Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mozart, Brahms, Martinu And Others

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs of music that we thought would be appropriate for the season—although only one of the discs genuinely is a Christmas album.

“The Mozart Album”, performed by the Canadian Brass, on the Sony label

Brahms’s String Quintets, performed by The Boston Symphony Chamber Players, on the Nonesuch label

Martinu’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, performed by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Claus Peter Flor, on the RCA label

“Christmas With Thomas Hampson”, performed by Thomas Hampson and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, on the Teldec label

The Canadian Brass made a number of excellent recordings. Josh and I enjoy listening to recordings featuring brass instruments (Josh was a trumpet player in high school) and we especially have enjoyed listening to Canadian Brass albums.

Hearing the Canadian Brass in concert was never much fun—the group’s concerts were devoted to shtick as much as music—but the Canadian Brass produced a substantial number of decent recordings, many of which featured serious music in serious performances. In the last couple of years, Josh and I have listened to the ensemble’s brass arrangement of Bach’s “The Art Of The Fugue”, a surprisingly successful performance in a surprisingly successful arrangement, and we have listened to the ensemble’s arrangement of music by Fats Waller, one of the group’s crossover recordings that actually is a pure delight.

“The Mozart Album” is excellent, which somewhat surprised me. Every time I hear a Canadian Brass album for the first time, I always worry that the brass timbres will become tiresome and that the brass arrangements will not work. Generally—but not always—the first audition proves my concerns unwarranted, and such was the case with “The Mozart Album”. The disc’s arrangements are imaginative and suitable for the material selected, and the order of the works on the disc makes for a very pleasurable and satisfying listening program.

Many of Mozart’s best-known works receive attention: the Adagio And Fugue In C Minor; the Ave Verum Corpus; the Alleluia from Exsultate Jubilate; the Rondo Alla Turca from Piano Sonata No. 11; the Tuba Mirum from the Requiem; “The Magic Flute” Overture; and three of Mozart’s most popular opera arias. A couple of less-known pieces are thrown in, too: a composition Mozart wrote for mechanical organ; and an excerpt from a piano duo.

It all works splendidly. It makes a festive album for December listening.

The disc of Brahms’s String Quintets offers capable performances. The Boston Symphony Chamber Players do not attempt “deep” performances of these two late Brahms masterpieces. The readings are largely objective, and somewhat dispassionate, even clinical. By no standard are these great Brahms performances. The playing also lacks tonal allure and glamour, which I find necessary in most of the chamber music of Brahms.

There is something very life-affirming about the music of Bohuslav Martinu, which is why Josh and I elected to listen to the disc of the last two Martinu symphonies. Martinu’s music has great vivacity and joyousness. It is also characterized by rhythmic vitality and propelling energy, to which is added a deeply-satisfying songful quality. Martinu was a major composer, and a major symphonist. It is regrettable that his music is so seldom programmed outside Central Europe.

All six of Martinu’s symphonies were written during his twelve-year sojourn in the United States. His first four symphonies were written during the war years. The Fifth, completed in 1946, came immediately afterward. The Sixth, titled “Fantaisies Symphoniques”, was completed in 1953, on commission from the Boston Symphony as part of that orchestra’s 75th anniversary commemoration.

Both the Symphony No. 5 and the Symphony No. 6 are major works, displaying the composer in peak form. Much incident is packed into each work’s thirty-minute duration, and yet the works are beautifully-shaped and perfectly-proportioned. These works should be far more widely-known.

The Flor performances are good ones. Recorded in 1987 and 1988, they remain among the finest versions available.

Flor is an excellent Martinu conductor. Many knowledgeable persons consider Flor to be the finest living exponent of Martinu’s music. Flor recorded a substantial quantity of Martinu’s music in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s before he lost his recording contract with RCA, and Flor’s Martinu discs, without exception, are uniformly fine. Happily, most of Flor’s RCA Martinu recordings may be tracked down, whether or not they are—technically—in the active catalog. This is no longer true, alas, for many of Flor’s other RCA recordings.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Flor was the conductor of the future among the younger generation of German conductors. He obtained the most prestigious engagements—Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra—and appeared in the most prestigious venues all over the world.

The emergence of fellow German conductor Christian Thielemann ended Flor’s brief period of major engagements and recognition. As soon as Thielemann came onto the scene, Flor had to take a back seat to Thielemann’s popularity and prominence—and not only in Germany, but elsewhere as well.

