May 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Beethoven: Symphony No.9
Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, cond.
Reference Recordings FR-741 (CD). Dirk Sobotka, prod.; Mark Donahue, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

From Reference Recordings, we can count on pellucid sonics, including here. You can "hear through" the textures even in the most violent tuttis, with no trace of congestion. In the finale's "recitatives," the divided low strings are wonderfully enveloping. The Adagio's airy woodwind chorales are almost tangible.

After decades of increasingly weighty performances, Manfred Honeck's Ninth returns to a Toscaninian paradigm without sacrificing tonal mass. He characterizes episodes vividly and firmly sets up important structural arrivals. Tapered dynamics help shape motifs, though some imposed "rebound effects" sound finicky.

The opening movement offers an almost dizzying panoply of shifting colors, cleanly reproduced. A buoyant, driving Scherzo includes all repeats, with a precisely gauged transition to the swift Trio. The vibrant Adagio doesn't ooze. The traditional Germanic nature colors, though, are absent.

The finale is tautly paced. The tenor's march episode goes at nearly double the usual tempo, which the players, astonishingly, maintain through most of the following passage. The music, guided by the conductor's sharp ear, is attentively shaped and graded—the double fugue is impeccably balanced—and emerges in a broad, inexorable arc. Still, this will be controversial.

The soloists are good. The orchestra is responsive and alert. The midrange strings are burnished yet clear. Brass interjections are rhythmically acute. The booklet passes a bad solecism: The orchestra "has been broadcasted"? C'mon, folks.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Hilary Hahn: Paris
Hilary Hahn, violin; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Mikko Franck, cond.
Deutsche Grammophon B08M1XBXJV (24/48 WAV). 2021. Philip Traugott, prod., Lucas Dérode, Jean-Baptiste Etchepareborde, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

What a gorgeous recording! Equal credit goes to Hahn, who performs with her customary big-toned generosity and clarity, and to the tasteful, measured Franck, whose quintessentially French orchestra's warm cushion of sound is ideal for this repertoire.

If Chausson's Poème is any indication of what would have come had he not been killed in a bicycle accident at age 44, more's the pity. Hahn relishes Chausson's brooding and sighs and Franck sinks into Poème's orchestral lushness. Wistful, rapturous, and sensual by turn, this is a marvelous performance of music that was dedicated to Hahn's teacher's teacher, Eugène Ysaòe. Equally spellbinding is Prokofiev's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.1 in D major, which Hahn waited to record until she found "an orchestra and conductor who could revel in the music's mercurial nature." This Franck does, in a lyrical rendition that scampers about and rejoices in passages Hahn makes her own.

Of major importance is the inclusion of the 2019 Paris world premiere of the gentle Deux Sérénades that Rautavaara intended for Hahn. Initially thought unwritten at the time of Rautavaara's death, the first, "Sérénade pour mon amour," surfaced complete. Its companion, though, "Serenade pour la vie," was only partially orchestrated. Guided by the composer's piano sketches, Rautavaara's former student, Kalevi Aho completed works whose loveliness perfectly complements the masterpieces by Chausson and Prokofiev.

If you're shopping for a gift for your sweetheart (who could be yourself ), look no farther.—Jason Victor Serinus


Lavena: in your hands
Lavena, cello and vocals; William Herzog, violin; Jeff Stern, percussion
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0145 (24/96 FLAC). 2021. Lavena Johanson, Louis Levitt, Judah Adashi, prods.; Edwin Huet, Scott Metcalfe, Andew Bove, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

This is music of our own time—strangely beautiful, often angst-laden, filled with energy and unrest.

Identifying herself by just her first name, cellist Lavena Johanson calls in your hands "a time capsule of my musical life in Baltimore....Each piece on this album captures a meaningful facet of that journey," although the connections between each piece and the cellist's time in the city are not made explicit. The compositions are by six youngish composers writing in an age of uncertainty and suspense, when you never know what's hiding behind the mask (if there even is one) or in the body, or which family member may turn on you. The album has cachet since three of the composers, Caroline Shaw, Ted Hearne, and Bryce Dessner, are hot on the contemporary music scene and the other three, Gemma Peacocke, Jessie Montgomery, and Judah Adashi, need only more exposure (and the return of live performance) to make their marks.

