For the last couple of weeks and more, Joshua and I have kept the following six discs in our disc player. They have provided us with lots of pleasure and stimulation when we have been at home.
Handel’s “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”, performed by Jill Gomez, Robert Tear, the Choir Of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and the English Chamber Orchestra under Philip Ledger, on the ASV label
Beethoven Piano Sonatas, performed by Emil Gilels, on the Deutsche Grammophon label
Mendelssohn String Quartets, performed by the Aurora Quartet, on the Naxos label
Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph Dohnanyi, on the Decca label
Music of Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by Marie Luise Neunecker, Jacques Zoon, Heinz Holliger, the ASKO Ensemble and the Schoenberg Ensemble under Reinbert De Leeuw, on the Teldec label
The Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Crazy For You”, on the Angel label
Many Handel scholars view “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”—written not long after “Israel In Egypt”, perhaps Handel’s single greatest work—as prime Handel. I have never understood why the work is held in such high regard. Handel’s melodic invention in this 45-minute setting of John Dryden is uninspired, at least in comparison to “Israel In Egypt” and “Solomon”, and the work’s lack of overt drama, inherent in the text, precludes Handel from using his talents as a story-teller. “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day” has always been practically my least favorite Handel work, and I wanted to listen to it again to see what I had been missing during my previous exposures to the work.
After another half-dozen listens, I still dislike this work. To me, it remains uninspiring, and often dull. “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day” is one of those Handel works that listeners must wish that Bach had written instead. Bach was a far greater composer than Handel, and far more skilled at setting a contemplative text, such as the Dryden, to music. Bach would have invested the score with greater richness and depth, and a wider range of expression, and more variety of musical form than Handel manages.
Somewhere I read that Handel was recovering from a serious illness while writing the Dryden Ode. This would account for its lack of genuine Handelian inspiration. However, perhaps only a great performance can fully reveal the merits of the work.
The Ledger recording is certainly not a great performance. The performance does not move. Ledger does not do much with Handel’s rhythms. The performance is too dry, too inexpressive, too academic. During the entire 45 minutes of the work’s duration, I kept waiting for something to happen to give the performance some semblance of life, and it never occurred. This is a very disappointing disc.
The Choir Of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, performs at its customary high standard. The playing of the English Chamber Orchestra is clean and neat. Gomez and Tear do not make much of an impression, positively or negatively, although I admire their work on other discs and have never questioned their artistry.
Ledger is the artist who lets this recording down. Ledger was an effective conductor of shorter choral pieces, such as anthems, motets, and chorales. In larger-scale works, however, I believe he must have lacked the skills necessary to keep a larger-scale work moving, in focus, and directed toward its final conclusion. Neither individual, minute-by-minute detail is interesting in his work here nor is there any indication that Ledger has the sweep of the work within his grasp. The listener has no sense that Ledger is in command of the work’s overall structure or its individual components. This recording is a loss all the way around.
Joshua hated “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”. He thought it was one of the least interesting pieces of music he had ever encountered.
Josh, however, adored the Beethoven disc. The particular Beethoven disc we chose is one of my favorite Emil Gilels discs, taken from his Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven cycle, almost complete at the time of his death in 1985. The disc we chose contains the Sonatas Nos. 21, 23 and 26, the “Waldstein”, the “Appassionata” and the “Les Adieux” Sonatas, respectively.
I love middle-period Beethoven, and I especially love middle-period Beethoven piano sonatas. The “Waldstein” and “Les Adieux” are two of my favorite Beethoven piano sonatas, along with the “Tempest”.
This disc contains the finest “Waldstein” I have ever heard, along with one of the two or three finest “Les Adieux” performances I have ever encountered. The “Appassionata” is not quite on the same exalted level, but it is still pretty fine.
Gilels was a great Beethoven pianist, at least for those who respond to “objective” Beethoven, as opposed to those seeking a more individual, “personalized” approach. I have always preferred Gilels in Beethoven to Sviatoslav Richter. Gilels is saner, not so prone to extreme flights of fancy, and more strictly observant of classical proportion and classical restraint when playing Beethoven than was his great compatriot.
