Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Giuseppe Di Stefano - In Concerto - Live, 1950-52, G.O.P.

Giuseppe Di Stefano

I Concerti General Motors alla TV Messicana,
Mexico City, June-July 1952

I Concerti a San Francisco, October 1950

Ed Sullivan Show, New York, 1952.
G.O.P., 2002. 2 CD. TT: 76.63+73.26.


CD 1 (76.33):
      1.     De Curtis: Tu can nun chiagne
      2.     Barrera: Granadinas
      3.     Puccini: Turandot – Nessum dorma
Mexican TV – 15/6/1952.
      4.     Tosti: Serenata*
      5.     Mario: Santa Lucia luntana**
      6.     Cioffi: Na sera a maggio
Mexican TV – 22/6/1952.
      7.     Perez-Freire: Ay, ay, ay
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Cardillo: Core ‘ngrato
Mexican TV – 29/6/1952.
 10.     Nutile-Russo: Mamma mia, che vo’ sappe
 11.     Ponce: Estrelita
 12.     Tosti: Marechiare
Mexican TV – 6/7/1952.
 13.     Bellini: Vaga luna che inargenti
 14.     Bellini: Chi se ne scorda cch’io***
 15.     Tosti: A vucchella
Mexican TV – 13/7/1952.
 16.     Barberis: Munastere a Santa Chiara
 17.     Falvo: Dicintencello vuje
 18.     Di Capua: O sole mio
Mexican TV – 27/7/1952.
 19.     Verdi: Rigoletto – La donna e mobile
 20.     Traditional: Adeste fideles
 21.     Adam: O Holy Night (with Licia Albanese)
Ed Sullivan Show, 1952.

CD 2 (73.26):
      1.     Gounod: Faust – Salut! Demetre chaste et pure
      2.     Flotow: Marta – M’appari tutt’amor
      3.     Puccini: La boheme – Che gelida manina / Si, mi chiamano Mimi / O soave fanciulla (with Bidu Sayao)
San Francisco, 1/10/1950.
      4.     Massenet: Le Cid – O souverain, o juge, o pere
      5.     Verdi: Rigoletto – Ella mi fu rapita – Parmi veder le lagrime
      6.     Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Viene le sera (with Renata Tebaldi)
San Francisco, 15/10/1950.
      7.     Ponchielli: La Gioconda – Cielo e mar
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor – Duet and Finale of Act 1 (with Lily Pons)
San Francisco – 29/10/1950.

San Francisco Opera Association Orchestra
Gaetano Merola, conductor

Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor


*This is not Tosti’s “Serenata”. According to the discography compiled by Frank Hamilton, the song is “Serenata del burattino” by one Eugenio Mignone. Mr Hamilton also gives an orchestra (Grand Orchestra del General Motors) and a conductor (Raoul LaVista) for the Mexico City concerts. He claims that only “La donna e mobile” comes from Ed Sullivan’s show; the last two tracks on CD 1 he describes as “unknown radio broadcasts”. There are many other discrepancies between Mr Hamilton’s discography and the booklet; only the more substantial are noted below.

**Mr Hamilton notes this song as “Santa Lucia” and gives the composer as “N. N. Palardi”.

***There is actually no name given in the booklet, suggesting that the song is also by Bellini. Mr Hamilton disagrees and gives “R. Barthélemy” as the composer. The correct title is "Chi se ne scorda cchiù".


I am told that there are natural singers and made singers. Though of course he must have something of a voice the made singer owes the better part of his accomplishment to training; with taste and musical ability he can eke out the relative poverty of his organ and his singing can afford a great deal of pleasure, especially to the connoisseur; but he will never move you as you are moved to ecstasy by the pure, bird-like notes of the natural singer. The natural singer may be inadequately trained, he may have neither tact nor knowledge, he may outrage all the canons of art, but such is the magic of his voice that you are captivated. You forgive the liberties he takes, his vulgarities, his appeals to obvious emotion, when those heavenly sounds enchant your ear.

So wrote Somerset Maugham.[1] Though he was neither a musician nor a musical critic, there is a great deal of truth in his words. Giuseppe Di Stefano (or Pippo, as he is affectionately known to his fans) was a natural singer. He committed all of the original sins at one time or another, though less often than one might think as his natural taste was remarkably good. He never had the technique of Bergonzi, Krauss or Gedda. Then again, they never had the emotive power of his voice. There was much the same situation between Pavarotti (a natural singer) and Domingo (a made singer) in more recent times. Domingo’s longevity, repertoire and critical acclaim are far greater, but he has never moved – and never will – the masses with his voice as Pavarotti did.

