Wednesday, November 12, 2008


For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs of music that have given us some degree of pleasure, and provided us with a largely rewarding listening experience.

Bach Organ Music, performed by Daniel Chorzempa, on the Philips label

Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 100 and 103, performed by The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s under Charles Mackerras, on the Telarc label

Brahms’s Sonatas For Cello And Piano, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, on the RCA label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman, on the Argo label

Josh’s favorite composer is Bach, and we brought several Bach discs to Boston. We brought the Daniel Chorzempa disc because it contains so many of Bach’s very greatest compositions for organ: BWV 532, 543, 552, 565 and 582.

Four of the five works on this disc come from Chorzempa’s very first Philips recording, made in 1970 on the organ of Grote Kerk in Breda in The Netherlands. The fifth work on the disc, BWV 552, the great “Saint Anne” Prelude And Fugue, one of Bach’s most magnificent creations, comes from a 1982 Philips issue, recorded on the organ of Bovenkerk in Kampen in The Netherlands.

These are fine performances, beautifully recorded. The disc is magnificent because the music is magnificent.

Chorzempa is a scholarly musician more than he is a performing artist, and his interpretations tend more toward the correct than the sublime. Nevertheless, his work gives much pleasure.

This particular disc is from the Philips Concert Classics line issued during the 1990’s. That series was long ago discontinued, and Chorzempa’s Bach performances are available now only in a multi-disc set.

Chorzempa is mostly unknown today, but he was a major recording artist in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He still continues to teach and play. His most recent series of recitals, a couple of weeks ago, was in Spain.

Chorzempa was born and raised in Minneapolis. He is the son of émigrés from Austria, who fled Central Europe in the 1930’s. He studied at the University Of Minnesota for many years, and he has varied interests—he obtained advanced degrees in music, architecture and history while studying at the University Of Minnesota.

Since his mid-20’s, Chorzempa has lived in Europe, spending most of his time in Germany and Austria. His visits to the U.S. are now infrequent. I would like to hear him in person one day.

The disc of Haydn symphonies, issued in 1991, is one of three Haydn symphony discs Charles Mackerras recorded for Telarc with The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s before the project was discontinued.

It is easy to understand why this project was short-lived. These performances are not very good.

First, the orchestra is not very good. Although the musicians are fully professional, The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s is not an orchestra that plays together fulltime under an array of top-flight conductors. It remains, resolutely, a pickup ensemble, and the tip-off, as always, is the generic nature of the sound and the stiff, impersonal phrasing. The musicians strive for correctness, nothing more, and this is because they have never had the time and opportunity to proceed beyond correctness.

Second, the conductor is not very good. Unlike Thomas Beecham or George Szell or Colin Davis, Mackerras has never been a satisfactory Haydn conductor. His Haydn is neat and brisk, but devoid of the imagination and wit and personality necessary to bring Haydn’s music fully to life.

There is a large assortment of failures in Mackerras’s Haydn. For a start, the introductions account for nothing. There is no sense of anticipation or event in Mackerras’s introductions—his introductions are simple warm-ups, nothing more. First and last movements never reach any genuine climax or culmination or resolution—instead, the movements merely end. Slow movements lack expression and emotion and gravitas. The Allegretto of the “Military” Symphony and the Andante of the “Drumroll” Symphony, in Mackerras’s hands, are mere contrasting episodes rather than the emotional cores of the respective works. The Menuets are bizarrely fast, laughably so, played so quickly that no one—conductor or musicians—even makes the attempt to phrase.

Finally, there is no grandeur in these performances. These are among Haydn’s last and very greatest symphonies, each containing a world of drama and imagination, but one would never know it from these performances.

Never have I heard such boring Haydn readings. I’m not surprised my father allowed Josh and me to borrow this disc.

The RCA disc of Brahms’s Sonatas For Cello And Piano, from 1984, was the earlier of the two versions of these works Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax recorded (the Sony remake appeared less than a decade later). These performances are note-perfect, serious and devoted to a fault, but totally lacking penetration and personality. Fundamentally, the music-making is dull as dust. The sound engineering is excellent, capturing a natural acoustic and a good balance between cello and piano.

