Gulda and Fournier Play Beethoven

Fournier-Gulda cover

BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-5. 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” 7 Variations on Mozart’s “Bei manner.” 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein mädchen oder weibchen.” / Pierre Fournier, cel; Friedrich Gulda, pno / Urania WS 121.383

These famous 1959 recordings of Beethoven’s cello-piano pieces, once the property of Deutsche Grammophon but now in the public domain, has previously been reissued by Diaposon d’Or and Regis. They are reincarnated here by Urania, which has done a stupendous job of reviving Toscanini’s old broadcasts with far superior sound to any of the RCA-BMG-Sony releases.

Unlike the Toscanini releases, however, this recording wasn’t in need of any sonic restoration. It sounded great when DGG put it out originally, and it sounds great here. In addition, both the DGG and Diaposon d’Or releases are now out of print, so this would seem to be an ideal choice. Fournier’s cello is recorded better here than on either the 1947 set with pianist Artur Schnabel or, surprisingly, the 1965 remake with Wilhelm Kempff (a pianist I never could stomach, and still can’t…he was too fussy and mannered for me). Fournier, of course, is the star here, his wonderfully manicured cello tone and exciting rhythmic bite and drive informing all of these sonatas with just the right touch, but Gulda is equal to the task. Although his Beethoven playing was never as subtly colored as that of his rivals, it had great clarity, drive, and cleanliness about it that never wavered, providing an excellent backing for the cellist. Indeed, as you go through this set you may ask yourself if any cello-piano duo has played these sonatas this well. Actually, yes: not just Zuill Bailey with Simone Dinnerstein on Telarc, but also Maria Kliegel and Nina Tichman on Naxos, both excellent sets in modern digital sound. What goes around comes around, and although it took several decades for others to catch up to Fournier and Gulda, this is exactly what has happened. Unfortunately, the Kliegel-Tichman duo is available on three CDs instead of two, but quality performances are quality performances.

With that being said, Fournier’s 1947 recordings of the five sonatas are unique, and the reason they’re unique is due to Artur Schnabel. As wonderful as Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein are, there is no pianist on God’s green earth who played Beethoven like Schnabel, and this is a telling factor in this wonderful set. The way Schnabel “leaned into” the notes when he played, almost as if approaching the keyboard on an angle rather than straight-up from the top, produced a rhythmic vitality that goes beyond the surface excitement, great though it is, from Gulda, Tichman and Dinnerstein. Each note dropped from Schnabel’s fingers like pearls falling off a string, yet they bounced into each other, creating a continuous sound rather than breaking up into little beads as one might expect. Listen, to cite one example, to his upward chromatic run at the six-minute mark in the first movement of the first sonata. It almost sounds as if a ball were placed on the keys and rolled upwards chromatically, so precise is their articulation. To create a metaphor that I don’t think any other critic has noticed, it almost sounds as if Schnabel is playing a xylophone with a sustain pedal. In addition, Schnabel is more keenly sensitive to the soft passages that lie between the bravura ones that the other three pianists.

But alas, the Fournier-Schnabel duo never recorded the three sets of variations, so here the Gulda set is at an advantage. In addition, despite Schnabel’s wonderful playing, Fournier sounds better (mostly due to the improvement in sonics, but also due to miking) in the Gulda set, and in a sense he responds more acutely to Gulda’s playing than he did to Schnabel’s. Perhaps the iconic pianist intimidated him a bit, but I found his playing in the Schnabel set to be musically correct but lacking in both warmth and humor. Gulda acts more as support for the cellist than a leader trying to make him play in a way that was not natural for him. In addition, Fournier admirers will surely want his recordings of the variations, thus they will have to turn to Gulda for them. Moreover, the Fournier-Schnabel set, just the five sonatas, costs a lot more. There’s a version issued on the Classica d’Oro label that’s selling for $27.97 on Amazon, and the only other way you can find them complete is in the EMI boxed set devoted to Fournier, which is even more expensive. A few movements are available for free streaming on YouTube to give you an idea of the high quality of their work together, but only the last three sonatas are available complete. If you’re a paid subscriber to the Naxos Music Library, which I personally recommend, you can find the EMI Fournier set there and stream the whole series, but other than that I’d have to send you back to Fournier-Gulda. So, as Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Here we go again!”

But beware third-party sellers trying to jack up the price on this set. HB Direct is selling it at a “reduced” price of $26.99, but if you go to Urania’s own website, you’ll find that the asking price is €16,47 which translates to just a little over $18 American, which is even cheaper than Regis’ price of $20. Nonetheless, you should also be aware that the Bailey-Dinnerstein set is selling on Amazon for a mere $15.16, so it’s up to you. If you’re a Fournier or a Gulda fan, of course you’ll want this release; it is unique in both artists’ discographies.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Adèle Charvet’s “Long Time Ago”

Long Time Ago cover

LONG TIME AGO / COPLAND: Zion’s Walls. Long Time Ago. Heart, We Will Forget Him. At the River. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Silent Noon. BRITTEN: Night Covers Up the Rigid Land. Johnny. Funeral Blues. BARBER: Solitary Hotel. The Desire for Hermitage. Nocturne. Sure of This Shining Night. The Secrets of the Old. ROVEN: Listening to Jazz. HEGGIE: The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cooky. Animal Passion. BOLCOM: Amor Waitin’. IVES: Remembrance. Songs My Mother Taught Me. FINZI: Two Lips. QUILTER: Weep You No More / Adèle Charvet, mezzo; Susan Manoff, pno / Alpha Classics 556

One may certainly think, as I did at first, that French mezzo Adèle Charvet was being tongue-in-cheek with the title of this album since so many of the composers herein are fairly modern (even Britten), but you have to take the generation gap into account. For us Baby Boomers, Charles Ives, Vaughan Williams and Britten all died during our lifetimes, but Britten, the last of those three to go, died in 1976 which is indeed a “long time ago.”

As a singer, Charvet has a rich, deep mezzo voice with a good timbre and, like so many modern singers, a slightly inform tone that spreads a bit on sustained notes, whether at loud or soft volume. But as the liner notes point out, she is “passionate about the song repertoire” and was awarded a prize for song at the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Competition. She gives us a very nice recital here and, wonder of wonders, her diction is pretty good—not flawless or crystal clear, but I could actually make out some of the words she sang, which nowadays is a miracle. She can also toss off a coloratura run or two, as she shows off in Britten’s cabaret song, Johnny. But my favorite song on the album was definitely Glen Roven’s Listening to Jazz, an excellent piece that straddles the gap between classical and improvised music. It also helps that Charvet’s accompanist, Susan Manoff, can swing at the keyboard, and they carried this over to one of the best Jake Heggie songs I’ve ever heard, The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cooky, which includes an imitation of a little girl’s play song with jazz interludes. Charvet continues her “cabaret song” sequence with William Bolcom’s Amor and Waitin’, followed by yet another cabaret song by Britten, Funeral Blues. (I’m willing to bet you that Peter Pears urged him to write these songs for him; Pears loved pop and jazz tunes of the 1930s and ‘40s. One of his favorites, which he often sang at private gatherings, was Miss Otis Regrets.)

One of Charvet’s strengths, based at least on this CD, is her wonderful sense of programming. She follows her string of unusual and cabaret songs with a series of lyrical ones: Copland’s Heart, We Will Forget Him, Barber’s The Desire for Hermitage, Ives’ Remembrance and another Barber song, Nocturne. Once your ears get adjusted to her slight flutter, in fact, you’ll find that you will enjoy this album tremendously. Her last cabaret song, Madeleine Dring’s Song of a Nightclub Proprietess, comes right after yet another lyrical Barber song, The Secrets of the Old. As a rule, I can’t stand to listen to “clahsisscal” singers do jazz or cabaret songs because they sound too stiff, but Charvet and Manoff get the loose, swinging rhythm exactly right in all of them, and that makes all the difference in the world. (Yes, even such great American mezzos as Joyce di Donato and Susan Graham sound too stiff, thought I adore their singing in other repertoire.)

Due to her good taste in songs, excellent programming and fully vivid projection of the lyrics therein, I grew to absolutely love this disc as it progressed. The back cover says that the program is56 minutes long, but to be honest, I completely lost track of the time while listening to Charvet sing because she had so much to offer. If you are a lover of song recitals, particularly those in English, this is a CD you need to get!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Julius Burger’s “Journey in Exile”

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BURGER: Dämmernd liegt der Sommerabend.1,3 Seliges Ende.2,3 Lieder im Abend.1,3 Ein Winterabend.1,3 Man soll in keiner Stadt.1,3 So Tanze, meine Seele.2,3 Lieder des Alters: Das ist das alte Lied und Leid; Der Tod; Der Mensch; Das Alter.1,3 Schlummerlied.1,4 Venedig.1,3 Hinterm Kornfeld.1,3 Vier Heitere Lieder, Nach Gedichten von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Der Irrtum; Die Namen; Die Schöne von Hinten; Die Küsse.1,4 Goodbye, Vienna (2 vers)1,3; 5 / 1Ryan Hugh Ross, bar; 2Siân Màiri Cameron, mezzo; 3Nicola Rose, 4Daniel Rieppel, pno; 5Julius Burger, ten/pno / Spatlese Musik SPM001

I’ve expressed my misgivings elsewhere on this blog about albums of music by composers who suffered persecution under the Nazis, not because I am unsympathetic—I had friends who also suffered this way—but because sometimes I feel that their persecution puts them all on a level playing field, i.e., if they were persecuted their music ipso facto must have been great, and not all of them were. But Julius Burger (1897-1995) was really a special case. Except for the fact that he had to resign his position as a conductor for Berlin Radio in 1933 due to the Nazis’ ascension to power, he not only didn’t suffer persecution but in fact had a long and varied career—just not as a composer.

A composition pupil of Franz Schreker along with Ernst Krenek and Karol Rathaus, Burger apparently also had a fine tenor voice and studied piano and conducting. In 1920-22 he was the accompanist for the great tenor Leo Slezak. In 1922-23 he was a repetiteur at the Karlsruhe State Theater, then moved to America where he worked for two years as Artur Bodanzky’s assistant at the Metropolitan Opera. He might have stayed there, but was lured back to Germany in 1927 to accompany the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink on her last European tour, then worked as assistant conductor to Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera. During this period he also obtained his position at Berlin Radio, and in 1933 left Germany for England.

Happily, he landed on his feet. In 1934 the BBC hired him as an arranger for their radio programs, where he initiated the genre known as the “Radio Potpourri.” Yet he kept returning to Europe on occasion until the Nazi invasion of Austria, after which he returned to the U.S. At this point he worked as a staff arranger at CBS for such classical “pops” conductors as Arthur Fiedler and André Kostelanetz. He also did vocal coaching for many of the great singers of that period, and in 1944 conducted the initial run of the hit Broadway show, Song of Norway. He then helped to arrange the music for the ballet Vittorio, based on music from several Verdi operas, which was the vehicle for Dmitri Mitropoulos’ Met debut in 1954. He then worked yet again for the Met between 1967 and 1988, during which time he composed more lieder and orchestral pieces—none of which were performed publicly. The only piece of his performed was his Variations on a Theme by C.P.E. Bach at Indiana University in 1984. When his wife died in 1990, the 93-year-old Burger visited an attorney to settle his wife’s estate and expressed his desire to hear more of his music performed before he died.

Several performances followed in the next few years, including his Cello Concerto at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Other performances were given by the Austin Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, and in Berlin before his death in 1995 at age 97. This is the first recording of any of his lieder.

Burger’s lieder is lyrical-yet-somewhat-modern in the Schreker mold. Harmony is essentially tonal but includes some Wagner-cum-Debussy chord positions and harmonic changes while the singer’s lines are melodic with a certain leaning towards modality. In a song like Der Tod he sets an eerie, somber mood. Der Alter, set to a text by Goethe, is particularly modern-sounding, with an angular melodic line that never really seems to settle on a key, while Schummel Lied is quite tonal despite some off-center key changes. One of the things I liked about this collection was that the character of the music changes from song to song; they don’t fall into a predictable pattern. The piano accompaniments are particularly virtuosic at times, as would be expected from a man who was himself a professional pianist of some accomplishment. This is clearly fine music that deserves to be heard in recitals now and again.

I’m willing to bet you any amount you name under $100 (I’m kinda broke) that baritone Ryan Hugh Ross financed this recording. I say that because he has a defective voice—wobbly and strained, though with a nice tone and good sense of interpretation—and in my experience, the singer who dominates an album of unfamiliar art songs but can’t sing very well is almost always the person who was the financial backer for said project. And guess what? When you go to the website referred to in the booklet, http://www.RediscoveredBeauty.org, you learn that the organization that sparked this project “was conceived in 2010 by Dutch/American baritone Ryan Hugh Ross.”  Mezzo-soprano Siân Màiri Cameron, who has a light, pleasant, attractive voice, contributes but two songs to the album. Both pianists are excellent. Ironically, the tenor voice of the 95-year-old composer, singing and playing his own Goodbye, Vienna, is firmer than Ross’. 95 years old, and he doesn’t have a wobble; the voice is placed better and he’s dead on pitch throughout.

