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Pittwater Life, July 2006

Not bad performances of either work by any means. The Battle on the Ice in Alexander Nevsky could take a bit more edge, while the Kije Suite (about an officer created?? and ultimately killed by a bureaucratic bungle) has a freshness about it. Not top notch performances but more than a bargain at the price. The orchestral sounds are clean, the chorus work well controlled.

Pittwater Life, July 2006

Not bad performances of either work by any means. The Battle on the Ice in Alexander Nevsky could take a bit more edge, while the Kije Suite (about an officer created?? and ultimately killed by a bureaucratic bungle) has a freshness about it. Not top notch performances but more than a bargain at the price. The orchestral sounds are clean, the chorus work well controlled.

Alan Rich
L.A. Weekly, May 2006

Claude Vivier was born in Montreal in 1948 to anonymous parents, raised in an orphanage and then by foster parents named Vivier. Honored eventually as a brilliant if disturbing composer, he ended up in Paris, where, at 34, he was stabbed to death in his apartment by a young man he had picked up in a bar. On his worktable there was found a completed manuscript, a cantata for voices and orchestra whose narrator tells of cruising a young man who then stabs him to death; the piece ends with the same sudden shock, and then silence, that took place in Vivier’s room. In the hourlong documentary that is part of Dreams of a Marco Polo, a new two-disc DVD produced by Opus Arte and distributed here by Naxos, a Canadian friend of Vivier’s reads some of the composer’s last letters, which talk of suicide in the most haunting way; there are also hints that another project, which he never began, was to be a dramatic work in which the despairing Tchaikovsky, naked and in full acceptance of his homosexuality, confronts the ways of taking his own life. The DVD set — discs and cover alike — is all in black, as it should be.

In 1971, at 23, Vivier had attracted good notices in Canada, and was sent to Europe on a stipend. There he joined the circle around Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, the story goes, was repelled by the stink of his ancient sheepskin jacket — see photo) and developed his own powerful insights into music as ritual, music as a function of color, music saturated with the scents and the sense of the East. By the time of his death, his praise had been sung by György Ligeti and by the enterprising leadership of the Netherlands Opera. The 150 minutes of Vivier’s music that fills out this extraordinary DVD set has been pieced together by the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (who brought us Louis Andriessen’s music during the Minimalist Jukebox, and who becomes a compelling, wise presence as video host) and the Netherlands Opera’s Pierre Audi. Powerful, insinuating, drenched in a restless passion, it is by some distance the strongest music by a Canadian composer I have ever heard, the first I have heard that stands absolutely free from the shadow of that country’s southern neighbor.

Overall, the sequence has been given the name Dreams of a Marco Polo, assuming Vivier himself as the self-proclaimed restless wanderer through many worlds. It begins with his short opera Kopernikus, subtitled “a ritual opera of death,” which involves not so much the medieval scientist as it does real and mythical figures (Lewis Carroll, Merlin, Tristan . . .) around whom dazzling, blinding light images take shape. Into a “Marco Polo” collage several of Vivier’s shorter works have been blended, including Lonely Child, achingly sad evocations of a neglected childhood, set for soprano and ethereal strings. The sense of suffering builds; the final work is the piece on the table in the fateful room. “Do you believe,” the chorus intones, “in the immortality of the soul,” with that “immortality” in German — “unSTERBlichkeit” — itself like a dagger’s thrust. I find a comparable shock, actually, in the impact of this whole astonishing program.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, May 2006

Recorded live in concert in Lille, France on June 1, 1994, this Nevsky and Kije were first released on Harmonia Mundi, probably the following year. Naxos, already with a fine Nevsky in its catalogue from Dmitry Yablonsky which I reviewed favorably about three years ago here at Classical Net, decided to acquire this older effort from Harmonia Mundi. I guess one can understand why: Casadesus’ Nevsky is a fine one that was largely overlooked on its initial release. But like virtually all of the better versions of the work, it falls a bit short of greatness. On its plus side, Eva Podles is excellent in the Field of The Dead, surpassing most, if not all, of her competition. The sound is excellent: too bad most studio recordings don’t feature such vivid sonics. For a live recording from more than a decade ago, I have to say this is simply spectacularly recorded.

