(Deutsche Grammophon)

Brahms: Lieder & Liebeslieder Waltzes. Andrea Rost, Magdalena Kožená, Matthew Polenzani, Thomas Quasthoff, James Levine and Yefim Bronfman. (live recording) DG

James Levine, the recently retired music director of the Metropolitan Opera, is one of the few conductors whose piano playing is on a par with his baton technique. In this new release of an all-Brahms concert, recorded live at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland in 2003, Levine presides from the piano. His collaborators are an internationally recognized quartet of singers, or were 13 years ago, including the Hungarian soprano Andrea Rost, Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená, the distinguished American tenor Matthew Polenzani, and German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who retired from the stage four years ago. Each sings a group of solo songs before joining forces with Levine and Yefim Bronfman, another deluxe accompanist, in the two sets of Brahms’s beloved “Love Song Waltzes.”

An extraordinarily sensitive ensemble, lively tempos and vivid realization of the texts make these colorful “Love Song Waltzes” a feast for the ear. This essentially lighthearted performance, the perfect antidote to overly serious readings, aptly strikes the perfect balance between subtle humor and wistful charm.

Whether because of their choice of songs or the dictates of the moment in live performance, the men take the honors in the solo songs. Polenzani brings an urgent ardor to “Message” and “How Are You, My Queen”fairly trembles with youthful rapture. In the late “Five Songs” from Opus 94, Quasthoff creates a palpable atmosphere that moves inexorably through nostalgia and bitter loss to heartbreaking defeat. It’s a reminder of how much we miss this artist since his retirement.

Patrick Rucker

François Couperin, Ariane consolée par Bacchus, Stéphane Degout, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset. Aparte.

The musicologist, harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset has published a new book on the composer François Couperin (Actes Sud/Classica), and during his research, he made a singular discovery. In a manuscript collection of mostly anonymous French cantatas was an unknown cantata devoted to the story of Ariadne rescued by Dionysus on the island of Naxos. Many would not have given it a second look, but Rousset immediately thought of an unresolved mystery of Couperin’s oeuvre, a lost Ariadne cantata.

The manuscript in question had belonged to the Count of Toulouse, the son of Louis XIV and his mistress, Madame de Montespan, and the count’s music teacher was none other than Couperin. Rousset made the connection and substantiated the find, identifying elements of the composer’s musical signature in the work. He then assembled an all-star team to record it, including Christophe Coin on viola da gamba and baritone Stéphane Degout. Laura Mónica Pustilnik plays the lute, and Rousset himself leads from the harpsichord. As Rousset admits in his booklet essay, this cantata is far from a masterpiece, but the performance makes a strong argument for hearing it.

Also interesting are the two “apothéoses” by Couperin that Rousset includes on the disk: instrumental tributes to two deceased composers he admired: Lully and Corelli. Although the cantata was recorded in the church of Saint-Pierre in Paris, in sound that’s not exactly ravishing; these two pieces sound better as captured in the acoustic of the Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace, a friary converted into a concert space. The “Plaintes” by Lully’s jealous contemporaries, here given to two delicate flutes, is one of many high points.

(Aparte )

Charles T. Downey