OX BOX #11 - Sibelius, Beethoven, Respighi, Mozart, and More…

      Date posted: June 3, 2012

Several recent recordings I would call notable have landed here on Holloway Hill in St. John’s. The first three have in common the presence of the Minnesota Orchestra and its conductor since 2003, Osmo Vanska. They are:
Sibelius: Symphonies, #2 in D, Op. 43 and #5 in E flat Op. 82 BIS SACD 1986

Sibelius: Symphonies, #2 in D, Op. 43 and #5 in E flat Op. 82

These discs from BIS (as are most of the discs under review) are SACD surround encoded, the Swedish label one of the independents sticking with that elevated format. My listening has been to the the two-channel, red book, layer.

I took a considerable length of time listening to and reflecting on the Sibelius 5th. Let me write about it first, as there will be some things as a recording and performance that it shares with the rest. Let’s begin where many classical music reviews finish, with consideration of the sound. From their inception BIS have considered the way they record (with the simplest setups possible) to be as important as what they record. I would contend this is a big reason for their success. When these new recordings were announced, one of the questions asked of Robert von Bahr, the founder and owner of the company, was why was Vanska re-recording the Sibelius so soon again. One of the reasons he gave was that recording techniques have improved sufficiently over the intervening twenty or so years to make the project legitimate. With BIS already credited with the one of the finest sounding Sibelius Symphony sets also with Mr. Vanska but with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, was such a claim credible? Why would one who has the earlier cycle want to buy a new one?

I think it is fair to say the Symphonies have an enigmatic quality has led some conductors to revisit them, I suppose, in the hope that their elusive nature might be better captured. For example, Paavo Berglund recorded them three times. This is only Vanska’s second! The question then becomes, can his second go be defended? Does he have something new to say? As I listen, I feel he does and it is this: “less is more”. His interpretations are simple, pared down and direct. The Second is the only work I have in both the Lahti and Minnesota versions. The big difference in the new version is that the second movement is taken much more slowly. The result is a revelation to the extent that this part of the symphony, one that always seemed to be something to be got through, is revealed as a wonderful piece of music.

I like this new recording of the Second very much, but whether it is a deal breaker, I’m not sure. But, listening to the Fifth Symphony, I know I would want to have it. I hear crystal clear recorded sound with a transparency that extends to the farthest reaches of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Quiet. Some of the string sound is barely audible, which would have never been attempted had the conductor not known the ability of the recording team and the quality of the hall. At the outset I wondered if Vanska might be thinking this would be his ultimate statement of the Sibelius Fifth on recording, and this would be his “performance of performances”. If it is, it is a calm, carefully considered view of the work that is completely devoid of show of any kind. Listening to the andante, I felt I was hearing a loving personal tribute to the Finnish master. Fine detail is carefully observed and the rustling strings that pervade the work are at times consoling and at others almost frightening. All is perfectly caught in the recording including the percussion, solid at the back of the orchestra. You hear what is happening in the whole hall. The playing of the orchestra is splendid; every section top to bottom distinguishes itself. They follow Vanska`s lead as one.

Beethoven: Concertos for Piano and Orchestra, # 4 in G, Op.58 and #5 in E flat, Op. 73
Yevgeny Sudbin, piano

The initial Fourth and Fifth by Beethoven we have to consider are his Piano Concertos. These performances are wonderful. Sudbin has lived in London since the late 1970s. He may be the greatest pianist of whom I had never heard; he certainly is new to me and he clearly is a most thoughtful musician. Like almost everyone these days he has technique to burn, but, he apparently cares only about the music. These two towering works have received many performances by the greatest players over the years. Thankfully, we have a lot of them available on recordings. Of course, when listening to them, the performing style of their eras must be taken into account, however, some performances have about them a greatness that transcends style.

