Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974) Symphony No. 1 in B-minor*, op. 3 Symphony No. 4 in G-minor, op. 14 "Sinfonia Piccola"** *Swedish Radio Orchestra conducted by Stig Westerberg (rec. 1986) **Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sten Fryberg (rec. 1976) STERLING CDS-1010-2 (61:10)
Atterberg's Symphony No. 1 is an impressive and considerable (40 or so minute) work for a young 24 year-old composer. It was written between 1908 and 1910; and first performed in Gothenburg in January 1912. "The Russians, Brahms and Reger were my ideals," commented Atterberg but according to a programme note from the 1920s, the themes breathe the latent harmony of Swedish folktune.
The opening Allegro con fuoco movement is heroic and restless - it seems to speak of patriotic fervour and of elemental turbulence. Westerberg delivers a muscular performance driving the music forward so that it maintains its thrilling impact. The following Adagio-Presto (really the slow movement and scherzo combined) lasts nearly 17 minutes. The Adagio section is very beautifu, beginning prayer-like until the music broadens out to a lush Romantic theme - one might imagine a silvery seascape lying serene beneath a full moon. Indeed, in many places, I was reminded of Attterberg's later Symphony No.3 "West Coast Pictures." There is an important part for solo violin and the music slowly develops towards a radiant climax. The Presto portion of this music reminds one of the Russian composers beginning with Rimsky-Korsakov. It is brilliant, colourful and fast-moving - rather like an exhilarating ride with Cossacks. The final movement begins with a delicious love song which is passed to and fro amongst the violins and violas and woodwinds before it is sighed over by the cellos. The tempo accelerates and the music becomes much more macho-heroic with strong assertive material through to the end. A very appealing work which might have been stronger for a bit of judicious editing and shortening particularly of the second section of the finale.
Atterberg's 4th Symphony "Sinfonia Piccola" is much shorter (just over twenty minutes). It benefits from a tight structure and its concision. Again folk material is the influence but one also detects echoes of Sibelius and Stenhammar The opening Con forza movement is again dramtic and fast moving with heroic material contrasted with music of quiet rural charm. The Andante is another Atterberg jewel. It has a quiet, rather frosty, crystalline beauty; a glittering matrix of very short motifs before a cor anglais weaves a lovely romantic melody over the texture, to be taken up later by the strings. The Scherzo is very brief at only 1:15; its assertive and merry - boozy even - with a cheeky sting in its tail. The final Rondo is high-spirited and sunny with charming clumsy innocence. The Norrköping players deliver a most persuasive performance of this charming little symphony.
KURT ATTERBERG (1887-1974) Cello Sonata* (1920s?) [27.28] Cello Concerto** (1917-22) [35.45] Werner Thomas-Mifune (cello) Carmen Piazzini (piano) Berlin RSO/Karl Anton Rickenbacher *rec Munich, Nov 1994**rec Berlin, Oct 1994 issued 1997 KOCH-SCHWANN 3-1585-2 [63.13]
Atterberg's music has been enjoying a slowly unfolding renaissance on record since the mid 1970s. A Swedish romantic, he has a very large output much of which is still inaccessible on disc. His symphonies 1-6 have been available piece-meal across a variety of labels. Until very recently the last three symphonies were a closed book unless you were prepared to explore the highways and byways of off-air tape collections. Sterling's wonderful CD of symphonies 7 (Romantica) and 8 has now given us all but one of the symphonies. The last symphony is the forty minute Visionaria (No. 9) for soloists, chorus and orchestra - a grim work known to me from an aircheck in the version conducted by Fougstedt with Kim Borg as soloist. Rather like Malcolm Arnold there is also a fine Symphony for Strings.
We very much need recordings of the double concerto and the piano and violin concertos. The three interludes from his Thousand and One Nights opera Fanal plus the tone poem The River (nothing to do with Palmgren's similarly titled second piano concerto) would also more than repay the investment. I have only scratched the surface.
Mifune adventurous soloist - witness his recorded repertoire which includes the Grachaninov suite, the Rubinstein concertos and the Khachaturyan concerto. In the present recording (I have not heard the others!) there is no suspicion of time-serving. On the contrary the impression left is of an artist at the service of the music.
The sonata which is quite volcanic is clearly the work of a very fine and affecting tunesmith. It begins with a first movement that has a long romantic tune spun with infinite care and resource. This rises to a climax when the soloist's instrument almost howls in passion. The middle of the movement invokes blue and placid waters. Mifune draws on both delicacy and strength from both parts. This sonata has both piano and cello truly interacting. There is little of submissive accompaniment from the piano though singer is the cello. It is a work of sentiment without sentimentality; try the middle movement adagio molto. The finale is one of romance and Medtnerian aristocratic filigree. The piano part eggs on the cello in triumphant virtuosity. A grand plunging and surging romantic tune rounds off the proceeding, is given an Hispanic twist and then trails satisfyingly to the closing bars of surprising calm. The sonata joins the lists which already include the rachmaninov and Foulds cello sonatas: very affecting; a real discovery
The Concerto's andante cantabile first movement is an audacious introduction where an awed vibrato from the high violins provides a bed of sound over which the solo cello sings. The cello part projects music shaken wretched and shivering with dark and compelling emotion. A gloomy and cataclysmic tone winds in and out of the work leavened by the soloist's impassioned song. This is truly a work of late romantic fervour. Going by the sound of several passages Atterberg seems to have been deeply impressed by Sibelius whose second symphony and Humoresques (violin and orchestra) were clearly an influence. Add to that many pages where Atterberg seems dead set on becoming the Swedish Korngold and you have a work to reckon with. Lissom tunes, golden taste, regret and Elgarian bite summarise this major discovery. If there were any justice the work would have become a repertory standard years ago.
The CD cover is CD Friedrich's painting of Nordic Sea in Moonlight.
Recommended - especially to pursuers of Scandinavian romanticism. Your investment will be richly rewarded.
LAMENTED BACHIAN TREASURES. BACH: 'St Matthew Passion'. PERGOLESI: 'Stabat Mater' . Kathleen Ferrier, Eric Greene, Elsie Suddaby, Henry Cummings. The Bach Choir, The Jacques Orchestra. Dr Reginald Jacques/Joan Taylor, The Nottingham Oriana Choir, The Boyd Neel String Orchestra Roy Henderson Dutton Laboratories 2CDAX2005 3 discs 224m ADD (Recorded: 1946/48)
We have been left all too few recordings of Kathleen Ferrier's inimitable voice but this outstanding complete English version of Bach's greatest passion is indeed a treasure-trove. It personifies the style and traditions of a past age in Bach performance and is also a tribute to Dr Reginald Jacques who was bold enough to perform and record the first complete version of this work. The soloists were also deeply steeped in English pre-war choral tradition so the performance is another worthy window on the past in different ways. There is also a certain hallowed air about this recording, a sense of discovery and sacred affection for the music that only arises from spontaneity.
Most period-performance purists will definitely rule this re-issue out-of-court for its solemn pondering and clearly embellished scoring, but to my mind no recording of this ubiquitous Passion comes closer to the heart of Bach's divine conception. Ferrier is simply outstanding in the title role, her vocal declamation and fiery portrayal of the anguish and suffering that she herself was to experience is chillingly convincing. She is matched however by an outstanding team of soloists, all of which are in direct or close contact with her heart-rending agonizations. None is more convincing than Elsie Suddaby, a deeply committed and authoritative Bachian interpreter.
She is more than a match for Jacques' ponderous tempi and her shaping and inflexion in her many arias are shatteringly spiritual and inspired. Alan Blyth rightly singles her out for praise in his booklet essay. Blyth also recalls the nostalgic effect that Eric Greene and Henry Cummings used to have in their innumerable performances of this Passion at Eastertide in years gone by. Both artists are completely at one with the various tragic musical permutations and their lifelong experience of singing this magnificent work is never in doubt. I cannot praise the wonderful singing of the Bach Choir too highly, such is their rapt spirituality and alert attendance to all matters choral. This was indeed an ensemble trained to the highest standards of artistic perfection by their inspired conductor and leader.
I have already muted the point that the old-fashioned portamentos and melodic shaping by the Jacques Orchestra can tend to be slightly boorish, but there is no doubt of their affection for the piece. In many ways, this recording reminds me of Sargent''s outstanding 1946 ''Messiah''; a similarly no-holds-barred traditionalist performance with unashamed use of a full orchestra and handpicked choir, a companion piece if there ever was any. The English text may be a deterrent for the purists, but it certainly helped me to understand the work better. As if this was not enough, Dutton have resurrected another legendary performance in the shape of a rare Pergolesi ''Stabat Mater'' recorded in 1946.
This time Ferrier is accompanied with outstanding dignity and persuasiveness by Roy Henderson and the Boyd Neel strings, an underrated conductor who was especially good in small-scale baroque works. Indeed his conducting contains some controversial tempi, that work to the increase of excitement and effect of this undeniably awe-inspiring composition. Joan Taylor is the accompanying soloist and she is the ideal partner to Ferrier's distinguished voice, here in full maturity and prime.
Dutton are offering this 3-disc set at the price of two and this added incentive makes for a wholehearted recommendation. As a parting note, it would be appropriate to praise the fine sound secured by Kenneth Wilkinson and Victor Olof, both giants of their time and representatives of the golden age of Decca recordings. An outstanding memorial of Kathleen Ferrier, one of those select group of legends 'whom the Gods love'.
ARNOLD BAX Symphony No. 2; November Woods Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.554093
Assuming the Bax symphonies will someday receive the popular attention they so obviously deserve, I predict at least three of his seven symphonies will come to be ranked with those of Elgar and Vaughan Williams as the greatest examples of British music in that form. While Bax's Third Symphony was for many years his most popular symphony, its reputation in recent years has suffered (rather unfairly, I think) in comparison with those of the Fifth, Sixth and Second Symphonies which are regarded by most Baxians as his most characteristic and brilliant orchestral works. Surely, one listen through of this new Naxos recording of Bax's Second Symphony with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra should convince any sympathetic listener of Bax's limitless musical imagination and brilliance at writing for a large symphony orchestra.
The Second Symphony is the most deeply personal of Bax's works, which is saying a great deal considering how much of his music is autobiographical. He poured more of himself into this work than any other. Its composition consumed him for the greater part of two years and at its completion, he said he felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Any successful performance of this work must convey the deeply troubled state of mind the composer was going through at the time of its composition. David Lloyd-Jones' performance most certainly succeeds in this regard. From the unbelievably ominous opening with its bass drum roll and sinister motif for cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon through the middle movement's impassioned outbursts for organ and running strings to that most desolate and inconsolable of Bax's famous epilogues, Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is one that emphasizes the dramatic and descriptive elements of the score. His fastidious attention to detail uncovers a wealth of instrumental color and invention. Naxos has provided a very clean but also very dry recording which allows the listener to hear much more of what is going on in the orchestra than could be heard on the Chandos recording with Bryden Thomson. I myself would have welcomed a little more ambient warmth which might have provided more richness to the string tone. The nearly 30-year old recording made by Lyrita with Myer Fredman conducting the London Philharmonic is still the preferred recording in terms of sound.
This budget Naxos recording is in almost every way preferable to the Chandos recording. Lloyd-Jones' interpretation is as spacious as Thomson's but he is much more successful in navigating the intricate shifts in tempo and mood and, most importantly, in keeping the music moving. So often with Thomson's Bax the impression is given of the music being pulled out of shape in order to accommodate that conductor's desire to wallow in Bax's gorgeous harmonic textures. Lloyd-Jones is a much more disciplined conductor, and like that greatest of all Baxians, Vernon Handley, his aim is clearly set at giving the music shape and assuring that its structure holds together. Mention should also be made of Fredman's Lyrita account which is currently unavailable. That fiery performance is a classic and nicely compliments this weightier and more broadly conceived performance. Its release is an absolute must but in the meantime I want to wish this new Naxos disc every success because I believe it could make many new friends for Bax and this symphony in particular. I can't think of a more underrated masterpiece in British music.
The companion work on this disc is November Woods. The standard recording by which all new versions of this work are judged is Sir Adrian Boult's definitive account on Lyrita with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Both Neville Marriner and Bryden Thomson give similarly conceived performances which ultimately fail to impress as much as the Boult. Lloyd-Jones, perhaps wisely, approaches this work differently. His is the more literal interpretation of a violent autumn storm with the more introspective elements of this tone poem being underplayed. This is a brilliant, on the edge-of-your-seat performance which I suspect will be controversial but which also goes to show that great music can be played in more than one way. The playing by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is both works is sensitive and virtuosic. I now look forward to Lloyd-Jones' recording of the beautiful Third Symphony which is scheduled for release later this year.
Richard R Adams
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (ed. Carragan) National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Georg Tintner Naxos 8.554006 [71.00] DDD
Looking afresh at Bruckner's scores has brought a whole new revelation that is quite a Nineties phenomenon. Indeed few connoisseurs will be acquainted with this massive seventy-one minute version of the Second in a new edition by William Carragan but it would be safe to say that it must be the version to have when considering an outright buy for this rather neglected symphony.
The music comes through in huge monumental blocks; not in the snappy and tirade bits and pieces that characterize the Nowak version which is unquestionably more popular. Georg Tintner is obviously a conductor with a real feel for the score and I would go as far to say that along with Gunter Wand, he is the only real representative of the Bruckner school left to us. The way he shapes the mesmerizing opening of the Ziemlich schnell is amazingly romantic and the grand craggy music unfolds with magnificent splendor throughout the twenty-one minute movement.
It is also refreshing to hear the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland play with such relish and evident affection for this music, so long private property of the Vienna and Berlin orchestras. Tintner's Scherzo is also craggy and snappy and the Trio is lovingly phrased, it is in fact almost Beethovenian in its pastoral imagery. Carragan's edition pays obvious dividends in the Andante, here the movement makes much sense at eighteen minutes, in fact the construction and development of this sublime movement is a worthy prelude to the majestic edifices that permeate the last three symphonies.
Mehr schnell is the Finale's marking which is also winningly done in Tintner's experienced hands, all pitfalls are negotiated with an assured sense of nobility whilst the coda is pompous and magisterial with an appropriate whipping up of intensity in the final bars. The conductor's notes are highly informative and are one of the redeeming features of what is bound to be an authoritative series as is the reproduction of a stunning view of 'Grossvendinger', the ideal companion to what is mountainous Bruckner at its finest.
Anton BRUCKNER: Symphony No.8 & Symphony No.9* London Symphony Orchestra / BBC Symphony Orchestra* Jascha Horenstein BBC Music Legends BBCL 4017-2
This disc was reviewed by Tony Duggan last month. There now follows a technical appraisal
Like many others, I have a very high opinion of Horenstein's 1970 live recording of Bruckner 8 with the LSO. This recording has been available until now on M&A, Descant and Intaglio, which may or may not be exactly the same transfer -- I have the Intaglio. Now the BBC has given this performance an official release, with a new mastering from their own master tape.
I've always been pretty happy with the sound on my Intaglio copy, but I wanted to know whether the BBC was a significant improvement. Imagine my dismay when two authoritative voices -- Henry Fogel and Tony Duggan -- came down on different sides of this question. Tony found the improvement slight, Henry found it more important. The difference left me no choice but to fire off an order to MDT for the new BBC release, so I could hear for myself.
Listening confirmed that the BBC release sounds better -- the sound has more "air" and immediacy than the Intaglio, which sounds slightly muffled in comparison. Henry felt that the BBC sound was more extended at both high and low frequencies than the earlier release.
To analyze the differences more closely, I copied pieces of each recording into the computer and used a couple of different techniques to analyze them.
Examining the spectral content of the Intaglio immediately reveals its origin as an off-the-air taping -- the spectrum is sharply cut off at 15 kHz, and significant traces of the 19 kHz subcarrier are evident. There is also a gradual tailing off of high frequencies from about 10 kHz. The BBC shows no such anomalies at high frequency, with the response extending smoothly to at least 18 kHz. There was no significant difference in the low-frequency response of the two transfers, or in their overall frequency balance below about 10 kHz.
Though the off-air origin of the Intaglio is clear, the taping was clearly done very carefully and on high-quality equipment; there is no significant compression of peak responses compared to the BBC, and very little if any audible extra distortion. The slight attenuation of high frequencies accounts for the relative (slight) dullness of sound on the Intaglio.
Since the Intaglio came off the air, it was possible that extra dynamic range compression (applied at the time of transmission) would be evident. In fact, there is none detectable -- both the BBC and the Intaglio have the same dynamic contours, which reflect the careful use of a moderate amount of dynamic range compression at the time of original recording.
There is no sign that the BBC issue was Cedared or otherwise denoised. Both recordings have roughly the same signal-to-noise ratio, which is reasonably good but which lets through some tape hiss.
So where do I come out? The BBC certainly sounds better, and as Henry mentioned the effect seems to be cumulative over long listening. On the other hand, the Intaglio remains perfectly satisfying and no one should buy the BBC issue in the hope of major sonic improvement.
I have now compared the Bruckner 9th (BBCSO, live 1970) that is coupled with the 8th on the BBC issue with the Intaglio issue of the same performance.
The difference is substantially greater than in the case of the 8th. The BBC issue of the 9th has sound of similar quality to that of the 8th, but analysis of the Intaglio reveals a number of significant defects that contribute to "grittiness".
Like the 8th, Intaglio's 9th is derived from an off-the-air tape -- the recording is sharply low-pass filtered just above 15 kHz, and shows detectable amounts of the 19 kHz pilot signal. Unlike the tape of the 8th, however, the tape of the 9th is somewhat overmodulated at the peaks. This reveals itself in a detectable compression of the loudest peaks, combined with the appearance at those points of significant energy in the 15-20 kHz range which I take to be harmonic distortion due to tape overload. Perhaps because of the overload, the high frequency content of the Intaglio is somewhat attenuated compared to the BBC, with the level down about 3 dB between 2 and 5 kHz, and almost 5 dB at 10 kHz. As a result, the BBC sound has substantially more "air" than the Intaglio.
