Sunday, August 12, 2018

Thielemann's Bruckner 1 and 3 on Blu-ray

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 1
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann
C Major 744704          (Blu-ray)

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 3
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann

C Major 740904          (Blu-ray)

With these two performances, Christian Thielemann’s consistently fine Bruckner cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden approaches its end. There is only No. 2 left to go. It is a little unusual to end a Bruckner cycle with the early symphonies, but here it works well. Thielemann gives powerful performances that highlight continuities with the later, more developed symphonies.

The recording of Symphony No. 1, from a performance at the Philharmonie Munich on September 6, 2017, is actually the first recording of the 1968 Linz version, as edited by Thomas Röder in 2016. This is a lightly revised version of Bruckner’s original 1866 score, prepared for the symphony’s first public performance, and so it offers a chance to hear the symphony as it was heard by a doubtless bemused audience in Linz on May 5, 1868 – the first public performance of any of Bruckner’s symphonies. (The original 1866 score, prepared by William Carragan, has been recorded by Georg Tintner and Gerd Schaller, and differs only slightly from this version.)

The First may be the least known of Bruckner’s symphonies, but it is certainly not a piece of juvenilia (quite apart from the fact that Bruckner was 42 when he composed it). Bruckner’s harmonic innovation is on full display. There are sustained dissonances, particularly in the Finale, and some of what subsequently became Bruckner’s characteristic devices, such as sudden stop in mid-movement. Thielemann and the Staatskapelle bring out the weightiness of the piece (while doing justice to the fine part-writing, particularly for wind). 

The Symphony No. 3 is played here in the 1877 version (Nowak edition). Thielemann makes a strong case for this symphony, which has often been maligned (most famously by Robert Simpson). It is more rough-hewn than the later masterpieces, but in the right hands that can be translated into dynamism and energy. This is perhaps the first of Bruckner’s truly heroic symphonies and this performance does not hold back, coming to a triumphant conclusion in the coda of the finale that is met with rapturous applause by the audience in the Philharmonie Munich.

As with all the discs so far in this Bruckner cycle, the production values are first-rate. The two videographers (Andreas Morell for No. 1 and Elisabeth Malzer for No. 3) use the cameras to good effect to shed light on Bruckner’s orchestration (although I wish they would pan out a little less). The sound quality is excellent – I listened in PCM stereo, but DTS-HD 5.0 surround sound is also an option. My only minor quibble is with the liner notes, which are rather sketchy (the notes for No. 1 do not distinguish between the “real” Linz version recorded here and the subsequent 1877 revision more often described as the Linz version, despite being prepared in Vienna). But this is a minor blemish on two discs that live up to the high standards of this impressive Bruckner cycle.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jorge Bolet RIAS recordings Vol. 1 (Audite)


Franz Liszt
Années de pèlerinage, 1ère année "Suisse", S. 160 (e1 – VI)
Études d'exécution transcendante, S. 139 (1, 2, 8, 9, 11, 12)
Études d'exécution transcendante, S. 139, Nocturnes 1-3
Rhapsodie espagnole, S254/R90, ‘Folies d’Espagne’
Moritz Moszkowski
En automne, Op. 36/4

Camille Saint-Saens
Le Cygne (The Swan)

Robert Schumann
Liebeslied (Widmung Op. 25/1), arr. Liszt

Leopold Godowsky
Le Salon
Symphonic metamorphosis on themes from Johann Strauss

Frederic Chopin
Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
Impromptu No. 1 in A-Flat Major, Op. 29
Impromptu No. 2 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 36
Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major, Op. 51
Fantasy-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66
12 Etudes, Op. 10: No. 5 in G-Flat

Claude Debussy
Préludes. Premier Livre (I, IX, X, XII)
Préludes. Deuxième Livre (VI, VCII, VIII, XII)

Jorge Bolet, piano

AUDITE 21.438 (3 CDS)

The Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet was a famously late-blossomer, at least as far as fame and fortune are concerned. He sprang into the limelight  at the age of 60, after a celebrated recital at Carnegie Hall in 1974, a mere 37 years after his first recital in 1937. In 1978 he was signed to an exclusive contract by Decca, the source of most of the studio recordings we have of his playing. The performances on this fine 3-disc set from Audite all pre-date his rise. They are taken from original tapes in the archives of RIAS (the Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor, which was a radio and television station broadcasting in the American sector of Berlin during the Cold War).

