Recordings

The best, and sometimes the worst, in recorded music.

The Music of Mozart’s Last Months: La Clemenza di Tito at Emmanuel, Die Zauberflöte at Salzburg under Furtwängler, 1951, and Beecham’s Requiem from Pristine.

The primary occasion for this writing was Emmanuel Music’s fine performance of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, under Music Director Ryan Turner. However, two extraordinary recordings of works Mozart composed during those busy final months of his life have appeared, as downloads from Pristine Classics, and they are not only magnificent in themselves, but they provide an enlightening context for this somewhat elusive opera seria. These recordings are of the legendary 1951 Salzburg performance of Die Zauberflöte under Wilhelm Furtwängler in the spectacularly improved sound we have come to expect from Andrew Rose, and a magnificent studio recording of the Requiem under Sir Thomas Beecham from 1954-56.

“Music for a Time of War” – The Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar play Ives, Adams, Britten, and Vaughan Williams on a Pentatone Release…Highly Recommended!

The Review has quite a backlog of recordings piled up, and we hope to make our way through as many as we can. I especially wanted to make note of this full concert recording by the Oregon Symphony, not only because our own Steven Kruger wrote the perceptive and witty program notes, but because of its exceptional musical quality and its truly extraordinary recording. A multichannel recording from Pentatone Classics, which released the Berlin concert performance of Der fliegende Holländer under Marek Janowski reviewed a few months ago, it amazed me with its timbral and spatial naturalness. It most definitely belongs in the reference collection of any audiophile, whether they are inclined to multichannel playback or not. I listened to it in stereo on headphones, using an SACD-compatible player.

Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: the beginning of Marek Janowski’s Historic Series of Concert Performances of the Ten Mature Operas and Music Dramas

Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”

New York Arts’ Recommended Books and Classical Recordings 2011

Modern Flash Dictionary by George Kent (1835). The British Library Board.

I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.

Mozart and Yellow Warblers: Recent Performances of the Piano Concertos on Disc (Part I of a Series)

While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach’s more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, “They all sound alike – how can you tell them apart?” These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach’s musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach’s cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson’s definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends’ remarks about Bach’s vocal works.

Robert Schumann, The Complete Works for Piano Trio – Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, on EMI Classics

A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn’t think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered “bad Schumann,” commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.

Elgar Conducts Elgar: Enigma Variations; Symphony No. 2 in Acoustic Recordings, 1920-25, Splendidly Remastered by Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical

There is fascination here—on many levels. “Within these grooves”, I am tempted to say, though one’s gratitude this time is for the cleaning crew. Pristine has already given us some remarkable technical restorations of the Furtwangler discography. Encountering now these listenable and vivid performances by Sir Edward Elgar, recorded into acoustic horns at the near infancy of the art, is to know the best sort of alliance between digital wizardry and artistic judgment.

Grooves in the Mist – A Vinyl Memoir, Part II

Earlier in this backward glance, I tried to revive a feeling of what it might have been like to have a phonograph in one’s life. Looking over it, a reader may sense that the 78rpm record was a fragile blessing at best, while perhaps understanding why even today a child would appreciate it. We left off in the early 1960s, where, one might suppose, the advent of the stereo LP solved everything! By then, I had decent quality electronics, and even the admiration of screech resistant female ears.
This isn’t to say I was always so terribly thrilled with the outcomes, myself. The great curse of the phonograph, of course, was its tracking ability, surface noise and distortion. It was one thing to chisel a groove, another for your needle to follow it. Recordings were quite dynamically limited in those days, but even so, the Empire 108 cartridge simply would not track, even at 3 grams pressure, the first tutti in Klemperer’s Philharmonia Schumann Fourth. It wasn’t until 1963 and the Empire 880, that a cartridge could be expected to follow every groove. I was fairly happy with the bass performance of my Lafayette speakers, though. That year Charles Munch’s famous recording of the Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony on RCA was very much a sonic standard, and I was happy to note I could hear the 32cycle organ pedal tones in the slow movement.

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