Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 2 - Claudio Abbado

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No.4*, Symphony No.2 "Resurrection"^
*Frederica von Stade, *Wiener Philharmoniker,
^Eteri Gvazava, ^Anna Larsson, ^Orfeon Donostiarra, ^Lucerne Festival Orchestra,
Claudio Abbado

La Musica di Repubblica-L'Espresso


I'm on vacation, so I'll look for suitable reviews when I'm back. I hope you enjoy it anyhow. After all, it's Abbado on Mahler: if you don't like it, it's OK. Just a tad eccentric.
If you think you could do better yourself, you probably are Dave "Abbado's-too-damn-good-for-me-to-like-him" Hurwitz's clone. Consider sueing your irony teacher for theft.
Update: now we even have an enthusiastic review, courtesy of our good friend Anchusa:

The Mahler symphony sounds terrific, too—the bass is deep and well defined, while there is a clarity and depth to the soundstage that greatly enhances Abbado’s dramatic conception of the piece. The engineers have provided another vivid experience, which places the listener very close to the action without sounding in the least bit cramped or artificial.

The performance will offer few surprises to admirers of Abbado’s previous Mahler recordings. As before, the lyrical and melodic are given high priority, while Mahler’s dramatic contrast is fully in evidence. In the first movement, Michael Tilson Thomas, in his own recent recording, brings more depth of feeling to the peaceful second theme in the development, and thereby provides even more contrast to the tense first theme material of the exposition. Abbado’s Andante movement proceeds at a free-flowing tempo that certainly evokes the hurly-burly of life but sacrifices some of the Viennese warmth that others (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Thomas) have found here; he does find the gentle humor in the pizzicato section. Where Tilson Thomas contrasted an expansive Andante with a brisk Scherzo, Abbado reverses this, taking the third movement at a moderate tempo that highlights its clumsiness; MTT was able to get more contrast out of the dreamy E-Major interlude. Abbado’s “outcry” section is suitably, convincingly dramatic.

Anna Larsson sings a very sensitively phrased “Urlicht,” equal parts nobility and melancholy. The finale arrives with lightning speed, yet isn’t quite the startling explosion I would have expected—the sound has just a bit less impact here. The episodes that follow comprise a dramatically coherent whole; the off-stage instruments are effectively distanced, especially the “Great Call,” wherein the entire dramatic scenario is marvelously evocative. After the entrance of the chorus, the focus of the recording grows just a little gauzy, with less sharpness and clarity in the orchestra; at the same time, possibly to enhance the more importunate nature of the drama at this point, the tension slackens. But the momentum soon returns, and the “Aufersteh’n” comes to a rousing close. The audience is heard to give its clamorous approval.

Christopher Abbot

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Allegri, F Scarlatti, Viadana, Leo: Miserere - O'Reilly, Ensemble Wm Byrd

The Allegri Miserere, yes, but not the way you know it. And have you ever even heard the Misereres of Francesco Scarlatti, Giovanni Moro da Viadana or Leonardo Leo?

A splendid CD, and marginally still in print, so buy a copy soon. Worth every penny (cent, fillér, grosz, Rappen, ban, haléř, øre, whatever...).

Reviewed at ClassicsToday by the other David (Vernier):

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The man who made music for the eyes

Alex Steinweiss (24 March 1917 - 18 July 2011)

Not quite about music, but a facet that's almost indivisible from its recorded form for many of us -- the cover art.

Alex Steinweiss, graphic artist and album cover designer par excellence, died last week at 94.

A couple of obituary notices:

Visit his website:

Even if you don't have €500 for the book on his work, you can page through it at Taschen Verlag:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.3 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haitink

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 3
Michelle DeYoung, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Women of the Chicago
Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound - CSO 901 701


Am I entitled to comment on this one? Not really. No matter how hard I've tried, the 3rd is still on the list of works with which I still have to develop a satisfactory acquaintance.
So I'll let Dave Hurwitz talk, hoping that his reserves will provide the sufficient motivation for you, more competent Mahler listeners, to give it a try. One reason I really hate critics for is that once you've gotten hold of a hard earned CD, you just stumble into a review telling you it wasn't actually worth bothering...

Classics Today Rating: 7/8
The Chicago Symphony under the leadership of Henry Fogel started the trend of releasing its own recordings, initially as a fundraising opportunity, so it was only a matter of time before the orchestra launched its own label more formally. While I certainly welcome the initiative, this first title represents a mixed success. On the surface, the orchestra is leading from strength: both it and Haitink have excellent Mahlerian credentials. But let's face it--the CSO already has one excellent Mahler 3 (Levine's; Solti's was dreadful), and so does Haitink (his first Concertgebouw recording; his Berlin remake was dreadful). Actually, if you throw in Haitink's live Amsterdam recordings and his Berlin video, this is his fifth Mahler Third, which, coming from a conductor often heard to moan about the excesses of the recording industry in this regard, seems little short of bizarre.