There is an additional problem with the Intaglio -- very low frequencies are quite substantially attenuated, by 4.5 dB at 80 Hz and 7 dB at 40 Hz. This is, I think, the result of an effort to remove significant amounts of 50 Hz hum from the original recording; the hum is still detectable in a spectrum analysis and sometimes audible during quiet passages.
The overall effect of these defects is to make the sound on the Intaglio substantially inferior to that on the BBC. In addition to the grittiness (presumably due to distortion), the lack of deep bass is quite noticeable when the two are compared.
While my earlier comparison of the 8ths suggested that the Intaglio would be entirely satisfactory for most listeners, those who care about sound will certainly notice a difference between the 9ths. Some who greatly admire the 8th find the 9th less satisfactory as a performance (eg Tony Duggan), but others (eg Henry Fogel and me) find it very nearly as impressive. If you are in this camp, you may well find the BBC issue worth buying for the substantially improved sound of the 9th. Setting aside the technical aspects of different tape sources for a moment, it is worth noting that the basic sound of the recording of the Bruckner 8th (made in the Albert Hall) is more spacious and better blended than that of the 9th (made in the Royal Festival Hall. Even with the sonic improvements noted in the BBC issue, the recording is really not all that good -- it is too closely miked for my taste and tends to sound a little harsh. So if you elect to buy the BBC issue in the hope that the engineers managed to "fix" the basic sound of the RFH, prepare to be a little disappointed.
Tony Movshon firstname.lastname@example.org
Center for Neural Science New York University
IGNAZ BRULL: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. Andante and Allegro Martin Roscoe BBC Symphony Orchestra Martyn Brabbins Hyperion CDA67069 [73m ] DDD.
Hyperion's lavishly produced and succulently informative series dedicated to the Romantic Piano Concerto has unearthed some truly buried treasure. The memorable discs dedicated to Dohnanyi, Paderewski and Medtner spring to mind but in my book; none is more striking than this sensational Brull disc. I had never even heard of this composer who was apparently quite a prodigy, composing his first concerto at the tender age of fourteen! Don't expect any immature squabbling, this is indeed a work to rank with the best barnstormers around for cliffhanging virtuosity.
The opening movement takes thirteen note-spinning minutes and the broad memorable melody that dominates the music is quite inspirational. A short but tender Andante preludes the dashing and whirlwind Presto Finale, a logical and tempestuous conclusion to what is one of the most astonishing concertos ever composed by a teenager. Martin Roscoe is the ideal advocate, playing with disarming skill and virtuosity; he indeed finds much devilish trickery in the latter Presto. The rare Andante and Allegro is a much later work, in a Konzerstuck mode and contains much fine melodic invention.
Roscoe's impeccable delivery cannot be faulted and he receives some outstanding accompaniment from the BBC Scottish players. There is a certain heroic grandeur about the Allegro vivace that made me recall the Brahms D Minor although to be fair, Brull's music is quite originally different. This brings us to the 2nd concerto, a similarly conceived work to its predecessor but perhaps more memorable. Certainly the symphonic sweep of the Allegro moderato carries all before it although the piano is given the lion's share of the melodic intuitivity.
I could hardly agree more with the note-writer's veiled comparisons with Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, indeed the lyrical outpourings of Brull's barnstormers is full of Beethovenian spirit lurking in the shadows. All is solved in one memorable dash to the finish line in the Allegro movement that has Roscoe at his most daring in terms of exhilarating risk-taking whilst Brabbins and his players are more than a match in this jolly romp! Hyperion's recording is on the dry side but this suits these concertos superbly with just the right balance between piano and orchestra. Dr Harmut Wecker's notes recreate some of the forgotten nineteenth century traditions to life in an informative but characterful essay. Those who have been collecting this wonderful series need obviously not hesitate but Brull deserves to win wider currency for these works, which should indeed be in the repertoire of any self-respecting concert pianist.
CHOPIN, First and last A recital by Peter Katin playing his 1836 Collard & Collard square piano. Athene ATHCD11 DDD [74' 56"]
Peter Katin is an astonishing pianist. When I listen to his playing of both Schubert and Chopin, composers whose music I am not espoused to and solely for musical reasons, I have to marvel that his convincing performances are such that I do listen to these composers and with interest.
Chopin is the better composer of the two I have mentioned because his music is not overblown but, generally, states its ideas simply and comparatively tersely ... whereas Schubert can meander and repeat himself at great length.
Katin is undoubtedly the Chopin specialist ... not only in fact but in performances. There are some gems in this recording particularly the haunting slow movement of the Piano Sonata No 1, Op 4. To me, this is Chopin at his best, devoid of those pretty cascades and frilly scales and a 3/4 tempo. It is a piece of genuine beauty and while I do not wish to take issue with Peter, or with Chopin, who both believe that the Sonata, as a whole, should never have seen the light of day, I do wish Katin would record it so that we could assess it played by an expert.
How exquisitely he unfolds the Berceuse, Op 57, another work of exceptional beauty. It is tender without being sentimental and, believe me, it takes the greatest of pianists to be able to achieve that. Having seen his performances of the Bolero, Op 19 many times, I knew what to expect in another dependable and reliable reading.
The Rondo in C minor, Op 1 brought Chopin great success and should be better known. But what is most staggering is the Polonaise in G minor written when Chopin was only seven years of age! While it is trammelled by 'over-correctness' it is a commendable piece as is the Polonaise in B flat written when he was only eight!
The Variations Brilliantes, Op 12 are played with great panache although it is not the type of Chopin I prefer. The Souvenir de Paganini does nothing for me either but its charm will certainly appeal to the majority. The Three Waltzes, Op 64 are regularly included in Peter Katin's Chopin recitals and I do admire his performances. He is not a cheap sensational pianist out for show and self-aggrandisement but a perfectionist always concerned with true accounts of the composer's written score.
There are some Mazurkas and Nocturnes including a very telling Nocturne in C# minor, one of those Chopin works that bares his soul to the discerning listener and helps us, or at least interests us to know more of this complex and fascinating composer.
As one would expect the performances are exemplary. Chopin should always be played like this. It shines a light and also gives a clear message even in the hearts of those unconvinced about his music.
CONSTANT LAMBERT (1905-51) Pomona - A ballet in one act (1927) 19:45 Tiresias - A ballet in three acts (1950/1) 54:16 English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd--Jones recorded Leeds Town Hall 8-9 April 1998 HYPERION CDA67049 [74:02]
Constant Lambert's flamboyant personality is reflected in his seductive and occasionally outrageous scores that are being explored with sumptuous and fine regularity on Hyperion. This latest offering enshrines two rare ballets and both reel with dazzling orchestration and Waltonian like jazziness that was so typical of Lambert at his best. 'Tiresias' in particular is orgiastic and sexually extremely alive with snakes and other evil animals taking on various guises, you can imagine what sort of music this imagination can furnish!
Lloyd-Jones is wonderfully alert, especially in the highly complex sections where orchestral ensemble pretty well loses all sort of organized cohesion. The hour-long conception is perhaps slightly too expansive but the orchestra never loses interest and one cannot deny the imaginative flair that lies behind the score.
With 'Pomona' we are in more familiar 'twenties' territory. The Roman setting is ideally conceived with the seductive whims of a feminine beauty dictating the proceedings, rather in the form of 'Salome'. In fact the music reminded me of Straussian opulence although at the same time you cannot fail to detect the Lambertian stroke of genius here and there. Lewis Foreman makes references to French impressionism and he could hardly be more right, this is impressionism, albeit in a British guise!
Hyperion's clear and spotlessly clean recording sums up a brilliant release. The striking cover painting is just the right sales pitch for the collector to dig into his/her pocket for those few pounds that will complete a purchase of qualitative integrity.
See also Rob Barnett's review last month
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) - Cello Concerto Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913- 1994) - Cello Concerto Pieter Wispelwey and the Netherlands Radio Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen. Channel Classics CCS 12998 [53:45]
The present R.E.D. Classical 1999 (formerly Gramophone) catalogue lists 30or so recordings of Elgar's Cello Concerto. So, one may well ask what is so special about this new entry into an already crowded field. Well, there are a number of good reasons: it is a recording made by non-British artists, it is distinguished by adventurous booklet notes (including a lengthy essay by Wispelwey on how he prepared for the recording) and unusual programming - whereas the majority of recordings opt for safe couplings with standard popular repertory works or inclusion within easier 'concert' programmes, Channel dare to couple this performance with Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto to form an intriguing and dramatic contrast. I can think of only one other such adventurous coupling - the Revelation recording (RV10100) with Britten's astringent Cello Symphony.
