Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Jeux; Khamma. Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Newton Classics 8802043.

Following hard on the heels of EMI's recent two-disc collection by various artists of music by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) comes this single-disc album of selections by Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) and the orchestra he founded in 1918, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The disc comes to us from the relatively new company Newton Classics, who have been reissuing older classic material from major record companies like Philips, DG, and Decca. In this case, however, it's a bit unfortunate that they chose this particular recording of Ansermet's Debussy, since I have never thought of it as among the conductor's best work. I suppose the folks at Newton know the conductor still has a legion of admirers, and fans will welcome everything they can get, especially when it sounds as good as this.

The program opens with Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1894). The piece seems less persuasive here than I've heard it and nowhere near as lyrical or erotic as Karajan presented it in either his DG or EMI recording. Ansermet's version appears more straightforward, more a "reading" than an interpretation. Of course, I'm quibbling as it is still quite fine.

Next comes the centerpiece of the album and probably Debussy's most-famous piece of music, La Mer (1905), his symbolic musical representation of the sea. Ansermet was old enough to have known and actually discussed things with the composer, but that doesn't mean that every one of his performances was, therefore, necessarily the best and most authoritative possible. I mean, even composers themselves have performed and recorded less-than-stellar interpretations of their own material.

In the case of La Mer, Ansermet was in his late seventies when he recorded this performance of it, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, his rendition sounds a little more earthbound than ethereal, more landlocked than indicative of the open sea. Maybe he was just getting older, but he seems better here at handling the gentler swirling of currents than the bigger, more-active howling of winds and crashing of waves. Then, the final movement is more foursquare than evocative, the emphasis apparently on clarity of texture rather than on atmosphere or emotion.

The selections end with two lesser-recorded Debussy ballets, the dance-poem Jeux (Games, 1913) and the "legend in dance" Khamma (1912). Jeux is Ansermet's most accomplished performance on the disc, and one can hardly complain about it. We hear Khamma in the exotic orchestration completed by Charles Koechlin, and here I found Ansermet's clear vision probably a tad overanalytical.

The first thing one notices about this 2011 Newton Classics reissue is that the noise reduction used to clean up some of the original tape hiss also leaves a kind of background swish. It's only noticeable during quieter passages, though, and it doesn't interfere with one's enjoyment of the music. Besides, it beats the alternative. Decca made the recordings between 1957 and 1964, after all.

There is a nice sense of orchestral depth and transparency to the sound, with a wide dynamic range and at least occasional strong impact. It reinforces my belief that the twenty-odd years covering about 1954 to 1978 produced some of the best recordings ever made; and when companies remaster them well, they can sound as good or better than anything recorded today.

JJP

Stamitz: Four Symphonies (CD review)

Werner Ehrhardt, L'arte del mondo. CPO 777 526-2.

You probably recognize the name of German composer Carl Stamitz (1745-1801). He was the son of another musician famous in his time, the Czech composer Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). Both men were virtuoso violinists, and together they wrote about 800 symphonies, concertos, and chamber works in the popular Mannheim style the father founded. But can you actually name anything the young Stamitz wrote? Can you hum a piece of his music? I thought not. Carl Stamitz died in relative obscurity, and currently one can find only a handful of albums dedicated to his works alone. Such is the fleeting nature of fame.

This 2010 CPO release presents four of Carl Stamitz's symphonies, with Werner Ehrhardt leading the chamber orchestra L'arte del mondo, an ensemble Ehrhardt formed in 2004 to pursue early music on modern instruments. Stamitiz's symphonies, representative of the early classical period, feature mostly three-movement structures, usually omitting the minuets common to earlier arrangements. Because the symphonies are quite melodious, refined, and easy on the ear, one can understand why they became so popular, yet after listening to them, one can also understand why people so quickly forgot them.

The album starts off with the Symphony in D minor, Op. 15,3 (Kai 24). The salient point here is in the lively contrasts between each successive movement, from barely audible sections to momentous crescendoes. The piece is also quite concise, a little more than eleven minutes in length. Then we get the Symphony in E flat major (Kai 38), marked by a robust and invigorating opening Allegro con spirito, a sweetly flowing Andante, and an energetic conclusion.

Next is the Symphony in E minor, Op. 15,2 (Kai 23), the only symphony on the disc in four movements. It begins with a gentle, lyrical introduction that gradually moves into a more-animated passage. The succeeding Andante is far from slow but it is warm and friendly, suggesting a manner reminiscent of Haydn. After that, we get a Minuetto that is for all practical purposes a scherzo, changing the pace considerably. The work ends with a brisk Allegro assai that wraps up the symphony in a highly dramatic manner.

The album finishes with the Symphony in F major (Kai 34), subtitled "La Chasse" because of its hunting motif. We even hear hunting horns in the opening and closing movements. In between, there is much activity, motion, and invention, ending the program in a most imaginative way. Still, while Stamitz's music is pleasurable in the moment, it is largely unremarkable and hardly memorable.

Ehrhardt and his players obviously relish the variety in this music and perform it with precision, polish, and class. However, they are not without a sense of fun and joy in their performances, too, particularly evident in "The Chase."

The miking is fairly close and probably captures an accurate representation of the orchestra's sound.  Although the recording seems a tad forward, it projects a clear, clean sonic picture, with plenty of detail on almost every front. It also displays a wide dynamic range that may have the listener reaching for the volume control on more than a few occasions. Perhaps the audio engineers could have found a bit more weight at the lower and mid bass end; otherwise, things sound splendid, with a nice sense of air and ambience around the instruments.

JJP

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (HQCD review)

Sir John Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI Japan TOCE-91071.

The Finale to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the Adagio, is quite possibly the most beautiful piece of music ever written. If that statement seems too bold for you, let me lessen it slightly by saying the Adagio is certainly among the most beautiful pieces ever written. There, now; we both feel better. In any case, Sir John Barbirolli's interpretation of the Symphony No. 9 has been around for quite a while, since 1964, in fact, and it has successfully weathered the test of time. Like the music, it is sublime.

I also prize two other Mahler Ninth Symphony recordings: one from Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips) and one from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), but Barbirolli is first on my list, perhaps a shade more idiosyncratic than Haitink if not so long breathed and serene. In my estimation, Barbirolli, Haitink, and Klemperer surpass all other versions, even the highly regarded ones by Karajan (DG), Abbado (DG), Giulini (DG), Bernstein (Sony or DG), Walter (Sony), and Kubelik (DG), offering more in the way of human feeling, with fewer of the grand gestures.

