peteraczel | 15 April, 2009 15:42
Most classical recordings released over the past twenty years are of decent quality in both performance and sound. The standards have been raised to a fairly high and uniform level. For that very reason the critic tends to get bored, even a lightweight critic like me. It takes an unusually fine performance and/or truly superb sound to generate any kind of excitement. Unfortunately, most music critics, including some of the best, have rather crude sound systems that cannot distinguish between good, better, and best sound. They can barely tell good from bad. Here I have a slight advantage. Even more unfortunately, most music critics (and that includes me) do not have the high-level musical education and natural gift to distinguish between a good professional performance and a truly brilliant one, especially in complex and quirky music like a Mahler symphony. That’s why the same performance is lauded by one critic and panned by another. How many critics are able to verify whether or not all the meticulous and highly specific tempo, dynamic, and expression marking written into the score by Mahler have been faithfully rendered by the orchestra and conductor? Not many, only a small minority, and I am definitely not one of them. All I can do is to give you my sincere impression of just a few performances as a longtime music lover, plus a reasonably authoritative opinion of their audio quality, since I own a reference-quality sound system. You have to decide what that’s worth to you.
When it comes to audio quality, the issue of CDs versus SACDs keeps coming up (the DVD-A appears to be dead). I no longer have any doubt that the CD layer and 2-channel SACD layer of the same disc do not sound discernibly different if the original mix was the same. (See the October 17, 2007 web ’zine posting “Redbook vs. Hi-Rez” for details.) The multichannel layer sounds different by definition, but I have found that 2-channel playback through my Linkwitz Lab “Orion++” system actually gives me better spatial information than 5.1-channel systems. I have concluded that critics who hear a world of difference between CD and SACD (that is, between PCM and DSD) are delusional.
CD from ARTEK
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz, conductor. AR-0043-2 (recorded 2005, released 2008).
Here is a prime example of what I wrote in the introduction above. The 7th is the least recorded and perhaps the least understood of the Mahler symphonies, so any new recording of it is worth paying attention to. In the November/December 2008 issue of Fanfare, two well-established critics, Christopher Abbot and Lynn René Bayley, reviewed Schwarz’s performance. Abbot dismissed it as undistinguished and Bayley raved about it. Whom should you believe? Abbot was particularly critical of the “poor” sound, and Bayley made a special point of the “fantastic” sound quality. Now I ask you… My own take on the recording is that it is in the best Gerard Schwarz tradition: straightforward, unmannered, never flagging, highly musical. To decide exactly how faithful it is to Mahler’s intentions, I would need a professor from Juilliard or Curtis with a score. The Liverpudlians play beautifully, that much I can tell. As for the sound, I’m with Bayley; maybe it isn’t fantastic but it’s very, very good, wide in dynamic range, transparent, never harsh, with good soundstaging. I think Abbot must have had his CD player plugged into his kitchen radio.
CD from ATMA Classique
J. S. Bach: “Bach Métamorphoses” (Bach orchestrations by Leopold Stokowski, William Walton, Gustav Holst, Edward Elgar, Yoav Talmi, Anton Webern, and Ottorino Respighi). Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Yoav Talmi, conductor; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord. ACD2 2570 (2008).
This is an all-Canadian production, subsidized by the Canadian government. Orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ music and of his other keyboard pieces are not as controversial as they used to be; it is widely assumed today that Bach would have loved to compose for a big modern orchestra if it had existed in his time. Of course, a modern orchestration still needs to be in the spirit of the original, as for example Stokowski’s transcription of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is not. It is overblown and sensationalistic to the point of vulgarity. On the other hand, my favorite track on this CD, Respighi’s brilliant orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, is arguably even more magnificent than the original organ version. (Toscanini commissioned Respighi in 1929 to do it.) The Québec orchestra is just a little bit on the crude side in comparison with the great ones, but they play with tremendous enthusiasm under the Israeli conductor Talmi. In any case, I don’t know of another disc that brings together seven different composers’ approach to orchestrating Bach. The audio quality is in-your-face, close-miked, 1960s-style, but very good and clean of its kind.
SACD from CPO
Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 20 (No. 1 in E-flat Major, No. 2 in C Major, No. 3 in G Minor, No. 4 in D Major, No. 5 in F Minor, No. 6 in A Major). Pellegrini Quartet (Antonio Pellegrini, violin; Thomas Hofer, violin; Fabio Marano, viola; Helmut Menzler, cello). 777 173-2 (2 SACDs, recorded 2005 and 2006, released 2008).
