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New recordings can provide enjoyment and deepen appreciation

| Sunday, March 16, 2003

Music marketers sometimes see various outlets for music as competitive, as in the illusion that people who buy records won't go to concerts.

In fact, radio and recordings provide a foundation for the most enthusiastic concertgoers -- from getting to know pieces that will be encountered in concert, which prepares one for deeper appreciation of the live experience, to discovering worthy music not likely to heard except on the stereo.

Four new recordings provide satisfction and, in one case, frustration:

By Georges Bizet. Performed by Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson, Inva Mula; National Orchestra of the Capitol of Toulouse; Les Elements and La Lauzeta choruses. Michel Plasson, conductor.

Georges Bizet was 36 and depressed when he died. He thought he was a failure because his opera "Carmen" was a failure at its premiere -- which doesn't say much for the taste of those in attendance. But the summer after he died, his friend Ernest Guiraud replaced the original spoken dialogue with an orchestrally accompanied recitative, and in the following fall "Carmen" began its career as one of the most popular operas.

The new EMI recording featuring Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna includes all the orchestral recitatives -- many are usually cut -- as well as two numbers Guiraud himself cut, plus the original version of the "Habanera." Its French style is delightful, from sonorities to diction that is better than correct -- the words are full of life.

Alagna is a superb Don Jose, the mama's boy who falls for bad girl Carmen. Intelligence and passion make his performance arresting at every moment. Gheorghiu, who is married to Alagna, sings with real beauty and feeling, with especially touching tonal nuances. Thomas Hampson is superb as the matador who will win her heart, while Inva Mula is excellent as Micaela, the good girl from Don Jose's hometown.

Michel Plasson leads an often admirable performance, but his attention is uneven, and some of the music gets swallowed even in the famous Prelude. EMI's sound however is superb, if more reverberant than one encounters in the normal dry acoustics of opera houses.

"Sibelius: Complete works for violin and orchestra"
Performed by Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Thomas Dausgaard, conductor
Virgin Classics 45534

A new recording of the Violin Concerto by Jan Sibelius offers not only an uncommonly compelling account of the popular piece, but also, for the first time, all the composer's other music for violin and orchestra.

Sibelius was a violinist himself, but his concerto is much more than a showpiece. It is an unforgettable poetic conception with a striking vocabulary of hot and cold passions that is intensely introspective, yet conveys immense vistas.

The soloist is Christian Tetzlaff, a fascinating German musician who has an imaginative response over a wide range of music, from the solo violin works of Johann Sebastian Bach to contemporary music. His approach to the Sibelius Concerto is impressively individual, especially in the slow movement. The seemingly improvisatory unfolding of the melodic line is intensified by moody changes of color during sustained notes.

Conductor Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra are brilliant partners in the artistic triumph. Numerous passages gain in expressive richness from the interaction of soloist and orchestra.

The Concerto was Sibelius' only large-scale work for violin and orchestra, but the shorter pieces that fill out the CD are appealing in a different way. The Humoresques are full of charm, but beneath the surface they express, as Sibelius wrote, "the anguish of existence, fitfully lit up by the sun."

The final work, a three-movement Suite, is especially valuable to encounter because it was written in the 1920s. The Suite, which the composer marked not for publication, is distinctively appealing music, but offers no clue to the kind of originality Sibelius was seeking and failed to find for his eighth symphony, which he said he was working on but never produced. In fact, he stopped composing altogether for the final three decades of his life.

The sound is excellent, and needs no tone control adjustments.

"Stravinsky: Petrouchka, Firebird Suite, Scherzo a la Russe"
Performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Paavo Jarvi, conductor
Telarc CD-80587

When well performed, the music of Igor Stravinsky remains among the most freshly appealing of the 20th century. But the new recording of the ballet "Petrouchka," the 1919 Suite from the ballet "The Firebird," and "Scherzo a la Russe" by the Cincinnati Symphony under its relatively new music director Paavo Jarvi is disappointing.

Stravinsky's music requires excellent rhythm, but the Cincinnati Symphony performances become limp when its excellent soloists aren't carrying the ball. The problem is lack of short-term rhythmic focus, from fuzzy details to missing accents. Under the circumstances, Telarc's excellent sound is irrelevant.

"Bonnal: Two String Quartets"
Debussy String Quartet
Arion 68504

Those who love French music and string quartets don't have much to admire beyond the standard repertoire works by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. A recent impressive concert by an ensemble called the Debussy Quartet at the Frick Art and Historical Center led to exploration of its recording of two pieces by Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944).

Bonnal's talent was immense and widely recognized in his own time. The two string quartets show his breadth, creativity and fondness for the music of southwestern France, quoting a Basque tune in the second movement of his Second Quartet. Bonnal's First Quartet is even stronger, and was in the repertoire of many ensembles in the 1920s.

The performances are persuasive and well recorded.

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