July 02, 2015


Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Variations on Diabelli’s Waltz by 50 Composers. Pier Paolo Vincenzi, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4. Virtuosi Saxoniae conducted by Ludwig Güttler. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16; Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture; Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Dresdner Philharmonie conducted by Heinz Bongartz (Serenades); London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Academic Festival); Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Günter Herbig (Tragic; Variations). Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     At its best, the Brilliant Classics label deserves its name, offering first-class performances, often very cleverly conceived, showing clearly that a label dedicated to bargain-priced classical music ($7.99 for single CDs, $11.99 for two-CD sets) need not stint on repertoire selection or performance quality. The Diabelli-focused release featuring pianist Pier Paolo Vincenzi is a perfect example of this. Vincenzi has undertaken unusual repertoire for Brilliant Classics before, admirably recording all of Wagner’s piano music. Now he has done something even more interesting: in addition to performing Beethoven’s famed variations on Anton Diabelli’s trivial waltz theme, Vincenzi has gone back to the original concept that led Beethoven to create his masterwork. This was Diabelli’s plan to have 51 composers of his time provide one variation apiece – the project aiming to help unite the disparate peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, demonstrate the capabilities of the newly evolved and still-developing piano, and (not merely incidentally) cementing Diabelli’s own relationship with numerous composers for the sake of future publishing business. So this was what we now call a marketing tool as well as a musical one, and a very clever idea it turned out to be (it is intriguing to wonder whether Hummel, who contributed to Diabelli’s project and later became quite a “musical marketer” himself, picked up some of his ideas from Diabelli). What we have here from Vincenzi is therefore a performance of, first, one of the greatest solo works in the piano literature; and, second, a rendition of a musical curiosity that was very much of its time (akin in its way to Liszt’s later Hexameron) but that also is of considerable interest to anyone wondering about the great, near-great and not-so-great composers of Beethoven’s era. Most of the variations by the 50 composers other than Beethoven are about one minute long, as is Diabelli’s theme, but there are some surprises, such as a three-minute Quasi Ouverture by Joseph Drechsler, a five-and-a-half-minute Capriccio by A. Emanuel Förster, and a three-minute Fuga by Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Hummel’s variation, on the other hand, lasts just 33 seconds and is the second-shortest of all. Other moderately or highly recognizable names among the contributors include Carl Czerny, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, Frederic Kalkbrenner, Franz Liszt (a 35-second piece by a composer then just 11 years old), Ignatz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, Johann Peter Pixis, and Franz Schubert. It would be stretching a point to call any of these brief items important, but their context is fascinating, the collection provides listeners with a highly unusual sonic journey to a significant time in musical history, and Vincenzi’s handling of the huge and tremendously challenging Beethoven work is also absolutely top-notch. Vincenzi here shows himself just as capable in grand and important music as in miniatures and trivia – the whole two-CD set, recorded from May to December of 2014, is a joy to hear.

     There is also much joy to be had in the Brilliant Classics release of a considerably older recording, that of Bach’s four orchestral suites by Virtuosi Saxoniae under Ludwig Güttler. In addition to releasing new performances, Brilliant Classics brings back ones recorded in the past, often in what used to be East Germany: this one was made at the Lukaskirche in Dresden in 1990, 1991 and 1992, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. There was excellent music-making in much of the old Soviet empire, just as in the old Austro-Hungarian one, and CDs like this one provide a window into what was a largely closed society while at the same time – and more importantly – offering 21st-century listeners readings that are highly worthy on their own, independent of the venue where they originated. Güttler (born 1943) is an expert performer on the Baroque trumpet, piccolo trumpet and corno da caccia, and Virtuosi Saxoniae is one of several ensembles that he himself founded. The players, members of Staatskapelle Dresden, are uniformly excellent, and Güttler’s own skill as both conductor and performer is everywhere evident in this first-rate recording. Indeed, Güttler assumes the first-trumpet role in the third and fourth suites, in addition to that of the ensemble’s leader. The performances here are well-paced, with fast-movement tempos on the speedy side (leading to more than a few exhilarating moments); yet slower movements are paced with tremendous sensitivity (the Air from the third suite has never sounded more affecting). The readings are filled with understanding of Bach’s rhythms and of the dances on which most movements of the suites are based. The verve and spirit of the playing are infectious. The oboists in the first suite, flautist in the second, and trumpeters in the third and fourth are especially noteworthy for their instrumental control, smoothness of sound, and equal ability to stand out from the overall ensemble or to blend into it, depending on what the music calls for. This is by any standards a top-quality performance of Bach’s suites, and its availability at a bargain price makes the Brilliant Classics business model seem all the more impressive and attractive.

     It does not, however, always operate at this rarefied level. A newly released two-CD set of Brahms orchestral music is a perfectly respectable (+++) recording, but that is all – there are better performances of these pieces, and much better-sounding ones, readily available. This release is a hodgepodge of analog recordings – the only digital one is the Academic Festival Overture, recorded in 1989, when digital technology was still only so-so in reproducing classical music without unduly squashing the sound. The Tragic Overture was recorded in 1978, the Haydn Variations in 1979, and the two serenades all the way back in 1962 – and although their sound is good for that era, it is not really up to modern standards. The serenade performances do show the quality of East German music-making at the time they were made, with the Dresdner Philharmonie playing at a high level throughout and Heinz Bongartz (1894-1978) bringing expansiveness to the music and, in particular, considerable warmth to the slow movements. Günter Herbig (born 1931) is similarly effective, and the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester similarly impressive, in the Haydn Variations, while the Tragic Overture here gets considerable heft and a slow tempo that effectively brings out the unnamed tragedy it represents – although sections in the middle do drag a bit. The contrasting lightness of the Academic Festival Overture, whose recording is brighter than that of the other works here, is abundantly clear, and the lighter sound of the London Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos fits the music very well indeed. Nevertheless, in totality, this potpourri of Brahms’ non-symphonic orchestral music is the sort of release that can be recommended with little hesitation only to listeners unfamiliar with the repertoire – ones looking for a low-cost entry point to a selection of works they do not know, so they can decide for themselves whether to seek out more-recent, more-impressive readings elsewhere. Brilliant Classics actually performs a welcome service by making recordings like this one available: people with only a modicum of interest in classical music, including ones pressed for money (say, college students), will welcome a two-CD set like this one even though it is not quite at the pinnacle of performance or sound quality. So even if releases of this type are less than brilliant, they are very worthy on a musical basis and very much appreciated for the price at which they make great classical works available.

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