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No. 42 - Classical Music - September, 2003

Jason Serinus


For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Review # 36.
 
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TURANDOT * MARTON, DOMINGO, MITCHELL, PLISHKA, CUENOD

 

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA CHORUS AND CHORUS, LEVINE COND.

 

ZEFFIRELLI DIRECTOR

 

MET NYC 1987

 

DG DVD VIDEO B0000852-09

 

 

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TURANDOT

 

SCHNAUT, BOTHA, GALLARDO-DOMAS, BURCHULADZE, TEAR * VIENNA STATE OPERA CHORUS, TÖLZ BOYS CHORUS, VIENNA PHILHARMONIC, GERGIEV COND.

 

POUNTNEY DIRECTOR * SALZBURG 2002

 

TDK DVD VIDEO

 

 

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TURANDOT

 

CASOLLA, BAROLINI, DEGUCI, BOU, HEREDIA

 

MALAGA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, CHORAL SOCIETY OF BILBAO, RAHBARI COND.

 

NAXOS 8.660089-90
 

 

 

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Ever since Arturo Toscanini conducted the 1926 debut of Giacomo Puccini’s unfinished final opera, Turandot, the work has become synonymous with everything grand about Grand Opera. A successful production demands mammoth forces: elaborate sets, huge voices of Wagnerian proportions capable of cutting through the elaborate orchestration, and a large orchestra and chorus led by a conductor capable of propelling the drama. Indeed, major opera companies seem determined to outdo each other in the scope of their productions, enlisting the finest directors and designers to bring the quasi-Oriental spectacle to life.

The success of a production hinges in large part on the artistry of the two principles, the Ice Princess Turandot and her suitor, Prince Calaf. While both roles demand a forte high C, Turandot must initially appear imperious, vengeful, and out for blood, later transforming into a human with a heart, while Calaf must express headstrong confidence, ardor, and consummate passion throughout. Turandot’s final transformation from frigid princess to conquered virgin is especially difficult to pull off; most sopranos who can muster the cutting force to convincingly belt out her chilling “In questa reggia” have a hard time sounding meltingly sweet in the final act.

A number of essential audio recordings of the work have been transferred to CD. These include two assays by the great Birgit Nilsson, one from 1959 in RCA Living Stereo with the unbeatable team of Björling, Tebaldi, and Tozzi, the other from the 60s on EMI with Corelli, Scotto, and Mercuriali. The RCA set conducted by Leinsdorf boasts the best sound plus a grandeur that has converted many a music lover to opera queen, but EMI’s Molinari-Pradelli takes far greater advantage of the score’s opportunities. A must-hear recently released live 1965 performance on Living Stage stars Nilsson and Caballé (with other less noteworthy principals) conducted by Previtali. Also essential is the famed Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballé, Ghiaurov recording on Decca conducted by Mehta, and any lp or CD transfer you can lay your hands on of Dame Eva Turner’s 1928 commercial recording and/or 1937 Covent Garden performance of Turandot with Martinelli and Albanese conducted by Barbirolli, plus rare recordings of Liu’s arias made in 1927 by the originator of the role, Maria Zamboni.

Because it is such a spectacle, Turandot benefits greatly from the DVD treatment. Although DVD sound can never approach the sonic supremacy of the RCA and Decca studio recordings, surround sound, stunning visuals and subtitles go a long way to compensate.

The absolute winner is the Met production. Eva Marton’s prime (like Callas’) was shorter than one would have hoped, but she is captured here with her resources mostly intact. Besides a few squally notes and an occasional moment when the vibrato spreads, hers is a magnificently sung Turandot. The voice is unyielding in its cutting power, yet convincingly tender at the opera’s conclusion. Her acting, too, is quite good, with stylized, pseudo-Oriental gestures and icy stares betraying no other emotion until the final scene. There, small changes in facial expression show her variously defiant, fearful, cunning, and captured.

Domingo is a marvel. Save for two small imperfections, a crack on his high C with Marton and a rather steely high B in “Nessun dorma,” his singing is all one could wish for. Not only is the basic tone glorious and filled with ardor, but he employs a wealth of shading, including a honeyed piano ritard in the middle of “Nessun dorma” during which the camera spies him smiling in satisfaction. The man’s voice has lasted so long because he so loves the act of singing. It’s a wonderful performance, complemented by sufficiently strong stances and arm gestures to prove convincing.

