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Turning in a new direction

June 22, 2003|James C. Taylor; Richard S. Ginell; Chris Pasles

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor (Teldec)

** 1/2

Aimard is a major specialist in contemporary music who has lately taken an interest in Beethoven. His approach here is surprisingly plain-wrap, with little shading or exploratory phrasing and virtually no assertion of personality. It's all a bit crude and graceless, although the slow movement of No. 3 is quite sensitive and introspective, even if taken at a near funereal tempo. In contrast, Harnoncourt leads a tight, alert ship, with crisp, forceful accents and a modicum of subtlety, although there isn't much genteel or courtly decorum. Over time, however, the orchestra's pounding, explosive accents -- every sforzando is a hammer blow -- grow wearying, especially the slam-dunk endings. Things are slightly more poetic in the later concertos, particularly No. 4, and the slow movements are always the most interesting. The order of the concertos is chronological, with No. 2 -- the first written but the second published -- leading off the set.

--Chris Pasles

Religious music calls across time

Gautier de Coincy: "Miracles of Notre-Dame"

The Harp Consort; Andrew Lawrence-King, director (Harmonia Mundi)

***

"Bestiario de Cristo"

Alia Musica; Miguel Sanchez, director (Harmonia Mundi)

**

Harmonia Mundi's early-music specialist groups continue to burrow deep into European church archives and libraries for thematic programs like these discs of 13th century religious music.

French abbot Gautier de Coincy produced the freewheeling mixture of earthy peasant dances, chant and poems praising the Virgin Mary that makes up "Miracles of Notre-Dame." At times, these performances are startling; with their advanced harmonies, "Hui matin a l'ajournee" and "Ja pour yver" sound surprisingly modern. This is because the Harp Consort improvises harmonies from the spare original lines, purportedly carrying on period traditions yet creating what amounts to new music. The texts, though, are sometimes alarmingly authentic; some deceptively lilting passages in "Entendez tuit ensemble" contain violent threats against Jews, from which the artists carefully disassociate themselves in a footnote in the booklet.

Far less inflammatory is Alia Musica's "Bestiario de Cristo," which draws upon Spanish archival sources for a series of a cappella chants in which animals are transformed into religious or moral symbols. Indeed, the effect of these peaceful vocals, separated by a few droning instrumentals, is downright somnolent.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Another side

of Beethoven

Beethoven: Lieder

Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Michael Schafer, piano (Harmonia Mundi)

** 1/2

With a few exceptions, such as "An die Hoffnung" and "An die ferne Geliebte," the 80-plus songs Beethoven wrote do not show up with great regularity on the recital circuit. This disc, strong as it is, doesn't make a case for adding any new ones. Henschel possesses a lean, incisive baritone, which he uses here with consistent intelligence and expression. Even so, there's something a little disconcerting in listening to the titan Beethoven assaying a love song or evoking the call of a quail. We're on more familiar ground when the composer asserts his faith in the certainty of a loving God or explores the theme of hope or the misery of personal suffering. Schafer offers considerate and discreet accompaniment, and in the three piano solos on the disc -- Fantaisie, Opus 77; Polonaise, Opus 89; and the "Andante favori," originally meant for the "Waldstein" Sonata -- plays straightforwardly but without much charm.

-- Chris Pasles

The struggle to master Bach solos

Bach: Partitas 1 and 3, Sonata 2

Ilya Gringolts, violin (Deutsche Grammophon)

* 1/2

The six pieces Bach wrote for solo violin are considered among the finest examples of their form, which has long made them popular practice works for virtuosos. Mastered, they can become sublime performance pieces; yet sadly, the two partitas and sonata played by Ilya Gringolts suggest more study is needed. Besides a violent technique that often produces harsh, guttural sounds, the Russian violinist doesn't seem to have a feel for the pieces' delicate structures. Gringolts seems to look only to the next measure (and the next difficult chord) rather than seeing pages ahead to grasp the full effect of a work. He lunges and honks through the Partita in B Minor and Sonata No. 2 -- but the dashing E Major Partita fares better, as he relaxes a bit and allows Bach's intricate rhythms and clear melodies to emerge.

-- James C. Taylor

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