Still, this CD gives us a valuable glimpse into the music of a composer who isn’t so much forgotten as simply one whose music wasn’t given much exposure. I’d really like to hear some of his instrumental compositions some day as well.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Negroni’s Trio Goes Acústico

Negronis Trio cover

ACÚSTICO / N. NEGRONI: Let’s Go Camping. Monica’s Drums. J.R. NEGRONI: AIR. I Remember You. Puerta Del Sol. No Me Voy De Aquí. Cantando. Cycles. N. MORALES: Maria Cervantes. FRAGOS-BAKER-GASPARRE: I Hear a Rhapsody. POWELL: Tempus Fugit / José Ramón Negroni, pno; Josh Allen, bs; Nomar Negroni, dm / Sony Music/Latin 9075994202

Drummer and trio leader Nomar Negroni was born in Puerto Rico in 1981, but he and his family moved to Miami in 1995. After studying at Berklee he and his father, pianist José Ramon Negroni, formed their jazz trio in 2002. Nomar has also recorded with Arturo Sandoval, Ed Calle, Dave Valentin, Sammy Figueroa and Nestor Torres among others.

From the very opening number, an original by Nomar (I will use first names instead of last to distinguish between the two Negronis) titled Let’s Go Camping, it’s obvious that he is a drummer with power, but this composition isn’t just about slamming the drums. At about the one-minute mark the tempo relaxes and the beat becomes more diffuse as his father José plays some very interesting piano improvisations. The music then alternates back and forth between these two moods and tempi. Nomar’s drum playing is explosive and he has a good beat, though he is not the most spectacular technician around today. José’s AIR has a Latin rhythm to it but, once again, there are subtle tempo shifts, some of them quite complex. For the most part, bassist Josh Allen is a feelable pulse in the background, but on this number he, too, plays a very fine solo. (I couldn’t find nearly as much about José Negroni online as I did about Nomar; he’s either very shy or more than willing to let his son have the spotlight.)

Indeed, as the album progressed it was José who caught my attention most often, although I’m sure that he and his son have worked out much of these pieces and the exchange between them, which is all to the music’s advantage. Much of José’s playing and compositions use interesting devices such as circular chromatics (but not in the dead-end style used by John Coltrane), bitonality, whole tone scales and modes, all woven into a fabric in which one must listen very carefully to catch all of the subtleties. On Puerto Del Sol, José begins by playing the strings inside the piano, and it sounds as if Allen is bowing his bass very softly in the upper range of his strings. Mood and color are an important part of this trio’s function as a musical unit. For all of Nomar’s great power, he too plays very softly and subtly on this number. José tends to favor single-note lines in the right hand while feeding himself chords, sometimes just little tonal punctuations, with the left in the manner of many Latin jazz pianists, but I don’t mean to pigeonhole him by saying that. His improvisations and style are wholly original.

Noro Morales’ Maria Cervantes is quite lyrical, mostly solo piano and opening with soft, romantic chords alternating with double and quadruple-time single-note runs. This one has a very attractive theme and chord progression that finally reveals itself at the 1:35 mark. The bass and drums enter around 2:30, but don’t stay long. No Me Voy De Aquí is an old-fashioned sort of Latin jazz piece that reminded me a bit of Tito Puente. Allen has another excellent bass solo on this one, too, as someone (Nomar?) does wordless but rhythmical vocalizations in the background.

Cantando is another lyrical piece, either a waltz or a slow 6/8 rhythm, although with alterations in the middle section that keeps the listener on his or her toes. The middle section switches, however, to a sort of 6/8 march with a loping beat—more musical tricks for the ear to catch up on. Cycles by José Negroni is a clever re-working of Beethoven’s Für Elise using a similar opening lick but shifting the rhythm (and a few notes) around in the melody line. As it goes on, however, the musical material tends to move away from Beethoven and more into the world of salsa, complete with wordless singing by Josh and Nomar behind José’s playing.

The next two numbers are intriguing because they are reworkings of older pieces: the well-known 1941 song I hear a Rhapsody, completely rewritten in the first chorus especially by José, and Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit. Both are played as if they were contemporary compositions. The latter, in particular, really cooks and is infused with a strong beat that pushes it forward while José works the front end (on piano) and Allen the back end (on bass) with Nomar chugging along on his Pearl drum set.

The wrap-up to this wonderful set is Monica’s Drums by Nomar, but without liner notes (this CD has none, just a track listing) I have no idea who Monica is and why this represents her drums. But it’s a good, long, extended solo workout for Nomar, who plays the whole thing himself.

An excellent album, creative and interesting from first to last.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Berthomé-Reynolds Plays Bacewicz Sonatas

Bacewicz cover

WP 2019 - 2BACEWICZ: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-2. Sonatas for Violin & Piano Nos. 1-5. Partita for Violin & Piano / Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds, vln; Ivan Donchev, pno / Muso MU-032

My regular readers know that I am extremely fond of the music of Graziela Bacewicz, a Polish conductor who somehow fell through the cracks of time until recently when her music is being revived. Atonal yet emotionally powerful, extremely well-structured and moving, her music lies somewhere between Bartók, Stravinsky and Szymanowski, with elements of each composer fused to her own sense of lyricism.

In these performances of her complete violin sonatas, French violinist Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds and her accompanist, pianist Ivan Donchev, pierce the very heart of the music in such a way that, as long as you are listening to it, you can’t imagine it being played any better. In recent decades, there hasn’t been quite as much of a difference between French violinists and those from other countries, although by and large German violinists tend to have a warmer, thicker tone (think of Anne-Sophie Mutter), yet despite her studying in England Berthomé-Reynolds harks back to such earlier French violinists as Jacques Thibaud, Henry Merckel and Daniel Guilet in her lean, singing tone on the instrument. The difference is in her intensity, and this she may have picked up from listening to such later French violinists as Ginette Neveu, whose playing was equally passionate in approach.

Since the violin was her own instrument, Bacewicz knew how to write for it. Her own teachers included her father, Józef Jarzębski and inevitably Carl Flesch, one of the great violin pedagogues of the 20th century. (A footnote: how many of my readers know that Larry Fine, famous member of the Three Stooges, once played the violin so well that his father was saving up money for him to go to Europe and study with Flesch? Unfortunately, it never happened.) Having not heard how Bacewicz herself played the instrument, I can’t say how much the German Flesch might have impacted her own tone.

Despite the uncompromising atonality of the outer movements, the slow movements of the violin-piano sonatas have a lyrical quality about them in which the shifting harmonies play a part but do not interfere with the instrument’s ability to sing. Listening to this CD on my computer speakers, Berthomé-Reynolds’ upper range tends to sound a bit thin, typical of the old French school, but not without good support. Yet it is her superb command of staccato and spiccato effects that makes her a perfect fit for this music: listen, for instance, to the third movement of the Sonata No. 3 for a perfect example of what I mean. She attacks every bar and phrase of this music with uncompromising energy and passion, and Donchev partners her perfectly, infusing his own part with passion even in the quiet passages.

There was a complete set of Bacewicz’ complete violin & piano works by Piotr Plawner and Ewa Kupiec on Hänssler Classic, but although that set contained pieces not included here—the Concertino, 3 Dances, Caprice, 2 Oberki, Melodia, Witraz, Kolysanka and Humoresque—it did not include the two sonatas for solo violin. In addition, a side-by-side comparison shows Plawner playing with far less energy and commitment than Berthomé-Reynolds. The difference in intensity is striking, as if one left a room with indirect lighting to suddenly walk out into bright sunlight. Obviously, I prefer Berthomé-Reynolds’ approach.

The second solo Violin Sonata from 1958 is presented first in sequence here. The opening of the first movement is striking: after an intense chord, the soloist plays portamento slides that immediately put the tonality into question. The music is wholly remarkable, featuring fast bowed passages alternating with lyrical moments and more atonal portamento. But if you think that’s wild, wait ‘til you hear the rapid last movement with its moto perpetuo of staccato bowing. A real killer for many violinists!

We don’t get much relief from the 1955 Partita, here played by pianist Donchev as if he were tolling the bells for a funeral as the violinist soars lyrically but atonally above him. The “Toccata” in this piece is almost as wild as the finale of the second solo Violin Sonata, only here the fiddler has a pianist to play around with. The slow third movement is one of the eeriest that Bacewicz ever wrote, a haunting piece that could give Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio a run for the money (and several other pieces as well).

As one goes through the sonatas, one is continually amazed at Bacewicz’ powers of invention as well as her commitment to emotionally powerful music. Of course, all of these works come from her prime, the post-War years up to 1958, but it was still a remarkable good and consistent period for her. One could go on for whole paragraphs trying to describe the wonderful things in these sonatas, but listening is more revealing and far more fun. The first solo violin sonata, which is the earliest work in this set (1941), shows her using certain devices that Bach pioneered within an entirely new musical framework, mixing them in with new devices of her own.

This is an outstanding release, one that I recommend highly!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Vasily Petrenko’s Strauss

Petrenko Strauss

STRAUSS: Don Quixote. Don Juan. Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche / Louisa Tuck, cel; Oslo Philharmonic Orch.; Vasily Petrenko, cond / Lawo LWC1184

There are just so many new recordings of old music that just perusing the New Releases list or catalog almost seems like déjà vu to me almost seems like déjà vu to me, thus I tend to back off from reviewing the 800th recording of fill-in-the-blank. But since I’ve always liked Vasily Petrenko and Don Quixote is my favorite work by Strauss, I thought I’d give this one a spin.

Petrenko starts Don Quixote quite slowly, albeit with a touch of humor, but increases the tempo in the early going during the brass passages. By the time we reach the double-time string figures, he seems to be hitting his stride, but pulls back the tempo whenever there’s a quiet passage. Sometimes this works to the music’s advantage, in other places it doesn’t. Our cello soloist, Louisa Tuck, has a lovely tone and plays her role very Romantically, evidently trying to bring out the unreal world in which Quixote lives. The incident with the sheep is not brought out with much humor. In some of her later passages, Tuck plays with more animation and less sentiment, which helps.

All in all, a middle-of-the-road reading that will neither thrill nor offend you, but one that doesn’t add much to our perception of the music. There are some exciting moments, but moments only; at times, Petrenko stopped the music so completely that at first I thought he might never finish it, which considerably weakens the music’s structure. The sonics, however, are quite spectacular, allowing one to hear inner voices that are often partially obscured.

After having a nice nap through Don Quixote, Petrenko definitely wakes up for his Don Juan. This is what I’m used to from Petrenko: a lively, energized performance, and here he adds considerable humor to the descending wind (flute and clarinet) figures at about the 1:20 mark. When he does relax the tempo he does not come to a standstill, but he’s still too slow and stodgy in the middle section. What happened to this guy? Has he caught Valery Gergiev disease? (Gergiev, you might recall, was one of the most exciting conductors in the world until he became music director of a British orchestra; now, all of his performances are slack and boring.) The frustrating thing is, Petrenko reverts to exciting conducting when the music picks up in tempo again, so maybe he’s suffering from Bruno Walter disease—when he comes to something beautiful, he melts—which is almost as bad.

Yup, it’s Bruno Walter Disease. He starts out Till Eulenspiegel at a tempo so slow that even old-age Strauss would have chastised him for it (watch old-age Strauss conduct a marvelous performance of the music on YouTube if you don’t believe me). Again, Petrenko picks up the pace for the fast sections, but then slows down to a crawl for the slow ones. All in all, however, the Till Eulenspiegel is the best of the three performances given here.

