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BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1, in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 5, in C Minor, Op. 67. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur cond. PHILIPS [CD] 426 782-2 (63 mm).
Performance: Classic poise
Recording: No. 1 cleaner
--- Kurt Masur: classic Beethoven
The music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, leads with his chin, so to speak, in his new Gewandhaus Orchestra Beethoven cycle, but his recording of the Fifth Sym phony should elicit a positive response from anyone who wants a big-orchestra reading of this most defiant of Classical symphonies to be endowed with poise and proportion along with drama. The famous opening emerges as quintessentially terse and to the point. Masur steers the course like a master pilot from start to finish. He pays due attention to the con moto marking in the slow movement, but the full-orchestra reprises of the main theme carry something of the majesty I associate with Furtwangler in his mid-Thirties Berlin studio recording. Masur follows the lead of Otto Suitner and Roger Norrington in doing the scherzo with a full repeat of the main section and trio, as indicated in the Peter Gülke critical edition for C. F Peters. Like wise, the exposition repeat is observed in the finale. My only serious beef with the recording is that an over-reverberance blurs detail, especially between re leases and attacks.
The First Symphony, recorded in January 1989, almost two years later, shows marked improvement sonically, and the performance could hardly be bettered. There are fine dynamic differentiations in the first movement, a nicely flowing slow movement, a virile third, and a swift yet carefully limned finale.
BRIAN: Symphony No. 1 (“Gothic”). Eva Jenisová (soprano); Dagmar Peck- ova (contralto); Vladimir Dolezal (tenor); Peter Mikulás (bass); Slovak Phil harmonic Choir; Slovak National Theater Opera Chorus; Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus; Lucnica Chorus; Bratislava Chamber Choir; Bratislava Children’s Choir; Youth Echo Choir; Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava); Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Ondrej Lenard cond. MARCO POLO/HARMONIA MUNDI USA [CD] 8.223280-281 two CD’s (111 min.).
Recording: A remarkable feat!
British composer Havergal Brian (1876- 1972) has achieved over the past two decades something akin to mythic status, if only for his Gothic Symphony. He began the work in 1919 and completed it some seven years later when he had reached his fiftieth year. Its dimensions in playing time and performing forces put it in a class with the Berlioz Requiem and the Mahler Eighth Symphony: more than 100 minutes, an orchestra of 130, including organ and seventeen percussionists, and an additional forty players in four separate brass choirs. The vocal forces add up to 400, divided into two double choirs, children’s chorus, and four soloists.
Brian, of working-class origin, was largely self-taught. Nevertheless, by World War I he had composed a great deal of choral music as well as orchestral scores that were performed by Beecham and others. Sir Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, and Sir Donald Tovey had appreciative words for Brian’s work, but a series of personal crises brought an end to this initial success, and though the Gothic Symphony was published in 1932 in a limited edition, it was not until 1966 that it received its first professional performance (by the BBC). By that time Brian, then in his nineties, had com posed twenty-seven symphonies, and he composed five more before his death.
Brian was a lifelong devotee of medieval architecture and High Romantic German literature, and in a very real sense his Gothic Symphony represents a kind of testament to those preoccupations. In essence, it is a pair of three- movement symphonies yoked together. Part 1 evokes mankind’s Faustian strivings. Its first movement alternates be tween turbulent, densely post-Straussian musical discourse (the score was dedicated to Richard Strauss) and more pastoral elements. The middle movement is a somber and powerful processional in 5/4 meter. The third resumes the Faustian struggle and in the last pages launches into a polytonal “witches’ sabbath” that makes Berlioz’s seem like a genteel picnic.
Part 2 is a vast, 75-minute tripartite setting of the Te Deum. The first section gives us the glorification of the Godhead, the second an awesome vision of God as judge of mankind centered on one line of text, “Judex crederis esse venturus.” The last and longest section alternates between petition and glorification, and its concluding pages are the most powerful and poignant in the entire score. As in the last movement of Part 1, Brian let loose just before the near-desolate end a hellish fury comparable to the wildest pages of Varèse.
