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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: December 2006

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

It is Record of the Year time (link 1) and, looking at the choices of all MusicWeb Reviewers, it has clearly been a good year for recorded classical music. One of my picks was Bernard Haitink’s LSO live recording of Beethoven’s Second and Sixth symphonies (link 2). At the time it was the only one of the series I had heard. LSO Live has not yet boxed them all up but when they offered the whole series cheaply off their website I could resist no longer. They arrived within 48 hours and it is a pleasure to be able to report that this is a very consistent series. Alongside the Pastoral, the Eroica is another particular highlight but all are artistically fine and the sound is good too, belying the reputation of the Barbican as a recording venue. For modern recordings of these works at bargain price, this is surely now the place to go.

Mention Beethoven at the moment and I shudder and think of the ghastly image of him on the front cover of the December Gramophone magazine. I have bought every issue of this since 1980 and, to my wife’s chagrin, most of them are still in the loft. Until now, I have tried to ignore people like John Quinn who were telling me it has deteriorated. Few people, I believe, would doubt the high quality of its reviewers but a recent trend seems to be to give them less space in favour of the trivial. Perhaps the Gramophone is trying to reach out to new audiences but, in doing so, it risks losing its original readership (is there a parallel here with Radio 3 chasing Classic FM?)

Looking further at the December issue, do we really need full page pictures of La Stupenda, Ludwig van B, the Northern Lights and a grimacing Eduard van Beinum? Some of the many pictures are really not very good anyway - Sarah Connolly appears to have one breast whilst Ton Koopman and Ralph van Raat have no top to their heads. Close inspection of the pictures in the article on Sibelius’s 7th reveals one of the Anthony Collins set on Beulah but his recording doesn’t get a mention in the article. Neither does Simon Rattle on his own – what we get is a feast of generalisations and there are two places in which it isn‘t clear which of Maazel’s recordings is being discussed. Simon Rattle’s recording ends up at the top of the pile but the reader is left with little idea why. Personally I don’t blame the reviewer – given an extra page or two and a remit to discuss the main contenders in more detail (instead of just dismissing, as were a batch of five, as “sluggish”), I have no doubt it would have been an article worth reading. 

Richard Wigmore’s article Beethoven Today hardly does any better – the promised overview of recent cycles such as Haitink and Vänskä digresses and fails to deliver. Instead we get five cycles from the past summarised in a couple of soundbites supposedly justifying them as the greatest of all. The use of summaries in the Gramophone is unimpressive. Who writes them – not the reviewer I am sure – but is it someone who has actually heard the disc? And did the Editor really listen to the Lilburn (link 3) he chose as one of his discs of the month. If so, how could he possibly say that it is clear in every note (my italics) that the composer studied with RVW? Sibelius is a much more obvious aural influence but, that aside, how could he even contemplate writing such rubbish? Even worse though, who persuaded the much-admired Rob Cowan to provide his top ten versions of the first few bars of Mahler’s 5th for the November issue?

Paper format is still something I want to use and regard as complementary to the internet. However, space is limited and needs to be used more effectively than it currently is in the Gramophone. My view is that the focus should be on more reviews and in more detail - there is a lot out there which is being missed. Where for example where is the complete Scarlatti/Scott Ross review which was promised a year ago?

OK, griping over and let’s turn to something about which one can be wholly positive. Pristine Audio has just re-branded itself Pristine Classical (link 4) and I suspect that changes to their website led to some down time some days ago. It was only a few hours but I missed just being able to pick something from their large and interesting catalogue of historical recordings and play it directly off the internet through the stereo. Kevin Sutton’s recent article (link 5) describes a service based on similar principles (currently only available in the USA) with much wider choice and I agree with him that this approach is a very positive step forward. Recordings I have listened to from the Pristine website recently include the famous 1950 Der Fledermaus under Clemens Krauss (1893-1954), more Strauss under his baton in the 1952 New Year’s Day concert, both of which are tremendous. Just on the site is the 1955 recording of Janáček’s two string quartets by the Smetana Quartet – so good I have already heard that twice. Gaston Poulet almost makes the London Symphony Orchestra sound French in a 1953 reading of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. I have also heard quite a few of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Haydn records – 28 of the quartets recorded in the 1930s are available. Around the same time the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Talich recorded Dvořák’s 6th and 7th symphonies – these are essential listening.

I have not reviewed many discs recently but have an interesting pile on my desk at the moment. This includes the Naxos recording of Shostakovich’s The Golden Age about which Anne Ozorio (link 6) was recently so enthusiastic - and I am not going to argue with that. Instead I have been reviewing Harold Truscott’s book on Franz Schmidt (link 7) and revisiting some discs of his music with pleasure, in particular the Fourth Symphony - Welser-Möst’s EMI recording is splendid. A disc I did review was of Mozart’s Flute Quartets played on period instruments, and I found it most enjoyable (link 8).

Even though Christmas is coming, there are plenty of bargains to be had at the moment. A couple I recently picked out of the Supraphon catalogue (4 discs in total for £15) were the complete Piano Concertos of Martinů played by Emil Leichner (11 1313-2 032) and Košler’s 1980 recording of Smetana’s Bartered Bride (SU 3703-2 632) – this was a significant gap in my opera collection. Although the Martinů is a recent recording, this is billed as the first complete set. There are five concertos plus a concertino and the works span from 1925 to the year before Martinů’s death in 1959. These are idiomatic performances with strong support from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiri Belohlávek. Much the same could be said of the Smetana which is also excellent.

Finally, it was good to read Howard Goodall’s upbeat article (link 9) exploding a few myths about classical music. I am truly glad that Classic FM is doing wonders for interest levels and that I don’t have to listen it.

Patrick C Waller 




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