I do not get the feeling Sudbin and the Minnesota orchestra were attempting greatness, and yet they have realized performances that I like as much as any I know, and better than most. Theirs is a straightforward approach that, in its simplicity, takes us to the heart of the music. There is no show, no attempt to impress. Once again the sound of the recordings reveals all. At first the piano seems a bit distant but one quickly realizes this is an artistic decision which has the piano closely balanced with the orchestra so it will not be over-prominent. The result is all that one could ask. I understand BIS intend to record the other Beethoven concertos with these forces. I eagerly await the rest.

Beethoven: Symphonies, #4 in B flat, Op. 60 and #5 in C minor, Op. 67

Vanska and Co. have recorded all the Beethoven Symphonies. The world hardly needed another set, but they continue to be released, so people must be buying them. Of course, these great works help define orchestras and conductors. They are a benchmark. Very rarely is one conductor equally successful with each of the nine, yet few can resist doing them all. For example, Vanska`s Fourth is a delight but the Fifth misses the mark. It lacks passion and fire and fierceness: there is nothing about it that takes us into the realm of the human spirit, a realm Beethoven conjured with his arrangement of musical notes on a piece of paper, and as they have often sounded through the ages. It is, of course, another very fine sounding recording.

Before we leave the BIS orchestral stable I have one more:

Respighi: Symphonic Poems
The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, Feste Romane
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, John Neschling
BIS 1720

Respighi: Symphonic Poems The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, Feste Romane Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, John Neschling BIS 1720

All the things I’ve said about the sound of the Minnesota recordings apply to this release and then some. By virtue of its repertoire it is showy, but good taste showy, devoted-to-the-music showy. There are performance of these popular works that are more rhythmically taut, and are played by “better “ orchestras, but few are as much fun as this joyful romp by the Sao Paulo Orchestra. Neschling was its conductor for much of the past decade. This year Marin Alsop is taking over. OK, showy, but the sound of this disc is to die for. The orchestra’s home is a concert hall carved out of the main railway station in Sao Paulo. It is a gem. There is a good written description and photos of it in the booklet notes. I need say no more.

A couple of chamber music recordings now that, were we to judge by sound alone, would be more properly called “large, reverberant concert hall music”. Fortunately this big sound is hardly a negative, and in every other way the sound is of demonstration quality, transparent with fine detail. They are:

Mozart: Divertimento in E flat K 563
Schubert: String Trio in B Flat D471 allegro
Frank Peter Zimmerman, violin, Antoine Tamestit, viola, Christian Poltera, cello
BIS 1817

Mozart: Divertimento in E flat K 563 Schubert: String Trio in B Flat D471 allegro

The Divertimento, K563, is by far the most substantial work among this group, but the description of the piece as a “divertimento” is misleading. This is late Mozart and at a length of three quarters of an hour it is far from “a light musical composition usually intended for entertainment”. It is made of the usual Mozartian elements, melody above all containing joy and sadness, a spine of steel and a pervading love of life. Mozart; what a person! Let me say that Mr. Zimmerman and Co. do the work justice. I have known and loved this work for over thirty years. Music from it was used in a Canadian film short about a violin.

The mid-70s was a time when movies were preceded by short films, a travelogue or cartoon or what have you. I must have been going to the movies a lot then as I ran into The Violin several times and I couldn’t get Mozart out of my mind. I had to get the recording. My choice was by the Artur Grumiaux trio. It remains a splendid performance and the Philips recording was one of their best. This new BIS disc is different, but of the same high quality. Grumiaux’s is more passionate and personal, Zimmerman’s is more objective, cooler emotionally. The recording quality is startlingly lifelike. Many small details come to light and the sound is beautifully balanced.

The Allegro from the Schubert Trio is interesting because of the contrast with the Mozart. It is a delightful addition to a very successful disc.

