Thursday, January 07, 2010

Couperin, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky And Prokofiev

Over the holidays, we listened to music much of the time we were home.

We kept six discs in the player. The discs did not contain Christmas music, but the music was deeply spiritual, particularly festive or somehow appropriate for the cold of a Minnesota winter. In addition, the music we chose was—deliberately—of wide appeal, as other family members would be coming and going throughout the holidays. There was no point in chasing them away with a strict aural diet of Milton Babbitt.

The discs were:

Couperin’s Lecons De Tenebres, performed by Sophie Daneman, Patricia Petibon and Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, on the Erato label

Haydn Piano Sonatas, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes, on the EMI label

Beethoven’s Septet and Mendelssohn’s Octet, performed by the Vienna Octet, on the Decca label

Tchaikovsky’s complete incidental music to “The Snow Maiden”, performed by Irina Mishura-Lekhtman, Vladimir Grishko, the University Musical Society Choral Union (affiliated with the University Of Michigan at Ann Arbor) and the Detroit Symphony under Neeme Jarvi, on the Chandos label

Stravinsky’s complete ballet, “The Firebird”, performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Colin Davis, on the Philips label

Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata and “Lieutenant Kije” Suite, performed by Christine Cairns, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Andre Previn, on the Telarc label


Couperin’s Lecons De Tenebres Pour Le Mercredi Saint (“Lessons Of Darkness For Holy Wednesday”), using Lamentations Of Jeremiah as text, are among Couperin’s most profound compositions. Only three Couperin Lessons survive (the composer wrote nine). They are equal, if not superior, to Charpentier’s Lessons.

Couperin wrote Lecons in 1714 for Holy Week Services at Longchamp Abbey, a Franciscan outpost established in 1256. The abbey thrived for more than five hundred years until closed during The French Revolution and demolished in the 19th Century. The abbey’s grounds were to become part of today’s Bois De Boulogne.

Couperin’s Lecons are among the most immediately-appealing of all Baroque works, sacred or secular, instrumental or choral. Of grave beauty and dignity, the Lecons are inspired in their melding of text and music and profound in their depth of emotion. The Lecons invite comparisons to Bach’s religious music at its finest.

Composed for two high voices and continuo players, Lecons are today performed both by sopranos and countertenors. Christie’s recording uses sopranos. Daneman and Petibon are very expressive in their handling of the vocal lines, their voices beautifully blended.

Christie’s continuo group is small, but not as small as the continuo groups on rival recordings. I found Christie’s instrumentals to be more apt—and more interesting—than the instrumentals on rival recordings by Christopher Hogwood, Rene Jacobs and Robert King.

In my experience, all who encounter Couperin’s Lecons are positively captivated by them. I am surprised they are not more widely known and appreciated.

My brother, not a particular fan of Baroque vocal music, listened to Lecons in rapture over and over—and took the disc home with him at the end of the holidays so that he might continue listening.

The Erato disc—recorded in 1996, published in 1997 and now out-of-print, although widely available from online vendors—also includes performances of four brief Couperin motets composed for Louis XIV.


The Andsnes disc contains five Haydn keyboard sonatas composed between 1773 and 1789.

The disc identifies the sonatas according to the numbering scheme of the old Feder Edition, an irritating practice, since Feder has long been superseded by the Wiener Urtext Edition, which uses a different numbering system.

Using Hoboken, the sonatas recorded by Andsnes are: (1) Sonata In B Minor, Hob. 16/26; (2) Sonata In D Major, Hob. 16/32; (3) Sonata In A Major, Hob. 16/36; (4) Sonata In C Sharp Minor, Hob. 16/37; and Sonata In E Flat Major, Hob. 16/49.

Haydn expanded the scope and emotional range of his keyboard sonatas considerably during the sixteen years covered by Andsnes’s selections. The 1773 effort is an elegant trifle compared to the depth, variety and grandeur of the 1789 composition, which is more than twice as long—and more than four times as interesting—as the sonata from 1773.

I have always admired Haydn’s piano music. To me, Haydn’s compositions for piano are entitled to the same exalted status as the composer’s symphonies and string quartets. I have never heard a Haydn piano sonata in which the composer’s imagination failed him.

Andsnes is an “objective” pianist, and his Haydn recording offers “objective” playing. Andsnes brought to the project much energy and a beautiful touch at the keyboard, but Andsnes had nothing special or probing to offer in this repertory in the years this disc was recorded (1997 and 1998, when Andsnes was in his late twenties). The performances are entirely pleasant, but also lacking personality and unique insights.

Andsnes displayed one irritating habit on this disc: he tapered phrase endings to extreme, adding rubato and alterations of timbre at the ends of phrases to signal that a musical “thought” was coming to its conclusion. On first hearing, this habit struck me as no more than precious—but, on subsequent hearings, the habit struck me as an unwelcome display of coyness, severely out of place in Haydn’s writing.


The Vienna Octet recording of Beethoven’s Opus 20 and Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 is a 1988 digital remastering of recordings made in the 1950’s. The sound is excellent; few allowances need be made.

Beethoven’s Septet, from 1799, was his first genuinely popular piece. More than any other Beethoven work, the Septet made the composer’s name known throughout Central Europe.

Scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and contrabass, the Septet has six movements. It bears many similarities with the serenades of Mozart, not least of which is its immediate appeal. It is easy to understand why musicians like to play the Septet and music-lovers like to hear it.

Mendelssohn’s Octet, composed for double string quartet, is a product of Mendelssohn’s sixteenth year. A masterpiece of the highest order, it has been one of the most popular pieces in the chamber repertory for almost two centuries.

