For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to six compact discs when we have been at home and had a little time to spare.
Bach’s “The Art Of The Fugue”, performed by The Canadian Brass, on the Sony label
Haydn’s String Quartets Nos. 39-41, performed by the Kodaly Quartet, on the Naxos label
Schubert’s Masses Nos. 2 and 6, performed by various soloists and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Robert Shaw, on the Telarc label
Brahms’s Complete Organ Music, performed by Kevin Bowyer, on the Nimbus label
Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis, on the RCA label
Orchestral music of Carl Nielsen, performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung, on the BIS label
I had listened to The Canadian Brass “The Art Of The Fugue” disc when I was in high school, and I recall that I hated the disc back then. I probably was too young to appreciate such great music at the time, because I love this disc now, and Josh loves it, too.
The Canadian Brass arrangement of this profound abstract masterpiece is very effective—“The Art Of The Fugue” works beautifully in this particular arrangement for brass quintet. The differing timbres of the brass instruments, no doubt, assist the listener in following the dense counterpoint and make it possible for the listener to play all fourteen contrapunctus movements straight through, in succession, without suffering fatigue.
Contrapuntus Number 14 is performed, unfinished, as Bach left it. After a pause, the disc concludes with a performance of Bach’s final Chorale Prelude, BWV 668, “Vor Deinen Thron Tret Ich Hiermit”, a suitable summation for a most satisfying listening experience.
Given that “The Art Of The Fugue” was never intended to be performed, it is amazing how well this composition works in performance, no matter the arrangement. I think that the arrangement used by The Canadian Brass is as good as any I have ever heard. Josh and I have listened to this disc over and over and over with the greatest of pleasure.
I believe the performance to be excellent. The Canadian Brass made many fine discs in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and those discs demonstrate that The Canadian Brass was an exceptional group of musicians, capable of playing a wide range of repertory at the highest level. The Canadian Brass was a serious group of musicians entitled to a serious audience.
And yet, after a period, the group more or less fell from view—and I think I know why this happened.
The Canadian Brass programmed its live concerts so as to appeal to a mass audience, not to the serious musical public. Instead of programming its concerts along the lines of, say, the classic string quartet, The Canadian Brass chose to program its concerts in the manner of a Peter Schickele evening, offering a series of routines perilously close to Vaudeville. Such an approach did not stay fresh for long and did not provide a formula for long-term success.
It was a gigantic mistake for The Canadian Brass to “dumb down” its live appearances. By doing so, the ensemble alienated and ultimately turned away its natural audience, at which point it was left with no audience at all. The ensemble would have enjoyed a larger and more devoted audience—and an audience with some longevity—had it adhered to more traditional programming, offering purely musical rewards.
I attended a Canadian Brass concert only once. That was enough for me. The shtick that emanated from the stage between numbers was not amusing—and the audience groaned more than it laughed—and the musical program was very unsatisfying, if not deadening.
The concert began with a couple of Bach arrangements before moving on to a gruesome twenty-minute stage skit with music, written especially for the group. The skit provided each member of the ensemble with both dialogue and music. It was not funny, and it was not musically enriching.
After intermission, the audience was treated to extended 1940’s big band excerpts, followed by a few Broadway tunes, followed by a couple of hymns.
It was certainly the least interesting evening I ever spent in a concert hall. I can fully understand why The Canadian Brass lost its audience.
There were many young musicians, studying brass instruments, in attendance at that particular concert. Those young musicians were almost grief-stricken. They had been looking forward to hearing these magnificent brass instrumentalists play Gabrieli, not Glenn Miller. I never saw such a disillusioned group of young persons in my life.
The Naxos disc of Haydn quartets features numbers 4-6 of Haydn’s “Prussian” Quartets, Opus 50, written in 1787, shortly after Mozart had written his remarkable set of quartets dedicated to Haydn. Two of the quartets are “named” quartets: Number Five is titled “The Dream” and Number Six is titled “The Frog”.
I love Haydn quartets, and I think I could listen to Haydn quartets every day. Haydn’s music is endlessly inventive. It is also exceedingly humane, probably more so than the music of any other great composer. In addition, Haydn certainly had more wit than any other great composer. Is there any other composer whose music so readily induces smiles?
Josh and I have loved listening to these quartets immensely. This disc is a joy from start to finish. The performances are excellent. The Kodaly Quartet has recorded many Haydn quartets for the Naxos label, and each Kodaly Quartet Haydn disc I have heard has been excellent.
The disc of Schubert masses involves one very early mass, from 1815, and Schubert’s final effort in the form, from 1828. In the recording, different soloists are used for each mass.
