November 2021 Classical Record Reviews

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; Isabelle Faust, violin; Antoine Tamestit, viola
Harmonia Mundi 902686.87 (Auditioned as 24/192). 2021. Pegasus Musikproduktion: Florian B. Schmidt, prod.; Schmidt, Aki Matusch, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Once you hear the vitality and exuberance of these performances and the recording's exceptionally clear, full, natural, colorful, high-resolution sound, you'll understand why the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin followed up its 1998 digital foray into the Brandenburgs with this rerecording. "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" may not seem an entirely appropriate descriptor for the six secular concertos Bach dedicated to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg 300 years ago, but the riot of joyful sound that draws us into the first concerto makes it hard to think of a descriptor that's more apt.

The miracle of this set is that despite so many individual contributions of merit, everything comes together. The blatt of the natural horns is to savor, as is the trumpeting of Rupprecht Drees in the Second Concerto. Isabelle Faust, on a 1658 Stainer violin, and Antoine Tamestit, on a 1672 Stradivarius viola, play wonderfully, but neither they nor harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann are unnaturally spotlit on these recordings, which instead showcase the ideal venue: Christuskirche Berlin. Christoph Huntgeburth and Xenia Löffler are a joy on recorders in the Fourth Concerto, and their instruments provide a lovely, round contrast to Faust's violin. The last movement of the Fourth is especially beautiful and ends with unbounded elation. Time and again, familiar melodies that many of us fell in love with eons ago on Karl Richter's modern-instrument Arkiv recordings emerge in a new light, as excellent copies of original instruments bring countless details and timbral contrasts to the fore.—Jason Victor Serinus


Christopher Otto & JACK Quartet: rag'sma
Greyfade 003 (LP, hi-rez download). 2021. Christopher Otto, Joseph Branciforte, prod.; Christopher Botta, Ryan Streber, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Since 2005, New York's JACK Quartet has earned and cemented a much-deserved reputation as an ensemble as bold as it is exacting. What is perhaps less frequently commented upon, but which no doubt lends to their popularity, is the remarkable warmth with which they play. Their repertoire is largely contemporary and not always easy, but one would be hard pressed to find a string quartet that makes challenging music feel more inviting.

Violinist Christopher Otto has been part of that formula since the beginning. On rag'sma, he demonstrates the same welcoming tenacity as a composer. There's a lot of fairly academic information behind the sibling pieces that make up the album, which is available on vinyl or as 16- or 24-bit downloads. (The label doesn't work with streaming services.) The titles—"q1q2q3" and "q1q2"—are more foreboding than, say, "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," and the methodology is austere. Each piece begins on the same pitch and moves through a harmonic construction of intervals in just intonation, building in density then disassembling, then building anew.

This is barely a thumbnail of the mathematical structuring incorporated, but further detail would obscure the other side of the equation, which is how beautiful, how simply human, rag'sma is. On a superficial listen, the two compositions might easily be termed "drones," but they're far from it. They're busy with spiraling ripples so warmly recorded that one never loses sight of it as string music. It's not for everyone, to be sure, but it's something that everyone should give a try.—Kurt Gottschalk


R. Strauss: Alpine Symphony
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Pentatone Music PTC5186802 (CD). 2021. Florian B. Schmidt, prod.; Aki Matusch, Henri Thoon, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Rudolf Kempe's RCA and EMI recordings—the latter a classic—put this piece on the map for the stereo era. Jurowski treats it similarly, maintaining an even stronger through-line and laying out the varied episodes in a single, broad arc. He moves forthrightly with a clear, unforced landing on the "Sunrise" tutti; the "Entry into the Forest" unfolds with unpressured dignity. The peak moments blossom: The central climax, at the mountain's summit, arrives like the crest of a wave. Jurowski gauges internal balances precisely, which simplifies the textures: Secondary activity feeds the music's forward impulse without cluttering the themes.