As is usual with releases from Audite, the general production values are first rate. The nicely produced box includes a long essay by Wolfgang Rathert and full recording details. The sound quality is also very good, and certainly good enough to appeal beyond historical recording enthusiasts. 

As a pianist, Bolet elicited strong reactions. Hailed as the last great Romantic pianist by some, he was derided as an empty virtuouso by others. It’s certainly true that he gravitated towards the virtuoso end of the repertoire. This collection contains, for example, one of the Godowsky transcriptions of Chopin’s Etudes, famed for their difficulty. And the second disc ends with a suitably pyrotechnic rendition of Debussy’s ‘Feux d’artifice‘.

The first disc, though, clearly gives the lie to the idea that Bolet had nothing to contribute but his prodigious technique. The six pieces from Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage are played with an emotional range often missing in recordings of Liszt’s solo piano works. I am not much of a Liszt enthusiast at the best of times, but Bolet makes a powerful case for the Études d'exécution transcendante in the six pieces that he plays.

On the other hand, I suspect that many will find his approach to Chopin and Debussy too heavy. He is a master of technique and color, but there is not much of the dance in his Chopin or impressionistic shimmering in his Debussy. Of course, for others these would be advantages.

Bolet was a highly distinctive pianist voice and this collection is an important addition to his discography. The pieces on Disc 2 by Moszowski, Saint-Saens, and Godowsky will be a distraction for some, and a delight to others. But the appeal of this collection surely lies in more mainstream regions of the repertoire. This is a must-buy for Lisztians and deserves serious attention from Chopin and Debussy enthusiasts.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Audite's 1953 Furtwängler Lucerne Festival recordings

Schumann, Manfred Overture
Schumann, Symphony No. 4
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, ‘Eroica’

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler

Audite 91.441 (2 SACDs)

This 2-disc release from Audite of a live performance from the 1953 Lucerne festival is obviously a real treat for Furtwängler fans. But it is not just of historical interest. The sound quality is good enough that it should appeal to anyone interested in outstanding performances of two great symphonies, as well as of Schumann’s Manfred Overture (here released for the first time).

The Schumann and Beethoven symphonies have been issued many different times before, but typically in private recordings made from the radio broadcasts. At best, the sound quality has been acceptable for enthusiasts. This release, however, is based on a remastering of the original tapes rediscovered in the archives of Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF). The result is extraordinarily good (both when played in a SACD player and on an ordinary CD player). The acoustic clarity of the Eroica recording compares well with Furtwängler’s studio recording for EMI of the same symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (admittedly recorded nearly a decade earlier in 1944).

All three pieces are played with Furtwängler’s characteristic intensity and depth. The two works by Schumann bring out both poles of the composer’s complex character, as personified in his two personae, the extroverted, boisterous Florestan, and the introverted Eusebio. And it is hard to imagine a better performance of the Eroica, particularly the Funeral March. This is a must-buy disc for anyone seriously interested in the Romantic symphony.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thielemann's Bruckner 4 and 6 on Blu Ray

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 4
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 6

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann

C Major 732604        (Blu-Ray)
C Major 738304        (Blu-Ray)

These two Blu Ray discs mark the continuation of Christian Thielemann’s video cycle of the Bruckner symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden (I have reviewed the 5th, the 8th, and the 9th - all favorably). Thielemann and the Staatskapelle have stuck with the formula that has worked until now – live performances in the Semperoper Dresden with the same video directors (Agnès Meth for the 4th and Henning Kasten for the 6th, who between them have covered the other discs in the series.) The sound quality is excellent (I listened in PCM stereo) and I have no complaints about the cinematography. Musically speaking, however, the formula works much better for the later and less familiar 6th symphony, than for the frequently played and recorded 4th.

