Classical Music - Part 19 - October, 2000
Ratings: Extraordinary Good Acceptable Mediocre Poor
I begin this month’s review set with follow-up commentary on the economic realities of classical SACD releases.
Last month, I reviewed the fine Florestan Trio recording of String Trios by Faure, Debussy and Ravel (HYPERION SACDA67114) [see archives for September classical reviews]. A two layer SACD release playable on all CD players, priced at $24.95, it is the only SACD release I have received from a classical label since the start of the year.
On September 21, 2000, I was privileged to attend a San Francisco Harmonia Mundi fall release gathering, whose featured speaker was none other than Robina G. Young, producer of Harmonia Mundi’s releases. Given the extraordinary caliber of artists in Harmonia Mundi’s catalogue, it would not be stretching the case too far to suggest that Robina Young is to early music what John Pfeiffer was to yesterday’s great performers of the romantic repertoire.
Toward the end of Young’s presentation, I raised my hand to ask the only question put to her from a room almost entirely filled with buyers and distributors: Why had there been only one classical SACD release to date, and were others in the offing? Young responded that, many months after its release, Harmonia Mundi has distributed exactly 100 copies of the Hyperion disc. Besides sales to Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds, stores had not been selling them. Most, in fact, did not even stock the recording, having “no room” for another format. Without financial viability, Ms. Young stated that Harmonia Mundi would not be recording SACDs. (She also stated, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Audiophiles of course understand that 16/44.1 recording and playback has serious limitations, and that SACD is a viable solution. Perhaps Young was referring to the larger “broke,” the economic risk that classical labels, in a time of a world-wide sales decline, cannot afford).
A few more two-layer SACD classical releases are on their way from Telarc; these look like SACD releases of DSD recordings already issued in standard format. But the number of available, two layer classical SACD titles will still be quite small, with the majority being single-layer, Sony releases playable only on SACD players. Until more players are out there, and consumers register demand for the product, it would be foolish to expect a plethora of SACD releases from major classical labels. The only way to remedy this is with conventionally priced ($399) DVD players that handle all types of discs, including DVD-V, DVD-A, and SACD. Consumers will buy the players for their DVD movies, and it will just so happen that they will play DVD-A and SACD, so when they see a few DVD-As or SACDs for a good price at CostCo one day, they will buy them. Then, the new formats will be off and running. On the other hand . . .
It does not cost much more to record and produce two-channel SACD than it does to produce a standard, 16/44.1 digital recording. According to one engineer with whom I’ve spoken, SACD recording costs many times less than surround sound production. Alas, Sony charges a $10,000 licensing fee every time someone issues a SACD (a similar fee is charged by the DVD-Audio people). Unless something is done to lower the price of these discs to make them more attractive to consumers, and their sound is not compromised by sonically detectable watermarking, the hope of superior sounding digital recording and playback may remain unfulfilled.
To brighten up the picture, let me turn to two excellent new releases from the Harmonia Mundi catalogue, both quite well recorded.
GEMINIANI CONCERTO GROSSI (after Corelli, Op. 5) •
THE ACADEMY OF ANCIENT MUSIC • ANDREW MANZE, DIRECTOR • HMU 907261.62 (2 CDs)
Harmonia Mundi has gone all out with the production of this wonderful recording. Released to coincide with the Academy of Ancient Music’s 16-city U.S. tour, the two discs come boxed with both a 7-page, extraordinarily literate liner note essay by Andrew Manze, and a separate, 24-page booklet. The booklet, printed on fine paper, contains Sir John Hawkins’ 1770 essay, An account of the institution and progress of the Academy of Ancient Music, with a comparative view of the music of the past and present times. With its 1998 introduction by the Academy’s principal conductor Christopher Hogwood, the printing of this booklet alone cost far more than the $2 some critics suggest represents the total cost of CD manufacture.
The music deserves the expense. Manze’s reputation for revivifying the baroque repertoire is everywhere in evidence. Serving both as Concert Master (first violinist) and Associate Director of The Academy, he and the Academy’s original instrument players attack and articulate notes with a freshness, clarity, and force that make this music sound anything but ancient.
Francesco Geminiani’s (1687-1762) twelve concerti grossi are based on the twelve Op. 5 sonatas for solo violin by his teacher, Archangelo Corelli. Corelli spent at least 25 years performing and refining his technically challenging solo violin sonatas before their publication in 1714, the year after his death. Geminiani published the first of his orchestral transformations of Corelli’s works in 1726, the same year that The Academy of Ancient Music was founded. Musicians of the time found Geminiani’s compositions much easier to perform than Corelli’s; this made them accessible to a public whose only chance of hearing them was through live performance.
