Title: Beethoven Piano Concertos # Three, Four and Five
Artist: Artur Pizarro, piano; Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor;
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Label: Linn CKD 336 – 2 CDs - HDCD +HYBRID SACD (STEREO & SURROUND)
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
Beethoven wrote a total of five piano concerti in his life. The last three are newly recorded on two CDs from Linn, Scotland’s newest “audiophile” label. The Third in C minor Op. 37 (his only concerto in a minor key), the Fourth in G major Op. 58, and the 5th in E flat major Op. 73, also called “the Emperor”, have much to recommend them in the various formats that Linn makes available. Everyone here is putting their best foot forward so this set ought to be considered by anyone who wants their first or second set of Beethoven’s famous works for piano and orchestra. Some strikingly individual moments come from conductor Charles Mackerras. Linn’s most recorded classical pianist, Artur Pizarro, also gives much to the endeavor although he is not as schooled as Mackerras in bringing off these large chunks of Beethoven. If you don’t want to read further and your sound system is the final arbiter in your self-debate, this set may well be for you. Do read a bit more, though…just to be sure.
Linn has done well with its choice of musicians. The “band” is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. More often than not I hear a kind of intonation and ensemble that is only achieved by players who listen to one another intensely as well as all the time. These musicians are not just playing the notes in front of them. Kudos must go to these Scots for this lovingly cohesive achievement.
Curiously the venue is listed as “Perth Hall, UK”. That’s not terribly informative is it? “UK” seems a nebulous locale, but thanks to Google I found one 1,200 seat concert hall in Scotland that I reckon is the right place. The reverberation time is around 2 + seconds and never overrides the main signal. This hall yields the natural sound of the chamber group in every way.
Producer James Malison and engineer Philip Hobbs prove their worth. The recorded sound of the orchestra is superb. It has guts and excellent placement of instruments. At the proper gain setting these CDs have so many positive elements occurring simultaneously it’s hard to find anything wrong. Worry not, I did find one thing that bothered me, but may not bother you.
The piano is identified in the notes as a Blüthner; unfortunately it is not as convincing as the orchestra in fullness. To me it is simply too lightweight. I don’t think the lack of a rich tone is due to faulty engineering – not with this production team. However, the piano is very wide in its sound stage. The treble emanates from left of center, as it should. The bass is coming at times too far to the right for my taste, that is, when we hear a full bass. This instrument has a unique sound in delicate passage work and is good right up to a forte. As played here, though, it simply will not give up a “big” sonority.
Only In the Fourth concerto’s famous slow movement do we hear the right kind of differentiation in volume and color between orchestra and piano. The great outbursts of the ensemble are forceful, clipped, yet still full blooded. Each time the orchestra plays they are answered by Pizarro’s increasingly calm solo demeanor. That’s Beethoven’s plan. This is certainly the best movement in the set.
But hold the phone. Just as the movement’s final chord dies away the third movement begins as the orchestra sneaks in with its memorable yet plain version of the rondo theme. Next, the piano gives us a gloriously ornamented solo rendition of the same theme. It is one of Beethoven’s most famous moments in all his piano music, not just the concerti. On first hearing, the moment the piano finished I finally nailed down the problem I kept hearing. In these few bars the left hand markings seem to be ignored. Beethoven writes accent marks (<) above the important upbeats in the left hand that occur after the right hand’s repeated notes and trills. These little accents are the musical version of punctuating a good sentence in order to make it great. This is the piano’s first exposition of the theme as well. Those little accents make or break the statement once you become familiar with the Fourth concerto. Many pianists can change the very essence of this phrase just by shifting the emphasis on each of those marks. Not one other pianist I could find in my large collection ignored these marks quite as blatantly as Pizarro. OK, that’s a small complaint, or so it seems. But it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the piano sound overall. Pizarro’s left hand is always clean and accurate, but it seems to be ever subservient to the right. This is puzzling when one realizes this Blüthner piano comes to life in its mid and upper treble, so why leave the left hand’s harmonies and rhythms buried? Of course the music given to the left hand can be heard, but Beethoven, especially by this point in his life demands drama in his sound. With the exception of the aforementioned slow movement, I don’t hear any real drama. It can only occur when both hands make themselves heard equally as demanded by the scores. The aggregate of this unbalanced approach is the inability to create or record (or both) the piano’s furthest ends of the dynamic spectrum. There’s no mighty fortissimo, no vanishing pianissimo. That is the lone problem I have with these recordings.
From the “music first” perspective there is overwhelming competition going back to the 1930s; this will be especially true if you care most about a special pianist or conductor. It will take more than a Blüthner and surround sound to overcome it. Mr. Pizarro should be proud of his effort, but I think he still has some growing to do. For me this collection of Beethoven’s works is a fine adjunct to one or two versions that have more “meat on the bones” of the piano and a more defined interpretation from the pianist. If only more a fuller kind of pianism were occasionally obvious, I wouldn’t feel the frustration I do in writing this review.
Are there any Beethoven Concerti from the “old days” that sound good? Absolutely. Those on DGG with Wilhelm Kempff, one of the great interpreters of Beethoven, with the Berlin Philharmonic under the nearly forgotten Paul van Kempen should be owned by every audio enthusiast as a demo of excellent mono sound. At first I thought they were in “fake stereo” – out of phase – they’re not, that’s how rich sounding they are. Lack of stereo doesn’t mean “bad”. Let’s face it - 60 years of recordings shouldn’t be dismissed because you can hear them just as well on one speaker as on five. We all know there are far too many unsatisfactory stereo and surround CDs out there already.
Claudio Arrau and Otto Klemperer’s set of the same concerti was made in concert in the mid 1950s. It is at the top of my favorite performances. Arrau’s stereo versions are numerous and go right into the digital age. The last ones with Colin Davis have a rare insight into Beethoven as well as some very fine virtuoso playing from this true genius. Arrau was by then is in his 80s, and those are for his fans, first and foremost. Rudolph Serkin, especially earlier in his career, turns in stunning interpretations. The Fourth is his best regardless of the year or conductor. Few play the last movement with such contrast so consistently. Gilels with Masur stand out in OK stereo from the ‘70s; Rubinstein/Leinsdorf and Fleisher/Szell always please in excellent mid ‘60s sound.
I have to mention the above because they exist. Still for those of you who want performances that give your equipment a real workout, Linn’s are certainly a top choice. Complaints aside, I like them more than many recent versions. This is partially due to the fact that Linn eschews what has become the “corporate” sound that so many “major” labels have adopted. (Could it be because they’re all owned by a few big corporations?) Those come with mushy transients and bathtub reverb. Three cheers for Linn and not only for standing apart from the crowd.
Title: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphonies 38 – 41
Performers: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Makerras, conductor
Label: Linn CKD 308, 2 CDs in HDCD - Hybrid SACD Stereo/Surround
Available as various downloads up to 24/88 resolution
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
Linn is now offering a new two CD set that features Sir Charles Mackerras’s views of the last four Mozart symphonies. He is joined by the excellent Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a group that has become known world wide since the advent of the compact disc. In fact, it was featured as long ago as 1985 on some of the first “budget priced” CDs. What a blessing that was!! I paid something like 5 pounds for them in the UK, and in ’85 that equaled about $7.00 or so. Those were the days…
Gorgeous sound and playing are what you’ll hear should you choose this set over the hundreds of others still in the catalogue. (The “others” range from uniquely wrought to downright vile, so be careful…) The overall production quality of the Linn set goes beyond some of their other chamber products. Please understand that’s not a dig at those efforts - quite the opposite. This effort receives the highest praise due to the balance of colors and tonalities achieved by producer James Mallinson and engineer Philip Hobbs. Aiding them is the venue: City Halls, in Glasgow, Scotland. This is a better location for a small chamber group than some of the churches used on other Linn CDs. Mallinson is a producer whose work I’ve admired for many years. I first became aware of his talents via the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recordings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies in the mid 1980s. They’re still great to listen to.
Some recordings of Mozart’s symphonies that include these symphonies are from my younger years. Bruno Walter, Igor Markevich, Rafael Kubelik, Eugen Jochum and later Colin Davis all have a special place on my shelves. I have at least three Böhm versions from various decades and there is a very special set with Pablo Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra in live concert. Those readings are sometimes seem “outdated” stylistically, or because the orchestra is too large. Still, I prefer them to most “early music” versions. Of those the best are from John Elliot Gardiner’s performances. Those are played with a lighter quality than even Sir Charles manages. Gardiner is in a league of his own in discovering the odd dissonance or phrase that we’re not used to hearing. But Mackerras has a few ideas of his own that are on a par with Gardiner.
Sir Charles sonorous opening and the use of all of Mozart’s written repeats makes this a special product. This is rare on CD even now. In case you’d not noticed, repeats in classical music were considered to be passé by conductors and critics alike for much of the 20th century. Even the biggest names leave like von Karajan leave out these very necessary elements needed to balance each movement.
Continuing with an interesting fact these performances have a blend of modern and early instruments that give the sound a rich texture as well as a lot of clarity. If my ears are working correctly, Sir Charles has chosen to have his strings play with no vibrato. That’s the “early music” approach. But these sting instruments are the standard versions used by modern orchestras. So are the winds. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is not an early music ensemble. He even keeps the pitch around A-440 while Gardiner clearly drops it to the that of Mozart’s time, A-435. Sir Charles has asked his brass players to use French Horns and trumpets that do not have keys and valves but instead using different “crooks” or lengths of tubing that are interchangeable for varying scales. These ‘antique’ types of brass along side their modern fellows give us a “middle of the road” orchestral sound. Not very many people use this sort of combination of old and new. I think it’s fine for Mozart. The large concert halls of today require the larger sounding strings; and some “early music” approaches have thinned out Mozart to the point of musical exsanguination. If you can hear these subtleties on your system, that’s a good sign. They are a very good test of the upper midrange of your components. The trumpets occasionally have a blatant sort of attack; that is also due to mic placement and may have been done to bring out these instruments more fully.
