Positive Feedback Logo

Notes of an Amateur: Jennifer's Koh's Bach; Gardiner's Handel; Vaughn Williams and Gerald Finzi

01-14-2021 | By Bob Neill | Issue 113

As I get older, as I said a year or so ago when I started getting older, I find myself less inclined to talk, more inclined to drop a few notes and then just point. These are three recent recordings I feel compelled to point at.

Jennifer Koh, Bach & Beyond, Part 3. Bach, Harbison, Berio. Çedille CDR 90000 199.

No one I have ever heard plays the Bach solo sonatas and partitas better than Jennifer Koh. Live (in Amherst College's Buckley Recital Hall several years ago) and on her three Bach and Beyond CD's, she stands alone. Defense? When a performer and her performance make all of the usual adjectives sound useless, it is likely we are there. I am setting her above or at least apart from Millstein, Kuijken, Haendel, Podger, Zuckerman, Kremer, Huggett, Ibragimova, Faust, Hahn, Schmid, and Kaplan. It would be more appropriate to offer this as an opinion than a judgment, which is my usual course. But sometimes even a confessed amateur knows his opinion is more than an opinion.

Bach's Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 are accompanied here by two interesting works for solo violin from Luciano Berio and John Harbison, the latter written expressly for Koh and is a premier recording. As with all of Harbison, it will grow on you if you give it space and time.

The whole makes a wonderful recital.

Handel, Semele. Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists. John Eliot Gardiner. (3 CDs) Soli Deo Gloria SDG 733.

It is a huge delight to hear John Eliot Gardiner and his troops do this wonderfully melodic opera (recorded live in a stage version—but how would one tell?). All of the brilliance and infectious energy they bring to their Bach recordings is here, taken up a lyric level as is right for Handel. All new soloists (to me). Soprano Louise Alder in the title role and counter tenor Carlo Vistoli are lights out. Where does Gardiner find these people?! Baroque opera seldom works as opera to those of us living three plus centuries later, but as we've learned, what matters that? It's the music, silly, always has been. Great music, great performance, great recording.

Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5; Finzi, Clarinet Concerto. Philharmonia Orchestra, Michael Collins, clarinet & conductor. BIS 2367 SACD.

Two works from the core, I should say heart, of twentieth century English romanticism. If you have a soft spot for this 'school,' you'll love this recording. Collins is a terrific clarinetist, who has become a good deal more than I remember him 'live' at the Aldeburgh Festival in Snape Maltings in 2004. This program is all his and he has a great feel for it. Vaughan Williams is the better known composer here but to my ears Finzi has always been the king of English romanticism. Some of his music is quite simply heart-stopping. The Clarinet Concerto is his best known work and was the first music I ever heard of his. It flowers at the hands of Collins. You know what you're getting from Vaughan Williams, so you won't be surprised. But I promise you will be moved. No one, not even the most eloquent Americans, do romanticism like the English.


Systems used for this audition: Resolution Audio Cantata 3.0 CD player w/BlackJack power cord; Gilbert Yeung Design solid state NSI "G" integrated amplifier with Jean Marie Reynaud Voce Grande loudspeakers; Audio Note Tonmeister Meishu Silver Signature integrated 300B tube amplifier with Audio Note E/Spe HE loudspeakers; Crimson interconnects and speaker cable; Mapleshade Samson equipment rack.

Bob Neill, a former equipment reviewer for Enjoy the Music and Positive Feedback, is proprietor of Amherst Audio in Western Massachusetts which sells equipment from Audio Note (UK), Gilbert Yeung Design (formerly Blue Circle) (Canada), Jean Marie Reynaud (France), and Resolution Audio (US).