November 2023 Classical Record Reviews

Hermitage Piano Trio: Spanish Impressions
Reference Recordings RR151 (reviewed as 24/176.4 FLAC download). 2023. Victor and Marina A. Ledin, prods.; Sean Royce Martin, Keith O. Johnson, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Here's a real treat: piano trios by four outstanding Spanish composers—Enrique Fernández Arbós, Joaquín Turina, Gaspar Cassadó, and Mariano Perelló. All except Cassadó, a famed cellist born in 1897 who studied with Pablo Casals in Paris, composed during the same golden period as Granados, Falla, and Albéniz—the composers whose orchestral music graces Fritz Reiner's famed Living Stereo recording, Spain. Expertly recorded at Skywalker Sound by the family team of Sean Martin and Keith O. Johnson, the hi-rez recording stands out for its excellent dynamics, natural colors, and big, realistically spaced images that fill a natural-sounding acoustic. It also impresses with its many pages of informative liner notes.

Unless you're a connoisseur, the four compositions may be a bit too alike to take in in one sitting, yet they are ideal for auditioning in smaller chunks. Composed in Berlin and premiered in Brussels, Arbós's Trois Pièces originales dans le genre Espagnol are delicious accountings of three Spanish dances: Bolero, Habanera, and Seguidillas Gitanas. The Hermitage Piano Trio sounds right at home with the color and verve of this music.

Paris-schooled Turina's Piano Trio No.2 in B minor blends Western European cosmopolitan sophistication with Spanish passion. In the middle movement, which alternates between intrigue, longing, and seduction, you can virtually hear castanets. The final lento is passionate and intimate with gorgeous delicate passages that lead to an all-out ending.

All-out is also the byword for Cassadó's intense Piano Trio in C Major, which requires serious musicianship. Violinist Perelló's gypsy-inspired Tres Impresiones, which begins with a tribute to Albéniz, his teacher, makes for a delightful conclusion.—Jason Victor Serinus

Mahler: Symphony No.1
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
Pentatone Music PTC5187043 (CD). 2023. Holger Urbach, prod.; Stephan Reh, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Bychkov's Mahler No.1, like his previous Mahler, is marked by moderation, yet he doesn't sacrifice energy or drama.

The opening string octave glides in ethereally, but the bass clarinet falls behind in the soft fanfare—why wasn't this corrected? The rising bassline unfolds patiently, and the cheerful exposition picks up slightly, though its final ritard overshoots its intended destination. The development is spacious, with an easy affirmation at the maggiore. There are a few passing "dirty" chords, and the strings' slurring legatos push ahead nervously. This movement could have used an extra session.

The Ländler has nice brightness and lift; buzzy articulations enliven its chromatic bass transition. The Trio sings with gracious simplicity and dignity; the basses incisively seize the recap, which builds to an exuberant finish. In the Funeral March, the solo bass's segmented phrasing is effective, but not all the subsequent entries follow through. The Wayfarer section starts a bit loudly—though Bychkov shapes it sensitively—and tempi remain equable.

In the cogent, well-proportioned Finale, the turbulent introduction answers ominous brass motifs with bristling string runs, eschewing the Punch-and-Judy antics of the Bernstein school. The momentum and drive carry through the first theme; the second, flowing and gracious, reaches an impassioned climax. The quiet foreshadowing of the big fanfare holds close to tempo. The extended coda steps proudly in time.

The reeds are round and warm—the Finale's oboe solo is particularly poignant—and the tapered string sound has added warmth. First-rate sonics convey layered textures and give the brasses imposing depth, with horn and trumpet groups clear within the space. But soft horns lack a presence, and some of the distance effects aren't quite distant enough.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Maurice Ravel: L'Heure espagnole • Bolero
Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, cond.
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905361 (24/96 WAV). 2023. Jiri Heger, prod. & eng.; Alice Ragon, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

For their fifth expectation-shattering recording of Ravel's music, performed with the period instruments whose timbres Ravel expected to hear but that we for the most part are not used to, François-Xavier Roth turns to two of the composer's most distinct works: the ever-repetitious Bolero, whose popularity and substance he himself disparaged, and the one-act comic opera L'Heure espagnole, whose pedestrian subject matter belies its musical sophistication. These works may be dramatically different from the Violin Sonata reviewed in the previous issue, but all this music shares the dazzling colors and piquant harmonies that make Ravel's music so special.

Imagine a ballet in which perhaps a dozen virtuosos, dressed in different, brightly colored outfits, each tries to outdo the others as they prance, leap, and pirouette across the stage. Imagine it as music and you'll have a sense of how unique this Bolero sounds. At first, Roth's woodwind soloists stick to the score; then, with each successive star turn, they blues it up more and more. As you delight in the distinctive sound of the orchestra's period woodwinds, gut strings, and seldom-heard tambour drums, castanets, and Erard style harps, you find yourself increasingly immersed in a mesmerizing Technicolor spectacle. By the time the volume has reached a fevered pitch and the orchestra seems on the verge of losing control, the colors have grown so dazzling that the eyes open wide and the mouth drops agape.

Ravel's one-act, quasi-vaudevillian farce is such a preposterous celebration of marital infidelity and inept seduction that I kept breaking into laughter. What elevates it artistically is the striking contrast between the libretto's intentional banality and the music's utter sophistication. The singers are excellent and the pacing perfect. Don't miss this one.—Jason Victor Serinus

Melody Moore: Remembering Tebaldi
Arias by Boïto, Catalani, Cilea, Giordano, Mascagni, Puccini, Rossini, A. Scarlatti, and Verdi
Melody Moore, soprano; Transylvanian State Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Lawrence Foster
Pentatone Music PTC5187070 (CD). 2023. Job Maarse, prod.; Tilman Dasbach, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

Melody Moore is the featured prima donna in Pentatone's Italian-opera series. This aria recital allows us to sample her in less-familiar roles. Some tracks here are very fine, indeed.

Moore addresses "Io son l'umile ancella" and "Senza mamma" with forthright simplicity, balancing that with appropriate authority in the La Wally aria. Her unfussy "Sento nel core" reveals an expressive potential beyond the reach of beginners.

A sequence of arias underlines the soprano's shortcomings in ways the full operas don't. Moore's top comes across as oddly cautious: The climaxes in Bohème and La Wally lack the desired sweep, though the first A in "Senza mamma" has it. The B-flat in the Manon Lescaut remains stubbornly bottled up. Some of her attempts to "float" the top succeed, sort of; others, as in La Wally, are tight and thin. The Chenier aria becomes labored, with slightly wiry acuti. Elsewhere, Moore puffs up midrange notes and burdens other passages with diva mannerisms some opera mavens adore but which impede directness and smooth vocalism.

Evoking the shade of Tebaldi provides a useful organizing theme but was perhaps foolhardy given Moore's very different voice. Compare the start of the Aïda: Tebaldi is firm and purposeful, Moore less committed. Because of Tebaldi's La Scala years, we're stuck with brief ensemble passages from Rossini's Mosè and Verdi's Te Deum, which don't contribute much.

Conductor Foster's support is inconsistent. His "Pace, pace" is spacious and buoyant, and Violetta's "Addio" is shapely. But he lags behind Moore starting Adriana and lets the syncopations in the Aïda get in her way.—Stephen Francis Vasta