Bruckner: Symphonies #7 & 9
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Jarvi, conducting
RCA Red Seal Sony Music 88697389972 (Symph. 7) 88697542572 (Symph. 9) 2 Separate Hybrid SACDs
These two discs presumably represent the continuance of a cycle of Bruckner symphonies by these forces. The question is, do we need a new cycle of these works, when they are already available in excellent versions by the likes of Furtwangler, Klemperer, Kararajan, Jochum, et al? The answer is a qualified yes, if only for the superior sound that SACD now makes available to us. This is no small thing with Bruckner, since we are presented with a huge orchestral palette. The long-breathed, arching melodies are a unique characteristic of of Bruckner’s alternating grandeur and serenity.
Others among us may experience not spirituality and “heavenly length”, but mostly slow tempi in works that, to put it bluntly, overstay their welcome. Brevity is a virtue not to be found here, and the endless stopping and starting can annoy some listeners. Bruckner liked to dedicate his symphonies to “God”, but without being told I would never know. So, modified praise for two very well played works in superb sound.
Editor’s Note: I found in these Bruckner performances a whole new appreciation of the composer, and would like to sum it up by quoting conductor Paavo Jarvi from the booklet for the 7th: “I love Bruckner. I have an affinity for his music. It appeals to my ‘Buddhist side’, though am not a Buddhist. It’s music which is meditative, not because it’s sometimes slow or seems repetitive, but because of the way it’s constructed. One needs to have a lot of patience to see the bigger picture, and I love that challenge. His symphonies are long journeys that take careful planning and pacing, you can lose yourself in this music, it can take you someplace very special. You can never lose yourself in a Mahler symphony in quite the same way because there are so many events, so many aspects changing all the time.”
Reading this while listening to the 7th at performance levels in my studio in full surround made me finally realize what Bruckner is all about, and, as a great lover of Mahler’s distinctly different, but equally detailed and broad canvases, to see in each their distinctly Viennese perspectives, is rather like re-discovering the great Breughels in person, letting them soar before and above you, and in these live concert recordings, all around one as audience in the full glory of the Alte Opera Frankfurt on a few notable nights in November 2006. Andrew Marshall
Brahms: Handel Variations, op. 24; Two Rhapsodies, op. 79; Piano Pieces, opp. 118 & 119;
Murray Perahia, piano
Sony Classical 88697794692 CD
Has Murray Perahia ever made a bad, or even mediocre record? Here, he turns his attention to Brahms for the first time, we are told, in many years. Having produced a series of highly praised and highly successful Bach recordings (rivaled only by those of Angela Hewitt in recent times), it seems only natural to play the magnificent Handel Variations, based on a baroque theme. The playing is lucid, precise, and by turns introspective and bold, making it clear to us that this is a very romantic piece of music.
There are some music critics who denigrate Brahms for his use of the variation format, but, for the life of me, I can’t see what they are objecting to: Brahms’s traversing of the Variations is affectionate, witty, and sometimes quite pessimistic. Perahia’s playing is very accomplished, and not to forget, beautiful - I compared it to the Wilhelm Kempff version, and much preferred the Perahia.
I enjoyed this recording so much that when it ended, I immediately pushed the Play button again on my SACD player.
Lang Lang: Liszt, My Piano Hero
Piano Concerto No. 1, S 124; numerous solo works, including La Campanella, Grand Galop chromatique, Liebestraum No.3, Hungarian Rhapsody Nos. 6 & 15, and more
Sony Classical 88697891412 CD
Here, the showiest of pianists encounters the showiest of composers, and produces a stunning disc of great passion and virtuosity. Lang has been a devotee of Liszt’s work from the age of 2 (!!), since his first encounter with Classical music - Tom & Jerry’s version of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
The disc contains the Piano Concerto No. 1 in a magisterial performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev, and a sampling of some of the more popular pieces from Liszt’s vast output for piano (Hyperion has released the complete Liszt piano music in a boxed set of 90, or is it 99 [?] discs, the thought of which gives me a feeling that I may have seriously overeaten). When I finished listening to this recording, I felt comfortably replete (sated?), with no desire for more. For now, Liszt is off the list.
Lang Lang’s take on the composer stresses virtuosity and superhuman technique. The playing is so accomplished that one feels even one Lang could have handled the composer’s complete output with total aplomb. Thus the doubly-named phenomenon has successfully dealt with any of my Liszt Liszt cravings for the foreseeable future.
Decca The Halls?
Recently there has been a spate of releases by the major record companies of previously released material in big boxes containing 20 to 50, or even more CDs, the largest, I think, the earlier mentioned Liszt load from Hyperion, but there are more from DGG (with two boxes), EMI, Chandos, and others. To my mind, the best of the lot is a 50-CD set entitled, The Decca Sound.
Audiophiles have known from time immemorial the sonic excellence of UK Decca recordings, hence the title, The Decca Box (of course, most Decca classical LPs and CDs were released for many years on the London label outside Britain). None of the material here is new, and almost all of it is good. It is astonishing how fine the early Deccas sounded, going back 50 years or more. The Box is a celebration of the many brilliant production people, with an invaluable booklet detailing the development of what came to be known as “The Decca Sound” for its clarity and precise soundstage in a very open space. The reliably superb recordings, and the techniques that produced them are lovingly detailed in the notes, telling the story of the hard work of producers from Arthur Hadley on.
Perhaps the greatness of of all this is best exemplified in the John Culshaw Ring. Because of its engineering and general production excellence, it is known by the latter title, as well being generally called, The Solti Ring Cycle. It is the only occasion where the production team is given such recognition. But then, Culshaw, et al, developed new techniques for heightening the dramatic experience of listening to a Ring Cycle.
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