Saint-Saens: Symphony No 3 “Organ Symphony” (SACD review)

Also, Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani; Wider: Symphony for Organ No. 5. Christopher Jacobson, organ; Kazuki Yamada, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Pentatone PTC 5186 638.

By John J. Puccio

If you went to the catalogue of classical recordings, I’m sure you’d find that the “Organ” Symphony of Saint-Saens ranks right up there in popularity with the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. It’s that well liked. So it’s inevitable that we get new recordings of it every year. This new one under review is an international affair: the music is, of course, French. The conductor, Kazuki Yamada, is Japanese. The organist, Christopher Jacobson, is American. And the ensemble, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the Swiss orchestra co-founded by Ernest Ansermet in 1918. Whether this array of global talent does any better a job of interpreting the music must be left to the individual listener, naturally, but I can tell you after having sat through most of the recordings currently available, the new one does a pretty good job with it.

The French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote his Symphony No. 3 in C-minor, “Organ,” Op. 78, in 1886. It is probably the most-popular thing he ever wrote and, as I say, remains one of the most popular pieces of classical music of any kind.

Saint-Saëns called the work “a symphony with organ,” and he remarked, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Apparently he knew what he was talking about because even though he lived on for thirty-five more years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

The composer divided the work into two major parts, with two divisions in each part. It’s an odd arrangement, but it essentially works out to a conventional four-movement symphony. What’s more, although most people today know the work as the “Organ Symphony,” Saint-Saens himself labeled it Symphonie No. 3 "avec orgue" (with organ). In fact, the organ only plays a part in two of the four movements, the second and the last. But it makes enough of an impression for folks to remember it.

The first movement has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, but Maestro Yamada and the orchestra do the best they can. They establish a sweet, leisurely tempo in this section, which, if anything, leads effectively into the second, slow movement.

The second movement Adagio always reminds me of soft, warm waves flowing over and around one’s body on a tropical beach somewhere. Here’s where the organ (Christopher jacobson, organist) makes its first entry, coming in with what should be huge, gentle, undulating washes of sound. Unfortunately, I didn’t really hear or feel those waves from the organ, which stays remarkably aloof from the proceedings. While it’s not unpleasant, it’s not what I expected, either. Actually, Saint-Saens labels this movement Poco Adagio, or a little bit slow. In other words, not quite as slow as a traditional Adagio. Yet Yamada and his team take it at a pace that seems almost drowsy compared to many other recordings.

The two movements that comprise the finale can be fiery and exhilarating, if not a little bombastic, with the organ blazing the trail. Here, Yamada maintains the unhurried atmosphere he set in the beginning, giving us a relaxed, almost tranquil close. Again, not what I expected and not at all unpleasant, but different. Some listeners will no doubt find the reading lyrically rewarding. However, I found it a far cry from the more electrifying performances by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics/EMI), Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (RCA/JVC), or the steady yet still heady version by Jean Martinon and the National Orchestra of France (EMI or Brilliant Classics), all of which remain my first-choice recommendations.

Coupled with the Symphony are two more organ works by French composers: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani; and Charles-Maria Widor’s Toccata from his Symphony for Organ No. 5. The Poulenc work seems especially well suited to the understated style of Yamada and Jacobson, and it comes off with an appropriately energetic, yet spiritual and inspirational tone. Well done. As an encore, Jacobson gives the Widor Toccata a good, healthy flourish.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the music at Victory Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in August 2017. They made the recording for hybrid multichannel SACD, two-channel SACD, and two-channel CD playback. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The hall nicely complements the sound of the orchestra, giving it a degree of depth and resonance that some venues lack. The sonics are smooth and natural, not particularly transparent or “audiophile” but lifelike in their presentation. The SACD recording ensures that dynamics are there when needed, both in range and impact, although here, too, it isn’t quite in the audiophile class of clarity but more subtle. The organ makes a different impression on the ears in each of the three works on the disc. It’s restrained and a tad recessed in the Saint-Saens, more aggressive in the Poulenc, and finally comes into its own in the solo Widor piece. Of more important note, the organ is always well balanced with the orchestra, and that’s good to hear.

JJP

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

7/5 of Beethoven: Part 2 (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

In Part 1, the focus was on three recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that featured smaller orchestras (~60 members) playing original instruments. For each of those recordings, the conductor and/or musicologist provided liner notes that explained how the use of such an ensemble was a key element in their quest to reproduce what they considered to have been Beethoven’s true musical intentions.

Here in Part 2, the focus is on four recordings performed by modern orchestras (~100 members) playing modern instruments. Even though in this case none of the conductors needs to justify why he is employing a small orchestra playing original instruments, all of the liner notes offer insights into what the conductors were trying to accomplish, typically citing a desire to reveal an authentic insight into what Beethoven had in mind as he composed this symphonic masterpiece; two of the conductors offering their own extended commentary.

As in Part 1, the conductors are presented in alphabetical order. Here we go…     

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings FR-718SACD (SACD) (with Symphony No. 7, released in 2015)

In the liner notes for his recording, the Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck (b. 1958) offers several pages of thoughts and commentary on both the historical trends in the performance of Beethoven and his own thoughts about the Fifth and Seventh symphonies and his approach to performing and recording them. Early in his remarks, he points out some of the different approaches to performing the symphonies that have evolved over the years and then observes that “there exists an unbelievable amount of sound documents that enable us to have insights into the ‘supermarket’ of these various interpretations. We know much more today -- and interpretations can even come face to face and confront each other. I personally had the luxury as a musician to play under the baton of very different conductors -- Bernstein, von Karajan, Kleiber, Harnoncourt, Muti, Abbado, among many others. Additionally, I hesitated for a long time before conducting the Beethoven Symphonies. Of course, I studied them all, but I waited to program them as it was first necessary to organize my impressions and then have a certain distance from a variety of influences. There were also still the questions to address which every conductor must answer with each work: Firstly, what is Beethoven's will and what are the peculiarities of the piece? Under what circumstances was it composed? At the time that Beethoven composed the work, what was new? What should happen in a particular way? Which tradition, if any, should be followed? Is it possible to find something revelatory?” He then goes on to explain in more detail his approach to both symphonies in an essay well worth reading should you ever come across this release.