With much too little of Leona Mitchell available on disc, her achievement as Liu deserves special praise. The voice is as beautiful and sincere as her facial expressions, the pathos of her character heightened by consummate vocal shading. Mitchell’s interpretation seems reminiscent of Golden Age singing in that she strings out notes and phrases for effect, producing heart-tugging, melting pianissimi on her high notes. Although she ultimately cannot achieve 100% of her vocal intentions, the intent itself is so strong that the performance is a triumph. Mitchell’s love confession in the final scene, the suddenness of her suicide, and her devotion to Paul Plishka’s well sung Timur are all equally memorable.

Listening to the routine conducting and playing on the Naxos disc, which while acceptable at bargain price cannot challenge the primacy of other CD versions, underscores the greatness of Levine’s achievement with the Met Orchestra. While it is questionable whether Rahbari’s principals, given their vocal limitations, could ever muster the shading and nuance of Levine’s, their conductor rarely gives them the chance.

Levine, on the other hand, is always supportive of his singers. No artist attempting what Mitchell accomplishes sings the same way each time, but Levine is always right with her, drawing out phrases with a complementary level of concentration and focus. Grand passages have ideal weight, climaxes are truly climactic, colors are extraordinary. Note, for example, that when the audience interrupts the orchestral conclusion of “Nessun dorma” with pronounced applause, Levine, rather than hurrying the accompaniment along in workaday fashion, makes it even more dramatic, sounding each chord as if it were an essential part of the score.

Finally there is the production itself. Zeffirelli has been creating opulent settings since the days of Callas, and his mastery is apparent in every scene. The sets are gorgeous, Gil Wechsler’s lighting ideal, the costumes by Dada Saligeri and Anna Anni superb. The Met TV forces do a great job of capturing Zeffirelli’s intoxicating opulence, using angled photography to heighten the contrasts between verticals and diagonals. This DVD is arresting from start to finish. Although there’s excessive compression, reverberation, and brightness on the voices, and the women in the chorus frequently sound tremulous and over the hill, in the end one is swept away by the sum of it all.

The Salzburg production is a different animal entirely. Rather than a visually mesmerizing period setting, David Pountney and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca attempt to illustrate the fear of technological control and annihilation endemic to the 20s and 30s by creating a Star Trek-influenced, compartmentalized industrial state in which Ping Pang and Pong mechanically go about their business in Borg-like fashion. It is far more square than Zeffirelli’s conception, which is precisely the point.

In the Second Act, Turandot appears elevated to enormous height, shrouded in a robe perhaps 30 feet long. When Calaf solves her riddles, however, she lowers to stage level, sheds her robe, and becomes human in height. The Third Act setting is much simpler, for reasons that will become apparent shortly.

I would have been far more involved if the sound had been less dry and Gabrielle Schnaut hadn’t squealed, wobbled, shrieked, and approximately pitched her way through “In questa reggia.” Johan Botha has a sweet voice, albeit with highs a bit pinched, but he is neither a virile Calaf, pleasing to look at, nor convincing as an actor. Neither singer has a low range worth writing home about. Christina Gallardo-Domas, however, presents a most moving and sympathetic Liu. She is not in her best voice in the First Act’s “Signore, ascolta,” but rises to the fore in the Third Act “Tu che di gel sei cinta.” Gallardo-Domas works hard to achieve her pianissimi, none of which are as meltingly lovely as Mitchell’s, but there is a simple pathos to her performance that earns deserved bravos from the audience at the final curtain call. Gergiev’s conducting seems more self-effacing than Levine, but what he does with the Vienna Philharmonic’s gorgeous string section in the final act is a sign of greatness.

When Puccini died in 1924 at the age of 66, he had only completed sketches of the opera’s final two scenes. With the concluding duet that depicts Turandot’s essential transformation unfinished, composer Franco Alfano was enlisted to complete the opera. When his initial efforts did not meet with the approval of conductor Arturo Toscanini, Alfano created a second version, shortened by a third. Though Toscanini honored Puccini at the premiere by ending the opera unfinished, he led the first performance of Alfano’s shortened completion two days later, on April 27, 1926. (The longer Alfano ending was not heard until a London concert performance in 1982). Alfano’s orchestration may not sound much like Puccini’s, but his recapitulation of major themes and reinforcement of Puccini’s grandeur have proven such a success that his completion has become standard performance practice.

This Salzburg DVD offers the first recording of the late Luciano Berio’s alternate completion of the opera’s final two scenes. With its new orchestral interlude and far more restrained ending, Berio’s conclusion replaces quasi-celestial grandeur with a far more reflective and sobering view of the redemptive power of love. Many will miss the oversized spectacle of Puccini/Alfano/Zeffirelli, but there is a depth to the Berio/Pountney conception that demands to be seen and heard.

