Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Barbirolli's Mahler

Pliable, who has been drawing attention to some of my favorite records, most notably that Mahler 9th with Bruno Maderna on BBC Legends, has done it one more time. John Barbirolli's Mahler 9th on EMI is an excellent recording of that piece.

There is more to Barbirolli's Mahler output than that incandescent 9th. A few important and very interesting such records are a 1960 7th with the Hallé Orchestra and a couple of Mahler 2nds, one from 1965 in Berlin and another from Stuttgart in 1970.

That 7th is very interesting indeed, and probably worth your time. Barbirolli's interpretations tend more toward, say, the Jascha Horenstein side of things than the Pierre Boulez side. Still, it is interesting and engaging to hear what he was making bands that weren't super-familiar with Mahler do in the 1960s. This isn't flawless playing, well, the live records aren't, but it's worth a listen.

Then pull out Gary Bertini and hear Mahler that is both expressive and precise.

One-minute review

Alex Ross updates us on his book. If he doesn't win the National Book Critics Award, then it will be highway robbery on the grandest scale.

My review, which I have sort of dodged, of The Rest is Noise is simply this: If you have not read this book yet, then you are an idiot. Not because failure to read his book evinces some sort of lack of erudition and intellectual curiosity (a case could be made); rather, because you are depriving yourself of one of the best books of the last five or six years.

This is, of course, just my opinion. I am not, though, even remotely wrong.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The limits of period performance

I don't go on about it, but I really do love Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, which has earned the sobriquet, "Emperor." Of all my recordings, I tend to return to the 1957 collaboration between Otto Klemperer and Claudio Arrau. There is a power and majesty in that performance that, while others come close, none equal. The sound, despite being from 1957, is none of the best, and it is a demerit to Walter Legge that he didn't record the collaborations - which were, more or less, his brainchild. I also like the Fritz Reiner/Van Cliburn record, which was recently re-released on RCA (i.e., Sony) Living Stereo SACD. There are differences in the recordings, but that's another post.

It is one particular recording, the Robert Levin/John Eliot Gardiner period-instrument performance on Archiv, which I want to discuss. Levin plays the fortepiano on this record. Now, generally, I find Gardiner one of the most tolerable period-instrument conductors. His non-period recordings are pretty good, too. His Beethoven symphony cycle (again, on Archiv) is actually very good (if on the fast side). My problem with this recording isn't the musicianship, the sound quality, or even the interpretative stance. It's the damn' fortepiano. Listen to Furtwängler/Fischer, Klemperer/Arrau, and Knappertsbusch/Curzon. Then listen to the tinkling, jangling fortepiano. It doesn't gel. Beethoven's tutti are too powerful in the presence of such an instrument. They'll give a concert grand a run for its money today, even compared to something like the Hammerklavier sonata or the wilder runs in the Waldstein. Gardiner manages to be faithful to a contemporary (i.e., of the composer) concept of the orchestral parts, but things don't work out as well with the soloist.

Now, the argument could be made that the difference between a fortepiano and a full-bore, hell-bent-for-leather Bösendorfer or Steinway shows the cleverness of Beethoven's balance between soloist and tutti. That could be true, I wouldn't dispute it. I would, though, call it an enormous cop-out. Part of the difficulty in bringing concertos off well is constructing and maintaining that balance. Pierre Boulez, in his 1971 account of the 5th piano concerto with Sir Clifford Curzon, which is a very strong second to the Klemperer/Arrau account in my book, managed to create and maintain that balance. He did it by, shock and horror, following Beethoven's score and working to create a seamless whole. In other words, he let Beethoven do the work.

It might seem like I am ragging on one particular recording, and maybe I am. I really like the 5th concerto, and I really think that modern instruments - informed by period practice - are the best vectors for the music. My objections, though, go beyond being annoyed at one performance. Listen to Peter Serkin's rendition of the Hammerklavier sonata. It doesn't, to my ears, have the same sheer power and majesty of a performance by a competent musician (and the Hammerklavier redefines competence, especially in the massive fugue). Indeed, it hardly sounds like the Hammerklavier. Before HIP aficionados get up in arms, let me say that I am very fond of some HIP recordings, like Jordi Savall's hard-to-find Beethoven 3rd or Gardiner's Matthäus-Passion (when I don't listen to Klemperer's), but I think that there are limits to the genre.

I'll be blunt. Do I really care how an 1805 audience heard the Eroica? No. Music, either compositionally or performance-wise, did not stop in 1805. Other, equally valid, performance traditions sprang up between a given work's premiere and 2008. That's the thing, when you choose McCreesh's Matthäus-Passion over Klemperer's or Gardiner's 5th piano concerto over Knappertsbusch's with Curzon, you are essentially discarding another performance tradition in favor of a newer-older one. There are limits, indeed, to period-performance, and they start when a work has a performance tradition of its own, and they go so far as to include a performance of a work that sounds "off" or less-true to its intentions on period instruments.

A rant, true. A rant, though, that has been a long time coming.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

More of Kubelík's Wagner

I have a lot of regard for Rafael Kubelík, and his wonderful 1980 Parsifal, which has had a long and complicated history on record. In some ways, I prefer it to Knappertsbusch's 1962 recording on Philips, though I am less sure about the 1964 set (most recently officially on Orfeo) with Jon Vickers. Thanks to the DG Web Shop, I downloaded Kubelík's 1971 SOBR Lohengrin, which has had a reasonably successful history on record. Before this, my standard recording had been the Lovro von Matačić set on Orfeo from the 1959 Bayreuther Festspiele. It doesn't have the best sound quality on the market, but Von Matačić had an excellent understanding of the score and a cast headed up by the fantastic Sándor Kónya one year after his debut on the Green Hill. Kubelík might have just knocked the venerable Bayreuth set off my pedestal.

I won't belabor the point, so I'll be succinct (necessarily). Kubelík, along with his frequent timing-mate, Hans Knappertsbusch, knew how to judge his tempi in such a manner that "real" time and "music-world" time became the same thing. His Parsifal is on the long side, up there with Knappertsbusch (both 1962 and 1964), but you wouldn't know it from listening to it. His service to the score, both in the letter and spirit, in my experience, provided an excellent example of how a conductor should approach a Wagner score. To my ears, it does not seem as though he is trying to engage Wagner in a conversation; he is translating Wagner's language to the audience. I sincerely doubt that Richard Wagner would care what any conductor thought about his decisions; it seems to me that he was interested in engaging the audience. His music is not seductive as some sort of self-congratulatory exercise. He's trying to grasp the audience in his hand and tell his story. Kubelík apparently understood this (as Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch did before him), and he was content to let Wagner do the work.

Give Kubelík's Wagner records a try if you can find them.