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By Sarah Bryan Miller
Post-Dispatch Classical Music Critic


Sunday, September 24, 2000

Section: A&E


Page E5


Despite the well-publicized cutbacks in the classical music recording industry, high-quality releases keep finding their way to the marketplace. While there are fewer coming from the big companies, smaller firms (perhaps devoted more to the music and less purely to the bottom line) are filling the gap with plenty of interesting material - and the biggies aren't dead yet.

"The Earliest Songbook in England" (Gothic Voices; Christopher Page, director. Hyperion CDA67177) may have an unimaginative title, but its music is winning. It gets its name from its source material, "a few leaves of parchment folded together, poorly written, decayed by damp, marred by stains and the ravages of time," as Page writes in the liner notes. Copied by an unknown collector around 1200, preserved by being recycled as flyleaves in another volume, these monophonic (solo) and polyphonic (written for multiple voices) are mostly religious in nature, but sometimes move into secular territory. Charming tunes like "Magno guadens gaudio" and sophisticated writing as found in "Ad honorem salvatoris" (in two versions) help to make this a disc of interest.

From the oddly named label Discipline Global Mobile comes "Josquin des Prez: Sixteenth-Century Lute Settings," thoughtfully and stylishly played by Jacob Heringman (DGM0006). Arrangements of Josquin's vocal works, officially known as intabulations, these pieces are lovely and engaging but unobtrusive, perfect for quiet listening.

Violinist Judith Ingolfsson made a hit last season when she filled in at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Here is her debut recital disc, "Judith Ingolfsson" (Catalpa Classics 30101), the result of her winning the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 1998. Her pure tone and sensitive readings of music by Ernst Bloch, J.S. Bach, Ned Rorem (the world premiere recording of his "Autumn Music") and Henryk Wieniawski (a gaudy transcription of themes from Gounod's "Faust") make her success easy to understand.

The superb mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter seldom fails to impress with her quiet virtuosity in a variety of languages and styles. Her "Folksongs" (Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 479-2), settings of everything from Dvorak's "Gypsy Songs" to Britten's arrangements of French tunes, takes her through German, English, her native Swedish, Italian, Hungarian and French, all sung idiomatically and with tremendous intelligence and wit. Pianist Bengt Forsberg accompanies with intelligence and wit to match.

Haydn's string quartets helped to shape the art form, and the Delme Quartet's new recording - Haydn: String Quartets Op. 1, No. 1, Op. 54, No. 2, Op. 76, No.4 (Klavier KCD-11102)- offers three fine examples from different periods of the genius we all tend to take for granted, with well-balanced ensemble playing and thoughtful interpretations.

Every Argentine musician seems to be determined to make a tango album, and if tango is to your taste, there's a lot to like in tenor Marcelo Alvarez's "Marcelo Alvarez sings Gardel." (Sony SK 61840) He has a rich, beautiful voice and a nice way with these sensuous tunes, and he's backed up by some fine players. The album, which celebrates the oeuvre of the legendary Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, also boasts a handsome retro design by Roxanne Slimak that nicely sets the stage for the songs.

Deborah Voigt and Placido Domingo have yet to take on the killer Wagnerian roles of Brunnhilde and Siegfried on stage. But in "Wagner: Love Duets" (EMI Classics CDC 7243 5 57004- 2), in the safety of the recording studio, they do a convincing job with Act III of "Siegfried." Normally, the soprano has an unfair advantage over the tenor, who's been singing almost nonstop for the previous two acts, and in a brutally high tessitura. Here they're well-matched and in splendid voice, as they are in Act II, Scene 2 of "Tristan und Isolde." Antonio Pappano is a sympathetic conductor.

The new recording of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" from RCA Victor (BMG Classics 74321-67957-2) is notable mostly for the passionate, committed singing of Ben Heppner, whose ringing tenor is ever more impressive. Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is fine, if not Heppner's equal; Lorin Maazel's conducting proves adequate.

(1) Photo - "The Earliest Songbook in England"

(2) Photo - "Josquin des Prez: Sixteenth-Century Lute Settings" (3)

Photo - "Judith Ingolfsson"

(4) Photo - "Folksongs"

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