Something you notice immediately about this performance is that the famous opening notes, those eight immortal notes that just about anybody can hum, are played slowly. Quite slowly, in fact. Honeck justifies his interpretation by writing that “the use of the more deliberate tempo gives the opening bars a grandiose weight, power and vehemence. For me, it was essential to capture the greatest possible drama with this first statement so as to depict the heroic character of the movement.” To my ears, at least, his way with the opening seems an affectation, although yes, it does make things seem more dramatic.

Honeck brings a great deal of expressiveness to his performance, which were recorded in concert, with subtle shifts of tempo and phrasing. His account sounds personal, but not idiosyncratic. In that respect it is something like the Currentzis recording reviewed in Part 1, but Honeck comes across as less rigid in his approach than Currentzis, more interested in communicating the beauty and glory that he finds in the score rather than exhibiting his desire to master it. Again, I would point you Honeck’s extensive liner notes, which are well worth reading, where he explains his approach to performing this music in some detail.

As you might expect from Reference Recordings, the engineers (Soundmirror) have captured it all in detailed yet spacious sound, vivid and dynamic. This is an excellent recording, well worth an audition.

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic. Deutsche Grammophon 447 400-2. (CD) (with Symphony No. 7, LP was released in 1975, CD in 1995)

Since its release in the mid 1970s, this recording by the late Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) has been considered by many to be the gold standard for recordings of the Beethoven Fifth. It has long been my go-to recording, which I first owned on vinyl. However, I will confess that I had not listened to it very much over the past few years, mainly because I simply have not listened to the Fifth all that much over the past few years. (So many CDs, so little time…) However, as I started pulling together CDs from my collection that I planned to use for this survey, I was startled to discover that I owned three copies. A true embarrassment of riches!  

In contrast to the majority of the recordings in this survey, the skimpy liner notes for the Kleiber do not feature any words from the conductor himself. Rather, there is a brief essay by music critic Peter Cosse, who begins by writing, “in the world of recording there are three kinds of artist. One kind regards the medium as a permanent opportunity to place themselves and their musical comrades before the public. They treat discs as pages in an audio diary. A second, minute group turns its back. They refuse to document big musical occasions, insist on the impossibility of repeating the experience, and thus place all their faith in their listeners’ memories. A third group, also a rather small one, does not dismiss the medium altogether but is very, very choosy. Carlos Kleiber is one of these last… His all too infrequent ‘Philharmonic Subscriptions Concerts in Vienna have each and every one set the musical world ablaze, and, like these performances of Beethoven here, left it in a state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.”

For those music lovers who may be unfamiliar with Kleiber, I should point out that he is widely regarded as a legendary conductor, one of the all-time greats. One of the reasons you may not have heard of him, though, is that he made only nine studio recordings. That’s right, nine. And two of them are included on this CD.  

Having been impressed by some of the more modern releases that I have come across over the past couple of years by orchestras both large and small in recorded sound of impeccable quality, I found myself wondering how well the venerable Kleiber version would hold up against such formidable competition. In brief, it holds up pretty darn well. Like Honeck, Kleiber seems to bring a personal touch to the score, more flexible in tempo and dynamics than the two conductors listed below. This is epic-sounding Beethoven. It is easy to see why so many critics and classical music fans have considered this to be a reference version. It certainly seems quite capable of leaving listeners in a “state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.” It has certainly done that for me on occasion.

I was pleasantly surprised to note who well the engineering has held up. It might not be quite as transparent or spacious as the Reference Recordings or Telarc discs, and there is just a touch of hardness from time to time in the massed strings, but overall, it still sounds quite acceptable. Actually, better than acceptable. No, not quite “audiophile quality,” but pretty darn good. Those DG engineers made a lot of recordings in Vienna and obviously knew what they were doing.   

Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc CD-80471. (CD) (with Symphony No. 7, released in 1999)

English conductor Benjamin Zander (b. 1939) is probably best known to classical music fans with an audiophile bent for his series of Mahler recordings for the Telarc label back in the late 1990s through the early 2000s. This Beethoven release proved to be his only Beethoven recording on Telarc; like the Mahler releases, it includes a bonus disc on which Zander presents a lecture on the music and his approach to the performance. Well known for his strong opinions, he throws down the gauntlet in the liner notes with an attitude similar to that of Currentzis: “It will surely come as a surprise to most listeners that works as familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies have rarely received performances that realize Beethoven’s stated wishes as to how the music should be played, and that this tradition of ignoring the composer’s intentions began in Beethoven’s own time! It seems that from the very beginning conductors chose to disregard -- or simply didn’t look at -- the metronome marks Beethoven left for his symphonies. In doing so they radically altered the ‘meaning’ of the music and established a tradition of performance that is far removed from what Beethoven seems to have intended… But how did this situation arise? Is there a right and a wrong way of performing this music? Or is its interpretation purely a subjective matter?