After Liu sacrifices herself on Calaf’s behalf, her lifeless corpse is placed on a surgical table with Turandot and Calaf positioned on either side. As Berio’s extended new orchestral interlude signals Turandot’s transformation from imperious Princess to compassionate being, she begins to wipe Liu’s body. The washcloth is then passed to Calaf, who continues to bathe the body until the two protagonists perform the final cleansing together.

To music simultaneously mysterious and subdued, the chorus gradually comes forward, dressed in modern clothes. Standing on the same bare stage as her “subjects”, Turandot embraces Calaf as members of the chorus (who sing far better than the Met’s forces) break into couples and embrace as well. Though we at times hear Puccini’s familiar melodies, the far less ecstatic orchestration, a century apart from Puccini’s language, concludes the opera on a far more human note.


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MATT HAIMOVITZ: ANTHEM

 

OXINGALE OX2004

 

 

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If Jimi Hendrix had reincarnated as a cellist, he would surely have delivered his myth-shattering version of the “Star Spangled Banner” with a ferocity equal to this. The opening cut on his solo disc of contemporary American music for cello, Haimovitz’s explosive interpretation of Hendrix’ classic “Anthem” sets the tone for a CD whose vision of America’s post 9-11 future serves as a sonic wake-up call to the apocalyptic connivings of Bush and Company.

Anthem was recorded live on October 11, 2002 at CBGB, a New York punk rock club whose walls shook anew from the screams of Haimovitz’s cello. It joins ten other tracks on a disc driven by “an incredible fear of where our political leadership is taking us at this time” as well as a “love of this country and sense of patriotism.” Two of the selections, David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” and Toby Twining’s “9:11 Blues” were commissioned especially for Haimovitz’s current Anthem tour of all 50 states (http://www.oxingale.com). They join five other first recordings: Osvaldo Golijov’s “Omaramor,” Luna Pearl Woolf’s “Impromptu,” Robert Stern’s “Recitative (Yom Teruah),” Tod Machover’s “With Dadaji in Paradise,” and Matt Haimovitz’s “Truth from Above” improvisation on a Vespers melody.

After “Anthem,” alone worth the price of admission, the disc continues with the late great composer Lou Harrison’s Prelude to Rhymes with Silver. Although the piece was composed for Yo-Yo Ma and the Mark Morris Dance Company, Haimovitz performed in the New York premiere with Morris. Lou had intended to arrange the work’s solo cello movements into a stand-alone suite, but died before he could begin. This is a definitive rendition.

“Seventh Avenue Kaddish,” composed by the winner of the 2002 Rome Prize, places the cellist near ground zero, wailing on the streets of New York as buildings collapse, debris blinds, and asbestos-laden dust suffocates. What the EPA did not say about the air, Sanford clarifies through music of slashing intensity. Robert Stern’s “Recitative (Yom Teruah) is gripping in its desperation. Steven Mackey’s “Rhondo Variations” include knocking on the cello body and screeches. Augusta Reed Thomas’ hauntingly beautiful “Bells Ring Summer” in her own words “celebrates the vast color fields of the cello itself.” Machover’s “With Dadaji in Paradise” reflects his experience playing Bach solo suites throughout India, while Twining’s great “9-11 Blues” is true to its name. For an introduction to the modern American musical imagination and a raw look at what we’re facing, Anthem demands to be heard.


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HOROWITZ LIVE AND UNEDITED – THE HISTORIC 1965 CARNEGIE HALL RETURN CONCERT

 

SONY S2K 93023

 

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HOROWITZ REDISCOVERED

 

RCA VICTOR 82876-50749-2

 

 

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THE MAGIC OF HOROWITZ

 

DG 474 334-2

 

 

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October 1 marked the centennial of the birth of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Born in Kiev, Vladimir Gorowitz (as he was known before he anglicized his surname) was all of nine when, as a recently enrolled student in the Kiev Conservatory, he snuck into a sold-out recital by the great pianist Josef Hoffmann and hid in a dark corner spellbound. Almost 74 years later, after an absence of 61 years, Horowitz returned to Russia to play for an equally spellbound audience. It was a triumphant homecoming, the culmination of a career that ended three years later with his sudden death.