Anyway, Barbirolli so loved the Finale, he asked to record it out of sequence so that his performers could deal with it in the evening rather than in the morning when EMI and the Berlin orchestra originally scheduled it. "You can't expect people to perform that sort of music in morning. It must be done in the evening when they're in the right mood," he explained. It was his first, and to my knowledge only, recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, with whom he maintained a long and happy relationship in the concert hall if not in the studio.

This 2010 release of the Mahler Ninth from EMI Japan is actually about the forth or fifth incarnation of the recording I've owned. There was the EMI vinyl LP years ago; then the CD's, one that I remember in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series; then an EMI Japan remastering; and now the EMI Japan HQ (Hi Quality CD) reissue. The newest sound surpasses almost anything recorded today, and the Ninth is smoother than ever, with no apparent loss of sparkle. For a recording of its age (or for any age), it's excellent, projecting a realistic sonic presence, a reasonably wide stage width at a moderate miking distance, and more than acceptable depth, dynamics, and ambiance to make the experience appear natural. Best of all, it displays a remarkable transparency, and EMI accommodates it on a single disc. It's one of my Desert Island Favorites for good reason.

Now, I know what you're asking: How does one obtain the EMI Japan edition of the recording, how much does it cost, and is it really worth the trouble? Let's take those concerns in reverse order.

First, the worth of any recording is up to the individual. If you're an audiophile and want the absolute best sound, you may be willing to pay extra for it. Yes, I have found the sound of the EMI Japanese remasterings better--clearer, smoother, and more dynamic, especially the HQ editions--than their already excellent EMI English counterparts. So, for me, going the extra mile to get them is worth it. But I'm crazy, so who's to say it would be worth it to you?

Second, the cost of the Japanese product is not really that expensive in and of itself, on average about 1,300 yen each, or about $15.00 American dollars, depending on the exchange rate at any given time. But it's the postage that kills you. There are only a few places in America that sell EMI Japan classical imports, and they are usually out of stock on anything you may actually want. Therefore, I have mostly ordered directly from Japan, where the postage is high, about $24.00 a shipment, so I'd advise not buying just one disc; buy six or eight at a time, pay the 24 bucks, and get your money's worth. If you do it that way, say six discs per order, each disc is about $21, with no tax. That's still only a little more than you'd pay for a full-price disc in America, when you add in any applicable tax or shipping.

Finally, where to get EMI Japan products:
In America, there is Import CDs, which you probably should try first. Unfortunately, as I've said, they are often out of stock on popular Japanese import items: http://www.importcds.com

In Japan, you can try HMV Online, which is where I usually shop: http://www.hmv.co.jp/en/index.asp

Or Amazon Japan: http://www.amazon.co.jp

JJP

Satie: 3 Gymnopedies (CD review)

Also, Gnossiennes, Je te Veux, Le Picadilly. Pascal Roge, piano. Decca Originals B0006393-02.

Erik Satie (1866-1925) wrote primarily solo piano music, and most of his best material can easily fit on a single disc. Of the single-disc collections currently available, this one with pianist Pascal Roge, reissued in Decca's "Originals" line several years ago, and one by Aldo Ciccolini in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" line, issued a few years earlier, are probably a person's best current bets for this music.

Both Roge and Ciccolini include the three Gymnopedies, those lovely kaleidoscopic views of impressionistic imagery, plus the six Gnossiennes and an assortment of other, differing pieces. The choice between the discs may come down to which sound you prefer and which accompanying material you like.

As for that sound, both recordings are digital and derive from the mid 1980s, but while the EMI disc is marginally clearer, better focused, it also has some odd swishing noises between notes, possibly caused by the pianist himself. The Decca disc, on the other hand, is slightly softer, warmer, and maybe a little more veiled, but it tends to complement Satie's lushly romantic world in the process. In addition, Roge includes a couple of Satie's delightful music-hall songs I like a lot and which the composer transcribed for piano: "Je te Veux" ("I Want You") and "Le Picadilly."

The playing time on both discs is generous, over an hour for the Decca and even longer for the EMI. They are both fine collections of some of Satie's best work, performed with authority by two fine Satie interpretors.

OK, since their respective companies offer the discs at mid price, maybe buying both of them is a person's best choice.

JJP

Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Images; Children's Corner; Printemps; Nocturnes; Jeux.  Karajan, Giulini, Previn, Martinon, Plasson; Berlin Philharmonic, Philharmonia, LSO, O. Nat'l de l'ORTF, O. du Capitole de Toulouse. EMI 50999 9 07216 2 5 (2-disc set).

A short while ago I reviewed EMI's two-disc collections of Essential Ballet and Ballet Adagios, both sets drawn from the company's extensive back catalogue of recordings. Now, they have issued a two-disc set of works by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Again, we get some of the finest recordings of his music ever made, all of it in quite good sound. And unlike the ballet sets, which provided only bits and pieces of longer works, the selections on this Debussy set are more-or-less complete, mainly because the works are so brief to start with. In any case, with seventy-three minutes on the first disc and seventy-eight on the second, it's a bargain collection at mid price.

Disc one begins with Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (1894), with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. To be fair, Debussy preferred to think of his music as symbolic rather than impressionistic; whatever the case, there is hardly any finer an interpretation of Prelude anywhere than Karajan's, unless it's his own earlier DG recording with the same orchestra. He was always good at glamorizing and romanticizing the music he conducted, and the approach works perfectly in this Debussy piece, more languorous, erotic, exotic, and atmospheric than almost any other performance.

Next up is La Mer (1904), with Carlo Maria Giulini leading the Philharmonia Orchestra. The reading is very lush and highly evocative, the conductor providing a genuine feeling for the sea, with some serious salt spray practically splashing across our face. The music sounds beautifully realized in all three movements. It's unfortunate that there is occasionally a small degree of shrillness in the sound, which may deter one's ultimate appreciation for the piece. Still, it's only a minor distraction.

The first disc concludes with Debussy's Images for Orchestra (1908-1912), the pieces he wrote after composing two sets of Images for piano. Debussy finds Andre Previn and the London Symphony at the top of their game, and they benefit from some of the finest sound in the collection. Anyway, you'll find these brief Spanish pictures moving, exciting, and effectively done.

