Would You Like Some Mozart With Your Centerfold? 

available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, Violin Concertos, Sinfonia Concertante, A.S.Mutter, Y.Bashmet / LPhO
Which composer better to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Anne Sophie Mutter’s (ASM) public debut with, than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (WAM)?! It is only fitting that Deutsche Grammophon’s latest photo-booklet of her com with two Mozart discs attached. I’ll be the first one to admit that the eight pictures distributed on the in- and outside of the disc and booklet are hot. If ASM posed for the German Playboy, the magazine would sell more copies than when they got “Ice Princess” Katharina Witt to bare it all. But enough with the silly (if true) comments: How is her Mozart, the second time around?

The promotional DVD sent out a few months ago that presents DG’s Mozart Forever celebration in honor of Mozart's 250th birthday allows for some insights into the Anne Sofie Mutter Mozart Project. Mme. Previn is shown during rehearsals of the Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante, with long-time collaborator Lambert Orkis in excerpts of what will be a recording of the complete Violin Sonatas and in a recording session of the late Piano Trios where she teams up with hubby André (on a regular Steinway) and one of her protégés, the youngish Munich cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

It shows her conducting and playing with the London Philharmonic (“an orchestra with almost chamber-like qualities” and “a formidable first desk that allows [her] to fulfill her vision of these concertos”) as well as playing snippets of the other works and much of her musing about Mozart and her collaborators. The latter tend to be relegated to nodding, agreeing and asking questions to answers that Frau Mutter had already written down and memorized. None of this is very filling nor terribly probing but it is very slick and well done and was only to be a teaser, anyway – showing this unabashedly gorgeous violinist (in her 40s, after all) from her various best sides. Yes (and forgive me if I cannot resist the cheap pun), she is one ‘hot Mama’. For pictures to prove that point, check here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here or here for a small selection of samples.

The excerpts from the sonatas cannot, must not, be the finished product – since they sound god-awful. The tangy and creaky Mozartflügel may not ever be gotten to sound good (everything that is bad about the Fortepiano, none of its merits) but the stringent violin sound frequently off pitch (sparing vibrato on steel strings doesn’t help) makes listening even to half a minute of excerpts grating. Even if much improves, how this odd demi-period style -neither fish nor fowl- is supposed to compete against either Manze-Egarr (HMU) or Podger-Cooper (Channel Classics – now on their second disc of what is going to be a complete set) I do not know. Among non-period style recordings it will compete – complete as it will be – against Barenboim/Perlman which is a tall order, too. If you are looking just for some of those sonatas, of course, I can only repeat the highest of praise for the Steinberg/Uchida recording on Philips which I have heaped on that recording - including in the "Best Recordings of 2005" overview.

In the trios there is not much that once can tell from the samples. Her musical companions get ASM’s lavish praise and the issue should bring some deserved main-stream attention to Müller-Schott who lovingly recorded Raff’ cello works and can also be heard in the Khachaturian concerto where he shares disc-space with Arabella Steinbacher’s rendition of the violin concerto. The reference in the trios is still the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and the original instrument recordings with the “Mozartean Players” on Harmonia Mundi’s budget label Classical Express make for two very delightful discs that are true bargains.

The Concertos are now available as the first batch of these recordings – and I’ve been listening to them on and off over a few months. Mozart was of course the composer with which ASM launched her career – K211 in her first public recital and K216 in her famous Salzburg debut under her mentor, Herbert von Karajan. Thanks to Yuri Bashmet’s excellent contribution, we also get the Sinfonia Concertante but not – lamentably if understandably – the apocryphal “Adelaide Concerto” which has been proven a (delightful) Marius (not Henri) Casadesus-composed fraud.

'ASM'How her interpretation of the Mozart concerto’s actually sounds? Well, it’s very… personal. This Mozart has ‘Ego’ written all over it. She arrives upon the scene of concerto no.2 (K211) like a wild cat thrown into from above, claws ready. And this kitten has attitude and that is established in almost every note. There are little touches, flourishes and aggressive new lines that have “Mutter” written all over them. There are even times where she out-nadia-salerno-sonnenbergs Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, although I grant Mutter more judiciously chosen (and constant) tempi.

I don’t know exactly how I feel about the D-major concerto no.4 (K218) where the playing has an electrifying, high tension. It’s exciting, certainly, with extra trills and thrills – but perhaps in the same way as swimming in a pool with an electric eel might be. Alertness everywhere in that Allegro. ‘Alertness’ say some, ‘self conscious’ might come to mind for others. The little touches here and there, the shudders (immaculately precise, all of them) are awe-inspiring but will have purists and many other violinists cringe… and the latter not for jealousy, so much, as for the blatant and gratuitous virtuosity in a work that has natural beauty to offer that (one might think) should suffice. Undeniable, however, is the thrill that that playing can induce in all others and it is done in undeniably better taste (and executed with more skill) than a lot of other interpreters’ wilful appropriations of the music in front of them. The tender-footed Andante cantabile is as sung by a tiny, skillful bird. A completely self-assured bird. The all-too carefully phrased solo passage at 5:40, however, might be pushing it. The rock solid rhythm of the Rondeau: Andante grazioso is splendid and had me catch myself tapping my foot all along. Somewhere above it Mutter trills on forever, precision once again being her calling card. The Allegro in the G-major concerto (K216) is fresh and refreshingly brisk, the Adagio of the same concerto rolls out at a pace that borders ponderous. The E-flat major Sinfonia Concertante’s Andante whines a little too much in the solo passages but the collaboration between Mutter and Bashmet produces a delightful result and Bashmet’s intelligent viola contribution can take a good share of the credit.

This Mozart impresses on many occasions but leaves me unsure if Mozart is the playground where I most want to be impressed. I think that I might prefer just to be delighted (like on Baba Skride’s recording). Still, I can’t dismiss this CD as much as the combination Mutter/Mozart would have had me be inclined to. Parts of these concertos are plain fun (one eye laughing, one eye crying) and too well done to be scoffed at. If WAM’s contribution to this disc the primary reason for its success, ASM at least does not stand in the way much. The purist will be horrified, the casual listener delighted. This record, at the very least, beats that worse-than-awful Tchaikovsky recording she recently put out and we are glad to see standards rise, again.

DG 0005078-02


The Best Recordings of 2005 

It is the time of year again, and what better excuse than Christmas or its other sacred and secular seasonal variants to indulge in massive CD buying? Blowing a wad of cash is never more easily rationalized than getting beautiful, everlasting music for it. And at Ionarts, we are here to help - listening to hundreds of CDs only for our readership. It is a hard life, I know, but your delight is ours. (Our 2004 list can be read here.)

Other Year-end CD Reviews:

Tim Page, CDs (classical) (Washington Post, November 25th)

New York Times writers, Surprises and Delicacies in a Year of Exciting Classical CD's (New York Times, December 16th)

Alex Ross, Apex 2005 (The Rest is Noise, December 1st)

48th Annual Grammy Nominations, Field 30 - Classical
We are also fairly late to this sort of a list, which gives us the opportunity to nod in the direction of other worthy recordings being discussed that didn't make this list - or else be snappy about some odd or disagreed-with choices. Like Tim Page's inclusion of Sir Simon Rattle's Mahler 8th, which I found curiously dull and rushed... or the praise that the same article heaps unto the "Domingo-Tristan" - a recording I have not yet found the time to review but which, upon many a listen, entered my personal Tristan collection at a solid 7th place (out of 8). There is some good singing going on - but it is also miscast in other places, includes odd sonic choices (the Steuermann sounds like he sings out of a trash-can, two ships over, in his opening monologue and Pappano never really gets an insightful grip of the score). More of a CD-event than a great recording.

