Craig Zeichner is the Associate Director of Marketing and Copy at Carnegie Hall. He was the Editor of Sony’s Ariama website, and a marketing executive for Naxos, PGM Recordings, and Chesky Records. Craig was the founding reviews editor for Early Music America magazine, U.S. Editor for Goldberg Early Music magazine, and a contributing writer for Gramophone Early Music, Opera News, Time Out New York, Fanfare, and other publications. He has written program notes for the St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue concert series as well as liner notes for Avie, BIS, Steinway & Sons, and other record labels. He has written travel stories about the Jewish ghettoes of Venice and Cracow as well as three children’s books about hockey.
Craig Zeichner has written 3 reviews for NativeDSD so far, which you can read below. Go get yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and enjoy the read (and the savings). We are very excited to welcome Craig as the newest member of the NativeDSD Reviewers club and hope that you are, too!
L’Amour et la foi
Danish National Vocal Ensemble
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Chamber Orchestra
Marcus Creed, Conductor
Olivier Messiaen’s choral music has never enjoyed the recognition his organ, piano, chamber, and orchestral works have. His La Nativité du Seigneur (organ), Quatuor pour la fin du temps (chamber music), and Turangalîla-Symphonie (orchestra) are regularly performed; while his Trois Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine and Cinq Rechants are heard less often. The other work on this superb recording, O sacrum convivium, might resonate for some as it does turn up occasionally as an Offertory motet during the Mass and as a stand-alone in choral concerts. No matter, this recording will dazzle you whether you hearing these works for the first time or are well-acquainted with them.
Danish National Vocal Ensemble
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Trois Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine was written during the Nazi occupation of France and shortly after Messiaen’s release from a prisoner of war camp. A visionary work, it’s a superb synthesis of the composer’s devout Christian belief and fascination with tonal color, unusual textures, and exotic rhythms—it is ecstatic worship that shouts, sings, and soars. It is also a difficult work to perform as singers have to negotiate hairpin harmonic and rhythmic turns while wrestling with its stratospheric tessitura. The women of the Danish choirs are spectacular. Their dangerously exposed entrances, often at the top part of their registers, are spot on pitch and their singing communicates the wondrous joy of the text. The Danish National Chamber Orchestra are outstanding and kudos to pianist Marianna Shirinyan, who absolutely nails the bird song passages.
The gorgeous motet O sacrum convivium is an early work and the only one in which Messiaen uses a liturgical text (this by St. Thomas Aquinas). Its fluid lyricism, chant-like style, unique harmonies, and flat-out beautiful soprano line glow in this performance. Contrasting with the frenetic passions of the Trois Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine and Cinq Rechants, the motet’s other-worldly languor is all the more powerful.
Cinq rechants, from 1948, is—like the earlier Harawi and Turangalîla-Symphonie—inspired by the Tristan and Isolde myth and was called a “love song” by the composer. Scored for 12 solo voices and sung in French and a Sanskrit-like language invented by Messiaen, it pushes the boundaries of choral writing. There’s vibrant declamatory passages, honeyed melodies contrasting with crunching dissonances and—perhaps most remarkably—voices used to color harmonies and create percussive effects. Not for the timid of heart, Cinq rechants is one of the most fascinating explorations of what the human voice is capable of.
As I mentioned earlier, the performances are stunning. The vocal ensembles’ control of dynamics is extraordinary and there is a warmth to their singing that is absolutely fetching. One key component is the sound quality. In dense passages where voices collide with instruments—like the piercing ondes martenot or percussion—there is a pinpoint clarity that allows you to hear every detail. For example, there is a passage in the Trois Petites liturgies de la Presence Divine where piano, ondes martenot, and percussion are pouring out a tremendous volume of sound, yet I was able to hear the whispering maracas through the mix. I can think of no better introduction to Messiaen’s delirious and delightful choral music than L’amour et la foi. Choral music and DSD fans, you’ll eat this one up.
Whenever I’m not familiar with the piano music of a particular composer, I’ll see if they have written a fantasy (phantasy or fantasie if you prefer). The form – birthed in the 17th century by Italian keyboardists – challenges a composer to take extravagant flights of fancy. They can push harmonic and rhythmic boundaries, cast a dramatic spell, and/or just revel in delirious virtuosity. The four fantasies by Scriabin, Chopin, Schumann, and Beethoven on this recording are some of the finest examples of the form.
Although she has performed at major concert halls around the world and has a number of noteworthy competitions under her belt, the Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova is new to me. Her delicate touch and a warm tone casts a dreamlike spell in the Andante of Scriabin’s Sonate-Fantasie, ideal for the still nighttime coast and stirring sea he envisioned. The second movement’s raging storm is brilliantly conjured by Fedorova. There’s tremendous power and precision in her playing, but through it all the tone is still beautiful. This is an outstanding performance.
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Chopin’s Fantasie in F is said to be inspired by a quarrel between the composer and his partner George Sand. The tumult is certainly there, as is tenderness, a jaunty march, and some hair-raising technical challenges. This is an imaginative work that constantly surprises. There are no issues with Fedorova’s technique (it’s stunning) or emotional heat, but the phrasing of the piece is a bit slack and an occasional episodic quality emerges. I would love to hear her play this work in the concert hall, I wonder if her conception would be different?
