CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

19.12.21

The Ten Best Recordings of Kurt Masur, Who Died Today (Six Years Ago)

Kurt Masur Obituary & Discography



Kurt Masur died six years ago today, aged 88. He was born in Lower Silesia and after the war, into which he was drafted at 17, he moved to Leipzig to study conducting. That is the town in which, after short stations in Halle, Schwerin (State Theaters), Erfurt, Dresden (Philharmonic Orchestra), and Berlin (Komische Oper), he rose to musical fame as the Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, starting in 1970. After he barely survived a car crash in 1972, in which his first wife died (the incidence was alleged to have been hushed-up), he stopped using a baton. With almost a thousand concerts given abroad, he was not just a cultural ambassador for the German Democratic Republic, but also one of its more important foreign currency cash-cows. He was at best politically disinterested and certainly outwardly loyal to the regime which allowed him a privileged life in the GDR. Well-meaning commentators suggest that he simply used his influence with the party to get money and then a new concert hall for his orchestra. Then Criminal-in-Chief Erich Honecker obliged and, although the country could not afford it, had the third—still superb—Gewandhaus orchestra hall built in time for the 200th anniversary of the orchestra first moving into the original Gewandhaus. Critics accused Masur of being a little on the effusive side, when he greeted and thanked Honecker at the opening of the hall on October 8th, 1981.

Kurt Masur was huge, towered over his orchestra at 6' 5", but had soft gestures, which made for an intriguing contrast… as it did to his sometimes brusque demeanor towards orchestra members. The tower started to slope and droop with age. The left hand became limp, and just twitched along with the music. The right hand would eventually be jittery, and long before Kurt Masur publically admitted, in October of 2012, to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the disease betrayed him and his music-making. There was a sense of him being trotted around on the concert circuit, despite diminishing musical returns, which was sad. Then again, he could still draw crowds, and musicians who knew him suggested that music was the only thing that kept him going. From that point of view—that of a life-prolonging measure—he had most certainly earned himself the right to continue conducting. Masur even said himself: “What should I do? Just quit conducting and wait for death?“

In Leipzig he hurtled towards fame beyond his musical acclaim, with his call for prudence on October 9th, which was promulgated through leaflets and a short speech broadcast on radio. His moral authority was attested to have helped to keep the gatherings, which eventually led to the fall of the GDR’s regime, peaceful. Suddenly Kurt Masur was the conductor of German unification. The New York Times stylized him a “cousin of Martin Luther”; some locals wanted him nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, and politicians approached him to stand for the (largely representational) role of German President. He opted to become the music director of the New York Philharmonic, instead.

The New York Philharmonic wasn’t in good shape after neither Pierre Boulez nor Zubin Mehta were able to counter the slump into which the orchestra fell after its long Bernstein-high. There was a fear that “Leipzig-on-the-Hudson could be a duller town than Mehtaville” (Donal Henahan). Masur might not have made the New York Philharmonic an interesting orchestra, but he made them better.

In 2000, Serge Donier asked him to be the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to steer the orchestra into save waters while they looked, without hurry, for a new conductor of the next generation for the LPO. (It turned out to be very successful Vladimir Jurowski.) In 2002 he became the music director of the Orchestre National de France; a post which he held until 2008 (to be succeeded by Daniele Gatti).

The Masurine conversion from regime-benefactor to regime critic and hero of peaceful regime change meanwhile, was a very, very late one. The ascent to hero-of-the-free-people did not sit well with everyone who knew him from the years before. In my attempt to follow up on hints and suggestions of discontent, I approached the Gewandhaus Orchestra to speak to players who had worked with Masur. Without exception, they all refused to speak their mind about Masur, as it would not be proper, so soon after his death. A non-statement about as telling as any statement could have been.

But Masur is not just controversy.

The Ten Best Recordings of Kurt Masur



Granted, when I went to think about the great Kurt Masur records that will remain with us and give testimony to his art, I drew a blank at first. “Solid” just rarely translates into lasting greatness on record (certainly not from that period with the comatose New York Philharmonic). And many of Masur’s discographic achievements, while lauded and important at the time, have slipped out of print and out of collectors’ consciousness. His conducting, I found, offered no more, if rarely less, than earthy, solid, craftsman-like results. Still, there are some real gems and they are decidedly worth exploring.

He recorded two cycles of Beethoven Symphonies, for example, both with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. One between 1972 and 1974, which Philips recorded in un-utilized quadrophonic sound. It was the premiere East German Beethoven on a Western label (though Herbert Kegel’s fine cycle on Capriccio should not be overlooked), but it was wedged out of the market on either side by Karajan’s first and second Berlin-cycles. When Pentatone re-issued the set, as-intended, on SACD, it greatly improved the sonic experience but unfortunately not the steady, unflappable, slightly stodgy interpretation. The second cycle, shortly after unification, flopped on arrival, though that was largely due to marketing inaptitude or lack of fortitude: Most people didn’t notice that a set of Beethoven symphonies with Masur had indeed been issued, and of those who did, many assumed it was just a re-issue of the earlier set.

ArkivMusic lists 259 available recordings with Masur conducting, but the majority of them are inclusions in the kind of compilations into which middle-of-the-road performances get drafted and where anonymity is no sin. Perhaps it is telling that the great recordings of Masur that come to my mind have him in the rôle of giving orchestral support to a soloist: He knows how to operate in the background without ostentatious attempts to make it about himself. Surely an art, and one worth being remembered for.


available at Amazon

Brahms, Violin Concerto, Mutter, NYPhil, DG

On paper, I will concede, this was always a recording that didn’t appeal to me in the least; a potential trifecta of tedium. How wrong I was: This is an unbelievable recording; a white-hot must-have. There exists a rumor that days before this live performance, Mutter’s first husband died. Se non è vero, è ben trovato; said husband died almost two years earlier. But the recording is dedicated to his memory. And whatever the reason, the planets seem to have aligned for this one in some special way: there’s no fiercer, searing, determinate account of this concerto on record. It’s not the only way to play Brahms, of course, but it’s the most sizzling way to do so.


available at Amazon

Strauss, Vier letzte Lieder, Norman, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Philips/Decca

If I were to put together a bundle of CDs to introduce and captivate a classical neophyte, this one would be among them. In fact, it is! The double-cream gorgeousness of Jessye Norman in the equally sumptuous, lavish Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss’ is superbly embedded by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, who coax the maximum of slowness out of the music. (Masur also provides excellent musical bedding for Deborah Voigt in her recording of the Four Last Songs with the New York Philharmonic on Teldec, but it’s not quite as outrageously beautiful as the Leipzig rendering.)


available at Amazon

Ariadne auf Naxos, Norman, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Philips/Decca

With a sultry Jessye Norman, an Edita Gruberova (RIP) at her coloratura-best, the fresh Olaf Bär, accurate-didactic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau alongside Julia Varády and the best (surprisingly lean) of Leipzig’s orchestral accompaniment: This Ariadne auf Naxos is top notch stuff and a personal favorite alongside its southern, slightly more modern rival from Dresden with Giuseppe Sinopoli.


available at Amazon


Shostakovich, Violin Concertos, Sergey Khachatryan, ONdFrance, naïve

This is a first rate recording in every way, and one that helped catapult violinist Sergey Khachatryan to his very considerable career. Heaving and sorrowful and jaunty and overjoyed in turns, Khachatryan benefits from the sensitive and flexible playing that the Orchestre National de France provides under Masur who, in 2006, mustered his powers for a later winner.


available at Amazon

Shostakovich, Symphony No.13 “Babi Yar”, NYPhil, Teldec

Masur picked his Shostakovich carefully, it seemed, and what he recorded of the composer was always above average. The aforementioned concertos, an underplayed but very decent Seventh from New York, a weighty and slow-burn Fifth with the LPO, and this “Babi Yar”, also with the New York Philharmonic, which is one of the strongest in the symphony’s discography and one of the happiest examples of the Masur-Big Apple connection on record. Despite that, it is probably Sergei Leiferkus who is the star here, giving the most haunting performance of the Yevtushenko poem since Vitaly Gromadsky sang the unadulterated version under Kiril Kondrashin (Praga Digitals).


