For the past month, Joshua and I have kept four discs in our player, listening to the discs in the following sequence whenever we have found ourselves with sufficient time on our hands—and in the right frame of mind—to listen to music.
Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, Organ Concerto No. 14 and Zadok The Priest, performed by Richard Marlow, The Choir Of Trinity College, Cambridge, and The Academy Of Ancient Music under Stephen Layton, on the Hyperion label
Mozart’s Flute Quartets, performed by James Galway and the Tokyo String Quartet, on the RCA label
Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Piano Quintet, performed by Maria Joao Pires, Augustin Dumay, Renaud Capucon, Gerard Causse, Jian Wang and The Chamber Orchestra Of Europe under Claudio Abbado, on the Deutsche Grammophon label
Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments and Nobilissima Visione, performed by Carol Rosenberger and the Royal Philharmonic under James DePriest, on the Delos label
The Handel disc we purchased ourselves, in Boston, but the other discs we borrowed from my father’s library and transported to Boston at the end of last year’s Christmas holiday.
The Handel disc is a real joy, and a real winner. Josh and I were delighted to make its acquaintance.
The Dettingen Te Deum commemorates a minor skirmish between the British and the French during The War Of The Austrian Succession; both the skirmish and the composition—as well as the premiere, at the Chapel Royal in Saint James’s Palace—date from 1743.
The music of the Dettingen Te Deum is one part military fanfare, one part Royal Ceremonial, and one part religious service—and I have always loved the piece, bizarre and inflated (and somewhat bellicose) as it may be. Handel used lots of brass, and lots of drums, and they mix well with the triumph and jubilation depicted in the grandiose choruses (which are of Handel’s highest standard). This festive work should be better known—lasting fewer than forty minutes, the Dettingen Te Deum should be a regular feature of American concert halls—and I am disappointed that I have never been fortunate enough to hear the work in person.
Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 14, from 1739, follows the Te Deum on the disc. This is the organ concerto commonly associated with the oratorio, “Alexander’s Feast”, and it is one of the composer’s most tuneful and most immediately-appealing concertos. Its four movements were later rewritten for different orchestral forces, emerging as Concerto Grosso No. 11 in Handel’s Opus Six set of twelve concertante works for instrumental ensemble.
The disc concludes with the finest of Handel’s four coronation anthems, “Zadok The Priest”, written for the coronation of George II in 1727.
The performances on this Hyperion disc, recorded in 2007 in the Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, are characterized, above all, by vigor—and vigor carries the day, especially in the Te Deum. I can imagine more sophisticated and more polished readings, as well as readings of greater nobility and reflection, but the energy and joy of the performers never waiver.
Trevor Pinnock’s Archiv recording of the Dettingen Te Deum, using smaller forces than those on this Hyperion recording, is quite good in its own right, but Pinnock’s recording—offering what must be admitted is a reading of greater dignity—lacks the sense of occasion and the sense of fun emitted by The Choir Of Trinity College and The Academy Of Ancient Music, both of which seem to be having a rollicking good time in the Te Deum.
This is a delightful disc. It makes a grand noise.
No conductor has ever made his reputation in the music of Handel. Indeed, great conductors—of the past and present—have largely sidestepped the music of Handel, obviously finding in the scores too little “music” beyond obvious surface appeal. Rare incursions into Baroque repertory on the part of great conductors have always tended to focus on the scores of Bach, not Handel. The result is that Handel’s music has increasingly been left in the hands of “specialists”, probably not a good thing.
This Hyperion recording very much offers “specialist” performances. Admirable as the disc is, I would never claim that it has captured greatness for posterity.
I wonder what a conductor such as Herbert Von Karajan might have made of the Dettingen Te Deum. Karajan’s sophisticated mastery of color and timbre, as well as his consummate control of the long line, might have resulted in performances of incomparable brilliance and splendor.