Moreover, Casadesus reads the score with consistent insight and his orchestra plays brilliantly, from the grim opening to the dark Crusaders in Pskov, to the powerful Battle on the Ice and finally to the triumphant closing panel, Alexander’s Entry into Pskov. So what’s wrong with this performance? Not much. It could be a bit more intense in places: the Battle on the Ice, for example, while good, could have a little more punch, and the opening, Russia under the Mongolian Yoke, a tad more darkness and foreboding. That said, this must be ranked among the finest recordings of the work. Other critics will disagree, if I can extrapolate from a sampling I’ve made recently and from sources of a decade ago. I’d rank this with the previous top contenders: Abbado (DG), the deleted Ormandy (RCA), the probably deleted Svetlanov (Melodiya and other labels), Previn (Telarc and, earlier, EMI), and maybe Jarvi (Chandos). Even Naxos’ other entry, the Yablonsky, is quite good and a contender in its own right.

As for the Kije here, this light work gets a fine reading as well, but of course the competition in this piece is even deeper, with the 1950s Reiner/CSO (I’ve never been a great admirer of Reiner’s Nevsky, though) a tough effort to surpass. The orchestra plays quite well in both works and the chorus, in the Nevsky, sings with flair and a good idiomatic sense, to boot. All in all, I’d rate this a fine disc, fully competitive with the better versions of both works. Enthusiastically recommended.

David Blomenberg
MusicWeb International

Naxos has re-released this briskly-paced performance originally available on Harmonia Mundi.

My first impression is how clean this recording is for a live concert. There is very little "audience participation", and, as a previous reviewer has made mention, the miking of the orchestra is up close with just that clear immediacy that this music demands.

The opening "Russia under the Mongolian Yoke" is performed quite quickly, almost a full minute (for a three minute-long piece) faster than Previn’s recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Telarc, and half a minute faster than Chailly’s with the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca/London. For the expansiveness of the music, this sacrifices nuance and contrast, which Chailly and Previn have in greater measure on their respective recordings. Chailly, and, especially, Previn, have greater intensity here, which better sets the stage for the entrance of the chorus in the following "Song about Alexander Nevsky". For this particular section, Casadesus’s brisker pace works well, supplementing the bravado and snap at "Oh how we fought, how we hacked them down!" The choir does better here, with the brash tone of the soldiers bragging of a good fight. Following this, the pace, unfortunately, is also fairly fast for the wonderfully menacing "Entry of the Crusaders into Pskov". Considering that the representation is of robed crusaders and the oppression they bring, the impact is blunted with the crusaders hustling into the city gates at a rather quick clip after a wonderful slight decelerando from the orchestra. Chailly has more hushed intensity from the orchestra and chorus alike, taking the instrumental sections more quickly than the choral. Casadesus takes the inverse approach, with the choral sections faster.

The climax of the piece, "The Battle on the Ice," with its ominous repeated semitone in the lower strings (the inspiration for John Williams’s Jaws theme?) here also disappoints, with the music starting too softly and, in comparison to Chailly and especially to the Previn, with not enough intensity from the chorus on their entry into the fray with their nonsense Latin chant. Once the smoke is finally swept from the trampled snow, the human cost is counted in the hauntingly beautiful "The Field of Death" gorgeously sung by Eva Podles. It is here that the Casadesus recording truly shines. The dark quality of Podles’s voice hits the mark perfectly. She is emotive and intense; Arkhipova, with Chailly, sounds brittle by comparison. This is the high point of the disc — a wonderful performance. Lyrics, along with translations into English only are in the booklet.

The second work is also film music, and of an entirely different tone. Prokofiev always did well with sarcasm and satire, and what better vehicle for that than a film based on governmental ineptness and bureaucracy? Based on Tynyanov’s book — and safely set in times comfortably prior to the Revolution — the film concerns the exploits of an imaginary officer, created by clerical error. Here Casadesus does very well, always with a focus on the fun being poked. The "Romance" section — famously nicked by Sting for his song "Russians,"—plods along comically, and Kije’s wedding music is wonderfully over-inflated and pompous. The closing "Death of Kije" has gravitas, along with the collective sigh of relief from the officials that the troublesome non-existent officer is finally done away with once the empty coffin is put underground.

These are fine performances, but one I’d not choose over other available recordings. For the price, however, the disc is worth purchasing for the wonderful six-and-a-half minutes of Podles’s performance of “The Field of Death".

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