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Best Recordings of 2011 (#9)

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.

# 9 - New Release

L. v. Beethoven, The Symphonies & Overtures, Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Decca 478 2721

available at AmazonLvB, Symphonies & Overtures,
R.Chailly et al. / LGO

Somehow Riccardo Chailly has managed never to record any Beethoven* (except for the Mass in C) in his long conducting career. Not, that is, until he performed and recorded Beethoven with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester over the last couple of years. (Interview with Chailly about Beethoven here: “The Band that Beethoven Knew”) Decca issued the recordings—which includes all the Overtures—on a beautiful, luxurious box, and for the most part the interpretations fulfill the promise of Chailly’s statements:

“If we don’t surprise with the works we play, at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations. Our Beethoven has come a long way and has shook up things a little, here in Leizpig. It was new for the orchestra, but after the initial surprise, the players saw the musical reasons behind it and followed with great believe and courage. That doesn’t mean changing the sound of the orchestra, though. You can’t ‘improve’ that. And it would be criminal to do so.”

The readings are also in line with my impression of Chailly aging into an ever more interesting, more daring, darker musician, instead of letting a mellow, routine dangle creep into his conducting. The First and Second Symphonies are bold works of romantic brawn and classical speed. The Third is very tightly argued and at 42 minutes (with repeats) one of the quickest on record. The Fourth, strangely, falls flat – at least to my ears, spoiled by the dancing Fourth from Vänskä & Minnesota, it’s a near-total dud. It remains the only unsatisfactory work… the next, the Fifth, is downright threatening with grim drama; well suited to frightening children and pets. The first time I listened to it, I underwent a strange sense of fascinating discomfort, not unlike a touch of vertigo… An experience ultimately much more fascinating than discomfiting.

The Overtures are irritable and gruff, dissonances are emphasized and while the lyrical lacunae are always serene, they are usually short. The “Name Day Overture” which kneels before Chailly a humble, forgotten work, rises a grand, superbly entertaining piece. Coupling it (plus the King Stephen Overture) with the wild but breezy Ninth Symphony further highlights Beethoven’s use of earlier works to sketch out the famous themes of his last symphony.

Part of the robust darkness of the set stems from the famously ‘dark’, varnished Gewandhaus sound, already impressive in the previous Leipzig Beethoven cycles under Franz Konwitschny (Berlin Classics) and Masur (1970s, Philips/Pentatone and again in the 90s, Philips). Masur’s first cycle has its followers, but except for the LGO-sound (not yet performed in the new hall, and sonically not ideal), it’s a drowsy affair. With superb sound taken from the new Gewandhaus hall, a contemporary interpretive edge, and brimming with personality, Chailly’s Beethoven—combining in it the new and old—isn’t just the Leipzig-cycle of choice, it is one of the most interesting and finest modern cycles, and utterly unique. Not my first-choice for a Beethoven cycle (Järvi, RCA or Vänskä, BIS currently), but one of the top complementary cycles.

* As a few readers have rightly pointed out, Chailly did record some more Beethoven; in the 80s he and Alicia DeLarrocha put down the five Piano Concertos on Decca. Long since deleted, it made a brief re-appearance on Decca Eclipse, but those recordings are also OOP.

# 9 – Reissue

D. Shostakovich, The String Quartets, Mandelring Quartet, Audite 5 SACDs 21.411

available at AmazonDSCH, SQ4ts 1-15,
Mandelring Quartet
Audite 5 SACDs

I have written about the Mandelring’s Shostakovich recordings before (2008, “Shostakovich with the Mandelring Quartet”, “First Impressions and Shostakovich” 2010, (“Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 18 )” 2011) – and always with calm enthusiasm… not unlike the playing of the German quartet in these interpretations. It goes something like this:

“The sheer beauty of all of Shostakovich’s brilliantly harrowing ugliness that these discs offer […] is something to behold… The Mandelring Quartett offers more beauty and less gore in Shostakovich than one would expect if the only reference were the performances of the (all-Russian) “Borodin”, “Beethoven”, or “Shostakovich” Quartets. They accentuate surfaces more than spikes and corners; their rhythmic beat is propulsive but rarely maniacal. They are DSCH-seducers, not DSCH-enforcers… which is not to say that they can’t work up an awesome storm. One must merely first get out of ‘Borodin-mode’ to listen to the Mandelring Quartett and gain the maximum reward from their sessions with Dmitry.”

In short: there's much awesomeness to be had here, and in state-of-the-art sound at that.

-> Best Recordings of 2011 #1-10

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