Let's take the opening of the Fifth Symphony -- certainly the most famous four notes of music ever penned. If we hear it performed as slowly as it was by such great conductors as Furtwangler, Stokowski, and Klemperer, the music speaks with majesty, force, power, ‘Fate knocking on the door.’ If, on the other hand, we hear it at the tempo indicated both by Beethoven’s Italian direction Allegro con brio and by his metronome marking...it seems driving, violent, impetuous, headlong, as though a gauntlet were being thrown down in defiance. But which is the ‘true’ version? Clearly, when Beethoven was composing that opening he must have had some particular ‘meaning’ or sound in mind. He cannot possibly have heard it both at the slower tempo and at the faster one, and it is unlikely that he was indifferent about the matter -- just as unlikely as that he would have been indifferent about which notes were played. For Beethoven cared so deeply about the tempi at which his works were performed that, according to his friend Anton Schindler, whenever he heard about a performance of one of them, ‘his first question invariably was: “How were the tempi?” Every other consideration seemed to be of secondary importance to him’ In fact, Beethoven cared so much about such issue of tempo that he left more detailed instructions on the subject than did virtually any other composer… So why should his tempo indications for the symphonies have been so rarely observed in performance? Most conductors have rejected the indicated tempi because they consider them too fast. Ironically, though, both the final movements of the Fifth and Seventh are traditionally played faster than Beethoven’s indicated tempo, demolishing the argument that since all his tempi are too fast, it is reasonable to assume his metronome was broken. Moreover Beethoven’s letters make it clear that he took great pains to have his metronome in good working order.”

Convinced yet? As you can see, Zander makes quite the case for fast tempos, and as you might expect, this is a brisk, energetic reading. At the time of its initial release, it sounded almost maniacally fast, but part of that perception was due to the contrast with more traditional, expansive recordings. Since then, largely spurred by the original instruments/historically informed practice (HIP) recordings of conductors such as Norrington, Gardiner (reviewed in Part 1), and Bruggen, our ears have become more accustomed to brisker Beethoven. In any event, this is an interesting recording. The Telarc engineers did a good job of capturing a spacious sound. Although the performance is fast, it does not otherwise sound willful or eccentric. It just comes across as a well-recorded, fast-paced performance of the Beethoven Fifth.

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Arte Nova ANO 496950 (CD) (with Symphony No. 6, released in 1997)

Speaking of Telarc, American conductor David Zinman (b.1936) made some excellent recordings with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on that late lamented label back in the day. I can recall hearing him on some NPR radio program back then, coming across as witty, genial – someone who would be great to just hang with when you needed your batteries recharged. Many classical music fans surely remember – and probably have on their shelves somewhere – his 1992 Nonesuch recording with dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), which incredibly went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide. In 1995, he became Music Director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, with which he soon embarked on a series of Beethoven recordings. In addition to the complete symphonies, he also made excellent recordings of the piano concertos, the violin concerto, and the Missa Solemnis.

Unlike most of the recordings in this survey, there are no remarks by the conductor to accompany this CD. The claim on the cover is that it is the “world premiere recording on modern instruments according to the new Barenreiter edition”. The liner notes do not discuss the symphony or its performance; rather, they discuss the problem of finding the true textual version of the score. One interesting note is that in the back-cover blurb about the orchestra, the size of the Tonhalle Orchestra is said to be 97 members, reminding us that the modern orchestra is more than half again as large as the orchestras of Beethoven’s time.

Zinman conducts a fleet but expressive performance that has been well-captured by the engineering team. Not quite in the same league as the Reference Recordings or the Telarc, but certainly quite decent.  Everything about this release seems to be well-balanced. Nothing seems to come across as overly emphasized, neither in the sound nor in the performance. Although Zinman’s tempi are often close to those of Zander, the Zinman performance never sounds rushed. He never seems to be pushing the orchestra; rather, the energy just seems to flow naturally from the score rather than the conductor. This is truly a wonderful recording. The only drawback is that it may be hard to find, alas, at least on CD.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript: Well, that was fun. At least for me; I hope you got at least a little something out of it. If nothing else, I hope it makes you realize that there are many factors involved in performing and recording a musical composition and many ways to shape a successful interpretation. I hope it inspires you to pick one of your favorite recordings of classical music and compare it to several others, either from your own library, the public library, the collection of a friend, or perhaps by way of a streaming service. Read the liner notes, get comfortable, do some listening, maybe take some notes, listen some more, and see what you think. You may well wind up with more than one favorite recording by the time you are through.

As I wrote in Part 1 of this survey, I found all seven of these recordings to be excellent. I could sit down right now and enjoy any one of them. I own six of them and plan to keep all six. The seventh (Honeck) goes back to the library tomorrow; I have used up my 10 renewals and must finally return it after a couple of months or so. I will probably check it out again, and might even pick up a copy of my own one of these days.

As much as you might want me to, I just can’t pick one favorite. All I can say is that of the three original-instrument recordings from Part 1, the Savall is my favorite, and possibly my favorite of all seven. But possibly not. Of the four modern orchestra recordings, it really is hard to pick a favorite. I am married to the Kleiber (thrice!), I love the Zinman, I have a crush on the Honeck, and will date the Zander from time to time (please don’t tell the Kleiber).

