Monday, November 30, 2009

Mussorgsky and Shostakovich: Songs and Dances of Death, etc.

Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death, The Nursery, and other selected songs
Sergei Leiferkus, baritone/Sergei Skigin, piano
Conifer Classics 75605 51229 2 | Stereo DDD

Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanschina (orch. Rimsky-Korsakoff), *Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich); Shostakovich: Symphony No.15
*Sergei Aleksashkin, bass-baritone; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Decca 289 458 919-2 | Stereo DDD

Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich), and *other selected songs; Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky: selected arias and *songs
Galina Vishnevskaya; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich; *Mstislav Rostropovich, piano
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 5 62654 2 | Stereo ADD

It can be argued that even more than love--whether carnal or spiritual--death has been the number one source of inspiration for many of the works of the great composers. Happily, much of the music it has inspired is far from dour. However grim and dark it gets, it often is thrilling and, in the greatest works, can even impart in the listener a glimpse of understanding of the greater meaning of life. Just think of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Beethoven’s late quartets, Schumann’s spectral late works, Mahler’s symphonies, Saint-Saens Danse macabre, the phantasmagorical Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, just to name a handful of the great death haunted works in the musical literature. In the hands of some composers, death is portrayed with all the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood blockbuster; a spellbinding performance of a death scene for an appreciative audience. Others view death in very idealized terms. A final release and that sort of thing. Of the many composers that have dealt with this morbid subject, only a very few have dealt with it in an honest, matter-of-fact way. Death as neither cruel nor blissful. To us it is strange and terrible, but it is not any of those things in itself. It simply is. Mussorgsky, in his quest to bring realism to music, took such a look at death. Eerie and seductive; violent and horrifying. But however it comes, it simply comes, whether we want to or not.

The lyrics by Mussorgsky’s friend and one-time roommate, Arseni Golenishchev-Kutuzov inspired what may very well be Mussorgsky’s masterpiece in the genre of the song cycle, the Songs and Dances of Death. Here death comes to a sickly infant, a suicidal young girl, a drunk on his way home from carousing, and soldiers on the battlefield. The four songs make a perfect cycle, though Mussorgsky had wanted to add a few more songs to the set. He had also wanted to orchestrate the cycle, but never got around to it. Soon after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Glazunov orchestrated the cycle, but also ironed out what they considered rough hewn imperfections in their colleague’s work. If recordings are any judge, it would seem that this orchestration never quite caught on as much as the piano original. It wasn’t until Shostakovich’s 1962 orchestration for Galina Vishnevskaya that a an orchestral realization of this work won wide favor. Shostakovich's orchestration of Mussorgsky's work served to inspire him to write his Fourteenth Symphony a few years later. There has also been a recent orchestration by Kalevi Aho, but I have yet to hear that.

The music on the three discs being offered share in common, aside from an affinity for death, the inclusion of Mussorgsky’s song cycle. Sergei Leiferkus’ disc, his first volume in a four disc set of Mussorgsky’s songs, is a splendid album. His Songs and Dances of Death is sung superbly. His smooth baritone captures the mood of each song. His death as seducer in the Serenade is particularly good. In the rest of the recital, I sometimes wish for just a little more grit. His interpretation of the He-Goat, for example, is a bit flat and misses the pointed humor of this song. Darling Savishna is also much too smooth. This is, after all, the desperate plea from the town idiot. But it really is hard to resist Leiferkus’ smooth as silk voice. Semyon Skigin’s accompaniment is excellent and fits Leiferkus snugly.

Next is a Decca album where Mussorgsky is paired with Shostakovich. This album is death haunted not only by the shared mood and inspiration of the music on it, but also by the fact that the conductor of this recording, Sir Georg Solti, would die himself soon after this concert was taped. This was his last Chicago concert. I remember tuning into what was then KKGO back when I was a kid to hear this concert on a Chicago Symphony broadcast. It was a fine concert and I was very happy to see it released on CD two years later. Sergei Aleksashkin’s voice is more stentorian than Leiferkus. Not a bad thing at all, especially in The Field Marshal, where death’s roll call marches on with grim power. Solti’s recording of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony is one of the best. The CSO play mightily here as is expected. This is a lean, no-nonsense affair. You won’t find the depth and spirituality of Sanderling or the manic energy of Jarvi, to name but two other great conductors of this symphony. But this is a very fine recording of this very creepy work. Perhaps Shostakovich’s darkest, even more so than the Fourteenth Symphony.

Finally we have a recording with the woman who inspired Shostakovich’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s song cycle, Galina Vishnevskaya. This is a good recording, but it really does capture the great Russian diva just a little bit past her prime. There is a hootiness and scratchiness in her top notes at times and some wild vibrato. Nonetheless she sings with great conviction and fervor. No wonder they called her the “female Chaliapin”. The disc is rounded out with her interpretations of various songs and arias by Rimsky-Korsakoff and Tchaikovsky. She sounds in better form there. Rostropovich and his London Philharmonic play wonderfully, though I wish they weren’t so reticent. This music needs an extra passion and vigor that eludes the gentlemanly LPO. Rostropovich also does an outstanding turn as his wife’s piano accompanist. Surprised? Aside from being the last century’s greatest cellist, he also was a formidable pianist. In fact, he had originally wanted to pursue that vocation, but he ended going the way of the cello. How lucky we are that he did.

