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BIS's 40th anniversary promotion - 17 pocket-sized CD reviews 
A feature by Brian Reinhart 

Over at eClassical, their top-quality download site, BIS is holding a 40th anniversary sale, with 40 albums available at 40% off. BIS is one of my favourite labels, and between albums already in my home collection, download copies from eClassical, and listening from other sources, I was able to cobble together a few recommendations-and a few the-opposite-of-recommendations.
 
The 40th anniversary sale continues until December 31, 2013. eClassical downloads are available in 16- and 24-bit FLAC or top-quality MP3, and almost all the 40 albums come with downloadable PDF book (the earliest, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, provides only a back cover). If you wish for physical CDs, the same set of 40 albums are on sale at Presto Classical until December 11. Recordings I’m covering are listed alphabetically by composer. At the end I’ve provided links to other MusicWeb reviews for the recordings I don’t mention, which include the likes of Mozart, Sibelius and Emma Kirkby.
 
The BIS catalog numbers link to the eClassical download pages.
 
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G [32:00]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat [37:39]
Yevgeny Sudbin, piano; Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä
rec. January 2009 (No. 4), June 2010 (No. 5), Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS-SACD 1758 [69:39]
 
Yevgeny Sudbin’s opening solo in the fourth concerto is dry, sparing, not very romantic. It ends abruptly, what feels like a beat too soon, creating anticipation for the orchestra’s entry. There are other period-performance influences in the orchestral playing, if you listen closely; even if you don’t, you’re likely to be seduced by Sudbin’s playing, which over the course of the disc grows increasingly confident in the place where the two centuries and styles met. There’s the classical mettle of Haydn and the rhapsodic poetry of the years ahead, especially evident in his treatment of lyrical second themes and in his Fourth Concerto cadenza.
 
That’s not to say the performances are flawless; I wish for a stronger orchestral staccato attack on the first chords of the Fourth Concerto’s slow movement, but then, Osmo Vänskä has regularly departed from period performance practice in the pacing and phrasing of slow movements. The top-quality audio is well worth it; I listened via Naxos Music Library’s 128kbps streaming and had a far lower opinion of the playing under those conditions.
 
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 [64:48]
Helena Juntunen, soprano; Katarina Karnéus, mezzo; Daniel Norman, tenor; Neal Davies, bass-baritone; Minnesota Chorale and Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä
rec. January 2006, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, USA
BIS-SACD-1616 [64:48]
 
Every serious music critic seems to love this recording-except for me. I was cool on the whole Vänskä/Minnesota Beethoven symphony cycle, actually, after an initial positive impression which wore off over time. The general impression, to me, is flawless mechanical precision, like a robot which can play Beethoven perfectly. It’s like Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov in chess.
 
Osmo Vänskä drills the Minnesota Orchestra so well they’re almost too perfect. Some moments feel inhuman. There are no impulsive phrases, or indulgent solos, or quirky idiosyncrasies (though pianissimos can be inaudible). Tempos are usually quick, though not fiery like Gardiner’s. The sound is bone-dry, rendering everything with MRI clarity. Apparently I’m the only person who thought the process a little soulless, but there you go. I find a greater surge of emotion in Abbado/BPO, Wand, Dohnányi, Gardiner, and Karajan ’63.
 
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Varied choral music (see eClassical for tracklist)
Det Norske Solistkor; Grete Pedersen
rec. November 2006, Ris kirke, Oslo, Norway
BIS-SACD-1661 [58:18]
 
The Nordic Soloists Choir present an impeccable selection of Grieg songs-and it doesn’t get better than this. Follow along in the PDF texts as they highlight overlooked masterpieces like “Landkjenning (Land-Sighting)” and the “Ave maria stellis.” This is just gorgeous music, for anybody who wishes the Lyric Pieces were sung. If the performances can be bettered, I’d love to hear it.
 