My all time favorite symphony of Mozart is his 38th, or “Prague”, in D major, K 504. This quirky 3 movement piece has no menuetto and trio making it a rare symphony compared to the others. Sir Charles achieves a loving sonority from the moment he begins. The strings are both full and clear. After a stirring first movement we come to what I think is one of Mozart’s most remarkable compositions, the second movement Andante. Not until the Jupiter’s curious modulations in its andante is there another that is quite as spell binding. It opens with the violins playing short chromatic melodic lines. The harmonies are not chromatic but stay within the diatonic framework that would only start to be upset on a regular basis by Beethoven in his later period. One hears this little melodic device throughout the movement until the final phrase of the exposition. Then Mozart writes a rising and descending chromatic scale in the bass line. The notes start on each string instrument’s low G# and then play a fully chromatic four bar phrase in unison as the winds chords high above them all the while staying within the D/A major range. Looking at the score one sees two bars rising via sharps, and then two descending with flats. What genius is operating behind those four bars! This small moment defines how the conductor understands the piece for my money. Sir Charles is faster in his tempo than Walter in his tremendous reading from the 1950s. The balances and elegance of phrasing are the genuine article; this “Prague” Symphony has become a new favorite of mine. I could listen to the Andante for hours on end. I have never been completely sure why this short phrase has such appeal for me. But it does and I’m the happier for its existence. The ultra clear sound is fantastic and makes for amazing mixing of overtones as the harmonies zig-zag slowly from the winds. The finale is beautifully articulated as well. The recording allows us to “peer” into the orchestra.
The 39th Symphony has no nick name. It is in E flat, K 543. It receives the same kind of treatment that bathes the “Prague” in sunny sound. The first and second movements are every bit as fine with the martial first movement given just the right tempo and balance. The soft vs. loud moments are nicely done but won’t cause you to jump up and down to set the gain – thank heaven for small favors. My only thought is that the trumpet sound is slightly brash in some of its sf moments. I think this oddly obvious sonority may have something to do with the key they are in. The timpani are also prominent. They have a softer attack than one sometimes hears yet work well none the less. The menuetto Allegretto 3rd movement tips its hat toward Haydn and has a barnyard stomp quality with its heavily accented downbeats and brisk tempo. The last movement is lively and fits Sir Charles’s skills to a tee; it is not pushed in tempo but is always moving right along. This is one of those Mozartian moments that can get away from a conductor if they’re not careful. Here the ensemble works together with ease. The overall contrasts are excellent in the fourth movement Sonata/Rondo. So this first CD contains two back to back triumphs.
CD two starts with the 40th, in G minor, K 550. I think it is Mozart’s most famous symphony. From a compositional stand point it is the equal of the Jupiter. According to the notes, Sir Charles uses the revised version with clarinets. K 550’s first movement starts with subtle pacing. I really want to gripe when this bittersweet melody based on just a few notes is played too fast. Not so here; marked in 2/2 Sir Charles finds both ominous and charming moments to dwell on. Rarely does one hear the 40th with both of those elements so well illuminated. The slow movement is another of Mozart’s greatest wonders. While again not as slow as Walter’s old Colombia version, one that will remain the standard for many, I think this is probably closer to what Mozart had in mind. Playing these movements very slowly can result in disaster if the conductor and orchestra are not complete suited to sort of tight rope walk. The menuetto (allegretto), according to every score I own, ought to be played in that dance tempo. There’s plenty of latitude for sure, but in Sir Charles’s hands it becomes a virtual scherzo. Now many others play it nearly as fast. Casals (oddly) makes it an extremely angry sounding ‘dance’ that whips along, but Mackerras beats him to the end with ease. Gardiner treats it more as a true menuetto minus that angry thrust, even though he is famous for his fast tempi. No one ever treats it as a real Minuet, though and the music is not meant to be danced to. As it stands here I think Sir Charles’s might go a bit too far; I don’t get his reasoning in any event. The famous last movement in sonata form flies along but isn’t clipped in its phrasing. This is a virtuoso performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to be sure. The fugato section of the development is beautifully delineated. Unlike other “fast” versions I don’t get the sense it’s going rapidly simply because the orchestra is able to play it that way. All the repeats of the final movements are taken and as a piece this is a splendid 40th.
The “Jupiter”, as the 41st is known is Mozart’s last statement in this form. It is K 551 in the key of C. This performance seems to have a larger string section than the earlier symphonies in the set do. It probably doesn’t, but the sound is different than that of the other three. The division of the first and second violins is slightly more obvious. The possibility exists that I’m listening to too many masterpieces in a short period of time. That can certainly happen! Are there more violins? I don’t know. So what I probably hear is a slight difference in the mic/mix set up. For some reason the balance between the winds and the strings is different than in the others as well, though it’s neither better nor worse. Again, the martial quality of this first movement is brilliantly accomplished. Here the brass blends with the other parts of the orchestra more easily. I wonder if the key of C has something to do with it. The second movement has the strings playing with a lovely muted quality that is aided by the recorded sound. I have just a few questions. The first three notes in the violins sound a bit prosaic as articulated here. I’ve compared the way they are played to about seven other versions. Those notes are important constituents of the first theme, in fact they’re vital. Somehow, they seem slightly clipped in between the first two. I don’t think they should. It’s a very minor point, but other conductors have expended great effort to get the slur over the this dotted 8th and 16th note so that it is melodic in nature. Second, the final climax before the repeat in the Andante has the winds sounding too short when marked with dots over them. One of Mozart’s most interesting modulations happens with the strings against the winds, but the strings must sound strong enough for it to be heard. Here they seem somewhat muted. I also listened to a number of different versions before coming to this conclusion. Maybe Sir Charles score is different from the others. But those are things that any Mozart lover is going to hear. Gardiner once again seems to find some of Mozart’s most interesting dissonances in the passing notes of this phrase. The Menuetto marked Allegretto is played a bit more quickly than I’m used to from the others, but it stands on its own just fine. The finale of the Jupiter is one of Mozart’s ultimate accomplishments. It augers the use of short “motifs” by Wagner and a host of other composers that takes place decades in the future. For 1788 it is an extraordinary piece of pure genius. Talk about going out on top. These five musical “themes” create the deftly woven structure of the finale and are laid out with complete mastery by Sir Charles and the orchestra. One can only say bravo.
I can’t find any real complaints to register here, which is nice for a change. I think this set will compliment any collection of Mozart’s final symphonies. The last three were written one after another in the summer of 1788, which seems almost unbelievable. The USA was just getting started. The French Revolution was just around the corner. Yet the forward looking nature of these pieces is strikingly obvious on this set. It may be more expensive than some other versions, but it’s worth the money. I have so many collections of the late symphonies that I enjoy and now I now I have yet another that stands completely on its own merits.
TITLE: Walton Symphony Number One
ARTIST: Sir Colin Davis; the London Symphony Orchestra
LABEL: LSO Live LSO 0576
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
The First Symphony of William Walton dates from the period 1931 – 1935. I don’t believe that it is heard that often outside of the United Kingdom. Walton’s best known piece is “Belshazzar’s Feast”. It’s nice to hear Walton in a more serious vein with the First Symphony. I would imagine the other CD contender is the budget version with André Previn on RCA from 1966. Davis’ is better on all fronts.
The first movement starts and ends in B flat major. What goes on in between is a mix of idioms dominated by Sibelius’ brilliant middle period style, from whom Walton has borrowed a great deal. He made no bones about his love of the Finnish composer’s music. Walton establishes a short, rapid rhythmic underpinning that is the bedrock of three of the four movements. At around 4:50 the orchestra has founds its way to a loud unison B natural. What follows is a sharp curve in the road. No longer do we hear what, up to this unison note, has been a blustery kind of writing, but instead the harmonic language of Debussy in “La Mer”. Walton is introducing a completely different texture here and the few minutes spent with strings and winds playing softly are a good counter balance. Soon enough we return to the earlier intentions and any Francophile influences vanish as rapidly as they appeared.
The other segments of this first movement are spent on short motifs being hurled about, generally strung into lengthy ascending sequences. Although changing, the telegraphic rhythm is still with us. Sir Colin keeps this pulse steady though he never makes it the focus of his attention. The general impression he achieves is one of great urgency. Sir Colin is one of those conductors whose beat alone can establish a kind of give and take within phrases while managing to keep the rhythmic structure of the whole in perfect sync. I’ve seen him do it in concert many times in pieces ranging from Berlioz to Sibelius. Sir Colin knows this music inside out. He finds the voice that Walton is beginning to define as his own. The largest climax begins around 13:32 and for the next 40 seconds or so we have lots of dissonant chords hammered out one after another with pauses in between. We finally arriving at the ending measures at 14:11 and are back in very solid B flat territory. The movement concludes with the rapidly pulsing figure reiterated.
The scherzo is an exercise in triple meter with a curious tempo marking: Presto con Malizia. The annotator, Lewis Forman, translates this in the booklet as “with Malice”. According to its various usages in Italian however, it translates as “mischievous or naughtiness”. Those sound far more likely than “evil intent”. In the event, I can’t find any malice in the second movement. There is something resembling a theme that occurs over and over and the orchestration, again like Sibelius, starts off down in the depths. But it soon begins to move all about and we hear that repeated rhythmic pattern from the first movement return. There is a wide dynamic range from moment to moment and the violins have a section on their G string that is almost brutal. But there’s also a sense of the Italian word for joke: Scherzo.