The performances of the Vienna Octet are very Viennese. The timbres of the clarinet, horn and bassoon—dark, mellow colorations, with very little vibrato used—are known to listeners familiar with post-war recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic. The strings, too, are very mellow, contouring their phrases in an echt-Viennese style that today has largely disappeared.

In the Vienna of the 1950’s, attacks were very soft (although certainly uniform). Tempi were leisurely. A conversational ebb-and-flow characterized the music-making. The playing was deeply musical yet understated—and, as a result, musical climaxes did not always register with full impact.

I cherish these old performances, even though they are far from perfect (I do not like violinist Willi Boskovsky’s tone; scherzo movements are under-characterized and not very scherzo-like; at times I find the playing lacking in intensity).

These classic performances are at present out-of-print.


Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to “The Snow Maiden” premiered in 1873, eight years before the Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the same name and based upon the same material. “The Snow Maiden” was Tchaikovsky’s personal favorite among his early works, just as Rimsky-Korsakov prized his own “Snow Maiden” above all his other operas.

There are twenty numbers in Tchaikovsky’s score, beginning with an Introduction and ending with a Finale, between which are a succession of dances, choruses, songs, entr’actes, and melodramas. A varied and tuneful score, “The Snow Maiden” requires 80 minutes to perform complete.

The Jarvi/Detroit recording, issued in 1994, is a good one. The orchestra plays well, sometimes brilliantly, and the vocal soloists, both of Russian origin, have probably known this music since their youth. The chorus, not a professional one, displays more eagerness than finesse, but such considerations do not matter—this is an irresistible score that should be heard more often in the concert hall. The composer was right in valuing this score highly until the day of his death.

The Chandos recording is very bright, yet the bright sound picture is apt for such a brilliant work.

The recording remains in print, quite rare for Jarvi’s Detroit recordings, most of which have long ago—and very deservedly—departed the active catalog. Jarvi, legendary for his facile music-making, skimmed over the surface of countless scores in recording studios everywhere in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, leaving behind a giant trail of undistinguished if not mediocre product. Little of Jarvi’s massive discography will ever be reissued, and this is as it should be: his was not a legacy worth preserving.


The Philips recording of the complete “Firebird” was made in 1978. Since the day it was released, this recording has been recognized as one of the finest “Firebird” recordings ever issued.

The chief attractions of the disc are the wonderful playing of the Concertgebouw and Davis’s very expressive handling of the score.

The Concertgebouw was a magnificent instrument in 1978. Its winds and brass were stunning—far more stunning in 1978 than in recent years—and its strings had yet to acquire the wiriness that afflicts the Concertgebouw strings of today. As a pure example of sophisticated orchestral sound, this Concertgebouw “Firebird” is hard to match.

Davis treats the score as a romantic vehicle, and his approach works beautifully. His is not the diamond-bright, hard-edged Stravinsky to which American listeners are accustomed. Davis’s Stravinsky emphasizes expression, characterization and storytelling. The result is an opulent and seductive “Firebird”.

This “Firebird” recording is no longer available. It is now part of a two-disc set featuring three other Stravinsky ballets—and none of the couplings is at the high level of this “Firebird”.


The Previn/Los Angeles pairing of Prokofiev’s concert arrangements of his two most popular film scores of the 1930’s should be a standard-setter.

The recording quality is outstanding—it has richness, clarity and plenty of detail—and the performances are very fine, obviously having been meticulously rehearsed and shaped. I have never heard a Los Angeles Philharmonic recording in which the orchestra sounds as impressive as it does on this Telarc disc.

The ultimate effect of the Previn recording, however, is one of blandness—and “Alexander Nevsky” is anything but bland. There is too little energy, too little excitement, and too little impact in this performance, surely a case of Previn having an off day in the recording studio (the recording was made in UCLA’s Royce Hall in a single day in November 1986).

The recording gives ample pleasure because of the glorious sound and excellent playing—but, as an experience of Prokofiev’s genius, the recording is a disappointment. One’s attention is not seized, one’s pulse does not quicken. There is no mounting excitement as there must be in a “Nevsky” performance.

The “Kije” coupling is pleasant, but not as witty as it should be.


  1. My favorite recorded Alexander Nevsky is the old Reiner on RCA. Too bad it is sung in English. It pretty much kills the competition otherwise.

    I don't have a favorite Firebird. There are plenty of good recordings, but not one that stands heads and shoulders above the rest.

  2. I like the Reiner as well.

    The best "Alexander Nevsky" recording sung in Russian is the Thomas Schippers performance with the New York Philharmonic on Sony. Schippers gives a gripping, even thrilling performance. It surely is Schippers's finest work on disc.

    Abbado's "Nevsky" is good, too, although his performance is slightly finnicky and not very Russian.

    Avoid the Mata recording on Dorion. There is something fatally wrong with the sound engineering, and it prevents the performance from "registering".

    There are four complete "Firebird" recordings I like very much: the Colin Davis we listened to over Christmas; the Haitink LPO performance, also on Philips; the Dohnanyi VPO performance on Decca; and the Welser-Most LPO performance on EMI.

    I wish Pierre Boulez had recorded the complete "Firebird" with the NYPO. Boulez recorded the 1910 "Firebird" Suite with the NYPO--the 1910 Suite bears little relation to the 1919 or 1945 Suites and is very seldom heard or recorded--and the performance is remarkable. Boulez's later complete "Firebird" recording with Chicago is somewhat of a disappointment, despite all the acclaim the disc received.

  3. Yeah, that Boulez Firebird from Chicago just doesn't come alive.

    I have an old Dorati Firebird on Mercury that's pretty good.