May 30, 2013

(+++) WHAT MAKES THEM SPECIAL


Mozart: Symphony No. 41; Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan. ICA Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Symphony No. 39; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Debussy: Trois Nocturnes—Fêtes. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 1. Adam Levin, guitar. Naxos. $9.99.

Spellbound: Works for Orchestra and Large Ensemble by Paul Osterfield, Ronald Keith Parks, Timothy Lee Miller, Michael Murray, and Mark Eliot Jacobs. Navona. $14.99.

     It is not always easy to understand the reason for the release of recordings that are clearly aimed at specialized niche audiences rather than more-general ones. On the other hand, it is easy to figure out the motivation some of the time, when the performances highlight particularly well-known artists or especially noteworthy performances. Or both, as in the case of the ICA Classics two-CD set of the April 6, 1962 concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan. This Royal Festival Hall performance, which was recorded by the BBC, was particularly noteworthy in its time for combining the world’s best orchestra with one of its best conductors – the best, in some views. Fifty years later, the concert’s luster is somewhat dimmer for reasons of both sound and repertoire, but the recording will nevertheless be of considerable interest to Karajan aficionados and anyone who may have seen references to his work with the Vienna Philharmonic – as opposed to his long-running role as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, which he brought very nearly to the same height as the Vienna ensemble. This is a monophonic recording from a time when Mozart was played with a very full orchestra and without taking most of the repeats indicated in his symphonic scores. The result here is a poised and elegant performance that is quite out of keeping with more-modern scholarship and more-recent (and more-accurate) presentations. Bruckner’s Seventh is given in the 1944 Haas edition, which omits percussion from the slow movement and makes a number of speculative changes in the score; nowadays the Nowak edition is usually preferred. Karajan gives a magisterial performance here but not an especially emotionally involving one. Anyone who knows Karajan’s Bruckner Seventh from April 1989 – his very last Vienna Philharmonic recording, also using the Haas edition – will find this rendition comparatively pale. Nevertheless, the symphony is beautifully played and the orchestra sounds excellent, even in mono. Certainly this recording is not for everyone, but it has many highly attractive elements.

     So does the ICA Classics DVD of a much later Royal Festival Hall performance, this one dating to February 2, 1985 and featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director, Sir Georg Solti. Last year’s centennial of Solti’s birth led to the rediscovery and release of many recordings as well as a slew of film and video biographies, and there are clearly still more to come. This DVD is primarily for people who want to see as well as hear Solti’s conducting. The performances are very good – by this time, the Chicago players responded almost intuitively to the direction of Solti, who had taken over the helm of the ensemble back in 1969 – but there is nothing extraordinary about them. The Mozart sounds fine, its rhythms clean and its tempos well-chosen, but the reading is more pleasant than revelatory. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, on the other hand, is top-notch in many ways, its “fate” motif ringing out clearly in the brass, its pacing handled ably from start to finish, and the pizzicati of its scherzo being especially attractive. Again, though, there is nothing really new or surprising in the interpretation. Still, this is a top-notch mainstream reading featuring tight direction and excellent playing throughout. And Debussy’s Fêtes makes a pleasant, rather unassuming encore. This is a DVD intended to appeal to Solti fans, of whom there are many.

     If a conductor focus is what the ICA Classics releases are all about, a performer one is the reason for 21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 1, the first of a planned set of four CDs. Adam Levin is a very fine classical guitarist who clearly aims to move into the pantheon of Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and Christopher Parkening. Whether he eventually will do so remains to be seen; what is clear already is that he offers an impressive combination of excellent technique with genuine musicianship – a real feeling for the pieces he performs. Or so at least is the case in the works on this CD, all of which were written between 2009 and 2011. The composers are not what will attract listeners to the disc; they are scarcely household names: Eduardo Morales-Caso, Salvador Brotons, David del Puerto, Carlos Cruz de Castro, Ricardo Llorca, Leonardo Balada and Octavio Vazquez. For that matter, the pieces themselves are not the primary attraction here, all of them being short and moderately interesting, and collectively wide-ranging in mood – from the quiet and contemplative to the bright and highly virtuosic. Five of the seven works are world première recordings, and two of those are based on earlier composers’ music and are particularly memorable: Llorca’s Handeliana (a set of variations on a theme from Xerxes) and Balada’s Caprichos No. 8: Abstractions of Albéniz. The focus of this CD, though, is far more on Levin than on any individual work, and the disc is intended for listeners who enjoy classical guitar and are interested in hearing some of the new music being created for it – and a current virtuoso interpreting that music.

     The focus is also purely on hearing the contemporary on Navona’s new CD, Spellbound, an anthology disc whose five works by five composers really have very little in common and are unlikely to be of equal interest to any listener. Paul Osterfield, Ronald Keith Parks, Timothy Lee Miller, Michael Murray, and Mark Eliot Jacobs all clearly know how to write for orchestras or large ensembles, and all five choose the sorts of topics for their works that composers have picked for many years: myth and legend, stage works, evocative experiences and so forth. The various performers are all fine as well: Robert Ian Winstin conducts the Kiev Philharmonic in Parks’ Torque and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in Miller’s Alone: Suite for Orchestra; Petr Vronský conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in Jacobs’ Las Ranas de Katanchel, the orchestra’s strings in Murray’s Shakespeare-based Tempest Fantasy, and the orchestra’s chamber players in Osterfield’s Opaque Shadows. These are nicely shaped pieces, mostly in the 10-minute range, that function as miniature tone poems and, in the case of the 18-minute Las Ranas de Katanchel, full-length ones. They are well-structured and written with an understanding of orchestration and musical form, and each shows its composer’s communicative abilities. There is, however, little to choose among the pieces and little reason to look to the disc as any sort of musically coherent offering – it is simply a chance for listeners interested in contemporary compositions to hear a variety of them by a number of composers who use the sensibilities of today to tell or retell some modern stories and some old ones.

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