Classical Music News of the Week, January 16, 2021

Michael Stern Joins National Repertory Orchestra as Music Director

The National Repertory Orchestra (NRO) announces the appointment of Maestro Michael Stern as its third music director in the organization’s 61-year history. The National Repertory Orchestra is an intensive performance and education summer festival for young professional musicians, ages 18-29.  Its reputation in the classical music world is unmatched. Since 1960, NRO alumni have gone on to careers and leadership roles in the world’s most esteemed orchestras, conservatories, festivals and institutes.

Mr. Stern joins the NRO as a celebrated conductor and music director of the Kansas City Symphony, Stamford Symphony in Connecticut and is the founder and artistic director of the innovative Iris Orchestra in Germantown, Tennessee. Mr. Stern launched Iris Orchestra twenty years ago as a vanguard for change in the classical music world, commissioning new music, creating a non-hierarchical ensemble, establishing a reputation for excellence on stage, supporting young musicians and building deep community relationships. Mr. Stern has established himself as a driving force in shaping the future of classical music and has devoted much of his career to working with young musicians, through summer festivals and institutions such as Aspen Music Festival, the Curtis Institute of Music, Round Top Festival Institute and the National Orchestral Institute.

For complete information, visit https://www.nromusic.org/

--Beverly Greenfield, Kirshbaum Associates

What's Streaming: Classical (Week of January 18–24)
Tuesday, January 19 at 7:00 p.m. CET
James Conlon’s talk, A Life in Classical Music, webcast via The Arts Arena
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTR3uQpnw631imzEp_8jTXPV_A-smfT41

Thursday, January 21 (available until Monday, February 1)
Davóne Tines’s MASS, presented by Vocal Arts DC
https://vocalartsdc.org/davone-tines/

Thursday, January 21 at 7:30 p.m. CT
Tulsa Opera LIVE with Patricia Racette
https://tulsaopera.com/live/

Saturday, January 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Resident Artist Shai Wosner performs Peoples' Symphony Concerts all-Beethoven program with Amanda Forsyth and Pinchas Zukerman
https://www.pscny.org/zukerman-forsyth-wosner

--Shuman PR
 
ROCO’s February Concerts Include an Homage to Margaret Bonds
ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) will continue their 2020-21 season exploring Color & Light, with three performances during the month of February.

ROCO’s first concert in February, “Celebration of Margaret Bonds,” will take place on February 4 streamed live from Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s historic house museum for European decorative arts. Originally the home of arts patrons Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III, Rienzi houses an extensive record collection in which a rare, previously unknown late 60s recording of Margaret Bonds in performance was discovered. This chamber concert, produced in collaboration with Rienzi, will feature and be co-curated by pianist Howard Watkins, a scholar of Bonds’ music, and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.

For complete season information, visit https://roco.org/

--Andrew Ousley, Unison Media

Connoisseur Series "Home Edition" 2021
We at American Bach Soloists have been very busy designing and redesigning the equivalent of two or three concert seasons over the last six months as we’ve created all kinds of scenarios to bring music to you during this bridge year before returning to concert halls down the road. But ever-changing circumstances often took us back to the drawing board.

Now, we have settled on our plan for the first half of 2021. In collaboration with some wonderful venues—including San Francisco’s Palace Hotel and Grace Cathedral, Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa winery, and Burlingame’s Kohl Mansion--we are in the process of creating three wonderful video concerts featuring some of the ABS artists that you know and love.

To learn all about our 2021 season, visit https://americanbach.org/

--American Bach Soloists

Orion Performs Brahms, Arutiunian
The Orion Ensemble performs for a limited in-person and unlimited virtual audience on Friday, February 5 at 6 p.m. at PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

The program (rescheduled from November 2020) includes the Trio No. 1 in B Major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 8 by Johannes Brahms and the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1992) by Alexander Arutiunian. The Trio, composed in 1853-4 and revised 35 years later, is a deep and mature work that nonetheless exudes youthful energy. The Suite, commissioned by the Verdehr Trio, contains moods ranging from emotionally tense to lyrical, and the Trio members have written that its final movement “contains elements of Armenian dance rhythms with their capricious pulse and unexpected irregularities in a freely improvised melodic style.”

A maximum of 20 people may attend in person at PianoForte Studios; audience members must wear masks at all times, and, while family groups may sit together, different audience members/groups will be seated at least six feet apart. Extra masks and hand sanitizer will be available. The livestream will be available on Orion’s YouTube channel, which will also host a recording of the performance for a limited time.