The Mass No. 2 features Dawn Upshaw, David Gordon and William Stone as soloists. The second mass is Schubert’s most tuneful mass, and the easiest to perform. It is very simple, very joyful, very brief and very direct. Its emotional range is limited, as is its orchestration (strings and organ), and it poses no problems for the listener. It is the most “songful” of Schubert’s masses, and much of the writing is homophonic and near-strophic in nature. Shaw’s performance is very nice.
The Mass No. 6 is another thing entirely. This is one of the incomparably great works that occupied Schubert during the final year of his short life, a year in which his music acquired a depth of feeling and a range of expression that is almost unparalleled in the history of Western music. It is possible that this is the very greatest mass ever written.
The Mass No. 6 is much more complicated than the Mass No. 2. It is a mass on the grandest possible scale, much more complex in its choral part-writing and orchestration and use of form—there is lots of counterpoint—and much freer in its emotional range than the earlier effort. The choral parts are extremely difficult to perform, and the orchestration owes an obvious debt to Weber’s orchestral wizardry in “Der Freischutz”. Schubert’s Mass No. 6 is a work on the same exalted level as Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and, as a composition, it may be superior to Beethoven’s landmark work because Schubert’s work reveals greater humility and greater humanity.
The Atlanta performance of Mass No. 6 is a huge disappointment. Whereas Mass No. 2 was well within the capabilities of the Atlanta musicians, Mass No. 6 is simply beyond them. An accurate presentation of the notes is all these musicians can muster—and that is not enough in late Schubert. A performance of Mass No. 6 must offer drama, and glory, and consolation, and despair, and resignation, and peace. The Atlanta performance offers 55 minutes of blandness.
Like the Telarc recording of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” by these same forces, the Schubert Mass No. 6 reveals Robert Shaw’s limitations as a musician and as a conductor. Shaw was a fine choral trainer, but as a conductor he had a very limited range of expression, and very little sense of drama. Works with rhetorical content and works filled with profound feeling did not fare well under his baton. A listener with no other acquaintance with late Schubert, hearing this recording, would never guess that Schubert’s Mass No. 6 is one of the highest summits of Western music.
Schubert masses are not often performed in the United States. One reason for their rarity is that only the very finest choruses can sing these works at a high standard. Another reason is that good Schubert conductors seldom work in the United States. This is our loss.
The soloists in Mass No. 6 (there are two tenor parts) are Benita Valente, Marietta Simpson, John Humphrey, Glenn Siebert and Myron Myers.
I hope that Franz Welser-Most programs and records this work before he leaves Cleveland. I also hope that Manfred Honeck programs this work when he takes over in Pittsburgh. Both of those conductors could do this work justice.
Both Josh and I found the disc of Brahms organ music to be somewhat boring.
The disc contains Brahms’s most famous organ work, his Chorale Preludes, Opus 122, Brahms’s final completed work, and not published until five years after his death. The eleven preludes are all contemplative, with slow tempos, and with restrained and subtle harmonies, compiled of simple melodic fragments borrowed from ancient Lutheran sources. In a church service, interspersed with prayers and readings and psalms and responses, these preludes would no doubt have their intended effect of quiet spirituality. For a listener to hear all eleven preludes in succession, however, is not a particularly rewarding experience. All eleven preludes quickly begin to sound alike, and the sameness of the material makes it hard for the listener to sustain a high level of interest.
The disc also includes three organ pieces written in Brahms’s youth: a fugue, and two preludes and fugues. These works are more overtly dramatic than the chorale preludes, but they nonetheless are of minor interest except to organ scholars or Brahms scholars. Both versions of the fugue and both versions of “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid”, one of the eleven chorale preludes, are included on the disc.
It is odd that Brahms, who spent his entire life studying (and editing) the works of Bach, was not a more effective writer for organ. I doubt that Josh and I will return to this repertory very soon.
Brahms’s organ music was all written with the great Baroque church of Saint Michaelis, in his native Hamburg, in mind. In his youth, Brahms had contemplated a career as an organist, and Saint Michaelis was the primary church of Brahms’s youth.
When we were in Hamburg a year ago, we had visited the magnificent Saint Michaelis four times. Its interior is grand and stately, although restrained compared to Baroque church interiors in Rome and Munich. The interior is completely white.
For our first visit, we had explored the interior and exterior of the church, and afterward we had attended the daily Noon organ recital, at which all three organs were played for five minutes each. As we learned, that daily event also involved prayers and psalms and readings between organ pieces, and it turned out to be a lovely thirty-minute midday service, one of the most pleasant surprises of our trip to Hamburg. The church was almost full that day—and it was full, not with tourists, but with local Hamburgers, which suggested that people living and working in the immediate area often attend the midday event. One of the organ pieces played that day was one of the Brahms chorale preludes.
