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Classical Corner Featured — 01 April 2013

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Best of Winter 2013

Like Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

We’re not talking Mantle and Maris here, but rather dueling productions of Die Meistersinger. Seems like just last year I was recommending a wonderful PentaTone set from a live performance by Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony. Janowski and PentaTone have now released virtually everything in the Wagner canon except for the Ring operas, and those are due out this year. The series is a monumental achievement, and they deserve high praise for having maintained such consistent standards. If you’re looking for well-cast, exquisitely shaped performances in high-resolution sound, start there.

I wouldn’t bring another recording of Meistersinger to your attention unless it was also really good. This one emanates from Glyndebourne, the legendary little opera house that magically springs to life every summer in the English countryside. In the early ‘90s, Sir George Christie, son of the company’s founder, saw to the expansion of the original house to a capacity of 1250, making it suitable for at least a few of Wagner’s operas. They did Tristan und Isolde in 2003, following that up with Meistersinger in 2011. A good second choice, because the opera comes with antic mid-summer revelry in its DNA. It benefits from that Glyndebourne ambiance.

Opus Arte released a 2-disc Blu-ray (OA BD7108 D) of the production late in 2012, but I’ve just now caught up with it. This Meistersinger emphasizes romance and youthful high spirits. It’s not 30 Rock, but it is Wagner’s only comedy. If you were intrigued by Andrew Quint’s survey of Wagner recordings in the April TAS but aren’t sure where to begin, you could do worse than Meistersinger, and far worse than this Glyndebourne production.

Highlights: Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs—is there anything this gifted Canadian baritone can’t handle? Okay, he’s a bit young for the role, and his voice isn’t as big as a barn (nor has it developed the frayed-leather quality that usually goes with those voices). But he positively inhabits this pivotal part, providing psychological depth and authenticity that anchor the entire drama. The other principal singers also act very well, and they have been cast for age-appropriate looks. Soprano Anna Gabler makes a radiant Eva. As Walther von Stolzing, tenor Marco Jentzsch does an anachronistic but appealing Gerard Butler turn. Topi Lehtipuu is perfect as Sachs’s apprentice David. And Johannes Martin Kränzle manages to invest Sixtus Beckmesser with some real humanity in spite of Wagner’s bad intentions. They all sing well enough too, although when Jentzsch tackles Walther’s Prize Song, he reminds us of just how uncomfortably high this aria lies, and how difficult it is to negotiate its many climactic phrases. On the other hand, the gang of (mostly) English “character singers” who portray the Nuremberg Mastersingers’ Guild are priceless—every one of them an individual, straight out of Honoré Daumier or Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.

Which is fitting, since director David McVicar has updated the action to the Germany of 1813, the year of Wagner’s birth and of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. Some people have objected to this, but not me. There is such well-considered detail in McVicar’s staging, and in every nook and cranny of Vicki Mortimer’s set designs and costumes, that I found myself emphatically glad to be nowhere near the 16th century. Apparently McVicar sensed that Wagner’s take on Hans Sachs and his community owes much more to Wagner’s life and Wagner’s century than to Sachs’s. This becomes quite obvious in the latter part of the opera, in which the composer interrupts the story in order to have Sachs philosophize about Society’s Responsibility to The Artist, The Obligation to Keep German Art Pure, etc. etc. Don’t worry, it doesn’t last long, and the Glyndebourne production doesn’t play it up.

It’s always dodgy to offer excerpts from something conceived as an unbreakable whole, but here are a couple of clips. They require some explanation. Sachs is a shoemaker and poet and widower, which is to say he has made compromises and sacrifices. He tells himself that his love for Eva is more like that of a father for a child, but neither Sachs nor Eva quite believes it. In this first clip, from a scene toward the end of the opera, he has engineered things so that his young protégé Walther will win the big song contest and Eva’s hand. Sachs should be feeling clever and pleased with himself, and Eva should be relieved, but they are both clearly in pain:

Here’s the same Act III quintet I offered in the PentaTone/Janowski review last April:

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic, achieving relatively transparent textures and sensitively applied onward drive. Video work and recording are exemplary. Two brief, welcome “making-of” featurettes are included. The booklet includes an essay, “England’s Bayreuth?” and a synopsis, but no track listing.

Orchestral Music

My favorite orchestral recordings this quarter mostly feature familiar repertoire. But it’s done right, and you will enjoy hearing these fresh interpretations. First up: Mendelssohn’s E-minor and D-minor Violin Concertos. Yes, there exists a very early concerto, written for Mendelssohn’s friend and teacher Eduard Rietz. And then there’s the one everyone knows—and nearly everyone plays. Last year the rising young Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova delighted many people with her release on Hyperion (CDA67795), with Mr. Jurowski conducting the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Now comes a Blu-ray audio disc of Tianwa Yang’s performances with the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä, Patrick Gallois at the helm (Naxos NBD0032). She throws in the F-minor Violin Sonata, written a year after the early Violin Concerto, which is to say when Mendelssohn had turned 14. (Ibragimova and Jurowski split the two concertos with The Hebrides overture.)