Mozart’s supposed dislike for the flute is based upon a December 1777 letter Mozart wrote to his father. Mozart wrote the letter in Mannheim, where he was seeking an appointment and in which city Mozart composed several flute works, upon commission, for a Dutch nobleman and amateur flute player.
Dislike or no, Mozart wrote sublime music for the flute in several of his symphonies—and the composer’s three concertante works for flute, as well as the four Quartets For Flute, Violin, Viola And Cello, demonstrate that Mozart was capable of writing beautiful and eloquent music for the instrument. Indeed, Mozart’s four Flute Quartets became immensely popular during the composer’s lifetime, and have remained cornerstones of the chamber music repertory for over 200 years.
It is likely that Mozart’s letter to his father, claiming dislike for the flute, may have had more to do with the quality of instrument and player available to him rather than some inherent distaste for the instrument.
Such may be gleaned from a letter Mozart was to write a few years later to the brother of famed flautist Johann Baptist Wendling:
It's another thing with your brother, you know. In the first place he's not just a tootler, and then you don’t have to worry in his case when you know there's such and such a note coming up that he'll be much too flat or too sharp--see, it's always right and he has his heart and ears and the tip of his tongue in the right place and doesn't think his job is done just by blowing and fingering, and then he also knows what Adagio means.
[Translation courtesy of Jane Bowers, writing in the February 1992 issue of Early Music, in which is published Bowers’s study, “Mozart And The Flute”.]
The source of Mozart’s frustration was that, until late in the Eighteenth Century, the flute was an instrument virtually impossible to play in tune. Players were entirely reliant upon their embouchures to coax accurate tones from their recalcitrant instruments.
Sic years before Mozart’s death, a notable event occurred that addressed the composer’s concerns about the instrument: in 1785, Johann George Tromlitz invented the precursor of the modern flute, The Tromlitz Flute, the first flute instrument in which each of the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale could be produced by a separate tone hole not shared by any other note.
The Tromlitz Flute was known to Mozart at the time he wrote the last and finest of his four Flute Quartets, Flute Quartet No. 4, believed to have been composed in the winter of 1786-1787.
The three earlier quartets, however, were written before Tromlitz’s invention.
Flute Quartet No. 1 was written in December 1777, completed on Christmas Day. Flute Quartet No. 2—widely but not universally accepted as a work by Mozart—is believed to be a product of January and February 1778. Flute Quartet No. 3 is generally deemed to have been written in the winter of 1781-1782, contemporaneous with the Oboe Quartet (although some scholars insist that it was written at the same time as the first two quartets).
All four quartets, attractive and full of invention, are fully mature Mozart, although they lack the deep and divine insights of such late Mozart works as the Clarinet Quintet.
The performances by James Galway and the Tokyo String Quartet, recorded in 1991, are very fine. Tempi are measured, string vibrato is utilized, and Galway uses a full, rich tone, all of which some listeners may seize upon as “inappropriate” and “romantic”.
The performances, however, give great pleasure—and Galway reveals himself as an excellent and instinctive Mozartean, unafraid to shape and taper phrases, happy to shade and color his tone like a fine Mozart singer. The readings are thoughtful, serious and, on occasion, sparkling. Galway’s RCA recording is as fine a set of performances of the Mozart Flute Quartets on modern instruments as I have heard.
Galway remains a top-fight virtuoso. Josh and I heard him play the Ibert Flute Concerto with Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony last season, and I had never heard Galway play to better effect. At age 70, an age in which many instrumentalists are in a serious state of physical deterioration, Galway remained in excellent form. He appeared to be in the pink of health that evening, playing a very long and very demanding concerto without visible effort or strain.
Galway had even dropped his Irish pixie act for the evening, which I found to be overwhelmingly welcome.
Maria Joao Pires’s Schumann disc is a total delight.
I have never been fond of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. To my ears, the work does not cohere (the Concerto began as an independent Konzertstuck, to which the composer later appended a brief Intermezzo and an Allegro Vivace that amounts to a Rondo Finale). The work has always struck me as an unrelated sequence of pieces rather than an integrated whole.