The Copland disc is a lot of fun, and contains one great performance. We brought several Copland discs to Boston because Josh wanted to hear more Copland, and we both enjoyed this disc immensely.

The first work on the disc is the complete score to the Agnes DeMille ballet, “Rodeo”, and this performance is the one disappointment on the disc. The Baltimore Symphony plays the score beautifully, but the reading lacks the pizzazz Leonard Bernstein brought to “Four Dance Episodes”, the standard concert extracts from the complete score.

David Zinman’s tempi are a little slower than is customary in “Rodeo”, and he uses this to his advantage by highlighting many subtleties of scoring that other conductors pass over. This is the most sophisticated and detailed orchestral presentation and execution of the score on disc, by far—in fact, it puts the efforts of Bernstein, Eduardo Mata, Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas to shame. It comes at a price, however, because the energy level is low and the rhythms do not “snap” as they do in Bernstein’s hands.

The “Danzon Cubano” and “El Salon Mexico” that follow are one-idea pieces, fun but insubstantial. Both pieces may be accused of being exercises in orchestration. The performances here are very well-played. Once again, Zinman emphasizes interesting orchestral detail.

The great performance on this disc is the final work, the complete score to the Eugene Loring ballet, “Billy The Kid”. “Billy The Kid” is a great score, far finer and far richer than “Rodeo”. It may be finer even than “Appalachian Spring”.

The complete score contains almost twice as much music as the suite Copland fashioned for concert performance, and not a bar of the music is filler. This is a masterly score, musically and dramatically, and it has a far wider range of emotion than the standard suite.

Zinman does something in this score that no other conductor has managed to do: reveal it as a coherent, integrated musical composition rather than a loose sequence of cowboy tunes. He accomplishes this by playing up atmosphere and characterization, which makes the numerous transitions between episodes appear to be seamless.

Zinman’s is an amazingly sophisticated performance. Once again, his tempi are more leisurely than those of other conductors, but this allows him to invest the music with more drama and expression. For instance, the elegiac tone of the beginning and ending of the ballet is unusually powerful and deeply affecting. Zinman has more fun with the cowboy tunes than other conductors, but the serious episodes carry a potency and weight and concentration I never before thought to be contained in the score. For the first time, I thought Billy’s capture and death to be gripping and emotionally true. In other hands, including Bernstein’s, the music for Billy’s capture and death is not convincing—the music almost passes by as an afterthought as the listener waits for the next cowboy tune to emerge. Here, Billy’s capture and death are the heart of the score.

The playing of the Baltimore Symphony is superb. The musicians, unmistakably, were convinced by Zinman of the seriousness of this music. Their playing carries a commitment and fervor not often associated with Copland’s populist scores, too well-known and too often played to command musicians’s full attention and respect. Baltimore’s first-desk personnel offer the kind of imaginative work formerly associated with Boston and Philadelphia first-desk players under Charles Munch and Eugene Ormandy.

This disc is a fine tribute to the excellent state of the Baltimore Symphony during Zinman’s tenure with the orchestra. It is one of the orchestra’s, and one of Zinman’s, finest discs.

I am surprised this recording is not better known.


  1. Andrew,

    I am greatly intrigued by your review of the Copland/Argo recording. I have just ordered it from I have never heard the full ballet score to Billy the Kid, a fact that underlines my woeful ignorance of American music; and that is why I want this CD.

    All of your previous recommendations, by the way, have been proven spot-on, Andrew. As a result I must revise my previous half-baked critique of the late career of Lutoslawski: his Fourth is an indisputable masterpiece (I have listened to it about twenty times already).

    Thanks also for the nod in favor of the Previn/Telarc Walton First, which is now my favorite (I haven’t yet heard the RCA Previn). Ditto for the Shostakovitch Eleventh with the Philadelphia, which is at last definitely listenable – and most enjoyably so.