Which should you get? Both performances are very good, favoring sweet tones over heroics. If you prefer period instruments, get Ibragimova and Jurowski. If you want somewhat better sound, get Yang and Gallois. Their Blu-ray separates the soloist from the orchestral texture to good effect, and in the multichannel DTS-HD Master Audio mix, orchestral details are laid out on a wider, deeper soundstage. (The early violin sonata is offered only in 16/44.1 stereo and sounds it.) I also prefer Yang’s more straightforward, heartily Romantic approach to the D-minor concerto, in which Ibragimova tends to stifle herself by eschewing vibrato. It may be “historically informed,” but it’s not all that effective musically. Here is Yang in Mendelssohn’s youthful first effort:

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Next, the Oregon Symphony’s sophomore album for PentaTone (PTC 5186 471). It’s titled This England, and it features sterling performances of Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) overture, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. Now, this is familiar music, and you may already own versions that you love. That’s okay. Although this program lacks the dramatic sweep of last year’s Music for a Time of Warthese works make a nice evening’s worth of music, and the orchestra, under the energetic Carlos Kalmar, sounds great. I got a huge kick out of Cockaigne, a dynamic sound portrait of the London of Elgar’s time. Here’s a sample:

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Not in the mood for Brits? How about Italians? Specifically, how about volume 1 of all the Rossini overtures? This has been my favorite driving-around / cooking / workout music lately. Sparkling tunes and timbres, of course, in fizzy yet precise performances from the Prague Sinfonia and Christian Benda, captured in colorful, open sound.

The first volume (8.570933) gives you both familiar works (La gazza ladra, Semiramide) and less familiar (Otello, Ermione), arranged for variety of scoring, tempi, etc., so you can enjoy listening straight through. Here’s a bit of Le siège de Corinthe.

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Another Italian disc, further off the beaten track, features the music of Alfredo Casella (1883–1947). Who? Well, his classmates at the Paris Conservatoire were Enescu and Ravel. He developed a profound admiration for the music of Debussy, but his own output reflects a more mainstream Romantic orientation. Think of his contemporary Respighi, bear in mind that Casella conducted the Boston Pops from 1927 to ‘29, and that later he helped launch the Vivaldi revival, and you’ll understand both his magpie style and his basically conservative temperament.

Conductor Francesco La Vecchia has been documenting Casella’s vast orchestral output on various Naxos releases for some time now, and his work has gotten rave reviews. A new release (8.573004) features one work from each of Casella’s main creative periods: the Mahleresque Suite in C, op. 13 (1909–10); the dissonant, modernistic Pagine di guerra (“War Pages,” 1915–18); and the Concerto, op. 61 (1937), which Casella called “my most complete achievement in the field of orchestra music.” Here’s a choice passage from the Suite:

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Early Music

I had been resisting Kristian Bezuidenhout’s Mozart keyboard series on Harmonia Mundi, but volume 4 (HMU 907528) has won me over. Partly it was the repertoire: Bezuidenhout begins and ends with two versions of the Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397, unfinished at Mozart’s death. This singular work by one of the masters of Classic form has seven different tempo indications, three unmeasured cadenzas, and no recognizable structure. It is indeed a fantasy, and a dark one. Bezuidenhout draws burnished sounds from his instrument (McNulty after Walter, 2009/1805), matching the volatile, anxious mood of the music note by note, heartbeat by heartbeat. His performance is so persuasive that it’s almost possible to hear some of its tics—oddly placed agogic accents, momentary feints or rushes—as echoes of what Mozart might have done in the heat of the moment.

Each volume contains an interesting variety of works, so that you can listen all the way through if you like, rather than being faced with the need to program your evening with multiple discs or downloads. Besides the two versions of K. 397, vol. 4 includes a Prelude and Fugue, a set of variations, and two major-key sonatas. Well done, and well recorded. The opening of the Fantasia:

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I also really liked Andreas Staier’s new collection, “…pour passer le mélancolie” (Harmonia Mundi HMC902143). These are 17th-century keyboard suites and portions of suites played on a restored 18th-century harpsichord. Staier is one of the great masters of early keyboard music. He’s not quite old enough to have taught Mr. Bezuidenhout a thing or two, but he surely could. I have many of his Baroque and Classic recital discs on my shelves.

Here he devotes himself to “melancholy,” which for Baroque artists summoned up visions of sober contemplation on the vanities of life, the dearness of silence and solitude, and “the transience of all earthly things,” to quote Staier’s own program notes. When masters like Louis Couperin and Jacques Champion de Chambonnières created their tombeaux (reliquaries) and plaintes (laments), they transferred the gently broken chords of lute music to the keyboard. The result was a strangely soothing music that sometimes seemed to break entirely free of meter or regular rhythms. Listen (you may want to reduce the volume slightly on this one):

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More Chamber Music

Still more outstanding chamber music is available from the New Zealand String Quartet, in their Asian Music for String Quartet (Naxos 8.572488). It collects remarkably engaging music by Zhou Long, Chinary Ung, Gao Ping, Tōru Takemitsu, and Tan Dun.