Geminiani’s immensely engaging music, which is showcased in a wide and deep soundstage distinguished by much air around instruments, brings multiple rewards. There are no hidden meanings here, no arcane references, just energizing and uplifting works whose inviting harmonies and panoply of instrumental color fall lightly on the ear and on the spirit.
Especially outstanding is “Follia,” the Twelfth Concerto in D minor, in which Andrew Manze adds some astounding virtuosic flourishes. The disc also contains Corelli’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, Op. 5. No. 9 in an ornamented version by Geminiani, and Geminiani’s Cello Sonata in D Minor, Op. 5, No. 2. Totally enjoyable, refreshing music. Highly recommended.
1000: A MASS FOR THE END OF TIME • ANONYMOUS 4
This is the tenth Harmonia Mundi release by Anonymous 4, the a cappella early music group of four women whose combined recordings have sold over 1,007,000 copies. Although the group’s composition has changed since its 1986 founding with the relatively recent replacement of Ruth Cunningham by Jacqueline Horner, its purity of sound and perfection of intonation remain as inviting as ever.
This disc of “Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension” focuses on the period, 1000 years ago, when, to quote from group member Susan Hellauer’s liner notes, “fear and anticipation of the Last Judgment and end of the world influenced the late-tenth-century Christian world view.” The program is based on the Ordinary and Proper chants of the Ascension mass. Most of the chants feature newly written text and music, “added to make them more solemn or festive.”
The chants are from Aquitaine in southwestern France, with many found in the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges; two are from the Winchester Troper, a British source containing some of the very earliest written polyphony for liturgical use. Polyphony, drone, and ornamentation, in keeping with examples of the time, have been added by the singers.
This music is far more ascetic and spare than the Geminiani. If you are drawn to medieval chant, the holy purity of Anonymous 4, combined with thorough historical scholarship, is self-recommending.
GOOD MEDICINE: STRING QUARTETS FROM AMERICA & EUROPE • THE SMITH QUARTET • GLISSANDO 779 003-2
Jumping ahead 1000 years, we turn to string quartets performed by The Smith Quartet, a ten-year old quartet that seems to be to the U.K. what the Kronos Quartet is to the U.S. Although this is the quartet’s first recorded recital, they have been the recipients of compositions especially written for them by contemporary luminaries Michael Nyman, Graham Fitkin, Django Bates, Steven Montague, Carl Vine, Michael Daugherty, Steven Mackey, and Michael Torke.
The disc contains works by Terry Riley (b. 1935 - Good Medicine from Salome Dances for Peace). Steven Mackey (b. 1956 – Great Crossing, Great Divide), Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997 – String Quartet (1945)), Michael Nyman (b. 1948 – In Re Don Giovanni (1991)), Andrew Poppy (b. 1954 – Last Light (1998 – from a longer suite also comprised of First Light, Moon Light and Bulb)), Anton Webern (1883-1945 – Funf Satze op. 5 (1909)), Michael Daugherty (b. 1954 – Paul Robeson Told Me for string quartet and digital tape (1994)), Arvo Part (b. 1935 – Summa (1983)), and Graham Fitkin (b. 1963 – Servant (1992)). The Mackey, Poppy, Daugherty, and Fitkin works were either commissioned for or first performed by The Smith Quartet.
Given the definitive nature of four out of its nine performances, the disc is self-recommending to all who are drawn to 20th century repertoire. The sound, however, is unfortunately somewhat bright and harsh, especially as concerns the first violin; it is also quite one-dimensional. Unless the players really sound like this, one can only hope that future recordings by this valuable quartet will receive better engineering.
ELENA RIU • PIANO ICONS FOR THE 21st CENTURY • LINN RECORDS CDK 111
Here is another definitive recording, offering the recorded premiere of John Taverner’s (b. 1946) Ypakoe. Taverner was so taken by Elena Riu’s artistry, that he wrote this, his first major solo work for piano in over twenty years, expressly for her. It received its premiere in her hands during the 1999 City of London Festival, three months after this CD was recorded.
All the works on this disc are captured in stunning sound. Linn has chosen to create a floating, suspended, highly resonant soundstage, perfectly suited for the spiritual and transcendent components of these compositions by Taverner, Arvo Part (b. 1935 – Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinushka), Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929 – Djilile, Singing Sun (from A Little Book of Hours), and Night Pieces)); Leos Janacek (1854-1928 – In the Mists), and Federico Mompou (1893-1987 – Charmes). If every piano recording sounded this full and rich, how happy audiophiles would be.