This phenomenon—a younger conductor replacing an older compatriot conductor in the public’s affection—often happens among conductors of European nationalities. The emergence of Simon Rattle in Britain shoved Andrew Davis to the sidelines. The emergence of Valery Gergiev in Russia affected the career of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s rise in Finland corresponded with a decline in demand for the services of Paavo Berglund.

Flor is no longer heard frequently in major venues. This is regrettable, because he is a major talent. He needs to be heard much more widely in the United States.

As Christmas albums go, “Christmas With Thomas Hampson” is not too bad, but primarily because standards in the genre are so low.

Hampson is in very good voice—the recording was made and released in 1991—and he has the advantage of excellent support from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Hugh Wolff.

At the same time, Hampson tends to be in love with his own voice, and this tendency sometimes comes across too blatantly in his recordings—and such is the case here. Much of the time, Hampson seems to be crooning to himself on his Christmas album, caught up in the beauty of his own sound. It can be off-putting.

Around the time this recording was released, Minnesota Public Television aired a documentary about the making of this recording. Substantial footage from the recording sessions was included in the documentary, and that footage was pretty unappealing: Hampson was having a romance with himself during the recording sessions, making goo-goo eyes to the microphone and making all sorts of ridiculous hand and arm gestures while he sang. I was only a kid at the time it was aired, but I remember that documentary vividly. While I watched it, I did not know whether to laugh or to vomit.

The purely aural results of those sessions are not quite so creepy, but nonetheless I cannot bring myself to like this album.

The traditional German Christmas songs, of which there are several on the recording, receive the finest performances. Hampson has always been a fine exponent of German lieder, and it shows here.

The more popular and more contemporary numbers are less fine. Hampson goes for “dreaminess” in the American popular numbers, and the dreaminess comes across as fake. In fact, it curdles. Hampson’s version of “White Christmas” is particularly annoying.

I did not care for the sequence of the numbers on the disc. The producer apparently was seeking maximum variety from number to number, and the end result was an unsuccessful hodgepodge. Traditional Anglican carols, German Christmas songs, French Christmas songs, popular American Christmas songs, a number from “The Messiah”: all were thrown around at random, proceeding from Handel to Irving Berlin to Gounod to “Go Tell It On The Mountain” to Praetorius without coherent order. We found the programmed sequence irritating, and had to shuffle the program after the first couple of listens.

The arrangements were the work of American composer Thomas Pasatieri. I thought Pasatieri’s orchestrations might be the best thing about the disc, but the orchestrations were completely unimaginative. This surprised me, because Pasatieri is a very skilled composer.

Perhaps his remit required him to produce orchestrations that were bland.


  1. I could never get into the Canadian Brass. Not my thing.

    Sawallisch used to play Martinu here in Philadelphia. He was a good Martinu conductor.

    I always stayed away from Christmas albums. I got my fill of Christmas albums from old Andre Kostelanetz records when I was a kid. That took care of me for life.

    Merry Christmas, and safe journeys.


  2. And Merry Christmas to you, Dan!

  3. I was interested to read your review of Hampson's disc. I saw him on the Met HD broadcast of Thaïs last Saturday. He was stupendous. Really great. If he does possess the vanity you describe it came in handy in his role as Athanaël, a self-absorbed monk. Fleming was excellent as well. If you get an opportunity to see Thaïs either at the Met or when they do the rebroadcast on January 7 you should take advantage of it.

    I hope you avoid the worst of this nasty weather if you come back to Minnesota for the holidays. It's been quite gruesome.

    Enjoyed your essay on the Learned Hand biography. Keep up the good work.

    Happy Holidays!

  4. And Happy Holidays to you as well!

    If you can believe it, the weather is even worse in Boston than it is in the Twin Cities. It snowed most of the weekend--almost twelve inches--and the temperatures were even colder here than in Minnesota much of the last several days.

    I do not dislike Hampson. However, I believe he benefits from a strong director and a strong conductor.

    The last time I heard Hampson live was 2005, and he was splendid. He sang Renato in a new production of "Un Ballo In Maschera" at Covent Garden and among fine competition--Karita Mattila, Marcelo Alvarez (in resplendent voice), Antonio Pappano--received the lion's share of applause. He deserved it. He was faultless that night, I thought.

    Americans tend not to appreciate Hampson in Verdi, but apparently Europeans do.

    I have never attended one of the Metropolitan Opera's theater broadcasts. I read your writing about Saturday's "Thais"--an opera I love--and I enjoyed your writing very much.

    I must tell you, however, that there is something about Renee Fleming that positively makes my teeth grate. For some reason, the woman totally rubs me the wrong way. I doubt I could make it through one of her "Thais" performances.

    Again, you have my very best holiday wishes.