You may certainly enjoy this CD more than I did if you like your Strauss slow and romantic, but I found it disappointing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Naxos’ Big Box o’ Beethoven

Beethoven box 2

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Hasmik Paplan, sop; Ruxandra Donose, mezzo; Manfred Fink, ten; Claudio Otelli, bar; Béla Drahos, cond / Piano Concerti. Rondo in Bb / Stefan Vladar, pno; Capella Istropolitano, cond. Barry Wordsworth / Choral Fantasy / Leon McCawley, pno; City of London Choir; Royal Philharmonic Orch.; Hilary Devon Wetton, cond / Violin Concerto. Romances / Takao Nishizaki, vln; Slovak Philharmonic Orch., Kenneth Jean, cond. / Triple Concerto / Dong-Suk Kang, vln; Maria Kliegel, cel; Jenő Jandó, pno; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos, cond / Piano Concerto in Eb, WoO 4 / Martin Galling, pno; Berlin Symphony Orch.; Carl-August Bünte, cond. / Overtures / Slovak Philharmonic Orch., Stephen Gunzenhauser, cond; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia, Drahod, cond. / 12 Contredanses. 6 Minuets. 11 Dances, “Mödlinger Tanze.” 6 Ländler. 12 German Dances. 12 Menuets. March in D. 6 Minuets. 6 German Dances / Capella Istropolitano, Oliver von Dohnányi, cond; Turku Philharmonic, Leif Segerstam, cond / Bagatelles. Klavierstücke. Eccosaises. Waltzes. Rondos. Menuetts / Jandó, Seergio Gallo, Carl Petersson, Larry Weng, pno / Serenade in D. 6 National Airs w/Variations. Allegro & Miniet in G. Piano Trio in G. 10 National Airs & Variations. Trio for 3 Flutes. Flute Sonata in Bb / Katzunori Seo, Patrick Gallois, fl; Makoto Ueno, Maria Prinz,  pno  / String Quartets Nos. 1-16 / Kodály Qrt. / Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 / Jandó, Boris Giltberg, pno / Leonore / Edda Moser, Helen Donath, sop; Richard Cassilly, Reiner Goldberg, Eberhard Büchner, ten; Karl Ridderbusch, Theo Adam, bs; Hermann Christian Polsner, bar; Leipzig Radio Ch.; Staatskapelle Dresden; Herbert Blomstedt, cond / Fidelio / Inge Nielsen, Edith Lienbacher, sop; Gösta Winbergh, Herwig Pecoraro, ten; Alan Titus, bar; Kurt Moll, Wolfgang Glashof, Jószef Moldvay, bs; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász, cond / Missa Solemnis / Lori Phillips, sop; Robynne Redmond, mezzo; James Taylor, ten; Jay Baylon, bs-bar / Various Chamber Works, Lieder and lots more! / Naxos 8.500250

With the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth looming next year, certain record companies are falling over each other trying to get your money for their Big Box o’ Beethoven. OK, I get it. Beethoven is not only popular but one of the composers who changed the way others wrote and heard music. Yet the question that always arises when one is presented with a complete CD edition of a major long-dead composer, specifically of pre-20th century music (ever notice that there are never any sets of the complete music of Szymanowski, Schoenberg, Bartók, Ligeti, Crumb, Weinberg or even Stravinsky? Always the dead old Baroque-Classical-Romantic era guys), is, who is its target market? Those collectors who have been amassing a fairly large and well-tuned Beethoven collection for years will of course have all the major works presented here, some of them in multiple versions, and one’s first reflexive reaction will be How do these performances stack up to them? More importantly, would someone who is already a Beethoven collector really want some of these performances of favorite works? Yes, it’s true that more than half of classical collectors still want and use CDs (I sure do), but there is always the question of shelf space. Unless you’re planning to use this to hold down your cross-stitch patterns so they don’t curl up or as a really big doorstop, where are you going to put a boxed set like this?

I would think the real market for a box like this would be not the hardcore collector but the dabbler who has heard some of Beethoven’s major works, would like to hear the whole lot but doesn’t have a lot of money or time to shop around. For them, this set is a pretty good choice (more on that later), although many of the performances herein lean in the direction of the older, more romantic (lower case) view of Beethoven and not the Beethoven who has emerged in the past 30 years, the composer of lean, mean, fast-paced music with bite and drive. One specific case in point is the Violin Concerto, here given a goopy reading worthy of Francescatti or Menuhin and not the kind of playing one heard from Huberman, Heifetz and Milstein, or one hears nowadays from Thomas Zehetmair or Christian Tetzlaff. And then there is the problem of song texts. Even a lifelong Beethoven collector like myself doesn’t always have all of his songs in my collection, thus I’d like to have texts for the ones I don’t have, but neither Naxos nor Brilliant Classics include texts in their booklets (I don’t know about Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical or Warner Classics). Indeed, I would think that the relative neophyte would want the words of all of the songs and arias here, since they’re unlikely to know what they’re singing about.

As much as I am no pleader for Warner Classics (more on their set in a moment), their Beethoven Symphonies by the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, though not taken at Beethoven’s speeds, most definitely have a leaner profile and more Beethoven-ish drive. Naxos would have done better to have used the recordings by Michael Gielen (on SWR Music, an independent label distributed by Naxos).

But I’m not really picking on Naxos although it will certainly cross the prospective buyer’s mind to investigate.how this specific set compares to the other boxed sets being pushed by competing labels. The sad state of affairs in the record business, which was as true in 1903 as it is today (read my online book, Spinning the Record, for a detailed look at the cut-throat world of recording), is that everyone’s trying to either undercut or outdo their competitors.

Sony Classical seems not to be bothering with a massive Beethoven box, but are content to continue making their 60-CD compilation, titled “The Great Works,” available for purchase. It was a pretty good set then, and pretty good set now. Here’s an abbreviated list of who’s doing what:

Sony/BMG 2007 – 60 CD set
Symphonies – David Zinman
Piano Concerti – Yefim Bronfman, Zinman
Violin Concerto, Romances – Christian Tetzlaff, David Zinman
Triple Concerto – Bronfman, Gil Shaham, Truls Mørk, Zinman
Violin Sonatas – Pinchas Zukerman, Marc Neikrug
Cello Sonatas – Anner Bylsma, Jon van Immerseel
Piano Trios – Seraphim Trio
String Quartets – Alexander String Quartet
Piano Sonatas – mostly Yukio Yokoyama w/Robert Casadesus, Justus Frantz, Vladimir Horowitz, Gerhard Oppitz & Charles Rosen
Bagatelles, Variations – Yukio Yokoyama
Christus am Ölberg – Eugene Ormandy w/Raskin, Richard Lewis, Herbert Beattie
Mass in C – Wolfdieter Maurer
Missa Solemnis – David Zinman w/Orgonasova, Anna Larsson, Rainer Trost, Franz-Josef Selig
Sextet for Quartet & 2 Horns, Quintet – L’Archibudelli
Octet, Wind Sextet – Mozzafiato
Songs – Elaine Woods, Carolyn Watkinson, Josef Protschka, Richard Salter
Ah, Perfido! – Crespin, Schippers
Fidelio – Altmeyer, Carola Nossek, Siegfried Jerusalem, Rudiger Wohlers, Peter Meven, Siegmund Nimsgern, Theo Adam, Kurt Masur

As you can see, this set has a lot of strengths. Although I’d never put David Zinman’s symphony cycle on the same high plateau as Philippe Jordan, Toscanini or Gielen, it’s certainly faster and tighter than in the other companies’ sets. The Alexander String Quartet’s set of the quartets is also a top choice, in fact my overall favorite cycle. Sony was wise to choose them over the good but now dated-sounding Tokyo String Quartet recordings of the 1990s. Régine Crespin’s Ah, Perfido! is also a gem, but the rest of the songs have mediocre interpreters and the Fidelio suffers from Kurt Masur’s pedantic, lackluster conducting. The set of the piano sonatas is clearly a mixed bag and, overall, just passable.

But now, take a look at what Warner Classics is offering in their set:

Warner Classics (80 CDs)
Symphonies – Chamber Orch. of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Piano Concertos – Daniel Barenboim, Otto Klemperer
Piano Sonatas & misc. pieces – Stephen Kovacevich
Violin Concerto, Romances – Itzhak Perlman
Violin Sonatas – Renaud Capuçon, Frank Braley
Cello Sonatas – János Starker, Rudolf Buchbinder
String Quartets – Artemis Quartet
Fidelio & Missa Solemnis – Otto Klemperer

And that’s all they’re revealing online, which is a pretty stingy list from a company that wants you to buy an 80-CD set for $103. Harnoncourt’s set of the symphonies, though a bit on the slow side tempo-wise, is bursting with energy as was normally the case for him. Starker was a good choice for the cello sonatas, Capuçon a decent choice for the violin sonatas. But all those Klemperer performances? Especially his leaden recordings of Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis, not to mention the piano concerti with Barenboim, of all people? NO thanks. Homey don’t play that.

And now we move on to Brilliant Classics, another budget label like Naxos but one who, also like Naxos, often plunders older recordings to fill their big sets.

Brilliant Classics (85 CDs)
Symphonies – Herbert Blomstedt, Staatskapelle Dresden
Piano Concertos – Alfred Brendel, various conductors
Violin Concerto, Romances – Emmy Verhey, Hans Vonk
Triple Concerto – Dong-Suk Kang, Maria Kliegl, Jenő Jandó, Béla Drahos
Violin Sonatas – Kristóf Baráti, Klára Würtz
Cello Sonatas – Timora Rosler, Klára Würtz
Piano Trios – Trio Elégiaque
String Quartets – Suske Quartet
Piano Sonatas – early Alfred Brendel
Bagatelles, Variations – Alfred Brendel
Mass in C – Helmuth Rilling
Missa Solemnis – Tomowa-Sintow, Burmeister, Schreier, Polster, Kurt Masur
Sextet for Quartet & 2 Horns, Quintet – Erben Quartet, Gerhart Meyer and Rudolph Hörold
Octet, Wind Quintet – “various performers”
Songs – Peter Schreier w/Walter Olbertz; Florian Prey, Anna Haase w/Norbert Groh
Ah, Perfido! – Hannelore Kuhse, Arthur Apelt
Fidelio – Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews, John Mac Master, Andrew Kennedy, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Juha Uusitalo, Colin Davis

Blomstedt’s symphony cycle is not one of the best by a long shot. It’s in the mold of the bad old days: a heavy orchestra playing slow, sometimes ponderous tempi (listen to the “Eroica” and cringe). Brendel is always a good choice for Beethoven’s piano music, but four of the five concerti are in fairly muddy, dated stereo sound from the early 1960s with conductors who are just a shade better than ponderous. Trio Élegiaque and the Suske Quartet were good choices for the piano trios and string quartets, but Kurt Masur (Missa Solemnis) was a conductor only slightly less ponderous than Klemperer. and the late Colin Davis Fidelio has great singing and icy conducting. And Hannelore Kuhse absolutely sucks in Ah, Perfido!

Now we move on to Deutsche Grammophon, which is asking you to part with $251 (!!!) for their set, which encompasses 118 CDs (what? they found 28 more CDs’ worth of music by Beethoven than their competitors?), 2 DVDs and 3 Blu-Ray audios. As it turns out, this is because they give you THREE complete symphony cycles, Old Style Orchestra, Old Style Orchestra all Vienna Philharmonic, and Modern Style Orchestra, and all three are a mixture of different conductors.

Deutsche Grammophon (118 CDs + 2 DVDs)
Symphonies – Old Style: Chailly (1 & 2), Abbado (3, 4 & 6), Giulini (5), Nelsons (5) & Karajan (9)
Symphonies – Old Style, Vienna Philharmonic: Bernstein (1, 2 & 9), Monteux (3), Schmidt-Isserstedt (4), C. Kleiber (4 & 7), Böhm (6) & Nelsons (8)
Symphonies – Crappy Period Instruments: Gardiner
Piano Concertos –  WoO (Brautigam), 1 & 2 (Argerich), 3 & 4 (Brendel), 5 (Kempff), Piano version of violin concerto (Barenboim)
Triple Concerto – Chung Trio
Incidental Orchestral Music – Abbado
Leonore –Martinpelto, Begley, Oelze, Schade, Gardiner
Fidelio – Stemme, Kaufmann, Struckmann, Mattei, Abbado
Piano Sonatas – split up between Pollini, Gilels, Kovacevich, Ashkenazy, Brendel, Arrau, Lupu, Gulda, Perahia, Grimaux, Kissin & Uchida
Violin Sonatas – split up between Kremer/Argerich, Perlman/Ashkenazy, Mutter/Orkis & Dumay/Pires
Cello Sonatas – Maisky/Argerich
String Quartets – split up between Emerson, Takács, Hagen, Amadeus & Endellion Quartets
Ah, Perfido! – Studer, Abbado
Lieder – mostly Fischer-Dieskau & Schreier
Missa Solemnis – Old Style, Karajan; New Style, Gardiner

This is what you get when a set of records is obviously selected by committee. As the late comedian Allan Sherman once said, “A zebra is a horse that was designed by a committee.” The set also includes a few CDs of historic performances by Schnabel, Haskil, Annie Fischer, the Busch Quartet and Quartetto Italiano that most collectors are likely to have. I have several of these myself. And I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for any Beethoven conducted by Bernstein (an awful Beethoven conductor) or played by Kissin, Barenboim (good conductor, terrible pianist and always was) or Argerich. And I completely agree with critic Robert Levine, who wrote in Classics Today when this Fidelio first came out that the performance sounds too clinical and has no real theatrical feeling. So there you are. You want to spend $251 for this turkey, you go right ahead, but make sure you have plenty of gravy to pour on it when you end up eating it.

So you see, I’m scarcely picking on Naxos, am I?

OK, joke time is over, now we get down to brass tacks.

