November 14, 2013


Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—First Choral Symphony; The Mystic Trumpeter. Susan Gritton, soprano; BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Enescu: Symphony No. 2; Chamber Symphony for 12 Instruments. Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99.

Enescu: Symphony No. 3; Ouverture de Concert sur des Thèmes dans le Caractère Populaire Roumain. Tampere Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99.

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet—Viola version; Bridge: Lament for Two Violas; Robert Mann: Dreamtime for Solo Viola. David Aaron Carpenter, viola; Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Bernhard Hartog and Rüdiger Liebermann, violins; Walter Küssner, viola; Stephan Koncz, cello). Ondine. $16.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 24. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $16.99.

Ives: Three Places in New England; Sibelius: Symphony No. 4; Wagner: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from “Götterdammerung.” Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Weber: Der Freischütz—as film opera “Hunter’s Bride” by Jens Neubert. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey—a film by Yosif Feyginberg. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Andris Nelsons: Genius on Fire—a film by Astrid Bscher. Orfeo DVD. $39.99.

     What provides the better experience of a visit to unfamiliar musical territory – audio releases on CD or SACD, or video releases on DVD? The expected answer is “it depends,” and of course it does – on a variety of factors, including not only the repertoire but also one’s own predilections for the auditory or visual medium. Nevertheless, it becomes clear from a variety of recent releases in the two formats that the media not only have their own strengths and weaknesses but also provide inherently different experiences, beyond the obvious one of DVDs being pictorial and CDs and SACDs offering sound alone.

     The third volume of Chandos’ excellent Holst series and the second entry in Ondine’s Enescu cycle both offer little-known works that feature vocal elements as well as orchestral ones. Holst’s First Choral Symphony (1923-24), for soprano, chorus and orchestra, contains some material reminiscent of Mahler’s Third in its use of images of Pan and nature awakening, and some that harks back to Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato in its contemplative and contrasting sections, but everything is filtered through Holst’s unique sensibilities to produce a work that is as much mysticism as pastoral celebration. And The Mystic Trumpeter (1904/1912), a scena for soprano and orchestra, celebrates music itself while also striving toward greater meaning – an approach typical of Holst, who even in his best-known work, The Planets, moved beyond fact and into mystic realms. As in the prior two releases of this series, these BBC Symphony performances led by Sir Andrew Davis are exemplary and highly involving even though the music itself takes some getting used to: Holst had a very unusual way of handling the sonic environment of an orchestra, and his works simply do not sound like those of other composers. Indeed, the chance to immerse oneself in Holst’s sound world argues strongly that this SACD presentation is in just the right medium and would gain little – even possibly losing something – if visual elements were added.

     The situation with Ondine’s Enescu discs is similar. None of the works here, the Chamber Symphony, Second or Third Symphony or Ouverture de Concert sur des Thèmes dans le Caractère Populaire Roumain, is heard often in concert halls or on recordings. But all should be – particularly the Third Symphony. The Tampere Philharmonic plays Enescu’s music sensitively and with considerable involvement under Hannu Lintu, and the Third Symphony’s pictorial (although never explicitly designated) depiction of Earth, Hell and Heaven – the whole huge range of experience amplified by use of piano, organ and wordless chorus in the finale – is reminiscent of Holst’s constant stretching beyond the bounds of music itself. Enescu’s handling of the orchestra is entirely different, however, and the Third Symphony provides color, solemnity and grand scale throughout. Although not especially long – 46 minutes in Lintu’s performance – it feels broader and more expansive than its duration indicates, and is a deeply involving work that stands in vivid contrast to the Ouverture that opens the CD. The Second Symphony is also highly impressive: longer than its successor but not programmatic and less tightly knit, it is thematically interesting and formally very well crafted. And it stands in fascinating contrast to the Chamber Symphony, written more than three decades later – in 1954, the penultimate year of the composer’s life. Here Enescu shows great ability in handling sparser instrumentation and a more-streamlined approach to symphonic form, in a work whose scale is somewhat reminiscent of that of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony even though the effect of Enescu’s work is quite different. And again, immersion in all this intriguing music is the key to appreciating it: visuals would be more likely to distract from the experience than to add to it.

     It is not the seriousness or lightness of music that will make it better in an aural or visual medium. The three viola-focused works that David Aaron Carpenter plays with tremendous beauty and skill on another Ondine release are all quite serious and all quite lovely, with the highlight definitely being the very rarely heard viola version of Brahms’ late Clarinet Quintet. Although the composer’s Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120, were specifically written for either that instrument or viola – and are heard both ways with nearly equal frequency – the Clarinet Quintet is virtually unknown when featuring a viola solo along with the viola within the string quartet. Indeed, hearing how Carpenter’s viola both stands out against the ensemble and blends within it is a major pleasure of this warm and winning performance – and a form of enjoyment that is far more effective when heard than it would be if seen, since visual elements would tend to draw the eye and thus pull the brain away from the manifest beauties here. The shorter works on this disc, by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) and Robert Mann (born 1920 – a founding member of the Juilliard Quartet and its first violinist for half a century), both show sure command of the instrument and a firm understanding of its ability to evoke emotions that feel a good deal deeper than those of the violin despite the fact that the viola is tuned a mere fifth lower. There would surely be some visual enjoyment to watching Carpenter perform these pieces, especially Mann’s, but it is doubtful that a pictorial approach would add a lot to the experience here.

