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Zhu Xiao-Mei life’s work culminates in her profoundly personal

live performance at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

Published in Audiophile Audition

BACH: Goldberg Variations complete perf. by Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano
Director: Paul Smaczny
Studio: Accentus Music 42 6023483 076 7 (10/14)
Video: for 16:9 screens, color
Audio:  PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
All Regions
Extras: Documentary: “The Return is the Movement of Tao”
Length: 85:54
Rating: *****

Pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei is unique among great pianists. Compared with most elite performers, she began her career late in life and performs infrequently. She spends long periods of time in retreat absorbed in a small selection of repertoire. Bach is at the heart of her immersion, the Goldberg Variations at the epicenter.


She has lived with this piece as “one might live with another person.” She knows the voices of the polyphony so well that they are her family. In her performance she reveals the dialogue of arguments and conversations. Her aria is deceptively straightforward, allowing ornaments to sparkle on top of the bass. Later, she’s not afraid to shock by highlighting a bombastic bass (captured brilliantly by the recording), as she does in the beginning of the 4th and 5th variations.


Her treating of the conversational polyphony and highlighting of the baseline are more reminiscent of Wanda Landowska’s 1933 harpsichord recording than of the great piano interpretations, from Gould to Tepfer. Zhu Xiao-Mei’s performance, captured by brilliant engineers in stunning acoustics, allows Landowska’s brand of clear vocal-like interplay to shine even more.


The most stunning element of the DVD (available in three sound formats) is its capacity to fill space with sound, whether a living room, mountain range, or St. Thomas Church. Watching the included documentary provides the opportunity to experience the performance as a musical memoir. Its technique, both minimalist and grand, uses periods of silence interspersed with music and speech to create a sense of space. This spatial awareness remains as we listen to the venue fill with sound and witness the personal connection between artist and music.

—Anne Suda


Outlasting the unfinished:

Shostakovich’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano (1945) with rarely heard chamber arrangements.


Published in Audiophile Audition

SHOSTAKOVICH: The Two Violin Sonatas & Rare Chamber Works

– Sasha Rozhdestvensky, v., /Jeremy Menuhin & Mookie Lee-Menuhin p.

/ Ilona Domnich, sop./ Alexandra Sherman, mezzo –

First Hand CD 37, K&A Productions,

69:46 (11/6/15) ****

Newly-discovered works from beloved composers are rare. Artists have the opportunity to approach

them with unique lucidity, unhindered by recordings and editions. Convincing listeners that the works

are of lasting value, however, can be challenging. The FHR release featuring Shostakovich’s Unfinished Violin Sonata is up to the task.

All works on the album are performed exquisitely. The unfinished sonata reveals Shostakovich at his most expressive: searching melody juxtaposed with driving rhythm. To accept it as cohesive, the work must be programmed in a way that helps suspend belief in the need for expected structure and length (think Ives’ art songs).


Instead of the unfinished following the complete sonata, as heard on the recording, a better choice would be to open with the unfinished and end with the complete. The unfinished deserves an attempt at unaffected listening.

Surprisingly, in a situation of parallel universe recording releases, the FHR was not the only 2015 release claiming this premiere. Challenge Classics released Wartime Consolations, featuring Shostakovich as the capstone, performed by violinist Linus Roth and pianist José Gallardo. Its approach is quite different.

The FHR recording uses a warm sound and live response, humanizing the melody and inviting repeat listening. Rozhdestvensky’s rich sound and expressive vibrato is reminiscent of Kreisler. Menuhin emphasizes rumbling bass with liberal pedal. The performance includes a coda by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which complements in the way that beautiful new portions of a building pay tribute to the old by blending and remaining independent simultaneously.

Challenge Classics uses a sparse sound palette, setting a cooler scene. Roth uses minimal vibrato when the piano joins, especially in the sections of rhythmic unity. Gallardo’s dry pedaling reveals intertwining lines stressing instrumental partnership.

Though Western culture values finished products, “unfinished” is not as damning as, say, “incomplete.” There is a sense of lost opportunity, but not of finality. Both recordings reveal a future for the Shostakovich Unfinished Violin Sonata.

—Anne Suda

Celebrating contemporary aesthetics and presenting superior engineering and performance,

Pentatone’s Ring Cycle proves to be the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk of recording releases.

Published in Audiophile Audition

* WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete) – Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester/ Marek Janowski –

Pentatone Music (13 multi-channel SACDs) B01D5OXYWS (5/13/16) TT: 13:48:08 *****: 

If Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an ultimate realization of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art), then Pentatone’s

self-described “Epic Ring” set must be called a Gesamtkunstwerk of recording releases. Perhaps this

is to be expected, or at least hoped for, if one is to invest in a mammoth multi-hour tetralogy composed

during three 19th-Century decades. Pentatone delivers, achieving classical recording’s elusive goal of

presenting a contemporary experience.

Recording in five-channel surround sound, Pentatone’s goal is “to offer an unrivaled classical music experience through superior audio technology.” Achievement cannot be understated. From the opening of the Das Rheingold Prelude, listeners are pulled into a new Wagnerian experience introducing layered and sustained sound as never heard before. Conducted by Marek Janowski in Berlin, the operas were recorded in performances with the orchestra on the stage instead of in the pit. Pentatone captures this symphonic experience, convincing us that Wagner’s orchestration is the soul of the work.

Pentatone’s 13-disc collection contains a massive 250-page book fit for coffee table display. In an era of online music, labels must look for ways to convince listeners that purchasing a physical album is preferable to downloading or streaming. Collections like this provide essential connection. Stark and simple, its minimalist design captures a sense of inevitable power, like a modern take on medieval bookbinding. We can feel the flames waiting to explode from within the stark exterior. The collection’s resemblance to an LP record set is a strategic aesthetic choice. LPs have seen a strong resurgence, perhaps because of the need for more tangible physical contact in a digital world.

Despite decades of excess, from vintage Bugs Bunny to SF Opera’s recent pyrotechnically heavy production, Pentatone proves that Wagner’s musical genius endures over aesthetic theory. Perhaps excess goes hand in hand with Wagner, but what we define as excessive changes over time. Contemporary audiences have seen every special effect in the book. Traditional decadent visual stimuli have become commonplace and even distracting.

Pentatone presents musical excess in the form of decadent sound and unadulterated access to background knowledge, a contemporary achievement of Gesamtkunstwerk. Like all SACDs nowadays, these have a standard CD stereo layer for those lacking playback of hi-res SACD stereo or surround. Listeners will welcome the clutter removal, which allows the over-stimulated to experience the Ring mindfully and personally by focusing on sound.

—Anne Suda


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