    I was able to hear Chorzempa a couple of times in Munich and in Augsburg, Germany. At the time in the seventies, there seemed to be a heated rift between fans of Chorzempa and Karl Richter. I liked both, but I admit that I prefered the more emotional approach of Richter - most of the time, at least. The music director of Barfussekirche in Augsburg, who was a former student of Richter, hated his teacher's playing. I remember feeling incredulous. Perhaps Herr Huber was transfering his discust over Richter's shameless womanizing over to Richter's powers in handling (church) organs.

    I think Richter was a cad, but I like his music making on the organ and as a conductor of the Munich Bach Choir and orchestra.

    (I will never forget seeing the newspaper headline in Munich in early 1981: "Star Dirigent Staub". That was a sad day for me.)


  2. Well, Dane, I hope you got the Argo Copland disc cheap! I don't believe it sold many copies, so apparently not everyone liked it.

    We brought one of Richter's Bach organ discs to Boston. It was one of four discs of Bach organ music we brought with us. We have not listened to it yet.

    Dane, I am pleased you liked the Lutoslawski Fourth Symphony. That is an utter masterpiece, and no one knows it.

    Months and months ago, I mentioned to Marcus Maroney (who also lives and works in Houston--and perhaps you even know him) that the Lutoslawski Fourth was better than the Lutoslawski Third. He told me I was wrong, but I was not wrong.

    I hope you are sincere about liking the Jansons recording of the Shostakovich Eleventh. In Jansons's hands, I found the work for the first time to be convincing.

    Have you heard either of Rostropovich's recordings of the Eleventh? They are often cited as the reference recordings, and both are wretched.


  3. Andrew,

    I haven't heard Rostropovich conduct any Shostakovich. The Jansons Eleventh is the ONLY recording of the Eleventh that I have EVER owned.

    (My Shoshtakovich collection is very poor: I have the First, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, two quartets, and "Die Nasa". I have never felt the need to acquire the more populist works, like the Fifth or that iritating piano concerto that he wrote, it seems, for no other reason than to force his son to practice his scales. As far as Soviet composers are concerned, my Prokofiev and Khachaturian collections are much more expansive.)

    Yes, I'm serious about liking that Jansons / EMI recording.


  4. I cannot stand either one of Shostakovich's Piano Concertos, although I do not object to his Violin Concertos or to his Cello Concertos.

    There are so many bad Shostakovich performances circulating out there that it is frightening.

    Dane, since you have lived in Russia, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about Volkov's "Testimony".

    I have read most of the arguments about the book, and I am neither pro- nor anti-Volkov. As the saying goes, I have no dog in that fight.

    However, the book struck me as having the ring of truth.

  5. Andrew,

    I read "Testimony" in about 1980, if I recall, before leaving for Moscow in 1983. I found the book very helpful in describing the way of life of Soviet citizens. After a few years in Moscow, I easily agreed that there was a great deal of truth in the book; however, I can say that most of the people I know in Russia today believe that Volkov faked the authorship.

    I myself don't know. Actually, the question whether Shoshtakovich actually dictated all or just some of the pages to Volkov bores me. I don't care, and I don't think it matters. (I don't care if Sholokhov, for instance, did NOT really write "Quiet Don", either: It's a great novel nonetheless, and like the Volkov question, the Sholokhov controversy will probably never be resolved to anyone's satisfaction.)

    I DO believe without question that Shostakovich harbored intense animosity toward the Soviet government.

    What informed person could blame him?

    There is plenty of documentation in our libraries of the truth of the Soviet Union. There is no excuse, therefore, for any American to blame Shostakovitch.

    To my outrage, Westerners have turned their hedonistic backs on the truths of the Soviet era. "Testimony" and other works like "The Alexander Dolgon Story" (now out of print) and Baron's "The KGB" - not to mention Solzhenitsyn's autobiography, "The Calf Butts the Oak" and Part One of the "Gulag Archipellago" - should all be required reading in every American high school.

    Nice dream, huh?

    (I become rather emotional when discussing anything Soviet, Andrew, so forgive me. I was so psychologically damaged after seven years that I had to undergo therapy for five years in New York. My doctor insisted that I write a memoir of my time there; and she insisted that I write it in Russian. And so, I did: "A Cotyledon Debridement" ("Semyadolenekrekhtomiya") was the result. I will NEVER translate it, however, nor will I ever even read it again. Perhaps some day, I will hand it over to someone else to translate it.)

