Friday, January 16, 2009


Since we returned from the holidays, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs on the odd occasion, discs specifically selected—by me—to get Josh through his exam period.

There was a rationale for each one of my selections, but I am not confident that I chose well. The Vivaldi was selected because of its objectivity. The Beethoven was selected for its nobility but also for its lack of extreme passion and intensity—for Beethoven, at least. The Brahms was selected for its grave, dignified beauty. The Lehar was selected for its beguiling tunes and bittersweet charm.

The listening program was not a great one, but at least I do not think I caused Josh any damage!

The four discs appear below.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performed by Simon Standage and The English Concert under Trevor Pinnock, on the Vanguard label

Beethoven’s “Leonore Prohaska” and Overture And Complete Incidental Music To “The Consecration Of The House”, performed by Sylvia McNair, Bryn Terfel, Karoline Eichhorn, Bruno Ganz, the Berlin Radio Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Brahms’s Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet, performed by Jozsef Balogh, Jeno Jando, Csaba Onczay and the Danubius Quartet, on the Naxos label

Lehar’s operetta, “The Land Of Smiles”, performed by Nancy Gustafson, Naomi Itami, Jerry Hadley, Lynton Atkinson, the London Voices and the English Chamber Orchestra under Richard Bonynge, on the Telarc label

This particular recording of The Four Seasons was the earlier of two recordings made by these same forces. Originally recorded by CRD in 1976, it was issued in the United States on the Vanguard label and lasted in the active domestic catalog for several years. I believe the recording remains in print only in Great Britain, now packaged with other Vivaldi material as part of a multi-disc set on the CRD label.

Standage, The English Concert and Pinnock re-recorded The Four Seasons in 1982 for the Archiv label, a recording still in print in the U.S. and the U.K. The latter recording has been one of Archiv’s biggest commercial successes over the last quarter century.

The 1976 performance is very good. Tempos are brisk, the playing is clean, the musicians bring lots of freshness and lots of energy to the material, and Standage’s fiddling is almost dazzling.

Nonetheless, Standage lacks the very last ounce of virtuosity, which must be taken for granted in The Four Seasons if the music is to offer the highest degree of pleasure. Further, his tone is not particularly sweet, and it offers too little color and too little light and shade in the middle movements of each concerto. There is nothing Italianate about his performance, and little understanding of arioso.

In essence, these performances are clean, tidy and correct—and very, very English, too tied to the notes on the printed page. They lack deep imagination, deep musicality and the necessary Latin sense of pleasure and song.

This recording has been superseded by more recent original-instrument recordings, including several by the newest generation of original-instrument ensembles from Italy.

Nonetheless, this disc gave Josh and me much pleasure. Vivaldi’s tunes are sprightly and infectious, and this music has great freshness if listened to only at rare intervals.

The Beethoven recording contains two sets of incidental music written for long-forgotten plays.

“Leonore Prohaska” was written in 1815 for a play of the same title. Beethoven wrote only four numbers of incidental music for the play: an unaccompanied Men’s Chorus; a Romance for soprano and harp; a Melodrama for female reciter and flute (the instrument was originally the glass harmonica); and a Funeral March for full orchestra, adapted from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12.

“Leonore Prohaska” is very seldom performed today, largely because of the demands it places upon programming. Engaging a men’s chorus, a soprano, a reciter and a full orchestra for a fifteen-minute composition is very expensive, and not often practical (especially since the orchestra itself is only called upon to play for some four-to-five minutes).

It is a beautiful composition, ideally suited for disc, and the Abbado performance is very fine. I do not like Sylvia McNair—her voice has the breathiness of a pop singer—but she did not spoil my enjoyment of the music. This brief score should be much better-known.

Beethoven’s music for “The Consecration Of The House”, from 1822, is an entirely different matter, a work on a grand scale, encompassing a wide range of emotion, with much of the drama associated with Beethoven’s greatest absolute music. The score is comprised of the popular Overture and ten additional numbers, some quite extended; and calls for soprano, baritone, male reciter, full chorus and full orchestra. In the Abbado recording, the performance lasts 51 minutes.

Beethoven adapted much of his “Consecration Of The House” score from incidental music he had composed a decade earlier for “The Ruins Of Athens”. In fact, both play and score for “The Consecration Of The House” were revisions of that earlier work, substantially altered and retitled for its Vienna premier.

I think this is a major score, and I am surprised it is not more widely-known. As a stand-alone composition, it succeeds, and succeeds fully—even the final number, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, provides a fitting culmination for the work.