Wispelwey tells us that he listened closely to many recordings of the Concerto before he entered the recording studio; and he notes the differences between the Elgar-Beatrice Harrison and the Du PrE9/Barbirolli readings. Of the Elgar/Harrison recording he comments: "Perhaps not the perfect chemistry between conductor and soloist, but how refreshing are Elgar's choices of tempo, how flowing the Moderato (and moving and magisterial and elegant), how playful and lively the fast movements and how natural the Adagio!" Wispelwey appears to have deeply studied and thought about his interpretation of the Concerto. He makes interesting detailed comments about several passages. For instance: "It is remarkable that, although the concerto's idiom is unambiguously late-romantic, there is such control. This is expressed, for example, in a term such as 'nobilmente', applied to the opening measures of the cello in the 1st and 4th movements.
.All the more overwhelming is the moment in the last movement where Elgar loses his gentleman's self-control and lets himself go in Wagnerian outbursts, leaving the cellist in harrowing isolation. Before he finds comfort in a quotation from the 3rd movement, there are four measures leading to this moment which sound like Brünnhilde's gradual surrender to sleep at the end of Die Walküre, underlining the valedictory atmosphere of the whole episode, and perhaps of the whole concerto."
Wispelwey, playing on a 19th Century French (anonymous) instrument, begins a little tentatively and carefully; this is a studied rather than a spontaneous reading but with no lack of warmth. Surprisingly, the tempo is slightly faster than that of the Du Pré/Barbirolli partnership. Jan van Steen provides a most sympathetic accompaniment and the rapport and integration between soloist and orchestra throughout is excellent.
Wispelwey's playing is always clean and articulate impressively so in the faster moving sections of the Lento-Allegro molto. The Adagio (4:31) is again faster than Du Pré(5:15); it is as though the sadness is being recollected at a greater distance; suffering recalled in greater maturity, but it is no less affecting. I was reminded of Wispelwey's comments about Wagner quoted, while listening to the fourth movement (Du Pré: 12:15, Wispelwey:11:09), the orchestral response is harder and tinged with bitterness while Wispelwey's mourning has more of a defiant edge.
The contrast between the Elgar and the Lutoslawski is stark indeed. This is uncompromisingly modern and music (composed in 1970), appeals to the head rather than the heart. (Would Elgar have commented: 'all mechanical, no romance', I wonder). Again Wispelwey gives an excellent commentary about the work persuading us that it has drama, intensity and humour. The effects for the cello impress and the orchestral textures are colourful and often arresting. The concerto begins with an extended cadenza, a showpiece for off-colour glissandi and other typical Lutoslawski devices. The cello's meanderings are interrupted by a series of trumpet calls which are reminiscent of a cacophony of impatient car horns. These horns dominate this one-movement work which continues through a thicket of weird string pizzicatos and isolated, seemingly uncoordinated percussion strokes... It is only well into the work when the cello muses melancholically over quietly, agitated strings that we approach anything like Elgar's sound world; but this atmosphere is soon dispelled by the orchestra's eerie unease. Despite my usual resistance to this type of music, this work grew on me after several hearings.
GERALD FINZI (1901-1956) Clarinet Concerto (1949) [27.59] Five Bagatelles for clarinet and strings (orch Ashmore) (1943) [14.36] Three Soliloquies (1946) [4.49] A Severn Rhapsody (1923) [6.42] Romance (1928) [8.11] Introit (1927) (Lesley Hatfield violin) [8.22] Robert Plane (clarinet) Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths NAXOS 8.553566 rec 3-6 November 1995 [71:07]
This is a major success in the Finzi and Naxos stakes. The company's British music series has been extremely successful and this issue only serves to consolidate that reputation. It also ideally fills a gap in the Finzi catalogue: a bargain price collection of good/excellent Finzi orchestral pieces built around the clarinet concerto.
I discovered Finzi through the pristine and so far unmatched beauty of the EMI Wilfred Brown version of Dies Natalis which was conducted by Christopher (Kiffer) Finzi (yes, the same one supposedly depicted in the film 'Hilary and Jackie'). I rather regret that he did not record other Finzi works. What I wouldn't give to hear Kiffer Finzi conduct Intimations of Immortality with Wilfred Brown singing!
It was not through the vocal works that Finzi's music came to enjoy a revival in the early 1970s. It took off with the devil-may-care charm and vernal freshness of the clarinet concerto. This was written for Frederick Thurston whose widow, Thea King, ushered in its return to the repertoire, at first with various BBC studio orchestras such as the BBC Training Orchestra and the Academy of the BBC, ensembles now long gone. Gradually it came into concerts with the BBC regional orchestras in Wales and Scotland and ultimately featured in foreign tours by the BBCSO. Various soloists took it up and it soon became a standard bearer for the British musical renaissance. It was also chosen by various competitors in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. There have been quite a few recordings but apart from a roughness in the strings at the start the present account by Robert Plane ranks with the best. For the record the work comes over best of all in the big strings sound given to it in the as yet unreissued Lyrita LP (John Denman with LSO/Vernon Handley).
For those who are drawn to Finzi you soon realise how little he wrote. If you lament the absence of a second clarinet concerto Lawrence Ashmore's orchestration of the familiar Five Bagatelles (originally for clarinet and piano and often featured in AEB exam setpiece lists). This is not its premiere. That came on an old and now deleted RCA with the clarinetist Robert Stoltzman. These are delectably done by Plane and the orchestra. Try the lovely sense of natural pacing in Forlana (track 7).
The Three Soliloquies are also well done and can be compared with the Boult/LPO Lyrita LP (no CD yet). Griffiths's smaller forces lend this version and predictable but still compelling intimacy. They are however very slight pieces and the complete suite from Love's Labours Lost is much to be preferred on a Nimbus CD. Severn Rhapsody and Introit have little or no competition and both are winsome works from the early years. The Rhapsody is not a summer's breeze away from Butterworth's Shropshire Lad and is not Finzi at his most essentially idiomatic. The Introit, on the other hand, makes me lament the ruthless decision to drop the flanking movements which made up the Finzi violin concerto. I wonder if the work can ever be reconstructed? As it is the Introit is every bit the equal of Eclogue (a piece well exposed on British Classic FM). It is a work of the most haunting and evanescent intensity, heartbreaking in that passage in which the violin plays in its highest register. It is in some ways a scion of Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending and is every bit the equal of that work. Lesley Hatfield plays it with poise, security and serenity. Again I marginally prefer the Boult Rodney Friend Lyrita LP but only because of the bigger sound of the LPO string band.
The Romance is another of Finzi's heart-easing gems and in its dancing lilt can be compared to another composer whose inspiration was the human voice, the Swiss Othmar Schoeck in his Sommernacht for string orchestra. Hickox's recording on EMI is comparably fine. Overall Howard Griffiths (who has previously recorded Schoeck's violin concerto for Novalis) and his orchestra produce a faithful and fine sound in close sympathy with Finzi's restrained passion and cool ardour.
I suppose another short orchestral piece could have been accommodated but this nevertheless remains a fulsome offering.
Good notes by the ubiquitous Keith Anderson. Fine sound. Good (and better) performances. Bargain price. Recommended to Finzians new and potential.
Hans HUBER (1852-1921) Symphony No. 5 in F major* (Romantic - 'The Fiddler of Gmünd') 'Summer Nights' Serenade Hansheinz Schneeberger (violin)* with the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Jörg-Peter Weigle. STERLING CDS-1027-2 [65:31]
These are world première recordings in Sterling's Romantic Swiss music series.
Hans Huber was amongst the leading musical personalities in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in the years around the beginning of the 20th century. He was born in 1852 in a small community in the north-west Swiss canton of Solothurn. He studied under Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and subsequently taught music in Alsace from where he made his first contacts with musical life in Basel where he moved in 1877. In 1892 he achieved celebratory status with his Festpielmusik zur Klein-Basler Gedenkfeier. He became diabetic and died in 1921 during a stay at a spa in Locarno. He composed masses, choral works, five operas, eight numbered symphonies, solo concertos for piano, violin and cello plus a large amount of chamber music, numerous songs and innumerable piano pieces.
Huber's 'Romantic' symphony is a vivid programmatic work comparable to Raff's Symphony No.5 'Leonore'. Huber's work is based on a poem (reproduced in full in the booklet) that celebrates a legend associated with the statue of St Cecilia (the patron saint of music, of course) that stood in the chapel in the town of Cmünd. The legend relates how a poor fiddler came in distress to the chapel and played with such sad eloquence that it moved the saint to pity so that her statue moved and gave the fiddler her golden slipper. The fiddler rushed out to exchange the shoe for bread but when the shoe was recognised, the fiddler was accused and tried as a thief and condemned to death. On the way to the scaffold the fiddler pleaded to be taken back to the chapel to pay his last respects to Saint Cecilia. With this wish granted, the fiddler played once again before the statue of the saint and a second miracle occurred when the statue gave the fiddler her other slipper. The townsfolk were awestruck and released the fiddler who now became a hero. At length he departed on his merry way but from henceforth the townsfolk always respected and honoured visiting fiddlers.