Pires’s recording of the Schumann Concerto is the finest recording of the work I have ever encountered. In Pires’s hands, I found the work to be fully convincing for the first time.
There are countless celebrated recordings of the Schumann Piano Concerto, and I have never admired any of those with which I am familiar. Leif Ove Andsnes, Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, Radu Lupu, Ivan Moravec, Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini, Rudolf Serkin: all have left me unmoved in the Schumann Piano Concerto—and, moreover, unconvinced of the composition’s merit.
Pires succeeds where others have failed because, I believe, she does not attempt to provide a “weighty” or “philosophical” interpretation. Hers is a very delicate Schumann, played with a very beautiful light touch that would not be out of place in Mozart. Pires eschews rhetoric, instead searching for moments of quiet poetry and private utterance in the score.
This approach works—splendidly—and the score holds together very lucidly when no “grand statements” are attempted.
The use of a chamber orchestra contributes to the success of the interpretation. There is no danger of a full-size orchestra drowning out the pianist, no need for the pianist to attempt to provide power in order to compete with the orchestra.
Claudio Abbado provides accompaniment of great sensitivity. I have never thought of Abbado as a Schumann conductor, but in this recording he matches the delicacy of Pires—and makes me want to hear him lead chamber-scale performances of the Schumann symphonies.
This is a very, very special recording (the Concerto was recorded in 1997) that should be widely known. The concentration of the artists never ebbs, the subtlety of the music-making never ceases.
Pires very seldom appears in the United States. Her appearances, everywhere, are infrequent, but she must not like U.S. audiences, because she has only appeared in North America a very few times in a very long career.
One of her handful of orchestral appearances in the U.S. was with the Minnesota Orchestra when I was a senior in high school. That occasion was the lone time I have heard Pires in person.
My recollection is that she played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 that evening, but I very well may be wrong (and I cannot consult my concert programs, as they are in Minneapolis). Pires did not make much of an impression on me back in 1999, but it is possible that she had an off-night in Minneapolis—and it is also possible that she did not like the orchestra, or the conductor, or the audience, or the hall, or the Twin Cities, or some combination of the above. I would very much like to hear her again.
Pires has always spent much of her career playing chamber music. It is fitting, therefore, that the disc coupling for her recording of Schumann’s Piano Concerto is Schumann’s Piano Quintet, one of the composer’s finest and most popular works.
The French musicians that join Pires for the quintet create what I believe to be a fine performance—although the absence of tonal luster in the string playing is masked by very close miking, a process I view much akin to cheating.
I have never been a particular fan of violinists Augustin Dumay and Renaud Capucon or violist Gerard Causse, all of whom I have heard in concert and recital and all of whom produce an unpleasing sound.
However, when string instrumentalists are very closely miked, and when there is no indication of hall ambience and no suggestion of truthful perspective, questions of tonal beauty do not arise—and that is precisely what the producers of this recording have provided (no doubt deliberately).
In a large concert hall, the tone produced by Dumay is very small—thin and wiry, and very unpleasant (which is why Dumay, a very serious musician, has never been able to develop an American career). I have heard Dumay come to grief in a large hall, his sound projecting not at all (a dismaying performance of the Berg Violin Concerto in Theatre Des Champs-Elysees in 2004, with Dumay burying his head in his score—except when he was removing his eyeglasses in order to get a closer look at the notes on the printed page). I have heard much the same sound from Capucon and Causse when they played in mid-sized halls.
However, in a recording studio, playing directly into a microphone, Dumay’s sound, although nowise beautiful or remarkable, is nonetheless unobjectionable. The same is more or less true of Capucon and Causse as well.
As a result, issues of string quality do not intrude upon this particular recording of the Schumann Piano Quintet. The sound engineering (the Quintet was recorded in 1999) is unsophisticated but satisfactory, little different from closely-miked chamber music recordings made in New York studios in the 1950’s.
