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Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK)
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Prokofiev - Symphony No 5
Prokofiev - Symphony No 5

5.0 out of 5 stars Still the most recommendable version, 8 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
At under forty minutes this is no great bargain except it's available cheaply and is by all accounts the best recording to be had of Prokofiev's most popular symphony after the "Classical".

Although you'd never know it given the complete lack of audience noise and the brilliance of the sound, this is a live concert from Dublin while the Leningrad Philharmonic and Jansons were on tour in 1987 and it's a real humdinger. From the very first bars you may hear both the sophistication of the playing and the richness and crispness of the acoustic. The sound stage has the strings split and the cellos positioned centrally to enhance their sonic impact and the orchestra really sounds as if it's enjoying itself, being clearly wholly at home in the idiom - hardly surprising given their heritage.

Everything about this symphony is hyper-typical of Prokofiev; all his trademark tics and tricks are here but welded into a superbly organised whole whereby themes are picked up, developed played with and echoed throughout the four movements to confer real sense of unity. The opening idea is a striving, upward soaring motif covering wide intervals of fourths and fifths. This diffuse melody becomes an idée fixe taken up by trumpets and tuba and although they play with great energy and élan there is none of the coarseness which could afflict wind-playing in Russian orchestras of that era - this is very sophisticated stuff. There are some echoes of "Romeo and Juliet" composed ten years previously but also some obviously innovative developments since in Prokofiev's style. The pungent, scurrying Scherzo evinces elements of Stravinsky's rhythmic and colorific influence and makes striking use of a favourite Prokofiev device of punctuating the melody with pizzicato passages and syncopated percussion. It's the movement which best illustrates the orchestra's virtuosity with its frequent, witty, elegant interplay between such a variety of instruments to produce novel orchestrational effects.

The Adagio exhibits, yet again , a trait typical of the composer in that it initially feigns lyricism before lapsing into a barbaric central section full of menace; then an unexpected piano ushers in some welcome serenity in the conclusion. The Allegro re-unites on many previous themes and is a rollicking, rumbustious affair played with consummate ease and fluency by this crack orchestra.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 10, 2015 7:45 PM GMT


Mahler - Symphony No 9
Mahler - Symphony No 9

5.0 out of 5 stars Now for something different...which works, 8 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Mahler - Symphony No 9 (Audio CD)
You will gather from previous reviews that this live performance is something unusual in terms of approach and also of what you might have expected from the modernist composer "Doyen of Darmstadt" Far from being cool, analytical and deconstructionist, this is a highly Romantic interpretation which nonetheless applies surprisingly swift tempi to the second and fourth movements without ever sounding rushed.

Another pleasant revelation is the sheer quality and concentration of the BBC Symphony Orchestra,which had its ups and downs and was sometimes a complacent outfit but here plays out of its skin with especially secure horns and beautiful string tone - including a lovely violin solo from the leader in the last movement.

Maderna brings a sombre, melancholy beauty to this music, employing judicious pauses and knowing when to let the orchestra of the leash, resulting on some stupendous climaxes such as that twenty minutes into the Andante comodo. This can result in some tricky moments such as the messy entry at 12' 08" in the Adagio but it's worth that for the excitement generated. The trio in the Scherzo is hectic, almost manic, making the music unsettling and almost menacing, but he is equally capable of swiftly re-capturing the genial, almost galumphing and more consoling mood typical of the Mahlerian Ländler, succeeded by a swirling waltz reminiscent of Ravel. It is this ability to mould the music in mercurial style which is the hallmark of his conducting; after so much hyper-tension he then engineers meltingly smooth and serene conclusions to both that opening and the closing movements. The Rondo is almost conventional, but there is in fact little variation in speed or approach amongst the ten or so versions I know; it's usic which "plays itself" and nearly everyone takes around thirteen minutes. The Adagio, by contrast, is in fact the fastest I know - the antidote to Levine and Bernstein's second recordings.

Coughing in a love performance such as this is always an issue although it's not too bad and otherwise the sound is really good for the Royal Festival Hall.


