Saturday, 22 May 2010

Heinrich Schutz by Rembrandt van Rijn

Did you know that Rembrandt painted Schutz? It was news to me. The portrait, from 1633, is now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Actually, it is a bit of a tease this one. Schutz scholars say the identity of the sitter is far from certain, which is quite frustrating, because it really, really looks like him!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Classical CD Roundup

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last couple of weeks reviewing recently released CDs. Most of the discs that reach me are worth a listen, a few are exceptional, and there are always a few duds.

So, without further ado, here is my brief rundown, in roughly ascending order of recommendation, of what’s hot and what’s not on the current classical CD market (click the cover illustrations for full reviews):

A curious pairing, the very senior Robert Mann with the very junior Stephen Hough. Recorded in the mid-80s, and I have to say, probably better left gathering dust in the archives. Violin tuning is poor, balance is poor, and sound quality is dreadful. Avoid.

Middle of the road Tchaikovsky. Little energy or passion. Indistinct sound – despite the SACD.

Everyone else seems to love this CD of little known Palestrina. Personally I’d like to hear much more precision in the choral singing.

Good sound, good orchestra. All a bit too civilised though.

A brave effort by the Choir of Kings College, London to broaden the renaissance repertoire. It’s well sung, but it can get a bit monotonous.

A surprisingly proficient offering from down under. Sebastian Lang-Lessing is determined to get high octane performances out of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. They don’t always manage to keep up, but when they do the performances are very fine.

All good recordings, many of which you have probably heard before. A seemingly random mix of performances new and old from the EMI archives.

Yeon-Hee Kwak is an oboist to watch out for. Mind, another two discs like this and she will have completely exhausted the repertoire. Innovative six channel surround mix is included, although what use that is for unaccompanied oboe music is beyond me.

A French conductor let loose on Bruckner with a German orchestra, whatever next? Cambreling retains tight control throughout, which is great in the climaxes, but he looses some magic in the quieter sections.

An anniversary release from the Tallis Scholars, who again demonstrate their mastery of the renaissance repertoire.

Not recent releases, these, but still worth looking out for. Somewhere between Brahms and Schoenberg, with the skill of the former and neurosis of the latter.

DG usually only promote geriatric figures when it comes to the piano. Alice Sara Ott delivers a performance of Liszt that fully justifies thier change of heart: passionate, intense, yet always precise and focussed. Excellent.

This is how I like to hear Palestrina. A small, professional choir, singing with utmost accuracy and recorded in vibrant SACD. Sung in a lower pitch than usual (for reasons that the liner explains in detail) but without any loss of brilliance.

If you know the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata cycle, you’ll know what to expect. The difference here is the use of a mixed choir (rather than boy’s voices), world-class soloists, the Musikverein acoustic, and recording technology that is 25 years younger. He’s still going strong at 80.

Very Russian Bach – firm touch and an architectural approach to the form of every movement. Like Glenn Gould, but without the angst.

Rattle, Vienna Philharmonic, Beethoven 9 – expectations run high, and are not disappointed. Bit slow in the Adagio, perhaps, but otherwise an exemplary performance.

So there you have it. And if you still have some cash burning a hole in your pocket after those purchases, you could do far worse than the new Lohengrin from Semyon Bychkov. There’s not a weak link in the cast, the conducting is electric, and the SACD sound is demonstration quality. Buy it.