Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Also, Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo. Franz Welser-Most, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. BR Klassik 900124.

Oh, my. Financial constraints weigh so heavy on most big European and American orchestras these days that they often depend upon live recordings if they are to record at all. At the time of this writing I had received two such live recordings for review on the same day, this one from Franz Welser-Most and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on BR Klassik and another from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Reference Recordings Fresh! Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the sound of these recordings; it's just that I can't help thinking how much better they would have been without the presence of a breathing, wheezing, shuffling audience. Nevertheless, such are the economics of today's recordings, where it's simply too expensive to pay large groups of musicians for studio time when the ticket-buying public can essentially underwrite the productions themselves. But enough grousing; let's look at the music.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and completed it several years later. It would be the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems. He went on to spend the final thirty-odd years of his life composing other kinds of music, songs, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, the composer came to write his Alpine Symphony after viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth.

An Alpine Symphony is among the composer's most controversial works; you either love it or you hate it. Critics for years have written it off as nothing more than picture-postcard music, lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic and unworthy to set alongside the master's greater work. However, I wonder if these critics aren't letting their estimate of the subject matter cloud their judgment. I mean, for some people the mere description of mountains, peaks, and pastures can't seem to measure up against things with such imposing titles as Death and Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Be that as it may, I find An Alpine Symphony immensely entertaining, and I believe the glories of Nature are every bit as sublime and profound as anything written by Nietzsche.

Still, that's neither here nor there. If you like the music, the question is which recording you want to hear in your living room, and there's a surplus of great ones already out there with which this new one from Welser-Most must contend. For example, there are excellent accounts from Rudolf Kempe and Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Andre Previn and Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips and Newton Classics), Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and even Georg Solti conducting the same orchestra represented here, the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Decca), among many other fine renditions. Indeed, Welser-Most himself recorded this work only several years earlier with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. So, yes, he's up against heady competition, including himself.

Anyway, An Alpine Symphony is actually not a symphony at all in the strictest sense but a long symphonic poem, describing in almost photographic detail the climb up and back down an Alpine mountain, with the titles of the movements telling the story. To give you the idea, here are a few movements: "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss graphically represents all of these events, and while there may be one climax too many along the way, it is all vivid enough to give one the sense of being on the mountain with the climbers and experiencing the grandeur and mysticism of the moment.

Welser-Most's way with the music is to take it rather briskly, quicker even than I remember Solti doing it. Not that this is a bad thing; Welser-Most is shaping the music to conform to his own vision of the ascent and descent and clearly sees it as a faster journey than many other conductors do. The problem is that for me this tends to rob the score of some of its grandeur and beauty.

That said, Welser-Most points up the contrasts quite well and emphasizes the work's drama nicely, so there is no end of outright thrills in the piece. "On the Summit," "Vision," and "A Thunderstorm" work out pretty well. Yet thrills can't always make up for the sheer pleasure of seeing in the mind's eye the forest, the stream, the waterfall, and the flowery meadows; and for me Welser-Most's haste in the journey took a little something away from the imagery.

One cannot say that anything is missing from the playing of the Bavarian RSO, however. They play this music as lushly, as lavishly, as richly as any orchestra around. To hear them is to get one's money's worth from the disc all by itself.

In addition to the symphonic poem, the disc offers the coupling of Strauss's Four Symphonic Interludes from the two-act opera Intermezzo, which premiered in 1924. Because Welser-Most gets through the Alpine symphonic poem a good five or six minutes quicker than most other conductors, he has plenty of room for another longer piece, the four interludes accounting for over twenty more minutes of music. Whatever, I enjoyed the conductor's approach here more than I did in the main selection, with good thrust and parry in his delivery. The sightly lighter orchestration also allows for a greater transparency, always welcome.

As I said earlier, BR Klassik recorded the music live, both selections at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich in 2010 (Alpine Symphony) and 2013 (Interludes). Despite the live audience, the engineers have obtained a decent sound, miking the orchestra at a moderate distance so it's not quite as in-your-face as some live recordings. What this means, though, is that you'll notice more audience noise than usual; nothing really distracting but you'll feel their presence whenever the music turns soft, which in these pieces is actually quite often. Otherwise, the sound is fairly warm and smooth, with a reasonable degree of realism in the room ambience, bloom, air, clarity, depth, and dynamics. Although in the symphony I would have liked a little more bass response, especially from the organ, and a little less room resonance, at least the engineers have edited out any final applause.

