Classical Music REVIEWS (Jan. 1994)

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NOW on CD: CLASSICAL

CURRAN: Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden. CATALYST 61823. A fascinating 1975 recording by the American composer/performer Alvin Curran, who uses recorded sounds, unconventional instruments, voice, and synthesizers.

DEBUSSY La Mer; Nocturnes; other works. Ormandy. SONY 53256. "All told, the record is an excellent one, and Columbia has lavished a particularly sumptuous sound upon it" (October 1965).

LISZT: Sonata in B Minor.

SCHUBERT: Sonata in D Malor, op. 53. Gilels. RCA 61614. "Gilels seems arvelously at home at the keyboard-nothing seems to faze him" (September 1965).

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5. Barbirolli. EMI 64749. ". . . calm, collected, dutiful, accurate, and respectful. . . but about as savage as an English garden party" (June 1970).

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BEST OF THE MONTH--Classical

Beethoven Comes Alive

Kurt Masur's conducting seems to have become livelier and more communicative in the last few years, an impression especially apparent in his remakes of the Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven symphonies. While his first Beethoven cycle was mostly solid and reliable, his recently completed new one, again with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on Philips, is a good deal more. That was signaled in the release of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5 three years ago, and it's splendidly confirmed in the just-issued No. 3 ("Eroica") and No. 8.

Philips's claim that this is "the first recording to be based on the new Critical Edition is a bit of an exaggeration- Otmar Suitner's Beethoven cycle on De non used the same scores a decade ago- but that is not what is going to matter to most listeners. What does matter is the degree to which these performances revitalize the music without distorting or re vamping its familiar characteristics.

The new "Eroica" gains over Masur's earlier one not in being radically different, but in being more concentrated in focus and more sinewy in execution. It's more forceful, if you will, more clearly etched both in the shaping of phrases and in the bringing out of orchestral detail- and most of all in the grand sense of momentum, a sort of drive that is never earthbound yet never hectic. There is still nothing hinting at indulgence; there is still a touch of austerity, a degree of patrician reserve that keeps the power from being an empty display and allows the Funeral March to evoke a sense of exaltation rather than mere pathos. The orchestra, recorded with exemplary spaciousness and vividness, sounds absolutely delighted to be carried to such a level. There is not a single mundane passage, and the finale, without a hint of inflation, rounds off the performance with truly Promethean impact and conviction.

In the Eighth Symphony the same sort of subtle reserve in applying power serves just as effectively to allow the Olympian humor to bloom and brighten without a nudge, while maintaining the elegant setting that gives it all point.

There is a little unplanned confrontation between strings and winds in respect to tuning at the opening of the second movement-a momentary bobble in the remarkably compelling flow that might have been at risk in a retake.

Both performances are reasonable candidates for anybody's first choice, and they certainly whet the appetite for the rest of this cycle.

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies No. 3 ("Eroica") and No. 8 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Masur

PHILIPS 434 913 (75 mm)

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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8

La Scala Philharmonic, Giulini

SONY 48238 (66 mm)

Performance: Splendid Second

Recording: Transparent

Carlo Maria Giulini's reading of the Second Symphony is big and bluff, expansive rather than crisp, but it flows at a steady pulse that leaves the slow movement in no danger of grinding down. The scherzo and finale shine with an amiable sort of vitality that will appeal especially to listeners who find other readings overdriven. The orchestra is splendid in every section, with strings that really are silken. The recording itself is silken rather than buttery, outstanding in both richness and transparency; this is how an orchestra ought to sound.

But this is not how the Eighth Symphony ought to sound. Giulini has not merely steered clear of any temptation toward giddiness but has shorn the work-which Beethoven himself described as "unbuttoned"-of the effervescence and humor that underlie its distinctive character. The approach is so monumentally sober that one might imagine the conductor had been prepared for the quite different Eighth of Bruckner. While there is not much point in listening to more than a single interpretation if all are going to be the same, this one just doesn't work for me.

