Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hatto tricks

There are two Joyce Hatto scandals: (1) The late pianist’s husband, sound engineer William Barrington-Coupe, inserted sections of other pianists’ recordings, or lifted whole performances from other sources, and issued them under Hatto’s name. (2) Supposedly discerning listeners didn't catch on.

Some influential U.S. and British critics raved over Barrington-Coupe’s discs of his wife, an English pianist whose concert career was cut short when she developed ovarian cancer in the 1970s. (She died last year.) In a letter to Robert von Bahr, some of whose BIS recordings were filched, Barrington-Coupe claimed he made the substitutions when he couldn’t satisfactorily transfer cassette tapes to compact discs or when Hatto’s grunts of pain spoiled her recordings.

Gramophone magazine obtained portions of the letter after breaking the story on Feb. 15. Its coverage is at: www.gramophone.co.uk

The deception was discovered when a Gramophone critic opened a computer file of a track supposedly by Hatto, only to find the playback program identifying it as the work of another artist. Engineers then began making side-by-side comparisons of Hatto discs and commercial recordings, turning up more miscredited performances.

There’s at least one famous non-piratical precedent for splicing one artist’s work into a recording issued under another artist’s name: the 1952 EMI recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde (EMI Classics 67626, four discs). The aging soprano was unable to reach some high notes; so the producer, Walter Legge, “backed up” Flagstad with the voice of his wife-to-be, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The ruse went unnoticed, or at least unmentioned, until a London newspaper exposed it two years after the release.

Splicing together bits of several performances by the same artist(s) has been commonplace ever since audio production moved from direct-to-disc 78s to tape recordings. The conductor Otto Klemperer, on first encountering these studio touch-ups, declared the practice “ein Schweinerei” (a dirty trick, in polite translation), Legge recalled in “On and Off the Record,” the memoir published after his death by Schwarzkopf.

Splicing remains standard practice in commercial recordings. Even “live” discs – audio and video – are commonly collations of the best bits from several performances.

Should the critics taken in by the Hatto discs be embarrassed? To a point: They should have been suspicious of the “miracle” of an elderly, infirm pianist playing finger-busters at the level of a Yefim Bronfman (one of the pianists whose work was purlioned), not to mention displaying radically different tone and technique from one recording to the next.

I wonder, though, how many critics – even piano mavens – hearing recordings of six pianists in the same repertory, could correctly identify just one? For that matter, how many pianists could do it?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Bulk filler

The Richmond Symphony’s Beethoven Festival series has now represented the composer twice in a row with hack work – first the "Egmont" incidental music (way downhill after the overture), then a set of German dances. The Fifth and Sixth symphonies bracket these bits of very minor Beethoven on the series' schedule, and the programs range pretty far afield besides. (Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony in a Beethoven festival?)

It suffices to observe that a great composer wrote disposable stuff for specific gigs. No need to actually perform the stuff.

This orchestra plays 12 classical subscription programs per season. On a schedule that limited, there’s no good reason to play bulk filler, certainly not 200-year-old bulk filler.

That’s not to say every selection must be a masterpiece. There’s plenty of less-than-monumental music, old and new, that’s well-crafted and stimulates the imagination and is audience-friendly – and that can fit within the budgetary and artistic constraints of an orchestra playing in church sanctuaries while it awaits reconstruction of a hall.

Mark Russell Smith, the symphony’s music director, has devised some fascinating thematic programs and repertory pairings (Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude and Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," for example) for the full-symphony Masterworks series. More of that kind of thinking needs to go into programming the chamber-orchestra series.

For starters, let ensembles select and play chamber pieces within chamber-orchestra concerts, as they did a couple of seasons ago. The rep was interesting, the performances engaged and engaging, and the practice put the spotlight on the orchestra’s principal asset: its musicians.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Review: National Symphony

with composer Mason Bates, violinist Janine Jansen
Feb. 24, Kennedy Center, Washington

The couple settled into ninth-row seats and began reading their program books. A few minutes later:

Oh, a world premiere – a ‘water symphony’ with electronica. Mason Bates, composer and electronica.

Electronica . . .

That stuff they use in, you know, trance music.

Ah. Twenty-four minutes of trance music. And then the Mendelssohn.

* * *

Anticipatory exchanges like that are probably common when Mason Bates presents his music to a symphony audience. Loudspeakers are suspended on either side of the stage, rock-concert style. The program note mentions "techno" and "trip-hop," terms understood dimly at best by people over 30. (The couple I’ve quoted looked to be in their 40s.) An expectation forms, involving (1) loudness, (2) recollection of a scene from a cop show, with throbbing music, woozy lighting and kids overdosing on a bad batch of ecstasy, (3) "What is my kid doing right now?" and/or "I shouldn’t have used so much vinaigrette on the salad."

Bates defies that expectation, among others, in his "Liquid Interface," commissioned by the National Symphony and introduced over the weekend. (I heard the third of three performances.) In four movements, timed much like a classical symphony but scored for large modern orchestra augmented by electronic sounds from a computer and drum pad, the piece evokes water in its frozen, liquid and hazy states, and in its contrasting roles as life-sustainer and destructive force.

