The Whole Salonen

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music.

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To be exact, the whole Salonen on Sony (Columbia Records): 61 CDs, all the recordings he made for that label before moving on to Deutsche Gramophon and elsewhere.

I confess, I hadn’t realized he had been that prolific, but after scrolling through the contents, I realized I was already familiar witth a great deal of what’s inside the box, and already have a substantial amount of these recordings in my collection.

Salonen is of course one of the major figure in contemporary classical music. As a conductor he was instrumental in turning the LA Philharmonic into a notable ensemble before he handed over the baton to Gustavo Dudamel, and as a composer he has produced a number of scores that give pleasure, though at least for me they don’t stick in the mind.

But what if you’re reading this and wondering if it’s worth spending $149.98 on (the pre-order price at Amazon as of this writing, though most likely this will drop)? That is a tough question to answer, perhaps more with this than any other of the recent boxed sets from the Columbia back catalog.

If you already have all the Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartók in your library that you need, then you don’t need this. Same with Nielsen—those composers make up about a quarter of the set, and the recordings here are all good to very good, but there’s not one that is among the finest (IMO). If you don’t have this music, you’ll be satisfied with what is in here. But if you do, you will probably find this superfluous.

However, there is still a lot in here that’s the best you can get. In the standard repertory, the Mahler 4 recording, is about the best there is, as is Messiaen’s Turangalila and Des canyons lux etoiles. The CD with both the Sibelius and Nielsen violin concertos is spectacular.

What is invaluable here is the musical that Salonen was committed to recording and bringing to the public—Ligeti (this is where you will find Le Grand Macabre), Saariaho, Takemitsu, Lindberg. This is as good as it gets. The two Lutoslawski CDs, which include a complete symphony cycle, are essential. The collection of Bernard Herrmann film music is unique and superb.

In the end, this is for fans, I think, of specific composers or the artist himself. To fandom, money is usually no object, but again, this makes for an excellent first step into modern classical music.

Preorder Esa-Pekka Salonen: The Complete Sony Recordings, at Amazon. Release date is May 4.

Mozart Reanimato

There is however, as of the end of October, the most important recording of the Requiem, Harmonia Mundi’s release with René Jacobs leading the Freiburger Barockorchester, the RIAS Kammerchor, and singers Sophie Karthäuser, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Maximilian Schmitt, and Johannes Weisser.

There is no best recording of Mozart’s Requiem, there are only personal favorites (mine is the one from Malgoire, I have always found it comforting and satisfying, don’t ask me why).

There is however, as of the end of October, the most important recording of the Requiem, Harmonia Mundi’s release with René Jacobs leading the Freiburger Barockorchester, the RIAS Kammerchor, and singers Sophie Karthäuser, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Maximilian Schmitt, and Johannes Weisser.

This may become my favorite, and yours–Jacobs is the greatest contemporary Mozart interpreter, in his own universe entirely, and this is as beautifully played and sung as one would expect. What Jacobs gets out of his musicians is a palpable sense of character and drama and the feeling that all the tempos, rhythms, and phrases are being played with perfect logic. And there is the pure loveliness of the singers, and ravishing warmth from the musicians.

What makes this important is that it is truly new Mozart, a careful, learned, and accomplished editing and recomposing of the standard Süssmayr edition, done by contemporary composer Pierre-Henri Dutton and finished in 2016.

The story of how the Requiem came down to us is evocative enough to produce plays and movies. What is left out, of Amadeus in particular, is how the Requiem came to be.

When the composer died on December 5, 1791, the only completed movement was the Introit. From there through the Hostias, there were vocal line and some orchestration and figured bass marked. Even this was fragmented–there were only eight bars to the Lacrimosa. In normative circumstances, we would expect an unfinished work to remain just that at a composer’s death. There was no fascination with Mozart as a genius, no drive to bring his unfinished works to  posterity.

There was money, though, the money that Mozart’s wife Constanze, with a second child on the way, now owed to creditors. To get the full commission, the Requiem had to be finished, and it had to look like Mozart finished it, which in the late 18th century meant that the handwriting had to be a close enough match. As Dutron points out in his detailed and informative notes, there was very little to go on as a basis to finish the piece.

