Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Summer" Music And "Serious" Music

Ever since Joshua and I have been home, we have been listening to six discs of music.

We put the discs into the player in the kitchen—a giant room that functions as kitchen, informal dining room and family room at my parents’ house—so that we could listen to music in the room most often in use.

The six discs were divided into two programs.

One program we called the “summer” program because the discs featured music we believed was especially suitable for midsummer listening.

The other program we called the “serious” program because the discs featured music filled with spirituality, even profundity.

The “summer” program was over-weighted: four of the six discs were devoted to “summer” music.

The “summer” program was designed, more or less, to please my mother. The “serious” program was designed, more or less, to please my father.

We all enjoyed both listening programs immensely.


The four “summer” discs were:

“Baroque Trumpet Concertos”, performed by Sergei Nakariakov and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, on the Teldec label

Rossini’s Stabat Mater, performed by Patrizia Pace, Gloria Scalchi, Antonino Siragusa, Carlo Colombara and The Hungarian State Opera Chorus And Orchestra under Pier Giorgio Morandi, on the Naxos label

The String Quartets of Debussy and Ravel, performed by the Galimir String Quartet, on the Vanguard label

Orchestral Music of Ginastera, performed by Magdalena Barrera and The City Of Granada Orchestra under Joseph Pons, on the Harmonia Mundi label


Sergei Nakariakov was such a prodigy of the trumpet that Teldec, a major label at the time, signed Nakariakov to an exclusive recording contract before his fifteenth birthday.

Nakariakov was only eighteen years old when he recorded his third disc for Teldec, “Baroque Trumpet Concertos”, a disc made in 1995 here in the Twin Cities and released the following year. “Baroque Trumpet Concertos” remains Nakariakov’s only recording made in the United States.

Two Telemann concertos are on the disc, as are single concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello and Neruda. The disc also includes an arrangement of the Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass In B Minor. All but the Neruda concerto and one of the Telemann concertos are arrangements of concertante works for other instruments.

On the recording, Nakariakov plays a regular B-flat trumpet, a piccolo trumpet, and a flugelhorn. The sweetness of his sound on all three instruments has to be heard to be believed.

The playing is phenomenal. Trumpet playing of such genius comes along only once a generation, if that.

Hugh Wolff, former Music Director of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, was a great admirer of Nakariakov, and worked with him throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. It was because Wolff greatly admired Nakariakov that this particular recording was made in Saint Paul.

We all loved this recording, but none of us loved the recording more than Josh, a former trumpet player himself. Josh insisted that the virtuosity displayed by Nakariakov on this disc put the playing of Maurice Andre and Wynton Marsalis completely in the shade.

I am in no position to disagree.

Good as Nakariakov was in 1995, I am told that he is even better now.

I have never heard Nakariakov. A rare spine condition limits the number of appearances he makes each year. He lives in Paris, and crosses the Atlantic Ocean at irregular intervals. I am told that he is not in good health at present.

His absence from our concert halls is a major loss for American music-lovers.


The Boston Symphony will perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater next season under Rafael Frubeck De Burgos, and I look forward to hearing one of the performances. Indeed, one reason we have been listening to this Rossini work is to allow Josh to become familiar with the music.

Josh finds Rossini’s Stabat Mater to be exceedingly beautiful.

(Next season, I would also like to attend a performance of Rossini’s early opera seria, “Tancredi”, to be presented by Opera Boston. However, in October 2006, Josh and I attended a Minnesota Opera performance of “La Donna Del Lago”, a later Rossini opera seria, and Josh hated the thing. I have been trying, without success, to generate some enthusiasm in Josh on the subject of attending one of the Boston “Tancredi” performances. Thus far, Josh has consented to our taking a recording of “Tancredi” to Boston, but he has not yet consented to listen to it—and he has certainly not consented to attend a “Tancredi” performance. I believe he is trying to buy time: “Let’s not rush things. For all we know, the Boston Opera House may burn down before the season starts.”)

The Stabat Mater is my personal favorite of all Rossini works. I much prefer it to any and all Rossini works for the stage, and I much prefer it to the Petite Messe Solennelle. I think that the quality of Rossini’s melodic invention in the Stabat Mater is higher than in any other Rossini composition.

It is difficult to judge the quality of this Budapest performance because of sound engineering issues. This is one of countless Naxos recordings in which sound quality is deficient.

The recording is muddy. It lacks clarity, transparency, richness, and a wide dynamic range.

Many Naxos recordings require a boost in volume in order to give the recordings necessary presence. Boosting the volume did not work for this particular disc, nor did adjusting the treble and bass. Even with ceaseless fiddling of the controls, I could do nothing with this disc to improve the sound image.

