October 24, 2013


Mozart: Clarinet Concerto; Kegelstatt Trio; Allegro in B-flat Major. Martin Fröst, basset clarinet and clarinet, and conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Concerto); Antoine Tamestit, viola; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano (Trio); Janine Jansen and Boris Brovtsyn, violins; Maxim Rysanov, viola; Torleif Thedéen, cello (Allegro). BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Cherubini: Medea. Maria Callas, Joan Carlyle, Fiorenza Cosotto, Jon Vickers, Nicola Zaccaria, Mary Wells, Elizabeth Rust, David Allen; Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Nicola Rescigno. ICA Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Elgar: Enigma Variations. BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

     Comparisons between the great performers of today and those of the past are moot: there is no way to know for sure how many of the best classical musicians of earlier times would stack up against ones trained in today’s concert halls and recording media. But there remains a fascination with famous names of the past, even as new generations of virtuoso performers draw greater attention from audiences whose members know little, if anything, about such famous musicians as Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein. Thus, it is best to consider a release such as the Mozart disk by clarinetist Martin Fröst entirely on its own, without comparing Fröst’s technique or interpretations to those of earlier first-rate clarinet virtuosi. Fröst is in fact a very considerable player by any standards, with excellent breath control and a lovely sense of line. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto receives from him a warm, flowing reading, perhaps not quite as sensitive to the nuances of period performance as are some renditions, but very well thought-through and performed with a highly attractive mixture of elegance and élan. Fröst himself is the conductor here, and he handles the role in fine fashion – although it must be said that the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is such a well-controlled ensemble that it scarcely needs a leader for this music. The remaining pieces on this excellent-sounding SACD are also played at a very high skill level. There is a fine sense of camaraderie, of the sheer enjoyment of sitting down to make wonderful music together, in the Kegelstatt Trio as performed by Fröst with Antoine Tamestit and Leif Ove Andsnes – indeed, this rather dark-hued work, in which clarinet and viola complement each other to such fine effect, here has a feeling of barely suppressed perkiness beneath the warmth of its sound. The short and rarely performed Allegro in B-flat Major (K Anh. 91) is also very nicely played, functioning as an encore of sorts and displaying Fröst’s ability to integrate his sound with that of a full string quartet. The only peculiarity of the disc is its short length, especially for the price: 54 minutes. Given the fact that Fröst, although a fine performer, is not exactly a marquee name in classical music, it would have been nice to showcase his abilities at greater length.

     Maria Callas is a marquee name, even 35 years after her death, and those who continue to put her on a pedestal will rejoice at the ICA Classics release of her Covent Garden Medea from June 30, 1959. A monophonic recording under the direction of an undistinguished conductor, this release is really directed only at those who continue to idolize Callas or want to try to compare her voice with those of modern opera stars – despite all the inherent impossibilities of doing so. Callas did a tremendous amount with a voice that was not necessarily of the first water: she brought drama and intensity to everything she did, and Medea gave her a chance to emote in an over-the-top way that might even be a bit too much. With the exception of Jon Vickers, the remaining cast members in this production are adequate but not especially worthy of extended attention – so the opera, in which Medea is already the dominant figure, becomes even more a display piece for Callas than did other works. She certainly gives this performance her all, but unlike her acclaimed performance of a year earlier, this one shows evidence of some vocal strain, some difficulty handling the extended passages and the very considerable vocal demands that Cherubini created. It is by no means a bad performance – indeed, from a strictly dramatic standpoint, it is an excellent one – but some seams are showing in Callas’ voice, and in an opera as focused on her character as this one is, those seams appear more troubling than they otherwise might. This is a (+++) recording, its sound as well as its conducting quite adequate but scarcely outstanding, and it will be of greatest appeal to those with a particular interest in Callas and what all the fuss was, and continues to be, about her.

     The Enigma Variations DVD featuring Leonard Bernstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also a limited-appeal (+++) item, presenting a performance from April 14, 1982. Few classical-music lovers will relish spending $25 for a single, 39-minute piece, even one led by this conductor. In fact, this is a DVD whose bonus material may be what draws buyers: there is a 25-minute rehearsal of Elgar’s work shown, including an interview with Bernstein, who was always thoughtful and insightful about the music he led and is certainly so here. Even today, many music lovers think that the primary job of a conductor is to lead live concerts from the podium – when, in reality, the vast majority of a conductor’s work must be done before the performance, in exploring the nuances of the music and making sure the orchestral musicians understand exactly how a particular section should be phrased, accentuated and paced, and how that segment fits into the conductor’s total conception of the work. Bernstein was particularly adept at what is essentially a teaching role, and while the rehearsal excerpted here scarcely deals with all the rhythmic, pacing and balance elements of the Enigma Variations, it includes enough of them to give a fine sense of how careful and thoughtful an orchestra leader Bernstein was. His decisions were not always universally praised by musicians or critics, especially because of his overuse of rubato in many works, but they always sprang from careful study and high intelligence – some of which comes through on this DVD. Nevertheless, this is purely a specialty item, offering a single high-quality performance of one particular work and some insight into a famed conductor whose name means far less to the younger members of today’s classical-music audience than it did to listeners 25 years ago and more.

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