Movement three is marked, aptly, Andante con malincolia. Walton with the aid of Sir Colin makes a near funeral march out of these not very happy musings. Add to that an ostinato that happens in different parts of the orchestra and one gets the feeling that the far reaching violin arpeggios that create the climactic moment are the equivalent of the dying soprano in a verissmo opera. I think Sir Colin may be taking this a bit slower than the Andante that is marked, but it if any conductor can do that successfully it is he.
The finale is back in B flat major. The most obvious harmonic element is the G or the sixth note in a B flat major scale. The harmonic center of the Maestoso always has this sixth embedded in it when ever it returns for a visit. I say returns because we go on a very long ride with Sir Colin in the finale. The booklet misprints the tempo marking. It says, Maestoso – brio ed ardentimente vivacissimo Maestoso. This should read Maestoso – brioso, ed ardentimente – vivacissimo – Maestoso. I.e., its sectional. With no score handy this is confusing to say the least. The opening fanfare soon scampers away towards some inventive moments on Walton’s part. Of course we have a similar sort of rhythmic pattern found in the first two movements but being repeated more in the background. As the tempo turns to vivacissimo the orchestra becomes momentarily a bit ragged, but it is a live performance and I say who cares. A well thought out fugue whose subject is passed around for quite a while in the strings is begun. It is interrupted briefly by soft string passages and then commences again in the full orchestra. That subject is longer than Beethoven’s in his Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106. The fugue is chopped off by a very static kind of brass outcry. We then begin again in the sunny opening vein. We come to a climax with full percussion battery that leads to a – fanfare. Walton doffs his hat to the end of Sibelius 5th symphony in the last bars with big chords spaced widely, although not so much as Sibelius’ are. Sir Colin’s handling of balance and his ability to never show his hand too early illustrate that he is still among the very great conductors of our time. He has mellowed since the 80s, but to good advantage. In lesser hands this symphony would be nothing more than a goulash of fragments. High marks indeed!
The sound will shake the rafters from time to time. I would not say it is in an audiophile league, DSD though it may be. This is recorded live in one of London’s least appealing venues, the Barbican Center. Even the veteran producing/engineering team of James Malison and Neil Hutchinson can’t make the hall sound any better than this. While there is a fairly good sense of instrumental placement the biggest problem is the lack of depth to the sound field. Don’t let that stop you from hearing it. I thoroughly enjoyed the musical experience which is what it’s all about in the end. The only real caveat I want the listener to be aware of is the CD has only the symphony on it. That means it comes in at 46 minutes and 2 seconds. We here at Stereomojo are more than a little value oriented - that’s NOT enough music for a full priced CD, and leaves more than 30 minutes unused on the disc.
Works: Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht; Brahms First Symphony in C minor
Artists: Herbert von Karajan, conductor; Berlin Philharomic;
Label: Testament/BBC/Berlin Philharmoniker ; Testament SBT 1431 1 CD stereo
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
This new release from Testament, that wonderful label of reissues, allows us to hear Herbert von Karajan on his final world tour in the autumn of 1988. He played “Verklärte Nacht” of Schoenberg and Brahms First Symphony at London’s Festival Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic. The readings of both pieces were his last ever. He created an emotional and musical synchronicity that simply doesn’t occur under normal conditions. This CD is unique.
Karajan’s choice of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” to open had to do with an ongoing festival of the composer’s music that year in London. The conductor uses the 1943 adaptation of what Schoenberg wrote for string sextet in 1899. It had seen emendations for a chamber orchestra in 1917, but Karajan’s choice of this last version, done when Schoenberg was changing his mind about atonality in general, allows this master of a large group of players to let us hear the chamber music with a full throated quality. The piece is a “tone poem”. It concerns a man and women who have recently found one another; she is pregnant by a previous lover. The star-crossed pair walks through the cold moonlit night. All is confessed – all is forgiven. Karajan’s obvious love of “Tristan” and “Parsifal” are evident in his dramatic use of Schoenberg’s chromatic harmonies. The piece creates in 30 minutes time as much as his operatic idol did in 5 hours. Schoenberg does the same in his genius bit of choral writing, “Friede auf Erden” which is well under 20 minutes; he has not been matched by any other composer that I am aware of in making such pieces so succinct yet emotionally available.
Knowing this concert contains Karajan’s final performances of these two pieces adds to the emotional impact. “Verklärte Nacht” deserves to be placed at the very highest level. I know no other version that manages to achieve so very much in psychological terms. Here is conducting in the manner of “Tristan” yet it never shouts and its economy of structure makes it my favorite instrumental piece by the composer who would soon change European music for nearly a century to come. Its troubles and ecstasy never go beyond what two people might express. The moments of anxiety sound of anxiety. And rather than a gigantic chorus to finish things off, the “Transformed Night” (the translation of the title and track 5) is the culmination of the piece and is achieved with the most gossamer of string textures. There is no Karajan “gloss” here. He takes each of the five tracks, each a different “mood”, and fleshes them out as far as humanly possible. Sometimes the timbre is brutal. The apotheosis has rarely if ever been more beautifully rendered. There’s no gilding the lily here. Karajan is looking into the “beyond”. What a way to start an evening. If you listen intently, it can leave you emotionally drained.
The booklet describes Karajan as a frail man on the podium by 1988. His gestures are not those of even a few years earlier and the commentary in the booklet has the critics to a man saying the same thing. I can attest to this when I heard Karajan in New York in February of ’89 with the Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. At the greatest moment in the symphony he simply pointed his baton straight up and raised his arm directly overhead. The climax that occurred that evening stunned everyone in Carnegie Hall. And all that from a simple arm movement! He made no other similar gesture no matter how loud or soft the music became.
Coming back to the CD Brahms First Symphony arrives with a gigantic opening. A low C from the timpani played with a tight mallet is struck slightly ahead of the full orchestra on the first beat. I jumped when that happened. The sound here is slightly congested because of the venue more than anything else, but the recording below Fortissimo is clear and lush and never harsh. It is the real sound of Festival Hall as I knew it.
It has not been beautified in remastering (thank heavens!) Most people probably think that Karajan would make a gorgeous statement with this piece. There’s no prettifying here. After the first burst of sound everyone falls into perfect alignment until the last of the 48 opening timpani strokes is given another slight agogic accent. Karajan chooses both a tempo and orchestral balance that highlighted the dissonances as the unison strings and winds chords flow in opposite motion. I’ve not found one CD that matches this one on those terms.
I wasn’t aware there was so much crossing of half tones in this part. He also takes the opening slow enough so that he can keep the same beat when going into the 6/8 allegro that follows. That is, Karajan starts the 6/8 introduction by beating the eighth notes. We stay in 6/8 when the allegro arrives, but now he is beating the dotted quarter note. Other conductors do this, but generally start too fast so the whole first movement flies by. Some play the introduction too slowly and the allegro too fast. That’s really a disaster. It’s so simple when one stops to think about it, but then so is the music of Mozart, that doesn’t make it any easier to bring off!
The main body of the movement is played with heroic gestures that I would never associate with this conductor in this music. At the chosen tempo, even though it fluctuates with a given phrase, the performance is near perfect. You’ll have to listen for yourself to hear what I mean. It surpasses the written word.
Magic would be a good way to describe the inner movements. The flowing lines of the slow movement and the allegretto that is wonderfully light with its subtle shifts in color are both remarkable in the way they hold the outer movements together. The myriad details, far too many to list, could comprise a teaching course on what this work is about.
The last movement of the Brahms ties everything together. Little wonder that the usually cool London audience bursts out in great cheers at the end. I think it important I quote an often overlooked comment by Brahms that thankfully appears in this CD’s booklet.
Many conductors, soloists and chamber players take the view that once a tempo is set in a piece by Brahms, it is sacrosanct. That is absolutely not true – how do I know? In a letter to Joachim (Brahms friend and the greatest violinist of his day) Brahms felt Hans von Bülow, the conductor of the premiere of Brahms Fourth Symphony, (not to mention Wagner’s “Tristan...” and “Meistersinger” as well as many of the great works still in the repertoire), was too straight laced in his choice of tempi.
Brahms goes on to say “[when I conducted] I couldn’t make enough slowings and accelerations.” There you have it. And that’s not the only time he makes such a remark. On several occasions he says that changes in tempo that are not necessarily marked should be obvious to any good musician. Conductors such as Szell and Toscanini were exciting in this Brahms, but they miss this most critical of points. The nearest to this Brahms First on CD are the performances by Furtwängler;
The sound here is exceptionally good, especially for the venue. In my opinion Karajan finally manages to top Furtwängler with the outer movements.
Karajan’s is like no other recording. Were I to choose other conductors that played Brahms nearly as well I’d start with Furtwängler, Jochum and Kubelik.
Testament’s remastering engineer, Paul Baily of Re:sound, has done a fine job of preserving this concert to CD. It must have taken a great deal of work to get so much from this venue during a live concert. If you’ve never been in Festival Hall in London, trust me, it was a poor acoustic with or without audience from its inception. My experience comes from live performances throughout the 80s. (I and a friend, a BBC sound engineer, concluded then that the first row of the balcony contained the best seats for acoustics, period). The hall’s short return has been preserved. But BBC, who made the original tapes, learned eons ago how to place mics carefully in order to record the available return. A near seamless balance in the low/mid/high frequencies is obvious and the low and mid-bass don’t sound “goosed up”.
Karajan wanted a dark string balance from his Berliners. Indeed the low basses as well as the contra bassoon and timpani are recorded without any sense of “blurring”. Better yet, Karajan removes his well known patina of lush tone that he seemed to perpetually apply with a trowel on his commercial CDs beginning in the 1960s.