Now Huber weaves his music around this legend and poem but he does not translate the story literally but uses it in a stylised form. He imagines, for instance, the fiddler's circumstances before he arrives in Cmünd. Huber is, of course, provided with a golden opportunity to utilise a violinist as soloist to personify the fiddler and the work proceeds very much in the spirit of Berlioz's Harold in Italy. Huber is careful not to let the fiddler become the star attraction - his part is well integrated into the orchestral fabric.
The first movement is in two parts. First there is a 6 minute Allegretto tranquillo section also marked pastorale. This is a bit of a misnomer because it isn't that tranquil - in fact one gets the impression that Huber is in a hurry to start the narrative because it begins with march-like figures as if he was walking purposely through the landscape, without enjoying it, to carry out some purpose. A quirky trumpet fanfare introduces the fiddler but the pace does not relax much and one imagines a sort of Korngold Sherwood Forest backdrop where there is conflict and hidden danger. The second part of this 21 minute movement is in the form of a theme and variations. This gives Huber the chance to take his fiddler over broad plains, through woods (complete with twittering birds etc), allows the fiddler to meet a jolly band of soldiers and apparently makes fun of them (by the sound of this interpretation) and to meet his 'beloved-to-be' to some florid, rather scented romantic music (often impressionistic in style); although their amours are interrupted by a violent storm. All the while, the fiddler (Hansheinz Schneeberger) makes the most of all the expressive opportunities presented by these scenarios.
The relatively shorter (8 minutes) second movement, one assumes, is the song(s) that the fiddler plays in front of the statue of St Cecilia. The programme sheet at the première gave the title 'The fiddler's songs: Love and Sorrow for this movement. The third movement (16 minutes) is spectacular and the influence of Richard Strauss (particularly Till Eulenspiegel) is apparent. It commences as a march to the scaffold. The music suggests outraged Civic pride and the protestations of a perhaps not so innocent fiddler, then there is a quieter section as he persuades his captors to allow him to pay his last respects in the chapel. There follows a magnificent climax, with full organ, celebrating all the pomp of the Church as the second miracle occurs. The work ends quietly as the fiddler goes on his way.
This is a most interesting and engaging work which deserves to be better known. It receives a full-blooded and spontaneous performance form soloist and orchestra.
The other work in the programme is enchanting. Huber's 'Summer Nights' Serenade is pleasant, relaxing, undemanding music. The first movement is rather classical/early Romantic in style. Mendelssohn comes to mind more than once. There is a rustic quality but also a feeling of national pride which is also evident in the finale. The scherzo second movement is fast very bright and untroubled; I had the mental picture of a romantic carriage and horse ride. I carried this imagery over into the Adagio third movement that is also marked Nocturne. Here I imagined the carriage stopping at some lovely vantage point as the lovers caressed under the moon and stars. This movement is dreamily romantic with some fine writing for horns and strings. The finale is a joyous celebration with dancing that reminds one of Liszt and Brahms in Hungarian mood.
A recording to discover and savour.
RONAN MAGILL. Titanic, an atmospheric poem in five pictures for piano solo played by the composer. Athene. ATHCD13 DDD [62' 13"]
Can I deal with the preliminaries first?
As with all Athene CDs, the recording engineer Mike Bevill has again produced superlative sound which has an amazing clarity and stunning range.
Ronan Magill was born in Sheffield in 1954 of Irish parents and was a founder member of the Yehudi Menuhin school. His periods of study fall into two phrases ... firstly, with Fanny Waterman and Benjamin Britten and then he vastly improved himself by studying with two excellent pianists, David Parkhouse and John Barstow and with the composer Philip Cannon. From there he studied with the late Yvonne Lefébure who in turn had been a pupil of Cortot. Magill is a gifted pianist.
Gerrard Victory gave Magill his debut in Dublin in 1976 with the Paganini Rhapsody of Rachmaninov. He has played Tchaikovsky 1 and Brahms' 2 with Arthur Davison, the Schumann with Anthony Pay and the Rachmaninov 2 with Hilary Davan-Whetton.
Magill has written a piano concerto, other piano pieces, three string quartets and a setting of John Donne's Hymn to God the Father. He is currently working on a cantata to words by John Dryden. But this epic piano work is receiving regular performances.
This renewed interest in the Titanic is best known in James Cameron's long-winded film starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett which, apart from the last forty minutes, I found incredibly boring. The 1953 film with Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner and Richard Basheart was vastly superior despite its age and lack of technology. Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember was made into a film in 1958.
I do not wish to divert from Magill's achievement but this is unpretentious music. It is what it says an atmospheric poem and it is very long. But, it is a skilful evocation of various aspects of this awful tragedy. As a study in piano effects with accurate visual imagery it is very effective. There is a realism here from the sinister to the gaiety of the Titanic Waltz. The frolics of two young girls in third class is true to life as is the evocation of the cold starry night.
The composer incorporates two pieces by Archibald Joyce (1873 - 1963) which were played on the Titanic, Remembrance and Song of Autumn. Track 10 is the Titanic Waltz, an original piece by Magill dedicated to Wallace Hartley and the band who carried on playing as the ship sank. All the eight members of the band were the subject of a memorial concert in the Albert Hall conducted by Elgar on 24 May 1912 in which he conducted one of his own works, the Enigma Variations as you might expect from such an arrogant man. Over 500 musicians from the London orchestras were present and Sir Henry Wood's orchestration of Chopin's Funeral March was also performed. It may have been forgotten that the London Symphony Orchestra were to sail on the Titanic but their trip was brought forward and they sailed on the Baltic in March.
Magill's work was first performed in the Purcell Room during 1990. It was, to quote him, an experiment in sound. Recently he has made a suite of what he considers may be the best sections - the Lamentation of the Sea Dead, the Waltz and the Iceberg music. I am pleased to report that he is contemplating a suite of some of the shorter extracts.
See also earlier review by Rob Barnett
MAHLER: Symphony No.4* Songs of a Wayfarer# Two songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn+ Joan Carlyle* Anna Reynolds# Elly Ameling+ London Symphony Orchestra* English Chamber Orchestra#+ Conducted by Benjamin Britten BBC Music "Britten As Performer 4" - BBCB 8004-2
Benjamin Britten's admiration for Mahler went back a long way, long before the Mahler "boom" of the early sixties to before World War Two. In his fascinating liner notes, Donald Mitchell identifies his friend Britten as one of the leading figures in the early renaissance of Mahler's music, a renaissance Mitchell maintains would have started much earlier had it not been for the war.
In 1930 the sixteen-year-old Britten had been present at the Queen's Hall in London to hear Henry Wood conduct the Fourth Symphony. Four years later he had been in Vienna to hear the same work under Mengelberg and, in that city, buy the miniature score now preserved at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh. In 1936 he had listened enthralled to a radio broadcast of Kindertotenlieder and a year later written to a friend of his admiration for Das Lied Von Der Erde. He owned the two sets of 78s preserving Walter's live Vienna performances of that work and the Ninth from 1936 and 1938. A remarkable series of facts when you consider how hard it was to hear Mahler's music in England in the 1930s when his music was regarded largely with either contempt or indifference by all but the most fervent admirers. All this and more makes Britten's interpretations of Mahler something to be savoured. I also believe there is something special about one composer expressing admiration for another through his interpretative skills: surely the ultimate compliment of one colleague to another over and above what ever other insights they may bring. Because, make no mistake, Britten was a fine conductor in his own right and these recordings can be considered alongside any others currently before us.
In hospital in 1943 Britten had written to Erwin Stein of "my precious Mahler 4th, which I think I have more genuine affection for than any piece in the world", and in 1961 (whilst at work on the War Requiem) he programmed the work at that Summer's Aldeburgh Festival. The BBC recording with the LSO in Orford Church makes up the lion's share of this fourth CD in the "Britten As Performer" series from the BBC. Splendidly restored for CD, it has a rich and deep sound with some church reverberation but no distortion to playing which, while not secure at all times, breathes humanity and involvement from a very alert LSO in one of their golden periods. In fact no apologies need to be made for the sound at all which can more than hold its own against all-comers.
In 1963 Britten talked about this Aldeburgh performance of two years before to an interviewer when he said: "My experience of conducting the Fourth Symphony at Aldeburgh showed me what a master of form he (Mahler) is, particularly in the first movement of that great work." These thoughts seem to partly explain the decision for his brisk tempo in the first movement which at 15:21 is the fastest I have ever heard. But it may also have something to do with the fact that in recent years tempi in Mahler have become slower as more and more conductors, in my opinion, choose to impose themselves and hang their own (real or trendily imagined) neuroses on music which is more than capable of expressing its own character without the conductor interfering.
The effect from the start and throughout is of lightness and optimism, classical tautness rather than romantic weight, and I think this general approach suits the character of the music very well. Fritz Reiner, next fastest at 15:41 and - significantly in the light of my observation regarding slower tempi - recorded three years before Britten, tried for the same effect but with far less warmth. So Britten must be applauded for taking the idea to its logical extreme while, like Rafael Kubelik at 15:48 and recorded in 1969, not compromising the poetry in the music. His lower strings may get caught a little unaware at 21 but they soon become used to what is being asked. In fact one of the sounds one takes away from this recording is the attention Britten pays to articulating the lower strings, helped by the acoustic. With a brisk edge to the tempo any relaxations of pace Mahler asks for do tell, like at 38-46, even though they don't distract from the general sharpness as they sometimes do under other interpreters.
At the close of the Exposition there are some lovely string slides, as idiomatic a Mahler sound as you could hope for, and this also applies to the spicy woodwinds at the start of the Development in the passage 102-124 where Britten is careful to inject a more dramatic cloak to the proceedings. The "climax on the dissonance" during 221-228, leading to the premonition of the Fifth Symphony's opening (the "Kleiner Appel"), is well observed but not to the extent that it protrudes and holds up the sense of momentum that the stronger structural/formal approach has brought with it; likewise the passage a little later which Mahler asks to be played "mit grosser ton".
It's a delicate balance this "form versus detail" dichotomy, and though Britten clearly veers to the former he seems aware enough of the latter pulling him back since, in the closing section, his ability to bring out delectable points of detail without diminishing the sharp focus shows that a conductor doesn't really need to slow up and "ham up" in order to seduce the ears of the listener. This closing section more than any other in the movement, maybe even in the whole symphony, is a vindication of Britten's approach. I imagine it takes preparation and hard work to bring off but Britten clearly wasn't afraid of that nor, on the basis of what we hear, were Pierre Monteux's LSO. A refreshing end to a refreshing performance of the first movement with much to tell us about this work and the way it might be performed. Mahler once said that the upper limit of a tempo is the point at which individual notes stop being heard. As a composer, Britten must have agreed with this.
By not lingering too much over the Trios in the second movement Britten keeps the momentum up here also. I must also draw attention to the deliciously played violin solos which make their out-of-tune effect without appearing to be too ill-mannered (Hugh Maguire, perhaps) and some superb solo horn playing (Barry Tuckwell, surely). The performance of this movement comes out on the side of the angels to come rather than the Devil whose violinist Death ("Friend Hein") dances around us but never really threatens.
If freshness and classical rigour seemed the keynote in the first and second movements it's clear Britten reserves the true emotional heartbeat for the third in an interpretation which is one of the finest (maybe even the finest) I have ever heard. Following the first two movements you could be forgiven for expecting something in the same vein but Britten confounds expectations by delivering breadth and lyricism which stand out in even greater relief following what he has done earlier. It's one of those performances that if you know you are going to have to review it you find the notebook you have been keeping for remarks remains blank because you are lost in sheer enjoyment. Listen to the meticulous care for dynamics both in the string parts and the woodwind solos. This is string playing of the highest calibre. Not slick and well-drilled, but unified in its humanity and its adherence to a sung, phrased line. The flinging open of the gates episode (at No.12) is big and powerful, but it's warm also and it sounds perfectly integrated with the rest of the movement. Barry Tuckwell's horn section are resplendent over timps that are admirably reined back for a change too: not for Britten the cannonade we are too often used to here which helps to keep the moment in proportion to the rest.
The insistence on how every phrase must be "sung" doesn't ,though, mean everything is done against the service of the form in which it's set. Once again Britten manages a unique balance between detail and structure, erring this time on detail while just keeping track of the variation form Mahler employs. It's this latter aspect of the performance which means that, though the overall timing is 20:21, the movement seems to take less time. Britten leaves us wanting more, I suppose you could say, and this latter aspect seems to be the explanation behind why I felt the last movement seemed such a more natural than usual conclusion to the symphony.
Sometimes the final song can sound as though it's been tacked on to the work and so emerge as an afterthought. Under Britten, with his care for through-thinking, there is no question that he accepts Mahler's decision to end things like this and is able to make it sound a natural progression - as if all symphonies end thus. Again he is quite quick and pungent, with some sharp interruptions and is aided here by his lively soprano, Joan Carlyle, who I rather liked. To me there's a "Tomboy" quality to her. Though I expect others might think she sounds too operatic. If she is then she's more of a Cherubino than a Susanna. I also enjoyed the down-swoops from the horns and the way Britten relates the bells in this last movement to those of the first giving a real sense of a full circle being completed. Don't expect the kind of ending you get with Barbirolli, for example. A gentle drift into slumber is not in Britten's mind. He maintains his sharpness to the end but at least the restorers at the BBC have carefully edited out the applause of the audience to leave us in repose.
This recording of Mahler's Fourth surely has historic status alongside those by Hidemaro Konoye, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter. Britten's presence as conductor alone demands it. But more than that I think it deserves to be compared with recordings by Szell, Maazel, Reiner, Kletzki, Horenstein, and one or two others, for general recommendation - a classic as well as a historic recording. I've no doubt this is a recording which deserves to be on every Mahlerian's shelf, irrespective of the fact that this is one great composer's view of another. Its care for neo-classical structure and, at times, bracing energy that can also accommodate a large amount of observed, sometimes newly-minted, detail and, in the remarkable slow movement, ample nobility, make it special. In future I might reach for it first.
And there's more. I can think of just two other single disc recordings of the Fourth with couplings ? The Wayfarer Songs are from the Aldeburgh Festival of 1972 and match Anna Reynolds with Britten and The English Chamber Orchestra in the Snape Maltings. This is another great interpretation in beautifully balanced sound (the best sound of the three items) good enough to stand alongside those by Fischer-Dieskau with Furtwangler and Janet Baker with Barbirolli. Britten's use of a smaller orchestra means we are treated to some lovely detailing and allowed to enjoy his remarkable insight into songs he had admired all his life. Note, for example, the conclusion to the third song where Britten seems to find pre-echo of the disintegration at the end of the Fifth Symphony's second movement, and then the wonderful sense of funeral tread he brings to the fourth song: more Fifth than First Symphony, and deeply moving for that. Anna Reynolds seems intimate with the text and you can ask no more than that.
The final couplings are two Wunderhorn songs with Elly Ameling from the 1969 festival and recorded in Blythburgh Church owing to the fact that the Maltings had been gutted by fire a few weeks before. We can hear again Britten's high regard for Mahler in the care he lavishes on these two jewels from the master's workshop, one of which, "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht", he had heard Elisabeth Schumann sing in London in 1932, two years before he had heard her in the last movement of the Fourth Symphony in Vienna under Mengelberg. Elly Ameling has just the right kind of perky voice for these songs which makes her account of the grim "Das irdische Leben" that much more chilling.
Buried treasure from the archives and a great Mahler conductor restored to us, then.
MAHLER: Symphony No.4 BERLIOZ: Overture Corsaire BBC Symphony Orchestra Sir John Barbirolli Smetana Hall, Prague. January 3rd 1967 BBC Music Legends BBCL 4014-2
"You have to keep an icy cool head to conduct Tristan and Mahler's Ninth, whatever is going on in your heart," Sir John Barbirolli once said. It's important to bear this quotation in mind when you listen to his interpretations of Mahler and especially this "live" recording of the Fourth Symphony made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Smetana Hall, Prague in January 1967. For although Barbirolli was always of the "interventionist" school of Mahler conductors his brand of expressionism never sprang from self-indulgence, rather a wish to serve the music and the composer as opposed to himself. After Sir John's death, Michael Kennedy found a quotation from Bertrand Russell in the conductor's papers: "Nothing is achieved without passion, but underneath the passion there should always be that large impersonal survey which sets limits to actions that our passions inspire." So it is in this Mahler Fourth. There is about it a remarkable air of calculation underpinning the high emotion and has the effect of throwing a frame around what, under other conductors, might sound like hamming. The feeling that thought, planning and care has gone into every bar and, perhaps most important of all, every sound. For this is a recording where the particular sound of this symphony has been rendered to a more vivid degree than I have heard in many a long time. There are problems. This is an orchestra that was not one Barbirolli worked with often and it was also recorded on tour with all the dangers to ensemble and note perfection that brings. All the same, this is Barbirolli's Mahler beautifully represented and in a work he never recorded commercially.
It has appeared before in inferior transfers. One of them (on the Intaglio label) was off-pitch and had a couple of bars missing from the third movement. Clarity and sharpness is what this new CD produces with details that conventionally-recorded versions often miss and infinitely more than the previous transfers ever gave. A big plus when Barbirolli is so anxious to recreate a special sound world.