The Hungarian State Opera is one of the finest opera houses in the world, on a par with Munich, Vienna and Zurich, and it is a pity that deficiencies in sound engineering make this particular performance sound undistinguished. Performances of Italian repertory in Budapest are generally at the very highest level, and I suspect that this performance was much finer than the recording reveals.


The Vanguard recording of the Debussy and Ravel String Quartets performed by the Galimir String Quartet is considered in some quarters to be supreme. Apparently not everyone cherishes this recording, however, because the disc has been out of print for years.

This recording was made in 1982, and is not to be confused with the earlier Galimir recording of Ravel’s Quartet, recorded in 1934 under the supervision of the composer and universally acknowledged to be a classic.

The original Galimir String Quartet was a family affair: Felix Galimir and his three sisters constituted the quartet’s membership.

National Socialism drove the Galimirs from Austria, and the Galimir String Quartet was reformed in the United States. Its membership changed constantly from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, with Felix Galimir the only constant. The quartet’s performances were known for being extremely variable in quality, especially in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, when the quartet’s membership was in a veritable constant state of flux.

The performances on the Vanguard disc are very fine. They strike me as very mellow and very relaxed.

However, the performances lack the elegance and refinement of the Italian Quartet, the freshness of the Tokyo Quartet in its early years, the energy and concentration of the Juilliard Quartet, the utter unanimity of thought and utterance of the Hagen Quartet, and the tonal refinement of the Guarneri Quartet.

No one could possibly be unhappy with these readings—yet they are hardly the last word in Debussy or Ravel performance.


The Ginastera disc contains four works: “Estancia” Suite; Concerto For Harp And Orchestra; Overture To “The Creole Faust”; and Variaciones Concertantes.

The suite of four dances from the 1941 ballet “Estancia”—commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein—used to be Ginastera’s most popular composition. Orchestras programmed “Estancia” with some frequency from the late 1940’s through the first half of the 1960’s. The work was also a staple of radio stations during those years.

“Estancia”, a work now horribly dated, does not represent Ginastera well. The score lacks melodic distinction, and the rhythms, while relentless, are too basic and too unsophisticated to hold the listener’s interest for long. The composer always claimed that his study of the music of Stravinsky enabled him to compose “Estancia”, but the composer was mistaken—in making such a claim, Ginastera confused his use of lots of percussion with genuine rhythmic complexity and sophistication. “Estancia” is as uninteresting a piece as Ginastera ever wrote. Its former popularity was due to the nationalistic Argentine “color” the score was thought to possess, an appeal that has long since vanished. If it were a better piece, it might have survived, and surface now and again on “Pops” programs.

Ginastera’s Harp Concerto is another matter. It is a timeless masterpiece—and surely the composer’s masterpiece. It is probably the finest concerto ever written for the instrument, a favorite of harpists everywhere.

After a nine-year gestation period, the Concerto was completed in 1965 and premiered that year in Philadelphia by Nicanor Zabaleta and Eugene Ormandy. The composer went on to revise the work for another nine years, and the Harp Concerto was finally published in 1974. Only in the last twenty years or so has the Harp Concerto gained currency in concert halls around the world (and received numerous recordings).

The writing has great intellectual vigor—much of the writing is serial—and yet this is a work with the deepest Latin sensibility and sensuousness. Gorgeously orchestrated, the Harp Concerto is, first note to last, totally beguiling to the ear and the mind.

Ginastera was operating at the highest level of inspiration when he wrote this particular composition. There is nothing else from his workbench even half so good. The Harp Concerto is of astonishing originality, beholden to no previous composition, whether by Ginastera or anyone else. It is sui generis.

So far as I know, Ginastera is not on record as stating that he believed his Harp Concerto to be his finest work. Nonetheless, it the only one of his compositions that he worked on over such a prolonged period of time. That fact alone surely signifies something important about the composer’s thoughts.

The Overture To “The Creole Faust” was written in 1943.

“The Creole Faust” is an 1866 epic poem about an Argentine cowboy attending a performance of Gounod’s opera in Buenos Aires. It is the earliest known example of what has come to be called “Gaucho Literature”. Ginastera’s Overture To “The Creole Faust” blends bits of Gounod’s music into a tapestry composed mainly of Argentine folk music.

It is not an appealing piece.

Variaciones Concertantes, from 1953, is the only Ginastera work that has attracted a devoted following among prominent conductors. Igor Markevitch conducted the Buenos Aires premiere, and Antal Dorati gave the first U.S. performance only weeks later here in Minneapolis. Over the last half-century, countless other conductors who have mastered the Central European repertory have taken up the work, Franz Welser-Most being the most recent. It is now Ginastera’s most-performed work.