Notable Gramophone Award winners that did not find inclusion are Gardiner's new Bach Cantatas on Soli Deo Gloria. I love the series by all means and have extolled its virtues on Ionarts before. But here, too, the event (and atmosphere) make for part of its excellence more so than tangible superiority. Aside, there was another recording of Bach Cantatas that stole the show in 2005. Harnoncourt's recording of Haydn's Paris Symphonies was very enjoyable - and if my list was longer, it would find its place... alas it lacked that last bit that would have made it truly outstanding rather than just 'lovely'. This year, Charles and I will also include a list of the DVDs we've enjoyed the most (to be posted on December 23rd) - alas without the 'best of' claim (which is dubious, anyway - although fun), because we simply did not get our eyes (and hands) on enough to have even a near-comprehensive idea of what was published. Once again and as last year, the strongest message from such a list is that the classical music industry is far from its prophesied death and that recordings of new pieces (although this list includes fewer than I would have thought myself) and new recordings of old pieces of the highest quality continue to come at us at a steady pace. Such lists naturally reflect not my taste but also my exposure. But even after adjusting for any possible bias, this year was another one in which I bow to Harmonia Mundi.

Like last year, I list my ten favorite new recordings and my ten favorite reissues.

Available from Amazon:
J. S. Bach, Concertos italiens, A. Tharaud
#1 (New)
First place in my list goes to Alexandre Tharaud's Bach recital, the best such that I have heard on disc. I played the recording non-stop when I first wrote about it here, and I love to revisit it often. This is not merely a recording for 2005, it is one for the ages.

D. Scarlatti, Sonatas, Scott Ross
#1 (Reissue)
Pride of place among reissues is reserved for what I lovingly call "The Scarlatti Cube." Scott Ross is one of the few to have traversed every single one of those 555 sonatas (alas, he sadly did not live to tell the tale - Scott Ross died in 1989, aged 38, from AIDS-related causes) - and it is not the accomplishment of having done that, but the accomplishment with which he did it, that makes this set so tremendous. His art can be sampled on the single disc of Les Plus Belles Sonates. His interpretations on the harpsichord are among the very few that I truly find exciting. I am sure that your local record store would take your copy of that disc back, if you then decided to go for it all - in the true completist's fashion. Beware: Domestic bliss may be clouded when you come home with almost 40 hours of harpsichord music under your arm, not having previously discussed this with the person who shares yours soundspace.

W. A. Mozart, Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Mark Steinberg/Mitsuko Uchida
#2 (New)
Although I have mentioned this recording at about every opportunity I have had, I never actually wrote a review for it. Shocking. I don't think this Mozart disc was related in any way to the Mozart hoopla of his 250th birthday, but it emerged as the Mozart recording of 2005/2006, anyway. Is it Uchida and her assertive, unfailingly beautiful playing that elevates this disc and the works thereon to a whole new level? Is it Mark Steinberg's flawless, unselfconscious violin playing? Is it the expedient choice of works (K303, 304, 377, 526)? Given that I've heard these works with other, very fine, musicians and was not entirely convinced of their repeat-listening merit, I suspect that it is a magical confluence of joy in music making that has beset Uchida/Steinberg. Of course I want more Mozart from these two players now. At the same time I am worried: can such musical love really be repeated?

R. Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, D. Barenboim/Bayreuth et al.
#2 (Reissue)
Barenboim and Sawallisch are the greatest living Wagner conductors - and it stands to reason that Barenboim's Ring would be notable stuff, given how outstanding his Tristan, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal are. When I saw what seemed like a reasonable price for the Barenboim Ring, I grabbed it immediately. Two months later Warner reissued it in its new packaging. That packaging deserves special mention and laud. Not for the shiny, black box, but for including the original booklets! These were a joy to behold in the original issue, and apart from the complete libretto in four languages, they include printed Leitmotivs next to the relevant parts of the text. You wouldn't buy a Ring for the beauty of the booklets, of course, but the usual conundrum is that for a Ring novice, a budget issue would be a reasonable proposition, were it not for the absence of the text. This issue finally solves that problem and has an automatic leg up on the other good modern budget Ring's of Sawallisch (EMI) and Janowski (RCA). I've read a critic's one-sentence dismissal of this (and the Janowski) Ring, saying that they should never even have been published. Bollocks. Janowski has superb, up-front singing, and the Anglo-cast of Barenboim copes very well, too - and better in key places than some of the Boulez performers. Not unlike with Boulez, you get the best of live and studio performances as both rings were recorded for video (that explains the stage noises) in studio conditions but with an audience, an act at a time, and the Bayreuth acoustic. Sawallisch and Barenboim are at different ends of the speed-spectrum but have such a sense for the music’s internal relations that either approach works. Barenboim (the conducting and playing really is the star of this set) is more muscled, has more gravitas, and is going to be a strong contender for nomination of "Best First Ring" - an article which I will get around to writing sooner or later.

J. S. Bach, "Weinen, Klagen..., P. Herreweghe
#3 (New)
The more Bach cantatas came my way - including Herreweghe's most recent recording "Tönet, ihr Pauken!" and the excellent Gardiner recordings - the more one recording stood out as the cantata disc of the year. My review from March 20th can be read here. If anything, I feel even more strongly about this disc.

C. Franck/I. Stravinsky, Symphony in D Minor/Petrouchka Suite, P. Monteux
#3 (Reissue)
From a still unfinished review of the latest batch of RCA Living Stereo SACD reissues, this disc comes out a clear winner (much like the Munch recording of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony before that). It is astonishing to listen to a 1961 recording (with the CSO) and be completely enveloped with acoustic felicity... and that's not yet mentioning a white-hot performance that has, arguably, not been bettered yet. The coupling is worthy, too: From the conductor who led the premiere, you get a driving, pulsating Petrouchka performance with the BSO - and the sound is nearly as good, as well - rivaling many recordings made in the decades since. Whether you have an SACD player or not (the remastered Red-Book CD layer is an improvement, too, over previous incarnations), this has been and should again (or still) be a staple of any good record collection.

L. van Beethoven, Symphonies 4 & 5, O. Vänskä/Minnesota
#4 (New)
Beethoven is well represented in the catalog, but there is room for more. I said that last year about the Takács recording of the op. 18 string quartets. I'll be able to use it for their recording of the late quartets, too - but here it is Osmo Vänskä's place to receive praise for his first installment of what will be the first made-for-SACD Beethoven cycle. More Beethoven symphonies should be a tough sell - but BIS puts faith into one of their top conductors at his new post, and boy, did it pay off. I thought I had written a review for this disc on ionarts, but I cannot find it. But I gladly repeat my earlier praise and open with a bold statement: this is the finest 4th symphony on record! It dances with joy, it is gloriously alive but never skimpy. The orchestra manages perfection (as should be expected) but avoids being glib. That "slender Greek Maiden" (R. Schumann) will enchant you, will invite you to a dance you won't resist. Coupled with a very good - if less outstanding - 5th symphony, this is another disc that you will want to have, SACD player or not. Who thought we could still hear a Beethoven symphony 'as if for the first time'.

G. Verdi, Il Trovatore, HvK/WPh/Corelli/Price et al.
#4 (Reissue)
Cherish the sight: a Verdi recording on my best-of list. How the hell did that happen? And Il Trovatore, no less?! Well, if you love Verdi, you know why - because you know this recording which has been out on a variety of different labels in various degrees of legality and sound quality. I've had such a recording, too - and even without help of the ORF broadcast master tapes (which the Deutsche Gramophone engineers used for this reissue) you could tell that this live account at the Salzburg Festival had the stuff that legends were made of. Corelli and Price - over the great conducting of Herbert von Karajan (and I am far from a Karajan worshipper) - simply go crazy in this performance from July 31st, 1962. Corelli (or his voice) is not exactly the last word in refinement or sophistication - his Manrico is not the consummate gentleman. But he can sing, and it never disturbed me one bit that his voice is one that could be called crude or even crass. And even those who would object would be won over by Leontyne Price's ascent into the Verdi heaven. Karajan, meanwhile, allows Verdi to speak for himself. He leaves the score alone, he doesn't fiddle with tempi, he doesn't over- or under-accentuate it. He plays it refreshingly straight, and now we can hear those details better than ever in reasonable to very good mono sound. Of all the Verdi reissues this year (Philips did a marvelous job giving us rarer treats from the vaults with the excellent Attila (with Bergonzi and Raimondi), the enjoyable Stiffelio (what a fun overture!), the silly Il Corsaro and Il Giorno di Regno (yikes - is that the same composer?), this classic stands out. A libretto was thankfully included.