If you like Mahler's Fourth fresh and pure (like under Reiner, for example, or even Horenstein) or childlike with an innocence and a "Wunderhorn" quality (like under Kletzki or Kubelik), go no further with Barbirolli. His reading is more towards a performance in the Mengelberg tradition: a case of putting yourself in the hands of the gnarled old storyteller, warts and all, and surrendering to him. You could say this is Mahler's Fourth seen in retrospect from Mahler's later works. Barbirolli doesn't indulge in quite the excesses Mengelberg does in his old 1939 recording, but I do think he is closer to Mengelberg (and Bernstein) than anyone else. Yet that "large impersonal survey" never deserts him, until the very end at least.
In the tapes made by William Malloch of the old New York players who remembered playing under Mahler himself we hear how the composer would interpret the opening theme of this movement and it's as if Barbirolli heard this too, for in the fourth note you can hear the same slight drag that in Mengelberg is so accentuated it can annoy on each rehearing. Under Barbirolli it has the effect of a rather arch "Once upon a time" and is utterly charming. Likewise his rendering of the second theme, which is marked "Broadly sung", where Barbirolli takes Mahler at his word. But that appears to be the hallmark for the strings, cellos especially, in this whole performance. I'm willing to believe many who know Barbirolli's recordings would be able to identify this as his work in a blind test. But the strings don't predominate. One of the special glories of this recording is the prominence given to the woodwinds, with some very particular phrasing in the oboes early on which will make anyone who knows the work sit up and take note. I also loved the sound of the bassoon against the high flutes in the development; a reminder of Mahler's propensity to pitch highest and lowest against each other that would reach its apogee in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. In sum, I think Barbirolli sees this movement's darker, unhinged side. The pizzicatos and spiky high woodwinds really protrude from the texture Grimm-like. As we approach the central crisis of the development it's as if Sir John is trying also to extract the maximum amount of drama from it, so the section between 221 and 238, which contains the "Kleiner Appell", is huge and almost overwhelming. But the passage marked "Mit grosser ton" a little later is even more so. Barbirolli clearly sees this as the true climax. A real kaleidoscopic first movement, then, with many details to be heard.
The second movement continues much of Sir John's groundwork from the first with every detailed attended to. I liked the woodwind chuckling attractively in the Trios and the clarinet shrieking like a startled bird. In performance Sir John invariably positioned his harpists at the front of the platform, right beneath him, and this may account for the fine prominence of the harp in this movement and in the performance as a whole. The way, tolling bell-like, it underpins the texture is another memorable sound to come out of this recording.
The harp underpinning is again apparent in the third movement which receives a performance in the grand Barbirolli manner, spacious and well-upholstered, broadly sung but also very consciously moulded with the most elastic approach to tempo in the whole symphony. There are passages here where I was reminded of Scherchen's Mahler (not that he ever recorded this work) rather than Mengelberg's, especially in the way tempi suddenly take off at a great speed only to be reigned back suddenly. There are many fine points of detail brought out again, though. Most notable are passages for the woodwind that take on an autumnal sound colouring.
Just before the passage where the gates of heaven are flung open (283-287) Sir John achieves a real sense of stillness akin to that at the end of the Ninth symphony and which makes the outburst that crowns the movement that much more towering. He gives his timpanist his head here also and those who have the old Intaglio aircheck CD will be pleased to hear the two or three bars missing from that are restored to us in all their glory.
I want to pay special tribute to the coda of this movement under Sir John. He sees a perfumed garden, exotic and hazy, and I couldn't help but see Mahler here as a very distant musical cousin of Frederick Delius and, great Delian that he was, wondered whether Barbirolli did too. It may not be to everybody's taste, like the whole of the performance, but it certainly stays in the mind.
The last movement is a relative disappointment. For one thing, marvellous though she sings, Heather Harper has, for me, the wrong kind of voice for this movement. She is far too matronly, far to correct, for the boyish quality that is surely needed. Barbirolli also does himself no favours by adopting a very slow tempo for the stanzas and an even slower one for the final stanza of all. The effect is therefore too dreamy most of the time, broken only by the sudden jolt of his quicker tempo for the incursions of the bells. It would be wrong to let this reservation spoil what is a remarkable, if very individual, reading of the work which has needed to be restored officially to the catalogue for years.
The Berlioz Corsaire Overture that completes the disc was recorded in the same concert and that explains the incongruous coupling. It's a fine performance, cutting quite a dash, but is completely out of place straight after the Mahler.
Admirers of Sir John and particularly his Mahler can buy this with confidence. Those with a Mahler palette ripe for the taste of a strong vintage should uncork at room temperature and prepare to savour every mouthful. Those whose Mahler palettes are rather more delicate should seek out something a little lighter to the taste.
Gustav MAHLER: Symphony No.9 Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Zander. Telarc 3CD-80527 (Three CDs for the price of one at full price.)
You do well for your money here. For the cost of one full-priced CD, in addition to the two containing the "live" performance of the symphony there's a third containing a seventy-six minute illustrated talk by Zander entitled "Conducting and Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony". Along with a liner essay by him there's also a single sheet containing a reproduction of the first two pages of the score (complete with the conductor's notations so you can follow the major part of his talk on how to conduct the piece), a plan of the orchestra layout, two "beat charts", some engravings of Mahler conducting and a note from a little girl thanking Zander for his performances. Everything but a stethoscope so you can listen to see if you have an arrhythmia to match the composer's (rendered in music in the first bars of the work) and an appointment with a Freudian analyst to see if your mental state matches Mahler's. Here I jest. But it does raise the question as to how much the listener needs by way of "support" before listening to Mahler's Ninth and why this recording might be so special that it needs them. Is it not the case that listeners have managed without such things and could in the future ?
Benjamin Zander is a teacher and, judging by all that comes with this set, a good one. His work with the pro, semi-pro and amateur Boston Philharmonic gives shining evidence of his virtues in this role too. He is also in demand the world over as one of that current "flavour-of-the-month" gurus: the Inspirational Speaker, called in by organisations to put lead into the emotional pencils of employees and, in his case, never failing to use music and his experiences performing it with "pros" and "ams" as part of his creed. So it's clearly the teacher in Zander that has led to the unusual presentation of this recording. But I wonder if he's in danger of making a rod for his own back. From his notes and talk he understands the work superbly well and can communicate his understanding clearly. The problem is, when we finally get to listen to the performance the notes and talk have been us leading to, will we hear one matching such a depth of understanding ? Is Zander as good a conductor as he is a teacher ? Can he also get a leading professional orchestra (as opposed to a semi-professional and student one) to live up to what his intellect and emotions tell him is there ? I will say straight away that on the evidence of this recording the answer is no, not when compared with others who have recorded this work and done it without the luxury of talks, notes, diagrams and tributes from children.
Because Zander has done himself no favours choosing this, of all works, to record and present in this way. In order for a recording of Mahler's Ninth to succeed it has to face competition that could not be stiffer. Harsh, but that's the way it is when you're out buying CDs. Of course you could say this issue is ideal for the newcomer because of the "extras" and the price, and there would be something in that. However, even taking that into account, I would still say a greater performance, one that lives up to all Zander knows is there and more, will, even in the short term, serve better.
In his essay he sees the first movement representing a crucial dichotomy at the heart of the symphony. He writes: "There seems to be two kinds of music....music that is gentle, harmonious, sublimely beautiful, and resolved; and music that is complex, dissonant, full of tension, and unresolved. And the structure of the movement seems to set these two kinds of music against each other." This dichotomy represents the duality in Mahler, Zander reminds us, and the time in which he lived, looking back to the romantic, unified past and forward to the dissonant, fragmented future. There is much to be gained from seeing the work in these terms and Zander manages to illustrate the two poles of the dichotomy quite well in his performance of the first movement. But there are other performances which do it better, more profoundly, and also recognise that a dichotomy is also the sum of its poles and the area between. Further, if fixated on one idea and one aspect of it, a performance is in danger of emerging as rather shallow and frankly that's how Zander's performance sounds in the first movement. This also appears to have a knock-on effect. The quieter passages between the more animated ones are interpreted by Zander as very slow and very withdrawn, to the extent they're in danger of becoming detached from the whole with little definition or focus, holding up the forward momentum and any feeling of line. The impression is of just marking time between crises. So there are "sharp oppositions" conveyed in the first movement but it's as if they are seen from a great height over large areas.
But Zander is very insistent in his recorded talk on the minutest attention to detail, using the first two pages of the score and his notes over them for us to see this. Yet, to take just one example, in the crucial climactic passage between bars 314 and 322 he appears not to have noticed, or chosen to ignore, that the two statements by the massed trombones of the opening rhythmic motif of the work have different dynamic markings: fff the first time and ff the second. Hear how Boulez gets his Chicago players to deliver this. (Deutsche Gramophon 289 457 581-2).
I mentioned earlier Zander making a rod for his own back in being so detailed in telling us what his aims are. A good example can be found when he writes: "....in the first movement of Mahler's Ninth....there are virtually no subservient voices. What appear to be accompaniments turn out to be independent voices with a life of their own....The orchestra is no longer used as a tutti instrument, but rather as a vast chamber group....The ideal orchestra for the work would be one composed entirely of great individualists, each with the courage to play exactly what he is given, regardless of what the others are doing." This is all valid, but though the Philharmonia play very well, they don't give the impression of achieving this effect. In fact they turn in a very corporate account indeed.
