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Monday, February 18, 2008

Tales from the CD Changer

Disc One:
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, (orch. Ravel)
(Berlin Philharmonic, cond. Igor Markevitch)

This is a 1958 DG stereo recording, reissued as part of the Yellow Label's commendable effort to bring its classic older recordings before the listening public. Markevitch directs the Berliners in an expressive reading of Pictures, infused with characteristic Russian timbre. Highlights include the woodwind playing on The Old Castle and a slow, heavy Bydlo with its famous tuba solo. Three nice Rimsky-Korsakov overtures (recorded with the Lamoreux Concert Association Orchestra) balance out the disc. (Note to readers--this recording is NOT included on the Markevitch box set which I wrote about last week.)

Disc Two:
Ralph Kirkpatrick: The Complete 1950s Bach Recordings. Ralph Kirkpatrick, Harpsichord
Among the best available sets of Bach keyboard music is this 8-disc extravaganza on DG Arkiv, part of that company's line of Original Masters box sets. Here, American harpsichordist, musicologist and Bach expert Ralph Kirkpatrick tackles the English Suites, the French Suites, the Goldbergs, the Partitas, and others. This is pretty much the whole literature of Bach keyboard works, except for the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Happily, those are also available as two-disc sets of DG Originals, and are an essential companion to this excellent compilation.

Disc Three:
Bach: Ein Musikalisches Opfer, Musica Antiqua Köln, (cond. Reinhard Goebel)
The Musical Offering is somewhat under-recorded compared to other Bach works. Here, it receives a pretty definitive performance from Reinhard Goebel and his reliable Musica Antiqua Köln ensemble. Bach composed this work as a set of harmonic and contrapuntal variations on a theme given to him by Prussian emperor Frederick The Great. It is in the form of series of fugues and musical movements that explore every possible variation on the Emperor's original theme. The composition also has a series of musical riddles written into the score. Goebel and company give a crisp, cleanly played account on this excellent disc.

Disc Four:
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras (cond. the composer)
There aren't nearly enough Villa-Lobos recordings in the catalogue, but this one featuring four of his nine Bachianas Brasileiras is one to keep. The Brasileiras are works in which the Brazilian composer attempted (with varying success) to establish a correlation between the contrapuntal textures of Bach and the rhythmic complexities of Brazilian music. These mono recordings from the 1950s feature Villa-Lobos himself on the podium conducting Brasileiras Nos. , 2, 5 and 9, with mega-soprano Victora de los Angeles guesting on the famous No. 5. Nos. 1 and 5 feature superb cello playing, with featured soloist Fernand Benedetti, and the orchestral virtuosity in No. 2 is well worth hearing.

Disc Five:
Vaughan Williams: Lark Ascending: The Soft Sounds of Vaughan Williams (Various artists)
Great things sometimes come in really stupid packaging. That's the case with this superb Vaughan Williams sampler from Decca. It has all three of Barry Wordsworth's essential RVW recordings with the New Queen's Hall Orchestra: the titular Lark Ascending, (featuring violinist Hagain Shaham) the Fantasia on Greensleeves, and the best recording ever made of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Fans of the latter work (and there are a lot of you out there, you know who you are) will probably have this in their collection already. Those who don't know the piece need to start here in exploring the vast output of this brilliant British composer.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.