Saturday, June 13, 2009

Handel, Beethoven, Brahms And Dohnanyi, And Janacek And Hindemith

For the last month or more, Josh and I have kept four discs in our player. The discs made for a very fine listening program, especially during Josh’s exam period, because the music was weighted more toward “objectivity” than “profundity”. “Profound” music in large doses must be avoided during weeks devoted to intense study, or so I have always believed.

Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Opus 3, performed by Tafelmusik under Jeanne Lamon, on the Sony label

Beethoven Piano Trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio, on the Philips label

Chamber music of Dohnanyi and Brahms transcribed for String Orchestra, performed by the NES Orchestra under Dmitry Sitkovetsky, on the Nonesuch label

Orchestral music of Janacek and Hindemith, performed by the London Symphony under Claudio Abbado, on the Decca label

Handel’s first set of Concerti Grossi (Opus 3) is not an integral set of compositions in the same sense as the latter set (Opus 6). The six concerti gathered together as Opus 3 recycle material from a variety of earlier sources—operas, anthems, orchestral works—and may have been compiled more by the original publisher than by the composer.

Each concerto has a different instrumentation. Each concerto may be classified as devolved from various German, Italian and French models. Each concerto is of different length, with the number of movements varying between two and five. There is nothing unified about the cycle—it is a diverse set of individual concertante works, nothing more, and Handel probably never intended all six works to be performed as a group. (There are multiple editions of Opus 3; in some editions, a seventh concerto is included, whose movements probably were intended for one or more of the other six concerti.)

Although the concerti were first published in 1734, when the 49-year-old Handel enjoyed great popularity in London, much of the music was probably written a quarter-century or more earlier.

Opus 3 was a great hit with the British public at the time of its initial publication. Tuneful, vivacious and often exhilarating, Opus 3 has an infectious, ear-catching appeal that remains irresistible after almost 300 years. The enormous success of Opus 3 inspired Handel to go on to write his great set of Opus 6 concerti, valued by many as the composer’s very finest instrumental compositions.

The Tafelmusik recording of Opus 3, released in 1993, is very fine. The performances have great energy and focus, which make listening a pleasure.

Tempi are very fast. In fact, tempi are so fast that the listener never has time to question whether instrumental timbres are pleasing.

On modern instruments, I prefer more moderate tempi for these works, but on period instruments the Tafelmusik tempi succeed on their own terms.

This disc is highly regarded among Handel scholars, and I can fully understand why this is so. Josh and I listened to the disc many, many times, always with pleasure.

I have never heard Tafelmusik in concert. Either the Toronto-based group has never offered a concert in a city in which I was living or visiting, or conflicts prevented me from attending their appearances. I hope to catch Tafelmusik in performance one day.

I never heard the Beaux Arts Trio in concert, either. For this I must be chastised, as I had numerous opportunities to hear the Beaux Arts Trio while I was in law school—and, for whatever reasons, I always decided not to get tickets. (The ensemble was long in residence at The Library Of Congress, only a few blocks from where I lived during my three years in Washington.)

I had always assumed that the Beaux Arts Trio would continue with another pianist once founding pianist Menahem Pressler finally retired. Pressler was the only remaining original member of the Beaux Arts Trio, the original violinist and cellist having long since retired, and I had assumed that violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses would continue with a new master pianist once Pressler decided to call it a day.

My assumption was incorrect. When Pressler elected to retire last year, after fifty-three years as Beaux Arts pianist, the Beaux Arts Trio decided to retire, too. I had my chances to hear this legendary ensemble, and I failed to take advantage.

My father cannot believe my stupidity, as the Beaux Arts Trio has long been one of his most-cherished chamber ensembles. He became interested in the Beaux Arts Trio in the late 1960’s, and he heard the Beaux Arts many, many times over the years. He insists that, for at least two decades, the Beaux Arts Trio was nonpareil in music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. I believe my father owns every disc the ensemble ever recorded.

