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A REVIEWERíS LOG Ė JUNE 2005 - John Quinn

Iím going to cheat at the outset, by expanding the month of May backwards by one day so that I can include mention of a remarkable concert. On Saturday 30 April I was fortunate enough to be in Symphony Hall, Birmingham for a concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons. Up to now Iíve only heard Jansons on CD or on the radio or seen him conduct on the television. Seeing him "in the flesh" and at pretty close quarters was a remarkable experience. I have an instinctive distrust of hype but on the evidence of this concert I can safely say of Jansons: believe it! He really is an exceptional conductor.

His programme included Don Quixote by Richard Strauss. In this performance the solo cellist portraying the Don and the violist who represented Sancho Panza were, as Strauss intended, the principals of their respective sections within the orchestra. Both were excellent. Jansons knitted the complex orchestral tapestry together seamlessly, aided by virtuoso playing from his orchestra. After the interval we heard Brahmsís Second Symphony in a performance that was, if anything, even finer. It is a great challenge to a performer to take a familiar work and bring it up sounding fresh and new-minted. Suffice it to say that Jansons achieved this feat without ever resorting to artifice or exaggeration. He was totally inside Brahmsís music (which he conducted from memory) and gave a consummate exhibition of the art of conducting. A friend of mine, who accompanied me and who has at least 60 years of concert-going experience not only shared my enthusiasm for the performance but actually said he had never heard the symphony done so well. I see that a live recording of the work by Jansons and his other orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw, is shortly to be issued on that orchestraís own label. I can scarcely wait!

The audience was disappointingly thin; the hall was possibly a third full. Why this should be so I am at a loss to know. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a Bank Holiday weekend? Perhaps there are simply too many concerts at Symphony Hall? Perhaps the BRSO is not sufficiently famous an orchestra? (though they played superbly). Thankfully, however, those people who were present were discerning and they responded to the playing with great enthusiasm. We were rewarded with two encores, the choice of which exhibited beautifully first the subtlety and then the sheer power of this orchestra. First the strings played, with exquisite refinement, a little andante from a string quartet by Haydn. Under Jansons this was played with such discipline, unanimity and finesse that one might have indeed been listening to a quartet. Then the full orchestra pulled out all the stops in a truly stunning account of ĎThe Death of Tybaltí from Prokofievís Romeo and Juliet. A night to remember!

Bachís vocal music dominated the start of May itself. I finished reviewing the third and last volume of Bachís vocal music conducted by Fritz Werner (review) . This is a style of Bach performing from another age and many of the recordings were new to me, having been locked in the Erato vaults for many years (indeed, many are making their CD debut.) The recordings by Werner that I had previously heard had alerted me to the fact that he was a Bach interpreter of considerable stature and this impression has been amply reinforced through listening to these three boxes, comprising 30 CDs. Wernerís art is one that never seeks to draw attention to itself. He is consistently wise, discerning and humane. From time to time one may take issue with some of his interpretative choices but he is rarely less than convincing. Occasionally one or two of the soloists disappoint but thereís much fine singing to admire here and the contributions of two soloists, Agnes Giebel (soprano) and Helmut Krebs (tenor), are consistently splendid. Thereís also some very fine instrumental solo work to savour, not least from trumpeter, Maurice André and the peerless oboist, Pierre Pierlot. These recordings may sound "old-fashioned" to some listeners but in my opinion their sincerity and musical conviction transcend fashion.

At the other end of the scale, as it were, comes the latest volume, the third to be issued, of CDs recorded during John Eliot Gardinerís celebrated Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000. This seemed to me at the time to be a marvellously imaginative project and the concert that I attended when the pilgrimage reached Tewkesbury Abbey was memorable. Iím delighted that the recordings, from which DG withdrew on financial grounds, are now seeing the light of day at last. I may not always agree with everything Gardiner does but he is never less than stimulating and wholeheartedly committed. The first two releases in the series were first class and itís good news indeed that we havenít had long to wait for the next instalment. This pair of CDs, beautifully presented and documented, contains performances from the Schlosskirche, Altenburg (cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter) and from St. Maryís Church, Warwick (cantatas for the following Sunday). The Altenburg programme includes the magnificently expressive cantata, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV12, in which the contribution of the Monteverdi Choir is exceptionally fine. Thereís also the cantata Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen, BWV 146. This has a substantial opening sinfonia, which features a prominent organ part. (The same music also appears, in a different guise, as the first movement of the keyboard concerto in D minor, BWV 1052.) This tempted Gardiner and his organist, Silas John Standage to use the big, period organ in the castle chapel. The results are superb but an additional note by Standage relates how close the vagaries of the organ came to wrecking the whole enterprise on the day. The three volumes so far issued suggest this series is going to be a major addition to the Bach discography and Iím impatient for further instalments.