Thomas Adès, Piano Quintet,
Peter Maxwell Davies, Naxos Quartets Nos. 3 & 4,
#5 (New)
Music is not dead. And continuity is a very reassuring thing. Just like last year, EMI has issued an award-winning disc of the young composer Thomas Adès, and Naxos continued with the Klaus Heyneman-commissioned Peter Maxwell Davies string quartets. These "Naxos Quartets" - now nos. 3 & 4 - deserve mention here, but this year the more interesting release is the Adès Quintet. It is inevitable to think of Britten when you hear of, about, and from Adès. Pianist, conductor, composer, administrator - he very much walks in the footsteps that the scepter'd isle's greatest (20th-century) composer left. It is coupled with Schubert's "Trout," which may seem odd for a moment, but, as my colleague Bob McQuiston said, “they are in fact quite complementary. That's because the Adès and his work are intriguing animals with a modern hide and Romantic bones containing a Brahmsian marrow. It's got enough musical ideas to keep the most perspicacious of listeners returning to it repeatedly, and provides a very effective proem to one of the best loved and most frequently performed and recorded pieces in all, classical repertoire, [the aforementioned "Trout". Y]ou've probably already hooked at least one 'Trout', but this is a fish of another scale in that it's one of the most sensitive and inspired renditions of this work to appear in a long time! The sound is just as spectacular.”

R. Wagner, Tristan, C. Kleiber/M. Price, R. Kollo, et al.
#5 (Reissue)
DG Originals has reissued some of their finest recordings, at least three of which would deserve mention in this list. (I've reviewed them all in March here: DG Originals: A Review) The reason Kleiber's Tristan floats to the top is its role as one of the few essential Tristan recordings to have. Not the first and only one to have, but especially in terms of orchestral contribution (Kleiber and the Dresden Staatskapelle are a dramatic actor in their own right - hearing this account will automatically make the point of what is missing under Pappano's baton in the Domingo Tristan), this achievement ought to be in any Wagner-loving person's music library.

G. F. Handel, Saul, René Jacobs et al.
#6 (New)
René Jacobs is still on fire, and it is no surprise that after last year's smash success, Le Nozze di Figaro, he should have had something up his sleeve this year, too. His Saul is just that thing. One of Handel's most entertaining oratorios, it has been lucky on record. Apart from a fine earlier Gardiner recording, there was Paul McCreesh's recording on Archiv last year - and indeed it made it onto the Best of 2004 list. If you went out last year and got Saul, I don't suppose you need to run out again and supplant it with Jacobs. But if you (understandably) balked at the 50-dollar price tag of the Archiv despite being intrigued, here you have Jacobs in a performance that I find a little bit fresher yet and infused with even more vitality than the McCreesh reading. It is a little bit faster, too, and fits onto two CDs with obvious economic benefits.

J. S. Bach, Organ Works, Karl Richter
#6 (Reissue)
I haven't grown the least bit tired of this compilation since I have reviewed it in the DG Originals review. It is formidable organ playing in absolutely great sound (two, three very minor exceptions or wobbles) on two impressive organs (Freiburg and Københaven) on three discs, which is just the right amount, too, for those who want a bit more than the one-disc "Bach's Greatest Organ hits" but think that the complete works on anywhere from 14 to 20 discs might just be overkill. Heck - it's so good, it should be listened to even by those who do have the complete works. In fact, I initially listened to it but did not bother to own a copy, having plenty of Bach's organ music. I have very much changed my mind, since. This is not to be missed by organ-tolerating Bach lovers and Bach-tolerating organ lovers. Everyone else either doesn't need it or already has it.

Bach/Stravinsky, Leonidas Kavakos & Péter Nagy
#7 (New)
This disc was the first highlight of 2005 for me, issued on February 1st. Like any disc on this list, it has only grown in appreciation since first listening or reviewing it (Dip Your Ears, No. 28) and, especially in combination with Keith Jarrett's recording of the Preludes and Fugues, I've fantasized many times since to have these works included in a star-powered recital in Washington. The way Leonidas Kavakos plays the Bach is stunning in itself - but it is the Stravinsky and there combination with the Bach that makes this so compelling, so addicting. The Pergolesi based Suite Italienne with its "Baroque goes Stravinsky" madness and cheeky sweetness and the Duo Concertante (a text book example of neo-classicicsm) emerge as some of the finest music that you could treat your frayed nerves with.

F. Schubert, Complete Piano Sonatas, M. Uchida
#7 (Reissue)
Mitsuko Uchida's Schubert is not quite as uniformly admired as her Mozart, but for a few distracting voices nearly so. I've collected all but three individual discs included in this excellently priced 8-disc set and love them all. There might be a work here or there where I can't deny Pollini, Richter, or Kempff as equaling Uchida - but as a whole I prefer her felt interpretations even over the Kempff set (available in an equally attractive box).

L. van Beethoven, Late String Quartets, Takács Quartet
#8 (New)
I don't suppose you thought that I could not mention the Takács Quartet in such a list - and sure enough, their Gramophone Award-winning set of the late Beethoven quartets (including op. 95, Serioso) must be pointed out as a marvellous conclusion to what must be the finest Beethoven quartet cycle of our times. Their comparative advantage may not be as big as in the op. 18 or Razumovsky set, but the freshness and the attack, coupled with splendid lyrical moments, make these interpretations stand out, nonetheless. We've reviewed the Takács quartet in live performance on many occasions (at the NGA , in Bethesda, and at Shriver Hall in October of this year and at the Corcoran the year before) and driven home the point about their Bartók and Beethoven supremacy sufficiently so that little further comment is necessary to justify their inclusion here.