Karajan never made it to SACD. DAT was barely around when he died and computer format editing was just being started. Although he would have loved DSD, if you want the best music making (and I do) you sometimes have to forego that. 44.1/16 works just fine. Think of it as eating a 5 star meal in a small French Restaurant that has hard benches – you’ll still recall the tastes in years to come, not how stiff you were when you finished. I can only add to this very long hymn of praise that to let this CD slip past you is to do a great disservice to yourself as a collector of unique and excellent performances on record. We’re in times when CD labels are dropping like flies. Think of Testament SBT 1431 as a spiritual investment. More coercion I simply can’t apply.
TITLE: Garden of Early Delights
ARTIST: Pamela Thorby, Recorder & Andrew Lawrence King, Harp
LABEL: Linn CKD 291- HYBRID SACD - SURROUND/STEREO/CD IN HDCD
REVIEWER: James Darby
A confession: I usually do not like performances of Ancient or Early music.
I didn't say I don’t like the music, just the performances. They most often sound dry and academic, leaving me bored and uninvolved. So it was with some trepidation that I opened the parcel from Linn in Scotland.
The cover art was beautiful and eye catching and the title, “Garden of EARLY Delights”, with it’s allusion to Hieronymus Bosch’s painting entitled “Garden of EARTHLY Delights” was both clever and humorous; a departure from other such recordings.
I also am not a fan of the recorder, and instrument that dates back nearly 2,000 years. This recording features Pamela Thorby, a recorder virtuosi playing 16 works from Renaissance and Early Baroque by composers Ortiz, Van Eyck, Castello, Dowland, Schop, Bassano, Fontana, and Marini. The only accompaniment is by Lawrence King, a noted harpist who plays several different version of the instrument; a Baroque triple harp, a Spanish double harp, and a Renaissance psaltery. The harp I like; I have written for it and performed/recorded with it many times.
Into the player went the disk, which contains several versions including stereo SACD as well as surround, and a CD layer that is HDCD encoded. (I might mention that Linn also provides digital downloads at their site in everything from MP3 adn FLAC to master quality 24/88 bitrates). I thought I would do my best to tolerate a couple of cuts or three before I moved on to other disks.
I was amazed by the performances and interpretations of these two artists. The music was filled with personality, humor, spirit and musicality. They brought this music alive in way seldom heard. I sat enthralled through the entire disk, basking in the energetic, vivacious and sparking portrayals of this divine genre. I was never tempted to doze off once. This is music that should appeal to anyone who appreciates good music on any level, even those who eschew classical music.
It was fascinating to listen to the different qualities of the soprano, alto and tenor recorders Pamela played, as well as the diverse harps of Mr. Lawrence-King.
While I did not venture into the surround idiom on the disk, the stereo versions as per usual by Linn were outstanding. The unique qualities and artistry of the duo were captured lavishly with just the right amount of reverb and spatial cues. There was excellent depth and spread with a vibrant soundstange that was accurately scaled and position ed in space something that is difficult to do with any duo.
It easily bears repeated listening whether seated in the sweet spot or as early morning or late evening background music.
If, like me, you have found yourself shying away from music of the 1400’s or so because if its musical value, this is one recording that is recommended to try.
TITLE: Bach 6 Solo Sonatas and Partitas
ARTIST: Viktoria Mullova
LABEL: ONYX Classics
REVIEWER: Ron Seegar
VIKTORIA MULLOVA'S BRILLIANT READINGS OF BACH'S STUNNING SOLO VIOLIN SONATAS & PARTIDAS
Award-winning violin virtuoso Viktoria Mullova gives what is certainly one of her greatest recorded performances and quite possibly the definitive versions of J. S. Bach's three solo violin sonatas and partitas. All were composed in 1720 and are presented here on 2 CDs.
Those who have encountered Ms Mullova's music before know of her total fascination with and intensive study of Bach, bordering on the transcendental, resulting in numerous praiseworthy recordings. She feels playing Bach is part of her well-being since it is the music she prefers to play at home for relaxation. In her study of the baroque era, she has moved from baroque recordings with modern classical violin setups to re-stringing her violins with gut strings and mastering the use of the baroque bow and style.
This CD contains her first recording of the 3 Bach sonatas, along with her re-imaging of the 3 partitas, once again using the Baroque setup on her 1750 Guadagnini violin tuned down to A=415 Hz and a Barbiero contemporary baroque bow. She seems to favor the sound of this violin for her baroque work once again as she did recently in duo with Giuliano Carmignola, instead of her "Jules Falk" Stradivarius that she used for some of her Vivaldi baroque spectaculars.
As for the physical Bach musical scores themselves, legend informs us they narrowly escaped being used for commercial wrapping paper. The recorded sound of the violin is very vivid and intimate with a drawing-room ambiance that produces a slight echo that suspends the notes in the air (and wonderfully in the mind) more than normal. The sound somehow reveals the lower notes closer to the microphone (stronger in volume) and the higher notes farther away: a beautiful effect. Some have demurred about the slight echo found here, but for this reviewer it is very realistic and not excessive, especially in the Sonata No. 1 In G Minor, BWV 1001: II. Fuga: Allegro where there are ‘apparently’ multiple violins playing the rounds. Ms Mullova is placed somewhat back from the microphone and employs tightly controlled left hand vibrato dynamics in a baroque manner. She has stated she will perform this music only in small halls to achieve the sonic balance and intimacy found herein.
Bach's sonatas and partitas, using some musical forms and dances of different countries, are so brilliantly written that Ms. Mullova appears at times to be playing two or even three violins interacting simultaneously, and in some cases, as 'continuo' with the main theme statement: an effect that is simply mesmerizing. This is truly Bach's genius informing
Mullova's virtuosity which transforms it into bowed musical gold.
Throughout Mullova is on her 'A' game, bowing relentlessly with fire, audacity, velocity, stately elegance, and sensitivity where required, finding new nuances as she navigates the slopes, valleys, and summits of each piece. She says she is doing the partitas again because she originally recorded them with modern metal strings and now doesn't find those earlier recordings to her liking. Beyond this, she finds her 'Bach-ian' viewpoint is "always changing", and playing Bach is a "never-ending process", with each new performance "not the final version".
The 'best of the best' begin with the Fuga: Allegro movement with its amazing 'continuo' effect and the high-velocity showering cascades of the Presto movement of Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001. The blazing Double: Presto movement (the second of the four double movements of Partita No. 1 In B Minor, BWV 1002), so full of stops and jagged figurations, is awe-inspiring, as is the fourth Double: the eighth movement of this Partita. She dedicates the lyrical, double stop-affected Andante movement of Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003: III to her daughter who likes to sing it and it is a thing of beauty and grace. And there is the ferocity of the Giga (fourth) movement leading up to the the angst of the legendary 14-minute Ciaccona (Chaconne) movement of the Partita No. 2 In D Minor, BWV 1004.
With this magnificent performance, Mullova has gotten this Ciaccona dance movement exactly right, investing the right amount of lyricism, sadness, and loss, bending her virtuosity around the phrases finding inner voicings, not the opposite as often happens in violin competitions that are too virtuosic, hard-edged, and declarative with modern bows. The baroque setup and her nimble bow mastery obviously assist Mullova here and elsewhere since there are things the modern bow cannot do. These are just a few overviews of the excellence awaiting the listener in these 6 beautifully complex, challenging, and highly enjoyable pieces.
Three decades into a career that began with wins in both the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky International competitions, followed by her highly publicized defection from the old Soviet Union when she duped the KGB to gain her freedom, Mullova has risen to become one of the great virtuosos of all time, with a marvelous career and two highly-prized violins, all while raising her family. She's having a great 21st Century career run in duos with artists like pianist Katia Labeque and violinist Giuliano Carmignola, with the best of orchestras, and with this recording, just herself and her Guadagnini violin in musical communion with Bach alone on a stage in a marvelous performance. What Ms Mullova has achieved here is brilliant, always impressive, sometimes stunning and in other cases breathtaking. Vividly recorded to boot
TITLE: Vivaldi Concertos For Two Violins
ARTISTS: Viktoria Mullova & Giuliano Carmignola
LABEL: Archiv Produktion
REVIEWER: Ron Seegar
MULLOVA, CARMIGNOLA, and VIVALDI: A MATCH MADE IN MUSIC HEAVEN
Awe-inspiring, award-worthy performances of Vivaldi’s “Double Concertos for Two Violins, Strings, and Basso Continuo”! When classical violin superstars Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmignola agreed to join forces to record some of Antonio Vivaldi's rarely performed baroque works for two violins, it became a match made in classical music heaven, forging them into a formidable duo. Two master virtuoso violinists playing on superb instruments made during Vivaldi's era, along with wonderful support from the Venice Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Andrea Marcon, bolstered by their own critically-acclaimed individual Vivaldi recordings using Baroque gut strings and bows, are the main ingredients in a recipe for success. For this outing, Mr Carmignola uses the 1732 “Baillot” Stradivarius, while Ms Mullova somewhat surprisingly uses her 1750 Guadagnini violin instead of the 1723 “Jules Falk” Stravidarius which she used for “Vivaldi: Violin Concertos”.
Like Mr Carmignola, Ms. Mullova is a strong individualistic violin icon who has been associated ‘in duo’ with star pianist Katia Labèque and harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone, showing the ability to enjoy the musical company of someone on her level in recitals. And here it certainly pertains to both players. The relaxed atmosphere seen on the CD cover photo shows the friendly environs within which these two operate to produce this superb recording. They bend to the will of Vivaldi's musical requirements in extraordinary ways and it’s very clear that they are playing with great enjoyment, fire, teamwork, and emotion. The sound deserves special attention: the perfect balance between the violins and the balance between the violins and the orchestra is wonderful with a bold, vivid sound presence that greatly enhances these performances. The way sound engineer Ulrich Vette captures orchestral nuances is impressive thus giving the two virtuosi great support from both a musical and technical aspect. It is fitting that no channel information is given to identify each violinist, Vivaldi’s complex overlapping scores simply make it untenable and unnecessary for the listener.