Limited in-person tickets are $25 available for advance purchase only at 630-628-9591 or info@orionensemble.org. Virtual access is free; donations are welcome. The livestream will be available on Orion's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4yVkS6Pp0wzG6HxxXGe1SA

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo
The Marlow Guitar Series Presents the acclaimed Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo on Saturday, January 30. The program will feature selections from the Duo’s world premiere recording dedicated to the works of Leo Brouwer.

The Newman & Oltman Guitar Duo, praised by legendary Cuban composer Leo Brouwer as “one of the great duos in the world," will perform a virtual recital of works by Brouwer, de Falla, Granados and Albeniz, on Saturday, January 30 at 8 PM EST. Presented by the Marlow Guitar International Series, the concert can be accessed through MGI’s website at https://marlowguitar.org/ and is free with donations accepted to benefit MGI, whose mission is to build community through music. Pre-registration is required.

--Genevieve Spielberg Inc.

Miller Theatre “Live from Columbia” Streams JACK Quartet
The very first public performance by the acclaimed JACK Quartet featured German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s string quartet Grido, and it has been a constant for them ever since. The mastering of this technically demanding piece shows their incredible talent, but their expressive interpretation reveals their brilliance as an ensemble. Hear them perform this work, alongside two other solo pieces by Lachenmann, which explore nontraditional techniques and sounds.

This event marks the fourth and final concert in Miller Theatre's Live from Columbia series. The series is a continuation of Miller's popular Pop-Up Concerts series, offering audiences a virtual front-row seat to performances filmed live in the Lantern—a stunning venue on Columbia's Manhattanville campus.

Video premiere Tuesday, February 16 at 7pm, co-presented with Columbia School of the Arts.
Virtual • Free as always.

Concerts in the Live from Columbia series are filmed live and premiered throughout the season at 7pm, with on-demand streaming available immediately after: https://www.millertheatre.com/about/news/live-from-columbia-pop-ups-in-the-lantern

--Aleba Gartner, Aleba & Co.

The King’s Singers Announce New Music Prize Winner and Online Performance
Washington National Cathedral, leading choral publisher Walton Music and Grammy-winning, British vocal ensemble The King’s Singers announce the 4 winning composers of their inaugural New Music Prize (for the US and Canada), as well as 4 honorable mentions and 11 commended compositions out of the staggering 347 submitted.

Using one of five texts chosen by The King’s Singers and historian, poet and leading choral lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri, composers submitted an original choral piece into one of four categories.  The winning composers each receive a cash prize, a premiere performance and recording of their work, and the opportunity to have their piece published by Walton Music. Due to the current pandemic, the planned live event in the National Cathedral has been re-shaped into a webcast featuring The King’s Singers (from the UK) and members of the Cathedral’s choirs conducted by Director of Music at Washington National Cathedral, Michael McCarthy. The event will feature a premiere performance of each of the new works woven within a wider program of glorious choral music.

The webcast performance is part of Washington National Cathedral’s Sacred Choral Music Online Festival, Sunday Feb 28th at 4pm ET. Tickets are $10, available through Washington National Cathedral’s website.

The winners were selected by an illustrious jury chaired by multi-award winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank, alongside Artistic Director Toronto Children’s Chorus, Elise Bradley MNZM; composer/arranger, Stacey V. Gibbs; The King’s Singers’ (bass), Jonathan Howard; former King’s Singer and educator, David Hurley; Director of Music, Washington National Cathedral, Canon Michael McCarthy; conductor, composer and Director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Francisco Núñez and conductor, composer and Music Director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Dr. Mack Wilberg.

The New Music Prize performance is part of the National Cathedral’s Sacred Choral Music Festival:  https://cathedral.org/sacredmusic/

--Amy Killian, Bucklesweet

Wu Man and The Knights Perform "Bits and Pieces"
World-renowned pipa virtuoso Wu Man joined musicians from The Knights and dancer Maile Okamura (formerly of the Mark Morris Dance Group) in a specially choreographed video performance of Bits and Pieces from Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and Strings—originally composed for Wu Man and premiered by her in 1997. “Bits and Pieces” is a four-part mini-suite that Harrison designated as the second movement of the concerto. The performance, co-produced by Art of Elan and The Knights, was filmed in San Diego and at the Harrison House, the late composer’s desert retreat near the border of Joshua Tree National Park.