BRYARS: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Waits; orchestra

POINT 438 823 (75 mm)

Performance: Mesmerizing

Recording: Good

I f you put this CD on your player and hear nothing at first, or perhaps just a faint and distant singing, have no fear-the problem is not a defect or system malfunction but a long, slow fade-in. What fades in is the sound of a tramp singing a fragment of an old hymn tune on a piece of soundtrack tape recorded in London in 1971. From it the composer Gavin Bryars made a tape loop, and to that simple and moving little rendition he gradually, over some 75 minutes, adds and takes away an orchestral accompaniment, finally appending a version by the singer-songwriter Tom Waits, whose gravelly voice, a fitting extension of the old man's singing, fades away against angelic high strings.

There is nothing in the least mushy or sentimental about all of this. Bryars is absolutely faithful to the old man's song, phrase by phrase by phrase by phrase, sweetening it a little but resisting the obvious temptation to build to any kind of climax or peroration. Only at the very finish does Waits take over, and even so he remains close to the original.

The result is either the most boring and repetitive piece of music you have ever heard, or the most profound and subtle meditation on age, human misery, and simple faith that you can imagine. In fact, it is both. If that sounds like a paradox, it is one. Out of such paradox Cs. Gavin Bryars makes his music.

COPLAND: Clarinet Concerto

BERNSTEIN: Clarinet Sonata

GERSHWIN, JENKINS: Clarinet Arrangements

Stoltzman; London Symphony, Thomas and Stern

RCA VICTOR 61790 (64 mm)

Performance: Delightful

Recording: Fine

The pastoral and reflective little Clarinet U Concerto written by Copland for Benny Goodman is the only original item here.

Everything else was expressly arranged for clarinet and orchestra by various capable hands, including Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata and variants from West Side Story, several songs and piano preludes by George Gershwin, and Gordon Jenkins's tribute to Good man, Goodbye (In Memory of Benny). The results are delightful Americana, eminently suited to Richard Stoltzman's many and varied talents. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the concerto and the Jenkins; the capable Eric Stern (best known for his musical theater work) takes the rest.

DVORAK: Cello Concerto; Silent Woods; Rondo; Slavonic Dance

Schiff; Vienna Philharmonic, Previn

PHILIPS 434 914 (54 mm)

Performance: Outstanding

Recording: Very good

You can add this Heinrich Schiff-André Previn collaboration in the Dvorak Cello Concerto to the top half-dozen of the more than thirty previous versions. Given the sentiment inherent in the work, it is a sore temptation for most cellists to squeeze out yet more.

For my taste, Schiff has the balance of emotion and virtuosity exactly right. The hushed loveliness of his initial approach to the first movement's lyrical theme lingers in memory, and he takes the showier passages in stride, with no attempt at flamboyance for its own sake. The slow movement is breathtakingly beautiful, graced not only by the delicacy and nuance of the solo playing but also by ravishing sound from the Vienna Philharmonic woodwinds--and by the horns in their celebrated central episode. The finale can be heavy going at times, but Schiff eases up in just the right way and keeps the music moving until the poignant valedictory passage, to which he brings the utmost poetic expression.

The conductor functions on a par with the soloist in this concerto, and Previn not only does himself proud in that department, but he plays top-drawer piano accompaniments for the encore pieces, usually heard with orchestra, that fill out the CD. The recorded balance between cello and orchestra is flawless in the concerto, and there is just the right amount of acoustic elbow mom to produce a warm, full sound. Highly recommended!

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The First Freudian Musical

---134 Soprano Jessye Norman

Schoenberg's Erwartung--the title means waiting, expectation--is one of the land mark pieces of twentieth-century European music, and Jessye Norman's recording of it is a landmark performance.

This "monodrama," as the composer called it, is a one-act, one-person music theater piece in which everything happens in the performer's head-the kind of piece that's often better served in a live performance. The Woman, otherwise unidentified, is looking for her absent lover and either does or does not finally find' his dead body.