Unquestionably Haitink knows the work, and so does the Chicago Symphony, and the orchestra's legendary brass section certainly lives up to its collective reputation, particularly in the closing chorale of the finale. But this is a symphony that thrives on color, and here Haitink is at his weakest. His first recording featured an orchestra (the Concertgebouw) that at the time had such an individual timbral profile, and was so steeped in the Mahler tradition, that he couldn't help but take credit for the excellent results. That performance remains a favorite, if only because it has the most glowing, organ-like final chord ever captured. Here, in the first movement, Haitink misses those touches of color at lower dynamic levels from the percussion and the harps that help lend the work its special character.

There's also a certain staidness to the tempos, a lack of contrast in such places as the vulgar eruption of winds and brass before the first movement's recapitulation, and throughout the scherzo, that risks turning into dullness despite the excellent playing everywhere in evidence. Furthermore, the fifth movement simply lacks the picture-postcard brightness that Mahler builds into his scoring and that creates the atmosphere of brittle unreality that so brilliantly sets up the finale's serene opening (Bernstein I on Sony has never been equaled here). Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung's voice also has developed what comes very close to a wobble, and this makes her work in both the fourth and fifth movements less than ideal. The engineering is clear and vivid, but also a bit flat in perspective, with the brass at times overbearing (not that fans of these players, who are legion, will care).

In sum, this is a good if flawed performance, but more to the point, a redundant one. If you want Chicago in this music, seek out Levine (particularly the Japanese RCA reissue), which also has a very significant asset in Marilyn Horne in the vocal bits. If you want Haitink, Philips has recently reissued his first and best Concertgebouw recording, coupled with a fine Das Klagende Lied. And if you must have Haitink and Chicago together, then you may want to consider this, but only if the identity of the artists is far more important than the actual musical results.

--David Hurwitz

Monday, July 18, 2011

Live video webcasts from this summer's classical music festivals

Much of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence is on liveweb.arte.tv.

Some of the Festival de Beaune is on also on liveweb.arte.tv.

Much of the Verbier Festival is on medici.tv.

Some of the BBC Proms will be on the iPlayer.

Six concerts from the Festival de Saint-Denis are still available on liveweb.arte.tv.

Pretty much all concerts are available on demand for a while (between a week and several months) after the event.

Please add other video webcasts of classical music festivals in the comments.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.6 - Wiener Philharmoniker, Boulez

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 6
Wiener Philharmoniker, Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 445 835-2GH

Say whatever you like. This is my favorite version of my favorite Mahler symphony.

There are inescapable comparisons to be made here between Boulez and Bernstein. Two composer-conducting former directors of the New York Philharmonic, latterly granted carte blanche by the same record company to re-record the music that made them famous (and let's not forget it was sometimes the other way round). Boulez may not be everyone's idea of the perfect Mahlerian, but it is splendid to see DG's ambitious series starting to embrace repertoire he has not previously committed to disc. Conveniently, the yellow label has been responsible for almost every great recording of the Sixth — "the only Sixth despite the Pastoral" according to Alban Berg (and Boulez has not recorded much Beethoven). So Boulez the conductor is in safe hands, the more so since he has the Vienna Philharmonic to offset any tendency to cerebral introspection. The results are fascinating if not exactly compulsive and those sympathetic to his interpretative approach will find plenty to enjoy.
Returning to performing the symphony after a gap of more than15 years, Boulez launches the first movement at a pace slightly slower than the latter-day norm, though he does not seek to emulate Barbirolli's world-weary trudge (now available on CD — to be reviewed shortly). He has the same orchestra as Bernstein in his live 1988 DG version, but at once you notice the different quality of ensemble, adequately precise but softer-grained, lacking the hysterical precision (some would say overwrought quality) of his rival. One might expect parallels with Sinopoli in that Boulez too is concerned to ensure that as much as possible of the score be made audible to the listener. The difference is that he does not see it as his role to choose between competing musical ideas, never spotlighting one significant detail at the expense of another, so that a certain coolness prevails. Nor does he swing into the so-called Alma theme to the manner born — compare the instinctive emotional thrust of a Bernstein or, more surprisingly, a Karajan. It is only the development's interlude of idyllic, cowbell-encrusted calm that finds him at a loss. Seemingly embarrassed by such naïve nature symbolism he puts on the blinkers and keeps going.
The slow movement is placed third. Having been alerted to the prospect of a relatively rapid tempo, I was expecting something unorthodox. True. Boulez disregards Karajan's Brucknerian revivification, but the lighter intermezzo-like quality of his own account is by no means implausible and works beautifully in its own way. The finale will be more of a problem for some listeners. Boulez's structural imperatives do seem to preclude an appreciable sense that there are elemental forces at work here. One would not expect him to identify with romantic notions that limit the scope of the music by presenting it as the ravings of a hero-protagonist-conductor felled by the malign workings of Fate. That said, my own preference is definitely for something more searingly intense. Speeds as such are well chosen, on the fast side but uncontroversially so: l was puzzled only by his unsteady reading of the 'heavy' brass chorale at fig. 106 (23811).
For all the care devoted to problems of balance and articulation, the questions remain. How important is the lack of 'idiomatic' rubato? Is this Mahler limpid or merely limp in its avoidance of 'imprudent ecstasy'? Let's side-step the issue and end on a positive note: DG have managed to squeeze the performance on to one disc — Sony might have done so with the earlier Bernstein but didn't — and there are copious notes by Henry Louis de la Grange. The International Mahler Society Edition (1963) suggests a running time in the region of 80 minutes. In this respect, Boulez is spot on. DSG (David Gutman)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 - Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ozawa

