Classical CDs Review: New Tricks for Old Ponies

Recent stand-out classical recordings boast fresh interpretations of familiar works, recordings of little-known repertoire, and some legendary performances by Pablo Casals.

By Mark Kroll

Harmonia Mundi has an excellent new recording of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” with Rene Jacobs and his Concerto Koln taking just the right approach to Mozart’s great comic opera. The packaging is impressive as well. The 3-CD set comes with a 278-page booklet written in French, Italian, English and German that provides a synopsis of the plot, the entire libretto, and historical information about Mozart and his operas.

The music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel has been experiencing a revival lately, and this is a good thing (full disclosure: I am completely biased in Hummel’s favor since I am writing a biography of him). He began his career as a classical composer, like his teacher Mozart, and soon became a protege of Haydn and a friend of Beethoven. Hummel kept on developing, and went on to serve as a model for the next generation of romantic composers, such as Schubert, Chopin and Schumann. Liszt also admired Hummel, and was particularly fond of Hummel’s “Septet” in D minor, op. 74, which Liszt often played during his career. You can hear this work and the later “Military Septet” in C-major, op. 114 on Hyperion’s “Hummel Septets” release. This is a reissue of a recording made in 1989 by the Capricorn Ensemble, and the performances are very good, although one would have liked a bit more energy and virtuosic elan; it is, after all, what made the Septets so attractive to Liszt.

More chamber music by Hummel can be heard on a new Naxos CD. It offers Hummel’s beautiful cello sonata, op. 104, two piano trios, op. 22 and 35, and a piano quartet published posthumously, performed by a period instrument ensemble consisting of violinists Micaela Comberti and Simon Standage, cellist Pal Banda, violist Jane Rogers, and forte pianist Susan Alexander-Max. Hummel was one of the great piano virtuosos of his era and wrote knuckle-busting keyboard parts, so Alexander-Max has her hands full. She does fine playing on reproductions of two pianos from Hummel’s time and they are perfect for this repertoire. The sound on this recording makes you feel as if you were listening to a concert in an elegant 19 th century salon, rather than hearing the music through expensive microphones. This has always been my preferred recording technique, but audiophiles might disagree.

Hummel’s vocal works are even less well known than his piano and chamber music. This is a pity, since some are as good as those by his mentor, Haydn. It is more good news that Chandos has just released “Hummel: Mass in D minor; Salve Regina,” performed by the Collegium Musicum 90 under Richard Hickox. Hickox manages to evoke a sound from his chorus that is both rich and clear, and his interpretation maintains a perfect balance between Hummel’s two stylistic worlds–the classical and the romantic.

Record companies are not neglecting the standard meat-and-potatoes repertoire, of course. Two recent releases of Dvorak’s beloved “Cello Concerto in B minor,” op. 104 are worth comparing. One is by the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, who also plays two other famous cello concertos, Elgar’s “Concerto in E minor,” op. 85 and Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” op. 47. Casals performs each work with a different orchestra and conductor. The Bruch was recorded in 1936 with the London Symphony, Sir Landon Ronald conducting. The Dvorak comes from a recording made in 1937 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and George Szell, who had not yet moved to America to become a legend in his own right. The Elgar features Casals with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult in 1945.

The performances are superb, as one would expect from such musicians, but they have something extra: a sense that this style is part of their blood. This is not surprising if you consider that Casals knew both Elgar and Bruch, and Dvorak was almost his contemporary. The remastering is excellent, and mercifully doesn’t try to cover the scratchiness of the old recordings by boosting levels to the point of harshness.

Harmonia Mundi’s recording of the Dvorak cello concerto features the young French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyra, the Prague Philharmonic and conductor Jiri Belohlavek. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Queyra with Casals (or Belohlavek to Szell, for that matter), but this disc would make a worthy addition to your collection of Dvorak concertos. You also get Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, op. 90 with Queyra, violinist Isabelle Faust, and pianist Alexander Melnikov.

Finally, do you know Grieg’s piano music? You might be familiar wth his famous piano concerto, but Centaur Records is trying to expand your horizons with volume two of Grieg’s works for piano, performed by Antonio Pompa-Baldi. Although most are not well known, you will recognize “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” “Anitra’s Dance” and the other great pieces from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite.” I must confess that it’s hard to hear these old chestnuts on piano, without their colorful orchestrations, but Pompa-Baldi makes a convincing case for them.

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