It is hard to fault the Staatskapelle Dresden in the 4th. The playing is of the highest quality, with the solo parts in particular uniformly excellent. However, to my ear the performance, particularly in the first two movements, lacks life and excitement. The Blu Ray box quotes an unnamed reviewer describing the original performances as “tone-painting” of the highest order. This is a telling comment, capturing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the performance. The price paid for tone-painting is a loss of architectural drama – a good example being the build-up to the climax of the slow movement.

Things improve in the last two movements. The Scherzo reveals an internal sense of structure that is lacking in the performance as a whole (in, for example, the balance between the Scherzo and the embedded Trio). The Finale has a much more impressive opening, clearly helped by a brass section comfortable with the monumental, and the coda is most effective. Overall, however, this rendition of the 4th fails to convince. It is probably the least successful performance to date of this cycle.

Thielemann and the Staaskapelle more than compensate in the 6th, however. The well-shaped and dynamic opening sets the tone. The first movement is chameleon-like in its sudden swings and changes of direction, so maintaining momentum is crucial for continuity. Thielemann does a great job of setting up a tremendous coda (well described by Michael Steinberg as one of Bruckner’s most splendid). The momentum of the first movement is matched by the intensity of the slow movement, and the Scherzo offers a fine transition to a powerful Finale. The end of the symphony is met with very strong applause, not just from the audience but also from the orchestra for the conductor. It is well-deserved. This is an outstanding performance of the symphony that Bruckner himself thought his most audacious.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Barenboim's Parsifal from Berlin on BluRay

Richard Wagner, Parsifal

Gurnemanz RENÉ PAPE


Costume design ELENA ZAYTSEVA
Chorus master MARTIN WRIGHT

HD recording: Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin – 04/2015
Bel Air Classiques Blu-Ray BAC428

For many of us Daniel Barenboim is the finest living Wagner conductor. Some might demur from quite such a sweeping judgment, but few would deny that he is one of a tiny handful of dominant interpreters of Wagner. This Parsifal, recorded live at the Berlin Staatsoper in April 2015, further cements his standing and reputation. Musically it is simply outstanding. Visually and conceptually it falls a little short of outstanding, but it is never less than thought-provoking. The combination is not quite one for the ages, as is his celebrated Ring with Harry Kupfer from Bayreuth in 1991-2, but it is definitely one of the most satisfying Parsifals that I have come across for a while. 

Dmitri Tcherniakov represents the home of the Knights of the Grail as what looks like a cavernous factory interior. Steering away from explicitly modernist productions, though, this factory has colonnades. Its inhabitants are dressed in generic mid-twentieth century costumes. Think Warsaw Uprising, postwar Germany, or a Solzhenitsyn gulag – dark colors and wintry, vaguely military outfits. In Act 1, Parsifal stands out with brightly colored T-shirts that he occasionally changes on stage, pulling a new one out of the rucksack that accompanies him throughout. There is much more color in Klingsor’s palace in Act 2, which Tcherniakov presents as a schoolroom painted in institutional blue, with the Flower Maidens wearing school uniforms, supervised by a benign-looking and bespectacled Klingsor, looking rather like a Latin teacher approaching retirement. 

I found the staging in Act 2 somewhat disconcerting – casting children holding dolls as temptresses certainly has the power to shock. But the scene where Parsifal is beset by the (underage) Flower Maidens is suitably de-sexualized, and Tcherniakov certainly offers a new take on this scene, helped by some very fine singing from the chorus. When Kundry arrives on the scene she certainly has no difficulty projecting herself as the only adult in the room. The only part of Act 2 that fell flat for me was the final confrontation with Klingsor, where the sense of drama emerging from the orchestra pit was not matched by events on stage.

The two most striking feature of this production are definite additions to Wagner’s narrative. In Act 1 the celebration of the Knights’ sacred ritual takes a definitely cannabilistic turn, with the Knights draining the blood from Amfortas’s wound and passing it around in a chalice. And in the final moments of the drama, Gurnemanz’s increasing antipathy to Kundry culminates in his stabbing her (in the back!) while she is locked in a passionate embrace with Amfortas, turning Wagner’s ideas about Kundry’s redemption on their head (or alternatively, taking them to their logical conclusion). I was not particularly moved by either innovation, although both certainly succeed in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the Knights of the Grail, who do come across as an even more unpleasant bunch than usual.

