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29.3.05

DG Originals: A Review

DG has reissued a whole slew of their classic LPs on the excellent DG Originals mid-priced label, most of which had also been available as CDs at full price. The line does not have the same hyperbole-laden title as EMI's "Greatest Recordings of the Century," but somewhat more modestly, claims that these are critically acclaimed "milestone recordings" from their vinyl catalogue. That is true for every release that has been reissued. Whether or not they still hold up to today's competition is another question altogether.

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R. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, C. Kleiber
One that does is clearly Carlos Kleiber's Tristan und Isolde. Now on three discs instead of four, it still comes with a full libretto (German, French, English) and notes; a wonderful touch. As I have mentioned before, it isn't the first and only Tristan you would want to have and it might not even be as exciting as Kleiber fils's live recording from Bayreuth (Melodram, expensive and not as easily available). But it is definitely an exciting reading and a must for any lover of that finest opera this side of Don Giovanni. Furtwängler (several versions on EMI, and in Europe available on Naxos), Böhm (DG Originals), and Barenboim (my favorite, Teldec) may have more merits as the standard versions, but no one lets the orchestra charge as meaningfully as Kleiber. With him, the orchestral score speaks and acts as dramatically as any of the singers and becomes an active part of the story. Details that cannot be found in other recordings suddenly peek out of a score that Kleiber knew by heart. If the sixty-some dollar price tag had hitherto kept you from adding this to your collection, you now have twenty-odd fewer reasons to resist.

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C. Debussy, Images, Préludes, A. B. Michelangeli
Another temple to music is the Debussy disc of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's. Combining most of the two full-priced discs previously available on one for less money makes perfect sense. Now the Préludes (book 1) and both books of the Images come together. This is one of the finest possible additions to anyone's Debussy piano collection (speak: Walter Gieseking's complete EMI set) along Mitsuko Uchida’s incandescent Etudes and Krystian Zimerman's complete set of Préludes. Unfortunately, Children's Corner, coupled with the full-priced disc of the Images did not fit onto the disc: a shame, because the semiprofessional Ferrari-driving, airplane-flying, Medical Doctor's recording of that particular piece is one of those pianistic marvels that don't come around often, but in light of what is included, such quibbles seem petty.

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L. van Beethoven / J. Brahms, Triple, Double Concerti, Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda, Starker, Fricsay
The Beethoven Triple and Brahms Double Concertos, with Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda, and Starker (under Fricsay and the RIAS Berlin), is a more questionable inclusion. Not that their playing isn't gorgeous and in the finest tradition of central European masters of their respective instruments, with grace, humility, and musicality to spare. But the sound is not the freshest, and on occasion intonation goes a bit awry. Listening to it once or twice is a great joy, but the third time around, one cringes in anticipation of those rare moments. Especially the Beethoven is well served with the recent Harnoncourt/Zehetmaier/Aimard/Coe recording on Warner and the classic Karajan/Richter/Rostropovich/Oistrakh (EMI).

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F. Schubert, Sy. Nos. 5 & 9, E. Jochum
Franz Schubert's 5th and 9th symphonies are well served by Eugen Jochum with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But the 5th, lighter and far more enjoyable than the Karajan reissue I recently reviewed, suffers from a dated sound (excellent mono that it is) and the 9th, sounding better (stereo), could use even more "greatness." Neither version touches my favorite versions, both with Günter Wand on RCA/BMG (5th - 9th).

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H. Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, Ode to St. Cecilia's Day, Mackerras
Henry Purcell lovers—Ionarts is known to harbor one of them in its midst—will delight at Sir Charles Mackerras's 1968 / 1970 (then not yet an OBE) recording of Dido and Aeneas and the Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day. Many good Dido's exist, and to recommend this Hamburg recording with the North German Radio Chamber Orchestra, Tatiana Troyanos, Barry McDaniel, and Sheila Armstrong over famous Janet Baker (Decca) or Jessye Norman (Philips) recordings might stretch it. But the neatly added Ode with Simon Woolf (treble), Paul Esswood, Roland Tatnell (countertenors), Alex Young (tenor), Michael Rippon, and John Shirley-Quirk (basses) on the second Archiv disc makes this a wonderfully sounding addition to the collection. Mackerras, then as today, sounds fresh and energetic.

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J. S. Bach, Organ Works (3 CDs), Karl Richter
Karl Richter was impressive in pretty much any Bach he did, whether he led his Munich Bach troupe in oratorios, cantatas, and passions or played the old master's organ works. (That always and inevitably reminds me of a precious student paper's first sentence I once read: "Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children. He was an old master of the grand organ.") DG has collected his Richter's recordings on three discs which include some of the most famous and important works. The famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (think movie villain in his castle, laughing maniacally), is there, as is my favorite, Prelude and Fugue, BWV 553 (which has also seen a very smart and catchy orchestration from Arnold Schoenberg). The booklet here is painfully flimsy. The Silberman Organ in Freiburg and the Kopenhagen Organ sound magnificent, the resonance of the churches is well caught in these recordings from late 1965 through 1979 and Richter plays with verve, with near-Romantic dedication but also clarity: in short, without fail. There are too many different works to generalize, but Koopman is generally dryer, Stockmeier (on the complete-complete 20 disc set of Art & Music) more professorial and sometimes labored. The completist, of course, will want to have them all, but stopping short of that insanity, this might be the right fix for your Bach organ needs.