There you have it then. Death haunted works in deathless recordings. Enjoy.

(You can find the texts and transliterations for Mussorgsky's song cycle here.)

Gerald Moore: The Unashamed Accompanist

Gerald Moore: The Unashamed Accompanist
Gerald Moore, piano and narrator; (track 22) Gerald Moore, voice/Victoria de los Angeles, piano
Testament SBT 1176 | Mono ADD

I’m fulfilling a request for Peter here. Hope you enjoy this!

For those of you who imagine the role of the accompanist to be essentially one of subservience and reticence in favor of the soloist, this recording makes for an entertaining reeducation. Gerald Moore, the doyen of modern accompanists, explains the role of the accompanist, debunking many myths and untruths along the way. His wit and erudition make this a very enjoyable listen. No dry pedantries here. Particularly funny is his retelling of an anecdote involving Sir Thomas Beecham and his “public spirited” approach to his role in the opera house.

Appended at the end of this disc is an outtake with Gerald Moore and Victoria de los Angeles engaged in a little bit of role reversal. Here Moore for once takes the spotlight as singer, with de los Angeles as his accompanist and the two pound out a, shall we say, unforgettable rendition of Schumann’s Ich grolle nicht from Dichterliebe.

This is a delightful and edifying recording and Testament deserves our thanks for making it available. What a treat!

Ormandy conducts Berlioz, Dukas, and Mussorgsky

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakoff)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sony Essential Classics SBK 89833 | Stereo ADD

What a surprise! I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Ormandy’s work, but even I wasn’t expecting this recording to be so good. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of those great masterworks that only a few conductors are able to convincingly pull off. Strange this because the score gives ample opportunity for the conductor to strut his stuff and pull out all the stops. But few ever take up Berlioz’s challenge. I really wasn’t expecting Ormandy to bowl me over with dramatic strength--but that’s exactly what you hear in this recording.

To be sure, Ormandy is no arch romantic. He’s no Mengelberg or Golovanov. But excitement and ardor abound here from beginning to end. In the first movement, Ormandy and his orchestra shape the initial appearance of the idee fixe beautifully, shot through with youthful anxiety and longing. The second movement’s waltz is not the nightmarish vision of Klemperer or Szenkar--a vision of the outsider looking in. Rather, here the hero is himself dancing along, twirling away, hoping to lose himself from the memory of his beloved through the intoxicating rhythms of the dance. Lovely English horn and oboe set the stage for a luminous Scene in the Country that for once seems all too brief. But the biggest surprises of all are the last two movements. A crackling, goosestep of a March to the Scaffold played to the very hilt. The Philadelphia brass play gloriously here. This really must have been one of the all time greatest brass sections ever. They sound powerful and majestic here, but they’ll never assault your ears like the Chicago brass could. Was this orchestra ever capable of making an ugly sound? The Dream of a Sabbath Night brings everything to a stunning close. Not only thrilling is Ormandy’s vision of this music. Equally thrilling is the chance to hear this orchestra--one of the very greatest--tearing into this music with heady abandon.

The rest of this disc is very fine too. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the perfect showpiece for Ormandy’s Philadelphians. Ormandy, quite a sorcerer himself, conjures up magical playing from his orchestra. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is very good, but here I would prefer Abbado or the spooky orchestral pyrotechnics of Stokowski.

In this recording Columbia afforded Ormandy some of the best sonics it ever produced. Beautiful and lush sound complement the orchestra perfectly. Only the Mussorgsky sounds a little distant and diffuse.

If you haven’t gotten the hint yet, run, don’t walk to get this recording. Here is a recording of the Fantastique that deserves space next to Szenkar, Klemperer, Walter, Meyrowitz, and Mitropoulos.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beecham conducts romantic overtures (RPO)

Beecham conducts Overtures
Berlioz: Le Corsaire; Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream, The Fair Melusina; Rossini: La gazza ladra, La scala di seta, Semiramide; Suppe: Poet and Peasant; *Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
EMI Classics 7 63407 2 | Stereo, *Mono ADD

Here is another CD that for some reason or other EMI has failed to reissue. The Rossini overtures appeared in the early 2000's on a short lived fundraiser CD for UNESCO where it was paired with recordings by Sargent and Serafin. The Wagner was reissued on BBC Classics some years back. But the remainder rests comfortably in the EMI vaults gathering dust.

If you love Beecham's way with music and haven't heard this yet, you must hear this CD. If you're unfamiliar with Beecham's art, this and my earlier post of his "Lollipops" make for a great introduction to the man and his work. For me, this disc is worth hearing just for the pert, beautiful winds in Mendelssohn's The Fair Melusina alone. The lovely opening is as magical and lyrical as one could ever hope to hear. The gentle breeze of a clear spring day.

The sound is good and airy early stereo, except for the Wagner which was recorded for a BBC broadcast from Maida Vale. That work is recorded in mono.