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 [15:11]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 2 [16:49]
Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak, wind band version [7:52]
Old Norwegian Romance with Variations [24:29]
Bell Ringing, Op. 54 No. 6 [3:59]
rec. February 2003 (Romance), June 2004 (Bell Ringing, Funeral March), November 2005 (Peer Gynt), Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
Bergen Philharmonic; Ole Kristian Ruud
BIS-SACD-1591 [68:20]

The sale includes two volumes from Ole Kristian Ruud’s series of the complete Grieg orchestral works, which are now up against stiff competition in the form of series from Bjarte Engeset (Naxos, almost done) and Eivind Aadland (Audite, almost halfway). This first album showcases the Peer Gynt suites. Aside from “Ase’s Death,” which is a little lacking in emotional intensity, the selections are well-done, especially “Ingrid’s Lament.” The Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak is some of the most searing, powerful, awe-inspiring music Grieg ever wrote.
 
The Old Norwegian Romance with Variations is warm, inviting, and richly played; this is a work that deserves far bigger notice, being as it is the ultimate romantic soul-food music. Bell-Ringing, from the Lyric Pieces, is the impressionistic encore. This is a disc I can recommend very highly, equaling Engeset’s versions at every turn.
 
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
In Autumn, overture [13:00]
Piano Concerto in A minor [30:54]
Symphony in C minor [33:42]
Noriko Ogawa, piano; Bergen Philharmonic; Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. February 2002 (Symphony), June 2002, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS-SACD-1191 [77:36]
 
This first album was, to me, the low point of the Ruud Grieg series; the piano concerto is a little sluggish up against Gimse/Engeset on Naxos (though in better sound), and it has a hard time fitting on the shelf alongside classic performances by pianists like Leif Ove Andsnes, Arthur Rubinstein, or Murray Perahia. Then there’s the In Autumn overture, downright sedate compared to the Naxos reading, which is a full two minutes faster. (Tradeoff: Naxos’ Royal Scottish National Orchestra has more dominant, indeed aggressive brass, which you may love or hate.) The Symphony is better than its reputation suggests - the composer withdrew it, believing it unworthy - but this album only entices if you’ve never heard the symphony before and want to.
 
La Spagna
Music by 21 composers and ‘anonymous’ (see eClassical for tracklist)
Atrivm Mvsicæ Madrid; Gregorio Paniagua
rec. April 1980, Chapel of the Imperial College, Madrid
BIS-SACD-1963 [download version 87:41] 

For thirty years now this has been a stone-cold classic in the field of early music. The starting-point is the idea of an hour’s worth of different takes on the old folk tune “La Spagna,” which takes on such widely different guises here that half the time it’s unrecognizable. Gregorio Paniagua & Co. assembled the Renaissance equivalent of the Goldberg or Diabelli variations. And then they added nearly jazz-like inventiveness in scoring, ornamentation, voicing. The promo materials tell me one of the instruments was a plastic cup.
 
This edition was remastered (the album was not originally an SACD), and eClassical downloaders get a bonus track which brings the album’s length to a heavenly 88 minutes.
 
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 [27:47]
Clarinet Quintet in A, K581 [36:28]
Martin Fröst, basset clarinet; Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Peter Oundjian (concerto), Vertavo Quartet (quintet)
rec. April 2002, Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht, The Netherlands (concerto), November 2002, Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden (Quintet)
BIS-SACD-1263 [64:15]
 
Martin Fröst’s first Mozart album features basset clarinet playing as smooth, cool, and flawless as an ice-skating rink. He’s basically perfect, and does his colleagues (the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Vertavo Quartet) no favors. They’re very good, but a lot of performers end up sounding like mortals alongside Fröst and his clarinet-Clooney charisma. Oh, he writes his own cadenzas for the concerto, too. Definitely worth having even if you already have other recordings.
 