    Again, my apologies for my outburst.


  6. I am ashamed to say, Dane, that I have read only one of the books you mention: the Baron.

  7. Andrew,

    Baron's first book alone is probably enough to give the reader a good idea of an unimaginable evil. You probably remember the story of the young man whom the KGB selected to plant in America as a mole. They stalked him for years before finally entrapping him one winter. He was pulling a sleigh filled with "stolen" biscuits.

    When collegues and family complain that I make too much of a past era, I remind them that history repeats itself.

    If I had to pick only one of those books, however, I would probably chose "The Alexander Dolgon Story," certainly the most horrifying memoir of any American that I have ever read. I relate to Dolgon because some of what he experienced I also experienced, even though Dolgon's sufferings occured forty years before mine.

    Solzhenitsyn dedicated a paragraph and a footnote to Dolgon in Volume II of the "Gulad Archipelago". Solzhenitsyn had never met a sane survivor of "Sukhanovka," which is located just outside Moscow. Sukhanovka was the most notorious prison in Soviet history. Many people in the West believe that this prison was shut down after Stalin's death. I can personally assure anyone that it most certainly was NOT. Dolgon survived eight years and eventually returned to the US. Many of Dolgon's psychological wreckage was similar to mine. For instance, he was unable to remember certain faces. He could only remember heads covered over as if with stockings.

    As a fitting testimony to the priorities of American readership, the "Alexander Dolgon Story" is now out of print. If you happen to run across a copy at a library or at a used book store I recommend that you nab it. It can change one's life.



  8. Andrew,

    Like an idiot, I mispelled the name of the protagonist: Alexander DolgUn. I haven't seen the book in 15 years. I donated it to a library in New York.

    Alexander Dolgun can be found on Wikipedia.


  9. Thanks, Dane, for the heads-up about Alexander Dolgun. Once again, I am ashamed to acknowledge that I was totally ignorant about him.

    I just finished reading an old TIME article about Dolgun.

    It is a miracle that he even survived his ordeal.

    I'll have to seek out his book.

    Thanks again.

  10. I've always thought Zinman an underappreciated conductor.

    The Haydn symphonies are an unending source of delight for me. Inventive, witty, and elegant. I wish the operas had the kind of profile the symphonies do.

  11. Andrew,

    I stumbled on your blog today and spent a fair amount of time reading it. I am a St. Paul lawyer who attended college in Northfield (you mentioned that your mother had) who loves classical music and has a blog, so I immediately felt that we were at about one degree of separation. It pleased me to think that there are people who are so passionate about classical music in Minnesota--though I know you have not left us.

    I greatly enjoyed your evisceration of Ronald Harwood's play and your analysis of the ideas of William Eddins. Nice slice and dice. I don't know if you write appellate briefs, but you should.

    By the way, you mentioned reading various WWII histories. You may very well have read it, but if you have not I would think that you would find the six-part Churchill WWII history quite interesting. Plus it contains one of the greatest sentences in historical writing: "Thus, then, on the night of the tenth of May [1940], at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs."

    Congratulations on your successful and interesting blog and greetings from Minnesota.

  12. Thank you, Vercingetorix, for your kind comments—-and greetings from Boston.

    Many years ago, I read the one-volume condensation of Churchill’s six-volume World War II history, which itself was almost 1100 pages. I read the condensation published in 1991—the one entitled “Memoirs Of The Second World War”. (I believe there have been others.) Since then, I have read “The Gathering Storm” and “Their Finest Hour”, but I have not yet read the final four volumes of Churchill’s grand project. It is an epic undertaking—-the six volumes involve almost 5000 pages of reading!

    I am familiar with the famous Churchill utterance you quote. I have always been dumbfounded that Britain’s voters threw Churchill out of office even before victory in the Pacific had been achieved. That was one of the stupidest election outcomes of all time.

    Thank you again for your comments.

    I miss the Twin Cities. Boston pales in comparison.