The 'pièces de résistance' begin with Vivaldi's high spirited Concerto in G major, RV 516 with a kinetic Allegro molto movement that allows the violinists to set off their bowed fireworks here and in the Allegro movement as well, with the orchestra providing great support. As seen throughout the recording, neither violinist is given the lead for very long as Vivaldi truly made this a joint effort with unison lines splitting and rejoining over and over in short bursts of notes traded between violins (and in one instance, a cello), often at fast tempos. Both RV 516 Allegro movements bridge an Andante movement of pure incandescent beauty and grace. The Concerto in D major, RV 511 uses avian themes, one of Vivaldi’s favorite devices, to great advantage and the violinists ‘sing’ beautifully to and with each other in all three movements. My favorite piece on the CD is the Concerto in D minor, RV 514 which features technically challenging interplay between the violins as they trade phrases and ‘leads’ often in ‘hare vs hound’ and ‘echoing’ musical techniques. The lovely lyrical movements in the minuet-like Adagio movement are very poignant, with the violins lines converging and separating. Vivaldi would have loved these performances. The passion and intensity of the music rippling from the bows of these two master virtuosi and the flawless support from the VBO make this a supremely enjoyable listening experience.
In the midst of the annual abundance of Vivaldi recordings, usually centering around yet even more unnecessary versions of "The Four Seasons", Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmignola have produced fiery, poignant award-worthy performances of these rarely performed pieces that rank as one of ‘the best of the best’ of Vivaldi recordings this year, surely to be enjoyed many times. (Audio CD, 61:02 in SPARS DDD format, with liner notes in English, French, and German)
TITLE: Complete Piano Works of Ravel Volume II
ARTIST: Artur Pizarro, Pianist
LABEL: Linn CKD 315 HYBRID SACD - SURROUND/STEREO/CD IN HDCD
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
Artur Pizarro’s second volume of Ravel piano music is made up of a variety of short pieces, both in individual and suite forms. Ravel’s fascinating depths of imagination are plumbed deeply on this CD if not always fully revealed as even the artist might wish. Pizarro is a talented pianist with a worldly background having been born and raised in Portugal and ending his formal education attending college in Kansas. He chose that rather remote locale in order to remain a pupil of Sequeira Costa, the same teacher he had worked with in his early years in Portugal. Pizarro seems to be most famous in Great Britain and has released several recordings on a variety of British labels.
I’ve been living with this album for a while because my first impression was not as positive as I expected. That had more to do with the acoustic and less with Pizarro. Still, he seems to have approved of this sound. Trying to be fair, I listened on several different systems and came away accepting the fact that the venue, a reverberant church, may not be the ideal setting for Ravel’s intricate compositions. Ravel takes into account color of tone and use of pedal for effect on the piano in the same way that Berlioz made changes within the orchestra of his day. This CD finally became more interesting as I separated ambiance from music; I found some gems in these performances. Still, I never reconciled with the overall sonic nature of the project. There is a basic lack of focus on the instrument as opposed to the room. Simply put, the outlines of the music are there, but I would like a more substantial core to the piano sound, not the walls, floor and ceiling that surround it.
The CD opens with two very short pieces and by track 3 we have the charming three movement, “Sonatine”. The opening is full of promise. The rhythm and balance of harmonies along with the evenness and clarity of touch show that Pizarro has a strong affinity for Ravel’s music. Throughout much of the CD my only complaint regarding timbre is the piano’s piercing upper register when pushed too hard. This even gave my I-pod a moment or two of grief. The third movement, track 5, suffers most from this problem. Further a warmer piano sound can’t be achieved with the current lack of bass. (I’m afraid I don’t have any tone controls.) There’s little evident below 80 - 100 Hz although Ravel clearly requires it.
In “Menuet Antique” (track 6) these problems remain. When the instrument is played with loud gusto, the sound can become less than pleasing. Though an obvious sense of structure it accessible, sometimes it can sounds indistinct because so much of Ravel’s writing is smeared by the acoustic.
“Waltz Noble e Sentimental” (track 7 - 14) is not immediately played to my taste because the tone of the opening is once again too harsh. This is hardly the first time a pianist who specializes in French music has taken this approach. Some French pianists (not all) seem to favor a bright yet brittle sound. Once things calm down a bit the sound has a better sense of proportion. Soon Pizarro allows us to focus on those mysterious moments that that only Ravel and Debussy achieve using the overtone series of the piano. By the end of the piece in track 14, Mr. Pizarro slows enough to let the tone die away and we finally have a true “ppp”. If only the beginning were as lovely as the end, this performance would rival any other.
“Dans le maniere de Chabrier” (track 16) is actually full of little hints of the arietta of the character Siebel in the third act of Gounod’s opera, “Faust”. It has a Chopinesque feeling under Pizarro’s fingers. The gentle tugging at the tempo is certainly not the same as Gounod’s original, but rather sounds like a Mazurka from time to time. Pizarro has his sights set perfectly here and achieves the right touch and pace. This is a very clever bit of pianism.
“Pavane pour une infante defunte” is splendid. The quasi – loud passages sound far less aggressive and the line is sustained by someone who deeply loves this music. So often this little piece seems to be a dull choice to fill out a student recital. Musically “Pavane” is as far from a chestnut as one can get and Pizarro proves that easily.
“Tombeau de Couprin”, full of odd dangers, closes the recording. Its first track, “Prelude” has the rhythmic incisiveness that it requires. The voicing leads to a quicksilver tone, even in the highest register. The scampering notes are beautifully paced. My favorite movement is the third, “Forlane”. Again the silvery tone is with us and Pizarro pursues a slightly slower tempo than most. If you know this piece only as an orchestral arrangement, you’ll see what I mean. In the piano version Pizarro is able to give the leading voices a wide variety of color. “Rigaudon” follows with a boisterous sensibility; finally there is some idea of Pizarro not being hampered by the acoustic. His attacks are short and secco, but never “slapped”. The final “Toccata” closes this CD with panache. The repeated notes are evenly balanced; Ravel makes this piece fiendish for all but the very best pianists. Rapid fire repeats of the same note are nothing new to Ravel. He tortures his enthusiasts with the same writing in both “Gaspard de la Nuit” and ‘Alborada del Grazioso”.” I’d like to hear Pizarro play those pieces too. He certainly has the talent to make them work.
My only bit of advice is to listen for the first time on your best headphones. You’ll hear the music far more easily than in a listening environment that emphasizes the church’s unneeded addition to Pizarro’s firm sound.
I hope its obvious that although it took me a bit of time, I came to enjoy this recording thoroughly.
Publisher's note - As usual, André nailed the essence of this performance perfectly. He specified a rating of 3 out of 5 for sound quality and with that I have to take a little issue. Mr. Gauthier listened only to the CD layer without the benefit of its HDCD encoding. There is also a stereo SACD layer as well as full 5.1 SACD surround. I believe the church ambience which absolutely is as described by Andre, fares much better with the full HDCD replay and more in SACD with its higher resolution and even better in surround for which this recording was apparently optimized. As such, while the CD layer sans HDCD is indeed about a 3 on the Mojo Meter, the other variations deserve more. In addition, Linn provides the most comprehensive versions of downloads from compressed mp3 to uncompressed FLAC, full CD and even much higher rez "master track quality" on their website. We applaud Linn's efforst to bring us not only quality performances but releases with the most choices of any label on the planet.
TITLE: Tchaikovsky: highlights of his ballet “Swan Lake”
ARTIST: Ernst Ansermet, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
LABEL: LIM K2HD 024
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
Here is CD from the LIM label that was licensed from Decca exactly as it appeared on LP. Nothing is added. This pays off by returning the full sound range of the original tapes. As people committed to hearing great sound or music or both we need to support small purist labels when we enjoy their work. They stick their necks out to license music that would heretofore not have seen the light of day ever again.
The stalwart conductor Ernest Ansermet is in charge of matters musical and his L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande play well, although together neither conductor or orchestra find some of the inspiration that is often revealed in this music by better forces. (OSR played for pennies on the dollar in relation to other Decca groups and were used regularly by Decca’s European headman, Maurice Rosenthal, to save money.)
In general, the tracks chosen to represent the complete ballet on one CD are well thought out. There’s fine balance between the big guns that Tchaikovsky loves to use with all his harmonic and rhythmic sequences running on and on. The quieter moments are played with care by the various soloists that sometimes participate. There’s not as much dynamic range on this old recording as some new digital versions. (I’ll be more specific in a moment.) But it is better to go with this fine sounding analogue copy if you’re interested in playing a classic Decca recording taken from an excellent source.
There’s a lot of filler in ballet music in general, even in Tchaikovsky’s. Though I think more music could have been included here, I believe there’s enough to get the general idea of the entire piece. For the audiophile this is a great way to get acquainted with the composer’s ballet forms not to mention some terrific musical moments, period.