That’s a lot of evocation to pack into 24 minutes. No chance to trance. Bates adds to the perceptual mix specific visual references and recorded nature sounds – glaciers calving (first movement); a New Orleans jazz band playing, then scattering, as Katrina bears down on the city (third movement); a languid, humid afternoon on the Wannsee, Berlin’s great lake (fourth movement).

And this has what to do with techno? Not much, other than the hardware. Bates’ musical (as opposed to sound-effects) applications of electronica in this score are rhythmic and spatial. They are applied sparingly, and are almost always subsidiary to orchestral sound. The closest encounter between orchestra and electronica occurs as violins play portamento slides off a trip-hop (slowed-down hip-hop) beat, producing a horizontal, dipping rhythm akin to the "fatback" beat of 1960s rhythm and blues (in Wilson Pickett’s "Mustang Sally," for example). Curiously, this is in the Wannsee movement, not the New Orleans one, whose jazz band plays more metrically.

Bates inserts recorded natural sounds (glaciers breaking up, water lapping) much like other composers, from Respighi to Rautavaara; and like his predecessors, he doesn’t integrate them into the musical argument. Their effect is like that of images flashing in a slide show.

"Liquid Interface" makes its representations vividly – and rather tersely, since so much is represented. It’s tempting to describe the piece as "cinematic," although much of it is too aurally involving to accompany images without getting in their way.

In most of this orchestration, the higher the volume, the longer the notes (lots of whole notes for strings), which results in mostly unhurried tempos. The busy bits, orchestral and electronic, skitter rhythmically and spray tone color. The only big, loud, dense sounds are crashing-ice and thunder-and-wind effects.

The piece struck me as cautious (or judicious, if you prefer), as if the composer weren't yet sure how much, and what kind of, electronica an orchestration, and an orchestra, and a concert hall, can handle. Conductor Leonard Slatkin also seemed to concentrate on details of voicing, balance and articulation. With the grand scheme (if any) left unattended, the piece sounds more angular and episodic, less flowing or surging, than one would expect of water music.

Four works into his electro-orchestral endeavor, the 30-year-old composer is still getting the feel of an unfamiliar and still ungainly tool. Unbridled imagination and unchecked energy in conception, and spontaneity in performance, may be too much to ask for at this stage.

"Scherzo liquido," the second and least specifically representational movement, may have a future apart from "Liquid Interface." It’s as genuinely playful as the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" music, and it engages orchestral musicians – Slatkin and the NSO players visibly and audibly perked up when it came around. With some tweaking at the end, it could stand alone, and could become a frequently programmed miniature.

* * *

And then the Mendelssohn: Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist – an eyeful, you'll notice – making debuts with a number of American orchestras (New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, as well as the NSO) this season after accumulating laurels in Europe, gave this overridden warhorse of violin concertos a treatment that could be described as probing or inquisitive. Or, just as easily, as indulgent.

Producing a smallish tone and (usually) tightly focused pitch on the "Barrere" Stradivarius (1727), Jansen caressed phrases and lingered over expressive details. While brilliant when brilliance was called for, she was most compelling in quiet and quicksilver passages, the softest of which were barely audible 15 feet away.

She’s masterful at the musical stage whisper. One wonders, though, how successfully she’ll employ it as a first-string virtuoso performing with major orchestras in big halls. In this performance, Slatkin reined in orchestral tutti, but the band still sounded like a freight train bearing down on a songbird.

* * *

The program concluded with Tchaikovsky’s "Pathètique" Symphony. Don’t like it, never have, never will, left early.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Richmond Symphony & Chorus
with baritone Richard Zeller, soprano Sarah Gartshore

Feb. 23, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Brahms’ "A German Requiem" is an acquired taste that even James Erb had to acquire. The veteran Richmond chorusmaster didn’t care for the work as a young man – getting next to this music takes some living, and some exposure to the dying; but Erb clearly has embraced it in maturity.

This weekend the Brahms embraces him. Figuratively, as he prepares to take his leave after 36 years
as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. And literally, as he’s singing in the tenor section.

Erb founded the Symphony Chorus in 1971 – it made its debut in Beethoven’s "Missa Solemnis," led by Robert Shaw – and he continued to direct the ensemble after his retirement from the University of Richmond faculty and the disbanding of his community chorus, CAFUR, in 1994. He will prepare the women of the Symphony Chorus for Debussy’s Nocturnes at the end of this season; but this weekend’s Brahms is his last undertaking with the full ensemble.

The chorus and orchestra, conducted by Mark Russell Smith, give Erb a richly sonorous, audibly heartfelt premature sendoff. Rarely have these voices sounded as well-blended, rhythmically pointed or emotionally engaged. Their expressive warmth largely offset the starkly bright acoustic of the Second Baptist Church sanctuary in the Feb. 23 performance. They should sound sumptuous in the sonically mellower First Baptist Church on Feb. 24.

