August 28, 2014
(++++) A BEVY OF BONUSES
Classic Archives Collector’s Edition—Conductors: Ernest Ansermet, Herbert von Karajan, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Charles Munch, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer, Leopold Stokowski, Eugen Jochum, Igor Markevitch, Paul Paray, Igor Stravinsky. Idéale Audience. $59.99 (Blu-ray Disc).
Monteverdi: Vespri Solenni per la Festa di San Marco. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99 (CD+DVD).
Wolf-Ferrari: Violin Concerto; “Il campiello”—Prelude; “Le donne curiose”—Overture; “L’amore medico”—Overture; “I quatro rusteghi”—Intermezzo. Benjamin Schmid, violin; Oviedo Filarmonía conducted by Friedrich Haider. FARAO Classics. $24.99 (CD+DVD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 10—Adagio. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
El Sistema at the Salzburg Festival—National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and White Hands Choir of Venezuela. C Major DVD. $24.99.
American Aggregate. Inscape. Sono Luminus. $24.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).
Some recordings give you a little something extra. Some give you a lot extra. Some pack so many extras into one package that they are bonuses in and of themselves – for example, the fourth release in the Classic Archives Collector’s Edition, which focuses on 12 of the greatest conductors of the mid-to-late 20th century. There is simply a huge amount of music on this single Blu-ray Disc – more than 14 hours in all, recorded between 1963 and 1983. Here you will find Beethoven’s Seventh from Ernest Ansermet (whose name is unaccountably left off the packaging!); Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique from Herbert von Karajan; Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini from Yevgeny Mravinsky; Brahms’ First and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 from Charles Munch; the Brahms and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos with David Oistrakh and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky; Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from Carlo Maria Giulini; Beethoven’s Ninth with Otto Klemperer; Beethoven’s Fifth, Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony from Leopold Stokowski; Bruckner’s Seventh and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Eugen Jochum; Shostakovich’s First and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms from Igor Markevitch; Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite from Paul Paray (another conductor not mentioned on the package), and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite conducted by the composer (who is also not mentioned on the packaging). Not all the performances will please everybody, to be sure, nor will all the recordings and visuals; and this release may revive some arguments of decades past, such as whether Stokowski’s frequently overblown readings were or were not effective, whether Stravinsky was the best conductor of his own music, and whether the slow tempos favored by Klemperer in his later years were beneficial or harmful to the understanding and enjoyment of the music. The chance to reopen these debates may be seen as one bonus of this release; the inclusion of performances by Ansermet, Paray and Stravinsky, despite their not being named on the packaging, may be seen as another. And there is also a genuine, intentional bonus here: a documentary film by Dennis Marks called Yevgeny Mravinsky: Soviet Conductor, Russian Aristocrat. Listeners (and viewers) interested in this extremely important conductor, who remains less known worldwide than in Russia, will find the film highly informative and enjoy the way it enhances the Tchaikovsky performance heard here (Tchaikovsky was a major specialty both of Mravinsky and of Soviet orchestras at the time of these recordings). The sheer scale of the material offered, and the chance to hear and see so many great conductors in so many venues (London, Croydon, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, Tokyo), will make this Blu-ray release a fascinating one even for music lovers who decide that many of these performances have since been surpassed.
There is a bonus as well with the new Naïve release of Monteverdi’s Vespri Solenni per la Festa di San Marco, but Rinaldo Alessandrini’s performance alone is plenty of reason to own this recording. Alessandrini is one of the best modern interpreters of Monteverdi’s music, and his recordings of the Madrigals and Orfeo, among others, are first-rate. Now Alessandrini is offering a Vespers service containing material from the Vespri of 1610 and Selva Morale of 1640, an assemblage and performance sensitive to the liturgies for which the music was composed, steeped in the best historically aware performance practices, and permeated with expressiveness and beauty that make the recording far more than a strictly religious or determinedly “historically accurate” one. There is enormous beauty in Monteverdi’s music, and this is what Alessandrini seems determined to bring out – and he does so enormously effectively, using eight voices and a 14-member chamber ensemble to communicate the warmth, seriousness and devout joy of the music. The brass playing here is particularly noteworthy, lending the music both a celebratory tone and a deep seriousness. And, as noted, there is a bonus with the CD: a DVD of a film by Claudio Rufa called L’umano e Il Suo Divino: Alessandrini Dirige Monteverdi, which explores Alessandrini’s approach to the music and helps show how he assembled the material heard on the CD – the first release in what is planned as a multi-year project.
The CD-plus-DVD arrangement provides the bonus as well for a release that, again, practically seems like a bonus in and of itself: Benjamin Schmid’s performance of the almost completely neglected 1943 Violin Concerto by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948). A late work and one that seems out of character for a composer best known for his operas – to the extent that he is known at all nowadays – the concerto, despite its date, is a thoroughly Romantic (or neo-Romantic) work, subtly designed, carefully structured, and particularly well-orchestrated (Wolf-Ferrari was a more talented orchestrator than he is usually credited with being). It is easy to see why this wartime work never gained much concert-hall traction: far from referring to the time when it was written, it barely seems cognizant of the 20th century at all, using the tonality and grand gestures of the prior century to considerable effect but undoubtedly seeming, from its first performance, to be quite out of step with its era. A reconsideration of tonality and its use in the 20th century is now ongoing, at least to some extent, and a new look at this concerto fits nicely into it. The work stands on its own quite well – and Friedrich Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonía handle their part in it quite strongly, allowing Schmid plenty of opportunities to bring forth the music’s many manifest beauties. Haider also brings sensitivity and understanding to music taken from four of Wolf-Ferrari’s 13 mature operas (two others, both very early works, were never performed). The sparkling Il segreto di Susanna is the only one of the operas mounted with some regularity today, but there is plenty of well-made and emotionally satisfying music in the others, and these excerpts will likely whet listeners’ appetite – especially when heard in conjunction with the concerto. In a sense, the operatic music is a bonus, but not the only one. The unusually lengthy, well-researched and elegant booklet accompanying this recording is so informative as to be worthy of being called a “bonus” in and of itself. And there is also a DVD bonus packaged with the FARAO Classics CD, in the form of a documentary called Liebeserklärung an eine Geigerin (“Declaration of Love to a Violinist”). This sheds some interesting additional light on the music heard here – although, in truth, this music is its own best advocate, and is decidedly worth more-frequent performance.
The bonus is a purely musical one in the final release in Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle on Oehms, featuring the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. This particular bonus, though, comes with a sort of caveat, since it also represents a disappointment. There is nothing disappointing in Stenz’s handling of Mahler’s Ninth: this conductor has shown throughout the cycle that he fully understands Mahler’s thematic and emotional contrasts, his use of gigantic orchestras to achieve chamber-music clarity of specific sections or instruments as well as to produce overwhelming scenes of thunderous intensity, his technique of mixing complexity and new ideas with a considerable degree of naïveté. The very broad first movement of Stenz’s Ninth aptly sets the scene for the remainder of the symphony, which flickers through its huge canvas to a finale that is taken at a somewhat-faster-than-usual tempo but that never seems at all sped-up or rushed: it simply moves along its stately and emotionally trenchant way, ending at last with an expression not of grief (as some performances have it) but of resignation and acceptance – a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the symphony and the cycle of which it is a part. But the “bonus” is a bit of a mixed bag. It is the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, a work that has now been completed by a variety of Mahler scholars and musicians and that really deserves to be heard in its entirety, as the capstone of a cycle as good as Stenz’s. Indeed, offering the Adagio without the brief Purgatorio movement that Mahler also completed for his Tenth is a particularly strange decision. It would have been more than understandable to conclude the Stenz cycle with the Ninth and no more; it would have been much better to have heard Stenz’s handling of one of the completions of the Tenth – Deryck Cooke’s is most often heard, but others are quite good as well. The Adagio and Purgatorio were considered quite performable as long ago as 1923, so hearing only the first movement nearly a century later seems a way to leave listeners feeling shortchanged, not given a bonus. The performance itself is very fine, adding to the frustration. It would be nice if Stenz were to consider doing a full Mahler Tenth at some point in the future. Until that happens – if it ever does – it is certainly possible to say that his Ninth is an enviable completion of a very fine Mahler cycle, with the one movement from the Tenth being a modest bonus item.
The new C Major DVD focusing on aspects of Venezuela’s famous “El Sistema” approach to teaching and performing music – an approach intended to bring in ever-younger musicians and to reach down into the nation’s slums and the lower rungs of society with music’s capacity to elevate – is an interesting recording that also has a Mahler focus. The main part of this DVD, recorded live at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, features Sir Simon Rattle leading the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It helps to close one’s eyes, despite the obvious visual intent of a DVD, while listening to this performance, in order to judge it fairly: yes, it is remarkable that such young children can handle music as complex and intense as this, but if you are not a family member, what you will want will be a Mahler performance as good as any other, if not better. This one is not, although it is quite fine in many ways. The young players seem most at home in the pleasantly flowing nature scenes of the first movement and the modest grotesqueries of the third, least so in the grander aspirations and greater complexities of the Sturm und Drang finale. Certainly the music is played more than adequately, and certainly the performance can (and undoubtedly will) be used to further the political aims underlying “El Sistema.” But for musical enjoyment, the other, shorter works here are more successful: Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Ginastera’s Estancia, Bernstein’s Mambo and Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky-March. These are delivered with punch, ebullience and even joy, and they are a pleasure to hear and see – but they are not works of much subtlety, and it is precisely in the subtle areas that the Mahler falls somewhat short. The bonus on this (+++) recording is a film focusing on the first tour abroad of the White Hands Choir of Venezuela – a choral group specifically intended for hard-of-hearing and deaf young people. Like the early introduction of poor children to orchestral performance, the creation of this group for young people with diminished hearing is intended as a significant political statement. For the apolitical, the question here, as well as with the orchestra, is how high the quality of music-making is. The choir sings relatively unchallenging music quite well, focusing mostly on works by composers who are scarcely household names: Adelis Freites, Edgar Mejías, Richard Egües and others are more prominent than Mozart and Piazzolla, although both of them are here as well. “El Sistema” has clearly managed some remarkable accomplishments, and deserves considerable credit for doing so no matter what one thinks of the political system in which it was created and in which it continues to flourish. That does not, however, mean that this DVD is likely to be anyone’s first choice for any of this music – unless listeners and viewers want the disc for the express purpose of arguing for expansion of “El Sistema” beyond its current boundaries.
Identifying the bonus material on the new recording by Inscape, American Aggregate, is a rather complex undertaking. This Sono Luminus release includes a CD, but that is scarcely its primary offering. Its main focus is a Blu-ray Disc that offers high-resolution stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 mixes, and digital copies – so perhaps it is the CD that is the bonus here, or perhaps it is the digital copies, or one or another of the mixes. And if the “bonus” issue is tangled, so is much of the music, although the intent of the recording is straightforward. This release highlights 21st-century composition in the United States as clearly as the “El Sistema” one showcases a particular approach to classical music in Venezuela. Inscape here offers six recent compositions – plus a seventh on the Blu-ray Disc only. Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis’ Oblivion is a chamber symphony in three movements, each of which is modeled on a specific sonic shape that listeners may or may not be able to hear. Armando Bayolo’s Wide Open Spaces is intended to address the impact of climate change – although, again, this may not be audible to listeners. Dan Visconti’s Black Bend moves from a slow collage of sound to a slow bluesy episode to a jazz-inspired burst of speed and intensity that quickly evaporates. Julia Adolphe’s Wordless Creatures scurries hither and thither through differing sonic environments. Joseph Hallman’s The Extraordinary Gryssandra Wycke is a tone poem intended to show a young witch coming into her powers and casting spells with increasing assurance. Stephen Gorbos’ What I Decided to Keep is a rather uneasy mixture of rock and Bartók that sounds more like the former than the latter. The Blu-Ray bonus track is Gregory Spears’ The Bear and the Dove, written to accompany, of all things, a Prokofiev ballet. All the music on this (+++) recording is for specialized tastes – it does not really reflect contemporary American composition, but only some contemporary American composition. Those who know the composers or are drawn to their styles will welcome it. Others are unlikely to find the release attractive, despite the skill of the performance, because, as in other anthologies, listeners new to the material will likely find some elements to enjoy but others that are off-putting, making the recording as a whole at best a partial success.