Three composers (possibly four) had a hand in producing the version most commonly heard, Mozart’s student Franz Jacob Freystädtler, followed by Joseph Leopold Eybler, then finally Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr was not a student of Mozart’s but he had helped with the recitatives of La clemenza di Tito, and did some copying for Die Zauberflöte (Mozart apparently had a low opinion of Süssmayr). He finished the orchestration, and, from scratch, wrote the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. That was the score that completed the commission and earned Madame Mozart a precious 25 ducats.

That is also the score that mixes great music from Mozart, with brilliant counterpoint and vocal ensembles at the level of his great achievements in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni with the totally ordinary, stiff music of Süssmayr.

Using the great advantage of historical insight and hindsight, Dutron has drastically improved what we are used to hearing. His comments on his own work are fascinating:

Admittedly, my work does lay claim to a form of historical truth, and I set myself a rule of constant vigilance, testing each avenue I explored with meticulous research. Yet to take rigour as my sole guide would have led me to avoid taking risks and obliged me to be overcautious. I must therefore acknowledge that the work I have done contains an irreducible element of arbitrariness…

Technically, Dutron reorchestrated the unfinished, and heavily rewrote Süssmayr’s contributions, producing a score he calls Süssmayr Extended heard on this release (there is another version, Mozart Extended, where Dutron wrote his own versions of the missing movements, but it is unheard here).

The result is unquestionably better than what we’ve had for centuries. While not quite Mozart, it is far more fluid, subtle, sophisticated, and beautiful than what Süssmayr wrought. In particular, the harmonies of the Allegro cadences in the Sanctus and Benedictus are absolutely sublime and with a tang of modernism, and the Agnus Dei is transformed into poetry, rather than the previous prose.

What I like best of all is Dutron’s contemporary sensibility. The Cum sanctis tuis again has great harmony, and is full of Dutron’s personality. More than just concludung the Requiem, it looks back from our point in time on the tragic loss of Mozart, and ends with a quiet, but strong unreconciled despair. This is a Mozart Requiem never heard before.

(For comparison, I recommend another superb recent recording, the reconstruction of the first performance, from the Dunedin Consort and John Butt.)

The God Box

I’ve said it before and will say it again, because it bears infinite repeating: we have lost something valuable with the demise of the big old record labels. Like the Hollywood studio system, they weren’t usually the best places for artists but like the movie studios, they could bring together amazing amounts of talent to produce enduring and enviably well-made classics.

Richard Taruskin had the honor and privilege of writing booklet notes for not one, but two important collections of Stravinsky’s music that were released last year. In Deutsche Grammaphon’s Stravinsky: Complete Edition, he summed up the composer’s rare stature with the following anecdote and analysis. Tarsukin writes that Vladmimir Ussachevsky told him:

‘…after crossing [himself] and rising from [his] knees in front of Arnold Schoenberg’s death mask in [Schoenberg’s] working room, [Stravinsky] turned to Mrs. Schoenberg and said “Now I am alone.” Who, you, who can say that now?’

It was a haunting question. There were still composers one admired, even revered. But Carter, Berio and Boulez were honored in one camp. Copland, Shostakovich and Britten were honored in another. Stravinsky was honored in both: his music was indispensably a part of the academic canon and the performing repertoire alike. People both praised it in the classroom and paid good money to hear it. No textbook or music history course could omit him, and neither could any concert or opera (or ballet!) season. And that was what made him unique among the living while he lived. Stravinsky seemed uniquely to exemplify, among contemporary composers, the appeal that Mozart had exerted in his day…. The same compositions that the professionals have analyzed to death have been recorded dozens of times for the delectation of non-matriculated music-lovers. Is there any other modern master of whom that can be said?

Is there? Perhaps Steve Reich is approaching that status, but his academic acceptance, while growing, is not yet fully settled. Stravinsky was one of the rare Titans, and even rarer was the accident of his birth that brought him together with the advent of audio recording technology.

I’ve said it before and will say it again, because it bears infinite repeating: we have lost something valuable with the demise of the big old record labels. Like the Hollywood studio system, they weren’t usually the best places for artists but like the movie studios, they could bring together amazing amounts of talent to produce enduring and enviably well-made classics.

