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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique - Varese: Ionisation
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique - Varese: Ionisation
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rethinking of Symphonie fantastique that sweeps the field, March 26, 2014
Even conductors can think of a masterpiece as a warhorse, and under that influence, they don't go out of their way to rediscover why a score became a masterpiece in the first place. Here Mariss Jansons breaks a long tradition of indifference toward the Symphonie fantastique. Every measure of the work is refreshed, listened to for every implied gasp, lurch, and fever dream of its hallucinating hero. The music is invested with liberal doses of Romantic spontaneity, finding intensity where other conductors find blah. In a word, Jansons is channeling his inner Charles Munch.

The conductor's intent is revealed early in the fist movement, where Berlioz's rhythmic irregularities crowd in. Jansons accentuates the agogic pace and underlines the eerie orchestration. These two tendencies are extended into all five movements - one notices that even the straightforward waltz in Un bal seems ghostly and strange. More striking still is the pastoral Scene aux champs, where no one before Jansons, not even Munch, has found a way to inject an air of strangeness - after all, the whole score is meant to be terrifying and surreal. It's eye-opening to hear the shepherds' serenade turn into shrieks. The cause is helped by the conductor's urgent pacing; too often this movement has been slowed to a trudge.

The really disturbing music belongs to the last two movements, of course, which depict a ride to the scaffold and a witches' black Sabbath. Since even the most staid conductors put on their Halloween masks for this music, it's hard to out-Herod Herod. Jansons doesn't try. He relies on exact ensemble to bring out the music's color, abetted by remarkably good sonics, the kind we've become used to from BR Klassik's concert recordings, surely the best on the market. The Bavarian Radio SO makes such a golden noise that the usual Grand Guignol isn't missed. Much the same can be said of the finale, but it's here that Jansons seems a bit foursquare compared to Munch's wild rise. there's not much else to criticize about this vivid reading. (Purists may object at the lack of repeats in movements one and four.)

It was a stroke of programming genius to fill the CD out with Varese's Ionisation, scored for a huge variety of percussion plus "high and low sirens," since like Berlioz he dreamt up his own fantastic sound world a century later. Purely as sound, the piece is eeriness piled on eeriness, and the result is deliciously unearthly, especially in this crystal-clear performance. In all, this CD is a total success, and after a similarly triumphant War Requiem from him, I'm beginning to reassess Jansons as a potentially great conductor.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 4, 2015 10:58 PM PST

Orff: Carmina Burana
Orff: Carmina Burana
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A restrained Carmina that focuses on the score's simple beauties, March 26, 2014
This review is from: Orff: Carmina Burana (Audio CD)
New versions of Orff's enduring favorite appear at regular intervals, but as popular as Carmina Burana remains, few newcomers come close to venerable classic recordings under Eugen Jochum (DG) and Fruhbeck de Burgos (EMI), with a raft of other golden oldies (Stokowski, Ormandy, Previn) filling in the legacy. The score was never recorded (or taken seriously?) by the great lights of Solti, Karajan, and Bernstein, however. No matter, there's always another step to take in improved sound, since Carmina Burana has always served a double function as sonic blockbuster.

This live account from Royal Festival Hall in April, 2013, doesn't aim for the gallery. In many ways it's a subtle, even strained performance, with especially clear singing from the excellent and apparently smallish chorus. They are among the best I can recall in this work, as is the demure children's chorus. As for the three soloists, they aren't starry by comparison with Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhard Stolze, and Gundula Janowitz for Jochum. No better trio has emerged in over fifty years. The solo singers here join in conductor Hans Graf's generally unexaggerated approach, but at a cost. Only a few of the characters really come to life with any vividness.

There's not much galloping excitement, for example, in baritone Rodion Pogossov's rousing tavern song, Estuans interius, although I like his edgy Slavic timbre. The tenor is called upon to soar high in his range portraying the piteous swan as it's being roasted, and Andrew Kennedy does quite well, singing in tune with comic plaintiveness. He comes close to the grotesqueries of legendary Stolze in this song. The light lyric soprano of Sarah Tynan sounds pure and fresh in her four songs, and the high tessitura of Dulcissime doesn't remotely throw her off. But there's not much room made for characterization.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise. The palm will always go to bold, garish recordings of a work painted in Technicolor. Still, it's appealing to hear an entry that focuses on the simple beauty of Orff's score, which this one does very nicely.

Wagner: Gala (Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre)
Wagner: Gala (Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars **** 1/2 So much splendid music-making shouldn't go unrewarded, March 26, 2014
By 1993 when this live gala was held, Claudio Abbado was probably past his probation period - although for some Berliners this never happened. He was still "no Karajan" but had definitely loosened up the right discipline of the Philharmonic in a positive sense, giving the players more individual leeway for expression. New musicians were entering the ranks, younger, with more women and non-Germans. He moved the orchestra's native repertoire toward Mahler while remaining strong in Bruckner, one of Karajn's best composers.

This brief sketch permits us to see that Abbado was still on shaky ground with one particular composer, Wagner, who stood at the summit of Furtwangler and Karajan's repertoire. He hadn't conducted a Wagner opera when DG gave him Lohengrin (1995) - a real success as it turned out - and here he has at hand three eminent Wagnerian singers in Studer, Meier, Terfel, and Jerusalem. The result repeats the "he's no Karajan" theme with some justification. The opening Tannhauser Over. is delicate and a bit underpowered, far from the show of force one expects from the Berliners. I don't find it very convincing.

When the vocalists appear, Abbado is more in his element - he was, after all, the music director of La Scala - and even though the accompaniments are just a touch recessive, his singers are well supported. Studer, Meier, and Jerusalem starred in Abbado's Lohengrin and are fie here, although her brief period in best voice was in sight and the Tannhauser aria a bit tremulous. Meier repeats as a superlative Ortrud in the Act I scene with Elsa, really singing the part withno yowling of the kind that's become common in the part - only Christa Ludwig among modern Ortruds sings at this level.

The men aren't able to duplicate the thrills of Meier's singing, although Terfel, as you'd expect, if warmly authoritative in Wolfram's Ode to the Evening Star and Sach's Lindenduft monologue. Jerusalem appears only in the concluding duet from Act I of Walkure, from Wintersturme onward. In his prime I thought Jerusalem didn't have enough voice for Siegmund and just enough for Lohengrin, but today only Kaufmann really surpasses him. Meier sings Sieglinde in her dramatic soprano mode and is again spectcular; Abbado too is fired up by the end.

Two other orchestral excerpts, the Act I Prelude to Meistersinger and the Ride of the Valkries. Both are skillfully done,but if one turns to the program of Wagner excerpts done by Tennstedt and the London Phil. on the orchestra's house label, a wide gap opens up between this and Tennstedt's total involvement.

Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms/Lili Boulanger: Du fond de l'abime;Psalms 24 & 129; Vieille Priere bouddhique
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms/Lili Boulanger: Du fond de l'abime;Psalms 24 & 129; Vieille Priere bouddhique
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars *** 1/2 A fervent account of Boulanger's hymnal music, but the Stravinsky is a washout, March 26, 2014
Gardiner had made so many best-selling recordings for DG that I imagine they gave him this 2002 CD as a pet project, and it's an honorable one. Not many listeners are likely to buy a program of the doomed Lili Boulanger's Psalms settings. They prefigure the taste among French modernists like Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc for religosity that has the tang of medieval and modern mixed together, but always in a popular, accessible mode. Boulanger's four psalm settings are more heartfelt, I'd say, than her three successors' attempts to invoke God. One doesn't feel that she's kissing up to a retrograde Catholic audience; it took Messiaen to truly transform liturgical music in France with radical modernity. Most powerful of the Boulanger pieces here is the Old Buddhist Prayer, which builds into a strong (rather non-Buddhist) exhortation. The tenor soloist sounds a bit thin, however.

I'll bow to the lead reviewer in his description of how skillfully Boulanger uses parallel fiths and modal harmonies to achieve her effects. She's an excellent orchestrator when it comes to giving color and weight to the texts. Gardiner, always at his best with the Monteverdi Choir, leads fervent readings, although I wish the chorus hadn't been miked so far back; on my system there's also a metallic edge in loud passages, a complaint I had with Gardiner's B minor Mass, too. On other audio systems this may not be a problem, of course. One could hardly ask for a more committed performance in the Boulanger half of the program.

However, the Symphony of Psalms sounds under-rehearsed, basically a run-through. It's anodyne, the mod churchy and mellifluous. Thus the nature of the work, its austerity and its nod to ritual, are ignored. (How the lead reviewer hears a "punchy" performance is beyond me.) As its well known, the composer's conducting style was dry and unemotional. He would have found the style of Bernstein and Rattle, to name two Romantic exponents of the Symphony of Psalms, fulsome. Boulez on DG is certainly cool enough, but no one really approaches Stravinsky's own unyielding austerity. Gardiner zips through the first movement, robbing it of any impact. The other two movements are treated mildly.