Disc two opens with Children's Corner (1908), piano pieces orchestrated by Andre Caplet, and performed by Jean Martinon and the Orchestre National de l'ORTF. Debussy meant the music to evoke reminiscences and pictures of childhood, with titles like "Jimbo's lullaby," "The Snow is Dancing," and Golliwogg's Cakewalk." As Martinon is my favorite conductor in French music, this series of selections can't miss.

Next is Printemps (1882), with Michel Plasson and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.  It's an early work by Debussy, strongly resembling the Prelude, and it is quite lovely, with Plasson emphasizing its beauty and serenity. Trois Nocturnes (1900) come next, again with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia. Here, we get three musical impressions of paintings by James McNeill Whistler, each with its own play of contrasting light and shadow. Giulini's interpretation is aptly translucent. Then, the album ends with Martinon and the Orchestre National de l'ORTF doing Jeux (1912), Debussy's final orchestral work, a short ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. Needless to say, Martinon handles it exquisitely.

Recorded by EMI between 1962 and 1988, the sound of the various items displays a remarkable uniformity. Most of it is smooth, dynamic, and reasonably transparent. There is a small degree of heaviness about the Karajan contribution and in a few of the other numbers a slight veiled or muted quality at the high end, plus a bit of harshness. I suspect this comes with age and with the audio engineers attempting to use just the right amount of filtering and noise reduction to make everything acceptable to modern ears. When the sound is good, it's excellent, admirably clear, with good bass response; when it's not, it's hardly an issue.

JJP

Borodin: Prince Igor, excerpts (CD review)

Also, In the Steppes of Central Asia; Symphony No. 2. Ole Schmidt, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks/Sheridan Square/Allegro RPM 28180.

If you don't already own the basic Borodin works on this disc, and if you don't wish to invest in an older, classic recording from conductors like Beecham, Solti, Martinon, or Ashkenazy, this relatively new digital production from Ole Schmidt and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra should fill the bill nicely. It includes three of the composer's most-popular works--excerpts from Prince Igor, In the Steppes of Central Asia, and the Symphony No. 2--in first-rate sound.

Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1887) never finished his opera Prince Igor, and his friends Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov completed it for him after his death. Although opera companies don't perform the complete opera very much anymore, most orchestras do play certain excerpts from it often, like the three segments presented here. Maestro Schmidt offers up the Overture in a smooth and comfortable interpretation rather than a particularly passionate or stimulating one. Still, it makes a good curtain-raiser. Then come the Polovtsian Dances, here in a purely orchestral arrangement rather than with chorus. Oddly, Schmidt turns up the heat a notch more than he did in the Overture. Finally, we get the Polovtsian March, which Schmidt handles in an appropriately jubilant spirit, even if it's a little foursquare in its execution.

In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) is a brief, atmospheric tone poem. The composer described it as depicting a caravan in the desert, escorted by Russian soldiers. It is Schmidt's most-successful realization in the program, delicately evocative yet grandly eloquent.

The album concludes with the Symphony No. 2 in B-minor (1877), which Borodin wrote while also working on Prince Igor, so you'll find reflections of both works in each other. It's not a long symphony, but it is exotic and colorful, starting with a large-scale Beethovian flourish and moving quickly into Rimsky-Korsakov territory with its main theme. After that, we get the second-movement Scherzo, which Schmidt plays a bit more slowly than, say, Martinon, and not drumming up as much excitement or lyricism as I have heard before in the music. The conductor is best in the Andante, which sounds quite lovely in its dark, almost forbidding way. Closing things out, there's the Finale-Allegro, which both Schmidt and the sound engineers handle with great joy and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, there seems to me a certain reticence on Schmidt's part to engage the music fully. Perhaps it was his age at the time he conducted it; perhaps not. In any case, his performance is well worth hearing.

The sound, copyrighted in 2007 by Royal Philharmonic Masterworks and Sheridan Square Entertainment and released in 2011 by Allegro Corporation, is big and warm, with a wide dynamic range and reasonably good impact. The back cover claims that RPM made it as a "20 bit digital recording, edited and mastered via 32 bit digital sound processing," rendering the results in high definition. Hype aside, the sonics do sound quite natural, if a tad short on ultimate transparency. However, there is a fine sense of left-to-right imaging, orchestral depth, and sparkle at the high end, making the music all the more fun to listen to.

JJP

Bizet: L'Arlesienne, incidental music (CD review)

Michel Plasson, Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. EMI Classics 0946 3 55671 2.

When French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) wrote his incidental music to Andre Daudet's play L'Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles) in 1872, the public and critics thought it distracted from the rest of the production. The fact is, it was probably better than the drama and simply upstaged it. Neither the play nor the complete incidental music have fared well ever since in their original form. But the sly Bizet recognized a good thing when he heard it and extracted two suites of music from his work, which have, of course, gone on to become classic warhorses that many of us prize in our collections.

Anyway, in 1982 Michel Plasson recorded the complete incidental music for EMI, pretty much as Bizet first intended it, and EMI reissued it at budget price a few years ago. It is a bargain for those looking for something different from the usual suites. Plasson's performance is delicate and nuanced, filled with sweetness and passion in equal amounts, but it's characterized mostly by the suaveness of Plasson's direction. Oh, you'll recognize all the familiar bits, to be sure, but it's the additional twenty minutes or so that are fascinating. It's also interesting, if not entirely better, to hear the music in its initial dramatic order rather than in the order of the suites.

EMI's sound is fine, too, smooth and spacious, with plenty of bloom and ambient air. However, and here's the rub, when you compare it as I did to Paul Paray's 1956 recording of the suites for Mercury, you find the old Mercury sounding much firmer, much more transparent, and much more authoritative all the way around. Think of that: A recording thirty years older sounding thirty years better than the newer one. Nevertheless, I wouldn't let that deter one from listening to the Passon disc, especially at its super-cheap cost.

JJP

Mendelssohn: Octet (CD review)

Also, Piano Sextet. I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani. CPO 777 524-2.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote his Octet and Sextet while still in his mid teens, a remarkable feat for any composer at any age. But Mendelssohn was no ordinary composer, being a pianist, organist, conductor, and child prodigy besides a writer of music well loved to this day. To do justice to the composer's two early works on this disc, I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play Mendelssohn's Octet and Sextet in what they describe as a composite of modern and period styles, using gut strings, mid-nineteenth century bows, and a 1928 Steinway grand piano. Whatever, the results are delightful.