This is one of the discs I reach for to listen when my life is feeling out of sorts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dimitri Mitropoulos: A selection of some of his best recordings (Part 1)

Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Dimitri Mitropoulos
Mahler: Symphony No.6 "Tragic"; *Berlioz: Romeo et Juiliette (excerpts); *Debussy: La mer; *R. Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra; *New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
EMI Classics 5 75471 2 | Mono ADD

Berg: Wozzeck; *Schoenberg: Erwartung; Krenek: Symphonic Elegy for String Orchestra (In Memoriam Anton Webern)
Mack Harrell - Wozzeck
Eilleen Farrell - Marie
Frederick Jagel - Drum Major
Joseph Mordino - Captain; Soldier; Fool
David Lloyd - Andres
Ralph Herbert - Doctor
Edwina Eustis - Margret
*Dorothy Dow, soprano
New York High School of Music and Art Chorus, Chorus of the Schola Cantorum; New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Sony Masterworks Heritage MH2K 62759 | Mono ADD

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 10 and *9
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos; *Efrem Kurtz
Columbia Masterworks Portrait MPK 45698 | Mono ADD

"Nice guys always finish last." That depressing aphorism was probably never truer than with the life of Dimitri Mitropoulos. A tall, craggy man with a gleaming domed top, and a robustly athletic physique, he had a gentleness of character that belied his tough exterior. Mitropoulos' Franciscan munificence was notorious. He spared no expense with the financially needy and drained himself completely in performances that pinned the listener to the wall with a white hot intensity that left one worrying for his health. Adored by his Minneapolis Symphony, he left for New York where he believed he would reach the pinnacle of his career. Instead, the underhanded machinations of the orchestra's musicians and board, not to mention a series of betrayals by his one time protege Leonard Bernstein, broke Mitropoulos' spirit and health. He returned to a Europe, where he had long been ranked as a great, that received him with open arms. What should have been a new beginning ended all too soon. During a rehearsal of the Mahler Third with the Milan Radio Symphony, he suffered a massive heart attack that blew out one of the chambers of his heart. He died penniless. Mitropoulos has indirectly been one of the most influential conductors that America has ever had. Even more so than Bernstein, Mitropoulos was a Mahler conductor par excellence who's tireless championship of this then unpopular composer set the foundations for the Mahler revival of the 1960's. His recordings and airchecks survive as a reminder of his genius and an eternal rebuke to the mediocrities that succeeded him.

This past month (November 2nd) marked the 49th anniversary of this great musician's death and as a tribute to this giant, I'll be posting a selection of some of his best recordings from Minneapolis, New York, and Europe. It is very unfortunate that Mitropoulos was a Columbia artist as that label's sound was inferior to what labels like Decca, RCA Victor, HMV, English Columbia, DG, and even Vox and Westminster were capable of at the time. This together with the fact that the bulk of his studio recordings were in mono and that much of the repertoire foisted upon Mitropoulos by Columbia was uncongenial to his style helped his legacy fade away. Sony/BMG has also been pretty hit-and-miss with the Mitropoulos reissues, sometimes releasing great recordings in poor remasterings or great recordings that are available for only a short while or hard to find outside of Europe. Fortunately, some of his greatest work can be heard in live recordings on labels like Orfeo, Medici, and Music & Arts.

His volume in the Great Conductors series was a very fine one; one of the best in that short lived series. The first disc is a blistering performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony with the Cologne Radio Symphony. No one except Kyril Kondrashin comes close to matching Mitropoulos. There is none of the taffy pulling and portentiousness of Bernstein, the edgeless smoothness of Thomas, or the bland anonimity of Jansons, Haitink, Gergiev, etc. It is a performance where you feel the conductor and the orchestra just get straight to the soul of the music--no bullshit. There is not a single drop in tension and focus. The first movement treads forth inexorably, crushing everything before it like a tank. The major/minor seal is played with searing power and the orchestra has a dense, dark sound that works well in this symphony. The scherzo pounds out with steely vigor and the "old fashioned" trio sounds more macabre than usual. The Andante moderato is played with great lyric strength, though one feels Mitropoulos is less concerned with the romance of this music and more with the bracing alpine air; the Olympian heights. The finale is the most bleak and powerful on records. It surges with great muscularity. The hammer blow climaxes will knock you out of your chair, but the hammer blows themselves (as they often are) are not very audible. The final fff climax is truly shattering; all life and energy utterly spent. Mitropoulos was one of the very greatest Mahler conductors and he plays this symphony here with a messiaenic zeal. It should be noted that he gave the American premiere of this work in 1948 and that there is a New York Philharmonic broadcast of this work available. As good as that recording is, this one outclasses it. The sound quality here is very good mono; powerful and well focused. These Cologne broadcasts had some very good sound. The Cologne orchestra plays better than the NYPO and it must be said that the CRSO, on the whole, was a better orchestra than the NYPO. New York may have had better individual musicians, but it hardly mattered as they played quite raggedly as an ensemble. No such problems can be heard here.

Disc two of this set has a selection of very fine NYPO recordings. An athletic Berlioz Romeo et Juiliette, one of the very best ever recorded. A shame that Mitropoulos didn't record the whole thing. Also included is a very different take on Debussy's La mer. No atmospheric haze here. I've never imagined that Debussy could sound so muscular and granitic, so sinewy. But Mitropoulos makes it work! He had a way of grabbing the listener by the scruff of the neck and taking him on a musical journey, whether they wanted to or not. I won't be giving up my recordings with Desormiere, Coppola, Koussevitzky, Munch, and Inghelbrecht, but Mitropoulos deserves shelf space right alongside them. The disc ends with a thrilling and hot Dance of the Seven Veils, played with seductive rhythmic verve and very tight ensemble.

Now the next set is very special indeed. Mitropoulos was Erich Kleiber's assistant at the Berlin State Opera during the 1920's where he saw first hand some of the great man's productions, including the famous premiere of Wozzeck. The work immediately won him over and was among the many works that would occupy his study time during the next few decades. He finally had his chance to perform it in concert during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic and Columbia fortunately captured the occasion for posterity. The cast is one of the very best assembled with Eileen Farrell pouring out roulades of golden tone with no effort whatsoever. Her Marie is very warm and human; not as schizoid sounding as others make her seem. Mack Harrell's Wozzeck is powerful and wrenching. The cast it must be noted, save for Harrell, take a rather cavalier approach to pitch, especially Eileen Farrell. No matter as the fervor that Mitropoulos inspires from them makes up for it amply. Mitropoulos gets very full hearted playing from the NYPO despite a few mistakes here and there. Under his baton the opera's final pages have never sounded so heartbreaking.

The last disc is devoted completely to Shostakovich: the Tenth and Ninth symphonies. The Tenth leads out the disc in a searing performance under Mitropoulos; the symphony's first recording in the west. It's hard to believe that this symphony was greeted with derision by the New York press and it says a lot about the deep seated provincialism of this supposedly most cosmopolitan of cities. A "turkey"; music "without culture". Fortunately, posterity and Mitropoulos has proven these people wrong. This is really one of the very great recordings of the symphony. The climaxes in the first movement are almost unbearable. The second movement, at about 3'45", is the fastest on records. Faster even than Mravinsky or the composer himself with Moishei Vainberg playing a two piano arrangement of the symphony. No lapses in playing can be found here, the NYPO plays with total commitment. The Allegretto is dark and plenty mysterious while the finale bursts forth, guns blazing at the coda. The disc mate is a surprisingly powerful Ninth Symphony conducted by the nearly forgotten Efrem Kurtz. Kurtz was American Columbia's (and later English Columbia's) go-to man for recording Russian repertoire. The majority of his recorded output has failed to make it to CD, but what there is very fine. This Ninth is no different. It is interesteing to note that Bernstein opts for nearly the same speeds in his own recording with the NYPO. Unfortunately, the remastering of this CD leaves much to be desired. All you have is mid range sound, with the highs and lows zapped away. These recordings deserve better and one can only hope that they'll be given adequate remasterings some day (not likely).

If you need proof that Mitropoulos was a giant worthy to be ranked alongside Klemperer, Furtwangler, Mengelberg, and the rest, give these discs a try. There is more on they way!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.9 and 14 conducted by Oistrakh and Barshai (Russian Disc)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.9 and 14*
USSR Symphony Orchestra/David Oistrakh
*Galina Vishnevskaya, Mark Reshitin; Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai
Russian Disc RDCD 11192| Stereo ADD

(If you haven't done so yet, please visit Maready's The High Pony Tail blog where you will find his transfers of some Melodiya releases of Shostakovich's music including Maxim's first recordings of the Fifteenth Symphony and Barshai's studio recording of the Fourteenth Symphony. I'll be posting up some Shostakovich goodies over the next few weeks in tribute to Maready and his fine work.)

The mid and late 1990's were a great time to be a classical CD collector. Everything that could possibly be in print was and what wasn't was well on its way. The Polygram, EMI, and Warner boys were flooding the market with mounds of releases. For those with more peculiar tastes, niche labels like Archiphon, Dante/Lys, Rockport, Pearl, Biddulph, and Romophone served the community admirably. For Russophiles, however, two labels were among the most cherished in those days. The first was the Russian Revelation label which in its all too brief lifespan issued some amazing recordings incuding a priceless 7 CD set of the complete Russian recordings of Shostakovich playing his own work. The other was a label that lasted a little longer, but was shut down around the same time thanks to the mindless chumps at Sony/BMG's legal department. That label was Russian Disc which put out many Soviet era airchecks including this performance: the Moscow premiere of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. Coupled with it is a good hearted romp through the Ninth Symphony courtesy of David Oistrakh.

Oistrakh was a pretty decent conductor and made a few very estimable recordings, quite a few of which were issued on Russian Revelation including a very rich, Slavic Mahler Fourth Symphony with Vishnevskaya. This Ninth Symphony, while not earth shattering in any way, shows Oistrakh's genial conducting at its best. There are patches of messy ensemble here, but nothing that seriously prevents the enjoyment of this recording. The trombone soloist is particularly good here, playing the tonic/dominant interruptions in the first movement with the appropriate boorish humor.