First of all, fair disclosure. I did not listen to every minute of every movement of the works I know inside out and upside down and can play in my head while asleep. These include but are not limited to the symphonies, concerti, piano, violin and cello sonatas, string quartets and both the Missa Solemnis and Fidelio. I mean, come on, now. I’m 68 years old and have health problems, which means I’m living on borrowed time and as much as I love Beethoven’s music, I’m not willing to give a full month to him.

Symphonies. Having never heard the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia or these recordings before, I didn’t know if they were a straight-tone group or not. It turns out that they’re not; they’re simply a reduced-forces orchestra with some real bite in fortes. The problem is, sonic bite from the instruments does not always equate to excitement in the performances. The tempi throughout are moderate, not too far removed from Herbert Blomstedt, which is more old-school than new-school Beethoven, but although the musicians play all the dynamics gradations faithfully and have a bit of “punch” in fortes, most of these performances are just OK while some, like the Third and Fifth Symphonies, really don’t ignite at all (nor does the thunderstorm in the Sixth). To be fair, there are some good moments in these performances, but only the Second, Fourth and Seventh Symphonies are really good from start to finish. The Eighth is almost ponderous when compared to Fischer, Jordan, Gielen, Casals, Toscanini or Zinman. The Ninth is a curious performance, within its own limitations not really bad. The second and third movements are pretty good, in fact, and irony of ironies, the vocal quartet in the finale is excellent, one of the best I’ve heard in the digital era despite a little unsteadiness from baritone Claudio Otelli, but the first and last movements sound like a good run-through in rehearsal.

Yet you realize why Klaus Heymann chose to go with this set over Adám Fischer’s when you reach the finales of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Here, Fischer italicizes the music far too much, over-accenting downbeats which distort the flow of the music whereas Drahos plays them straight. Still, I wish Naxos had licensed Michael Gielen’s cycle, either the German Electrola set of the early 1990s or his later cycle from SWR Music/Hänssler Classics or, as an alternative, Yondani Butt’s very fine cycle from Nimbus.

Overtures, Dances, Marches etc.

Drahos and the Esterházy Sinfonia return on this disc for the Namensfeier, Leonore No. 1 and Musik zu einem Ritterballet while Stephen Gunzenhauser and the Slovak Philharmonic give out with the Coriolan and Leonore No. 3. I was really impressed with Gunzenhauser’s performances; where was he when the call went out for the complete Symphonies? His orchestra not only plays with bite, but has fire from within, something that eluded Drahos and his band of merry men (and possibly women). Granted, you won’t confuse Gunzenhauer’s Coriolan for Toscanini’s, but it’s pretty impressive just the same. Considering the professional but emotionally uninvolved approach of Drahos, it’s hard to tell if the Namensfeier and Musik zu einen Ritterballet are really good music or not,  but the former, composed in 1814-15, really sounds like something Beethoven wrote for a quick handful of Deutschmarks. The music proceeds from start to finish with proper decorum and development, but no inspiration. But then again, Drahos makes the Leonore No. 1 sound pretty pedantic, too. Oddly enough, I did like the 1790-91 Muzik zu einem Ritterballet. Not a masterpiece, but a charming work nonetheless.

For the dances and marches we switch over to conductor Oliver von Dohnányi. The dances are charming, scored relatively lightly for Beethoven, but really nothing to write home about. Leif Segerstam conducts the Triumphal March for “Tarpeja” and the Act II introduction to Leonore. For me, most of the music on this CD went in one ear and out the other, though Segerstam did a terrific job on the “Tarpeja” March. Ironically, I found the minuets from 1795 (Dohnányi) and 1786 (Segerstam) more inventive and, in fact, quite delightful. I know full well that Wellington’s Victory has its adherents, but remember that Beethoven himself thought so little of it that he even allowed the hurdy-gurdy men to play it for free…until numerous requests to perform it, along with a good chunk of change from the sheet music sales, started rolling in. Then Beethoven decided that he liked the piece and made sure that he got his cut. But I listened to this entire CD straight through (really I did) because it was just so much fun to hear. Put a star on this one!

Piano Concerti

In his review of the set of five numbered concerti on Classics Today, Jed Distler criticized the Vladar/Wordsworth set for sounding a bit pedantic as well as for the engineering, particularly in Concerto No. 4, that partially obscured pianist Vladar. I tend to agree, particularly in the first two numbered concerti. They are, like the symphonies, good, workmanlike performances that don’t quite catch fire, although Wordsworth’s conducting is more spirited than Vladar’s playing. I wish Naxos had used their star pianist, Jenő Jandó, for these instead. (Jandó’s playing in the Concert Finale in C illustrates his superiority.) Although both Vladar and Martin Galling use what sounds like a period fortepiano for the Rondo in Bb and the Concerto WoO in Eb, their playing has more pep in its step and the performances are really good. Since I don’t have these works in my collection, this CD is another keeper for me. Vladar also comes to life in the last three concerti, playing \as well as anyone could expect from a pianist not named Schnabel, Serkin, Fleisher or Brendel and, to reiterate what I said earlier, Wordsworth’s conducting throughout the series is really excellent, better than either Haitink or Levine on Brendel’s two later cycles. One tiny but telling detail: he brings out the solo horn passage in the first movement of the “Emperor” better than many other conductors.

I’ve never liked the piano transcription of the Violin Concerto, but at least it’s played here by Jandó. Let’s face it: Ludwig knew how to market himself, which is the reason that it was he, and not Mozart or Haydn, who was finally able to break the “patronage system” and write whatever he wanted to. (Also remember that his few wealthy patrons, unlike those in the past who Mozart and C.P.E. Bach worked for, gave him free rein to write whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to.) Drahos is again the conductor along with his Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia, and this is where some stodginess comes in. But even with Jandó playing, the music just doesn’t “sing” on the piano as it does on the violin. Still, Beethoven wrote this turkey, so here it is. The Triple Concerto has some really excellent playing by the three principals, but again Drahos’ conducting is more businesslike than exciting. Ironically, this is one case where a Stefan Vladar recording really is superior, the Capriccio issue with violinist Isabelle van Keulen and the great cellist Julian Stecker with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the pianist. This is the version Naxos should have used.

Violin Concerto, Romances

Remember my earlier comment about the Violin Concerto? This performance is played by Takako Nishizaki as Romantically as one can get without dripping treacle from each violin string—in fact, it’s conducted even slower than the piano version. In this case, I’d substitute the stupendous recording by Christian Tetzlaff with conductor Robin Ticciati and the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin on Ondine, another indie label. I did, however, really enjoy the eight-minute fragment of the earlier Violin Concerto in C, played here by Jakub Junek with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic under Marek Štilec. An excellent piece for early Beethoven; I wish he had finished it. For the Romances, we return to Nishikazi. I prefer the performances by Gil Shaham with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Piano Pieces (Bagatelles, Klavierstücke, Ländler, Minuets, Fantasia etc.)

According to legend, Jenő Jandó auditioned for Naxos by sending in a tape of himself playing and was immediately hired. At the time, he had no real career going on but had great technique, a photographic memory (he’d bring scores to the recording sessions, lay them on the piano and never open them) and a surprisingly wide repertoire. I’m glad they found him. For me, Artur Schnabel owned the Bagatelles, but I fully understand the reluctance to use old mono recordings. Jandó plays them about as well as anyone else out there. On CD 17 we get two World Premiere Recordings, the third Bagatelle WoO 213and an alternate, more complete version of the Minuet in Bb played by Carl Petersson: I enjoyed these discs so much that I listened to them all the way through. And silly me, I had no idea that there were two different versions of “Für Elise,” a favorite ringtone on the phones of many people. Jandó plays the more familiar 1810 edition in a dreamy, Romantic style that I didn’t care a lot for. Sergio Gallo plays the 1822 version in the brisker pace that I admire. There’s an entirely different development section in this one, about eight bars here and four there, added to it that I liked very much. There’s also a “false start” to the recapitulation of the principal melody here not in the original, and an ear-teasing “false ending.” So why isn’t this one played more often? Probably because it’s a bit beyond the capabilities of the average amateur pianist, whereas the first one is not. I was rather taken aback by the surprisingly advanced harmonies in the Klavierstücke WoO 61 & 61a, but then, these pieces come from 1821 and 1825 and so are fully mature Beethoven. Another standout is the Fantasia, Op. 77 from 1809. In this specific work I felt that, again, Jandó leaned a bit too much in the direction of a Romantic performance style, but his phrasing (as always) was excellent and he does bring out the structure of the piece.

Piano Sonatas

Jenő Jandó’s 1987-88 sonata cycle is well known and admired by many collectors. I like a good amount of it very much myself, although I will insist until my dying day that no pianists other than Artur Schnabel, Stephen Kovacevich and Michael Korstick play the early sonatas at their proper brink tempi or with the kind of rhythmic “bounce” that these three pianists gave to the music, but Jandó comes closer than many others. Here, surprisingly, Naxos has replaced Jandó’s recordings of Sonatas Nos. 8, 21 and 32 with more recent performances by Boris Giltberg. I’m not sure why; I liked Jandó’s “Waldstein” myself, though no one quite captured its full magic as well as Walter Gieseking. Another thing I liked about Jandó’s cycle was that he played the early sonatas as if they were on a fortepiano, in the Glenn Gould style using no pedal and articulating the music crisply, while the ones from No. 8 onward were played with various degrees of pedal. Indeed, as Beethoven’s pupil Karl Czerny pointed out, the “Waldstein” Sonata in particular is heavily dependent on the use of pedal, particularly in the last movement where Beethoven wanted some blurring. Jandó achieved that blurring in his recording of the sonata, but Giltberg keeps taking his foot off the pedal, particularly in the crucial last movement, which spoils the effect. Giltberg also keeps slowing down the tempi in the first and last movements, which is absolutely wrong. Who the F are YOU to tell BEETHOVEN how his music should go, you little insect of a pianist??!?? “But oh, that’s how I feel it!” Well, good for you. You go and feel yourself and leave the “Waldstein” Sonata alone, OK?

In the other two sonatas he plays here, Giltberg is better, especially in Sonata No. 32, but in the first movement of the “Pathétique” he scarcely makes enough of a contrast between the loud, crashing chords and the softer passages, as Beethoven wrote them, in the first movement. Look at the score: it’s supposed to be a sonic battle between fortissimi and pianissimi. Look at the very first chord in the score: it is marked, in a fit of contradiction, fp which means that it is supposed to be hit hard and then die away almost immediately. You need to listen to Schnabel, Korstick, Raymond Lewenthal or Stephen Kovacevich to hear it done properly. By “evening out” the volume and then continuing to do so throughout the first movement, Giltberg makes it sound more like a rolling up and down of volume via gradual crescendi and decrescendi. Incidentally, Jandó’s contrasts of volume in this movement are also too mild. Naxos should have used Lewenthal’s recording, which is superb, in stereo, and currently in the public domain. Jandó and Lewenthal (as well as Schnabel and Korstick) also make the second movement “sing” better than Giltberg. One thing I’ll give to Naxos, however, is that they present all of the sonatas in proper numerical order, even if that makes one of the CDs 84 minutes long. I’m so tired of complete sets of works presented out of order just because of timing considerations.

One of Jandó’s great gifts as a pianist is his skill in articulation. This is a vastly underrated and overlooked aspect of piano playing that professionals know about but the general public has little idea of. What it means is to make sure every note “sounds” clearly, regardless of how fast you play, and also fits into an overall “flow.” As I mentioned in my long Lewenthal review, this was a skill that he had in abundance, even in those rare moments when he rushed the tempo of a piece. Korstick also has this gift, as did Gieseking, Backhaus and Gulda. Schnabel had problems with it because his technique was really inferior to that of most of his rivals, thus there are times when he blurred or missed notes. John O’Conor showed good articulation in his sonata cycle, but often used too much pedal in the earlier sonatas. Claude Frank had good articulation but sometimes made it sound too mechanical, which is not a good thing. (I heard him in person twice, so I know.) Horowitz had good articulation but separated the notes without any real legato much of the time, which is what often made him sound like an insensitive pounder. Sviatoslav Richter had excellent articulation but could also forsake legato, though not as insensitively as Horowitz. Well, I think I’ve made my point. Good articulation, combined with an innate sense of musical flow, are necessary ingredients for any pianist, but especially in Beethoven who so often broke the rules and called for outside-the-box effects, then could turn around and demand the most sensitive and delicate playing imaginable. Many of the sonatas are technically difficult to begin with, but adding all those other factors makes some of them very hard to pull off properly.

