The Classics: October 19

Alban Berg: Lyric Suite. Emerson string quartet, Renee Fleming (soprano). Decca CD

American diva Renee Fleming has a magical voice that she employs in many diverse ways, and now combines it with the very talented Emerson string quartet.

Berg, well-known for using a 12-tone scale at times, wrote his six-part Lyric Suite, inspired by the ending of an extra-marital affair with a friend's wife.

The final part (Largo Desolato) is repeated here with its secret reference (a poem by Baudelaire) being sung most effectively by the soprano.

She also impresses in the Austrian Egon Wellesz's five Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, sung in German, that combines stylish modernism with romantic sensitivities.

Eric Zeisl's brief Komm, susser tod (Come sweet death), arranged for this combination, is used to fill the final grooves.

Verdict: Impressive artistry, interesting music.


Gamba Sonatas. Steven Isserlis (cello), Richard Egarr (harpsichord). Hyperion CD

Isserlis is acclaimed in music as a soloist, chamber musician and author (including books for children: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and Why Handel Waggled his Wig translated into many languages).

Here he dazzles with three Sonatas by Bach and one each by Scarlatti and Handel - all three composers born in the same year: 1685.

Using the gentle harpsichord raises balance questions, the cello dominant instead of struggling with rich sounds of a modern piano.

The ancestral viola da gamba was smaller than the cello but had a more robust sound. Isserlis can play this tranquil music quite softly and the engineers capture the blend beautifully.

These are wonderful performances with an ''encore'' brevity: a Bach Chorale Prelude, originally for organ.

Verdict: Sublime cello and harpsichord.


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