available at Amazon
available at Amazon

Bruch Violin Concertos & Symphonies, Accardo, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Philips/Decca

Bruch was disheartened that his smash-hit First Violin Concerto, even in his time, overshadowed the rest of his output. Tastes had moved on and left worthy composers in the cold before they said however much they still had to say and however much worth hearing it was. By enjoying Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 today, we show that we appreciate greatness in music across times and irrelevant of concurrent styles. But by ignoring his other two subsequent violin concertos we show that we are still victims of prevalent moods from a century ago. Let’s not. Although Nos. Two and Three are out-recorded roughly 10-to-1, they are both very fine works which Bruch, understandably, deemed as good or better. At worst, they are not as original, but only because they came later. Amazingly enough, Salvatore Accardo and Kurt Masur’s is still the only recording dedicated to all three concertos. It’s a searing, dark-chocolatey-romantic affair from First to Third and perhaps its superb quality has scared imitators off. The same, more or less, goes for Bruch’s Three symphonies and Masur’s recordings thereof, so pick those up along the way.


available at Amazon
available at Amazon

Beethoven, Complete Overtures, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Philips / Pentatone

There’s less competition in this field, than with Beethoven symphonies, which helps. And Masur’s overtures are steadily excellent, which also helps. He isn’t out for easy highlights, brash fortissimos, or obvious climaxes: it’s the solid, sturdy path to those culminating points that Masur pays most attention to. Because overtures are shorter, there’s less a chance of boredom to set in along that way, and the craftsmanship can be more easily admired, especially in the great-sounding remastered re-release on two Pentatone SACDs.


available at Amazon


Dvorák, Violin Concerto, Maxim Vengerov, NYPil, Teldec

The Dvorák Violin Concerto; is slowly gaining in deserved appreciation. So slowly, you would think there must be something wrong with it, when such a famous and beloved composer’s work in such a popular genre is being de facto ignored. But there isn’t, except for the fact that there aren’t that many great recordings. Mutter/Honeck (DG) may be the modern standard, and Tetzlaff/Storgårds (Ondine) and Steinbacher/Janowski (Pentatone) fabulous rivals. But for many years, Vengerov and Masur had set the standard, and their interpretation – an excellent mix of the tenacious (Vengerov) and the luscious (Masur) – makes it stand right in line with the two late symphonies. It has lost little to nothing of its lavish standing.

available at Amazon


Schubert/Liszt, Wanderer Fantasy “Concerto”, Symphonies 3 & 8, Boris Berezovsky, NYPhil, Teldec

This disc is noteworthy not for the Schubert symphonies (a fine, but not light or particularly sunny third; a Mendelssohnesque, crepuscular Eighth) but for Liszt’s orchestration of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, who thus turned the solo piano piece it into a strange early-yet-late romantic piano concerto—unknown and yet we can whistle along to it. There aren’t many recordings of it out there and taking sound quality into consideration (which rules out Clifford Curzon with Henry Wood), this tops the list ahead of himself with Michel Béroff (EMI) and perhaps even Bolet/Solti (Decca). It’s disconcerting how eerily well the orchestration works. One could swear that one has heard it before and never as something other than an orchestral piece. Incidentally ideal to stump even the most expert musical friends after dinner.


available at Amazon

Mahler, Symphony No.9, NYPil, Teldec

The Ninth brings out the best of many conductors in Mahler, and Masur is no different. This one stands out among Masur’s Mahler at least, if not all Mahler Nines. The sonics are great and the New York Phil of that time sounds pretty darn good for once. Ančerl it ain’t, but then no one else is, either, and it brings weight, unfussiness, and great sound to the table. Terrific third movement, certainly. Anyway, good enough to make it a full ten recordings, as lists like to come in tens. Other suggestions? Furious about omissions? Apoplectic for what I have picked? Abuse me on Twitter for some fun back and forth.




