April 14, 2016


Vivaldi: Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op. 8. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Manfred. Dennis Laubenthal, Regine Andratschke, Julia Stefanie Möller, Claudia Hübschmann, Aurel Bereuter; Konzertchor Münster, Philharmonischer Chor Münster and Sinfonieorchester Münster conducted by Fabrizio Ventura. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD).

Bach: St. John Passion. Julian Prégardien, Tareq Nazmi, Christina Landshamer, Ulrike Malotta, Tilman Lichdi, Krešimir Stražanac; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Concerto Köln conducted by Peter Dijkstra. BR Klassik. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Ken Russell’s View of “The Planets.” ArtHaus Musik DVD. $29.99.

     In the “everybody knows” category of classical-music listening, there are a few near certainties. Everybody knows Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Everybody knows Schuman’s Manfred Overture. Everybody knows Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. And everybody knows Gustav Holst’s The Planets. But not everybody knows everything about these staples of the classical repertoire, as is clear from some fascinating new recordings that provide context and, not coincidentally, some wonderfully expansive views that go well beyond what “everybody knows.”

     The Four Seasons, for example, are the first four of the 12 concertos of Vivaldi’s Op. 8 collection, which bears the charming title, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (“The contest between harmony and invention”). This is a good-natured contest to the extent that it is one at all – it is more of an exploration of the inventive possibilities of Baroque concertos for violin (and in two cases for violin or oboe). The first four concertos, the famous seasonal ones, are among the best-known pieces in all of classical music, and it may seem there is very little new that can be done with them – but the wonderful Brilliant Classics recording featuring Federico Guglielmo proves that not to be the case. Guglielmo is an absolutely marvelous interpreter of Vivaldi, and the Baroque instrument he uses – a rather difficult one to control properly – fits the music so well that Vivaldi’s unusual structures, harmonies and tone-painting come through with amazing freshness, brightness and clarity. Guglielmo’s very small string-ensemble backup, L’Arte dell’Arco, provides wonderful balance for his solos and contributes equal verve and enthusiasm. The Four Seasons have never sounded better. But there is a great deal more to Vivaldi’s Op. 8, and Guglielmo’s handling of the rest of the concertos is revelatory. The greatest virtuosity in the set lies not in the first four concertos but in Nos. 7 in D minor, 8 in G minor, and 11 in D, and hearing Guglielmo in these three works is simply thrilling. The decision to use the oboe versions of Nos. 9 in D minor and 12 in C is a happy one, giving Pier Luigi Fabretti his own chance to shine and providing fresh perspective on Vivaldi’s writing throughout this set of a dozen works. And there are small delights everywhere here: the depth of feeling in the central movement of No. 10 in B-flat, “La caccia”; the attempt to portray the emotion of pleasure in No. 6 in C, “Il piacere”; the wonderful display of nature’s anger in No. 5 in E-flat, “La tempesta di mare”; and much more. This excellent two-CD set – offered at a remarkable price – is a joy in itself, and doubly so for putting The Four Seasons into the context in which Vivaldi himself placed them.

     Schumann’s Manfred is more than an overture and less than a symphony: it was Tchaikovsky who created a symphony based on Lord Byron’s poem, which was written in a now-obsolete form as a play intended to be read but not acted. The story of Manfred is that of a powerful but tormented magician who can control supernatural forces but not his own human desires and yearnings; who has committed a never-specified crime and suffers from unending guilt; and who takes to the mountains to confront the spirits that live there and eventually to find surcease in death – which he welcomes on his own terms. It is a quintessentially Romantic tale, and it is scarcely surprising that it inspired such striking Romantic music. But although Schumann called his setting a “dramatic poem with music in three parts,” and intended the words (abridged and in German translation) to be interspersed with the music (often in the form of melodrama), it is only the highly dramatic overture that most listeners have ever heard. The new Ars Produktion SACD, offering a full hour-plus of the music and much of the verbiage (although the text is abridged from Schumann’s abridgment), is quite wonderful, not only because some of the music is of very high quality but also because this release, like Guglielmo’s of Vivaldi’s Op. 8, provides context that is almost entirely missing in the realm of what “everybody knows.” The overture remains the most impressive element here, being self-contained and doing a good job – like Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 – of encapsulating the whole drama. But just as Beethoven’s overture is no substitute for the entirety of Fidelio, so Schumann’s Manfred Overture does not, in and of itself, provide the same impact as the whole set of incidental music. In addition to dialogue and melodramas, Schumann offers tone-paintings of Alpine scenes, music associated with the various spirits called up and rejected by Manfred, choral pieces, a final hymn after Manfred declares that “it is not so difficult to die,” and more. Byron’s poem is certainly overwrought and difficult to relate to from a contemporary perspective, but what remains is the effectiveness of the portrayal of the internal limitations faced even by a man far stronger and more learned than other men, a sort of Nietzschean Superman (Nietzsche admired Manfred and himself wrote some music inspired by it). It is easy to deem Manfred simply a Faustian tale, and indeed Byron’s poem and Goethe’s have some elements in common. But Faust is eventually saved in a stunning peroration that Mahler set brilliantly in the second part of his Symphony No. 8. Manfred does not find salvation, for the simple reason that he does not seek it. But neither will he accept damnation: he will die to escape his inner torment, but only when he is ready and only as he chooses. Schumann’s Manfred music, taken as a whole, elucidates Byron’s poem to a far greater extent than does the familiar overture on its own. The chance to hear the overture in context in this very fine, very well-paced performance directed by Fabrizio Ventura, and to explore Manfred as Schumann saw the poem and the character, is not to be missed.

