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Ten Recordings for Challenging Times

Mon Jun 08, 2020 at 10:18 am
By Charles T. Downey

Vivaldi: Motteti. Simone Kermes, soprano; Andrea Marcon/Venice Baroque Orchestra (Archiv).

Forget the Red Priest’s concertos, operas, and choral music. If you have not heard these blockbuster settings of Latin sacred texts, now is the time. The redoubtable German soprano Simone Kermes takes the solo parts with explosive force and velour smoothness, adding lavish embellishments on top of Vivaldi’s already ornate melodic writing. Far from the wispy sound of many early music sopranos, this is a voice with weight and vehemence.

Conductor Andrea Marcon guides the nimble playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Vivaldi specialists par excellence. One of the highlights, the varied continuo realization especially from the theorbo, comes out in many delicate slow movements. The messages in the texts–concerning God’s righteous anger against a sinful human race and the need for the virtuous to turn away from the world–resonate in a new way when most of us are in isolation.

Prokofiev: Music for Two Pianos. Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan, pianists (Deutsche Grammophon)

Sometimes the only mood for a life confined at home is unrelenting, seething anger. Few composers can scratch that particular itch like Prokofiev, and this recent disc of arrangements for piano duo offers a new perspective on his music. Martha Argerich, an electrifying musician under any circumstances, seems intensified by this collaboration with pianist Sergei Babayan.

These astounding arrangements for two pianos are also by Babayan, and there is much to discover, especially in the excerpts from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The hammered “Idée fixe,” from Prokofiev’s score for the unrealized film The Queen of Spades, seems to suit that feeling of the walls closing in that you may be experiencing.

An English Ladymass. Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi).

This disc from 1992 is the most consistently beautiful of the many recordings by the outstanding quartet of women singers known as Anonymous 4. Exquisitely researched, it is a compilation of English medieval chant and polyphony, in the form of a special votive Mass offered in praise of the Virgin Mary. For centuries Catholics have called on the Blessed Virgin for protection during times of plague. The people who composed and sang this music, in the 13th and 14th centuries, knew something about living through devastating pandemics.

The broad range covered by the four women relieves the monotony single-sex singing can sometimes create. Their impeccable intonation and blend make for the cleanest unisons in the chant selections, as well as austere medieval harmonies that resonate in pristinely recorded sound.

Bach: Concertos Italiens. Alexandre Tharaud, pianist (Harmonia Mundi).

This outstanding 2005 Bach recital disc was not the first in Alexandre Tharaud’s remarkable series of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, but it was the one that started to garner him broad international acclaim. The playing, among the best ever recorded of the composer’s works on a modern Steinway, remains scintillating. The French pianist is not a virtuosic powerhouse, but few rival him in sensitivity of touch and exquisite, balletic phrasing.

This music, mostly of the bubbly baroque variety, easily diverts the ears and lifts the spirit in troubled times. Furthermore, if you focus on the historical ramifications, you can almost trace the mind of Bach exploring the phenomenon of the Italian instrumental concerto by transcribing the six concertos recorded here in full or in part. To these keyboard realizations by Vivaldi, Torelli, and the Marcello brothers, Tharaud adds Bach’s own “Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto” and one other piece.

Bartók: String Quartets. Takács Quartet (Decca).

The dissonance and formal complexity of these six pieces may not be to everyone’s taste, but in them Bartók worked through a lifetime’s challenges, both artistic and geopolitical. From the first quartet, in which he arrived at his mature style after beginning his research into folk music, to the last, riddled with the fear of the growing conflict that would become World War II, this music is both sobering and inspiring.

No ensemble has done more to illuminate these six pieces in a single recording than the Takács Quartet. They achieved the ideal synthesis of bitter anger and nature-inspired wonder, joined to an ease of incorporating folk music in the often subsumed way that Bartók sought. This disc may not help you forget life’s problems, but it can help you see them in a very different light.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony Orchestra (Universal).

Few pieces of music embrace life as exuberantly, as grandly as Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” The first half of this epic work sets the text of the Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus, an invocation of the life-imparting Holy Spirit. The second half takes up the over-the-top conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, a paean to the power of love, both celestial and earthly, to overcome Death itself.