If Pippo’s art, whatever his vagaries of taste, has the power to move you, you must have this set. It contains live recordings from 1950 and 1952 that capture him in his absolute prime. Now, Pippo’s prime was tragically short. It was confined to the late 40s and the early 50s. Unwise choice of heavy parts (Radames, Alvaro, Canio, Calaf) and loose life (so the evil tongues say) ruined his voice in a decade or so. As early as the mid-50s, it had begun to show signs of strain. Ten years later, there was virtually nothing left of his magnificent lyric tenor. Simply compare his two studio recordings of Tosca. If you only know the second one (1962, Karajan, Decca), you might think there is nothing much wrong with Pippo. He still sounds better than 99 percent of his contemporaries. But when you hear his Cavaradossi merely nine years earlier (1953, De Sabata, EMI), you might just be shocked by the change. He continued to sing songs and small parts until the early 1990s. The less said about this period, the better.

Pippo’s performances on this set make all but the very best of his studio recordings pale in comparison. The first disc contains 18 tracks, mostly Italian songs and an occasional aria, recorded in June and July 1952 by the Mexican TV at the so-called General Motors concerts in Mexico City. By way of bonus tracks, there are three selections from Ed Sullivan’s show. The second disc contains only opera, both arias and duets (with Bidu Sayao, Renata Tebaldi and Lily Pons), recorded in October 1950 in San Francisco, complete with the voice of an unknown announcer.

You have to hear these performances in order to believe them. The voice is fabulous. The killer high notes are effortless, ringing, jaw-dropping. Just hear the finale of “Nessun dorma”. Pippo’s famous pianissimi are as breathtaking as ever, most notably in “E lucevan le stelle”, but also in the end of Faust’s “Salut!”, “Ay, ay, ay” and especially in “Granadinas”, a beautiful Spanish song of which Pippo gives the definitive performance. If he had but few peers in the operatic repertoire, he had none whatsoever in the realm of the Italian (or Spanish) song. Just compare Kraus’ vapid rendition of “Granadinas” with Pippo’s impassioned delivery here and you will know what I mean. Nor can I think of any singer who can compare with Pippo’s full-bloodied renditions of classics like “O sole mio”, “Core ‘ngrato”, “Tu ca nun chiagne” and “Na sera e maggio”. He is an absolute master of the controlled excess they require.

For this is precisely the point. It’s not just the voice. The sheer musicianship is amazing, too. Much like Caruso (another natural singer par excellence), Pippo had an instinctive grasp about the dramatic value of words and phrases; his “canto” may not be “bel” enough for the connoisseurs, but for me it works really fine. Even at his best he does distort melodic lines occasionally, but for the most part he only inflects them in a peculiar but dramatically relevant way. Opera, like any other art that combines words and music, is an impossible thing by default. You cannot have perfect diction, like Pippo, without losing some of the music’s elegance – unless, of course, you choose a completely passionless way of performance. This Pippo could never do. It is important to understand that his “defects” were not wilful eccentricities. They stemmed from firm artistic convictions. “It’s no good just singing the music,” he used to say. “You have to sing the words, and sing them from your heart.”[2]

Of course, there is a catch. The sound on the first disc is atrocious. I hasten to add that Pippo’s incredible singing easily transcends any sonic imperfections. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to put up with a good deal of background noise and heavy distortion that bring to mind early electrical recordings. The haunting clarinet in the beginning of “E lucevan le stelle” is just one example of cringeworthy, indeed painful, aural experience. The ending of “Granadinas” is marred by a sudden and particularly nasty sound change. It’s not enough to obscure that heavenly pianissimo, but it’s rather unpleasant all the same. I suppose one is unwise to expect more from the Mexican TV in 1952. Fortunately, the sound on the second disc is much better.

