LISTEN Winter 2013

Golden Brahms
Brahms: Piano Concertos No 1 & 2 / Hélène Grimaud
Pianist Hélène Grimaud has always been temperamentally and technically suited to Brahms, his complexity and sublimity. Her late-90s Erato recordings of the final piano pieces and Piano Concerto No. 1 (with the Staatskapelle Berlin under Old World maestro Kurt Sanderling) were early career highlights. Grimaud has recorded the First again with the virtuoso Bavarian Radio Symphony, as well as the Second with the Vienna Philharmonic - both led by Andris Nelsons. The First was captured live, with the attendant excitement (but also the pianist's breathy exclamations), and Grimaud's touch is articulate even in the mighty stresses of the opening movement. The Second shows her under studio conditions in Vienna, her tone golden to match that of the orchestra. Bradley Bambarger

Schulhoff the Degenerate
Schulhoff: Piano Works Vol 2 / Caroline Weichert
Erwin Schulhoff is one of the great early-twentieth-century composers whose true musical worth will have only been fully appreciated when a review can omit mention of his 1942 concentration camp death. Until then, "Degenerate Music" must serve as a badge of honor. Caroline Weichert is doing her part, recording his piano works with deft tenacity, humor and grit. Keith Jarrett could have been inspired by Schulhoff's Second Sonata; its slow movement especially is a dreamy slice of quasi-improvisatory bliss. John Cage's 4'33" is preempted by decades with "In futurum." Mechanical rigor sits easily side by side with jazz influences and catchy Charleston-cum-classical variation forms. Jens F. Laurson

Lyrical Bruckner
Bruckner: Symphony No 1 / Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Bruckner didn't reach his symphonic potential until Symphony No. 3, but Claudio Abbado has long been a proponent of the composer's First, having recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca in 1969. That recording - now collected in a new seven-CD boxed set, "Claudio Abbado: The Decca Years" - used the 1866 Linz version of the score. The conductor's latest take finds him using Bruckner's smoother 1891 Vienna revision. Abbado's initial LP performance was shaded more dramatically, particularly the Adagio; this new live recording sees the maestro and his handpicked Lucerne Festival Orchestra emphasizing the symphony's Schubertian lyricism - and benefiting considerably from the headroom afforded by modern recording technology. Bradley Bambarger

Mozart / Martin Frost
Martin Fröst follows his smash-hit 2003 recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto on a modern instrument with a version on the rare horn for which the work was originally envisioned: basset clarinet, which has a mellower tone and a lower compass that can reach all the notes Mozart wrote. As ever, Fršst has a cool way with this music; there are others who play more rhapsodically. But the Swede has a sound of silver that is irresistibly dulcet, and the recording quality is ideal. Along with the concerto, Fröst includes two chamber pieces played beautifully with all-star partners: the entrancing "Kegelstatt" Trio and the rarely heard Allegro in B-flat Major, a fragment completed by Robert Levin. B.B.

Quicksilver Brahms
Bach: Goldberg Variations / Jeremy Denk
To record the Goldberg Variations as a major artist is to bid for entry into an elite conversation with Glenn Gould (Sony, twice), Daniel Barenboim (Erato), Murray Perahia (Sony) and other legends living and deceased. So it's important, before opening your mouth, to make certain you have something to say. From his opening fluid aria, pianist Jeremy Denk delivers spry, lively playing coupled with a playful (to my mind, American) sensitivity and the lightest of touches. With whirling articulation (Variations 5, 14, 26), a teaspoon of rubato (6, 9), a lilting gait (7), a refusal to wallow in despair (15, 22), surprising originality (20) and always an ear out for the larger arc of Bach's pristine construction, Denk has proven himself worthy of joining the conversation. Ben Finane