The real strengths of this production are in the conducting and singing. Barenboim sets the tone with a masterful and magisterial prelude. His pacing maintains momentum and drama through the long discursive sections of Act 1, building up to a spectacular denouement with the massed ranks of the chorus. Parsifal is hard to pace because it is relatively static,  Barenboim’s feel for the pulse of the music, and his ability to drive the action on the stage from the pit while maintaining balance between voices and instruments, is evident throughout.

There are no weak points among the principals. René Pape is a fine Gurnemanz, who rises to his set-pieces (“Titurel, der fromme held”, for example) but is a commanding presence throughout. Wolfgang Koch offers us a suitably tortured Amfortas in the opening and closing acts, conveying both the character’s pathos and his weakness. Tómas Tómason’s Klingsor suffers from the sensible sweater he is forced to wear, but sounds suitably menacing at the end of Act 2. Parsifal and Kundry are both first-rate. Andreas Schager’s Parsifal develops from a spoiled adolescent in Act 1 to a compelling leader in Act, singing with power, control, and delicacy throughout – a rare combination in contemporary Wagner tenors. Anja Kampe is a very fine Kundry,  whose singing and acting encompasses the multiple personae of this complex role – from servile handmaiden to passionate seductress, to candidate for final redemption.

My only misgivings with this production are the woefully inadequate liner materials (no more than a sketchy act-by-act summary), and my perennial bugbear of the credits rolling during the prelude. But sound and visual quality are both excellent, with two-channel and multi-channel options available. So I recommend this BluRay very highly indeed. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Thielemann's 2015 Tristan from Bayreuth on BluRay/DVD

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Stephen Gould (Tristan),
Evelyn Herlitzius (Isolde),
Georg Zeppenfeld (König Marke),
Iain Paterson (Kurwenal)
Raimund Nolte (Melot)
Christa Mayer (Brangäne)
Tansel Akzeybek (Ein Hirt)
Kay Stiefermann (Ein Steuermann)
Tansel Akzeybek (Junger Seemann)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Katharina Wagner (stage director)

Deutsche Grammophon BluRay 00440 073 5254

This splendid production of Tristan und Isolde, recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival in 2015, is the first issue in a multi-year collaboration between Deutsche Grammophon and the Bayreuth Festival, which will see the label exclusively releasing new productions at the Festpielhaus. On the strength of this recording, this initiative is looking most promising. Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann have produced one of the most satisfying Tristans in recent years.

Purists may balk at Katharina Wagner’s production, but (on this occasion) I have little sympathy with them. If there is a concept to the production, it is Fate and Necessity. No potion is needed for the first embrace between Tristan and Isolde in Act 1, for example – they fall into each other’s arms as soon as they see each other, and in Act II Mark and his men are plainly in view above the stage, so that their eventual appearance is more of an inevitable consequence of the great duet than a surprise. The production is revisionist, but in a thoughtful way plainly intended to illuminate the drama rather than to score political or other points.

During the Prelude the camera takes the viewer on a tour of the set, which for Act 1 is the interior of a ship – all metal stairs and railings. Usually I actively dislike visuals during the Prelude, but here they work well, with camera angles used to good effect. The lighting designer (Richard Traub) is the star of the production in Act II, where the torch is a spotlight and Tristan and Isolde sing ‘O sink herneider’ against a backdrop of avatars walking into pools of light (with the avatars turning into little children at Brangäne’s entrance). Lighting is also very important during Tristan’s delirious monologue in Act III, where Isolde is a constant on-stage presence in a triangle of light, constantly disappearing only to reappear in different places and elevations. It is very imaginative and also (not to give anything away) on occasion macabre.

Stephen Gould is a terrific Tristan. He sings with great delicacy in Act II after the arrival of Mark and his men, and offers a commanding performance in Act III. There is currently no shortage of heldentenors who can belt out a heroic-sounding Tristan, but few with Gould’s combination of powerful projection, expressiveness, and careful phrasing. He is well matched in all these respects by Evelyn Herlitzius’s Isolde, who enters ferociously in Act 1 and sings with great intensity throughout. Herlitzius does not have the most classically beautiful voice, but nor did a number of the great Wagner sopranos of the past. She acts and sings with power, plainly living her role.

