peteraczel | 09 November, 2007 10:00
New CD and SACD Reviews
Here’s what I’ve found noteworthy, from my admittedly un-musicological and often audio-biased point of view, among the recent and not so recent releases that have come my way. Please note that I no longer comment separately on stereo and surround-sound versions. Two-channel playback through my Linkwitz Lab Orion++ loudspeaker system (review coming) now gives me more accurate spatial information than 5.1 playback.
CD from CSO Resound
CD from EMI
Question: What do Anton Bruckner and Sir Simon Rattle have in common? Answer: At their best both are absolutely magnificent and at their worst both are simply bad. This is a case of the former—wonderful music, wonderful performance. Rattle revels in the beauty of the symphony but keeps it within disciplined limits, and the Berlin orchestra plays at its virtuosic maximum. The Fourth is arguably Bruckner’s most immediately appealing work, and Rattle phrases its soaring themes con amore and manipulates its breathtaking dynamics masterfully. It is also the most confusingly reworked and altered of the Bruckner symphonies as a result of the composer’s revision mania; there exist no fewer than five different versions today. Rattle plays the 1886 version, edited by Nowak; I am insufficiently musicological to judge its appropriateness—all I know is that it grips me. The audio is characterized by great beauty of sound and a very wide dynamic range; the transparency is occasionally smeared by the tricky Philharmonie acoustics, but who cares? It’s a great recording.
CDs and SACDs from Harmonia Mundi
An excellent antidote to the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould legacy, this is a performance of classical proportions and repose in the utterly transparent harpsichord idiom. Maybe we should have listened to this one first, if that had been chronologically possible, and then to Glenn Gould! The harpsichord, recorded in the Netherlands, sounds as good as it gets, which is no more than one expects from veteran producer Robina G. Young.
Hector Berlioz: Nuits d’été, Op. 7. Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade; Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques. Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, conductor. HMC 901932 (recorded 2006, released 2007).
Nuits d’été is some of the greatest music for the voice ever composed by anyone, at least in my amateurish opinion. The performance by the Argentinian Bernarda Fink is a paragon of vocal control, French diction, Gallic style, and Romantic emotion tempered by classical restraint. This is simply exquisite singing, rising almost to the level of Eleanor Steber’s magisterial 1954 mono recording for Columbia with Mitropoulos (a much more operatic interpretation, totally forgotten by today’s critics). The Ravel pieces are irresistibly Frenchy, stylish, and the ultimate in craftsmanship—but, let’s face it, not as beautiful. Kent Nagano’s orchestral accompaniments are perfect, and the stereo recording is gorgeous.
W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni. Johannes Weisser, Don Giovanni; Lorenzo Regazzo, Leporello; Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Donna Elvira; Olga Pasichnyk, Donna Anna; Kenneth Tarver, Don Ottavio; Sunhae Im, Zerlina; Nikolay Borchev, Masetto; Alessandro Guerzoni, Il Commendatore. RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs, conductor. HMC 901964.66 (3 CDs, recorded 2006, released 2007).
A flippant way to summarize this production would be “Don Giovanni Lite,” but it wouldn’t be entirely fair. René Jacobs has a valid point of view, with which a reasonable music lover can agree or disagree. Jacobs wants to scrub the opera clean of the accretions of romanticism and performance quirks of the last 200-plus years and present it in pure 1788 sound and style. (The Prague version premiered in 1787, the slightly modified Vienna version in 1788.) But what if those 200-plus years uncovered new and not immediately obvious beauties in the incredibly rich score? I was raised on the “traditional” Don Giovanni, sung by some of the greatest voices of the mid-20th century. To me, ravishingly beautiful singing is an absolute requirement of a great performance, and I’m not getting it here. Jacobs’s singers are excellent professional musicians who sing correctly, sometimes even with verve, but none of them has a beautiful voice. It’s the virtuoso period-practice orchestra that has the starring role; of its kind, their gut-stringed vibratoless playing with its whiplike attacks has no equal. What’s more, the audiophile appeal of the recorded sound is of the highest order; the clarity, detail, instrumental separation, overall soundstaging, and dynamic range are sensational. Jacobs sticks to the 1788 Vienna version and tacks on the missing 1787 Prague music as an appendix, which is all right in a recording but not in the opera house, where I would want to hear the “impure” conflated version, since I don’t want to miss eitherDalla sua pace or Il mio tesoro intanto. (Purism for the sake of “dramaturgy” is somewhat questionable here, as if Da Ponte’s haphazard and often silly libretto had the theatrical coherence of Racine or Tennessee Williams. It’s the music, dude, not the play…) Bottom line: as my only recording of Don Giovanni I wouldn’t want this, but as an alternative it’s more than worthwhile.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (“Pathétique”), Op. 74; Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniele Gatti, conductor. HMU 807394 (SACD, recorded 2005, released 2006).
