For the last month or more, Joshua and I have kept in our player four discs, listening to them when we have had down time.
Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 97-99, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, on the Sony label
Puccini’s “Tosca”, performed by Montserrat Caballe, Jose Carreras, Ingwar Wixell and the Chorus And Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under Colin Davis, on the Philips label
Orchestral music of Witold Lutoslawski, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier, on the Chandos label
We found the Haydn disc to be the ideal ear-preparing prelude to Puccini’s gorgeous and sumptuous orchestral palette in “Tosca”, and we found the Lutoslawski disc to be the perfect ear-cleansing hydration after emerging from an immersion in Puccinian excess.
George Szell was a magnificent Haydn conductor, and the Haydn disc—part of the discontinued Sony Masterworks Heritage series—is one of the most distinguished Haydn releases in the active or inactive catalog.
Numbers 97 and 99 were recorded in 1957; Number 98 was recorded in 1969. The sound for all three symphonies is superb, and there is very little difference in recording quality between the 1957 and 1969 readings. The sound is rich and full, with plenty of body and presence and plenty of detail. Happily, the elimination of tape hiss has been achieved without bleaching the sound picture, which is not always the case with remastered releases. So excellent is the sound quality that one might mistake the recordings as originating in the late 1970’s, at the end of the analog era, and not one and two decades earlier.
According to the accompanying booklet notes, Szell performed only twelve Haydn symphonies during his 24 years in Cleveland (although the twelve in question were programmed more than once and often taken on tour). This greatly surprised me, as Szell was always renowned as a Haydn conductor and I had always assumed—wrongly—that Szell had maintained a vast Haydn repertory. Contrary to my erroneous expectation, Szell during his Cleveland tenure had recycled the same twelve symphonies over and over (most of the twelve coming from Haydn’s final period of symphonic writing), offering two or three per season in order that repeats occur infrequently. Since most Haydn symphonies in Szell’s repertory were recorded for posterity, today’s listeners may enjoy virtually all of Szell’s thoughts on Haydn.
Szell’s Haydn is simultaneously energetic and elegant, and I do not believe that this rare combination is true for any other Haydn conductor except Fritz Reiner (who recorded—to superb effect—three Haydn symphonies with his incomparable ensemble in Chicago).
Szell’s shaping of phrases is exceedingly specific and exceedingly precise, and this sets Szell apart from other notable Haydn conductors such as Eugen Jochum and Colin Davis, neither of whom can match Szell for meticulous command of detail.
Despite the use of larger forces than would be used today for Haydn, Szell obtains incredible transparency from his musicians. Everything “sounds”. Everything may be heard, everything is in perfect balance. I cannot imagine today’s orchestras obtaining similar results unless a new Haydn conductor were to emerge.
If one may quibble about the performances, one might note that there is not much warmth in Szell’s Haydn and that other conductors have explored the opportunities for humor to greater effect.
Puccini’s “Tosca” is a masterful score, and I am always surprised when musicians or music-lovers criticize it (which they have done, repeatedly, since the work was unveiled in 1900). The melodramatic subject matter may, perhaps, be faulted, but the score itself is an undoubted masterpiece.
Puccini’s writing is very sophisticated. Puccini composed his operas much like a writer of absolute music, always with a long-term harmonic plan in mind and always with the sound of a full orchestra in his ear.
Unlike Verdi, Puccini did not first compose the vocal line to a text, and afterward address issues of harmony and orchestration. For Puccini, vocal line, harmony and orchestration were from the outset inherent parts of his compositional process. The result was a richness of musical fabric that Verdi and earlier Italian composers could never have contemplated let alone achieved.
Puccini’s command of orchestral writing was total—and, as a result, the conductor becomes the most important component of a Puccini performance.
Consequently, the treasured Philips “Tosca” set, recorded in 1976, owes its exalted status, above all, to the work of Colin Davis.
Is this “Tosca” Davis’s finest opera recording? I think it is. It is superior to any of Davis’s Mozart or Berlioz or Britten opera recordings—and, oddly, it is the only fully successful studio recording Davis ever made of an Italian opera.
Davis’s pacing of the drama is supreme. Choosing spacious, even stately, tempos, Davis rivets the listener’s attention from the dramatic opening chords. Davis knows how to propel the drama forward, increase tension, and build and control climaxes—and he knows how to capture the great moments of release that occur in each of the three acts. Victor De Sabata and Herbert Von Karajan were no better at creating and controlling drama in their own acclaimed recordings of “Tosca” than Davis is here.
Davis is helped by spectacular sound engineering. The Philips sound is luxurious and opulent, lending radiance to the orchestra, yet orchestral detail is always on display. From a pure sound perspective, this is one of the finest opera recordings ever made.
This “Tosca” is also invaluable because it catches Jose Carreras in his prime in a congenial role. Indeed, it may be Carreras’s finest complete opera recording.