James Gilchrist, Gardinerís excellent tenor soloist in the cantatas for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, has also issued a CD in his own right. It is devoted to three song cycles for high voice by Gerald Finzi and the disc takes its title from one of the cycles, O Fair to See. The two companion cycles are Till Earth Outwears and A Young Manís Exhortation. Gilchrist has that very typically English type of light tenor voice, which suits these songs to perfection. Throughout the recital he sings with that forward projection, heady tone and clarity of both sound and diction that makes him such a fine Bach singer. Thereís also a welcome touch of steel in the voice. Finziís songs are subtle and sometimes understated. I particularly like the vein of gentle melancholy that runs through so many of them. Gilchrist is a splendid and sympathetic advocate and he is ably supported by pianist Anna Tilbrook. The Linn CD (CKD 253) should be heard by all lovers of English song.

Through the kindness of fellow reviewer, John Portwood, who lent me his set, Iíve at last caught up with David Zinmanís Beethoven symphony cycle. Previously Iíd only acquired Zinmanís account of the Missa Solemnis. That I found somewhat disappointing. It seemed to me to be too hard driven to allow that towering masterpiece to make its full effect. The symphonies are a different matter. I must confess some disappointment with the finale of the Ninth, which strikes me as something of a pygmy reading; perhaps it will grow on me. The remaining performances are immensely stimulating. Although the orchestra plays on modern instruments there is a Ďperiodí feel to the performances. In part this is due to the clarity of texture that Zinman consistently obtains. His often challengingly swift tempi rival, and sometimes surpass, those of the likes of Norrington, Gardiner and Harnoncourt. The recordings use the relatively recent edition of the scores by Jonathan Del Mar. I certainly wonít be rushing to discard the three complete cycles mentioned above from my collection, nor those by Klemperer or Toscanini but Zinmanís provocative and illuminating readings unsettle, stimulate and intrigue me in pretty equal measure and they constitute a welcome if belated addition to my shelves.

The enthusiastic review by Ian Lace spurred me on to acquire the new Naxos CD of Roger Quilterís folksong settings. Iíve found that Quilterís art songs are almost invariably as grateful to sing as they are pleasing to hear. These arrangements of familiar traditional songs are equally delightful. Quilter avoids the trap of over-arranging what are in many cases pretty simple and direct melodies but time and again an arrangement of his will cast a new and welcome light on a tune one thought one knew well. Ian Lace enthused not just about the songs but also about the performances they receive here and I fully endorse his opinions. This is a delightful disc.

I only buy the BBC Music Magazine very occasionally. Iím sorry to say that I find the magazine much too superficial in tone despite the eminence of some of its contributors. However, every so often the cover mount CD is of particular interest. This was the case with the March issue, which included as its CD a live performance of Mahlerís Sixth Symphony, recorded at a concert in Manchesterís Bridgewater Hall. I already possess rather more recorded versions of this titanic symphony than is good for me but the chance to hear the thoughts of that fine conductor Sir Charles Mackerras was irresistible. Having bought it, the CD then joined the pile of others waiting to be heard and it was only recently that I had the chance to listen. Mackerras conducts a very fine performance and the BBC Philharmonic (to my mind consistently the best of the BBC orchestras) play for him with enormous commitment. They are challenged by some of his tempi, especially in the monumental finale but they rise to the challenge. This is a performance that delivers. Unlike many conductors Mackerras plays the andante movement second (personally I prefer it when the scherzo is heard second) and he also includes the third hammer blow in the finale. I believe it is possible to order back numbers of the magazine from the publishers and so Mahlerites who may have missed this performance can, and should, catch up with it. Itís a veritable bargain.

At the end of the month I found myself returning to a favourite holiday haunt, the Gulf of Mexico coast (the West coast) of Florida. Those who associate Florida solely with Mickey Mouse may be pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a vibrant arts scene at least in this part of the state (I canít vouch for elsewhere.) In terms of classical music, besides much else there are professional symphony orchestras in Naples (the Naples Philharmonic, www.thephil.org) and in Tampa (the Florida Orchestra, www.floridaorchestra.org ), whose Music Directors are Jorge Mester and Stefan Sanderling respectively. Both orchestras offer some interesting programmes though they present fewer subscription symphony programmes than say a British orchestra does, no doubt in order to be able to accommodate fairly full schedules of "Pops" concerts, which I guess are vital for financial survival and audience building. Unfortunately, I have always visited when the orchestral seasons are finished or all but over so I have yet to hear either orchestra in concert.