R. Wagner, Lohengrin, E. Jochum/1954, Bayreuth/Windgassen, Nilsson, Varnay, Uhde, Adam, Fischer-Dieskau
#8 (Reissue)
I am the last Wagner-loving person to make the (silly) claim that all great Wagner recordings or performances lie deep in the past. It's not that I don't appreciate the Lotte Lehmanns or Lauritz Melchiors of the Wagner world, but even apart from the less than ideal sound that their recordings naturally bring to the disc player (or the fact that few, if any, complete recordings of Wagner operas exist with them) there are plenty of excellent Wagner singers around these days. The only concession I might make is the notable lack of one or two absolutely outstanding Heldentenöre. But I wouldn't have prefaced this recording thus, if I were not to make an immediate allowance for what is truly one of the great Lohengrin performances captured on record. The standard-issue Lohengrin is Kempe's famous recording on EMI from 1964. With Jess Thomas, Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, and Fischer-Dieskau (having graduated from Heerrufer to Telramund) it's no mean feat, in excellent sound and belongs in every serious Wagner collection. Still, I prefer the Sawallisch recording from Bayreuth in 1962 - mostly because of the female singers/actors Anja Silja and the 'Ortrud of Ortruds', Astrid Varnay. It used to be on Philips (full price with libretto) and has now been reissued as part of Decca's Compact Opera Collection with the libretto as a .pdf file on one of the discs. (Which annoys me to no end - but the price is right.) Archipel has now reissued the 1954 Bayreuth Lohengrin, and if it isn't the first or only choice among Lohengrin's, it is so good, it simply must be heard. If the weak spot in the cast is Birgit Nilsson, you know you have a good recording on hand. And she's wonderful, too... even if I look for a tad more vulnerability or naïveté in Fräulein Elsa. Still, it is a dream cast: Wolfgang Windgassen's Lohengrin... words fail. His type of singer might as well have been on Wagner's mind when he came up with the character. Lighter than his predecessors yet able to navigate this Lohengrin with complete ease. Noble, heroic, lyrical - give me Bellini, give me Weber - it is all there. (Well, not all, in the sense that this recording, like all live recordings I know and even most studio recordings [including Kempe] cut the excessive Lohengrin monologue down to time- and ideology-appropriate measure.)
I would not have chosen this recording were it not for the young Astrid Varnay already radiating her delicious evil around the set as Ortrud. Her Sawallisch performance eight years later is a bit more mature, perhaps more nuanced, but this catches her at a fresh radiance and is as enchanting and beautiful as vocal poison can ever be. Hermann Uhde is Telramund. He doesn't have a chance against Ortrud - character-wise, that is - he is simplistically noble, older, and his young devious (or merely protective of her self-interest?) bride plays the poor man like a tin drum. Above all reigns Theo Adam as König Heinrich and his Heerrufer is the aptly declamatory Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, then still a young baritone plaything. In a final touch of decadence, Franz Crass is one of the Vier Brabantische Edle. No libretto nor documentation, but instead Eugen Jochum's un-fussy conducting that makes the Bayreuth band - not exactly the most refined group in the 50s - play very well, indeed. The sound is far better than on the Opera D'Oro reissue, the price half that of the good Melodram transfers.

J. S.Bach, Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann, Christophe Rousset
#9 (New)
What? Only two more slots to fill? That's cruel when there are so many more discs to name. Last year Abbado's Mahler Second filled this position - but his sixth this year, Gramophone Editor's Choice in September and Financial Times choice for the year that it is, just didn't cut it in my Mahler book. The New York Times's Jeremy Eichler thinks "[y]ou will be hard pressed to find a Mahler Sixth with more warmth, breadth and dignity." I don't disagree. But it's the Mahler Sixth, for crying out loud. Anyway, if you want a warm Sixth that is fairly similar but more engaging, you can't fail with Iván Fischer's new recording on Channel Classics. It's the Mahler recording I enjoyed the most, this year, as the MTT Seventh, the Oramo Fifth, and the Zander First (to be reviewed in the New Year) were between oddly disappointing and 'merely' enjoyable. As you can see, I am stalling. Ian Bostridge's Schöne Müllerin (with none less than Mitsuko Uchida) is his best Schubert recording to date - much better than his new, second recording of Die Winterreise, at any rate - and deserves mention... but so would the brand new Thomas Quasthoff / Justus Zeyen recording of the same cycle. Quasthoff's (fairly successful) attempt at trying to sing these songs as naturally as possible is particularly admirable. Aside, Bostridge's Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings might trump even his Müllerin achievement. After several listenings this eerie work that gets under your skin with playing from the Berlin Philharmonic like I have not yet heard will etch itself into your brain.

Alas, all these recordings will have to get their individual reviews in the New Year - and I will pick Christophe Rousset's new Bach recording on the Ambroise label (previously reviewed on Ionarts). Not the best of Bach's keyboard works (and admittedly by a good margin), these little practise works (a few were included by Bach but actually come from the pen of other composers) for his kid to learn the harpsichord are played with panache, speed, and passion in such ample supply that they transcend their lesser status easily. Absolute purists may be turned off by Rousset's use of what is essentially rubato... but those with a musical, not ideological, soul should be hard pressed not to be moved. Best of all is the sound of the instrument and the recording. It's simply the richest, most blooming harpsichord sound I have heard on any recording. Stunning and too good to resist, even at a high price. Forty-plus dollars is a word for a bit more than one hundred minutes of music, but if the luxury packaging (the booklet could have been more extensive, still) doesn't lure you, the performance ought to. I myself can't wait to get my hands on Rousset's other two Bach recordings for Ambroise, the English Suites and the French Suites.

R. Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Concert sans orchestre, Kreisleriana, M. Pollini
#9 (Reissue)
To be honest, this disc is more impressive to me than it is an object of intense passion. And that's not a hint at Maurizio Pollini's way of playing Schumann, because his Kreisleriana or Concert sans orchestre could not for a second deemed to be one of the allegedly 'cool' Pollini recordings. Even critics of the Italian's "brain-heavy precision" will be convinced otherwise by these two discs, conveniently combining the two recent full-price Pollini Schumann recordings in a double disc set at mid-price. I may not be able to run around praising these works as having changed my musical life, but I can hear just about the best Schumann playing I can imagine. It may sound a bit like hyperbole, especially given my known predisposition to Pollini's art, but I challenge any Schumann-lover to listen to his Davidsbüdlertänze and not nod in agreement. Art that so impresses despite hitting a distinct emotional spot in my Schumann-forbidding musical soul is very special indeed and will, I am certain, bring ecstasy to those listeners of Gesänge der Frühe and the Allegro in B Minor that I have yet to muster.

S. Rachmaninov, All Night Vigil, Hillier et al.
#10 (New)
Finally, I reluctantly have to pass over Michael Haydn's Requiem, Pletnev's Taneyev recording, the Jerusalem Quartet's DSCH recording, and two of the finest piano recordings of this year - Lubimov's "Messe Noire" (reviewed here) and Berezovsky's Rachmaninov preludes (reviewed here; one Ionarts reader who followed my recommendation on this recording reported the following: "This was not a very happy day for me until I put Boris Berezovsky's CD in the CD player... After listening to this CD I was totally ecstatic! I have never heard anything like 'this Rachmaninov' before. I hate to say this but BB's Rachmaninov sounded almost like Chopin... and I just loved that. Not even Horowitz comes even close [forget Alexeev]. BB doesn't bang [as most pianists do when it comes to playing Rachmaninov] and this is perfect... this is how it's supposed to be.") to include Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (also known as his Vespers). I thought I had reviewed this record as well, but I can't find anything on Ionarts. In short, this is a magnificently enchanting recording (no pun intended) of the Vespers that immediately draws the listener in. The detailed and beautiful singing as well as the style in which Rachmaninov composed his Vespers remind of Russian music from before his time - with plenty of Orthodox frankincense thrown into the mix. There is also a bit of Taneyev's psalm setting that peeks through. I know that other choral recordings - like the Bolcom songs (Charles cherishes them very much, I hear) - are up for the slightly more prestigious Grammy Awards, but for what it is worth, this is Ionarts's choral recording of the year.