The Philips disc of Beethoven Piano Trios is taken from a five-disc set of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios recorded between 1979 and 1983. The Beaux Arts violinist at the time was Isidore Cohen, and the Beaux Arts cellist at the time was Bernard Greenhouse. That 1979-1983 set was the second integral recording of the Beethoven Piano Trios recorded by the Beaux Arts Trio, the earlier edition having been recorded and issued in the mid-1960’s.

The disc offers three works, including the two most famous “named” trios: Number 4, Opus 11; Number 5, Opus 70 (“Ghost”); and Number 7, Opus 97 (“Archduke”).

These are cultured, urbane, aristocratic performances, very Central European in flavor and tone. The Beaux Arts Trio was always the least “American” of American chamber ensembles. A Central European sensibility permeates these Beethoven performances. Everything is measured and poised. The long line is observed, but interesting detail is captured and highlighted without ever losing the overall arc of a movement’s shape. The performances have forward momentum, but never at the expense of expression or characterization. In short, these are masterly performances, about as fine as one has a right to expect.

I have a quibble with the recording: the pianist is too forward. Whether this is the fault of the pianist or the engineers I cannot say, but the piano at times overpowers the violin and cello.

Suitably, the greatest work on the disc, the “Archduke”, receives the greatest performance. Josh and I listened to the “Archduke” over and over with the greatest of pleasure and admiration.

It was with the “Archduke” that the Beaux Arts Trio ended its final concert last September in Lucerne. That must have been a very emotional evening, both for the musicians and for the members of the audience.

The Nonesuch disc contains Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s own arrangements for String Orchestra of two chamber works: Ernst Dohnanyi’s Serenade, Opus 10, an early five-movement work for String Trio; and Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2, Opus 36. This disc, issued in 2000, is a follow-up to an earlier recording made by these same forces, the earlier recording having featured Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for String Orchestra of the “Goldberg Variations”.

I have always believed that Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the “Goldberg Variations” was masterly. In transferring Bach’s lengthy keyboard composition to an entirely new medium, Sitkovetsky preserved the essence of the original while creating a brilliant and imaginative new work for String Orchestra, an original and independent work in its own right.

Sitkovetsky’s Dohnanyi/Brahms arrangements are not on the same high level.

The Dohnanyi is the more successful of the two arrangements. It surely was the easier arrangement to create, as Sitkovetsky merely had to flesh out Dohnanyi’s already-transparent writing for String Trio.

The Dohnanyi Serenade is a sophisticated, charming but slight work, lacking individuality and memorability. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement neither adds to nor detracts from the original. It is nice to hear this work once in a while, but it is easy to understand why the Dohnanyi Serenade has never entered the repertory.

Dohnanyi was a highly-skilled, highly-professional composer whose music never made much of a mark, during his lifetime or after, because it lacked individuality. It is music that might have been written by anyone.

Dohnanyi’s scores are completely admirable—they are polished, even learned—but no trace of a unique personality ever peeps through the pages.

Many of Dohnanyi’s works are very beautiful. I like the five-movement Symphony No. 1 very much, and I like both Violin Concertos. I appreciate the artistry of Variations On A Nursery Tune and I am even partial to his Concertino For Harp And Orchestra, which I believe to be a masterpiece. Nevertheless, Dohnanyi’s music will never reach a mainstream audience because it is so impersonal, totally lacking a unique stamp.

Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Brahms’s Sextet No. 2 is not, I think, successful. In, fact, I cannot understand why Sitkovetsky thought the Brahms Sextet might benefit from an arrangement for String Orchestra in the first place.

The string writing in Brahms’s original is already dense. Given its denseness, there is no point in expanding the number of string players—added richness will go hand-in-hand with added opaqueness—nor is there much an arranger can do to lighten the textures short of rewriting the composition and turning Brahms’s voicings into hash.

Sitkovetsky’s is a very conservative arrangement, and for that perhaps one should be grateful. However, it adds nothing to Brahms’s original other than offering a larger body of sound.

As a general rule, Brahms’s music does not lend itself to arrangement. The music is already so perfectly-matched to the performing forces chosen by the composer that an arrangement only weakens what is already there.