Gilels is also warmer than many other “objective” Beethoven pianists, such as Maurizio Pollini and Murray Perahia, and technically superior to such great Beethoven interpreters from the past as Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus, both of whom, in the final analysis, lacked Gilels’ stunning bravura. I admire Kempff and Backhaus in Beethoven enormously, but I also often sense in Kempff or Backhaus performances that their efforts were hampered by the fact that their virtuosity did not always suffice to realize fully their musical visions.
With Gilels, this is not a consideration. One never worries that he will smudge his runs, or be unable to handle rapid passagework, or lack the keyboard power and control necessary to perform Beethoven’s most dramatic and rhetorical pages and to summon from the instrument the sound he desires.
Gilels is well nigh a perfect Beethoven pianist, with just the right ingredients of virtuosity and intellect to bring these works fully to life. I wish I could have heard him in person.
My father heard Gilels once. He said it was the finest piano recital he ever attended.
My father was never especially a Gilels fan—my father has always worshipped at the altar of Wilhelm Kempff—but my father was dumbstruck when he heard Gilels in person. The program was not a flashy one—it was difficult, but not a program laid out solely to demonstrate Gilels’ blinding virtuosity (which Gilels possessed in abundance)—and it was not even a familiar one. The first half of the program was made up of lesser-played works by Schubert and Schumann. The second half of the program consisted of Scriabin and Ravel.
My father says that Gilels’ Schubert and Schumann were subtle but magical, and that Gilels produced a sound that was both brilliant and extremely warm (using a New York, not a Hamburg Steinway, no less). My father says that he almost left the recital at intermission, because he did not want to lose the sense of wonder he had experienced hearing the Schubert and Schumann. He was torn between not wanting the special magic to end, and wanting to hear Gilels continue to play.
It was fortunate that my father returned for the second half of the recital, because apparently Gilels’ Scriabin and Ravel were to die for. The audience was so rapt, listening to Gilels play half a dozen Scriabin pieces, that it did not even applaud during or at the conclusion of the Scriabin set. The audience held its breath after the Scriabin works, so Gilels simply began playing Ravel’s “Pavane For A Dead Princess”. At the conclusion of Ravel’s “Pavane”, the audience still was too enraptured to applaud, so Gilels immediately launched into “Alborado Del Gracioso”. Gilels blew the lid off the roof during the performance—it was a performance of such frightening intensity and control that it quite literally stunned the audience.
It was not until thirty seconds after the conclusion of the latter Ravel composition that Gilels finally stood, and only then did the audience erupt in an astonishing ovation, finally releasing the pent-up admiration, if not awe, that had been building the previous forty minutes.
My father said that Gilels did not play any encores that night. At the recital’s conclusion, Gilels merely stood motionless in the center of the stage, accepting the audience’s applause in a restrained, almost stiff manner, acknowledging the overwhelming reception with very slight smiles and the slightest of nods to the audience. Finally, after fifteen minutes of barely moving a muscle while looking out upon the crowd, Gilels placed his hand against his heart to show that he was moved, and he left the stage. According to my father, it was unforgettable.
On the Deutsche Grammophon disc, the sound Gilels draws from the piano is very warm and very rich, but also astonishingly clear. My father says that this is just how Gilels sounded in person, and that Deutsche Grammophon somehow succeeded in capturing Gilels’ unique sound. This is remarkable not only because the piano is notoriously difficult to record in a truthful and pleasing perspective, but also because this recording was taped at sessions in Moscow.
I wish I knew the Deutsche Grammophon secret to recording the piano. No other label has ever been able to record the piano in a satisfactory manner, but Deutsche Grammophon has done wonders with the stable of great pianists who have graced its label over the last half century: Kempff, Gilels, Michelangeli, Pollini all have been recorded with the greatest of care, their sound captured fully and accurately. Other labels must mike their pianists too closely, or record them in unsatisfactory acoustics, or record them with the wrong microphones. On the basis of pure sound, Deutsche Grammophon piano recordings from the 1960’s and 1970’s have never been surpassed.
Naxos recordings are not known for their excellent sound quality. Naxos recordings are known because they are cheap.
That must be the reason why I picked up the Naxos disc of Mendelssohn String Quartets some time ago. Aside from its low cost, there can be no other reason why anyone would possibly want to acquire this disc.
The disc contains three quartets: an unnumbered Quartet In E Flat from Mendelssohn’s youth, Quartet No. 1 In E Flat and Quartet No. 4 In E Minor.