Haydn’s Opus 20 quartets are a milestone. They are the first, the original, the prototypical “great” string quartets in the history of classical music. Quartet writing was never the same again. Haydn’s later masterpieces, as well as Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, are unlikely to have happened without these prototypes. Just listen, for example, to the melancholy complexities of the first movement of Op. 20 No. 5 in F Minor, lasting a full 11 minutes. Earlier works seem lightweight by comparison. The Pellegrini Quartet does not quite have the hair-trigger precision and tonal refinement of the Emerson or the symphonic weight of the old Guarneri (to bring up just two examples), but they play on the highest professional level, with considerable verve and musicality. The have a lightness of touch in passages where a heavier hand is too often the case. Repeats are all played. All in all, excellent performances of very great music. The recording is rather close-miked without much hall sound, but if you set the volume exactly right the total effect is absolute realism. If you start blasting it, the violins turn wiry; there is no margin. I could hear no difference between the CD and 2-channel SACD layers; the surround-sound layer I didn’t bother to try.
CDs from EMI
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major. Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 50999 5 01228 2 0 (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).
When there are so many splendid recordings of a Mahler symphony to choose from, the very least a new release from a major label should provide is excellent sound. That is not the case here. Assembled from several evenings of live concert performances, the Mahler Ninth recording is totally flat in sonic perspective, with no hall sound, almost as if the soundstage had collapsed from front to back, and screaming strings at ff to fff. It’s a pity because the famous Berlin strings play very beautifully, as expected. The quality of the interpretation is a matter of opinion, the usual Rattle mixture of magnificence and idiosyncrasy, but the inadequate sound disqualifies the disc in my book. The Stravinsky recordings, made under exactly the same conditions by the same engineering team a month earlier, appear to be better in audio quality only because Stravinsky’s orchestration doesn’t require nearly the 3-D space that Mahler’s does. The whole thing still sounds pretty cramped. It goes without saying that the music is well played by the mighty Berliners and, in the superb Symphony of Psalms, well sung by the excellent radio choir, but ideally Stravinsky should be played with more snap, more rhythmic insistence, more punch than Rattle seems willing to provide. In fact, some of Robert Craft’s performances from the early ’90s with a freelance orchestra are more idiomatic in this respect (although not as fluent and slick), and better recorded, too. The “amateur” Robert Craft better than the great Sir Simon? What’s the world coming to…
CD from Hyperion
Leopold Godowsky: Excerpts from Walzermasken and Triakontameron; Symphonic Metamorphoses on Künstlerleben, Die Fledermaus, and Wein, Weib und Gesang by Johann Strauss II; The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. CDA67626 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Leopold Godowsky was the circus pianist of the late 19th and early 20th century; Marc-André Hamelin is the circus pianist of our era. That label in no way diminishes their artistry, which in both cases was/is of the highest order; it’s just a way to categorize their near-impossible feats of pianism. This is piano music of the same sort as Horowitz’s “Carmen” variations or his “Stars and Stripes,” but more elegant, translucent, and pearlescent. Godowsky’s reinterpretations of these Viennese waltz classics are in excellent taste, as are his own nostalgic compositions in ¾ time, but they take a transcendental pianist to play them as they should be played. Hamelin, as I’ve stated a number of times before, is that kind of pianist. He appears to have twenty fingers; his articulation of the densest passages is as clean and clear as if he were playing “Chopsticks;” the fastest passages almost seem slow because of the relaxed clarity of his playing. And have you ever heard a Canadian get that Viennese lilt exactly right? He does. What’s really amazing is that, where other pianists create tension by conquering the difficulties of fast and complex music, Hamelin’s playing is perfect ease at all times. He creates tension with carefully graded dynamics. Supreme skill is always a thrill. The recorded sound of the piano (an English job) is for once right on the money—perfectly balanced from the lowest bass to the highest treble, with exactly the right reverb (not too much) and excellent presence. No complaint or reservation this time: A+ audio!
CDs from Naxos
Elliott Carter: String Quartet No. 1 (1951), No. 2 (1959) No. 3 (1971), No. 4 (1986), and No. 5 (1995). Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin I; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin II; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). 8.559362 (Quartet No. 1 and No. 5, recorded 2007, released 2008) and 8.559363 (Quartet No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4, recorded 2008, released 2009).