     Nor would a DVD of the 24th disc in Marco Polo’s wonderful Johann Strauss Sr. edition bring anything to the music that Christian Pollack does not already offer with his marvelously knowing, upbeat and enthusiastic performances with the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina, which as usual plays these works as if it has been doing so forever. This series is now nearing its end, with this disc presenting music dating to as late as June 1849, a mere three months before the composer’s death. As in previous releases, what comes through here most clearly is the excellence of construction of Strauss Sr.’s music in all the popular forms in which he composed. The CD includes only two waltzes, both of them very fine: Landes-Farben (Schwarz-Roth-Gold) and Des Wanderers Lebewohl, a particularly extended work. There are three marches here: Brünner National-Garde-Marsch, Triumph-Marsch and Manövir-Marsch. And there are four delightful polkas: Piefke und Pufke-Polka, Damen-Souvenir-Polka, Alice-Polka, and Frederica-Polka. The remaining two works are Huldigungs-Quadrille and Louisen-Quadrille, the quadrille form being one that Strauss favored throughout his career even though it is somewhat repetitious and was waning in popularity by 1849. Pollack explores both the ebullience of this music and its delicacy, and while it might be interesting to see him gesturing to the orchestra and watching the musicians respond, it is far from necessary – the CD stands on its own, without visuals, very well indeed.

     A good example of what visuals add, or fail to add, to musical performances is the ICA Classics release of Boston Symphony performances by Michael Tilson Thomas from the year 1970. These recordings date to less than a year after Thomas’ appointment as assistant conductor in Boston, and the Sibelius and Wagner works are new to Thomas’ discography as well as his videography. The DVD captures the look as well as the sound of the Boston Symphony 40-plus years ago, and gives listeners/viewers the chance to hear half an hour of interviews with the conductor – some material recorded in 1970, the rest in 2013. Therefore, what we have here is a chance to see Thomas’ podium manner as it was decades in the past, hear his very fine interpretations of works by three very different composers, listen to one of the top American orchestras at what may have been the pinnacle of its sonic splendor, and learn through interview segments how Thomas felt – and feels today – about musical matters. Given the fact that two of the works here are otherwise unavailable in Thomas’ readings and the interesting element of having Thomas interviews from 1970 and 2013 juxtaposed, this DVD offers a strong argument for a visual presentation of the music. But the argument is founded on ancillary elements, not on the music itself: these interpretations, which are very fine indeed, would shine just as brightly on CD as they do on DVD. So the success of the video release is really predicated on matters beyond the music at its core.

     Even more successful in visual terms – for which it was designed from the beginning – is the Jens Neubert film Hunter’s Bride, which is an expansion and striking visual interpretation of Weber’s Der Freischütz. Featuring Juliane Banse as Agathe, Michael Volle as Kaspar and Michael König as Max, the film uses stunning photography to complement Weber’s highly effective, highly dramatic score. The Rundfunkchor Berlin under Simon Halsey and London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding provide the high quality for which they are known, and the fact that this is a two-hour-plus film opera from the beginning rather than a filmed opera in which cameras are trained on a stage makes the production entirely appropriate for visualization and, indeed, unimaginable in any other form. Opera itself, of course, is a visual medium – the original multimedia product, combining music, song, acting, staging, dance, lighting and more. So operas translate particularly well to DVD and can sometimes seem pale in CD form unless the discs are based on concert rather than fully staged performances. In the case of Hunter’s Bride, the concept of a film has been there from the start, and Weber’s Der Freischütz is really a jumping-off point for Neubert’s visual imagination, which fits the story extremely well and provides a strong sense of Napoleonic times as well as the timeless feeling of a fairy tale. This DVD is in many ways an ideal example of what a visualization of classical music can be: not simply a good concert performance with video added, but a work conceived from the start for a visual medium and carried through in that medium to excellent effect.

     More often, though, classical-music-based DVDs are along the lines of Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey and Andris Nelsons: Genius on Fire, both of which are worthy endeavors deserving of (+++) ratings, but neither of which is particularly compelling in either musical or visual terms. The Gould DVD is yet another in a long series of “bio-pics” about the famous (and notorious) Canadian pianist (1932-1982). Here, Yosif Feyginberg has assembled material relating to Gould’s 1957 tour of the Soviet Union: Gould was the first North American musician to perform behind the Iron Curtain. The film draws on a variety of long-classified documents and on the reminiscences of other musicians, including Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mstislav Rostropovich, to tell the story of Gould’s performances in Moscow and Leningrad (and a lecture-recital in the latter city). This makes for an interesting historical document and a way to revisit a long-ago time in geopolitics as well as music; and the film is well put together and moves nicely during its short running time (56 minutes). It will, however, be of more interest to scholars and historians than to musicians and music lovers. And the Astrid Bscher film about conductor Andris Nelsons will appeal more to fans of travelogues and of the young Latvian conductor (born 1978) than to music lovers in general. It is quite early in Nelsons’ career for someone to make a biographical film about him; indeed, he is not yet universally considered a conductor of the first rank. Yes, he is doing a fine job with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and is due soon to become the Boston Symphony’s music director, but he has yet to garner the sort of international reputation that would justify the movie title Genius on Fire. Bscher, who followed Nelsons for two years, certainly does show him moving around a lot and conducting in many places, but there is nothing in the music-making here to justify the “genius” label or even to indicate why this rising conducting star should be treated as if he already shines in the highest firmament. The film is well made, but it smacks too much of hagiography and hero worship to be of general interest. Like Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey and many other classical-music-based DVDs, Andris Nelsons: Genius on Fire is a specialty item for fans with specific interests and predispositions, not a production that has enough inherent musical value to appeal to a large cross-section of listeners or viewers.

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