CD reviews


Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major; Myaskovsky: Violin Concerto n D minor

Vadim Repin, violinist; Kirov Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor. (Philips 289 473 343-2)

* * * *

If Vadim Repin isn't the finest violinist of his generation (and our time), he sure is doing a great impression of it. This latest recording reconfirms his extraordinarily assured technique, impeccable intonation and absolutely gorgeous tone - not to mention the spark of spontaneity and sheer enjoyment that invariably marks his music-making. Recordings of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto may be just a little on the overstocked side, but there should be room for one as impressive and involving as this. Repin makes the familiar music sound quite fresh and finds delectable nuances in phrase after phrase; above all, the work exudes all of its lyric power. The violinist's artistry finds a sympathetic partner in Valery Gergiev and second-nature support from the top-drawer Kirov Orchestra.

The work of prolific Soviet-era composer Nikolai Myaskovsky, who wrote no less than 27 symphonies, may never generate much appreciation in the West, but his Violin Concerto of 1938 certainly deserves to be heard more often. It's a very attractive piece, rather anachronistic in style (though not more so than, say, much of Rachmaninoff's music); the melodies are rich and plentiful, the violin lines brilliantly crafted. The first movement, in particular, makes a strong impression, full of darkly shaded drama; the long cadenza has much to communicate, and Repin says it with clarity and feeling. Exquisite, shimmering things happen in the second movement, which the soloist again takes full advantage of, while the bouncy, folksy finale inspires still more brilliance from the fiddler. Again, Gergiev and his orchestra are superb collaborators.

Symphony at the Opera: Great Opera Interludes

San Francisco Opera Orchestra; Donald Runnicles, conductor. (Arabesque Z6764)

* * * 1/2

The San Francisco Opera has long ranked among the country's best. Two reasons for its current high marks: the company's orchestra and its music director (since 1992), Donald Runnicles. This release finds both in impressive form, exploring some potent orchestral music from the 20th century.

The conductor shapes the eventful entr'actes from Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with plenty of atmosphere and bite; the ensemble responds with disciplined, vivid playing. Likewise, the "Passacaglia" and "Four Sea Interludes" from Britten's Peter Grimes receive evocative, thoughtfully nuanced performances. The violins could use a little more tonal fullness here and there, but that's a minor quibble.

The "Symphonic Dances" from Bernstein's near-opera, West Side Story, couldn't be more theatrical. The San Francisco forces face some serious competition on disc, starting with the composer's own recording, but they hold up respectably.

Happy Birthday

Gidon Kremer, violinist and conductor; Kremerata Baltica. (Nonesuch 79657-2)

* * * *

Here's an unusual, entertaining disc - a musical celebration for the Kremerata Baltica, which marked its fifth year in 2002. Led by superb violinist Gidon Kremer, the ensemble comprises young hot-shot players from the Baltics. Not surprisingly, most of the music for this birthday party is colorful and festive.

Peter Heidrich's 'Happy Birthday' Variations tries a little too hard for a little too long, but it certainly is clever as it presents about a dozen treatments of the tune we all know in the style of various composers (the Dvorak parody is particularly cute) and genres (ragtime, polka, etc.) Kremer and company have great fun with this material, as they do with Teddy Bor's silly McMozart's Eine Kleine Bricht Moonlicht Nicht Musik - think Mozart in a kilt.

More silliness comes in Franz Waxman's 'Auld Lang Syne' Variations for violin, viola, cello and piano. The familiar melody is put through its paces a la Mozart, Beethoven, Bach (a brilliant take-off on the celebrated D minor Chaconne, spectacularly played by Kremer) and "Shostakofiev" - a very amusing fusing of two Russian forces.

Other highlights include Tchaikovsky's relatively little-known Elegy, which features lovely solo work from Kremer, sensitive partnering from his colleagues; and Ladislav Kupkovic's high-spirited Souvenir, which provides a chuckle or two. Vato Kalhidze's 'Blitz' Fantasy, with wordless vocal lines (sung by the composer and orchestra members) floating in and out of the pop/jazz-inflected music, is alternately haunting and witty. The performance, like the whole disc, is delightful. The only thing missing is a party hat.

Renee and Bryn: Under the Stars

Renee Fleming, soprano; Bryn Terfel, baritone; Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera; Paul Gemignani, conductor. (Decca 289 473 250-2)

* *

On paper, this lineup of two of today's most engaging opera singers and a wide sampling of Broadway music looks awfully tantalizing. But you only have to spin the laser beam around Under the Stars for a little while to realize you've got a case of star-crossed cross-over. (Maybe the whole thing comes off better in the live concert that includes much of the material here; it's being broadcast on many PBS stations.)

Renee Fleming has the radiant voice to sing just about anything she wants, but she comes up short here on style and taste. She sings almost everything in diva-mode, over-emoting lines that cry out for subtlety, pushing the voice hard. Even when she's close to the mark, as in "Hello, Young Lovers," she still ends up putting too much emphasis on some notes, limiting the tenderness.

Bryn Terfel's affinity for musical theater is well-documented; he's a natural. Most of the time here, he reigns in his voice and phrases with an ear for nuance and color. His account of "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd is thoroughly winning, as is a medley of "I Don't Remember You" from The Happy Time and "Sometimes A Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year. The baritone usually comes off less well in duets with Fleming, either pushed aside by her full-throttle delivery or, unfortunately, forced to compete with it.

In the end, this recording is for determined fans only.

Excellent * * * *; Good * * *; Fair * *; Poor *

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