If I had to isolate the one thing I didn’t care for in Jandó’s sonata cycle, it was the occasional lack of these real dramatic moments that Beethoven wrote into the scores, but he’s not alone. Too many pianists tend to pull back on those moments, somehow feeling that they’re going “over the top.” But in Beethoven, as in Berlioz, Schumann, Alkan and Mahler, there’s no such thing as going too far over the top unless you’re really an insensitive brute. They demanded passion in performances of their music, and to give less than that is to cheat the listener. Jandó does do a very good job most of the time—I particularly liked the way he played the opening movement of Sonata No. 16, one of my favorites because Beethoven made it sound as if the pianist was stumbling over his own fingers, almost like a Chico Marx routine, and he clearly has the requisite contrasts in dynamics in the “Appassionata” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas—so please don’t think I’m picking on him, but in those moments when he fails it’s a bit of a let-down. Of the early sonatas WoO 47, the most “Beethovenish” is the second in F minor; this almost sounds like the familiar Beethoven of the 16 numbered sonatas. The third is also quite good and should be performed more often. Overall, I’d give this sonata cycle a little above a B, not quite a B+.

Piano Variations, Fragments, Arrangements & Sketches

There’s way more music in this group than you’d probably expect, including piano transcriptions of the Triumphal March from Kuffner’s Tarpeja, Wellington’s Victory and even a complete piano version of The Creatures of Prometheus! There’s also a one-minute piece by Johann Matheson, a Canon in G, transcribed by Beethoven for the piano. The World Premiere Recordings in this group are the 24-second-long Pastorella in C and an alternate version of the Melody in C min. I absolutely loved the way Ian Yungwook Yoo played the “Eroica” Variations, with a lot of life and bouncing rhythms. A lover of third-rate Italian operas, Beethoven also wrote piano variations on the duet “Nel cor più non mi sento” from some turkey called La molinara and 12 Variations in C on the “Menuet à la Vigano” from Haibel’s Le nozze disturbate. Jandó also does a great job on one of my favorite of Beethoven’s lighter pieces, the Rondo Rage Over a Lost Penny.

On CDs 28-30, when we get into the odder and more esoteric variations that Beethoven wrote—lots of them, almost beyond imagining, and lots more on Italian opera of the time, such as Salieri’s Falstaff, Paisiello’s La molinara and Righini’s arietta “Venni amore,” as well as an aria from Grétry’s Richard Cœur-de-lion—we hear pianists Yoo, Sergio Gallo, Larry Weng, Carl Petersson and Susan Kagan, all quite capable and infusing the music with the right spirit. It falls to the lot of one Konstantin Scherbakov to play the Diabelli Variations, and if his playing isn’t as witty or creative as that of Vladimir Ashkenazy (my favorite recording of this set) it’s clearly good enough to convey the work’s structure if not its tongue-in-cheek humor. What took me by surprise was the Sonata for Piano Four Hands in D, Op. 6, which is attributed in the booklet and on the CD sleeve as having been written in 1896-97. Either some unnamed person was channeling Beethoven in those years or they meant 1796-97, which sounds right to me as this music is just on the cusp of the style of the first numbered sonata. Amy and Sara Hamann, evidently a sister act piano duo, do the honors. They play the Waldstein Variations of 1792 and 6 Variations in D on “Ich denke dein” on a fortepiano, but still have a lot of fun with the music. I was particularly shocked to discover a piano-four-hands arrangement of the great Op. 134 Grosse Fugue.

In CD 32, which contain “Piano Fragments, Arrangements & Sketches,” we get six more World Premiere Recordings (although I must wonder aloud at this, for surely Deutsche Grammophon or Sony Classical have stuck a few of these in their boxed sets as well), mostly “sketches” and “fragments.” There are two versions included here of a fragment imitating the sound of horns, one a reconstruction by one A.W. Holsberger which is new, but the one that grabbed my attention was a 10-second fragment in F, apparently written by the ghost of Beethoven between 1893 and 1980. Truthfully, most of this CD made little impression on me, but there they all are. Beethoven’s few organ works also failed to impress me much, in part because the organ used sounds like the hurdy-gurdy I hear on my local ice cream truck in the summer. Good old Warren Lee (whoever he is) was assigned the piano version of The Creatures of Prometheus on CD 33, and his performance is businesslike but rather bland.

Jandó returns on CD 34 for the most famous of the early pieces, the lovely Andante favori, as well as the Bagatelle in C minor from 1795, and it is he who closes out this CD, and the piano music series, with a stirring rendition of Wellington’s Victory, or at least as stirring as a solo piano can get.

Cello & Mandolin Sonatas

Cellist Maria Kliegel and pianist Nina Tichman are seasoned chamber music professionals as members of the Xyrion Trio. Kliegel, who studied with Janós Starker, has a nice, compact tone, but her timbre is a bit dry and her bowing a shade rough, although the microphone placement may have affected my perception. With that being said, she does an excellent job on these sonatas without quite hitting the heights achieved by Zuill Bailey in his stunning recording of the cycle with pianist Simone Dinnerstein for Telarc. From a musical standpoint, there’s little to complain of. She injects some warmth into the sonatas without really sounding warm of timbre, and in terms of rhythmic acuity and drive both she and Tichman give it all they’ve got. The sum total is a very satisfying set of the cello sonatas that falls just a bit short of an A grade. All things considered, Naxos did well to choose these recordings. I’ve heard several cello sonata cycles by much bigger names that miss the mark entirely, trying too hard to be Romantic. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to this duo is that I let the sonatas play through complete instead of skipping through them because their performances were so emotionally compelling. I even liked their performance of the cello-piano arrangement of the String Trio, Op. 3, and they do a bang-up job on the Handel and Mozart variations.

I didn’t know that Beethoven wrote for the mandolin, but by golly, he did, and I was very impressed by Alon Sariel’s playing in the two Sonatinas from 1796, the Adagio and Andante and Variations from the same year. Takako Nishikazi and Jandó do the honors on the 12 Variations in F on “Se vuol ballare,” Clara Scholtes and Tatiana Lokhina play the Rondo in G, and the Kliegel-Tichman duo return for a real oddity, a cello and piano transcription of the Horn Sonata. Of course I prefer hearing it played by a horn, not least because the pitch is higher, but if you didn’t know that it was the horn sonata you’d certainly enjoy the music and the performance.

Piano Trios & Quartets

Kliegl and Tichman are joined by violinist Ida Bieler, the Xyrion Trio, to play the Piano Trios. These are modern, bracing performances, very much in the proper Beethoven style, but curiously the version of No. 4, “Gassenhauer,” presented here is the one for clarinet, cello and piano. Checking online, I’ve discovered that this arrangement is played about as often as the original version featuring the violin, but searching through the booklet I found no alternate performance in that configuration. Which means that the music is presented complete, but not both versions. For a great performance of the original version, I highly recommend the one by the Oliver Schnyder Trio on Sony Classical.

But of course, most attention will be paid to the two most famous trios, the “Ghost” (No. 5) and “Archduke” (No. 7). Listening to the first movement of the former, with its rocket-like forward propulsion, I was afraid that the Xyrion Trio wouldn’t have the right feeling for the ghostly second movement. Although I don’t think they caught the flavor of the second movement as well as Trio Élégiaque or the early Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin recording, it’s pretty good. After the “cereal-shot-from-guns” approach of the preceding trios, the “Archduke” is actually taken at a fairly moderate pace, albeit without much in the way of rubato. It’s a very fine performance but will not efface your memories of the Thibaud-Cortot-Casals Trio recording. Perhaps the most disappointing member of the trio in both the “Ghost” and “Archduke” is pianist Tichman; she just doesn’t seem to feel the music with much subtlety, whereas Bieler and Kliegel do a pretty good job of it. What these two trios really need, and almost never get, is a pianist on the sensitivity level of a Stephen Kovacevich, Michael Korstick or Andras Schiff. Even Arthur Rubinstein played more sensitively in the “Archduke” that he recorded with Heifetz and Feuermann c. 1941—note, for instance, the greater vivacity or “bounce” at the beginning of the last movement. With more flexibility from the pianist, I think both of these trios would have come across better. Yet Tichman is fine for most of the other works here, in fact sounding quite playful in the “Kakadu” Variations.

Two of the oddest trios are the transcriptions of the complete Second Symphony and the Septet. The former sounds pretty threadbare played by a trio, but remember, this was in the days before one could listen to music in any recorded form, and many homes back then had family  chamber groups, trios and quartets, which could play this reduction and remember hearing the symphony.

The trios wrap up on CD 42 with early works without an opus number. Even the very early trio in Eb, written when Mozart was still alive, has a similar design but clearly doesn’t sound Mozartian: the rhythm is too strong and there are just too many shifts back and forth between major and minor, almost like a game of ping-pong. The Piano Trio No. 8 for clarinet-cello-piano, almost never played in public, is actually a reduction of the Septet. Oddly, the Trio in G from 1796 is for flute, bassoon and piano—odd because Beethoven, like Mozart, was not very fond of the flute, considering its range of expression to be quite narrow—yet it’s a lively piece with some good ideas in it. The World Premiere Recording on this disc is a 4 ½-minute fragment of a trio in F min., transcribed by one N. Marston. This is a major find: a moody, pensive movement from Beethoven’s mature period (1816) that I wish he had finished. The Piano Quartets, played by the New Zealand Quartet, are suave early music, programmed on the CD out of order. The more mature Op. 16 Piano Quintet is played by five musicians not part of an established group, and very well, too. This is followed by the Quintet for Piano & Winds which is the same piece rearranged for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano. Jandó is the pianist on this performance, which is a bit of a wet noodle.

String Trios, Quartets & Quintets

The trios are played by a reduced version of the splendid Kodály Quartet, and thus are of the highest order, except for the itty bitty (1:36) “Trio Secondo Scherzo” which is played by a trio of independent players who are also quite good.

Although I believe that the Alexander String Quartet’s set of the Beethoven Quartets are overall the most interesting ever made, and the set by the late, lamented Colorado String Quartet—available for download as MP3 files, the whole series, for 99 cents on Amazon!!!—is the most viscerally exciting, particularly in the late quartets where objectivity trumps rubato and meandering, the Kodály Quartet’s series lays somewhere in between, which is not a bad place to be. For me, they are much better than the vastly overrated sets by the Juilliard, Tokyo and Alban Berg Quartets, the first sounding (to my ears) rhythmically stodgy, the second a bit too fussy in phrasing, and the third emotionally cold. I was, however, not thrilled with the excessive reverb on some of these recordings; the Kodály sounds as if they’re playing in an empty high school locker room at midnight (well, who knows? Maybe they were!). Clearly a good choice for the quartets, even if I’ll still be going back to Alexander and Colorado as my reference sets. The Kodály Quartet’s performance of the very last quartet seemed to me just a bit too lyrical and not dramatic enough, though it is OK.

I must, however, lodge a serious complaint regarding the programming. We all know that Beethoven originally wrote the Grosse Fugue as the finale to the 13th Quartet, but that it was considered too complex and confusing to be published that way, so he wrote a good but simpler finale and then had his publisher issue the Grosse Fugue as a separate composition. The wise thing to do would have been to include this fugue on the same CD as the Quartet No. 13, but not only is it not on that CD, you have to go through all of the Violin Sonatas, Minuets, Dances, duets, Septet and Sextet before you reach the Grosse Fugue 11 CDs later! This is very bad programming. At the vert least, it should have been on CD 53, right after the 16th Quartet, with the dopey String Quartet in F, transcribed from the Piano Sonata No. 9, moved to wherever the hell you wanted to because it doesn’t fit in sequence.

The next disc gives us the early version of the Quartet No. 1 plus an Allegretto in B min., the early version of the first movement of the Quartet No. 14 and Beethoven’s arrangement of the fugue from the Overture to Handel’s Solomon played by the Fine Arts Quartet while the Quartetto d’Archi di Venezia and violist Danilo Rossi play the 1795 String Quintet in E-flat. The latter is a really excellent piece for early Beethoven. The Fine Art Quartet, with violist Gil Sharon, return to give good renditions of the Op. 29 Quintet and the Quintet arrangement of the Piano Trio No. 3.

Violin Sonatas

Jenő Jandó returns on piano along with violinist Takako Nishizaki for the 10 Violin Sonatas. These are brisk, no-nonsense performance that reminded me of the superb mono performances by Henri Temianka and Leonard Shure issued by Doremi a couple of years ago, though they are not as finely nuanced as the equally exciting set in digital stereo by Barbara Govatos and Marcantonio Barone on Bridge. Overall, however, a very good set, particularly for Jandó whose dynamically inflected piano playing is extremely colorful and helps to “lead” the more straightforward but equally exciting playing of Nishizaki. It is he who makes this an outstanding set of performances. Note, for instance, his moody, smoldering introduction to the Sonata No. 7 or his rhythmic acuity in this and every other movement of each sonata. The “Kreutzer,” though a pretty good reading, lacks some of the electricity generated by Huberman-Friedman, Temianka-Shure, Govatos-Barone and even the father-and daughter duo of Claude and Pamela Frank, but not too much. Overall, a good account of the sonatas.