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Divertimento in E flat, K563 [47:08]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Trio in B flat, D471 [10:56]
Trio Zimmermann
rec. July 2009 (Mozart), July 2010 (Schubert), Nybrokajen 11, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-SACD-1817 [58:04]
 
This is an incredibly stylish, charming modern-style performance of one of Mozart’s chamber masterworks. The Trio Zimmermann is an all-star ensemble of soloists: violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann (on Fritz Kreisler’s old Strad), violist Antoine Tamestit (who is so good that had Mozart known he would play this, there would surely be more viola solos), and cellist Christian Poltéra. A quick scientific test confirms this disc to be an ideal album for listening while lying in bed with a book on a lazy weekend morning, provided you have headphones or bedroom speakers which can convey the flawless chamber-hall acoustic.
 
There is a Naxos release of the Mozart divertimento, released almost simultaneously with this one, also with three starry performers. Nobody seems to have compared them before, but they’re not too dissimilar. The Naxos recording is a mere 14 seconds faster, with identical timings for a couple movements; it comes with a four-minute Mozart trio fragment, while this comes with Schubert’s. During the eClassical sale, BIS has a rare price advantage.
 
Arvo PÄRT (1935-)
Includes Fratres, Spiegel im Spiegel, Concerto on B-A-C-H, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (see eClassical for full tracklist, artist list, and recording dates and venues)
rec. 1988-2002
BIS-CD-1434 [75:09]
 
This album is so comprehensive that if you just add in the ‘Tabula Rasa’ and a choral album, you’ll have a complete greatest-hits collection of Arvo Pärt. Many a masterwork is here, from the elegiac Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin Britten to the tiny ‘For Alina,’ the simple piano miniature with which Part declared his artistic independence. And the compilation brings together an all-star cast of BIS recording artists, including pianist Alexei Lubimov, violinist Vadim Gluzman, and Neeme Järvi. One of the building blocks of a serious Pärt collection. 
 
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Various piano music (see eClassical for tracklist)
Roland Pöntinen, piano
rec. March 1986, Danderyd Grammar School, Stockholm, Sweden
BIS-CD-317 [57:54] 

Roland Pöntinen has been a BIS artist for about 30 years, going back to this 1980s album engineered by the company’s founder and CEO himself, Robert von Bahr. It’s an entertaining and totally pleasing recital that takes in six Gnossienes, the three famous Gymnopedies (well-played), and a series of lesser-known works, including the zanily titled Embryons desséchés. These contain a gleefully warped quote from Chopin’s funeral march and a number of trick endings where Pöntinen plays the triumphant final chord, and then plays it again, and then plays it again, and then…
 
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Eighteen sonatas (see eClassical for tracklist)
Yevgeny Sudbin, piano
rec. 10-12 October 2004, Västerås Concert Hall, Västerås, Sweden
BIS-CD-1508 [73:06] 

There’s a story that Yevgeny Sudbin, at the time in his mid-twenties, was asked by BIS to do an all-Scarlatti album for his debut and, knowing little of the composer, hurriedly read through all 555 sonatas, picking out the ones he found most engaging and learning them on the fly. Somehow this turned into one of everybody’s consensus top Scarlatti albums of all time.
 
I guess all I can say is: if you like the sounds pianos make, and you don’t have this album, consider it mandatory. Sudbin “piano-fies” these sonatas, originally for harpsichord, and the results are as carefully considered, and as fully exploitative of the piano’s color palette, as Scarlatti recitals by the likes of Horowitz. Sudbin is less eagerly eccentric than Pletnev; indeed a good word might be “impeccable.” A flawless debut.
 
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano music, including Sonatas Nos. 2, 5, 9 (see eClassical for tracklist)
Yevgeny Sudbin, piano
rec. August 2006, Västerås Concert Hall, Västerås, Sweden
BIS-SACD-1568 [55:17] 

Sudbin’s follow-up, devoted to Scriabin, raised the bar even further. Be sure to download the PDF, as his liner notes are a true delight to read. As for the music: well, from the soft brooding of the opening prelude Op. 8 No. 12, in sensible contrast to lesser pianists who clatter through at a constant forte, through to a terrifying Messe noire where the silences weigh as heavily as the chords, this is a classic. The first movement of Sonata No. 2 comes off as a murky impressionist cloud, as if J.M.W. Turner had painted the night sky. Sudbin is just as comfortable lighting up the mazurkas, with strong accents, danceable rhythms, and a strong hint of the fact that he’d go on to record a classic Chopin album, too. (That Chopin was one of my 2012 Recordings of the Year.)
 
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, original version [39:00]
Violin Concerto in D minor, final version [34:29]
Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Lahti Symphony; Osmo Vänskä
rec. 19-21 November, 1990 (final), 7-10 January, 1991 (original), Ristinkirkko, Lahti, Finland
BIS-CD-500 [73:29]
 
This was a Gramophone award winner, and the recipient of universal praise since. That universal praise has left me feeling like my ears are broken.
 
The musicological interest of comparing the two versions of the violin concerto are massive. You can get a productive listen out of the original just thinking about what you’re hearing: the first movement especially can be like a dream where your surroundings are very familiar, but you keep turning a corner and seeing the wrong thing. Only one passage (at around 14:00) has the kind of magic I wish had made the final cut, but even the stuff that deservedly didn’t, like a second cadenza, is pretty fascinating.
 
But I can’t bring myself to like this and feel very lonely about it. Does nobody else have a problem with the unusual bleakness and desolation of mood, or the rather coldly unsympathetic playing of Leonidas Kavakos, or the way he treats the egregious virtuoso passages of the original version’s first five minutes almost with contempt, or the even more unsympathetic recording of his violin? The harsh treble and weird reverb of his solo playing bespeak a major departure from BIS’s tradition of sonic excellence. But I guess it’s just me who feels this way.
 
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82 [18:42]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42 (orch. Glazunov) [17:42]
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 [34:33]
Vadim Gluzman, violin; Bergen Philharmonic, Andrew Litton
rec. August 2007, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS-SACD-1432 [70:58]
 
I’ve heard Vadim Gluzman’s Tchaikovsky violin concerto a few times over the years since its release. It is one of my benchmark recordings for the work. Gluzman’s tone is golden all the way, and only sounds better the more you turn up the volume; the sound is wonderfully detailed and the orchestra is on beautifully romantic form. In the last 10-15 years, my lead contenders are Gluzman, Sporcl (Supraphon), Ehnes, Julia Fischer, and probably a few I’ve yet to hear. Ehnes might be the finest violinist, but his orchestra is weaker; Sporcl is an incredible live accomplishment; Fischer may be best of all. (Janine Jensen’s album suffers from stingy programming; Ilya Kaler’s is a little sleepy.)
 
Plus there are bonuses! You get the Souvenir d’un lieu cher, which has been played as beautifully but never more so, and the Glazunov violin concerto, which I’m not too fond of as a work, but hey, this is the only recording I’ll ever need. Gorgeous cover design and warm sound that fits the music.
 
Tuba Carnival
Compositions by Baadsvik, Vivaldi, Grieg, Plau, Lundén-Welden, Stevens, Arban, Monti, all arranged by Øystein Baadsvik (see eClassical for tracklist)
Øystein Baadsvik, tuba; Musica Vitae; Bjorn Sagstad
rec. 9-14 June, 2002, Furuby Church, Furuby, Sweden
BIS-CD-1285 [58:42]
 
The first track is the standout here, and it costs less than a candy bar. On “Fnugg” tuba player Øystein Baadsvik starts off by turning his instrument into a makeshift didgeridoo, then starts a series of completely indescribable effects I didn’t know existed. It’s all in service to something sounds like Australian tribes dabbling in 1970s funk. (Baadsvik wrote it himself.) There’s also a lovely, tuneful mini-concerto by Arild Plau for tuba and strings, plus a bunch of arrangements of things like the Monti Csárdás and a Grieg Norwegian Dance. Baadsvik’s playing never ceases to be jaw-dropping (those fast repeated notes in the Vivaldi!) but I definitely tired of hearing so much tuba music after a half-hour.
 
Full album for enthusiasts, a few tracks for everyone else. If you’re cherry picking, I recommend the compositions by Baadsvik, Plau, Lundén-Welden, and Arban: tracks 1, 6-8, 10, and 12.
 
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons [38:22]
Concerto in D minor for viola d’amore, lute, and orchestra, RV540 [11:56]
Concerto in G minor for recorder, bassoon, and orchestra, ‘La Notte’, RV439 [8:56]
Nils-Erik Sparf; Drottningholm Baroque Orchestra
rec. probably in 1984 (info not provided)
BIS-CD-275 [59:14] 

Every label has to record a Four Seasons when it’s just starting out, and they all seem to be bestsellers. (See also: Naxos 8.550056; Takako Nishizaki’s outing with Slovak forces sold over a million copies.) This one, with Nils-Erik Spark piloting the Drottningholm Baroque, is perfectly fine, but it’s the only album out of this entire series whose recorded sound I can grumble about (a bit heavy on treble), and with the likes of Europa Galante/Biondi/Virgin about, it’s not a top choice. Maybe you won’t be able to resist the sale price.
 
Or maybe you should buy the two concertos that aren’t the Four Seasons - they involve a whole bunch of different instruments - for the crazy low price of $2. The viola d’amore and lute concerto brings the starry duo of Monica Huggett and Jakob Lindberg in the solo roles.
 
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, Op. 73 [18:30]
Clarinet Quintet in B flat, Op. 34 (arr. Kantorow) [22:57]
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E flat, Op. 74 [21:45]
Concertino in E flat, Op. 26 [9:06]
Martin Fröst, clarinet; Tapiola Sinfonietta, Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. April 2005 (Concerto No. 1, Quintet), October 2005 (Concerto No. 2, Concertino), Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland
BIS-SACD-1523 [72:18] 

Martin Fröst and his effortless coolness strike again, this time in luminous but also ridiculously fast, virtuosic readings of the Weber concertos, plus a concertino, plus an arrangement of the not-popular-enough clarinet quintet and its zippy finale. Another all-too-easy recommendation.
 
Also Reviewed on MusicWeb
Album titles link to eClassical download pages.
Vivaldi Recorder Concertos (BIS-CD-635) - reissue review by Roy Brewer
Mendelssohn Violin Concertos (BIS-CD-935) - reissue review by Dan Morgan
Handel Sacred Cantatas with Emma Kirkby (BIS-CD-1065) - review by Robert Hugill
Sibelius/Lahti/Vanska sampler disc (BIS-CD-1125) - review by Gerald Fenech
Emma Kirkby sings Christmas music (BIS-CD-1135) - review by Colin Clarke
Telemann Overture and Concertos (BIS-CD-1185) - review by Paul Shoemaker
Classical trombone concertos (BIS-CD-1248) - review by Patrick Gary
Brautigam plays Haydn concertos (BIS-CD-1318) - review by Colin Clarke
Freddy Kempf plays Chopin (BIS-SACD-1390) - review by Colin Clarke
Victorious love: Purcell songs (BIS-SACD-1536) - review by Michael Greenhalgh
Mozart Flute Concertos and more (BIS-SACD-1539) - review by Carla Rees
J.S. Bach Mass in B minor (BIS-SACD-1701-02) - review by Jens Laurson
Handel Concertos Op. 6 (BIS-SACD-1705-06) - review by Dominy Clements
J.S. Bach Motets (BIS-SACD-1841) - review by Michael Cookson
Mozart Piano Concertos 24 and 25 (BIS-SACD-1894) - review by Dominy Clements
Mozart Oboe Music (BIS-SACD-2007) - review by Dominy Clements
My Love - Malena Ernman (BIS-NL-CD-5020) - review by Christopher Howell
 
 
As you visit the eClassical sale, remember to keep some cash left over Christmas gifts. Or, maybe give everyone USB sticks with great classical albums pre-loaded! 
 
View the complete sale listings here.

 


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