For records, the outstanding example is Columbia in the 1960s. The studio had under contract Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky, five of the most important musicians of the 20th century. They each had essentially carte blanche to record what they wanted.

Stravinsky is a special case and especially important. His accomplishments were a culmination of the history of classical music that came before him and have been immeasurably and continuously influential. In the timeline of Western art music, there are certain composers who have determined the course of music after them, and Stravinsky is one. And, as Taruskin implied, he was a composer, rather than a musician, and a contemporary one at that—record labels signed musicians, but composers?

Fortunately for us, Columbia did so, and the important became the wonderfully unusual. For the music of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et al, we can hear how musicians think about their music; interpretation. With Stravinsky, we can hear his own thoughts, as straight from his mind to our ears as possible.

His recordings are musically exceptional. They have been available off and on since the late 1920s, and had been collected in the 1990s as the Recorded Legacy box set. At the time, that was essential for the musically literate listener, just as having Joyce, Hemingway, and Borges was fundamental for someone who valued literature. Last year, that set was superseded by Igor Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. It is both vastly different and better by orders of magnitude.

The difference is clear in both size and organization. Where the Recorded Legacy was 22 CDs, the Album Collection is 56, plus a DVD. The earlier set collected previous recordings in categories like ballets, chamber music, etc. The new box contains CD reproductions of the original albums, arranged chronologically.

Because they are the original albums, there is music from other composers that was paired with Stravinsky on certain releases; those include Bach, Bernstein, Copland, Arensky,Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their contributions only make up a small portion of the additional 34 CDs, but they allow the chance to hear classic LPs, like 1962’s Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Madrigalists: Tributes to his Astonishing Life and Music—organized by Robert Craft, it has Madrigals from Gesualdo and Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. This was a teeth-rattler when first issued, and the culmination of Stravinsky, guided by Craft, rediscovering music of the Italian Renaissance.

Another reason for the difference in CDs is that, as reproductions of original LPs, the CDs each don’t hold as much music as on the Recorded Legacy. And another is that Stravinsky made a considerable number of recordings before the most well-known ones in this box. Beginning in the summer of 1928 and concluding with a performance of Mozart and his own piano music in 1938, Stravinsky laid down a series of LPs for British Colombia (later to become part of EMI). These are all in the new box and they are all terrific.

Also, Stravinsky began making mono LPs for Columbia in the 1940s, then re-recorded his body of work in stereo starting again in the 1950s (it is the stereo recordings that are in the Recorded Legacy). All of this is in the Album Collection. Some of the performances are a little rough, like the Divertimento from the Baiser de la fée played by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico (this was new music in Stravinsky’s era, and musicians were learning his idiom and adapting themselves to his considerable technical challenges). And as much as Stravinsky complained about conductors, his own conducting technique was mediocre and he could not manage what he felt were the ideal tempos of works like the Rite of Spring.

But the composer was unsurpassed at conveying his unique style, either on the podium or though his assistant and amanuensis, Craft. The sound throughout is the classic objective surface, which can be warm or cool depending on the moment, and rhythms that can be felt in the body. That these are Stravinsky’s own recordings is immeasurably important. As Taruskin writes in the Album Collection booklet (yes, he got both gigs), “Comparing the risk a new composition runs when performed for the first time with the security of a classic, say by Beethoven, [Stravinsky] complained late in life that ‘what is wrong with the Beethoven performance is evident and cannot damage the work, but what is wrong in the performance of the unfamiliar work is not at all evident, and the line between sense and nonsense in it may, and often does, depend upon its performance.’” Stravinsky used the recording studio as a place to create and disseminate his own idiom.

The results include unsurpassed versions of the three early ballets, of Oedipus Rex, Orpheus, and Agon, and unequalled renditions of Symphony in Three Movements and The Rake’s Progress. These are all collected in the Albums box, but with the inclusion of the early recordings, and the first mono renditions, you also get two versions of Apollon musagète, the original and revised versions of the Piano Concerto, multiple versions of the Rite, and of the Petrushka and Firebird suites, two complete Fairy’s Kiss (and two complete Divertimentos), two Soldier’s Tales, two of each of the major Symphonies, four (!) recordings of Les Noces in all versions, two of Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, and The Rake’s Progress, two different takes of the rarely recorded Persephone, multiple recordings of various songs, and both the exceptional Benny Goodman performance of the Ebony Concerto and that of Woody Herman and his orchestra, the original commissioner.

All of this is in excellent sound, remastered primarily by Andreas K. Meyer/Jeanne Montalvo, and Martin Kistner. There is more space and bloom all around than on the Recorded Legacy, which has solid sound, and the mono is smooth. With a beautiful hard-bound booklet, it is in every way fabulous.

The DG set in any other circumstance would stand out as essential, but in comparison it is a worthy also-ran, like all those teams that lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals. It collects performances from their own substantial catalogue. The major interpreters within are Boulez, Bernstein, and Claudio Abbado, and while there might be some subjective quibbles (I prefer Chailly to Abbado, for example), these are all contenders for leading versions. Along with the composer’s body of work, it has some wonderful historical recordings; the Violin Concerto in D played by Samuel Dushkin—who commissioned it—with Stravinsky conducting, and Jean Cocteau narrating the Soldier’s Tale conducted by Igor Markevitch. DG has also included Ernest Ansermet’s Petrushka from 1947, and Monteux’s 1956 Le Sacre (Monteux was Stravinsky’s favorite conductor, but the composer had reservations about this recording). And there is a bonus disc of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing Le Sacre for two pianos.

The DG set goes for (currently) about $100, while the Album Collection is $139. Price per disc is actually higher with DG, at $3.33 versus $2.43, which shows that in pure dollar terms the Columbia box is a superior bargain. Aesthetically, the choice is between excellent professional interpretations and a more technically variable but musically and philosophically superior ur-text. But why choose? Get both.

The Year in Mahler 2016

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What a year. There are more concerts to come, but my experience hearing Simon Rattle lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 6 Monday night at Carnegie put a cap on a run of unforgettable performances. Read my review of last night at the New York Classical Review here, and catch up on these reviews from earlier in the year of New York Philharmonic performances: Mahler 6 with Semyon Bychkov, Mahler 9 with Bernard Haitink, Das Lied von der Erde (and Sibelius 7) with Alan Gilbert.

Sharing reviews is always tinged with the frustration of not being able to share the experience, nor of recalling anything but the memory of an overall impact. But there’s a welcome exception: the Philharmonic has released a digital recording from the Bychkov/Mahler 6 run, and it is as great as my memories, one of the finest performances of the symphony you’ll hear. You can stream it/buy it from iTunes, or do the same at Amazon, where the audio is better. Note that the cover image has Gilbert’s name, but it’s Bychkov conducting.

 

Recording of the Week: Kristian Bezuidenhout , Mozart: Keyboard Music Vols. 8 & 9

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Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano

This two disc set is the conclusion of Bezuidenhout’s series of recordings of Mozart on the fortepiano, all on Harmonia Mundi. Bezuidenhout has not recorded all of Mozart’s piano compositions, but the series amounts to a substantial body of music: the eighteen sonatas, concertos K. 453 and K. 482, a good helping of fantasies, rondos, variations, fragments, and more—ten discs altogether.

I am sorry to see this project come to an end, because there is nothing like these . Bezuidenhout is a great fortepiano player, he really understands what the different construction and string layout means for timbre and sustain, and has exceptional command of tone and color in all registers (one of the charms of the instrument is that the sound varies depending on how hight or low the pitch is). He is also a great Mozart player.

All these recordings show how much he understands the music,and how much one can do with it, but the opening of the first disc here is an ideal example: the Sonata in C Major, K. 545 (one of the most famous). In the opening sonata-allegro movement, Bezuidenhout ads wonderful ornaments and tiny improvisations whenever the theme is repeated, so organic and judicious that one both notices them and feels they were expressly composed by Mozart. In sequences, and during repeats as well, he is both expressive and judicious with rubato and, pauses, and explores free coordination between hands—you’ll hear this in the repeats as well.

In the Andante movements, Bezuidebhout captures the cantabile quality that is essential in Mozart, the sense that he was so often writing with a soprano, rather than an instrument, in his head.

Everything on here is superb: the Variations on “Dieu d’amour” is poised and moving; Sonata K. 279 has what I can only describe as an exceptional bourgeois quality, elegant and well-mannered, but full of humor; and the rarely heard Modulating Prelude in F-C, K. 624/626a is amazing, an outstanding composition given a bravura performance. Finish or start your fortepiano Mozart with this set, but do get it, unless you can’t bear the thought of not wanting to hear Mozart on the modern piano again.

This Year’s Mahler

It’s a grand twenty-four months for the composer whose time has come – this year is the sesquicentennial of his birth and next is the centennial of his death – but it’s been marked in relatively modest ways on the recording front. There was the release of two competing ‘Complete’ boxed sets, each with different contents (reviewed in more detail here). Naxos issued their good quality budget box of the Symphonies, a solid but not top level collection, and the price is not competitive against great sets like the Bertini recordings and the aforementioned boxes that came out this year. An unusual set, coming out in the States on December 14, is the “People’s Edition,” a collection from the Deutsche Grammophon vaults voted on by listeners. It’s an uneven choice, with too many mediocre recordings to recommend, especially against DG’s Complete Edition. The Abbado led Symphony 3 is a particular weakness, although the Giulini Symphony No. 9 is an unexpected and pleasant result.

The EMI Complete Works is well-chosen and now the first choice for anyone looking for a Mahler box, either as a first purchase or an addition to their collection. There were three new recordings of Mahler symphonies this year, as well, that are not only notable but essential, even extraordinary, and are not just my choices for best Mahler of the year, but will be on my final year end list for all music:

  • Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, “Titan,” Symphony No. 1Jan Willem de Vriend, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Certainly the most important recording of this symphony ever made, and perhaps the greatest. De Vriend has completely rethought the work and the result is something like sitting in a concert hall to hear the premiere of something totally new and unknown. Going back to Mahler’s first score, he includes the “Blumine” movement that was later discarded, not as a curiosity but as an integral part of the work, making it a five part symphonic poem closer to the radical shift Mahler made in the Symphony No. 5 that the other group of “Wunderhorn” works. The playing is the equal of the finest orchestras and De Vriend’s approach to every note and phrase is Mahlerian as it gets. I hope he has more in store.
  • Symphony No. 2Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic, Kate Royal, Magdalena Kozena, Rundfunkchor Berlin. Rattle has previously recorded one of the great performances of this work. This new release, download only, comes directly from three concerts recorded at the end of October of this year. I don’t know if the Berlin Philharmonic planned on release this ahead of time, but I can believe that when they heard the concerts and the tapes they went mad with the need to package this and make it available to the public. There is one specific flaw in the performance: At the Molto Pesante portion of the first movement, Rattles sudden ritardando is jarring, it focuses attention on itself rather than the music making. Other than that, this is so great as to be unreal. The playing is spectacular in the extreme, and Rattles control of the music, his shape of this enormous score, is perfect in a way I had never previously imagined. The musical and dramatic narrative unfolds at a pace that is musically and emotionally sublime, completely involving and spellbinding. In every moment, one is lost in the music in a way that is rare in recordings and performances. One of the greatest Mahler performances one will ever hear.
  • Symphony No. 4 – Philippe Herreweghe, L’Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Rosemary Joshua. Available currently as a download, released on disc in the States next month, this is an ‘Early Music’ approach to Mahler with the distinguished conductor’s own orchestra. The instruments are quite close to what we commonly hear nowadays, the main difference is that the strings have the lighter quality familiar from period orchestras. More important is how the instruments are played. Herreweghe has cultivated a stunningly colorful sound, his orchestra plays with a sense of style that is unique and appears to be very old world, based in the regional and national characteristics that were prevalent before the development of recording technology and radio. His conception of this symphony flows with unforced naturalness, Mahler is there in every moment and the drama speaks clearly without exaggeration. This is one of the most musical Mahler recordings I know, and matches the great MTT recording in terms of accomplishment, while offering an ear-opening counterpoint. An exceptional end to an exceptional year for Mahler.