The performance itself is deeply felt but never over-stated. Tempi tend toward the leisurely, but lapses in concentration are not present and climaxes are not unduly emphasized.
There is no indication that Pires is leading the occasion, with the other musicians in tow, hardly surprising, as Pires and Augustin have been chamber music partners for many, many years.
This is as rewarding a recording of the Schumann Piano Quintet as I have ever heard—and is the sole cause of the Schumann Piano Quintet having immediately become Josh’s favorite work by Schumann.
We chose the Hindemith disc because Josh wanted to devote some concentrated listening time to The Four Temperaments, a score Josh has begun to admire.
Over the last three years, Josh and I have seen Balanchine’s ballet set to Hindemith’s score three times—danced by New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet—and Josh has decided, after his third viewing, that the Balanchine ballet is indeed a masterpiece, as I have always told him. Josh now wants to become more familiar with the music.
The score for The Four Temperaments was premiered in concert in Boston in 1940—Lukas Foss was pianist—but Balanchine’s ballet was not to appear for another six years. The Four Temperaments is a highlight of both the composer’s and the choreographer’s work list.
The performance on Delos is competent, but it amounts to a studio run-through and little more. Pianist Rosenberger displays no personality, the strings of the Royal Philharmonic lack depth and color (and polish), and conductor DePriest’s work is bland and forgettable. Energy and expression are in short supply from all quarters; the unimaginative reading renders Hindemith’s score a study in academic dryness.
The coupling, Nobilissima Visione, is much more successful, if for no other reason than the addition of winds and brass grants the listener release from the extremely limited color palette of Rosenberg and the Royal Philharmonic string section.
DePriest offers the standard three-movement Nobilissima Visione Suite, not the complete ballet score (which runs fifty minutes).
Nobilissima Visione is one of Hindemith’s finest scores, catching the composer in top form. The original ballet, drawn from the life of Saint Francis, inspired Hindemith to write one of his most deeply spiritual works, from which he created three movements for the concert suite, a symphony in all but name. Its striking harmonic richness is one of the work’s greatest pleasures. Both the ballet score and the concert suite were premiered in 1938.
The Delos reading of Nobilissima Visione is unobjectionable but also unremarkable. Recorded in 1976, the disc was the only Nobilissima Visione recording available at the time of its initial release (or so the liner notes claim) and no doubt the disc provided a useful catalog stopgap for a brief period.
The performance, however, has since been superseded. The San Francisco/Blomstedt recording on Decca, the Atlanta/Levi recording on Telarc, and—especially—the Philadelphia/Sawallisch recording on EMI render this old Delos issue superfluous.
I do not recall experiencing Nobilissima Visione in concert. Oft-recorded now, the work is seldom programmed by American orchestras (although Riccardo Muti, among other conductors, keeps the work in his active repertory—and in fact has already performed the score with the Chicago Symphony).
Another recent Chicago performance of Nobilissima Visione was offered by a civic orchestra playing in a public park. A couple of months ago, the following gem describing that Chicago performance appeared in the Chicago Classical Review:
Prior to intermission, the orchestra produced its first ever performance of Hindemith’s three-part Nobilissima Visione, an inoffensive ballet score drawn from Giotto’s 14th-century frescoes. Something of a technical challenge, brass was less than primo and the second movement strings became muddled and diffident. Still, this quasi-English, undulating music that eventually lurches to a killer march kept the audience guessing and absorbed.
Nobilissima Visione ends, of course, with a Passacaglia, not a march—and, although there is nothing quasi-English about Hindemith’s music, I would be the first to acknowledge that the language the writer uses is, indeed, quasi-English (as well as undulating—it is the writer’s insertion of a dangling modifier, above all, that keeps the reader guessing and absorbed).
The review was signed by one Bryant Manning.
What a moron!