The competition in Tchaikovsky Sixths is staggering, going all the way back to Toscanini and Furtwängler, but this performance is still a standout. It is very intense and at the same time very precise, a difficult combination to bring off. Gatti’s timings for the first and third movements are almost identical to those of Mravinsky’s definitive 1960 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic; in the second movement Gatti is a little faster, in the fourth a little slower. That the two performances are at all comparable speaks very highly for Gatti. The Royal Philharmonic plays magnificently, and the recording, another Robina Young production, is huge in every respect—soundstage, dynamic range, instrumental definition, with particularly rich brasses. And let’s not forget the Serenade, the music for Balanchine’s unforgettable ballet, beautifully played here by the string section of the orchestra, reminding us that not all Tchaikovsky is over the top.
CD from Hyperion
Alkan, a contemporary of Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann, sounds like a pastiche of all three on steroids, very intense, wayward, and crotchety. It’s great stuff, but you don’t have to take it too seriously if you don’t want to, and it’s almost impossible to play. Of course, to Marc-André Hamelin everything is possible; he sails through the fiendish passages with incredible ease and panache. The man is not only a world-class artist but possibly the greatest-ever acrobat of the keyboard. The speed, articulation, and clarity of his finger work are simply beyond belief, and at the same time the music keeps singing regardless of the complications. His playing is much more controlled and transparent than that of, say, Horowitz or anyone else. The piano recording, a UK job, is somewhat on the dry side and wonderfully clear.
SACD from IsoMike
Again, the news here is Ray Kimber’s sensational IsoMike recording technique, with his weird baffled microphones (seewww.isomike.com), although these three mid-20th-century compositions are undoubtedly good music. The audio is the star, however; the realism, the textural quality, the you-are-there factor of these 4-channel recordings are simply without equal. I could almost say, don’t go to the concert, play this disc through first-rate loudspeakers instead, it’s just as good. The only drawback of the IsoMike technique that I can see is that those huge baffles need heavy equipment for transportation and deployment; the microphone complement of other recording engineers will fit into the trunk of a sedan. Of the three pieces, I like the Martinů best; it sounds like important music on first hearing; the others are merely pleasant listening. The instrumentalists are high-level professionals.
CDs from Naxos
They may be clichés at this point, but the fact remains that the Brandenburgs tower over other Baroque composers’ music in originality of format and content. These performances on period instruments are as good as I have ever heard, upbeat, energetic, authoritatively and accurately played, never boring. The Swiss Baroque Soloists consist of some of the most distinguished period instrumentalists of Europe. Their playing has that joyful quality of utterly secure musicians having fun. The Trio Sonata has a flute part intended to be played by Frederick the Great, who probably never got around to playing it. The audio, recorded in a church by French engineers, is absolutely transparent and natural, as good as it gets.
Sergey Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2; Preludes, Op. 23; Preludes, Op. 32. Eldar Nebolsin, piano. 8.570327 (2007).
These are the complete preludes of Rachmaninov, glorious Romantic piano music, composed three-quarters of a century later than the heyday of Romantic piano music. Today, 64 years after the composer’s death, who cares about the anachronism? It’s simply great music, dates notwithstanding. Nebolsin is another wonderful Russian pianist in his early thirties—they keep coming. He combines superb technique with thoughtful musicianship; these performances rank right up there with the best. The piano recording, made in England, is my favorite kind: close-miked and fairly dry, i.e. not too resonant, with a completely untrammeled dynamic range. The you-are-there factor is high.
SACDs from Ondine
Samuel Barber: Toccata Festiva, Op. 36, for organ and orchestra. Francis Poulenc: Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (“Organ”). Olivier Latry, organ; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. ODE 1094-5 (recorded 2006, released 2007).
