New on CD: Bruckner to Barber

From chamber music to symphonies, recent choices are broad. RECORDINGS: REVIEWS

RECENT releases on compact disc offer choices - sometimes exciting ones - for a wide range of musical tastes. There is diminutive chamber music by Dvorak and Brahms, elegant Americana by Mennin and Barber, as well as music of monumental proportions by Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner.

I heard the ``Elektra'' of Strauss in November 1988, when it was offered in a semi-staged performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. The audience that night was greatly moved by what it heard. I was not. I was impressed by the intelligence, energy, and dramatic dedication of Hildegard Behrens as Elektra, but I found her voice to be startlingly unfocused and insecure. More often than not, she belted out the text somewhere in the vicinity of the notes.

Unfortunately, the live recording based on those performances of last November emphasizes not the dramatic achievements of Ms. Behrens's visual performance but her vocal lapses. The Philips recording (422574-2) offers elegant sound and a few added effects. The other singers in the recording are unexceptional.

The real achievers of the recorded performance are conductor Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Some may feel that Ozawa has ``Frenchified'' the brutal Strauss score, emphasizing its color and rich sonorities at the expense of its savagery and darkness. But there is some wonderful playing and superb conducting, which the Philips engineers have re-created with great clarity and brilliance.

North German Radio Symphony

There has been a good deal of talk in the world of music about the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Gunter Wand. Now, on CD, RCA Victor (60061-2-RC) has helped us understand what all the fuss is about. In a recording of the Bruckner ``Symphony No. 6,'' recorded live in December 1988, Wand manages to justify the enthusiasm of his European champions who have helped him to achieve an international reputation despite himself.

By comparison to jet-set star conductors, Mr. Wand is a musical recluse. He limits the number of his guest performances and disdains publicity. Part of his appeal is his position as an outsider in the current music scene. That reputation is built on more than his reserve, for he is absolutely independent in his approach to familiar scores at the same time that he is fanatical about his attention to performance detail.

Listening to his Bruckner ``Symphony No. 6'' is like hearing that great work for the first time. The Hamburg musicians of the North German Radio are ideal interpreters under Wand's musical direction, and the excitement and grandeur of their performance is beautifully captured.

Chamber music

Two recent compact discs devoted to chamber music are very much worth consideration. One is the masterful Tokyo String Quartet, joined by pianist Hiroko Nakamura, in a delightful performance of the Antonin Dvorak ``Piano Quintet,'' Opus 81. This is a superbly conceived and played work, full of intelligence, lyricism, technical skill, and charm as well as the eloquence of Ms. Nakamura's pianism. Also on this CD, the Tokyo String Quartet provides a good, if less than ideal, reading of Dvorak's ``String Quartet,'' Opus 96. The CBS Masterworks (MK 44920) recording is splendidly balanced and vivid.

Brahms sonatas

The transfer onto compact disc of Richard Stoltzman's landmark recordings of the Johannes Brahms's ``Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano,'' Opus 120, is a happy event. With pianist Richard Goode, Mr. Stoltzman again demonstrates why he is widely regarded as the foremost virtuoso on his instrument.

The 1981 full digital recording on RCA Victor (60036-2-RC) has perhaps a bit too much presence, but Stoltzman and Goode soar so brightly in these masterworks that we can only be grateful their performances are finally available on CD. Music of Peter Mennin

New World Records has been celebrating American music for more than a decade, and its achievements are often spectacular. Of recent releases one of the most attractive is a CD devoted to the music of Peter Mennin, recorded in November 1988 in Ohio by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christian Badea.

Mennin was a musical product of the 1930s and 1940s, when nationalism was a strong focus in American music. That populist spirit was short-lived. Until our own decade, when neglected American tonal music has gotten a second hearing, Mennin and his colleagues found that their music was out of fashion. In the 1950s many composers dedicated themselves to a musical manner with strong European roots.

After years of neglect, Mennin is beginning to get the attention he deserves. The New World Records compact disc (NW 371-2) features ``Symphony No. 8'' of 1973, ``Symphony No. 9'' of 1981, composed two years before the composer's death, and the ``Folk Overture.'' Conductor Badea brings passion and energy to these resurrected works, and what the Columbus Symphony Orchestra lacks in experience and style, it makes up for in dedication and concentration.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw

Perhaps the most interesting, appealing, and vocally exciting CD of recent months is a collection of music performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the direction of David Zinman (Nonesuch 9 79187-2).

The pieces are a curious and marvelous assortment of American oddities, as composer John Harbison explains in his notes - tonal music composed in America by Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Igor Stravinsky, and Mr. Harbison himself. As attractive as these compositions are, what really makes the release of this CD an event are the performances of Ms. Upshaw, who brings to her interpretations an entirely individual and convincing manner.

Upshaw renews the pathos, charm, and innocence of Samuel Barber's classic ``Knoxville: Summer of 1915.'' She shines equally in a scene from Menotti's one-act radio opera ``The Old Maid and the Thief'' and in the six ``Mirabai Songs,'' by Harbison.

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