Stravinsky/Shostakovich, Complete DG Recordings, Bernstein
#10 (Reissue)
More than Schnabel's Schubert impromptus, or Lipati's Chopin, Michelangeli's Debussy, or Colin Davis's Les Troyens (the best recording of that opera, by all means - better than his LSO remake - now available for a reasonable price), the Stravinsky/Shostakovich box set of Lennie's complete DG recordings needs to be included here, even if it were only for his 'take-no-prisoners' rendition of Shostakovich's Seventh. (Actually, that particular description is probably not very appropriate for the "Leningrad" symphony - but musically speaking, it is true.) Just in time to be compared - again - to Gergiev's Seventh, which is included in the latter's compilation of the "War Symphonies" 4-9. Gergiev's Fourth has been reviewed and found to be excellent and then promptly found to be surpassed by Mariss Jansons' recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (a recording that would have easily made it onto the 'Best of 2004 list' but which I did not hear until early 2005 - let its excellence be pointed out here, again). His disc of symphonies Five and Nine (in the set no. 9 is now coupled with no. 6) is superb and his Sixth and Eighth, through the set available in the U.S. for the first time, I think, are extremely moving and very good, respectively. The only let-down is a somewhat lackluster Seventh - the very point where the Bernstein set so shines. At 84 minutes Bernstein's' is one of the longest lasting interpretations of that work (and sadly does not fit on one CD), but it never gets boring. Intense fire, smashing rhythms, tender and lyrical in other places: Bernstein seemed to have completely taken ownership of the work when he conducted it. It is all in the service of the music, not his own ego. The DG set of this symphony coupled with no. 1 (the coupling was retained) alone is almost as expensive as this complete box, so consider Shostakovich's Sixth and Ninth a throw-in of high quality. And the three Stravinsky discs include his DG recordings of L'Oiseau de feu and Pulcinella Suites, Petrouchka, the Mass, Le Noces, Le Sacre..., the Symphonies in C and in three movements, and Scénes de ballet. I remembered the Rite of Spring with the Israeli PO as a rather sad remake of his two earlier Sony recordings, but it much and positively surprised me with the personalized joy of its rhythms. Not very taut and not the the most propulsive reading but enjoyable to listen to. During Le Noces you can't help but wonder if DSCH stole from Orff or vice versa (if theft was involved at all you'll have to blame the latter; Les Noces was first performed almost a decade before Orff got to his Carmina Burana), so similar are the choral outbursts and faux-naïve rhythmic structures. If pressed to decide, I'd go with Boulez in the symphonies, but that's less criticism of Bernstein's way with Stravinsky than personal preference of Boulez' cool, analytic eye in Stravinsky. In fact, they supplement each other rather well.

Merry Christmas (or whatever other appropriate seasonal greeting you prefer), hopefully a big bonus for the fourth quarter, and a Happy New Year!

The Dubious Joys of Christmas Music 

For us at ionarts, Christmas season is a little like being shipwrecked on the ocean. Three days without attending a concert is akin to having gone so long without water. Not that concerts are not abound – but they are all Christmas themed and just like the shipwrecked knows he has to resist drinking salt water, so we, too, should know better.

available at Amazon
Christmas with the Choral Arts Society, N.Scribner
But I was weak. With just a little friendly encouragement I was no longer able to fight the urge to go to hear some live music and hurled myself headlong into the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Christmas Music concert at the Kennedy Center. These kinds of concerts are actually more of a challenge to review than an NSO or Royal Concertgebouw concert, because the audience, their expectations and indeed the entire purpose of the “Christmas concert” is a very different one. To write about the latter as if that difference did not exist or matter would be useless and silly, if perhaps temporarily amusing. But then again, “ChASo” is also a very professional musical institution and deserves to be held to the highest standards of performance, ‘even’ in a Christmas concert. To strike a fair balance between assessing the performance for what it was supposed to be (and not to indict it on that very account) and to accept what the audience likely expected to get – instead of measuring it against an abstract and absolute standard of musical craftsmanship – it helps to have a certain amount of detachment to the going-ons on stage.

The processional with tambourine is therefore safe from my personal indignation and children crying or a toddler’s attempt to sing a phrase that caught its fancy put a smile on my face rather than elicit an exacerbated scoff. A wonderful O Magnum Mysterium – Gabrieli – even suggested delight waiting in the wings! But that winner was followed by a succession of less successful adventures. Washington composers and ChASo-members John Pickard and Richard Wayne Dirksen were presented to the audience with a vocal work of their own making each.

Pickard’s, set to a text of his own, took everything I don’t like about British choral writing (and none of what makes it bearable), everything that makes American “Rutter-ite” choral music sound insipid and emasculated (to my ears, at least) and then proceeded to throw in a saccharine dose of über-wholesome middle-Americana ‘we-love-Jesus’ spirit into the ghastly mix. It’s crime was not even being outrageously bad but that it didn’t even have the guts to be bad. It was evasivley mediocre, which is even worse. One exquisite choral turn of a phrase where a second of Brucknerish gravitas interrupted the musical meaninglessness did not salvage “Beneath the Stars” for me. Even the audience, though duly applauding, doggedly resisted a standing ovation for the present composer.

Written for unaccompanied chorus and set to a fifteenth century carol, Mr. Dirksen’s contribution was far better and failed to take off completely only because the choir’s higher registers couldn’t sing, much less sustain, a decent piano/pianissimo. Instead of ‘subtle’ they made the music sound wimpy.
Followed “Noël Nouvelet” with gorgeous soprano Arianna Zukerman. For a while I thought I was just not familiar enough with historical performance practices of medieval French song but it emerged quickly that it was just not sung well by Ms. Zukerman – and mostly straight into her score rather than the Concert Hall at that.

But it all would have been ignored and forgiven for a great, nay: even a good performance of the Bach cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Normally I would overlook the petty fact that the Cantata was misspelled on every occasion by an overzealous Umlaut-user (“Jauchzet Gott in allen Länden” is not only wrong but is homophonic to “Praise God in all loins” which, I believe, would be one of his more secular Cantatas) – but it serves so well as an example how there were things wrong with every single aspect of the cantata’s performance. The difficult trumpet part sounded, well… difficult and Ms. Zukerman overwhelmed and underrehearsed, just like all her instrumental colleagues. Her voice was best when inaudible in a venue and work that were evidently a size or two too big for her. Perhaps the standards are different with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra or the Chattanooga Symphony or the Jackson Symphony (I am not being an ass – those are actually the highlights on her bio. OK, so I am being an ass – but I am still only quoting from the “Meet the Artist” notes) but they shouldn’t be or at least shouldn’t be imported to Washington. Anyway, the complete mess that conductor and ChASo-founder Norman Scribner made of the Bach was a sad example of shoddy musical standards, indeed – completely unbecoming of such revered an institution as him and his group.

The first half of the program ended with a world premiere of James Grant’s Eja! Eja!. I quote the composer from the program notes: “In the summer of 2004, Norman Scribner commissioned me to compose a “multi-purpose” work for the Choral Arts Society’s 2005 Christmas Music concert. The commission was requested for several reasons: one, to celebrate the Choral Arts Society’s Fortieth Anniversary Season; two, to honor the retirement of Fred Begun, principal timpanist with the National Symphony Orchestra and longtime friend and timpanist with the Choral Arts Society Orchestra; and three, to make full-throttled use of the Choral Arts Society’s 200 voices in a joyful Christmas romp for timpany, soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra.”

He managed to fulfil all purposes. It was a romp, it was a fun work for the audience and the timpanist and Ms. Zukerman sang much better than in the Bach. The whole thing sounded like the soundtrack to “Return of the Jedi – Christmas Edition” but that might put it into direct neighborhood with the Korngold Violin Concerto and there is nothing wrong with that.

The second half was dedicated to celebrating sacred rhythms. It started with three parts (of a total six) of Ariel Ramírez Navidad Nuestra which is also included on a new disc by the Choral Arts Society (coupled with Ramírez’ Misa Criolla and the Congolese Missa Luba by Father Guida Haazen) on recording distributed by Naxos. I vaguely remember a Jose Carreras recording. During the first part, La Anunciación, I also remembered a few East Village Mexican Restaurants (although Ramírez, it must be said, is an Argentine) where the juke box played hits from the 70s and 80s. It is of dubious musical worth but has an undeniable fun-factor if the idea – in Los Reyes Magos – of the three wise men wearing bombachas and a poncho is alright with you. Manuel J. Meléndez, José Sacin and Pablo Talamante were the three tenors. The Gloria from the Misa Criolla was more pleasing, still; cut from the same catchy musical cloth.

