Thursday, August 13, 2015

Janowski's Bruckner cycle for Pentatone

Anton Bruckner, The Symphonies

Bruckner, Symphony No. 1 (1866, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 2 (1877, Carragan edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 3 (1889, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4 (1878-1890, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 5 (1875-1878, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 6 (1879-1881, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 (1881-1883, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 (1890, Nowak edition)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 (Nowak edition)
 Bruckner, Mass No. 3 in F minor (1867-1893)*

Lenneke Ruiten, Soprano*
Iris Vermillion, Mezzo-Soprano* 
Shawn Mathey, Tenor*
 Franz Josef Selig, Bass*

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Conducted by Marek Janowski

Pentatone 12686 (10 hybrid CD/SACDs)

This is an unusual Bruckner cycle in a couple of respects. First, the performances all appear to be studio-recorded, bucking the trend for live performances of Bruckner symphonies. In fact, the 10 discs are not just CD/SACD hybrids but also offer (PCM) stereo and (DSD) multichannel options. Pentatone have clearly made a very significant investment in Janowski’s Bruckner cycle, even though (and this is the second unusual feature) the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was hardly known as a Bruckner orchestra when the cycle began with No. 9, released in January 2008. Based in Geneva, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was led for nearly fifty years by Ernest Ansermet and is much more closely associated with the twentieth century French and Russian repertoire. As with almost every Bruckner cycle there is some unevenness, but Janowki and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande repay the confidence shown in them.

Janowski is relatively conventional in his choice of versions. The liner notes describe No. 1 was being played in the 1866 Linz version, but it is really the revised Linz version that we have here (not the original one, which has been recorded only by Georg Tintner). No. 2 is in the 1877 version (although in the Carragan edition, rather than the more frequently recorded Nowak and Haas versions). The original 1873 version of No. 3 is being increasingly heard, but Janowski plays the more familiar 1889 version. Likewise in No. 4, where he sticks with the 1878-1880 Nowak edition, rather than returning to the original. Nos. 5-7 were not as extensively revised as the other symphonies. In No. 8 Janowski performs the 1890 version – unlike, say, Simone Young whose recent recording follows the original 1887 version. There has been increasing interest in recording No. 9 with a “recomposed” finale. Janowski prefers the familiar (unfinished) three movement symphony that Bruckner actually left us. Thankfully!

All this is to say that Janowski’s cycle has to sell itself on the quality of the music-making. There is no “novelty factor” in the versions he plays. And nor does Janowski have any major ideological problems with dominant trends in Bruckner performance, in the manner of, for example, Mario Venzago. That may be no bad thing, however (see my reviews of Venzago’s No. 8 and No. 5).

Janowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande do have a distinctive voice in Bruckner. The performances here typically reveal brisk and steady tempi. This can be refreshing. The Andante of No. 4 is a good example. Here Janowski respects the “quasi allegretto” designation and highlights the dance elements over the solemnities (or at least – these are the ones that make the greatest impression). Similarly in the Adagio of No. 3, which Bruckner qualifies as “quasi andante”.

Where Janowski is less strong is when Bruckner is weaving together very disparate thematic material. In the first movement of No. 5, for example, the momentum and the architecture are all there, but he doesn’t quite succeed in bringing out the individuality of the three principal thematic threads. He does this much more successfully in the last movement of No. 5 where he has the help of Bruckner’s strict counterpoint. And the movements that are more thematically homogenous, as it were, are where Janowski really shines. Listening to the Adagio of No. 8 it is hard not to think that this is where conductor and orchestra feel most at home. The slow movements certainly suit the strengths of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande’s fine string section.

There are some very strong performances here. I particularly appreciated the first two symphonies and the last two (No. 8 and No. 9). Janowski makes a good case for Nos. 1 and 2, with particular success in the slow movements. The finale of No. 8 is dramatic and intense, and the first movement has a sense of urgency that is lacking from some of the middle symphonies. We get an old school interpretation of No. 9, with the Adagio definitely played as a finale. Both of these two very complex symphonies are well-paced throughout and Janowski communicates a clear sense of structure through Bruckner’s waves of sound. I personally found Nos. 4 and 7 a little disappointing (perhaps this is because they are Bruckner’s most recorded symphonies and so something really special is needed to stand out). The finale of No. 4 was curiously unsatisfying and both performances suffer from a degree of “flatness” – the peaks are lower and the troughs less deep than at the hands of a Wand or a Thielemann, for example.

Overall the sound quality is excellent (I listened in SACD stereo). The orchestration emerges with great clarity and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande’s strings sound rich and luscious. The very attractively packaged box includes a bonus disc of the Mass in F minor (which, particularly in the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, sounds rather more symphonic than liturgical). The liner notes are intelligent (although sadly not as detailed as on the discs issued separately). And, as another pleasant bonus, Pentatone have included a voucher for a free download at their website. Despite some reservations this set is recommended, particularly to anyone wanting an audiophile Bruckner cycle.  

