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ON THE RECORD

Magical Wand Among Many Midyear Memories

July 04, 1993|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

A half-year's listening has produced a list of recordings that are likely to linger in the memory, perhaps even take their place among the classics of the medium. The following, heard in recent weeks and in some instances overlooked earlier, join the list of the best at midyear, 1993.

Left with a single orchestral work among Richard Strauss' many contributions to the repertory, this listener would opt not for one of the big tone poems, but the suite of incidental music to Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Moliere's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," a score whose neoclassicism predated even that of Stravinsky's 1920 "Pulcinella."

In creating this exquisitely refined, lyrical score Strauss employed a small orchestra to create effects no less colorful than those encountered in his massive "Ein Heldenleben." And the music is at its most appealing in a new recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, full of the subtleties--of dynamics, rhythm, articulation--putatively unattainable without the intercession of a conductor. But, as ever, the marvelous musicians of Orpheus make do very nicely without one.

The coupling (on Deutsche Grammophon 435 871) is the pleasant if lesser Divertimento after Couperin, Opus 86, a later attempt by Strauss to recapture the magic of its predecessor.

Another supreme master of orchestral color, Debussy, in 1911 involved himself in "Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien," a vast musical-theatrical extravaganza to a convolutedly mystical text by Gabriele d'Annunzio, with choreography by Fokine and the title role danced and acted by Ida Rubinstein.

The five-hour spectacle was a monumental failure. But Debussy's gloriously sensual music survives in several concert versions, a particularly convincing one--lasting 66 minutes--having been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony 48240).

Conductor and orchestra, both in top form, capture the score's murmurousness and swooning ecstasy, its moments of blazing grandeur, above all the prismatic colors of its orchestration.

Outstanding among the soloists are Leslie Caron, whose spoken narration is a model of clarity and dramatic understatement in a part that invites melodramatic ranting, and soprano Sylvia McNair, who delivers her songs with sweetness of tone and pinpoint accuracy.

Also, don't overlook a pair of outstanding solo recitals: one by pianist Richard Goode (Elektra Nonesuch 79271), the other by cellist Colin Carr (GM Recordings 2031).

Goode adds to his stature as one of the foremost Schubertians of our time with his versions of the fabulous Sonata in A minor, D. 845, and the Sonata in D, D. 850, both in characteristically rich-toned, immensely varied--in their rhythmic freedom and dynamic variety-- interpretations.

Carr's is not a household name to rank with those of Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell and Mstislav Rostropovich.

He is a quieter artist who doesn't project the aura of those iconic figures. Carr, whose interpretive acumen is second to that of no performer on his instrument, offers a compact, thrusting tone in comparison to the grainy, richly vibratoed emanations of the superstars.

Known chiefly as a member of the excellent Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio, the American cellist makes a profound impression with his gutsy program of unaccompanied works, headed by Kodaly's vast Sonata, Opus 8, in a performance no less gripping in its dark, ominous fashion than the faster, more skittish and justly celebrated interpretation by Janos Starker.

Carr also offers, compellingly, Britten's big, somber Third Suite as well as the brief Sonata of George Crumb, an example of that composer's accessible youthful style (reminiscent here of Bartok), and the attractive 1951 Fantasy by a composer whose music has always been accessible, Gunther Schuller.

Finally, if you've forgotten what Teutonic grandeur--thoughtful, weighty music-making that nonetheless has shape and momentum--sounds like, listen to Bruckner's Seventh Symphony recorded live last year by conductor Gunter Wand and the NDR Symphony of Hamburg (RCA Victor 61398).

It's a reminder of a style that is no longer practiced, perhaps not even by Wand, who recently retired at age 80 from his NDR post. His successor is John Eliot Gardiner, whose experience and priorities are so dissimilar to Wand's as to suggest the recognition by those who hired him that no competent exponent of the old style remained. Or even that that style has become irrelevant.

An instructive comparison to Wand's noble, enlightening way is available with the simultaneous release of a Bruckner Seventh led by a mere pretender to the style, Daniel Barenboim, whose reading with the Berlin Philharmonic is indeed ponderous and lacking in shape and, for want of a better expression, conviction (Teldec 77118).

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