“Carols for all” was the order for the rest of the concert, including the sing-along favorites “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Silent Night” (including an amusing language lesson as the second strophe was to be sung in Portuguese) and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” along the way sounded rather awful, but this time Ms. Zukerman cannot be blamed because she remained completely inaudible. The inevitable Bach/Gounod Ave Maria exemplified the constant between the soprano and the music, cumulating in two last notes that she probably wishes she had let out with less a shriek. Other than that, things rolled out nicely and the crowd enjoyed itself, especially the two kids next to me that played hand held video games all along. As I left the Concert Hall, Ms. Zukerman engaged with “I wonder as I wander” which seemed apt.


Eine Riesengrosse Nachtmusik: MTT & Mahler's 7th 

available at Amazon
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 7, "MTT" / SFSO
available at Amazon
G. Mahler, Symphony No. 7, C. Abbado/BPh
Mahler’s 7th Symphony has eluded me longer than any other Mahler symphony, and although I enjoyed it plenty, it never seemed to reveal its secrets to me. Such secrets I knew it had plenty of, most of them hidden in the Nachtmusik of the three middle movements, because Boulez, Kubelik, and Abbado have made excellent (and radically different) recordings in which you experience the mysterious atmosphere (or a structural abyss – as in Boulez) a-plenty. It is an often serene, eerily calm symphony – much less driven than any of the others… it unfolds, it wistfully reminisces and ‘happens’, rather than making an imprint.

More Mahler Reviews at Ionarts:

Performance, December 12th 2005: Mahler 3rd, Conlon/Juilliard Orchestra

Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 9th, Barenboim/CSO

Performance, April 21st 2005: Mahler 9th, Slatkin/NSO

Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 4th, Temirkanov/BltSO

Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 5th, Eschenbach/Philadelphia

Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 1st, R.Abbado/NSO

Recording: Mahler 9th, MTT/SFSO

Recording: Mahler 2nd, MTT/SFSO

Recording: Mahler 6th, I.Fischer/BdPFSO

Recording: Mahler 6th, Abbado/BPh et al.

Recording: Mahler 8th, Rattle, Nagano, Kubelik, Järvi

Recording: Mahler 3rd, Boulez/VPh
Because of MTT's way with previous Mahler symphonies ("well-behaved," "civilized," with a great sense of continuous musical and dramatic lines; excelling in the subtle and backed by excellent playing of the SFSO), I had very high expectations from this particular 7th. Upon hearing it turns out to be the same exquisite playing I've come to expect from that combo.

With nuanced detail, well-structured, lovingly presented - quaver for quaver - this is easily the least satisfying Mahler 7th I have ever heard on record or live.

Typo? No.

For all its beauty, professionalism and excellence in execution, for every instance that is above criticism, the symphony as a whole is - to my ears - a complete failure.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 7, P. Boulez / ClevO
The outer movements, to be sure, are not just superficially excellent – they are as much as one can ask from a performance of the 7th. The are engaging and meticulously crafted without the latter coming at the expense of energy and flux. The crux of the matter is the Nachtmusik. Instead of a nebulous lurk around the moonlit nightscapes, MTT produces an assertive, foursquare march in broad daylight. There is not an ounce of the mysterious conveyed, no strange and wondrous sense of the obscure. Under Thomas’s baton the problem is not that the symphony does not reveal its secrets, it’s that the work simply doesn’t have any.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 7, R. Kubelik / BRSo
Compared to my current and strong favorite of this work, Abbado’s most recent recording, live with the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco installment must plead ‘no contest’. Rather than trying to penetrate a particular meaning in the symphony, I can now listen to Abbado – enthrallingly nocturnal in the middle movements – with blissful abandon; not unlike the mature ease of being able to simply live with a mysterious woman rather than straining to ‘figure her out’. None of that is offered to me by the MTT recording, and there are not many other reasons for which I would want to listen to a recording of the 7th, anymore. Craftsmanship alone simply isn’t enough, making one of the best-recorded Mahler symphonies a tragic miscalculation in my book. The sum of the parts which I find lacking in this issue is small and always subtle. The total of loss, however, justifies my drastic judgement – at least to my ears and my Mahler sensibility.

The Gramophone has reviewed this recording, too, and as with most recent Mahler reviews (Rattle/Nagano 8th, Fischer 6th, Abbado 6th) of that magazine, I cannot agree with their critic at all. In Mahler I have found more kindred ears in the resident crankmeister Mahler expert at the American Record Guide and Classics Today’s David Hurwitz.


Bax, Chung, Schubert 

I should have liked to hear the Suspicious Cheese Lords, Washington’s gem of an acapella group, at the National Gallery of Art – the only Christmas concert this season I would have gladly attended. But I know the Cheese Lords perhaps a little too well to review them; aside, their concert was well covered by Charles. Meanwhile skipping that concert gave me the opportunity to hear Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung at the Phillips Collection in a concert for one Piano and four hands. And how glad I am to have heard them, too.

Bax/Chung opened with one of my favorites among Schubert’s piano pieces (regardless of how many hands are involved), the Fantasia in f-minor D940. It is a work of such beauty and sophistication that it really ought to be considered on par with the late Schubert piano sonatas for half the amount of fingers. This is no mere Hausmusik. The infectious opening theme and its modulations would move a stone and stick in your head for long after listening to them.
Before I knew the actual program, this recital got my attention because of Alessio Bax’s name. The 2000 Leeds International Piano Competition winner came out with a CD titled “Baroque Reflections” that either got good reviews at the time or stuck with me because of my possible confusion with the great English, faux-Irish symphonist by the same name. Having read about Ms. Chung’s Györgi Ligety piano music recordings on Dynamic I will now keep an ear out for her as well.

The Schubert performance was not so felt, heavenly soft and musical as in a recent Maria João Pires / Ricardo Castro recording (an excellent two disc set with the silliest liner notes, ever; Reviewed on ionarts in March) and the Largo and Allegro vivace were a bit rough hewn. Who cares, though, when you get a tender reading of the concluding Con delicatozza with its quasi-fugal thrust.

Mother Goose followed – and after the recent orchestral version with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra it was just as charming to hear the original. The five short pieces, written to be suitable for children and indeed premiered by two kids, wonderfully capture the unmistakably French charm of their fairy tale settings. In parts like the Conversations of the Beauty and the Beast the sounds of Eric Saties and Frederico Mompou are not far away. There, and in the concluding Fairy Garden, was all that tenderness that might have been borrowed from the Schubert performance. But even if the Mother Goose Suite is a much simpler work than the Fantasia, I can’t say that the gentleness was wrongly invested into the Ravel. There really was something magical and innocent in the musical material of that maternal piece of poultry.

Petrushka, Stravinksy’s “Burlesque in four scenes” is a hoot in whichever version, whether orchestral, single (and daring) pianist or piano, four hands. From the tangle of its many irreverent, dancing, hopping and thundering musical lines emerged the great joy of exuberance that Stravinsky put into the score and that Ms. Chung and Mr. Bax extracted again. Watching those four hands whiz around the keyboard to caress and boisterously pound the Phillips’ Steinway D was pleasure in addition to music that, when so well presented, cannot be resisted. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.1 as an encore didn’t hurt the good mood, either.


The Jupiter Quartet's Return to Washington 

Before the Jupiter Quartet’s concert at the Library of Congress, it was Gunther Schuller’s turn to be honored by the Library of Congress. Apparently America had heard him - and liked what it had heard – and the fresh octogenarian was given the “Library of Congress Living Legend Award”. About the medal he received, Schuller said: “Oh, this will go nicely with my twelve honorary doctorates”. That somewhat ambiguous response made for a ripple of laughter before his very short acceptance speech clarified that he was indeed grateful to the Library.