Brahms introduced a torso of the Requiem in 1867 in a Vienna concert hall, but its first success came the following year in the cathedral of Bremen in northern Germany. That lag in appreciation may not be coincidental. Much of this music speaks intimately, and even at its loudest and most dramatic a kind of resigned serenity lies not far beneath the surface. I first heard it in a church, and have always found it more satisfying musically and more potent spiritually in that setting. (The Fauré Requiem is similarly "churchy" in its intimacy and palpable reverence.)

These performances of the Brahms are greatly enhanced by Richard Zeller, a journeyman American baritone whose voice is both dark and penetrating, and whose German is so fluent and communicative that translation is almost superfluous. (He's no less impressive in Russian repertory, judging by his performance in the Shostakovich 14th Symphony with the Richmond Symphony in January.) Deeply contemplative in "Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende" ("Lord, make me to know mine end"), robust and emphatic in "Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis" ("Behold, I tell you a mystery"), Zeller delivers one of those performances that resonate in the mind’s ear long after they conclude.

Sarah Gartshore, in the soprano solo "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" ("You now have sorrow"), engages the listener with less tonal richness or volume but with a portrayal of human sorrow that neither holds back nor wallows in emotive excess.

The Brahms is preceded by four short instrumental evocations of the physical universe. The sequence begins with "Chaos" from the beginning of Haydn’s oratorio "The Creation," and continues with Judith Shatin’s "Piping the Earth" and the miniatures "Stars" and "Sand" by Mary Howe.

Shatin, a member of the University of Virginia music faculty, parlays an old Chinese proverb – the wind sounds different as it moves through one space or another, but nonetheless remains the wind – into an eventful tone poem, seemingly focused on the sounds of things set in motion by wind. The current itself is an almost subliminal presence.

Howe (1882-1964), born in Richmond, was a prominent musical figure in her adopted home, Washington, where she helped found the National Symphony, among other endeavors. Of greater interest to posterity, she was one of the pioneer American female composers. "Stars" and "Sand," both dating from the late 1920s, are her best-known orchestral works.

The two pieces, each lasting less than five minutes, are impressionistic treatments of their subjects. To today’s ears, they sound less like Debussy or Ravel, more like bits of a film score – well-wrought music, and well-mannered in that it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

In the first of three concerts of this program, Smith and the symphony delivered alert accounts, more refined than might have been expected as they had to balance rehearsal time between three unfamiliar pieces and a major choral-orchestral work.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and at 8 p.m. Feb. 26 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: (804) 788-1212; www.richmondsymphony.com

The Feb. 26 concert will be broadcast live on Richmond’s public radio station, WCVE-FM (88.9).

Friday, February 23, 2007

Peter Ustinov in Bach

In your dreams, Bobby McFerrin . . .

Thursday, February 22, 2007


My profile of Mason Bates, the Richmond-bred composer whose "Liquid Interface" is being premiered this weekend by the National Symphony in Washington, is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

Another look at Bates and his music, by Stephen Brookes in The Washington Post:

Also in Style Weekly, some background on Mary Howe, the Richmond-born composer of the early 20th century, whose tone poems "Stars" and "Sand" are being revived this weekend by the Richmond Symphony, online at:

Review: eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
with soprano Lucy Shelton
Feb. 21, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

The sextet eighth blackbird, the reigning proponent of contemporary American chamber music, wrapped up this season's concerts in its ongoing residency at the University of Richmond with the second of its “strange imaginary animals” programs sampling works from the group's recent recording of that name (Cedille 094). Guest soprano Lucy Shelton was featured in two song cycles, not on the disc.

Shelton joined the ensemble two years ago in Richmond for the premiere of puppeteer Blair Thomas’ staged version of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” since taken on the road to much acclaim. In this program, she displayed the same gift for dramatic vocalized narrative, and extraordinary emotive and tonal range, in Lukas Foss’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1978) and Roberto Sierra’s “Cancionero Sefardi” (1999).

Foss’ song cycle on Wallace Stevens’ poem is perhaps the most durable of many musical settings of these verses. (eighth blackbird drew its name from the eighth stanza 18 years after this piece was introduced.) Foss' settings are busily colorful, with an elaborate palette of sound effects, the most novel of them produced by applying Japanese bowl gongs and other percussion to the strings of the piano.

Pianist Lucy Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall played this variant of piano four-hands (“pianopercussion,” as the ’birds call it) for maximum timbral effect, but also with deference to Shelton’s treatment and projection of the text. Flute, played by Tim Munro, is more often a duet partner with the voice – almost an alter ego – than a vehicle for predictable bird calls. The singer is doubled, at a split-second's remove, in several key passages by an offstage voice – here, violinist Matt Albert singing in a fluent falsetto.

Sierra’s settings of seven Sephardic folk songs, sung in Ladino, the language of medieval Spanish Jewry, filter the vernacular tradition through a modern but not especially knotty harmonic language. Lute-like Moorish-Arabic effects produced by violin (Albert) and cello (Nicholas Photinos) in "Una matica de ruda” (“A little plant of rue”) and piano in in “El me querido bevio vino” (“My lover drank wine”) are the most immediately striking touches in Sierra’s instrumentation.

