Monday, March 24, 2014

Rudolf Kempe's Mahler 4 on ICA Classics

Mahler, Symphony No. 4
Wagner, Parsifal – Prelude
Mendelssohn, Ruy Blas Overture*

Joan Alexander, Soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra
* London Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Rudolf Kempe

ICA Classics 5117

Kempe’s recorded legacy includes the First and Second Symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde, all originally released by the BBC Classics label and re-released on BBC Legends. Archipel has released a 1948 live recording of the Fifth Symphony with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. That may be it – and on the strength of this recording it’s a real shame that there is so little recorded testimony to a penetrating Mahler interpreter.

The web retailer Archiv Musik currently lists 132 different recordings of Mahler’s Fourth, and there are surely many more out there. It is hard to imagine that at the time of this 1957 performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony there were only three recordings of what is probably Mahler’s most popular symphony available. Mahler was still a little-known and somewhat distrusted composer. So it is all the more remarkable how compelling this performance by Kempe and the BBC Symphony is.

Kempe’s characteristic virtue as a conductor is a remarkable clarity and ability to keep the orchestral lines audibly distinct and yet integrated. This is very important in Mahler and Kempe delivers a fine interpretation of the Fourth. His approach is precise, with a clear sense of purpose and direction.

Kempe’s interpretation is very un-mannered, which is refreshing – perhaps with Mahler so relatively unfamiliar to there concertgoing audience there was no need to exaggerate to mark out a distinctive interpretation? The slow movement is the real heart of the symphony and Kempe brings out a wonderful cantabile line. There is fine singing in the final movement from Joan Alexander, the Scottish soprano who died in 2010 at the age of 98.

Kempe is much better known as a Wagner conductor. There are (at least) two live Ring cycles available, including a 1957 performance from Covent Garden and a 1960 performance from Bayreuth, in addition to a Parsifal live from Covent Garden in 1959. His affinity with Wagner emerges very clearly in the Parsifal Prelude presented here. Kempe allows the richness and intensity of Wagner’s emotional world to emerge without luxuriating in it.

With more than acceptable sound quality, this disc is highly recommended.   

Barenboim's La Scala Walküre on DVD

Nina Stemme (soprano) – Brünnhilde

Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) – Wotan

Simon O’Neill (tenor) – Siegmund

Waltraud Meier (mezzo) – Sieglinde

Sir John Tomlinson (bass) – Hunding

Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo) – Fricka

Danielle Halbwachs (soprano) – Gerhilde

Carola Hoehn (soprano) – Ortlinde

Ivonne Fuchs (mezzo) – Waltraute

Anaik Morel (mezzo) – Schwertleite

Susan Foster (soprano) – Helmwige

Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (mezzo) – Siegrune

Nicole Piccolomini (contralto) – Grimgerde

Simone Schroeder (contralto) - Rossweise

Orchestra of La Scala, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Recorded at La Scala, Milan, 7 December 2010

The legendary 1992 Barenboim and Kupfer Bayreuth Ring is a hard act to follow – right at the top of most rankings of filmed Ring cycles and probably one of the best recorded cycles period. But the 2010 Ring cycle at La Scala, conducted by Daniel Barenboim and produced by Guy Cassiers, was very well received and Arthaus are to be thanked for bringing the cycle out on DVD and Blu Ray with very fine sound and picture.

Cassiers’s staging of Die Walküre is imaginative and engaging, deepening the drama rather than detracting from it. Hunding’s hut is more psychodrama than habitation, which is absolutely fine in my book – the only feature is the sword left by Wotan in the tree trunk. Acts II and III are also uncluttered, with skillful use of video projections and an unusual but successful representation of the forest through thin hanging strips. The horses are represented statically through statues, while color changes within a predominantly blue and green color scheme are used to good effect.

John Tomlinson represents the main continuity with the 1992 cycle. Then he was an inspirational Wotan. Here he sings the much more modest character role of Hunding and sings it very well indeed. So well, in fact, that he rather overshadows Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan. The singing from the other two principals besides Hunding in Act 1 is very strong. Simon O’Neill is a fine Siegmund, at the lyrical end of the spectrum but rock solid. The everlasting Waltraud Meier (who sang Waltraute in the 1992 cycle) is a wonderful and passionate Sieglinde. The duet in Scene 3 is dynamically conducted and very successful. The partnership continues to work very well in Act II, where Meier is very moving as Sieglinde and O’Neill is absolutely at his best in the duet with Brunnhilde while Sieglinde sleeps.

To the extent that the cast has a weak link it is Kowaljow, but he gets much better as the evening progresses. At the beginning of Act II he lacks depth and presence and Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka seems to get the better of him. She is certainly more forceful, although herself lacking some expressive nuances. Kowaljow warms up in the second scene, particularly in the long soliloquy. He couldn’t really be described as a tragic hero, but by Wotan’s Farewell at the end of Act III he is sounding majestic.

Nina Stemme’s Brunnhilde comes into Act II firing on all cyclinders and manages to raise Vitalij Kowaljow’s game. Stemme acts very well, capturing Brunnhilde’s loss of certainty and lack of comprehension during the initial encounter with Wotan and then her grappling with the consequences of being more faithful to Wotan’s wishes than he himself is able to be. Stemme has a fine voice and can modulate it expressively. She and Meier are very superior singers indeed.

Daniel Barenboim cements his reputation as an outstanding Wagnerian. The timings suggest slow tempi, but the music flows dynamically and dramatically. This Walküre is highly recommended. It does not scale the heights of the 1992 Bayreuth recording, but it is an intelligent production with an outstanding conductor and some of today’s finest Wagner singers.