To wrap up the package, the folks at BR Klassik provide a glossy, light-cardboard slipcover for the CD jewel case. I'm not sure why they do, but it's a nice touch.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 (SACD review)

Also, Janacek: Symphonic Suite from Jenufa. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-710SACD.

Of Dvorak's nine symphonies, it's the last three that have always been the most popular with audiences, with the final symphony, "From the New World," getting the most attention. That's probably the way it should be; people know what they like and generally pick winners. But my own favorites have long been both No. 8 and No. 9, so I always welcome new recordings of them, if only to see how they stack up against my previous favorites. This new rendering of No. 8 by Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on a live Reference Recordings Fresh! hybrid SACD stacks up pretty well.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 in 1889, and Maestro Honeck considers it the "most Czech" of all his symphonies. That is, the piece sounds cheerful and poetic, the composer keeping its style and structure in the Czech-romantic tradition and drawing his inspiration from the Bohemian folk tunes of his native country.

Honeck doesn't go at a breakneck pace through the first-movement Allegro con brio but instead varies his tempo considerably to create a fairly lively, even thrilling account of the score. There is great exuberance in the conductor's handling of the various themes, while the sounds of nature, like the birdsong of the flute, create a truly sweet atmosphere.

Dvorak marked the second movement an Adagio (in slow, leisurely time), but hardly any conductor plays it too slowly. Indeed, most conductors in my experience take it a moderate, even heady pace. But Honeck takes the composer at his word and plays most of the section at a reasonably slow speed. Not that this has any deleterious effect on the outcome, however, because he continues to introduce enough changes of tempo and dynamics within this slow structure to keep our attention from flagging. For example, Honeck lowers the volume to such an extent along about the middle of the movement that you'd think your speakers had just gone dead, which only serves to heighten the excitement when the music comes back full force.

In the third-movement Allegretto grazioso we get a kind of dumka (a Slavic folk ballad alternating between sadness and gaiety), here rendered as a vaguely melancholic waltz, which Honeck handles brilliantly. The music sounds charming and bucolic, lyric, lilting, and folksy, with a wonderfully delicate, rhythmic motion.

Finally, we get a fourth-movement Allegro con non troppo in which Honeck exercises his usual bent for flexible tempos more than ever. As he points out in a booklet note, Slavic dances tend to speed up at the end, so he slows and quickens his pace accordingly, even if the composer didn't specifically indicate such. Again, it creates an enthralling effect and makes Honeck's interpretation a little different from those we usually hear.

Still, the question remains: Does Honeck displace other contenders in this repertoire? For my taste, I continue to favor more traditional yet delightful renditions from Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), Libor Pesek (Virgin), Sir Colin Davis (Philips), Istvan Kertesz (Decca), Rafael Kubelik (DG), and a few others. However, for your own taste Honeck may be just the antidote for a score that has grown stale from hearing it so much.

Because Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is relatively short, there is time for a reasonably lengthy coupling. Here we find a symphonic suite from the opera Jenufa by Dvorak's fellow Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928). The suite comprises a twenty-two minute set of selections chosen by Maestro Honeck to represent the most-important moments of the opera. Since the opera is rather grim, expect some sorrow, gloom, and melodrama. Nevertheless, it is also quite colorful music, filled with a bit of swirling boisterousness, too, and under Honeck it makes an especially entertaining piece of music. Love that xylophone.