As a musical experience, the symphony ranges from the near indigestible to episodes of sublime and fascinating beauty. Thrilling as are the titanic climaxes, with the four brass choirs and vocal choruses going full tilt along with the huge orchestra, the parts that stick in my mind are the extended a cappella choral passages, the lovely reflective repetition of the “Tu Rex gloriae” toward the end of the first movement of Part 2, and, above all, the extraordinary 6 1/2-minute opening of the “Judex,” with a vast array of chord clusters in unrelated triads succeeded by amazing polyphonic vocal scoring, in twenty parts, culminating in a striking vocalize for soprano solo. Also memorable are two fine solo vocal episodes, the “Te ergo quaesu mus” for tenor and the deeply moving “Dignare Domine” for bass, which precedes the onslaught of the forces of hell.
It is to the credit of conductor Ondrej Lenard, chorus master Pavol Procházska, and Hong Kong-based Marco Polo Records that this first recording of the Gothic was successfully organized in such an unlikely spot as Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, not too many months before the revolutionary events in Eastern Europe took the spotlight, and that it came off as well as it did both musically and sonically. Having heard the BBC aircheck of the 1966 performance con ducted by Sir Adrian Boult, I have a basis for comparison. If Boult had a somewhat tighter grasp of the orchestra than Lenard, the singing here approaches the superlative. The orchestral forces do give their all in playing of the utmost conviction, and the recording engineers have done a remarkable job with music whose demands in terms of balance must be almost impossible to meet. If you want a unique listening experience and have the playback equipment to handle it, Brian’s Gothic Symphony comes close to the ultimate within its own stylistic frame of reference.
BARBER’S BALLET Music -- Conductor Andrew Schenck
SAMUEL BARBER’s 1946 ballet Medea, originally called Serpent’s Heart and then Cave of the Heart, was, like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, commissioned by Martha Graham and scored for a chamber orchestra of strings and winds. A year later Barber made an orchestral suite of seven of the numbers from the ballet, and some time later, in the mid-Fifties, he created yet another orchestral version of the music, now the best known, under the title Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Andrew Schenck, conducting different orchestras on opposite sides of the world, has recorded the little-known originals of both Medea and Appalachian Spring, as well as Barber’s 1947 orchestral suite, and it all makes fascinating listening.
The original chamber version of Appalachian Spring, which the composer him self recorded a number of years ago, may actually be better than the famous orchestral suite. It has more music and more dramatic contrasts, and the chamber scoring is delicious and very apropos. I’m not so sure about the Barber. Although some things emerge with greater profile and clarity in the chamber original, the composer seems to have been thinking in terms of a full orchestra all along, and for the most part the big version is more effective.
Curiously, Schenck treats the two versions (1946 and 1947) quite differently. For example, his tempos differ in the two readings, not only because of the relative density of the scoring but because in the original version he has apparently at tempted to be more faithful to the choreographic origins of the music. The orchestral suite is paired with two later Barber works of some note, the Third Essay for Orchestra and the Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, but it is the contrast between the two versions of the Medea music that holds the most interest in the two releases.
A third new disc by Schenck features Souvenirs, Barber’s only other ballet score. Orchestrated from some light hearted four-hand piano music, it is mostly campy fluff (or is that fluffy camp?) and may be better handled on a disc of Barber and Britten works led by José Serebrier. On the other hand, Schenck pairs Souvenirs with the suite that Gian Carlo Menotti drew from his ballet Sebastian, and this may help re vive a catchy and lively piece of work that was once popular but is now almost forgotten. The Schenck disc also has three excerpts from Menotti’s most popular work, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Serebrier puts Souvenirs with Barber’s last work, a pathetic little Canzonetta intended for a never-completed oboe concerto. To these he adds Britten’s Young Apollo, a completely silly, best- forgotten piece for piano and orchestra, in which Peter Evans is the piano soloist, and Les illuminations, one of the great masterpieces of twentieth-century music, which is brilliantly sung (though in bad French) by the soprano Carole Farley. Take your pick.
