They're still making great classical records!
While your humble Music Maven has been preoccupied with such non-standard fare as banjo concertos and Edith Piaf songs, some outstanding recordings of the standard classical repertoire have been released into a world that may not demand them as much as it used to, but which can surely (I should say hopefully) find time for them. From the current litter of new releases, here are two keepers.
Verdi's Requiem. "An opera in ecclesiastical robes,” is how some critics of Verdi's day came down on his great Messa da Requiem. Well, what did they expect? To criticize Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem for being too operatic is like Johannes Brahms's A German Requiem (coming up on Wednesday just before 1:00 on NEPR) for being too German or Gabriel Fauré's Requiem for being too French. It's what Verdi did and who Verdi was, and is a large part of what makes the his Requiem such compelling listening.
The operatic element comes to the fore in an extremely exciting new recording by the Chorus and Orchestra of Milan's Teatro alla Scala conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with soloists Anja Harteros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape. You notice it right from the first words: We've got a real operatic chorus here, with mature, vibrating voices, emphatic enunciation and a myriad of tonal colors — the antithesis of hooty English choirs or their ultra-homogenized American counterparts. This choral sound may take a little getting used to, but as after one's first taste of an assertive flavor, you may recoil at first, but never again settle for less. Throughout, the chorus is matched for commitment and fervor by one of the finest solo quartets I've ever heard in the Requiem, splendid in both solo "arias" (may I call them that?) and ensembles. Only mezzo Garanča comes up perhaps a little short in emotional involvement, her voice noticeably less dark than that of soprano Harteros, whereas it should be the other way around.
But the hero of this rendition for me is Barenboim, a conductor more associated with Wagner than Verdi. No matter, his expansive and flexible pacing allows the music to breathe naturally, unlike the rushed and under-nuanced performance under emergency conductor Carlo Montanaro this summer at Tanglewood. You want power? "Dies irae" overwhelms (thanks again to the chorus's urgency and opulent tone), "Rex tremendae majestatis" will make you quiver in fear, the slightly scrappy but thrilling "Sanctus" will bring you to your feet. You want emotion? "Lacrymosa," "Lux aeterna," the concluding "Libera me"— tremendously moving. Regardless of whether one goes along with every detail, this is a profound engagement with a musical and yes, theatrical masterwork. I can't wait to see the Blu-ray. Bravi tutti, and God bless Verdi.
The new recording of Verdi's Requiem can be heard starting in the 11:00 a.m. hour of this Sunday's classical music with Walter Carroll.
Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet I gushed about the Miró Quartet in my first blog entry, and enthusiastically welcomed their Beethoven "Razumovsky" set more recently. Now the Miró is back, dressed like a quartet of "mad men," and making the small hairs on the back of my head stand up with their recording of a work as chilling as Verdi's Requiem. Franz Schubert's best-known string quartet takes its name from its second movement variations on Death's melody from Schubert's song "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden"). But the dark D-minor mood pervades the entire quartet, from its dramatic opening chords to its hell-bent final tarantella.
As with everthing else I've heard from them, the Miró play "Death and the Maiden" with beautiful tonal luster and impeccable ensemble. But that could also be assumed from at least a couple dozen of today's best American quartets. What puts the Miró in the most exclusive company is the commitment and intensity you hear in every note. Not a single phrase goes unshaped, not a single inner line thrown away, not a single gesture unthought or unfelt. The music sounds like a matter of life-and-death to the quartet. How could one not respond to that?
In addition to the above work, the CD, titled "Schubert Interrupted," also includes the "Quartettsatz" ("Quartet Piece"), the sole surviving movement of what would have become Schubert's first chamber masterwork, and an arrangement of the original song "Der Tod und das Mädchen" for voice and quartet, sung with amazing depth of voice by young American mezzo Sasha Cooke. To download the album in CD quality, click here.
A listener asked me recently for my assessment of the recordings of the legendary Budapest Quartet, who dominated the American quartet scene in the 1940's and '50's. I told her quite honestly that while acknowledging the Budapest's enormous influence and respecting their uniqueness of style, the best present-day quartets not only play better, but — and this may be sacrilege to old-time quartet fans — are also able to dig deeper into, and reach the listener with, more of the music than their predecessors. Even the Budapest. We're in the golden age of American quartet playing, folks. Enjoy it while you can.