Monday, April 12, 2010

Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (MOGM/Nézet-Séguin)

Bruckner: Symphony No.9
Metropolitan Orchestra of Greater Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA Classique 22514| Stereo DDD (SACD)

The moment I heard that Norman Lebrecht hailed Yannick Nézet-Séguin's recording of the Bruckner 7th as the best "since Franz Welser-Möst started shaving," I knew there was trouble. Being compared favorably to a conductor I consider one of the most boring ever to have been awarded a record contract is dubious praise indeed. Lebrecht went on to praise the French Canadian's "austere restraint at the big climaxes" as an indication that "[Nézet-Séguin is] an artist who is not chasing cheap rewards." "Restraint," for those of you who may not be aware, is usually a British musical critic's euphemism for "boring." Still, I hold Norman Lebrecht's opinion in very high regard and trust him head-and-shoulders above your average Gramophone scribbler. So being the inquisitive sort that I am, I decided to give Yannick's Bruckner a listen.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is one of the rising young podium lions that the classical media is so desperately pushing in an attempt to show that the age of the great conductor, and by extension, classical music itself, is not in a state of decline. Like many of these "stars," he fits the bill as to what a "great musician" should look like these days: youthful, seemingly energetic and virile, and effortlessly photogenic. Too bad that a compelling musical vision doesn't seem to be among the virtues that the press lauds.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this recording. The Montreal Metropolitan Symphony sounds undernourished for Bruckner, but otherwise have a good grip on the composer's music. Nézet-Séguin allows the music to unfurl without any hindrance. But there is a flatness to his direction that is lethal in this work. The build-up and statement of the powerful, unison D minor theme at the start of the symphony may as well have been phoned in. What should definitively set the stamp for the direction of the entire symphony reveals Nézet-Séguin, admirable restraint aside, to be a not quite finished artist. Certainly an artist somewhat out of his element in Bruckner, playing it cool only because he has no idea as to how to subdue this symphonic steed. The ghastly, demonic D minor Scherzo and the eerie F sharp Trio, a jarring contrast in the right hands, blends into each other with toothless equanimity. No eerieness, no sense of the diabolical--just a mildly unpleasant daydream at best. And that grinding, six note dissonance that crowns the Adagio and, possibly, the entirety of Bruckner's late work, rolls by the listener as just another ho-hum moment. Nézet-Séguin seems to have no particular direction to be headed to and sounds like he doesn't really care whether he gets there or not. So much for "restraint."

I'm not against Bruckner played in a leaner, more classical fashion. Eduard van Beinum, Rafael Kubelik, Joseph Keilberth, Bernard Haitink, and Carl Schuricht are among the conductors that have brought us some outstanding, Apollonian Bruckner 9ths. Their refined vision do not preclude excitement, however. Each conductor has a compelling vision as to how this symphony ought to sound and where it ought to go. Incidentally, Karl Böhm, no cheap artist he, gave us some gorgeous "straight" Bruckner with some powerfully moulded climaxes that seem beyond the grasp of the musicians here. Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra just seem to be cranking out another generic recording. The SACD sound is superb, but why bother? Unless your dream is to hear the Bruckner 9th on somnambulistic auto-pilot, look elsewhere. What a bore. I can barely muster the energy... *YAWN!*... to finish... this review... [curls up and falls asleep.]

Monday, April 5, 2010

Chopin: Waltzes (Ott)

Chopin: Waltzes (complete)
Alice Sara Ott, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8095 | Stereo DDD

So I'm not even going to lie to you about this. Yeah, I was pretty impressed with Alice Sara Ott's Liszt Transcendental Etudes, her debut on disc. She wasn't on the Arrau/Gekic/Cziffra level, but she was good. But the main reason I ended up buying this disc is... because as far as looks go, I find her to be the bee's knees. Yes, dear reader--sheer animal desire drove me to buy the disc at hand. I was sitting on the proverbial fence about buying this disc, but her looks won me over. Thank you DG marketing team! But don't stop and just admire her pretty pic in her waify, hipster Red Riding Hood garb on the cover. Take a look inside the booklet and you'll find plenty more glamour shots of Ms. Ott with a scant, puff "interview" that does insult to the name "liner notes." A rambling, cutesy little thing that tells you nothing about Chopin and makes Ott sound like a clueless ditz. But she is a cutie, no doubt about it. But what of this recital? Well...

I own at least some 20 to 30-odd Chopin waltz recitals. This may be one of the very worst I've ever heard from a major artist and label. Had you never heard what these pieces were called, you'd hardly believe they were waltzes as they barely dance at all. Galumph about is more like it. Ott's perverse rubato and leaden tone must be heard to be believed. I'm not at all against a more romantic approach to these gems. Cortot's recital is numbered among my favorites. But what sounds magical and sparkling in Cortot's hands sounds lumbering and mannered here. The famous opening fanfare of the E-flat waltz sounds sounds as if the waltzers at this particular salon imbibed the champagne and absinthe a bit too generously. Another pirouette and these dancers will spin themselves away into a drunken stupor. Yes, not everything is so bad. She does a fine stab at the A minor waltz. But the highpoints, modest as they are, cannot compensate for this recital's general mediocrity. A portentious ritardando and a sudden accelerando every few bars does not romantic pianism a la grand manière make. After listening to all this herky jerky, stop-and-go routine, I was fumbling around my medicine cabinet for some Alka-Seltzer to stave off the motion sickness.

As I said, Chopin waltz recitals can be found a-plenty. My personal favorites are Anda, Anievas, Lipatti, Cortot, Tharaud, Darré, Brailowsky, and Rubinstein's 1950's era set. You'll have your own favorites, I'm sure. Whatever they are, stick to those ones and don't bother with Ott. Yes, I've uploaded it, but you'd best toss this turkey. Don't tell me I didn't warn you.