Erwartung is really about her mental states, and the highly emotional music is composed in a method that can only be described as free association. It is not only atonal but a thematic, a-melodic, a-rhythmic, and totally neurotic. In short, the first Freudian musical.

Yet this truly powerful work is also firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century Wagnerian music drama, here carried to its ultimate conclusion. Music and language are totally intertwined in a deep and rich way; the music is, in effect, the psychological subtext of the drama. The words, by a young poet and medical student named Marie Pappenheim, were set at a fever pitch. The work was completed in seventeen days, and the intensity of its creation is reflected in the music. It is, especially in a performance like the one here, an onrushing, inspired work that can not be explained or analyzed in any conventional way.

Because of the extreme nature of the piece, it is easy for a performer, even a good one, to be overwhelmed by it; instead of creating the drama, the singer ends up, like the character, as a victim. No danger of that here. Jessye Norman Is so much the confident master of the painful twists and turns of the astonishing vocal line that she is able to take the rough and scarred music to an almost lyric place. The drama and psycho logical torment are there, but never ex-pressed at the expense of the music. This is, literally, a beautiful as well as a powerful performance.

The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, led by James Levine, is rarely as challenged as it is here; the musicians do a first-class ob with a score that pushes orchestral virtuosity to the limit. The only hitch is that the vocal line is placed so far forward in the Philips recording that some of the orchestral details are lost in the background.

The CD is filled out with Schoenberg's Bretti-Lieder, or Cabaret Songs, which date from only a few years earlier than Erwartung but are, superficially at least, a world apart.

Written for a Berlin art cabaret, supposedly in a popular style, they are really almost classically pure art songs with a light touch-something Schoenberg was not al ways noted for. They are artfully wrought and very artfully performed by Norman with Levine at the piano; these artists are as much at home with the romantic charm of these neolieder as with the feverish and psychotic atonality of the monodrama.

Eric Salzman SCHOENBERG: Erwartung; Cabaret Songs

Norman; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Levine

PHILIPS 426 261 (62 mm)

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GRIEG: Piano Concerto (original version); Small Piano Pieces (1859)

Derwinger; Norrkoping Symphony, Hirokami

BIS 619 (62 mm)

Performance: Personal and passionate

Recording: A tad resonant

A composer's anniversary can hardly pass these days without the exhumation of some earlier version of a warhorse. Grieg apparently tinkered with his Piano Concerto for roughly forty years, mostly with the orchestration. Though the differences aren't earthshaking, the original version here seems a bit bolder than the familiar one, with a greater reliance on brass and winds. What really makes this recording worth hearing is the young pianist Love Derwinger. He has rethought the concerto much in the spirit of Percy Grainger and, like Grainger, plays it with the freedom of someone who knows a piece of music so intimately he "owns" it.

But for all of Derwinger's romantic impetuousness in the concerto-thankfully devoid of simpering or swooning-even he can't get too excited over the juvenilia filling out the disc.

The twenty-three small piano pieces written when the composer was sixteen are promising snippets of ideas waiting to be developed, and they seem all the more remote for the overly resonant acoustic.


MOZART: Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)

Orgonasova, Olsen, Sieden, Peper, Hauptmann, others; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ARCHIV 435 857 (two CD's, 133 mm)

Performance: Excellent

Recording: Excellent

This is an intimately scaled performance featuring young, as yet uncelebrated singers, but it comes off extremely well. John Eliot Gardiner leads with his customary fleetness and gives the singers strong support. Some of his tempos may prove too brisk for a staged performance, but here the cast is with him all the way, and an admirable momentum is sustained. The English Baroque Soloists offer delicate and transparent sound, with lustily stressed woodwind and percussion detail.

The excellent impression I gained from the soprano Luba Orgonasova's earlier recital disc on Naxos is fortified here. She brings a warm tone, pure intonation, and accurate coloratura to Konstanze's music. In the taxing "Martern Alter Arten" aria she infuses her singing with a sense of defiance without sacrificing roundness of tone. The young American tenor Stanford Olsen shines with his stylish and tonally winning Belmonte.