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 4
Kiri Te Kanawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
Philips 422 072-2PH


Can't find neither the details of this recording, nor reviews of it. But I hope this doesn't diminish the listening pleasure you'll derive from listening to it...ooopppss! I found a partial endorsement by David "samurai's'r'cool" Hurwitz whose en-passant endorsement should suffice to fill our bosoms with infinite delight for this performance...
...and now we even have a review from the Gramophone.

Classics Today:
Extract from the review of Ozawa's 'Resurrection' with the Saito Kinen
Seiji Ozawa's credentials as a Mahlerian have not received the recognition that they deserve (the same holds true of his Bruckner). His complete symphony cycle recorded in Boston includes two excellent versions of the First Symphony (the one for Deutsche Grammophon slightly better than the later one for Philips), equally superb performances of the Third, Fourth, and Ninth Symphonies, and fine efforts in Nos. 2, 5, 7, and 8. The Sixth would have been very good also had it not been compromised by wretchedly dull recorded sound....

There are aspects of Ozawa's Fourth that I enjoyed greatly. He would seem to be temperamentally better suited to this particular piece, to what Deryck Cooke described as its "neo-rococo" stylizations, than to any other Mahler that I've heard him conduct. Even so, by no stretch of the imagination could Ozawa be described as a natural Mahlerian. He is all too inclined to tidy up the awkwardnesses, temper the extremes, and generally somehow rationalize the music's inherent neuroses (that was especially true recently of his disappointing Second). Take the first movement of this Fourth; there is poise, charm and grace from the very outset, the lower strings tripping lightly over their staccato semi-quavers just after
Tempo I; the phrasing generally is elegant and unfussy, the rubato well-mannered. But what Ozawa fails to catch (and for this you must look to Bernstein/DG—would that he had recorded the piece as written, with a soprano, and not a treble--or Maazel/CBS) is the playful, quixotic nature of this movement. One needs to point-up more the sudden and mischievous shifts in mood and movement, the excitable bursts of energy, those characteristically abrupt Mahlerian 'commas'. Similarly, a higher profile is called for in the wry country dance of the second movement. Ozawa's rustic hobgoblins are rather too lovable; there must be more of 'Death, the friendly fiddler' about the movement with spikier and more acidic woodwinds for one thing.
The slow movement is very lovely, and here Ozawa has caught the equivocal nature of the music; the underlying darkness. Off-setting the warmth and luminosity of those rapt string lines is a profound sense of sadness and disquiet with baleful sounds from low-register horns exceptionally telling at each abortive climax. The climax is certainly thrilling, Ozawa throwing open 'Heaven's Gate' with a truly breath-catching luftpause and ever-assertive Boston trumpets providing the blinding light (the recording is first rate, warm and naturally ambient with an impressive bass extension). And I have nothing but admiration for Ozawa's serene way with those hearteasing final pages: the Boston strings at their very best.
Which leaves Dame Kin. And to my surprise, I find myself more, not less convinced, than I did when she recorded the piece with Solti (Decca). The naturally plushy tones have once more been discreetly pared down, the delivery is fresh and appropriately wide-eyed with only one or two phrases betraying a self-conscious 'girlishness' in the characterization. Technically, this is actually better singing than that provided by Judith Raskin for Szell in his famous Cleveland version of 1966. Many collectors, like myself, will have been waiting in anticipation of its re-appearance on CD—and they will not be disappointed. CBS have come through with a pristine digital remastering of the open and exceptionally well-balanced Columbia original. Some hardening of tone under pressure was always a problem, even on LP, but on the whole you would never credit that this was a 1960s recording. As to the performance, the assurance and precision of its execution is something quite remarkable—an orchestra in the very peak of condition: ensemble absolutely unanimous, rubato finely-turned to a man, not a blemish in earshot. There is no better tribute to Szell's achievements in Cleveland. If I'm absolutely honest, though, it's been some time since I sat down and listened to the performance and this time round I must say it struck me as far more dispassionate and calculated in effect than I had remembered. I'd willingly sacrifice some of the precision for a greater sense of spontaneity at the moment of performance (Szell was always at his best in the concert hall). It's a very subjective reaction, of course, but when I compare the cool, pellucid beauty of Szell's Cleveland strings in the slow movement with the home-spun sweetness of their Vienna Philharmonic counterparts in the CBS recording under Maazel, I know instinctively which reading I would choose to live with. In my opinion, Maazel has put few finer performances on disc.
- Edward Seckerson