So it's half a loaf, with sustained interest in the Boulanger and zip in the Stravinsky.

Here's the program, now duplicated in a bargain release on Brilliant Classics.
Boulanger, L:
Psalm 130: 'Du fond de l'abîme'
Psalm 129 'Ils m'ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse'
Psalm 24 'La terre appartient a l'Eternel'
Vieille Prière bouddhique

Symphony of Psalms
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 27, 2014 12:56 AM PDT

Donizetti: L'Elisir D'Amore
Donizetti: L'Elisir D'Amore
Price: $22.60
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pavarotti is in sad decline, ruining the rest of an excellent performance, March 26, 2014
I was recently in search of the best L'Elisir d'amore that I could find. Because Pavarotti was admired as the Donizetti tenor par excellence, his two recordings, early and late, were obvious contenders. The Decca version has always been preferred, thanks to the freshness and charisma of Pavarotti's singing - he owned Una furtiva lagrima for decades - but as much as Sutherland is beloved, her Adina is girlish or light; she tries hard to bring the right comic tone, and even her notorious pronunciation is improved - but a second drawback for me is Bonynge's conducting, although he too tries hard to bring rhythmic life to his ordinarily slack style. Of course, the testimony of countless fans sees beyond these limitations - so be it.

The later DG L'elisir corrects the weak points in the earlier with alert, expert conducting by Levine and Battle's utterly charming Adina, her voice and characterization a delight. But Pavarotti! This recording dates from a series of live Met performances that began in 1989 (there's a met release in MP3 at various download sites), and the great tenor's voice had grown creaky and threadbare - to me, it's painful to hear. When the lead singer is unacceptable, so is the entire performance. Apparently this isn't the case for the enthusiastic reviewers here, but newcomers should be warned. I bought the set sight unseen and threw it away.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2015 9:43 PM PST

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4
Offered by skyvo-direct-usa
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars *** 1/2 A sprightly air and andsnes' excellent technique cover over a lack of ideas and imagination, March 24, 2014
I think the lead reviewer is spot on about this being updated period playing, and in this case the updating has brought improvements on every front compared to the first decade where Norrington, Gardiner, and Hogwood became improbable international stars. Improbable because their musicology was far stronger than their musicality. Here we get excellent orchestral playing, a workable truce between Beethoven as speed demon and conventional tempos, and best of all, a world-class pianist who outshines the Tans, Lills, and Levins of the first generation.

When all of this is added up, Andsnes puts together a pleasing package in Beethoven's Second Piano Cto., well known as the first actually written. As a product of a keyboard virtuoso in his late twenties who needed a calling card, the B-flat Cto. offers more in the way of Haydnesque sparkle than any prefiguration of the Beethoven who would emerge. Andsnes' reading remains in the light, fleet-footed spirit of the work, giving us a Mozartean reading that's happily free of unwanted Baroque touches.

The G major Cto. is another matter, however, a masterpiece of Beethoven's middle period that demands deeper musical exploration. I've always thought of it as the most feminine of his five concertos, but that's not a reason to slide over the surface as if we are still in the world of the first two concertos. Andsnes seems to disagree. He offers no change of style from Cto. #2, not even much expressive rubato or deviation form strict time-beating. HIP or not, there's no validity to equating early and middle Beethoven; therefore, I find Andsnes glib in his interpretation, which most of the time is a non-interpretation in its literalism.

The first movement tinkles along merrily; the famous Daniel in the lion's den slow movement remains light and jaunty throughout, utterly draining the movement of its dramatic conflict; the finale is elegant and poised, the best of the three, even if too literal. Andsnes is worshiped by British critics, but the truth is that he can be dull and unimaginative. That's true here, but his defects are covered up by the sprightly glittery surface of these two readings. As an antidote, turn to Mikhail Pletnev's joyful, highly imaginative way with both concertos.

Schumann: Kinderszenen; Kreisleriana; Humoreske
Schumann: Kinderszenen; Kreisleriana; Humoreske
Offered by IMS Distribution
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lupu creates an austere air, but his cultivated playing stands out, March 23, 2014
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As a non-fan of Lupu, someone who stands outside the halo he casts if you are a devotee - I must admit that this is one CD I admire. A previous reviewer uses two phrases that are enviable: austere delicacy and manly melancholy. On both counts Lupu's Schumann fits the bill. His playing can be quite tender, but there's a prevailing air of austerity. He's rigorous and disciplined in his restraint - this could be called masculine - and this refusal to let go of his emotions except very occasionally adds the melancholy - to my ears, at least.