The Verdi Album / Jonas Kaufmann [Deluxe Edition]
One keeps searching in vain for flaws in Jonas Kaufmann's performances - an attack on a high note that's slightly under, a shortness of breath, a diminuendo that fails, a lack of interest in the text, an ugly sound. Nothing. Niente. Nada. He's not The Perfect Tenor - nobody ever has been - and his sound, it might be argued, lacks the brightness and brilliance, the "squillo" (ring) that is essential to the Italian sound. But it's close enough. Judging from the two excerpts from Verdi's last tragedy, one thing is certain: Kaufmann is the Otello we have been waiting for. The dark-hued pillar of sound that is nonetheless clearly that of a tenor, the attention to detail, the long line, the soft attacks on notes that Verdi marked piano or pianissimo, and the intelligent reading of the text, even in these two snippets ("Dio mi potevi" and "Niun mi tema") assure that there will be lines around the block when Kaufmann adds the entire opera to his repertoire. Elsewhere, at the start of the second verse of "Quando le sere al placido," he sings with great tenderness and introversion, but pulls out all the stops for the final outcry. He doesn't quite have the lightness of touch - or tone - to make "La donna e mobile" sound as whimsical as did Gigli or di Stefano, but he articulates the long, difficult cadenza with aplomb. His "Ah, si ben mio" is both virile and tender. "Di quella pira" (both verses are sung) is a roof-raiser, and the final high C is sung on both syllables - no vowel fudging. Alvaro's "O tu che seno" is delivered with great poetry. An excerpt from "I masnadieri" is thrilling in its full-on, exclamatory delivery. In "Di tu se fedele" he reins in his big sound, but fans of Bjšrling et al. may not be won over despite Kaufmann's descent to the two bizarrely low notes in the aria that most tenors take up an octave. And the only thing I'll say about the "Celeste Aida" is that it outdoes Jon Vickers' in heroics, dreaminess, and the gorgeous use of dynamics: the final phrase, taken on one very long breath, ascends to the high B-flat quietly and then is beautifully, perfectly diminished. And nothing sounds like a gimmick. Pier Giorgio Morandi leads the Parma Orchestra with distinction and sensitivity, but the group's playing is not up to par. Happily, Kaufmann is what matters here, and he's spectacular. Robert Levine

Gypsy Fire
Brahms: Violin Concerto, Hungarian Dances; Bartok / Kavakos, Nagy, Chaillyre
Riccardo Chailly and his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have made beautiful recordings of Brahms's Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (with Nelson Freire) and the recently released Symphonies Nos. 1Ð4. The Leipzigers have a deep, rich sound, and Chailly balances age-old grandeur with new-era precision. The Violin Concerto is an apt addendum: it was in Leipzig that violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms's longtime friend, gave the premiere in 1879. The soloist here, Leonidas Kavakos, has made excellent recordings from Mozart to Sibelius, and he is in exciting form. Chamber pairings on concerto albums are off-putting, but Kavakos and pianist Pėter Nagy underscore the gypsy touches in Brahms with his Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 2, 6 and 11 (as arranged by Joachim), plus Bartók's tangy Rhapsodies Nos. 1Ð2. B.B.

A Well-Tempered Recital
Entendre / duoW [CD & Blu-Ray Audio]
Bold playing and rich sound distinguish this disc of chamber music for violin (Arianna Warsaw-Fan) and cello (Meta Weiss). The repertoire ranges from the ruddy folk of Zoltan Kodaly's Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7 to the more nakedly virtuosic nineteenthcentury Grand Duo de Concert by Adrien-Franois Servais and Hubert Léonard. Complementing the Kod‡ly is Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello; raw and lean, the late work, though dedicated to the memory of Debussy, speaks more to the Hungarian's influence and is served with abandon by Duo W. The closing arrangement of the Sousa albatross The Stars and Stripes Forever (our nation's official march) is allowable for its eye-rolling. B.F.

Soaring, Dark Beethoven
Beethoven: Cantata On The Death Of Emperor Joseph II; Symphony No. 2
Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies seem to get all the love, but Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer a compelling coupling of Symphony No. 2 and the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II in hybrid SACD (the world's greatest audio format). Written a year before Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's cantata could be a not-so-distant cousin with its sweeping lines, dark orchestration and lofty aspiration. Get to know this piece - and this performance. The SFS taps into the deeper color palette of the work without being bogged down. The Second Symphony - clean, bold, soaring - also stays nimble: an affirming journey. B.F.

Tribute to a Great American Pianist
Gary Graffman - The Complete RCA & Columbia Album Collection
Gary Graffman is an outstanding artist whose work was relatively under-represented on disc. The reasons for this are complex, having to do with label politics, the large number of fine young American pianists who came to prominence at the same time (including Leon Fleisher, Van Cliburn, and Byron Janis, all RCA and Sony artists), and possibly also individual artistic temperament. Nevertheless, you can't help but think that Graffman was in the right place at the right time. Just look at the conductors he worked with in his concerto recordings: Bernstein (Rachmaninoff Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody), Szell (Prokofiev First and Third Concertos, Tchaikovsky First), Ormandy (Tchaikovsky Second and Third), and Munch (Chopin First Concerto and a Brahms First that always seems to be overlooked in mentioning great recordings of that work, but that surely belongs on the list). I omit a few less illustrious names, but the bottom line is that the 1950s and '60s were quite a time if you were a concerto soloist signed to an American label, and some of these performances, the Prokofiev concertos especially, have been reference recordings from the day that they were released.