Dances, Marches, Duets, Trios & Quartets

A plethora of artists, including Tristan Segal, Noa Sarid and Clara Schottes on violin, Isabel Kwon on cello, the IU Wind ensemble, Fine Arts Quartet, Ensemble 18+, the New Zealand Symphony, David Shifrin on clarinet and Kazunori Seo and Patrick Gallois on flute, play the Minuets, Landlers, German Dances, Polonaise, Marches and other pieces on CD 59. Many of these were just written for the money and, although cute, don’t add much to our perception of Beethoven the musical giant. The most complex work here is the Oboe Trio, but despite its opus number of 87, it dates from 1795 and isn’t much of anything. The equally early Duets for Flute & Bassoon on CD 60, however, are better music, as are the famous violin and viola Duo for Two Obbligato Eyeglasses and the 1795 Variations on “La cì darem la mano” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for two oboes and English horn. Both are lively, well-played performances, though of course no one can touch William Primrose and Emanuel Feuermann in the first of these. The latter are very, very clever and creative variants for 1795. Much more serious music, and quite good, are the rare 3 Equali for alto, tenor and bass trombones from 1812—fully mature Beethoven—and, of course, the Adagio in Ab for three horns.

Septet, Quintet, Sextets, Octet

A bunch of Hungarians play the Septet and Wind Quintet in Eb, the latter purportedly from 1793 and completed by one L.A. Zellner after Beethoven’s death (an inferior piece). The former is a pretty good performance though not as zippy as the one by the Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics. The Rondo for two each of clarinets, bassoons, horns and oboes is also kind of nothing. Much better is the wind sextet Op. 71, played a David Shifrin-led group that includes two excellent horn players in William Purvis and Lauren Hunt. I especially liked the Octet, written in 1792 but published by Beethoven as his Op. 103.

Preludes, Fugues and Canons

Here is where we finally get the Grosse Fugue, played by the Fine Arts Quartet and several CDs too late. I liked the Prelude and Fugue in E min., both versions in fact, written as a violin-cello duet. The Fine Arts Quartet also plays the Preludes and Fugues in F and C major, and I was very surprised to see Beethoven’s transcription of the Fugue No. 22 from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier since at the time (1801-02) Papa Bach’s music had yet to be revived in either Germany or Austria. We all know that Beethoven wrote fugues, the most famous of which are the Grosse Fugue and the one in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, but they generally had a more dramatic character about them and didn’t sound so Bach-like. All in all, this CD is one of the gems of the collection.

Flute Sonata & Serenade(s)

James Galway has a more seductive tone in the flute Serenade in D, but Kazumori Seo really kicks butt in this and the Flute Sonata in Bb. This CD also includes a later arrangement of the same Serenade for flute and piano instead of flute and violin which, strangely, Beethoven had published with an entirely different opus number (you’d think he would have numbered them Op. 25 and 25a). The pianist here, Makoto Uemo, is an energetic partner, which makes the flute-piano version of this Serenade more interesting for me. You will also note that they play the flute-piano version faster: the whole performance comes in at a minute and nine seconds shorter than the flute-violin version. This CD ends with a two-and-a-half minute fragment of an early (1790-91) violin sonata in A. It’s a nice piece but, being underdeveloped, doesn’t go very far.

Folk Song Variations; Horn Sonata

The variations on Welsh, German, Irish, Tyrolean, Scottish, Ukrainian and Russian folk songs are pretty clever; in the very first, for instance, The Cottage Maid,” Beethoven writes the piano part in such a way that it sounds as if the player is stumbling over the keys, uncertain of how to proceed, a variation on the joke he wrote into the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 16. The performers, flautist Patrick Gallois (who made the arrangement) and pianist Maria Priz, are wonderfully witty and light-hearted.

We all know who made the greatest recording of the Horn Sonata. His last name begins with a B and ends with rain. But that was 1944, and though it is still one of the loveliest and most energetic of performances, I’m here to tell you that Wolfgang Tomboeck, playing a “Vienna horn” (whatever that is—I’ve never heard of a specific make or model called a Vienna Horn), does an absolutely splendid job, in part because the tempi are nice and brisk and pianist Madoka Inui is even more energetic than Denis Matthews on the old Brain recording. This was a very pleasant surprise for me.

Stage Works

We return to Leif Segerstam for the incidental music to The Creatures of Prometheus. As hinted at earlier, Segeerstam’s conducting of other composers’ music is much like Harnoncourt’s was: powerful and driving at the right times, but taken at somewhat slower-than-score tempi. At least Segerstam understands Beethoven’s “radicalism” as a composer and the fact that his music has to have an edge to it. There’s a lot of music in this suite, nearly 80 minutes’ worth in fact. Some of it is quite good, some of it merely functional. I did like, for instance, how the powerful overture blends seamlessly into the equally powerful storm music, and then seamlessly into the “Poco adagio” et. al. The thread breaks, however, before track 7 (“Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto”) which is an uncharacteristically Romantic-sounding waltz tune played by a solo cello with harp and winds accompaniment that sounds more like Mozart or Schubert.

Once again, I believe that Naxos made a blunder by placing Fidelio before Leonore, even though most people are more familiar with the former than the latter. After all, Leonore came first. There are only two complete recordings of this 1805 version of the opera, the one presented here, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, and the later recording by John Eliot Gardiner. I think Naxos chose very well. In fact, and I say this quite ironically, this performance of Leonore is crisper, tauter, and more dramatic than most stereo recordings I’ve ever heard of its successor. Other than Edda Moser, an excellent soprano but one with a light, high voice that I don’t think well suited for Leonore (I heard her in person both as the Queen of the Night and as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni), the cast is excellent.

Aside from the overture, which of course is a Leonore overture and not the Fidelio overture, two differences we notice immediately is spoken dialogue leading into the opening duet and a few different notes in the orchestral introduction to this duet. Rocco initiates a trio immediately after this duet that was dropped later on. This, too, was wise; the trio is superfluous. And, of course, a lot of the dialogue is different as well, even in scenes that were carried over to the revised opera. The trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut” is considerably longer here—over seven minutes—with lots of extra music that, though well written, holds up the action. Unlike Fidelio, which is in two acts, Leonore is in three, the second commencing with the March that introduces Don Pizarro. Again, Beethoven was wise to compress this into one longer act, even though the March is exactly the point at which the dramatic temperature changes, things become tense, and the music stops sounding like Italian opera. There’s also some extra music in the Pizarro-Rocco duet, but I didn’t mind this so much; in fact, I rather liked this version.

Yet Beethoven made another mistake: after the Pizarro-Rocco duet, we hear dialogue between Marzelline and Fidelio, then a six-minute duet in waltz tempo for both sopranos. Moreover, this duet harks back to the Italianate style of the first scene—there’s even an obbligato solo violin!—that is as out of place here as a high-born lady dancing the minuet during a military invasion. Finally, we reach Leonore’s big aria, but here it starts quite differently with music you’ve never heard before, set to the words “Ach, brich noch dicht” before moving into the more familiar “Komm, o komm” section. This intro works musically but not dramatically, as Beethoven later realized. (But I really enjoyed hearing Peter Damm play the horn obbligato in this aria…he was an excellent musician.) Much to my surprise, Moser was able in this music to go down into her chest register for some really impressive singing, something I didn’t hear her do in person. There’s also several bars of extra music, and semi-florid musical lines for the soprano, in this section, and when the cabaletta arrives it is entirely different and not nearly as effective—until the exposed horn call, at which point we hear the more familiar music, but not exactly. Some of this is different, too, and much more florid, later including a trill. I started to understand at this point why they chose Edda Moser; most dramatic sopranos who sing Fidelio can’t do all this florid folderol. Beethoven absolutely had to cut some of it and turn to “Ah, perfido!” as a model.

Then we reach the Act II finale, the Chorus of Prisoners, much of it the same and some not. After this, Beethoven inserted a Rocco-Leonore duet and a Rocco-Leonore-Marzelline-Pizarro quartet, later Pizarro with chorus, which extends the final scene to a whopping 18 minutes. And yet, that duet which turns into a trio and then a scene with chorus is VERY dramatic music, some of Beethoven’s best for that period in fact, and I wish he’d have carried most of this over as the finale to the later Act I. Abridge it, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

“Gott! Welch dunkel Hier” starts out pretty much as we know it now except for several bars of different music prior to the tenor’s entrance, but the music the tenor sings to the familiar words is quite unfamiliar and lacks dramatic punch. Richard Cassilly had a long career, starting out with a good-sized lyric tenor bordering on spinto, later singing dramatic roles almost exclusively (I heard him as both Radames and Otello) although his tone had dried out considerably by then and he picked up some unsteadiness. Once we reach the more lyrical section of the aria, there is more unfamiliar music mixed with the familiar. It’s way too long (over 10 minutes) and dramatically punk in places. Much of the rest of the act is pretty much as you’ll recognize it, but there’s too much music in the Leonore-Florestan-Rocco trio (an extra minute, in fact) which bogs down the drama. But once again, there’s some really good extra music later on that shouldn’t have been cut because it’s dramatic and fills out the scenes better. I also liked Blomstedt’s tempo for “O namenlose Freude,” just fast enough to provide dramatic excitement without making a mess of it, which is often the case when it’s sung faster. (An aside: When Jussi Björling sang his one and only Florestan opposite Rose Bampton in Cincinnati, they did it in English, and Björling just couldn’t get his lips wrapped around the word “rapture.” He kept singing it “O day of joy and rupture!”) Different music in the final scene, too, some of it good and some of it superfluous, and again it just goes on too long.

Recordings of Fidelio seem cursed since almost none of them really present the drama in its full range of emotion and angst, as they should, with consistently good conducting. And it’s not just conductors with wayward tempi like Furtwängler, Klemperer and Bernstein who have failed; Arturo Toscanini failed miserably in his 1944 performance by pushing things too hard, which trivialized some important passages, omitting all the dialogue, and selecting inferior singers for Rocco, Leonore and Florestan. To my ears, there is but one studio recording that does the score full justice, and that is Ferenc Fricsay’s 1957 stereo version with Leonie Rysanek, Ernst Häfliger, Irmgard Seefried, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gottlob Frick—a performance taken at Toscanini’s tempi, but with far better sound, dialogue, and a superior cast.

In this recording we return to the Nicolaus Esterházy Orchestra with which we began this set, but Béla Drahos is replaced by conductor Michael Halasz. He does a respectable job, clearly more involved emotionally than Abbado or Davis, faster than Furtwängler and Klemperer, and less sloppy than Bernstein, without setting one’s pulse racing. One thing that might have helped this recording would have been a slight treble boost; the orchestra sounds just a bit “covered” up top for me. Our Jacquino and Marzelline are pretty good, which is all you can ask of them. The Rocco is the excellent Kurt Moll. Inge Nielsen, who had an odd, somewhat wiry timbre that takes some getting used to, is the Leonore. But for a studio recording, everyone at least tries to sound involved. Alan Titus’ once-beautiful baritone voice had become slightly unsteady and a bit rough by 1998, when this recording was made, but he gives a decent account of “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!” And Halasz does push the beat in “Jetzt, alter, jetzt hat es Eile” and immediately after, just before the “Abscheulischer,” which helps the drama. After hearing the likes of Flagstad, Rysanek, Nilsson, Marton and even Gwyneth Jones, Nielsen sounds too light for her big aria, more like Marzelline than Leonore. She also sings too much through her nose. The spoken dialogue is minimized, which is not always a plus in certain scenes, and for me the tempi are a little on the slow side and, worse yet, not pointed rhythmically the way Fricsay and Tennstedt did them. I know that this is what the majority of “critics” enjoy, however, because I still keep seeing the stodgy Klemperer recording listed as the “top choice” and “recording of the century,” but folks, that was the 20th century, and there’s no way on God’s green earth that Klemperer’s reading can hold a candle to Fricsay’s. Just read the score, for crying out loud!

Despite the occasionally dramatic moments in Halasz’s conducting, I found my mind wandering when listening to this recording because of the sluggish quality of the overall pace as well as Nielsen’s puerile-sounding voice. The Act I finale is so punk that I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

But then we reach Gösta Winbergh’s “Gott! Welch dunkel hier,” and immediately the atmosphere changes. This was a great artist, on a par with Patzak and Häfliger if not quite in the same category as Vickers, a tenor who knew how to interpret as well as sing beautifully (something Patzak never did). He, and to a certain point Halasz, enliven the music from this point on, though every time Nielsen opens her mouth I just cringe. I give this recording a C+, maybe a B- (there’s only a slim difference between the two, I know). But considering that DGG isn’t even reissuing the Fricsay recording any more—in Europe, it’s in the public domain and several other CD companies have released it—I would think that Naxos could have worked out a deal to include it here. It would have been one of the crown jewels of this set if they had.