Aside from its famous Overture, “The Consecration Of The House” is very seldom programmed and, once again, this may be due to the expense of hiring two vocalists, a reciter, and full chorus and orchestra for a little-known work. Despite the expense, enterprising orchestras should substitute this work, on occasion, for one of their many performances of Beethoven symphonies. It would be an assured success with audiences.

The Abbado performance, to my ears, is faultless. The Berlin Philharmonic plays beautifully, projecting a noble, dark, translucent, even glamorous sound, ideal for Beethoven. The chorus is good, and so is Terfel. Bruno Ganz handles the recitation duties in “Consecration”, adding a touch of star quality to the proceedings, and McNair’s contributions are limited to only a few minutes.

This is an excellent disc, and should be far more widely-known. It is Abbado’s finest Beethoven disc with the Berlin Philharmonic, and one of those discs practically all listeners would enjoy if they knew it.

The sound quality is slightly disappointing. Recorded in live performance at the Philharmonie, the sound lacks the presence, richness and definition of a studio recording.

Brahms’s Trio For Piano, Clarinet And Cello and his Clarinet Quintet were both written in 1891, two of four late-Brahms works he wrote for clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra. Both works immediately entered the active chamber music repertory, and have been staples of clarinetists and concert presenters ever since.

The Hungarian performances on Naxos are entirely unobjectionable. They are serious, capable, even admirable performances.

However, I did not find the performances to be particularly interesting, let alone engrossing. The performances are more dutiful than deeply-considered, too objective, even indifferent, to display the unique, incomparable genius of late Brahms. These are nothing more than “basic” performances, recorded to fill a catalog gap for a “basic” record label.

I have a great fondness for Viennese operetta. The bittersweet melancholy inherent in the Viennese variety of the genre is primarily what appeals to me, I believe. Many of these works I find to be irresistible.

The stage works of Franz Lehar and Emmerich Kalman (the greatest of all masters of the Viennese stage, and the most exalted rulers of its special musical idiom—although both were Hungarian) have a musical sophistication lacking in the operettas of other Central European composers. The command of harmony, rhythm, dance forms and orchestration demonstrated by Lehar and Kalman, allied to their inexhaustible flow of near-unforgettable melody and their deep understanding of the requirements of the stage, places their theater works in the realm of high art, worthy of comparison to the very greatest works of the lyric stage.

Lehar’s “The Land Of Smiles”, which reached its final form in 1929, is probably not the ideal place to start an exploration of the world of Viennese operetta, but it was Josh’s introduction to the genre via the Telarc recording.

I chose this recording primarily because it was a single-disc version of the opera, and in English.

The Telarc recording contains only 79 minutes of music, and is painfully akin to a highlights disc. The principal numbers are represented, but there are numerous omissions—and not just cut verses and reprises. The classic EMI recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf contains more music, but it is not complete, either. Only the CPO recording, with 154 minutes of music, contains the complete score. The CPO recording presents, uncut, all of Lehar’s numbers, including the ballet music, the Chinese marches and processional music, and the extended finales for all three acts.

“The Land Of Smiles” is a charming, even enchanting, score, and is surely one of Lehar’s two or three finest efforts. The music is much more sophisticated than Lehar’s most popular work, “The Merry Widow”, his first great success, but a work crude in its musical construction compared to the many works that would follow one and two decades later.

“The Land Of Smiles”, a mainstay of the operetta repertory in Central Europe, has never been a great success in English-speaking countries, and its lack of popularity is puzzling. Its story is no more ridiculous than the plot of “The Merry Widow” and, like most operettas, it observes the typical conventions of the genre: a romantic lead couple and a subsidiary comedy couple, both concerned with thwarted love of one variety or another while placed in exotic locales and contrived circumstances. “The Land Of Smiles” even contains one of Lehar’s most famous songs, “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz”, whose tune literally everyone in the world recognizes although most may not be able to place it.

The Telarc recording truly does not make a good case for the merits of the work.

First, the recording uses an English translation, and it is a pretty gruesome one.

Second, the numbers are so cut and trimmed that the mangling strips the work of all musical and dramatic development, coherence and richness.

Third, this is hardly an echt-Viennese reading of the score. The musicians—singers, chorus, orchestra, conductor—are all American, Australian or British, and they do not have a drop of Viennese sensibility in their blood. As a result, much of the score sounds like American show music of the 1920’s, lavishly harmonized and orchestrated.

The end result is a pleasant sequence of beguiling tunes, blandly sung and blandly played. It does not amount to much—and it hardly begins to reveal the genius of one of Lehar’s greatest works.


  1. Viennese operetta has had a hard go of it in the US for just the reasons you list. Fledermaus (of which I am thoroughly sick in the various adaptations and tacky productions it's usually subjected to) and Merry Widow are the two most frequently done in the US; neither is generally done with a shred of sly subtlety, style or sophistication.

