Classic Recordings, Old, New & Nuts

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The New York Sun

Bernarda Fink is one of the best Bach singers in the world, and she’s also the most prominent exponent of Argentinean song. I’d better explain. Ms. Fink, a mezzo-soprano, was born in Buenos Aires, of Slovenian parents. She takes care to honor Argentinean composers, both onstage and on CD. From Harmonia Mundi, we now have a disc called “Canciones Argentinas.”

Ms. Fink is not alone on this disc, joined by her brother, Marcos, a bass-baritone. Mr. Fink is not the singer Ms. Fink is, but that is an unfair comparison: Bernarda Fink is truly one of the greats among us. Her singing is both free and correct, natural and disciplined. Marcos Fink is pleasant and appealing enough too, and the siblings are accompanied stylishly by a third Argentinian: the pianist Carmen Piazzini.

The Argentinean repertory is a very attractive subset of the overall Spanishlanguage repertory. The two bestknown composers on this disc are Carlos Guastavino (1912–2000) and Astor Piazzolla (1921–92), but the several others merit exposure, too. One thing’s sure: All Argentinean composers are lucky that Bernarda Fink’s parents made their way south (and west).


The flutist of the moment — the flutist of our time, probably — is Emmanuel Pahud, born in Geneva. Mr. Pahud is principal flutist in the Berlin Philharmonic, but he spends plenty of time soloing. On a CD from EMI Classics, he plays concertos of Vivaldi, and he does so with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti.

Vivaldi was fond of the flute, and treated it well. Some of these concertos have nicknames, or subtitles, suggesting a program: “La tempesta di mare” (“The Sea Storm”), “Notte” (“Night”). Those pieces sound that way, too, after you have been tipped off. And most of these concertos are brief, clocking in at six or seven minutes. We’re not talking Brahmsian length.

In Vivaldi’s concertos, you want sprightliness, incisiveness, clarity. Mr. Pahud gives you those qualities, and all the others required. His technique is dazzling, and he can do basically whatever he likes with his sound: this inflection, that. One thing to know about Mr. Pahud is that he can really breeze through a slow movement. A Largo may feel like an Allegro moderato, which is all right. But a tad more savoring and lyricism would sometimes be nice.

The orchestra threatens a “period” roughness now and then. But mostly it is merely tight and bold.And the disc reminds us that Vivaldi — prolific, and sometimes taken for granted — was an awfully good composer.


Spend a moment, now, with some historical recordings, from Sony Classics. I’ll touch on two recent entries in their “Great Performances” series.

The first CD gives us music of Mussorgsky, principally his opera “Boris Godunov” (or excerpts therefrom). In the spotlight are George London, the great American bass, and Thomas Schippers, the great American conductor,who died at 47 (almost 30 years ago). These men made this recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in 1961.

The role of Boris meant a lot to London, as he explains in liner notes reprinted here. It was the ambition of his career to sing the role. And he did so — does so — resplendently, intelligently,movingly. He was not just a beautiful singer (which he was), but a dramatically alive one. And what a talent, Schippers. Every time you hear a recording of his, you sort of feel the early loss of him.

Filling out this disc is a “Pictures at an Exhibition” conducted by Eugene Ormandy. The orchestra, needless to say, is the Philadelphia — the one that Ormandy led for almost 45 years. This particular performance was recorded in 1966.

Ormandy had many gifts, but perhaps his primary one was ear: He could hear subtly and unfalteringly, and this may have been especially important in sonic spectaculars like “Pictures” (which we have in the Ravel orchestration). And, boy, could this orchestra play! Do you remember? They really were the “Fabulous Philadelphians.”

They are impressive collectively, but the solo playing is impressive too — try, for instance, the suave and slightly bluesy saxophone.


In 1964, Glenn Gould recorded the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions of Bach. And Sony’s reissue reminds us of what this pianist was: brilliant, maddening, eccentric as all get-out. He could play like a machine — cold and hammering — or he could play like the most sensitive fellow in music. He could bludgeon the keys like a longshoreman; or he could play like an angel. Depending. (On what, who knows?)

In the Inventions, there is something wrong in the middle register of Gould’s piano. In his liner notes — “A Word About the Piano” — he refers to the instrument’s “nervous tic” or “hiccup”; I would call it a quiver or a bleat.Anyway, it’s highly annoying — wrong, actually — but Gould counts it a “charming idiosyncrasy.”

Sony’s disc includes outtakes, from a couple of different recording sessions. Gould — a control freak to end all control freaks — would have a fit, to know they are in public hands. But he’s not here.

In these outtakes, you can hear him both playing and talking. “I was cheated by one note,” he says, after a rendition of the F-major three-part invention.”I think there was a fadeout on one note,”he says, after playing the B-minor three-part invention. He plays that over and over, getting angrier and more jabbing every time.

I’m sorry, but he was a nut job, Glenn Gould.He was also a musician who compels us to hear him, over and over.

The New York Sun

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