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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, op.20 [17:17]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1857)
Concerto for Violin and orchestra in D major, op.35 [23:59]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Five Rückert-Lieder [18:45]
František Novotný (violin) (Korngold); Karla Bytnarová (mezzo) (Mahler)
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Martin Turnovský
rec. live, 14 September 2007, DKO Jihlava, Mahler Festival. DDD
ARCO DIVA UP 0108-2 131 [61:56]

Experience Classicsonline

Recordings of live concerts are, by their very nature, a mixed bag and a mixed blessing. The best of them have an indefinable ‘fizz’, as in the case of - to pluck examples at random - Beecham’s famous Sibelius 2nd, or more recently, Gergiev’s unfolding Mahler series with the LSO. Sometimes they are disappointing; what may have been a thoroughly enjoyable, even memorable live event fails to transfer its magic to disc. And sometimes, as here, specific problems get in the way of an enjoyable listening experience.
The concert recorded here took place in September of last year as part of the Mahler Festival at Jihlava in the Czech Republic. The programme is an interesting construction from Korngold – born in Brno – Mahler himself, and Richard Strauss, a contemporary and friend of Mahler. Strauss is represented by his early tone poem Don Juan, which begins the disc, a work which has become a celebrated display piece for symphony orchestras. Sadly, Turnovsky and the Brno Philharmonic turn in a performance which, though meticulously prepared, is pallid and tentative; the great horn theme which should first erect itself proudly at 9:43 (track 1) simply isn’t horny enough; it sounds in fact in need of a goodly dose of Viagra.
Korngold fares better, mainly because the violin soloist, František Novotný, is a passionate advocate of this very Romantic music. It is no surprise to learn that the work contains material from Korngold’s hugely successful movie scores for the Hollywood films of the 1930s Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper. That fact shouldn’t be held against it though; despite an undeniably commercial flavour here and there, the piece holds together well, and could be seen as a sort of companion piece to the Barber Violin Concerto. For my money it isn’t nearly as great a work as the Barber, but it does share that work’s broad lyricism and lushly beautiful orchestral colouring. It is technically and musically demanding, yet Novotný projects it without any sense of strain, and it is fascinating to hear, in the folk-rhythms and Lydian mode melodies of the lively finale, Korngold’s Eastern European origins penetrating the Hollywood veneer of the earlier movements. This is the most impressive and valuable part of the disc.
The Mahler songs that occupy tracks 5-9 are famous ones, and exist on disc in many justifiably celebrated interpretations, from Kathleen Ferrier to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Janet Baker. There are many reasons why Karla Bytnarová doesn’t even enter the contest. Firstly, there’s her heavily accented German, which often distorts vowel sounds unattractively. Then there is her rapid and distracting vibrato, which, allied to her tendency to ‘croon’ like a pop singer, is really quite unpleasant. It’s a pity, because one senses her commitment to this music, and, to be fair, she turns in a deeply felt and highly acceptable version of the final song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘ I am lost to the world’).
However, even such an affecting track as this isn’t enough to rescue this disc from its category as a firm ‘also-ran’, despite Novotný’s Korngold, which is undeniably worth hearing.
Gwyn Parry-Jones




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