Mendelssohn wrote the Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 20 in 1825, and critics generally consider it the man's first genuine masterpiece. The surprising thing to me a few minutes into the piece was not the period instruments or the hybrid style but how closely the first movement resembles the performance by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in their celebrated 1968 Decca-Argo recording. Solisti Filarmonici Italiani match the older group almost note for note, with close to the same infectious charm. This means they take the opening Allegro at a fleet yet graceful pace, building a pleasant, festive foundation for the rest of the work.

It is in the slow Andante that Mendelssohn's idea of the piece being played like an orchestral symphony comes to the fore. Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play the softest and loudest passages with greater contrast than one would normally find from a chamber group, making the music more dramatic than usual. Then the third-movement Allegro leggierissimo fairly zips along, leading to the concluding Presto, which follows suit at almost the same tempo. While there is no doubt the music is among Mendelssohn's greatest, it still shows a youthful exuberance that I Solisti Filarmonici Italiani seem eager to exploit.

The Sextet for Piano and Strings in D major, Op. 110 (1824) preceded the Octet by a year but didn't see publication until after the composer's death. It is slightly darker and more sedate than the Octet, and as the name suggests, it puts the piano front and center, the instrument dominating the others at all points.  Solisti Filarmonici Italiani play it with the same vivacity with which they approach the Octet, the Adagio flowing along lovingly, the Minuetto exuding a Schubertian flair, and the final Allegro vivace full of spunk and high good cheer.

The recording, made in May, 2009, may be close up, but it's also reasonably warm and comfortable, at the same time admitting a good deal of detail and air. The sound is quite realistic, if a tad rough from the proximity of the period instruments. The enthusiasm one hears in the audio scheme benefits the joy of the music enormously.

JJP

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor; Bassoon Concerto in A minor; Piccolo Concerto in C major. Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Decca Originals B00006627-02. 

Here's an important, 2006 Decca release I should mention.

I had almost given up hope that the major classical record labels were going to remaster and reissue any more of their back catalogue in audiophile or near-audiophile editions. Production of EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century," DG's "Originals," and Decca's "Classic Sound" had begun to slow down precipitously by 2006. But Decca came back with a series of reissues in 96kHz/24-bit remasterings that they called "The Originals," presumably taking the nod from their former rival and now stablemate at Universal Music, DG.

Among the first releases in Decca's "Originals" series was Neville Marriner's 1969 recording (issued in 1970) of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with Alan Loveday and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. And I'm so glad that Decca not only remastered the recording in the most modern technology but included a front picture of the original Argo cover as well. Not only is it appropriate, it reminds me that I wasn't imagining things in remembering that in their beginning the Academy used hyphens in their name. I often still do, regardless of how they punctuate it now. Anyway, another retro thing the new Decca reissues do is embellish the top of each "Originals" disc with a replica of the old LP. In other words, the CD looks like a miniature vinyl record.

It seems as though I have so many Four Seasons in my collection and so many that pass through the house for review that the only time I get a chance to listen to Marriner's performance is when a new edition of it comes along. Then it reminds just how good it is. The last time was in the late Nineties when it appeared as a "Penguin Classic."

Years ago I included the Marriner recording in a survey of The Four Seasons, and I used the word "surrealistic" to describe it, a term suggesting the interpretation's imaginative touches. I'm not sure it's actually a compliment, but it seems appropriate. Marriner's views of the individual tone poems are highly evocative, as they should be, and are characterized by considerable polish, subtle embellishments, and sometimes dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamics. The fast movements are lively, often sparkling, and the central, slow movements are graceful and refined. However, it is those dynamic contrasts that stand out. The disc has had me jumping for the volume control on more than one occasion over the years. I couldn't say whether Marriner had precise control over his Academy musicians or whether the balance engineer did some tweaking of the dynamics after the fact, but the results are both startling and pleasant.

The sound is agreeable, although perhaps not the epitome of transparency. Still, it is warm and smooth. The new mastering seems to add a touch more clarity in the midrange, a bit more body in the upper bass, and, more important, eliminates the slightly sour overtones I remember hearing in its first CD rendering in the early Eighties.

Now, to make a good thing even better, Decca coupled The Four Seasons with three wind concertos that Marriner and the Academy recorded in the mid Seventies. If anything, they sound even better recorded than the Four Seasons, and they almost double the playing time of the disc over all previous editions of Marriner's Four Seasons alone. These added items are the Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor, with Neil Black and Celia Nicklin, oboes; the Bassoon Concerto in A minor, with Martin Gatt, bassoon; and the Piccolo Concerto in C major, with William Bennett, piccolo. Needless to day, they, too, are performed in impeccable style and grace by all parties.

While my tastes have changed somewhat over time, and I now tend to favor the period style of ensembles like La Petite Bande (Sony), the English Concert (DG Archiv), and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), Marriner's modern-instruments version easily takes its place beside them. If you somehow have never heard the disc, you might do yourself a favor.

JJP

Korngold: The Prince and the Pauper (CD review)

William Stromberg, The Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1006.

Dashing, charming, and impossibly handsome, Australian actor Errol Flynn took Hollywood by storm in the mid 1930's, making a remarkable succession of adventure classics like Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Essex and Elizabeth, and The Sea Hawk. Within a decade or so his light began to fade, the swashbuckling hero overtaken by drink and hard living, but what a ride it had been. Almost lost amongst his bigger hits, however, is The Prince and the Pauper (1937), somewhat forgotten, perhaps, because Flynn actually took a backseat in it to a pair of young boys, the Mauch twins, who played the movie's leads, a young prince and the street beggar he trades places with in Mark Twain's famous novel. Poor Flynn doesn't even show up to help save the day until the movie is almost half over. Still, it's a rousing tale and well worth one's while.

But we're here today to discuss the movie's music, another of those wonderfully swaggering scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Sea Wolf). The music has been around on disc for years in various suites, bits and pieces, but now, thanks to film-music restorers John Morgan, Anna Bonn, and William Stromberg, we can hear it complete. And what stirring and intoxicating music it is.

Naturally, things begin with an atmospheric overture, the music for the main titles that set the stage. There follow forty-two more segments, each one descriptive of a particular action or scene in the movie, from the ceremonial birth of the prince through his street escapades and right up to the epilogue and end title. When the album concludes, it's with music for the trailer and even special end-title music that includes "God Save the King," done especially for the British market.

Morgan, Bonn, and Stromberg have been doing this sort of thing for quite a while, of course, seeing their music restorations recorded on Marco Polo, Naxos, BMG Classics, and presently on their own label, Tribute Film Classics. The reconstructed Prince and the Pauper, as originally orchestrated by Hugo Friedhofer and Milan Roder, tackles the music "one cue at a time and one instrument at a time to restore Korngold's musical score in its entirety," as the booklet note says.

