Classical CD Highlights: December

Classic Arts News   Classical CD Highlights: December
Record companies offer notable releases this month in honor of three birthdays: those of Mozart, Shostakovich, and that guy who was born on December 25.

Handel: Messiah (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 72039)
Singphonic Christmas (CPO 777 067)
A Mediterranean Christmas (Warner Classics 62560)
Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner (Wergo WER 6676)

Christmas without the Messiah? Unthinkable. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi offers a star-studded new version of Handel's holiday warhorse for the season. Recorded live in Vienna in December 2004, the performance features soprano Christine Sch‹fer, alto Anne Larsson, tenor Michael Schade, and bass Gerald Finley. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt's rather elastic and inventive tempos may be off-putting to some listeners, but there is some fine singing here, particularly by Finley and Sch‹fer.

There are plenty of other holiday releases as well. The talented six-man vocal group Singphonic offers its unique take on Christmas music, performing arrangements of carols and hymns from throughout Europe on a new CPO release. Conductor Joel Cohen, his period-instrument Boston Camerata, and a bevy of soloists venture through Spain, France, Italy, and North Africa in A Mediterranean Christmas. Among the more unusual releases this holiday season is the first recording of Hindemith's last opera, The Long Christmas Dinner. This 1961 work, featuring a libretto that Thornton Wilder fashioned from his own stage play, covers 90 years in the history of one family, transforming the passing of generations into an extended holiday meal. Marek Janowski conducts this performance, which uses the composer's own German translation of the libretto.

Jessye Norman Collection: A Christmas Collection
(Philips B0005508)
Jessye Norman Collection: Schoenberg; Stravinsky
(Philips B0005512)
Jessye Norman Collection: Schubert & Mahler Lieder
(Philips B0005510)
Jessye Norman Collection: A Wagner Collection
(Philips B0005513)

Jessye Norman's rich, distinctive voice can be heard in a collection of Christmas favorites, with backing from such groups as the American Boychoir, the New York Choral Society, St. Thomas Men and Boy's Choir, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and the English National Opera Orchestra. The release is part of Philips's new Jessye Norman Collection, a series of double-disc sets being reissued for the price of a single CD. Also part of the series are releases featuring Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex with Schoenberg's Erwartung and Cabaret Songs; lieder by Schubert and Mahler; Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and excerpts from his operas; and more.

Verdi: La traviata (Deutsche Grammophon B00052902)
For the opera fanatic on your gift list, an important new recording of Verdi's La traviata may be just the thing. Glamour girl Anna Netrebko proved to be a stunning Violetta at the Salzburg Festival this past summer, demonstrating that she could master weightier roles in addition to the flighty coloratura parts she had been singing. In the same production, the young tenor Rolando Villazon was a charismatic Alfredo, convincing audiences and critics that he possesses artistry as well as a remarkable voice. Deutsche Grammophon recorded their performance and it is now available on CD. The Vienna Philharmonic is in the pit, with Carlo Rizzi conducting.

Bart‹k: Concerto for Orchestra; Works by Martinu, Klein
(Ondine ODE 1072)
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (Channel Classics CCS 22998)

There's more than holiday music this month. Those fabulous Philadelphians present a stirring new disc on Ondine that features a repertory staple, the Bart‹k Concerto for Orchestra, coupled with a pair of interesting works in dazzling live performances under music director Christoph Eschenbach. Martinu's somber Memorial to Lidice was written, like the Bart‹k concerto, while the composer was in exile in the United States during World War II. Gideon Klein's Partita, an arrangement of his String Trio, is more evidence that a promising voice was snuffed out when he was murdered by the Nazis.

Ivšn Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra will be touring the United States in January, performing Mahler's First Symphony and works by other composers. Fischer and his orchestra recently recorded Mahler's dark Symphony No. 6 in Budapest's new Palace of the Arts.

Mozart: Violin Concertos, Sinfonia Concertante
(Deutsche Grammophon B0005078)
Mozart: Mass in C minor (Hanssler Classic HNS 98227)
Mozart: Violin Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807380)
Mozart: Early String Quartets (Harmonia Mundi HMI 987060)
Mozart: String Quintets (Praga PRD 350012)

With Mozart's 250th birthday coming up on January 27, the record companies continue to roll out CDs of the Viennese master's music. Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter celebrates both Mozart's birthday and the 30th anniversary of her own public debut with a new series of recordings of all of Mozart's major works for violin. The first release, a two-disc set, features Mutter as both soloist and conductor in Mozart's five Violin Concertos. Violist Yuri Bashmet joins her for the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat.

Robert Levin's completion of Mozart's Requiem was a revelation for listeners accustomed to the rather unsatisfactory Sussmayr version. Levin has now produced a new edition of Mozart's great C minor Mass. Helmuth Rilling, who conducted the American premiere of the Mozart-Levin Mass at Carnegie Hall last January, leads the first recording of the work on a disc from Hanssler. Other Mozart releases of note this month include violinist Andrew Manze and harpsichordist Richard Egarr playing several of the mature violin sonatas, the Cuarteto Casals playing early string quartets, and the Prazak Quartet, with violist Hatto Beyerle, performing two of the great String Quintets, K.516 and K.593.

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1, Cello Sonata
(EMI 0946 3 32422)
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 12 (EMI 0946 3 35994)

Another major anniversary of 2006, Shostakovich's 100th, is also inspiring a string of new recordings. On EMI, Han-Na Chang and Antonio Pappano collaborate on a new recording of the Cello Concerto No. 1. Pappano directs the London Symphony Orchestra and also accompanies Chang in Shostakovich's Cello Sonata. The same label offers Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony in the Second and Twelfth Symphonies, two of Shostakovich's tributes to the glories of the Soviet revolution.

Alfred Cortot: The Master Classes (Sony Classical S3K 89698)
Anyone with an interest in great pianism will be fascinated by a new release from Sony titled Alfred Cortot: The Master Classes. Cortot, an influential Frenchman whose playing combined Gallic elegance and German heft with flawless technique, performed with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century and taught such keyboard giants as Gina Bachauer, Clara Haskil, and Dinu Lipati. With the help of Cortot's son, pianist Murray Perahia recently uncovered 30 hours of recorded master classes given by Cortot in the late 1950s and these tapes form the basis of a fascinating three-disc set. Perahia edited the sessions—which include Cortot performing and discussing music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart—and provided material for a booklet that includes analyses and translations of Cortot's French narratives.

The Secrets of Dvoršk's Cello Concerto
(Sony SMK 73716)
Tolstoy's Waltz (BIS CD-1502)

Finally, a couple of novel releases. Sony presents The Secret of Dvoršk's Cello Concerto, a disc that presents songs by Dvoršk and Stephen Foster alongside the famous cello work. Some of the connections between the songs and the concerto are obvious, others are rather strained. Fortunately, the performances, by the young German cellist Jan Vogler, mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager, and the New York Philharmonic under David Robertson, are strong enough to stand on their own, particularly in the spirited reading of the concerto. In Toltsoy's Waltz, pianist Lera Auerbach, with baritone Chiyuki Urano, performs music by eight Russian artists who earned fame in areas other than music. Among the works are a waltz by Leo Tolstoy, piano music by Boris Pasternak, and pieces by Serge Diaghilev and George Balanchine. Most of the music is nice enough without being brilliant; fortunately, none of these men quit his day job to become a composer.

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