on Twitter


28.10.21

Dip Your Ears: No. 264 (A Sibelius-Classic Revisited)



available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphony No.4-7++
H.v.Karajan / Berlin Phil
DG


Karajan’s Sibelius is – rightly – uncontroversial, simply because it’s pretty darn good and often better than just that. Still, he would probably not be mentioned among the first five, or even ten names, when talking great Sibelius conductors today. Probably because he never conducted a complete cycle, having eschewed the Third entirely and the First all but once. I can’t deny that I, too, haven’t thought of Karajan as my go-to Sibelius choice in a while, having comfortably settled on a few other favorites. But on re-listening to his recording of the Fourth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic (1965), the force of this ironfisted interpretation was borne on my mind again. The sound is absolute reference class, has depth and transparency to deliver every nuance as well as every bit of oomph. The playing is deadly precise but not wall-of-sound homogenous. The music darkly glides along in all its abstract sparseness… daubed unto the musical canvas like a monochrome Seurat at moonlight. It’s a gripping experience that sounds better than memory would have suggested. In fact, so good was the impression that a comparison was in order – more or less at random. The choice fell to Berglund and his Helsinki recording for EMI. What a difference! Almost – as the cliché would have it – as if it weren’t the same work.

With Berglund, everything is lighter, gayer in comparison. He makes the music sound like the soundtrack to a Czech animated feature film about trolls and forest animals. Berglund is nice enough in each moment… and impressive when the symphony finally reaches a more conventional climax. But nothing among the niceties inexorably leads to the next moment. Nothing is woven together with the single-minded or organic determination as it is with Karajan. The latter, as the scientific phrase goes, grabs you by the lapels – the others don’t. And man, is Karajan’s version dark. There’s always a bit of “Ring Cycle without Strings” to the Fourth, but the way Wagner and Bruckner shine through in Karajan’s pristinely controlled and thereby ultimately impassioned performance is notable. I don’t mean to suggest that Karajan is bending Sibelius away from the Finn’s essence towards composers he is more familiar with or changed the character of Sibelius’ music (as might be argued to have happened with early Colin Davis, who gave Sibelius the across-the-board accessibility of a Richard Strauss tone poem). But even if he did, it’s to such tremendous, Sibelius-enhancing effect, that I couldn’t possibly object. Another Sibelius-favorite, Kurt Sanderling (Berlin Classics), also doesn’t come close to the intensity of the Karajan reading; the music – admittedly the trickiest of Sibelius masterpieces to get one’s ears around – sounds too incidental or distracted. Just about everyone can make Sibelius’ Fifth sound as if carved out of one block… Karajan does that with the Fourth! And all to tremendous effect. Listen to it! It is a unique Sibelian experience and more than deserves to retain the classic status that it long held.

The recording is part of the DG Originals Twofer of Karajan’s Sibelius for that label, part of the spotty-yet-interesting Sibelius Edition box, and on the Kamu/Karajan Berlin Philharmonic cycle on a budget TRIO set.

16.10.21

'Hadestown' tour opens at the Kennedy Center

(from top left, clockwise) Kevyn Morrow, Kimberly Marable, Nicholas Barsch, Levi Kreis, and Morgan Siobhan Green in the Hadestown North American Tour. Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Months before the coronavirus pandemic unraveled the world of theater, Hadestown received fourteen nominations at the 2019 Tony Awards and won eight awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It was the debut musical for Anaïs Mitchell, the American folk singer-songwriter and musician who had converted her album project into the music, lyrics, and book for a Broadway show that opened in 2019. A new production touring the U.S. and Canada was announced for 2020, obviously made impossible by Covid-19. The tour has finally begun with a maiden run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, which opened Friday evening.