The presentation is what one should expect from a small Italian label. The booklet contains recording details and a delightful collection of photographs of Pippo in various roles, from warhorses like Tosca and La Traviata to rarities like Wagner’s Rienzi and Mascagni’s Iris, but no liner notes at all. Who needs them with a voice like that anyway? There is a second "booklet" which serves the purpose of G.O.P. catalogue. The set is impressively out of print and may be hard to find, not to mention slightly expensive. It is worth all the time and money you are likely to spend on it. But only, I repeat, if Pippo’s artistry means something special to you – and if you don’t suffer from the severe and all but incurable disease called audiophilia. If Giuseppe Di Stefano is just another tenor for you, don’t bother.   

[1] The Summing Up (1938), xxiii.
[2] Patrick O’Connor, liner notes to Giuseppe Di Stefano: The Opera Singer, EMI Classics, 2008, 3 CD, ICON series.

Review: Liszt - Funeral Odes, From the Cradle to the Grave, Two Episodes from Lenau's "Faust" - Volkov - Hyperion, 2010

[Review originally written in 2011.]

4 stars for the interpretation, plus 1 star for the courage

It is just wonderful to see a brand new disc (recorded in 2010) dedicated entirely to Liszt rarities. Hyperion are thus doing a far better job in celebrating the 200th anniversary from Liszt's birth than DG, EMI, SONY or Brilliant who seem stuck with mammoth compilations of dubious value. All works on this disc are among Liszt's most rarely performed symphonic creations and each one of them has received no more than a few recordings. Therefore, this is a most worthy addition to a fairly slender discography, its minor faults being excused by the extreme rarity of the music.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (''From the Cradle to the Grave'') is Liszt's last, 13th, symphonic poem, composed as late as 1881, full two decades after the last such work from the Weimar period was published. Apart from the several complete recordings of Liszt's symphonic poems (
Haitink, Masur, Joo, Halasz, Noseda), I think it has been recorded separately only by Georg Solti. It is a beautiful work that does not deserve so high degree of neglect. The outer two parts are tranquil and ethereal, written and scored with the economy so characteristic for Liszt's late years, and very fitting to evoke the ''cradle'' and ''grave'' indeed. The middle part is very short but very tempestuous, looking back to the Romantic rhetoric of the Weimar years and trying to convey with music the struggle for existence that occupies most of our lives.

Trois Odes funèbres are an even greater rarity. Apart from Leslie Howard's recording of the solo piano versions in volume 3 of his unique series, I think only Halasz and Rickenbacher have recorded the orchestral versions (Halasz, indeed, has recorded only the last one). Since I have never heard either, this performance was my introduction to these gloomy and brooding works which, apparently, had a great deal of personal significance for Liszt. Composed between 1860 and 1866, they reflected the death of two of his children, his son Daniel in 1859 and his elder daughter Blandine in 1862, which presumably inspired the composition of Les Morts and La Notte, respectively.

Les Morts is a beautiful and serene piece, quoting from several religious chants and with a most moving inclusion of a chorus singing few lines in Latin, the first one of which – ''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'' – is taken from Lamennais' poem. La Notte employs the haunting theme from ''Il Penseroso'', a piano piece composed as early as 1839 and later revised for the second book of Années de pèlerinage; incidentally, Liszt also used the same quatrain from Michelangelo which is supposed, together with the eponymous sculpture, to have inspired him to create one of his most disturbing creations, in whatever version you choose to listen to it. If anything, the main theme sounds even more brooding in its orchestral guise. Unlike the piano piece, here there is an entirely new central section of exquisite beauty and the early thematic material is additionally developed. Finally, there is Le Triomphe funebre du Tasso (''The Funeral Triumph of Tasso'') which also uses old material from one of Liszt's earliest symphonic poems (Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo) describing the life and struggles of the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso. The funeral ode refers to his posthumous fame and is an entirely original composition. It has an admirable restraint altogether different than the grand finale of the symphonic poem composed more than a decade earlier.

All in all, I am not sure that any of these three Funeral Odes is Liszt at his orchestral best, but they are well worth hearing none the less for that. It is wonderful that they are recorded here as a set, exactly as Liszt wished them to be performed.

Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust is the earliest work on the disc, having being completed by 1861. The second of these ''episodes'' is no other than the famous Mephisto Waltz No. 1, much more popular in its earlier version for solo piano. Still, the orchestral version has been recorded by several great conductors such as 
Karajan, Solti and Haitink. Thus the nearly complete neglect of the first of these episodes, Der nächtliche Zug, is all the more difficult to explain. Apart from the present one, I know of only three other recordings of it, all of them together with the Mephisto Waltz and all of them worth hearing: Masur, Ansermet, Joo. The works work surprisingly fine as a set, which is of course how they should be performed and recorded. It is interesting to note that Ilan Volkov uses the alternative, quiet, ending rather than the better-known, but less appropriate I think, loud orchestral tour de force. So far as I can remember, Ansermet is the only other conductor who does that.

