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The Peter Maag Edition Complete Recordings on Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Westminster
rec. 1951-1993 ELOQUENCE 4841485 [20 CDs: 21 hrs 14 mins]
Peter Maag, one of the finest Mozartians of the last century, is among the most undervalued conductors. I wonder: why must unglamorous necessarily equate with underrated? With his aversion to popular success, Maag was in a tiny minority. When he felt that his career was burgeoning, he would take himself away to a monastery. The result was not only peace of mind, one assumes, but also a derailment of his career. These interludes were a great loss to the musical world.
Gian Andrea Lodovici in the booklet notes for a different CD (more Mozart on the Arts label) says: “ … breathes naturalness and musicality”. This admirably sums up Maag’s treasurable qualities.
My first experience with his recordings was Mozart’s Prague Symphony with the LSO (here on CD3), which still sounds terrific. Maybe this would be a good place to start for the uninitiated. Maag’s Mozart is generally robust, never pretty or over-manicured. His forthright approach may be received less well by authenticity addicts, but his sense of style is excellent. For those unfamiliar with Maag’s Mozart, I might suggest Harnoncourt, who shares some of the same qualities, though I would not wish to make too much of this. Certainly he was another conductor who avoided treating Mozart’s music as though it were rare bone china.
On the other hand, Maag never allows the kind of quasi-military character which marred many of Karajan’s or Szell’s recordings. His slow movements always maintain a pulse and are never soporific, while his faster movements are never streamlined or driven. One clue to the con moto spirit of the slow movements is the vitality with which he endows accompaniment figures – a rough analogy would be an Oscar-winning supporting actor rather than an anonymous extra.
Maag handles Mozart’s Serenade K. 203 with his usual virility but also humanity, grace and affection. Jean Pougnet delivers beautifully cultured solo violin-playing.
The even more substantial Posthorn Serenade maybe should appear in concert programmes more often. The Harnoncourt recording, my top choice, elevates the work so that it sounds like a major symphonic masterpiece, but Maag’s performance is also very strong and characterful.
CDs 1 and 2, recorded in mono in 1951-1953, show their age but collectors may well be as undeterred as I am. Here we have Mozart’s symphonies No. 28, 29 and 34. To avoid repetition, I will simply say that my remarks elsewhere about Maag’s Mozart equally apply here.
Symphony No. 32 is an overture in the Italian style which includes four horns. It has an Andante middle section which in this performance may initially strike the listener as on the slow side. We should bear in mind that this was recorded in 1959, before the 18th-century performance-practice movement introduced us to an alternative approach. Even so, I am sure most of us can take a minute or so to become acclimatised to a debatable tempo. Surely it is more important to appreciate what a conductor does – sustains, phrases etc. – in his chosen tempo, than to condemn the tempo per se. Maag conducts with complete naturalness and affection without indulgence. Recorded during a golden period for the LSO, his Prague Symphony has classic status. The opening movement, in common with such pieces as the Idomeneo ballet music, is Mozart at his grandest and weightiest, benefiting from a big string section. Maag’s big-boned interpretation is thrilling. For the Andante, see the comment on Symphony No. 32. The tempo is unorthodox by today’s reckoning but perfectly beautiful on its own terms – sustained, serene and characterful.
The Clarinet Concerto has acquired a kind of velvety cover, which has never felt quite right to me. De Peyer’s performance avoids full-fat creaminess. It is fresh and has a wider mood-spectrum than we often hear. I do not quite know how they do it but the piece has much more vitality than usual.
The soloist on this CD is the cultured horn player Barry Tuckwell. His performance is immaculate and sounds effortless, but am I alone in preferring a more earthy flavour at times? In common with Jack Brymer on the clarinet, Tuckwell is too consistently mellifluous for my taste. If that seems perverse or heretical, then I should explain that I yearn for more variety. Mozart was a human being, not an angel. The finales of the Third and Fourth Concertos are better in this respect but still a little too civilised. Where is the rollicking outdoor quality? Many years ago on Radio 3’s Building a Library focussing on these concertos, Maag’s accompaniments deservedly received a special mention. For example, just listen to the rondo of No. 4. The rondo of the First Concerto bristles with energy.