Symphony, No. 4
Symphony, No. 4
Offered by rbmbooks
Price: £51.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Historically important and supposedly authentically Mahlerian, 7 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Symphony, No. 4 (Audio CD)
Perhaps it is not so surprising that an originally Dutch label (now part of Universal Music) should continue to issue the recordings of celebrated conductor Willem Mengelberg, even if this Philips CD was in fact manufactured in Japan under the label "Phonogram International BV", when it was under the Polygram umbrella - how confusing the world of classical label takeovers has become. This live performance from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1939 before the German Blitzkrieg and before Mengelberg starting getting himself into hot water over his Nazi sympathies - but that's another story and my job is merely to consider him as a musician, especially as I suspect that he was, like many a careerist conductor, if anything rather apolitical and more obsessed with music and his championing of it (think Karajan).

The sound is really good for...well, a crackly, poppy, vintage live mono recording of that era and I have no trouble listening to it. However, Pristine Classical has released their own re-mastering and I have no doubt, even without having heard it, that that will be superb (it's unavailable on Amazon). The real surprise for the novice is the freedom with which Mengelberg pulls tempi about, changing every few bars, applying schmaltzy rallentandi and rubati - all, apparently, with the authority of one who knew the composer himself and heard him conduct this work in 1904. Now, I do not apply the same strictures concerning the necessity of a steady pulse to Mahler that I might to Bruckner - hence my antipathy to Jochum's way with that composer - but I do find it hard to reconcile myself to all that pushing and pulling, even if I rather admire the spirit behind it and am far more in favour of an individualistic approach than too many of the anodyne versions I hear today, so I am inclined to indulge Mengelberg and welcome his intervention. Others may be less enamoured of it but it is a historically valid and important way with the music - and also the first recording of this symphony, I believe. Mengelberg certainly conveys the pleasure he experiences in playing this most cheerful, bucolic and released of Mahler's symphonies and I love the ultra-Romantic treatment of the slow movement.

The other interesting aspect is the anti-operatic singing of Jo Vincent, who employs an attractively childlike, often vibrato-free tone to convey innocence and naivety - although the dark undertones of "Das himmlische Leben" always make me smile ruefully.

The Concertgebouw orchestra plays beautifully and the audience isn't too bronchial.


Puccini: Tosca (1964) - Maria Callas Remastered
Puccini: Tosca (1964) - Maria Callas Remastered
Price: £11.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Unjustly overlooked, 6 Feb. 2015
Like most operaphiles, I had for so long been so hugely satisfied with the famous 1953 de Sabata recording that I had not bothered to sample the 1964 studio recording on the assumption that it was so markedly inferior that it was not worth the bother. Forty years on, I find that I was wrong; it was the passing of Carlo Bergonzi that prompted me to obtain a cheap copy and lo and behold I am now kicking myself for my stupidity.

Let's dispense with the obvious caveats: yes, Callas's voice is now a little hoarse and hollow, somewhat less powerful and the flap up top has worsened, yet in many ways this is both a subtler and more striking portrayal of the role with which, despite her not especially liking it, she was most readily associated. Apart from the enhanced drama of her verbal inflections, her lower register is now even more trenchant and thrilling. Otherwise, with the exception of a far less gutsy and characterful shepherd boy who also sings rather flat, the recording made eleven years on, just after her run of successful Covent Garden performances brings nothing but gains over the earlier celebrated account.

Bergonzi is not as visceral as Di Stefano; he is vocally more restrained, varied, shaded and scrupulous, but the elegance of his big arias silences any demurral, even if he is little cool compared with Di Stefano's gung-ho commitment. His patrician tenor is in first class condition. I can hear virtually no decline in Gobbi's baritone except that he is just a little drier, but he is as ever an absolutely riveting vocal actor, still by far the best Scarpia on record, combining oleaginous charm with chilling viciousness. "Già, mi dicon venal" is a masterclass in villainy. Prêtre's supporting cast is superior to de Sabata's and I even find his conducting preferable, with more variety and a lyricism missing in the more verismo style of 1953 - listen to the gorgeous passage while Scarpia writes the safe-passage note to Civitavecchia for Tosca - and the Paris orchestra is really, really good.

Of course the stereo sound, especially in the 1997 remastering, is much better, too: we are treated to some special effects which work, such as Angelotti's footsteps approaching from the left and coming centre-stage, and the banging shut of the window to close out Tosca's cantata as it wafts through Scarpia's casement in Act II.

