May 17, 2012

(+++) USES OF THE PAST


Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1; Ravel: Piano Trio. Beaux Arts Trio (Daniel Guilet, violin; Bernard Greenhouse, cello; Menahem Pressler, piano). Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Schubert, Ravel, Richard Strauss and Frank Martin: Lieder. Gérard Souzay, baritone; Dalton Baldwin, piano. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Sibelius: Finlandia. Orchestra di Torino della RAI conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Dynamic. $14.99.

Music Is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons. A film by Robert Neumüller. Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. C Major (2 DVDs). $29.99.

      Two new Hänssler Classic CDs of 50-plus-year-old performances, clearly aimed at a niche market of collectors of the work of specific performers, show both the pluses and minuses of bringing the sounds of a much earlier time to audiences of today.  The composition of the Beaux Arts Trio changed many times during the ensemble’s 53-year existence, from 1955 to 2008.  Pianist Menahem Pressler, however, was a constant and enduring presence, and it is mainly fans and collectors of his work to whom the CD of Brahms and Ravel trios will appeal.  Recorded in 1960 by SWR (Südwestrundfunk, Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting organization), the performances are both well-paced, nicely played and interesting in their contrast between the German and French composers’ handling of the same chamber ensemble.  The sound is perfectly adequate, although not outstanding by modern standards.  At 53 minutes, this is not a CD designed to bring a large amount of music to the listener, nor would it be most people’s first choice for either composition – it is clearly a worthy special-interest item, no more and no less.  So is the SWR recording, from the same year, of a mixed recital of German Lieder and French mélodies by baritone Gérard Souzay (1918-2004).  Souzay had a 40-year recital career, beginning in 1945, but a much shorter operatic one – the reason he never became as well-known as other top singers of his time.  His longstanding collaboration with pianist Dalton Baldwin (born 1931) began in 1954.  Souzay was particularly renowned for his excellent ear for language – he was said to be able to sing 13 languages idiomatically and convincingly.  The German and French repertoire remained his recital mainstay, however, and at the time of this recording, he and Baldwin were at the height of their collaborative success, with Souzay in excellent voice.  The CD is nevertheless another limited-appeal item, at least in part because of the selections offered.  There are four unrelated Schubert songs here, with Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”), the most interesting of them, being as long as the other three combined.  There are also four unrelated Richard Strauss songs, with Ruhe, meine Seele (“Rest, My Soul”) being particularly affecting.  Ravel’s works on the CD are Cinq mélodies populaires grecques (“Five Popular Greek Melodies”) and Deux mélodies hébraïques (“Two Hebrew Melodies”), all sung and played with sensitivity.  The greatest focus of this 56-minute CD, however, is on the music of Frank Martin (1890-1974), specifically his Sechs Monologe aus “Jedermann” (“Six Monologues from 'Everyman'”), which set the German language with understanding and skill (although Martin’s first language was French) but which are interesting rather than emotionally compelling – although Souzay certainly sings them beautifully.  Fans of this baritone will welcome a chance to hear him in pretty much any mixture of repertoire, but there is little here to attract listeners who are not already familiar with Souzay’s considerable strengths.

      The music is entirely familiar on a CD entitled “Karajan in Italy, Vol. 3,” and Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) is certainly a household name – undoubtedly one of the great conductors of the 20th century.  This new Dynamic CD is nevertheless a niche product, because the performances on it date to 1953 and are not at Karajan’s highest level.  They are certainly very fine – Karajan’s interpretations are as intense and well-wrought as usual – but listeners accustomed to the conductor’s 35-year leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic will find the Orchestra di Torino della RAI lacking in comparison, and the sound thinner and less convincing than in other Karajan recordings.  Furthermore, Tchaikovsky was never one of Karajan’s strong suits: the hyper-emotionalism of the composer tended to bring out an overly studied and overly staid reaction from the conductor, resulting in performances that, like this one, are technically expert but lacking in conviction and, for want of a better word, soul.  The Sibelius is another matter: Karajan was always closely attuned to this composer’s work, and a later reading of Finlandia for Deutsche Grammophon remains perhaps the most exciting performance ever recorded.  This one is very fine, too, but the sonic compression and tightness prevent the piece from sounding as expansive and exciting as in later recordings by Karajan and others.  Fans of the conductor will find his work with the Italian orchestra interesting, but the fact is that he did better in Germany and Austria.

      One of Karajan’s conducting students, Mariss Jansons, is the subject of a two-DVD set that features a 52-minute documentary portrait by Robert Neumüller.  Jansons and Karajan appear together in some of the historical material here, and Jansons himself narrates the story of his early life and education.  The documentary is put together neatly and paced well, the historical footage fits nicely into the narrative, and the scenes of Jansons rehearsing with the Vienna Philharmonic for its New Year’s Concert provide some interesting views of the conductor’s techniques and methods for extracting the sounds he wants from an orchestra.  But there is nothing particularly unusual in the way the documentary is made, and although there are some insights to be gained here, there are no “aha!” moments to make Jansons (born 1943) stand out from other conductors of his age – or from other musicians profiled elsewhere in documentary films.  Fans of Jansons will find the documentary quite pleasant but scarcely revelatory; non-fans will likely deem it of little interest.  The second DVD, though, should please just about everyone: this Mahler “Resurrection” is a substantial one, with considerable intensity in the first movement, suitable relaxation thereafter, and – in the finale – some really impressive orchestral playing before the uplifting and very well-sung choral passages.  Jansons is music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the world’s very best (he heads the Bavarian Radio Symphony as well).  The Concertgebouw responds to him with sureness and strength, its particularly fine brass providing all the warmth, excitement and burnished sounds that serve Mahler best.  There is, however, little value to having this performance on DVD rather than CD (or, better, SACD): the video direction by Joost Honselaar is perfectly competent (albeit occasionally somewhat distracting), but seeing the performers does not add much to hearing playing that is highly effective in sonic terms and is diminished rather than expanded by its video component.  For Jansons fans, this two-DVD set will be a very fine keepsake; listeners in general will certainly appreciate the Mahler Second, but may not find the price of the set worth paying, since the video element is not a big selling point.

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