Seiji Ozawa’s blistering 1980 account of this infinity-minded work is one of the highest peaks of his tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The energy of the boisterous first part is matched by an ineffable aura of mystery in the second, particularly in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s perfectly hushed Chorus Mysticus, which grows into a supernova of ecstasy. Goethe’s words for what happens in his play’s final scene have never felt truer: “The indescribable / here is done.”

Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 17 and 20. Robert Levin, fortepianist; Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music (L’Oiseau-Lyre).

(No. 17, first movement): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBMCi_21G18
17/2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUhR3Xf0ihI
17/3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85c_-D9-0uM

20/1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vj-MXceIVlQ
20/2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c88z8u2U5pc
20/3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7acqqjF8JAI

Mozart’s piano concertos are a matched set of beautifully formed jewels. It is difficult not to render them in a pleasing way, but no combination of performers have ever hit closer to the ideal for how these pieces should sound as the Academy of Ancient Music in the 1990s. After his earlier achievements with the group, often more brash, Christopher Hogwood conducts with an assured and balanced hand.

The ensemble plays on historical instruments, matched by an exquisite fortepiano, used by soloist Robert Levin to add many impressive flourishes and his own stylistically appropriate cadenza for Piano Concerto No. 20. This disc combines the perky Piano Concerto No. 17, with its sunny G major theme in the last movement reportedly based on a tune sung by the composer’s pet starling, with the darker No. 20 in D minor.

Reich: Music for 18 Musicians. Steve Reich and Musicians (ECM).

Admittedly this one may not be for every listener, especially those bothered by the repetition in the style known, for better or worse, as minimalism. Yet Reich’s  early experiments in this direction have stood the test of time more than some of the later iterations. No piece has proved quite as durable as Reich’s classic Music for 18 Musicians, in the recording made by the composer and his colleagues shortly after the work’s premiere in 1976.

Percussive sounds from pianos, marimbas, xylophones, and metallophone mix with waves of clarinets and bass clarinets, strings, and human voices  If you have missed the pulsating excitement of city life during the shutdown–its percolating movement, its mechanical noise surmounted by floating sounds–this piece brings it to mind. Put it on and dream of a day when New York bustles as it once did.

Sibelius: Symphonies. Vladimir Ashkenazy/Philharmonia Orchestra (Decca).

At a time when the vantage point of most people has been limited to the rooms of their house or apartment, music can offer an expansive vista to the mind’s eye. The symphonies of Sibelius can open up vast landscapes more than almost any music. This complete cycle, recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1980s, remains an Olympian achievement.

The Seventh Symphony was one of two Sibelius symphonies that Ashkenazy conducted with the National Symphony Orchestra during his penultimate stint here as guest conductor, back in 2008. The playing of the Philharmonia on this classic cycle is hard to match, but it was a memorable evening in every respect. Ashkenazy and this group of musicians seemed to agree on every musical detail.

Haydn (attrib.): Insanae et vanae curae (and other pieces). Christopher Robinson/Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge (Brilliant Classics).

This motet is the remarkable first track on a beautiful compilation disc called Ave Verum, put out by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. It is attributed to Haydn because it is a Latin-text adaptation of “Svanisce in un momento,” a piece he added to his oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. You may never have heard of it, but it has long been a favorite of choir boys because of the treble part’s outrageous high range at full blast. The video of this choir singing the piece is in some ways even more appealing.

The album also includes choral favorites by Fauré, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Grieg, and Bruckner, as well as settings of Ave verum corpus by Mozart, Elgar, and Byrd. The performances are all exquisite, conducted by Chrisotpher Robinson, choir master at St. John’s in the 1990s. The text of the stormy Haydn piece suits the spirit of a country in lockdown: “Frantic and futile anxieties invade our minds; they often fill our hearts with madness, depriving them of hope. All things turn out well for you, if God is on your side.”

Charles T. Downey is lead critic and associate editor of Washington Classical Review.

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