Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Joshua and I have kept four discs in our player since the middle of February, a mark of how busy we have been over the last several weeks and how little we have listened to music.

Further, we liked the four discs very, very much—for once, we chose well—and we gave each disc many, many listens. It was a splendid listening program.

Haydn’s Symphonies Numbers 6, 7 and 8, performed by The Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, on the Hyperion label

Schubert’s Complete Incidental Music to “Rosamunde”, performed by Elly Ameling, the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur, on the Philips label

Brahms’s Sonatas For Violin And Piano, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Alexis Weissenberg, on the EMI label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by William Blount and the Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s under Dennis Russell Davies, on the MusicMasters label

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Le Matin”, “Le Midi” and “Le Soir” Symphonies were the first symphonies Haydn composed for the Esterhazy Court. They are the earliest of Haydn’s symphonies to be performed with any regularity.

Haydn is believed to have been inspired, in writing the symphonies, by Vivaldi’s concertos known as “The Four Seasons”, a copy of which was in the Esterhazy library and studied by Haydn. Symphonies 6, 7 and 8 were composed and first performed in 1761.

These are captivating works, known by everyone, and The Hanover Band recording is very fine. Goodman conducts from the harpsichord.

There are many, many fine recordings of these works, staples of the gramophone since the advent of the LP, but I doubt that this recording need take a back seat to any other. The recording was made in 1991.

Goodman is an underrated conductor. He is almost unknown in the U.S. Even in Britain, his profile lags those of John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and Trevor Pinnock, Goodman’s contemporaries who have also made their names in the original-instrument field. Goodman is in no way inferior to his well-known colleagues. Indeed, he is demonstrably superior to a couple of names on that list.

Goodman is the only conductor from that group whom I have never heard in concert. His U.S. appearances have been infrequent and I have never managed to hear him in London.

Goodman now works on the continent, mostly with modern-instrument ensembles. His discography is very distinguished. He may be the most talented of the British original-instrument bunch.

Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde” is a treasurable work. Schubert wrote the score in 1823—incidental music for a long-forgotten play—and it is one of his most appealing creations.

Four orchestral numbers from “Rosamunde” are known to regular concert-goers, but the complete score is very seldom performed. The complete score is known almost exclusively through recordings, of which this Masur recording is one of the finest.

The score consists of an overture (borrowed from “Zauberharfe”) and ten numbers. Three of the numbers are for chorus and orchestra. A single number is for soprano and orchestra. The remaining seven numbers are for orchestra alone.

The Masur recording is very fine.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra of 1984 (the year this recording was made) was a very cultured orchestra. The string playing was very light—no leaning on strings, no excess vibrato, no impenetrable “wall of sound”—and very articulate and very subtle.

The strings played like an Old World chamber ensemble—attacks, phrasings, balances: all were immaculate—and yet this perfection was not accomplished through a conductor’s whiplash tactics. It was all effortlessly natural, ingrained into the musicians over years, even generations, of working within the traditions of a noble and distinguished academy of musicians.

To this lightness of string sound was added a dark coloration, creating a string sound of the most remarkable distinction, beauty and grace. No other orchestra’s string section ever sounded like the string section of the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

The winds, too, were distinctive. The winds featured a dark, reedy coloration, especially the tangy oboes and the vibrato-laden flutes (the flutes actually sound like wooden flutes in many of the orchestra’s recordings from the 1970’s and 1980’s).

The wind ensemble’s playing was very understated, emerging from the orchestral fabric very subtly, making its presence known primarily through timbre and color rather than through highlighting or sheer volume.

The brass sound of the old Gewandhaus was unique (and not to all tastes). The brass had a very tight, focused sound, lacking roundness, brilliance and richness. This was especially true of the trumpet section, which would sound timid, even constricted, in an American orchestral setting.

Today’s Leipzig Gewandhaus maintains some of its former qualities—the light string articulation is still miraculous—but the orchestra is beginning to sound more and more like any other international ensemble. The brass is now more assertive, the winds more prominent, and the strings offer a greater mass of sound consistent with the orchestra’s counterparts in Berlin and Dresden. The orchestra, nevertheless, remains one of the most interesting orchestras anywhere.