The story modernizes the ancient tale of Orpheus, who uses his musical gifts to charm his way into the underworld to rescue his dead wife, Eurydice. Mitchell comes to this sort of literary material quite naturally. Her father is a novelist and college professor who named her after author Anaïs Nin, and she has described herself as a voracious reader. The genesis of Hadestown came as part of a larger project to reimagine Greek myths.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, ‘Hadestown’ ushers Broadway back to the Kennedy Center in style (Washington Post, October 15)

Thomas Floyd, As ‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center, the show’s creators explain the magic behind one great song (Washington Post, October 13)

D. Kevin McNeir, Actress Kimberly Marable Embraces Her ‘Dream Role’ in ‘Hadestown’ (Washington Informer, October 13)
Although Mitchell is primarily a folk singer and guitarist, the musical style of the score is heavy with 1930s jazz influences, once described as "the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America." In an interview Mitchell said of the vintage ideas she took from the 1930s, “It’s a time that is very evocative for me, I think for the whole folk world, the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and the obviousness of the corruption and exploitation of workers. I think it still goes on now, but it’s less obvious, it’s more globally oriented.” Her regular musical collaborators, Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, provided the arrangements and orchestrations. There are echoes of both Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

The cast is led in vocal beauty by the suave and resonant bass Kevyn Morrow as Hades, recast as a ruthless oil magnate crushing the souls of his damned workforce. His rhythmically propelled, bassline-thudding showpiece with the company at the end of Act I, "Why We Build the Wall," was the most memorable part of the evening. Kimberly Marable's Persephone hit her stride in the second act, in her big song "Our Lady of the Underground" and the moving duet with Hades, "How Long?" (Marable is the only cast member who was in the Broadway production, which is still running after it reopened last month.)

Monteverdi used a high voice, a tenor, to capture the strange beauty of Orpheus's semi-divine voice, and Mitchell did something similar by using a very high tenor extended out with falsetto. Marked on stage by his red hair, 23-year-old Nicholas Barasch crooned angelically and with charming naivete, especially in "Epic III," sung to remind jaded Hades of his forgotten love for Persephone. In earlier versions of Hadestown, Mitchell herself sang the role of Eurydice, and the role seemed not to sit as easily for Morgan Siobhan Green, especially in its lower ranges, where she sometimes could not be heard clearly.

The role of Hermes was created on Broadway by André De Shields, a Baltimore-raised actor and dancer in his 70s who is a hard act to follow. Levi Kreis channeled his inner Harry Connick, Jr. in this new interpretation, combining a clarion tenor and an easy comfort with dance and movement. The most complex vocal harmony came from the Three Fates - Belén Montayo, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne - a sharp-talking, menacing trio reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters, especially in their acidic number "When the Chips Are Down."

Rachel Chavkin's production is snappy and engaging, with mostly grim set design (Rachel Hauck) and costumes, except for the bright colors given to Persephone when she breaks out of hell to bring back spring (Michael Krass). A company of five singers plays both honky-tonk extras and the condemned souls, accompanied by an onstage 7-piece band, led by pianist Cody Owen Stine (percussionist Anthony Johnson is offstage). Audrey Ochoa on the trombone gets the most dynamic instrumental solos of the show. One word to the wise: don't duck out after what seems like the final number (and is so listed in the program). After the reprise of "Road to Hell," there is a company encore piece, the affecting toast "Goodnight, my brothers, goodnight."


Hadestown runs through October 31 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


30.9.21

On ClassicsToday: Bernard Labadie's Orchestra Goldberg Variations Re-Issued

 Goldberg Variations Variations (Les Violons du Roy Edition)

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

BACH_Goldberg-Variations_Violons-du-Roy_Labadie_ATMA_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

You name any instrument or combination thereof and I give you a recording of the Goldberg Variations to match it. Nearly, anyway. The good versions entice the ears or tug the heartstrings; here is a re-release that errs on the right side of success, adding its spin to old Bach’s perennial masterpiece. It’s the period band Les Violons du Roy performing an arrangement for strings and continuo, concocted and conducted by the orchestra’s founder/director Bernard Labadie. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this recording on Atma Classique was originally released on the Dorian label in 2000. It got a Classicstoday.com 10/10 rating then (see reviews archive) and the re-issue ... (Read the entire review at ClassicsToday)

1.9.21

Dip Your Ears: No. 263 (Mullova's 2009 Bach Sonatas & Partitas)



available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Sonatas & Partitas
Viktoria Mullova
Onyx


Of Bach’s Cello Suites, there has been such a plethora of recent recordings lately that greatness (Queyras) and extroverted excellence (Lipkind) relegated the merely superb (Klinger) and the very good (Gastinel) (never mind the dishwater variety—Isserlis) to shadowy spots they didn’t necessarily reserve and wouldn’t have received had the timing been better.

