Saturday, November 14, 2009

This week I listened to

Tragédiennes 2: from Rameau to Berlioz
Véronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Christoph Rousset

A marvellous showcase of the many unhappy women who populated French opera from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century. There are a lot of "Ah!"s and imploring of various divinities. Seriously, though, it's all great stuff, mostly completely unfamiliar to me. Véronique Gens is in fine voice, and Rousset and his band get to show off in some instrumental pieces too. Remarkably, this is my first recording of Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits; how I managed to avoid it for so long, I have no idea.

Britten: "Unknown Britten"
Sandrine Piau; Michael Collins; Rolf Hind; Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair

An intriguing collection of rarities - essentially, unfinished work - from various periods of Britten's life. Sandrine Piau sings Les Illuminations plus 3 extra songs Britten wrote but didn't orchestrate (Colin Matthews does the honours). Interestingly, a quick glance at ArkivMusic reveals a paucity of recordings from outside the English-speaking world. The extra songs are fine as far as they go, but the cycle seems exactly the right length without them. Other highlights of the disc include Matthews' "realization" of three movements for clarinet and orchestra, and a Rondo concertante for piano and orchestra whose 2nd movement is remarkably gloomy.

Hommage a Messiaen
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

I confess to respecting rather than liking much of Messiaen's music (I love the Quartet for the End of Time, though). But Aimard has impressed me a lot. Here we have the 8 Preludes, which are early works from when Messiaen was about 20 but do seem characteristic of the composer (who else would write a piece called "The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream"?), plus a couple of pieces from the Catalogue d'oiseaux and two from Quatre Etudes de rythme. Those crazy birds! Long long ago I won some random CDs from Classic CD magazine, one of which was a disc of books 4, 5, and 6 performed by Peter Hill. I was baffled, intrigued, and in the end not bowled over. But Messiaen went somewhere fascinating in those works. As for the last couple of pieces on this particular album, they're small powerhouses.

Shostakovich: The Girlfriends, etc
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mark Fitz-Gerald

More rarities, this time in the form of three Shostakovich scores for screen and stage from the 1930s, plus a symphonic movement that was originally intended for his Ninth Symphony. The Girlfriends tells the happy tale of three friends who grow up in pre-revolutionary times and then become nurses in the civil war. It's mostly scored for chamber instruments, with some songs and a bizarre deconstruction of the Internationale on solo theremin. An absolute must for Shostakovich fans. Rule, Britannia! and Salute to Spain were plays for which Shostakovich wrote incidental music; it's your basic Soviet-issue patriotism. The unfinished symphonic movement is a dynamic piece that is more in keeping with what was expected of Shostakovich's Ninth; again, essential for the Shostakovichian or whatever they're called. By the way, if you're the sort of person who watches Fox News: don't buy this album! You may find yourself humming catchy communist songs at inappropriate moments.

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