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Les Musiques de Chagall
CD1 – Russian and Yiddish Traditions
Tracks1-3 Yiddish Songs
Moshe leiser, voice/guitar, Ami Flammer, violin, Gérard Barreaux, accordion
Tracks 4-5 Klezmer music
Ensemble Kasbek
Tracks 6-7 Songs of Old Russia
Moscow Male Voice Choir/Anatoly Grindenko
Tracks 8-9 Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Songs; If Only I had Known; Berceuse
Ina Mkrtchyan, contralto, Evgeny Talisman, piano
Tracks 10-12 Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1905-1972)
Jazz Suite no.2 (excerpts)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Track 13 Traditional Russian Song – Kalinka
Mixed Choir of Sofia/Zdravko Mihaylov
CD2 – Musical Muses
Tracks 1-2 Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
From Jewish Life; Baal Shem

Peter Bruns, ‘cello, Roglit Ishay, piano
Track 3 Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Ach, ich fühl’s from Die Zauberflöte
Sandrine Piau, soprano, Freiburg Baroque orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
Tracks 4-5 Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata BWV 1029 – Vivace
The Rare Fruits Council, Manfredo Kremer
Erbarme dich from St.Matthew Passion
Alison Browner, contralto, Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering
Tracks 6-8 Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Nocturne from Daphnis and Chloë Suite no.1
CSR Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Jean
Two Hebraic melodies
Bernard Kruysen, baritone, Noel Lee, piano
Pezzo Elegiaco from Piano Trio, op.50
Vovka Ashkenazy, piano, Richard Stamper, violin, Christine Jackson, ‘cello
Track 10 Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Amen de jugement from Visions de l’amen
Maarten Bon & Reinbert de Leeuw, pianos
Tracks 11-16 J.S.BACH
‘Cello Suite no.1
Pablo Casals, ‘cello
NAÏVE V 4955 [72:05]

This quirky 2CD set comes from Naïve, a French company that I confess I had not come across before. The idea behind the issue is to explore the musical background and enthusiasms of the painter Marc Chagall. He was born in Vitebsk, Russia, and was trained in St.Petersburg, and, after many years of travelling, settled in France in 1949, already aged 61. He lived on until 1985, and his work is a unique fusion of Russian and French culture. Much of his imagery is drawn from his Russian background, though distinctively French elements, such as the Eiffel Tower, play their part too.

Chagall loved music, and, as well as gaining inspiration from it, he was often involved in musical enterprises, as reflected in the collection here. He designed extensively for the theatre, and The Magic Flute, Daphnis and Chloë and the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio (used for Massine’s ballet Aleko), excerpts from all of which appear on CD2, represent this involvement. Chagall knew Olivier Messiaen personally, and was instrumental in organising an early performance of Visions de l’amen..

Working backwards, we find music by Ernest Bloch and, on CD1, klezmer pieces reflecting Chagall’s Jewish roots, as well as movements from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite no.2 to represent his connections with the circus, another aspect of Russian culture which features prominently in his painting. All of this suffices to show that this collection, which looks something of a hotch-potch at first sight, is in fact a cunningly devised survey of Chagall’s musical make-up. CD1 concentrates on his early Russian-Jewish origins, whereas CD2 looks at the inspirations of the mature artist.

Is this then an opportunist rag-bag of rejected performances? Emphatically not; there are some really memorable tracks here, and the links with Chagall are genuine, not contrived. Moshe Leiser’s earthy baritone in the Yiddish songs of tracks 1-3 may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, if you like your tea with a slice of lemon as I do in these hot days, you’ll appreciate his authenticity in a famous number such as Dona dona. Klezmer music is becoming ever more popular, and there are two entertaining examples here, followed by some heartfelt, if rather lachrymose, singing from the Moscow Male Voice Choir.

The first examples of composed music (as opposed to folk music) are two lovely Tchaikovsky songs, If Only I had Known and Berceuse. Now here’s one for your next general knowledge quiz down the local. Can you name a singer whose surname contains eight letters and just one vowel? Well here she is; introducing Ina Mkrtchyan! Crazy name, crazy girl as Glenda Slagg might comment from the ‘Little England’ perspective. In fact she has a wonderful voice, a true rich Russian alto, which she uses with great flexibility and deep feeling. I was sorry not to have a text to follow – Naïve’s packaging is, shall we say, minimalist in terms of information about the music – and I will certainly be looking out keenly for more opportunities to hear this remarkable singer and her equally fine accompanist, Evgeny Talisman. For those interested, these songs are taken from an opus 111 CD, OP 30219. CD1 is completed with movements from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite no.2 (nothing like as good as the first one) and a rousing Kalinka from the Mixed Choir of Sofia.

CD2 is made up of composers, some mentioned above, whose music had special significance for Chagall. Bloch’s two works get impassioned performances from Peter Bruns, and Sandrine Piau gives as near perfect an account of that most touching Mozart aria, Ach, ich fühl’s, as I’ve yet to hear, her high, pure voice rising to the taxing tessitura with no difficulty – very beautiful indeed.

The Rare Fruits Council (another great name!) give a stylish reading of the vivace from one of the Bach gamba sonatas, and Alison Browner is equally convincing in Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion, with a controlled and expressive solo from the (sadly uncredited) leader of Das Neue Orchester.

The Ravel excerpts that follow are, firstly, an unsatisfactory ‘bleeding chunk’ from the first Daphnis and Chloë suite, then two of the wonderful Hebraic Melodies, the powerful Kaddish and the haunting Eternal Enigma, both performed with deep feeling by the baritone Bernard Kruysen, with Noël Lee at the piano.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, op.50, which many rate as his finest chamber work, was written in 1881 in memory of Nikolay Rubinstein, a Russian who had died in Paris earlier that year; so again, the connection with Chagall is well founded, quite apart from the painter’s work on the sets for Aleko mentioned above. The Trio (Pezzo Elegiaco) is given a truly memorable performance by Vovka Ashkenazy (son of Vladimir), Richard Stamper and Christine Jackson. Their playing has unbridled passion where required, yet they also find room for some intensely expressive pianissimi, notably at the recapitulation of the main theme. This is compelling music-making, and all this group really need is a name! (Their performance, coupled with the Arensky Trio, is to be found on Naxos 8.550467.)

After the brief extract from Visons de l’amen, the disc concludes with a classic recording; that of Casals playing the first of the Bach ’cello suites. I must admit that, after all these bits and pieces, it was quite a treat finally to be given a substantial work in full, let alone one of this calibre and in such a performance.

Yes, bits and pieces they may be, but these CDs do make immensely enjoyable listening, and a tremendous amount of care and thought has gone into the compilation. And in the process I not only learned more about Chagall, one of my favourite painters, but also encountered some superbly talented artists for the first time. Thank-you, Naïve, I look forward to more enterprising issues of this kind.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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