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Classical Music

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos no 1-4 / Britten (Penguin Music Classics Series) "Click me to Order"

Brahms, Shostakovich / Bashmet, Moscow Soloists

Violists constantly complain about the scarcity of romantic works for their instrument. Yuri Bashmet added two by transforming Brahms's Clarinet Quintet and Shostakovich's 13th String Quartet into vehicles for solo viola and chamber orchestra. His justification is that Brahms did indeed suggest that a viola could replace the clarinet, and that Shostakovich's quartet features the viola and is dedicated to a violist. The Brahms transcription (Bashmet's own) is not successful: the texture is muddy; the work's intimacy, atmosphere, and character are lost. Moreover, the balance is poor and the playing shows little respect for Brahms's austere, mature, mellow style. The Shostakovich, in Tchaikovsky's arrangement, is much better. This music is in Bashmet's blood; taking over the solo passages not only of the viola part, but of all the others, he gives the death-haunted bleakness and wild agony of the piece an aching, numbing, emotional immediacy. The ending--a surging, high-pitched unison tone that abruptly breaks off at its peak--has been described as "a blinding white light and then--nothing," but the effect is undercut by the arrangement, which adds a low note at the last moment. --Edith Eisler

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos no 1-4 / Britten (Penguin Music Classics Series) "Click me to Order" Bach: Brandenburg Concertos no 1-4 / Britten (Penguin Music Classics Series)

The author essays found in the Penguin Music Classics collection are always an interesting read. For instance, in his liner notes for the Brandenberg Concertos, Douglas Adams describes how Bach's music is always distinguishable, no matter how experimental the instrumentation--from steel drum to nose flute. Bach, he asserts, "is pure music." The irony here, of course, is that the recording paired with Adams insight is anything but groundbreaking--there's not a nose flute, melodica, or bongo in sight. In fact, it's solid as a rock. Benjamin Britten leads the English Chamber Orchestra through these compositions and, though recorded in 1968, this disc definitely stands the test of time. Filled with modern instruments, this is a straightforward, and accurate, interpretation of the baroque masterpiece. --Jason Verlinde

"Click me to Order" Beethoven: Symphonies no 5 and 7 / Ashkenazy (Penguin Music Classics Series)

Recorded in the early '80s, this pairing of Beethoven's Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 is a classic. Vladimir Ashkenazy leads the Philharmonia Orchestra through these Beethoven classics in a powerful, if slightly conservative, manner. As part of the Penguin Music Classics collection, this disc features liner notes by author Arthur Miller.

Mozart: The Flute Quartets (complete) / Stern, Rampal, Rose "Click me to Order"

Mozart: The Flute Quartets (complete) / Stern, Rampal, Rose

This is the earlier and fresher of two recordings of Mozart flute quartets by Jean-Pierre Rampal. In recent years, some of Rampal's performances and recordings have been so routine that they've obscured our memory of just how fine a player he was. This obviously was a fun session for the all-star ensemble that gathered to make the recording, with Alexander Schneider (from the great Budapest Quartet) making a rare appearance as violist. While you can't tell from the music that Mozart supposedly disliked the flute, none of these pieces is anywhere near his most profound. But they are Mozart and they are very well performed. --Leslie Gerber

Schubert: Symphonien no 3 & 8 / Carlos Kleiber, Wiener "Click me to Order"

Schubert: Symphonien no 3 & 8 / Carlos Kleiber, Wiener

Carlos Kleiber's recordings are rare events, almost invariably worth the wait. This performance of the Unfinished is typical: direct, unfussy, superbly played, and unflaggingly intense. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the Vienna Philharmonic as an eager participant in the process, contributing their customary warmth and inbred sense of style. The delightful Third Symphony gets taken out for a charming workout, with the second movement zipping along at a controversially fast speed. At midprice, this reissue offers excellent value, and it's particularly nice to have the Unfinished featured as the major work. As Kleiber shows, it deserves the attention. --David Hurwitz

Gluck: Don Juan, Semiramis - Ballet Pantomimes / Bruno Weil "Click me to Order"

Gluck: Don Juan, Semiramis - Ballet Pantomimes / Bruno Weil

Gluck made his reputation as one of opera's great reformers. He was the 18th century's Wagner, an artist who fought against the tyranny of the singer in order to establish a more unified conception of opera in which each element was subservient to the composer's dramatic plan. But what made this radical concept work was a much more positive role for the orchestra, and it's a quality you can hear very clearly in these two ballets. The final scene of Don Juan, depicting his descent into hell, had a direct effect on Mozart when he wrote Don Giovanni. It's the first representation of real terror in music. This then is an important disc historically, but even better, it's highly entertaining musically. --David Hurwitz

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