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GIFT GUIDE | CLASSICAL

Classic Sounds for All Seasons

November 22, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Great classical recordings are always great gifts, and whatever you hear about the problems of the industry, they get made and can be found. This list is just the tip of the iceberg.

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FOUR STARS

**** ADAMS, "El Nino," Nonesuch. In his most inspired work yet, John Adams revisits the Christmas story from a contemporary, often Latin, point of view in this new opera-oratorio that had its premiere last year. The texts--taken from sources near and far, ancient and modern, sacred and secular--are varied, arresting, revelatory poetry. The music--in its majesty and humanity--makes the work no less than a "Messiah" for our time. The performance is stunning, and includes America's two most impressive singers--Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Kent Nagano conducts what is, without question, record of the year.

**** KNUSSEN, "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" and "Where the Wild Things Are," Deutsche Grammophon. The irresistible packaging of Oliver Knussen's two short operas in collaboration with Maurice Sendak has "perfect gift" written all over it--open it and wild things pop up. But its perfect gift status actually runs deep, in brilliant music that is suitable for children yet thrillingly complex and satisfying to the sophisticated Modernist fogey as well. The performances, conducted by the composer, are sensational.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Angeles Quartet--An entry in the classical CD gift guide in last Thursday's Calendar Weekend incorrectly indicated that the Angeles Quartet has disbanded. In fact, the quartet will disband after its final concert next May at the Haydn Festival in Austria. Meanwhile, the locally based ensemble gave its last home area concert in October, in Orange County.

**** SVIATOSLAV RICHTER, "Richter Rediscovered," RCA Red Seal. The incomparable Russian pianist, who died in 1999, was fairly well documented in live performances, and most are readily available on CD. But an important recording of one of Richter's first spellbinding American appearances, at Carnegie Hall (Dec. 26, 1960), got away until now. The program is typical Richter--scintillating Haydn, momentous Chopin and Rachmaninoff, captivating Ravel, a staggering performance of Prokofiev's wartime Sixth Symphony.

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THREE STARS

***those DVORAK, Symphonies 8 and 9, Philips. One doesn't expect the best Dvorak to come from Hungary rather than the Bohemian composer's native land (now part of the Czech Republic); but that is the case here with his two best-known symphonies (the Ninth is "The New World"), given arrestingly dramatic and utterly fresh performances by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer.

***those HAYDN, String Quartets, Phillips. Haydn's 67 string quartets are a treasure trove of wit and wisdom. And the set--21 thankfully budget-priced discs--is a bittersweet treat. It is sweet, because the Angeles Quartet plays Haydn with subtle, supple, sophisticated elegance and charm, and the recorded sound is very classy. But sadly it is also the valedictory offering of the local ensemble that, last week, gave its farewell Orange County concert and has now disbanded.

***those OTTE, "Das Buch der Klange," ECM New Series. Hans Otte's "Book of Sounds" is an hour and a quarter of sublimely consonant piano music that has become something of a legend in contemporary music for its supposed healing powers. I can't speak for the medicinal properties of this astounding recording, but I do know that it is rare, in these syrupy New Agey times, to find music that calms the soul yet still has the power to surprise with its inventive and substantial world of sounds, and does not lose that power on repeated hearing. The performance by Herbert Henck is intense and gripping.

*** BERLIOZ, "Les Troyens," LSO Live. The London Symphony Orchestra has taken some CD matters into its own hands and is producing a series of live recordings by its music director, Colin Davis. This, a concert performance of "The Trojans," was said to be a highlight of the London season last year, and it is, in fact, the best recording yet of Berlioz's massive score, one of the grandest and greatest 19th century operas. Particularly noteworthy, among the cast of thousands, are Ben Hepp- ner (Aeneas) and Michelle DeYoung (Dido). The orchestra deserves further praise for the high quality of recorded sound and for selling the four-disc set at super-budget price. This is a real bargain.

*** MONTEVERDI, "Selva Morale e Spirituale," Harmonia Mundi. Where have these wonderful sacred pieces been all of our lives? For reasons hard to fathom, Monteverdi's collection of his late church music has not enjoyed the revival of interest that his madrigals, operas and "Vespers of 1610" have. But finally collected here on three CDs, these 40-some pieces once more reveal the remarkable range of expression of the Italian composer who ushered in the Baroque era. The performances--by the vocal group Cantus Colln, and the instrumental ensemble Concerto Palantino, conducted by Konrad Junghanel--are a bit on the severe side, but they are undertaken with admirable care.

*

ONE STAR

* CLASSICS, Sarah Brightman, Angel. Every year the CD junk pile grows larger. But not every year is there something so deliciously bad as this. Granted, Eurotrashy electronic arrangements that turn classical chestnuts into pop songs are old hat. But Brightman enters the camp hall of fame with "Figlio Perduto," an adaptation of the Allegretto movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, her chirpy voice ridiculously magnified by excessive echo. There are laughs aplenty in her Andrew Lloyd Webberesque ornaments to Handel's "Lascia Ch'io Pianga." And if you are tempted to torment your favorite opera queen with a stocking stuffer, there is nothing quite like Brightman's ticket into Pavarotti country, as the slight soprano (backed by preposterous surging chorus) slowly, slowly, slowly squeezes "Nessun Dorma" dry of every last bit of pathos.

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