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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bach, Beethoven, Liszt Get the Classical Treatment

Classical Review

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Classical music falls silent in concert halls during the summer, yet CD releases by classical labels continue year-round, giving aficionados sonically rich performances not meant for the tinny speakers of smartphones.

On Johann Sebastian Bach's Motets (Harmonia Mundi), the crystalline tones and complex harmonies of Vocalconsort Berlin under Marcus Creed rise heavenward with the towering pipes of the magnificent organ accompanying the singers. The motet was already a dying art form when Bach began writing them for his choir at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, one of the great laboratories for music later deemed “classical” but at the time considered functional. Bach had a job to do as cantor and did it extraordinarily well. The motets recorded for this new collection represent the Baroque stripped down to a powerful essence.

Bach probably would have found Beethoven's sturm und drang unsettling, but there you have it: a generation gap in classical music, which as the 18th century passed into the 19th sounded as wide as the echoing chasm that would separate big band from rock 'n' roll. Bach would never have composed the mighty “voice of God” chords opening The Creatures of Prometheus. The work for ballet is coupled with Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” on a beautiful new disc recorded for Sony Classical by Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal under Kent Nagano. Although conceived for the rhythm of dance, Prometheus has all of the symphonic grandeur, the dark roiling clouds of emotion, of “Eroica.” It's not the Sugar Plum Fairy.

On the forthrightly titled Franz Liszt (Sony Classical), the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performs eight hard pieces by the 19th-century composer whose life and legend foresaw the careers of many 20th-century rock stars. Buniatishvili's performance strikes all the sonorous notes of intensity, the inner turmoil his music suggests. The release also contains a DVD of the pianist's narration and performance, which suggests a self-indulgent student film in search of a big theme.