Shelton’s treatment of the words and tunes, from the exuberant to the plaintive, was both virtuosic and heartfelt. Her vocalise in "Dolores tiene la reina" ("The queen has pains") was especially bittersweet.

Of the program’s three instrumental pieces, the most emotionally potent was Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez’s “Luciérnagas” (1998), based on Carlos Henriques’ “Luciérnagas en El Mozote,” an account of a visit to a ruined village in El Salvador three years after its inhabitants were massacred by militiamen. Approaching the village, Henriques wrote, “thousands of little lights began to twinkle. The intermittent dance of fireflies illuminated the night, showing us the way to the town’s ruined church. ‘They are the souls of El Mozote!’ said Padre Rogelio Poncel,” the parish priest who survived the attack.

Sanchez-Gutierrez originally scored a ballet scenario based on the death squads that ravaged El Salvador during its civil war in the 1970s and ’80s, then was inspired by the story of El Mozote to write this more compact piece for piano, percussion, violin, cello and clarinet.

Its firefly effects – subtly pointed high-register figures darting among the instruments – give way to a flashback, representing the violence inflicted upon the villagers in harsh chords, slashing attacks and thunderous percussion interjections. Pianist Kaplan, percussionist Duvall, violinist Albert, cellist Photinos and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri rode the work’s sonic currents with requisite wildness but also with ears cocked for its rich atmospherics and emotions attuned to its tragic narrative.

David M. Gordon’s “Friction Systems” (2002/2005), the program’s sole item from the new album, is a tonal punch to the solar plexus, driven by a heavy, grinding, Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-musique concrète riff rooted in the piano and a broader motif for strings and winds recalling the Dies Irae, the medieval chant for the dead. Gordon supplements standard instruments with toy piano and exotica such as whirling musical tubes, and banishes string vibrato to maintain the music’s rawness.

The program’s opener, Franco Donatoni’s “Arpège” (1986),
is a deconstruction of the arpeggio marked by sharp attacks, abrupt cutoffs and kaleidoscopic colors. A substantial cello cadenza, played almost romantically by Photinos, is a sensual interlude in an otherwise brainy, brittle opus.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Review: 'Agrippina'

Virginia Opera in Handel's “Agrippina”
Feb. 16, Landmark Theater, Richmond

As a rule, directors and designers who move operas out of their scripted times and places face two daunting obstacles: The composer and the librettist, whose music, story and characterizations are crafted to evoke a certain milieu and rarely take kindly to relocation.

The major exception to the rule is baroque opera. The stories were historical or mythological, but the music was not antiqued, and the custom was to stage the operas with contemporary (i.e., 17th- or 18th-century) costumes and sets.

So the Virginia Opera is “historically informed,” sort of, in presenting Handel’s first hit opera, composed in 1709, set in ancient Rome, with a cast outfitted like late-20th century Eurotrash. This production, closing out its run this weekend in Richmond, is one of several recent revivals of “Agrippina” in the U.S. and England. Not one has been a toga party.

Agrippina, the shrewish wife of the Emperor Claudius, is determined that the next caesar will be her son, Nero. Claudius, returning from his conquest of Britain, is nearly lost at sea in a storm; he is saved by the centurian Ottone, whom he taps as his successor. The queen enlists Poppea, a courtesan loved by Ottone and craved by Claudius and Nero, in a plot to discredit her son’s rival. (If you're trying to remember this from "I, Claudius," don't bother – it transpires between episodes 12 and 13.)

Such a tale could play out in any executive suite, any political body, any family in which the stakes of marriage or inheritance are worth fighting over – and however bloody the battle or dire the consequences, it would still be in essence a farce.

Lillian Groag, stage director of this production, frames “Agrippina” as a classic farce, but with stage movement and sight gags that are more Marx Brothers or Monty Python than Molière. (My favorite is the martini shaker joining the continuo section.) The production’s physical energy and quick comic timing suit Handel’s music, especially at its speediest or most florid, and the nearly nonstop action compensates for several voices that aren’t lean or nimble enough for baroque operatic style.

In the Feb. 16 performance, soprano Sujung Kim (Agrippina), bass-baritone Derrick Parker (Claudius) and tenor Jeffrey Halili (Nero) were audibly discomfited by the demands of Handellian bel canto. Kim’s tone was too rich, and Parker’s voice too big, to manage brilliant high-speed runs without smearing. Halili’s voice was light enough, but not flexible enough, and prone to the occasional bleat.

Their shortcomings were effectively underscored by the stylistic fluency and vocal agility of countertenor David Walker (Ottone) and soprano Jane Redding (Poppea). They also proved to be gifted comic actors; and in that, at least, the other principals rose to their standard.

Countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum and bass-baritone Matthew Burns, as the palace courtiers Narciso and Pallante, were amusingly manic toadies, but their jittery highjinks exacted a price in vocal control.

