peteraczel | 30 July, 2008 10:46
Catching Up with CDs and SACDs
The following is merely a random sampling of what I’ve been listening to since the last group of reviews in November 2007. Software problems have been the main reason for the long hiatus from reviewing, but stagnation due my advancing years seems to have been a contributing cause.
CDs from Harmonia Mundi
Frédéric Chopin: 24 Préludes, Op. 28; Trois Nouvelles Études; Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45; Petit Prélude in A-flat Major. Frederic Mompou: Música callada No. 15; Prélude No. 9; El lago (Le Lac). Alexandre Tharaud, piano. HMC 901982 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but not nearly as many ways as there are to play the Chopin preludes. Alexandre Tharaud’s way is not Rubinstein’s or Pollini’s but equally great—very dramatic, verging almost on violence in some of the pieces, but still totally controlled and authoritative. His technique is above criticism. I wasn’t quite as enchanted by these performances as by his older CD of Chopin waltzes, just thoroughly impressed. As for his parallels between Chopin and Mompou, that’s his thing, not mine. Maybe he’s got something there… The audio quality of the recording is just a bit more resonant and swimmy than my ideal but still quite excellent. This is a far from negligible addition to the Chopin discography.
“Fantasy”—repertoire for two violins. Bohuslav Martinu: Sonatina for two violins and piano. Dmitri Shostakovich: Three violin duets, with piano accompaniment. Darius Milhaud: Sonata for two violins and piano, Op. 15. Isang Yun: Sonatina for two violins; Pezzo Fantasioso. Angela Chun & Jennifer Chun, violins; Nelson Padgett, piano. HMU 907444 (recorded 1998, released 2008).
It’s difficult to have a bigtime career as a solo violinist, no matter how good you are—and the Chun sisters are very good. So they did something clever: they went for the relatively limited repertoire for two violins, where they are able to shine. In this recording they shine brightly, no doubt about it. The Martinu sonatina is a sassy, edgy, mildly dissonant, rather lightweight piece, which the Chun sisters toss off with easy virtuosity. The Shostakovich duets are even lighter stuff (arrangements of excerpts from his theater and film music) but lovely-sounding and beautifully played here. The centerpiece and most serious music of the recorded program is the Milhaud sonata, reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, which the Chun sisters play with a combination of impressionistic refinement and controlled vigor. The Yun compositions leave me cold; they meander all over the place and consist mostly of sound effects (successfully showing off, it must be admitted, the beautiful sound of Angela’s Montagnana and Jennifer’s Amati). All in all—great musicianship, somewhat constrained repertory. The 10-year old recording is excellent in audio quality; the violins have great presence without any edginess; what’s not clear to me is why this performance was shelved for 10 years, while the Chun sisters remained musically active to this day. So far I haven’t received an answer to that question.
SACD from LSO Live
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor. SACD LSO0661 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Here we go again—Mahler 6th. This time it’s on a single disc because Gergiev gets it done in 77 minutes and 11 seconds. Is that good? Yes and no. Gergiev has been advertised as an explosive, blood-and-guts dynamo who made his bones in the orchestra pit of a busy opera house, and that’s the way he conducts here. It’s very exciting and certainly different, without the expected Mahlerian longueurs, rather Wagnerian, and necessarily superficial where nuance is needed. I thoroughly enjoyed it and at the same time found it questionable. The LSO is a natural Mahler orchestra in its sonority; they play magnificently. I chose to listen to the 2-channel SACD layer of the disc over my Orion++ loudspeaker system and found James Mallinson’s live recording at the Barbican absolutely stunning. The soundstage is wide and deep; the orchestral texture is very clean and detailed; the dynamic range is wide. I spot-checked the Redbook CD layer, and it sounded about the same. Maybe an interruptible recording without an audience could have brought out an occasional inner detail more clearly, maybe not. This should definitely not be your first and only CD of the Mahler 6th, but as an occasional indulgence it has a lot of merit.
CDs from Naxos
Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Opera in One Act, Libretto by Béla Balázs). Sung in Hungarian. Bluebeard: Gustáv Belácek, bass; Judith: Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. 8.660928 (recorded and released 2007).