The one exception to this rule is Schoenberg’s transcription for orchestra of Brahms’s early Piano Quartet No. 1, Opus 25. In that transcription, Schoenberg practically re-writes Brahms to serve his own ends. His is an aggressive, even radical, transcription. In the process, Schoenberg uses his own genius to serve the genius of Brahms—with the result that both composers are served brilliantly.

Sitkovetsky’s arrangement is not at that exalted level. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the Sextet No. 2 reminds me of two other unsuccessful arrangements of Brahms, Edmund Rubbra’s arrangement for orchestra of Brahms’s early piano work, Variations And Fugue On A Theme By Handel, and Luciano Berio’s arrangement for orchestra of one of Brahms’s late clarinet sonatas, the Sonata For Clarinet And Piano, Opus 120, No.1.

In all three cases, the arrangements are dutiful but not particularly imaginative and in no way enlightening. Nothing of value has been added to Brahms’s originals. Nothing new, nothing intriguing has been offered to give listeners a fresh perspective on the original compositions. In all three cases, I can only ask: what was the point?

Claudio Abbado’s 1969 recording of Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis On Themes Of Weber is one of the classics of the gramophone. It is the recording that made Abbado’s name outside of Italy.

This disc has been celebrated for four decades. The performances have been reissued frequently over the years, always with a new coupling. The coupling for the reissue Josh and I brought to Boston is a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet, “Le Chout”—but Josh and I skipped the Prokofiev, as it did not fit into our listening scheme.

These performances of the Janacek and the Hindemith are the finest I have ever heard. The performances are extremely brilliant, capturing a staggering level of detail, but the performances are also very subtle. The performances are so excellent that I can hardly listen to either work in another conductor’s hands.

The Hindemith is little more than an orchestral showpiece, but what a great showpiece it is. It is also one of the wittiest works ever written, and one of the most fun both to play and to hear.

Abbado obtains a level of virtuosity from the orchestra that no other conductor has ever been able to match, at least on disc. He also elicits a palpable sense of enjoyment from the players that is not duplicated on any other recording of the work.

The Janacek is a work of greater substance, and Abbado offers what I believe to be a profound performance. The performance has incredible energy and freshness, yet Abbado gives each of the five movements a very precise emotional weight, characterization and tinctura not achieved by other conductors. Compared to Abbado, every other recording of the Sinfonietta I have heard sounds like a generalized run-through.

Abbado finds things in Janacek’s score missed by other conductors. For instance, Abbado rightly sees Janacek’s supporting string figurations not as accompaniment but as musical content. At times, his analysis of the score borders on genius, most evident in the introduction to the fifth movement, where the repetitive descending string figurations are chilling, becoming part and parcel of the musical argument while adding a degree of drama and anticipation to what will soon prove to be the work’s culmination.

The whole performance shimmers, first bar to last. This is one of the great orchestral recordings of the stereo age.

In some quarters, this recording is highly controversial.

This is so for two reasons.

First, Abbado’s performance of the Janacek Sinfonietta lacks rusticity, and some observers find Abbado’s elegance and extremely sophisticated command of orchestral texture to be at odds with the composer’s intent in writing a very nationalistic, celebratory piece of music.

Second, the recording techniques used in both the Hindemith and the Janacek are not to all tastes.

The recording is multi-miked to death (there were probably more microphones present in the studio than there were instrumentalists) and engineered to death (highlighting is used to an extreme degree) and spliced to death (the many edits may be heard in the digital remastering), and some observers cannot get beyond the artificiality of the final result. Indeed, some persons insist that credit for these undeniably brilliant performances must be assigned above all to the sound engineers, and not to the musicians.

Quite obviously, these performances would have sounded vastly different if a single microphone had been suspended above the orchestra in an effort to capture a natural, unprocessed orchestral sound.