Maestro William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra have also been doing this old film music for so long now, it's undoubtedly in their blood. They seem to have a special affinity for it because they always sound better, more attuned to the nuances of the action, than the original orchestras in this material. It's kind of like having the movie there in your mind's eye if you just glance at the scene descriptions and listen to the shifting moods of the music.

Accompanying the disc, Tribute Film Classics provide a lavishly illustrated, thirty-two page booklet of text and pictures. It covers the movie, the stars, the filmmakers, the history, the score, and the score's reconstruction. You'll find Tribute left no stone unturned.

The sound, recorded at Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, in March 2008, is wonderfully vivid. And while the midrange transparency, air, and smoothness are outstanding, it's really the treble that sparkles, the high notes shimmering with beauty and clarity. Although the relatively close-up miking doesn't always deliver the greatest orchestral depth, the audio makes up for it with a wide stereo spread, a quick transient response, and more than adequate dynamics. It's a pleasure listening to the recording, and the disc is a delightful effort all the way around.

To learn more about Tribute Film Classics and their products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.tributefilmclassics.com/.

JJP

Russian Overtures & Orchestral Works (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802037 (2-disc set).

Russian pianist, conductor, and composer Mikhail Pletnev founded the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the first orchestra since the Russian Revolution in 1917 not sponsored by the government. In over two decades since its formation, the orchestra under Pletnev has given us some of the most attractive and stimulating recorded music one could ever want, as this two-disc set attests. Originally recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, the Newton Classics label, who specialize in bringing back older, noteworthy recordings, have now reissued it at mid price.

Disc one contains nine short overtures and preludes, starting with Mikhail Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. It makes for an extraordinarily exciting opening number, with Pletnev attempting to set a new land speed record. The virtuosity and precision of the Russian National Orchestra are remarkable, and this piece makes a fine introduction to their skills, as well as a fine curtain-raiser.

Then we get more of the same with Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor Overture, although at a marginally more-relaxed pace appropriate to the less-frenetic nature of the music. Next, we find Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, something of a rarity for the composer, very joyous and happy for him, perhaps in celebration of Stalin's death the year before he wrote it.

And so it goes through Sergei Prokofiev's "Introduction" to his Semyon Kotko Suite, Dmitri Kabelevsky's Colas Breugnon Overture, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride Overture. Modest Mussorgsky's Dawn on the Moscow River is particularly affecting, Peter Tchaikovsky's early Overture in F is at least intriguing, and Alexander Glazunov's Overture solennelle provides a rousing conclusion to the first disc.

Disc two covers the works of only three composers. It begins with three selections by Anatoli Liadov:  Baba Yaga, The Enchanted Lake, and Kikimora, the music running the gamut from boisterous to beguiling to slightly morose. Following those, we get two pieces I'd never heard before: Nikolai Tcherepnin's La Princesse lointaine and The Enchanted Kingdom, music lush, striking, and romantic.  And the second disc ends with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's Golden Cockerel, close to half an hour's worth as arranged by Glazunov and Steinberg.

All of this music is quite colorful, and Pletnev never fails to exploit every melodramatic turn and every delicate nuance. He has clearly proven his worth over the years, and one hopes he has put any personal troubles behind him and continues offering up beautiful music for many years to come.

Recorded in 1993-94 at the Concert Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the sound is clean, smooth, and highly dynamic. It can also be a tad soft and lacking in the frequency extremes, especially on the first disc, with little high-end sparkle and only occasional low-end punch. While the result is more cushy comfortable than analytical, it is easy to listen to. Compared to, say, Georg Solti's Romantic Russia album with the London Symphony (Decca or LIM), the sonics on the Pletnev discs seem rather balmy and lightweight, with only the occasional bass drum to liven things up. Still, as I say, the set makes for easy listening.

JJP

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 12 and 17 (CD review)

Alfred Brendel, piano; Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  Philips B0006594-02.

This title is virtually self-recommending. You've got one of the world's preeminent pianists, Alfred Brendel, performing with one of the world's preeminent Mozartians, Sir Charles Mackerras, leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. What's not to like?

Some critics have complained over the years about Brendel sometimes being overly fussy, overly intellectual in his music making, but here he seems almost completely at home.  He remains a wondrous musician, yet he keeps surprising us with the delicacy of his touch and the seeming spontaneity of his gestures, pauses, and nuances.

I confess to a greater delight in Mozart's Concerto No. 17 than in No. 12, so let me just mention a few of its pleasures. The opening is almost magical, and Brendel makes the most of it, charming us with its lush yet spirited Romanticism. In the second, slow movement, Brendel does seem a tad self conscious, almost as though he's sometimes stopping to admire his own work; but it comes off dreamily enough. And the Finale points to Papageno's song in The Magic Flute of a few years later, so we know perhaps from where Mozart got his later inspiration. Like the rest of the work, the Finale is both attractive and winsome.

It's always nice to see Philips issuing discs, as they were still doing when they released this Mozart recording in 2006; they seem to do so little of it lately compared to the old days. They haven't changed their overall sound much, either, the 2004 recording being big and warm. It's not always a model of utmost transparency, however, so don't expect a lot of inner detailing. In fact, it's somewhat overblown in the orchestral department, the Scottish Chamber ensemble sounding bigger than it probably is, due to plentiful room resonances. Nevertheless, the piano sounds very lifelike, and it's here you'll want to spend most of your time.

Incidentally, it's also almost like old times seeing Brendel's face on the booklet cover, something of a tradition with Brendel and Philips for decades.

JJP

Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite (CD review)

Also, Brahms:  Symphony No. 1. Jonathan Pasternack, London Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572448.

On this recent Naxos issue, the company oddly couple Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite with Brahms's First Symphony, trying to make a connection between the two works by saying they are both "revolutionary." If you can forget the tenuous relationship and just enjoy the music for itself, you may be better off.

Bela Bartok (1841-1945) premiered his Miraculous Mandarin pantomime (ballet) in 1926 in Cologne, Germany, where the mayor immediately banned it on moral grounds. The story line, you see, involves a pack of hoodlums who force a girl to seduce men up to her apartment, where the gang attempt to rob them. In its purely orchestral treatment as a suite of music, however, shorn of its visuals, it gained popularity. Certainly, the piece is highly descriptive, mimed on stage or not. It's also abrasive, jazzy, mysterious, sinister, and exciting, making for an entertaining twenty minutes or so.