The timing is excellent, however, for Viktoria Mullova’s Sonatas & Partitas because there hasn’t been an important recording issued since Julia Fischer’s (Pentatone) and Gidon Kremer’s on ECM in 2005, and Christian Tetzlaff’s on Hänssler in 2007. (Ed. He’s since released a wonderful new recording on Ondine.)

Her recording is big news, then, and better yet: it’s good news. In brief and thoughtful liner notes that peel right through to the essence of why she added hers to the long list of violinists’ names on the Sonata & Partita roll call, she outlines her musical transformation as it relates to Bach. She has come from a decidedly old-school approach (she describes it as a sort of Russian robotic approach with continuous vibrato, sans liberties, and little articulation) to what is for all theoretical purposes a Historically Informed Performance account. She even plays with gut strings and a baroque bow, one or the other or both of which she has been doing for years in all repertoire where appropriate. (Her recordings of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Concertos are on gut string and she uses the baroque setup for her recent Bach and Vivaldi recordings.) As with her latest Bach release and the Vivaldi concertos on Archiv, she is playing a 1750 Guadagnini (and a Walter Barbiero baroque bow) tuned to A=415, not her 1723 “Julius Falk” Stradivari.

Listening to it at first, my first response to it was rather cool. Her playing is not always beautiful. Short bow strokes in the D minor Sarabande certainly don’t aim for prettiness. The sound is close, but with lots of room around her, direct but spacious, allowing the sound to bloom, and hiding nothing—for better and worse. I found it occasionally too close, leaving me with the feeling of standing a little too close to a painting that I admire. Her former rigor in Bach—perhaps even stiffness—is gone, although that approach I actually find myself appreciating.

It wasn’t until direct comparison that the scales fell off my ears , revealing not only relative excellence but greatness. If upon the first few listens she didn’t seem to be delivering something truly out of the ordinary, now she shines. I matched her against Tetzlaff’s new recording and—difference of pitch apart—the dissimilarities are vast and instructive. The relative lack of ambiance gives a yet more immediate, more contained impression of Tetzlaff’s instrument (presumably his modern Guarneri del Gesu copy by Peter Greiner). When listened to on its own, Tetzlaff’s Hänssler recording is striking to a degree, but the allure is lost: the violin sound comes across as squeaky, the playing constrained and lacking spontaneity.

Mullova works hard to get momentum by way of her rather aggressive rhythmic dotting and double-stopping, enjoying the hard edges that Bach offers. Although it doesn’t quite sound like it, it feels more like Nathan Milstein than anyone else. The touches of gentleness amid that overt vigor betray the amount of thought put into making the recording, making Tetzlaff’s approach seem rather academic and deliberate (check the Siciliana ) in comparison. Mullova really does play with guts—not just gut strings—which gives the Sonatas & Partitas a feel of being lived rather than just read. When Mullova is faster (throughout most of the First Sonata) she strikes as more pointed and lively. When she is slower (most extreme—4:04 to 2:21—in the first Double ), less trying to master a technical challenge than communicating the spirit of the music. In the second Double , taken fast by both but faster still by Tetzlaff, the latter comes perilously close to sounding like a sewing machine.

With first impressions manifesting themselves as hardened opinions, the differences between her and Tetzlaff, which I originally thought would be small despite Mullova’s quasi-HIP approach, became ever more obvious. Painfully so, after a while. After a while, the audio quality of the Hänssler recording gives you the impression of being thrown back 25 years. And the interpretation becomes more and more uninteresting. Not skipping ahead whenever it was Tetzlaff‘s turn grew ever more difficult. When Mullova came back on (say, with the A minor Fuga after Tetzlaff’s Grave ), it felt like relief.