Julius Katchen is rather in a hurry with the semiquaver passage-work in the opening movement of the C major Concerto K415. I do not find his hyper-energetic approach very attractive, and I would exchange this often manic brilliance for more poise, but he gives a fine performance of the two following movements. Maag endows the orchestral introduction to the first movement with magnificent character (“follow that” occurred to me) but, equally, he treats the middle movement with love. This is by no means one of the greatest Mozart concertos, but Maag lavishes upon it such care and affection that we could be persuaded otherwise. In the opening tutti of the D minor Concerto, he conveys quiet, restrained tension, a quality which Katchen maintains, mostly dispensing with the haste which intrudes upon K415. Their handling of this movement shows that a dignified, rather understated approach is just as effective as the restless energy which we more often experience. The outer sections of the middle movement are beautifully calm, before the grim passion of the Allegro assai finale is conveyed with controlled fire. Here Maag brings out the moments of cheeky humour better than I have ever heard (an F major theme introduced by the woodwind). We may be surprised by such jauntiness in this context, yet Maag is alive to what surely is intended and to me it sounds exactly right.
At the time of this recording Joshua Bell had just turned twenty-four. Today, about thirty years later, we may not immediately think of him in connection with Mozart, but here his natural musicianship is just as refreshing as it is in romantic concertos. The slow movement of the G major Concerto is rather soporific, but not at all indulgent, while the outer movements are elegant, unfussy, pure-toned and consistently tasteful. His cadenza in the opening Allegro is rather long-winded, but sadly this is a common fault among soloists. In the A major Concerto Bell is equally satisfying – ever the musician rather than the virtuoso. There is a terrific rhythmic bounce in the Allegro aperto, sincerity and poignancy in the Adagio, and a finale in which the minuet sections combine grace (but no preciousness) and sturdiness, contrasting with the fiery intensity of the Turkish music. In the orchestral contributions to these Turkish episodes the col legno is not very audible but nevertheless the sparks fly. Bell’s cadenzas are over-elaborate and rather too long. Throughout this disc Maag is, as usual, an alert and attentive partner – totally involved, rather than dutiful. The two shorter works are welcome bonuses. CD 7
The Notturno in D major receives a glorious performance of terrific vitality. Why is Mozart so rarely played like this? All those genteel, ultra-sophisticated interpretations pale into insignificance and hardly deserve shelf-room alongside Maag’s full-blooded, life-affirming performances. All this applies equally to the other works on this disc. It is worth noting that the solo second violin in the Serenata notturna is Neville Marriner. Recorded sound is something, I confess, which does not bother me unless it is disturbingly bad. Here it is strikingly good for 1960. This disc is a triumph, a revelation from start to finish. By itself it should win many converts among those previously unfamiliar with Peter Maag. I must mention the Thamos Interludes, as they are rarely heard – so powerful, as fully realised here, and surely among the greatest “unknown” Mozart. The final interlude will lift you out of your seat.
If I may digress, perhaps I should clarify my feelings about historically-informed-performance, as it has come to be known. Although I am sure this movement in general has been beneficial, there is obviously far more involved than original instruments and “authentic” tempi. To state the obvious, the most important factor is the character and vision of the conductor. Some conductors are correct and by-the-book, well-mannered or at worst insipid, while others treat authenticity as a novelty or plaything. Harnoncourt, mentioned before, is for me the most revelatory and influential of all those historically informed musicians. I like his robust, admittedly sometimes aggressive, handling of Mozart. My personal approach may explain why I find Maag’s Mozart so attractive.
To hear what Maag does with these German Dances is a revelation. I shall never again think of them as minor Mozart. Maag’s love for the music, the twelve dances recorded here, is tangible. The bonuses are several vocal items, reminding us of the glories of Fernando Corena and Jennifer Vyvyan in excerpts from Don Giovanni and Figaro (Corena), and the Concert Aria K538, then movements from two of Mozart’s sacred works.
These performances of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture have classic status, so I have little to add except my own enthusiasm. The Andante con moto which opens the symphony is most beautifully shaped, full of tenderness but also con moto. Maag’s slow tempi are never static or sluggish. The following Allegro un poco agitato is wonderfully exhilarating. The lyrical passages are admirably contrasting, affectionately expressive but also substantial rather than limp. The second movement is typically alert, with unbelievably infectious rhythmic buoyancy. What utterly joyful music-making! Again the slow movement is often made to sound listless, whereas here it is tender yet not sentimental, generous and noble. There is genuine fire and bristling energy in the finale. Maag’s totally involving performance makes me wonder if any other recording I have heard is comparable – it really is that outstanding. The Hebrides is intensely musical, with a much wider range of expression and character, than one often hears.
I should say that those readers who previously have not come across Peter Maag’s work may well be in for a thrill. Is there another conductor of the last 60-70 years who is in such need of much wider appreciation?
