Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
The conductor Hans Vonk, who died in 2004, may be an unfamiliar name to many readers. This PentaTone Classics recording, together with a companion release, serves as a fitting document to mark his final recording sessions.
David Robertson, the Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, who collaborated with Hans Vonk, has provided an insightful personal observation: “The distinguished conductor was praised during his career for his stylistic authority and mastery of orchestral colour. He was known for administering a heightened degree of discipline, clarity and refinement to any orchestra he worked with. His
interpretations of a score were deeply grounded in an understanding of the composer’s intentions. Vonk would sometimes refer to himself as “the composer’s friend”. Violist Morris Jacob described Vonk’s “incredible clarity. It’s almost as if he had coffee with these composers. That’s what made him so special as a conductor.”
In 2002, record producer Job Maarse asked Vonk if he would conduct his Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra in some recordings for the PentaTone Classics label. Vonk liked the idea and suggested that he now felt experienced enough to record a Brahms cycle. The decision was made to record all the Brahms Symphonies and four shorter orchestral works. Unfortunately, before his untimely death Vonk was only able to record the Symphony No. 2, the Tragic Overture, the Haydn Variations, the Academic Festival Overture and the Alto Rhapsody. These works have been released over two PentaTone Classics discs. The companion disc is PTC 5186 042.
Brahms wrote the Academic Festival Overture by way of a thank you for the award of an honorary doctorate from Breslau University in 1879. In the Academic Festival Overture the composer uses four popular student drinking songs. Brahms himself described the score as, “a very jolly potpourri on student songs”.
One cannot really write about the Academic Festival Overture, without at least mentioning its companion work, the Tragic Overture, Op. 81. Brahms himself wrote the following on the occasion of a performance in Breslau at which both works were performed: “One weeps, the other laughs” thus pointing up the complete contrast in character of each work.
Hans Vonk and the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra successfully display the spirited character of the Concert Overture in an exciting and committed reading of remarkable energy. I also admire the recordings from Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, available on Deutsche Grammophon 469 298-2 and also from Eugen Jochum and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, on EMI Double Forte CZS5 691515-2.
Brahms based his Alto Rhapsody on the poem Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey through the Harz Mountains) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Brahms had heard the verse for the first time in 1868 in a setting by Johann Friedrich Reinhardt. The composer selected verses five to seven for his composition and structured a three-part score, in which each part represented a different type of emotion: the loneliness of a person unhappy in love; her lament against the world and hope-bringing consolation from the Creator. Although the themes and musical shaping of the different parts stand independent of one another, Brahms manages to create a sense of unity in the inner structure.
It seems odd that Brahms should choose such a darkly personal text to set to music as a wedding gift for Julie Schumann, the daughter of his dear friends Clara and the late Robert Schumann. But there can be little doubt that Goethe’s poem spoke to him, in his own solitary life, with unusual directness, and he responded to it with this shattering, personal music.
Yvonne Naef, the Swiss contralto does not have the same measure of expression and beauty in her voice as some of the most eminent exponents of this score, such as Christa Ludwig, Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker, Helen Watts et al; few singers do. Nevertheless, Naef makes a highly effective offering; an insightful and incisive interpretation. She has a noticeable vibrato which thankfully never detracts from the proceedings. The male chorus and the orchestra give sensitive and well paced support. From my collection my preferred version of the Alto Rhapsody is performed by Christa Ludwig with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir under Otto Klemperer, on EMI 5 67029-2 (re-released as EMI 5 62742 2).
In the summer of 1873, Brahms completed his Variations on a theme by Haydn in B flat, Op. 56a. Presented in ten short movements the Haydn Variations was Brahms’ first purely symphonic score that he had written in fourteen years and is acknowledged as his first orchestral masterwork. The theme of the Haydn Variations was taken from the Field partita Hob. II: 46, and was probably not even written by Haydn, but by one of his pupils, most likely Ignaz Pleyel. It is entitled Chorale St. Antoni and is based on an old pilgrim’s song. This is a simple melody, although it contains small, complicated rhythmic elements, which Brahms worked into eight variations and a concluding passacaglia.
This is a refined and stately interpretation eminently suited to the score’s delicate textures. Another high quality account of the Haydn Variations from my collection that I would not wish to be without is from Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, on DG 435 349-2.
The PentaTone Classics label pride themselves on their first class sound quality; which does not disappoint. The SACD was played on a standard audio set-up. The annotation on this release is reasonably interesting and informative. The only real drawback is the woefully short playing time.
Vonk’s splendid readings do not replace any of my first choice recordings in these scores but he comes very close in the two purely orchestral scores. An excellent achievement.
-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 by Johannes Brahms
Yvonne Naef (Alto)
Netherlands Radio Symphony,
Netherlands Radio Men's Chorus
Written: 1869; Austria
Notes: This selection is a stereo recording.
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