Maestro Jonathan Pasternack and the LSO appear to relish the atmospheric nature of the material and do their best to emphasize the contrasts between the quieter moods and the more clamorous ones. The conductor builds the suspense nicely and then cuts loose with some strong histrionic attacks that can be downright scary. You'll also find elements here of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, particularly toward the end, which can only improve one's appreciation.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, in 1876, and I suppose it really was "revolutionary," at least for him. It was one of the first true symphonies anyone had written in ages, and Brahms patterned it after Beethoven's work, leading waggish critics of the day to dub it Beethoven's Tenth. In part, Brahms's rival, Richard Wagner, had discouraged composers from working in the symphony genre, saying in effect that Beethoven had already done everything that a composer needed to do in the field and that the music drama and symphonic poem were now king. It sort of intimidated Brahms (and others) for many years.

Anyway, Pasternack offers us a thoroughly charming, gentle, though entirely big-scale First Symphony, with practically all the poetry, drama, and thematic evolution from darkness into light one could hope for. The whole thing starts out slowly, almost ponderously, develops incrementally, and ends in exultation and joy. No, Pasternack didn't inspire me the way Klemperer (EMI), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Jochum (EMI), Walter (Sony), Haitink (Philips), Kertesz (Decca), and others do, but it's an acceptable substitute.

Naxos recorded this 2011 release at Abbey Road Studios, London, in July of 2008. The sound is pleasantly warm, soft, and smooth, which works fine in the Brahms, although the Bartok could have used more bite. While there are occasional traces of orchestral depth, the sonics generally content themselves with a wide stereo spread and an easily listenable midrange. Deepest bass and ultimate transparency are only moderate so audiophiles may not be entirely happy with those aspects of the recording, but the timpani in the Brahms tap out gleefully, with solid impact, so all is reasonably well.

JJP

Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (CD review)

Franz Welser-Most, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. EMI 0946 3 34569-2.

An Alpine Symphony, which Richard Strauss began in 1911 and completed several years later, would be the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems. He devoted his final thirty-plus years mainly to smaller works, songs, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth, inspired the composer to write the symphony.

It's easy to view An Alpine Symphony as nothing more than a monumental picture postcard, causing many of its critics to frown upon it as lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic; yet I find it immensely entertaining. It describes in rather photographic detail the climb up and back down a majestic Alpine mountain, with the movement titles telling the tale, among them to give you the idea: "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 the events, and while there may be one climax too many, 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.

My only serious hesitation about this EMI disc going in was that maestro Franz Welser-Most was conducting a youth orchestra. Was a youth orchestra up to handling so extensive, so widescreen and Technicolor a production? The disadvantage I foresaw was that the young people lacked experience--experience playing this particular music, experience playing music of any kind, and experience playing together for very long. But after a few minutes of listening to the performance, all doubts vanished as I realized that the advantage of the youth orchestra is that it utilizes the talents of the best young players from all over Eastern and Western Europe. It's like a young all-star team, and they appear to work well with another.

The recording, however, is more problematical. EMI made it live in the Musikverein, Vienna, in March, 2005, with the various distractions attendant to live performances. There are the odd noises here and there, the rustling of pages and the shuffling of feet, in part no doubt from the audience and in part from the players themselves. And there is the odd recording acoustic, which puts the first-row violins in our lap, while distancing the third and forth rows in exaggerated fashion. The clarity is outstanding, though, the double basses growling affectionately, the organ producing some satisfyingly deep notes, and never a trace of over-brightness or edge.

The question is whether this would make a first-choice recommendation in the work, and the answer here has to be an obvious no. I'd go with Rudolf Kempe in his EMI or Brilliant Classics box sets or Haitink (Philips), Previn (Telarc), Blomstedt (Decca), Karajan (DG), or any of a number of noted conductors and world-class orchestras that exhibit a greater sonority and bite than Welser-Most's youth group. Nevertheless, as an adjunct to the top contenders, this recording is refreshing in its candor.

JJP

Janine Jansen: Beau Soir (CD review)

Janine Jansen, violin; Itamar Golan, piano. Decca B0015249-02.

You'll forgive me, I hope, if I sometimes confuse violinist Janine Jansen with violinist Hilary Hahn. They are both about the same age, both burst upon the musical scene at about the same time, and both possess about the same prodigious talent. I mention this because I hope they never consider themselves rivals; there is always more than enough room for many more such superb musicians.

Anyway, on this recital album, Beau Soir ("Beautiful Evening"), Ms. Jansen takes us through a program of ten selections of French music, three of them world premieres, which the back cover describes as "leading us from dusk into evening and finally a moonlit night."

The recital begins with Claude Debussy's Violin Sonata in G minor (1917), a piece in three movements for violin and piano. It's an appropriate opening number because it sets the tone for the delicate colors and expressive harmonies to come. Ms. Jansen and pianist Itamar Golan present the work in both a dreamily exotic manner and a variably atmospheric one. With these performers the music sounds almost improvisational, the mood swings coming quickly, frequently, and seemingly instinctively.

Next, we have "Beau Soir" (c 1883), which gives the album its name. Debussy wrote it as an art song, and Jascha Heifetz subsequently arranged it for violin and piano. It's concise and poetic, with a beautifully fluid lyricism. Following this, we get a transcription of Debussy's popular Clair de lune (1905) from his Suite bergamasque for piano. Ms. Jansen maintains a gentle, graceful touch throughout, making the music more poignant than ever.

Moving along, we hear La Minute exquise, the first of three première pieces on the disc by French composer Richard Dubugnon (b. 1968). The other works by him are Hypnos and Retour a Montfort-l'Amaury, all three of them appearing to show the influence of Ravel and Debussy and reflecting brief, flowing, intertwining melodies of charming eloquence.

The other pieces by such familiar names as Gabriel Faure, Olivier Messiaen, Lili Boulanger, and Maurice Ravel (whose Violin Sonata in G major is the most unusual work on the program for its jazz impressions) exhibit a similar Gallic flavor, with representative themes clearly etched.  Most important, Jansen and Golan are always in complete sympathy with one another, the playing light and ethereal without ever being in any way flimsy or inconsequential.