Written for chamber orchestra, Variaciones Concertantes is a set of eleven variations on an original theme, each variation highlighting one instrument from the orchestra. The work is tightly-argued—which accounts for the fact that it has attracted so many fine conductors—and highly-expressive at the same time. After the Harp Concerto, it very well may be Ginastera’s most important work.

The Harmonia Mundi performances are good ones, but I have heard superior recorded performances of the “Estancia” Suite (Eduardo Mata on Dorian), the Harp Concerto (Nancy Allen and Enrique Batiz on ASV) and Variaciones Concertantes (Julius Rudel on MusicMasters).

Pons does not bring much specificity to his work. Moreover, the orchestral playing is somewhat tentative, and the orchestra lacks a sophisticated sound.

Nonetheless, this Harmonia Mundi disc is light years better than David Robertson’s contemporaneous (and loathsome) recording of two of these same works on the Naïve label.


The two “serious” discs were:

Schubert’s “Die Schone Mullerin”, performed by Wolfgang Holzmair and Jorg Demus, on the Preiser label

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, on the Reference Recordings label


The Preiser recording of “Schone Mullerin” is the earlier of Wolfgang Holzmair’s two recordings of the great song cycle. It was recorded in 1983, at the outset of Holzmair’s international career. The singer had the considerable advantage of working with the great Jorg Demus for this recording, only Holzmair’s second recording for any label.

This is one of the finest “Schone Mullerin” readings ever captured on disc. It is very much a young man’s “Schone Mullerin”, as might be expected, but it is a completely successful performance, brimming with freshness and élan. Indeed, I prefer this performance to Holzmair’s remake for Philips.

Holzmair is a very great singer. Some knowledgeable persons insist that he is the greatest singer alive. Whether or not such be the case, Holzmair certainly is the most intelligent active singer. His handling of the German lied, from Mozart through Wolf and beyond, is on a level all his own, matched by no other active singer.

I have been lucky enough to catch Holzmair five times in recital. All five evenings provided unforgettable experiences.

This disc is not particularly well-known in the Western Hemisphere because the Vienna-based Preiser label does not enjoy wide distribution in the United States. Someone besides me must like this disc, however, because this disc has remained in print for over a quarter-century. That fact is phenomenal, given how many recordings of “Schone Mullerin” have been issued over the years—the total now exceeds one hundred—and have come and gone.

“Die Schone Mullerin” is one of my very favorite pieces of music. I could listen to it endlessly. It is one of the most profound works in the Western canon.

My father loves “Schone Mullerin”, naturally, and so does my mother.

It was not until the fourth listen that Josh began to like “Schone Mullerin”. From that point forward, he liked it more each time we played the disc.

“Schone Mullerin” is one of those works that offers greater and greater rewards with each new encounter.

Every couple of years, I return to this work. Each time, I am bowled over anew by Schubert’s writing. Each time, I find a thousand new fascinating details in the score, and a thousand new nuances in the blending of text and music.

It is a work of incomparable genius.


Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s 1996 Minnesota Orchestra recording (released in 1997) of Bruckner’s last symphony is very highly acclaimed.

The playing of the Minnesota Orchestra is on a very high level. The recorded sound is exceptional. The conductor is universally acknowledged to be one of today’s very finest Bruckner conductors.

And yet this recording does nothing for me. The performance did nothing for me when the disc was first issued, the performance did nothing for me when I again devoted time to this disc five summers ago, and the performance did nothing for me during my third encounter over the last two weeks.

I am clueless why this reading is considered to be “special”.

I shall allow my father’s thoughts to serve as “counsel for the defense” on the question of the merits of this particular recording.

My father says that Skrowaczewski took a fresh look at the score in preparation for the 1996 Minnesota Orchestra performances and recording, and that Skrowaczewski decided to emphasize the score’s boldness and vitality instead of treating the score as Bruckner’s nostalgic farewell to the world. There is a bracing, even lacerating, quality that Skrowaczewski chose to bring to the work, a corrective of sorts to the standard, death-infused interpretation of Bruckner’s final composition more often heard.

My father is a far greater Brucknerian than I.

Nonetheless, I remain mystified by the appeal of this recording.

On the question of the greatness of this recording, my mother is firmly in my camp: she, too, does not understand the attraction of this performance.

As for Josh, he dislikes Bruckner (except for the Eighth Symphony, and the finale of the Fifth).

The Bruckner Ninth left Josh utterly cold.

1 comment:

  1. Not only do I not HAVE any of these discs, I have not even HEARD of any of these discs. I've never heard of the Galimir Quartet (chamber music's not my thing). I've never heard of that Russian trumpet player.

    I have heard of the Minnesota Orchestra.