That the differences are—or become—so striking, is all the more surprising since I cherish Tetzlaff in general and cherished his Bach in particular. This drop in appreciation (despite some terrific instances on his part—the A minor Allegro, D minor Giga, and his Ciaconna among them) isn’t just a matter of appreciating a particular interpretive style, either. Spot-light comparisons with other favorite recordings (Milstein on DG, my eternal touchstone; Podger, my HIP-standard bearer; Fischer, my favorite among modern, honeyed versions) did not yield the same discrepancies despite being very different from Mullova. Especially Julia Fischer offers drastic contrast (only Shlomo Mintz’ mellifluous account might be further from Mullova than Fischer) and yet she delights equally.

Mullova, for all her HIP-training and gear, will not replace Rachel Podger as the favorite of that particular approach: there is modern spirit to it all that makes it stand too tall and too proud as to be a vehicle for the authenticists’ ideology. Nor will she end all arguments on style with this HIP-means/modern spirit approach. That’s incidentally not what a recording is intended or supposed to do. What Mullova will achieve, however, is as much a splash in the world of Sonata & Partita connoisseurs as Fischer created, and that by wonderfully different means. The time it took to get to appreciate, like, and finally love this recording was well invested.

5.5.21

On ClassicsToday: New Beethoven Concerto Cycle from Mitsuko Uchida

 Mitsuko Uchida’s Second Beethoven Concerto Cycle

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Beethoven_Piano-Concertos_UCHIDA_Rattle_BPH_BPH-SACDs

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Mitsuko Uchida’s slightly-under-the-radar cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the artless Kurt Sanderling (Philips/Decca) is one of my favorites for its almost self-effacing musicality and the orchestral precision that translates into lightness without sacrificing oomph. On Classicstoday.com Jed Distler praised the “Emperor” as ranking “with Schnabel, Solomon, Kempff, Arrau, Fleisher, and Gieseking among [the] finest recorded versions.” Naturally, Uchida’s new cycle elicited my interest. (Read the entire review at ClassicsToday)

4.5.21

On ClassicsToday: A Vikingur Retrospective, Musicianship over Hype

 Triad: Víkingur Ólafsson’s Greatest Hits

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

BACH_GLASS_RAMEAU_Triad_Vikingur_DG_ClassicsToday_jens-f-laurson_classical-critic

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Triad, the latest release by Icelandic pianist Vikingur (Heiðar) Ólafsson, isn’t a new album. It’s simply a fancy repackaging of his last three main releases for Deutsche Grammophon. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if all three of those releases weren’t absolute corkers. There’s a disc of Bach–transcriptions both original, third-party, and by Bach himself–that was an easy 10/10 choice when we reviewed it here (see reviews archive). Both of the other two albums are similarly lofty achievements... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday

3.5.21

On ClassicsToday: Wonderful Józef Elsner String Quartets

 

String Quartet Discoveries: A Polish Haydn?

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

ELSNER_Jozef_String-Quartets_Op1_NFM_CD-ACCORD

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

This disc of the first-ever recordings of the String Quartets Op. 1 Nos.1-3 by Józef Elsner (1769-1854) is not the first disc of Elsner string quartets, but it marks the first time I took note of a name I’ll now never forget. They are such good works, much in the vein of Haydn, that I fell in love right away. But could they really be that good? Perhaps I was getting carried away. Yet on the tenth–or fifteenth–hearing they still hold up. These are varied, mature classical string quartets of the first order, not second tier also-rans... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday)

25.4.21

For Your Consideration: Oscar-Nominated Short Films

For a film industry devastated by the coronavirus, the nominees in the major categories of the Academy Awards felt of lower quality as a group. Not really a surprise as most Americans have not seen a movie in an actual cinema for over a year, and the rules on qualifying for the awards were relaxed to allow entries from streaming platforms. At the top of the pile for this critic was The Father, which should win Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Christopher Hampton and daring French author Florian Zeller, from Zeller's play), Film Editing, and Actor in a Leading Role (for Anthony Hopkins). Also noteworthy were Nomadland, which should win Frances McDormand the award for Actress in a Leading Role; Mank, for Cinematography; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design; Minari for Original Screenplay and Actress in a Supporting Role for the hilarious Yuh-Jung Youn; Sound of Metal for Sound; and the charming, disturbing Another Round for Best Director and International Feature Film.


