Friday, January 05, 2007

Bach, Beethoven, The Early Romantics, R. Strauss, Schoenberg And Choral Music

Joshua and I have just been staying home since we left my parents' house on Tuesday night after dinner. Josh and I thought about going to see Minnesota open its Big Ten season against Purdue on Wednesday night, but we decided to stay in. It is nice to be home alone, and we do not even need to worry about food for a few days, given how much food my mother sent home with us.

We have been reading, and listening to music, mostly.

We put six discs on the disc player Wednesday night. It has been almost two weeks since we have listened to any music.

Bach harpsichord music, performed by Trevor Pinnock, on the Archiv label

Beethoven piano trios, performed by Jeno Jando, Takako Nishizaki and Csaba Onczay, on the Naxos label

Orchestral music of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, on the Teldec label

Songs of Richard Strauss, performed by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, on the ASV label

Schoenberg's transcription for orchestra of Brahms' Piano Quartet In G Minor, Opus 25, performed by the Baltimore Symphony under Sergiu Commissiona, on the Vox Cum Laude label

"Harvest Home", a disc of a capella choral music, performed by The Dale Warland Singers under Dale Warland, on the Gothic label

The Bach disc is not bad. Normally, I cannot listen to a complete disc of harpsichord music at one sitting without suffering fatigue, but this disc holds my attention for the full hour, probably because Pinnock offers a varied selection of Bach's works. The disc contains the English Suite No. 3, BWV 808; the Prelude And Fugue No. 1, BWV 846; the Prelude And Fugue No. 7, BWV 876; the Prelude And Fugue No. 12, BWV 881; the Chromatic Fantasia And Fugue, BWV 903; and the French Suite No. 5, BWV 816.

Pinnock is a good Bach player, but I prefer Bach on the piano--the harpsichord has no dynamic range, and no coloristic range, and it therefore limits the expressive possibilities available to a great musician. Nevertheless, this disc contains great, great music, and it is a joy to hear. Josh picked the disc. He loved the Bach organ disc we recently listened to, and he wanted to hear more Bach keyboard music. He loves this disc, too.

The Beethoven disc includes the Opus 70, No. 1, the "Ghost", and the Opus 97, the "Archduke", two of Beethoven's most popular piano trios. I don't remember why I bought this disc, but it must have been because it offered both of the "named" trios.

The performances are merely OK. Violinist Nishizaki is the weak link, and she no doubt was engaged for the recording because her husband, Klaus Heymann, is the CEO of Naxos. How many recordings has Nishizaki made for Naxos? Her Naxos recordings must number in the hundreds--a scandalous number, whatever the total--as she has, for posterity, skimmed over practically the entire violin repertory.

The pianist, Jeno Jando, has also recorded just about everything, it seems, for Naxos. He is a good pianist, and a serious musician, but I have never experienced any special insight in any of the repertory he has recorded. According to the Naxos website, Jando is thinking about re-recording all of the Beethoven piano sonatas for Naxos. I cannot imagine the need for a second Beethoven cycle from him.

I hate to buy Naxos recordings. Naxos does not pay its artists reasonable fees, and it pays no royalties to artists at all, no matter how well a recording sells. I think this is a poor policy. However, I seem to own quite a few Naxos recordings, mostly because they are inexpensive and offer interesting music.

I never buy any of the Naxos historical issues. These discs are taken, unlicensed, from the back catalogs of other recording companies--a reprehensible practice, I believe--and, once again, Naxos pays no royalties to the artists or to their heirs (or to the original recording companies). Naxos is able to get away with this because of misguided European copyright laws, which allow old recordings to enter the public domain after fifty years.

The Harnoncourt disc contains Mendelssohn's "The Fair Melusina" Overture, Schubert's Symphony No. 4 and Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in its final, 1851 version. The disc was recorded during live performance in the Philharmonie in January 1995.

Frankly, I cannot believe how bad this disc is, if for no other reason than that the Berlin Philharmonic is capable of giving profound performances of all three of these works.

The Mendelssohn is nice, but the Schumann stubbornly refuses to come to life and the Schubert is indescribably bad.

The problem here is Harnoncourt. The orchestra is constantly on the verge of playing all out in the Schumann (and a couple of times the orchestra even succeeds in letting loose) but Harnoncourt keeps reining in the orchestra. The result is a dry, dessicated performance of one of the most stirring of all symphonies.

The Schubert completely falls apart. Harnoncourt does not conduct the Schubert in phrases, or in paragraphs--he conducts each individual note! This approach fails to allow the music to flow and, further, it also fails to give the music any shape or form. I must conclude that Harnoncourt's objective was to allow the audience members to transcribe the score during the performance, as there is no other plausible explanation for his handling of the score, draining Schubert of all songfulness, all sweetness, all melancholy and all soul, as he does.

The Schubert Symphony No. 4 is not an easy work to bring off--I think it is the most difficult of all Schubert symphonies to perform well, as Schubert was in the process of breaking out of the Haydnesque model but he had not yet solved the problem of how to give a symphony greater expressive weight while still achieving a coherent symphonic form--but it can be done, as Bruno Walter and Karl Bohm and Claudio Abbado have demonstrated.