The production team of Soundmirror, Boston--Dirk Sobatka, Mark Donahue, John Newton, and Harold Chambers--recorded the music live at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2013, and Reference Recordings Live! released it on a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD in 2014. Soundmirror, with over eighty Grammy nominations and awards to their credit, obviously know a thing or two about fine recordings, and insofar as live recordings go, this one is quite good. While it is fairly close up in the manner of most live recordings, it seldom sounds bright or edgy. In fact, in the two-channel stereo mode to which I listened, it's mostly rather smooth and warm, with plenty of midrange transparency. If one didn't sense the presence of an audience through their breathing and occasional wheezing, one might think this were a studio recording. An absence of closing applause helps as well.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Classical Music News of the Week, July 20, 2014

Music Institute of Chicago Announces 2014-15 Nichols Concert Hall Season

Celebrating 85 years, the Music Institute of Chicago announces the 2014–15 season of its popular Faculty and Guest Artist Series. All concerts take place at the historic Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in the heart of downtown Evanston, Illinois.

85th Anniversary Opening Concert, Saturday, September 20, 7:30 p.m.:
The Music Institute of Chicago's stellar faculty is more than 150 strong. The season opens with a celebration of the Music Institute's 85th anniversary and features an impressive roster of faculty artists performing compositions associated with the number 85, including C.S. Lang's Fanfare, Op. 85 for organ; selections from Schumann's 12 Character Pieces for Small and Big Children, Op. 85 for four-hand piano; Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for piano, Op. 85; Ravel's String Quartet, L. 85; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Capricho Diabolico, Op. 85; and Stravinsky's Octet.

Jazz Festival: Celebrating the Music of Charlie Parker
The Music Institute of Chicago's fifth annual Jazz Festival celebrates the incredible career and influence of jazz icon Charlie Parker.

Friday, November 7, 7:30 p.m.:
The festival opens with a rare performance of music from the legendary Bird with Strings recordings with jazz veteran Charles McPherson as saxophone soloist. Also on the program is a newly commissioned work by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Northwestern University mainstay Victor Goines, composed for jazz quartet and strings.

Saturday, November 8, 3 p.m.:
The festival continues with a lecture by acclaimed cultural critic and author Stanley Crouch, who discusses his recent book Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. WBEZ's Richard Steele serves as moderator.

Saturday, November 8, 7:30 p.m.:
The closing concert is a bebop extravaganza, featuring Charles McPherson and the Music Institute jazz faculty quintet, with Victor Garcia, Ernie Adams, Jeremy Kahn and Stewart Miller performing Charlie Parker classics, such as "Confirmation," "Moose the Mooch" and "Ornithology."

A special jazz invitational invites high school student jazz ensembles to perform and receive coaching from Charles McPherson and Music Institute jazz faculty.

Community Music Festival, Sunday, April 19–Sunday, May 3, 2015:
Two weeks of concerts, master classes, collaborative score-readings and talks mix music lovers and musicians of all ages and levels with some of the greatest professionals. During the festival, Music Institute students perform 100 concerts in local communities at community centers, libraries, senior centers and other grassroots venues.

Cavani Quartet:
Sunday, April 19, 3 p.m.
The highly regarded Cavani Quartet, ensemble in residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music celebrates its 30th anniversary at Nichols Concert Hall. The program includes the Mendelssohn Octet, also featuring students from the Music Institute's Academy for gifted pre-college musicians.

Ying Quartet:
Saturday, May 2, 7:30 p.m.
The Grammy Award-winning Ying Quartet has established itself as an ensemble of the highest musical order. Quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music, this distinguished Music Institute alumni group performs classic repertoire along with works the quartet has commissioned

All concerts take place at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston. Tickets, except where noted, are $30 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students, available at 847.905.1500 ext. 108 or on-line at http://www.musicinst.org/nichols-concert-hall.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

West Edge Opera Summer Festival continues July 27th with Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg's Hydrogen Jukebox
The second production of West Edge Opera's new Summer Festival, Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg's Hydrogen Jukebox opens on Sunday, July 27 at 5 pm (Please note: non-standard start time) at Berkeley's Ed Roberts Campus. Repeat performances are Saturday, August 2 and Friday, August 8, both at 8 pm. Elkhanah Pulitzer directs and David Möschler conducts. The ensemble cast is comprised of soprano Sara Duchovnay, soprano Molly Mahoney, mezzo-soprano Nicole Takesono, tenor Jonathan Blalock, baritone Efraín Solís, and bass Kenneth Kellogg. The Narrator is actor Howard Swain. All performances take place in the atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus, 3075 Adeline St, Berkeley, an internationally recognized facility dedicated to services for persons with disabilities. The building is a model of the new movement of universal architecture and is just an elevator ride from the Ashby BART Station beneath. All performances are preceded by a lecture beginning 45 minutes prior to curtain.