The very young Ilan Volkov (b. 1976) has done a fine job at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. My only quibble with his conducting is certain timidity which is hardly desirable even in the essentially introvert Funeral Odes, let alone in the ebullient sections of the Mephisto Waltz. That said, for so young a man Volkov demonstrates, I think, a firm grasp of the orchestra and a remarkable understanding of this not particularly easy to assimilate music. He certainly may use a little fire in the climaxes, but on the whole he is quite sensitive to Liszt's ingenious orchestration and strange melodic ideas. Apart from Karajan and Solti, for whose demonic drive he is no match, Volkov’s Mephisto Waltz stands only too well comparisons with the renditions of Masur (not so dismal as in most of his Liszt recordings) or Haitink (wonderfully musical, but meek and mild). Even though I do prefer the grander approach of Joo or Ansermet in Der nächtliche Zug, I find Volkov none the less fascinating for that.

The recorded sound is well produced, with great clarity and dynamic range, but with somewhat shoddy tutti and lack of depth in the strings. It is true that most of this music avoids massive orchestral climaxes, but a more prominent brass and better balanced percussion instruments, why not more volume in the strings, might have had a beneficial effect in the Funeral Odes and especially in the Faust Episodes. After all, even in his later years Liszt never fully abandoned the occasional burst of – if you choose to believe – genuine, sincere and healthy dose of rhetoric. Indeed, Liszt might have agreed with Somerset Maugham that excess on occasion is exhilarating for it prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit. 

The booklet is very finely done, with a most suitable painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the cover. The liner notes are by Leslie Howard himself and he provides the same kind of concise and perceptive analyses of the history of composition and the musical value of each work as we well know he is capable of. There are here many insightful touches that are bound to raise your appreciation of these works. For instance, Liszt not only based Les Morts on the eponymous literary work by Lamennais (quoted in full in the liner notes), but he actually followed the poem verse by verse with his music, repeating the same motif every time the aforementioned line (''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'') occurs. So this appears to be one of the very few examples in Liszt's oeuvre where he wrote pure program music with distinctly descriptive character. Contrary to the popular misunderstanding, most of Liszt's program music was much more concerned with philosophical ideas, characters, moods and impressions, rather than with narrative of events or description of details. The amazing thing about Les Morts is that it doesn't sound loose or fragmented as one might expect. Another fascinating detail from Leslie's liner notes is the musical reference to Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies in the middle section of La Notte – which cannot be missed even by the layman – which symbolises Liszt's own feeling that he would die far from his native Hungary. He was quite right as it turned out, but to dispel any doubt about the middle part of La Notte he inserted above the opening phrase the words of Virgil from his Aeneid: ''And dying he remembers fair Argos''.

All in all, an excellent disc for every Lisztian, or for anybody anxious to explore some of Liszt's most introverted and atmospheric music from his late years. Beautifully selected, decently recorded, lavishly presented, perfectly filled (nearly 79 minutes) and, most importantly, well played and sensitively interpreted, this CD is a must even at full price. Let us hope that all works on it will be more frequently recorded in the future.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: Louis Kentner plays Liszt - Vox Legends, 1992, 2 CD

 Amazing recordings of a very unjustly forgotten Lisztian

My introduction to Louis Kentner (1905-1987) was rather unusual, namely his two compelling chapters in an excellent (though a little dated) volume of essays entirely dedicated to Liszt and edited by Alan Walker himself.[1] Only later did I discover that, in addition to a fine writer, Louis Kentner also was an outstanding pianist. Unfortunately, very few of his recordings are currently available, virtually all of them second-hand. This double disc is one of the few I could find and now, having listened to it quite a number of times, I cannot recommend it highly enough to everybody seriously interested in Liszt's piano music.