Friday, July 8, 2011

JS Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 - Charles Rosen, piano

This one won't be everyone's front runner, but certainly worth a hearing. Some think it's a penetrating view, others say it lacks warmth; some that the lines are beautifully defined, others that he's fussy and overly meticulous. Restrained and rational vs. unexpressive. Intellectual vs. boring...
You get the idea. Only way to find out is to listen to it yourself.

JS Bach Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Charles Rosen, piano
Sony; recorded in 1967 (out of print)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussions..., the Miracolous Mandarin - suite, Divertimento - Chicago Symphony Orch., Solti

Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussions and Celesta, The Miracolous Mandarin - suite, Divertimento
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti
Decca - 430 352-2


I decided to fill a gap in our collection with one of the greatest of works of the 20th century. The present recording has been repackaged in "The Originals", and later in the "Double Decca" collection to also include the Concerto for Orchestra, thus providing a small collection of Bartok's greatest orchestral works.
A review of the "Double Decca" is reported below.

Classics Today Rating: 8/9
These performances by the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti are of exceptional quality, fusing phenomenal orchestral virtuosity with the conductor's famous authority in this repertoire, in radiant, resonant Decca recordings. The Concerto For Orchestra, Solti's 1980 Orchestra Hall reading, lacks something of the dry humour he injected into the Shostakovich parody section of the "Intermezzo" in his own earlier London Symphony version (generally less well played), but otherwise this is marvelous on all counts. The Miraculous Mandarin suite sounds almost too highly polished at times--trombones near the start haven't the required slithering vulgarity, and the brilliantly executed fugal section led off by the violas near the climax glosses over the music's intended lurid pictorialism. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta also brings some incredible playing, with every dynamic detail and nuance in place. But the piano sounds too remote and Solti's clinical precision sometimes robs the music of the raw-nerved vitality that Bartók clearly desires. For that you can always have Ferenc Fricsay's Berlin Radio performances from the mid-1950s (available on DG) on your shelves--but beyond that, you'll find nothing lacking in the rest of this excellent program (the Dance Suite is especially brilliant). [9/23/2002]

--Michael Jameson

Friday, July 1, 2011

Schubert: Piano Sonata D960, Ländler D790 - Leon Fleisher

More post-baroque...
Get it while it lasts -- counterpoint, thorough bass and Affekte could return at any time!

Schubert: Piano Sonata D 960, Ländler D 790
Leon Fleisher, piano (recorded in 1956)

Fleisher's approach to the Romantic repertoire was mature right from this first album given his intepretive options and his sense of drama that nevertheless remained free of pathos. In the Andante sostenuto, each note of the melody resonates as though it were meant to be the last without ever affecting the clarity of line or the precision of the median voices. As for the Allegro vivace con delicatezza, it is played with an irony that verges on mockery whilst consistently maintaining rhythmical rigour, a rich palette and inventiveness.

Finally, and better than most, Fleisher knew how to perform a simple section with simplicity whilst maintaining incredible presence. Even at moments that appear trifling, we are surprised with a feeling of renewed pleasure; the falsely superficial Ländler D.790 intelligently complete the difficult choice of repertoire that this 28-year-old musician had to make.
from the notes by Eric Guillemaud (trans. Christophe Evans)