I have to point out some sections where the Suisse Romande are not at their best. The worst is the “Dance Napolitano” from Act III. It is a trumpet solo whose rhythm is supposed to sound slightly drunk. Ansermet does nothing to make him do much more than come in on the last beat of each phrase slightly late. Compared to the other 5 performances I own, this doesn’t cut it. While it takes up only about 2.5 minutes, it should be a stunner; while the sound’s great, it lacks any sort of swagger. Beyond that, there is some sloppy playing. I believe this is because the European orchestras of the ‘50s, with a few exceptions, do not compare in discipline to the American groups that were so heavily recorded at the time. Leonard Slatkin’s version from the 1990s is whipcrack in comparison. His St Louis Symphony is brilliant in its polish and flash. Though I think Slatkin the finer conductor, the combination of the older European approach of the Swiss players shows a disinclination for “perfection” in favor of a long gone style that was often full of emotion that has now been replaced by accuracy. The old timers were occasionally not always together in ensemble or note perfect in execution. But you often felt closer to the composer than with more “specialized” forces.
Looking back 51 years ago, we get a performance of Tchaikovsky that hasn’t been edited very much and whose sound is so musically “vintage” that it doesn’t really exist among any orchestras on CD today. Some day I’ll talk about editing in the digital domain, as well as all the other “added” features that cloud the sound that should only be from the venue - but not now.
I own a copy of the exact same ’58 recording of “Swan Lake” although it only has 5 tracks on Universal’s “Pickwick Best 100” label. They are part of the Decca/DGG/Philips amalgam. The differences I hear between the copies are all subtle in nature. The Pickwick version is very clean. Some studio noises are more obvious, as well. The levels are almost exactly the same between Pickwick and LIM. So it seems the reference tones that were originally used by Decca were also used by both producers of the CDs. The only big difference is the bass. It is more pronounced, especially with the pizzicato bass fiddles in Pickwick’s track 2 or LIM’s track 5. They’re the same music, and the same take. There is a noise of some sort at exactly the same place in both copies. Even the ring out of the hall is just about 3.0 seconds in both. The differences in the tonal balance are negligible with the bass exception, and even the tape hiss is pretty much the same on both. Neither has a greater dynamic range. The Pickwick has 18’15” of “Swan Lake” and is coupled with other Tchaikovsky ballets. The LIM is the same as the original Decca “Swan Lake” LP at 43’06”. It’s hard to get this much “Swan Lake” unless you buy the entire thing, which most people won’t want to do.
Wait! There is another recording that comes to mind, however. Its Arthur Fiedler’s 1963 Boston Pops version on a now out of print Victrola (RCA) budget CD. It is also from RCA’s complete LP with 47”00’ of music on it. The same 1”30” track just compared, (on Pickwick and RCA it is called “Dance of the Little Swans”) has less bass than either the Pickwick or Lim versions display. I do believe that the LIM version has had a bass boost added in the mastering. I’m not guaranteeing that, I just get that sense. During quiet passages recorded by RCA in Boston’s famous Symphony Hall, the #10 bus is heard rumbling just outside the stage door. So the CD producer didn’t cut any low frequencies. This is evident on nearly all Boston CDs made before 1964. Their LP counterparts had that rumble smoothed out by the disc cutter. Decca, on the other hand, being in a smaller Swiss Town, was probably able to stop the traffic around its hall during sessions. That label did so in other cities such as Vienna.
I was able to measure a sound floor of about -55db when no music was playing but the original 1958 recorder was running. That level derives from mics, mic-preamps, board, and standard mechanical noise. That’s also an outstanding measurement for the period! I also checked out a DGG digitally made version of exactly the same spot and found the sound floor to be lower at - 80db with no discernable machine induced hiss, but instead “hall sound” which is on all recordings made in a non studio venue. The peaks on the ‘58 CD are good and at their hottest are -0.5 db. Ultimately LIM has done a very fine job of remastering one of Decca’s very early stereo recordings. It is definitely different from any digital recording I know of and I have enjoyed familiarizing myself with it.
If you’re looking for both audiophile quality and good classical music, albeit programmatic in nature, I recommend that you listen to this CD. I think you’ll be happy with what you hear.
TITLE: Brahms Violin Sonata number one in G major, op. 78; Beach Violin Sonata in A minor Op.34
ARTIST: Arturo Delmoni, violin; Yuri Funahashi, piano
LABEL: John Marks Records JMR2
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
This CD was recorded in 1990 in a church located in Manhattan, NY. It was taped using a 2 track Studer A80 reel to reel analogue machine running at 30 IPS (inches per second). There is a benefit or two to the high speed. There is much more “headroom” on the tape, so it can be recorded at a “hotter” level than say ‘15’ IPS with the same frequency curve. The down side is a bit of muddiness in the lower bass. That’s not a big issue here as the lowest bass register is rarely involved in either sonata.
Two Cambridge C35 ribbon mics did all the front end work. (There’s no “pattern” info on those) and everything was monitored, including sessions, editing and mastering, with Stax SR-Lambda Signature headphones connected to the Stax SRM-T1S headphone amp. The digital mastering was not done until 1996 and was done in 22 bit. (Most early CDs labeled 24 bit are actually in 22 bit). There is no explanation for the six year delay. I’d find all this interesting if most of the other recordings of this music hadn’t already been done in almost precisely this fashion and many of those provide better sonic results. Additionally, some of the newest digital recordings are as purist in concept and sound excellent. Still, there’s something kind of fun about the decades old battle between digital and analogue fans. It’s quieted down after 30 years; 1988 was the first year that CDs outsold Vinyl, but the rumbling about Nipper in the shade and his analogue pals will never go away and seems to be gaining strength once again. At least on this recording, the tape that was recorded in the session is the one used to make the digital transfer. In analogue recordings from the 70s and back, almost every LP was made from at least a second generation “master” that had been adjusted by for levels etc. and to cover the edit points. Then the man cutting the stampers had a go at the EQ of the whole thing, so often the LP sounds radically different from what I call the “date tapes”. Those are the tapes made at the sessions and are always first generation.
This recording is successful in many ways both sonic and musical. It captures a very tight image of both players; one can almost see them. The violin is placed well to the left, and the piano has more prominence toward the right side. They blend well, and the tonal quality is lovely when the artists are playing with verve or working at their very best in quiet passages. It’s only when things get too soft and slow that the sound starts to become average. If the listener can try to arrive at the same level found at the vantage point of the microphones they’ll hear a very fine sound. This rule applies to all recordings that are not “mixed”. That’s why I have always liked “straight to two” as this recording method is called (when the two mics or channels go right to the recorder via mic-pres and possibly a very fine mixing board). It gives back exactly what you put in, especially if you use the very best front end gear to capture the performance. I’d love to know if there were special mic-preamps used, but that is not listed. I would think the basic Studer mic input had been by passed or highly modified.
I do have one gripe. This is in a church? It might as well have been in a studio where the central air or traffic noise I hear in the background wouldn’t be audible to such a degree. Of course in a church one doesn’t expect to go to “black” or no sound at all. This CD has a pronounced room wide band low-mid frequency room tone that continues between movements and pieces. That’s normal in a public space. But the recording has lots of low level artifacts going on during the music as well. The mics are somehow too focused on the instruments alone; the ribbon mics seem ultra-directional so that the sound image is locked in place; yet there’s very little ambience around either player no matter what level is used for playback. This technique is annoying in the first movement of the Brahms because it calls attention to itself. Using good earphones I hear all sorts of extra-musical noises that are specifically related to the violin such as fingers on the neck. On earphones, (after all, that’s the monitoring method) any time the violin bow is feathered to a great degree it can sound oddly uncontrolled. From any sort of distance that’s would not be the case. Either by design or luck by the time we come to the last two movements of the Brahms the artists seem to have repositioned themselves ever so slightly. There’s not so much a sense of more “air” but the violin is not under such close inspection. There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but I’ll just stick with what I’ve said. I’m being very picky. But so were the people that used this particular venue and recording technique in 1990.
Violinist Arturo Delmoni has a first class sound. I’d not heard him before and I’m delighted to become acquainted with his art via this CD. He has a fine sense of phrasing that, particularly in the Brahms, has some lovely portamenti at just the right moments. His full sound is burnished and the G string is neither husky nor underpowered. He can display the “grand style” of violin playing. Often inspired by the music he is making, Delmoni’s ideas in the 1st violin sonata of Brahms seem spontaneous yet well grounded. I do find that he starts the first movement a bit too slowly. I’m used to more Schwung in the phrasing. However, his ideas are the result of a curious tempo marking by the composer. It is one of the odder instructions I’ve seen until some of Mahler’s loquacious indications. It is “vivace ma non troppo”, (lively, but not too lively, a poor equivalent in English). It is in 6/4, as is the opening of the D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms. Looking at the music, one always has to ask “just what is the tempo?”. The concerto is marked “Maestoso”. For most people it falls between thinking in a fast six or a slow two. In this sonata Mr. Delmoni decides to take it a bit more slowly than some of his colleagues do, leaning towards the second half of the instruction. That aside, Mr. Delmoni does pick things up nicely during the second subject and in the development. He returns to his original view in the recapitulation. He often phrases with mastery as well as authority.
The slow movement can present an occasional bit of difficulty for him because of the long line he often does his best to create. Occasionally when he is at MP or below the intonation can become ever so slightly questionable, but once he gets to the octave passage at the end of the movement he’s on terra firma he plays with finesse. The scherzo has some tricky moments for the pianist and Yuri Funahashi handles them with ease. She never quite matches her colleague in intensity, but many solo artists like their collaborators to be subdued in the partnership.
The finale is played at the same high standard by both. I don’t wish to make too much of this fact, but I repeat, a bit of distance would have allowed for more latitude in the violinist’s softest playing. Add to this his impeccable awareness of 19th century style and one will find Mr. Delmoni very easy to which to listen.