The unnumbered quartet was written when Mendelssohn was only 14 years old. By the time he composed this work, Mendelssohn had already completed his twelve string symphonies. However, the youthful assurance of those glorious works does not appear in this early quartet effort. This is one of the least interesting Mendelssohn works I have ever heard. It is skilled, pleasant, and little more.
The Quartet No. 1 in the same key, from six years later, is a much finer work. It demonstrates, however, that Mendelssohn had not yet quite mastered the string quartet medium. The level of expression is “Beethoven Light” (Mendelssohn had studied the Beethoven quartets extensively) and the music is impersonal. There is in the music the unmistakable impression that Mendelssohn was going through the motions, not genuinely connecting with his material.
All of these shortcomings are things of the past by the time Mendelssohn, eight years later, began writing his set of Opus 44 Quartets, of which Number 4 is part. The Quartet No. 4 is a masterpiece of the genre, a fitting successor to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. It is as good a quartet as any ever written. Its form is masterful, its invention astonishing, its range of emotion wide, its command of the idiom complete
Mendelssohn’s string quartets are now securely in the active international repertory, but these works were virtually ignored for well over a century after they were written. Only in the early 1970’s did these quartets begin to be performed with some frequency, in large part owing to the advocacy of The Melos Quartet, whose recordings of these works are now generally credited with bringing these works back into the repertory. Today the Mendelssohn quartets are performed everywhere, and recorded by every quartet, and it is difficult for music lovers to comprehend that these remarkable scores had been lying dormant, sitting on dusty library shelves, for so many decades.
I think The Melos Quartet recordings of the Mendelssohn quartets are still the best means available for music lovers to learn to love these works. The Naxos recording, with the Aurora Quartet, most assuredly is not a preferred way to learn to appreciate these works. “Workmanlike” is the most generous description I can offer for these performances. They seem to emanate from a pickup ensemble, or from a part-time university group. The performances bear no relationship to performances offered by a master chamber ensemble that has worked together for years, plumbing the depths of the most profound works of the chamber literature.
The Aurora Quartet in question bears no relation to the current Aurora Quartet, a local quartet headquartered in the Twin Cities. The Aurora Quartet on the Naxos disc was a West Coast ensemble whose members came from the San Francisco Symphony. The old Aurora Quartet disbanded some time ago.
The Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 is, I have always believed, the finest recording Dohnanyi made in Cleveland. It is taken from Dohnanyi’s almost-complete Bruckner cycle, lacking only recordings of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2.
During his eighteen seasons in Cleveland, Dohnanyi recorded practically everything that was suitable for his talents, as well as music not suitable for his talents. The general perception among musicians is that Cleveland was under-recorded during the Dohnanyi years, but this perception is not accurate. The perception is founded, not upon the factual record, but upon the negligible impact Dohnanyi’s recordings made upon the musical public.
For the Decca, Erato, Nonesuch and Telarc labels, Dohnanyi recorded all or most symphonies (and much other music) by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler. He recorded Mozart. He recorded the first two operas of Wagner’s “Ring”. He recorded Busoni and Richard Strauss. He recorded Schoenberg and Berg and Webern. He recorded Berlioz and Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Janacek and Bartok and Martinu and Lutoslawski, and Edgard Varese and Charles Ives and John Adams. There was little he did not touch.
And yet the constant flow of Dohnanyi recordings from Cleveland made practically no impact upon the record-buying public, in the U.S. or in Europe. The best-selling Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs were the very first releases, the final three symphonies of Antonin Dvorak, recorded before Dohnanyi had even officially assumed his Cleveland position. Sales-wise, it was all down hill from there. After the first five years or so of releases, Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings seldom lasted in the catalog, often withdrawn within a year of release.
Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings simply could not be given away. Music lovers must have bought a few of the early Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs, and undoubtedly must have appreciated the magnificent level of playing of the orchestra and the state-of-the-art sound engineering. However, music lovers must also have been disappointed that the performances were so uninteresting, totally devoid of character and personality and drama. Music lovers stopped acquiring Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs very early in that partnership, and almost all of the Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs were withdrawn from the active catalog years and years ago.
The Bruckner Fifth recording, from 1991, is one of the few Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings that brings the music fully to life. There is an electricity in this performance, from the opening measures, that is unprecedented in a Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording. Not only does Dohnanyi hold the listener’s interest, he actually heightens it as the performance progresses.
