CD Reviews: An ethereal Mozart from Toronto quartet and Messiaen to stir the depths of our souls
Here are two great classical releases that satisfy the soul in two very, very different ways. Both deserve ***1/2 (out of 4). For details on each album, click on the performers' names:
EYBLER QUARTET & JANE BOOTH
Backofen & Mozart, Theme & Variations (Analekta)
Made up of three members of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (violinists Aisslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman plus violist Patrick Jordan) as well as a frequent Tafelmusik freelancer (and very busy cellist-about-town) Margaret Gay, the six-year-old Eybler Quartet's specialty is presenting Classical-era chamber music on period instruments. It's been a long wait for this, the group's second album. On it, they are joined by accomplished period woodwind player Jane Booth. The disc's centrepiece is the exquisite, four-movement Quintet for Bassett Clarinet and Strings, K. 581, written by Mozart in 1789. It's longer than most of the composer's symphonies and concertos, showing off clever craftsmanship and, best of all, line after line of gorgeous melody for this flexible, mellow-voiced woodwind. This recording does the work full justice, rendering the music with meringue-like crispness and delicacy. Two quintets by German composer Johann Backofen (1768-1839) are also pretty, much less interesting musically (violist Max Mendel plays second viola on the B-flat Major piece). There is a particular combination of delicacy and texture that one gets from period instruments that feels especially well-suited to chamber music. All of this makes for 75 very satisfying musical minutes.
Olivier Messiaen, Livre du Saint-Sacrement (Naxos)
American organist Paul Jacobs is such a phenomenal talent, not only technically but in how he manages to coax every conceivable colour out of any instrument he confronts. The man who became head of the organ faculty at the Juilliard School at the age of 27 (in 2004) has made a specialty of the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Here, in a two-CD set, her presents the pinnacle of Messiaen's contribution to the organ repertoire, the Book of the Holy Sacrament, 18 meditations he completed in 1984 that transcend time, space, sound and conventional notions of musical narrative. As titular organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, Messiaen's output is directly tied to the Roman Catholic Mass as well has his own deep spirituality. Jacobs recorded this music in the incense-filled, neo-Gothic time capsule that is the Church of St. Mary-the-Virgin near Times Square in Manhattan, with its generous reverberation and fabulously massive Aeolian Skinner organ. Divorced from the atmosphere and environment that this music was written for, these tonally daring meditations and transports come across as dense and difficult. With eyes closed and mind cleared of everyday cares, it is music that can insinuate itself into the deepest recesses of the soul.
To give you a taste, here is movement 15: "The Joy of Grace," performed by French organ master Olivier Latry at his organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris: