Thursday, June 30, 2011

Schoenberg: Ein Ueberlebender aus Warschau / Webern: Orchestral Works - Wiener Phil., Abbado

Arnold Schoenberg: Ein Ueberlebender aus Warschau*
Anton Webern: Orchestral Works
*Gottfied Hornik, *Wien State Opera Chorus,
Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon - 431 774-2


This release could actually stake a partial claim at being (partially late baroque, due to Webern's arrangement of the Maestro Bach's Ricercar a 6 from the "Musikalische Opfer".
The rest is your usual, trite, overly popular repertoire, of MIMIC's "Low Empire".

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dvořák: Piano Quintet Op81, Piano Quartet Op87 - Schiff, Panocha Quartet

To entertain these fair well-spoken days...
...we shall continue our series The Late Post-Baroque, or What Happened After 1760?

András Schiff, Panocha Quartet: Jiří Panocha (violin), Pavel Zejfart (violin), Miroslav Sehnoutka (viola), Jaroslav Kulhan (cello)

recorded in Berlin, 1997
(Elatus reissue out of print; the Teldec original still pops up from time to time)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 - Sinopoli

Franz Schubert
Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9
Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli
Deutsche Grammophon 437 669-2


Sinopoli was a great conductor. But, influenced by some negative reviews, I once almost sold this CD. Fortunately I didn't, and came to appreciate it again when I realized one should make up his own mind. Sinopoli's readings are clear, with the risk of becoming "dry". But no sense of drama gets lost in this "surgical" approach (Sinopoli was also a physician - a psychiatrist to be precise -, as well as an archeologist). Maybe not the top pick on these works, but worth listening to.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.2, Adagio from Symphony No. 10 - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Levi

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.2, Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Barbara Bonney, Mary Philips, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Yoel Levi
Telarc - 80548(CD)


The Adagio of the 10th symphony is the reason of today's post. I think we are getting close to being all set with Mahler's basics.
We are still missing the Lied von der Erde and the Kindertotenlieder at least, but we are getting there.

I know you're waiting for it, so I won't disappoint you...my Hurwitz-jab-of-the-day is...(drumroll and trumpets, Maestro):
"Another recording which proves Hurwitz's value as an insightful sniper...ooops critic. Why else in the world would I have considered purchasing Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony on Mahler's 2nd? 1) The Atlanta Symphony would not be the first Mahler orchestra you'd think of would it? 2) The Gramophone spoke of this recording as 'Mahler-lite' 3) Apart from Hurwitz, no one else ever cared much for this recording".

Classics Today Rating: 10/10
Yoel Levi's Mahler has been a mixed bag: marvelous versions of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6, a good but not great No. 1, and a dull 5 and 7. The Second is one of the great ones, though, a performance of the type that Bruno Walter or George Szell would have appreciated. It will not appeal to those who need their Mahler to sweat blood, and Levi is not the kind of conductor who makes his interpretive points through attention-getting tempo adjustments and exaggerated string portamentos. Rather, his personal touch reveals itself in scrupulous attention to dynamics, care with instrumental balances, and finely honed ensemble. Such an approach always risks blandness, if only because the result can sound effortless just when the music needs to express tension and a sense of strain; but when it works, as here, it can offer more sheer musical satisfaction and staying power than many more demonstrative efforts.

In order for Levi's approach to succeed, the orchestral playing must be uniformly stunning, and about that there can be no question. The lower strings really dig into their opening riffs, the brass sound full but never coarse, and the winds play with gorgeous smoothness and attention to the niceties of phrasing and dynamics. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the first movement (and much of the performance as a whole) is the top-to-bottom transparency of texture, even during the climaxes. This permits all of Mahler's coloristic detail (the quiet tam-tam strokes, low harp notes, mysterious suspended cymbal sounds) to make the most atmospheric contribution possible, and it helps Levi sustain the music's tension over the long spans of calmer music. Nor does he underplay the climaxes: the actual point of arrival at the first-movement recapitulation is overwhelmingly powerful, even if a bit more emphasis on those "pesante" brass chords wouldn't have hurt.

The second movement features wonderfully cultured string playing, beautifully phrased and perfectly nuanced. There's no attempt to make more of this charming movement than appears on the surface: it's a lovely interlude. The scherzo features incredible ensemble work by the winds, which pass the music's kaleidoscopic phrases off between instruments with impressive seamlessness. A little more schmaltz would have added character to the trumpet-led trio, but you can only admire the way Levi manages the ensuing transition back to the initial tempo of the scherzo: it's an object lesson in how such things should be done. Telarc correctly places the symphony's last three movements on the second disc, thereby permitting them to be played as Mahler requests, without a break.

Mary Phillips sings her fourth-movement solo sensitively, and how much better the brass playing sounds here than in Chailly's recent recording, with its awful "stick 'em off stage" experiment. The finale erupts with tremendous force, and the purely orchestral episodes have plenty of tension and mystery. Levi doesn't stint on the big percussion crescendos leading to the "dead march", which in turn has real bite and an inexorable forward thrust. The next episode places the offstage trumpets and percussion very far away, exactly as Mahler requests in fact (their sound "scarcely audible as though borne on the wind"), and they actually do come much closer, again as specified, before the next big climax. It's smooth sailing from then on: the Atlanta Symphony Chorus has few if any peers today; Barbara Bonney sounds radiant in her solos; and Levi allows the final climax to develop with a wholly natural, unforced grandeur that's never rushed. The final pages, with crashing tam-tams and excellently balanced organ, set the seal on a superbly musical experience.

If anything, the performance of the Adagio from the Tenth (Ratz edition) is even better. There's nowhere to hide in this music, no special effects or coloristic devices to deflect the attention from the movement's pure Mahlerian polyphony. Levi's performance demonstrates just how superb his Atlanta players are in all departments (how gorgeously those strings play!), and how effortlessly they sustain his very slow (27 minutes) tempo. It all culminates in the single most hair-raisingly intense central climax that this music has ever received, in any performance or edition. Telarc has captured both performances in ideally warm, detailed sound of demonstration quality. There are other ways to play this music, for sure, but of its type this comes about as close to perfection as we're likely to hear.

--David Hurwitz

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.9 - Bamberger Symphoniker, Nott

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 9
Bamberger Symphoniker, Jonathan Nott
Tudor - 7162(SACD)

I include three reviews. Two are very positive, one (by Hurwitz) isn't.
He has excellent reasons for this:
1) The Orchestra is European
2) The Gramophone liked the performance a lot
3) Almost everyone else (apart from Hurwitz) liked this performance a lot

Audiophile Audition Rating: *****
The Mahler 9th is a symphonic universe, a summation of that form initiated by Haydn and sculpted by Beethoven and Bruckner. Listener involvement in the 9th is heady stuff. The work deals with the trials associated with living with always the nearness of death. If, as Keats puts it, “death is life’s high mead, then life’s journey is the story. As did Stauss in Ein Heldenleben (1898), the 9th Symphony cites Mahler’s earlier works. But these references, rather than heroic, are invariably ironic. The visceral joy found in the second movement Landler becomes progressively bitter and farcical. The third movement Burlesk reaches an ultimate whirligig of ironic energy. The final movement Adagio initially emulates Bruckner, but becomes increasingly unadorned until it is an empty shell, skeletal, bereft of life. The first movement Andante Comoto summarizes Mahler’s life journey. It is a treatise upon the ebb and flow of human existence, the ups and downs of the body and spirit, an overview of the movements to come.

Familiar with recordings by Walter (two), Szell, Giulini, Bernstein, Dohnanyi, Gielen, Barbirolli and Karajan, I find this new version by Jonathan Nott and The Bamberg Symphony comparable or surpassing those recordings in interpretation and sound quality. Nott reveals a consistently coherent view of the 9th from the opening three notes of Andante Comoto through the terminal hushed string phrases of the final Adagio. He takes great risk with extreme dynamics and tempi to achieve the correct dramatic emphasis . Very fine playing is drawn from The Bambergers. The winds bray and crackle with energy. In the final movement the string section does indeed play stets grossen ton, yet are never strident. They glow throughout the performance.

Tudor’s multichannel SACD recording becomes the ideal vehicle to deliver this magnificent work to the listener. Hall ambience, orchestral placement, depth and balance are magically provided. Only the spontaneity of witnessing the live performance is missing. I cannot praise this recording highly enough. It presents the majesty of the Mahler 9th with near perfection.

-- Ronald Legum

Jonathan Nott’s Mahler cycle has now reached the fourth instalment. Recoridngs have already been issued of the First Symphony (see review and review), the Fifth Symphony (see review) and the Fourth (see review). This is the first in the series to come my way.

Before considering the performance I think a few words about the recording itself may be helpful – I listened to these hybrid SACDs as conventional CDs. When I first started listening I thought that the sound appeared almost too close. In fact, I found that my ears soon adjusted as the performance continued and that I didn’t find the closeness to be as much of an issue on further hearings. I suppose the effect is rather akin to sitting just a few rows back from the stage in the concert hall. The orchestra sounds very ‘present’. There certainly seems to be a good spread of sound from one side of the platform, as it were, to the other but I’m less sure that there’s adequate front-to-back perspective. Another feature of the recording is that Nott has divided his violins left and right – of which I heartily approve. However, until the finale, where the strings dominate the scoring for much of the time, I couldn’t hear much of the viola, cello or double bass lines. In fact the strings as a whole are too easily swamped by the wind and brass sections in the first three movements.

For comparison I put on Simon Rattle’s Berliner Philharmoniker recording, which I so much admired in 2008 (see review by Tony Duggan). Here too the recording is fairly close but much more inner string detail is evident. I strongly suspect that the Tudor engineers have used a limited microphone array in an effort to present a truthful concert hall sound image whereas the EMI team have probably used multiple microphones placed within or above the orchestra in order to capture much more detail. I think the Tudor sound does indeed present the sort of sound that you’d hear in a concert hall – and Mahler’s scoring is very often wind- and brass-heavy – and it depends whether you want a recording for home listening to give you a concert hall perspective or whether you want as much detail as possible.

So you might want to sample the recording before purchasing. However, even if the sound is not quite your ideal – and, as I say, my ears adjusted quite quickly – sonic considerations aren’t everything here for Nott leads a fine performance of this magnificent, complex symphony.

He takes a fairly spacious view of I. In fact, at 29:46 his is one of the longest performances I know. Rattle is slightly quicker overall (28:56) but it’s interesting to note that some, though by no means all, conductors of the previous generation have taken less time over this movement. Barbirolli, for example, took 26:53 in his famous EMI Berlin recording, while Kubelik’s live 1975 reading (Audite) took 26:44. The celebrated 1938 Bruno Walter recording flashes by in 24:47. Have Mahler performances broadened over the years?

Nott may be spacious but throughout the movement his control and concentration are impressive. His reading isn’t as passionate as Rattle can be at times; it’s more patient. There were one or two occasions when I thought his speeds were just a little bit too measured but as a whole his reading is impressive. The climaxes are thrust home – at these points one has the impression that the orchestra is playing flat out – but the quiet passages often impress. For example the ghostly passage between 8: 01 and 9:47 is imaginatively presented with lots of good detail – I like the distanced muted horns, for instance. I think it would be fair to say that sometimes the violins sound just a little thin in alt and the string bass line is certainly underpowered – no doubt because one is so used, with many other conductors, to hearing the cellos and basses prominently through the right hand speaker. But, set against that I must say straightaway that much of the playing is vivid, the orchestra’s response is totally committed and there’s a lot of fine solo playing to admire. I have heard more dramatic, angst-ridden accounts of this amazingly rich movement but drama isn’t the whole story by any means and Nott’s account is very convincing and never less than wholly musical. He seems to see the whole movement in one long sweep and I admire his way with it very much.

The two inner movements go very well. There’s a good deal of sharply etched, piquant playing in II. Nott paces the music very well and he judges the many tempo modifications expertly. His reading of III is dynamic and thrusting. He and the engineers bring out a great deal of the teeming contrapuntal detail in the score. The trio (from 5:55) is taken at a suitably relaxed pace. This is nostalgic music but I like the fact that Nott never wallows in the sentiment; on the contrary, forward momentum is nicely maintained – and praise too for the solo trumpeter, whose silvery tone is just right. When the Rondo resumes (10:23) the music is turbulent and exciting right to the last bar.

The strings come into their own in the finale. The opening paragraphs are full-toned but the emotion is not overdone – Nott doesn’t play his cards too soon. The string playing is very good, the tone just weighty enough - and now we do hear a satisfyingly strong bass line. One rather special moment occurs between 4:05 and 4:54 where Nott obtains the most atmospheric playing imaginable from his strings. At this point the bass line is spectral with a wafer-thin violin line on top.

Nott unfolds the finale compellingly and the Bamberg strings and horn section in particular do him proud. Once again, this isn’t perhaps the most overtly emotional reading I’ve heard but the patience – perhaps even a degree of reserve? – brings its own rewards. Nott’s ability to take the long view and to build the movement incrementally means that when we reach the sustained ardent passage that lies at the heart of the movement (14:18 – 17:03) the effect is all the greater. The closing pages of this movement are always a huge test for players and conductor alike. Here the test is passed very successfully. During the last four minutes or so, starting with the second violin entry at 21:07, the music gradually winds down, all passion spent.

This Mahler Ninth is a very fine achievement. A host of great conductors and leading orchestras have essayed this symphony on disc over the years and though the seventeen versions on my own shelves don’t quite go from A to Z they do go from Barbirolli to Walter. This new version can certainly contend with the best of them and it’s one to which I’m sure I shall be returning frequently in the future.

John Quinn

Classics Today Rating: 6/7
There was a time when it was difficult to find a mediocre performance of this symphony, but no longer. Jonathan Nott's interpretation has many personal touches, but they are all of the same type. Briefly, he emphasizes clarity of texture to the point where he loses sight not just of the long musical line, but also of the passionate intensity of Mahler's tragic vision. There are basically two problems with pursuing transparency at all costs. The first, and most serious, concerns the fact that the kind of control that Nott requires means that all of his climaxes sound inhibited. "With the utmost power", Mahler urges at the climax of the first movement, but this is nowhere near what Nott and his players achieve. They are at their best in the quiet moments between the loud bits, where the texture is less complicated--but then anyone can play the game of "bring out the subordinate part".

Similarly, Nott's subdued opening of the finale is very beautiful, its restraint emphasizing the passion simmering below the music's surface. Unfortunately, that is where it stays, and so the contrast between the main theme and those "without expression" interludes fails to tell as it should, and the coda comes across as expressively bland. Nott's handling of the second movement doesn't come close to doing justice to the first dance's rustic clumsiness (the waltz goes much better), and while the opening of the Rondo:Burleske is a marvel of contrapuntal clarity, Nott's obsessive attention to vertical detail quickly lets the music degenerate into a mere mechanical exercise, choppy and unconvincing.

The second problem with Nott's approach is that he's only partially successful at his own game. Again, it's the tuttis that spell his downfall. Where are the horns (with the "bell" motive) at the forte counterstatement of the first movement's opening theme? Where is the trumpet at that theoretical "with the utmost power" climax? There are other misjudgments as well. Nott's handling of transitions is particularly fallible. Check out the lame trumpet and timpani fanfares and stiff accelerando leading into the opening movement's second "collapse" episode, or the awkward return to the Rondo after the calm central episode. And why does Nott accelerate so obviously and so soon before the point where Mahler actually asks him to?

Finally, there are the sonics. It may be that the diffuse engineering accounts to some extent for the lack of impact at the big moments, never mind the balances that favor the strings (not very flatteringly) at the expense of the high brass and woodwinds. But the fact remains that Nott's interpretation signally fails to inspire the players to surpass themselves. So he must take responsibility for their comparative timidity. I have no doubt that they are better at what they do than he is, and could be more impressive if he would simply get out of the way and turn them loose where the music demands it. In short, this performance has all the hallmarks of being carefully rehearsed in many of its less important details, and neglected in the areas that truly matter.

--David Hurwitz

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Respighi: Pini di Roma, Fontane di Roma, Feste Romane - Philadelphia Orchestra, Muti

Ottorino Respighi
Pini di Roma, Fontane di Roma, Feste Romane
the Philadelphia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti
EMI- 47316(CD)

Some more late baroque Russian music: the famous "Moscow Triptych": "Pines of Moscow", "Fountains of Moscow", "Moscow Holidays"...or am getting something wrong???

Classics Today Rating: 10/9
This trio of sumptuous orchestral travelogues would seem to be natural candidates for high-definition multi-track recording, but as of this writing it hasn't happened. Until then, we can be grateful to Arkivmusic.com's on-demand CD production for restoring to the catalog one of the best standard digital recordings of Pines, Fountains, and Festivals. Among discs providing all three symphonic poems, Riccardo Muti's 1984 Philadelphia production is at or near the top in all criteria: the performance is passionate and fully Italianate throughout, the orchestra has the special luster that comes with world-class ranking, the wind solos are the most ravishing on disc, and the sound is wide-ranging and natural. Readers should not let the sound's slight tendency to get splashy in the thickly-scored sections prevent enjoyment of this, the best all-around "Roman Trilogy" available.

For those who insist that sound be without reservations, Massimo Freccia's well-regarded 1968 account is superbly remastered on Chesky, and the Philharmonia Orchestra comes close to that elusive world-class quality. Tortelier (Chandos) has stunning sound and is about on a par with Muti, although his version just misses the latter's Italian flair. For top picks for the individual works, see the reference recordings, with this caveat: Avoid Maazel's Sony recordings of Respighi, and if Mata's Dorian stunner reappears, put it on your list. [1/30/2008]

--Joseph Stevenson

Monday, June 20, 2011

Stravinsky: Petrouchka, le Sacre du Printemps - Cleveland Orchestra, Boulez

Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka, le Sacre du Printemps
the Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon - 435 769-2


The next masterpieces of the late baroque :-). I've always liked the cover of this CD, with Boulez who wants to tell you: "why don't you just shut up and listen to me?" I did and and am very happy with the results.

Musicweb International (see CD2 concerning this particular CD)

Until reading Stephen Walsh’s excellent biography of Stravinsky, I hadn’t realised quite the involvement there had been between him and Pierre Boulez. This ranged from the uneasy anti-neoclassical stance of the younger composer against Stravinsky and his ally Nadia Boulanger in the early 1950s, their symbiotic relationship across the Atlantic, through and beyond the success of a 1963 celebratory concert of which Pierre Souvtchinsky said of Boulez, “... anyone who starts conducting like that will soon stop composing.” Whatever you think of Boulez as a conductor or composer, what you are getting here are top class recordings from someone who forms a bridge back to the time that Stravinsky, though already an establishment figure, was still a source of debate and controversy amongst members of the creative melting pots in the western world.

This new box set from Deutsche Grammophon brings together all of their Stravinsky recordings directed by Boulez, made over a period of about 15 years between 1980 and 1996, into one slimline package. The chances of your having one, more or all of these discs in your collection is fairly large, so I’ve included the cover art of the originals discs to jog your memory and provide an at-a-glance reference to current stocks. If you keep score, it will soon become clear if purchasing this budget re-issue will be worth your while.

Looking through my own collection, I know there are lamentably few of these classic discs in residence. I would normally plead poverty, and in this regard can join in with the celebrations that go with seeing the arrival of this new budget collection. My main reason for coming fresh to most of these recordings is however that they have long been overtaken by other labels that offer similar quality at bargain price, and the need for them has been diminishing on fairly constant downward curve over the decades since they were first released. The Naxos Robert Craft edition for instance, which has drawn on the Koch and MusicMasters labels’ back catalogue as well as producing their own frequently magnificent recordings of this repertoire. Boulez’s own 1969 recording of the Symphony of Psalms still competes with the DG version in its Sony incarnation, and my own principal reference has more often than not been Sony’s formerly expensive and coveted Complete Edition, now available in a big bargain box which may not always deliver the utmost in refinement, but invariably delivers a flavour of the times from which the music originates, and often exceeds expectations in terms of quality given the vintage of some of the recordings. Coming to these Boulez recordings more or less fresh and finding them all at once jostling for attention in the lowlier budget sections, we can brush off their perceived elevated value and status, and judge them with their new 21st century face.

Interpretative aspects aside, what you are guaranteed with these recordings is top class playing, and Boulez’s famously intense and critical ear for intonation and detail. DG’s recordings are all pretty stunning as well. This account of The Firebird may not be the most atmospheric or exotic on record, but each moment carries the emotional weight communicated by performers who are giving their all - within strictly given parameters of refinement of course. Boulez manages to strike a balance with the segmented nature of the score, which actually suits his sense of accuracy and ability to stop and turn on a dime, along with a sense of the wide balletic arc which is also a strength of the piece as a concert work. The emotional focus reaches its climax with that Infernal Dance, which is of demonstration quality on this recording, followed immediately by the dolorous Berceuse. The sense of dark and light is presented powerfully, bittersweet sonorities dragging the warmer orchestrational style of Rimsky-Korsakov into the colder light of a revolutionary period in which social and political turmoil were constantly close at hand. This is a work Stravinsky himself conducted regularly, and his 1961 CBC Symphony Orchestra recording shows how a much more secretive atmosphere can be created in this music, how much greater the quicksilver extremes of wit and dagger-sharp violence can be conjured. Boulez is good, but not great in this regard, a worthy but overdone feeling of technical security hanging over a piece which should create a sense of passion and danger.

Another early work, the coupling with Fireworks is a logical one, and the orchestral dynamic and colour is magnificent in Boulez’s recording. Stravinsky comes in a few seconds under Boulez’s timing, creating a more desperately urgent feel of energy and spark, but with the brass sometimes barely coping with its swings and roundabouts. With the greater modernity of Quatre Études Boulez is in his element, certainly more so than the CBC players in 1962, who perform well but with an air of cautiousness, feeling their way from section to section. Familiarity with Stravinsky’s sonorities and rhythmic idiom create a greater space for Boulez to develop this music’s expressive qualities as well as its modernist if still ritualistic impact, resulting in a very fine recording indeed.

CD 2 brings us to two works which, if you haven’t heard them, you really need to consider having your musical world altered significantly by taking them into your experience. Both of these works are central to the 20th century’s orchestral canon, and Pétrouchka has left its stamp on a wide range of music since its composition, including some of Tom and Jerry’s best soundtracks. Le Sacre du printemps created a riot on its first performance, and like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, helped push the world of the arts kicking and screaming into the hot and bloody machinery of the 20th century. Boulez once again gives us such a focus of accuracy that, familiar with the pieces, one can have a real sense of vertigo, gazing into each musical moment with both microscopic detail and a grand feel of scale and occasion. The burlesque of Pétrouchka is portrayed in an almost cinematically spectacular style in this recording, and the music responds well to such a succulently delicious recording. Rawness and energy characterise Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording, and if you can live with a less refined orchestra and occasionally slightly overloaded old analogue tape - congested rather than distorting - then the old original will probably impress just as much. There are some marvellously luminous benefits from modern technology of course. That glorious Shrovetide Fair rarely sounded so good, and as ever The Cleveland Orchestra displays its sheer class at every turn of the page. This recording of Le Sacre du printemps under Boulez has been criticised in the past for its rather leisurely tempi, and once again that undertow of threat and danger which makes this music so potent is more of a latent undertone than a direct assault on the senses. Boulez does have an authentic sense of the elemental however, and as with The Firebird builds his performance with a wider sense of architecture, saving the main impact of the musical message for true climaxes. This makes Stravinsky’s 1960 Columbia Symphony experience a good deal more gritty and intense from start to finish, but doesn’t mean that Boulez can’t pack a punch when the score demands. The question is one of believability - of conviction that you can imagine all those primeval rituals and games, or someone literally dancing themselves to death. The sheer genius of the score will always bring a tear to my eye, and does in both cases. With Stravinsky’s old recording I still however have that sense of surprise, the feeling that things might go off the rails and end differently to the last time I listened. It’s like that story of the book which never tells the same tale twice, though you can’t exactly put your finger on where the narrative alters course and brings you to a disconcertingly different place each time. Boulez has more that feel of an established pattern, of a tradition which has grown around the music, teaching us what to expect, giving us that ‘wow’ factor but never quite tearing out our own inner fears and shaking them in front of our terrified faces in a fist full of mud and sweat. It’s a personal thing I suspect, and this is still a tremendous performance and very much worth having, but the elation at having survived beyond the end of the performance is still very much Stravinsky’s own reward to us.
Re-discovering great music is one of the true benefits of reviewing, and disc 3 of this set is a genuine highlight. The programme is a bit of a mixture, but this is one of Stravinsky’s characteristics, eclectic and extreme, but instantly recognisable. With no criticism of what is an as good as perfect disc, there is just room for a few agreeable comments. The Scherzo fantastique is a brilliant youthful work, full of shimmer and shine, and this is just the way Boulez presents it - energetic and lively, effervescent, out to impress but with a romantic core which harks back to earlier times. Le Roi des étoiles is a strange and tricky piece to bring off well, the intonation of the male voices in the major/minor tonalities sounding strange even when pitched well as they are here. The sonorities are deep and affecting in this recording, and I for one hear things that must have had their effect on Olivier Messiaen. This is one of those pieces which resonates for far longer than its brief duration, and this performance rivals all comers. Le Chant du Rossignol is a blockbuster symphonic poem, and to my mind Boulez gets the balance of impact and subtle detail exactly right. Just hear the interaction of winds and those gorgeous solos, the touches of colour in the string sound, all helped with a width of spectrum in the recorded sound which is almost obscenely eloquent. L’Histoire du Soldat in its concert-suite form still breathes both a swanky jazziness and the crisp Swiss mountain air in which it was written. Boulez has this music so well under his skin that it flows with almost careless effortlessness. Such an effect is the result of meticulous preparation, but with an absolute trust in his musicians one can sense relaxed enjoyment as well as a fascinatingly intense sense of narrative. The clarinet and bassoon duo which opens and closes the Pastorale suspends time, and the deceptive simplicity in the music is carried with supremely appropriate expression, shape and sheer fun by all of the musicians involved - dig that bass as well in the final Marche triomphale du Diable - phwoaar.

Boulez: waving, or drowning? It’s a shame we lose that striking cover design with this kind of re-issue, but you can’t have everything. CD 4 is entirely symphonic, though with Stravinsky it is rarely to be expected that even the conventionally titled should follow convention. The Symphonies d’instruments à vent does what it says on the tin, the word ‘symphony’ in this case more strongly associated with its original Greek derivation, meaning a ‘concord’ or ‘harmoniousness of sound’. Strangely, Boulez again sounds slow, though his 9:16 timing barely differs from Stravinsky’s own at 9:10. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but I seem to recall a great deal more energy and colour from Charles Dutoit with his Montreal forces on Decca. This is a fine performance, but didn’t stir me as I might have hoped. The Symphonie de psaumes is one of the last century’s true masterpieces, combining Stravinsky’s fascination with antique contrapuntal techniques, his religious faith and sheer sense of vision. This is one of the pieces Robert Craft has conducted very effectively, available on Naxos 8.557504. Neither versions will disappoint, nor do they differ in particularly significant ways. With a marginally warmer choral sound and the Berlin Philharmonic as a rock-solid platform over which the singers can flourish I would however pick the Boulez over Craft’s recording, though I do like the way Craft allows the horns and other brass to whoop in the final Alleluia movement. The Symphony in Three Movements is a piece I used to like best on the swinging recording James Conlon made with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on the Erato label. I don’t see this available anywhere now which is a shame, but Boulez does bring us a highly effective performance. Once again, 1961 Stravinsky himself undercuts Boulez in terms of timings, particularly in the first movement at 9:23 to Boulez at 9:56. Half a minute may not seem much, but in terms of sheer visceral excitement it is very telling, and switching back to Boulez after Stravinsky and the former does seem rather leaden-footed. The second movement Andante is also rather over-intellectualised in my book, orbiting at a mythological 6:37 to Stravinsky’s more earth-bound 5:59. As you might expect, we get fine playing and gorgeous sound on DG, and there are some striking moments such as those low clarinets 1:50 into the final Con moto, the best of the three movements from Boulez in any case. This is however not really a piece to which one should be able to put up slippered feet, and I didn’t find myself climbing the walls and frightening the cat in throes of appreciative ecstasy with this one.

The cover here is the coupling with the Alban Berg Chamber Concerto, but is where the majority of the pieces on CD 5 of this set were to be found in the past. This is one disc I have lived with for many years, and is another case in which I feel the Boulez/Stravinsky combination works best. Filled with masses of striking colours and little instrumental touches which are hidden in many other recordings, the plucked strings and nervy percussion of the Ebony Concerto are clear and present in this marvellous recording, and the energy and vibe which go with it make this one of my all-time favourite recordings of this stunning piece. The Ensemble Intercontemporain and the recording location, advanced electronic music laboratory IRCAM are both very much Boulez’s babies, and marvellous solos make this something of a showcase for clarinettists Michel Arrignon in the Ebony Concerto and Alain Damiens in a superb performance of the Three Pieces, and including an eloquently moving Élégie from viola player Gérard Causse. Fine, lively playing also characterises the Eight Instrumental Miniatures and the Concertino for string quartet, its rhythms reminding one of part of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments - logically, as it was the work Stravinsky wrote immediately preceding the latter. This is given a suitably hard-driven and biting performance by the players here. The Concerto in E flat major for Chamber Orchestra better known as‘Dumbarton Oaks’ is taken more briskly by Stravinsky in his 1964 recording, but here it is the composer who lacks the advantage, sounding a bit rushed, as if he had a flight to catch after the session. Boulez benefits from a more open sound, and provides the music with more ample space in which to develop its intricacies of counterpoint and playfulness of thematic treatment. Late serial works by a Stravinsky exploring atonality and engaging with the avant-garde, the Ensemble Intercontemporain players’ supreme accuracy in the miniature Epitaphium and Double Canon are exemplary.

Now thirty years old, this recording of Stravinsky’s vocal music brings us some of his most tender musical moments. Unlike more demanding pieces such as Les Noces, many of the songs here are early works and most are little gems. All of the soloists are of the very highest quality and all at the top of their game. If you don’t know Stravinsky’s songs, the youthful vocalise Pastorale introduces us very gently indeed. Highlights are a personal choice, but the pointillist morsels which are the Trois Poésies de la lyrique japonaise are breathtaking musical moments. Stravinsky in pictorial mood can be enjoyed to the full in the birds which inhabit the Three Little Songs, and the confluence of urbane French and stern Russian idioms is rarely closer than in some moments of Pribaoutki. Even cycles with more modernistic elements such as the Berceuses du chat and Four Songs are filled with delightfully descriptive wit, and Stravinsky’s restless search for new combinations of sonority in his instrumental accompaniments is a voyage of discovery in itself. Two versions of Tilim-bom back to back, the first with flute and plucked strings and the second with chamber orchestra including timpani, illustrate this perfectly. The final tracks reach into Stravinsky’s later period, exploring regions atonal, but maintaining sympathetically idiomatic vocal writing, eschewing extremes of angularity in the expressive Three Songs from William Shakespeare. Two of the pieces which mourn the loss of two prominent figures who appeared briefly in Stravinsky’s life are given beautiful performances here, the instrumental ensemble’s restrained accompaniment a counterpoint to the Elegy for J.F.K., and Dylan Thomas’s text “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. Stravinsky re-instrumentated Bach and others constantly during his lifetime, and the Two Sacred Songs which close this disc are beautifully crafted arrangements of songs for Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch.

Competition for this box from the conductor himself exists in the Sony Boulez Edition, but this only contains two discs of Stravinsky including The Rite of Spring, Petrouchka and suites The Firebird and Pulchinella. In general terms and taken as a whole, this 6 CD box has to be seen as a bargain, and a fine place to discover some of the most important music of the 20th century. The low price is reflected in the presentation however, and it is a shame that the original booklet notes for each disc have been replaced with an essay, ‘Nothing Stays the Same’ by Wolfgang Stähr which, while throwing some light on Boulez’s shifting attitude to Stravinsky’s music and status, is generalised and by its nature subjective. While I find myself left cold by Boulez’s conducting of a few of these pieces, taken in isolation they do create their own atmosphere and will certainly grab newcomers with an impressively powerful grip. There are no weak performances here, just others to be found which whip up a greater sense of danger and excitement. This is the best of times to treat yourself or a favoured friend or relative to some top-notch music, and this little box contains marvels enough for all.

Dominy Clements

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Strauss: Metamorphosen, Tod und Verklaerung - Berliner Philharmoniker, Karajan

Richard Strauss
Metamorphosen, Tod und Verklaerung
Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon- 410 892-2


Metamorphosen is, to me, Strauss's greatest orchestral masterpiece. A requiem to western civilization and to western music. The end of an entire world. No review for this one but, if you decide to trust me only once, do it this time.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hindemith: Mathis der Mahler, Symphonische Metamorphosen, Trauermusik - S. Francisco Symph., Blomstedt

Paul Hindemith
Mathis der Mahler, Symphonic Metamorphosis, *Trauermusik
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, *Geraldine Walther (viola)
Decca 421 523 2 DH


Some of the most famous works of one of the most neglected among the great composers.

Classics Today Rating (for the set of 3 CD's with Hindemith's symphonic works): 9/9

Much great music making happened in San Francisco well before Michael Tilson Thomas arrived on the scene. Herbert Blomstedt's individual discs of Hindemith's major orchestral works were among the highlights of his decade-long, highly musical tenure there (along with his Nielsen and Strauss), a trend that continued on his arrival in Leipzig. After a brief stint in the all-too-familiar "now out-of-print" category, these performances have made their much deserved reappearance on this handy-dandy Trio set. Can better recordings of some of the individual works be had? Perhaps, but certainly not by much. San Francisco's illustrious brass section gets put through its paces to maximum effect in the glorious Konzertmusik, as well as in the "Alleluia" brass chorale coda to the Temptation of St. Anthony (Mathis der Maler).

The nearly Concertgebouw-like acoustics of the Gewandhaus help to clarify the dense and busy textures of Hindemith's over-the-top Die Harmonie der Welt (with the equally super-sounding Leipzig orchestra), a work that certainly deserves and rewards repeated listening. And speaking of deserving works, the almost completely unknown yet sunny Symphonia Serena earns the attention of even the most novice listeners, as well those suffering from modern-music-phobia--it's that good. Viola fans will receive quite a treat from super-virtuoso Geraldine Walther on Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith's somewhat subdued yet attractive viola concerto. It's hard to imagine that a better performance of it is even possible, and Decca's sound quality is top-notch throughout. In sum, this is a hugely satisfying set: great works, great conducting, great playing. Yes, it's just that simple.

--Barry Guerrero

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Franck: Symphony in D Min./ Chausson: Symphony Op.20 - Janowski, Orch. de la Suisse Romande

Cesar Franck
Symphony in D Minor
Ernest Chausson
Symphony in B-flat, Op.20
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Marek Janowski
Pentatone Classics PTC5186078


MusicWeb International

The Franck Symphony was one of my adolescent loves. I listened to it over and again in the school music room. The performance which fixed the work into my consciousness was contained in a Readers’ Digest album and was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. As I grew up, if that’s what one really does, the work tended to lose its freshness. But I also came to feel that none of the performances I heard captured the same conviction and ardour as that Boult performance, no longer accessible to me. They seemed slow and heavy, Germanic and often lost their way amidst the meandering structures. Or was I just seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles? I missed an RCA issue of the performance on LP but picked it up many years later on Chesky. It was also included in the Boult volume of “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” (7243 5 75459 2 1). Hearing it again rekindled my love of the symphony.

I have since read that as a young man Boult had heard Franck’s pupil Pierné conduct the symphony and modelled his own reading on that performance, so his Franck can claim authenticity no less than his Elgar. I know of two other conductors who took a similarly virile, impassioned view: Toscanini and Mario Rossi. Toscanini may have heard Pierné, too, but he was unlikely to model himself on anybody and presumably worked out from the score that this was how it should go. I imagine Rossi was well acquainted with Toscanini’s interpretation. I have also found much to appreciate in Munch’s recording. This is a little broader and freer, perhaps less structurally sound, but it also has much of his inimitable verve and the unmistakably French sound of the Boston orchestra.

Having encountered Janowski previously only in a thoroughly German-sounding Brahms cycle I feared something heavy and Teutonic. I got quite a surprise. After an expectant, mobile opening the following tremolando string passages move forward strongly, with flexible paragraph-shaping and an acute sense of orchestral colour. In the Allegro sections Janowski is closer to Munch than Boult in his wider range of tempi, yet his control of the structure is magnificent. No less than Boult, he succeeds in making each climax more overwhelming than the last, rising to a triumphant conclusion.

The Allegretto is again fairly mobile – not so much as to rob the famous cor anglais melody of its grave charm, but enough to give a certain volatility to the scherzo sections Franck has built into the movement. The Finale is a notable success. Janowski is a shade broader than Boult and succeeds in welding the whole into a developing argument. He never gets stuck, even when the second movement melody is recalled. The moment where this theme comes back as a thumping climax rung out on the trumpet has embarrassed some commentators. Boult is terrific here; he takes it at face value, letting the trumpet play his heart out with a rallentando at the end. Janowski skilfully integrates it into the general flow – an original and effective solution. Incidentally, Janowski takes one second (!) longer than Boult over the symphony, though in detail he is a little faster in the first two movements and a little slower in the last. Munch takes slightly longer over all three.

The Boult recording sounds extraordinarily well for 1959, but it is nearly fifty years old and there is no doubt that the new SACD recording - which I heard as a plain CD - has added depth, range and detail. Janowski also shares with Munch a very French-sounding orchestra, with wonderful braying brass. The Suisse Romande has had a number of conductors since Ansermet who were not exactly cultivators of the French sound – Sawallisch for example – so it’s heartening to hear that they can still produce these timbres when required.

I shall no more jettison Boult than I shall abandon hearth and home, but for those who have no sentimental attachment to it, or who wish to have superb modern sound, or who find it easier to relate to living artists, I’m delighted to be able to recommend a version of this much maligned and often maltreated work that matches the great versions of the past. It’ll be a toss-up whether I get out this or Boult myself for future listening.

The Franck Symphony made an enormous impression on French musicians and spawned a number of imitations, of which Chausson’s – of just two years later – is generally considered the most important. Some have even rated it above the Franck, though I find its themes lack the sheer “stickability” which Franck attained in every one of his themes in his Symphony. In a sense more subtle, it is also more cluttered. But this is not to deny that it can still offer both excitement and magic. Moreover, Chausson is very much his own man. Though it’s a cyclical work in three movements, like the Franck, it has none of the latter’s religious fervour, combining hedonism, Hellenism and sultry decadence in fairly equal proportions. And, while many a lesser work opens with a wonderful surge of inspiration that gradually peters out, Chausson reserves his finest cards for the end. Janowski plays it with total conviction, mixing the colours with a sure hand and never letting it get sticky.

I’m sorry I didn’t have the Ansermet versions of these works to hand, to compare the orchestra then and now, but I think the great Swiss maestro would have been proud of his old band.

Christopher Howell

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hagen: Sonate à liuto solo - Robert Barto

In Bernhard Joachim Hagen [1720–1787] we find a worthy exponent of the lute in its last days. His music is full of surprises. At times moving, spirited, brilliant or humorous, it is always elegant and expertly crafted. Although the occasional lute piece is still found into the beginning of the 19th century, Hagen's works are the last substantial contributions to the lute repertoire. He can truly be called the last great lute virtuoso.
Robert Barto (from the album notes)

Although Hagen was employed at the Bayreuth court as a violinist, he was a virtuoso lute performer and his respectable output of compositions for the instrument includes those on this recording plus a number of chamber works and concertos. When I heard the opening of the first piece, the Sonata in B-flat major, I knew I'd heard it before somewhere. I still don't know where, but Hagen's music has that effect: it's so easy to listen to, so perfectly proportioned and harmonically well-developed, that it sounds familiar--the musical equivalent of a pair of shoes that fit the first time you try them on. The Locatelli Variations are Hagen's own transcription of some selections from a piece for violin written by the Italian master, with an additional original variation by Hagen. Lutenist Robert Barto really captures the style of this ardent, graceful, often eloquent music. His technique, his richly resonant instrument, and the fine sound engineering bring clarity to the melodic lines and a glowing warmth to the lower registers, while allowing the top notes to ring.
David Vernier, ClassicsToday

Barto plays an Andrew Rutherford lute (1988, after Jauck)
Symphonia SY98164 (1999) out of print

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.1 - Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 1
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck
Exton EXCL00026


I don't share all of David "American-orchestras-do-it-better" Hurwitz's enthusiasm on this. And vehemently disagree with the Berliner/Wiener Philharmoniker nonsense at the beginning (excellent counter-examples from the tip of my fingers are Karajan's, Abbado's and Rattle's recordings with the Berliner and selected recordings by Abbado, Bernstein, Boulez with the Wiener). The playing and the sonics are first rate, although it might be a bit too glossy a performance for my taste. Maybe I haven't listened to the present recording enough in order to fully appreciate it.

Classics Today Rating: 10/10
In case you haven't noticed, Allegro now distributes Exton, an exciting prospect for American collectors tired of ordering direct from Japan and paying crazy prices for shipping. Conductor Manfred Honeck's credentials include a stint as a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic, not necessarily a good prospect given the fact that the orchestra only woke up to the value of Mahler when it realized it could make a quick buck playing him abroad, and otherwise has turned in more lousy and unidiomatic performances of Mahler's music than any orchestra aside from the Berlin Philharmonic. How delightful, then, to be able to report that this is unquestionably one of the great Mahler Firsts, a performance that has abundant character, ideas that work, and astounding playing, particularly from the Pittsburgh horn section.

Honeck claims that he has tried to emphasize the music's debt to Austro-Bohemian folk music, and to bring out (even exaggerate) its brilliant orchestral colors. That's exactly what he does, and it's surely the right way to go. The first movement "wakes up" naturally, atmospherically (great offstage trumpets), by imperceptible degrees, rising to a crushing climax leading to a raucous coda. The scherzo is a rustic, heavily accented, foot-stomping frenzy, while the trio has enough schmaltz to cause cardiac arrest. It works, though, because both here, in the central melody of the (splendidly parodistic) funeral march, and in the lyrical second theme of the finale, Honeck gets the strings to "float" their melodies with such gentleness, such seductively sweet vibrato (Roger Norrington please note), that the massive rubatos and hesitations work beautifully.

And speaking of the finale, the opening shriek is hair-raising, with the brass and percussion playing like demons. But it doesn't end there. If you really want to hear what a totally committed performance of this music ought to sound like, check out the entire passage after the second subject (beginning with the two tam-tam crashes), culminating in the false climax that leads back to the music of the first movement. It's insane. So too is the concluding chorale, with horns blazing--and an extra cymbal crash or two for good measure. The otherwise very quiet audience gives a rousing cheer at the end, and you will too for a fabulously recorded live performance that truly captures the freshness and daring of this work as few other versions have. If you want "you are there" sonic realism, and an interpretation that hits you right in the gut, then you must hear this. Bravo! [11/23/2009]

--David Hurwitz

Friday, June 10, 2011

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5&9 - Kreizberg, Russian National Orchestra

Dmitrij Shostakovich
Symphonies Nos. 5&9
Russian National Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg
PentaTone- 5186 096(SACD)


Shostakovich's 5th is probably the first work of the 20th century I ever fell in love with (after what still is the most memorable concert of my life, conducted by Kreizberg's brother, Semen Bychkov).

Classics Today Rating: 10/10

Kreizberg, like Sanderling, is absolutely convinced that the finale does not represent a "happy" ending. After an impressively portentous opening and a brooding central interlude, he grinds out the coda with as much relentless menace as the music can take, and then some. By the time the movement heaves its lacerated carcass through the final bars, the cessation of sound comes as a positive relief. Throughout, the Russian National Orchestra plays with 100 percent conviction, and PentaTone's sonics, whether in stereo or SACD surround, are extremely natural and well-balanced.

What makes this disc even more special is the fact that the Ninth Symphony is every bit as good. The first movement's deadpan humor comes across with perfect clarity and point. The ghostly waltz that follows has the same quiet intensity as the Fifth Symphony's Largo, while the scherzo demonstrates just how well Kreizberg has the orchestra on its collective toes. His account of the finale just might be the best on disc: he goes completely nuts in the recapitulation, with a freedom of tempo that the composer surely would have applauded, and the coda breezes by at a truly startling clip. It's at once the most hilarious as well as the most satisfying account of this movement to have appeared yet. Do not miss this release. [4/11/2007]

--David Hurwitz

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Brahms: Symphony No.3, Haydn Variations - Alsop, London Philhamonic Orchestra

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 3, Variations on a Theme by Haydn "St. Anthony Chorale"
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop
Naxos- 8.557430(CD)


Brahms's third is probably my personal favourite among his symphonies. I love them all, but the third holds a special place for me, which is odd, since it's probably the least popular of the four.
This is a great version of it. It sings beautifully, with great clarity of lines and a sense of natural flow I have rarely heard in this work. Once again, David "one-caustic-review-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away" Hurwitz proved right.

Classics Today Rating: 10/10

Marin Alsop's recordings of Brahms' first two symphonies were good, at times very good, but not great. In particular, for all her basic musicality, the performances lacked a certain element of excitement, never mind actual risk-taking. So my expectations for this Third, the toughest of them all to conduct, were not that high. After all, some really great Brahmsians, including Toscanini and Furtwängler, have really screwed up this symphony. The latter's performances especially constitute some of the most hideously embarrassing documents ever left by a theoretically great artist. Indeed, in the entire history of the work on disc, there have been perhaps seven or eight truly great performances: Walter (Sony, stereo), Levine (RCA), Wand (his first one with NDR, on RCA), Klemperer (EMI), Jochum (EMI, with this orchestra), Dohnanyi (Warner/Teldec), and perhaps most surprisingly, Solti (Decca).

To this select list, add Alsop. This is not a judgment made lightly, but this is one hell of a fine performance of this most elusive symphony, perhaps closest in character to Dohnanyi's Cleveland version. It's interesting to note the dearth of German or central European orchestras in the above list, and this fact holds a clue to Alsop's success: her ability to keep the textures from becoming too heavy, and to keep Brahms' bass lines moving. Ordinarily, and particularly in the First and Fourth Symphonies, the typically dark, rich German bass is just the ticket, but not here. This symphony, with its obvious homage to Dvorák's Fifth in the same key, and its frequent recourse to syncopated rhythms in the middle registers of the orchestra, needs as much space around the notes as is consistent with lively tempos and well-sprung rhythms.

Part of the problem is of Brahms' own making. While the last three movements offer some of his finest orchestral writing, especially for the woodwinds, the first movement often comes across as a clogged-up mess. Conductors overcompensate for the lack of audible detail by playing the music too slowly. Alsop keeps the music moving, but also clarifies the underlying rhythm quite splendidly. As an example, consider the transition from the first to the second subject, and later on, the triplet accompaniments to the finale's heroic second subject. This is very good Brahms conducting: the tension never sags, no important details go unobserved (note the nicely touched-in contrabassoon just before the recapitulation), and nothing detracts from the evolving symphonic argument.

The Andante features beautifully blended wind playing in its serene outer sections and just the right touch of mystery in the central chorale. Alsop takes great care to observe the written dynamics, a big plus in the ensuing Poco Allegretto, which sounds so much better minus the usual excess of espressivo. Best of all, the finale is spectacular: swiftly exciting, with very present timpani and a tremendously explosive (but remarkably transparent) central climax. The coda captures that special, autumnal glow that Brahms builds into the scoring, but without sacrificing sufficient momentum to bring the work to a fulfilling (as opposed to a merely exhausted) conclusion.

The Haydn Variations makes an excellent coupling, and is equally well done. Alsop's excellent command of rhythm once again is very much in evidence, particularly in the Vivace fifth variation, and even without those darker, heavier bass lines the final passacaglia builds quite effortlessly to a joyous conclusion. Vividly detailed sonics seal the deal. The truth is that very few conductors manage to do all of the Brahms symphonies equally well, which is why the modern tendency to do them in fours is such a pity. This effort bodes well for the conclusion of Alsop's cycle, but at the same time it will be a tough act to follow. I hope she can do it; in the meantime, I'm more than happy to recommend this superb new recording as strongly as possible. [1/22/2007]

--David Hurwitz

Monday, June 6, 2011

Berg: 7 Fruhe Lieder, 3 Orchesterstuecke Op.6, Der Wein - Otter, Abbado, VPO etc.

Alban Berg
3 Orchesterstuecke Op.6, 7 fruehe Lieder, Der Wein
Anne Sofie von Otter, Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon Stereo 445 846-2 GH


I couldn't find a suitable review for this beautiful CD. I can't even say that I know it that well myself, apart from the 7 fruehe Lieder (7 Early Songs). Berg, Schoenberg and Webern are hard nuts to crack, for listeners (like me) without a professional training in music.
The 7 fruehe Lieder have proven, since the first time I listened to them, not only surprisingly easy to digest, but also stunningly beautiful. I'd really love it if this little bit proved as revelatory for someone else as it was for me, disclosing some of the beauties of the music of the 20th century.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.9 - Berliner Philharmoniker, Abbado

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 9
Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon- 471 624-2(CD)


To me, this is an outstanding performance of (possibly) Mahler's greatest symphony. Up to you to make up your mind.


This is the last and the best of the three new Mahler recordings by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that have been released by DG in 2002. I have already reviewed the Third Symphony:


and the Seventh:


and now here is the Ninth. Whilst all three came out in quick succession and in uniform livery their provenance is very different. The Ninth under review was recorded from two concert performances at the Berlin Festival in September 1999. The Third came from a single concert performance in London one month later and was produced by the BBC. Both of these stayed in the DG vaults for three years before their release this year. The Seventh, on the other hand, was recorded from performances in Berlin in May 2001 towards the end of Abbado’s tenure as BPO Chief Conductor. What they all have in common, however, is that they are Abbado’s second recordings of these works. I had a lot to say about conductors revisiting earlier works on record in my review of the Seventh and in that case could see no reason why it was felt necessary for Abbado to re-record that piece. Where the Third Symphony was concerned I enjoyed and much preferred the new to the old and in the case of this Ninth I feel much the same, though it is more marginal.

Abbado has always been a fine interpreter of this symphony, itself a lucky one on record, but in this second recording I prefer a greater sense of pressing forward in strategic passages of the first and third movements especially. It makes for a slightly tougher and rather more astringent view of a work too often taken to be a long farewell and very little else. His earlier Vienna Philharmonic recording was unique in his first Mahler recordings in that it too was taken from "live" performance. However this time I think I can hear a greater sense of the "live" experience coming across and this will always find favour with me and I suspect many others. There is a price to pay for this, though. The engineers in the Philharmonie in Berlin are less sure of themselves than their predecessors were in Vienna’s Musikverein. The Berlin acoustic is very different too: less warm, more analytical, though not entirely lacking in atmosphere. The result this time brings some quirks of balance, most especially in the first movement where there is highlighting of solo instruments – harp and cor anglais especially – and what appears to be some "limiting" at climaxes where clinching fortissimos shy away a little where they should punch home. So this is a much more manipulated sound picture all through. Overall it’s a close-in balance and the feeling is that you are sitting in the stalls quite close to the platform. Yet, as the performance went on, I found that I came to value this sound picture as so much of Mahler’s inner detail is plain for all to hear with enough air behind the instruments to give perspective. So I found this sound balance surprisingly good for home listening with the caveats mentioned.

The first movement impresses with a fine unity of purpose from first bar to last and as such I think counts as a fine achievement repaying repeated listening. Even in passages where the music is just a series of fragmentary daubs you are aware of the strong symphonic undertow beneath it. So, in all, Abbado’s intellectual grasp is formidable, but I’m aware that some Mahlerites might complain that this is at the expense of emotional power to be found in recordings by other conductors like Bernstein (DG D 201182), for example, with the same orchestra, also "live" in the same hall. I would counsel caution in taking this as a minus point, though. There is a tradition in the performance of this movement that maintains a stoic face is just as valid. Klemperer is the best representative of this approach in his great EMI recording (EMI 5 67036 2) though it must be said that Klemperer’s more austere, plainer sound palette reinforces this idea and his overall tempo is slower than Abbado’s basic andante comodo. Though I think Abbado is closer to what Mahler intended. Abbado’s ability to extract a degree of sweetness in some the passages of repose, the lebwohl passages of the movement, as we might call them, make a fine counterpoise to the tougher, harsher passages where the brass snarl and the strings dig in vividly. In these passages Abbado does soften his tone, but it may take you until the end of the movement before you quite realise it has taken place, as this conductor is always careful with his contrasts which are never too sharply delineated. You have to listen hard to an Abbado performance as there is never the instant gratification of a Bernstein or a Rattle, but the dividends are maybe even greater. In the recapitulation after the great central crisis in this first movement listen to as good a summation of what has gone before as any you will hear in other recordings - beautifully argued, shorn of seedy sentimentality, very satisfying. What wonderful solo horn playing in the great duet between that instrument and the flute too. They may be highlighted by the sound balance, as indicated earlier, but with playing like this it hardly matters.

The two central movements are firstly remarkable for the stunning, virtuoso playing of the orchestra. This may be "live" but there are very few examples of insecurity in this playing. But this virtuosity is never just for its own sake. It always serves the music and Claudio Abbado’s purpose for it. The second movement scherzo reflects every colour Mahler paints it in with the close recording rendering every detail clear, woodwind especially good. Abbado observes but doesn’t force on us the three tempi markings that Mahler indicates and this may disappoint some who, as with the first movement, prefer their contrasts sharper, therefore pushing home a more emotional approach. However, after the first movement’s understatement of contrasts, this corresponding approach here fits and is another example of "through-thinking" on the conductor’s part that demands attention from the listener and therefore engages more. The listener must also do some work in Mahler too, remember. Because, just as in the first movement, where Abbado marked up a sweetness where appropriate, here in the second movement too he is aware of a gentle world-weary quality in those falling lebwohl phrases once again. Likewise in the third movement Rondo-Burleske the close recording allows for Mahler’s crucially important counterpoint to be followed accurately and so this then contrasts with the nostalgic tone of the central interlude. Abbado delivers this sweetly and simply, linking it with the lebwohl moments in the first two movements and looking forward to great elegy of the last. But it’s in the final section of the third movement where I believe Abbado justifies himself triumphantly. If this movement is ultimately about depicting a sweet world seen to be self-destructing then Abbado pulls that effect off in the way that, like Horenstein used to do, he slowly increases the tempo until at the end you are on the edge of your seat.

The last movement reflects and justifies Abbado’s overall approach in again subtly matching stoicism with a world-weariness that never descends anywhere near sentimentality. There is a deep and rich string sound that can swell out to a glorious mass and then ebb down to gossamer threads when needed. The latter especially in the intimate passages that have about them the air of chamber music with all the players listening to each other carefully. Notice also the excellent use of portamenti in the string playing here. The main climax is a paean to the entire symphony but it stays, characteristically for Abbado, within any overt grandiloquence and seems to come from within the texture. The coda is sustained beautifully too. It is never stretched on the rack as it sometimes is, always it maintains this conductor’s sharpness of focus and, I think, is unusually aware of the link to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

For reference versions you must turn first to studio recordings by Haitink (Philips 50 464 714), Barbirolli (EMI 7 63115 2), Walter (Sony SM2K 64452), Klemperer (EMI 5 67036 2) and perhaps Boulez (DG 289 457 581-2). Comparable, though very different as a live recording, is Bruno Walter's first recording in 1938 (Dutton CDBP 9708) which is of equal stature to ones by Horenstein (BBC Legends BBCL 4075-2).

For me this is the best of the three new Mahler recordings from Abbado in 2002. In playing and interpretation it takes its place among the finest and I recommend it warmly.

--Tony Duggan

Classics Today Rating: 9/7

Claudio Abbado's new recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony is at once mesmerizing and frustrating. As a performance (recorded live in Berlin in September 1999), it holds its own among the greats in the ever-growing discography of this work, with absolutely riveting, visceral playing from the orchestra in the inner movements, a conscientious eye to structural balance, and pinpoint detail in the dynamics. In a sentence, this performance has it all--except good sound.

For the most part, DG's engineers have turned a spectacular performance on stage into an uneven experience for the home. The first movement in particular suffers from what seems like "live" experimentation with balances, starting with the first three measures, when the open sound (slight hiss and all) collapses with the appearance of the harp and then re-opens with the sighing entrance in the violins.

Throughout the movement DG's predilection for close-up miking (a feature of Abbado's other DG-produced Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic) creates an unnatural soundstage that emphasizes harp and English horn at the expense of the principal trumpet, which often is drowned out (see instances at measures 38, 232, 365, and 374, and in other places--measure 294--where it is just not prominent enough). Trombones and horns are exaggerated to the point of garishness: the apocalyptic trombone blasts at 314 peal with the force of air horns atop 18-wheelers, and the horns' raw outbursts would make for another good Maxell ad. Even the orchestra seems as if it's feeling the piece out: the "Schattenhaft" section is handled too tentatively and the slight ensemble hiccup just before the final large climax disrupts the flow of energy.

After the first-movement trial balloon, the sonic situation improves measurably in the next three movements. In the second and third, the Berliners simply play with stunning drive, and the tight miking here brings out all of Mahler's creative contrapuntal nuances. The basses barbarically growl out their staccato passages, the trombones and tuba (at 147) thrill with their crude, wild motif, and the bumptious bassoons toward the end of the movement provide great comic relief. The waltz episodes are all appropriately vulgar, and with each repeat Abbado keeps pushing the tempo, as he should. The third movement belongs to Abbado, who tailors the final section (at 522, at the tempo subito) with just the right amount of acceleration so that by the end the orchestra sounds as if it's ablaze.

Abbado's conception of the fourth movement--which some conductors have interpreted as a solemn farewell (and thus drag to the point of stasis)--nicely balances the first movement, with almost identical timings (25 minutes). He treats the final movement as a true finale, not as a symphonic fragment, and thus ties the whole of this work into a massive coherent statement. The Berliners do struggle ever so slightly with the pianissimo sections--the flute is too breathy and the strings are undernourished and a touch strident--but on the whole they deliver a passionate performance that never sounds overly sentimental or mushy. There are very few poor performances of Mahler's Ninth and many excellent ones. This is among the best. Would that it sounded better!

--Michael Liebowitz

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.4, Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Levi

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 4, Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen
Frederica von Stade, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Yoel Levi
Telarc CD80499


Whether this is the best performance of Mahler's 4th I've ever heard, I wouldn't really know. But I bought it (influenced by David "gimme-a-period-instrument" Hurwitz) and didn't return it to the shop, give it away as a present, feed it to the neighbor's dog, or play frisbee with it.

Classics Today Rating: 10/10

There is a tendency, among both serious critics and normal listeners, to prejudge recordings of basic repertoire works when they are recorded by so-called "second tier" ensembles. The cynical inclination to dismiss such releases is only heightened by the extravagant claims sometimes made by partisans on behalf of these organizations, prime examples being the English press' flogging of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle, or closer to home, Atlanta's endless string of Grammy wins under the competent but often dull Robert Shaw. Atlanta under Levi is another matter altogether. This partnership has been responsible for a superb series of recordings that has not received the recognition it deserves, in some part for the reasons just mentioned. This is a pity, because on any reasonably objective listen, not only is this Mahler Fourth a jewel in Telarc's series of Atlanta recordings as a whole, it's quite possibly the best-played, and definitely the best-recorded Mahler Fourth currently available. I played this disc "blind" to some European colleagues of mine, and they all agreed that this was the finest performance they had ever heard. Ever. Levi simply gets everything right: perfect tempos, incredible clarity of textures, and most importantly, a totally idiomatic response to the music itself. And what playing! From the spectacular solo winds (French horn, take a bow!), to the warmly cultured strings (save for a wonderfully nasal solo violin in the Scherzo), to the immaculately judged percussion, this is an ideal Mahler sound. Frederica von Stade's voice has deepened and darkened since she last recorded this symphony and the songs, some two decades ago, but her artistry remains undiminished. This is greatness, folks, sheer unadulterated greatness. And that's a fact!

--David Hurwitz

The Victoria Collection - The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips

Tomás Luis de Victoria
The Victoria Collection
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Gimell GIMBX 304

The box contains 3 CDs and the 3 original CD booklets with notes and sung texts in English, French and German. The Download includes a digital booklet with notes and sung texts in English, French and German.

Victoria's Requiem Mass (as we now call it) has for many decades and for many people typified Spanish Renaissance music. Its mystical intensity of expression, achieved by the simplest musical means, obviously sets it apart from contemporary English and Italian music, and has led to comparisons of it with the equally intense religious paintings of Velázquez and El Greco. There is no doubt that this masterpiece conveys much of the highly individual Spanish view of religion and death, and this is the more valuable since their vision is largely unfamiliar outside Spain herself.

In fact Victoria was just one of a very substantial school of Spanish Renaissance composers; and one of the least prolific among them. Many of these deserve to be considered along with Victoria, though none wrote a Mass quite as mature as this. One possible reason for their collective lack of fame is that they travelled very little, unless it were to the New World, unlike their Netherlandish contemporaries. Victoria was lucky in this respect. Having been born in Avila in 1548 and brought up there in the tradition of Morales, Espinar and Ribera, he went to Rome, probably in 1565, to study at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico. Once there he must surely have met Palestrina, and was possibly taught by him. The subtleties of Palestrina's polyphonic idiom are regularly to be found in Victoria's music, unlike that of his Spanish contemporaries, and it gave him an extra dimension of technique when it suited him. In fact, in this Requiem there is very little imitative polyphony and the lack of it allows its Spanish flavour to speak all the more strongly. Victoria stayed in Rome until 1587 at the latest, by which time he had been ordained priest (by Bishop Thomas Goldwell, the last surviving member of the pre-Reformation English Catholic hierarchy in Rome) and had published several anthologies of his work. By the end of his life he had succeeded in publishing just about his entire output in eleven sets, most in luxurious format - a great deal more than Palestrina ever did. This six-part Requiem appeared by itself in 1605 and was the last of the series.

From 1587 until his death in 1611 Victoria was employed in Madrid, initially as chaplain to the sister of Philip II: the Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II and mother of two emperors. It was for her funeral in 1603 that this Requiem was written. After her death Victoria became organist to the convent where the Empress had lived. Since he was by profession almost as much a priest as a musician, it will be understood why Victoria only wrote sacred music, though it should not be assumed that it is all sombre. By his contemporaries Victoria was held to be an essentially joyful composer and there are many motets to prove this, some of them in polychoral style. In addition much of his music has quite strongly madrigalian features, with liberal use of accidentals, diminished intervals, and word-painting (witness the rising scales on 'surge' in the motet Nigra sum sed formosa, see CDGIM 003).

This recording of the six-part Requiem follows the edition prepared by Bruno Turner, published by Mapa Mundi. In his preface to this edition Mr Turner explains that the 1605 print of the music carried some extra motets and liturgical items, as was customary at that time, which would have been added in performance to the Missa pro defunctis proper. These were the four-part Taedet animam meam (the second lesson of Matins of the Dead), which has been moved to the very beginning to serve as a simple introduction; the motet Versa est in luctum, which may well have been sung as the dignitaries and clergy assembled at the catafalque before the Absolution; and the Absolution itself, for which Victoria wrote the full Responsorium, 'Libera me, Domine', with its final 'Kyrie eleison'. The only peculiarity of this print is the omission of a setting of the usual verse 'Hostias et preces' and the consequent repeat of 'Quam olim Abrahae' in the Offertorium. Although it may be possible to find a suitable chant setting of these words, and thus satisfy full liturgical demands, it is not musically convincing to do so and these words are omitted here.

All the music of this setting, except the initial Taedet animam meam, is scored for SSATTB. The second soprano part unusually carries the cantus firmus, though it very often disappears into the surrounding part-writing since the chant does not move as slowly as most cantus firmus parts and the polyphony does not generally move very fast. Victoria himself printed most of the unaccompanied chant incipits, though the editor has provided the short second 'Agnus Dei' and the final 'Requiescant in pace'. This scoring also holds true for Alonso Lobo's beautiful setting of Versa est in luctum, which was written for the funeral of Philip II of Spain, the brother of the recipient of Victoria's own setting. Lobo (1555-1617) was widely held to be the finest composer in Spain during his lifetime, and there is evidence that Victoria thought so too.
© 1987 Peter Phillips

The Lamentations of Jeremiah

The Spanishness of Spanish polyphony is often invoked. There is an impression that in their worship the Spanish have a fierceness, coupled to a mysticism, which sets them apart. This way of thinking was current a long time ago: Michelangelo, when asked by the Florentine painter Pontormo how he could best please a Spanish patron, replied that he should 'show much blood and nails'. Such rawness has readily been attributed to their music, too.

My experience is that only Victoria's music has quite this special intensity of feeling to it, and then only in his six-voice Requiem and music for Holy Week. But it is this intensity, in the end, which makes him so distinctive, not only in the wider European context but also amongst his compatriots. Of all the great High Renaissance composers, Victoria's writing can have the most immediately identifiable atmos­phere. And in the purely Spanish context his greatest achievements cannot easily be confused with those of Lobo, Guerrero, Vivanco, de las Infantas, Esquivel, Navarro, even Morales, though the works of these men may be confused with each other. The question is how he achieved this unique atmosphere.

The irony is that Victoria, like Morales before him, spent many of his formative years (from 1565 to about 1587) in Rome studying the international style which the Flemish had brought there, and which Palestrina was in the process of bringing to new heights of perfection just at that time. In general his compositions from this period do not show anything very unusual - for example his wonder­fully sonorous six-voice motets often sound like very good Palestrina. The opening of his Vidi speciosam is so like the opening of the older master's Tu es Petrus as to seem like a deliberate act of homage. They both set Dum complerentur in a similar idiom. Yet the story of the Lamentations is suggestive: they were finally published in 1585, right at the end of Victoria's time in Rome; but there is an earlier manuscript copy of them in the Sistine Chapel Library (I-Rvat 186) which contains them in an earlier version. In this they are longer, less carefully organized harmonically, and less poignant in their setting of the texts. Before he allowed them to be published, Victoria had carefully revised every phrase. His 'Spanish' style was worked out in Rome.

The 1585 publication, known as the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, included all Victoria's music for Holy Week: these nine Lamentations, the eighteen Responsories, two Passions and a number of other pieces. It is all of a plangent austerity which, when put alongside his six-voice Requiem of 1605, has long been held to represent Victoria and his Spanishness at its most typical and best. In fact it is only part of the story, since even when he had returned to Spain to become a priest (by 1587 at the latest) he wrote music in other idioms - including one of the most outward-going compositions of the period, the Missa Pro Victoria, based on battle noises - which was just as typical of him and perhaps Spain. But the style of the Holy Week music is particularly telling, almost defying analysis. For example much of it is not properly polyphonic. The underlying harmony is still as simple as it always was in sixteenth-century music, yet seems to have gained a new tension in the way Victoria used it. And the melodies that come from it are elemental, wrapped round the words, striding up and down with incredible purpose. There is not a note wasted - and yet this is still art music, not pared down for congregational use. Victoria had achieved his own match of function and expressivity.

Since the Holy Week services were the most dramatic and darkest in the Church's year, Victoria's expressivity was given full range. The nine Lamentations were composed for the first Nocturn at Matins on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this seminal week, three for each service. The famous Responsories were written for the second and third Nocturns of each service. Each of these three services had three Nocturns in which three Lessons and three Responses were interwined. For some reason, possibly because there would simply have been too much music, Victoria set the Lessons (the Lamentations) for the first Nocturn and the Responses for the second and third Nocturns, but not both.

Victoria clearly intended his nine Laments to be heard as an overall musical experience which, however effective across three days of liturgy, makes them ideal for a recording. As they proceed the number of voices gradually increases, with the final 'Jerusalem' section always expanding the scoring, so that there is a crescendo not only within each Lament but within each set of three, and then over the nine. Most of the nine start with a four-voice section, normally leading to a five-voice 'Jerusalem'. However the third Lament on both Thursday and Friday starts in five and ends in six; and the third Lament on Saturday starts in six and ends in eight. A feature of this process is that the amount of counterpoint does not increase, so Victoria's chords simply become more monumental. By the time we reach the eight-voice section, which is partly for double choir, the effect is deeply impressive.

The 'Jerusalems' are a culmination of every section and sub-section, with the slightly unusual detail that in some of the Laments (but not all) Victoria has set these words twice, the second version scored for more voices than the first. Arguably they should not both be sung, but since there is no firm evidence as to why the composer provided two, we decided not to leave anything out. I also specifically asked the singers to produce a more forthright tone for the body of the text - where the prophet complains so bitterly about the fate of the holy city - as compared with the 'Incipits', the Hebrew letters and the 'Jerusalems' themselves.

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664) is the best-known representative of the Spanish school of composers in Mexico. Born in Málaga, he was employed as a church musician firstly in Jerez de la Frontera and then in Cádiz before moving to New Spain no later than the autumn of 1622. On 11 October he was named cantor and assistant Maestro at Puebla Cathedral with an annual salary of 500 pesos, at a time when this Cathedral boasted a musical establishment on a par with the best in Europe. In 1629 Padilla became Maestro de Capilla, a post he retained until his death. His six-voice setting of the Lamentations is one of his finest achievements, employing an impassioned musical language which is spiced up with the augmented intervals beloved of every Iberian composer of note in the early seventeenth century, Portuguese as much as Spanish. The reduced-voice section at 'Ghimel', followed by the verse 'Migravit Judas', is a classic case of this. I have never elsewhere come across the astonishing harmonic move he makes at 'inter gentes'. The fact that this set is scored for SSATTB points to the influence of Victoria and other Spaniards, who tended to favour this line-up in six parts. Victoria's seminal setting of the Requiem is scored like this. Quite why it was thought appropriate to use such a potentially bright sound for Requiems and Laments is one of the many mysteries of the Spanish school.
© 2010 Peter Phillips

The Tenebrae Responsories, along with the six-voice Requiem, are responsible for setting the modern impression of Victoria as a composer. The introverted, spiritually intense mood of both these masterpieces has appealed to modern ears, promoting the almost indelible association between Victoria, St Teresa (who, like Victoria, was born in Avila), Velazquez and El Greco. Although Victoria was capable of other moods, shown for instance in his 'battle' Mass Pro victoria, the joyful double-choir Psalm-settings and settings of the sensuous love poetry of the Song of Songs texts, the Responsories encapsulate something uniquely valuable in his art. This has much to do with an extreme simplicity and directness of style.

The publication which contains these eighteen Responsories first appeared in Rome in 1585 under the official title, as it then was, of Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae. It consists of considerably more than the Responsories, since Victoria set not only the nine Lessons from the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet but hymns, motets, the Reproaches, the two sets of Passion choruses and other music from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday. Taken together, these pieces represent the most complete cycle of music for Holy Week by any leading Renaissance composer. Gesualdo set all the Responsories (at considerably greater length than Victoria), but none of the Lamentations. Lassus set the same Responsories and the nine Lamentations, and Palestrina composed five sets of Lamentations but no Responsories. It is interesting to observe that settings of the Lamentations have received more concert performances than have settings of the Responsory texts. This must have something to do with the strict liturgical structure of the latter and the resulting impression that a concert is not quite the right place for them. They are well represented in recordings, however, where one may listen to them as they were intended to be heard, in three separate groups, one each for Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week.

Originally, on these seminal days of the Church's year, the Responsories were sung early in the morning during Matins which was followed by Lauds. Later, these Offices together became called Tenebrae and were performed during the evening of the preceding day. In this service, the only light in the church came from a triangular stand holding fifteen candles (representing the eleven faithful apostles, the three Marys, and Christ), and from six candles on the altar. As each Psalm was chanted, a candle was extinguished, so that after the fourteenth Psalm only the highest candle (which represented Christ) was still burning. During the concluding recitation (the Canticle of Zachary) the six candles on the altar were also put out one by one until, as the Office of Lauds drew to a close, the only candle which was still burning was concealed behind the altar; thus the church was left in tenebris - in darkness. The rite symbolized both the darkness which covered the earth as Christ was crucified, and his burial. After the closing prayers the worshippers made a certain amount of noise to represent nature in turmoil at the death of Christ. Once the noise had died away, the remaining candle was brought out from behind the altar (a sign of the resurrection), returned to the stand and extinguished.

The Tenebrae Matins was divided, on each day, into three Nocturns, each of which required the singing or reciting of three Lessons alternated with three Responsories. The Lessons for the First Nocturn on each day are from the Lamentations. Victoria set these but not the Responsories. In the Second and Third Nocturns of each day Victoria did the opposite and set the Responsories, leaving the Lessons to be chanted by a deacon. Since Victoria wrote the music to adorn the Liturgy, he kept strictly to the repeats prescribed by tradition, which this recording preserves: a repetition of the second section of the opening four-part music after the reduced-voice passage, giving a kind of da capo shape: ABCB. This happens in all eighteen pieces. In addition, in the third of each set, the opening section is repeated again at the end: ABCBAB. In this scheme the A and B passages are invariably scored for four voices, while section C is always for fewer voice-parts, and sung by soloists. The detail of the scoring shows how carefully Victoria kept to a plan. The first and third of each group of three Responsories are set for SATB, the second for SSAT (we do not follow the unauthorized modern habit of singing some of these with men's voices only). The reduced-voice passages are scarcely less ordered, all being for three voices, except the first one which is a duet. In almost every case the solo group in the first Responsory of each set of three is scored for SAT, the third is scored for ATB and the second makes use of the extra soprano part in the full choir, resulting in SSA or SST. This precise scheme serves as a simple framework for the emotional variety in the music.

Part of the clue as to how Victoria achieved this variety lies in the details of the Passion narrative. For a late Renaissance composer, albeit one who never wrote any madrigals, the story gives unlimited opportunities for different kinds of word-painting, as well as describing states of mind which vary from the supremely tragic to the contemplative. How Victoria encompassed these differences in an idiom so straightforward that it scarcely touches on imitative counterpoint is one of the great miracles of musical thought. With complete assurance, he describes the innocence of the lamb at the beginning of 'Eram quasi agnus'; the swords and clubs of 'Seniores populi'; the lugubrious darkness of 'Tenebrae factae sunt'; the lion during 'Animam meam dilectam'; the intense distress in 'O vos omnes'. At the same time he is capable of writing passages of the most inspired music, without any obvious help from the text: consider the solo section of 'Iesum tradidit impius' which does no more than mark time in the narrative yet, with its two answering soprano parts, is perhaps the most memorable section of all.

The power of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories lies in the balance between the words and his setting of them. The text has its own impact, which may be discovered by reading it aloud. Victoria started from this point, being careful to capture the natural speech rhythms, keeping to syllabic setting (and so never indulging in the early Renaissance delight of music for its own sake); and then heightened the meaning of a verbal phrase with the right turn of harmony or fragment of melody. This pared-down musical idiom, unfamiliar to composers before the late sixteenth century, was lost again during the Baroque period. It has become once again a goal for composers during the twentieth century; but, attractive as the idea of an elemental style has proved to be for many, to express oneself clearly requires complete certainty about what one has to say. Victoria remains a model for them all.

Peter Phillip 1990