Frank Pesci on the (real) BSO’s Schuller celebration:

I Hear America, Part I

I Hear America, Part II

I Hear America, Part III
Then rolled out the four string players that had so impressed me with their performances of the second Britten Quartet at the Corcoran Gallery (October 21st, ionarts review here). The slowly awakening theme of the first movement (Allegro con spirito) in Haydn’s quartet op.76, no.4 gave the work its English nickname “Sunrise”. The Jupiter Quartet’s first violinist, Nelson Lee, soared above his three colleagues Meg Freivogel (second violin), David McDonough (cello) and Liz Freivogel (viola). I don’t go to the Library of Congress very often anymore, but when I do it is for a good reason. This time I wanted to check up on the viola playing of the Freivogel sister, wondering if the concert at the Corcoran where she had stood out among already excellent performers (including Roger Tapping) and amazed me with a stupendous viola sound, had been a fluke or not.

Playing at the LoC, they were now fitted with different instruments – the libraries own Stradivarius’:, the 1704 “Betts” violin for Meg, the “Castelbarco” violin and cello for Messrs. Lee and Donough respectively and the “Cassavetti” viola (from Stradivari’s golden period – 1727). With an instrument like that, it should have seemed easier yet for the violist to make a splendid sound and easier for me to decide whether to laude her playing, her own instrument or the Corcoran Gallery’s acoustic for the previous enchantment.

Amidst the well-executed but unremarkable Haydn and seated next to the booming, noisy (gloriously noisy, if you wish) Castelbarco cello, she did not stand out with the new instrument which seemed timid and chorister-voiced compared to my memory of the last concert. Interestingly enough Mr. McDonough pointed out that a good number of violists that come through the library end up choosing their own instrument over the small Strad-viola – something I readily believed after hearing (or rather: not hearing) Liz Freivogel disappear sonically. I don’t know how hard she has to work on her regular instrument to get it to sound good – but however hard that may be, it’s worth it as far as I, the listener, am concerned.

Dutilleux again after a recent run-in at La Maison Française. Ainsi la nuit and its seven movements are a Koussevitzky Foundation commission (of which Mr. Schuller is the President) and turned out to be a very busy, percussive and long piece which was good to hear but didn’t catch me either with or in the mood to heed in the way that Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher had. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (D810) opened with all the stringent force the Jupiter-players could get out of their instruments. The works beauty can come out in as many interpretive approaches as there are to it. Including the aggressive, nervously jittering way this young foursome opted for. Especially the Allegro, the first movement, was now a show of brilliance; very much ‘in your face’. Short on Viennese languor and devoid of the confident sweetness I missed in it, D810 turned out more self-conscious than I would prefer to listen to on a regular basis. There is more interpretive depth to be found in this masterpiece even if, for now, it seemed valid enough to brush interpretive complacency aside and err (if err they did) on the side of wild, youthful vigor, even mawkishness. In all that drive, a few squeaks were inevitable. The haunting beginning of the Andante con moto, by the way, was marvelous; it hung in the room as though permanently suspended. The viola was still near inaudible. The blazing Presto energized the crowd. Their excitement (standing ovations, of course) was perhaps more than I expected. But it brought them back for the Intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s a-minor quartet op.13. For a brief solo moment I heard the viola, too. I wish I hadn’t.


The "M" word 

One half of ionarts was gleeful when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra cancelled their Messiah at Strathmore. I myself forgot to strike that date from my calendar and almost showed up for it anyway, which would have been less amusing. I had also heard rumors that the program (I rarely check beforehand) actually offered the Mozart version – in which case I would have loved to hear that and been happy to skip the National Symphony’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center this Thursday. But regulation demand that all music critics cover at least one “M-performance” during the season and this time I drew the shortest straw.

It could have been worse. The volunteer baroque core of the NSO showed up with 80 heads from the Robert Shafer’s Washington Chorus and gave a fine performance that, as a whole, deserved neither great praise or harsh criticism. As far the elements that made it up are concerned, it was more of a mixed bag, but here, too, everyone operated in a safe zone. Reducing a modern orchestra to two dozen strings and assorted winds doesn’t exactly make for a Period Practices performance – it is at best a shy nod in that direction. Unfortunately it is an (ultimately economic) fact that the classical music lovers that would go crazy for true Period Performance Practice concerts simply doesn’t exist in sufficient numbers to merit even one performance of a Messiah in the Concert Hall – much less four – and most of the more typical Messiah-crowd would feel short-changed if someone mounted a McCreesh or Junghänel-type performance with a chorus of two to the part and chamber group.

Emil de Cou, Associate Conductor of the NSO, did not bring anything particularly exciting or novel out of the score but he did an admirable job of swiftly guiding the players through their parts, not letting them trot sluggishly through the work, too much. He could have done a better job, still, had he not been interrupted by late-comers and that inane tradition of standing during and clapping after the Hallelujah part.

The singers biographies were a bit more impressive than their performances, even though all soloists turned in performances that were fine and more. The only real weakness was the novelty of the performance, the inclusion of a treble. Chalky voiced and pale, it was not a contribution. Coming just off the Vienna Choir Boys’ peformance (and they weren’t exactly perfect, either) only underscored the kid’s disappointing performance. Algiers-born Amel Brahim-Djelloud had the fewest names to drop in her bio but was the most even and delightful singer on stage. Agile, unmannered, fair-sized: an all-around unthreatening pleasure. Catalan Xavier Sabata’s countertenor was serviceable. “He was despised” was particularly earth-bound. I’ve heard much worse – and Al Ayre Español, Jordi Savall’s La Capella Reial, René Jacobs’ and Williams Christie (for his Jardin de voix) surely have heard the young man in better form when they chose to include him in their prestigious and excellent troupes.

Andrew Tortise (who did not win that race for but one vowel) presented what seemed an unimpressive performance at first – but upon closer listening the quality and steadiness of the 25 year old Brit became noticeable and impressive. Still, I am sure he has more to offer when conductors like Gardiner, Minkowski or Christie tickle him the right way in one of the many occasions they asked for his contribution. Bass Curtis Streetman who has done work with Christopher Hogwood, Nicholas McGegan and Canada’s Tafelmusik brought a similarly solid performance to this seasonal favorite. The chorus had only one or two sub-par moments in an otherwise surprisingly nimble outing for such a large group. (Large, of course, is relative: Beecham or Albert Coates-led Messiahs used forces that rival and outnumber modern-day presentations of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.)

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G.F. Handel, Saul, R.Jacobs
The evening was solidly between professional hazard and heavenly delight – good enough not to disappoint but not inspirational, either. I consider it good practice for the NSO players for one of the upcoming highlights of the season, a Helmut Rilling conducted performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion. Those in need of their “M”-fix can safely chose one of the three repeat performances on Friday or Saturday at 8PM or Sunday’s matinee at 1PM. Others, still, that like their Handel this time of the season but have ambiguous feelings about another Messiah could do worse than treat themselves to the marvelous new René Jacobs recording of Saul for Christmas.

O Mensch! - James Conlon leads the Juilliard Orchestra in Mahler's 3rd 

James Conlon’s speech before the Juilliard Orchestra’s concert of the Mahler 3rd on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was a case in point that it is intelligence and enthusiasm, not eloquence, that makes addressing the audience a tangible success. Coincidentally, what is true for Conlon and the spoken word was equally true for the Juilliard School’s orchestra when it comes to played notes. Rather than boring the audience to tears with mundane details about financial underwriters (important as they are) or whether his second trombonists likes to bungee-jump, Conlon spoke about the third symphony and other parts of Mahler’s oeuvre in a way that was accessible enough to make sense to the Mahler newbies in the audience and personal enough to be entertaining to all those Mahler aficionados that thought nothing of facing temperatures near zero in order to make it to a live performance of a (and any) Mahler symphony.