To begin with a few quibbles, the CD is pretty poorly presented. The documentation is appallingly sloppy: no recording dates, let alone locations, are given. The only indication about the time of recording is a short note that these recordings were issued on LP in the 1960s and early 1970s. Well, this is what you can find on the back cover – inside the booklet the years are ''late 1950s and early 1960s''. Which is the true statement is anybody's guess, though the former looks more probable. The booklet itself is a strange mixture of perceptive liner notes and hackneyed clichés about Liszt's notorious dualities (the genius-charlatan stuff, you know), to say nothing of the very short biographical note of Louis Kentner that is even more perfunctory than the one in Wikipedia (which is miserable enough).[2] Among the liner notes, however, despite few muddled passages about the history or the identity of certain compositions, there are some valuable passages such as extended analyses of the Don Juan Fantasy and the Faust Waltz including the exact parts from Mozart's and Gounod's operas, respectively, that inspired them.

Another caveat to be kept in mind is, of course, the sound. The back cover boasts ''digitally remastered from original analog tapes'' and the sound is indeed very clean and with a fine dynamic range. But the balance is pretty shaky: the high register is almost always clangy and the bass is not a little overblown. For an early stereo, whatever the year, it is not a bad achievement, but I daresay VOX might have done a better job. Never mind. As soon as you hear Kentner's playing, you wouldn't care at all about sonic imperfections.

The discs are not especially well-filled (64:35, 64:29), but they contain an amazingly varied program which is most probably the best illustration of Liszt's versatility in so limited a space.

The first disc consists entirely of original compositions, ranging in time from Harmonies poetiques and religuieses (1833-34) and the first piece from Apparitions (1834) to La Lugubre gondola (1882, the first piece of that name) and Nuages gris (1881, also known as Trübe Wolken); in other words, ranging from Liszt's middle twenties to his early seventies. The range of moods is equally startling. Elegy No. 2 and especially Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude are among Liszt's most lyrical creations, whereas Ballade No. 2 is surely among his most dramatic and full of grand Romantic rhetoric works. Harmonies poetiques and religuieses must not be mistaken with the cycle of ten pieces that bears the same name but was composed more than a decade later. Incidentally, Benediction... is the third piece of this cycle whereas the fourth, Pensee des Morts, is an extensive reworking of part of the original Harmonies poetiques and religuieses. It is wonderful to find here the vastly under-recorded early piece. It is way more daring and sometimes so reminiscent of Liszt's late works that it is all the more difficult to convince oneself that he actually was 22-23 years old when he composed it.

The second disc is (almost) entirely dedicated to Liszt's arrangements of music by others which cover the whole ground between more or less straightforward transcriptions (the Spinning Song) to elaborate paraphrases based on several motives from one or more operas (such as Valse de Concert on themes by Donizetti and the celebrated Faust Waltz which Gounod himself could never have dreamed of) to stunning fantasies which compress whole operas into one piano piece with unmatched skill and are for all purposes original compositions (such as the Don Juan Fantasy, of course). As a special bonus, there are Four Little Piano Pieces of charming delicacy: a stark contrast with the scintillating bravura of the arrangements indeed. It might be useful here to remind the curious Lisztian that these lovely little pieces are also known as Fünf Klavierstücke (these four plus one more, check Leslie Howard, 
vol. 11) and since they were composed in the course of no fewer than 14 years (1865-1879), they were never intended as a cycle. If any of these pieces sounds vaguely familiar to you, this is probably due to the fact that the second one was derived from the second piece of another, much more famous set: Liebesträume.

Describing the artistry of any pianist is difficult enough a business, and the result usually is a mess of highly subjective phrases and futile comparisons. But describing the playing of Louis Kentner is well-nigh impossible. By modern standards it is often eccentric, but who says that modern standards are the best ones? It should be remembered that Kentner was born as early as 1905, less than two decades after the death of Liszt himself when many of his pupils were still teaching and concertizing. In those historical times – a mere century ago, but to modern piano lovers they seems as ancient as the pyramids – the printed notes had not acquired the sacredness which is now bestowed on them, nor were tempo indications considered more important than expression and feeling.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic interpretation of Louis Kentner here is the Benediction... for it is taken way faster than usual and has absolutely nothing in common with Arrau's intense lyricism or Bolet's ethereal serenity. In fact, Kentner's tumultuous passion reminds me of the young Brendel trying to break some Viennese instruments (again for VOX, incidentally) in the late 1950s. However, very much unlike Brendel indeed, Kentner doesn't use a sledgehammer in the climaxes and he easily achieves enormous sonority without any banging whatsoever. No less remarkable is the Don Juan Fantasy which is played with supreme panache yet with remarkable subtlety as well, combining the best features of Earl Wild's fiery virtuosity with Jorge Bolet's poised elegance. Despite at least one annoying cut (in the transition to the last part) and a good many sonic imperfections, this is certainly one of the finest renditions of this daunting piece I have ever heard. So, for that matter, is the Second Ballade: another combination of sweeping power and sensitive musicianship not often found in this piece.

All in all, unique and fascinating pianism from another era which you are as unlikely to encounter anywhere today as it is improbable to find another double CD which illustrates better the extraordinary range of forms and feelings mastered by Liszt. It is a shame that these marvellous recordings are not more easily accessible. From Naxos I am given to understand that Louis Kentner recorded a great deal of Liszt for VOX in the 1960s and 1970s – complete Transcendental Studies and Hungarian Rhapsodies, Paganini Etudes and more paraphrases – and I am stupefied that virtually of all of it, apparently, is impossible to be obtained. There are also some speculations about certain physical decline of Kentner in these recordings, for he was well in his sixties, but if he had any technical shortcomings at the time, he certainly managed very successfully to convert them in artistic advantages as I have never noticed them.

[1] Franz Liszt: the Man & His Music, Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.
[2] Much more extensive biography of Louis Kentner is available on the Naxos website.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: Liszt - Faust Symphony - Sinopoli - DG/Eloquence, 1996

Considerable disappointment

Having been fascinated by Sinopoli's tremendous rendition of Liszt's Dante Symphony, I was naturally excited to find out that he had also recorded the Faust Symphony with the same orchestra, for the same label, and roughly at the same time. Though the competition in this field is considerably more formidable than as regards Liszt's other symphony, which is indeed vastly under-recorded, I venture the suggestion that Sinopoli's nearly complete failure here has nothing to do with that. It is perplexing how the same man conducting the same orchestra in the same period of his life can produce so hugely different results. Sinopoli's Dante remains my absolutely first choice, rivalled but hardly equalled let alone surpassed by Barenboim alone. But Sinopoli's Faust is, if not the last, certainly one of my last choices; and that has nothing to do with the fact that quite a few eminent conductors have recorded it (Muti, Bernstein, Horenstein, Beecham, Barenboim, Rattle, Solti, to name but a few).

It is interesting to observe that Sinopoli's Dante is one of the slowest on record, whereas his Faust is one of the fastest. Indeed, at less than 68 minutes, Sinopoli is almost as fast as the incandescent Jascha Horenstein; but where the latter creates one of the most exciting Faust on record, the former ends up a total mess. To say that Sinopoli's performance is rushed is a gross understatement. The climaxes in the first part, the ''Gretchen'' theme, the final chorus: all of them are taken at ridiculous speed and with hardly any idea of what lies behind the notes. Having a fine orchestra and a superior label at his disposal, Sinopoli is virtually immune to sloppiness of execution or inferior sound quality. All the same, rushing through the score like that cannot be saved by technical perfection. On the top of all that, Sinopoli's shoddy climaxes – shoddy as interpretation, not as performance – are often additionally marred by his bizarre, to say the least, ideas of orchestral colour; one of the most dismaying examples occurs towards the end of the first movement where part of the brass suddenly ''leaps out'' of the orchestra and gives me quite a shock. The best about this recording is Vinson Cole whose tenor is not especially powerful, but its tenderness fits his part here wonderfully. With the exception of Gösta Windbergh on Muti's recording, I cannot recall a more moving rendition of Die Ewig-Weibliche.

I am grateful to Eloquence for having made this recording available at budget price. This is just about all that it is worth. The original DG disc is currently – and thankfully – out of print and second-hand copies are almost indecently expensive. May it remain out of print. I see that the Eloquence re-issue is not available either. So much the better for the Faust Symphony indeed! Such a great music deserves much more than that.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review: Bizet - L'Arlesienne Suites, Carmen Suite - Karajan - DG, 1984

Karajan's best Bizet, suite-wise

I am no fan of Eliette von Karajan's landscapes, one of which is supposed to grace the front cover of this album, but her husband's way with Bizet is another matter. This disc is yet another proof, if any more is needed, that Karajan's digital period was far from the sad decline some "experts" try to make it out.