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W. A. Mozart, String Quintets, Amadeus Quartet
Mozart string quintets with the Amadeus Quartet and the additional viola of Cecil Aronowitz's (who died during a Mozart Quintet performance) are most amiable. Whether or not they surpass the set with the Grumiaux on the inexpensive Philips Trio I cannot say: I haven't listened to that set in too long. But it does add a third wonderful set of the complete quintets to the catalog, even when I think they could hop more light-footedly through some passages. Being squeezed onto two discs as they are (almost 80 minutes each) has obvious economic benefits, but the Philips Trio is less expensive still and offers the String Trio, K563. The third exquisite set comes courtesy of the Talich Quartet (3 discs, Calliope), has the most modern sound, includes the Clarinet Quintet and costs yet even less. The Amadeus recordings are the stereo versions from 1957/68, with the "wrong" finale of K593 (they had used a misedited score in their two previous recordings) substituted with their 1975 "patch." Whichever set it will be, you can't go wrong with what are Mozart's most successful adventures in chamber music.

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G. Bizet, Carmen, C. Abbado
Claudio Abbado's Carmen with Berganza, Domingo, Cotrubas, and Milnes is an excellent performance that has ranked among the top choices ever since being issued in 1978. With the full libretto, the only difference with the version available until now is the neatly reduced price. If you don't already have Nietzsche's favorite opera, this would not be a bad place to start. Other recommendable versions are Solti with the lithe, agile Troyanos (London), Karajan/Price (perhaps with some reservations regarding Price's singing, on RCA), and Plasson/Gheorghiu/Alagna (EMI), the best modern recording. Domingo's French isn't what a Frenchman would call idiomatic, but he is dramatically more convincing than in his earlier recording with Solti. Abbado uses the Oeser edition and opts for the original dialogue, not the Guiraud-composed recitatives. His tempi have been called "idiosyncratic" by the Penguin Guide's editor, who goes on to mention that thereby the "whole entertainment hangs together with keen compassion." In short: it's fast and furious. Alan Blythe writes an excellent short essay for the new liner notes. The LSO under Abbado plays excellently.

In unrelated Abbado news: he has just renewed his Lucerne Festival contract until 2010, which according to my logic, forbids him from dying for another five years, which is great news for the music world. Thereby heading the best pick-up ensemble in the history of music, too, is an enticing prospect and should yield more stellar performances such as the recent Mahler 2nd / Debussy La Mer (DG).

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Orchestral bon-bons, Paul Strauss
I briefly sampled Offenbach/Johann Strauss/Berlioz/Dvořák/Auber offerings with American Paul Strauss at the helm of the RIAS Berlin. Not a fan of such hodge-podge recordings, I still succumbed reluctantly to the easygoing charm of Gaîté Parisienne in Manuel Rosenthal's arrangement and assemblage for the Monte Carlo Ballet. The selection of this generous fare of light music had much to do with the restrictions of 10-inch and 12-inch LPs back in the days, but for all the cuts and compromises, this is hardly going to be much of a concern in this repertoire. The purist will cringe just looking at the offerings that offer more joy than musical substance and stay far away.

For me it was a fun tour through all of Offenbach's operas without having to listen to them in full length. La Vie Parisienne, Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Mesdames de la Halle, Le Voyage dans la Lune, Trom-al-Cazar, and Robinson Crusoé all in under half an hour is a splendid ride to that effect. Before I knew it, I was whistling along. Le Beau Danube is a Roger Désormière bastardization of the Blue Danube, turned into a ballet score again and fortified with Fledermaus elements and a slew of other waltzes, some of which apparently are of Johann Strauss I origin. At least it stays in the family, a family of which the conductor is not a member. It's big and swinging and light fun—the sort that has casual crowds swing back and forth in classical music open airs—with children eating roasted almonds and bemused parents drinking beer brought from home. Taking that image as a cue and opening a cold one were one and the same fore me, and sure enough, the disc became even more enjoyable.

Berlioz's Le Corsaire and Auber's Fra Diavolo overtures are left unmolested. The most substantial offering is probably the Dvořák Carnival overture, but here, too, does the pervading Gypsy spirit keep with the theme of lightness and faux exoticism. The recording, taken from 1958, 59, and 60 originals, are stereo and sound marvelous, especially given their age. The Penguin Guide called the Offenbach selections "vivacious" and offering "sheer vitality." This is not familiar musical ground for me, but I heard no evidence to the contrary.

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M. Ravel, Piano Concertos, etc., M. Haas, P. Paray
Ravel's piano concerto(s) have been well served with recordings. No one plays with the helter-skelter excitement that Argerich brings to her DG recording of the G major concerto (DG Originals, coupled with Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto, Abbado conducting); Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's version on EMI (GRoC, with his unrivaled Rachmaninov 4th piano concerto) is stellar and precise. Krystian Zimerman and Pierre Boulez have had the last word so far, and they give us the concerto for left hand, also. Their sparkle, their precision gives you every note and still all the excitement you could wish for. Add to that Pascal Rogé (who recently recorded the G major again, logically coupled with the Gershwin concerto, in SACD surround sound from Oehms) and now, reissued, Monique Haas in her 1965 recording with Paul Paray and the Orchestre National de la RTF, Paris. The added bonus on this disc is the Sonatine and, for good measure, the Valses nobles et sentimentales. The latter two are from 1956, and their mono sound makes them more "interesting" than indispensable. The sound is, hardly surprising, nothing like the latter versions, especially the crystalline sound of the DG issue with Zimerman. Slightly recessed, it demands more concentration to get to the fierceness of the concerto's movements one and three or the unsurpassed lyrical beauty of the solo that starts the second movement. The concerto for left hand suffers even more from recessed orchestral colors where the pianissimo passages hardly register. Even with the bonus of the extra solo works (especially the beautiful and less often heard Sonatine) and the price advantage, this cannot be a serious challenger to Zimmerman/Boulez which, for both concertos, ought to be the go-to disc.

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