The show’s star comics are its seven supernumeraries: Clyde Berry, Josh Dooley, Harry Drew-Wingfield, Levi Hull, Kenneth Jones, Bryan Smith and Trentonn Smith. Clad in tuxedos, faces masked in pancake makeup, rouge and eyeliner, cigarettes dangling from a lip or two, they are a silent Greek chorus, miming catcalls at the proceedings. This is an inspired touch, also a practical one: If your attention flags in the recap of an aria, somebody’s goofing divertingly in a corner.

Michael Ganio’s postmodern-classical set nicely accommodates the action – multiple levels, many nooks and crannies to peek out of – although the thrones in crinkled gold foil activate the tacky meter. Ottone’s Wehrmachtisch uniform is another unhelpful distraction.

Peter Mark, the company’s artistic director, obtained weighty, deliberate orchestral accompaniment, all too often dully colored and intonationally iffy.

Oboist George Corbett was a warmly plaintive partner to Walker in “Voi che udite il mio lamento,” the most sublime aria (and one of the few sincere ones) in the opera.

The final Richmond performance begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, at the Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets. Tickets: $20-$85. Information: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Issues with Brahms

Symphony No. 3, "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" – London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.557430)

Symphony No. 4 (with Schoenberg: Variations for orchestra, Op. 31) – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi 901884)

Piano Concerto No. 1 – Krystian Zimerman (piano), Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle (Deutsche Grammophon B0006203)

Piano Concerto No. 2, "Four Piano Pieces," Op. 119 – Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Dallas Symphony/Andrew Litton (Hyperion 67550)

I approach a new Brahms recording much as (according to Samuel Johnson) one approaches a second marriage: Hope triumphs over experience – or at least hopes to.

Brahms eludes most performers today. They grasp his content, perhaps too well, playing up structural and expressive details at the expense of phrasing and rhythmic pulse. Romantic expression is a second or third language to most living musicians, and their fluency does not extend to Brahms’ uniquely introspective and internally pressurized romanticism.

Modern interpreters typically emphasize the classicist in Brahms, rendering the music’s structure in sharp relief and its rhythms crisply. But then along comes a reminder that Brahms isn’t Haydn, or even Beethoven. The listener senses the moment of realization – "Oh wait, this is romantic" – followed by a sudden downshift in volume or tempo or an extra-generous application of rubato or vibrato.

The oh-waits accumulate, continuity is lost, and soon the performance lives down to George Bernard Shaw’s sour view of Brahms’ music as "a string of incomplete dance and ballad tunes, following one another with no more organic coherence than the succession of passing images reflected in a shop window . . ."

The young Shaw (there reviewing the Fourth Symphony in 1890) delighted in belittling Brahms, and later apologized for it. But his shop-window simile perfectly describes what happens in a performance that fails to reconcile Brahms’ classicism with his romanticism – or, if you like, his percolating intellect with his simmering emotional state.

* * *

A handful of artists performed Brahms in the composer’s presence, and lived long enough to make listenable recordings. The most prominent was the conductor Felix Weingartner, whose 1938-40 cycle of the four symphonies and "Academic Festival" Overture with the London Symphony and London Philharmonic (ASV Living Era 2009, two discs) is a brisk, brawny, no-nonsense purgative to the swooning Brahms so often heard today.

Kent Nagano’s new disc of the Brahms Fourth, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, recalls Weingartner’s directness and muscularity, as well as the old master’s generally close adherence to the composer's instructions. Nagano’s tempos are slightly broader; his ear plus a modern recording enlarge the palette of colors and enrich sonorities, especially among lower strings and horns.

Nagano pairs the Brahms with a dynamic, explosively volatile account of Schoenberg’s Variations, Op. 31, music on the other side of a divide in tonality and perhaps one of intent. (Brahms can be didactic, but isn’t obviously bent upon it.) Hearing the two pieces in succession, though, it’s clear that Schoenberg was building, both structurally and expressively, on foundations laid by Brahms.

Marin Alsop continues her Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic in solid, middle-of-the-classical/romantic-road readings of the Third Symphony and "Haydn Variations." A bewilderingly variable First Symphony and sluggish Second mercifully behind her, Alsop sounds more fully engaged and secure in interpretive direction here. Sound quality is somewhat muddy; lapses in ensemble and split-second-late entries suggest the musicians couldn’t hear one another properly in the recording venue, London’s Blackheath Concert Hall.

Krystian Zimerman’s recent disc of the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is an exemplar of latter-day high-romantic Brahms. These musicians treat this concerto about as unclassically as it could stand to be treated – hearing their rhapsodic first movement, "sonata form" is not a phrase that springs to mind – but their combination of expressive probing and sensuality proves persuasive, at times irresistible.

Even those with little patience for this approach will find themselves drawn into Zimerman’s sound world. No pianist produces more variety of tone (his bell-like tone is unique) and gradiants of touch and volume. Rattle is likewise intent on immersing the listener in sonority, which the Berlin Phil provides in abundance. The weight and clarity of orchestral sound – especially string sound – in this recording is extraordinary.

