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]
Novotný (violin) (Korngold); Karla Bytnarová (mezzo)
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Martin Turnovský
rec. live, 14 September 2007, DKO Jihlava, Mahler Festival.
DDD ARCO DIVA
UP 0108-2 131 [61:56]
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
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