The tenor Uwe Peper is an expert and sympathetic Pedrillo, partnered by the charming and agile Blonde of the soprano Cyndia Sieden. Sieden dispatches "Welche Wonne" with the instrumental ease of a flutist-vocal characterization becomes a moot point at this tempo. Cornelius Hauptmann is really a bass baritone, without the true profundo sonority, but he puts across both the comedy and men ace of Osmin's character with great skill and contagious gusto.

The excellent annotations assure us that the recording is based on the new (1982) Bären reiter edition. I have two minor quibbles:

There's a certain fussiness in the orchestral phrasing in the introduction to "Martern Alter Arten," and the spoken dialogue is recorded at an almost whispering level.


PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1.5

Krainev; Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Kitaenko

TELDEC 73257 (two CD's, 123 mm)

Performance: Four Out of five

Recording: Comfortable


PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1,3,5

Bronfman; Israel Philharmonic, Mehta

SONY 52483 (66 mm)

Performance: Steely, brilliant

Recording: X-ray clarity

Nearly fifty now, Vladimir Krainev has made very few recordings (few, at least, known in the West), and his name has yet to become as familiar as those of some other Russian pianists. But he is a formidable representative of the highest standards of the Russian school and, it would appear, especially well attuned to the Prokofiev idiom. His big, assured approach in the Teldec set encompasses wit, lyricism, and stunning gradations of color, as well as the sort of unstrained power that suggests vast resources held in reserve--in other words, the very qualities this music demands. He also never seems to be using any of the concertos as mere "vehicles."

Well, perhaps the Third. Curiously, while Krainev seems comfortably "inside" the four less familiar concertos, responding to their various demands with the most winning sense of spontaneity, he does seem given to self conscious gestures in the most popular one, as if determined to put his own imprint on it even if that means distorting a phrase here or exaggerating an effect there. Too bad, for his other performances are thoroughly persuasive.

Dmitri Kitaenko has the orchestra in fine shape, and although some details are a little lost in the sonic focus, which favors sumptuousness over clarity, the listening is very comfortable.

Some of that sumptuousness, in fact, would have been welcome in the Sony recording, which tends toward harshness in its almost X ray image of the Israel Philharmonic winds and brasses. Bronfman's steely, brilliant piano playing is itself beautifully focused, however, and he and Zubin Mehta leave nothing to be desired in their vital account of the Third Concerto. I got the impression, though, that the First and Fifth may have been less thoroughly digested: In the First, Bronfman is a little fussy in his phrasing, and in the Fifth one might wish for a little more lyricism. If only Bronfman's Third could replace Krainev's quirky one on Teldec--that would be quite a set! But his disc has a lot going for it, and I'm eager to hear what he and Mehta do with the remaining concertos. No. 2 in particular.

RODRIGO: Conclerto de Aranjuez

TAKEMITSU: To the Edge of Dream

ARNOLD: Guitar Concerto

Bream; City of Birmingham Symphony, Rattle

EMI 54661 (58 mm)

Performance: Youthful energy and ardor

Recording: A perfect balance

T his is the fourth time that Julian Bream has recorded the Rodrigo concerto, which all by itself constitutes the classical period of guitar concertos. It is still very sexy music, especially in this amazingly youthful performance; the veteran Bream stays right up with Simon Rattle, many years his junior, in energy and ardor. The Takemitsu, which hovers curiously between old-fashioned modernism and New Age sensibility, is extremely well conceived for the medium and gives Bream a chance to show a very different side of his musical personality. The mildly jaunty, rather diffuse Malcolm Arnold concerto is dedicated to Bream and is, like the Rodrigo, a staple of what is, after all, a small repertoire. Bream plays it as if he owns it (and, in fact, he does), and that makes it almost convincing. Good sound, perfectly balanced.

