Universal Classics – the behemoth of a company that includes DG, Decca/London, Philips, Mercury and distributes ECM in the US – had and continues to have a busy fall peppered with interesting new releases and re-releases. We list a few here that caught our attention, we have heard or, even if not heard, have something to say about. The list doesn’t claim to be complete – it reflects our tastes and exposure to the new releases. Discs that have gotten more extensive reviews previously will be linked to and recordings that have more substantial reviews coming are excluded.
Like Gidon Kremer’s new recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin (ECM 1926/27) that Charles and I are going to discuss in greater detail later this week. Or András Schiff’s start of a Beethoven sonata cycle on the same label which I have dissected thoroughly. Or the Taneyev Quintet and Trio with Pletnev and friends. Or the funky-folksy "Ayre" of Golijov with Dawn Upshaw. The same goes for La Fleming's Daphne
, which we will post about later today.
October 11th began Universal’s “Assemble and Reissue” month. Bernhard Haitink’s complete Bruckner is put into one convenient package. (We have little to say about that, other than there cannot be enough Bruckner issued, ever! The set includes “0” but not “00.” Philips 4756740, 9 CDs, ~$70)
Decca takes Christopher Hogwood’s Messiah
, and La Resurrezione
and puts them into a slim, 8-CD Handel box (Decca 4756731) that runs a reasonable $57. (Do that with McCreesh’s and Gardiner’s Handel and we’ll be all over that!)
“Musik… Sprache der Welt” is now on its second volume of a 10-CD box (DG 4775494, ~$100). These boxes are like a trip into the past of continental European recordings in the 50s. Since getting the entire second volume does not entail any savings over collecting the titles individually (try to make sense of that, if you will), I don’t know why anyone would want to go the way of the box -- especially since it contains some choices (Grieg conducted by Fritz Lehmann) that will appeal mostly to Euro-nostalgics. I’d pick the cream of the crop -- and apart from interesting Böhm and Jochum in standard fare like Dvořák or Bruckner, it contains a Jochum-conducted Höller CD (Symphonic Phantasie for Orchestra, op. 20
and the Sweelinck-Variations
- DG 4775488) as well as the K. A. Hartmann 6th symphony (plus the final movement of the 4th, the finale of Wolfgang Fortner's 4th, and a good version of Blacher's excellent Paganini-Variations
- DG 4774587), both of which I like very much. The sound is surprisingly vivid and the music is very intriguing. Anyone interested in music from that time, a music that combines Romanticism with the experience of war and destruction while working on a new (third) musical language that never really succeeded amid the struggle between pantonal modernism and anachronistic Romanticism, might like to dip his or her ears. At ~$10 or less a pop, it’s a wonderful off-the-beaten-path snag.
Neeme Järvi’s Sibelius symphonies on DG have been issued over a month ago (DG -- now they follow in a 4-SACD set, DG 4775688, ~$57). To my shame I admit that I realize only now that these are brand new recordings for DG -- not reissues of earlier recordings with the same Götheburg SO… which were, in any case, made for BIS. That I have not dipped my own ears yet is unforgivable, although it is not likely to shake things up radically in the Sibelius symphony cycle world. There are so many exquisite sets (Davis I - III, Ashkenazy, Barbirolli, Karajan II, Berglund) that one more would surely be welcome – alas not awaited with desperation. Järvi’s Sibelius tone poems were issued on an economic DG-Trio (4775522, ~$25), and those I have enjoyed quite a bit. They seem like sensible and felt recordings that have appropriate Nordic hues about them.
Sticking with prolific Järvi Sr. (he is, according to my own rough estimate, the third most recorded conductor after, far and away, Karajan and runner-up Bernstein), his complete Nielsen symphonies (DG Trio 4775514, ~$25) were similarly re-released, and they certainly took Schonwandt (Dacapo) to town on the account of sound alone. The old Bloomstedt still loom large on their two double-Deccas; individual symphonies can be found with more outstanding attributes, but this compilation is a treat. The 3rd and 5th symphonies are particularly well played, and if you don’t know the Nielsen symphonies at all, this is just the emergency patch you needed.