Though frequently dubbed the last great exponent of the Russian tradition of romantic pianism, Horowitz himself resisted the term. In comments printed in the brochure to The Magic of Horowitz, edited by one of his long-time recording producers Thomas Frost, the pianist revealed his approach to music making:

“Classical, Romantic, Modern, Neo-Romantic! These labels may be convenient for musicologists, but they have nothing to do with composing or performing . . . . All music is the expression of feelings, and feelings do not change over the centuries. Style and form change, but not the basic human emotions . . . .

“All my life, ever since I was a young man, I have considered music of all periods romantic. There is, of course, an objective, intellectual component to music insofar as its formal structure is concerned; but when it comes to performance, what is required is not interpretation but a process of subjective re-creation.

“The notation of a composer is a mere skeleton that the performer must endow with flesh and blood, so that the music comes to life and speaks to an audience… An audience does not respond to intellectual concepts, only to the communication of feelings.”

To celebrate Horowitz’s centennial, RCA has recently released the two-disc Horowitz Rediscovered, the first time that the pianist’s entire live Carnegie Hall Recital of November 16, 1975 has been issued in complete and unedited form. New to Horowitz’s discography are two Rachmaninoff Êtudes-Tableaux and the Schumann Blumenstück. The sound is not as rich as one would like, but much of the playing is extraordinary.

On September 30 Sony Classical issues Horowitz Live and Unedited – The Historic 1965 Carnegie Hall Return Concert. This priceless document documents Horowitz’s May 9, 1965 return to the concert hall after 12 years of isolation, with many years spent entirely at home with Wanda and his Steinway. Accompanying the set is a bonus 10-minute DVD of previously unreleased outtakes from the film The Last Romantic. Also due from Sony is a newly compiled three-disc set, In the Hands of the Master – Vladimir Horowitz: The Definitive Recordings, featuring stereo recordings made between 1962 and 1989 (the year of his death), plus 12 other reissues.

Even auditioned from a pre-release CD-R, Horowitz Live and Unedited qualifies as one of the finest sounding recordings of Horowitz’s artistry. Not only does Sony’s recently developed Direct Stream Digital (DSD) processing deliver superior digital sound, but the decision to bypass studio edits has also enabled engineers to work from the original three-track analogue tapes. As a result, we hear far more of the wealth of color that made the man’s playing so extraordinary.

DG has just released The Magic of Horowitz. This two-disc set of recordings from the master’s final years includes a tempting new bonus DVD-Video, Horowitz plays Mozart which documents the making of Horowitz’s final concerto recording; music from the triumphant 1986 Leningrad return concert; plus three previously unreleased performances, two of works new to Horowitz’s discography. Though the somewhat brittle early digital recordings have not been remastered, these new pressings offer fuller sound than the original issues. Most important, performances of such gems as Rachmaninov’s Preludes in G major and G sharp minor are truly magical, seeming to emanate from a plane on which music speaks as the supreme voice of the human heart.

Horowitz always performed on his personal Steinway. With hammers finished with special lacquer, and action specifically adjusted to enable fine gradations of shading, the instrument served as an extension of the man’s genius, enabling him to take the risks necessary to reveal the extraordinary range of emotions he felt through music. This makes comparison of various live versions of the same piece most enlightening.

Each label’s release includes a live version of Schumann’s “Träumerei.” Though one cannot assume that Horowitz played faster as he aged, his live renditions of this signature encore grew shorter with each concert. To these ears, the Carnegie 1965 version (37 seconds slower than Leningrad’s from 1986) is the most eloquent, with Horowitz seeming to ruminate over every note, frequently whispering sounds as if suspended in a dream state. To contrast this with the enlivened sparkle of Moszkowski’s Étincelles (1975) or the soul-shaking intensity of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor (1975) offers a stunning introduction to the man’s greatness.

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KHATCHATURIAN SONATA AND DANCES

 

HIDEKO UDAGAWA AND BORIS BEREZOVSKY

 

KOCH 3-7571-2-HI

 

 

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IBERT & KHATCHATURIAN’S FLUTE CONCERTOS

 

EMMANUEL PAHUD; TONHALLE-ORCHESTER ZÜRICH, DAVID ZINMAN

 

EMI 724355-756329

 

 

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KHATCHATURIAN: SPARTACUS, ODE IN MEMORY OF LENIN, ODE TO JOY

 

PHILHARMONIA OF RUSSIA, CONSTANTINE ORBELIAN; MARIA DOMASHENKO; SPIRITUAL REVIVAL CHOIR OF RUSSIA

 

DE 3328 (SACD SURROUND VERSION COMING LATER)

(Lamentably delayed and unavailable at press time but included for its importance)

 

For most of his life, the music of Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978) was greeted with acclaim. If his oeuvre has since fallen from favor, new CD releases and a slew of Centennial performances offer opportunities to reassess his output.