All seven versions have their special points of appeal. The Currentzis sounds great in the car, its exaggerations punching through the tire and wind noise and keeping me energized. The Gardiner is part of a complete set that sounds great and is available at a bargain price. The Savall is truly impressive in terms of both performance and sound; in addition, its physical package is truly first-class. The Honeck sounds amazing, comes with a fine Seventh, and includes detailed liner notes that are quite instructive. The Kleiber is a remarkable performance that is also packaged with a truly excellent Seventh. The Zander is a bracing performance that includes not only an energetic Seventh but a bonus disc in which the conductor discusses the music. And the Zinman just sounds just right. You can’t go wrong with any of them, although you might go a bit astray with the Currentzis.  

Finally, for those who care about such things, here are the timings for all seven recordings.

Mvt

Currentzis

Gardiner

Honeck

Kleiber

Savall

Zander

Zinman

5-1

6:42

6:30

7:11

7:22

7:03

6:23

6:49

5-2

8:40

8:15

9:06

10:00

8:25

8:43

8:45

5-3

4:41

7:12

4:56

5:09

7:46

4:21

7:19

5-4

10:35

9:50

10:08

10:51

11:03

10:40

10:25


KWN

Senfter: Compositions for Two Violins (CD review)

Concerto in C minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Op. 40; Ten Old Dances for Two Violins, Op. 91. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Katarina Aleksic, violin; Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Feminae Records CD1901.

By John J. Puccio

These days most people would not recognize the name of German composer Johanna Senfter (1879-1961), even though she wrote some 134 pieces of classical music, eight of them symphonies. Such is life that most of them go forgotten. It was especially hard for a female composer to make much headway in a largely male-dominated musical world. So, enter Feminae Records, a company dedicated to promoting the work of female composers, many of them long neglected.

Although not a lot is known about Senfter beyond her music, she did leave behind one revealing quote: “Listen and play my music, then you understand me.”

As the founder of Feminae Records, violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric, writes at the Feminae Web site, “Women have been making and composing music for centuries, millennia even! We believe that revealing and sharing this outstanding repertoire--balancing the ‘playing field,’ if you will--is a critical part of ensuring that concert music has genuine value and meaning for generations to come. Therefore, Feminae Records will continue to produce and release works by great female composers, both forgotten and yet-to-be-discovered. Our sons and daughters deserve this legacy.”

On the present recording, Ms. Maslovaric is joined by fellow violinist Katarina Aleksic and in the concerto by the Budapest Symphony strings to bring several of Johanna Senfter’s compositions back to life.

The first work on the disc is the most substantial, the Concerto in C minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Op. 40. It’s a short work, four movements combining for a little under eighteen minutes, but it’s a lovely and rewarding piece. The second, slow movement is particularly enchanting, graceful and longing. The third movement, labeled “Lustig” (“funny”) is also a charmer--light, sprightly, airy, bouncy. Ms. Maslovaric calls the third-movement themes “enchanting.” One can understand why. The final movement, “Bewegt” (“emotional,” “moving”) sums up the concerto’s material nicely, drawing the piece to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a twentieth-century composition, but it is also a definite throwback to an earlier age of Romanticism.

For much of the concerto I forgot there were two violins playing, the two performers so richly intertwined in the music. They both play with poise and style, putting the music ahead of any special grandstanding. They are an accomplished pair.

Following the Concerto, we hear Ten Old Dances for Two Violins, Op. 91, comprising two suites. They are mainly Baroque in nature, as evidenced by the familiar titles of the individual dances: “Allemande,” “Courante,” “Sarabande,” “Gavotte,” “Gigue,” “Bourree,” “Minuet,” “Loure,” and “Passepied en Rondeau.” Nevertheless, despite their Baroque connections, these dances are clearly the products of a twentieth-century sensibility. It’s a charming combination of styles, actually, and under the guidance of the two soloists they bounce along quite amiably, producing a variety of emotions with an emphasis on joy.

Producers Jonathan Shephard and Aleksandra Maslovaric and engineer Redly Denes recorded the music at Studio 22, Magyar Radio, Budapest, Hungary. A lot of well-recorded discs have come my way lately; this is one of them. The two violins are clear and resplendent. The backup strings in the
concerto are well integrated into the sonic picture, the soloists well positioned in front of the orchestra. The transparency of sound throughout the recording is welcome to the ear,.

JJP

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

7/5 of Beethoven: Part 1 (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

For the general public and even among avid aficionados of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is with little doubt the most widely recognized symphony in the entire symphonic canon. Those first four notes have been indelibly etched into our musical consciousness regardless of whether we associate them with fate knocking at the door (Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary), victory (WW II), or simply as “da-da-da-daaaaa.” My guess would be that most lovers of classical music are familiar with the work, and more likely than not have a favorite recording, or maybe several favorites from the myriad recordings available. The Fifth is one of those pieces that just about every conductor and every orchestra has had a go at over the years.

I have found myself doing a lot of listening to the Fifth lately and going through some of the recordings in my own collection. One of the things that struck me is how conductors seem to make a point of explaining why they have taken the approach they have taken toward the piece, the factors that have influenced their interpretation. Although each conductor would certainly have his or her own reasons for interpreting any composition, it seems as though the very ubiquity of recordings motivates conductors to explain why they have made the interpretive choices they have made. As we read through the thoughts of the seven conductors that I have included in this survey, we would do well to realize that conductors make interpretive choices about any piece of music they record, even though they do not necessarily share their thoughts with us as they have done when recording this iconic symphony.

I have spent a good deal of time listening to these performances, thinking about the similarities and differences in both musical and sonic terms, but mainly just enjoying this magnificent music. To be honest, these are all fine performances and all are well recorded. Although I have my preferences, those preferences are not the result of night-and-day differences. They have changed in the past and could change in the future. That is part of the joy of being a music lover. The musical landscape is not fixed and static. There are new compositions being written and recorded, older compositions being exposed to new light and fresh eyes. There are always new recordings to explore and discover, older recordings to rediscover, so many recordings, so little time, but so much joy.