    I understand Lehar's Giuditta is perhaps his best work in many ways, an almost-opera and very beautiful. Do you know it and, if so, what do you think of it?

  2. I don't have any of these. None of them sound very interesting.

    I have the Beethoven on an old set recorded by your hometown orchestra for Vox. It was a two-disc set with all the Beethoven incidental music. I don't remember it being memorable. I also don't remember "Consecration" being memorable. I haven't listened to the set in years.

    Old-timers in Philadelphia still talk about Abbado's appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the 70's. They say his concerts here were the highlights of the decade. As soon as Muti took over from Ormandy, Abbado was never asked back.

    Abbado should have got the Boston job that went to Ozawa. He should have got the Philadelphia job that went to Muti. He should have got the Chicago job that went to Barenboim.

    It's no wonder Abbado has refused to conduct American orchestras since the 80's. It's our loss, not his.

    What are you hearing about Jurowski?

  3. If ONLY Abbado had gotten Boston instead of Ozawa! We went through decades of mediocrity with that man.

  4. Andrew, did you know that Cleveland-based Telarc has been sold? The collapse of Tower Records a while back forced Telarc to sell itself for a song. Tower was Telarc's biggest customer. The death of Tower was also the death of Telarc.

    I used to buy Telarc issues out of a sense of loyalty. I bought the Gilbert and Sullivan series under Mackerras and the Lehar series under Bonynge. I listened to them once and gave them away. They were examples of recording that should not have been made.

    The Cleveland Orchestra is having an exceptional season. Not one of the concerts has been disappointing. The orchestra will end the season with a concert performance of "Figaro". I can't wait to hear the orchestra play "Figaro".

    I enjoyed reading about the Boston Symphony concert, the one in which the Russian conductor walked out. I had to laugh when I read that.

    Hoping you boys are making it through your year in fine shape.


  5. I know the score of “Giudetta”, William, but I have never seen a stage production. I don’t even recall it being on the bill at the Vienna Volksoper or at Munich’s Gartnerplatz Theater over the last eight or nine years.

    A couple of years ago, I read somewhere that “Giudetta” has never received a professional U.S. production, which I find very hard to believe. Surely Ohio Light Opera, if no one else, has offered a production?

    No, I do not think that “Giudetta” is Lehar’s finest score. For one thing, the score lacks variety—each of the five scenes is more or less the same, and each musical number has the same world-wearying tone. Much of the score is nothing more than a series of nightclub numbers—much of the story takes place in nightclubs, after all—and the most celebrated number (“Meine Lippen . . .”) is by far the best thing in the work.

  6. I have heard nothing new about Philadelphia, Dan. The last I heard, Jurowski was still on Philadelphia’s short list, but the orchestra is not enthusiastic about him and hopes it can attract a better candidate.

  7. Yes, Robert, I was aware that Telarc had been sold. I have no idea what the sale signifies for the future of the company. Telarc has had a couple of recent releases, but the releases may have been planned prior to the sale. The most recent release, I believe, is a Brahms Requiem with Atlanta/Spano, which I am told is frightening.

  8. Andrew, thank for the info on Giuditta. My enthusiastic informant was a musician whose opinions I generally trusted--your opinion seems to be 180 degrees in opposition.

  9. I’m not a musicologist, William, and “Giudetta”, undeniably, has a beautiful score. It is almost a chamber piece for four characters—albeit a chamber piece calling for a very large orchestra—and was written to be performed, without intermission, in five continuous scenes. However, I suspect an intermission has probably been scheduled during much of its performance history.

    Scholars—what few scholars there are in the field—generally seem to speak most highly of “Paganini” and “Czarevich” among Lehar’s works.

    After the Vienna State Opera premiered “Giudetta” in 1934, opening its doors to operetta for the first time, it not long after offered a new staging of “The Land Of Smiles”, too. “The Land Of Smiles” proved to be very popular with Staatsoper audiences and remained in the company’s repertory until June 30, 1944—and we all know what happened on that day.

    After the war, the works of Lehar were consigned to the Volksoper. The Volksoper has kept “The Land Of Smiles” in continuous repertory since 1956, which is true of no other Lehar operetta, and has gone through four or five productions of the work over the last half-century. The current Volksoper production of “The Land Of Smiles” is dazzling, and a real charmer, too, although the comedy duet from Act III, “Zig Zag”, is unaccountably cut.

    Believe it or not, there have been two long-running productions of “The Land Of Smiles” in Paris, the most recent in the 1970’s. I find that rather surprising.