The real reason to get this disc is to hear this aircheck of the Moscow premiere of the Fourteenth Symphony. The Fourteenth is one of Shostakovich's greatest works, but has faired rather poorly on records. Not that it has lacked good performances. But too often the performances are very well mannered and much too smooth. Only the pre-defection Barshai, Kondrashin, and Rostropovich have truly brought this work to life. Even Barshai's remake with the Cologne Radio fails to come to life the way his studio recording or this aircheck do.

According to the correspondence between Issak Glikman and Shostakovich, the composer was not quite happy with this performance or the singers. He cited ensemble lapses and missed or late entries by the singers. There are a few very minor lapses in ensemble, but really nothing to complain about. No recording matches the frantic intensity of this aircheck. It can almost be too much. Not a work or recording one can listen to very often.

The quality of this recording is good, but tends to suffer from distortion at climaxes, especially if percussion is involved. Speaking of percussion, this recording emends the score slightly with the tom-toms playing in unison with the string at the symphony's coda. This change, according to Barshai, was sanctioned by the composer.

Shostakovich fans must have this CD. Don't miss it.

Alfred Schnittke's Film Music (Part 1 - Olympia)

(This will be the first in a five part set of posts devoted to Alfred Schnittke's film music. These posts will be spread across the next month or so)

Music for the films 'The Story of an Unknown Actor', 'Sport, Sport, Sport', 'Agony', and 'Music for an Imaginary Play'
USSR Cinematography Symphony Orchestra/Emin Khachaturian
Olympia OCD 606 | Stereo AAD

We all go through that phase as teenagers, don't we? That sort of emo phase where we equate life with pain and indulge ourselves in proclaiming all sorts of embarrassing pseudo-profundities; in constant mourning for... something. Some of us, God help us, go a little further than that and immortalize this mawkish period in torrents of poetic inspiration etched into reams of college ruled, spiral bound notebook paper. I never went that far myself having discovered even then that I lack the talent for lyric expression, but I did take to listening to appropriately "dark" music. Alfred Schnittke's music was a constant companion of mine in those days. His very bleak, joyless sound world offered this young listener the perfect vehicle which to exorcise some of his angst. After I turned 20 or so, Schnittke and I began drifting apart. Life, while sometimes not the "best of all possible worlds", is still something of great beauty and a privilege to be able to have at all. Schnittke's world view is rather foreign to my own these days. But some of Schnittke's work still speaks to me. His First Symphony and Faust Cantata, among other works, are undeniably great and thrilling music. His film music is also very attractive and far better than a lot of people, including perhaps the composer himself, would give them credit for. This Olympia album showcases Schnittke at his lyrical and sometimes goofiest best, but there's plenty of strength and craft here. We're light years away from the nauseously saccharine world of your typical "Hollywood" soundtrack.

Like Shostakovich before him, Schnittke wrote a very sizeable quantity of film music--over 60 scores in all--and like his predecessor, film work was one of his few sources of income during times when the man and his concert work had ran afoul of the Soviet appratchiks. Schnittke's film music sometimes suffered as well. In the case of his music for Elem Klimov's Agony, the Soviet authorities went so far as to order the destruction of the soundtrack and score. But on the whole, his film music is very approachable and witty and would be very welcome even in a 'pops' concert.

Schnittke could at times display a disarmingly fetching sense of lyricism as in these excerpts from Alexander Zarkhy's film The Story of an Unknown Actor. The score has the feel of "updated" Rachmaninoff, with plenty of friendly melodiousness that only a grump could hate. Hints of the more familiar Schnittke creep over like in the seventh cue with its menacing harpsichord ostinato and tense string tremolos. Admirers of the Russian romantics may want to give this score a try if they're thinking of dipping their toes into Schnittke's music.

Sport, Sport, Sport is a documentary film by the great Elem Klimov about the mob mentality and illusion of competitiveness in the field of sports. If Schnittke's music is anything to go by, it must be some documentary. The score begins with an energetic, Olympian fanfare that immediately segues into an ugly swamp of tone clusters from which fragments of the film's themes emerge like monsters trapped in tar. The next cue, Fans, is a mock baroque fugue arranged in cocktail lounge style complete with sizzling cymbals and sleazy saxophone. The work's finale is a grandly tragic musical panorama that has some melodic kinship with the next work on this album, the score to Klimov's Agony.

Agony is about Rasputin, especially his hold over the Tsar's policies and his subsequent murder. The work begins with murmurings from the synthesizer and electronically processed wailing. Very eerie. The next track which accompanies a flashback to the January 9th uprising, scampers along with another harpsichord ostinato reminiscent of Danny Elfman's work. The Waltz which follows is a truly frightening danse macabre with very wide interval leaps and punctured by sforzandi trumpet tone clusters. It dances along beginning with quiet menace until it reaches a whirling climax only to recede back into the shadows from which it came. The closing two numbers may be recognizable to those who are familiar with Schnittke's work. A mournful chorale theme that is later used in the Second Cello Concerto makes it appearance here and closes off these excerpts in with appropriate grimness.