Click here to watch via The Knights’ YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk5nzNmlWog&feature=youtu.be

--Lisa Jaehnig, Shuman Associates

Sharon Isbin Highlights Include PBS Documentary Now Streaming
Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, winner of the coveted ASCAP Television Broadcast Award, can now be streamed for FREE on Amazon Prime, and is also available through Amazon for rent, download, or purchase on DVD and Blu-ray. The video includes the 1-hour award-winning film plus an additional 30 minutes of bonus performances and extra scenes not seen in the documentary.

This portrait of multiple GRAMMY-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin shows us a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field. Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, has been seen by millions on PBS and throughout the world.

For more information, visit http://www.sharonisbin.com/

--Genevieve Spielberg, Inc.

Montreal/New Musics Festival Goes “Beyond Borders”
The Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) outlines the 10th edition of its Montreal/New Musics festival (MNM), to be held from February 18 to 28, 2021. The MNM festival is reinventing itself to offer an unprecedented online sound odyssey with the theme Au-delà des frontières (Beyond Borders). MNM 2021 will stand out for the global aspect that webcast now offers, and through its programming, tinged with openness and discovery.

Thus for 10 days musical and artistic frontiers will open up to reveal new and unprecedented sounds with universal accents. "I have always wanted to program music without limits and without concessions. Right now, the re-opening of concert halls is still compromised, but we'll certainly be able to present online concerts that will go over and above musical limits!” says Walter Boudreau, the festival's Artistic Director, known for his willingness to go beyond conventional rules.

For complete information, visit http://smcq.qc.ca/

--France Gaignard, Publicist

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein Gives Virtual Concerts
Committed to continuing to reach audiences during these challenging times for live performance, Simone Dinnerstein announces two upcoming virtual performances presented by Duke Performances on January 30, 2021 and Meany Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington on February 12, 2021. Both of these intimate concerts were professionally filmed at Dinnerstein’s home in Brooklyn, NY.

Dinnerstein’s Duke Performances virtual concert will be available on demand for 72 hours beginning on January 30, 2021 at 8pm ET. General admission tickets are $10 per presentation and Duke Student tickets are available free of charge through the support of the Provost and the Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke University. The first half of Dinnerstein’s concert includes J.S. Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639 (arranged by Busoni) and transcriptions by composer Richard Danielpour for Dinnerstein of J.S. Bach’s “Agnus Dei” from the Mass in B minor, and “Wenn Ich einmal soll scheiden” and “Epilogue Chorus: “Wir setzen, uns mit Tränen nieder,” from the St. Matthew Passion. She will perform the second half of her concert as a suite – Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses; Schumann’s Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18; Philip Glass’s Mad Rush; and Couperin’s Tic Toc Choc.

For complete information, visit https://www.simonedinnerstein.com/

--Christina Jensen, Jensen Artists

TheConcertHall.ca Continues its Ground-Breaking Season
During this unusual and unforgettable season, without in-person concerts, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) continues to offer extraordinary music and to build new audiences – all via its new virtual home, TheConcertHall.ca, presented by TELUS. The VSO’s musicians and guest artists are beautifully recorded in 360-degree views, using state-of-the-art audio and video technology, while following strict social distancing protocols. Highlights of the season on TheConcertHall.ca, since its launch in October 2020 – 13 concerts to date – include Bach with James Ehnes, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, holiday programming for families, and VSO Music Director Otto Tausk, leading music by Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Sibelius, as well as contemporary works by Jennifer Butler, George Walker, and others.

The VSO celebrates the New Year and Mozart’s birthday with a Month of Mozart! The virtual mini-festival on TheConcertHall.ca features Mozart’s first and last symphonies, the Gran Partita for wind ensemble, as well as music influenced by Mozart from Mahler, Alfred Schnittke, Friedrich Gulda, and former VSO Composer-In-Residence Jocelyn Morlock.

All performances available for streaming in TheConcertHall.ca, the virtual home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. 30-day passes for a Month of Mozart are available for only $15.99 CAD. Includes access to all previously released concerts as well as new releases.

Full information here: https://theconcerthall.ca/

--Shira Gilbert PR

Respighi: Roman Trilogy (SACD Review)

Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma, Feste Romane. John Wilson, Sinfonia of London. Chandos CHSA 5261.

