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Hangin' in There 

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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Swan Songs

And still they come. There’s no way of knowing where the latest classical disc releases may be had — something-or-other dot-com seems to be the easiest manner of acquisition — but some producers continue to behave as if the market were happy and flourishing, and there are releases out there worth your attention at full price. One of those apparent optimists is the French firm Harmonia Mundi, always a class act, whether at its home base in ravishing Arles or at its local branch in picturesque Burbank.

Philippe Herreweghe is one of the company’s star conductors, Belgian-born, now 60, a musician of exceptional probity and depth, particularly so in the way he can maintain a rich choral texture with the whole musical fabric resonant and clear. His Bach recordings on Harmonia Mundi are remarkable. The Mass, the Passions and a number of the “plus belles” cantatas reach that splendid middle ground: the clarity that casts clear light through the marvelous intricacy of Bach’s choral writing, mingled with the wondrous soft light that makes the mysterious beauty of Bach continually just beyond our reach.

click to enlarge Conductor Philippe Herreweghe (Photo by Eric Larrayadieu)
  • Conductor Philippe Herreweghe (Photo by Eric Larrayadieu)

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Now there is a new Herreweghe release, perhaps even more mysterious: two discs, 88 minutes of choral music by Heinrich Schütz, German genius of the early Baroque. A contemporary and one-time pupil of Monteverdi, Schütz was a master on his own of the same kind of sudden harmonic coloration that can send the chill up the spine as a key dramatic word is illuminated in sudden dramatic underscoring. He composed exclusively for the church. In Dresden in the 1660s, about 10 years before his death, he began to prepare for that event by creating a setting of the huge text of Psalm 119, a series of motets to be sung at his funeral. It never happened; the manuscript was scattered, and only collected and performed in the 1970s. Whatever the funeral attendees may have missed in 1672 is our gain today.

The music is long, solemn and gorgeous. The chorus is Herreweghe’s 26-member Collegium Vocale of Ghent, with brass, strings and organ from the Concerto Palatino. Listen with a folio of Hieronymus Bosch on your lap, and keep the lights down.

The mood of this music continues, more or less, into the Third, or “Rhenish,” Symphony of Robert Schumann, not quite two centuries later and, appropriately, also on hand in a superb new Herreweghe performance on Harmonia Mundi — this time with l’Orchestre des Champs-Elysées. The best of this music is the movement that seems to capture, and hold in suspension, an ageless solemnity looking back to old Schütz, Bosch and beyond. Schumann’s First Symphony, which shares the disc, is not at all solemn, is much more fun, and dances happily under Herreweghe’s affectionate leadership.

Pianists Named David

From Virgin Classics comes some spectacular work at the piano by a photogenic young man named David Fray, who came before the microphones at 20, just out of the Conservatoire, and plays the Allemande from Bach’s D-major Partita so slowly (11’34” with repeats) as to enchant the program annotator almost to the point of gurgle. (Let him be advised that Glenn Gould plays the same movement at 6’27” without repeats, which comes to 12’54” with.) Young Mr. Fray clatters his way through two major Bach works and the Notations and Incises of Pierre Boulez. His fingers, from the pictures, look about 2 feet long, which may be why they sound so distant from his heart.

David Fung makes his recording debut on Yarlung, a local label; aside from a set of inconsequential Tan Dun pieces, his program is standard debut stuff: Mozart, Schumann, Rachmaninoff. Yes, he plays them very well. No, this is no way for a talented young pianist (which I presume he is) to make any kind of mark. Who does he want to hear this disc? Interested critics or adoring relatives? If the latter, give them Mozart, Schumann and Tan Dun. If the former, at least the other David played Boulez, and even got to pose with him.

’Tis of Thee

Back in the days of the LP, it was an act of considerable heroism for Goddard Lieberson’s Columbia Records to devote time and money to recording serious American music. Today, nearly every important event takes place in front of a microphone and a competent engineer, and now there is Naxos to build its considerable catalog of Americana from new and recently archived performances. And while Lieberson’s label nourished itself primarily on the luxury of New York performances, the Naxos catalog reaches far, wide and, now and then, risky.

Here, for example, is a perfect delight of a disc, of music from that grand pioneer Louis Gottschalk, who charmed the crowds here and abroad up through Civil War days with flamboyant, virtuosic display pieces. From last year’s Hot Springs (Arkansas) Festival comes a whole disc of Gottschalk’s orchestral works, and it’s a hoot. It includes the hilariously lovable Célèbre Tarantelle and Night in the Tropics, guaranteed to lift you off your seat on first hearing, and Gottschalk’s own arrangement for five pianos, nine horns and 112-piece orchestra of The Young King Henry’s Hunt (don’t ask). There’s even an opera, 13 minutes long, something Cuban. The Hot Springs forces are led by a certain Richard Rosenberg, and you haven’t heard any of the soloists, so you don’t need to now. The performances are as good as they need to be at the price; don’t forget, this is Naxos.

Even more worth your while is a disc of works by Charles Wuorinen, the New York composer who has worked for a time in the shadow of atonality but has more recently emerged into a more congenial, if intensely brainy, musical style, moved energetically forward by lively contrapuntal adventures. Two works on the disc are remastered archive recordings by the Group for Contemporary Music of superfond memory. They are for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, which was also the constitution of an ensemble called Tashi, and that — hold on — is the name of the first of the two pieces. (The other, for the same scoring, is called Fortune.) These are big, stirring, somewhat nerve-racking pieces, wonderful listening. In between comes a percussion quartet, played by a group from New Jersey, and that, too, is a dandy. So, in fact, is the whole disc.

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