To use the words printed in the liner notes, “Elena Riu is a Hispano-American who makes her artistic home in Britain.” Artistic director of the South Bank Centre’s Spanish Plus series, she is a leading exponent of the Spanish piano repertoire. Riu gave the Mompou Centenary Concert at London’s famed Wigmore Hall, and gave gala performances for Manuel de Falla’s anniversary with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Shown in a yoga posture on the inside of the liner notes, she is clearly at home with the eclectic spirituality of the compositions chosen for this recording.
Any disc that opens with a work by Arvo Part frequently finds its way to a special place in my heart. Part’s unique “tintinnabuli” compositional technique exploits the bell-like characteristics of the notes of the simple triad. As he has explained, “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements…I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”
Mompou’s simple works express their spirituality through different, but equally simple means. John Taverner has yet to touch me; I find his spirituality more pretentious than substantive, but that is certainly an individual opinion. The other unique compositions on this disc, and their relevance to your life, I shall leave for you to explore. This recording has definitely found a permanent place on my shelf. Highly recommended.
JUSSI BJOERLING RARITIES • VAI AUDIO VAIA 1189
The “Swedish Caruso,” tenor Jussi Bjoerling (1911-1960) made his first commercial recordings while in his early twenties. It took relatively few years thereafter for the artist to receive worldwide recognition, the heart-touching, Italianate yearning and sincerity of his delivery, and the glory of his beautiful lyric tenor, quickly catapulting him to the Met and international stardom. Although Bjoerling’s voice darkened some as he entered his 40’s, it retained its lyric beauty until the very end; even alcoholism could not dim its luster.
Naxos 8.110701 contains Mark Obert-Thorn’s superior transfers of some of the greatest Bjoerling commercial opera aria recordings from the prime years of 1936-1948. Here, mostly from the same period, are 21 live, “off the air” performances; four, from the prime year of 1938, receive their premiere issue. These songs, arias, and oratorio selections by Puccini, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Massenet, Verdi, Bizet, Strauss, Rossini, Denza, Bartlett, Gounod, Gruber (a poor Silent Night duet in which Bjoerling’s wife sings the higher part), Morgan, Leoncavallo, Glover, and Alfven include seven of the arias available on the Naxos set. The sound may be variable, but the singing is inspired.
Bjoerling’s voice shone most in its full head tones, the highest notes ringing out as if to say, “Listen to me: this is who I am; this is what I’m about.” The tenor often seemed to anticipate these notes by a fraction of a second, leaping to them as though he couldn’t wait to sing out all he had in him. Although the glory of Bjoerling’s top is here not consistently captured as completely as in his commercial recordings, this anticipatory effect adds great excitement to many of these live performances. The 1943 Nessun dorma! from Puccini’s Turandot, and the 1938 Salut! Demeure chaste et pure from Gounod’s Faust, both of which precede their commercial recordings by a year, present special opportunities to hear the extra vibrancy and urgency that Bjoerling could bring to live performances when the spirit moved him. Others, such as the 1953 performance of Alfven’s Endrakt (accompanied by the Band of the Royal Svea Life Guards), present a different side of Bjoerling’s artistry, in this case a rare instance of him affecting a presentation more emphatically dramatic than lyric.
While this disc of live rarities is not the best introduction to Bjoerling’s artistry, those already in love with his singing will find it a treasure trove of irreplaceable performances. If your appetite is whetted, do not miss the opportunity to investigate the entire VAIA audio and video catalogue available from 1-800-477-7146 or .
O MAGNUM MYSTERIUM • ROBERT SHAW CONDUCTS THE ROBERT SHAW FESTIVAL SINGERS & ROBERT SHAW CHAMBER SINGERS • TELARC CD-80531
This compilation, the featured selection in a recent BMG Record Club classical catalogue, offers twelve Shaw performances from the years 1989-1997. Four of these, two by Tallis (1505-1585) and two by Victoria (1549-1611), were recorded at the 1989 Robert Shaw Festival in Quercy, France, and here receive their initial release. The remaining eight tracks are culled from previous Shaw albums.
A highlight of the disc is three different settings of “O magnum mysterium” by Victoria, Lauridsen (b. 1943) and Poulenc (1899-1963). Also included are an except from Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) Vespers, Op. 37, a male choral selection by Franz Schubert (1796-1828), three American hymns and spirituals, and Gorecki’s (b. 1933) Totus Tuus, Op. 60. Though recorded in different venues, with the most recent recordings offering slightly greater depth and veracity, the consistency of Telarc recording engineer Jack Renner’s work makes for a huge soundstage and eminently pleasing sound.