SCHUBERT: String Quartets No.2 and No. 14 ("Death and the Maiden")

Artis Quartet

SONY 52582 (59 mm)

Performance: Idiomatic

Recording: Very good

The Quartet No. 2, which Schubert corn posed at the age of fifteen, is no mean achievement for a teenager, and no mere aping of the Mozart-Haydn models. There are definite touches of the Schubert to come in the carefree and spirited first movement, the siciliana-style slow movement, the Landler-flavored menuetto, and the major/minor finale which displays genuine structural command of the medium.

The young Artis Quartet performs both No. 2 and the familiar No. 14 in the best Viennese Romantic tradition. The recording locale (an Austrian Schloss, or "castle") produces a bright but not glaring sonority; the microphone is close enough that the audible decay time presents no problems .

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No.11

National Symphony, Rostropovich

TELDEC 76262 (69 mm)

Performance: Eloquent

Recording: Good

Shostakovich's massive Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) commemorates the abortive 1905 Russian revolution, with its January 9 slaughter of unarmed petitioners before the Tsar's Winter Palace. It was com posed at the time of another failed uprising, that of November 1956 in Hungary (ruthlessly put down, ironically enough, by Soviet troops).

The four movements-"The Palace Square," "The Ninth of January," "In Memoriam," "The Tocsin"-are a fantasia of huge dimensions built on Russian prison and revolutionary songs. There is little or no symphonic development, but there are plenty of atmospherics--cold, tense, fearful-of a type only Shostakovich could generate (his experience with film music dated back to his boyhood in the 1920's, when he pounded the piano for silent movies).

Mstislav Rostropovich, the composer's steadfast friend and devoted interpreter, brings a special authority to this latest recorded realization. Like James DePreist in his 1988 Helsinki reading on Delos, Rostropovich opts for very slow tempos, making the performance more than 10 minutes longer than most others on record. The effect is to enhance the sense of space overall and to give the fast action music, when it finally comes in the last movement, even more overwhelming impact (further heightened at the end by the use of a set of 200-pound bells).

Rostropovich has a much better orchestra than DePreist's, especially in the strings, which bring a heart-stopping poignancy to the "In Memoriam" movement and such element at force to the finale that you can almost smell the rosin. Teldec's sound also has more impact and presence than the Delos CD, due in part to a tighter acoustic surround. This is the best available recording of "The Year 1905."

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HONEGGER: Pastorale d'Ete; Pacific 231; Rugby; Other Works

Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Plasson

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 435 438 (65 mill)

This CD explores Honegger's narrative orchestral works, including tone poems, bal lets, and suites from film scores. Aside from old favorites there are some intriguing discoveries, including a prelude for Shakespeare's The Tempest and a "pantomime symphony" called Horace Victorieux. The harmonies have a lingering, dissonant kick and a coloristic distinctiveness that's emphasized by these sumptuously recorded, idiomatic performances.

SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9;

Overture in the Italian Style San Francisco Symphony, Blomstedt LONDON 436 598 (67 mm)

Herbert Blomstedt gives the Schubert Ninth Symphony, the "Great C Major," a decidedly cool, Nordic treatment with a brisk first movement, a darkly classic slow movement (with unusual restraint at the tragicclimax),awell-sprungscherzotaking all possible repeats (as in the other move ments), and a tensely brilliant finale with a coda of near-elemental ferocity. Things are more to my taste in the pert, Rossinian overture. Good sound..

