Yuja Wang, piano; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
This anthology of Strauss’s orchestral works is the first evidence on record of the much-ballyhooed alliance that Andris Nelsons set up between his Boston and Leipzig orchestras, an innovative approach to overwork that hasn’t wonted to much in the concert hall. Sadly, these seven discs don’t amount to much, either – interpretively, at least.
That’s not to say that the set is unpleasant. Far from it: If you think of Strauss only as a composer to luxuriate in, Nelsons is your man. The sheer mass and detailing of sound he marshals is stunning and often hard to resist, although it is sad to hear two orchestras that once had strikingly different timbres seeming now all but indistinguishable (aside from a smudge of darkness in the superior Leipzig strings and a piercing glare in the Boston brass).
But the kinds of conductors Nelsons is sometimes imagined as a successor to – Herbert von Karajansay, or Rudolf Kempe – knew that there was more to Strauss than mere opulence. Nelsons knew this once, too. He recorded many of these works about a decade ago with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and those accounts were full of bite and tension and drama. The new ones are flabbier, slacker, with long periods of strangely self-regarding, even aimless conducting. Try the sunset of “An Alpine Symphony,” or the fantasy from “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” or “Don Juan” – here more of a Falstaff, but without the jokes.
It’s plainly Nelsons’s mature view on Strauss, and fair enough. Yet it’s not a view that does the composer much justice. DAVID ALLEN
Mary Halvorson, guitar; Mivos Quartet (Nonesuch)
Like her teacher Anthony Braxton, the composer and improvising guitarist Mary Halvorson would rather not talk about genre categories. (“I like being able to operate in the in-between areas,” she said told a recent interviewer.) But with an album of string quartet music as strong as this one, she is worthy of as much renown in the classical field as she holds in the jazz community.
The five works on “Belladonna” contain through-composed parts for the Mivos Quartet – a group that has also excelled in the music of the jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire – and show Halvorson’s keen ear for the slightly bent earworm. “Nodding Yellow” opens with lines for cello that ascend unpredictably. But the central gesture is clear enough that subsequent variations on the pattern keep the piece feeling unified. Meanwhile, her judgment as a bandleader and an arranger is apparent in her own playing, which includes improvisation; brief, precise hockets between her guitar and the quartet provide a sense of liftoff during “Flying Song.”
In that work and others, Halvorson contributes some febrile soloing. (Her use of a pitch-shifting pedal effect is reliably thrilling.) But during some stretches, she elects to ornament the underlying quartet music with delicacy, as on “Moonburn.” And her range shows no sign of contracting: The Mivos players also appear on half of “Amaryllis,” an album released simultaneously that otherwise features a more swinging, jazz-oriented ensemble. SETH COLTER WALLS
Bach: The Complete Cello Suites
Bruno Philippe (Harmonia Mundi)
Not quite 30, the cellist Bruno Philippe has over the past few years recorded – with elegant understatement and a serene tone – music by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Myaskovsky, Brahms and Schumann. I first encountered him in March, with the ensemble Jupiter, when he was suave in the fireworks of a Vivaldi concerto’s finale. And he’s now pushed further back in time, releasing his interpretation of the pinnacle of the Baroque cello: Bach’s six suites for the instrument.
Philippe’s sound, mellow even on metal strings, is more so on the gut ones he uses here. His Bach is genial and airy, light but not too fast, with subtle, stylish ornamentation in some repeats. Darker moods are kept from being too saturnine; his Sarabandes aren’t milked for melancholy.
The final three suites show him at his finest. Embracing the gnarls of the Fourth’s Prelude, he breathes audibly as its Sarabande quietly builds intensity. There’s dash in the first Bourée that follows, and the second is meaty, then suddenly delicate. The Fifth Suite’s Allemande is sensuous, its Courante robust; its deceptively simple Sarabande has long-lined legato flow, before a bursting Gavotte and the sustained energy of the Gigue. Philippe guides the Sixth Suite’s Prelude through a range of emotions, dawn to dusk, before delivering an expansive Allemande, an aching Sarabande, and – in an apt conclusion for a recording that raises the spirits – a glittering Gigue. ZACHARY WOOLFE
‘Le Monde Selon George Antheil’
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Joonas Ahonen, piano (Alpha)
George Antheil (1900-59) was a technophilic, self-declared bad boy of music; regardless of whether that’s true, he didn’t please his way into the canon. Here, however, this American composer gets a tribute that places him in a lineage of innovators from Beethoven to the mid-20th century – traced by the daredevil violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and an enthusiastic partner in the pianist Joonas Ahonen.
The French title – “The World According to George Antheil,” in English – nods to his years in Paris, when the album’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano was written, and when he was in the company of luminaries like Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau and, before a falling out, Stravinsky. Antheil would perform his works alongside, say, something from a century earlier, and Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen do the same by programming Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor. It is a fiery and freely interpreted account reminiscent of Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich’s fearless, unpredictable, at times unwieldy recordings from the 1990s.
Like the Beethoven, the Antheil is in four movements, but it blends traditional form with a thoroughly modern sound that, in this reading, bustles at a breakneck pace with percussive and metallic timbres. Looking beyond Antheil’s generation, the album also includes pieces by Morton Feldman and a nocturne by John Cage, works that subtly recall the sonatas but also stand alone as studies in sound-making and extremity – of strength and softness, of overtone-rich expanses. Executed with discipline that borders on mechanical, they couldn’t be better suited to a world according to George. JOSHUA BARONE
Christian Gerhaher, Baritone; Basel Chamber Orchestra; Heinz Holliger, conductor (Sony)
Othmar Schoeck wrote his first song cycle, “Elegie,” in the early 1920s, as modernism overtook post-Romanticism and as his torrid relationship with the pianist Mary de Senger hit the skids. Chris Walton’s biography of the Swiss composer describes a charismatic bohemian and a feverish yet fickle lover who railed against atonality and the bourgeois institution of marriage while flirting with both. Like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” “Elegie” has 24 songs, wellsprings of melody and a theme of lovelorn desolation. But Schoeck’s work, for baritone and chamber orchestra, draws its power from a finely tuned command of instrumental color.
In a new recording with the Basel Chamber Orchestra and the conductor Heinz Holliger, Christian Gerhaher, a Schoeck champion, plies his sumptuous baritone in declamatory lines and arching phrases, and reaches effortlessly for limpid high notes. His voice recedes hauntingly into rests without cheating the full values of the notes.
Transience dominates: A string or a woodwind instrument, sometimes doubling the vocal line, sighs and dissipates against a stark orchestral landscape. Many songs hover around the two-minute mark, expiring quickly like lilacs plunked in a vase – fragrant, blooming, short-lived. Gerhaher and the players deliver the listener from these tiny deaths in the final, and longest, song, “Der Einsame,” sustaining its delicately spun lines in pillowy A-flat major and making peace with loneliness. OUSSAMA ZAHR