Notes and Editorial Reviews
Kurt Masur, cond; Helen Donath (sop); Kerstin Klein (sop); Jard van Nes (alt); Donald George (ten); Alastair Miles (bar); MDR Choir Leipzig; Israel PO
APEX 2564 65939-1 (2 CDs: 109:45) Live: Tel Aviv 1/7-11/1992
As a rule, if I receive a reissued version of a recording previously reviewed in
, I do not bother to submit a review of my own if (a) I substantially agree with the previous reviewer, or (b) I disagree with the previous reviewer, but his evaluation was more positive than mine. (Though I write negative reviews when a new release deserves it, I am not interested in writing them merely for the sake of expressing my disapproval.) Here we have the inverse of (b); my evaluation of a reissued recording is far more positive than that of a previous reviewer, and I believe in its merits strongly enough to wish to register my own views.
Back in 17:2 James Miller reviewed this performance upon its initial release, along with several other recordings in a thorough discussion of options available at that time, and what he had to say (and said quite well) is worth quoting at length: “With a British bass, two Americans, and a Dutch contralto who probably learned the language in school, Kurt Masur could have done an English-language version, too, but I’m just as glad, in this case, that he didn’t. Here, unfortunately, timings do tell a lot of the story. Dispatching the whole piece in less than one hour and fifty minutes, Masur flattens out its drama and runs roughshod over many of its beauties. No, he doesn’t cut anything—he just gets through it very fast. Try these comparative timings: Herreweghe: 2:07; Marriner: 2:07; Krips: 2:09; Hickox: 2:11; Sawallisch: 2:11; Frühbeck: 2:20; Ormandy: 2:21; Corboz: 2:22. I didn’t time either of the Sargent’s, but they are certainly on the slow end of the spectrum....I have no particular problem with Masur’s soloists: Alastair Miles sings with an appreciation of the drama; Helen Donath is remarkably well preserved after a long career, and van Ness and George are, likewise, just fine. The MDR Chorus makes a big, brave sound and Teldec has done a first-class job of capturing it, but
is obviously a dish this conductor doesn’t savor. Oddly, he recorded my favorite
(St. Paul in English).”
Moving on to a discussion of English-language recordings, Miller explains a personal preference that militates his dislike of the approach taken by Masur: “I rather like slow, stuffy, sentimental performances of
and I also tend to like Victorian things—maybe there’s a connection. I even did my Master’s thesis on music in the Victorian Era (and that isn’t “like”—that’s devotion)....I like the recordings that are on the slow side of the spectrum: Frühbeck, Ormandy, and Sargent, especially the great 1947 recording (the Corboz, of comparable slowness, is in German). These three conductors, for better or worse, tend to plod through the score, but at least they plod through it beautifully and sympathetically, especially Sargent. Those whose views of the era are more Dickensian might prefer the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of conductors like Hickox and Marriner.”
My preferences in
in English) are the antipodes of Miller’s. For example, I detest the soggy sentimentality of Victorian hymnody (give me instead a sturdy Lutheran chorale taken at a good clip!) by the likes of William Monk, J. B. Dykes, and Arthur Sullivan (who should have stuck to his operettas with Gilbert instead). Masur’s fleet approach is a desperately needed breath of fresh air that removes fustian stuffiness and brushes off the dust from a venerable but neglected antique. Far from riding roughshod over its beauties, for me he brings them out, cleansing away decades of accrued tarnish and causing the whole to shine afresh. Instead of flattening out the drama, which I find typically is smothered under reverential plodding masquerading as pious devotion (and which has nothing to do with genuine contemplativeness), he makes the score vividly leap to life as drama, in a reading marked by both rhythmic vitality and fluid lyricism. The biggest difference is in the choruses, which instead of being a soupy swamp of sound are clearly and cleanly delineated with vibrant energy. I do agree completely with Miller on the merits of the soloists, chorus, and recorded sound, and would add plaudits for the Israel Philharmonic as well. Unfortunately, at its budget price Apex includes no libretto or booklet notes, only a detailed list of movements with track timings. Even so, this is definitely one of my preferred recordings. (For my own detailed discussion of available versions, see my review in 34:5 of the recent Naxos release under Jun Märkl.)
So, dear readers, you now have two very different takes on this recording. If, like Miller, you are partial to a traditional Victorian approach, you will agree with him and want to avoid this recording. However, if instead you are someone like me who for decades found this score tedious precisely for that reason, give this reading a try as one that blows off the cobwebs and sets forth its considerable merits in a very different light.
FANFARE: James A. Altena