His voice is caught at its absolute peak, and what a voice it was! The sound was glorious, the timbre unique, the production smooth as silk, the legato effortless, the command of Italianate style and phrasing sure.
Montserrat Caballe is also caught in superb form. Gifted with a voice of ravishing beauty, Caballe pours out a rich stream of heavenly sound that resembles liquefied amber poured from a sacred vessel. This “Tosca” may be Caballe’s finest complete opera recording, too.
Ingvar Wixell did not possess a voice of the same quality as Carreras and Caballe. In fact, Wixell’s voice was grainy, almost rough, and his voice lacked Italianate quality. He compensates for lack of vocal splendor by offering a detailed dramatic performance of great power and some subtlety—indeed, as pure drama, his performance is probably superior to and more admirable than the performances offered by his better-endowed co-stars—and ultimately succeeds in establishing himself as an interesting, multi-dimensional man of evil and not simply a stock villain.
In sum, this set is profoundly enjoyable. (It also is the first recording of an Italian opera that Josh has whole-heartedly loved. He listened to this “Tosca” over and over and over.)
Is this “Tosca” the finest recording of the opera ever made?
I think it very well may be.
We chose to listen to music of Witold Lutoslawski because Josh wanted to begin to get to know this modern composer greatly admired by me but completely unknown to Josh.
We specifically selected the Chandos disc because the disc contains the Concerto For Orchestra (composed between 1950 and 1954) and Musique Funebre (composed between 1954 and 1958), two compositions I believe are excellent, even ideal, introductions to Lutoslawski’s sound world.
The three-movement Concerto For Orchestra is probably Lutoslawski’s most-frequently-performed work, no doubt because it is one of his most accessible compositions. Based upon scraps of Polish folk tunes, the Concerto For Orchestra is largely tonal (but also largely dissonant) and very traditional in its structure (Introduction; Capriccio and Aria; Passacaglia, Toccata and Chorale). However, the Concerto For Orchestra is also very atypical Lutoslawski in that it was the composer’s final composition written in a conservative tonal idiom before embracing, first, the twelve-tone system (to which Lutoslawski afterward adhered only in part) and, later, aleatoric methods (which the composer was to abandon after fifteen years of on-and-off use).
The one-movement (with four distinct sections) Musique Funebre, written immediately after the Concerto For Orchestra and dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartok, was Lutoslawski’s first work written using twelve-tone techniques—and, more importantly, was Lutoslawski’s first masterpiece. Musique Funebre, written for strings alone, bears many resemblances to Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta—although the composer always insisted that Bartok was his inspiration but not his model—and its grave, solemn beauty contains the seeds of everything Lutoslawski’s music was to become over the next thirty-five years: extraordinarily imaginative, highly original, exceedingly virtuosic and deeply spiritual.
[The Chandos disc also includes the composer’s one-movement Mi-Parti (“composed of two equal but unlike parts”), Lutoslawski’s final composition incorporating aleatoric devices, devices the composer first used in 1960 and 1961 in Jeux Venitiens and devices the composer was to abandon after Mi-Parti (Mi-Parti was composed in 1975 and 1976). Josh and I did not listen seriously to Mi-Parti, giving up after a couple of tries both because I have never been able to understand or respond to Mi-Parti and because Josh positively detested the piece.]
The Concerto For Orchestra, followed by Musique Funebre, provides a fine listening sequence and a fine listening experience, the first piece featuring lots of surface activity and the second piece providing lots of genuine emotion. As I had suspected, Josh appreciated the Musique Funebre much more than the Concerto For Orchestra, a work that—despite its accessibility and despite its current popularity—is not particularly engaging and not especially rewarding and not at all memorable.
The performances on the Chandos disc are pleasing—although there are, unquestionably, superior versions of these same scores elsewhere on disc. The performances are well-drilled and well-played, although I suspect a lot of multi-takes were required in order to obtain clean performances (two full days of studio work were involved in the making of this recording, a recording that features only sixty minutes of music already prepared and presented in concert and on tour prior to the orchestra going into the recording studio).
Certainly a lot of multi-miking and a lot of manipulation in the control room was involved in the preparation of this recording, both because there is no natural perspective to be heard and because no orchestra sounds as impossibly bright as the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic (a provincial ensemble, and nothing more) sounds on this Chandos disc.
The recording was made in 1993 and released in 1996.
Lutoslawki’s music is still in the process of being digested and assimilated by musicians and music-lovers everywhere, and I suspect that his place in the repertory will grow significantly over the next fifty years.
Indeed, it would not surprise me if the music of Lutoslawksi were to displace the music of Shostakovich from our concert halls over the next one and two generations. Surely the fourth and final symphony of Lutoslawski, by itself, is worth more than Shostakovich’s entire symphonic output.
And did not Shostakovich himself—who did not live to encounter the final eighteen years of incomparable masterpieces that Lutoslawski was to write after Shostakovich’s death—foretell this?