Much of Khatchaturian’s success lay in way he drew upon Armenian folk melodies and rhythms to create energetic, frequently celebratory compositions that struck a deep chord in the hearts of Eastern European listeners. Ukrainian, Georgian, Zerbaijani, and Turkmenistani harmonies were also incorporated into his writing, making him a Soviet favorite. His oft-played Sabre Dance derives from his score to Gayaneh (1942), a four-act ballet about crisis and reconstruction on a collective Soviet farm. (In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, an adagio from this score mournfully accompanies the crew of Discovery as they head off to Jupiter).

A late bloomer, Khatchaturian first graduated from the Moscow Conservatory at age 30. By then, his early trio had attracted the attention of Prokofiev, who arranged a performance of the work in Paris. In 1934, his First Symphony received the first of many performances. His reputation was further enhanced by his Piano Concerto (1937), which was promoted as the Soviet Union’s first “national” concerto, and the Violin Concerto (1940) written for and championed by the great David Oistrakh.

Yet, in 1948, despite serving as an executive of the Union of Soviet Composers and penning both the Armenian National Anthem and such party-glorifying works as the Song of Stalin and Funeral Ode in Memory of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, Khatchaturian found himself condemned. Lumped together with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky, he was officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Community Party for “formalist” compositional tendencies.

Khatchaturian did not follow Shostakovich’s path by composing gut-wrenching, frequently ironic cries of protest and pain; instead, crushed by the party’s condemnation, he issued an official apology. As acts of penance, he wrote Stalin-pleasing scores for the films Lenin and The Battle of Stalingrad. He even agreed to be sent back to Armenia to be reeducated.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khatchaturian denounced the Committee’s judgment and was named People’s Artist of the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, he completed his best-known work, the score to the ballet Spartacus, later revised and arranged into several orchestral suites.

Several new recordings celebrate the Khatchaturian Centennial. A lovely Koch recital features violinist Hideko Udagawa and pianist Boris Berezovsky in mostly world-premiere recordings. Their rendition of the early Dance No. 1 (1925) was made possible after the Khatchaturian family supplied the violinist with the original handwritten manuscript. The longest work on the program, the beautiful Sonata for Violin and Piano (1932), winningly melds Armenian sensibility with French impressionism. Seven violin/piano arrangements of orchestral soundfests strip away surface splash to reveal their harmonic underpinnings. Most fetching are the energetic Dance of Egyna and heartfelt Grande Adagio from Spartacus (reminiscent of the popular song “Til There Was You”), and the catchy Nuneh Variation and Sabre Dance from Gayaneh. Two of the arrangements are by Jascha Heifetz, who frequently programmed Sabre Dance as an encore.

Udagawa, a protégé of Nathan Milstein, plays with piquant, occasionally resiny tone. One wishes for more bite and sweetness, but her tang underscores Khatchaturian’s folkiness. Berezovsky, Gold Medal winner of the 1990 International Tchaikovsky Competition, provides ideally sensitive support, while Koch’s sonics offer excellent full-bodied immediacy.

Flautist Emmanuel Pahud joins David Zinman and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich on EMI for Khatchaturian’s Flute Concerto. (Ibert’s Flute Concerto and piece for solo flute round out disc). The Concerto, Jean-Pierre Rampal’s 1968 transcription of the Violin Concerto of 1940 complete with a new cadenza, came about after Khatchaturian offered the work to Rampal. Pahud supplies requisite virtuosity, but his exceedingly breathy tone on all but the highest notes fails to satisfy. (Pahud sounded equally breathy in a recent San Francisco recital). Questionable acoustic perspective and edgy strings also lessen pleasure.

Constantine Orbelian, an Armenian champion of Khatchaturian’s work who just conducted Khatchaturian Centennial Concerts in New Haven and Carnegie Hall on October 8 and 10, has released a Delos disc (DE 3328) that includes music from Spartacus, the 1948 Ode in Memory of Lenin and 1956 Ode to Joy. Unavailable at press time, the disc promises both authenticity and, especially in SACD surround sound, Delos’ customary superior sonics.

These discs confirm Khatchaturian’s facility for creating catchy, sometimes repetitive tunes that overflow with exuberance. Despite the beauty of his melodies, to this non-Armenian Khatchaturian sometimes seems a noisy post-adolescent, creating a lot of fuss without plumbing the depths. Others will be too busy tapping their toes to care.

 

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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