Paavo Järvi's Blu-ray/DVD Mahler cycle with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan” and Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection” [C major: Blu-ray 718104]
 Camilla Tilling, soprano
Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano
Bavarian Radio Chorus
North German Radio Chorus
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi,

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D Minor and Symphony No. 4 in G Major [C major: Blu-ray 719204]
Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano
Genia Kühmeier, soprano
Limburger Cathedral Boys Choir
Leipzig MDR Radio Choir
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi,

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor and Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, “Tragic” [C major: Blu-ray 729404]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi,

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 7 in E Minor and Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major, “Symphony of a Thousand” [C major: Blu-ray 7296004]
Erin Wall, soprano
Ailish Tynan, soprano
Anna Lucia Richter, soprano
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano
Nikolai Schukoff,
Michael Nagy, baritone
Ain Anger, bass
Limburger Cathedral Boys Choir
Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno
Europa Chor Akademie
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi,

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D Major and Symphony No. 10 in F-Sharp Minor: I. Adagio [C major: Blu-ray 72980404]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi,

With these five discs C Major and Unitel Classica have given us the first complete Mahler cycle on Blu-ray/DVD with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. All of the symphonies were recorded live at the Rheingau Festival between 2007 and 2013. The majority of the performances took place in the magnificent church at Kloster Eberbach, a former Cistercian monastery, with the First, Seventh, and Eighth recorded in the art nouveau surroundings of the concert hall in the Kurhaus Wiesbaden.

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony (more properly known as the HR-sinfonieorchester) has a long tradition of Mahler playing, going back to its first principal conductor Hans Rosbaud. In 1988, under the direction of then principal conductor Eliahu Inbal, the orchestra played the first complete digital Mahler cycle. There is no question in my mind, after listening to this cycle, that it is in the front rank of Mahler orchestras.

The orchestra has a rich string sound, complemented by wind and brass sections that play with great assurance and are temperamentally attuned to Mahler’s multiple moods and styles. Mahler makes heavy demands upon solo musicians and the principals respond extremely well. The only solost credited by name is Samuel Seidenberg, whose horn solo is outstanding in the scherzo of the Fifth. But the standard is very high throughout the whole cycle. Highlights include the deliberately clumsy frère Jacques played by the double bass in the third movement of the First; the solos from the trombone and posthorn in the first and third movements of the Third; the horn solo in the second Nachtmusik from the Seventh (Seidenberg again); and the solo viola in the second and third movements of the Ninth.

Mahler was a great orchestrator and one of the real strengths of Paavo Järvi’s conducting is his skill in bringing out the complex texture of Mahler’s orchestral sound and striking a balance between the different voices. The slow movements display this skill to best effect. The first and last movements of the Ninth and the Adagio of the Tenth are particularly memorable. But the luscious adagios are, in a sense, the low-hanging fruit. The real test of a Mahler conductor is how they let the orchestra speak in the movements that are less “musicianly” – the movements where Mahler’s taste for country dances, for the grotesque, and for the ironic comes to the fore. In this context Järvi does particularly well in the scherzo centerpiece of the Fifth.

In the best perfomances in the cycle Järvi combines his ability to bring out the Mahler’s complicated orchestral textures with a sure sense of the overall architecture and what one could call the dramatic direction of the symphony. Drama and architecture seem to work best for Järvi in the middle and later period instrumental symphonies – the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth. These are, not coincidentally, the symphonies where we see the least of the Mahler “trademarks”. My impression from listening to the cycle is that Järvi is least comfortable in those movements where the music constantly seems to be going through drastic personality shifts and mood swings. He lacks the conviction with which a conductor like Leonard Bernstein, for example, would throw himself into Mahler’s exaggerated waltzes or grotesque funeral marches.  

Nor is Järvi always comfortable with the vocal symphonies. The Third is an unqualified success, particularly in the first and last movements where Järvi communicates a compelling vision of the overall structure of these two massive pieces of music. The Eighth, however, is probably the least successful performance in the cycle. This is definitely a piece where the conductor needs to go in full bore in order to harness Mahler’s massive forces, but Järvi comes across as lacking conviction. This is a shame because the choirs are first-rate and so too are the soloists, particularly Anna Lucia Richter’s Mater Gloriosa. In fact, the quality oif singing is very high throughout the cycle. The only vocal soloist who seems out of place is Waltraute Meier in the Fourth. Meier’s intonation is more reminiscent of the Ring Cycle’s Erda than the movement can sustain.

It is a shame that the liner notes are rather sketchy, with perfunctory comments on the symphonies and no information at all about the conductor, the orchestra, or the soloists. This is par for the course from Unitel Classica/C Major. They really need to get their act together. However, the sound and video quality are extremely good. The sound comes with in two-channel PCM or multichannel DTS-HD 5.1. I listened in two-channel and was pleasantly surprised by the acoustics at Kloster Eberbach. Only in the Eighth was I curious about how surround sound would work. Michael Ciniselli is the video director throughout.

My principal quibble with the videography is that there are too many instrumental close-ups and not enough use made of the fine surroundings in Kloster Eberbach and the Kurhaus Wiesbaden. (Tbe Adagio of the Tenth is an honorable exception.) This is not just a visual point. The videography can affect how one listens to the movement. It is very difficult not to attend predominantly to the music line being filmed. This can be a barrier to appreciating Mahler’s contrapuntal complexity – definitely a shame, given how good Järvi is at bringing that complexity out. 

In conclusion, no Mahler cycles are uniformly excellent, and there is no doubt but that this is a fine cycle. If you are in the market for a complete cycle on DVD or Blu-ray then this is the only game in town. But even leaving that aside five of the performances are very good (the Third, the three middle instrumental symphonies, and the Ninth), with the Third and the Ninth warmly recommended.