September 21, 2017
(++++) HEARD WITH A DIFFERENCE
Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269. Zsolt Kalló, violin; Capella Savaria conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Hungaroton. $40.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alexandra von Roepke, mezzo-soprano; Peter Furlong, tenor; Christian Kälberer, piano. Thorofon. $16.99.
Eduard Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Even well-known classical music takes on new shades of meaning when handled in a nontraditional or unfamiliar way. There are, for example, innumerable recordings of Mozart’s five violin concertos, and a number of them also include the three additional violin-and-orchestra pieces, K. 261, K. 269, and K. 373. But there is a paucity of recordings that bring historically informed performance practices to this material, and that is one thing that makes the new Hungaroton release featuring violinist Zsolt Kalló special. In addition to the usual elements of historically informed performances, including original or replica instruments, gut strings, cellos without endpins, and so forth, Kalló provides all his own cadenzas, as soloists would have in Mozart’s time – even though many violinists today use existing cadenzas by performers such as Joseph Joachim. More importantly, Kalló creates cadenzas that are true to the time in which these works were written: they are display pieces, yes, but they are neither so long nor so elaborate as to overweight the music and turn the concertos into the sort of virtuoso offerings that became common only in the decades after Mozart’s death. These are particularly well-balanced performances, readings to which the original-instrument ensemble Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, contributes greatly. In Mozart’s violin concertos (and the supplementary movements), the soloist is not quite primus inter pares in Baroque mode, but neither is he in constant competition with the ensemble. Kalló and McGegan turn these works into chamber-music-like conversations between soloist and orchestra, giving them plenty of heft when appropriate but allowing them to soar songfully and with great delicacy when that is the more-apt approach. The title of the two-CD set is a bit of a misnomer, though: it is called “The Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra,” but since it omits the Concertone, K. 190, and Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, it really encompasses only the works for solo single violin and orchestra. However, it encompasses those with beauty and great style: far from being stodgy, as period-instrument performances sometimes are, these readings are full of verve and liveliness, bringing forth the many manifest beauties of the music with a combination of beautiful tone, excellent balance, and a firmly grounded historical understanding of the time period within which Mozart produced the music.
Unlike Mozart’s violin concertos, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is always performed in one of its two authorized versions for voices and orchestra, those being for tenor and contralto (Mahler’s preference) or for tenor and baritone. But almost no listeners know that there is a third version of this amazing work, one not only sanctioned by Mahler but also prepared by him and specifically intended as an alternative form of performance. This is a version for voices with piano, not orchestra, and it is a version so little-known that it did not receive its first performance until 1989, almost 80 years after Mahler’s death. Mahler did not make this version as a piano reduction of the orchestral one – he actually rethought the music and created a piece that is noticeably different in numerous ways, for example by omitting the final word Tod in the third appearance in the first song of the phrase, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der [Tod]. The piano part is very difficult and has some notable differences from the orchestral one – Mahler is not here merely trying to “reduce” the orchestral sound to the piano, but is striving to give Das Lied von der Erde a different kind of emotional impact from the one it has in its much-better-known orchestral guise. The new Thorofon recording of the piano version is thus an exceptionally welcome entry in the Mahler catalogue, even though the singers are not quite at the absolute highest level for this music: Alexandra von Roepke, as a mezzo-soprano, lacks the deep duskiness that Mahler wanted in the contralto part, and tenor Peter Furlong sometimes strains his voice in trying to emote, even though he is not up against a full orchestral complement. On the other hand, pianist Christian Kälberer is excellent throughout, his solidity grounding the singers and giving this entire performance a strength hewn as if from marble. It is inevitable to compare the piano version of Das Lied von der Erde with the orchestral one, and by and large this is not to the piano version’s advantage: the non-vocal middle section of Der Abschied, for example, is far less effective in bridging the two disparate poems when heard on piano. Yet this version is more than a curiosity: even though it lacks the powerful punch of the orchestral form in which Das Lied von der Erde is usually heard, it brings greater clarity to some of the intertwinings of the vocal and instrumental lines, and it casts the overall work’s emotions somewhat differently, giving them a more-human if less-overwhelming scale. No one who thinks he or she knows Das Lied von der Erde can really know it completely without listening to it in this form.
Speaking of knowing things, everybody who knows and loves the music of the Strauss family has heard, time and time again, the famed, unendingly tuneful and brilliantly structured waltzes, polkas and other dance music that the Strauss orchestra played for decades. And yet anyone who thinks of the family as consisting only of Johann Sr., Johann Jr. and Josef will be astonished by a wonderful Marco Polo release featuring waltzes, polkas and a galop by Eduard Strauss. The youngest of the three Strauss brothers and the longest-lived (1835-1916), Eduard gained fame as a conductor rather than a composer, and garnered unending notoriety when he insisted on having the entire Strauss archive incinerated in 1907 – whether because of a pact with his older brothers or from longstanding personal animosity toward them, no one is really sure. Eduard was often trivialized as “handsome Edi” – he was exceptionally good-looking – and had not really wanted to be part of the family “music business,” being fluent in several languages and preferring a diplomatic career. For many reasons, history has been unkind to Eduard, but the new CD of 13 of his works – of which, remarkably, 10 are world première recordings – may help to redress the balance. Although those of Eduard’s pieces heard here lack the ever-present good humor of those by Johann Sr., the dramatic flair of those of Johann Jr., and the intricacy of those by Josef, Eduard’s works are exceptionally charming, even if on a surface level, and are as well-constructed and tuneful as anything by the Strauss family’s better-known members. And the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice plays all the pieces with panache under John Georgiadis. Included here are Eduard’s best-known polka, Mit Extrapost, and his two most-familiar waltzes, Doctrinen and Fesche Geister. But nothing else on the disc will likely have been heard by Strauss fanciers before: the waltzes Grüsse an die Aula, Ball-Promessen, Hypothesen and Aus dem Rechtsleben; the gallop Pest-Ofener-Eissport; and the several types of polka (schnell, française, mazur) at which Eduard was especially adept – Bruder Studio!, Die Hochquelle, Über Feld und Wiese, Aus Lieb’ zu ihr! and Schneewittchen. Given the fact that Eduard wrote more than 300 works, it is by no means certain that the high-quality ones on this CD are typical of his music; certainly contemporaries belittled him as a composer, but whether that was justified criticism or more a matter of choosing sides (for example, in the ongoing rivalry between the Strauss family and longtime rival Karl Michael Ziehrer) is unclear on the basis of this single release. What listeners have here is Strauss music with a distinct difference: rarely heard works by a very definitely under-appreciated member of the famed family, a member whose contributions to the Strauss legacy will only be better understood if additional volumes of his pieces are released in the future. Hopefully that is just what will happen – mit extrapost (special delivery).