Indeed, Prokofiev seems to have been something of a Graffman specialty. He recorded the Third Concerto twice, initially in good mono, later released in stereo (as here) with Jorda and the San Francisco Symphony, as well as the Second and Third Sonatas (both also twice). Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy also appears twice in this set - it featured on his debut album strangely coupled with the two Prokofiev sonatas, but (perhaps predicting what was to come) the repertoire reveals an impressive catholicity of taste and, above all, consistency of results.
Graffman had an astonishingly fine technique, even among his peers. Listen to him rip through Limoges in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, or attack Balakirev's Islamey, never mind the Liszt Paganini études and the Brahms Paganini Variations. But the technique never seems to draw gratuitous attention to itself. Rather, it arises naturally from crystal-clear articulation and the ability to float a melody expressively over a rock-solid rhythmic foundation, as in his performance of Chopin's Fourth Ballade. This gives his playing a distinctive character that's evident in all of these performances, whether the sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert, or the shorter works by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Liszt.

There's something very odd, almost sad, in seeing a "big" artist's legacy captured in a (relatively speaking) smallish collection of twenty-four CDs. It also says something about the transience of memory that Graffman here receives an introduction and endorsement by his own most famous current student, Lang Lang. Can it be that serious music lovers know the latter better than the former? Such is the nature of the record business, I suppose, and we can only be thankful that Sony/BMG has seen fit to put together this tribute to one of today's great musicians and educators. David Hurwitz

Re-Transcribed, Twice Refracted
Bach: Der Ewigkeit Saphirnes Haus
Some recordings seem made for me, so perfectly do they hone in on my slightly peculiar musical preferences. Like this one: Bach, which is a good start - transcribed, which I like - but Bach for harpsichord duo, which I can't help but love! With all the usual transcribing away from the harpsichord, it's a wonderful twist to tackle arias, chorales, and sinfonias from cantatas, as well as one Brandenburg Concerto, and give them a working-over on two harpsichords. Thus twice refracted, these marvelous creations are endowed with renewed vigor and delicacy, playfulness, and novel familiarity. Siblings Chani and Nadja Lesaulnier seem to have as much fun playing as I do listening. Oddly delightful, delightfully odd. J.F.L.

Prokofiev with Zing
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 4 / Alsop, Sao Paulo Symphony
If Marin Alsop's take on Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony with her Brazilian orchestra lacked the final degree of power that the wartime work requires, the team's talents are more suited to the Fourth, which is a font of piquant lyricism - the sort of magic that made Prokofiev one of the twentieth century's greatest melodists. The composer expanded on thematic material from his 1928 Diaghilev ballet The Prodigal Son for the symphony, with the ballet inhabiting a similar musical world to the later Romeo and Juliet. Although not as intense in their Prokofiev as Valery Gergiev and the LSO, Alsop and the S‹o Paulo orchestra perform both symphony and ballet with virtuosic zing - and benefit from richer, more appropriate acoustics. B.B.

Twenty-First Century Gershwin?
Turnage: Speranza, From The Wreckage / Harding, Hardenberger
Mark-Anthony Turnage's From the Wreckage is a twenty-firstcentury Gershwin trumpet concerto. An imperfect musical aphorism, but the way the concerto - jazzy, in quasi-improvisatory ways - effortlessly straddles genres, that's what comes to mind. Dedicatee Hakan Hardenberger plays the flugelhorn and standard and piccolo trumpets in a cool and jazzy manner. After just sixteen saucy minutes, it's over, leaving a jaunty sense of satisfaction. LSO commission and world premiere Speranza - ruminating, lyrical in "Hoffen," militant in "Dóchas" - has a more lyrical streak. For a work based on the desperately dark poetry of Paul Celan, that's rather an achievement. Such pleasing yet challenging classical music raises high hopes about Turnage - which his operas (Anna Nicole) can then deflate again. J.F.L.

Fritz Reiner, The Immortal
Fritz Reiner - The Complete RCA Album Collection
This box holds the recordings, made for RCA Victor during his years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1954Ð63), that secured conductor Fritz Reiner's immortality. These remastered CDs (sadly none of the SACD reissues were included) present Reiner's intellect and artistry - and the CSO, and classical music - at its best.

The American conductor was born in Hungary in 1888 and studied piano with Bartók at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. Later, after an appointment to the Dresden Staatsoper, Reiner developed a lifelong friendship with Richard Strauss. He journeyed from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to the Metropolitan Opera and ultimately to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953. The CSO under Reiner's baton became, per Stravinsky, "the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world." Fritz Reiner, who regarded the conductor's role as "the living conscience of the orchestra," was a brilliant technician with a spare conducting style - and also a strict disciplinarian with a bristling temper.

In his decade with the CSO Reiner recorded a hundred twenty-two compositions. He was of course a specialist in Richard Strauss and Bartók, but was also tight with the Russians (Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky), and had a knack for the French (Debussy and Ravel).

