MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: December 2006
Reviewer: Patrick C Waller
It is Record
of the Year time (link 1) and, looking at the choices of
all MusicWeb Reviewers, it has clearly been a good year for
recorded classical music. One of my picks was Bernard Haitink’s
LSO live recording of Beethoven’s Second and Sixth
symphonies (link 2). At the time it was the only one of the
series I had heard. LSO Live has not yet boxed them all up but
when they offered the whole series cheaply off their website
I could resist no longer. They arrived within 48 hours and it
is a pleasure to be able to report that this is a very consistent
series. Alongside the Pastoral, the Eroica is
another particular highlight but all are artistically fine and
the sound is good too, belying the reputation of the Barbican
as a recording venue. For modern recordings of these works at
bargain price, this is surely now the place to go.
at the moment and I shudder and think of the ghastly image of
him on the front cover of the December Gramophone magazine.
I have bought every issue of this since 1980 and, to my wife’s
chagrin, most of them are still in the loft. Until now, I have
tried to ignore people like John Quinn who were telling me it
has deteriorated. Few people, I believe, would doubt the high
quality of its reviewers but a recent trend seems to be to give
them less space in favour of the trivial. Perhaps the Gramophone
is trying to reach out to new audiences but, in doing so, it
risks losing its original readership (is there a parallel here
with Radio 3 chasing Classic FM?)
at the December issue, do we really need full page pictures
of La Stupenda, Ludwig van B, the Northern Lights and a grimacing
Eduard van Beinum? Some of the many pictures are really not
very good anyway - Sarah Connolly appears to have one breast
whilst Ton Koopman and Ralph van Raat have no top to their heads.
Close inspection of the pictures in the article on Sibelius’s
7th reveals one of the Anthony Collins set on Beulah but his
recording doesn’t get a mention in the article. Neither does
Simon Rattle on his own – what we get is a feast of generalisations
and there are two places in which it isn‘t clear which of Maazel’s
recordings is being discussed. Simon Rattle’s recording ends
up at the top of the pile but the reader is left with little
idea why. Personally I don’t blame the reviewer – given an extra
page or two and a remit to discuss the main contenders in more
detail (instead of just dismissing, as were a batch of five,
as “sluggish”), I have no doubt it would have been an article
article Beethoven Today hardly does any better – the
promised overview of recent cycles such as Haitink and Vänskä
digresses and fails to deliver. Instead we get five cycles from
the past summarised in a couple of soundbites supposedly justifying
them as the greatest of all. The use of summaries in the Gramophone
is unimpressive. Who writes them – not the reviewer I am sure
– but is it someone who has actually heard the disc? And did
the Editor really listen to the Lilburn (link 3) he chose as
one of his discs of the month. If so, how could he possibly
say that it is clear in every note (my italics) that
the composer studied with RVW? Sibelius is a much more obvious
aural influence but, that aside, how could he even contemplate
writing such rubbish? Even worse though, who persuaded the much-admired
Rob Cowan to provide his top ten versions of the first few
bars of Mahler’s 5th for the November issue?
Paper format is
still something I want to use and regard as complementary to
the internet. However, space is limited and needs to be used
more effectively than it currently is in the Gramophone.
My view is that the focus should be on more reviews and in more
detail - there is a lot out there which is being missed. Where
for example where is the complete Scarlatti/Scott Ross review
which was promised a year ago?
OK, griping over
and let’s turn to something about which one can be wholly positive.
Pristine Audio has just re-branded itself Pristine Classical
(link 4) and I suspect that changes to their website led to
some down time some days ago. It was only a few hours but I
missed just being able to pick something from their large and
interesting catalogue of historical recordings and play it directly
off the internet through the stereo. Kevin Sutton’s recent article
(link 5) describes a service based on similar principles (currently
only available in the USA) with much wider choice and I agree
with him that this approach is a very positive step forward.
Recordings I have listened to from the Pristine website recently
include the famous 1950 Der Fledermaus under Clemens
Krauss (1893-1954), more Strauss under his baton in the 1952
New Year’s Day concert, both of which are tremendous. Just on
the site is the 1955 recording of Janáček’s two string
quartets by the Smetana Quartet – so good I have already heard
that twice. Gaston Poulet almost makes the London Symphony Orchestra
sound French in a 1953 reading of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
I have also heard quite a few of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Haydn
records – 28 of the quartets recorded in the 1930s are available.
Around the same time the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under
Talich recorded Dvořák’s 6th and 7th
symphonies – these are essential listening.
I have not reviewed
many discs recently but have an interesting pile on my desk
at the moment. This includes the Naxos recording of Shostakovich’s
The Golden Age about which Anne Ozorio (link
6) was recently so enthusiastic - and I am not going to argue
with that. Instead I have been reviewing Harold Truscott’s book
on Franz Schmidt (link 7) and revisiting some discs of his music
with pleasure, in particular the Fourth Symphony - Welser-Möst’s
EMI recording is splendid. A disc I did review was of Mozart’s
Flute Quartets played on period instruments, and I found it
most enjoyable (link 8).
Even though Christmas
is coming, there are plenty of bargains to be had at the moment.
A couple I recently picked out of the Supraphon catalogue (4
discs in total for £15) were the complete Piano Concertos of
Martinů played by Emil Leichner (11 1313-2
032) and Košler’s 1980 recording of Smetana’s
Bartered Bride (SU 3703-2 632) – this was a significant
gap in my opera collection. Although the Martinů is a recent
recording, this is billed as the first complete set. There are
five concertos plus a concertino and the works span from 1925
to the year before Martinů’s death in 1959. These are idiomatic
performances with strong support from the Czech Philharmonic
Orchestra under Jiri Belohlávek. Much the same could be said
of the Smetana which is also excellent.
Finally, it was
good to read Howard Goodall’s upbeat article (link 9) exploding
a few myths about classical music. I am truly glad that Classic
FM is doing wonders for interest levels and that I don’t have
to listen it.
Patrick C Waller