The program includes one very popular cycle (Kinderszenen), one piece well known to fans of Schumann's piano writing (Kreisleriana), and one relative rarity (Humoreske). Lupu approaches them all with sober cultivation. I thought it would be interesting to compare his Kreisleriana, movement by movement, with two highly acclaimed ones form the young Argerich and the late-middle-aged Pollini. The Argerich is rather hard, with punchy attacks, a somewhat harsh piano, and clearly focused on precision and drama rather than charm. The lupu is cushy-sounding by comparison, and where Argerich presses the tempo forward, he lays back. The focus is on inward beauty, I'd say. Best of all, however, is Pollini, who manages to be precise and thoroughly Schumanneque - as the other two are - but adding more imagination and personality.

Since my Schumann heroes are Horowitz and Richter, I lean away from Lupu's civilized restraint, coming away with a sense of admiration for all the qualities the five-star reviews rave about. But in the end, his kind of playing is no fun; it lacks a sense of spontaneous exuberance. On the other hand, Richter didn't record either Kinderszenen or Kreisleriana (as usual, he would pick and choose even with his favorite composers, as Schumann certainly was), although we have three live performances of Humoreske from the Fifties. They are quirky and exciting, but only the last one, from 1956, sounds good, without undue harshness when Richter goes over the top. Horowitz recorded all three cycles at various stages until he was quite old - all are worth exploring.

In the end, what stood out for me on this CD was the Humoreske, which is moody enough to suit Lupu's style. Even here, however, one should first check out the excellent recordings by Andras Schiff and Piotr Anderszewski.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.25  &  No.20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.25 & No.20
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars *** 1/2 Two great talents meet in a subdued mood that needs more energy, joy, and exuberance, March 23, 2014
The one-star review grabs your attention with a loud raspberry, but some good points are made. Argerich's previous Mozart concerto recordings - they have been scarce - showed her in command, carving out each phrase with spontaneous inspiration, asking the conductor to follow her lead. That kind of dynamism has been tempered here. The opening of K. 503, mild-mannered in Abbado's hands, calls upon Argerich to match him, with a corresponding loss of energy.

Energy isn't everything, of course, and after a little adjustment, I found it a pleasure to focus on the piano and Argerich's phrasing - she's captivating even at half wattage. Politeness compels her not to hijack the interpretation, but she gives the cadenza (a nice one by Friedrich Gulda) an injection of power that's welcome. The Orchestra Mozart plays pleasantly, and the recorded sound is natural, but be prepared fro close miking of the piano. Tempos are conventional but restrained. Abbado and Argerich approach this music like old hands, without a sense of daring, and there will always be an audience for that, even as HIPness ransacks Mozart all around us.

The tameness of the opening to K. 466 is a combination of Abbado's reserve and the orchestra's period inclinations, but we are past the era where this concerto was seized upon as a harbinger of Beethoven, and by HIP standards the sonority is robust. As before, Argerich scales her temperament to match Abbado's, and for me there's a melancholy tinge to the music-making, looking back at the exuberant pair they made in the Sixties. In K. 366 we get the customary Beethoven cadenzas.

These live recordings from the Lucerne Festival in the spring of 2013 predate Abbado's death by almost a year. I'd wish for a less low-key valedictory from a conductor who often had true greatness in him. Happily, the dashing finale ofo K. 466 comes alive the the real joy and exuberance of Mozart.
Comment Comments (13) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 11, 2014 3:19 PM PDT

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3, Symphony No.5
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3, Symphony No.5
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A stunning concerto reading coupled with a high-level but not exceptional Fifth Sym., March 22, 2014
Gergiev is indisputably one of the major Prokofiev interpreters we have, and these two readings come from the two sides of his musical personality. As in his cycle of the complete Prokofiev symphonies, he approaches Sym. #5 with a certain seriousness and restraint. Two decades ago I was more impressed by this take than I am today - in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, it was important to hear "international" Russians like Gergiev and Pletnev who competed at the highest level even as the situation at home unraveled. But making Prokofiev less brash and brusque than in the stereotypical Soviet style had a short shelf life. The Fifth is so popular that it takes an exceptional reading to make an impression.