Please note that I have ordered the seven recordings alphabetically by type. In Part 1, the performances are by orchestras of Beethoven-era size, about 60 musicians, while the other four performances, which will be covered in Part 2, are by modern orchestras of about 100 members. So buckle up, here we go…

Teodor Currentzis, musicAeterna. Sony Classics 19075884972 (CD)

Teodor Currentzis (b. 1972), born in Greece and now living in Russia, where he assembled the group of musicians that form musicAeterna, writes in his liner notes, “what most people know about Beethoven is the result of the performance practices of the 20th century, entering our lives through the legacy of famous postromantic recordings… I truly believe that the first rule for a true immersion into Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is trying to forget what you took for granted from the history of its interpretation, and to reexamine nonnegotiable solid habits of performing history. In that way, I believe, you can start taking your first steps toward the desert space of your own intuition outside the luxurious sarcophagus of tradition. Indeed, this difficult process took me over twenty years, until I started to see and hear this music as something new. However, this ‘something new’ is necessary as it gives you the shock of the first impact that Beethoven definitely wanted, but that has been wasted in the pseudo-existential factories of recording legacy… My only desire for this recording is to bring to the music dramaturgy of the Fifth Symphony the so-called catharsis, in all possible states, starting from the physical state of metronome and form, to the spiritual state of ‘music not to be found in the notes.’”

Although it does not affect my aesthetic judgment about the quality of this release, I do want to point out that of all the Beethoven Fifth recordings available on CD, this is the only one of which I am aware that contains only the Fifth. I would imagine that for some folks, that would be a deal-breaker right there, although to be fair, I would point out that it is available at a lower price than some of the major labels charge (although yes, those labels are giving you more than 31 minutes of music).

That said, I will start out by observing that this is an exciting performance. The first time I heard it, I was amazed at how energetic it sounded and how tight and disciplined the orchestra sounded. If nothing else, this is a recording that makes one heck of a first impression!

As I listened more closely, though, I also found myself feeling as though the performance was in some sense too tight, too disciplined, too earnest in its attempt to drive home the power of Beethoven’s score. There are places where you feel that the conductor is just trying to be a bit different, accenting notes in a slightly different way, punching them a touch too forcefully, making the music seem more breathless, reaching at times beyond drama toward melodrama.

The engineering is also “tight.” It was recorded in the Grosser Saal at the Vienna Konzerthaus (not the famous Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic). There is some hall resonance, but the recording gives the sense of a relatively small space. To these ears at least, it sounds something like a big studio rather than a small hall.

Still, this is an intriguing and stimulating recording. No matter how familiar you are with the Beethoven Fifth, I believe you will be struck by this recording, that it would make you hear the music as with new ears. You might not find it your favorite recording, but you will be glad you gave it a listen. It may well stimulate you to take a renewed interest in this music and set some time aside to listen to some other recordings. Indeed, as I look back upon my experience, I realize that this is the recording that led to my wanting to do this survey. Upon hearing the Currentzis, I immediately wanted to re-listen to some of the other recordings on my shelves to see how they compared. It was similar to what happened when I first heard the Savall Eroica from has boxed set – the music sounded so fresh and exciting that I wondered how recordings I had not listened to for a while would compare, so I pulled several Eroica recordings off my shelf and started listening with newly attentive ears. ()

John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. DG Archiv Produktion 477 8643 (CD from box with Symphonies Nos. 1-9)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b. 1943), an English conductor who is primarily known for his interpretations of music from the Baroque and Classical eras, founded the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in 1989. In his liner notes to Gardiner’s boxed set of the complete Beethoven cycle, the noted music critic music Richard Osborne opines that “the Fifth is another of Beethoven’s great transforming journeys whose evolution from the embattled C minor opening (‘Fate knocking at the door’) to the fervent C major march finale is both personal and political, and enactment of the contemporary philosophical belief that out of the French Revolution’s confrontation with the old order, a new synthesis, a brave new world, could be born.” He goes on to observe of the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Symphonique, a period instrument ensemble, that “for Gardiner the role of this new 60-strong orchestra was central to the Beethoven cycle. Period instruments, he argued, allow us to hear more in these symphonies; the edge is not taken off as it can be with instruments of a later period and sophistication. The instruments also help underwrite the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s genius. Without the ‘traffic-jam’ sonorities modern instrument can induce, Gardiner could press forward with tempi and dynamics that drive home the sense of Beethoven pushing his material to its limits. This can be a shock to players and listeners, but it is a shock, says Gardiner, which is mitigated by the music’s energy and humanity.”

Gardiner’s Beethoven cycle was recorded in the early 1990s and released in 1994 as a deluxe boxed set by Deutsche Grammophon, which re-released the recordings on its Archiv budget label in 2010. Perceptive readers may already have been struck by the thought that Currentzis was certainly not the first conductor to question the 20th-centrry performance tradition. In fact, five years before the Gardiner set was released by DG, another English conductor, Roger Norrington, had completed a traversal of the symphonies for EMI with his own period-instrument orchestra, the London Classical Players. Those recordings were quite a sensation at the time. I owned several of them, found them interesting, but they eventually disappeared from my collection. Perhaps at some point I will seek out and re-listen to his version of the Fifth (yep -- so many recordings, so little time!), which I do not remember that much about (my main memory of his Beethoven was that his Eroica was exhilarating but not my favorite while his Ninth just struck me as perverse).