With the incidental music to King Stephen (1811) we return to Leif Segerstam, who does a good job. It’s incidental music consisting of an overture—the only piece in it I’ve heard before—and a series of instrumental and choral numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue. Since I’ve never heard the whole thing, I let it play. The overture, in case you’ve never heard it, is unusually light for Beethoven, not only light in its themes and character but also in its orchestration. Only the strong rhythms remind you who the composer was. By and large, a rather inferior collection of pageantry music—the choral piece “Wo die Unschuld Blumen” sounds like second-rate French ballet music (my cat Fluffy liked it, which tells you the intelligence level it’s aimed at)—but at least it’s here complete. By contrast, the Egmont music is some of Beethoven’s best, not only the overture but also the two vocal numbers, “Die Trommel gerühet” and “Freudvoll und leidvoll.” I have a terrific mono recording of it (sans dialogue) with legendary soprano Magda Laszló, conducted by Hermann Scherchen. This one is a bit slower in pace (good old Segerstam!) but still has a “Beethoven feel” to it. The soprano in this performance, Kaisa Ranta, is a very dramatic singer whose steady voice has an interesting metallic “bite.” Overall, then, a good recording, much better than Raymond Leppard’s old Philips recording with the great Janet Baker. I give it a B+. The remaining incidental music on this disc, which includes the 11-minute fragment from Vestas Feuer, the chorus Die Ehenpforten, Leonore Prohaska and the chorus from Die gute Nachricht, is also conducted by Segerstam. The musical quality is uneven, however, with Leonore Prohaska being more “Fluffy Music” (it includes a soprano waltz “romance” with harp accompaniment!) while Vestas Feuer turned out to be very good indeed with good singers (Ranta returns as soprano soloist along with tenor Tuomas Katajala). Germania, the chorus with baritone, is a real peppy piece.

Next up is the first recording of The Ruins of Athens with narrators. I guess this will be a thrill for German-speaking listeners but for me, without a text to follow, it meant nothing. The other soloists are squally soprano Reetta Haavisto and the excellent basso Juha Kotilainen. We also get two pieces from The Consecration of the House, the familiar overture and the little-known aria with chorus, “Wo sich die Pulse,” and a strange short piece, Musik zu Carl Meisls Gelegenheitsfestspiel for chorus and orchestra.

Choral Music

This section of the collection starts off with Der glorreiche Augenblick, a piece I only discovered a few years ago in the wonderful live mono performance with soprano Lucille Udovich and mezzo Miriam Pirazzaini, conducted by Scherchen. This performance, conducted by one Hilary Davan Wetton with the Royal Philharmonic, is peppy and energetic in the patented modern Brit style. Baritone Stephen Gadd has an uneven, constant flutter in his voice that I didn’t like, so his moments weren’t all that glorious. Tenor Peter Hoare has a somewhat tight-sounding voice, but it’s relatively pleasant, and soprano Claire Rutter, while no Udovich, sings very well indeed. Since the bass gets very little to sing, I can rate this performance an A-. And FINALLY, we get the Choral Fantasy in a sparkling reading by pianist Leon McCawley and the City of London Choir under the same conductor.

The Missa Solemnis is performed by Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra & Chorus with soloists Lori Phillips, Robynne Redmond, James Taylor (no, not “sweet baby James” Taylor!), bass Jay Baylon, and Mary Kathryn van Osdale playing the long violin solo in the “Benedictus.” One reviewer online said that the soloists’ voices don’t blend very well. I would say that’s probably true to a point, but only because Phillips and Taylor had very bright voices rather than creamy ones. In the Ninth Symphony you want a soprano whose voice can stand out; in the Missa, you don’t. Toscanini was very careful to use creamy-voiced sopranos in his Missa performances (Elisabeth Rethberg, Zinka Milanov and Lois Marshall), but in 1935 he used tenor Giovanni Martinelli whose voice didn’t blend with anyone else’s. (His later tenors were Jussi Björling and Eugene Conley, who blended better.) Yet this is an excellent all-round performance, comparable in many ways to the excellent William Steinberg version with Heather Harper, Julia Hamari, Sven Olof Eliasson and Peter Meven on ICA Classics.

The Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II is another one of those pieces written for da money. It’s more formal than usual for Beethoven, although with some characteristic touches in the orchestral part. Soprano Silja Aalto has a pretty voice but one that thins out on top and has a slightly uneven flutter at times. It even has a harpsichord continuo behind the bass and tenor recitatives, almost like something from the Bach St. Matthew Passion. Pretty much in one ear and out the other. The short chorus Ihr weisen Gründer glücklicher Staaten is peppy, while the Bundeslied is pretty much a folk song setting that uses a wind band behind soprano and alto soloists and a choral ensemble. This CD wraps up with Segerstam’s performance of the 1807 Mass in C, a work I had seen floating around on disc but never bothered to listen to. It was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy who, when he heard it, didn’t like it, but tale writer, fellow-composer and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann liked it very much, appreciating the “expression of a childlike, serene mind.” Segerstam does it up pink with excellent conducting and four very good soloists: soprano Ranta, mezzo Niina Keitel, tenor Lehtipuu and bass Nicholas Söderlund. To my ears, it’s a good piece but not on a par with the Missa Solemnis; it’s too formal, including a fugue in the “Gloria,” and sounds oddly like late-period Mozart except for some edgy diminished chords in the “Credo.”

Christus am Ölberg, once pretty much marginalized, has picked up some steam as a well-liked Beethoven piece in recent decades. My favorite recording, in early stereo, is the one with soprano Lieselotte Rehmann, tenor Reinhold Bartel, bass August Messthaler, the Süddeutsche Chorvereinigung and Stuttgart Philharmonic conducted by Josef Bloser (old Vox recording), which really comes alive. As I expected, Segerstam conducts the music slower than Bloser or Helmuth Rilling (my second-favorite recording), but not as stodgily as the 1970 EMI recording with Volker Wagenheim. Jussi Myllys is an excellent tenor, in much better voice than Nicolai Gedda on the EMI recording, thus his long recitative and aria (the title in English, “My heart is sore within me”) comes across with the proper legato and drama (although no one in my experience can touch John McCormack in this music). Our soprano Seraph, Hanna-Leena Haapamäki, sounds a little over-cautious in her approach to the music but has all the high notes and a beautiful timbre to boot, while basso Niklas Spångberg has a nice cantata voice. Actually quite good, I’d rate it a B, though I still prefer the Bloser recording.

Having never heard of the Opferlied before, of which there are two versions given here, I went to Emily Ezust’s wonderful LiederNet Archive, which has apparently been getting some funding since their entire website interface has been vastly improved and updated since I last went there a couple of months ago. Here is the text in English, kind of, courtesy of Google Translate:

The flame blazes, mild glow
Shines through the [dark] oak grove
And the scent of frankincense.
O lend a merciful ear to me
And leave the young man’s sacrifice to you,
You supreme, well.

Be always the freedom weir and shield!
Your spirit of life breathe gently
Air, earth, fire and floods!
Give me as a youth and as an old man
At the fatherly Heerd, o Zeus,
The beauty of the good.

It’s a nice piece if not a great one. One difference between the two editions is that the opening line, sung by an ensemble in 1822, is given to a solo soprano in the 1824 edition. The later one is also considerably shorter, 5:42 compared to 7:24.

The last choral CD includes Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, an early cantata on the death of Kaiser Joseph II (1790), an 1814 cantata “Un lieto brindisi” and a few choral songs. The performance of the first has a wonderful ambience about it that enhanced the so-so music very well, but it’s the Kaiser Joseph Cantata that takes up the most space on the CD, over 44 minutes. For the work of a 20-year-old composer who had not really hit his stride yet, the music sounds surprisingly like the Beethoven we know; it’s even less Mozartean than the Mass in C, with a moody orchestral introduction played by the celli and basses, and his characteristic use of rhythm behind the chorus in the opening section. It’s not a masterpiece but considering its time and place, it’s quite good, and Segerstam does an excellent job on it. I hope Mozart (who met Beethoven around this time) was suitably impressed, although I can imagine that it might have been too advanced to be fully appreciated in that time. A truly neglected masterpiece, it almost sounds like something from his Fidelio period (1814). This is what I live for, to discover music like this by a composer I thought I knew pretty well! And once again, the soloists are quite good although I’m convinced that Johanna Lehesvuori is mislabeled as a soprano, since her part doesn’t rise above a high Bb and often dips down to a low C, yet she lists herself as a soprano on her Facebook page. In fact, on the website chordust.fi, she’s listed as a coloratura soprano, but she most definitely has a phenomenal range, breath control, and expression, although her somewhat wiry timbre can be a little grating on certain notes. In fact, there’s a YouTube video of her singing the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 aria! Definitely an interesting singer to keep your eyes out for on record. I wish she had been the choice to sing Leonore in the Fidelio recording. Bottom line: it sounds to me as if Beethoven could have developed more quickly and perhaps advanced further than he did had he not have had to write for the “tastes of his time.”

The short choral piece Abschiedgesang bears a certain resemblance to a passage in Wagner’s Das Liebesmahl von Apostel, while the remaining pieces are all piano-accompanied short choral works, fun to hear but nothing to write home about.

Songs

Much to my surprise and delight, Naxos used the wonderful set of Beethoven’s Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Songs of Various Nationalities issued by Brilliant Classics in 2015, so there were 7 CDs’ worth of material I didn’t have to listen to, even though this set includes some songs left out of the Brilliant set. The singers are all good and the performances all excellent. And it looks as if they’ve issued here the lieder they issued this month on Naxos 8.574071, which I recently reviewed, so there was another CD I could skip. Lucky me!

One surprise in the lineup of singers, however, is the presence of late-period (1987-89) Hermann Prey in most of the songs on Discs 85-87, including the famous “Adelaide” and “Die Ehres Gottes.” His voice wasn’t quite what it was in the 1960s and ‘70s, but it was still a fine instrument and I was glad to hear him. One of the longer and more interesting songs on this CD was “An Laura,” sung by soprano Pamela Coburn; another is the lively “Ein Selbstgespräch,” sung by Prey. Interestingly, in “Feuerfarb,” soprano Pamela Coburn’s voice sounded eerily like very young Janet Baker. Oddly, there’s a song in French—“Que le temps me dure”—sung with a lovely style and simply horrid French diction by Prey. And whaddaya know? The melody of “Seufzer eines Ungeliebte und Gegenliebe,” written in 1795, is the same one he later used for the Choral Fantasy! Most of the other songs on these CDs are taken from the afore-mentioned recent Naxos sessions with Coburn, tenor Rainer Trost and baritone Paul Armin Edelmann, with bass Ricardo Bojórquez Martinez peeking in to sing “In questa tomba oscura.” All of these are fine performances, although in some songs I miss the more sensitive vocal shading of tenor Peter Schreier, who sings on the Brilliant Classics set.

For the biggie among “songs,” the dramatic aria-with-orchestra Ah, Perfido!, we get soprano Reetta Haavisto. The voice is more wiry than pretty, and she’s not a very interesting interpreter. My favorite modern recording is the one by Charlotte Margiono with John Eliot Gardiner, but the recent live performance by Nicole Car with Richard Tognetti is also superb, and since that one is an indie release by the Australian Broadcasting Company, I think Naxos could have leased it for a song (pun intended). The one world premiere recording in this series is the first version of “Vom Tode,” sung by baritone Georg Klimbacher. One of the more interesting voices in the orchestral songs is that of Kevin Greenlaw, who has a high, light and attractive baritone. I was particularly interested to hear the long (almost 16 minute) 1792 concert aria for soprano and orchestra, “Erste Liebe, Himmelslust,” sung here in its Italian translation. Haavisto is again the soprano, but in this case there’s not much competition, only Hannelore Kuhse whose voice is three times worse than Haavisto’s. The opening section of the aria is lyrical but unmemorable, the later section peppy but unmemorable. It almost sounds like a long Italian opera aria of the period.

And then we reach the VERY LAST CD!! (After eight days of reviewing, thank goodness!) This one, which contains 80 tracks (yes, that’s right, 80) and runs 83:38, contains “Canons and Musical Jokes,” but don’t expect George Carlin to break you up. We are talking about Beethoven’s sense of humor, which is most charitably described as “rustic.” Perhaps the funniest of these songs are the one in which he keeps repeating the word “Glück, Glück” and another in which he takes a poke at his drinking buddy (and music critic) E.T.A. Hoffmann: “Hoffmann, do not be Hoffmann!” All the music is vocal and most of it choral, including his rewriting of a piece by Michael Haydn, the kid brother of Beethoven’s teacher Franz Joseph. As you can surmise from the fact that there are 80 tracks on this disc, most of these works are extremely brief, more than half of them, in fact, less than a minute long. The performances are good, clean and professional without getting you too excited about what you’re hearing.