However, I have no problem with excessive engineering if the final result is as pleasing as it is here. I have always believed that the recording medium is a unique art form, quite different from the mere documentation of a live performance. I have always found the Abbado Hindemith/Janacek disc to be uncommonly enjoyable, and my opinion is not affected by how success for the enterprise must be apportioned between performers and engineers.

At the time this recording was made, Abbado was not happy at Decca and was contemplating leaving the label (in fact, he was shortly to depart for Deutsche Grammophon). Decca wanted to keep Abbado, as Decca realized what a valuable property it had on its hands, and Decca lavished every possible attention on this particular recording. Multiple sessions were used, and multiple Decca personnel were assigned to the project, a sign of the measures Decca was prepared to take to keep Abbado within its stable of conductors.

Nevertheless, despite the success of the recording, the Hindemith/Janacek pairing proved to be one of Abbado’s final projects at Decca. He was soon to seek happier ground elsewhere. This disc is the only lasting mark of Abbado’s work during his brief time with the Decca label.

Sometimes I think this forty-year-old recording is the finest recording Abbado ever made.

Abbado’s recording career has been checkered, with far more misses than hits. The only lasting recordings he made during his eighteen years at La Scala were Verdi’s “Macbeth” and “Simon Boccanegra”. His years as Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony resulted in only one special recording, Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Of the many, many recordings Abbado has made with the Vienna Philharmonic over the years, only Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Rossini’s “L'Italiana In Algeri” have proven to be durable. Abbado’s years at the helm of the London Symphony resulted in only one truly superb recording, Bizet’s “Carmen”. His recordings while Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic all met a certain high standard, but none of his Berlin Philharmonic recordings has managed to hold a claim on the public’s affection (including his pale Berlin remake of the Janacek/Hindemith pairing).

Abbado is, largely, a conductor who must be experienced live in order to be appreciated. Myself, I have never departed an Abbado concert feeling shortchanged.

However, I suspect that Abbado is not cut out to work in a recording studio. He CAN recreate a successful opera performance in the studio if he has already worked with the same artists in the theater, as he has proven several times. However, for orchestral works, I wonder whether Abbado needs the inspiration of an audience to give his best. Most of his orchestral recordings have proven to be disappointing to some degree.

Apparently Abbado can become prickly, even difficult, in the studio—and in his personal dealings with record company officials, too. He and Sony had a major falling-out over the “Boris Godunov” recording made in Berlin, with Abbado accusing Sony of being incompetent and Sony accusing Abbado of being incompetent.

In person, Abbado is apparently anything but the saintly figure portrayed by public-relations personnel. Some who have had extended dealings with Abbado over the years have raised serious concerns about his personal candor and integrity.

None of this, however, can take away from the success of the Decca recording Josh and I enjoyed.

Josh, who played trumpet all through grade school, junior high and high school, absolutely loved the disc, what with all the brilliant writing for brass on display. We must have played the disc twenty times, perhaps more, because Josh loved the music and the performances so much.

We’ll have to be sure to bring more Janacek and Hindemith discs to Boston next term.


  1. That Abbado recording is good. Haven't listened to it in years.

    Abbado used to conduct the Philadelphia during Ormandy's last decade. Then as soon as Muti took over, Abbado was no longer welcome. Abbado hasn't been back since.

    Abbado's concerts here were better than Muti's, but Ormandy annointed Muti as his successor and that was that.

    The public liked Muti better than Abbado at the time, but Abbado got better results from the orchestra and gave better concerts.

    Abbado should have got Boston in 1973, Philadelphia in 1981 and Chicago in 1991. Was he ever in the running for Cleveland? No wonder he stopped conducting American orchestras.

  2. Dan, it is my understanding that Abbado has never been under consideration in Cleveland.

  3. Abbado appeared in Cleveland only once, back in 1972. He conducted the Mahler Sixth.

    I have Abbado's old Janacek-Hindemith recording with the LSO on LP. It still sounds great.

    When are you boys coming to Cleveland to hear our miraculous ensemble?

  4. No plans to travel to Cleveland anytime soon, Robert.

    My father also has the LP--and the LP sounds better than the CD.