AMERICAN CLASSICS

Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri

PHILIPS 438 663 (70 mm)

John Mauceri's hitherto impressive series with the new Hollywood Bowl Orchestra falters here. Gershwin's An American in Paris and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story come off as fairly lackluster run-throughs. John Adams's The Chairman Dances has little rhythmic verve or sparkle. Most disappointing of all is Mauceri's "new edition" of Luther Henderson's symphonic arrangement of Duke Ellington's frustratingly underdeveloped 1950 tone poem, Harlem-it is not improved by the retouching or the heavy handed performance. Roy Hemming REMBRANDT TRIO PianoTrios by Ravel, Chaminade, and Saint-Saëns DORIAN 90187 (74 mm) The Rembrandt Trio plays beautifully in these ingratiating, well-crafted, generally light-hearted French chamber works. The little-known Saint-Sanes is especially pleasing, and I was happy to have an opportunity to hear anything by Cécile Chaminade, who is not well represented in the current catalog. Good recorded sound reveals plenty of detail without sacrificing warmth. William Livingstone SEQUENTIA Ancient Music for a Modern Age RCA 61868 (two CD's. 120 mm) This sampler from the medieval-music group Sequentia is an excellent (though somewhat tame) introduction to the kind of music it plays, from an ethereal antiphon by the twelfth-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen to earthier Spanish pieces of the fourteenth century. Included at no extra cost is a bonus CD of superb period-instrument performances of familiar Baroque music drawn from the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi catalog.

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R. STRAUSS: Em Heldenleben; Till Eulenspiegel

Cleveland Orchestra, Dohnányi

LONDON 436 444 (61 mm)

Performance: Terrific 'Till"

Recording: Very good

In this performance of Richard Strauss's Em Heldenleben, or A Hero Life, Christoph von Dohnanyi's characterization of the Hero strikes me as somewhat robotic, at least at first; he moves swiftly, but like a well-oiled machine. The Cleveland winds have a real field day, on the other hand, portraying the Hero's critics, who come across as a marvelous barnyard lot. I don't find much caprice and mercuriality in the "Hero's Helpmate"- personified capably enough in violin solos by the orchestra's concertmaster. The battle scene gets off to a rousing start with wonder fully recorded offstage trumpets, but the unison return of the Hero theme at its close brings no real sense of culmination. Dohnányi finally warms to his task when we get to "The Hero's Works of Peace"-he clearly seems to enjoy its juxtaposition and combination of quotes from Strauss's earlier works, and the music's beautifully balanced polyphonic texture is elegantly realized. The final moments are distinguished by superb solo-horn playing, Dohnanyi is much more in his element in the volatile world of Till Eulenspiegel Merry Pranks. Rarely has that scamp been so astutely characterized in his many guises, thanks to the orchestra's flawlessly blended and articulated string tone, razor-sharp attacks by wood winds and brass, crackling percussion work, horn playing with nary a bobble, and conductorial control that's second to none but never coldly virtuosic. The rendition of the epilogue really says it all, and the CD is worthwhile for this 15-minute track alone. The recording, too, is a tad more sharply focused than in Heldenleben, but that may stem from the differences in the scoring of the two works.

Collection

MUSICA SACRA--Of Eternal Light

CATALYST 61822 (70 mm)

Performance: Scrumptious

Recording: Excellent

MUSICA SACRA conductor, Richard Westenburg, predicts that this collection of contemporary, a cappella works may change the way folks think about choral music. He could be right, not because the music here is going to turn everything upside down, but because it's all so ingratiating that it could nudge choral directors toward more adventurous repertory. It truly doesn't bite-though occasionally I wished that it would.

Olivier Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium is an early work that sounds hardly at all like his more mature music. Many will remember Gyorgy Ligeti's Lox Aeterna from its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Meredith Monk's Return to Earth is a hypnotic study in rhythm that immediately touches something elemental in the listener.

The three new works commissioned for the recording show that wonderful music can still be written far from the cutting edge of modern ism. Robert Moran's lovely Seven Sounds Un seen sounds like a descendant of Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music. Ricky Ian Gordon's deeply personal Water Music: A Requiem is a subtle, intimate setting of its haiku-like text and a formal hybrid as well, contrasting thematic development with a song-like refrain. Most striking of all is Kim D. Sherman's Bosnia-inspired Graveside, with its Eastern European folk influences and use of drone effects from sacred music. The consistently rich-sounding performances do justice to the different needs of each piece.


Source: Stereo Review (Jan. 1994).

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