The creation of the pithy Music for an Imaginary Play came about through the work of Schnittke's friend, the theater director Yuri Lyubimov. Lyubimov had planned a theatrical adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Demons and had asked Schnittke to write the incidental music. Schnittke had begun writing the music when Lyubimov defected to the west in 1985. Schnittke (with help from Gennady Rozhdestvensky) decided to salvage some of the music he had written and cobbled together this suite. The instrumentation is very unusual: 3 flutes, trumpet, harmonica, guitar, piano, drum kit, and a choir of three producing a wordless vocalise of great "pathos" through combs and tissue. Schnittke devised an orchestration where he used what he called the "leftovers" from a theater orchestra. The opening Winter Road--seemingly equal parts Weill, Shostakovich, and Mr. Bungle, but pure Schnittke--is an off kilter polka trapped into repeating its manic little theme over and over again with increasing vehemence until a violent thud on the piano calls the dance to a close. A Wending Melody offers a brief interlude of respite with a haunting folk-like melody played in canon on the flutes and the creepy tolling of bells in the background. A brazen March concludes the suite and album with the kind of noise making a group of rowdy drunks would make as they wound their way through the streets after the bar closed.

Schnittke had quite a melodic gift and his biting sense of humor rivalled Shostakovich's. For those of you who imagine Schnittke to be only doom and gloom, give this album a try.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Beethoven symphonies conducted by Osmo Vänskä... with special guest star Klaus Tennstedt!

*Helena Juntunen, Katarina Karneus, Daniel Norman, Neal Davies; *Minnesota Chorale; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS SACD 1716, 1817, 1516, 1416, *1616 | Stereo DDD (SACD)

Esther Hinds, Janis Hardy, Dennis Bailey, Samuel Ramey; University of Minnesota Symphonic Chorus; Minnesota Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
Memories Excellence ME1045 | Stereo ADD

Beethoven is back? I didn't realize he had ever been away. If he did leave us, the classical record industry certainly never got the message. Some things, like classical labels churning out Beethoven symphony cycles without regard to need or quality, will never change. Do we really need yet another Beethoven symphony cycle? Wouldn't it be a greater service to record music by little known, but great composers like Gavriil Popov, Silvestre Revueltas, Hans Rott, Nikolai Karetnikov, Saburo Moroi, etc.? But the publication of the Bärenreiter edition of these works earlier this decade, which corrects the old "corrupt" Breitkopf und Härtel editions, have given labels and conductors yet another excuse to record these far too oft performed works. Unlike the editions of Bruckner's works by Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak, for example, which revealed to the world that the Bruckner we had known until then had been grossly distorted, these Bärenreiter editions are notable only in a few minor textual emendations. This isn't to put down the hard work of Johnathan Del Mar, the editor of the Bärenreiter Beethoven. But most listeners will not notice these changes unless they have their Breitkopf and Bärenreiter scores handy for some comparative listening.

Contrary to the wild acclaim this cycle has garnered, Vänskä's approach, while solid, won't be making Karajan, Furtw
ängler, Klemperer, Monteux, the Kleibers and so on shake in their boots. Some people will claim to hear the "real" Beethoven here; a fresh approach they'll claim. At best, there is a punchiness that can work in some these symphonies' favor. However, one also hears a willful fussiness and choppiness; a neglect of legato and of the singing line. There is much in here that sounds episodic. But there are some good things to be found here too. I've rated Vänskä's approach to each symphony below.

  1. Good. Vänskä's punchy approach works well here. The slow movement is a little too cold for me; the minuet too buttoned down. The finale is let down by surprisingly soggy sounding timpani.
  2. Another good performance, slightly marred by a rather chaste Larghetto.
  3. Stiff and inflexible first movement. Good Marcia funebre although the climax goes for little here. Nice scherzo. Very balletic swing to the finale. Impressive dynamic extremes.
  4. OK, though I wish there was a stronger feel for the lyricism in this music.
  5. Wooden and bloodless. Carlos Kleiber has nothing to fear.
  6. Excellent; a high point of this cycle. Superbly paced first movement. Serene Scene by the brook. Beautiful bird calls. Very raucous peasants in the country dance. You can almost see the dust being kicked in the air by their hearty dance. The storm is very impressive and the finale is songful and warm, but strong. One of the best recordings I've heard in awhile.
  7. Another excellent recording. Powerful horns at the first movement's coda. Well paced Allegretto. The Scherzo and Finale are very thrilling.
  8. Boring. Beethoven's wild modulations pass by with no notice or care. The sense of danger in this music is missing. Vänskä can take cold comfort in knowing that this music eluded even many of the very great conductors.
  9. Tempi are similar to the live 1957 Klemperer, but without Klemperer's sense of architectural unity and control. Phrasing is too choppy; lines seem like they are being spat out or sniped at. The third movement drags--and it's actually taken at a fairly fast clip. Finale is good; excellent choir and soloists.

I should note that the orchestra sounds too thin for my tastes here, especially in the later symphonies, but play very well. On the whole, I find this set to be serviceable, but bland at times. If you like the modern instruments with a period sensibility approach, the LSO Haitink and Vienna Rattle are very satisfying. I'm happy to hear American orchestras cranking out new records, but I wish they would apply their efforts to music that hasn't been played to death.