By Karl W. Nehring

Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy” consists of The Fountains of Rome (1914-16), The Pines of Rome (1923-24), and Roman Festivals (1928). The three works combined take about an hour to perform, so with the advent of the CD era, they were often bundled together, as they are here. Of the three, the Pines and Fountains are probably the more popular, and in the LP era, they were often recorded together, one work per side of vinyl. What we have here on this Chandos SACD release is the entire trilogy, performed by the Sinfonia of London under the direction of John Wilson.

Unless you happen to follow the British music scene, you may never have ever heard of the Sinfonia of London, which is not one of the established London orchestras such as the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, or the similarly-named London Sinfonietta. Rather, the Sinfonia of London is a pickup orchestra that assembles for specific recording or concert performances. Originally assembled in the 1950s to record film scores (a lucrative source of income for orchestral musicians) it is now in its third incarnation, which was assembled under conductor Wilson in 2018 to undertake recording projects. Its members include musicians from the more well-known London orchestras as well as some skilled chamber musicians and soloists. Wilson and the orchestra have thus far released three recordings for Chandos, the previous two being music by Korngold and a disc of French music titled Escales, which was reviewed by JJP (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/03/escales-french-orchestral-works-sacd.html).

The end result of the efforts of the orchestra, conductor, and engineering team is a disc that makes Respighi’s music sound exciting indeed. The program opens with Roman Festivals, which is generally regarded as the musically weakest but most aurally spectacular of the three compositions. As noted musicologist and author Nigel Simeone observes in his liner notes, “Feste Romana was composed in 1928, completing the trilogy and adding a new dimension to it: there is a sharper edge to the orchestration and more dissonance in the harmonies… The orchestra is even larger than in Fontane and Pini, including a vast array of percussion as well as organ, four-hand piano, and mandolin. In the programme for the first performance, Respighi was quoted as saying that Feste Romane ‘represents the maximum of orchestral sonority and colour’ in his scores, and he is not exaggerating… It may be the least known of the Roman Triptych, but Feste Romane is probably the most audacious of the three: undoubtedly extravagant and even uproarious, it is also an astonishing demonstration of Respighi’s inventiveness.” Without embarrassment, Wilson and his forces play this music for all it is worth, with both the performance and the sound communicating an energetic sense of revelry with unabashed enthusiasm and panache.

Next on the program is the first-composed of the trilogy, The Fountains of Rome. Although not as spectacular in scope as the Festivals, it is still quite a colorful composition. Although today it is an accepted part of the orchestral repertory, there are still some music lovers who seem to consider it something of a second-tier piece. No, it is not as profound as Bruckner or Mahler, but it is certainly fun to hear. Once again, Wilson and his merry band play it with gusto, bringing energy and excitement to the score.

The program closes with what has become Respighi’s most well-known and well-loved composition, the Pines of Rome. Arturo Toscanini was an early advocate of the Pines, conducting its American premier in January, 1926, in his debut concert as director of the New York Philharmonic. He often performed it in concert over the next three decades and eventually recording it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1953. It has been recorded many times by many conductors and orchestras over the years, with well over 100 recordings available. (By the way, I plan to do an overview of some noteworthy recordings in a future installment – but no, it will not cover anywhere near 100!) As you might expect, Wilson and his orchestra also bring energy and enthusiasm to bear in their performance, which sparkles with color that is well-captured by the Chandos engineering headed up by veteran soundman Ralph Couzens. Although my favorite of all Pines recordings that I have auditioned remains the 1959 effort by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA, this version need not hang its head in shame. It is a good one.

So, all things considered, how does this recording of the Roman Trilogy stack up against other versions? Obviously (at least to me), I have not heard them all, but I have auditioned and owned some very good ones. I would put this new Chandos version right up there with the best I have heard. It is well-played and well-recorded. Allow me to quickly compare it to two other versions (please note that I am talking now about recordings of the trilogy, not of just the Pines, which I plan to discuss in a future installment). One of my favorite recordings has been that by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel (Sony Classical SK 66843). The performance is not as energetic as that by Wilson, but the recording is more natural-sounding, giving a more distant, more comfortable perspective. My other favorite is a recording that is not nearly as widely known, Respighi Complete Orchestral Music Volume 1 by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia (Brilliant Classics 2CD 94392). Their performance is warmer and softer, especially in the quieter passages, with recording quality to match. All in all, this new Chandos SACD is an excellent recording that is well worth an audition by classical music fans, even those who already own other recordings. Wilson and his players bring in-your-face energy and excitement to this music that is remarkable to hear.