The final movement is the stunner. Dohnanyi builds excitement from the first bar. When he arrives at the great fugue, Dohnanyi is literally on fire, and so is the orchestra. Not only is this the best-played fugue on disc, it is also the most exciting and the most satisfying. From the fugue’s entrance, the performance generates an overwhelming momentum and intensity that leave scorch marks all the way to the symphony’s conclusion. The final five minutes of this recording are nothing so much as one giant frisson.
I have not heard every single recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 ever issued, and I do not plan to, but this recording is the finest of those I have heard by a wide margin.
I HAVE heard every single Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording issued, however, and this is the finest of those recordings by far. Better than any other disc, it represents the legacy of Dohnanyi’s work with that extraordinary orchestra, at its highest level of inspiration and accomplishment.
Josh loved the final movement of Bruckner’s Fifth, and he played it over and over. In fact, Josh decided that it was more interesting to dispense with the first three movements altogether, and to proceed directly to the symphony’s finale. I can understand that.
As a general rule, Josh hates Bruckner. Josh only likes one Bruckner work wholeheartedly, and that is Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, which he knows from the legendary 1987 Herbert Von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the very, very greatest recordings ever made. That particular disc holds a very special place in our hearts for personal reasons. Other than that Bruckner disc, however, Josh can take or leave Bruckner. We chose to listen to the Symphony No. 5 solely in order to allow Josh to get to know another Bruckner work in a very fine recording.
The Decca recording uses the Leopold Novak 1951 edition of the score.
The Ligeti disc is Volume 4 of Teldec’s Ligeti retrospective, picked up from Sony after the composer, disgusted with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performances and recordings of his works, served notice to Sony that he would stop approving further releases of his compositions on that label until Salonen was replaced by a better conductor. This effectively forced the Ligeti project to switch labels, since Sony was committed to the project with Salonen, and Salonen alone.
Teldec stepped into the breach, happily, and the project proceeded to completion under more satisfactory conductors, with a total of thirteen volumes eventually released, all totaled, between the two labels, representing virtually the entirety of Ligeti’s oeuvre.
This disc contains the Hamburg Concerto, the Ramifications For Twelve Solo Strings and the Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra. (The disc also includes the Ligeti Requiem, but Josh and I only listened to the three purely orchestral works on the disc, skipping the Requiem completely. I had heard this disc many times before, and the recording of the Requiem, taken from a live performance under different artists, offers a distinctly sub-par performance—and a very poorly recorded one to boot.)
This is one of the prime Ligeti discs in the catalog, containing magnificent recordings of three of Ligeti’s finest and most appealing works.
The Hamburg Concerto is Ligeti’s final masterpiece. Its full title is “Hamburg Concerto For Horn, Chamber Orchestra And Four Obbligato Natural Horns” and it was written for Marie Luise Neunecker, the extraordinary horn virtuoso who is a native of Hamburg, the same city in which Ligeti settled after his escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Written in 1998, the Hamburg Concerto was revised by the composer in 2002, and it is the revised version, with seven movements, that is heard on this recording.
The Hamburg Concerto is a beautiful, strange and bewitching work. Its seven vignettes, almost miniatures, are intriguing and novel, evoking a wide range of sounds and moods and emotions. Ligeti plays the solo horn off the instrumental ensemble and the four obbligato horns very imaginatively. In this recording, it is very easy for the listener to distinguish between the solo horn and the four obbligato horns, which signifies that the composer has done his work exceptionally well—and that the sound engineers have done their work exceptionally well, too.
I am in awe of Neunecker’s playing on this recording. She, too, plays a natural horn, without valves, which makes it almost impossible for the player to find the pitches called for in the score. Somehow Neunecker does so, establishing beyond any doubt that she is not a mere mortal like the rest of us. It is incomprehensible, perhaps shameful, that every major American orchestra has not engaged her to introduce this beautiful work to American audiences.
Ramifications For Twelve Solo Strings, from 1969, is one of the few Ligeti compositions that IS given an occasional airing in the United States. Josh and I heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra present a magnificent performance of this work a year ago, and we were captivated by the work and by the performance. We were pleased to hear this work again on disc.