I was delighted to be able to purchase in America two significant new books about music. I am only part way through reading Joseph Horowitzís Classical Music in America. A History of its Rise and Fall (W W Norton & Co. New York, 2005) It is a substantial piece of work and a very provocative one. I daresay that others better acquainted with the subject matter than I am may take issue with Mr Horowitz on certain points (as was the case with a previous book of his about Toscanini.) A central thesis of the book is that, in contrast to Europe, classical music in the USA has been founded more on appreciation of performers rather than indigenous composers. Also he contends that the US experience is different to that of European countries because the symphony orchestra has been a much more influential feature there than the opera house. Among the key (and heroic) figures in Mr Horowitzís narrative are Henry Higginson, the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor, Theodore Thomas, whose crowning achievement was to be the founding conductor of what became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Nowadays, when we are familiar with a long series of virtuoso performances by these and other fine American orchestras itís salutary to learn what a struggle for survival some of them had in their earliest days.

Much though Iím enjoying Mr Horowitzís book, I was even more pleased to find Choral Masterworks, a Listenerís Guide by Michael Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 2005). This is the long-awaited successor to Steinbergís earlier volumes devoted to The Symphony and The Concerto (OUP, 1995 and 1998 respectively). Given the long lapse of time since the second of those volumes appeared I had feared the promised one on choral music would not see the light of day but its appearance now is a cause for rejoicing. Like its predecessors the book chiefly consists of revised programme notes that Mr Steinberg has written for various orchestras over the years, especially for the Boston Symphony (between 1976 and 1979) and the San Francisco Symphony (1979-2000). Steinberg, it seems to me, is the doyen of annotators, whether it is for concert programmes or for CDs. He writes extremely well and communicates his enthusiasm for the music. Indeed, he is one of that select band of writers on music (Michael Kennedy is another) who has the gift of making the reader want to hear the piece of music about which he is writing straightaway. There are essays on nearly all the standard repertory pieces and although the book will be of particular value to the general listener, more specialist music lovers will also derive great profit from reading Steinbergís thoughtful and informed views. This is essentially an anthology for dipping into, which is all Iíve been able to do so far. However, on the basis of what Iíve sampled to date this book is right up to the standard of its two distinguished predecessors.

Apart from some review CDs that had "mysteriously" found their way into my suitcase the local National Public Radio stations provided my daily music listening in Florida. These are station WGCU, based in Fort Myers or further north, station WUSF in the Tampa area, for whose output and presentation I have a slight overall preference. Both of these stations are attached to universities, respectively the Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of South Florida. They offer a daily diet of classical music on disc, interspersed with news programmes taken from NPR News in Washington (particularly ĎMorning Editioní and ĎAll Things Consideredí, which are the NPR equivalent of BBC Radio Fourís ĎTodayí and ĎPMí programmes.) There are also a number of "home-grown" speech programmes. Apart from the chance to hear good music, what NPR stations offer that is invaluable is a proper worldwide news agenda. (Far too much of the American media focus is on domestic items or on spheres such as Iraq that are of especial relevance to the USA; for the most part, in my experience, Europe might as well not exist!) One thing that has always puzzled me slightly about the choice of music played each day by these two stations is how rarely vocal music seems to feature by comparison with instrumental and orchestral items. Of course, I donít listen all the time but I think Iíve heard enough over the years to have garnered a flavour. I wonder why this should be the case?

I mention all this not because "What I Did on My Holidays" is of much interest to MusicWeb readers but simply, if I may, to salute the invaluable work of NPR and its affiliates. It canít be an easy task pursuing a quality broadcasting agenda in a country where a pop culture is all-pervasive. Financially the stations rely on subscriptions from individual local members and some corporate sponsors for survival (there are no commercials, thank goodness.) People visiting the USA and wanting some decent radio programmes to hear can log on to the NPR website (www.npr.org), to find out just what stations are available in any given part of the country and what their output consists of (not all stations specialise in classical music.) On the evidence of what Iíve heard during my travels round the US over the years the NPR affiliate stations are proudly flying the flag for quality broadcasting. And let me offer one completely non-musical tip: if youíre visiting the US try to catch the hilarious ĎCar Talkí show on NPR on Saturday mornings or the Garrison Keillorís whimsical ĎA Prairie Home Companioní show, also broadcast at weekends.

But despite the vibrant cultural scene in South West Florida thereís one great problem, which I suspect probably affects whole swathes of the USA outside the really major cities. Iíve been visiting the States on vacation for many years now and itís becoming ever harder to find decent stores selling a good range of classical CDs. One can find CDs in many branches of the booksellers, Barnes & Noble and, of course, there are the chain record stores but I donít feel that the serious collector is properly catered for. I guess that most such collectors now rely on mail order, which is fine up to a point but with mail order one doesnít get the sheer pleasure of browsing and impulse buys are all but impossible. The UK is, of course, heading the same way, as are most other countries, I suppose. In all probability the trend is irreversible but the demise of the independent CD dealer is a cause for genuine concern and if we are fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of such stores we collectors surely must cherish and support these businesses while we can. Once their doors have shut it will be too late. A sombre note on which to conclude a diary of what has been a most enjoyable and stimulating month of listening.

John Quinn

Patrick Waller is away


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