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peteraczel | 07 February, 2005 21:20

CD and DVD Reviews 

A note about CD and DVD reviews by the Editor:

Why am I writing these capsule reviews of CDs and music DVDs instead of having a professional music critic write them? Because I just can’t find a suitable successor. There are plenty of practitioners with a greater knowledge of music than mine, but they are all so boring! (B. H. Haggin, where are you now that we need you?) I read the magazines, I read the newspapers, and their music critics all seem deliberately convoluted in their style, noncommittal, covering their asses, making only unverifiable observations, and nearly always completely humorless. I wish it weren’t so. Tell me if I’m wrong.

I also want to clarify why there are only classical music and occasional jazz reviews here (and in the previous print issues of The Audio Critic). Not because I am a music snob. I sincerely believe that, for instance, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” is better music than any number of concertos by Manfredini. It’s just that present-day pop/rock music is at an all-time low. I cannot believe the depths to which popular music has sunk. No melody, no harmony, no texture, no rhythm (other than boom-boom), no nothing, just unstructured noise to accompany the inane words. I think the marketeers have discovered that the tin ears far outnumber the people with even a shred of musicality. What upsets me even more are the pretentious discussions of this garbage in print and on the air, the deep analysis of shallow music. What a farce!

(Please note, in the reviews below, that the year in parentheses after the CD number is the year of recording, not the year of release.)

DVD-V from BBC Opus Arte 
W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte. Will Hartmann, Tamino; Dorothea Röschmann, Pamina; Diana Damrau, Queen of Night; Franz-Josef Selig, Sarastro; Simon Keenlyside, Papageno; Ailish Tynan, Papagena. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), Colin Davis, conductor. DVD-Video OA 0886 D (2003).

Is The Magic Flute Mozart’s greatest opera? Probably not. Is it the most delightful, the most lovable, the most disarming? I would have to say yes. This production certainly does not contradict that point of view. Colin Davis knows his Mozart and leads a stylistically impeccable performance. One is not even aware of the conductor’s presence; everything is just right; nothing is “interpreted”—Mozart addresses us directly, without an intermediary. The singing is uniformly excellent, close to world-class I would say, with Simon Keenlyside particularly outstanding as one of the most engaging Papagenos in my experience (the German of this Englishman is flawless!) and Diana Damrau also impressive, histrionically even more than vocally, as an exceptionally convincing Queen of the Night. The staging is very stylish (the stagehands are intentionally visible as they manipulate the props!), and the Dolby Digital surround sound is state-of-the-art in both localization and envelopment. All in all, a highly successful production.

CDs from EMI Classics
J. S. Bach: “Legend”—Famous Transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski. Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, conductor. 7243 5 57758 0 1 (1957–58). Also includes a DVD-Video (see text).

Recorded by the 75-year old Stokowski with an unidentified orchestra (most probably top-notch New York freelancers) in New York City’s Manhattan Center, these half-century old tapes were digitally remastered in 1997 and reissued in 2004. The audio is absolutely stunning, fully up to present-day standards and then some. The soundstage is huge and the creamy Stokowski sound is unmistakable. Perhaps in 1957–58 they didn’t know yet how to foul up the stereo image and the instrumental sonorities. As for Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions of Bach organ works and chamber music, purists have always rejected them and less uptight music lovers always enjoyed them. I think Johann Sebastian, with his early 18th-century instrumental palette, would have absolutely wallowed in the almost ridiculously rich orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. It’s over the top but it’s great—only an effete snob could object to it as an occasional indulgence. All eleven compositions on the CD are performed with tremendous gusto, vitality, and beauty of sound. Stokowski could make any orchestra sound like the Philadelphia; he was an orchestral magician. To top off the treat, there is a bonus DVD in the package. It shows the 90-year old Stokowski, in 1972, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. He doesn’t exactly look young but he conducts with authority, and the sonorities are exquisite. What a maestro!

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies 1–9. Wiener Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 7243 5 57445 2 4 (2002). Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio. Angela Denoke, Leonore; Jon Villars, Florestan; Alan Held, Don Pizarro; László Polgár, Rocco. Berliner Philharmoniker & Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 7243 5 57555 2 0 (2003).

