Notes and Editorial Reviews
Peter Maag, of Swiss birth and a one-time disciple of Wilhelm Furtwängler, is a curious case of an exceptionally fine conductor who never sought or procured a permanent podium with a major orchestra. His recorded legacy is not insignificant in size, but except for a handful of studio recordings he made for Decca back in the 1950s and early 1960s—a reading of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, now available on Decca’s budget-priced “Legends” series, has indeed achieved somewhat of a legendary status—most of his recordings were taken from live performances with less than first-rate local Italian and Spanish orchestras. Maag died in November of 2002. Releases such as this often receive short shrift in these pages, being recommended only
to diehard fans of the artist, due to sub-par performances, recording standards, or both. This release does not fall into that category.
First, as archival material goes, these recordings are of comparatively recent vintage, and the quality of the sound, though captured live and in less than ideal acoustic venues, is truly superb. The recordings tend especially to favor the lower registers, bringing to the fore important low-lying cello, string-bass, and bassoon counterpoints that add a measure of menace to the many moments of Brahms’s shadowy passages, as in the slow introductions to the first and last movements of the Symphony and the first movement of the Rhapsody.
Second, the Turin and Milan orchestras may not be quite up to the level of the big-name bands, but they’re not far behind. These are not amateur, provincial pick-up groups. The few noticeable shortcomings lie in ensemble solidity among instrumental choirs. Individually, a number of flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and horn solos are quite ravishing. It is only when playing together in chorale-like blocks that chords are not always perfectly weighted and in tune. This is one of the measures that separates the blue-ribbon orchestras from the runners-up.
Third, fans of Furtwängler who are expecting readings by one of his disciples to follow in his footsteps are apt to be disappointed. Maag’s Brahms, especially the Symphony, is exceptionally taut and proceeds at tempos somewhat quicker and more steadily maintained than were Furtwängler’s, and indeed more so than in one or two very recent new recordings I’ve heard. Maag’s reading of the Symphony is truly one of the most powerful and gripping I’ve yet to come across, close in many ways to Bruno Walter’s mono recording with the New York Philharmonic, which I have long held up as a benchmark. Not unexpectedly, of course, for a live performance from 1976, Maag does not take the first movement exposition repeat, but then observing this particular repeat seems to be more the exception than the rule even in brand new recordings. What Maag absolutely gets right is the incredible—terrifying really—confrontation that Brahms sets into motion between two conflicting rhythmic motives and their mirror images. The battle that ensues and the final stand that occurs at the end of the recapitulation is truly an Armageddon moment. Here in Maag’s reading, as in the Walter’s, the devastation is complete.
Finally, opera fans and those of my colleagues far more knowledgeable about great singers of the past than I am will be more familiar with Lucia Valentini-Terrani than I was before I heard her on this recording. What a voice! I’ve always favored Mildred Miller’s Alto Rhapsody, again with Walter, but I think I may have found in Valentini-Terrani someone to surpass her. The vocal range and registration are amazing. Even in the deepest notes, there is no sense that she has reached bottom or that support is about to collapse. And her top notes soar with a tonal luster and purity that are completely without any sense of strain or forcing. She is like a man in a woman’s body, and a woman in a man’s body, whenever the music requires it. Her vibrato, not wide, but very fast and tight, took me a moment to get used to; her very opening notes have a bit of a bleating character about them, but she immediately gains control and settles into a smooth delivery.
Most alluring, however, is Valentini-Terrani’s interpretive insight into Brahms’s lonely, forlorn traveler who, in the end, finds some solace and hope. This may well be the slowest performance on record—nearly 15 minutes—but I know I have never heard the words shaped so sensuously and the phrases caressed so comfortingly. According to the insert note, Valentini-Terrani was 30 years old when she appeared in this performance, but my reference sources say she was born in 1946, which would have made her 33 in 1979. Be that as it may, she was only 52 when she died in 1998, which places her among a more recent generation of singers than many of the more famous names we tend to recognize. This is a special recording, and one that deserves to be heard not just by Maag fans. Urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Turin
Written: 1855-1876; Austria
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 by Johannes Brahms
Lucia Valentini-Terrani ()
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Milan,
Italian Radio Chorus Milan
Written: 1869; Austria
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