(The Rattle and Nagano discs remind us that the Berlin Philharmonie, the house that Karajan built, is still his sound box. Its plush bass response and spacious projection of high frequency tone are givens, regardless of the orchestra or conductor performing in the hall. In a previous post, "The key instrument" [January archive], I commented on performance spaces as musical instruments; here's a classic case.)

Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian-American virtuoso, might be expected to deliver high-romantic Brahms, and so he does in the "Four Piano Pieces," Op. 119, that fill out his new disc of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony.

Hamelin and Litton – co-directors, in effect, of a symphony for piano and orchestra – are unindulgent interpreters, trusting this music to express itself without extra dollops of performer temperament, letting its rhetorical scope and natural momentum drive their performance. This is straightforwardly "Olympian" Brahms whose coloristic and dynamic byways do not slow or divert the journey.

Cost is an issue with import labels such as Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion. Does the performance warrant spending $2 to $5 more than you would for a full-price domestic release? In Nagano's case, yes – but for the Schoenberg more than the Brahms. In Hamelin's case, not unless you're a hardcore fan. (He has many.)

* * *

The Brahms symphony discography has not seen a compelling addition since 1992, when Deutsche Grammophon released Claudio Abbado’s cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. The complete set, also including Brahms’ short vocal-orchestral works, is available as an import at ridiculous cost; single discs are merely full-price. [Addendum: Musical Heritage Society offers the set at mid-price; as with most book or record clubs, membership comes with automatic product shipments and deadlines for declining them.]

Among complete sets, the best value for performance, recording and price is the 1971-72 cycle by Kurt Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Dresden (RCA Classics 74321303672, three discs). The set, including the "Tragic" Overture and "Haydn Variations" with the symphonies, sells for about $15.

Most every prominent pianist of the past three generations has had one or more goes at the Brahms concertos. Among the most durable accounts of the First are those by Arthur Rubinstein with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor 66378), Clifford Curzon with George Szell and the London Symphony (Decca 466 376), Maurizio Pollini with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 447 041), and Leif Ove Andsnes with Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony (EMI Classics 56583).

Among recordings of the Second Concerto, standouts include Wilhelm Backhaus with Böhm and the Vienna Phil, paired with one of the definitive readings of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 (Decca 448 600), and Sviatoslav Richter’s uniquely ruminative version with Erich Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor 60860).

Among sets pairing the two concertos, best options are Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Phil (DG 447 446, two discs), Stephen Hough with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony (Virgin Classics 61412, two discs), and – my pick and many others’ – Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical 63225, two discs).

Some pre-stereo Brahms worth owning: Guido Cantelli’s 1955 account of the Third Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, coupled with a 1951 recording of Mendelssohn’s "Italian" Symphony (Testament 1173); Wilhelm Furtwängler’s manic-romantic (romanic?) interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, from a 1948 concert with the Berlin Phil (Classica d’Oro 1007); and Edwin Fischer in the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Furtwängler and the Berliners, vintage 1942 (Testament 1170). Also, if and when it's reissued, Arturo Toscanini's BBC Symphony recording of the Fourth Symphony from 1935 – more lyrical and rhythmically flexible than his later NBC Symphony version on RCA Victor.

* * *

Recommended discs of the Brahms symphonies and piano concertos:

* Symphonies Nos. 1-4, "Variations on a Theme of Haydn," "Tragic" Overture – Staatskapelle Dresden/Kurt Sanderling (RCA Classics 74321303672, three discs).

* Symphony No. 1, "Gesang der Parzen" – Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (DG 431 790).

* Symphony No. 2, "Alto Rhapsody" – Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (DG 427 643).

* Symphony No. 3 (with Schubert: Symphony No. 5; Mendelssohn: "Hebrides" Overture) – Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner (RCA Victor 61793) [an ArkivCD available from ArkivMusic, www.arkivmusic.com]

* Symphony No. 4 – Vienna Philharmonic/Carlos Kleiber (DG 457 706).

* Piano concertos Nos. 1-2, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel," waltzes, Op. 39 – Leon Fleisher (piano), Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (Sony Classical 63225, two discs).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


"Your Niche or Mine?" in which I run some numbers on what constitutes a "niche" or minority interest and what qualifies as "mainstream" culture (hint: not much anymore), is posted at NewMusicBox:

My review of eighth blackbird's latest CD, "strange imaginary animals" (this group is not big on capital letters), is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Monteux redux

Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-64 (Decca 000797902, seven discs)

Was Pierre Monteux the greatest conductor of the past century? Not according to conventional wisdom, which rates Monteux as a second- or third-round pick in a field headed by Toscanini, Furtwängler, Karajan, Mravinsky, Bernstein and Solti.

A rotund Frenchman with pomaded hair, a bushy mustache and twinkling eyes, Monteux did not display the usual kinds of conductor charisma. His public face was not glamorous, or sternly learned, or artistically rarified. By the time he had an international reputation, he was a grandfatherly presence with an authority born of long experience (and with many pupils trailing behind him).