So don't make my mistake, give this a try - just be prepared to tolerate Callas's vocal failings in return for the other benefits.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 15, 2015 8:39 PM GMT


Puccini: Tosca
Puccini: Tosca
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £11.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Unjustly overlooked, 6 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Puccini: Tosca (Audio CD)
Like most operaphiles, I had for so long been so hugely satisfied with the famous 1953 de Sabata recording that I had not bothered to sample the 1964 studio recording on the assumption that it was so markedly inferior that it was not worth the bother. Forty years on, I find that I was wrong; it was the passing of Carlo Bergonzi that prompted me to obtain a cheap copy and lo and behold I am now kicking myself for my stupidity.

Let's dispense with the obvious caveats: yes, Callas's voice is now a little hoarse and hollow, somewhat less powerful and the flap up top has worsened, yet in many ways this is both a subtler and more striking portrayal of the role with which, despite her not especially liking it, she was most readily associated. Apart from the enhanced drama of her verbal inflections, her lower register is now even more trenchant and thrilling. Otherwise, with the exception of a far less gutsy and characterful shepherd boy who also sings rather flat, the recording made eleven years on, just after her run of successful Covent Garden performances brings nothing but gains over the earlier celebrated account.

Bergonzi is not as visceral as Di Stefano; he is vocally more restrained, varied, shaded and scrupulous, but the elegance of his big arias silences any demurral, even if he is little cool compared with Di Stefano's gung-ho commitment. His patrician tenor is in first class condition. I can hear virtually no decline in Gobbi's baritone except that he is just a little drier, but he is as ever an absolutely riveting vocal actor, still by far the best Scarpia on record, combining oleaginous charm with chilling viciousness. "Già, mi dicon venal" is a masterclass in villainy. Prêtre's supporting cast is superior to de Sabata's and I even find his conducting preferable, with more variety and a lyricism missing in the more verismo style of 1953 - listen to the gorgeous passage while Scarpia writes the safe-passage note to Civitavecchia for Tosca - and the Paris orchestra is really, really good.

Of course the stereo sound, especially in the 1997 remastering, is much better, too: we are treated to some special effects which work, such as Angelotti's footsteps approaching from the left and coming centre-stage, and the banging shut of the window to close out Tosca's cantata as it wafts through Scarpia's casement in Act II.

So don't make my mistake, give this a try - just be prepared to tolerate Callas's vocal failings in return for the other benefits.


Puccini: Tosca
Puccini: Tosca

5.0 out of 5 stars Unjustly overlooked, 6 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Puccini: Tosca (Audio CD)
Like most operaphiles, I had for so long been so hugely satisfied with the famous 1953 de Sabata recording that I had not bothered to sample the 1964 studio recording on the assumption that it was so markedly inferior that it was not worth the bother. Forty years on, I find that I was wrong; it was the passing of Carlo Bergonzi that prompted me to obtain a cheap copy and lo and behold I am now kicking myself for my stupidity.

Let's dispense with the obvious caveats: yes, Callas's voice is now a little hoarse and hollow, somewhat less powerful and the flap up top has worsened, yet in many ways this is both a subtler and more striking portrayal of the role with which, despite her not especially liking it, she was most readily associated. Apart from the enhanced drama of her verbal inflections, her lower register is now even more trenchant and thrilling. Otherwise, with the exception of a far less gutsy and characterful shepherd boy who also sings rather flat, the recording made eleven years on, just after her run of successful Covent Garden performances brings nothing but gains over the earlier celebrated account.

Bergonzi is not as visceral as Di Stefano; he is vocally more restrained, varied, shaded and scrupulous, but the elegance of his big arias silences any demurral, even if he is little cool compared with Di Stefano's gung-ho commitment. His patrician tenor is in first class condition. I can hear virtually no decline in Gobbi's baritone except that he is just a little drier, but he is as ever an absolutely riveting vocal actor, still by far the best Scarpia on record, combining oleaginous charm with chilling viciousness. "Già, mi dicon venal" is a masterclass in villainy. Prêtre's supporting cast is superior to de Sabata's and I even find his conducting preferable, with more variety and a lyricism missing in the more verismo style of 1953 - listen to the gorgeous passage while Scarpia writes the safe-passage note to Civitavecchia for Tosca - and the Paris orchestra is really, really good.

Of course the stereo sound, especially in the 1997 remastering, is much better, too: we are treated to some special effects which work, such as Angelotti's footsteps approaching from the left and coming centre-stage, and the banging shut of the window to close out Tosca's cantata as it wafts through Scarpia's casement in Act II.

So don't make my mistake, give this a try - just be prepared to tolerate Callas's vocal failings in return for the other benefits.