In May 2007 Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth orchestra had a big early-Bartók recording session in Poole, England, committing to CD their version of the 1911 opera and the 1914–16 ballet. Whether it was a worthwhile effort is debatable, since both works have benefited from a number of much better modern recordings. (If I weren’t Hungarian and something of a Bartók watcher, I wouldn’t even bother to write about these CDs.) Alsop is too bland for Bartók; the music demands greater incisiveness, more of an edge, you could almost say more violence. Merely beautiful orchestral balances don’t cut it. And that’s not the only problem. For example, the spoken prologue is missing from “Bluebeard,” which is a falsification because the music is supposed to start under the narrator’s voice. As for the Slovak bass Belácek, he sings well enough, but his heavily accented Hungarian reminds me of the itinerant Slovak tinkers who used to peddle their wares in the courtyard of our Budapest apartment house when I was a child. They would call out “Wiring! Patching! Pot mending!” in bad Hungarian; we called them wire-Slovaks. This isn’t just pedantic quibbling; the Magyar cadences are an intrinsic part of Bartók’s vocal metrics. Ten seconds of listening to Mihály Székely, the greatest Bluebeard of all time (Mercury Living Presence, D101216, recorded 1962) will prove my point. (Never mind that there aren’t too many Hungarian-speaking music critics in the U.S.) The mezzo Meláth at least sings in normal Hungarian. The ballet music of the Prince doesn’t quite have the searing and unrelenting intensity of the opera, but there are many gorgeous passages, magnificently orchestrated. Alsop plays it kind of blah half the time; she goes on automatic pilot much too often. Compare, for example, the superb 1991 performance by Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on DGG. The audio quality of both Naxos discs is good, with a credible soundstage and wide dynamic range, but that alone won’t save the day.
Ernö von Dohnányi: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 27; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 43. Michael Ludwig, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, conductor. 8.570833 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
When I was a child in Hungary, Dohnányi (1877–1960) was the big-deal pianist; nobody even talked about him as a composer. By that time (late 1930s), Bartók was the big-deal composer, even though earlier (pre-World War I) Bartók was also considered a superb pianist. From today’s perspective, of course, Bartók is a giant and Dohnányi an interesting minor composer—and who cares about their piano playing? These two violin concertos, composed in 1915 and 1949 respectively, are very easy listening; even the 1949 one isn’t particularly “modern” and the 1915 one a lot less so; both are big, lush, gorgeously orchestrated, Romantic works with amazing virtuoso moments for the violin. That they aren’t regular repertory pieces is inexplicable. Michael Ludwig is a superb violinist with a big, singing, invariably sweet tone; I knew him well as the Associate Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a post he left not long ago. The Scottish orchestra and JoAnn Falletta are also very impressive, and the recording, made in the splendid acoustics of Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, is about as good in audio quality as I ever heard in a violin concerto—truly 3-D out of just two channels, with outstanding dynamics. This is a surprisingly excellent CD.
SACD from Ondine
Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”); Dumka, Op. 59. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Christoph Eschenbach, piano (in the Dumka). ODE 1131-5 (recorded 2006, released 2008).
The Philadelphians have been known as a “Tchaikovsky orchestra” since the days of Leopold Stokowski, and here they certainly live up to that reputation. The schmaltzy second theme of the first movement never sounded better than as played by their magnificent strings, and the brasses are also stunning. Eschenbach’s performance is predictably much slower and more sentimental than the definitive Mravinsky/Leningrad recording of 1960 on DGG, but with the Philadelphia sound and the highly expressive, dramatic playing this is still memorable music-making. The recorded sound is far from the best effort of Polyhymnia in Verizon Hall; other recordings have had a more natural reverberation and sounded less congested, although the basic texture and structure are still good in both the Redbook and the SACD layers of the disc. As for the upbeat Dumka, Eschenbach plays it beautifully; he is actually less controversial as a piano virtuoso than as a conductor.
SACD from PentaTone
Franz Liszt: 12 Études d’exécution transcendante. Claudio Arrau, piano. PTC 5186 171 (recorded 1974, remastered and released 2008).
Claudio Arrau was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, an aristocratic musician of impeccable taste and irreproachable keyboard technique. He recorded these supremely difficult pieces at the age of 71, when his prowess was still undiminished and his musicianship at its ripest. In his interpretations, Liszt’s flashy showpieces emerge as beautiful music, not just spectacular explosions of gorgeous sound. He goes one step beyond supervirtuosos like Lazar Berman. Are his fingers quite as amazing? Amazing enough and, besides, it’s irrelevant—his way is the better way to hear this music. As for audio quality, here’s one instance where the reprocessed SACD layer sounds considerably better than the CD layer—cleaner, crisper, better defined. Since the original recording was on analog tape, it’s not quite clear to me how the two versions could diverge so much.
CD from RCA Red Seal
Jascha Heifetz: The Original Jacket Collection. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Bizet, Bloch, Brahms, Bruch, Debussy, de Falla, Franck, Glazunov, Korngold, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rózsa, Sibelius, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vieuxtemps, et al. Jascha Heifetz, violin; various orchestras, conductors, & accompanists. 88697-21742-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946–1972, reissued 2008).
The arguments about Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), if any, were always about subtle details of interpretation, never about violin playing. In the latter department he stood alone, almost unquestionably the most perfect violinist of the twentieth century. Even the greatest string players have occasional intonation problems—not Heifetz. He invariably hit each note square in the middle, regardless of duration or velocity. His vibrato was unique; smaller, faster, less wobbly than anyone else’s. His double-stops were flawless, without exception. He was simply unaware of any difficulties of execution. And he played in a lofty, aristocratic, infinitely self-assured, one might say Olympian style, with slight mannerisms of phrasing now and then. It was basically unfair to other violinists. This collection reproduces the original LP jacket art and copy of each recording in reduced CD envelope size—that’s its marketing gimmick. All the great violin concertos are here—the Beethoven, the Brahms, the Mendelssohn, the Sibelius, the Tchaikovsky, in performances unequaled to this day, with some great orchestras (Chicago, Boston, etc.) and great conductors (such as Reiner and Munch). There are also a few solo performances with and without piano accompaniment. The recorded sound in most instances is very acceptable even by today’s standards; in the pieces where the great Lew Layton was the recording engineer the audio quality is actually quite amazing. For those who don’t own some of these unique recordings in older editions, this latest version looks like a good buy.
Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (“The Trout”). W. A. Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Jethro Marks, viola; Amanda Forsyth, cello; Joel Quarrington, double bass (in D. 667). 88697160442 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
What’s better than a great chamber ensemble? A chamber ensemble of world-class soloists, provided the latter are totally attuned to chamber music. That’s the case here, in spades. Yefim Bronfman is one of the flashiest of soloists but here he is the team player par excellence. His phrasing is absolutely gorgeous where the piano is on top, and then he fades back into the sonic fabric of the music like a lifelong chamber artist. The same can be said of Pinchas Zukerman; his violin tone is warm and silky at all times and his phrasing elegant, whether he is carrying the melody or playing figurations. The other members of the group are not as famous but certainly no slouches. The juxtaposition of these two lovely compositions, written 33 years apart, is somewhat arbitrary; they are both for piano and strings, but the Mozart is a darker, emotionally more complex work by far. It is quite wonderful to hear both pieces performed on this level of technical excellence. The recorded sound, too, is excellent; strings and piano have all the presence you could ask for and are in perfect balance. The recording was done at McGill University in Montreal—I always liked Canadian audio!
CDs from Sony Classical
J. S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827; Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828. Murray Perahia, piano. 88697-22697-2 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Murray Perahia is arguably the world’s greatest living pianist, at least in the standard classical repertoire. This release certainly puts forth that argument. That his chronic thumb trauma still keeps acting up from time to time, forcing temporary withdrawals from the concert stage, does not seem to affect his superb technique when he is well and making a recording, as in this case. As for his musicianship, it remains peerless. These cerebral Bach pieces acquire an utterly natural, singing, human quality under his fingers, while retaining the utmost transparency in polyphony and the greatest possible clarification of rhythmic complexity. Astonishing pianism! The German-engineered piano recording has all the presence you can ask for, with just a tad more resonance than I like—but that’s a matter of taste. Perahia’s warm piano tone is certainly rendered accurately.
Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here; Live at The Shrine. Zenph Studios Re-Performance (stereo surround version and binaural stereo version). 88697-22218-2 (original recordings 1933 and 1949, Zenph re-performance 2007, released 2008).
If you asked me who were the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century, my answer would have to be Art Tatum first, then a big gap, then all the others. And I am in good professional company with that opinion. The man was not only a superb jazz artist but also a piano virtuoso with the keyboard technique of a Marc-André Hamelin. He appeared to possess four hands instead of just two, and his phrasing, rhythm, voice leading, etc., were always dead-on at any velocity. As for Zenph re-performances, I described the process under Sony Classical/Glenn Gould in the November 2007 group of reviews. The piano sound is completely modern, since the Yamaha player piano is newly recorded, but the dynamic range is limited to that of the original recording. Here we have Art Tatum at 23½ years old in the “Piano Starts Here,” which includes his signature “Tiger Rag,” and 16 years later, at 39½ years old, in “Live at The Shrine.” I find the earlier performance to be more virtuosic, with amazing sonorities and incredibly fast runs of startling clarity, but it’s pretty conventional jazz of such smoothness and fluency that much of it sounds like a superior form of cocktail piano. The later recording is of much more modern-sounding jazz, more interesting but most of it less flashy, less wow-style. Regardless of the differences, it’s all truly spectacular. The binaural stereo tracks are particularly clear over headphones, simulating what Art Tatum himself would have heard while playing, but I find headphone listening to be quite irritating after a few minutes, so I stopped. The best news is that there are many more Zenph re-performances coming. I wonder what recording they’ll resurrect next.
SACDs from Telarc
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor. SACD-60683 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Here’s 2¼ hours of excellent Russian music, played by the excellent Cincinnati orchestra, conducted by the excellent Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi, produced by the excellent record producer Robert Woods, and engineered by the excellent recording engineer Michael Bishop. So why isn’t the overall effect excellent? Mainly because of the Cincinnati Music Hall, a bitch of a recording venue. The orchestra plays beautifully; Järvi’s musicianship and concept of the music are of the highest order; and the sound is just blah. The strings are unable to produce the free-breathing expansiveness and bloom they’re capable of because of the acoustics of the hall. Woods and Bishop have come up with stunning recordings over and over again, so it’s clearly not their fault. The Lieutenant Kijé music comes off relatively best because of the light string writing; the Rachmaninoff symphony, for example, with its gorgeous string passages doesn’t sound as gorgeous as it should. This has nothing to do with the interpretations, which are right up there with the best. I could discern no differences in basic sound quality between the various layers of either disc. Call these efforts a near miss.
CDs from Testament
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Recorded live at the Festspielhaus Bayreuth, July 24–28, 1955, by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Joseph Keilberth, conductor. Cast included Hans Hotter as Wotan, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, and others of that caliber. SBT14 1412 (14 CDs, released 2006).
This is the full set of the same Ring performance of which I already reviewed the Götterdämmerung conclusion. In this particular edition, as distinct from the four separately available operas, the librettos have been left out (but can be downloaded from www.testament.co.uk), and the entire music is on 14 CDs. As I said, this 1955 production is arguably equal, or even superior, to the 1958–1966 Solti/Vienna Ring recordings, which to this day are considered the gold standard and became the political reason why Decca suppressed this earlier effort for half a century. Certainly Hans Hotter, great as he is in the Solti recordings, was in even better voice a few years earlier; Astrid Varnay is a not a whit inferior to Birgit Nilsson (in my opinion actually more beautiful-sounding, but let’s not fight); Windgassen and Neidlinger overlap both productions but are younger and fresher in the earlier one; and so on. As for the conductor, Keilberth is not as flashy and high-voltage as Solti but an equally good musician, rock solid in Wagner, so that leaves the audio as the sticking point—a very interesting comparison. The 1955 taping is very early stereo, before they knew how to gimmick it up, and therefore utterly natural-sounding, with occasional imbalances due to the tricky acoustics of the Festspielhaus and some tape overloads. The later Solti recordings exhibit much more sophisticated audio engineering, with many more microphones and dazzling effects that often sound a bit artificial. I really don’t know which sound I prefer. That a live performance over one five-day period in Bayreuth can be on such a consistently high level is truly amazing, much more remarkable than the heavily rehearsed and edited studio recordings of Solti over an eight-year interval. We are lucky to have both and should be grateful to Testament for resurrecting the Bayreuth recording.