As a master of the craft behind the orchestral art, he had very few peers. (Thus the pupils, among them René Leibowitz, André Previn, Neville Marriner and David Zinman.)

Monteux conducted the premieres of Stravinsky’s "Pétrouchka" (1911) and "Le sacre du printemps" (1913), Ravel’s "Daphnis et Chloé" (1912), Debussy's "Jeux" (1913), Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (1929) and other music from the modernist hotbed of Paris in the first three decades of the century.

He was the most versatile conductor of his time. Today, we assume that any competent maestro can lead credible performances of repertory from the baroque to the contemporary. Monteux was the first major conductor to demonstrate such breadth. His proficiency evolved into distinction over the years, and he remains one of the few conductors on record who is equally persuasive in Bach and Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Stravinsky, Beethoven and Debussy.

He was a master manipulator of orchestral sound. Look back at that list of premieres; imagine the skill required to guide a theater pit orchestra through a first performance of something like "Le sacre" or "Daphnis." From then on, not surprisingly, Monteux was able to obtain exactly the sonorities, colors and balances he wanted from an orchestra. That ability proved especially beneficial in making recordings.

Monteux was born in 1875 and lived until 1964, not just a long life but a fortuitous working life for a classical musician. He was old enough to have experienced romanticism at first hand, then to have participated in the birth of modernism and to have seen the modern symphony orchestra take shape, and then to have spent 50 more years performing – time enough to document his work with first-tier orchestras in modern recordings.

"Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-64," part of the "Original Masters" series of mid-priced reissues, generously samples the recordings Monteux made in his last years, one of the great Indian summers of performance history.

Some of these recordings have circulated fitfully on CDs: Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major and Gluck’s "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" with his son, flutist Claude Monteux, and the London Symphony; a Sibelius Second Symphony, recorded in 1959 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Monteux’s 1959 Vienna recording of the Brahms Second Symphony has long been my reference version of this work – full-blooded but unindulgent and propulsive, and a performance that equals or surpasses any other recorded by the Vienna Phil in the 1950s and ’60s. Monteux recorded the "Tragic" and "Academic Festival" overtures and "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" with the London Symphony, which he served as principal conductor from 1961 until his death.

Most of the rest of the set dates from Monteux’s London tenure, and features composers and works in which he was authoritative – Ravel ("La Valse," "Ma mère l’oye," "Bolero"), Debussy (Nocturnes, "Images," "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," orchestral fragments from "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian") – plus a warmly lucid reading of Elgar’s "Enigma Variations" and a suite from Tchaikovsky’s "Sleeping Beauty," a reminder of Monteux’s early mastery of ballet music.

Monteux leads the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in mid-'50s monaural recordings of the Stravinsky ballets "Pétrouchka" and "Le sacre" and the "Firebird" Suite, and the Vienna Phil in an eminently sensible 1959 reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ("The Clock").

These were demonstration-quality recordings of the late-monaural/early stereo period. They still sound vivid, and more naturally balanced and in better perspective than many digital or super-audio productions.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Peter Guroff (1959-2007)

Peter Guroff, former principal violist of the Richmond Symphony, since 1992 a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony, died Feb. 6 after a 15-year battle with cancer. He was 47.

In July 1992, shortly after joining the Pittsburgh Symphony, Mr. Guroff was diagnosed with lymphoma. Through several recurrences and courses of treatment, he continued to perform with the orchestra. He also taught and was artistic director of the Ionian Chamber Players.

Mr. Guroff is survived by his wife, Maureen, and two children, daughter Hannah and son Eric.

His obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07039/760336-122.stm

Monday, February 5, 2007

Eine kalte Nachtmusik

Nothing doing tonight, which is fortunate, as the temperature is barely in double digits. Block-party weather in the Dakotas, but in these parts a time to burrow in.

What do I listen to on a cold night? This prompts something like the hot-drink-on-a-hot-day, cold-drink-on-a-cold-day dialectic. Do I want to acclimate myself, or ward off the chill?

For acclimating, one might reasonably turn to Scandinavian or Russian music. Somewhere around here, I have an LP of Rued Langgaard’s "Defoliation" Symphony, which I bought years ago for its catchy title but never got around to playing. This could be the night.

Or maybe Mussorgsky’s opera "Khovanshchina," Peter the Great vs. Old Believers, huddled masses, concludes with immolation scene . . .

For warmth without fatalities, I'm thinking Brahms, Elgar, cello, bassoon, baritone. Harmonium?

Friday, February 2, 2007


That’s not a growl. It is the abbreviation used in scores for "arranger" or "arrangement." Its appearance in concert programs prompts some highbrows to growl.

Arrangements of operatic, orchestral and chamber works have been around almost as long as the originals.

Baroque composers (in)famously cribbed from one another, and from themselves.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, composers made their music known – and earned much of their money – through piano reductions of orchestral and other ensemble scores, meant to be played at home. Liszt and other piano virtuosos wrote flashy elaborations on tunes from popular operas.