Shaw favors a huge, sweet, creamy, totally homogenized sound which seems suited to all but the hymns and spirituals. There, alas, the Shaw/Parker arrangements and no-pain sound are ludicrous; white bread is no substitute for chocolate puddin’. Shaw’s 11:20 performance of Henryk Gorecki’s spiritually elevated Totus Tuus, with its wonderful hushed ending, feels far more ethereal than Stephen Cleobury’s Choir of King’s College, Cambridge 8:55 rendition on an EMI IKOS recording (prized for its truthful choral sound). What Shaw lacks, however, is the interpretive edge that the more individually highlighted English voices convey. That said, those who find themselves drawn to the Shaw sound, and who can program out the hymns and spirituals, will derive much pleasure from the serene, meditative beauty of this compilation.
KARL WEIGL STRING QUARTETS NO. 1, OP. 20 • NO. 5 OP. 31 • ARTIS QUARTETT WIEN • NIMBUS NI 5646
“Karl Weigl’s music will not be lost.
We will return to it after the storm has passed.
We will return to those who have written real music.”
--- Pablo Casals
Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was a much-respected Viennese composer whose Jewish heritage forced him to emigrate to New York City in 1938. Because his late romantic music is rarely performed and recorded, the significance of this recording, which shows Weigl to be a major composer, cannot be underestimated.
A pupil of Zemlinsky, Weigl co-founded the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkunstler with Arnold Schonberg in 1903. Under the patronage of Gustav Mahler, the group staged a series of concerts in 1904-1905 that included performances of works by Strauss, Zemlinsky, Mahler, Schonberg, Pfitzner, Reger, Walter, and Weigl. In 1904, Weigl also became Mahler’s rehearsal conductor at the Vienna Court Opera. His 1922 eight part choral work Hymne was awarded the prize of the Philadelphia Mendelssohn Club, and his 1924 symphonic cantata Weltfeier won the prize of the City of Vienna. Respected by many of the greatest musicians of his time, his works were performed by Furtwangler, Szell, Horszowski, and the beloved soprano Elisabeth Schumann and the Rose Quartet.
In 1938, Weigl and his wife, conductor Kurt Adler, and cellist Emanuel Feuermann fled to New York City. Although Weigl was equipped with letters of recommendation from Schonberg, Strauss, and Walter, the Depression made finding work extremely difficult. Though he eventually found some teaching posts - he was the head of theory at the New England Conservatory, Boston, from 1945-1948 - Weigl became more and more withdrawn, eventually dying of bone cancer in 1949. While many great artists, including Stokowski and Richard Goode, have since performed his works, they have not found a permanent place in the repertoire. This recording of what the Artis Quartet considers Weigl’s “two greatest quartets” will hopefully change that.
The 44-minute String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 20 was composed in 1904, but first premiered in Vienna in 1925. A long and glorious work, often quite hushed and intimate, it is filled with rewarding melodic invention and countless touches of brilliance. Although by no means radical in its compositional language - Weigl shunned the 12-tone harmonies of Schonberg and his school - this quartet suggests that Weigl was a true master, one who deserves widespread recognition. Although the shorter, more conservative 1933 String Qurtet No. 5 in G major, Op. 31, which was dedicated to the famed Busch Quartet, does not strike me as equally inventive - many of the ideas seem repeated one too many times, as if Weigl is trying to hammer home his conservatism – it is certainly quite appealing.
The beauty of these quartets - certainly the brilliance of the First Quartet - will bring copious rewards to lovers of the romantic chamber repertoire, and whet desire for more Weigl. Most highly recommended.
WAGNER: LOVE DUETS DOMINGO VOIGT PAPANO • EMI 7243 5 57004-2
This 57-minute CD of ecstatic love duets from opera composer Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde allows us to hear dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt strutting her stuff with her longtime singing partner, tenor Placido Domingo. Voigt has been performing major Wagnerian roles for a number of years, but her gorgeous voice still sounds absolutely fresh and even. She has no difficulty riding above the orchestra with an ease that does not mar the beauty of her vocal line, but she cannot match Domingo’s peerless phrasing. Although he’s in his late 50’s, with a voice thicker and with less ring than in its prime, Domingo remains a wonder. Not only is his singing absolutely secure, but his ardour is palpable, some phrases breathed out with an intimacy far more reminiscent of the artistry of the late Wagnerian soprano Lotte Lehmann than of a heldentenor.
