Naxos Classical II: Continuing To Forge Ahead With The Familiar And Not

C. Michael Bailey By

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Naxos Records has completely redefining the Classical Music marketing model in a stepwise fashion. The label has done this, first by using very fine, yet unknown artists to perform the standard and not so standard repertoire and selling the results for a budget price. The next step was fleshing out the not-so-standard repertoire and specializing in the lesser known works and complete sets of works. As a result of these efforts, the label has made stars out our many artists in the label stable.

Hungarian Jeno Jando is a pianist's pianist, recording everything from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to Liszt (of course), Bartok, and Kodaly. Russian Konstantin Scherbakov is straying from the piano literature of the Mother country to complete the Liszt Transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies. His Godowsky transcriptions have been very well received. Cellist Maria Kliegel has already addressed the Beethoven Sonata to considerable attention and now turns her attention to the Golden Ring of the repertoire, Bach's Cello Suites. Finally, conductor Marin Alsop emerges as the rock star of the classical world. She has stayed stateside (and modern) in her popular recordings of Adams, Barber, Bernstein, and Glass. Recently, maestro Alsop jumped the pond to conquer Brahms with the London Symphony Orchestra. We cover some of these in this shotgun blast of recent releases from the label, where we find two Bachs, two Alsops, and a Liszt.

J.S. Bach
Goldberg Variations
Jeno Jando, Piano
(Naxos 8.557268)

Like the Cello Suites that follow, Bach's Goldberg Variations represent a singularity in the history of music. In them exists something fundamental to being human. Jeno Jando chooses not to play it safe with this canon, delivering a performance that lies somewhere in between the frenetic tempi of Glenn Gould in 1955 (Sony Classical Masterworks 90387) and the highly personal and romantic approach of Daniel Barenboim in 1989 (Erato 2292 45468 2). The Aria is presented slowly, with much thought and care. Variation 1 begins with a bang and Jando weaves his way through the remainder of the variations, accelerating the curves of the faster variations while slowing down to smell the roses in the slower ones. Doubtlessly Bach scholars will find some fault with this performance. I find it to be full-bodied and with much merit. I would recommend this Goldberg be considered in the same breath as that of Murray Perahia (Sony 89243, 2000), the current critic's darling on piano.

J.S. Bach
Cello Suites
Maria Kliegel
(Naxos 8.557220)

Along with the Goldberg Variations mentioned above, the Cello Suites stand as the best musical thought and inspiration have to offer. Bach distills Baroque Musical Philosophy to its bare essence in these solo pieces. Cellist Maria Kliegel has completed the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with pianist Nina Tichman for Naxos (8.555785 and 8.555786). She plays Antonio Stradivarius' Ex Gendron , 1693, an instrument with much personality and depth. Miss Kliegel uses the instrument's personality to her advantage in this performance of the Cello Suites. Her performance is perfectly on the mark with an occasional romantic overtone. Most satisfying are Suite No. 2 and Suite No. 6, where Miss Kleigel captures the dance in the pieces and transmutes it in the music. She plays with great maturity and grace, approaching this Bach with great respect, yet she walks along side of it as a performance peer. This is a fine performance that is better than the majority available.

Franz Liszt
Liszt Piano Music Volume 21·Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Piano Transcription)
Konstantin Scherbakov, Piano
(Naxos 8.557366)

While still lacking one installment (Symphonies 7 and 8), Konstantin Scherbakov's Liszt Transcriptions for Piano of the Beethoven Symphonies is the set to track down. Presented here is Scherbakov's reading of the Choral Symphony. The pianist brings to this piece that Russian precision that perfectly integrates even the lengthiest piano pieces. His articulation in the openings of the first and second movements is measured and emotive. He paces each piece accordingly, neither rushing or extending sections. Scherbakov's is not an overtly romantic reading. It is full of pathos and fireworks, to be sure. But, as Liszt would have had it, it is full of virtuoso potential and demands. During the demanding final movement, Scherbakov masterfully presents the melody, the song that is "Ode to Joy." The Leslie Howard and Cyprien Katsaris collections are very fine and Scherbakov's should be strongly considered with them.

Philip Glass
Symphony No. 2, Symphony No. 3
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop
(Naxos 8.557366)

Philip Glass and minimalism are almost synonymous. A strong and relentless pulse, the insistent repetition of short melodic fragments, and harmonies that change slowly over long periods of time, generally characterizes minimalism as a musical style. This also describes the bulk of Glass's instrumental music, in particular his movie soundtracks ( The Thin Blue Line and The Hours and solo piano music. Marin Alsop and the Bournmouth Symphony Orchestra read the Glass Second (1994) and Third (1995) with great vigor and restraint. These almost opposing approaches are necessary to capture the Glass aesthetic and to convey it to an audience. Maestro Alsop, a personal friend and advocate of Glass's has a true ear for this responsibility. The music is at once lyrical and propulsive. Alsop draws out Glass's underlying harmonic structure and presents it like a musical exoskeleton. In doing this, Alsop presents the Glass Symphonies in such a transparent way that even the fussiest traditionalist could not help but like the music and performances.

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1, Tragic Overture, Academy Festival Overture
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop
(Naxos 8.557428)

It must be with interest and anticipation that we hear the first installment of Marin Alsop's Brahms Symphony Cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Maestro Alsop has devoted the majority of her recent recording attention to the 20th Century Americans, scoring critical acclaim for her Bernstein Chichester Psalms and John Adams Shaker Loops. Impossible as it may seem, maestro Alsop delivers a Brahms First that is light on its feet. Her tempi are paced and never bog-down or become overbearing. She takes seriously the movement signatures, turning in a closing movement that breathes evenly while passing from adagio to allegro. This is a Brahms First with a sense of humor, one that will not disappoint the listener but one that will allow the listener to embrace Brahms's reverence for the tradition of Beethoven while at the same time smiling at the serious German with a "horrible dignity."

Domenico Scarlatti
Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas, Volume 7
Konstantin Scherbakov, Piano
(Naxos 8.554842)

This is the house that Vladimir Horowitz built. Domenico Scarlatti is best known for his 500-plus piano sonatas written in the Late Baroque Style. Horowitz translated the style, romantically, to the piano from the harpsichord piano... And here we are with Konstantin Scherbakov, the Russian wunderkind blazing a path with Liszt through the Naxos catalog. Here, the acerbic Scherbakov precisely displays Scarlattin as his elder predecessor did...with romance and accuracy, but not precision. However, that is no matter. This is superbly played Scarlatti. Forget the tripe regarding "this performance or that performance." Music this well structured cannot be ruined.

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