Two other Trios
that were released are Beethoven's complete violin sonatas and Max Reger's complete string quartets. The latter are most
welcome and probably my favorite among the latest batch. Of course, that may well be related to my particular penchant for the music of Reger & Co., a penchant that I am aware is not universally shared. Reger 101 is: too much counterpoint (= too conservative) for modernists, too much chromaticism and dissonance for Romantics. 'Sitting between two chairs', his popularity plummeted among all but the most ardent organ lovers. (If nothing else, Reger's claim to fame is that he penned one of the best replies from an artist to a critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!") With the Clarinet Quintet
(with the young Karl Leister!) thrown into the bag, the Drolc Quartet's set can more than stand its own against the Leipzig (MDG) and the Bern (cpo) Quartets. The sound is warm and at the price it is a bargain.
Beethoven’s violin sonatas are reissued in the second set that this last exponent of the German school of violinists, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, recorded. His first – mono – was with Wilhelm Kempff; this is with the less famous but perhaps more sensitive Carl Seeman. There is some fine playing in this set, too – but I found it more interesting as a contrast to the playing of the excellent Perlman/Ahskenazy or Kremer/Argerich than anything else. Violinists might be interested in a touch here or there that Schneiderhan pulls out of his schoolmaster's hat.
Stuck into one 3-CD Philips box are now also Mitsuko Uchida’s Beethoven piano concertos with the bonus of the 32 Variations in C-Minor, WoO 80
(4756757). Kurt Sanderling leads the Concertgebouw and the Bavarian RSO in these exquisitely musical and unassuming performances (I have 1, 3, 4, 5 - on #2 my disc skips) that I never tire of. As a ‘standard set’ I might prefer it even over my favorite (opinion-dividing) Pollini/Abbado
recordings, but who hasn’t already all the Beethoven piano concerti? Uchida lovers, at least, will want to think about spending just over $20 for it.
DVDs get the same treatment. Boulez’s Ring – including the “Making of” disc – is now in its complete box. I’ve written
about them individually and Der Ring
as a whole only makes sense. Warner may issue the Barenboim-Ring… at least they put his Walküre
out this month – but with the first and last opera of the centennial Ring
being as strong as they are, this set won’t cede pride of place so easily. The set contains 8 DVDs and runs you a Christmas-sized chunk of cash in the vicinity of $160.
The Sellars-DaPonte-Mozart trilogy (6 DVDs, B000530309) of Don Giovanni
), Cosí fan tutte
, and Le Nozze di Figaro
is now stuck into one set, also. We said that you have to see (if not necessarily buy) the Don Giovanni
set, but these formerly revolutionary ways with Mozart have largely been overrun by the now common staging trends that Sellars helped create. While the interpretation of Don Giovanni
sets that version apart, the other two can be all-too 80s. Netflix it, if you ask me.
A third DVD set includes the Philips and DG Carlos Kleiber discs (5 DVDs, B000529409, ~$150). If you need his two Neujahrskonzerte
, by all means… go ahead. He’s a genius, and it is difficult to have too much of his work preserved on film or disc. I would pick the Beethoven and Brahms out of the lot. The 7th with the Concertgebouw, in particular, is superb – better yet, perhaps, than the famous WPh recording on DG.La Clemenza di Tito
feels at home with the Universal company. With the reissue of Karl Böhm’s recording with Peter Schreier and Julia Varady, UNI now holds all four mainstream releases of that particular work. (Later this year to be seen at the Washington National Opera
.) I have a habit of mercilessly mocking La Clemenza
- especially together with non-clarinetist friends – but when I gave this 1979 recording a listen, I actually quite liked it. At first I thought that Böhm had irreverently cut some of the recitativos (and all the power to him), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I haven’t heard the oldest of the four recordings (Colin Davis, Philips, 1977) and I agree with most critics that Gardiner (live, original instruments, Archiv, 1991) is the best. I certainly did not get much from Cristopher Hogwood’s 1995 recording (original instruments, L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca, 1995), other than great clarinet playing. Still, Böhm seems the one that I enjoy
the most. (No, it’s still not a great
From the throat of Fritz Wunderlich comes pure gold, and that 2-CD/1-DVD issue “Magic of Wunderlich” (DG 4775575, ~$20) makes that point, too. But it is worth noting that this is very German