Now let's stay in Minneapolis, but go back in time to 1982 when this live recording of Klaus Tennstedt at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra conducting a blazing Ninth Symphony was captured.

Tennstedt's is a hearty, muscular performance that infuses the music with a direction and purpose sometimes missing from the Vänskä set. On the whole, Tennstedt's tempi are slower than Vänskä's in the Ninth, but everything surges ahead smartly. The first movement and scherzo pulse forth with vigor. The Adagio cantabile has all the singing warmth that was missing in the BIS, and the trumpets peal out grandly at the climax. The last movement begins attaca with a terrifying din. Samuel Ramey's elegant bass-baritone is marvelous. The other soloists are good, though not on Ramey's level, with the tenor sounding as if he's singing with a wad of tube socks stuffed in his mouth. The choir is excellent, but their German diction leaves something to be desired.

In a Minnesota Orchestra boxed set, one can find a performance of the 'Pastoral' with Tennstedt included there. I would love to hear that. This Ninth is one of the very best I've heard and deserves your attention.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mozart's Lieder: Leblanc and Seefried

Mozart: Lieder; Assorted lieder by Flies, Brahms, Schubert, and Wolf
Irmgard Seefried with Gerald Moore; Hermann von Nordberg; Wilhelm Schmidt; London Mozart Players/Harry Blech
Testament SBT 1026 | Mono ADD

Mozart: Lieder
Suzie Leblanc/Yannick Nezet-Seguin
ATMA Classique 22327 | Stereo DDD (SACD)

Mozart's lieder after all these years still remains somewhat underrated. While never reaching the heights of inspiration and depth of expression that Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, et al were able to bring to the genre, they still are exquisite, charming gems that bring much pleasure to the listener. Here are two recitals, one better than the other, that show what a fine lieder composer Mozart was.

Suzie Leblanc starts us off with her ATMA Mozart disc, accompanied by up and coming conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, moonlighting here on the fortepiano. Leblanc sings with warmth and grace, albeit with a somewhat hooty sound that afflicts most period performance singers. There's also a tendency to unduly press the tempi as is the wont of period performance types. Nezet-Seguin plays very well, though the fortepiano sounds unintentionally comical, like a honky-tonk piano. The ATMA sonics have plenty of bloom and as far as modern Mozart lieder recordings go, this is excellent.

For those who can bear monaural sound, we have the incomparable Irmgard Seefried backed by "the unashamed accompanist" himself, Gerald Moore. As fine as Leblanc/Nezet-Seguin are, Seefried/Moore inhabit a completely different world of expression and color. The songs blossom and burst to life with charm. Has there ever been a more lovely rendition of Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling? A more witty and flirtatious An Chloë? Seefried paints a wide spectrum of colors with such natural ease. Moore, as ever, is superb here. This recital was released piecemeal on 78's, but quickly deleted when EMI converted to LP where it was quickly replaced by a recital of Mozart songs sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. As much as I love Schwarzkopf, she is no match for Seefried here, sounding too calculating where Seefried sounds utterly spontaneous and fresh. Included here also are recordings of Seefried singing lieder by other composers. A trio of charming Wolf songs closes out the disc with Seefried sounding just adorably girly.

You really can't go wrong with either disc, though the Seefried recital really is something special; a real treasure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Eighth Blackbird plays Rzewski

Rzewski's music has been something that I have made a point to avoid ever since I first heard about it. I was a teenager when browsing through a library I came across the score to his monumental set of variations on the Unidad Popular song, ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! I was immediately repulsed by it. Not the music so much, though I didn't care for its baroque excesses back then, but it was his ideological stance that disgusted me. Being the son of Chilean immigrants, I long had heard all the stories of the Allende era. The food and basic supply shortages, the violence, the groaning of a nation teetering on the brink of civil war. Today the knee-jerk answer is that the US was singularly responsible for this and many other things and that they, together with Pinochet's junta, had framed Allende, as it were, for these disasters. Much is made of the fact that Allende was popularly elected. Little is ever heard that Allende's win was not the popular mandate it has retrospectively been made out to be; a razor thin margin of dubious circumstance comparable to that of George W. Bush's in 2000. Pinochet was a crook, no question about that, but Allende was just as criminal and violent in repressing his detractors, something that's easily forgotten these days. The fact that in death he has been made a saint is disgusting. All this and more swirled through my head as I sight read that Rzewski score. I closed it and dismissed Rzewski's music and his ideology outright. Thanks, but no thanks.

Years later I came across this CD in a cut out bin. I was doubly curious because I had yet to hear a recording by Eighth Blackbird (they spell their name in all lowercase letters--how cute). At a bargain price, I thought it wouldn't hurt to try it out. I have to say--it's pretty good. Well, some of it.

Pocket Symphony
leads things off. Initially I thought this was going to be some take off of Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations, famously referred to by Derek Taylor as a "pocket symphony". Well, Rzewski is no Brian Wilson, but this is still pretty good. The first movement has a "pop" sensibility makes it approachable although the piece becomes darker as it progresses. But make no mistake, this is serious music and very well crafted-- a major work. The orchestration in this chamber symphony is very effective. I haven't heard this much jew's harp in awhile (maybe this is a tip of the hat to Brian Wilson after all?).