Elliott Carter is alive and well and 100 years old; I’ve been vaguely aware of his music and running away from it since he was about 50. Now I realize I was wrong; he is a very impressive composer. His music is staggeringly complicated, in rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, sonority. Its appeal is to the intellect, not the emotions. The atonal cogitations are interrupted from time to time by a few seconds of radiant beauty, only to lapse back into cerebral abstraction almost immediately. I am amazed and fascinated for a while, and then I can’t take it anymore. What’s truly astonishing about these recordings is the virtuosity of the Pacifica Quartet. They play this fiendishly difficult music with utter precision and at the same time with relaxed ease and a warm tone, as if it were Mozart. You have to hear it to believe it. They are clearly one of the great string quartets of the world. The recorded sound is also on the highest level, approaching my favorite Ray Kimber IsoMike recordings in you-are-there-ness and warmth. Judy Sherman was the producer; it’s some of her best work.
Leopold Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions • 2. J. S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; Sleepers, Awake! & others; also selections by Giovanni Palestrina, William Byrd, Luigi Boccherini, & others. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier, conductor. 8.572050 (recorded 2008, released 2009).
This is the second installment of Serebrier pretending to be Stokowski, conducting the latter’s orchestrations of Bach’s organ music and of other 16th to 18th century pieces. The impersonation is successful; it’s the Stoki sound all right, maybe not quite as sumptuous as that of the old Philadelphia Orchestra but close. This UK orchestra is a lot better than the Canadians reviewed under ATMA Classique above; the only piece they both play is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which is just as over the top here, whereas the other Stokowski transcriptions are relatively chaste. I can’t help loving this kind of gorgeously cosmeticized Bach, as long as I also have access to the original versions. The audio, of course, is a very important part of the glamorizing process and is quite excellent in this case, with the proper dimensionality in what appears to be a medium-sized hall and, sine qua non, the lush Stokowskian string sound.
CD and SACD from Ondine
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”). Simona Šaturová, soprano; Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano; The Philadelphia Singers Chorale; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. ODE 1134-2D (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2009).
Once again, for the nth time, Mahler—but as I have often said, he is the composer for the hi-fi era, and this is an audio web ’zine. To validate that perspective, the sound of this CD is truly sensational, the best of the Philadelphia series on Ondine so far. The bass is awesome (the Telarc bass drum has been bested!); the dynamic range is the widest possible; the brasses are unbelievably brilliant; the climaxes are without a trace of harshness (very rare!); the Verizon Hall organ is majestic; the soundstage has excellent width and depth. And get this: no SACD; this is an optimized-for-CD-only, two-channel production—maybe the word has reached Ondine and Polyhymnia. (The somewhat earlier Shostakovich recording is still on hybrid CD/SACD.) The orchestra plays magnificently; the soloists and chorus are wonderful; and Eschenbach’s conducting is on a level that makes his terminated Philadelphia tenure appear like a great loss. His risk-taking and micromanaging style, for which he has been criticized, works to the music’s advantage in this work. Overall, I can’t imagine a more desirable performance and recording of the Mahler Second, which is one of my favorites because, despite its gigantic concept, it has a dewy freshness, almost an innocent quality, which is absent from the more sophisticated and (let’s face it) neurotic symphonies after the Fourth. The Shostakovich recording is not nearly as remarkable; Eschenbach’s interpretation is a little blah, as if he couldn’t summon up sufficient enthusiasm for the symphony and were only interested in playing all the notes and dynamic markings correctly. The orchestral sound is excellent, as usual, but doesn’t have the extraordinary quality of the Mahler CD. The Blok songs are well sung by Yvonne Naef and beautifully accompanied by the first-chair Philadelphia players; the dramatic numbers are perhaps more interesting than the lyrical ones but they strain Naef’s voice to the limit.
DVDs from Opus Arte
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Robert Gambill, Tristan; Nina Stemme, Isolde; Katarina Karnéus, Brangäne; Bo Skovhus, Kurwenal; René Pape, King Marke; The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek, conductor; Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. OA 0988 D (3 DVDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).