König Marke has not been done any favors by the costume designer (Thomas Kaiser), and I was not convinced by his dragging Isolde off-stage in the closing bars. But the role is sung very well by George Zeppenfeld, who strikes the right balance between anger, grief, and resignation. The other two principal roles are very well sung – Iain Paterson as Kurwenal and Christa Mayer as Brangäne.

There are not many Wagner conductors who rank with Christian Thielemann when he is on form, as he most definitely is in this performance. The Act I Prelude is rich and dramatic and sets up a flow and pace that the Orchester der Bayreuther Festpielhaus maintains throughout. Thielemann maintains the balance between orchestra and soloists, not just in “showpieces” such as ‘Mild und leise’ but also (and even more tellingly) in busy scenes such as the arrival of König Marke and his men in Act III. The orchestra maintains a high level of dramatic movement, even though the characters are actually standing still on the stage. The ending is beautifully placed.

All in all, I was very enthusiastic about this first production on first hearing and subsequent listening confirmed first impressions. The sound and audio quality on the BluRay are excellent (I listened in PCM stereo, but DTS 5.0 is also included). Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bruckner's Fourth from the Pittsburgh Symphony (Honeck), and Fifth from the LPO (Skrowaczewski)

Anton Bruckner

Symphony No. 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Manfred Honeck
Reference Recordings FR – 713 (Hybrid CD/SACD, 5.1 and stereo)

Symphony No. 5
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
LPO 0090 (CD)

Here are two very different but very worthwhile approaches to Bruckner, both captured in live performances from the in-house labels of the Pittsburgh Symphony and London Philharmonic respectively. Compared to Skrowaczewski, who was 92 in December 2015 when this recording was made, Manfred Honeck is a mere stripling, and Honeck’s Bruckner discography is a fraction the length of the legendary Skrowaczewski’s (whose complete and highly recommended Bruckner cycle with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra was recently re-released by  Oehms records at a budget price).

Honeck’s liner notes describe the Fourth Symphony as “almost a tone poem in the robe of a symphony”. He takes Bruckner’s gushing about knights on proud horses and rustling forests quite literally and thinks that they provide a guide to interpretation. Personally I find this most implausible. Would our appreciation of this great symphony be any the less if some austere editor had removed all traces of Bruckner’s program? Surely not.

Yet, setting aside his fondness for the program, Honeck is certainly on to something when he observes that this symphony does not always lend itself to what he calls “a rigorous reading of Bruckner as a master of the organ and counterpoint”. Instead Honeck calls for flexibility of tempi and expression to bring out the full range of Bruckner’s emotional palette, which ranges from the earthiness of the scherzo to the deep melancholy of the Andanta (a melancholy that, as Honeck points out, has ironic overtones). The strengths of this recording include a great sensitivity to orchestral balance, keeping the brass on a tight leash so that they do not drown out the strings. He is particularly attentive to the violas and the richness of the orchestra comes out very well in the excellent SACD sound (I listened in 2 channel).

Honeck’s approach to the Fourth seems completely inappropriate, however, for the Fifth, which is Bruckner’s most contrapuntal and organ-inspired symphony. Despite the odd humorous moment, the Fifth has little by way of earthiness and rusticity. So it is not surprising that Skrowaczewski is almost the exact opposite of Honeck, with measured and steady tempi that characterize the “cathedral of sound” model of performance. It is difficult to fault Skrowaczewski’s grasp of the architecture of the symphony. This is not the most dramatic interpretation (listen to the end of the first movement, for example), but in both the slow movement and the Finale Skrowaczewski and the LPO achieve an extraordinary consistency of pacing and flow of the musical line. There is excellent playing from the solo oboe (Adagio) and clarinet (Finale). This is a terrific performance, as well as a fascinating testament to many decades of immersion in Bruckner’s music.  

Both discs are recommended.