The music, too, is wonderful. The Act III, Scene III love scene from Siegfried is one of Wagner’s most ecstatic. Many famous duos have recorded this music, both in complete performance and in excerpts. In fact, were my analogue set-up connected, I would certainly be playing the famous 1949 Eileen Farrell/Set Svanholm/Erich Leinsdorf recording in the background for comparison. The Tristan scene is a concert version given its premiere recording since its 1950 rediscovery. Wagner cuts some of the music and shears off the scene’s tragic ending, leaving us glowing in the bliss of two lovers who choose death as a solution to a love that cannot be realized for more than one night of their lifetimes.
The recorded sound is somewhat flat and lifeless, a bit like the Rattle Mahler No. 10. Nonetheless, with singing of Domingo’s calibre, this is a recording that operaphiles will want to hear.
MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 10 IN F SHARP MAJOR IN A PERFORMING VERSION BY DERYCK COOKE • BERLIN PHILHARMONIC DIRECTED BY SIMON RATTLE • EMI 5 56972.2 LIVE PERFORMANCE RECORDED 1999
MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 10 • ADIO-SYMPHONIE-ORCHESTER BERLIN DIRECTED BY RICCARDO CHAILLY • DECCA 289 466 955-2 • JUST REISSUED: RECORDED 1988
Listening to recordings of the Tenth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a bit like listening to music penned by a ghost. Mahler began to sketch the symphony in the summer of 1910, just three years after being diagnosed with the heart disease that took his life in May of 1911. He had just finished a year of successful conducting in New York, and was spending the summer composing. Instead of following his usual routine of orchestrating his new Tenth Symphony during the winter of 1910, however, he occupied himself with making further revisions to his already completed, not yet performed Ninth. Mahler died before he could complete his “work fully prepared in a sketch” Tenth Symphony.
Mahler’s work remained unfinished and unplayable for a number of years. After a facsimile of the manuscript for the Tenth was published in 1924, Ernst Krenek prepared the first and third movements for performance. While Krenek’s version of the first movement was frequently played, it took until 1959 for Deryck Cooke to prepare “a performing version of the draft for the Tenth Symphony.” Though Mahler’s wife, Alma, forbid its performance after its first broadcast, she was so swayed by its beauty when she finally heard it in 1964 that she removed her ban. For better or worse, and most scholars consider it “better,” Cooke’s version, comprehensively revised before its 1976 publication, is the one used in both recordings under consideration.
What Mahler would have eventually published as his Tenth Symphony is a matter of conjecture. Of the symphony’s five movements, the extended 25 + minute first movement Adagio was left in a draft full score playable as is. The second movement Scherzo was also left in full score sketch, but was not filled out in the second half. The brief third movement was only partially written out in full. For the fourth and fifth movements, however, only a short score with a few hints of orchestration was completed. Cooke, with the help of Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews, filled out the texture where it was required, added orchestration, and did his best to stick to the spirit of Mahler’s previous symphonic scoring.
There are fundamental differences between the Rattle and Chailly versions, not least of which is the sound quality. Though not as transparent or air-filled as Rattle’s recording, Chailly’s 1988 sound is much more immediate and incisive, and far more colorful. Until I played it, I was thinking that midrange fullness and deep bass I was missing on the Rattle was due to my switch-over to different cables; even the ominous drum thwacks at the beginning of the Finale failed to convince that they meant much. Not so with the Chailly, thank God, whose drum beats at the start of the Finale are so forceful that my lamp started to shake.
Perhaps due to its sonics, the Rattle performance is much harder to get a handle on. While Chailly’s performance makes the Tenth sound like music written by a man still vital and alive, Rattle’s sounds like the last emanations of a tragedy-ridden composer in physical decline. Everything is more ephemeral and lofty; the tragedy, too, seems a bit removed, as if everything in Mahler’s life, even the pain that pervades much of this symphony, is fading away. This is not a damning criticism; Mahler’s final symphony, at least in this Cooke sketch, is far more refined than his earlier work. There are no blaring marches here, no simple Wunderhorn folk melodies. So Rattle’s refinement certainly has its place. Furthermore, Rattle is quite expressive within his framework. In the first movement, for example, Chailly’s tender passages are not as tender as Rattle’s; nor is his alarm, 19 or so minutes into the first movement, as alarming. But Rattle’s drama nevertheless remains more rarefied than Chailly’s, and much harder to sink into.
Of course, there is room for both interpretations. Gramophone’s critics have in fact given the Rattle version a Gramophone Orchestral Award on October 10. But for me, ultimate satisfaction did not come with either version. If only EMI’s sound did Rattle’s performance full justice, my feelings might differ. As it is, after first listening to the Rattle, I found the Chailly version a welcome complement.
Next time: Brahms sextets, Ensemble Alcatraz, Bach Trio Sonatas, and other performances, Josquin Desprez, and lots more.
- Jason Serinus -
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