Decca recorded the album at Teldex Studio, Berlin, in May of 2010. The sound they obtain is fairly close yet warm, slightly soft, and comfortable. Although I would have preferred a touch more air and definition, it certainly fits the music involved. The sound can also be quite dynamic at times and show off the rich, mellow quality of the "Barrere" Stradivari Ms. Jansen plays.

JJP

Enna: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Fairy Tales: Symphonic Pictures; Hans Christian Andersen Overture. Michael Hofstetter, NDR Radio Philharmonic, Hanover. CPO 777-035-2.

At one time Danish violinist, conductor, and composer August Enna ((1859-1939) was among the most-popular Nordic musicians in the world, but we don't hear much about him anymore. He came to prominence with his Wagnerian-inspired, fairy-tale operas, operettas, choral works, ballets, symphonies, concertos, songs, and orchestral music. Still, time and styles change, and today the world has largely forgotten the man. Fortunately, we get the occasional album such as this one devoted to some of his more-accessible creations.

The disc starts with Fairy Tales: Symphonic Pictures (1905), a four-movement suite of tone poems apparently inspired by the writings of fellow countryman Hans Christian Andersen. However, without much to suggest what stories go with what tunes, it's hard to tell exactly what the music represents. Because Enna divided the Fairy Tales into four sections, it makes the whole work seem something like a traditional symphony, starting with a slowly building Allegro, then a slightly foreboding Andante, followed by what is essentially a third-movement scherzo (Allegro vivace), and concluding with another highly dramatic Allegro. Maestro Michael Hofstetter and the NDR Radio Philharmonic perform it with a restrained gusto that seems appropriate to the mood.

Next in the program we find the Hans Christian Andersen Festival Overture (1905). Like the Fairy Tales, the Overture is mainly atmospheric, a tone piece meant to remind the listener of fairy tales in general rather than any particular ones.

The album ends with Enna's Symphony No. 2 in E major (1908). Truth be told, this doesn't sound a whole lot different to me than the Fairy Tales. It's colorful and brawny, to be sure, but it doesn't exhibit the wealth of melodies or the musical innovation that would have made it popular to our own day. Still, Hofstetter does what he can with it, and there are several delightful moments along the way reminding one at least in part of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (written a decade earlier).

Although CPO released this disc in 2011, they recorded it in 2004-05. While the sound they obtained is a tad thin and sharp edged, it's fairly clean, clear, and dynamic, too, making it easy to distinguish much inner detailing. There's a pleasant depth to the orchestral stage and acceptable width, with a prominent but not-at-all forwardness to the upper bass/lower midrange. In short, the sonics are more transparent than those in most modern recordings, even though they are not really in the ultimate demonstration class.

JJP

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364 (XRCD review)

Also, Duo for Violin and Viola in G, K. 423.  Igor Oistrakh, violin; David Oistrakh, viola; Kiril Kondrashin, Moscow Philharmonic.  FIM XR24 069.

The first problem I had after hearing this 24-bit XRCD remaster is one that every person should have: Namely, I didn't want to listen to anything else. It's like watching a high-definition broadcast on TV and having to go back to standard definition. You get spoiled.

The second problem was more serious, although it should not put everyone off too much. While the sound of the disc is superlative and Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante is terrific music, I could never get too involved with David and Igor Oistrakh's playing of it. The father and son are absolutely precise, refined, letter-perfect, I'm sure, but I found their performance almost too perfect, too mechanically perfect. With the exception of the lovely, if melancholy, second movement, the Oistrakhs perform the Sinfonia as though it were a museum piece under glass. The brief Duo for Violin and Viola comes off better, but it is undoubtedly for the big orchestral concerto that buyers will come to this audiophile disc.

However, the sound, as I say, is so good maybe listeners won't even notice that the performance is slightly lacking in warmth and spontaneity. The people at First Impression Music transferred the sonics from the original 1963 Decca master tape, engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson, in the meticulous (and costly) XRCD process, producing a disc of stunning clarity and presence. Just understand that because of the high price of this issue, you had better already be familiar with the recording. Unless, of course, you're simply an audiophile, in which case the sound is all that will matter, and the disc is a no-brainer.

JJP

Essential Ballet (CD review)

Lanchbery, Previn, Mackerras, Rattle, etc. EMI 50999 6 48650 2 7 (2-disc set).

What do you get when you gather together some of the best selections from some of the best ballets performed by some of the best orchestras and conductors in the world and recorded in some of the best possible sound? Well, it's not hard to figure out. Now, while I wouldn't usually endorse such assemblages of bits and pieces, I'd say if you really had to have a collection of ballet highlights, there's none better than this 2010, two-disc release of reissues from EMI, drawn from their stereo catalogue of the past fifty or more years.

The set begins with John Lanchbery conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in nine selections from Peter Tchaikovsky's big-three ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Although Lanchbery tends to be a little more gung-ho in these pieces than I like, he certainly brings out the color and drama--especially the drama--in the music.

Probably the best recorded sound is in Ludwig Minkus's Don Quixote, with Robert Irving leading the Royal Philharmonic, although the "Clog Dance" from Ferdinand Herold's La Fille mal gardee with Barry Wordsworth and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic takes a close second.

Of the remaining tracks on disc one, I enjoyed Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra doing two segments from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. He brings power and grace to the work. We also get Previn and the LSO performing five selections from Prokofiev's Cinderella that are almost equally good; and Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic doing the lovely Adagio from Aram Khachaturian's Spartacus.

Disc two starts with two selections from Adolphe Adam's Giselle, again in excellent sound from conductor Robert Irving, this time with the Philharmonia (and from 1962, it's among the oldest yet most vivid and dynamic of the recordings here). Then, there are four selections from Riccardo Drigo's La Corsaire, arranged by John Lanchbery and played by Terence Kern and the London Festival Ballet Orchestra. Kern and company play them nicely, but they don't sound quite as stunningly recorded or performed as some of the other pieces in the set. Following these tracks are several selections from Leo Delibes's Coppelia and Syliva ballets, with Sir Charles Mackerras and the New Philharmonia; they are charming, if taken a bit too briskly for my personal taste.

The remaining tracks are exclusively one-off selections from a number of additional ballets. There are too many to mention them all, but among those I enjoyed the most were Manuel Rosenthal and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo doing the Overture from Rosenthal's own arrangement of Jacques Offenbach's music in Gaite Parisienne; Georges Pretre conducting the Philharmonia in the Rondeau from Francis Poulenc's Les Biches; John Lanchbery and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House doing the "Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's Laundry" segment from Lanchbery's own Tales of Beatrix Potter; and Sir Charles Mackerras and the London Philharmonic in the Opening Dance from Mackerras's arrangement of Sir Arthur Sullivan's music in Pineapple Poll.