Mozart: Quintet in E flat K 452, Adagio and Rondo in C K614 arranged for piano and winds
Beethoven: Quintet in E flat Op. 16
Steven Hough, piano, members of The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
BIS 1552

Both the Mozart and Beethoven Quintets are very popular and pleasing works. I think the Mozart is the more substantial of the two but that is a small distinction. The scoring is for piano, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Again, the sound recording is central to the artistic outcome with the challange of getting the proper balance between the piano and the winds and the vexing balance between the horn and everyone else. Favoring a spacious acoustic, everyone is skillfully accommodated. And, my, what beautiful playing. Steven Hough is the most generous of artists and the Berliners enjoy themselves to the full. This is music intended for entertainment, that is, entertainment of a very special kind.

Is it fair to review discs by Natalie MacMaster and Joshua Bell at the same time? Hey, they both play the violin. Ms. MacMaster is just about the best in the world with her music. Mind you, Mr. Bell can hold his own playing his… and they each have fine new releases:

Natalie MacMaster - Cape Breton Girl
Natalie MacMaster and “friends” play Cape Breton fiddle tunes including “Alex MacMaster’s Jig”, “My Brother Kevin” and “Jimmy MacKinnon of Smelt Brook” e-One MMA-CD-5559

French Impressions: Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Saint-Saens, No 1 in D minor,
Franck in A, and Ravel
Joshua Bell, violin, Jeremy Denk, piano
Sony Classical 88697820262

Natalie MacMaster - Cape Breton Girl

The direct comparison pretty well ends here except it is worth mentioning that both have played with Yo Yo Ma on his Appalachian-style crossover projects for Sony. Natalie is in a class by herself and her fellow players are, like her, completely immersed in the music. There is an almost academic rigor in the care that has been taken with the research and selection of the music. The players lift it off the page (where it exists on paper) and engage us every step of the way. This is mostly dancing music and between the jigs and the reels, you will, at the very least, be tapping your toe. Very well recorded and excellent sound.

I want to describe the Bell-Denk disc as “charming” except that word has come to describe a pejorative rather than a positive. The Ravel Sonata is closest to being great music here. The players find just the right tone for each sonata, neither too much nor too little. I love the Saint-Saens. It has a melodic hook in the first movement that really connects, leaving me very content to discover what else Saint-Saens will do. The Franck is romantic with a capital “R”. The Belgian born composer is so far out of style these days, his music is hardly ever heard. This sonata is certainly worth a listen, especially played this well.

Bell’s tone is spare, perhaps to counter the excess sweetness of the music itself. The Ravel is wonderful. Bell and Denk are intuitive in their give and take throughout its three movements. The recorded sound is up to date and spacious. My only complaint is that the sound in the Franck is so reverberant that at times that the piano becomes muddied. I will hazard a guess that the other two works were recorded on other days. They sound excellent.

I am delighted to have this disc to make the acquaintance, as it were, of Jeremy Denk. The pianist is a New York City favorite and is admired for playing a great variety of music, especially that by contemporary composers. He is an excellent communicator and has a very interesting blog. Meantime, you can sample his writing skills in his excellent notes in the booklet for this release.

French Impressions: Sonatas for Violin and Piano by Saint-Saens, No 1 in D minor, Franck in A, and Ravel Joshua Bell, violin, Jeremy Denk, piano

Short Jazz Takes…

Let me conclude by recommending an excellent jazz release: it could be the jazz record of the year. It is by one of the most brilliant of the younger jazz/contemporary music composers and performers, Vijay Iyer. His accomplishments are many, including the trio release “Historicity” which took a slew of awards in 2010. “Accelerando” is also a trio session, on the German label, ACT music+vision. I downloaded it successfully from iTunes.

And, Tierney Sutton’s newest album, “American Road”!!!! It is so good that I believe I am not exaggerating by saying it joins the pantheon of great vocal recordings. This is singing! Sutton has an appealing voice which she uses for one purpose only, to deliver the song. Her style is assured, individual, but, never mannered. She sings phrases that seem to never end, and she has a sense of time that is astounding. Then, there are the other players in the band, including pianist/arranger Christian Jackob, who keep the whole affair fully airborne. Each of them is a listener, too. Very highly recommended.

Bob Oxley

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