BARBER: Cave of the Heart (Medea) , Op. 23. COPLAND: Appalachian Spring. Atlantic Sinfonietta, Andrew Schenck cond. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS [CD] 3-7019-2 Hl (62 mm).
BARBER: Medea, Suite, Op. 23; Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, Op. 44; Third Essay, Op. 47. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Schenck cond. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS [CD] 3-7010-2 (47 mm).
BARBER: Souvenirs, Ballet Suite, Op. 28. MENOTTI: Sebastian, Ballet Suite. Amahl and the Night Visitors: Introduction, March, and Shepherd’s Dance. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Schenck cond. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS [CD] 3-7005-2 (51 mm).
BARBER: Souvenirs, Ballet Suite, Op. 28. London Symphony, José Serebrier cond. Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra. Julia Girdwood (oboe); Scottish Chamber Orchestra, José Serebrier cond. And:
BRITTEN: Les Illuminations, Op. 18; Young Apollo for Piano and Strings, Op. 16. Carole Farley (soprano); Peter Evans (piano); Scottish Chamber Orchestra, José Serebrier cond. PHOENIX [CD] PHCD 111 (56mm).
DVORAK: Symphony No. 5, in F Major, op. 76; Czech Suite, Op. 39. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Libor Pesek cond. VIRGIN [CD] 90769-4, [CD] 90769-2 (65 mm).
Recording: Bright, spacious
Opus numbers notwithstanding, the amiable five-movement Czech Suite of 1879 was the later of the two works here; the F Major Symphony dates from 1875 and finds Dvorák in transition from gifted tyro to mature symphonist. As might be expected, the Bohemian national element is much to the fore in the suite, and in the symphony echoes of Brahms and Wagner give way to the idiom of the Slavonic Dances, in the scherzo especially.
Libor Pesek performance of the symphony has plenty of spirit and color, particularly in the pastoral Andante con moto second movement. The recording invites comparison with the tautly rhythmic interpretation by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic on EMI/Angel, which was released just a bit earlier. Pesek takes a somewhat broader view of the music, especially in the finale, where his more deliberate pacing makes for a telling emphasis in the accenting of the main theme. The sonics are amply spacious and a little brighter than in the Jansons recording. A choice between the two versions could be based on your preferred coupler, the Czech Suite here or the Scherzo capriccioso and the Othello overture on the Jansons disc.
FOSS: Ode for Orchestra; Song of Songs, for Soprano and Orchestra; With Music Strong, for Chorus and Orchestra. Carolann Page (soprano); Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Lukas Foss cond. KOSS CLASSICS [CD] KC-1004 (68 mm).
Recording: Very good
For years, as a composer, pianist, and conductor, Lukas Foss has enlivened the American musical scene—at Tanglewood, Buffalo, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee—in a manner comparable to the young Leonard Bernstein. His compositions range from opera and choral-orchestral works on a grand scale to a host of scores for unusual instrumental combinations, many of which incorporate improvisation and chance elements. But for all the bewildering eclecticism of Foss’s musical language, encompassing all the tricks of the contemporary music trade, the music itself is accessible, fascinating, sometimes eloquent, and at times, especially in his collage works quoting from the Baroque masters, exasperating and funny.
The present disc offers a sampling of his work from 1944 to 1988. The Ode for Orchestra was written in 1944, first per formed by George Szell and the New York Philharmonic in 1945, and revised in 1958. Intended as a memorial for those who died in World War II, it evokes the famous John Donne line, “. . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls.” As might be expected for an American work of the period, the Ode partakes of the gestural figurations of Copland and Stravinsky, but it has its own genuine power and poignance as well.
