March 06, 2014


Hummel: Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 38, 39 and 40 Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Friedemann Eichhorn, violin; Martin Rummel, cello; Roland Krüger, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 4—Il barbiere di Siviglia; Il Turco in Italia; Sinfonia in E-flat; Ricciardo e Zoraide; Torvaldo e Dorliska; Armida; Le Comte Ory; Bianca e Falliero. Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.

Glière: Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets.” Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos $9.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 12. Leon Fleisher, piano; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by André Cluytens (Beethoven) and Georg Ludwig Jochum (Mozart). ICA Classics. $16.99.

Mozart: Symphony No. 35; Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche; Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Andromeda. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     The standard classical-music repertoire is filled with so much beauty and so many attractions that it is easy to dwell within it constantly, rarely if ever exposing oneself to music that is off the beaten track. But at some point, for most people, the familiar, no matter how grand and beautifully performed, will begin to pall, and that is the time to explore less-known music – which can actually be done while hewing very closely to works with which most classical-music lovers are already thoroughly familiar. If that sounds like a contradiction, consider Mozart’s onetime house guest and pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the tribute he paid to his adored master by arranging some of Mozart’s symphonies as chamber music. No matter how well one knows Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 38, 39 and 40, it is unlikely that he or she is familiar with the Hummel arrangements that are quite wonderfully performed by Uwe Grodd, Friedemann Eichhorn, Martin Rummel and Roland Krüger on a new Naxos CD. Krüger takes the lead here – Hummel, a superb pianist himself, gave most of the thematic material to the piano – but these arrangements give plenty of scope to the other instruments as well. And they are not “mere” arrangements: Hummel inserted new accent patterns and changed some of the dynamics of the symphonies to try to bring out characteristics that he considered particularly significant. Whether or not one agrees with what Hummel did, the fact is that he worked with great skill and with full appreciation – near-reverence – for these works, producing versions with a fascinating sound (thanks in large part to attractive use of the flute) and considerable musical interest beyond their curiosity value. This is a disc that will send listeners back to the orchestral versions of the symphonies with a new understanding of what Mozart created and a new appreciation of his original instrumentation – a state of affairs of which Hummel would surely have approved.

     There is nothing unfamiliar in the instrumentation of the Rossini overtures included in the fourth and final Naxos volume featuring the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra under Christian Benda. The exploration here comes from the music itself. Yes, the CD includes one of the best-known Rossini overtures of all, to Il barbiere di Siviglia – a work already heard in Volume 1 of this series as the overture to Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, Rossini never having hesitated to reuse and recycle his own music. Another of the composer’s most popular overtures, to Il Turco in Italia, is here as well. But the remaining works on the CD are much less known. They include the early Sinfonia in E-flat that the composer later adapted – in another instance of self-borrowing – to create the overture to his first operatic hit, La cambiale di matrimonio. And the remaining overtures are all tuneful and very adeptly constructed, from the very brief one to Le Comte Ory to the more-extended openings to Armida, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Torvaldo e Dorliska, and Bianca e Falliero. The creativity of Rossini’s overtures, and indeed of his operas, is sometimes underestimated because the composer was so facile at producing fine music and did use and reuse forms as well as actual sections of works (or entire pieces). But just as it is a mistake to consider Rossini’s operas formulaic – Armida, for example, calls for six (!) tenors – it is wrong to think of his overtures as all cut from the same musical cloth. As this very fine series has shown since its first volume, there is a great deal of variety as well as a great deal of pleasure in Rossini’s overtures, whether frequently performed or not.

     Just as Rossini is generally known for only a handful of his overtures and a smaller handful of his operas, the music of Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) is generally heard only in performances of his Horn Concerto and his ballet The Red Poppy, particularly the Russian Sailor’s Dance from the stage work. But there is a great deal more worth exploring in this composer’s music, which includes three early symphonies – of which the huge Third is Mahlerian in scale and scope and dates to 1911, the year of Mahler’s death. More a set of connected tone poems than a fully integrated symphony – many listeners will no doubt be reminded of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred – Glière’s Third is known as “Il’ya Muromets” because it revolves around that legendary Russian hero (much as Tchaikovsky’s work focuses on Byron’s Manfred). The Glière work requires a very large orchestra that includes eight horns, two harps and a celesta, and it needs a conductor who can sustain the scene-setting as well as the dramatic elements without allowing the 70-minute work to flag (Tchaikovsky’s Manfred is shorter by some 20 minutes). JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic acquit themselves splendidly in their recording for Naxos, with the orchestra rising to the occasion with warmth and grandeur of sound and Falletta doing a first-rate job of contrasting Glière’s instances of extreme quiet with those of overwhelming massed sonority. The story, well-known in Russia but exotic elsewhere, is similar to those of many other legendary heroes, with Il’ya rising from powerlessness to become a great warrior, capable of defeating supernatural foes as well as earthbound ones – until led by his hubris to challenge the Celestial Army, resulting in the defeat of his forces and their being turned to stone. Glière’s grand-scale music is evocative and highly expressive, very much in the Romantic mode. Falletta’s accomplished conducting brings it to vivid life and should lead to a reconsideration of Glière’s music in general – perhaps even to a revival of interest in his other two symphonies.

     Interestingly, it is not necessary to venture into unfamiliar repertoire in order to do some off-the-beaten-track musical exploration. Another way to broaden one’s horizons is to delve into unfamiliar performances of well-known works – particularly by listening to historic renditions by artists with soaring reputations, but ones concertgoers can no longer hear, for one reason or another. ICA Classics and Andromeda make this sort of exploration possible through their releases of music that is very well-known indeed – but not in the performances offered on these CDs. Leon Fleisher, before severe problems with his hands forced him off the concert stage for decades, was an absolutely phenomenal interpreter of the music of Beethoven, Mozart and others. The March 1960 live performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and March 1957 live recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 12 (K. 414) show just why Fleisher (born 1928) left so many concertgoers awestruck. The fluidity of these performances, the lightness of touch and absolute command of the instrument under Fleisher’s hands, add up to a highly involving and engaging experience even though the ICA Classics monophonic sound is only so-so and both conductors are more workmanlike than inspired when leading the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (subsequently renamed WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln). Fleisher has only been able to perform again with both hands within the last few years – his first CD release marking the occasion was in fact called “Two Hands” – and the pianist no longer gives concerts like the ones memorialized here. So this recording, although it gets a (+++) rating because of its sound and the less-than-stellar (although perfectly adequate) conducting, will be a real and rare treat for anyone wondering what all the fuss was about Fleisher in his youth.

     Similarly, those interested in the continuing fascinating with the personality and musical abilities of Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) will be delighted to discover the two-CD set of the concert he gave at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in February 1955 – the first time the Berlin Philharmonic appeared in the United States after World War II, which had ended a decade before. The political importance of the concert was extremely high, a fact that makes the way it opens – with the national anthems of both the United States and Germany – especially significant. In many ways, this concert cemented the postwar geopolitical order, in which the United States and West Germany (with East Germany still under control of the Soviet Union) were firm allies against the spread of Communism. Many modern listeners will find the historical realities quaint, even irrelevant, but even they will be moved by the power and intensity that Karajan and the orchestra bring to this concert, especially in their grand and glorious handling of Brahms’ First Symphony. As with the Fleisher disc, this two-CD set is lacking in excellence when it comes to sound; no one will buy it as a first (or even second) version of the Brahms, much less as a definitive version of the Mozart and Strauss works. That makes this (+++) release one for those interested in Karajan’s conducting skill, his role as a musical ambassador in the years after World War II, and his ability to galvanize an orchestra and an audience with precisely played, finely honed performances of familiar works that sound poised, fresh and beautifully balanced under his leadership. This recording explores a vanished time and vanished set of political realities, and at the same time celebrates the enduring power of music that is both familiar and undeniably great.

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