These sumptuously recorded accounts of the two suites from L'Arlésienne are easily Karajan's best. The obscure 1958 recording with Philharmonia (EMI) is only of historical interest, the one from 1970 with the Berliners (DG) has possibly the worst sound in Karajan's entire discography. A considerably faster but still very fine Second Suite was recorded live on video during the 1978 New Year's Concert with the BPO (but without the Minuet!), and even a studio recording for EMI from the beginning of 1979 exists (with the Minuet!), but neither measures up to the digital remake.

The 1984 renditions on this disc are, on the whole, slower and more meditative, but by no means lacking in drama: the opening of the Intermezzo and the finale of the Farandole are as hair-raising as ever. The lyrical passages are meltingly beautiful. I don't know who Daniel Deffayet was, but he certainly did a miraculous job with the sax solos. He is rightly credited in bold on the back cover. Karajan's recording schedule during the 1980s was gruesome; probably it would have killed a lesser man much sooner. I am very glad he found the time to re-record Bizet's lovely tone poem in eight parts.

The Carmen Suite on this disc is taken from the complete recording made in 1982-83. It supersedes the same early attempts (1958, PO, EMI; 1970, BPO, DG) with a vengeance. Contrary to what you might have heard, there is nothing soporific about Karajan's last recording of "Carmen". The preludes to the outer acts have all the passion and verve that are required, those to the inner ones all the tenderness and charm that are demanded. As an interesting side-note, the four "movements" are arranged as they are in the opera, while in the early recording with Philharmonia the order is reversed. I confess I like the reversed order better. With the possible exception of the 1963 complete recording, from which the suite has never been extracted (I think), this is Karajan's best "Carmen", suite-wise.

These digital recordings, so far as I know, have never been remastered. This is probably for the better. The sound on this 1985 CD release is rich, natural and crystal clear. It doesn't get much better than that. The only drawback is the miserable total timing. The crafty fellows from DG carefully refrain from mentioning it anywhere on the cover or in the booklet. Roughly calculated, it's a little over 40 minutes. This is a hard bargain at full price, but second-hand copies can be obtained for a pittance and are well worth having. Get one, turn up the volume, relax in the armchair, and see what happens.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Review: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Highlights) - Karajan, 1966-70, DG

A must for aspiring Wagnerians

[1] Das Rheingold: “Aur Burg führt die Brücke”
[2] Die Walküre: “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater”
[3] Die Walküre: Walkürenritt
[4] Die Walküre: “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!”
[5] Die Walküre: Feuerzauber
[6] Siegfried: “Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert”
[7] Siegfried: Brünnhildes Erwachen
[8] Götterdämmerung: “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!”
[9] Götterdämmerung: Trauermarsch

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Wotan: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [1]; Thomas Stewart [4, 5].
Siegfried: Jess Thomas [6, 7]; Helge Brilioth [8].
Brünnhilde: Helga Dernesch [7].
Siegmund: Jon Vickers [2].
Loge: Gerhard Stolze [1].

Mime: Gerhard Stolze [6].


This is a truly amazing CD. Not so long ago it was solely responsible for making me a true fan of Richard Wagner's late works. I have never had any doubts in his genius and I have always liked his operas from the so called “middle period” – Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and especially Der fliegende Holländer. But Wagner’s late works – much more aptly called not operas, but music dramas – had always terrified me with their length and complexity. Years ago a complete recording of Der Ring accidentally happened to be in my hands. I gave it a try and ended bored to extinction at the second scene of Das Rheingold – the first part of the cycle. It’s funny how things do change.

These excellent highlights showed me the real genius of Richard Wagner and made of myself an ardent admirer of his late works, especially Der Ring. Only recently have I found out how magnificent and how ingeniously composed this cycle of four music dramas really is. The numerous leitmotifs that Wagner used to describe practically every character, idea, feeling, and object are not only deeply psychological but very often extremely beautiful and combined in an astonishing way. His ability to tell an epic story with text and music in a continuous way without virtually any pauses is something to marvel at. Once one gets bitten by Richard Wagner’s genius, one never fully recovers. Nor does one want to.

The whole of Der Ring des Nibelungen runs for the unbelievable length of about 14-15 hours – the “prelude” Das Rheingold is about two and a half hours long and the three “days”, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are about four hours long each – and a complete recording usually takes something like 14 CDs. To compress this huge masterpiece into one CD with duration of no more than 80 minutes seems to be an impossible task. And yet, whoever compiled this CD did it. The nine tracks are not only among the best of the whole cycle musically, but they also represent crucial points in the story; one can almost follow it from the beginning to the end, heavily abridged of course.