In Ramifications, the twelve strings are divided into two groups of six, tuned a quarter-tone apart. This gives the music an appealing other-worldly flavor, and makes for fascinating listening. This performance is a satisfactory one, but it is not nearly as good as the excellent performance we heard Roberto Abbado lead in Saint Paul last year. Abbado’s performance was more virtuosic, and more concentrated, and more expressive, than Reinbert De Leeuw’s performance on the Teldec disc. Further, the string players of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra played rings around the string players on the Teldec disc, drawn from the ASKO Ensemble and the Schoenberg Ensemble.
The Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra, from 1972, also relies upon microtones. It is one of Ligeti’s most successful and most immediately-appealing works, probably because the different timbres of the oboe and flute add to the mysterious and original sound world Ligeti created. The Double Concerto is a magnificent piece, and Josh and I played it over and over and over. It has a freshness and a joyousness and an impishness and an emotional resonance that are entirely atypical of most works of the 1960’s avant garde (to which this work belongs, if not by date, then by attitude). I think Jacques Zoon and Heinz Holliger are just about perfect in this recording.
Enterprising American orchestras should program these three works as the opening half of an orchestra concert. They would make an unforgettable impact upon an audience. The work for a small body of strings would be a perfect concert opener. The concertante work for flute and oboe, richer and with a wider spectrum of orchestral sounds, would be a logical successor to the string work. The concertante work for horn, richer still, would be an ebullient way to conclude half of a concert devoted to Ligeti’s unique sound world. Would not these three works, by a prominent Hungarian modernist composer from the second half of the Twentieth Century, be an ideal complement to a performance of Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra, an established masterpiece by a prominent Hungarian modernist composer from the first half of the Twentieth Century?
I have never seen the musical, “Crazy For You”, and neither has Josh. The reason Josh and I decided to listen to the original cast album for “Crazy For You” was because, in November, we had listened to the complete original Gershwin musical, “Lady, Be Good”, part of the Nonesuch Gershwin series using original orchestrations (and, where necessary, reconstructions faithful to the original style). We thought it would be fun, for contrast, to hear one of the modern musicals that have been assembled from different Gershwin scores, re-orchestrated and performed according to the current Broadway style.
“Crazy For You”, which opened on Broadway in 1992, was loosely based upon the original Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy”. It uses only five numbers from “Girl Crazy”, however, adding to them numerous other Gershwin numbers borrowed from other Gershwin shows and films.
As a listening experience for those who have never seen the show, the cast album succeeds, I think. The performances have lots of energy, and the modern arrangements do not destroy the material, or alter it beyond recognition. The disc provides enjoyable listening, and listeners may more or less follow the development of the story without burying their heads in the booklet’s plot synopsis.
Since Gershwin’s day, the way in which his stage music is performed has changed. Ballads and love songs are sung much more slowly today than during the composer’s lifetime, and up-tempo numbers are performed much more quickly today than in the 1920’s or 1930’s. To some extent, this sentimentalizes the ballads, and robs them of the emotional toughness that is written into the material. This also alters the tone and effect of the up-tempo numbers, replacing snap and élan and breeziness with commotion and breathlessness.
Of course, orchestrations have changed significantly since Gershwin’s day, too. The original orchestrations for “Lady, Be Good” came directly from the world of European operetta, and had more in common with the realm of Franz Lehar than the realm of Frank Loesser. The modern orchestrations on the “Crazy For You” disc, in comparison, are pure 1990’s show biz, and not particularly imaginative even by that standard.
It is, however, practically impossible to destroy a Gershwin number, unless the number was no good to begin with (and Gershwin, like all songwriters, wrote his share of duds). I do not think that Gershwin was America’s greatest songwriter—I believe that Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, at their best, were even finer than Gershwin—but good Gershwin numbers invariably “work”. Gershwin puts almost all other songwriters in the shade, even the King Of Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, whose songs, in comparison to Gershwin’s, are unimaginative and foursquare, if not outright churchy.
My parents attended a performance of “Crazy For You” a year or so into its New York run, and they said it was an enjoyable if not especially distinguished or memorable show. I echo that sentiment in assessing the “Crazy For You” original cast recording: the disc is enjoyable, if not especially distinguished or memorable.
It provided us with a fun listening experience, but the “Crazy For You” disc does not make me want to run out and see the show.
It was, however, a nice, sparkling exclamation point to wind up our primary listening sequence of Handel-Beethoven-Mendelssohn-Bruckner-Ligeti.