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Best Recordings of 2011 (#3)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2011. My lists for the previous years: 2010, 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 3 - New Release

M. Weinberg, "Die Passagierin", Teodor Currentzis, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Michelle Breedt et al., Neos Blu-ray & DVD

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, The Passenger ♀,
T.Currentzis / VSO / Breedt,
NEOS Blu-ray

I had tickets to Weinberg’s “The Passenger” (♀) in Bregenz, but something or other got in the way and I had to cancel. What a missed opportunity. It’s almost hard to say whether the recording of the production (NEOS) alleviates the regret, or heightens it – because everything: the work, the production (directed by David Pountney), the performance, and the transfer onto DVD/BluRay is terrific.

It is one of the happy developments of the last few years that Mieczysław Weinberg doesn’t even need an introduction anymore. When I first came across him in “Surprised by Beauty” (expanded second edition in the making) and when filing him at Tower Records (RIP), we still had about six different spellings of his name to make cross references for. Now that’s settled and Weinberg is enjoying a much deserved boom to which releases on Chandos, Toccata Classics, cpo, and Naxos (who are planning a symphony cycle with Antoni Wit) have enriched the catalog tremendously. ArkivMusic now lists over 60 CDs on which at least some Weinberg is found. (Compare that to poor Walter Braunfels who is still stuck at eight.)

Shostakovich, the most obvious reference in matters musical to Weinberg, said of this Holocaust-themed opera from 1967/68: “I simply cannot stop enthusing about Weinberg’s The Passenger. I’ve heard it three times now, studied the score, and every time I understand more of the beauty and greatness of this music. It is a work of consummate form and style and its subject extremely relevant. …Weinberg’s own life and fate have de facto dictated him the work; the drama of the opera’s music is harrowing… there isn’t a single ‘empty’ or indifferent note in it. …I’m glad for every opportunity to help this opera which I love and believe in.”

In 1960 two passengers recognize each other on an ocean liner to Brazil: Lisa – who was a guard at Auschwitz, now the wife of a West German diplomat – and Martha, who was under a polish inmate under Lisa’s direct jurisdiction. Flashbacks and Lisa’s attempts (with her husband) to deal with her past and the impossible moral schism that results from it lead the viewer through eight scenes and an epilog in two acts. Librettist Alexander Medvedev’s invention of Tadeusz, the musician-fiancé of Lisa, who fatally plays Bach’s Chaconne (which strikingly moves and morphs from soloist to orchestra to chorus) instead of the concentration camp commandant’s favorite waltz, introduces music ‘naturally’ into the opera.

Beyond brimstone, drama and harrowing bits, there are moments of radiant Britten-esque beauty and calm in the multi-lingual (German-English-Polish) Passenger; climaxes that could be found in Prokofiev, and admittedly brittle stretches. The Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Teodor Currentzis are worth singling out; ditto Michelle Breedt, who sings the part of Lisa. (Interview with her about that character here.) Production values are great throughout, except for the Chia-Pet-like shorn-hair ‘wigs’ that make the inmates look like cartoon hedgehogs in the close-ups… one of the snags of the superb picture quality of the BluRay. It comes with an exemplary booklet that includes a synopsis, Shostakovich’s text in full, and the libretto in four languages (English, German, French, and Polish). The DVD is out in Europe, and when the distributor Qualiton gets its act together, also in the US, soon.

# 3 – Reissue

G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Kent Nagano, DSO Berlin, Sophie Koch, Sally Matthews et al, Harmonia Mundi 501858

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
K.Nagano / DSO Berlin
Harmonia Mundi

With mystery and sensuality second only to Seiji Ozawa (Philips), Nagano offers that sound from other spheres that few, if any, other Mahler Eighths (recent, live, or otherwise) achieve. The prominent organ in Nagano is a much appreciated touch, too. At 88 minutes (the time it takes him for the second movement is well spent!) it comes on two CDs, which made the—unfathomably short-lived—original release pricey compared to its rivals. In the lower priced hmGold re-release, that’s no longer an issue and the Mahler-addict can be glad to have one of the finest Eighths back in the catalog.

(Review of the original [SACD] release here: Live recordings of Mahler’s Eighth. The release was maligned by a hatchet review in Grammophone when it came out and was torn apart in comparison to Simon Rattle's lame Mahler 8th on Grammophone's 'in-house' label, EMI.)

-> Best Recordings of 2011 #1-10

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