All excerpts come directly from the complete recording made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker together with a really magnificent cast of singers between 1966 and 1970 for DG. This is the same remaster made for the Originals reissue and the sound is astonishing – clear, rich and sumptuous, with terrific dynamic range and power, but never reduced to the bombastic heroism which many people think is the only way to interpret Wagner’s music; for my own part it’s not even the most convincing way, let alone the only one. Karajan’s ability to achieve breathtaking beauty of sound does not at all prevent him from creating tremendously dramatic and at the same time movingly lyrical interpretation. He detested the famous description of his performance as “chamber music style” – and rightly so. It’s a perfect nonsense, unless it means that the brass is powerful without being blaring and the subtlety of Wagner's orchestration is superbly revealed.

Das Rheingold is presented with only one excerpt – [1] “Aur Burg führt die Brücke” – the very last nine minutes or so, or “The entry of the gods into Valhalla” as it is more popular. Here you have the opportunity to enjoy two really great singing actors – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the stately, majestic Wotan and Gerhard Stolze as the exceptionally cunning and shrewd Loge. The finale is certainly one of the most glorious pieces of orchestral music ever composed.

Die Walküre occupies the next four tracks. In [2] “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater” Jon Vickers appears as Siegmund, the son of Wotan and a mortal woman, contemplating his origins and his fate. Although I have never been fan of Jon Vickers because his specific timbre just doesn’t grip me, his powerful tenor is irresistible here. The so-called Walkürenritt [3], which Wagner himself never called with that name, is actually the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”, but not the three-minute orchestral showpiece that most people know. It is six minutes long, with a lot of singing from the flying Valkyries, and even this is by no means the whole scene that serves as introduction to the third and last act of the music drama.

The last track from Die Walküre – [4] “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” – is the final of the opera itself, much more popular as “Wotan's Farewell”. This must surely be one the most stunning pieces of opera ever composed. Richard Wagner surpassed even himself in expressing with the most gorgeous music every embrace, every glance, and every nuance of the heartbreaking scene when Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to eternal sleep amidst fire until a hero comes and awakes her. The American bass-baritone Thomas Stewart gives a supreme rendition. He is tender and caressing, but powerful and majestic when it is required. Last but definitely not least when we talk about Wagner’s music dramas, his diction is exemplary. The last two lines – surely one of the most famous in the history of opera –

Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet
durchschreite das Feuer nie!

are something you are not likely to forget, especially with the following orchestral tour de force. You can listen to them together with the so called Magic Fire Music because they are separated in another track – [5] Feuerzauber.

the third part of Der Ring is represented by two tracks: [6] “Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert and [7] Brünnhildes Erwachen, and so is the last part – Götterdämmerung – [8] “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!” and [9] Trauermarsch. Here two Siegfrieds can be heard – Jess Thomas and Helge Brilioth – and both are so damn good that I am always left wanting more of their voices. As a special bonus from the gentle sex, here is Helga Dernesch in glorious voice as the just awakened Brünnhilde on track 7. Unlike many people, neither Thomas, nor Brillioth sounds “undercast” to me; nor do I hear any problems with Helga Dernesch’s high notes, for that matter.

In track 6 the incomparable Gerhard Stolze appears again, but this time in the role of the sinister Nibelung Mime trying to use Siegfried in his own schemes about obtaining the ring. This excerpt is also known as Schmidelied, or Forging Song, because it is connected with Siegfried’s forging his sword which is called “Notung”. Here Wagner reached new heights in describing the very Hell with music. Awesome orchestration! Track 8 is actually Siegfried’s death and is very moving with its quietness. The Funeral March that follows immediately is the only purely instrumental composition on the disc and one of the most majestic. It is a perfect finale of the CD, if not of Der Ring itself.

At the end of this very long and extremely tedious review, which you are at perfect liberty to evaluate as “uncommonly boring”, a little piece of advice. Listen to the disc with the librettos in hand. Of course the CD has no liner notes whatsoever, let alone excerpts from the librettos, and that is quite natural considering the budget price. But all of Wagner’s original texts, together with his own and very important stage directions, can easily be found with translations on the net, online or not. They immensely increase the understanding of the music and make the whole experience altogether unforgettable.