April 21, 2016


Wagner: Complete Overtures; Orchestral Music from the Operas; Siegfried Idyll. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Yuri Simonov; Luxembourg Radio Orchestra and Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alois Springer; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Semkow; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Weber: Complete Overtures. WDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.

Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets. Quatuor Danel (Marc Danel and Gilles Millet, violins; Tony Nys, viola; Guy Danel, cello). Alpha. $27.99 (5 CDs).

     The ability to follow a composer’s development over years, even decades, by hearing many works written in the same form or for the same purpose, is one of the great pleasures of comprehensive CD sets like these. If only the companies releasing them understood that and placed the works in chronological order! Here are three excellent, highly expressive sets of performances that take listeners from early in a composer’s musical life to the end of it, all three of them marred by production decisions to release the works as a hodgepodge rather than a sequence from earliest to latest. Of course, it is possible for listeners to rearrange the material – and the disc sequences, in the case of multi-disc sets – but it is irritating to have to do so, and really, what is the point being made by requiring buyers to do that in order to hear the material in the most intriguing and interesting way? To be sure, there is some excuse for this in case of the Brilliant Classics release of Wagner’s overtures, preludes and non-vocal opera music. This is one of those combinatory packages, a mixture of analog and digital recordings made over decades, with two full CDs featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra under Yuri Simonov and a third disc containing four works performed by four different orchestras under three different conductors. Yet the sequencing is odd even within the Simonov CDs, which end with the prelude to Die Meistersinger after starting with that to Parsifal (whose “Good Friday Music” then appears on the third CD). Listeners who can put up with the mishmash sequence will hear some excellent performances here. From Der Ring des Nibelungen there are “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Forest Murmurs,” “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” The “Prelude und Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde is here, along with the overtures to Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, plus the preludes to Act I and Act III of Lohengrin. All these are conducted by Simonov with a sure hand and fine sense of rhythm and drama. On the third CD, in addition to the “Good Friday Music” played by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra led by Jerzy Semkow, there are the overtures to Das Liebesverbot with the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra and Die Feen with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, both conducted enthusiastically by Alois Springer, although neither orchestra is really top-notch in this repertoire; and Siegfried Idyll in an old but lovely performance by the Bamberger Symphoniker under Heinrich Hollreiser. There is nothing unfamiliar in this music – even the overtures to Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot have been turning up more recently in concerts and recordings – but there is considerable satisfaction in having all this material in a single, good-if-not-quite-top-quality package, whose modest shortcomings of sound and performance are more than compensated for by Brilliant Classics’ offering it at an excellent price.

     Carl Maria von Weber’s life was much shorter than Wagner’s – Weber died of tuberculosis at age 39 – which makes the extent of his development in the theatrical and operatic field all the more remarkable. Romantic German opera was launched by Weber and, after him, Heinrich Marschner, whose ties to Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, are quite clear. Surviving overtures from Weber include 10 from theatrical works and a concert piece, the popular Jubelouvertüre. CPO’s new recording includes that plus the nine accessible theatrical pieces (the 10th, to the early Waldmädchen, is held at the music library of the Mariinsky Theatre and has not been made available for study or performance). Chronologically, these works range from the opening to Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (1801) to that for Oberon (1826), and include, in chronological sequence, the overtures to the operas Der Beherrscher der Geister, Silvana, Abu Hassan, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe. There are also overtures written as part of the incidental music for Turandot and Preciosa. For a recording, there are many logical ways to arrange these pieces: strictly by chronology, certainly, or perhaps with the opera lead-ins chronological and then the non-operatic pieces in their order of composition. There is, however, no apparent logic to the presentation here – Peter Schmoll is placed second on the disc and Oberon fourth, for example. This is really a shame, because Howard Griffiths, a conductor who seems especially well attuned to less-known music and is quite adept in handling stage works, does a very fine job with every piece here, and clearly has a sense of the elements that make each one special: the “Turkish” scoring of Abu Hassan, the intensely atmospheric elements of Der Freischütz, the use of violas and cellos playing above clarinets in their lowest register in Oberon, and so forth. Listeners need to unscramble the sequence of CD tracks to get the best sense of Weber’s compositional mastery and the increasing sophistication of his orchestration. That is too bad, but it is actually worth the effort for a chance to explore some of the fascinating musical innovations Weber made during his all-too-brief life.

     Chronology is also crucial, perhaps even more so than in Weber’s case, for full appreciation of the quartets of Shostakovich. But the new five-CD Alpha release of the Quatuor Danel’s performances – which were originally made available a decade ago and have now been repackaged – is so far out of order as to be bizarre. One CD, for example, sandwiches the autobiographical, near-suicidal No. 8, the most frequently played of the quartets, between the penultimate quartet, No. 14, and the nearly atonal No. 12. It is hard to imagine any conceivable reason for this. The quartets were written between 1938 and 1973, and certainly there are some thematic connections that could be used to organize them – for example, Nos. 4 and 5 make a pair of sorts, as do Nos. 7 and 8; Nos. 5, 8 and 11 are exceptionally dark, while Nos. 6, 9 and 12 seem determined to be brighter (not always successfully). But there is no apparent organizing principle at all in this release, which is a real shame, because the performances are so unusual for this music as to be very much worth hearing and re-hearing. The ne plus ultra for Shostakovich’s quartets has always been the approach of the Borodin Quartet, whose exceptional expressiveness and dyed-in-the-wool pessimism set an unequalled standard among recordings. Quatuor Danel was actually trained by the Borodin Quartet, but in addition to absorbing lessons about balance, phrasing and how to attack sections and individual notes, this foursome clearly decided to proffer a less-agonized version of the music. That means greater lyricism than is usually heard in these works, touches of dry irony rather than (or in addition to) ones of deep despair, and instrumental tone that is lighter than that of the Borodin Quartet and, indeed, lighter than is usual in Russian chamber ensembles. The emotional reach of the quartets as played by Quatuor Danel is greater than that of the Borodin Quartet, but whether that is a good or bad thing will be a matter for each listener to decide. Certainly the tonal beauty of, for example, the second movements of Nos. 8 and 10 is a surprise here, coming as it does without sacrifice of intensity. The warmth and rhythmic flexibility of the ensemble playing is first-rate throughout, and is especially telling in the final three quartets, which emerge here with a greater sense of humanity than usual. These are unusual readings and are not without flaws, a notable extramusical one being the tendency of quartet members to mark entrances with all-too-audible heavy breathing (this is common in chamber groups, but not usually recorded with this level of unwanted clarity). Listeners familiar with the extremely deep and very Russian pessimism of the finest performances of these quartets may well find Quatuor Danel’s versions to be, if not a breath of fresh air, then a somewhat light approach, perhaps one more appropriate for central European music than for that of Russia. But even listeners who decide they do not want this as their first recording of the Shostakovich quartets may well be interested in it as a second (or third) one, because it shines a fresh light on music that is certainly dour but need not always be as darkly depressive and despairing as it frequently is in other readings. Interestingly, Quatuor Danel’s approach makes the most sense when the quartets are heard in chronological sequence, as their increasingly acerbic nature and their responses to events in the world and in Shostakovich’s life emerge more clearly over time. This is yet another reason to be dissatisfied with the order in which the quartets are presented in this recording – but not a reason to be dissuaded from listening to the frequently revelatory readings themselves.

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