Vladimir Jurowski, probably the closest rival that Gergiev has in this repertoire, produced a stunning recording of the Fifth that more or less swept the field, but if one goes back to an earlier era, Bernstein in New York and Karajan in Berlin produced great recordings. Gergiev seems content to turn out a high-level, well played performance delivered in excellent sound. His musicians know the score inside out and supply plenty of deft touches. Yet the overall effect isn't striking enough. For me, the lack is due to Gergiev's soberness, misplaced in a score so filled with kaleidoscopic color and mercurial mood changes. Anyone who already owns the version he made with the London Sym. in their complete set already owns the same interpretation.

The conductor comes alive in the Third Piano Cto., where he and super-virtuoso Denis Matsuev take the familiar elements of the score and play with them for a kind of hyper-experience. This is Gergiev's other side, as a master of detail and showmanship at the same time. Every brash touch is brasher here, every fast passage accelerated to its limits, every glissando ripped off with dazzling ease. There is less room for wit and delicacy, but I don't mean to imply that they bull through the music. These are great musicians catching sparks from each other, and the result is exceptionally vibrant. The Prokofiev Third hasn't wanted for outstanding recordings going back to William Kapell in the mono era, Gary Graffman in the heyday of American postwar pianism, and Kissin and langLang in our day. If you owned only Martha Argerich's electric account, you'd be well served. Gergiev and Matsuev add another wrinkle, so it's up to each buyer to decide if that's enough reason to go for this CD - I'm not sure myself.

Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas
Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars *** 1/2 A hard disc to judge, caught between Levit's mellifluous techniqe and a lack of confronttion with Beethoven's mysteries, March 21, 2014
This Beethoven recital is a striking example of how listeners can hear the same thing but arrive at opposite conclusions. Igor Levit has been widely praised for several aspects of his pianism: his even touch, the "gentle songfulness" in his phrasing, and the flowing forward motion of his interpretations. As noted a critic as Alex Ross in the New Yorker devoted a column to how astonished he was at hearing Levit's concert recital of the late Beethoven sonatas. While hearing what everyone else hears, I agree with the other three-star review who calls these interpretations superficial.

If you believe, as I do, that late Beethoven isn't feel-good music, it's reasonable to ask why not. It's generally acknowledged that the composer was pursuing an unusual, even esoteric track in the late piano sonatas and string quartets. He turned his back on conventional sonata form, but just as importantly, he didn't follow up on is own innovations from his middle period, when he expanded sonata form to become more heroic, large-scaled, romantic, and personal. The emergence of struggle and conflict was balanced, in a work like the iconic Appssionata Sonata, by respect for the listener's expectations, while in his late period Beethoven recognized no boundaries and devised inventions that force the listener to follow where the composer's imagination led him, no matter how eccentric and puzzling the journey might be.

Even now, two centuries later, when all of Beethoven's output has been repeated countless times, the normality of the late period remains in question, as witness the aggressive strangeness of the Diabelli Variations and the Bagatelles. Pianists who have a streak of the perverse in their playing, like Richter and Anderszewski, are well suited to maintaining the shock value and extremism of late Beethoven. That's not a prerequisite, however. Serkin and Schnabel weren't perverse interpreters; they felt an obligation to meet the tremendous challenge of Beethoven's imagination through intense study and personal confrontation with the score' musical conundrums.

Which is a long prologue to my judgment that Levit coasts through these works with a flowing line and beautiful tone. Whatever Ross and other enthusiasts hear, where is the depth and emotional confrontation? Of course, Kempff stands as a predecessor who took a smaller, more lyrical, and non-confrontational approach to Beethoven, so to declare that Levit is of the same statue as Kempff would mean a great deal. I just don't hear his playing that way. In the highly contrasted and jerky finale of Op. 101, the extremes are smoothed out, although Levit's variety of color is admirable. He has sufficient power to easily sail though the thorny first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, and once more there is a variety of color in his touch, but the line moves forward with too easy a glide for me.

In the Scherzo of the same sonata, Levit's even touch is impressive, but this minimizes the odd broken rhythm that is so peculiar here. the following Adagio risks sounding prettified and a bit impatient. the most extended and wilder parts of the late sonatas are also a good touchstone. In the Arietta of Op. 111, the singing theme is nicely played, but as the variations become more extreme, we aren't taken into deeper, stranger waters but only given a view of the scenery. It's unfashionable to demand that interpretations exhibit seriousness and depth, but if Beethoven's late sonatas don't ask for that, what does?

I withdrew my original three-star review to give this program a second change, but wound up with the same conclusions, largely because Levit didn't consistently hold my attention.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2014 5:06 PM PDT

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