In addition, in the early 2000s Norrington made another recording of the cycle, this time with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, of which he was Principal Conductor from 1998 to 2011. In 2016 the orchestra for budgetary reasons was merged with another Stuttgart-based orchestra, the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, to form the SWR Symphonieorchester, whose current Chief Conductor is none other than – you can’t make this stuff up – Teodor Currentzis. 

But back to Gardiner. His Beethoven cycle has gained wide acclaim and has generally been considered to be the best of the period-instrument bunch. (One quick digression: I greatly prefer his Ninth to Norrington’s.) His recording of the Fifth was captured from live performances in Barcelona in March, 1994. Once again, we hear a performance marked by energy and exuberance, but not as idiosyncratic as that of Currentzis. The music just seems to breathe a bit easier, the phrasing and accents not as sharply highlighted as they are under Currentzis. In addition, the sound comes across as a bit more spacious and warm. All in all, this is a crackerjack rendition of the Fifth, and the five-disc set is widely available at a bargain price. If you are a Beethoven fan, you really ought to give this set a listen.   
 
Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Alia Vox AVSA9937. (SACD, from box with Symphonies Nos. 1-5)

In my review of Savall’s boxed set of Beethoven’s first five symphonies () I mentioned that I would be comparing his version of the Fifth to several other recordings. Well, here we are.

Once again, we have comments from the conductor regarding his approach to the music, which by now should be starting to sound familiar. Savall (b. 1941) writes in the album booklet that “all our orchestral work was done using instruments corresponding to those used in Beethoven’s day and with a similar number of musicians to those deployed by the composer for the first performances of his symphonies, in other words, about 55 to 60 musicians, depending on the symphonies... we started with the basic idea of returning to the original sound and line-up of the orchestra as envisaged by Beethoven, constituted by the ensemble of instruments available in his day. Moreover, we needed to discover the original sources for the existing manuscripts, we studied and compared not only the autograph sources and the extant parts used in the first concert performances, but also modern editions based on those same sources, with the aim of verifying all the indications concerning dynamics and articulation… Our principal aim of projecting in our 21st century the full richness and beauty of these well-known symphonies -- all too often presented in an oversized, overelaborate form, is to restore to these works their essential energy through a proper natural balance between the colours and the quality of the orchestra’s natural sound. In Beethoven’s day, that sound was produced by the stringed instruments (catgut strings and historic bows), woodwind instruments; flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoons; brass instruments; sackbuts, trumpets and natural trumpets and the period tympani played with wooden drumsticks. The resulting brilliance, articulation, balance and revolutionary dynamics form the basis of a dynamism based on a respect for Beethoven’s intended tempi (barring a few rare exceptions) and the phrasing to which they give rise, in accordance with the mood indications and the dramatic narrative sustained by the spiritual power of its own message.”

Interestingly, this recording took place in a venue not far from where the Gardiner recording was made, Savall in Cardona, Spain, which is a half-hour or so away from Barcelona. Perhaps there is something in the Spanish air… At any rate, once again we have a performance in which the conductor backs up his words by leading a performance that shows off the “natural energy” and “dynamism” of this remarkable music. The more I listen to Savall’s performance, the more I am in awe of what Beethoven produced in this incredible work that we perhaps take too much for granted these days. As you would expect from a period-instrument performance, the tempos are brisk and the dynamics are lively. The power of the performance is enhanced by the sound quality that the engineering team has managed to capture. Savall seems to build his performance upon a solid foundation of lower strings and tympani, which are well-captured by the microphones. In addition to the warm tonal balance, there is a fine sense of physical space, which audiophiles often term as “imaging.” This is an outstanding performance captured in outstanding fidelity. It is my first choice among the period-instrument recordings I have auditioned.

In Part 2, we will consider four modern-orchestra recordings. Stay tuned.

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin (CD review)

Performed on historic instruments by Cullan Bryant, piano, and Jerilyn Jorgensen, violin. Albany Records TROY 1825-28 (4-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

It’s music by Beethoven, so the merits of the source material are a given. Then, too, it’s rendered by a pair of accomplished players, so the performances are a given. And, what’s more, it’s extremely well recorded, so the sound is a given. The “however” is that we already have a slew of excellent recordings of this music in the catalogue, so what’s the real advantage of this new set? The answer is simple: It’s good music played by good performers in good sound, plus the performers play on historic instruments, some of them actually used during Beethoven’s lifetime. There is, in fact, nothing to dislike about this issue, unless you just don’t like Beethoven or period instruments.

First, a word about the performers: Cullan Bryant is the pianist. The booklet note tells us he “is among the most active chamber and collaborative pianists in New York City, maintaining a schedule of over 50 recitals a year. Mr. Bryant made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1992 in recital with violinist Patmore Lewis.” Jerilyn Jorgensen is the violinist. She “is a member of the performance faculty of Colorado College and has been adjunct faculty in violin and chamber music at the Lamont School of Music of the University of Denver as swell as Visiting Assistant Professor Violin at the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam. From 1980-2004 she was first violinist of the Da Vinci Quartet, as and a member of that ensemble she has performed throughout the United States, been a prizewinner in the Shostakovich International String Quartet Competition and finalist in the Naumburg Chamber Music Competition and appeared on PBS’s NewHour with Jim Lehrer.”