Perhaps the most piercingly eloquent music Foss has written, his 1946 Biblical cantata Song of Songs was first recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, with Jennie Tourel as the soprano soloist. If the new recording does not wholly supersede that remark able collaboration, it does have the benefit of state-of-the-art sonics, the composer’s conducting, and singing by Carolann Page that comes straight and true from the heart.
With Music Strong (1988) presents Foss in a more contemporary guise, with double chorus arrayed left and right. The score combines new material (the choral section) with earlier music originating in the 1978 Brass Quintet he composed for the Canadian Brass. In the choral sections there are echoes of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, as well as touches of Americana. Unlike the two earlier works on the disc, this one may require a bit of getting used to, but one thing that does come through in the performance is Foss’s limitless enthusiasm for music and music-making. The Koss Classics engineering and production team, along with all of the musicians involved, have put their best into this enterprise, and I wish them the same success in their future recordings of twentieth-century American repertory.
MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No.3, in A Minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”); Symphony No. 4, in A Major, Op. 90 (“Italian”). Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine cond. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON [CD] 427670-2(71 mm).
James Levine’s new recording of the Mendelssohn Scottish and Italian Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic
tends toward the robust, but there is a strong overlay of genuine Romantic sensibility. A somberly tragic note is struck in the introduction of the Scottish; the pacing is deliberate, the phrasing lovingly molded and intense. The rest of the movement is splendidly vigorous, how ever, and the scherzo is properly airy and outdoorsy. The tragic note is struck again in the slow movement, and with great sensitivity. The woodwind playing is altogether superb in these middle movements. The virile element returns to the fore in the finale, with marvelous orchestral give-and-take throughout the development, and the concluding processional is festive and noble.
The Italian goes equally well, and Le vine gives us the all-important exposition repeat with its beguiling transitional material. I regret only the slightly recessed trumpet sound in the climactic moments toward the end. The con moto element in the andante is nicely observed: There’s no plodding, only a fine sense of line, cunningly nuanced. Notable in the inter mezzo-like third movement is the lovely shaping of the melody—a seamless whole with no exaggerated swelling. The finale’s saltarello runs its course swiftly without becoming a rat race. Again, the finesse of orchestral execution in the development is a joy to mind and ear alike. The sonic ambience of Berlin’s Jesus Christus-Kirche is eminently more satisfactory than that of the Philharmonie (the orchestra’s own hall). All told, a highly satisfying production.
MOZART: Keyboard Sonatas. Anthony Newman (fortepiano). Volume I: Sonatas in C Major (K. 279), F Major (K. 280), B-fiat Major (K. 281), E-fiat Major (K. 282), G Major (K. 283), and D Major (K. 284). NEWPORT CLASSIC [CD] NCD 60121 (77 mm). Volume II: Sonatas in C Major (K. 309), A Minor (K. 310), D Major (K. 311), and C Major (K. 330). NEWPORT CLASSIC[CD] NCD 60122(63 mm). Volume III: Sonatas in A Major (K. 331), F Major (K. 332), B-fiat Major (K. 333), and C Minor (K. 457). NEWPORT CLASSIC [CD] NCD 60123 (64 mm). Volume IV: Sonatas in F Major (K. 533/494), C Major (K. 545), B-fiat Major (K. 570), and D Major (K. 576). NEWPORT CLASSIC [CD] NCD 60124(51 mm).
These four discs are said to constitute the first complete CD coverage of Mozart’s keyboard sonatas played on the fortepiano instead of a modern grand. Anthony Newman, playing an instrument made in Vienna by Konicke in 1790 for some of the sonatas and one made in England by Clementi in 1802 for the others, seeks to re-create what the original sources tell us about Mozart’s own keyboard style, as different in some respects from the more legato approach that came into favor after his death as his instruments themselves were from those in use today. Newman’s playing is honest and assured, forthright and unfussy; what is missing is an acknowledgement of the respective sonatas’ individuality that might keep the listener more happily attentive through a sequence of four to six works on a disc.
While there is no reason anyone should insist on listening to more than one or two sonatas at a sitting, some other performers, at the keyboards of both modern and period instruments, have made that option more appealing with more characterful performances. Newman’s crisp articulation and brisk pacing serve the six early sonatas on the first disc especially well, but after that there is little difference in his playing from one work to the next. It is not tasteful understatement that obscures the pathos and drama of the two great minor-key sonatas (K. 310 and 457) but a surface-skimming approach that seems mechanical and bland.
The sound is quite good, and, following the practice introduced by Denon with its very first CD’s, Newport Classic has meticulously indexed the structural details of every movement in the eighteen works. The unexpected renumbering of several of the sonatas (evidently, but not entirely, in the interest of strict chronology) is bound to create a bit of confusion that might have been avoided
by omitting the enumeration and relying on the Kochel numbers alone. The documentation in general is neither terribly helpful nor very readable.
PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos: No.1, in D-flat Major, Op. 10; No. 4, in B-flat Major, Op. 53; No.5, in G Major, op. 55. Boris Berman (piano); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Neeme Järvi cond. CHANDOS [CD] CHAN 8791 (64 mm).
The Berman on this disc is not the famous Soviet pianist Lazar Berman, but a younger compatriot, Boris Berman, who emigrated in 1973 and now heads the piano faculty at Yale University. He is to record all the Prokofiev sonatas for Chandos as well as the concertos; from his showing here he appears to be an excellent choice for such an assignment, and it was a clever idea to introduce him in this particular collection of works.
Prokofiev’s Second and Third Piano Concertos are among his most popular works and are frequently recorded. The other three are seldom performed, and getting them on CD has generally required buying an integral set of all five. This disc is a handy alternative for collectors who have favorite versions of Nos. 2 and 3 and want to pick up the less- favored works without duplicating, and it is a thoroughly satisfying presentation in its own right. It sent me back to the Béroff/Masur (EM!) and Ashkenazy/ Previn ( London) sets for comparison. Berman and Neeme Järvi (whose own Prokofian credentials have been firmly established by now), with the great Amsterdam orchestra in its best form, make a fully competitive team, generating the sort of cumulative interaction—most particularly in the left-hand Fourth Concerto—that can’t be taken for granted in a live or recorded performance, and the sound is absolutely first-rate. R.F
RAMEAU: Platée. Gilles Ragon (tenor), Platée; Jennifer Smith (soprano), La Fo lie, Thalie; Guy de Mey (tenor), Thespis, Mercury; Vincent Le Texier (baritone), Jupiter, a Satyr; Guillemette Laurens (mezzo-soprano), Juno; Ensemble Vocal Francoise Herr; Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski cond. ERATO [CD] 2292-45028-2 two CD’s (134 mm).
Jean-Philippe Rameau often exhibited a tendency to be outrageous, but Platée (1749) is one of the few operas in which he gave this side of his personality full rein. Among his rare comedies, it lacks much of the artificiality of his other stage works, which is probably why it’s been performed more in this country than any, other Rameau opera. Revivals have also undoubtedly been prompted by the interest generated by the durable 1956 EMI recording of the work conducted by Hans Rosbaud. As well as that set has held up, Ramistes (as champions of Rameau were called during his time have plenty of reasons to be grateful for this new one released by Erato.
Performed with great verve by Les Musiciens du Louvre, the new Platée includes a good deal of dance music that was cut from the EMI recording. It does, though, have a slightly abbreviated ending, with the swamp goddess Platde venting her rage at Jupiter for making a fool of her with his romantic advances. I’m not sure that this edited-down finale enhances the opera’s theatricality, as intended, but it does emphasize the op era’s cruel lesson, that we all remain confined to our own personal swamps as long as we cling to our pretensions and illusions.