gold. To hear Handel's "Crude furie degl'orridi abissi" as "Finstre Furien, ihr Geister der Hölle" makes no difference. It's wonderfully sung and that is all that matters. Following Mozart and Lortzing are in German, anyway. The Pêcheurs de perles
duet as "Nadir, du stehst wirklich vor mir..." (with Hermann Prey) is curious but not disturbing yet. (After all, the French just have to speak German every so often.) Ditto Lensky's famous Eugene Onegin aria "Wohin seid ihr entschwunden." But when Rigoletto famously sings "Ich denk ihn lieber mir von meinem Stande - Liebe ist Seligkeit, ist Licht und Leben," even I might draw the line. It would not be so bad, of course, if it weren't for the dreadful Gilda of Erika Köth. She sounds like she is interpreting the 'old' Papagena - and then replayed a few RPM's too fast. The 1961 mono sound does not help this excerpt. Do you remember Cavaradossi's "Und es blitzen die Sterne"? Let's just say that's not how Licitra did it
. I've heard singers say that they admired Wunderlich, in particular, because
he sang (he had to) Italianate opera in German and still
made it sound beautiful. Well, perhaps. The first disc peters out with rare operetta arias and songs. His English is quite astounding in the film-music-like "Be my love" (Nicholas Brodzky/Sammy Cahn). But the rest of disc two gives (apart from great Haydn and -- italian! -- Don Ottavio) more opportunities to test if that is true for you, too, with Gluck and Bellini. Works in the first, not so much in the latter. Maillart and Kreutzer are interesting because rarely heard works... but they only kill time until the true beauty, marvel even, comes with a previously unreleased Sänger
from a 1966 Rosenkavalier
. Oh... you want to kill
Kurt Böhme for interrupting that singer, that voice. I have a recording of a Rosenkavalier
from the previous year (Böhme does himself no favor by interrupting him here, either), and I've claimed it was worth getting the entire opera just for those four minutes. The one on this disc is not as lyrical but, if anything, more expressive.
If Wunderlich hadn’t fallen down the stairs in drunken stupor, he would have accidentally killed himself in some other fashion sooner or later, I am sure. Still – every time you hear his voice it is impossible not to speculate about ‘what would have been’ if he had lived as long as the inextinguishable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There are other ways to get your Wunderlich fix, but this isn't the worst one.
Speaking of the devil: apart from being showered with 80th birthday reissues he’s also produced a new CD set. Melodramen
is a compilation of the substantial R. Strauss’s Eunoch Arden
and Victor Ullmann's Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke
, as well as the shorter Schumann works Schön Hedwig
, Ballade vom Heideknaben
, Die Flüchtlinge
, and finally Liszt's haunting Der traurige Mönch
. Spoken text to piano accompaniment – and well over two hours of it - will land you one of the most underappreciated Christmas gifts of the season lest you have German-speaking friends with a taste for the wacky and obscure. (Yours truly already has his copy.)
Janine Jansen gathered friends and family members and recorded the Four Seasons
. Before you yawn collectively, I’ll say she does many a nice thing with her playing. She also does many a fairly normal thing with the work or tries too hard in other places. The chamber ensemble that accompanies her is a let-down. Now you may yawn. (And remember that, despite your dismissive attitude towards the work, you absolutely must hear and have Alessandrini’s recording
with Concerto Italiano!)
Bryn Terfel, the greatest Falstaff
on stage these days and generally a wonderful singer, explores the not-so-classical world with his new recording “Simple Gifts” (DG 4775563). I feel he almost pulled a ‘Ray-nay
’ with this one – simple gifts simply wasted. Thumbs down and waiting for his next record.
Barbara Bonney is another artist Ionarts admires live
and on record, but her songs of “the other Mozart,” namely Franz Xaver, who is Wolfgang Amadeus’s son of dubious talent, isn’t a hit, either. The songs themselves are “neither good nor bad,” but singing makes them so. (Sorry, Shakespeare – I had
to.) What they lack in intrinsic quality is not – repeat, Ms. Bonney – not made up with extra operatic interpretation. For the most part these are simple songs and they would stand a simple approach much better. As it is, Barbara Bonney sounds sadly like a billy goat. The fast and overdone vibrato lessens in intensity when one moves to another room of the house, but that still doesn’t improve the quality of the music. Interesting for the rare repertoire but not on our wish list for 2005.