Next, a word about the period instruments. For Sonatas Nos. 1 and 4 Mr. Bryant plays an unsigned Viennese Style Piano, c. 1795. For Sonatas Nos. 2 and 8, he plays a Joseph Brodmann, 1800-1805, Vienna. For Nos. 3, 5, 6, and 7, he plays a Caspar Katholnig, c. 1805-1810. For No. 9 he plays a Johann Nepomuk Trundlin, 1830, Leipzig. And for No. 10 it’s an Ignaz Bosendorfer, c. 1828-1832, Vienna. All of the pianos were on loan from the Frederick Historical Piano Collection, Ashburnham, Massachusetts.

Ms. Jorgensen has it a little easier. She plays the same violin for all ten sonatas: an Andrea Carolus Leeb model, 1797, Vienna. However, she uses a variety of historical bows: a Francois Xavier Tourte (1748-1835); an Anonymous Cramer Head from the same period; a School of Tourte, c. 1830; and an Anonymous German bow.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote ten sonatas for piano and violin between 1797 and 1812, the first three of them dedicated to one of his mentors, Antonio Salieri. Yes, that Salieri, of Amadeus fame. Interestingly, while people today most often refer to Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano & Violin as simply his “violin sonatas,” the composer’s own notations show that he titled No. 9 "Sonata per il Pianoforte ed uno violino obligato in uno stile molto concertante come d’un concerto." Maybe “violin sonata” is simpler after all, and, in any case, most of the sonatas put emphasis the violin.Now, about the performances. Here, I must confess I have been living since the 1970’s happily and contentedly with the peerless set by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman (Decca), and I have never really looked or even thought about replacing them with anything else. Until now. Of course, Ashkenazy and Perlman play on modern instruments, which makes this new set from Bryant and Jorgensen such a revelation; they play with an easy charm and adept virtuosity. Their set doesn’t displace Ashkenazy/Perlman, mind you, but it easily finds a place on the shelf as a period-instrument alternative.

About the music: I have never really cared much for the first few sonatas. They seem to me a lot like Beethoven’s first two symphonies: firmly rooted in the classical period, rather brief and formalized in the eighteenth tradition. Yet Bryant and Jorgensen provide them with plenty of vitality, and they spring to life with commendable ease. Then, starting with the fourth sonata, things begin opening up. There’s a greater Romantic spirit to the music, and the fifth sonata, the “Spring” sonata, is a special favorite of mine for its lyrical beauty. In both Nos. 4 and 5 Beethoven suddenly sounds more imaginative, more dramatic, more creative, and in some cases even more operatic than he had sounded in the first three sonatas. Bryant and Jorgensen’s rendition of No. 5 is worth the price of the whole four-disc set.

By the time Beethoven reached Sonata No. 9, he had achieved the pinnacle of his mastery of the genre, and Bryant and Jorgensen play the piece with a commanding authority. Incidentally, for those of you worried that the performers might take these period performances at a breakneck, “historically informed” speed, they don’t. The tempos they adopt are relaxed and beautifully judged; they serve the music well.

Anyway, by comparison to Ashkenazy/Perlman, Bryant and Jorgensen sound a bit heavier and more sedate, but a lot of this we may attribute to the instruments they use. The period violin is not as light or polished sounding as a modern instrument, and the period pianos have not quite the same vibrancy or golden, mellifluous tone of modern grand pianos. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the period sound is well worth the listen, and the playing is easily up to the task.

Producers Lolly Lewis and Hector Milete and engineer Christopher Greenleaf recorded the sonatas at Ashburnham Community Church, Ashburnham, Massachusetts in 2016-2018. The sound is fairly close, so the instruments loom a bit large; but the sound is not hard, bright, or edgy. In fact, it’s quite smooth, while being well defined. The acoustics of the church are warm and mildly reverberant, providing a realistic setting for the presentation.

JJP

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

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:

Clyne: Mythologies (CD Review)

Jennifer Koh, violin; Irene Buckley, voice; Marin Alsop, Sakari Oramo, Andrew Litton, and André de Ridder conductors; BBC Symphony Orchestra. Avie AV2434.

By Karl W. Nehring

One of the many exciting and rewarding aspects of the classical music hobby is discovering recordings by composers with whom you are not familiar. Over the past year or so this has been my experience with the remarkable music of the British-born composer Anna Clyne (b. 1980), who now resides in upstate New York. Having discovered some performances of her music on YouTube, I had hoped to find more of her music on CD and was pleased to be able to review her cello concerto, titled “Dance,” which was paired on a previous Avie release with a fine performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/08/clyne-dance-cd-review.html). The good folks at Avie have subsequently followed up that fine release with Mythologies, an all-Clyne program featuring five orchestral works that she composed between 2005 and 2015.

All of the performances are by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and all were recorded in live concert. The program opens with a brief (4:57) but rousing curtain-raiser conducted by Marin Alsop. Masquerade opens with a bang and a flourish, the whole orchestra joining in the fun with swirling strings, pounding percussion, and swirling brass. Then comes a big theme, sounding like the main title theme from a grand Hollywood western. There are brief dance-like sequences, the piece feeling like a mad, feverish dream culminating in a big finish with brass, strings, and percussion -- a lot of excitement packed into just under five minutes.

Next up is This Midnight Hour, conducted by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo. It opens with a churning motif in the lower strings, soon overlaid with contributions from the woodwinds and brass while the percussion section adds drama to the sound. On her website, Clyne writes that “the opening to This Midnight Hour is inspired by the character and power of the lower strings of L'Orchestre national d'Île de France [who gave the premier performance]. From here, it draws inspiration from two poems. Whilst it is not intended to depict a specific narrative, my intention is that it will evoke a visual journey for the listener.” Given the title, it seems appropriate that as the performance unfolds we hear a spooky melody from the clarinet followed by ominous-sounding contributions from brass and tympani. As the music continues to develop, we hear some more movie-music sounds, a waltz rhythm, and more churning in the lower strings. Finally, as we get closer to the finish line, the music becomes quieter for a minute or so before erupting once again at the very end, punctuated by the sound of the bass drum.