This could quite plausibly be the one Tristan to have if you’re having only one (apologies to Schaefer Beer for twisting their words). The main reason for that is Nina Stemme, unquestionably the reigning Isolde of today and, to my ears, one of the best ever. That wasn’t quite my opinion when I reviewed the Domingo/Stemme Tristan CDs a couple of years ago, but here her voice has the heft below that I missed in the earlier recording. She has developed into an amazing singer, with ringing high notes, rich low notes, unlimited volume, and nary a moment of strain. When she crescendoes to a climactic passage I am left gasping. I thought only an orchestra can do that. If her voice were as beautiful as it is powerful and secure, she would be absolutely unique. Plus, she is a pretty good actress, too. By comparison, Robert Gambill is a lightweight, or at best a middleweight; Stemme overwhelms him when they are singing together, but in his solo passages he often rises to the occasion and sings quite beautifully. He is not a genuine Heldentenor, but who is these days? In the impossibly strenuous third act his vocal limitations tend to stymie him from time to time, but he is quite theatrical and carries the dramatic flow at all times. Katarina Karnéus is perfect as Brangäne; her big offstage number in the second act is sung as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it. Bo Skovhus seems a bit uncomfortable as Kurwenal; he is better in Mozart, but the role is not a game changer one way or the other. As for René Pape, he is still the best in any role he chooses to sing and has no equal as King Marke. The London Philharmonic plays sensationally, and Belohlávek conducts the work with tremendous élan. All in all, the musical production left no doubt in my mind that I was listening to one of the pinnacles of Western art. As for the theatrical production, it is absolutely minimal, abstract/geometrical in scenery and stylized/medieval in costumes. It works for me; it’s the human interaction that’s important in Tristan, not the physical background. A great DVD set.
SACDs from PentaTone Classics
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10; Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54. Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. PTC 5186 068 (recorded 2004, released 2006).
My interest in these recordings arises from the fact that Jurowski seems to be the leading candidate for the position of permanent music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (“my” orchestra). Of course, it’s still a couple of years off in the future, and he hasn’t said yes, but all the preliminary signs are there. He is known to have a penchant for the little-known works of famous composers, as witnessed by the Tchaikovsky performances. What we have here is not the familiar Hamlet “Fantasy Overture,” Op. 67, but the complete orchestra-pit music composed for the play, and not the famous Romeo and Juliet “Fantasy Overture” of 1880 but the quite different Ur-version of 1869. The overture introducing the theater pieces is a short version of Op. 67, and the rest is just snippets lasting half a minute to 7½ minutes, all of it good but not great music. The early R & J overture sounds unfamiliar until the overly familiar love theme and battle theme emerge, and then the whole piece sounds less organic and effective than the final 1880 version. The Shostakovich symphonies are pretty much repertory items by now, the First an astonishingly brilliant, upbeat, flashy work by a very grown-up teenager, the Sixth a strangely lopsided affair with no sonata-form first movement, an excruciatingly long and grim slow movement, and then two very short, lightweight fast movements that are more fun. (I really don’t know how to relate to the Sixth.) All the performances are very thoughtful, expressive, transparent, tightly controlled, with high-level playing by the excellent Russian National Orchestra. The studio recordings by Polyhymnia are typical of their multi-miked kind, with good depth, definition, and dynamic range, basically high-quality but occasionally a bit on the bright side. I think the potential problem with Jurowski, should he end up permanently in Philadelphia, is that he tends to straightjacket the orchestra instead of giving it its head and letting it play, which would be the preferable way to conduct the Philadelphians. I suspect he is something of a control freak, and he is very, very serious. He is only in his mid-30s.
CDs from RCA Red Seal
Frédéric Chopin: “Rubinstein Plays Chopin—The Original Jacket Collection.” The Nocturnes, the Mazurkas, the Ballades, the Scherzos, the Polonaises, the Sonatas, the Waltzes, the Preludes, et al. Artur Rubinstein, piano. 88697-31619-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946 to 1966, re-released 2008).
Artur Rubinstein (1887–1982) was arguably the greatest Chopin interpreter of the 20th century. You could bring up a small number of rival names, but I am inclined to agree with Max Wilcox, who produced most of these recordings and who told me many years ago, “Don’t look for better performances—you’re not going to find any.” Rubinstein combined a subtle, elegant rubato with a glowing piano tone and a fluid, soaring continuity of the melodic line that gave his Chopin playing a signature quality. His Chopin is Chopin (to paraphrase Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh). That he made nearly all of these recordings as an old man does not diminish their quality; he got better and better as he grew older, perhaps not in technique but in musical insight. I am almost inclined to say that you don’t need any other Chopin recordings than this set. (I said almost.) As for the audio quality, five of the ten discs appear to be close to, or identical to, Max Wilcox’s mid-1980s downmix of three channels to two, which sounded beautiful. The five other discs were “transferred by Maria Triana” (says the booklet), who obviously wasn’t there and doesn’t know what Rubinstein sounded like. She changed the balance so that the treble no longer has the singing, pellucid quality of the old mix and the bass is heavier. Everybody wants to make a difference, for better or worse. Maria notwithstanding, this is still an essential collection for those who don’t own the older CDs.
CD from Sony Classical
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas—No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26; No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14 No. 1; No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14 No. 2; No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 (“Pastorale”). Murray Perahia, piano. 88697326462 (recorded and released 2008).
There is no better Beethoven pianist alive today than Murray Perahia (when his temperamental thumb isn’t bothering him, that is). Here he plays four of Beethoven’s “lesser” piano sonatas, all in major keys. They are lesser only in comparison with some of the later sonatas, which are stupendous, the greatest ever. If any other composer had produced these four sonatas, he would still be considered a great master. Perahia plays them as perfectly—in tempo, articulation, transparency of detail, musicality—as is conceivable. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11. The audio is excellent, a thoroughly up-to-date piano sound, maybe a bit too mellow for my taste—I would have liked a slightly more clangorous quality even better. Purely personal.
SACDs from Telarc
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème. Norah Amsellem, Mimi; Marcus Haddock, Rodolfo; Georgia Jarman, Musetta; Fabio Capitanucci, Marcello; Denis Sedov, Colline; Christopher Schaldenbrand, Schaunard; Kevin Glavin, Benoit/Alcindoro; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano, conductor. 2SACD-60697 (2 SACDs, recorded 2007, 2008).
La Bohème is, according to most statistics, the most popular opera in the world; its recorded versions on 78, LP, CD, and DVD are beyond counting. That this recent live concert-hall recording from Atlanta isn’t the best-sung and best-played of all time is a certainty—but it might actually be the most subtly detailed theatrically and the best recorded. Not that it isn’t well sung and well played, also. All the singers are young or youngish ones on their way up, some of them perhaps to stardom; they sing most idiomatically and persuasively; and the Atlanta orchestra under Spano, a very fine conductor, plays beautifully and accurately. There’s not a thing wrong with this performance; it’s just that the competition is too fierce. The recorded sound is superb, perhaps the most realistic opera recording I’ve ever heard, with better front-to-back depth, localization, and transparency than seems to be possible in conventional opera-stage-and-orchestra-pit recordings. Again I could hear no significant difference between the PCM and DSD layers in sequential listening, instant A/B being impossible. The EQ may have been very slightly different. (As a footnote, I should add that my all-time favorite La Bohème is the 1946 mono recording conducted by Toscanini. It’s never even mentioned in present-day surveys, but it’s unique because of the incandescent orchestral performance and Jan Peerce’s singing as Rodolfo. Peerce didn’t quite have the voice of a Gigli, Björling, or Corelli, but under Toscanini he was inspired to sing way over his head and outperform them all. By chance, I overheard him discussing this particular recording in a Copenhagen fish restaurant in the 1960s. His comment on later recordings was “stereo, schmereo, not as good.”)
“Cameron Carpenter: Revolutionary.” Organ compositions and transcriptions of Bach, Carpenter, Chopin, Demessieux, Dupré, Horowitz, and Liszt. Cameron Carpenter, organ. SACD-60711 (recorded and released 2008).
Who is Cameron Carpenter? He is a campy exhibitionist in his late twenties who happens to be the technically most astonishing organist the world has ever seen. There’s a DVD that comes in the box with the audio disc (DVD-70711), so you can see him perform at the Marshall & Ogletree “virtual pipe organ,” which has a very impressive, more or less traditional console but no pipes—it’s all digital (audiophiles: the low bass comes out of two Bruce Thigpen rotary woofers!). Carpenter wears a heavily sequined white T-shirt, reminiscent of Siegfried & Roy, and white organist’s shoes of his own design. My goodness! In his transcription of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, which is also Track 1 of the CD, the fiendishly difficult left-hand piano part is all done with the pedals, on which he does a dazzling tap dance that one-ups Gene Kelly in physicality. I’m telling you, Helmut Walcha, Jean Guillou, Michael Murray, and company are left in the dust. Track 2 of the CD, as well as of the DVD, is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which has acquired the “Evolutionary” label, so that Carpenter can add echoes of orchestral transcriptions by Stokowski, Caillet, et al. to Bach’s original organ music. Velocity, startling sonorities, and all sorts of ten-fingered/two-toed wonders take precedence over musical values, although I can’t say that his playing is unmusical, just eccentric. (In Bach’s Nun komm, der heiden Heiland his phrasing is actually quite chaste.) The digital organ has extremely fast response but no starting chuff on the notes when the keys are depressed. It all sounds like a gigantic and extremely complex electric buzzer. The recording, on the other hand, is quite awesome, as can be expected from Telarc. The dynamic range goes from pppp to ffff; the low bass goes down to dc (or so it seems). I could hear no difference between the CD and two-channel SACD layers. The whole thing is something of a circus, but I’m really glad I was exposed to it. It’s a blast.