I especially liked Long’s Song of the Ch’in (1982), which draws upon the sounds of the traditional qin, a small seven-string zither long associated with sages and scholars. Because the qin was so limited in its dynamic and timbral range, musicians developed many subtle ways of plucking the strings, bending pitches, changing colors through harmonics and “false” fingerings, and more. Here a traditional Western string quartet suggests both the sound and the sense of the player’s solitude:

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You’ll hear a lot more, and different approaches, from the other composers. But none of it is daunting or off-putting. (Both Takemitsu and Tan Dun have done film work.) It is also exceptionally well-recorded, in St. Anne’s Church, Toronto. Don’t overlook this winning music, which so easily negotiates cultural borders and never sacrifices integrity in doing so.

Tough Sledding

Now it’s time to sort out the hard cases. Every quarter, in the safety of my listening room, I sample a lot of so-called “new music” and music that hasn’t gotten much attention; I figure that’s part of my obligation as a historian. A lot of it is instantly forgettable. Some of it is pleasant but doesn’t make a deeper impression. (Some of it is unpleasant but doesn’t make a deeper impression.) One wants to be moved, or at least surprised. In my case, one doesn’t necessarily want to hear warmed-over symphonic jazz and Americana (including Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, etc.), because Gershwin and Bernstein and Morton Gould and Aaron Copland and Roy Harris and William Grant Still and (insert your favorite here) did it much earlier and much better. I know the composer means well and is trying his best to be “accessible.” I just don’t care. In fact I don’t particularly like music that takes so much care not to confuse or offend me. I don’t like rice pudding either.

But occasionally something pops up that’s a keeper. It seems to happen just often enough to make my life interesting. I hesitate to allot space here to these recordings, because they may be the least likely to interest you. On the other hand, maybe you are enough like me—jaded, curious, still sponge-like, tired of life’s rice-pudding moments, willing to take a risk, at least on music—that you might like this. If not, hey, see you in about two weeks with further thoughts about Tchaikovsky. (Great, now I’ve probably offended all the Tchaikovsky fans.)

Anyway: Discovery Number One for me this quarter was Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911–80) and specifically his Symphony No. 6, conducted by visionary trombone virtuoso Christian Lindberg (BIS-SACD-1980). Pettersson was one of a handful of brave individuals who resisted the call of the atonal, serial, aleatoric and whatnot in mid-20th-century music and slowly, steadily chipped away at the stone placed in front of him until he had created a roomful of masterpieces not quite like anyone else’s. Here is a single sentence from his entry in the New Grove Dictionary, which may tell you all you need to know:

He was brought up in poverty by his atheist father and deeply religious mother, who sang Salvation Army hymns to her children.

Oh, and he made a living as a viola player in the Stockholm Philharmonic for years, although rheumatoid arthritis finally forced him to abandon playing in the 1960s. His New Grove biographer Rolf Haglund describes his music as “passionately temperamental.” I would say it often seems to describe violent but inward struggles. It is tonal, and you can follow its thematic materials without too much trouble.

Symphony No. 6 (which you can sample, in a different performance, on YouTube) is played as one continuous movement. If there is any sort of Beethoven-ish narrative archetype involved, it is more along the lines of “grieving that leads to acceptance” rather than “struggle that leads to triumph.” It lasts an hour. The NSO’s performance seems excellent, and the multichannel recording cannot be faulted. There is only one track on this BIS release: you are expected to listen to the whole thing at one sitting. (You can always hit the pause button, I guess.)

Take Two: Among her mounting accomplishments, the estimable Tianwa Yang (yes, Ms. Yang again), still in her early 20s but already hailed as “an unquestioned master of the violin” (American Record Guide), has recorded the complete works of German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) for violin and piano (Naxos 8.572730). She’s fully up to the job — her playing here is even more impressive than on the Mendelssohn concertos. Rihm himself ought to be better known on these shores. He launched his career in the early 1970s, and with musical language (emotive, expressionist) widely regarded as a challenge to the perhaps overly cerebral avant-gardism of Boulez and his generation. Later he was affected by the work of Morton Feldman and others, contributing to the movement known as the New Simplicity. (Re the “New Simplicity”: everything’s relative.)

He’s very prolific and, to judge from what’s on this album, well worth listening to. You can’t predict the events in any of his works by just sampling the first 30 seconds or so. Yang and pianist Nicholas Rimmer offer works completed between 1971 and 2006, including the world premiere recording of Über die Linie VII. (Actually, that one’s just for solo violin.) Here is a bit of one of my two favorites on this album, Antlitz (“Drawing”):

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Recorded in Ettlingen, Germany, with a piano furnished by Steingraeber & Söhne of Bayreuth. In spite of the unusual things it’s asked to do, it sounds very nice, as does Ms. Yang.

Tianwa Yang

Featured image: A few of the boys whooping it up down at the Meistersinger Lounge; Glyndebourne 2011.

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Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

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