In "my heart comes undone," Adashi's gorgeous take on Björk's "Unravel," cello and melody weep quietly for more than seven minutes. The album's title derives from Shaw's "in manus tuas," a soliloquy for solo cello that starts with a distant creak and groan and ventures forth with arpeggios that evoke Bach until Lavena's voice sounds briefly and your heart begs for divine mercy. Hearne's Furtive Movements, with percussionist Jeff Stern, and Dessner's 15-minute "Tuusula" demand attention with churning, reflective energy, occasional violence, and integrity. in your hands grips and cries with eloquence.—Jason Victor Serinus


Trio Karénine: La nuit transfigurée
Paloma Kouider, piano; Fanny Robilliard, violin; Louis Rodde, cello
Mirare MIR554 (CD). 2021. Olivier Rosset, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

The Trio Karénine's program recalls a 19th century tradition of chamber transcriptions.

Liszt fashioned Tristia from his solo piano Vallée d'Obermann. The piano's tolling bass octaves at the start, added specifically for this, prove the least convincing part of the arrangement, which is otherwise atmospheric, juxtaposing rhapsodic passages with more turbulent ones and with yearning themes.

Schumann's Six Pieces, written for a pedal piano, reflect his late explorations of Bach. The title sounds dry, and the form may be academic, but there's no resisting the buoyant, undulating rhythm of the second piece. The two strings exchange most of the imitative phrases, the piano joining in in the more substantial pieces, intruding emphatically into the fourth.

A trio version of Verklärte Nacht, a sextet frequently played by full strings, might seem headed in the wrong direction. Eduard Steuermann reconceives it as a dialogue between the piano and the strings. The quieter bits are suitably mysterious, the rhetorical accents are nicely weighted, and the climaxes open out well. But tremolos reassigned to the piano don't work and the more florid passagework suggests a Chopin concerto in a funhouse mirror.

The young players, in any case, are marvelous. The string players are firm-bowed and sensitive; cellist Louis Rodde successfully "changes identities" in consecutive phrases of the Schoenberg. Pianist Paloma Kouider sounds beautiful even when she is "just" accompanying; the runs in her "intrusion" in the Schumann are clear and fully weighted. The sonics are first-rate.—Stephen Francis Vasta

volvic's picture

I hate writing anything negative or critical about talented musicians and their interpretations but I have to call this Beethoven 9th recording out as just being fast and tasteless. Sometimes interpretations work sometimes they don't. This one doesn't - sadly.

NeilS's picture

I agree that some interpretations work and some don’t, and for me as well, this one just doesn’t grab me. Since the review compares Honeck to a “Toscaninian paradigm”, I gave Toscanini’s 1952 9th a comparative listen (always a pleasure). The first movement of Toscanini’s 1952 9th is nearly a minute faster than Honeck, at 13:35, while the first movement of Honeck’s and its “almost dizzying panoply of shifting colors” clocks in at 14:31.

Yet, Toscanini never sounds fast to me, rather I’m immediately drawn by the building suspense from the opening fifths and strings of the first movement. When I listened to Honeck, that same opening movement does sound fast to me, and I just didn’t get the sense of being drawn in, or the mood or drama that I hear in Toscanini.

volvic's picture

Exactly NeilS! Notice I said fast and tasteless. Toscanini is fast but it works, in fact he has two tempos one in the beginning and the other as the intensity picks up, but in the end I don’t notice the speed, I notice the music and I think that is a tribute to Toscanini’s genius. With Honeck I immediately notice the speed and can’t quite get it out of my head as the music plays. it doesn’t do it for me.

NeilS's picture

"...but in the end I don’t notice the speed, I notice the music and I think that is a tribute to Toscanini’s genius. .."

Very well-said!

volvic's picture

Digging out my 1952 vinyl recording. I must commit to a mono cartridge.