Recordings

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

Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXVIII: Elgar, Holst, Tchaikovsky, Debussy…and Karl Weigl

The feature I applaud most in this fine new release from BIS is its pairing of Great Britain’s two most internationally popular orchestral showpieces under one baton. You would think it natural to record them together, but a quick look at Amazon reveals only Sir Adrian Boult’s recordings available that way, and these were originally sold separately, supplemented with other music. You can also find Herbert von Karajan’s The Planets accompanied by Pierre Monteux’s Enigma Variations, both performances many decades old. Even these new Andrew Litton versions were actually laid down in studio four years apart (the Elgar in 2013, Holst in 2017) but were clearly intended for this release by BIS, and both were miked in Bergen’s Grieg Hall.
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXVII: Vaughan Williams, Holbrooke, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Alfvén, Joseph Marx

Both works here are gorgeously conceived and transparently recorded from top to bottom (and the Seventh Symphony features a convincing velvet-deep organ presence to boot). They make for a wonderful release together and a fitting conclusion to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s well-received Vaughan Williams cycle on Onyx. Spectacular as the Antartica is in Manze’s hands (and it is) it’s his performance of the Ninth Symphony which stands out for me as an even more remarkable accomplishment beyond normal praise. 

Recordings

A Crop of Recordings XXVI: Shostakovich, Weingartner, Ibert, and Elgar

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are in fine form here, satisfying guides, as always, in their approach to the ironies and tragedies of the Shostakovich symphonies. Indeed, now that we know him well in Boston, it has become clear Nelsons is consistent there in the way he approaches music of this kind. But he illustrates, you might say, along with special romantic insights, the sins of his virtues. Nelsons is what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. One notices this not so much in tempo variance as in the tendency to prepare for and draw out a cadence. Nelsons is not slow. But one is nearly always aware of a certain smoothness in transitions from phrase to phrase and a roundedness in the brass sonority he encourages from the BSO.

HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXV: Gliere, Respighi, Lortzing, Antheil, and Wagner

Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears.
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXIV: Rued Langgaard, Ruth Gipps, Hubert Parry, Vilhelm Stenhammar, and Witold Lutosławski

“Let me please introduce myself. I am a gentleman of wealth and taste. And I laid traps for troubadours….” So goes the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Danish audiences never quite knew what to make of Rued Langgaard, at once romantic composer and obsessive throwback to apocalyptic Christianity. His Sixth Symphony, officially termed “The Heaven-Rending,” later came to be known as “The Antichrist.” The Danes, hearing the struggle in his music and perhaps a bit fundamentalist at the time, were never sure on which side Langgaard stood! Langgaard was passionately convinced Satan operated in modern life as power behind the scenes, devilishly pulling the strings of music, culture and government—and was ultimately responsible for the First World War. A special culprit and convert to this evil, in Langgaard’s eyes, was Carl Nielsen, the celebrated Danish composer of his day, whose modernism and humanism Langgaard alternately copied and excoriated. These views and other personal eccentricities, plus music which over time gradually became episodic and minimalistic, ensured Langgaard would remain unpopular in his home country.
At the Bayreuth Festival

WAGNER: Lohengrin under Rudolf Kempe from Bayreuth, 1967

The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
HHA

A Crop of Recordings XXIII: Barenboim’s Brahms, Orozco-Estrada’s Strauss, Szell’s Walton and Stravinsky

If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
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