.


Charles E Flynn's picture


You are welcome, and thanks for your unique sense of humor.