Monday, August 29, 2011

Marin Marais (1656-1728) - The 250th Commemoration

If the analogy can be made that the contributions of Marais to the literature and technique of the viol are in some way similar to Chopin's contributions to the piano, then this recording must reflect the interpretation of these works by the "Rubinsteins" and "Horowitzes" of the viol. Most of us are familiar with the reputation of August Wenzinger as a performer on the viol for more than fifty years, as a teacher at some of the world's most prestigious institutions, as a first-class scholar, and as director of many recordings for Deutsche Gramophon's Arkiv series. Appearing with Wenzinger on this recording is harpsichordist James Weaver, Director of Concerts in the Music Division of the Smithsonian; and Oberlin Baroque Ensemble members Marilyn McDonald (baroque violin), Robert Willoughby (baroque flute), James Caldwell (viola da gamba), Catharina Meints (viola da gamba), and Lisa Goode Crawford (harpsichord). The performers have all served as faculty members at the distinguished Baroque Performance Institute held at the Oberlin Conservatory each summer since 1972. The contents of the recording are the Pieces a trois violes in G major from Livre IV, Pieces a une et trois violes (1717); two Pieces de viole d'un gout Etranger (Livre IV), the Pieces en trio in E minor of 1692, and the Sonnerie de Ste. Genevieve du Mont de Paris (1723).

This reviewer can only think of superlatives to describe the playing of this music. There are several points which deserve special mention. The performance of the many ornaments seems completely effortless, allowing them to take on their true role as ornaments and not to sound forced or overly virtuosic or to obscure the melodic line. The performers' tasteful use of limited vibrato is likely to satisfy all but the most radical on either side of the vibrato controversy. The tempos are very convincing-neither too fast nor too slow. This is especially in evidence in the Sonnerie, which is here performed slightly faster than in other recordings, resulting in an entrancing, hypnotic performance of this ostinato piece which could, in less able hands, easily become boring. Catharina Meints extracts a very good bell effect from the bass viol in this piece. In the Pieces en trio in E minor, Wenzinger displays his mastery of the treble viol by producing an unusual richness of tone in the lower register of the instrument, and by frequently matching the tone quality of Willoughby's flute.

In addition to the fine performances, the disc itself is a wellmade product. The copy received for review is a flawless pressing, an item becoming increasingly rare these days. The balance is good, although perhaps a bit more volume would be welcome from the harpsichord. The tone quality is rich and satisfying, leading one to speculate that the recording engineers may have taken the time to grasp a basic concept of the ideal sound of the viols. This product of a small new company compares favorably with those of the major European and American recording companies.
John A Whisler in J Viola Gamba Soc 1979; XVI, 76-78 (from his review of the 1978 LP)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Smetana: Ma Vlast - Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Kubelik

Bedrich Smetana

Ma Vlast

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Rafael Kubelik

Supraphon 11 1208-2 031 CDC


Some more Czech music.


As so often with live performances, the freedom of pulse and moments of pointed emphasis are hallmarks of a great occasion, and the sort of thing one seldom finds (or which seldom work) in studio recordings. Subtlety is the order of the day: there’s drama in plenty, but no bombast! So the weaker moments (and let’s not pretend that there aren’t any) often emerge with real strength, and the patriotic shouting (at the end of Blaník, say) is never marred by noisy over-statement.

As I commented in my review of the Ančerl recording (11 1925-2 011: same label, same orchestra), our familiarity with the timbre of the great ‘Western’ orchestras often leads us to question the sonorities of the great East European and Russian orchestras. And yet the extraordinarily distinctive colours of the Czech Philharmonic are precisely what Smetana would have heard and wanted. Their range of colour (from the moonlight scene of Vltava to the dark introduction to Tábor) is to be wondered at. And throughout, the playing is wonderfully secure and committed, with distinguished and characterful solos far too numerous to mention.

The recording is digital, but you may nevertheless find that it lacks the bloom, warmth and depth that this music of all music needs and deserves, and which Supraphon have commonly been able to deliver in other issues of similar vintage – such as the Mackerras recording of Má Vlast on Supraphon 3465-2 031. Regrettably, both audience and ambience are intrusive, sometimes when least welcome (such as in the delicate opening of Vltava, where coughing and shuffling mask all the musical detail), and applause – which is (unsurprisingly) rapturous! – is not edited out.

The booklet notes are unhelpfully brief, including as they do nothing about the music itself. Black marks here, I’m afraid.

At the end of the proverbial day, no recording of music so varied and so vital as this deserves to be singled out as a ‘winner’. So I hope no one’s wanting me to declare this the ‘best recording’, or not, as the case may be. But it is, literally, incomparable. Buy it, whether or not you have a Má Vlast already on your shelves!

Peter J Lawson

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dvorak: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8, 9 - Neumann, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Antonin Dvorak

Symphonies Nos. 7, 8, 9

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Vaclav Neumann

Supraphon- SU 3705-2 032(CD)


Filling and embarassing Dvorak vacuum here at MIMIC. Even Hurwitz agrees it's a goody! We can now safely aim for unanimity.

Classics Today Rating: 10/10

Václav Neumann concludes his remarkable Dvorák symphony cycle on a high note, turning in what is arguably the finest and most consistent set of the last three symphonies since George Szell. All of the competition in this area has problems: Kubelik's Seventh isn't fabulous, and neither is Kertesz's (who did a better "New World" in his earlier VPO rendition). Rowicki, also less good in the Seventh than in the later two works, like Kertesz has an LSO whose playing is no match for that of the Czech Philharmonic. Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw offer a stunning Seventh and a decent "New World", but an unremarkable Eighth. Järvi turns in fine accounts of Nos. 8 and 9, but makes heavy going of the Seventh, and he's cavernously recorded too. Neumann, by contrast, shines in the Seventh, perhaps Dvorák's greatest symphony. His attack on the first movement's climax remains unrivaled, and he milks the finale's tragic foreboding for all it's worth but never lets the music bog down (those marvelous Czech winds help a lot too).

The Eighth is noteworthy for its effortless sense of flow, and also for a finale that, in the Czech tradition of Talich, takes the scherzo variations in tempo yet still has sufficient rhythmic kick to provide an exciting conclusion. Neumann recorded the "New World" Symphony more times than I care to count, his last efforts revealing sadly diminished capacity. This is his best version, a "traditional" performance in the sense that it doesn't bring new revelations to this oft-played symphony, but it's also one whose feeling of "rightness" (note the beautifully relaxed yet seemingly self-propelled Largo and the trenchantly argued finale) married to superb playing places it among the handful of great accounts. Supraphon's first-rate sonics also distinguish this, the most consistently excellent of all complete Dvorák symphony cycles, from the rest of the pack. Supraphon's happy decision to offer the nine symphonies in sets of three also means that you don't have to commit to the whole production until you've had a chance to sample--but sample you certainly should. [3/22/2003]

--David Hurwitz