The exemplary level of music-making in this set makes it tricky to select highlights, but some shining moments include a powerful rendition of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite and likely the greatest recording on record of Alexander Nevsky; an affecting and transparent Das Lied von der Erde, featuring quintessential Mahlerian contralto Maureen Forrester and no-holds-barred delivery from tenor Richard Lewis; a dramatic and triumphant reading of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; a revelatory and crisp Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky); a visceral and virtuosic reference recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov); both Reiner recordings of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra (1954, '62) - the first locating both power and refinement, the second revealing Strauss's larger arc. Debussy's La Mer is organic, expertly paced and still has a bite that many orchestras, drifting amiably through the "Impressionism," fail to give the work. And there is much, much more to discover within. Enjoy. B.F.

Sound, Cultivated and Curated
Decca Sound - The Analogue Years
The big box sets released by Universal Classics - corporate shepherd of the august catalogs of Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips - fly the flag for enduring physical product in the face of the digital age. This fifty-one-CD set celebrates the art of classical record making as practiced by the U.K.'s Decca Records from 1954 to 1980 - an era that encompasses the initial development of analog stereo recording on to its highest cultivation, just before the universality of digital recording. The box itself is a weighty cube, with the CDs housed in LP-facsimile sleeves; the hundred-ninety-five-page booklet is manna for record geeks - including twenty-five pages of detailed history on the Decca process, gear and venue history (such as London's Kingsway Hall and Vienna's Sofiensaal), plus photos from vintage recording sessions. This set is everything a download isn't.

The curatorial concept is akin to the "Decca Legends" series of single-CD reissues from the late '90s; there is some duplication with that benchmark series, but not as much as one might imagine. As for the "Decca sound," it was famously rich and dynamic - lifelike stereo at its best, thanks to innovative technology, wonderful venue acoustics and a long culture of engineering excellence, which was rivaled by peers at EMI and DG, but not bettered. Of course, the best sound quality in the world matters not at all if the music isn't worth hearing - and Decca always had a stable of thoroughbred artists, from Britten, Tebaldi and Solti to Ashkenazy, de Larrocha and Dutoit, and even Karajan and Abbado when they moonlighted from DG.

None of Solti's epochal Wagner is here, as that has already been boxed up on its own; but what is here ranges from Haydn to Britten. One of the tremendous recordings is Britten's Symphony for Cello and Orchestra with soloist Mstislav Rostropovich and the composer on the podium; also included is a lovely Haydn C Major Concerto from the same team. There's a titanic Bruckner Symphony No. 6 from Solti and the Chicago Symphony, one of Decca's final analog productions. There were plenty of Sibelius enthusiasts at Decca, so we get a youthful Lorin Maazel's rich-toned Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic - but also, as a rarity, the Second Symphony from Pierre Monteux and London Symphony Orchestra (1958). L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande - never the most virtuoso ensemble Ð is at its best with sublime music by Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin, with the group's spiritus rector, Ernest Ansermet, conducting.

There are concerto classics here, such as pianist Radu Lupu's glorious pairing of Grieg and Schumann. André Previn was on the LSO podium for that record, as he was for the Walton and Stravinsky violin concertos with the young Kyung Wha Chung. Vladimir Ashkenazy plays Scriabin's Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor and Prometheus with the LPO under Maazel, who also conducts Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy with a potent Cleveland Orchestra. Violinist Willi Boskovsky leads an ultra-idiomatic VPO in waltzes by Johann Strauss II and others. There are fine solo albums, such as pianist Pascal Rogé in Debussy. The chamber music includes Shostakovich's String Quartets Nos. 8, 9 and 15 played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, which had the guidance of the composer. Decca has always been a label for opera, and included in the top-shelf studio productions here is Tullio Serafin leading Puccini's La bohème with Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi in Rome.

Aptly, the set features some unsung recordings, such as Alicia de Larrocha's takes on concertos by twentieth-century Spanish composers Surinach and Montsalvatge. There's also David Oistrakh playing Hindemith's Violin Concerto, plus such ballet rarities as Hérold's La Fille mal gardée. Many discs have enterprising fill-ups: along with Gershwin and Bernstein, Zubin Mehta leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in William Kraft's period Contextures: Riots - Decade '60 and Copland's Lincoln Portrait with Gregory Peck narrating. Not everything was worth resuscitating musically, with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt's VPO take on Beethoven's Ninth sounding dated (and including an unfortunate Joan Sutherland). As a whole, though, this box encapsulates decades of noble recording history all in one go - a shocking bargain, considering all the artistry that went into making and capturing these sounds. B.B.

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