The Leipzig’s “Rosamunde” recording is magnificent. The orchestra has the perfect sound for Schubert, and the playing is idiomatic and elegant. Most orchestras have lost the capability of playing Schubert, but Leipzig in 1984 had the sound and style for Schubert in its bones.

Much of the success of the recording must be credited to Masur, a very fine conductor in Central European repertory.

I have always believed that Masur was at his best in the music of the Early Romantics—Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann—and this “Rosamunde” recording reaffirms that belief. His is a very stylish and emotionally-complete performance. He never overplays rhetoric or sentiment, but his performance is nevertheless deeply-felt, full of the necessary innigkeit. My recollection is that the competing “Rosamunde” recording under Claudio Abbado, by comparison, is precious, even finicky, and ultimately lacks Masur’s gravitas and warmth. However, I acknowledge I have never listened to the two recordings side-by-side for purposes of comparing them.

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 1982 EMI traversal of the Johannes Brahms violin sonatas remains her only integral recording of these works. I am somewhat surprised she has not re-recorded the sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon (there may be new recordings “in the can”, awaiting release, since Mutter and her current pianist performed the three sonatas in recitals all over Europe in 2006).

On Mutter’s personal website, she omits this particular Brahms disc from her discography altogether, despite the fact that it is still in print and very highly regarded. It is the only one of Mutter’s many recordings not referenced on her website—and I know this cannot be unintentional on her part.

Mutter was only 19 years old when this recording was made, but no allowances need be made for youth. Mutter is an instinctive and great Brahms player—and she was a great Brahms player at age nineteen.

The pianist on the EMI recording was Alexis Weissenberg. This was Mutter’s only recording with Weissenberg and I wonder whether she was dissatisfied with Weissenberg’s work and whether this accounts for her omission of this disc in her online discography.

The performances are very good, among the finest versions ever recorded. Myself, I wish Mutter had waited five years before recording these works, because her playing is somewhat less personal than it would become just a few years later. However, no one can fault these performances. They probably will remain in the active catalog forever.

Brahms waited until he was 46 years old before he published his first violin sonata in 1879. He had written several works for violin and piano while in his twenties, but he had destroyed those works—even though Robert Schumann had described them as works of utter genius.

Two more sonatas were to follow over the next decade, each more focused than the last, each with ideas more natural than the preceding sonata.

Brahms had long since passed his prolix stage in chamber music by the time he wrote these works. They have much more in common with the late Clarinet Sonatas, Opus 120, than with such early chamber works as the Piano Quartet Number 1 In G Minor, Opus 25, or even the Cello Sonata Number 1 In E Minor, Opus 38. They are spare, ultra-refined works, free of a single superfluous note.

Josh and I brought several Brahms discs to Boston—we brought more Brahms music than music of any other composer—because Brahms is my favorite composer and because Josh wants to learn more of the Brahms work list.

We also brought several Aaron Copland discs to Boston, because Josh likes the music of Copland very much.

Copland was probably America’s finest composer of art music—truly, does he have any competition?—and everything he wrote had a very high finish.

The knock against Copland’s work is that all his music sounds alike and that he wrote within a very narrow emotional range. This very well may be true, but the very same criticism may be leveled against the music of Maurice Ravel (whose music also had a very high finish).

The MusicMasters disc contains four works: Music For The Theater (1925); Quiet City (1940); Music For The Movies (1942); and the Clarinet Concerto (1949).

Recorded in 1988, this is one of the best Copland discs in the catalog.

It is obvious that the performances were all very carefully prepared. Dennis Russell Davies elicits very clean playing from the chamber-size forces—which never sound underpowered—and he obtains robust performances full of character and expression. Nevertheless, these are “anti-Bernstein” readings: simple, direct, free from hyper-activity and salesmanship.

Nothing is jazzed up to excess. Musical argument is not subjected to hothouse treatment. There is no milking of sentiment. Rhythms are clean and bracing, not overstressed and overstretched. The music is allowed to speak for itself.

Davies probably conducts the music of Copland better than he conducts any other music. His Copland discs are the highlight of his discography, and this surely is one of the finest of his several Copland recordings (some of which date back to his Saint Paul days).

I do not believe this disc is widely-known, probably because the short-lived MusicMasters label never enjoyed wide distribution. Happily, these performances were reissued in the U.S. and the U.K. last year on the Nimbus label.

I hope they enjoy a renewed life.

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