Austrian musicians of the late-18th and early 19th centuries arranged suites from the operas of Mozart and Rossini, even some of Beethoven’s orchestral music, for wind octets known as Harmonie. That tradition lives on in symphonic wind ensembles and concert bands playing arrangements of symphonic works.

Conductors of the late 19th century viewed themselves as collaborators with, rather than servants of, composers whose music they directed. Gustav Mahler’s reorchestrations of Schumann and Beethoven symphonies don't cry out for revival; but his string orchestrations of Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and Beethoven’s "Quartetto serioso" (Op. 95) are still performed and recorded with some frequency.

Felix Weingartner produced an orchestration of Beethoven’s "Hammerklavier" Sonata. George Szell orchestrated Smetana’s "From My Life" Quartet. Hamilton Harty and Thomas Beecham augmented Handel. Leopold Stokowski augmented Bach, as had Ferrucio Busoni and other pianists of the 19th century.

Solo violinists from Paganini onward have peppered their programs with arrangements of operatic, keyboard and other repertory. So do classical guitarists. So does every brass quintet playing for paying customers.

The Society for Private Musical Performance, organized by Arnold Schoenberg and friends in the early 1920s in Vienna, generated a number of chamber-scale arrangements of earlier Viennese orchestral music, from Strauss waltzes to symphonies and song cycles of Mahler.

Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, is in a category all its own, equal parts homage, parody, inspiration and intoxication.

The Richmond Festival of Music, directed by cellist James Wilson, will feature two arrangements on March 15: Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata reworked for string quintet, and Schoenberg’s arrangement of Strauss’ "Emperor Waltz."

The Schoenberg, Berg and Webern versions of the Strauss waltzes are pretty familiar. The enlarged "Kreutzer" is another story. "I had never heard it or even knew of it," Wilson says.

"A former student of mine likes to find obscure pieces and send them to me for my
birthday and other occasions. So she sent me this 'Kreutzer,' an anonymous arrangement published by Simrock in 1832. It looks very hard but very good . . . and very egalitarian" in its apportioning of Beethoven's violin and piano parts among five fiddles.

"It's always nice to find music for quintet with two cellos," Wilson says. "Other than the Schubert and about a million Boccherinis, there isn't much literature out there."

Another arrangement making the rounds this season is the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony – Rudolf Barshai's orchestration of the String Quartet No. 8 – which the Richmond Symphony is playing on its tour programs.

Most arrangements are grouped by prevailing academic and critical opinion into two basic categories: (1) historical curiosities and (2) kitsch.

Several rungs up the ladder of respectability, you find efforts by early modern composers to revive music of (usually forgotten) earlier composers, filtered through the reviver’s style and sensibility: Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella," Respighi’s "Ancient Airs and Dances," Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin," and many sets of folk song rendered as art-song, piano miniature or orchestral dance suite.

That period also saw Ravel produce his now-standard orchestration of Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition." Ravel was late to the Mussorgsky game; the standard versions of most of the composer’s orchestral scores were post-mortem reworkings by Rimsky-Korsakov. (Mussorgsky untouched by Rimsky wasn’t widely heard until the 1970s.)

Challenging old hierarchies is one of our most popular indoor sports, so naturally musicians and listeners are reevaluating arrangements long dismissed by respectable opinion.

Conductors don’t blush when reviving Stokowski’s Bach or Mahler’s "Death and the Maiden." Pianists eagerly dive into Liszt’s opera potpourri. Violinists show their stuff in Sarasate’s "Carmen" Fantasy. Some Lieder singers are finally getting the hang of folk song.

The old condescension toward arrangements persists in chamber music, Wilson observes. "But as a cellist, I've always done a lot of arrangements" to compensate for gaps in the instrument's solo and chamber repertory. "And I think people now want to hear a broader range of music than you find in the established canon."

Six recordings of arrangements that, to my ears, do justice to the originals, even enhance them:

* Strauss/Schoenberg: "Emperor Waltz," "Roses from the South;" Strauss/Berg: "Wine, Women and Song;" Strauss/Webern: "Schatz" Waltz (with Stravinsky: Octet, Pastorale, Concertino, "Rag-time") – Boston Symphony Chamber Players (Deutsche Grammophon 463667).

* Shostakovich/Barshai: Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a [string orchestration of Quartet No. 8] (with Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1) – I Musici de Montreal/Yuli Turovsky (Chandos 8357).

* Schubert/Mahler: "Death and the Maiden" (with Schoenberg: "Transfigured Night") – Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown (Chandos 9316).

* Avison: 12 string concertos after Domenico Scarlatti – Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman (Hyperion 66891).

* Mozart: "The Abduction from the Seraglio," "Cosí fan tutte" (Harmonie arrangments) – Berlin Philharmonic Winds (Orfeo 260931).

* Mahler/Stein: Symphony No. 4; Mahler/Schoenberg: "Songs of a Wayfarer" – Christine Brandes (soprano), Susan Platts (mezzo-soprano), Santa Fe Pro Musica, Smithsonian Chamber Players/Kenneth Slowik (Dorian 90315).