Every first-rate conductor in the world leads off his repertory with Beethoven and every one of them does a creditable job, with various individual emphases, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies. Even Toscanini had his little quirks in this music; Furtwängler had a lot of them, and so did all the other greats. Sir Simon Rattle is no exception, and depending on whether or not one likes his personal signature one can call these performances great or merely competent. I’ll leave it to the professional music critics to fight that out; there has already been a lot of controversy about these recordings; that they are world-class is pretty much a given. I’ll restrict myself to pointing out some interesting specifics. The symphonies were recorded with the Vienna orchestra rather than Sir Simon’s own Berliners to honor a firm commitment that predated his current association. He explains that he would have lost all credibility if he had switched. The Viennese are not quite as disciplined and precise as the Berlin orchestra but they play magnificently, giving it everything they’ve got. (Let’s not forget that Beethoven was also Viennese, by choice if not by birth.) The recorded sound is excellent—clear, detailed, sufficiently reverberant and dynamic, but there exists one step up in depth, juiciness, and general realism (à la Lew Layton or John Eargle) that it lacks. (No big deal.) The Fidelio is somewhat small-scale, almost Mozartean, because Rattle believes that most interpretations are too bloated and Wagnerian. The singers are good, highly professional, but far from great. The traditional entr’acte, the great Leonore No. 3 overture, is omitted! The audio is again highly satisfactory, nothing wrong with it, but also rather small-scale in its soundstage and unexciting. I have always regarded this opera as a disappointment, considering that it was created by the greatest composer who ever lived (see the CD reviews in print issue No. 25 for a longer discussion), so you may want to take my lack of enthusiasm under appropriate advisement.

CDs from Sony Classical
Franz Joseph Haydn:
Piano Sonatas No. 31 in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46; No. 34 in D Major, Hob. XVI:33; No. 29 in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:45; No. 49 in C-sharp Minor, Hob. XVI:36; No. 35 in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:43. Emanuel Ax, piano. SK 89363 (2000).

Emanuel (“Manny”) Ax is the most genial, relaxed, and unpretentious classical superstar I’ve ever met personally, in addition to being, almost incidentally, a superb musician and a great piano virtuoso. His pixieish appearance and evident sense of humor contribute to the nonintimidating impact. In this Grammy-award-winning recording he plays five “middle-period” piano works by Haydn with tremendous panache and fleet-fingered precision. It is in every way a wonderful performance. He uses very little pedal and is recorded rather close-up, although the acoustics of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City would have been quite flattering with a more ambient pickup. I happen to think that this drier recorded sound suits the music perfectly. Haydn’s musical ideas are always delightfully unpredictable and satisfying. These sonatas are not as frequently played as some of the symphonies and string quartets but they are far from second-rate Haydn. All in all, an outstanding recording that moves right to the top of the pile in the Haydn/keyboard category.

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas in C Minor, D. 958; in A Major, D. 959; in B-flat Major, D. 960. Murray Perahia, piano. S2K 87706 (2 CDs, 2002).

There is no better pianist in the world today than Murray Perahia. Different and equally good, yes; better, no. And there are no greater piano sonatas in the literature than the last three of Schubert. Different and equally great, yes; greater, no. When Murray Perahia plays, you hear the composer, not the pianist. That’s because the playing is so flawless, so musical, so natural, so egoless, that nothing comes between the composer and the listener. I have heard many outstanding performances of these sonatas, but none that I would clearly prefer to Murray Perahia’s. Beautiful, beautiful piano playing. As for the music, these three sonatas—along with the great C Major symphony, the G Major quartet, the C Major quintet, and the E-flat Major mass—represent Schubert’s quantum leap from excellence to transcendence at the very end of his tragically short life. I am inclined to believe that if Schubert had not died at the age of 31 but lived to be, say, 60, he would have surpassed Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Mere speculation, of course. At any rate, this recording is on the highest plane of musical experience, except perhaps for the audio, which is a bit too resonant for my taste. The big fortissimo chords sound great that way, but some of those perfectly fingered pearly runs and trills get blurred in the acoustic soup created by the engineering team in Germany. Drier recording would have been better, but it’s a superb CD even so.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Solo Piano Works. Arcadi Volodos, piano; Berliner Philharmoniker, Seiji Ozawa, conductor. SH 93067 (2002/2003).

Another recording of the most played-to-death piano concerto in the world? Yes, but with two differences. One is Volodos, the other is SACD surround sound—both of which are distinctly different. Volodos is the other young Russian giant of the piano, one year younger than Evgeny Kissin and equally phenomenal, albeit a little less publicized. He has been characterized as a Horowitz with soul (or words to that effect), and indeed his technique is absolutely astonishing without in any way coarsening his lyricism in the tender passages. Really an amazing pianist, a complete package—and he was only 30 when he recorded the concerto. The shorter Rachmaninoff pieces, for piano alone, came a year later, including a “concert paraphrase” by Volodos of the composer’s Polka italienne, a bravura showpiece. The Tchaikovsky remains one of my favorites, despite the obviousness—some would even say vulgarity—of the music; I am reliably in tears when the big theme of the last movement is restated fortissimo near the end. Volodos plays the concerto with tremendous virtuosity but also the most intense expressiveness. Ozawa and the Berliners also perform on the highest level, and the solo Rachmaninoff selections are equally brilliant. As for the surround sound, it definitely makes a difference in this music, especially in giving the piano its own separate space as distinct from the orchestra’s. There is adequate depth and envelopment; indeed, all sonic elements are first-rate. I recommend this CD even to those who own several versions of the music.

---Peter Aczel