Oramo also conducts the next piece, titled The Seamstress, which features the violin of Jennifer Koh. Something of a non-virtuosic violin concerto, the piece also features the voice of Irene Buckley whispering lines from a poem by Yeats. The way the voice is blended in is rather spooky, especially as it first enters with little breaths and sighs that suddenly appear of out sonic nowhere, jumping at times from channel to channel. To be honest, the inclusion of the voice strikes me as one of those ideas that may have been effective in an actual live concert, but can be distracting on a recording, especially upon repeated listening. In any event, Buckley’s voice is recorded as a whisper, which helps keep it from overly distracting from the music itself, which often features folk-sounding melodies and is really quite appealing overall, squarely in the English tradition of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, but with a 21st-century sensibility.

Another poem, Night Ferry by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, provides the inspiration and title for the next work on the program, in a performance conducted by Andrew Litton. From the program notes on her website, Clyne explains that “Night Ferry is music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds. It is music of the conjurer and setter of tides, the guide through the ‘ungovernable and dangerous.’ Exploring a winding path between explosive turbulent chaoticism and chamber lyricism, this piece weaves many threads of ideas and imagery. These stem from Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that I look to Schubert for inspiration as Night Ferry will be premiered with Entr'acte No. 3 from Rosamunde and his Symphony No. 9 (Great). The title, Night Ferry, came from a passage in Seamus Heaney’s “Elegy for Robert Lowell,” an American poet who, like Schubert, suffered from manic depression:

You were our Night Ferry
thudding in a big sea,
the whole craft ringing
with an armourer's music
the course set wilfully across
the ungovernable and dangerous.'"

After the quiet ending of the previous cut, the drum bang that opens Night Ferry heralds a different mood. This ferry ride is no quiet, romantic cruise on a moonlit night, but rather a perilous journey through storm-swept waters, the blackness of the sky above and waters below illuminated only intermittently by flashes of lightning. Clyne illustrates the scene vividly with swirling strings above and pounding drums below. There are some brief interludes where the storm loses its ferocity, but the music then again rises in intensity as the storm begins to rage again as the mysterious voyage late at night continues. At about 15 minutes into the musical voyage, we encounter the terrific pounding of the bass drum, recalling for some of us the audiophile passages of Telarc recordings of days past. But then there is some calm, with soft melodies in the woodwinds. As we near the end of our night voyage and stare to see the harbor lights, the music takes on a more ominous tone, with the tempo slowing. We begin to feel that the storm may be ready to rage again before we can safely dock, but the music fades peacefully as we reach the end of our perilous journey.

The album concludes with <<rewind<<, conducted by André de Ridder. Clyne describes this piece as “inspired by the image of analog video tape rapidly scrolling backwards with fleeting moments of skipping, freezing and warping.” Hmmmmm. I don’t know about you, but for me, that is not exactly a description that really whips up my desire to hear such a composition. Thankfully, however, the music itself is much more enjoyable than that description might lead us to believe. Once again, the music begins with a vigorous drumbeat and continues with a strong sense of motion and drive. As the music continues and the tape rewinds, that Telarcian bass drum again makes a cameo appearance, but we also encounter some lovely violin. The music builds up to a rousing ending that features quite a jolt.

Considering that the recording sessions for the music took place in two different venues (Barbican Hall for all but Masquerade, which was recorded in the Royal Albert Hall) in different years ranging from 2011 (<<rewind<<) to 2018 (This Midnight Hour) by several different engineering teams, the overall sound quality is remarkably consistent, a testament to the large body of recording work done by the BBC with their orchestra. They have the experience to know what works best and they strive for consistent quality. This may not be the very finest audiophile sound, but it is very good indeed.

Overall, this is a wonderful recording of music by a composer who deserves wider recognition. I fervently hope that more recordings of music by Ms. Clyne will be forthcoming, as she has a vivid imagination and a wondrous talent for orchestration. Brava!

Bonus Recommendation: Although it might help, you would not need to be a big fan of British music to enjoy the music of William Alwyn (1905-1985). Although he is virtually unknown in the United States, he was quite a prolific composer, with five symphonies, four operas, several concertos, chamber music, piano music, and something like 200(!) film scores to his credit. He was a virtuoso flautist who played in the London Symphony Orchestra for a time and was involved in organizing musicians, teaching composition, and evaluating scores for possible presentation by the BBC. His music is modern-sounding, yet quite “listenable.”

The Naxos catalog contains a good sampling of Alwyn’s music, including all five of his symphonies, all five of which are excellent compositions deserving of a wider audience. The recordings are spread over three CDs featuring the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra led by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.557648 includes Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. No. 1 begins with a barely audible opening hush that blossoms into a full-scale symphony of four movements. The orchestration is masterly, and you can get a sense of why Alwyn was called upon so often to compose movie scores. Not that the music sounds like film music, but rather because the orchestration is so colorful and effective. No. 3 is more intense and focused, with insistent rhythms that at times yield to lushly lyrical passages of quiet beauty. Only after enjoying many hearings of this work did I read how Alwyn had employed something of a 12-tone technique, using eight notes for the first movement, the remaining four for the second movement, and then all 12 for the finale. For those who associate 12-tone composition with impenetrable dissonance, this work will be quite an ear-opener. Well worth a listen!

KWN

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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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 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. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.


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.

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