The Hagen Quartett continues with Beethoven (DG 4775705). This marvelous quartet is too rarely heard in the U.S. – even their recordings are often hard to get here. With the Peterson Quartet and the inimitable Zehetmair Quartet they are among the finest operating German string quartets. (Just don’t touch my Takács
!) I assume you have purchased or will purchase or plan to get as a gift the latest and final Beethoven installment of the Takács
, so talking you into yet more Beethoven might be difficult. Their recent Mozart was not bad, but in Mozart their strength is not played out as much as in Beethoven. And in Beethoven nowhere more than in the late quartets. What the Hagens (Lukas, Veronika, Clemens -- with Rainer Schmidt on second violin) do to the Heiliger Dankgesang
in op. 132 is almost creepy. They are to Beethoven what Boulez is to Mahler. You see (or hear, rather) details and connections that you can't in the score or other interpretations, because their playing is of the most nuanced order. It is light, modern, clean. It reminds me of minimalist architecture -- lots of glass, brushed aluminum, clean and bright wood. Light-flooded, by all means, these performances are not clinical, though. It isn't the perfection of the Emerson they bring... it is a more refined perfection, a more introspective type. Neither here nor in op. 127 do they resemble the Takács in any way... nor any quartet I know of. Theirs is Beethoven like that hot, unattainable supermodel. We adore it from afar, but we know that we are not going home with her. Our girlfriend is more approachable, cuddles with us, and eats Chunky Monkey ice cream on occasion. Our girlfriend's name is Vegh
. Or Budapest
. Not Hagen. The chance to spend a night with her, alas, is irresistable. Just don't tell Takács
Hilary Hahn and her friend Natalie Zhu do much for Mozart with their recording of the F major (K. 376), G major (K. 301), E minor (K. 304), and A major (K. 526) sonatas for piano and violin. They are played on conventional instruments, but the reading is more than just conventional. It is spirited and most enjoyable. Still, these are not Mozart’s strongest works. Of course, you’d never know by the slew of violin sonata issues that await us this year: the Manze/Egarr team treat us to original instruments. I thought that Rachel Podger and Gary Cooper
(whose volume two of the complete set is coming soon) would be difficult to surpass. The new recording of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr
, however, seems to do so. (For lack of any overlap between the two discs a comparison is a little unfair, perhaps, but Manze/Egarr skate more melodiously through the sonatas.) To be honest, even the best original instruments version would not really do it for me – I like the sound of a healthy grand piano in works that should not automatically have the violinist named first on the cover. There was one album that did that
this year – and completely out of the blue, too. Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Steinberg
(who? - Exactly!) are the only two players to date that have convinced me that K. 377, K. 303, K. 304, and K. 526 are truly great works of music. Youthful energy that Hahn/Zhu bring to the table, they may not stop Uchida/Steinberg on their way to a ‘Records of 2005’ spot at ionarts.
Gidon Kremer is one of the most intelligent musicians out there, and his projects are always exciting. (His Bach, so much up front, certainly is!) Still, that doesn’t mean that he always strikes gold. For example his Kremerata Baltica
’s recording of the Schubert Quartet in G Major
, D. 887 (ECM 1883). You wouldn’t need the entire Kremerata if the quartet had not been orchestrated by Kissiner… and although it is all ever so pleasant, full-bodied, and very good-sounding, we wouldn’t really have needed Mr. Kissiner to do that in the first place, either. It is a recording that sounds pretty impressive (especially the beginning of the first movement Allegro
) in the moment but has no lasting impact.
So as not to end on a low note, let's extol the virtues of volume three of the Clifford Curzon series. Curzon is one of the most pleasingly musical pianists, an artist who has a touch that a fellow artist will immediately respond to with admiration (or envy, if they are a pianist). Volume One
was received with unalloyed enthusiasm, while Volume Two
got a slightly less raving response - perhaps because of the success of the first. Now Volume Three, presumably the final box, is out, and the six discs contain a great variety of music. It starts with that concerto, you know... the - uh... give me one second... Beethoven? No, I know it well - but it isn't one of the Beethoven concerti... dammit. It turns out to be Schubert's Wandererfantasie
as turned into a concerto by Franz Liszt. It is in mediocre sound (1937) but a very interesting rarity (Louis Lortie and, of course, Leslie Howard have also recorded it) - at least upon hearing the first couple of times. There is lovingly played chamber music with Mozart piano quartets (and the Amadeus Quartet -1), solo works like one disc of Liszt's (including the B minor sonata, Gnomenreigen
, Liebestraum No. 3
, et al.), both Brahms concerti, "Tchaik.1", Rachmaninov #2, Grieg, and a 1945 recording with Boyd Neel conducting the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major
, which is not a sonic spectacular but delicious. Schubert impromptus, Moments Musicaux
, and Beethoven's Eroica Variations
close the set with well-recorded performances from 1964 and 1971. In one way, this box contains nothing 'special', nothing that would make it an obvious buy for even casual listeners of casual musical inclination. But it offers an immense joy of highly sensitive music making that should make this box (and Curzon) a favorite among those who earn their living through music.