For our second visit, on a Saturday night, we heard a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem, performed in the actual church for which the work was written and in which it was premiered. The performance was by a fully-professional orchestra and chorus, and it was a very moving experience for us, as we sat in the sacred space and listened to the Requiem in the brilliantly-illuminated church. Apparently a late November performance of the Brahms Requiem at Saint Michaelis is an annual Hamburg event. There will be a performance this year on Saturday, November 24. The baritone soloist will be Matthias Goerne. I wish we could attend.
For our third visit, we attended Sunday morning service, into which was incorporated a performance of a Bach cantata.
For our final visit, we visited the church museum and the enormous church crypt, which runs the full length and breadth of the church structure, after which we took the elevator to the top of the church spire. It was a dark and rainy and windy day, and it was almost frightening for all of us to stand on the highest platform, as the wind whipped us around the open space, forcing us to hold onto iron bars protruding from the spire. It was cold, and wet, and we were freezing, and we did not stay on the platform very long, even though the views over Hamburg were breathtaking. We would like to go back some day and enjoy the view again, but on a sunny and pleasant day. What I remember most about that view was how enormous—and unpleasant—was the nearby World War II flak tower, too impregnable to blow up after the war, too ugly to ignore and too sinister to admire.
Josh and I chose the Sibelius and Nielsen discs because we had not listened to any Scandinavian music for almost a year.
The Colin Davis disc of Sibelius symphonies is impressive, at least in part.
The performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 3 is extremely fine, one of the finest performances of the work on disc. This is the symphony in which Sibelius broke away from the late-romantic symphonic model derived from Tchaikovsky, and it is a work of startling originality. Sibelius virtually reinvented symphonic form in this work and, exactly 100 years after its premiere, the Symphony No. 3 remains a work of astonishing invention and freshness. It was with the Third Symphony that Sibelius declared an end to the 19th Century, both in terms of symphonic form and in terms of abandonment of overt romantic content.
The performance of the more popular Fifth Symphony is not so fine. Davis does not build the first movement well—it lacks inevitability, and a steady buildup of tension, and a perfectly-timed climax, and a proper release of tension that leads inexorably to the second movement. Further, Davis loses control of the symphony halfway through its closing movement—the musicians lose the pulse of the music, and the pauses between the final chords seem contrived and unfelt, and the symphony does not reach a satisfying conclusion so much as simply come to a clumsy end. It is a very unsatisfying performance of a work that, admittedly, is very hard to bring off.
Major musicologists have devoted entire careers arguing over the structure of this magnificent work, without consensus, and major Sibelius conductors have offered vastly different views of this work over the years.
Unlike Leonard Bernstein or Herbert Von Karajan or Eugene Ormandy, each of whom somehow managed to arrive at a coherent personal view of this work, Colin Davis has always seemed to grapple with this score, searching in vain for his own personal vision of the music. The Fifth Symphony has always been the weak length in Colin Davis Sibelius cycles, and it is possible that this work will always elude him, as it has eluded so very many other conductors over the years. Early this year, Josh and I heard Osmo Vanska conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in this work, and Vanska offered a similarly-problematic performance of this symphony, with many of the same weaknesses present in the Davis reading.
The Nielsen disc contains performances of the “Maskarade” Overture, the Clarinet Concerto and the Symphony No. 3 (“Espansiva”). Olle Schill is the soloist in the concerto, and Pia Raanoja and Knut Skram are the vocalists in the symphony.
This is one of the great Nielsen discs in the catalog. Chung is a great Nielsen conductor, and this is one of those lucky recordings in which everything came together beautifully during the recording sessions.
Chung’s Symphony No. 3 is as good as any on disc. It may be the highlight of his (unfinished) Nielsen cycle. It has momentum and expression in equal measure. The Clarinet Concerto is Nielsen’s most interesting and most original concerto, and this is probably its finest performance on disc. The “Maskarade” Overture receives a thrilling performance, putting to shame its competition on disc.
The playing of the Gothenburg Symphony is excellent throughout. Since the stewardship of Wilhelm Stenhammar early in the 20th Century, the Gothenburg Symphony has been Sweden’s finest orchestra and, until the rise of the Oslo Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons, it was Scandinavia’s finest orchestra, too. Chung’s guest appearances in Gothenburg in the 1980’s were always viewed as a high point in the orchestra’s history, and his Nielsen discs with the orchestra amply confirm this.
The sound on this disc is extraordinary, probably because of the recording locale. The Gothenburg Concert Hall, despite its very peculiar shape, is one of the acoustic wonders of the world, on a par with if not superior to Vienna’s Musikverein and Boston’s Symphony Hall. The sound on this disc is almost miraculous—clear, resonant, rich, luxurious. It is as fine as any orchestral recording ever made.