Bringing Back the Dead

There’s more than one way to breath musical life into the dead.

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I’m not a purist—graduate school cured me of that—but lately I’ve developed misgivings about completions of works left unfinished when the composer died. The Mozart Requiem, as commonly performed, becomes less interesting and more irritating, and though I need to know every note Mahler ever wrote, my latest concert experience with a completion (Deryck Cooke’s) of Symphony No. 10 left me cold.

There are exceptions, and what makes them so is that they are not completions in the standard sense, i.e. finishing a work. Rather, these are completions where the standard formed is filled out by some other music entirely. That’s the magic of this wonderful recording of the Requiem, with Pierre-Henri Dutron’s original modern music, in a sort of classical style, talks with Mozart, offering him the use of contemporary ideas.

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The same is true with this extraordinary concert that you should have already started playing! Teodor Currentzis has produced some of my favorite recordings of the past few years, entirely rethinking how some of the old classics should go (if you don’t want to start with the Da Ponte operas, get this amazing disc with Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and Les Noces). In this SWR Symphony program (Currentzis will be their next music director), he leads Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 and leaves it in the accidental and sublime perfection of its unfinished state. But he still delivers a four movement symphonic performance, by segueing from the peaceful end directly into Ligeti’s atmospheric and mysterious Lontano.

Not a completion, but an extension. If Bruckner’s music passes into the afterlife, Ligeti’s picks up the thread from there, traveling through a post-life dimension. I find the effect incredible and aesthetically and intellectually fantastic. Music is a continuum, and music from the past lives on in a timeless dimension.

Available to view to July 18, I’ve seen internet rumors that there will be a recording, but ¯_(ツ)_/¯ .

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“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

Absolutely, Totally, Mozart

This might be something like the experience of buying a multi-volume encyclopedia in days of yore: you didn’t know you needed it until you saw and coveted it, then there it sat on your bookshelf, admired by visitors yet rarely visited by yourself.

This is something different though: Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition (200 CD Box Set). This is something you will actually open up and play and enjoy through the years.

Yes, it’s expensive, and cost alone is an issue. So is it a value?

  • 200 discs for $410 = $2.05/disc, which is only slightly more than the per track cost of the latest pop hit.
  • Actual cost can be lower than $410, which is the Amazon price as of this writing. Presto Classical has it for $344, but shipping costs are high. Amazon UK has this for the best price (again as of this writing); with shipping included the price in USD is around $350. That’s $1.75/disc.
  • That per disc value only matters if the contents are, well, valuable to the consumer. And if you want a complete Mozart box, the Brilliant Classics one is $169 and it’s quite good, full of solid recordings. Is this box 1.5 – 2 times better?81os0jbut3l-_sl1500_

In my critical opinion—as long as you wish to have recordings of all of Mozart’s works—it is:

I have not heard the whole set (and am certain no one will be sending me a promo), but I am familiar with a substantial number of the recordings collected—there is a PDF of the CD contents here.

The first thing to note is that there is a heavy emphasis on period performance. The box collects Symphonies from the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Baroque Soloists, and a handful of others, all excellent ensembles (the bulk comes from Trevor Pinnock’s excellent English Concert recordings). There are also the fortepiano Piano Concerto recordings with Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin, which are full of improvisation and are absolutely essential.

There are also some period performance recordings of the operas, but not exclusively so, and here is where the virtues of the box are most clearly represented. This is a Decca release,  but Decca is currently under the ownership of UMG, which also owns Deutsche Grammaphon, Archiv, etc, which means that they have a superior, rich catalogue to choose from. Here are some of the opera recordings included:

  • La finta giardiniera, Mozarteum-Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager
  • Zaide, Staatskapelle Berlin, Bernhard Klee
  • Idomeneo, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
  • Le nozze di Figaro, Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra, Arnold Östman
  • Don Giovanni, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séquin
  • Così fan tutte, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Georg Solti
  • Die Zauberflöte, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

These are the best versions in the company’s archives, no matter the philosophy, mixing period and modern performances.

There are also many CDs with what are labeled “Classic” and “Historical” performances, so the piano works from Uchida and Brendel are augmented by Gulda and Haskil and Horowitz, the Symphonies are duplicated through a handful of Karl Böhm’s recordings, which at their best are fabulous. And these just scratch the surface of material that is supplemental to the core purpose, but generous and essential for delivering insight into the legacy of recording Mozart; there are 7 CDs of classic aria performances, there is the complete Erich Kleiber Figaro, which may be no longer essential but is incredibly musical. There are 3 CDs of music meant for private performance, 21 CDs of fragments, music that Mozart arranged (his own and others), and incomplete works finished by others, and a further 7 of what are labeled “Doubtful Works.” (Five hours of the music included has been recorded new just for the set.)

So yes, this is the one, complete not only in that it presents all of Mozart that is in common practice, but complete in that it is every work that the man produced, and with multiple views of some of the most notable ones. Documentation includes of a new Kochel guide.

This is a lifetime supply of the greatest musical art. Available October 28.

P.S. In the spirit of less perhaps being more, I also strongly recommend the upcoming release of Teodor Currentzis’ latest Mozart opera recordingDon Giovanni. Currentzis is the only conductor who is as interesting as René Jacobs in Mozart, and his style and ideas are dramatically different and equally rewarding.

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Recording of the (Last) Week: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto/Stravinsky: Les Noces

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Teodor Currentzis, MusicaAeterna, Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto/Stravinsky: Les Noces

There are too many recordings of classical music, and the last thing the world needs is another performance of a war horse like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. I’m not the only critic or composer (or even musician) to think that. Which is why this new album from Currentzis and his orchestra is so welcome. These performances are tremendous, not only incredibly well played but incredibly well thought. The combination of the material and the results, the extraordinary musicality and ensemble music-making, have this as the finest recording of any kind I’ve heard so far this year, in any style or genre.

MusicaAeterna is a period performance orchestra that Currentzis has shaped in detail while tucked away at the Perm Opera House. They’ve already produced two great recordings of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas—absolutely the highest recommendation for these, they are at the level of René Jacobs essential recordings—with Don Giovanni still to come. The play with style and finesse and, most important, the idea that they are making music rather than just following the score.

Here, they are surpassed by violinist Kopatchinskaja. Her playing is astounding for two simple reasons: her scintillating, acidic sound, and for her fidelity to the score. It sounds like she’s both teasing and interpolating the line, but she’s just being exact to the last degree with the rhythms, dynamics, and phrase markings. But it’s not stiff, her command is complete and so the feeling is natural and improvisatory. That, and the lean, colorful sound of the orchestra gives the music tremendous space and air, it breathes along with sounding. And the feeling is wrenching, intense—the hear-in-the-throat delicacy of the Canzonetta is like nothing I’ve heard.

This is all followed by Stravinsky’s masterpiece, his parsing of the traditional Russian wedding ceremony through the structures and forms of neo-classicism and suprematist painting. Les Noces has a fortunate recording legacy, with many exceptional, and exceptionally incisive, recordings to chose from—not counting the composer’s own. This is as good as they get, a first among equals. The chorus is the star, singing with a very non-classical idea of inflection, color, and phrasing, while sticking strictly to the notes and rhythms, and the soloists are great, especially tenor Stanislav Leontieff, who sounds both drunk and crazed while not missing a pitch. And the level of tension throughout is palpable.

Les Noces is a remarkable work, as transparent about what may be seen as primitive savagery as Le Sacre, as structurally refined as anything else Stravinsky wrote, and with some of his most remarkable rhythms and orchestration.

Whatever your musical persuasion or the extent of your library, get this recording. You will set it on endless repeat.