 

On the other hand, the short films nominated for awards in their three categories were of a remarkable quality this year, or perhaps it is just that they are at their normal level and shine by comparison. The movies up for Animated Short Film took on subjects tragic (If Anything Happens I Love You and Genius Loci), whimsical (Burrow), and weird (Opera). The most charming, watchable nominee in this category was Yes-People, the entry from Iceland written and directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson. A microcosm of existential desperation and human coping set in an apartment building, the film develops several stories in a deceptively compact eight minutes.


Among the nominees for Documentary Short Subject the entries were intensely personal, including A Love Song for Latasha (commemorating the shooting of Latasha Harlins in a Los Angeles convenience store in 1991), Hunger Ward (filmed inside the famine crisis in Yemen), and Do Not Split (shot from behind the lines of the Hong Kong democracy protests). Near the top was Colette, a searing look back at a very uncomfortable topic in France, the resistance to the Nazi occupation, involving the meeting between a young historian seeking to document the era and an elderly woman who fought in the resistance. Their visit to the concentration camp where the older woman's brother was killed is overwhelming to watch. The winner for me was A Concerto is a Conversation, a love song between jazz pianist and composer Kris Bowers and his grandfather, whose sacrifices and triumphs over racism laid the foundation for the younger man's success.

In the Live Action Short column, The Letter Room was strong, starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Two Distant Strangers put an odd, almost witty spin on the issue of police murders of black men in the United States. The strongest nominee is The Present, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi. It tells the story of the humiliating day-long journey made by a husband with his young daughter to buy a new refrigerator as an anniversary gift for his wife. This seemingly mundane outing is complicated because the man lives in the West Bank and must pass Israeli Checkpoint 300, near Bethlehem, to reach the store. One early morning scene was actually filmed guerrilla-style at the checkpoint, with the actor among actual Palestinians waiting to cross.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight at 8 p.m.

9.3.21

Dip Your Ears: No. 263 (Klieser's Baroque Horn Arias)

available at Amazon
Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, "Beyond Words"
Felix Klieser / Chaarts Chamber Artists
(Berlin Classics)

Felix Klieser’s latest release, “Beyond Words”, is a trip up and down the most beloved and touching Bach-Haendel-Vivaldi arias and choruses, arranged for his instrument and chamber orchestra. “Vergnügte Ruh”, “Lascia ch’io pianga”, “Gloria”, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Ombra mai fu”, and “Hallelujah”: If you can whistle it, it’s included here. Except that Klieser does not whistle the tunes, he performs them beautifully on the French horn. The result sounds a bit like a collection of known-unknown baroque trumpet concertos, except a good deal mellower. Festive, comforting. Working well enough even in the most predictable arrangements and very nicely everywhere else, the result is an unintentional must-have Christmas-CD.

The Chaarts Chamber Artists, a Switzerland-based modular pick-up ensemble, provide the band. Although they don’t play themselves into the foreground, they’re essential in the disc’s accomplishment of grand pleasantry: Supple and pliable, with beautifully flowing tempi exactly where we’d expect them in 2021; neither sluggish nor rushed. The cembalo – the liner notes don’t divulge who’s at the wheel (perhaps Naoki Kitaya?) – sounds particularly juicy and judicious. Finally there’s Klieser’s mellifluous play with which he regales us. Beautifully muted and executed with casual panache, “Sielant Zephyri” from Vivaldi’s Filiae Maeste Jerusalem – with the dotted string accompaniment reminiscent of “Winter” – is a beautiful, warm-timbred, dark-toned example. And that’s the story for the whole entertaining hour of music. An album for an occasion, equally suitable to close listening and letting it drift into the background, guilt-free.

P.S. If you did not already know: Klieser plays the horn with his feet. But that’s really neither here nor there: The playing would be impressive even if he had hands to do it with.

8/9