     Matters are a bit different when it comes to the St. Matthew Passion and its earlier cousin, the St. John Passion. A lot has been written about the St. John Passion, which exists in multiple versions and which Bach repeatedly changed in ways that he never did with the St. Matthew Passion. But the earlier work is not performed nearly as often as the later one, and when it is, there remain uncertainties about which version of it to use and how many singers and instrumentalists to include. These are some reasons that “everybody knows” the St. Matthew Passion, while the St. John Passion is far less familiar. On the basis of the excellent BR Klassik release led by Peter Dijkstra with meticulous attention to period performance practice and a sure sense of pacing and balance, the St. John Passion certainly has come into its own. In this particular case, it has come into its own specifically for German speakers: the text is given in German only, and the third disc in this three-CD set is an extended (hour-and-a-quarter) discussion and analysis of the work, with musical illustrations, entirely in German. For those not fluent in German, that makes this release in some ways a real disappointment. What saves it, though, is the exceptional quality of the performance itself – which is, after all, the reason most people will buy a recording or decide not to do so. Julian Prégardien handles the very demanding role of the Evangelist with musical skill and emotional impact, Tareq Nazmi gives warmth and personality to the role of Jesus, and the small-scale vocal and instrumental ensembles produce sound that is at once light and serious, clear and (when necessary) impressively massed. Dijkstra chooses tempos well, and the narrative of the St. John Passion moves smartly along from event to event with suitable inevitability. The “commenting arias” in the first part expand upon the action without slowing it down, and the second, longer part of the work builds effectively from piece to piece with a finely honed balance between the liturgical and dramatic elements. Dijkstra has clearly studied the score with care, and the precision of singing and playing here makes this a first-class reading even though only speakers of German will be able to benefit from the third, explanatory CD (thankfully, English translations of the work’s text itself are readily available online).

     “Explanatory” is not exactly the word for Ken Russell’s 1983 film of The Planets, made for London Weekend Television and built around a performance of Holst’s suite by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. The film runs just 50 minutes – the length of Holst’s music – but what it offers will stay with many viewers well beyond that time frame. It is simply a collage, but not a simple collage. The Mars, the Bringer of War movement includes the expected missiles and military maneuvers; Venus, the Bringer of Peace scenes range from female nudity to breast-feeding and some atmospheric desert scenes; Mercury, the Winged Messenger mostly contains images of speed, some aloft and some in the water; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity showcases expressions of joy in various forms and various cultures; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is unusually atmospheric in its use of crowd scenes – crowds of vehicles, not just of people – and pollution; Uranus, the Magician is less about sleight-of-hand than about puzzlement and a “how do they do that?” sensibility; and Neptune, the Mystic is a montage of cosmic scenes, yoga poses, extreme close-ups and difficult-to-fathom visuals. The film surely seemed more original in 1983 than it does today – now it is a (+++) work, given the decades of music videos that have done much the same thing and, indeed, often done it to death. But even if the specifics of the structure have not held up particularly well, the actual performance of The Planets is quite good, and  even if “everybody knows” the music (in truth, “everybody knows” only some of it, not really the entire suite), there remains enough originality in Russell’s film to make it worthwhile viewing and to help revive jaded listeners’ interest in the Holst music itself – notably the overplayed Mars and Jupiter sections. Russell’s film was made for The South Bank Show, the weekly arts program of Britain’s ITV network, and was screened only once on that show – after which it disappeared until this ArtHaus Musik DVD release. The availability of this recording is therefore something to celebrate, even if elements of the film itself now seem less unusual and creative than they did when Russell first made it.

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