CD Roundup: Mozart, Schubert & Von Stade’s ‘Coffin’


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?




Three recently released recordings reviewed:

Anderson & Roe, duo pianists
An Amadeus Affair
Steinway & Sons 30022

Duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, noted for their innovative concerts, videos and recordings, have put together a sparkling new CD devoted to Mozart. The selections include only one piece Mozart actually composed, the rest being divided between transcriptions of his music by legendary pianists and new transcriptions by the duo themselves. The combination makes for a smile-inducing, involuntarily toe-tapping delight.

The fun starts with the fizzy, whirling “Duettino concertante,” Ferruccio Busoni’s version of the third movement of the Piano Concerto No. 19. Anderson and Roe give it jaunty verve, sweeping the listener along with impressive dynamic range and crisp fingering. Then there’s Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” a fantasy on themes from Don Giovanni. This mesmerizing piece, the disc’s highlight, spins the simple melody of “La ci darem la mano” into extravagantly embroidered digressions alternately sparkling and weighty and does the same for the effervescent “Champagne Aria,” all played with cheeky showmanship and pristine technique.
Anderson and Roe’s own contributions are best in some lovely, heartfelt selections from Cosi fan tutte, including the floating interweavings of the Act I finale. A solemn chorale from The Magic Flute and a somewhat out-of-place ragtime version of the “Turkish Rondo” are less engaging, and the pair gives a rather introspective performance of the Sonata in D, KV 448. But overall, this disc provides a lot of joy, aided by a warm acoustic that keeps the pianos from sounding harsh or too metallic.

Jonas Kaufmann
Schubert: Winterreise
Sony 379563

For the male classical singer, Schubert’s 1828 song cycle, Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), is a tantalizing but elusive prize.  Its 24 sections, telling the story of a rejected lover’s torment, demand every skill in a singer’s arsenal. In this 75-minute dramatic monologue, the performer must express minute gradations of emotion (anger, depression, false hope, death wishes), paying close attention to Wilhelm Müller’s poetic texts and the composer’s dynamic markings.

There have been nearly 100 recordings of Winterreise over the years. Any new contender must inevitably be compared to the work’s most lauded performer, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose eight commercial recordings set the bar for subtlety and insight.
Germany’s Jonas Kaufmann, arguably today’s top operatic tenor, enters the field with high marks. The sheer beauty, clarity, and size of his voice count for a lot here, along with his astounding range, from mere whisper to thundering cry, all produced without strain or compromise.

Interpretatively, Kaufmann is more extroverted and openly emotional than some. He may not plumb all the work’s introspective depths, but there’s a palpable intensity and an underlying vulnerability that keep the listener engaged. Pianist Helmut Deutsch, an equal partner, contributes sensitive, characterful accompaniment.

Sony’s engineers have captured the performance with great presence and balance, the voice close enough for intimate utterances but also allowing for sudden outbursts and sustained vehemence. Fans of Kaufmann’s many operatic recordings should find him equally exciting in this genre.

Frederica von Stade
Ricky Ian Gordon: A Coffin in Egypt
Albany Records TROY 1500

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s one-act chamber opera, A Coffin in Egypt, received its premiere premiered at Houston Opera in March. This Albany Records CD was recorded live during that run.  Based on a play by Horton Foote, Coffin is the semi-delusional memoir of a 90-year-old Texas woman. Swept off her feet when a young beauty by a rough country boy, she marries him and goes to live in Egypt, Texas. She soon becomes bored with town and husband, causing him to find companionship elsewhere. Bitterness over unfulfilled dreams now colors her reminiscences.

Retired mezzo Frederica von Stade was enticed at 68 to star in the production. Except for a gospel quartet, representing a neighboring black church, she is the sole vocalist. Her voice betrays some age, but it works for the part, and she sings lyrically or dramatically with equal aplomb. There is a fair amount of spoken dialog, which von Stade infuses with great character, including a genteel Texas drawl.

Gordon’s music is by turns boisterous, somber, and lyrical, mostly mirroring each section’s mood, although sometimes falling into rhythmic, swirling phrases that seem more generic than illustrative of the moment. Conductor Timothy Myers, artistic director for North Carolina Opera, gets a vivid, lively performance from the nine-member orchestra. The spoken sections often are more gripping that the vocal, but this down-to-earth piece, falling somewhere between opera and musical theater, intrigues and entertains with its quirky, almost Gothic character study.

[A version of these reviews first appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer]