Classical CD Highlights: September

Classic Arts News   Classical CD Highlights: September
Three of opera's top stars—Cecilia Bartoli, Ren_e Fleming, and Plšcido Domingo—offer major new releases; an enterprising boutique label makes its American debut.

Cecilia Bartoli: Opera Proibita (Decca B0005151)
Strauss: Daphne (Decca B0005182)

Cecilia Bartoli took a fresh look at the maligned Salieri in her last solo album. In her much-anticipated new offering, the mezzo-soprano again ventures into unfamiliar territory, performing little-known early 18th-century arias written in Rome at a time when the Catholic Church prohibited the performance of opera and female singers were barred from singing in public. In addition to pieces by the young Handel, the disc includes world-premiere recordings of arias by Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara. Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre accompany the mezzo-soprano.

Soprano Ren_e Fleming and conductor Semyon Bychkov, two champions of the music Richard Strauss, present a new recording of the opera Daphne, featuring an international cast and the Cologne West German Radio Orchestra. This richly lyrical work, set in ancient Greece, has drawn renewed interest since Bychkov led performances at the Vienna State Opera last year. Fleming and Bychkov will headline concert performances of Daphne this fall in Washington and in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (EMI 7243558006)
An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen (Decca 2LH 443581)

Major record companies have just about given up making costly studio recordings of complete operas with big-name stars. EMI's new Tristan and Isolde, recorded at the famed Abbey Road studios in late 2004 and early 2005, may turn out to be the last of the breed. The three-disc set captures Plšcido Domingo as Tristan, a role he has never performed on stage—and likely never will. Critics in Europe, where the discs were released earlier this year, have raved about Domingo's luminous interpretation of this punishing role. His Isolde is Nina Stemme, a Swedish soprano who was discovered through Domingo's Operalia competition in 1993 and who sang the role at Bayreuth this past season. Antonio Pappano conducts the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Speaking of Wagner, if you are still intimidated by this composer's massive music dramas, a new Decca reissue might be just what you need. The esteemed musicologist Deryck Cooke offers a guided tour of the monumental Ring cycle on a two-CD set featuring 193 musical examples performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Georg Solti.

Borodin Quartet: 60th Anniversary (Onyx Classics ONYX 4002)
Vivaldi: Violin Concertos (Onyx Classics ONYX 4001)
Debussy: Preludes, Books I & II (Onyx Classics ONYX 4004)
Barbara Bonney: My Name is Barbara (Onyx Classics ONYX 4003)

Cutbacks by major labels in recent years left many accomplished musicians without recording contracts. Onyx Classics, a new boutique label, is giving some of those artists a chance to record again. The label, founded by two former record executives, intends to present well known musicians performing interesting repertory. Its first four discs, released to favorable notices in Europe this summer, are now available in the United States. One disc features the Borodin Quartet, still with its original cellist, the legendary Valentin Berlinsky, in a 60th-anniversary program that includes the ensemble's signature piece, Borodin's String Quartet No. 2. On another disc, virtuoso violinist Viktoria Mullova tears into a selection of Vivaldi concertos, with spirited accompaniment by the period instrument band Giardino Armonico. Soprano Barbara Bonney performs a program of English and American songs by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Copland, John Tomlinson Griffes, and Roger Quilter. And Pascal Rog_, a renowned specialist in French piano music, performs Debussy's Preludes, the first release in a projected complete cycle of the composer's keyboard music.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (Warner Classics 2564 62190)
Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim has been in the news as much for his politics as his music-making in recent years. This disc represents the first recording by his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a band made up of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians that Barenboim assembled to demonstrate that music could help people overcome politics. It's a nice sentiment, although one has to wonder whether such efforts actually prove anything or make a difference. At any rate, Barenboim's young orchestra delivers a Tchaikovsky Fifth that is already earning good reviews. The disc is filled out by performances of Verdi's overture to La forza del destino and Sibelius's Valse triste.

Ives: Symphony No 2 (Sony Classical SK 94731)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 (Sony Classical SK 94737)
Barber: Instrumental and Vocal Works (Sony Classical SK 94739)

BMG Classics launched an extensive mid-price reissue series in 2004, offering classic performances with remastered sound and newly commissioned liner notes. The recent merger with Sony means that the extensive back catalogs of both labels are available as source material for what is now called the Sony BMG Masterworks Classic Library. This month, there are 10 new titles in the series. Among them is an Ives disc that includes Leonard Bernstein's 1958 New York Philharmonic recording of the Second Symphony, Central Park in the Dark, andThe Unanswered Question, as well as several shorter works conducted by Gunther Schuller in performances that are appearing on CD for the first time. The series also includes a two-CD set featuring Gary Graffman playing all three Tchaikovsky piano concertos, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and Balakirev's Islamey, and an wide-ranging Barber CD that includes the first compact-disc appearance of the first recording of the Toccata Festiva, with E. Power Biggs on the organ and Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Britten: Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.557198)
Rochberg: Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.559182)
Still: Piano Music (Naxos 8.559210)
Zwillich: Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.559268)
Thomson: A Continuum Portrait (Naxos 8.559198)

Naxos, which has been reissuing the excellent Britten recordings originally released by the now-defunct Collins Classics series, brings back one of the best this month: Lorraine McAslan's stirring reading of Britten's dark but brilliant Violin Concerto, a work that deserves to be better known. Steuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra accompany McAslan and take center stage in two lighter works, the Canadian Carnival Overture and Mont Juic, a suite of Catalan dances.

Finally, several interesting new releases join Naxos' expansive American Classics series. The label adds another major work by the late George Rochberg: his Symphony No. 2, which helped launch the composer's reputation when it was performed in New York in 1961. The disc also includes the world-premiere recording of the Japanese-inspired Imago Mundi. William Grant Still, a talented voice often referred to as the dean of African-American composers, is represented by a disc of piano works. Ellen Taafe Zwillich's Violin Concerto gets its first recording, with the estimable Pamela Frank as soloist. And a disc of songs and other works, performed by the ensemble Continuum, pays tribute to the iconoclastic Virgil Thomson.

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