Classical CD Highlights: January

Classic Arts News   Classical CD Highlights: January
The year gets off to a strong start with several intriguing releases, from a 13th-century song cycle to a new recording of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.

Busnois: Missa O Crux Lignum, Motets, Chansons (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907333)
Music for Alfonso the Wise (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907390)
Bach: French Suites (Ambroisie AMB 9960)

Fans of early music will no doubt want to check out two new releases from Harmonia Mundi. The Orlando Consort, one of today's most highly regarded champions of Medieval and Renaissance music, offers a survey of sacred and secular works by Antoine Busnois, a versatile composer whose career came to an end just about the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The Dufay Collective, an ensemble that performs without a conductor, offers music from 13th-century Spain in its first disc for its new label. The title, Music for Alfonso the Wise, refers to a king of Castile and Leon who was known as a patron of the arts and sciences. The CD includes a collection of seven songs that tell the story of a woman waiting for the return of her beloved‹perhaps the earliest known song cycle.

Turning to more "modern" music, the young harpsichord virtuoso Christophe Rousset offers his take on Bach's ever-rewarding French Suites. The disc, on the Amboisie label, complements Rousset's recording of the same composer's English Suites, issued early last year.

Beethoven: The Late String Quartets (Decca B0003875)
Beethoven: Piano Trios, Vol. 4 (Hyperion CDA 67466)
Mendelssohn: Complete String Quartets (Deutsche Grammophon B0003888)

The New Year brings new installments of two Beethoven chamber music series. The Takšcs Quartet concludes its highly acclaimed survey of the string quartets with a set containing Beethoven's last six essays in the genre plus the formidable Grosse Fuge. On the MDG label, the Florestan Trio presents Volume 4 of its piano trio cycle, a disc that includes the violin version of Op. 11 (often performed with clarinet) and the Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3, one of Beethoven's earliest masterpieces. The celebrated Emerson Quartet, meanwhile, can be heard in a recording of Mendelssohn's six string quartets; the set of four enhanced CDs features both audio and multimedia tracks.

Chopin: Nocturnes, Impromptus (Hyperion CDA 67371/2)
Chopin: Scherzos and Impromptus (Deutsche Grammophon B0003887)

Pianist Angela Hewitt, in the midst of monumental surveys of Bach and Couperin, takes a break to offer a two-disc set of some of Chopin's most important piano music‹the complete Nocturnes and the three Impromptus. The gifted young pianist Yundi Li, winner of the 2000 Chopin International Piano Competition, also performs the Impromptus, along with Chopin's four Scherzos, on a new Deutsche Grammophon disc. The release kicks off what will be Yundi's most extensive American tour yet, with stops in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Kansas City, and San Diego.

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (RCO Live RCO 04005)
Dvoršk: Symphony No. 9 (RCO Live RCO 04002)

Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra this month becomes the latest major ensemble to start its own independent record label. RCO Live bows with two releases: Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, recorded in September at Mariss Jansons' first concert as the venerable orchestra's chief conductor, and Dvoršk's ever-popular "New World" Symphony, also with Jansons. RCO Live plans four releases per year, all recorded in the orchestra's legendary concert hall.

Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini (Virgin Classics CDC 45706)
The celebration of Berlioz's bicentennial in 2003 taught a lot of music lovers that there is more to this composer than Symphony Fantastique. In a new three-CD set, John Nelson leads a revealing performance of Berlioz's problematic but intriguing opera Benevuto Cellini. The work, performed only 14 times during Berlioz's life, was for years staged only in severely cut versions. This restored version, recorded after a critically acclaimed series of concert performances in Paris, offers a chance to hear Berlioz's bold, uncompromising original conception.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 (Philips BB0003879)
Martin: Concertos (MDG 6011280)
American Originals (Summit SMT 1023)

For fans of 20th-century music, there are several interesting new choices. Philips brings us Russian maestro Valery Gergiev's reading of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, a craggy and exciting piece withdrawn by the composer in the 1930s amid Stalin's crusade against musical modernism. With several recent recordings, the Fourth seems to be gaining a deserved foothold in the repertory alongside Shostakovich's more famous symphonies.

MDG offers a disc featuring mature works by Frank Martin, the undervalued 20th-century Swiss composer. The CD includes accounts of Martin's Violin Concerto and his engaging Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Percussion, and Strings, perhaps the closest thing this composer had to a hit in his long career. An intriguing disc from Summit places three recent American works alongside a true classic. The ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, joined by several soloists, performs the Clarinet Concerto of Peter Schickele (best known as the "discoverer" of P. D. Q. Bach), the pop-inflected Tell My Fortune for chamber orchestra by Michael Daugherty, David Noon's ProMusica Sempre! , and Samuel Barber's divine Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (EMI CDC 86197)
Wagner: Excerpts (EMI CDC 86191)
Britten: Canticles (Naxos 8.557202)
Schoenberg: Concerto for String Quartet (Naxos 8. 557520)

Finally, for the budget-minded, there are a number of worthwhile releases. EMI reaches into its archives to bring Maria Callas fans a new pressing of the diva in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, with Giuseppi di Stefano and Tito Gobbi filling out the star-studded cast. The same label also offers a collection of "bleeding chunks" from the Wagner operas, conducted by Wilhelm Furtw‹ngler, with Kirsten Flagstad and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics.

Upcoming releases on the low-priced Naxos label include a set of Benjamin Britten's Canticles, with a strong cast of singers joined by Dame Judi Dench as narrator, and a Schoenberg CD that includes the Concerto for String Quartet, an off-the-wall reworking of a Handel Concerto Grosso.

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