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.