I have been a Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber for many years, and in my admittedly biased opinion it is the greatest orchestra in the world. These two SACDs of live concerts (which I have attended) give strong support to that opinion—breathtakingly beautiful playing in every piece. In the current Eschenbach controversy I tend to be pro-Eschenbach; I think his strengths far exceed his weaknesses. Yes, he micromanages certain aspects of the performance and has some fussy mannerisms, but he shapes every bar of the music with the most intense devotion and squeezes the last drop of emotional content out of every phrase. He never goes on automatic pilot. Witness the Tchaikovsky Fourth performance—such momentum, such splendor, those brasses…wow! His piano playing in the second half of The Seasons (the first half was tacked on to the Tchaikovsky Fifth recording) is also topnotch. As for the new Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall—this is its debut recording—it is an absolutely magnificent instrument, the acoustics of the hall rendering better definition of its majestic tones than the echoey nave of a church possibly could. Olivier Latry is the organist of Notre-Dame in Paris and considered one of the world’s finest. What he does with the pedal cadenza of the Barber toccata—a brilliant piece in its entirety—is pretty amazing. The best music on the disc is probably the Poulenc concerto, with its catchy tunes, marvelous instrumentation, and blending of old and modern styles. The Saint-Saëns work is something of a bore until the rousing finale, where the organ gets a real workout. The audio quality of the two discs shows a further improvement in Polyhymnia International’s recording technique in Verizon Hall. In the Tchaikovsky symphony, especially, the huge soundstage, utter transparency, stunning dynamics, and exactly right liveness are close to setting a new standard and ending my nostalgia for the days of Lew Layton, John Eargle, and Max Wilcox. The bottom notes of the organ in the Poulenc piece are also worth mentioning—got a good subwoofer? Bravo Ondine!
SACDs from RCA Red Seal
I would never have imagined that I could get excited over any new Beethoven symphony recording at this point (unless conducted by the resurrected ghost of Arturo Toscanini and recorded by the resurrected ghost of Lew Layton). I was wrong. This is a unique disc. The Bremen chamber orchestra, consisting of 36 to 40 players, is a supervirtuoso group, more in the sense of an amazing string quartet than that of a large symphony orchestra. Their playing is totally transparent, meticulously inflected, very crisply accented, precise to the nth degree, and blazing with primary colors. It’s like the gutsiest period practice without period instruments. You have the impression that you are hearing the music the way Beethoven originally imagined it, since it would have been anachronistic for him to imagine it played by a 105-piece modern orchestra and unrealistic to expect a contemporary live performance this good. Paavo Järvi brings out tiny details in the score that I was unaware of before. It’s a welcome change from the tief Germanic interpretations of Furtwängler or Klemperer. Check it out; you’ll love it. The recorded sound is as vivid as the playing, a perfect match.
Richard Strauss: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character; Don Juan, Op. 20. Antonio Janigro, cello (in Don Quixote), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor. 88697-04604-2 (recorded 1959 and 1954, respectively; remastered and released 2006).
These are quite simply the greatest performances, ever, of the two Richard Strauss masterpieces, with the possible (but far from certain) exception of Toscanini’s, which were not nearly as well recorded. Lewis Layton’s recordings in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall of the 1950s were unequaled in transparency, spaciousness, and instrumental definition for their time, and the RCA Living Stereo reissues on CD in the mid-1990s recreated the original technology pretty accurately. This particular 2006 remastering for SACD is no improvement, despite the restoration of the center channel of the original three-track tapes—the top end appears to have been made hotter, when it was a little too hot to begin with. Even so, if you love Richard Strauss you’ve got to have one version or another of these Reiner performances. They are unique.
Giuseppe Verdi: “La traviata.” Violetta Valery, Anna Moffo, soprano; Alfredo Germont, Richard Tucker, tenor; Giorgio Germont, Robert Merrill, braritone; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Fernando Previtali, conductor. 82876-82623-2 (recorded 1960, remastered and released 2006).
For all I know, there exists a better recording of Traviata than this one, but I haven’t heard it. I am totally blown away by the stupendous singing of Anna Moffo, and the legendary voices of Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill are, if anything, even more impressive. As for the 1960 recording by the unsurpassable Lewis Layton, if you told me it was done last year on state-of-the-art equipment, I’d believe it. The whole production is a stunning achievement, one of the all-time RCA Living Stereo classics. The excellent DSD remastering restores the center channel, which I don’t find all that important; there are no rear channels or .1 bass. (Why can’t they make opera recordings like this today? That utterly secure, bulletproof quality is lacking in today’s best voices, good as they are.)
SACDs from Sony Classical
When Columbia released in 1955 an LP of the Goldberg Variations by an unknown 23-year old pianist named Glenn Gould, the music world reeled. Such clarity of the counterpoint and such vitality of phrasing in a Bach keyboard work had not been heard before. The LP became a bestseller, and when Gould made a new digital recording of the work a quarter of a century later in 1981, the comparisons were flying and persist to this day. Many prefer the sprightlier 1955 version, the one “re-performed” here by the Zenph process. This is a process that analyzes a piano recording and separates its musical components—volume, pitch and duration of notes, velocity of key strikes, key releases, pedal actions, and so on—from the surrounding noise, then encodes the denoised musical components digitally into a high-definition MIDI file. A computer-controlled nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier Pro grand piano then replays that file, thus recreating an exact replica of the original performance in live sound, minus the noise. The recreated audio brings out subtle details in the performance that were not clearly audible in the 1955 recording; the only problem is that the Yamaha has a much richer timbre than the drier-sounding piano played by Gould, so you still don’t get a totally exact reincarnation of the original performance. Even so, it’s a definitely worthwhile tradeoff. Ain’t science wonderful?
Franz Liszt: Vallée d’Obermann; Il Penseroso; St. François d’Assise—La prédication aux oiseaux; Bagatelle ohne Tonart/Bagatelle sans tonalité; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13; Sposalizio; “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen;” Funérailles; La lugubre gondola No. 2; En rêve—Nocturne. Arcadi Volodos, piano. 88697065002 (recorded 2006, released 2007).
Volodos is the “other” young Russian supervirtuoso of the piano, perhaps not quite as well-known as Kissin but equally brilliant. His technique is transcendental, and his musical personality is in the grand tradition. Here he plays ten of Liszt’s most beautiful shorter works, and his performance is a knockout. The impact of a piece like Funérailles, for example, is breathtaking. The only negative is his occasional departure from Liszt’s written score, editorializing on the composition (shades of Horowitz). Considering the liberties Liszt himself took with other composers’ works, it’s a forgivable sin. The recording has tremendous presence and a huge dynamic range but would be even better, in my opinion, if it were a little bit less resonant.
SACDs from Telarc
Every audio reviewer should have a Young Person’s Guide recommendation, and this is mine. It is gorgeously played by an orchestra that has risen to world class over the last few years, and the sound has great impact and presence if you really crank the volume control (otherwise the orchestra sounds a little distant). The Sea Interludes are basically high-class movie music, expertly orchestrated and flawlessly played here. (No, La Mer they are not.) The Enigma variations are every conductor’s cup of tea, brewed to taste, and Järvi’s taste is very good. He opts for a cool, objective approach, with very elegant phrasing. It works. Watch Paavo Järvi; I think he has already passed his dad and is on his way to superstar status.
Luigi Cherubini: Requiem in C Minor; Marche Funèbre. Beethoven: Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118. Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, director. SACD-60658 (recorded 2006, released 2007).
Cherubini was ten years older than Beethoven and became popular for his operas before he turned to religious music. The Requiemdates from 1816, the same year as Beethoven’s A-major piano sonata, Op. 101 (just for a timeline reference). Guess who praised the Requiem to the skies? Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner, that’s who—after which I don’t believe you will be interested in my praise. It is a complex, dramatic, richly scored (trombones and tam-tam!) work that every serious music lover should know. This performance is beautifully sung, played, and recorded (maybe with a wee bit too live acoustic); I haven’t compared it with other recordings but I’m basically satisfied. The purely instrumental Cherubini funeral march is very powerful; the 5½-minute Beethoven potboiler is rather a bore.
CD Set from Testament
Decca made live stereo recordings of all four evenings of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival and then never released them. It was politics; a couple of years later their sensational, groundbreaking Solti studio recording of the Ring was under way, and the Bayreuth tapes were shelved—until their resurrection by Testament a half century later. I have heard only the fourth and probably greatest work of the series, Götterdämmerung, in the Bayreuth version, and I am not at all sure that the Solti version is better. As a total performance, I cannot imagine a better rendition of Wagner’s stupendous music than the Keilberth recording. Astrid Varnay is the greatest Brünnhilde I have ever heard—I am throwing caution to the winds with that flat declaration—and I’ve heard them all, either live or recorded: Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Birgit Nilsson, you name them. Varnay, who was at her absolute peak at 37 years old at the time of the recording, could produce a crescendo ascending to her highest notes and actually sound fuller and stronger than below instead of thinning out slightly like even the greatest dramatic sopranos. Astonishing singing. Windgassen was the best, certainly the most musical, Heldentenor since Lauritz Melchior, and so on down the line, the best possible cast. Keilberth isn’t as glamorous as Solti but he was a musician’s musician and a Wagnerian to the core; he phrases the music most convincingly. (He reminds me a little bit of George Szell at the old Met in 1942, when I first fell in love with Wagner—the highest possible praise.) As for the early (1955) stereo recording, it’s very respectable but not as good as some critics made it sound. For example, the contemporaneous RCA Living Stereo recordings in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall are considerably better. That amazing sunken orchestra makes the Bayreuth acoustics quite tricky; there are serious imbalances in the recorded sound, with hot spots and cold spots and thin, shrieking brasses in the climaxes. Only the strings sound consistently natural. Even so, the recording is good enough to preserve the full impact of a magnificent performance. Testament has rendered great service.