In an interview Zander says of rehearsing the work with the Boston Philharmonic: "We were in there week after week and the only recorded performance I listened to was Walter's magical live Vienna Philharmonic recording from 1938." (Dutton CDEA5005). So this invites one comparison to use because there WAS an orchestra of "great individualists", including some who had played under Mahler himself. You can also make a comparison with another orchestra of "great individualists", the London Symphony of 1966 under Jascha Horenstein, (Music and Arts CD-235), and the same conclusion is unavoidable. Two of the great Mahler conductors working with two personality orchestras recorded live and conveying the very sense of the orchestra as chamber group that seems to elude Zander, as he puts it: "....encouraged not to compromise the sharp oppositions, not to minimise the strangeness, even the ugliness that Mahler has written into his score". If you want a passage to illustrate this, the closing pages of the movement, from the duet of solo horn and flute onwards, would be as good as any. Zander's insistence on veiled, withdrawn playing robs it of the chance for the players concerned to show chamber-like qualities.
When it comes to the Scherzo Zander again appears in his accompanying material to partly understand what Mahler is aiming for but either misunderstands what he means the conductor should do with this or finds such a step beyond him. Referring to Mahler's use of his favourite ländler, Zander writes: "This dance is a grim parody of the dance. Mahler's indication at the beginning of the movement, "Etwas tappisch und sehr derb" (somewhat clumsy and very rough), shows that the true ländleris here stiffened and chained, deprived of its characteristic lilt - a counterpart of the first movement's dissonance and rhythmic complexity." That the ländler is profoundly changed by Mahler here, there's no doubt. Compare it with that in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony, as Zander tells us to. But I don't believe the change effected is either what Zander says it is or what he delivers. Indeed I don't think the performance bears that close a relation to what Zander says it should either. I think what Mahler is doing here was well described by Neville Cardus for whom the ländler is "ravished and made with child" and Leonard Bernstein who said it was "a bitter re-imaging of simplicity, naiveté, the earth-pleasures we recall from adolescence." With Zander what we get is a little too precise and contained with none of the "clumsiness" and "roughness" Mahler asks for and none of the parody Zander himself seems to want - never mind Bernstein's "re-imaging" or Cardus's "ravishing". (Did the Englishman perhaps have a coarser word in mind ?)
So, on a number of levels, there is much that is unsatisfactory in the second movement. Listen again to Walter, Horenstein and Klemperer to hear how it ought to go and to be in keeping with what Zander appears to want. Note the coarse rhythmic sense and the heavier tread, reinforced by all three in foot stamps on the podium at precisely the same moment as the dance gets underway. To conductors from their backgrounds music like this, even under metamorphosis, was "bred in the bone". I would also have expected Zander to make more of the tempo changes in the movement so crucial that Mahler refers to them as I, II and III. The changes, brilliantly realised in the Boulez recording, are somewhat half-hearted, almost designed not to sound awkward. In his talk Zander refers to how he has solved one tempo change that under other conductors sounds awkward. Give me awkwardness any time in this movement because that is what I believe Mahler wanted. The close of the movement where, as Bruno Walter has it, we know "the dance is over" is one of the most grotesque and disturbing passages in all Mahler and can be made to sound truly poisonous. Under Walter in 1938 it does: his "great individualists" see to that. Under Horenstein likewise, and note the prominence he gives to the contrabassoon. Under Zander the close of the Scherzo is merely a mild irritation.
For Zander the most remarkable aspect of the Rondo Burleske is its contrapuntal mastery and he is right to draw attention to this. But when he writes "at first it may sound utterly chaotic, but gradually we realise that it is a tour de force of controlled contrapuntal writing" I start to disagree and believe he may be elevating this aspect above others with the result that too much control is exercised where more abandon is what is demanded if the world of feeling this movement represents is to be made clear. If anything any sense of chaos at the beginning should be added to until the whole movement is in danger of breaking up. But at least Zander achieves what he sets out in his essay. His need for control also seems to be behind the fact that he is marginally too slow, but that isn't the whole story. Klemperer is slower and yet conveys a world of impending chaos.
Bernstein knew what this music meant: "....a farewell to the world of action, the urban, the cosmopolitan life - the cocktail party, the marketplace, the raucous careers and careenings of success, of loud, hollow laughter." I would only add it's also the music of a world about to go smash. Listen to the Walter recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of 1938 (playing when the world was on the verge of going smash for a second time) and the manic, almost unhinged frenzy with which they tear into this movement, not letting up until the end and so making the blissful interlude in the centre even more moving in its nostalgic power, is unforgettable. Or, only slightly less manic, Horenstein and the LSO where Gervase de Peyer's solo clarinet keeps squealing like Till Eulenspiegel strangling on the gallows. Such concepts seem miles away from Zander's stated aim of control which, to give him his due, he does achieve.
The last movement under Zander is well-proportioned. By that I mean the overall tempo and pacing across the movement is fine and it balances the long first movement. Something that isn't always the case when the symphony's "top-heaviness" can be accentuated. (It is worth saying that, though I am rather underwhelmed by this whole performance, it's at least a consistent approach and delivers a performance that has much structural integrity.) But when Zander writes of the last movement: "....the textures are rich and full, the counterpoint astonishingly opulent" it's a pity to find the strings are rather spare in volume and I'm worried by Zander encouraging the same emphatic lunges in the strings that disfigure the first movement too and which here have the effect of dissipating any opulence rather than aiding it. Even though it does have the effect of linking the first and last movements in our minds. The Philharmonia strings cannot match the "saturation-quality" or nostalgic yearning of their counterparts in the old Vienna Philharmonic even in a 1938 recording, and seem to scramble the opening. Whether it's the gut strings, the old-world style of playing, or a trick of the balance, the sound of the old VPO riding every climax shows again what is missing in Zander's account of the same passages.
Zander also writes: "....there are moments of extreme withdrawal - those bleak, passionless passages that Mahler marks to be played 'ohne Ausdruck' (without expression) and that are often scored for just a handful of instruments." Zander takes Mahler at his word and the effect, as in the first movement, is to accentuate the divide between louder, more animated passages and the passages of "extreme withdrawal" which are here again so withdrawn they're in danger of detaching themselves, becoming longueurs. This becomes a major problem in the remarkable closing pages which under Zander reminds me more of the closing movement of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony where a completely different effect is aimed at. I wonder if Zander is being too literal in interpreting what Mahler is asking for. That when Mahler writes "without expression" he's writing in terms of what "expression" meant for him rather than what it means for us and an adjustment is needed, one that most conductors have managed to make as part of the continuing performing traditions of this piece. I cannot believe Mahler meant the closing pages to come over quite as cold and dead as they do here, to the extent that the thread becomes indistinct at times. There should be some degree of feeling otherwise we are not going to care about the music and its place in the whole. Zander writes of the ending: "It has none of the nihilism and cold sense of futility which is found in so much contemporary art. On the contrary, there is a deep attachment to joy. Despair and knowledge of suffering are turned into a discovering of the meaning of life." Indeed. So why play it as though the opposite were the case ?
This is the part of the 1938 Walter recording that also disappoints somewhat. For some reason he keeps a sharpness of focus to the end, refusing to slow down even to the extent that he does in his later stereo recording. Maybe he felt his audience were getting restless, maybe understanding of the work wasn't so complete then. Horenstein stretches the music on the rack, so does Bernstein, so do most other conductors to a greater and lesser degree and they keep their sense of the humanity that this most human of composers invests it with. In my experience only Zander (and possibly Karajan) give us such coldness and lack of feeling.
In all a disappointment, more pronounced in comparison with other recordings. The sound recording is good, though not great: close-in but, conversely, recorded at a lower level so needs to be played back higher. Zander makes great play of dividing his first and second violins to left and right as Mahler did and is to be congratulated for that, as are the engineers for letting us hear it. But Klemperer does that too. The orchestral playing is good, but there seems a too much of the routine about it, as if the players have listened to their conductor's copious instructions, nodded, and then just played the music as they normally would. Did he perhaps blind them with science in rehearsal so that they just lost patience? Should he have talked less and just let them play ? Can you rehearse a great professional orchestra in the same way you rehearse a semi-pro or student one ? A rehearsal CD would have been interesting.
I don't think there is anything new for seasoned Mahlerites here. It's a performance you would be perfectly happy to hear in the concert hall but in a recording you need something that will benefit you over time and repeated hearings. For newcomers to the symphony there is the extra CD, the notes and the price. But even newcomers would benefit from something more profound: Walter (1938), Klemperer, Barbirolli and Horenstein (1966) are "hors concours", with Walter (1960), Haitink, Boulez and Rattle to name just a handful of more recent, or better recorded, versions following closely. There are others. We are spoiled for choice and new recordings have a lot to live up to.
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