To recap, then: All things considered, this set is better than those of Deutsche Grammophon and Brilliant Classics and more complete than the Warner Classics compilation, if not quite as strong overall as the Sony Classical edition (the piano sonatas and Fidelio aside). The only real weaknesses, I felt, were in the symphonies (Gielen or Butt should have been their choice), the Triple Concerto, Violin Concerto and Romances, a few of the piano sonatas (though having Michael Korstick’s set complete in here would have been like finding a platinum coin in your pocket), some of the Violin Sonatas, Ah, Perfido! and Fidelio. (The Fricsay recording of Fidelio, unfortunately without the dialogue, is available for free streaming on YouTube as of this writing.) But that’s only about 13 CDs out of 90 that are rather weak, and even discounting the several forgettable and/or fragmented works included here, 77 good CDs of Beethoven’s music is a fair deal. Apparently, it retails for $168 (at least according to Presto Classical), but Presto is selling it for $113, Amazon for $101.95, and Arkivmusic for $99.99. Even at the highest price here, that’s $1.46 apiece for the 77 good CDs, but it all depends on “what’s in your collection?” and how many of these works you’d want to have in addition to alternate performances of what you already own. As a birthday or Christmas present for someone who, as I said in the beginning, likes some Beethoven and wants to hear the rest of his output, it’s a good bargain. Let me put it to you this way: I’m keeping my copy of the set, and I’ve got more Beethoven CDs than I really need. As a final note, I should mention that each set comes with a card containing a download code so you can also get recordings of Ferenc Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies and songs—six more CDs’ worth just in case 90 weren’t enough for you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Niquet’s Powerful, Moving “Messe Solennelle”

Messe

WP 2019 - 2BERLIOZ: Messe Solennelle / Adriana Gonzalez, sop; Julien Behr, ten; Andreas Wolf, bs; Le Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet, cond / Alpha Classics 564

Up until now, there have been only two recordings of Berlioz’ early Messe Solennelle, the famous Philips issue conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (included in Warner Classics’ Berlioz: Complete Works set) and a version on Koch International with the Washington National Cathedral Choral Society conducted by J. Reilly Lewis.

Now we have a third, this new release led by early-music veteran Hervé Niquet, and I believe it is the finest performance of the three. Why? Sound. Berlioz’ music, particularly his religious music such as the Requiem and the Te Deum, was all about sound, the resonating of a choir and orchestra in a large space, creating an ambience that was meant to envelop and occasionally overwhelm the listener. The same principles apply to his Messe Solennelle, but Gardiner’s recording was somewhat thin-sounding in both the orchestra and chorus and Lewis’ performance was a bit boxy and constricted.

This new incarnation corrects all that. Recorded in June of this year at the Royal Chapel of the Château de Versailles, Niquet, his performers and recording producer Manuel Mohino have achieved the impossible. They have brought the entire, full-spectrum sound of the Royal Chapel into your living room, and with it, Berlioz’ music takes on an amplitude and richness that I would have deemed impossible prior to hearing this recording.

From the very first note of the Introduction, you are immediately transported out of your current time and space into another world. I can’t even adequately describe it; words fail me trying to convey the stupendous wholeness of it all. But let me try. First, there is the chorus, which sounds so rich and sings with so much heart that they immediately suck you in. And listen to the way their sound reverberates when they suddenly stop singing on a chord. Although Niquet uses those blighted straight-tone strings, they have a certain sheen here that both Gardiner and Lewis somehow failed to achieve. And then there are the tempi he chose for the various sections of the work. The fast passages are clearly faster than Gardiner: the Introduction has only three seconds shaved off it, but Niquet’s “Gratias” runs only 4:50 compared to Gardiner’s 6:42, his “Crucifixus” 1:41 compared to 2:33, and his “Agnus Dei” 3:21 compared to Gardiner’s 3:51. Yet none of them sound rushed or pressed, and by way of compensation he takes other sections slower that Gardiner, i.e., the “Kyrie” 7:39 compared to 6:49 and the “Resurrexit” comes in a few seconds longer. Soprano Adriana Gonzalez has an uneven flutter in her voice that I didn’t like, so Gardiner’s soloist (Donna Brown) is better, but both tenor Julien Behr and bass Andreas Wolf are as good if not better than Gardiner’s soloists (Jean-Luc Viala and Gilles Cachemille).

Yet in the end it’s that incredible sound that gets to you, the richness and 3-D quality that convinces you that this is the performance of the Messe Solennelle to beat. I also rush to point out that the sound quality is so realistic that, at one point in the “Crucifixus” when you hear the winds mix with the French horn after the male choristers sing the opening words, the blend is perfect yet you hear the instruments so clearly it’s as if they were playing in your living room. It’s simply uncanny. Although the brass outburst in the “Resurrexit” isn’t quite as much a “surround sound” experience as the famous moment in the Requiem when the four brass choirs come at you from the balconies, it’s impressive enough to make an impact. Small wonder that “High Res Audio” is featuring this album on its website. I still get a kick out of hearing snippets of the Symphonie Fantastique and Les Troyens, both future compositions, in this Mass, partly because Berlioz treated them quite differently from the way he did in those works-to-come.

If you’re a Berlioz-lover as I am, you need to get this album into your collection. There’s no two ways about it. This is both a great performance and a sonic blockbuster.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Maltempo’s Sizzling Scriabin

Scriabin Maltempo

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10 / Vincenzo Maltempo, pno / Piano Classics PCL10168

Having just recently discovered and fallen in love with Michael Ponti’s now-46-year-old set of the Scriabin Sonatas on Vox, I now have this equally magnificent set to review. Or, perhaps I should say, a slightly more magnificent set, because the sound quality of this release far exceeds that of Ponti’s recordings. I mentioned the problems with the Ponti set in my review, but came down strongly in favor of it because of the consistent fervor of his playing.

Maltempo is no less emotionally committed to Scriabin than he was to the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan; in fact, I would say even more so because although Alkan’s music calls for a phenomenal technique allied to a real dramatic impetus—both of which qualities Maltempo possesses—Scriabin calls for something more, a fervor combined with an almost Messianic feeling of exaltation.

In my experience, Maltempo is only one of three pianist to achieve this feat, the other two being Ponti and Vladimir Horowitz, though the latter never recorded the complete sonatas. Yet the fact remains that one must sound as excited and exciting in the early sonatas as in the later ones. Although Scriabin was influenced by and modeled himself after Chopin, he did so in form only. His music calls for an almost feverish outpouring of emotion from every pore whereas Chopin generally called for poetry and moonlight. On paper, the music looks similar, but in practice it must be performed with an almost purple passion.

Maltempo also scores over Ponti in that his technique is more secure. There are occasional moments when I felt that both Ponti and Horowitz, in the sonatas he recorded, were just a bit more consistent in their emotional impact, but they are very few and scarcely worth detailing.

Maltempo’s more secure technique allows him to clarify some of those passages that Ponti, rushing the tempi a bit, did not play as cleanly, and as usual, Piano Classics’ sound quality is simply extraordinary, making it sound as if the piano is in the room with you.

If you are budget-minded and don’t mind reworking the sound files with an audio editor, I still recommend the Ponti set for its feverish passion plus the fact that he fills his two discs with several extras, including two early, unnumbered sonata, the late Preludes and Ves la flamme. Maltempo only gives you the ten numbered sonatas, nothing more. But if a more beautiful and realistic sound is important to you, and for many listeners it is, the Maltempo set is a clear choice. Once in a while I felt that his tempi were a bit on the relaxed side, but at no point does he lose either the thread of the music or its hyper-emotional subtext. If you have the budget and the shelf space, I’d recommend that you acquire both Maltempo and Ponti.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Adám Fischer’s Quirky Beethoven

8.505251 - cover

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Sara Swietlicki, sop; Morten Grove Frandsen, ctr; Ilker Arcayürek, ten; Lars Møller, bar; Danish National Concert Choir; Danish Chamber Orch.; Adám Fischer, cond / Naxos 8.505251

Almost simultaneously being released along with their massive, 90-CD set of the Beethoven “Complete Edition,” Naxos here presents Adám Fischer, clearly one of the busiest bees in the conducting hive, in a new set of that composer’s symphonies. With this release, Fischer becomes the only conductor to present complete boxed sets of the Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Mahler Symphonies. Since the Haydn set alone took him nearly a decade to complete, one can infer that he spends the greater part of his life in recording studios!

This set, scheduled for release later this month, comes fairly hard on the heels of the mind-blowing Philippe Jordan set that I recently reviewed. Like Jordan, Fischer uses a lean but modern-sounding orchestra without straight tone in the strings, but also with blistering tempi (very close to score) within each movement. But there are two differences: first, unlike Jordan who played the slow introductions to the first, second and fourth symphonies proportionately fast, Fischer takes them at their more traditional slower tempi, as did Toscanini in most of his performances. And secondly, Fischer is just a bit more prosaic in his use of rubato effects whereas Jordan, I thought, was remarkably creative in his use of rubato and rallentando.

There is another difference as well, and that is that the fast movements are not quite as zippy as in Jordan’s performances. Some of them, in fact, like the first movement of the first symphony, sounds so much like Toscanini’s recording that if one were listening to it played at a relatively low volume (so that you couldn’t tell if the sound quality was modern or old), one might very easily mistake it for Toscanini’s hi-fi NBC recording. Which is not a bad thing, thus if you don’t own the Toscanini recordings and have shied away from them because of the sound limitations, these would be fine substitutes.

Of course, there is one other element of Toscanini’s recordings missing here, and that is what I call an “undercurrent of energy.” Yes, the Danish Chamber Orchestra plays with good energy, and they are clearly suppler in their phrasing and pacing than David Zinman’s overrated cycle with the Tonhalle Orchestra, but there are several moments when you WILL notice that it’s not Toscanini conducting. Yes, there are some truly exciting moments in these performances, but it’s not a consistent feeling.

Having not heard it since I reviewed it in December 2016, I think I remember that Yondani Butt’s remarkably good Beethoven symphony cycle on Nimbus was very close to what Fischer does here. In fact, I just compared their performances of the First Symphony and found them remarkably close in both tempi and style—but yes, I do prefer the leaner sound and greater textural transparency of Fischer’s orchestra to the full London Symphony under Butt. It’s a marginal difference, but noticeable and important.

Fischer takes the first movement of the “Eroica” at Beethoven’s metronome marking of dotted half=60, and so far as I know he’s the only conductor to do so on records except for Hermann Scherchen back in the 1950s. This, I’ve always felt, was really a bit too fast; I much prefer Jordan’s slightly slower pace; but it’s what Beethoven gave us, and Fischer does introduce moments of rubato to modify the headlong rush forward. In the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, Fischer’s shift from the slow opening to the fast portion seemed to be a bit too abrupt; he doesn’t “prepare” the listener’s ear as well as Toscanini or Jordan did.

Indeed, as one progresses from this point on, one begins to notice some flaws in Fischer’s approach. Although taken at a Toscanini-like pace, I felt that the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony was just a little too choppy, but the tempi are fine. In the last movement, however, I felt as if either Fischer or the engineer over did the timpani, which keeps booming incessantly throughout. The “Scene by the brook” in the Sixth Symphony doesn’t flow, but stays rhythmically static, although the rest of the symphony is excellent.

In the Seventh Symphony, Fischer again resorts to some bizarre accents in the last movement, with a strong downbeat (accompanied by thundering whacks of the timpani) on the first and third beats of each bar throughout the opening section, which skews the feel of the rhythm. Near the end of the movement, he even increases the tempo in order for his strange drum whacks to make a more percussive effect on the listener’s ears.

Further, he continues this odd sense of phrasing into the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Apparently, Fischer hears Italianate-style syncopations as an opportunity to un-syncopate them and increase the volume of his timpani. He similarly conducts the second movement with a choppy rhythm. Perhaps this has something to do with his being Hungarian, because Georg Solti had a similar problem with Italianate rhythms all through his conducting career.

The opening of the Ninth was, in my view, far too fast to be effective; he makes even Toscanini’s fastest tempo in this movement sound slow by comparison, and again he is chopping his rhythms and having his timpanist bang away. Yet he does play the syncopations properly in the second movement, and in the third, despite the very fast pace, he achieves a nice “floating” sound. The fourth movement started out pretty well, but good God almighty, what refuse heap did Fischer find these singers on?!?? “Baritone” Lars Møller has a raw, coarse tone and is all over the place in pitch during his florid opening phrases. Sara Swietlicki has a pretty timbre but also a “fly-away” vibrato that comes and goes (on her sustained notes, she sounds as if she is singing trills). And what the hell is a countertenor singing the mezzo line for? Don’t they have any mezzos or contraltos in Denmark anymore? Fischer’s penchant for chopping the rhythm returns in the choral passage just before the tenor solo, sung by one Ilker Arcayürek who has a cheap tone, poor breath support, and a flutter bordering on wobble. the late Robert Shaw wouldn’t even have hired this guy for one of his choruses. Oddly, Fischer conducts the fugue with a nice swagger, no chopping or parsing of the rhythm, and the chorus is pretty good, but with soloists like these, who needs enemies?

Thus, in the end, I came down to not wanting to recommend this set except as an outlier in style and execution overall. Back to Philippe Jordan, Gielen and Toscanini I go!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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