So, if I were selecting items from EMI's back catalogue, would I have chosen the same things the company include here? Probably not. I would have gone with more of Previn's LSO recordings, particularly in the Tchaikovsky; I would have taken Jean-Baptiste Mari over Mackerras in the two Delibes ballets; I would selected Aram Khachaturian's own performance of his Spartacus music; and so forth. But I quibble.

There is much more, of course, that I haven't mentioned, but none of it is anything short of very good, and you'll find none of it recorded in anything less than very good sonics. If you're a fan of EMI's sound, especially their studio productions, you'll enjoy what you hear on these discs, with much of the music recorded in the Sixties and Seventies sounding as good as or better than the later material. It's a worthwhile set all the way around.

Then, as a companion to Essential Ballet, EMI simultaneously issued a two-disc set of Ballet Adagios (EMI 50999 6 48630 2 3), in this case about twenty Adagios from the world's most-beloved ballets, performed by some of the world's great orchestras and conductors. Among the selections you'll find here are items from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, with John Lanchbery and the Philharmonia Orchestra; the Adagio from Khachaturian's Spartacus, with the composer leading the London Symphony; several selections from Adam's Giselle, with Terence Kern and the London Festival Ballet Orchestra; the ballet music from Gounod's Faust, with Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia; "The Dream" from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, with Andre Previn and the LSO; the Finale: Adagio from Bernstein's West Side Story, with Edo de Waart and the Minnesota Orchestra; etc. It's all very fine and captivating music.

JJP

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (CD review)

Pietari Inkinen, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572227.

The Fourth Symphony (1911) of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is one of the man's bleaker but more-characterful works. The music always reminds me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. That's the way young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen appears to see it, too, carving huge chunks of desolation from the music. It opens with a theme "as harsh as Fate," as the composer described it, and Inkinen follows through.

The succeeding Allegro molto vivace, which Inkinen takes rather leisurely, brings a note of great serenity to the otherwise dark proceedings, but then it also turns slightly sinister (although never threatening).

The slow Largo section Sibelius originally labeled "The Thoughts of a Wayfarer." It maintains the dour climate of the piece, with Inkinen emphasizing its mysterious nature at the expensive of capitalizing too much on its atmospheric mood shifts, instead interpreting it in a fairly static manner. In its favor, this establishes a good continuity in the music, even if it tends toward sameness.

While the final Allegro opens brightly, even cheerfully, promising a sudden change of temperament, it soon reverts to the desolation of the opening movement. Again, Inkinen is skillful at delineating these large, bleak landscapes.

Symphony No. 5, which Sibelius premiered in 1915 and revised in 1916 and again in 1919, is shorter than No. 4, here comprising only three movements. The feeling of No. 5 is far less heavy than No. 4, even if Inkinen seems to take delight in making connections to it, as though it were a continuation of the previous symphony, moving from darkness into light. The Andante is particularly delicate, and the finale, with its "swan" music, is quite sunny and attractive.

Would I give up Maazel (Decca), Davis (Philips or RCA), or Barbirolli (EMI) for this new issue by Inkinen? No, but I wouldn't turn it down, either.

Recorded in 2008 (No. 5) and 2009 (No. 4) at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, the sound is big, warm, and resonant. There isn't much depth to the orchestral stage or much punch or snap to the dynamics, yet in No. 4, especially, the sonics seem perfectly appropriate to the music. Besides, when the high percussive notes come in, they ring out all the more sweetly and persuasively through the softer sound field.

JJP

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Simax Classics PSC 1316.

For all their sorrow, anguish, triumph, and heavenly revelations, I can't help getting the feeling there is less to Mahler's symphonies than meets the eye. Or ear. But there's no denying they're fun; something for everyone to interpret and discuss.

The Sixth Symphony (1904) of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), though, always seems more problematical to me than the others, a kind of black sheep--dark and depressing--of the family. I mean, the composer didn't initially call it "Tragic" for nothing. It was never popular in Mahler's time, and it really took someone like Leonard Bernstein in the early Sixties, wearing his heart on his sleeve, to help people finally notice it.
 
Coming second in Mahler's middle trio of purely orchestral symphonies, the Sixth tends sometimes to get lost in the mix. Or maybe it's that sorrowful outlook that puts listeners off, I don't know. In any case, conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and his Oslo Philharmonic provide a performance as Mahler originally envisioned it, with the Scherzo second and the final hammer blow intact. Whether the performance adheres to everyone's idea of how the work should flow or how well it explores Mahler's conflicting moods of love and death, doom and gloom, is up for grabs.

The opening Allegro energico is a huge march movement, perhaps a defiant funeral procession. Saraste handles this section in almost a fiercely aggressive manner, the headlong rhythms pounding on ever forward. In between the music's relentlessly agitated states, we find some brief respite in a pastoral scene that Mahler described as "the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks." Saraste negotiates the transitions well enough, although I really never felt the emotion of the "Alma" theme as much as I have with other conductors.

Saraste then places the Scherzo second, as Mahler had originally arranged things before changing his mind several times over. It's a somewhat raucous parody of the opening movement, and I find it too similar to the first movement to provide much contrast when placed directly behind it, especially the way Maestro Saraste deals with it. It sounds too much like a continuation of the first movement, making one very long section. There's no letup in the intensity, and Saraste never seems to exploit the movement's more bizarre elements to much advantage.

The lovely Andante is about as different in tone from the first two movements as you can get, yet Saraste seldom lingers long with any part of it or sentimentalizes it in any way. Still, I again didn't always feel the passions in the music. It comes across as too matter-of-fact to me.

The long closing Allegro moderato is almost like a separate work unto itself. It's here that Saraste is probably most effective in keeping the disparate elements together and not letting the recurring "fate" motifs overwhelm the proceedings. And, yes, as I said, he includes Mahler's third and final hammer blow.

The sound, recorded in a series of live concerts during March of 2010 in Oslo Konserthus, is slightly close, exhibiting some good orchestral depth. Oddly, however, the sound stage doesn't appear as wide as it should be at that distance, and it's also a tad bright, forward, lean, and sharp-edged, the bass coming alive mainly during the hammer blows. For what it's worth, the audience is commendably quiet most of the time, with only an occasional cough and wheeze in evidence and, thankfully, no ending applause.

JJP

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.