Bonus Recommendations: As we head into 2021, I thought it might be appropriate to look back at some of my favorite classical recordings of 2020. As JJP said in his favorites list (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/01/favorite-classical-recordings-of-2020.html), I am not claiming that these are the “best” recordings of the year; rather, they are some that I particularly enjoyed about which I would just like to pass along some quick thoughts. I had planned to do 10, but could not quite constrain myself to that number. At any rate, here goes: 

Bach: Works and Reworks. Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4837769. With Works clocking in at more than 77 minutes and Reworks at more than 44, richly informative liner notes, and splendid recording quality throughout, this release is a must-have for Bach lovers and a splendid introduction to those who may be just getting into “classical” music.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/03/bach-works-and-reworks-cd-review.html

Beethoven: Revolution: Symphonies 1-5. Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Alia Vox AVSA9937. The planning, preparation, and passion that Savall, his players, the recording engineer, and the Alia Vox staff who produced the meticulously conceived and beautifully executed physical package (one of the finest I have ever run across) have brought to this project have resulted in a Beethoven box that excels in every way. This is reference-quality Beethoven, no doubt about it.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/12/beethoven-revolution-symphonies-1-5.html

Clyne: Dance; Elgar: Cello Concerto. Inbal Segev, cello; Marin Alsop, London Philharmonic Orchestra. AVIE AV2419. Although the cello is pushed too far forward in the Clyne (better in the Elgar), my enthusiasm for both the music and the performances leads me to give this new release from AVIE a highly enthusiastic recommendation.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/08/clyne-dance-cd-review.html

Clyne: Mythologies. Marin Alsop, Sakari Oramo, Andrew Litton, André de Ridder (conductors), BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jennifer Koh, violin; Irene Buckley, voice. AVIE AV2434. This is a wonderful recording of music by a composer who deserves wider recognition. I fervently hope that even more recordings of music by Ms. Clyne will be forthcoming, as she has a vivid imagination and a wondrous talent for orchestration. Brava!

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/01/clyne-mythologies-cd-review.html

Dalbavie: La source d’un regard; Oboe Concerto; Flute Concerto; Cello Concerto. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony; DeMarre McGill, flute; Mary Lynch, oboe; Jay Campbell, cello. Seattle Symphony Media SSM022. Interesting new music, excellent recorded sound, helpful liner notes, and a generous length of nearly 73 minutes.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/01/dalbavie-la-source-dun-regard-cd-review.html

Debussy-Rameau: Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 479 7701. Vikingur once again provides an extensive liner note essay on the music that is fascinating and enlightening. The artwork and layout of the included booklet are attractive and readable, even to “mature” eyes such as mine, and the CD is packed with nearly 80 minutes of music.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/04/debussy-rameau-cd-review.html

Esenvalds: Translations. Ethan Sperry, Portland State Chamber Choir; Charles Noble, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, cello; David Walters, singing handbells; Joel Bluestone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes; Florian Conzetti, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, bass drum. Naxos 8.574124. Not only is the program outstanding, but so is the production. The liner notes by conductor Sperry are helpful, lyrics are included, and the recorded program is nearly 70 minutes long. The musicians, engineers, production staff, and the folks at Naxos have all done themselves proud with this fine release. 

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/06/esenvalds-translations-cd-review.html

Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel. Jaan-Eik Tulve, Vox Clamantis; Instrumental preludes and interludes by Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Lüsa Eller (kennel). ECM New Series ECM 2620. The music, the performance, and the recorded sound combine to make The Suspended Harp of Babel an indescribably beautiful release. The informative liner notes with lyrics translated into English add to the overall quality of the production.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/05/cyrillus-kreek-suspended-harp-of-babel_20.html

Shostakovich: Cello Concertos. Alban Gerhardt, cello; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, WDR Sinfonieorchester. Hyperion CDA68340. My long-time favorite recording has been a 1990 RCA recording featuring cellist Natalia Gutman with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Yuri Temirkanov, but I have found this new Hyperion release to sound appreciably better, lacking the slight glare of the older recording, not to mention that Gerhardt’s playing is completely convincing.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/12/some-new-releases-cdsacd-mini-reviews.html

