Bach Keyboard Concertos, Nos. 1, 2 and 4. Murray...

J. S.

March 08, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

J. S. Bach

Keyboard Concertos, Nos. 1, 2 and 4. Murray Perahia, pianist and conductor; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. (Sony Classical SK 89245)

Murray Perahia was responsible for one of last year's most indelible recordings - Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Although it's still early in 2001, his latest exploration of Bach may well make a similar mark. Due in stores March 13, this first volume in a survey of the keyboard concertos is a triumph of artistic insight and technical refinement. If you ever entertained the slightest notion that Bach's music is dull, academic stuff, just aim your laser beam at any track on this CD. The composer couldn't sound much more lively, personal, relevant.

As in his "Goldberg" disc, Perahia renders pointless all arguments about the propriety of performing Bach on a modern piano, instead of a harpsichord. He does so by means of carefully considered choices of tempos, dynamic accents and phrasing. The instrument sounds absolutely right for the music.

Perahia spins out the notes with effortless clarity and myriad colors in each concerto, never resorting to exaggeration to make expressive points. There is a natural motion to these performances; the ear is hooked from the first measure.

As the pianist demonstrated in his much-admired cycle of Mozart concerto recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra in the 1990s, he has no trouble conducting from a keyboard. Here, he collaborates with another top-notch English ensemble, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which recently named Perahia principal guest conductor.

Perahia and the academy are taking this act on the road this month. The closest stop on the tour, which will feature performances of the three concertos on this CD, will be George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Va. 8 p.m. March 31. For ticket information, call 703-218-6500.

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Verdi

A Tribute to Giuseppe Verdi: Fabio Armiliato, tenor; Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of l'Opera de Nice; Marcello Panni, conductor. (Romeo Records 7202)

The audience at the opening of Washington Opera's production of Verdi's "Il trovatore" last fall understandably gave tenor Fabio Armiliato one of the biggest ovations of the night. It's not that he erased memories of Franco Corelli or Jussi Bjorling, but that he delivered a good deal of what fans crave, and rarely hear these days, from Verdi tenors - warm, vibrant sound; unstrained, exciting high notes; a firm sense of style.

Those qualities come through, often impressively, on this new, imaginatively programmed all-Verdi CD. The shortcomings of this singer come through, too - among them, a tendency to stick to one loud volume and one basic characterization, no matter what the music. On balance, though, the rewards are significant.

Instead of a typical greatest sound-bites program, Armiliato includes extended scenes from "Ernani" and "Macbeth" that provide welcome context. And, in addition to excerpts from such well-known fare as "Un ballo in maschera," "La forza del destino," and "Otello," there's an aria from the much rarer "I Masnadieri" and a complete performance of the "Inno delle Nazioni" - the curious "Hymn of the Nations" that Verdi wrote for an International Exposition in 1862.

That hymn, with its rather quaint use of the French, British and Italian national anthems, marks the first collaboration between Verdi and Arrigo Boito, who provided the purplish poem. Whatever the textual or structural weaknesses in the piece, it certainly is entertaining, at least when sung as passionately as it is here by Armiliato.

The operatic portion of the disc would benefit greatly from moments of truly soft, sweet singing ("Dio! mi potevi" from "Otello" does have a little) or, in "Di' tu se fedele" from "Ballo," a lightness of articulation. But Armiliato's intensity of delivery brings its rewards. In a tenor-starved opera world, he offers considerable relief.

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Mozart and Gluck

"Il tenero momento" - Mozart and Gluck Arias: Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Harry Bicket, conductor. (Erato 8573-85768-2)

The tenor voice may be on the endangered species list, but the mezzo-soprano is thriving like crazy. Exceptional artists in this vocal range are everywhere, it seems. Susan Graham is one of the best. She has just about everything - creamy tone, smoothly controlled technique, keen artistic instincts. The very low end of the voice may lack body, but that is a decidedly minor matter in light of all the other attributes.

Graham finds marvelous musical and dramatic outlets in this collection of arias by Gluck and Mozart. She is a captivating, vulnerable Cherubino in "Non si piu" and "Voi che sapete," a touching Orphee in "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice," a noble Sesto in "Deh, per questo."

Throughout the program, which also gives the singer a chance to portray Gluck's Paride and Iphigenie and Mozart's Idamente and Cecilio, there is an abundance of colorful, communicative phrasing that illuminates the stylistic differences and common interest in expressive eloquence between the two composers. Nothing here is taken for granted, and the commitment from Graham is fully matched by conductor Harry Bicket, who gets lively, transparent playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

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