March 06, 2008


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Fritz Wunderlich: The Legend. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

      The Brahms cycle by Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony has turned into a profile series – not so much of Janowski as of the orchestra. Honed through William Steinberg’s famous collaborative style during his quarter-century at its helm, the Pittsburgh of today retains some of the distinctive Steinberg legacy 30 years after his death. Even with many players who never knew Steinberg, the orchestra reflects his hallmarks of careful sectional balance and great clarity of playing. In Brahms, whose textures can sometimes sound muddy, the Pittsburgh Symphony shines a welcome light on the instrumentation.

      This is not to say that Janowksi’s interpretations are ideal, although they are convincing and certainly of high quality. The first movement of Symphony No. 2 is on the quick side, with good attention to detail. There is greater intensity than usual and less luxuriating; whether a listener likes that will be a matter of taste. Thanks to PentaTone’s usual outstanding SACD sound, quiet passages are extremely soft, and individual instrumental touches – horns and trumpets, for example – come through beautifully. The second movement features good forward motion without wallowing, and the third is lovely – truly grazioso, not merely Allegretto. The pacing is relaxed, but rhythms are clear, and faster sections are strongly accented. The finale is bright and strong, again with notable instrumental touches (super-bright clarinets, for example), although the momentum flags in the middle and some of the phrasing is only so-so. The performance of Symphony No. 3 is more distinctive. The strongly anticipatory opening leads into an effective movement that loses some propulsiveness in its broader sections, when Janowski slows down a bit – unnecessarily, since the themes are emotional enough on their own. The coda, though, is very dramatic. The second movement, taken at a real Andante tempo, sounds fast and a trifle cool, but the clarity of individual instruments is impressive. The third movement is mostly straightforward, dragging a bit in parts, but the horns are quite lovely. And the finale is intense and dramatic, with the difficult rhythms very well handled. The final two-and-a-half minutes, which are very quiet, are especially impressive – nicely balanced and nuanced. This is impressive Brahms from an impressive orchestra.

      The two-CD profile of tenor Fritz Wunderlich is a presentation of a different sort. Wunderlich was a wunderkind, and his exceptionally beautiful voice remains something of a marvel even when heard in his earliest commercial recordings, some of which (from 1954-6) are on this new release. Wunderlich’s death nine days before his 36th birthday echoed not only the death at 36 a few years earlier of the great horn player, Dennis Brain, but also Mozart’s death a month before he would have turned 36. Wunderlich, like Brain, has attained something of a legendary status in ensuing decades. Nevertheless, the new Profil collection will not be to all tastes, and cannot be given more than a (+++) rating despite the gorgeous purity of Wunderlich’s lyric-tenor voice. There are several issues here, sound quality being one. More important, though, is the matter of repertoire. Wunderlich was renowned for his Romantic song cycles, which are not offered here, and his Mozart, which is represented only by four excerpts from the unfinished opera Zaide. The other operatic works here are all Italian – Cavalleria Rusticana, Madame Butterfly and La Bohème – but unfortunately for modern listeners, everything is sung in German. This was the custom in Wunderlich’s time, but it can be hard for listeners today to get past the use of the “wrong” language and enjoy Wunderlich’s sensitive interpretations and the beauty of his tone.

      Because of these circumstances, the most interesting part of this CD set is the second disc, which contains mostly operetta – not a field for which Wunderlich was especially noted. Here there are some real joys to discover, especially in Die Fledermaus (Wunderlich’s “Trinke liebchen, trinke schnell” is delightful) and in several Lehár arias – not a single one from Die Lustige Witwe, but instead from Friderike, Der Zarewitsch, Giuditta and Schön ist die Welt, whose title song Wunderlich handles thrillingly. A number of arias from lesser operettas also get the Wunderlich treatment, to their benefit – Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent, Kálmán’s Die Zirkusprinzessin and Robert Stolz’s Prinzessin Ti-Ti-Pa, for example. The difficulty here is that this mostly pleasant music, while delightful to hear from a voice as accomplished as Wunderlich’s, fails to give a full portrait of the singer and his abilities; he was much better than a great deal of this material. For lovers of Wunderlich’s artistry and admirers of fine vocalizing in general, Fritz Wunderlich: The Legend will be worth listening to once in a while; but it will certainly not be a mainstay of anyone’s vocal collection, and is unlikely to bear too-frequent rehearings.

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