Personally, I have always found Nikolaus Harnoncourt to be an unsatisfactory conductor, and I have not regretted the fact that Harnoncourt has never had an American career. Many musicians believe that Harnoncourt is out of his element outside the original-instrument world, but I have never found Harnoncourt's performances within the original-instrument world to be very impressive, either.

I heard Harnoncourt conduct live only once. That was a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, in Washington. I was an undergraduate, and I had taken the train down to Washington from Princeton, and I stayed with friends of my parents, for the very purpose of hearing the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 and, after intermission, several selections by Johann Strauss, Jr. It was a peculiar program, and it was a peculiar performance.

The Beethoven was very bad. It was not expressive, it was not well-played, and Harnoncourt seemed to have set aside, in advance, about 100 different, unrelated tempos to display throughout the course of the work. The members of the audience kept looking at each other throughout the Beethoven, as if to inquire "are you hating this as much as I am?"

The second half of the program was even worse. First, the Washington audience was in a foul mood, having just heard the Beethoven and, further, viewing it as insulting that the Vienna Philharmonic, on its first appearance in Washington in over a decade, was offering half a program of Strauss waltzes and polkas. Second, the Strauss selections, as played, lacked charm, and Viennese sweetness and lilt, and Viennese melancholy. The waltz rhythms were rigid and inflexible, very un-dancelike, there was no hesitancy in the second beat, and there was nothing intoxicating in the least about these performances of Strauss bon-bons.

The audience was very unsettled, and my recollection is that there was so little applause at the conclusion of the Strauss selections that the orchestra performed no encores, practically unprecedented for the Vienna Philharmonic on an American tour. In fact, the greatest applause, during the entire concert, was at the very beginning, before the orchestra had played a note. Applause-wise, it was all downhill from there. It was an entirely disspiriting event.

The disc of Richard Strauss songs includes a large number of the composer's most popular songs, which is probably why I bought this disc. "Standchen", "Schlechtes Wetter", "Ruhe, Meine Seele", "Wiegenlied", "Zueignung", "Cacilie" and "Morgen" are all included in the recital.

Miss Lott is known as a Strauss singer, and this recording is a very serious and a very commendable effort.

However, Miss Lott has two shortcomings: first, her voice is not a rich one and it offers a very limited range of color and, second, she is "too English" in her treatment of the songs. Her performances of the Strauss are neat, considered, well-thought out and dignified. They do not, however, encompass any personality or passion or deep feeling, all of which are kept well at bay.

Ultimately, that makes the disc a disappointment.

The Schoenberg disc is anything but a disappointment. This is THE great disc of Schoenberg's transcription, and it is disappointing that this disc is virtually unknown. It is a scorcher of a performance, and probably the finest recording the Baltimore Symphony ever made.

The recording was made in the very early 1980's, by which time Sergiu Commissiona had transformed the Baltimore Symphony into a great, but unknown orchestra.

At that time, the Baltimore orchestra had a very cultured sound, and a very cultured way of musicmaking, which may be heard in the small number of Vox recordings that the orchestra made in the final Commissiona years.

This particular disc is stunningly well-recorded, as the producers were Joanna Nickrenz and Marc Aubort, just about the best producers working anywhere in the world at that time. The sound is clear, rich and natural, one of the very best orchestral recordings anyone could ever hope to hear.

The performance is dazzling. Ensemble is immaculate, the orchestra's sound is urbane, and the musicians were clearly inspired from the very first bar during the recording sessions.

Why is this performance so unknown? It must be because the Vox label never was viewed as a prestige label, and because neither the orchestra nor the conductor were major commercial presences in the classical-music field at the time. This performance puts to shame the Jarvi, the Tilson Thomas, the Eschenbach or either of the Craft recordings of the work, and yet no one has ever heard it.

The Dale Warland Singers disc was a Christmas present from my mother to Josh. It is a disc of Americana--hymns, folk songs, spirituals, Shaker tunes, ballads, songs of faith--that The Dale Warland Singers recorded in 2004 right before the group was disbanded upon Mr. Warland's retirement.

The Twin Cities had something special in The Dale Warland Singers, and that 40-singer group is now very much missed. It was one of the best choirs in America, and set the standard for choral singing in the Upper Midwest for 31 years.

The arrangements on this disc are excellent--all are from leaders in the field of choral arrangements. I especially like Stephen Paulus' arrangement of "We Gather Together", one of my very favorite American songs.

Prospective purchasers of this disc might look at the selection of compositions--"Deep River", "Shall We Gather At The River", "Simple Gifts", "By And By"--and mistakenly assume that this is a "corny" disc. In fact, this is anything but a corny disc, as it offers sophisticated arrangements and sophisticated performances of a wide range of American songs, including compositions of recent vintage.

Both Josh and I like this disc very much. My mother selected well.

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