Other Reviews:

T.L. Ponick, Young musicians lift Mahler's work (Washington Times, December 15)

Tim Page, A First-Rate Mahler Third (Washington Post, December 15)
Opening this longest of Mahler’s symphonies (too long? Nonsense!) was brass that blazed out of the box without inhibitions. With these back-benchers providing the Ur-world sound of the symphony and violas and celli entering in rhythmic lockstep, Conlon and his ‘kids’ quickly established the first movement as one where precision was the first order. This worked more often for than against the symphony, even if a fair amount of uncleanliness entered the players’ contribution later in this taxing 30-plus minute movement. Smoother transitions between the various musical blocks should have been possible (with the exception of the Mahler 9th, I don’t ever want to be reminded of Bruckner in his works) while the solo passages (first violin especially) were exceptional. At its best, the orchestra worked like a grand accordion in the sweeping passages of the movement stipulated to be Kräftig and Entschieden (which it was!) while the latter half lacked in fluidity in several points. Especially the exposed and long horn passages (which are, admittedly, difficult to pull off for any player/orchestra) were not ideal. The best performances of that symphony seems organic, a living One from wherein all themes and notes emerge as though it could not happen any other way. It was that organic element that was missing at the crucial moments but it was replaced with said excitement of the more involved and thrusting passages in which the Juilliard Orchestra excelled.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.3, C.Abbado / BPh
The off-stage Posthorn-solo may have been four hiccuped notes shy of perfection but it was particularly and enchantingly lyrical, while several string players really got into the spirit of the Scherzando - a healthy corrective to watching professionals sleep-walk through a performance with faces of pure boredom. On that note, it is worth mentioning that the Juilliard Orchestra may “only” be a youth orchestra and that they did indeed not play at the level of perfection that I have heard some professional orchestras play some of the time. But the far more important and interesting matter is that it is rarer to hear a professional orchestra play more polished than to hear one play with even half the vitality. In the following movements again, the more ravishing the music-the better was the playing, a trait the students in this orchestra shared in common with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 9th in Washington in May.

The steady and straightforward performance of mezzo Jane Gilbert was good, self conscious in avoiding all hissing sounds – with a trace of good country girl. I would not have wanted a bigger voice; if anything, I would have wanted a more lithe, more seductive, more urban, more mysterious voice. Anne Sofie Otter or Anna Larsson come to mind – but that a Mahlerian’s wishful thinking. The Reilly-Lewis prepared Cathedral Choral Society’s choir along with the National Cathedral School’s Children’s Choir made a most valuable contribution to the success of the whole, too – not only considering that one dress rehearsal was all they got in performance with the orchestra.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.3, P.Boulez / WPh
The sixth movement is one of the finest, most appealing in Mahler’s output. Slow, solemn and with tons of Empfindung which is just like the Juilliard Orchestra played it. That finale, from the first note and only getting better as it continued, was simply phenomenal. Those who heard this symphony for the very first time surely became instant converts to the Mahler cause… a cause we sometimes forget was far from the mainstream just forty and even thirty years ago when Mahler was considered an eclectic’s showcase vehicle and not much more. (The music world needed Rafael Kubelik and Leonard Bernstein’s efforts in what was essentially the ‘second coming’ of Mahler, to establish the ground from which Mahler moved into the repertoire of every self-respecting orchestra.)

It took James Conlon – a hot candidate for the succession of Leonard Slatkin and back in town with the NSO in the second week of January – longer to recover from the tour de force than the audience which leapt unto its feet in an uniform instant, applauding along with the trampling and cheering orchestra members far longer than hitherto experienced at the Kennedy Center. When Mahler’s 2nd and 8th come around in June, you can’t say we weren’t prepared!


Viking(s) and Beethoven 

The young man that bowed stiffly to the audience at the Icelandic Ambassador’s residence may have come across as shy in that moment. Yet, all of the sudden, the 21 year old Vikingur Heiðar Olaffson was omnipresent in the small (and overflowing) room when he merged with Bach by playing the fifth French Suite in a manner that simply forbade mundane comparisons. It was, not the least due to the help of Bach’s ingenious composition, an experience of musical perfection. Charles Bukowski once said in one of his more profound and rare PG-rated moments that Bach was the most difficult to play badly, because he had made so few spiritual mistakes. It can hardly be said better but it also needs to be pointed out that here it wasn’t a matter of ‘not playing badly’ but in at least some of the Suite’s movements a matter of the finest Bach playing I have heard in quite a while. Even if eschatological reasons don’t make room for a deity, at least the Platonic idea of an ideal music should have been evoked in every listener during the Allemande, Sarabande and the latter half of the Bourrée.

The Juilliard graduate and Ann Schein and Seymour Lipkin student went on to show that he not only had good Bach to offer but that he had much more than the notes in petto when it came to the very different fifth sonata of Beethoven’s (op.10, no.3). The perpendicular notes that stalk along through the first Presto movement were bolted to the floor with so much energy and confidence as to elevate this none-too-grand sonata near the more exclusive realm of sonatas nos.22, 24 and 27. The Largo e maestoso labored a little harder to find its natural expression. Despite being in search of lost meaning, it was better Beethoven than my latently prejudiced mind would have expected from such a young and completely unknown (not for long – so much is certain!) pianist. Even beyond that, it was better than you could have heard from many a Beethoven veteran, too. Speaking of Beethoven-veterans: A touch of Lipkin may have been audible very briefly: The accentuated dead-in-his-tracks stop after the first movements’ first theme reminded of something Lipkin does in his own reading of that work. The Menuetto: Allegro was beautifully tight which made a variety of speeds harmonize and the relay-play of the notes all the more delightful. When things really got under way in the contrasting theme of that movement, he milked the Baby Grand (very appropriate in size and tone for the venue) for every bit it was worth. The finale was taken a tad faster than did the interpretation good – but if it did not exactly match the true high points of preceding moments, it was due to the excellence of the former, not the deficiency of the latter.

A world premiere – even the most humble one – is always an event. Music that is alive and kicking as in the case of the 5 Piano Pieces that Ólafur Axelsson (*1951) wrote when he had ‘composer’s block’. We should hope that he overcame that debility with the miniatures Cappuccinio, Logical Conclusion, Intermezzo, Almost Still and Everyday Waltz, because they are exquisitely distilled beauties, all!
Washington is of course the “City of Satan” (as John McCain recently reminded his audience at AEI with a wink) and nepotism and corruption the in-house standard-issue evils. So nowhere could these piano works have been premiered more appropriately than in Washington D.C. – as Olafur Axelsson is the father of Vikingur Olaffson. But if nepotism can be so beautiful as in this case, it must be enthusiastically embraced. 5 Pieces reminded of Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, With You in more than just musical ways. In both cases the artists composed/recorded short sessions late at night while suffering creative lows (Jarrett suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at the time) and both are full of soft hues and filled with familial tenderness.

At this point during the concert it would have been foolishness to expect anything less than excellence in the two Debussy Preludes (Bruyères and Ondine from the second book) and they did not disappoint, indeed. (Ondine, even if ‘the French’ refuse to admit it, is of course all about Rheinmaidens and only Debussy’s editor rejected the original title “Pour toi Flosshilde”.)
Impetuous youth helped “VHO” in Schumann’s Carnaval, op.9. There were impressive moments of great beauty, current, volatility… and if the last ounce of depth or polish was not found in every note or episode I will hold against that the fact that I don’t remember the last time I so enjoyed Schumann’s piano work (with which I have an admittedly uneasy relationship). All one was left to do was enjoy the music, marvel at a night’s worth of performances that far exceeded even my most optimistic expectations and – last but never least when it comes to the Embassy Series’ events – the gustatory pleasures that the following reception offered. From wine to Icelandic beer with fried Haddock, fresh Salmon and Tuna and whatnot, it positively rivaled the Norwegian’s excellent work in that department. No wonder it was past midnight when I, far from being the last to leave, tumbled out of the residence; an Icelandic meatball in my mouth and Gerswhin tunes – courtesy of a reinvigorated Vikingur back at the piano– in the air.

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