Such a long-range view doesn't preclude attention to pictorial elements. Jurowski effects mood changes by varying texture and volume and not with broad tempo fluctuations. The "Vision" is restrained, tender. In the later sections, Jurowski underlines resemblances to the composer's earlier works: the disturbed, questing motifs as the mists rise reflecting Don Quixote, the thunderstorm's dynamic turbulence straight out of Ein Heldenleben.

Some details remain unrealized. The interplay of parts in the "Apparition" could be clearer; dotted rhythms are buoyant but not always quite committed; some woodwind soli are reticent. Every so often, I wished Jurowski had been a little more obvious!

For once, the climaxes don't assault the ears, but the quieter bits are less vivid, and the high violins never quite shimmer. The brasses emerge with rich, organlike depth; the organ doesn't come off badly, either, present but not overbearing. The off-stage brasses sound properly distanced but not terribly atmospheric.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Fairy Tales: Recital Music From Eastern Europe
Music by Prokofiev, Tubin, Körvits, Herdzin, Balsys, Tcherepnine, and Markovitch.
Kyle Horch (saxophone); Yshani Perinpanayagam (piano); Anya Fadina (piano)
Norwood Recordings NR 202101 (CD). 2021. Michael Wright, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

I've had a soft spot for the classical saxophone since my band days, but it suffers from a dearth of solo material. So this splendid album of sax-and-piano recital repertoire is most refreshing.

The imaginative program underlines influences without negating stylistic differences among the composers. Tcherepnine's Sonatine sportive sports a Prokofiev quirkiness. We hear echoes of Menotti's uneasy waltzes in the latter score and in Herdzin's Fairytale Stories. The harmonic idiom of Körvits's Wings reminded me of contemporary Broadway, though its unsettled style is anything but; Balsys's Three Fragments from "Eglè" maintains a graceful scherzando feel.

Kyle Horch makes his saxophones (soprano and alto) sound as smooth as clarinets but with a fuller, more vulnerable timbre. His even, spacious legato sets up the quick, angular phrases. In the climaxes of the Balsys and of Tubin's Sonata, he expressively deploys plangently reedy colors; yet he fully commands the half-tints of Markovitch's Complainte et Danse. I enjoyed the players' coyly teasing way with Herdzin's waltz; Tcherepnine's and Herdzin's occasional irregular scansions, and all the little flourishes, go with assured aplomb.

The solos emerge vividly from the speakers, front and center. The piano is clear enough but slightly disadvantaged. Herdzin's bass octaves sound firm and resonant. The midrange is solid in Markovitch's Danse, but the upper range sounds a bit disembodied and less present.—Stephen Francis Vasta

NIkos Razis's picture

The cover picture shown seems to be the one of the older Harmonia Mundi recording not of the 2021 one reviewed, which is an all gold colour and has the title of the work in English rather than in German. I hope the reviewer listened to the correct one and this was just a typo, so to speak.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Yes, I listened to the correct album. The cover is being changed to what appeared in print.

Kal Rubinson's picture

This cover:

Charles E Flynn's picture

Video (5 min. 10 sec.) of cover image with recording of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048

Charles E Flynn's picture

From the pdf of the booklet for the new Brandenburg Concertos recording, available at!/albums/2720 :

The instruments have also changed quite a bit since then: what type of instruments did you play these concertos on?

GK: Musicians are often in search of their ideal instrument. Twenty-five years ago, there were more mediocre early string instruments in our orchestra. As a result of the gradual specialization of instrument makers – including wind instruments – quite a few excellent copies based on original models have been introduced into our ensemble, and these have had an effect on the sound.

Anton's picture

My favorite cover is a bit fan boy, boy Winton Marsalis' on number 2 really perks me up.

I will check out these new cover versions!

You've been hitting my pocketbook a lot lately, JVS.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I review recordings for other publications as well. But perhaps it's best for your financial future that I not say more.

Anton's picture

I am glad your finger is on the pulse of new releases!