CDs!

While there’s a good handful of things I plan on writing about, I can’t seem to get those posts done right now, and don’t want to leave this neglected for too long. So, how about some CD reviews?

It’s time, anyway. This is the nice part of the year when the pile of releases with the current year’s copyright gains some substance, and so a good time to dig in and render some opinions. I had my morning coffee accompanied by two CDs from the pile. This first was the newest segment of David Zinman‘s increasingly impressive Mahler cycle, Symphony No. 4.

After a workman-like rendition of Symphony No. 1, the rest of the Wunderhorn works have been quite interesting, enjoyable, musical and Mahlerian, and this newest recording is fine indeed. Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich are not trying to break new ground, revise opinions or prove any points – they want to give us Mahler, which is always enough for those of us who revere the composer. So his manner is straightforward but never dull. This music rewards attention to phrasing and the particular detail, and immediately Zinman shapes the opening, gentle fanfare and the elided poco ritardando with attention to the musical line and an emphasis on the clarinet, a way for the conductor to indicate what it is that he hears that matters. The effect is lovely, and the playing of the orchestra, especially the phrasing and musical line throughout the first movement and the rest of the symphony are a joy. What is refreshing here is the combination of the lack of willful intervention and the exercise of excellent musical taste. I would describe this as an understated reading; there is so much to Mahler’s music, that allowing it to speak for itself is often the best way to perform it. It’s not lazy or unmindful – there is a great deal of concentration in maintaining the movement and focus of line, phrase and section, of holding back just enough that interesting shades and questions come to mind, resolved beautifully in the grand climax of the adagio movement (At 21:38, this is on the quicker side – the grandest and greatest recording of this work is Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and their movement clocks at 25:27). The finale is sung by Luba Orgonasova; she’s lovely and musical and nicely placed in the mix – very few sopranos actually try and emulate a child singing, so I can’t find much fault in her lack thereof as well, she’s just following the standard. Still, the expression is exactly what the music calls for. This is overall a lovely performance of Mahler’s loveliest symphony, and while not in the league of the MTT one – nothing else – a pleasure and also a bargain. It’s a Hybrid SACD issue with a full, clear sound, with a natural concert hall resonance. The recording gives the effect of sitting in the orchestra section, while the MTT SACD has you right on the conductor’s stand, with less resonance and more immediacy. The price for CD is reasonable and the iTunes download is an incredible $3.99. I’ll be listening to this quite a bit, as for some mysterious reason my SACD player abruptly decided it can’t read the MTT recording, the only one I have that suffers from this problem – anyone with any insight into why this would happen, I’d appreciate your knowledge.

The other CD for review today, Berlin, is a mostly excellent collection of songs, mainly on text by Brecht, mainly by Hans Eisler – with a good handful from Kurt Weill and other composers. These are arranged performed by Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda, with assistance from a string quarter. Bleckmann stands out from the crowd of singers and performers. I first heard him in a duet with Sheila Jordan, the saw him onstage singing and tumbling with Meredith Monk, and found him to be the key element of one of the finest works of music of this generation:

His beautiful, clear sound, his enunciation and his deceptively flat expressive style draw in the ear and enthrall the listening imagination. He inflects with gentle, subtle emphasis and inflection which serves to express both musical opinion and artistic sincerity. He is predictably beautiful and involving on this record.

What I find most important is the decisions the artists made, their sound aesthetic judgement. Eisler is ever-fashionable and highly overrated composer, a real second-rater who maintains some kind of strange counter-cultural appeal as essentially a patriotic volunteer to the artistic needs of the State in East Germany. He was a trained and eager propagandist, and his music is mainly earnest, clumsy, dull and based on ridiculous ideas. Still, he wrote a lot of songs, and a few good ones, all of which seem to be on this disc, like Hollywood-Elegie No. 7, his single finest moment. As in the previous recording, the straightforward, elegant and unfussy arrangements really serve this work, as does, especially, Bleckmann’s intriguing style. The Weill tunes are much better known and more accomplished, and there’s something intriguing about hearing a man singing about Surabaya Johnny . . . most well known of all the songs is Ich bing von Kopf . . . or Falling in Love Again – the rendition here is as good as I’ve ever heard, and yes, that includes my beloved Marlene Dietrich. While the disc loses a bit of steam with some fairly static arrangements on the last three tracks, this a generous collection of 23 songs and 77 minutes of music that you will find yourself listening to with attention and reward.

More music to come, including songs of Charles Ives, more Mahler (there’ always more Mahler), new jazz, electronic music, interesting pop and rock . . . and The Ring!

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  1. Pingback: Mahler, More Than Ever « The Big City

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