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Noteworthy CDs

Notable CDs | Five noteworthy classical-music releases reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I

Style: A harpsichord rendering of the first of Bach's two pantonal, contrapuntal, and momentously influential sets of 24 preludes and fugues.

Worldview: "True art is to conceal art, and this Bach, as always, achieves in music that is never merely subservient to technical requirements" (the liner notes).

Overall quality: As performed by Beauséjour, these 285-year-old pieces shimmer afresh, each one a crystalline window less into the past than into eternity.

Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No. 6

Style: The full flowering of the Ukrainian composer's "metaphorical style," in which avant-garde freedom paradoxically enlivens traditional Romantic melody and form.

Worldview: Silvestrov "invites us to ponder the future of music in an existential sense. . . . Is his species of symphony a vision of utopia? Perhaps" (the notes).

Overall quality: The five deeply serious movements simultaneously embody Silvestrov's individual musical and the formerly Soviet East's collective spiritual maturation.

Rodrigo: Piano Music 2

Style: Eight piano works written by the prolific Valencian composer and pianist between 1923 and 1981.

Worldview: "The music of Joaquín Rodrigo is a homage to the rich and varied cultures of Spain. No other Spanish composer has drawn on so many different aspects of his country's spirit as sources of inspiration" (from joaquin-rodrigo.com).

Overall quality: A fascinating and delightful rediscovery; does for Spain what Edward MacDowell did for America.

Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. IV

Style: Schiff's April 24, 2005, concert recording (sans applause) of the last four piano sonatas of Beethoven's early period (opp. 26, 27/1, 27/2 ["Moonlight"], and 28 ["Pastorale"]).

Worldview: That Beethoven composed "psychologically" (Schiff's term), providing as many possibilities for training the mind as opportunities to delight the ear.

Overall quality: In his liner interview Schiff makes specific arguments regarding Beethoven interpretation; in his precise and nuanced performances, he wins them.

Béla Bartók/Paul Hindemith

Style: Bartók's Schoenberg-meets-Bulgarian-folk String Quartet No. 5 (1934) paired with Hindemith's Schoenberg-meets-German-expressionism String Quartet No. 4, op. 22 (1921).

Worldview: That politics fade (Bartók opposed the Nazis; Hindemith was an occasional, if apparently grudging, Nazi puppet) while art endures.

Overall quality: The slashing severity of the Zehetmair Quartett captures the fundamental unity of these two compositions, which still sound ahead of their time even 73 and 86 years after their completion.

Spotlight

Prolix by modern standards, the subtitle of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I is, as an explanation of Bach's goals and the work's enduring popularity, a model of concision: "[P]reludes and fugues in all tones and semitones, in the major as well as the minor modes, for the benefit and use of musical youth desirous of knowledge as well as those who are already advanced in this study. For their especial diversion. . . ." Given the concentration required to follow the pieces' intricacies, the word diversion comes off like deadpan wit.

Examples abound that, the passing of centuries notwithstanding, Bach's intricacies remain possible not only to follow (and to enjoy) but also to execute. The latest is The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (Naxos) by the Canadian harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour. Faithful to Bach's score and its historical context (the harpsichord was one of several keyboard, or "clavier," instruments Bach could've had in mind), Beauséjour's recording constitutes diversion of a most "especial" kind indeed.

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