Here we have the Overture and seven movements from the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Again, marvellously vital and intelligent performances, richly enjoyable. Les Sylphides is terrific. Some of the muscular (yes, ballet-dancers certainly do have muscles!) off-beat accents made me laugh with delight, but the entire performance is vital and larger than life. What a conductor!
Rossini’s brilliance and wit are the qualities which are usually most obvious. These create a delightful impression while at the same time potentially leaving one with a feeling of superficiality. To generalise, I find Maag avoids the supercharged, ultra-Italianate approach of many conductors, instead giving more weight, elegance and substance without being ponderous. Not in the slightest way unidiomatic, he brings his wise, thoughtful musicianship to these overtures. He gives them more stature. Take La Cenerentola and appreciate the essential colour and dynamism; the phrasing and dynamics bring out the wit even more than we might expect. I think he is both thoroughly musical and electrifying. In the cello ensemble which begins William Tell, Maag is poignant and tender, yet typically robust, if that is not a contradiction. More than once I found myself thinking of Schubert and Beethoven. The same characteristics are true of the other two overture performances.
Delibes’s ballet scores are the most attractive after Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Maag conducts ten excerpts from the less familiar La Source with elegance, vitality and natural charm. Here and in the other Paris Conservatoire recordings there is the occasional fractionally early entry, but such tiny imperfections do not bother me when the performances have such character.
We are so familiar with both of these warhorses that we – or rather, I – hope for something special. Jablonski was only twenty-three at the time of this recording, having made his debuts at Washington’s Kennedy Centre and the Royal Festival Hall during the previous two years. The Tchaikovsky is very good, big but not brash, thoroughly musical rather than flashy, and well characterised. Thoughtful, sensitive and musically satisfying would be the key words. Indeed, Maag is as alert as ever – not even a momentary hint of routine. The pizzicato opening of the middle movement exudes absolute calm. The Grieg is less successful, loving but sometimes laboured or overblown, though Jablonski’s technique is masterly. I sense a serious effort to take a fresh look, but the result may not be to everyone’s taste. CDs 13-14
I suspect that I will not be alone in my ignorance of Leonora by Ferdinando Paër. Beethoven, who owned a score of this work, drew upon the same literary source for his Fidelio.
The overture outstays its welcome but much of the opera itself, while sub-Rossini in style and quality, is enjoyable enough – lyrical and rewarding for the singers. Paër was very highly regarded in his day, but this comes across as no forgotten masterpiece, in spite of Maag’s loving care and attention. Ultimately the music is unmemorable.
The cast here includes some illustrious names, Siegfried Jerusalem, Edita Gruberová and Wolfgang Brendel among them. Soprano Ursula Koszut has some demanding music, which she negotiates well. Her voice may not be the most glamorous, but I tend to think too much emphasis is placed upon “big” voices of fabulous quality.
Luisa Miller is often described, rather patronisingly, as a transitional work. This Schiller-based opera is a really fine work which should be owned by any Verdi aficionados. As Julian Budden wrote, this is “the opera that inaugurates Verdi’s ‘second manner’ – that in which he abandons the grandiose gestures of his youth for a simpler and quieter style, more suited to the portrayal of ordinary human beings and human emotions.” If that does not whet your appetite… Also, the role of the orchestra is elevated to a new importance.
Just listen to the performance of the overture and you know to expect a totally involved performance, as Maag’s love for the music is imprinted on every bar. The big names of the cast – Pavarotti, Caballé and Milnes – are generally in, or near, their finest voices. (This was recorded in 1976.) Many critics make this performance their first choice. While I thoroughly enjoy it, I can only sit on the fence in terms of comparisons, as I do not know the alternatives. Anyway, because of its outstanding merits (if I specify, I shall be repeating myself), it is marvellous to have this example of Maag’s opera recordings included in the box.
In brief, we have here virtuosic performances of music which never pretends to be more than pleasing, but if that sounds patronising, then I need to add that each of these pieces is attractive and often delightful. I particularly like the concerto by Bellini, whose operas are so deeply satisfying that one wishes he had lived beyond the age of thirty-three. For Maag’s accompaniments, see my admiring remarks elsewhere.
Rather like CD 12, this disc has good versions of solo works, distinguished by Maag’s ever-attentive conducting. Edith Peinemann performs the Dvořák Concerto and Tzigane with fine character. The concerto is a shade on the indulgent side at times, but Maag’s conducting of the glorious Czech Philharmonic is by itself worth hearing. To be picky, Peinemann is not always 100% comfortable technically. The finale of the Dvořák is played at a steady tempo. It is marked Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo, but one would never guess from many of the high-powered recordings by top virtuosi. Here the music clearly gains – more genial and sunny – and although a faster tempo seems to be the norm, I know which I prefer.