The rest of this album is less enjoyable. Les Moutons de Panurge, inspired by Rabelais, is a musical game where a group of musicians play a 65 note melody. To quote the liner notes: "Players start with the first note and keep adding notes until the melody is complete. At that point, they begin to get rid of the notes, one at a time, until all that remains is the last note." If a player happens to make a mistake along the way, they are to continue along their own way conituning to the 65th note and back, rather than try to "catch up" with the "herd". It must be a fun piece to play, but it just sounds like bland noodling to this listener.

The soap box climbing, politicking Rzewski comes to the fore in Coming Together. Setting to music a letter by Attica inmate Sam Melville, I found this work's pseudo profundities and passe theatrics to be excruciating and embarrassing. As bad as the music is, Eighth Blackbird's performance is worse. Don't misunderstand me. Musically they play wonderfully and are in total command of Rzewski's language. The problem is that Coming Together requires the musicians to declaim Melville's text over and over again. The delivery of the text by the members of Eighth Blackbird is grating in the extreme and I had to shut this off mid way through my second listen lest I toss my stereo out into the street. It may be harsh or "judgmental" of me to say this, but this last work is junk. Someday perhaps I shall, Hanslick-like, be proven wrong by posterity. But I'm betting the Vegas odds that this work will find a comfortable spot on the dung heap of musical history.

I usually don't include scans of liner notes in my posts and while you may regret this most of the time, you'll thank me now. The liner notes are pure--and there is no better word for this--crap. I've read some crapulent liner and program notes in my time, but these are among the worst. They consist of three fey interviews with Rzewski conducted by the Eighth Blackbirds. Good musicians the lot of them, but they just sound so annoying. Better to have condensed the interviews into a single essay. Irritating too are some of the "fun facts" that you can find in bullet point inside the booklet. Did you know that Eighth Blackbird "likes wine and cheese" and "looks good for their age" or that Rzewski "makes excellent oatmeal" or that Cedille Records "kick ass"? Well, goooooolly!

This is worth listening to for the Pocket Symphony. I look forward to hearing more of Rzewski's music.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Itzhak Perlman plays and conducts Mozart

Itzhak Perlman! Where have you been all my life?! Seriously though, Perlman is a violinist whose work I've largely avoided. I have his Tchaikovsky concerto with Ormandy (very good) and his recording of the Korngold with Previn (shot down by muddy sonics). That's it. I just couldn't trust Perlman. All that treacly, crossover garbage he's recorded a la Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway, and the Three Tenors made me very suspicious. This can't be a serious musician, I thought. Merely a triumph of good marketing. How wrong I was.

I found this CD for cheap at Amoeba for about $3 some months ago. No need to keep that money burning in my pocket. I took a chance and decided to give this CD a good home. I'm glad I did.

Perlman, as expected, is marvelous in the Violin Concerto No.3 that opens up this album. His rich, buttery tone glazes this music with all the warmth and flavor it needs. Where a lot of contemporary violinists play this music as if they're ashamed that their instrument can produce beautifully modulated tones, Perlman just revels in it. Honestly, has any violinist played this work as luciously, as lovingly in the past 30 years? What a relief from all the squawking and scraping one has to suffer today in the name of "authenticity"! This may not be authentic Mozart, but it sure is authentic Mozart.

As good as the Violin Concerto is, the rest of the album is even better. Perlman lets the strings of the Berlin Philharmonic sing their hearts out in the Adagio and Fugue in C minor. From the moment you hear the throb of the basses at the start, Perlman and his Berliners grab you by the throat and seize you by the throat, gripping you all the way until the fugue wends its way to its severe closing cadence.

Finally we have a glowing rendition of the "Jupiter" Symphony to end the program. This has to be one of the finest recordings I've heard of this miraculous work in a long time. Has EMI pulled the ol' switch-a-roo on your's truly? Can this really be the same orchestra in all those anaemic Rattle recordings? Whether it's by virtue of Perlman's podium presence, a superior miking job by EMI, or just sheer good fortune, this recording has to be one of the greatest that the Berlin Philharmonic have made in at least the past decade. The Berliners launch into the work with uncharacterisically lusty and brawny vigor and infuse the work with plenty of blood. Perlman picks just the right tempi for the first movement and it swings along merrily. The second movement is just as lovingly shaped as you could ever hope for. The Menuetto is a just a smidge too fast for my tastes, but still very good. The finale is played with great bravado and ends with a very unauthentic rallentado worthy of Beecham--a great shout for joy. This is a Jupiter that would have made "Uncle" Bruno Walter proud.

I only wish that Perlman weren't so repeat happy. He sounds like he's never come across a repeat he didn't like. Some of them, like the first movement's exposition repeat are welcome. But I wish he had omitted the repeats in the finale. Impeding the flow of the music right when the music seems to say "let's get on with it!" But I have to admit that, while I usually don't care for the repeats, I certainly didn't mind them much while listening.

If Perlman and the Berliners ever record a set of the late Mozart symphonies--or any more Mozart or Haydn--I would snap it up in an instant. This album really changed the way I think about Perlman. If Rattle isn't jealous, he should be.