This performance never evokes cheap laughs, which is no small feat in an opera that’s so often burlesqued to the rafters:
After all, the swamp goddess is portrayed by a man. Gilles Ragon brings a welcome elegance to the title role and allows the humor written into ‘it to emerge naturally, via the text, rather than clowning it up vocally. Elsewhere, the singing is equally stylish, especially that of Jennifer Smith in her two supporting roles. I would have, expected more, however, of Guillemette Laurens, whose portrayal of Juno is bedeviled with a few too many vocal swoops.
Marc Minkowski, conductor of Les Musiciens du Louvre, is emerging as one of the most important interpreters of French Baroque music. His performances here and in earlier recordings all have a Gallic tang and take considerable chances. In some of Platée’s comic stretches, in fact, he drives his forces along at breakneck speed, to dazzling effect. Overall, I’d say that this is the best Rameau recording in years.
FANFARES FOR THE COMMON MAN. Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Ceremonial Fanfare; Inaugural Fanfare. Hanson: Chorale and Fanfare; Fanfare for the Signal Corps. Harris: Fanfare for the Forces. Cowell: Fanfare for Latin Allies. Gould: Fanfare for Freedom. Bernstein: Fanfare for JFK; Shivaree. Thomson: Fanfare for France. Piston: Ceremonial Fanfare. And eight others. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jorge Mester cond. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS [CD] 3-7012-2 Hl (48 mm).
Recording: Very good
In 1921, in London, Eugene Goossens founded a magazine called Fanfare and commissioned several composers to write pieces with that title, which were duly published and played. During World War II, Goossens, then conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, revived the idea as a kind of contribution to the war effort and commissioned nineteen fanfares from as many composers. One of them, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, has become quite famous, but, as this recording shows, some of the others have merit too. Conductor Jorge Mester and producer David Hubert’s idea was to collect twelve of the nineteen fanfares and combine them with similar pieces written for other occasions. This makes for a lot of musical tattooing and flourishing, not all of it equally interesting, but all very neatly accomplished and well recorded.
Besides Copland, two of the other composers stand out: Virgil Thomson, for, avoiding bombastics in favor of wit, and Leonard Bernstein, for getting to the jazzy side of the brass.’ Bernstein, the youngest of this crowd, is the only com poser here who was not represented in Goossens’s wartime cycle. If you can take it, you’ll find all this fanfaring a lot of fun.
CHERYL STUDER: Coloratura Arias. Bellini: La sonnambula: Ah! non credea mirarti. Norma: Casta Diva. Verdi: La traviata: E strano. Ii trovatore: Timor di me? Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava nel silenzio. Lucrezia Borgià: Tranquillo ei posa. Rossini: Ii barbiere di Siviglia: Una voce pocofa. Semiramide: Bel raggio lusinghier. Cheryl Studer (soprano); Munich Radio Orchestra, Gabriele Ferro cond. EMI/ANGEL [CD] CDC 49961 (57 mm).
Recording: Clear, well balanced
I first heard Cheryl Studer, as Matilda in Rossini’s William Tell, at La Scala two seasons ago (a live recording has since .been released by Philips Classics), and I was struck by her vocal security and style. Later, listening to her singing opposite Placido Domingo in the new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Wagner’s Tannhauser, I was again impressed. Her large voice and dramatic intuition projected an Elisabeth of both musical power and youthful sensitivity.
Studer’s performances here are equally, impressive. Her vocalism encompasses with easy mobility and accuracy the hazards and hurdles of these eight coloratura arias, and she sings with a real feeling for character and dramatic moment. Especially notable is the self-pos session she brings to the first part of Norma’s “Casta Diva,” the silvery quality of her “ Timor di me? … D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il trovatore, and the vocal excitement of the “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide. Every selection has something to recommend it, however, and all are crisply accompanied by the Munich Radio Orchestra under Gabriele Ferro.
Source: Stereo Review (Jan. 1991). Discs and tapes reviewed by Robert Ackart, Richard Freed, David Hall, Eric Salzman, and David Patrick Stearns
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