A loving couple also appears in Schumann’s Fantasie in C – Robert and Clara – the composer’s passionate love letter to his beloved. Fedorova deftly rides the roiling waves of the storm-tossed opening movement, while delicately moderating tone and touch for the more meditative passages. The heroic second movement benefits from Fedorova’s gift for fusing muscle and accuracy. Fedorova acquits herself marvelously in one of the great litmus tests for a performer: the piece’s dotted rhythms and surging melodies. The finale is a gorgeous musical love poem that quotes Beethoven and requires the pianist to spin a beautiful, singing line. Fedorova spills out honeyed tone and makes the passionate moments soar. It’s one of the recording’s high points for me.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight” or, more accurately, Sonata quasi una Fantasia, benefits from Fedorova’s measured pace in its haunting opening movement. The gently swaying rhythms and haunting dialogue between high and low voices create a melancholy mood that she communicates perfectly. For me, its like a Caspar David Friedrich painting come to life. She plays the brief Allegretto second movement with tenderness, if a bit rhythmically square. The Presto agitato finale is another one of those hair-raising virtuoso shows. As in the Schumann second movement, she is up to all technical challenges. Propulsive throughout, she brings authoritative weight to the grand chords that bring the work to its end.
A few words about the sound. The piano doesn’t always sound its best in recordings, but recording engineer Jared Sacks nails it here. The instrument has tremendous immediacy, but never sounds unnatural. Forte passages certainly have punch and quiet passages sound clear and crisp, but still soft. The sound honors Fedorova’s very beautiful tone but also captures the vigor of her playing. Wood, metal and ivory have rarely sounded so fine. This is Fedorova’s first project for Channel Classics and I would certainly love to hear her again—perhaps Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy or more Scriabin?
(Insider’s update: we have asked Jared Sacks of Channel Classics and in fact they are recording the 2nd solo piano album with Anna Fedorova in June 2019, including Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 and his Two Poems Op. 32. )
I was hard pressed to think of chamber works for oboe and strings that enjoy a regular place in the repertoire (other than Mozart’s quintet). The Britten Phantasy Quartet does appear from time to time as does Martinů’s Quartet, but that’s really an oboe and piano trio work. No matter, what the Australian ensemble Artaria serves up on this superb recording of music by English composers will open ears.
The English hegemony in the oboe and strings genre can likely be attributed to the virtuosity of oboist Leon Goossens, one of the preeminent performers of his day. Three of the four works on the recording were either written for or championed by him. Bax’s obsession with Ireland and all things Irish—he actually gave himself the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne—is evident in his elegiac Quintet for Oboe and Strings. Artaria revels in its remarkable color. The tremolo effects from the first violin, the use of mutes by the other strings, and keening oboe in the first movement are stunning. The central movement is breathlessly beautiful. The haunting Irish folk-tinged song has ensemble members singing together in one voice with oboist Celia Craig’s spot-on intonation and tonal warmth earning kudos. The jig that closes the work certainly sounds like it was rooted in Irish folk tradition, but is purely Bax’s invention. It’s an unusual jig too, with dark-shaded string writing that tempers the exuberance.
Celia Craig (oboe) and String Ensemble
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Britten’s youthful single-movement Phantasy Quartet was written in 1932 for the Cobbett Chamber Music competition. Cobbett was a musicologist who considered the Baroque “fantasy” the form from which all chamber music sprang. He may have been forcing the conceit, but he required entrants to compose a one-movement work of approximately 12 minutes duration. Britten warmed to the task and his Phantasy Quartet, framed by opening and closing marches, has a free-flowing quality typical of the genre. Artaria play this with great precision while also bringing an improvisatory flair to the music—everything flows quite naturally. There’s great beauty here too; particularly in the slow section which is quintessentially English pastoral music and features some of Artaria’s most inspired playing. Finzi’s 1936 Interlude for Oboe and Strings also unfolds in a single movement. This is such a passionate work, thick with emotion and inspired melodies. I’ve always considered Finzi a “clarinet composer”—he wrote one of the great, but sadly neglected concertos for the instrument—but his oboe writing is idiomatic and magnificently managed by Craig. The sensitivity of the Artaria string players is a marvel too.
After the intensity of the Finzi and Britten, the pastoral beauty of Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folk Song provides a gentle conclusion to the recording. Volumes have been written about Vaughan Williams proclivity for collecting English folk tunes and few composers—perhaps the Hungarians Bartók and Kodaly the exceptions—have successfully integrated traditional works into art music as successfully. Originally conceived as cello and piano pieces, the studies are performed here in a transcription for English horn and string quartet by Robert Stanton. When not done well this music can sound mawkish, but Artaria just lets it soar and its intrinsic beauty envelops the listener. Craig’s sweet timbre blends so beautifully with the strings (Elizabeth Layton and Anne Horton, violins, Caroline Henbest, viola, and Michael Dahlenburg, cello) that you wish there were a dozen studies to listen to!
Since we are talking DSD here I should also say a few words about the naturally robust quality of the sound. The listener is drawn close to the music and the bite of the strings is visceral—those pizzicato passages in the Britten have real presence—but it is not overbearing. Same with the oboe which blends nicely with the strings to create a true sound picture and is thankfully not miked so close that all you hear are clicking keys. Artaria is new to my ears, but welcome to return whenever they like.
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The team at NativeDSD would like to thank Craig Zeichner for these truly inspiring reviews. We sure hope to read more from you in the future!