Ticho Parly was a Danish tenor with a big but not beautiful voice, which I find wearying. Probably the most attractive element of the disc, unless one is a particular fan of this singer, is again Maag’s conducting. For me this is not one of the highlights of the set, though it is a pleasure to find Maag in repertoire not usually associated with him – so much so that I should love to have heard him in some orchestral Wagner.
Fou Ts’ong, who died recently at eighty-six, gives a good performance of the Schumann concerto without convincing me that he has something special to offer. Chopin’s work is likewise unremarkable, rather lacking in fantasy and not really taking wing.
There are many other Maag performances not included in this box, especially some later Mozart recordings, a Beethoven symphony cycle, a Mendelssohn symphony cycle and Schumann’s Spring Symphony with the Overture, Scherzo and Finale. However, this box does not claim to be the complete Maag, and we should be grateful for such a generous selection of this marvellous conductor’s recordings. I certainly am, so a big thank you to Eloquence.
Philip Borg-Wheeler Contents
Mozart: Serenade No. 4 in D major, K203 ‘Colloredo’
Mozart: Serenade No. 9 in D major, K320 ‘Posthorn’
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Mozart: Symphony No. 28 in C major, K200
Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A major, K201
Mozart: Symphony No. 34 in C major, K338
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Mozart: Symphony No. 32 in G major, K318
Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504 ‘Prague’
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622
Gervase de Peyer (clarinet, K622), London Symphony Orchestra
Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 1-4
Barry Tuckwell (horn), London Symphony Orchestra
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K415
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466
Julius Katchen (piano), New Symphony Orchestra of London
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216
Mozart: Adagio for Violin and Orchestra in E, K261
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 ‘Turkish’
Mozart: Rondo for Violin and Orchestra in C, K373
Joshua Bell (violin), English Chamber Orchestra
Mozart: Notturno in D major K286
Mozart: Serenade No. 6 in D major, K239 ‘Serenata Notturna’
Mozart: Lucio Silla, K135: Overture
Mozart: Thamos, König in Ägypten, KV 345: four interludes
London Symphony Orchestra
Mozart: German Dances (6), K509
Mozart: German Dances (6), K600
Mozart: German Dances (4), K602
Mozart: German Dances (3), K605
London Symphony Orchestra
Mozart: Madamina, il catalogo è questo (from Don Giovanni)
Mozart: Se vuol ballare (from Le nozze di Figaro)
Fernando Corena (bass), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Mozart: Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle, K538
Mozart: Mass in C minor, K427 ‘Great’ - Et incarnatus est
Mozart: Exsultate, jubilate, K165 - Alleluia
Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 ‘Scottish’
Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture, Op. 26
London Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream - incidental music, Op. 61
London Symphony Orchestra
Chopin: Les Sylphides (arr.Douglas)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
Rossini: Guillaume Tell Overture
Rossini: La Cenerentola Overture
Rossini: Semiramide Overture
Rossini: La gazza ladra Overture
Delibes: La Source - suite
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Peter Jablonski (piano), London Symphony Orchestra
Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor), Ursula Koszut, Giorgio Tadeo, Edita Gruberova (soprano), Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Verdi: Luisa Miller
Montserrat Caballé (soprano), Luciano Pavarotti (tenor), Sherrill Milnes (baritone), National Philharmonic Orchestra
Bellini: Oboe Concerto in E flat major
Salieri: Concerto in C major for flute & oboe
Cimarosa: Oboe Concerto in C major / C minor
Donizetti: Concertino for English horn and orchestra in G major
Heinz Holliger (oboe), Bamberger Symphoniker
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
Edith Peinemann (violin), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Wagner: In fernem Land (from Lohengrin)
Wagner: Inbrunst im Herzen (from Tannhäuser)
Wagner: Nur eine Waffe taugt (from Parsifal)
Wagner: Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond (from Die Walküre)
Wagner: Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater (from Die Walküre)
Wagner: Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert! (from Siegfried)
Wagner: Hoho! Hoho! Hohei! Schmiede, mein Hammer, ein hartes Schwert! (from Siegfried)
Wagner: Dass der mein Vater nicht ist (from Siegfried)
Wagner: Brünnhilde, heilige Braut! (from Götterdammerung)
Beethoven: Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (from Fidelio)
Weber: Nein! länger trag’ ich nicht die Qualen…Durch die Wälder (from Der Freischütz)
Ticho Parly (tenor), Deutsche Oper Berlin (opera company)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
Fou Ts’ong (piano), London Symphony Orchestra