Ms. Funahashi is always right where she needs to be. The piano writing in some places is as difficult as any solo music in Brahms. The only problem is that Ms. Funahashi is hampered by the instrument she is playing. I’m thinking that the lid is not fully up here. I will not speculate as to the brand of instrument. It does seem to be a full concert grand albeit one in need of some work by a good tuner/technician. The top register is far too dull for Brahms’ wide ranging right hand passages; those should shine as they sweep up and down on the keyboard. This instrument, as recorded, is acceptable if listless in big passage work. I repeat this is not the fault of the pianist. There are also a few moments when the instrument is more out of tune than at others. That happens in many piano recordings and the passage in question may have been played better than any other similar take and is left in regardless of the sudden change in stability.
The Sonata for violin of Amy Beach in A minor Op. 34 is the real reason to own this CD. Here the sound seems just slightly looser and the playing is committed from the first note for both musicians. This sonata isn’t treated like a sacred cow (the Brahms is sometimes too conservative.) The interpretation feels fresh and youthful. The music is a delight to encounter after so many years. Mme. Beach goes further than Brahms in her chromatic musing but mostly displays real kinship to the French school of composition made famous by Frank, St. Saens and Bizet. She’s no imitator though. Her thoughts seem quite original and this sonata will certainly reward repeated hearings. There are good technical and musical notes by the label’s owner, John Marks.
My advice is to simply turn up the gain and let this slightly flawed but endearing recording work for you.
TITLE: Granados, Intermezzo from the opera Goyescas; Falla, El Amor Brujo; Ravel, Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte, Alborada del Gracioso;
ARTIST: Rafael Frübeck de Burghos; The New Philharmonia Orchestra
LABEL: LIM K2HD 023
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
For me LIM’S Spanish and French combo has very fine sound indeed; the performances are not easily bettered by anyone. And you’re not going to see this particular performance reissued so well again in the future, not even using the wide ranging .MP3 format, he said with a grim smile.
This collection of the best of late 19th, early 20th century Spanish and French music is played with the right style on this newly remastered CD. Conductor Rafael Frübeck de Burghos, of German-Spanish ancestry, leads The New Philharmonia Orchestra. In this 1966 recording, some mixing can be heard on a first class playback system. In general the mic placement is typical of Decca LPs from that time. Occasionally one can hear a fader being raised to highlight an instrument. Let’s take the castanets as the example. In the opening track they are raised in level; in the closing Falla track, they are in a better perspective to the whole - that is the excellent New Philharmonia Orchestra.
The CD opens with Granados’ “Intermezzo” from his failed opera, “Goyescas”. This music is not a part of the six-piece piano suite made so famous by artists such as Alicia de Larrocha. As presented here, it is played alone with a lush, albeit fairly close sound. The conductor is talented and shapes his phrases well; as an operatic and symphonic conductor he is able to present this music with empathy for its originally intended use.
Manuel de Falla’s ballet suite “El Amor Brujo” comes next. The strings are less closely mic’d than in the Granados track. The difference is clear and I prefer it. The singer in track three, eight, ten and eleven is Nati Mistral. She’s not what I think of as an operatic “mezzo soprano”. She’s exactly the right person for Falla’s blatant outbursts. The texts fit her voice and her Spanish is pluperfect. This is the kind of singer one relates to in the gypsy melodies and rhythms of Falla. She seems a dark-eyed sorceress. What a plus! Her incantations are reason enough for owning this album; Decca had the good sense not to use a prissy or overblown “famous” mezzo as so many labels do when recording a folk based piece of the vocal literature. The word “tasteless” often comes to mind when someone sings Falla’s most idiosyncratic music. That’s not so with Nati Mistral.
The CD closes with two works of Ravel. “Pavane pour une infante défunct” is calm and sweet. There is a little noise in the mid frequencies which at high volume might be distracting. No matter, because we end with the mischievous “Alborada del Gracioso”. It too is executed with flair and a wide dynamic range. The noise problem is less noticeable than in the previous track. “Alborada” and “El Amor Brujo” are the best choices on this 44 minute CD. The orchestra is possibly a bit too polite sounding, but then, getting Klemperer’s New Philharmonia to sound swarthy might have taken a lot more than gentle nudging on de Burgos’ part. This project might have been more authentic sounding if done with a Spanish orchestra, although the rehearsal time needed to get these challenging pieces just right would probably have been out of the question.
There are several technical questions raised by this and other K2HD mastered releases. “Master” according to LIM means the nearest copy to the edited digital master. LIM says that most CDs are copied too many times in the digital domain before the glass master is cut and that by itself may degrade the sound. The amount of redundancy built into a given CD codec is such that this is not really an issue in my view. But LIM’s “straight wire” approach is commendable.
It’s when changing sampling rates and word lengths that the copying can be less than satisfactory; compression of the larger numbers is what happens to any tape that has to be “dithered” down as well as having the sample rate converted to the CD Red Book 44.1 kHz standard.
LIM makes positive claims for its newly formulated CD blank. I don’t want to say it’s not possible to hear a difference; I wish I could put the original master up against this CD so I could tell if this is in fact a real plus or is illusory at best. It always best to say “I don’t know” when I don’t. LIM may be right. I simply can’t hear the difference.
I also checked to see what the real dynamic range was in the music. The peaks are -0.2 db and the low end is around -35db – 40 db. The average runs to about -18db but In fades we get to -53 db and then go to digital black. These are good figures for a 1966 recording.
While I have those few minor quibbles, this is an audiophile product of high quality and integrity. It is well packaged and contains the original notes from the LP. That’s a nice touch. Well done. You pay for what you get - and with LIM you get what you pay for.
TITLE: “Bruckner Reloaded”: Bruckner Symphony 5, original edition with an “updated” score made by the conductor; ‘für Anton Bruckner’ by Hermann Nitsch,
ARTIST: Peter Jan Marthé, conductor; European Philharmonic Orchestra; Hermann Nitsch Organist in his own “improvisation” called “fur Anton Bruckner”
LABEL: Preiser - PR 90746 – 2 CDs; notes included;
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
The German CD company Preiser has been best known in this country for years because of its reissues of recordings, especially of German artists and repertoire that are drawn from the 78 rpm era. This two CD set, called “Bruckner Reloaded”, (what a concept!) is a nice departure as it is newly recorded. It contains Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, played in St. Florian’s Monastery, Bruckner’s home and workplace in his earlier years; the European Philharmonic Orchestra is led by Peter Jan Marthé in a beautiful sounding, albeit controversial interpretation of the work. The first track of CD 1 is a piece named, “für Anton Bruckner”, by Hermann Nitsch. In a moment there’ll be more on that.
The best part of these CDs is the sound. The result of the dynamics and spatial qualities of St. Florians Monastery is truly beautiful. The huge orchestra creates a dark, lush tone. The “grand pauses” that Bruckner writes into the music are fulfilled as he might have heard them himself due to his long association with St. Florians. They are very impressive. Any conductor must have a fine ear for both the timing of the decay of the chord just ending as well as the tempo and balance that will follow with the next musical phrase. Mr. Marthé is often successful in what is often a maddening way of making music for anyone as he creates clear proportionality in the flow of the musical lines. Some difficult transitions are made with firm precision. The Scherzo uses the same general timing although divided differently in the two parts of the A section. Marthé doesn’t embarrass himself as do so many attempting to juggle the requirements of Bruckner’s orchestral writing. The famous “finale” in which the brass used to rise in performance when the time came to play it sounds fantastic here. The venue certainly covers any rough edges that might otherwise exist. It is given a long, drawn out reading, but it works very well. Marthé’s balances between brass, strings and winds are good. Its no crime that Marthé’s not in the class of Giulini, Jochum or Furtwängler. Very few ever were or are.
I do notice something in the beginning that’s jarring to the ear. In the first movement, the opening pizzicatos are generally not together from one string section to another and there is one moment where on a single beat the music lurches forward by about 1/3 of a second. If that’s not a badly made edit or “join” I don’t know what is. Something is definitely wrong. Is it possible that the basses suddenly leapt ahead of the beat on that note alone? It seems highly unlikely, but I won’t say it didn’t happen. No matter what the trouble, it’s not a great way to start. There are a couple of other tempo situations that I think relate to editing, but again, I can’t be sure.
If there’s a down side, its the very long winded tri-lingual booklet that doesn’t give us insight into Bruckner per se. Rather it pushes Mr. Marthé’s philosophy about the composer. Note that Marthé’s ideas about Bruckner tend to contradict the facts. Still, the conductor considers himself the ultimate interpreter of Bruckner, period. Marthé is certainly aware of himself, if not necessarily full of self awareness; i.e. there are lots of posed pictures of him. The fact that I don’t much care for Mr. Marthé’s overblown rhetoric only indicates that I wish he’d not starred in the booklet as well as the CD. If you know the Fifth, you’ll certainly hear the few blatant exceptions to the score when the conductor adds cymbals and triangle for no good reason. Such tampering is not so affective that it makes any great difference to the outcome. Why do it in the first place? Mr. Marthé lets us in on the secret of his unique version via a cloud of hyperbolic utterances. Ultimately, it all boils down to, “Bruckner told me to!” Ah, a savant in our midst.
