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RECORDINGS

They've cooked up a couple of delicacies

May 18, 2003|Josef Woodard; Chris Pasles; Richard S. Ginell; Daniel Cariaga

Mozart: Symphonies

39 and 41

Orchestra of St. Luke's;

Donald Runnicles, conductor

(St. Luke's Collection)

***

In an auspicious debut for its new in-house label, the esteemed Orchestra of St. Luke's shows what it can do, and how much it knows, about these late Mozart repertory standards, Symphonies 39 and 41. That the orchestra's members have had considerable experience in the more intimate confines of chamber music helps in the process of bringing Mozart to life in a fleet and lucid form. Conductor Runnicles, whose work in opera is clear, leads the group with justly alternating currents of delicacy and power, befitting the ambivalent majesty of Mozart's final symphonic creations. The Orchestra of St. Luke's gives heft and fire to the outer movements of the 39th Symphony, and introspective warmth to the slow movement. As the thrilling final movement of No. 41, the "Jupiter" Symphony, races along boisterously, slipping into simultaneous layers of uncertain ruminations in a softer dynamic, the composer's turbulent genius is duly served.

-- Josef Woodard

Ardent yet oh so distant voices

Ponchielli: "La Gioconda"

Violeta Urmana, soprano;

Placido Domingo, tenor; Luciana D'Intino, mezzo-soprano; Lado Ataneli, baritone; Munich Radio Orchestra; Marcello Viotti, conductor. (EMI Classics)

***

Now in his early 60s, Domingo sounds surprisingly youthful and ardent as Enzio Grimaldo, but he also often seems to be distant and oddly placed, way behind the orchestra, as are a number of the other singers in this uneven cast. As the tragic heroine Gioconda, Urmana sings sweetly and accurately and soars boldly in the heights, but she does not begin to contend dramatically with Callas' legacy of involvement and passionate extremes in the role. D'Intino is a creamy-voiced Laura. Elisabetta Fiorillo is innocent and vulnerable as La Cieca. Ataneli makes a powerful Barnaba and is the only singer who reliably sounds immediate and present. Roberto Scandiuzzi's Alvise is unacceptably worn and unsteady. Viotti conducts powerfully and passionately, but it's not enough to overcome the work's many inherent dull stretches.

-- Chris Pasles

Sinister rumblings from the basses

Rameau: "Zoroastre"

Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, director. (Erato)

***

As Baroque operas go, this one operates outside the box. Instead of the usual classical mythology, Rameau's subject is Persian, a rivalry between the religious leader Zoroastre -- a.k.a. Zarathustra -- and the evil sorcerer Abramane, with strong allusions to Masonic rituals that anticipate Mozart's "The Magic Flute" by nearly a half-century. The cast is unusually loaded with low bass voices, giving some of the score a sinister color as an extreme contrast to Zoroastre's high tenor. Rameau throws in some special effects -- there is a particularly nifty earthquake in Act I -- and in the coda of Act IV's hellfire sacrifice scene, the leaping triple-meter rhythm sounds like a premonition of Berlioz. Christie and his period-instrument ensemble lay into the best passages with zest and vehemence, and the third disc includes an appendix of dances and the original, completely different Act V finale.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Two masters at the peak of their form

Schubert: Piano sonatas in C minor, A minor and B flat,

D. 958-60

Murray Perahia, piano.

(Sony Classical)

****

This great American pianist achieves another landmark: a definitive recording of Schubert's final three piano sonatas, played with elegance, simplicity and an unfeigned authority. These supreme examples of Schubert's maturity -- he was just 31 when he died, shortly after writing these works -- are delivered here with drama and lucidity. Perahia ascends these peaks of the literature without grandiosity, gimmickry or meddling; he simply plays the notes, accurately and as beautifully as possible. A superb achievement.

-- Daniel Cariaga

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