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Finzi: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. Michael Collins (clarinet and conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra. BIS-2367. This new recording of the RVW Symphony No. 5 is a very worthy addition to a crowded field. In addition to the fine performance and sound, and added attraction of this release is the delightful Finzi Clarinet Concerto.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/09/vaughan-williams-symphony-no-5-sacd.html

Eric Whitacre: The Sacred Veil. Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, Artistic Director; Eric Whitacre, conductor; Lisa Edwards, piano; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello. Signum SIGCD630. A truly moving composition; moreover, the recorded sound is of such excellent quality that the listener is not likely to really even think about it. The music is just there, sounding utterly natural and unstrained. This is a magnificent CD that I cannot recommend too highly.

https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/10/eric-whitacre-sacred-veil-cd-review.html

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from the Respighi album, click below:

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Mariss Jansons, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. BR Klassik 900179.

By John J. Puccio

During his career, the late Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons (1943-2019) made a slew of recordings, many of which were recordings of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. Maybe we don’t always think of Jansons as a Mahlerian in the way we think of, say, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Simon Rattle, or Klaus Tennstedt as Mahlerians in the stereo era, but Jansons recorded the Mahler symphonies several times over with different orchestras and labels, and he often programmed Mahler on his concert schedule. The disc under review is from his last batch of Mahler recordings, this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Being his last recorded set, you might think it was his last word on the subject. That may be true, but it’s only his last word in the sense that it’s among his last recordings. Whether it’s the best of his Mahler recordings or the last word on the subject of Mahler performances in general are other, more open questions. In other words, although this interpretation from Jansons may be just fine and quite serviceable, one should not consider it definitive or “the last word” on the subject. The aforementioned conductors might have had more to say.
 
Anyway, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, called it a five-movement symphonic poem, and temporarily gave it the subtitle "Titan." It was not long after, however, that he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" business altogether, which is what we have here.

Mahler explained that in the First Symphony he was trying to describe his protagonist (maybe himself) facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he probably meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one (his brother died a decade earlier). With Mahler, who knows. Then, in the finale, Mahler breaks the reverie and conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end, so in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra on full throttle.

Now, how does Jansons handle all of this? As I say, in a serviceable manner. He creates a nice, leisurely opening as a long winter finally closes out and spring, the youth, enters. However, for me it’s a little too leisurely and tends to wear out its welcome before long. It may be an omen of things to come in Jansons’s reading. The movements start well but tend to get routine thereafter fairly quickly. If there’s any irony in the Scherzo it seems lost on Jansons, who plays it so straight-arrow he drains it of any significance. And so it goes.

Mahler said that his music was “a metaphor of the world in tones.” Fair enough. So the conductor should give the listener enough musical cues to relate the music to the real world, as in a tone poem. Jansons, however, doesn’t seem so interested in having his listener interpret Mahler as he does letting the listener know how beautiful the music can be. This approach wears out its welcome pretty fast. The parodic funeral also seems more than a bit flat. It’s only in the first half of the finale that Jansons appears energized enough to pull off some flair, yet even here he is restrained, and what should have been big and splashy sounds, instead, rather reserved by the end. That big victory chorus at the conclusion where Mahler wanted the horn players to stand up “to achieve the most powerful sound possible” doesn’t measure up to what we get from some of the best recorded performances, and the applause at the end of this live recording doesn’t improve things.

In the last analysis, I’d say this Jansons recording is an also-ran. It’s a good try, but it fails to compete with the conductors I mentioned in the opening, who provide the score with more color, more imagination, and more passion. Jansons, on the other hand, gives us a straightforward account of Mahler’s music, in a way taking it as Haitink always did, without adding much of his own personality and letting the music speak for itself. Yet Haitink was able to make the music come alive more than Jansons does, who doesn’t just let it alone but lets much of it lie inert. On a more positive note, the keep case comes with a cardboard slipcover, for whatever that’s worth.

Producer Wilhelm Meister and engineer Peter Urban recorded the symphony live at Munchen, Herkulessaal (Munich, Hercules Hall), in March 2007. For a live recording, it’s all right, a little close but not bright, hard, or edgy. Although there isn’t much depth to the orchestral sound, it is warm and smooth. OK, maybe too smooth as it leans toward the soft side as well. With dynamics that are a bit limp, the whole affair is less than audiophile; and, as I’ve said, the closing applause doesn’t help.

JJP

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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa