March 03, 2016
(++++) JUST FOR THE JOY OF IT
The Virtuoso Ophicléide: Music of Jules Demersseman, Victor Caussinus, Mikhail Glinka, Claude Philippe Projean, Gilbert Duprez, Gaspard Kummer, Hyacinthe Klosé and Albert Corbin. Trio ÆNEA (Patrick Wibart, ophicléide; Adrien Ramon, cornet; Lucie Sansen, piano); Corentin Moran and Oscar Abella Martín, ophicléides; Jean-Yves Guéry, Gregorian chant. Ricercar. $18.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lance Friedel. MSR Classics. $18.95 (SACD).
Schubert: Two Films by Christopher Nupen—The Trout; The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow. Christopher Nupen Video DVD. $29.99.
Otherwise unrelated, these releases provide so much sheer pleasure in so many expected and unexpected ways that they are worthwhile acquisitions for any classical-music lover, even if he or she already owns the repertoire. However, “already owns” is actually out of the question when it comes to The Virtuoso Ophicléide, one of the most fascinating classical discs to be released in quite some time. The story of the ophicléide (not always spelled with the accent, as it is here) is that of the serpent: ophi comes the Greek for “serpent” and cleide from the Greek for “keys.” The ophicléide, invented in 1817, was indeed created as an easier-to-play, wider-range version of the serpent, a uniquely shaped and uniquely difficult-to-manage older instrument that was much used in church music: its sound aside, the notion of the “serpent” held responsible for the Fall supporting religious works undoubtedly pleased the clergy. A number of well-known composers wrote works that included the ophicléide: Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Spontini (the first to use it, in his opera Olimpie), Verdi, Wagner, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns, Auber and others. But the awkwardness and difficulty of producing a smooth, rounded tone throughout its range eventually doomed the ophicléide, which was supplanted for some purposes by the euphonium and for others by the tuba. Yet the ophicléide’s sound is quite different from that of those later instruments, and in highly knowledgeable and skilled hands such as those of Patrick Wibart, the instrument is absolutely fascinating to hear. Hence the Ricercar CD featuring ophicléide works by eight composers – not a single great or near-great work in the bunch, true, but the sheer delight of the sound of the ophicléide (in some cases more than one), with or without cornet and Erard piano, more than makes up for the “salon” quality of the music heard here. Only two of these composers are at all well-known. Glinka’s Trio pathetique is the longest work here – and is reasonably familiar when heard as it usually is, on clarinet, bassoon and piano. It does not fit its title very well, nor does it fit Glinka’s Russian-folk-music reputation, so it is not terribly popular; but on cornet, ophicléide and piano, it makes a fascinating aural impression, if never one of depth. The only other composer here with whom listeners may be familiar is Jules Demersseman (1833-1866), a virtuoso flautist whose interest in new instruments of his time led him to write some of the earliest known music for saxophone. Here he is represented by two very well-made and intriguing works labeled Fantaisie, one of them based on a waltz that at the time was attributed to Beethoven but was actually derived from a Schubert tune. The other pieces here are less musically distinguished but still, one and all, worth hearing for the rarity and unusual quality of the experience. There are works by Victor Caussinus (1806-1899), who produced a highly important method for playing the ophicléide; Gaspard Kummer (1795-1870); Hyacinthe Klosé (1808-1880); and Albert Corbin (?-1893), whose cornet-and- ophicléide Fantasie called Teutatès is particularly memorable. The remaining three items on the disc remind listeners of the serpentine background and religious attachment of the ophicléide. There are two three-ophicléide arrangements of Agnus Dei and O Salutaris by Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896); and there is an especially intriguing Kyrie eleison pour trois ophicléides by Claude Philippe Projean (fl. 1843), with the instruments lending an otherworldly quality to the singing of Jean-Yves Guéry. Extended and excellent booklet notes by Jérôme Lejeune complement the first-rate playing by all the musicians, and the release as a whole – despite the limitations of its repertoire – is one that listeners will surely return to again and again for immersion in a vanished but still bracing sonic world.
The wonderful SACD sound of a new MSR Classics release of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the disc’s many pleasures, but it is by no means the most important one. Lance Friedel is scarcely a name identified with Bruckner – indeed, Friedel is not a particularly well-known conductor at all – but if this, his first Bruckner recording, is any indication, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in Bruckner interpretation, and sooner rather than later. What could possess a conductor to choose the Fifth for his first foray into Bruckner recording? An unusual and highly complex symphony, even by Bruckner’s standards, it is the composer’s second longest (after the Eighth), the only one that opens with a separate slow introduction, and arguably the most tightly knit at all, with distinctions such as its use of the identical slow opening in the first and fourth movements. Highly innovative in ways that are very difficult to bring out in performance, the Fifth is a tough nut to crack even for experienced Bruckner conductors. Friedel, however, absolutely takes its measure – and brings to it both passionate involvement and a level of intellectual understanding that shines forth both in the performance and in the booklet notes that he himself provides. This is a simply marvelous reading: tempo after tempo feels exactly right and seems to lead inexorably to the next, as if of course the music should flow just this way and no other; the building blocks of the symphony fall into place with an unforced naturalness that pulls listeners in at the very quiet start and never lets them go until the resounding conclusion; and the structural surprises of the work – such as the use of the same notes, in very different tempos, to start the slow movement and Scherzo – are accepted in matter-of-fact fashion that only serves to highlight them more effectively. This is the opposite of turgid Bruckner – indeed, if there is a flaw in the performance, it is the relatively thin sound of the strings when compared with those of the best German and Austrian orchestras. This is music by Bruckner the almost-classicist, Bruckner the melodic successor to Schubert, more than it is by Bruckner the Wagner-style symphonist. Like any Bruckner interpretation, this one will not please everyone – the very cleanness of the London Symphony Orchestra’s sound may seem to some to be at odds with the monumental nature of the symphony. But this reading will intrigue even listeners who may not fully accept Friedel’s approach, and that ability to make listeners think as well as feel is what makes Friedel such a special conductor and this release such a special one.
And speaking of Schubert, a new DVD from Christopher Nupen Video is an almost perfect example of how good classical music can be when presented in visual as well as auditory form. Classical DVDs, including movies about classical music and musicians, all too often come across as distractions. Recordings of performances, in particular, force viewers to look where the director wants them to look; and no matter how good the director may be, this creates a very different experience from the one an audience has at an actual concert, where audience members make their own decisions about where to look and how to listen. This release of two Schubert films, however, shows how good a visual recording of classical-music experience can be, and in so doing sets a standard to which other DVDs will have difficulty living up. The reason they will have problems is that the core of the first film included here, by far the best thing on the whole DVD, can never be reproduced: it is a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by the amazing combination of Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinkhas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré and Zubin Mehta. The musicians were all very young indeed when the film of The Trout was made, in 1969 (the film itself was first shown on the BBC in 1970); du Pré, tragically, was to live only until 1987, and the other performers were to move on to careers in which chamber music played at most a small part. But here they shine, they sparkle, they mingle and cooperate and converse (musically as well as in words), and they bring out the manifest beauties of Schubert’s wonderful score with such apparently effortless virtuosity that all a listener/viewer can do is sit back, watch and listen and marvel. This is an outstanding performance of the quintet, which is the climax of a film that otherwise proceeds in fairly straightforward fashion by following the preparations for the concert. The shooting and editing of the film are first-rate, but the approach and content are not especially distinctive: it is the performance itself that is the draw here, and it is so fine that the rest of the visual material, even at its best, fades into insignificance as soon as the actual performing begins. The second film on this DVD, The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, was made more than 20 years later and, like The Trout, was a prize winner (the earlier film in 1973, the later one in 1994). Taken strictly as a film, it is actually better than The Trout, exploring as it does the musical accomplishments of Schubert in the final 20 months of his all-too-short life. Schubert himself wondered how anyone could compose after Beethoven, but it was Schubert who showed the way for music to move on, even if the works most distinguished in that regard – such as his “Great” C Major symphony – were not performed in his lifetime. What The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow does is to look, almost without exception, at Schubert’s music written between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and Schubert’s a year and a half later. This is a rather arbitrary structural device, since some of Schubert’s forward-looking work (that is, music that looked beyond Beethoven) was written while Beethoven was still alive, but as an organizing principle, it works well. The film begins with Beethoven’s funeral and retains throughout a solemnity and intensity that contrast very strongly with the playfulness and joy of The Trout as shown both in its rehearsal antics and in the expressions of the performers during the quintet itself. In The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, Schubert’s own voice (from his letters) and his music are artfully combined to make the case for him as a member of the very highest pantheon of composers. There are 16 Schubert pieces here, from piano music performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy to songs sung by baritone Andreas Schmidt. This is a slow-paced and contemplative film, 50% longer than the 55 minutes of The Trout, and its primary impression is one of serenity and very deliberate artfulness – perhaps a touch too much, notably at the very end, which features an archival recording of Lotte Lehmann singing Im Abendrot above an image of the setting sun. Less readily accessible than The Trout and of greater interest to listeners already familiar with Schubert (and with Christopher Nupen’s films in general), The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow is a quietly powerful film that pairs well with The Trout because of the two works’ differences, not the least of which is that the earlier film is far more likely to be of interest to a wide audience. There is a self-limiting quality to The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow that Nupen quite obviously intends: it is a beautiful film for people already captivated by the beauties of Schubert’s music. The Trout will also appeal to people who may know little or nothing of Schubert but are open to discovering that classical works can be out-and-out fun. Together, the films make a highly noteworthy – and note-filled – DVD.