There’s also a lot of nonsense about the cultish and seemingly bizarre Mr. Nitsch. The organist seems to be a resurrected hippie from a late ‘60s California or upstate New York love-in. “für Anton Bruckner” is placed for whatever reason before the symphony. In and of itself there’s nothing “bad” about “für Anton Bruckner”. There’s nothing particularly original about the piece. It is an “on the spot” improvisation (so we’re told). Nitsch opens his inner soul to us for about 20 minutes, (again, so we’re told). A plus is its performance on the very organ that Bruckner played while at St. Florians. If you like the very specific sound of a great European tracker organ from the 18th century in a big space, you may well enjoy “für Anton..” especially at a moderately high gain level. The improvisation is far from provocative in musical terms. But there’s something good to be said about that. On a good sound system, it will make your neighbors aware you’ve suddenly stopped listening to hip-hop. The music is for the most part childlike in its construction and I can think of no other reason for its inclusion than for the sake of the Euro-sensationalism that has also taken over the German opera world. Sorry, I’m not scandalized. The organ’s recorded sound is rich, colorful and full of impact. However, the lowest ranks are curiously out of tune. If you’re system will get well below 80 Hz, you’ll hear a slow “beat” that sounds like a wobbly vibrato. Tuner please! The bass overall is fairly even from note to note. Nitsch can’t be compared as a player to the great organist’s of the day. The 20 minute exercise turns out to be little more than “fun” in sound reproduction for a good system; with hi-end gear it may shake some cobwebs free and expose certain distortions because notes and full harmonies are held long enough to have unexpectedly practical audiophile consequences. If you’re not aware of this, the organ, with enough stops pulled out at full volume creates its own distortion from enharmonic as well as tuning problems. This recording doesn’t seem to reveal any that I can readily hear, other than the bass problem I mentioned already.
The audiophile should be very pleased with this purchase. With all its flaws I found it enjoyable listening. For those who care most about the music and for whom the sound is a nice bonus, it’s a so-so proposition compared to a lot of other recordings of Bruckner’s mammoth work. Most of those performances are live and don’t sound nearly as fine on a good system. For them this will be novel or dull depending on a variety of things that only they know. I’m glad I own it. No doubt I’ll listen again to see if my opinion changes with time, as it so often does.
THE BEST "MESSIAH"
A Comparison by
I’d like to make a few recommendations about Christmas’s most popular classical piece, “Messiah”. (Please note, the name of the piece is not “The Messiah”. Handel called it “Messiah”; just a little reminder.)
When last looking at Amazon, an input for “Messiah” revealed 944 entries - talk about overkill.
I’ve heard many, many, many different versions of this piece, and I’ve probably sung it over 50 times in both professional and college settings. Even as an audio enthusiast, the performance of a piece this important will always be my primary reason to own a recording of it. A little information for the non singer – next time you hear the final bass solo, “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, the air has a tricky introduction– “…beginning with “Behold I tell you a mystery…” and ending with “…at the last trumpet”. That is occasionally heard as “at the las strumpet” causing even modern day audiences to titter if sung too far off the mark.)
There are several ways of doing “Messiah”. The most egregious by today’s standards, in terms of bombast, if not to say fun, is that of Sir Thomas Beecham on RCA. I’d not heard the version in years. I am always both amused and entertained by it, at least in certain moments. I’m almost positive, although the notes don’t mention it, that Decca made this recording during an exchange period between the two companies. The sound is patently late ‘50s Decca, and it’s excellent, coming for a very fine master. I’m just guessing, but the venue is either Kingsway Hall (since torn down) or Walthemstow Town Hall in London. The size of the thing suggests the former.
Beecham’s is the Barnum and Bailey version to be sure. And rather than have Joan Sutherland’s mushy diction, Beecham dispatched her from the cast and hired Monica Sinclair, not exactly an equal substitute vocally speaking. (Sir Thomas’ rejoinder upon hearing that Sutherland was out of the recording: “Hallelujah!”) He makes up for it with cymbals, snare drum, horns, pizzicato strings that are not Handel’s idea at all, I can’t name everything the wonderful Brit adds to this in 1959. He uses a huge orchestra and chorus. The problem with is, after hearing Jon Vickers sing “Every Valley” with his full Wagnerian voice at its best, we get “And the Glory of the Lord” so overblown and slow that it seems like the end of the oratorio has already arrived! Handel is left to fend for himself while Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have a great time. Even under this Victorian era assault the composer does come through reasonably unscathed. You might obtain this selection as a kind of 19th century sonic Technicolor/Panorama spectacular compared to any other. Its robust bon ami goes a long way in making it desirable. In fact, some may actually prefer it to what they consider to be the puny “historic” view.
There is another full throttle version by Otto Klemperer with a bevy of great soloists; Schwartzkopf, Hoffman, Gedda and Hines. They make the set in my opinion. The rest is rather bulky albeit well recorded and performed; it is purist in comparison to Beecham’s. Klemperer’s is vintage early ‘60s EMI sound, and is available from Japan if you can figure out how to order it on the web, or from the Internet at Arkivrecords who have licensed it for reproduction. Be aware this is NOT the Arkiv record label. It is a special business that sells used CDs as well as licensing others for reissue. So these CDs are burned and not made in a real CD factory, where the CD is not a CD-W but is made from a glass master. Still, its about the only way to get this for less than the idiotic “used” prices on Amazon (I’m talking about $230).
The mid ‘60s saw the emergence of what was then considered revolutionary; the choirs were pared down to about 30 singers, give or take one or two extras. The orchestra was set up with Handel’s most basic requirements and was equal in size to the choir. Modern instruments and modern performance practice was still used though. Of those versions I have several that I particularly like. The famous American Choral guru, Robert Shaw and his equally famous Chorale were recorded doing the version he toured with for years. It maintains a special analogue glow from the venue, RCA’s oft used Webster Hall.
The choir is superb. It has guts and never tries to be anything but red blooded. There is a discipline to their singing that has stood the test of time because the group consisted of some of the best solo voices in New York at the time; yet they always blended to sound as one with Shaw. They chose to forego their careers to make good money with this great master. As a professional choral singer from the ‘60s to the late ‘80s, I knew a lot of these singers and many continued to work and record well into the 90s. The sound represents the RCA in the mid ‘60s. Its close, but not too much so; there is cohesion and just enough reverberation. The space is not as live as some others but the microphones are tube versions such as the Neumann M50s, U67s with U47s on the solo voices. This was the standard at RCA for many years to come. The soloists are top notch, albeit with voices that are meant to fill a large hall.
I should add that the version by Colin Davis is similar if somewhat less satisfying because he is not first and foremost a choral leader. That said, I find him to be one of the great conductors of our time. It is similar to Shaw, but recorded with a European type of setup i.e. not as close and with a bit more “refinement”. The difference reflects the temperament of the two men. Shaw worked like a demon at all times, actually pouring buckets of water on his head during recording session breaks. (He was moved away from the mic pre-amps that were all over the floor.) Davis is a smooth but demanding conductor in rehearsals. He gets what he wants from one and all as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. But his performance here can occasionally be just a bit too polite in comparison to the Shaw. I’ll grant that many people feel just the opposite about these two versions, so its up to you to decide.
Because I’m going to discuss “period instruments and style” pitch is an important topic. It is generally thought to have been lower Handel’s day. In the USA concert A is usually 440 Hz per second. In Handel’s day concert pitch is considered to have been around 435 Hz per second. So if you hear a sudden drop in pitch between a modern orchestra and a period group in the same music, you’ll understand why.
The most recent performance that I’ve heard and enjoyed, although not found particularly revelatory, is on a Linn two CD/Hybrid SACD set. The Dunedin Consort has been reviewed here already by me in glowing terms. However, in “Messiah” their soloists are no match for the others selections I’ve chosen. The larger choruses all have too much reverberation behind them for my taste. This music needs to be clearly heard, not buried under a lot of “return”. The choir is a fine group, but not in the league of the Monteverdi or Shaw groups. However, if you’re looking for the latest in sound and a respectable performance, this is worth hearing. It could be better in places, but you’ll enjoy many fine moments.
I’ve heard many, many latter day, “period” versions of “Messiah”; I keep coming back to the same one, however, that was actually made digitally in 1982. John Elliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists give us the best “Messiah” I can imagine when things are weighed one against the other. There are lots of others that follow his formula, but there’s a reason that Gardiner has had the huge success he has had over the last three decades. That is commitment to every detail including rhythm, dynamics, blend, textual precision and well as awareness of what the words mean when combined. That should always be the case, but many singers go from vowel to vowel or word to word, not from thought to thought. Gardiner never gives the sense that he’s the engine driving this Ferrari (or should I say Aston Martin) of an ensemble. That’s one of his best features; he gets out of the way. He doesn’t overdo embellishments in the way that so many have done since these add-ons became “common” practice in the early ‘70s. Those are supposed to “enliven” the repeats in A-B-A style airs. Often they actually detract, and add nothing in terms of musical expression. They are instead displays of narcissism that should be done away with.
With Gardiner, there are moments with soloists and choir that have additions to the original printed score, but they are only used to fit the text. Even the trills in the choruses and solos tend to be short. Often they are turns or plain mordents. This recording works so well because it is not hammed up and this “Messiah” is as close to what I think of as ideal. The older recordings have a lot of dramatic moments, but that has more to do with basic execution than being acutely aware of the text. With Gardiner the drama is mined directly from the various passages of the Bible as well as an early instruments orchestra that has few equals.
Counter-tenor Charles Brett’s, “He was despised”, is stunning. I’ve only heard it done this well by Michael Chance, another English counter-tenor. Mr. Brett sings the air so well that I was taken aback. Having sung “Messiah” with the Musica Sacra Chorus here in New York for 10 years, I got very tired of this air. It can be very long if not done with just the right emphasis. The aforementioned Mr. Chance woke up everyone in the house when he did it with us. Brett’s soul is in the recording. This is what great oratorio singing, no matter the size or type of voice, is all about.
The sound of the Gardiner is marvelous. It has a church setting, without too much reverberation; it qualifies as audiophile, if not quite as purist in method as the one on Linn.
I’m sorry I can’t deliver a greater number of choices. I’ve heard far too many that bore me stiff and don’t deserve any mention. Any of the one’s above will at the least be good listening and at best be, on occasion, overwhelming.