Allen Ginsberg's notes on Hydrogen Jukebox explain that "the title comes from a verse in the poem Howl: '...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...' It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization's military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse.

"Ultimately, the motif of Hydrogen Jukebox, the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium."

Drawing upon Ginsberg's poetry, this piece is a portrait of America that covers the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, as seen by the collaborators Glass, Ginsberg and designer Jerome Sirlin. Its content ranges from highly personal poems of Ginsberg to his reflection on social issues: the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, eastern philosophy, environmental awareness. The six vocal parts represent six archetypal American characters – a waitress, a policeman, a businessman, a cheerleader, a priest, and a mechanic.

"Hydrogen Jukebox is like a patchwork quilt," says stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer. "It uses Parataxis (the placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives) to build connections in the eye of the beholder, to access the watcher's imagination. Even though it covers the 50s through the 80s, it is relevant today with our consumerism/materialism and struggles with war and the environment."

Both subscriptions and single tickets are now on sale at www.westedgeopera.org or by calling (510) 841-1903. Seating is general admission.

--Marian Kohlstedt, West Edge Opera

Merola Opera Program Summer Festival Presents Mozart's Don Giovanni July 31 and August 2
The Merola Opera Program presents W.A. Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 31, and 2 p.m. Saturday, August 2, at Everett Auditorium, 450 Church Street in San Francisco, CA.

The cast features baritone Edward Nelson as Don Giovanni; bass-baritone Szymon Wach as Leporello; bass Scott Russell as Il Commendatore; Soprano Amanda Woodbury as Donna Anna; tenor Benjamin Werley as Don Ottavio; soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Donna Elvira; bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Masetto; and soprano Yujin Kim as Zerlina. Stage director James Darrah and conductor Martin Katz lead the production.

Based on the legends of Don Juan, the story spans the last twenty-four hours of Don Giovanni's life. With more than 2,000 romantic conquests, Don Giovanni lives life in the fast lane until a mysterious meeting with a statue begins his downward spiral. When he refuses to change his philandering ways, the unrepentant libertine is sentenced to hell by the ghost of the man he killed.

James Darrah, co-founder and director of a new Los Angeles production company, Studio Chromatic, was most recently director and production designer of San Francisco Symphony's production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. He has been described by the Chicago Tribune as "a gifted young American director delivering fresh and stimulating productions".

Conductor Martin Katz, dubbed "the gold standard of accompanists" by the New York Times is currently a Professor of Collaborative Piano at the University of Michigan. He has collaborated with the world's most celebrated singers in recital and recording, including Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle, David Daniels, Karita Mattila and José Carreras. He previously conducted Michigan Opera's production of Die Zauberflöte and Merola Opera Program's productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and L'elisir d'amore. He is the author of The Complete Collaborator, published by the Oxford University Press.

For information on how to become a Merola member, please call (415) 565-6427 or visit www.merola.org.

Tickets for all performances may be purchased by calling San Francisco Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330 open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

--Karen Ames Communications

Listen! Radio Radiance Podcasts Now on Young People's Chorus of NYC Website and iTunes!
Young People's Chorus of New York City's premiere performances of the most recent Radio Radiance compositions are now available on the YPC website and on iTunes.  Visit the website now for not only the podcasts, complete with composer and chorister interviews, but also a step-by-step listening guide.

Hosted by WWFM's Marjorie Herman with interviews by WNYC's John Schaefer, hear how Tom Cabaniss creates "vocal fire" in "Celestial Fire" and how Susie Ibarra takes the listener back to stardust in "The City."  Can you recognize the word Kevin James inserts in the music to describe "Colors"?  And why did Toby Twining decide to write a musical composition about nuclear false alarm in WICBM?

For more information, visit http://ypc.org/radioradiance/

--Katharine Gibson, NPC

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.