Strauss: Elektra
Strauss: Elektra
Price: £20.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Varnay's best Elektra but still compelling, 6 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Strauss: Elektra (Audio CD)
This is Karajan's sole recording of this gothic horror masterpiece and is a such of historical interest even before its intrinsic worth is considered and there is certainly no deficiency in the conducting; as with his recordings of "Salome", Karajan typically manages to elicit the maximum beauty from the more lyrical sections of the score, shaping phrases sensuously but also extracting the requisite drama and tension with razor-sharp ensemble from the VPO.

The sound is good, re-mastered and undistorted mono, now over fifty years old and only occasionally losing the voices at the back of the stage, such as when Orestes inters the palace to slay his errant mother and her weak lover.

This is a starry cast; even the five maids feature famous names such as the young Helen Watts, Lisa Otto and even Lucia Popp as the sole sympathiser of Elektra. It is a pleasure to hear Eberhard Waechter as a virile, tense and menacing Orestes; too often this role is sung by a singer too old to convey his nervousness. Similarly, having Heldentenor James KIng as a full-voiced Aegisth makes a change, especially as he still manages to convey his craven disposition.

Which leaves the three leading ladies. Hildegard Hillebrecht as Chrysothemis is merely adequate and does not in herself constitute any reason for hearing this live recording; others have done better. However, the two other sopranos were both leading Brünnhildes in their day and command respect. Nonetheless, Astrid Varnay is of course big and commanding but she sounded better for Richard Kraus in 1953 when she was in fresher voice minus the scooping and some shrill top notes and she must here yield to her younger self and later exponents such as Gwyneth Jones or Birgit Nilsson. As Clytemnestra, Martha Mödl has considerably less voice by this stage of her career, sounding raw and hoarse with a pronounced beat and break between registers but the baleful intensity of her nightmare aria "Ich habe keine gute Nächte" is riveting.

So not my favourite "Elektra" by any means but a worthy version, with many merits.


Elektra / Modi / Varnay / Hillebrecht
Elektra / Modi / Varnay / Hillebrecht

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Varnay's best Elektra but still compelling, 6 Feb. 2015
This is Karajan's sole recording of this gothic horror masterpiece and is a such of historical interest even before its intrinsic worth is considered and there is certainly no deficiency in the conducting; as with his recordings of "Salome", Karajan typically manages to elicit the maximum beauty from the more lyrical sections of the score, shaping phrases sensuously but also extracting the requisite drama and tension with razor-sharp ensemble from the VPO.

The sound is good, re-mastered and undistorted mono, now over fifty years old and only occasionally losing the voices at the back of the stage, such as when Orestes inters the palace to slay his errant mother and her weak lover.

This is a starry cast; even the five maids feature famous names such as the young Helen Watts, Lisa Otto and even Lucia Popp as the sole sympathiser of Elektra. It is a pleasure to hear Eberhard Waechter as a virile, tense and menacing Orestes; too often this role is sung by a singer too old to convey his nervousness. Similarly, having Heldentenor James KIng as a full-voiced Aegisth makes a change, especially as he still manages to convey his craven disposition.

Which leaves the three leading ladies. Hildegard Hillebrecht as Chrysothemis is merely adequate and does not in herself constitute any reason for hearing this live recording; others have done better. However, the two other sopranos were both leading Brünnhildes in their day and command respect. Nonetheless, Astrid Varnay is of course big and commanding but she sounded better for Richard Kraus in 1953 when she was in fresher voice minus the scooping and some shrill top notes and she must here yield to her younger self and later exponents such as Gwyneth Jones or Birgit Nilsson. As Clytemnestra, Martha Mödl has considerably less voice by this stage of her career, sounding raw and hoarse with a pronounced beat and break between registers but the baleful intensity of her nightmare aria "Ich habe keine gute Nächte" is riveting.

So not my favourite "Elektra" by any means but a worthy version, with many merits.


Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4
Price: £7.14

5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and valuable supplement to the Schaller cycle, 4 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Symphony No. 4 (Audio CD)
Although it is with the same orchestra drawn from Munich bands, this studio recording of the Fourth is rather different from the one Schaller made six years earlier of his live performance at the Ebrach Festival, in that it of course avoids the reverberant abbey acoustic which bothers some listeners but, more importantly, uses the second, 1878 version with the "Volksfest" final, which is five minutes shorter and hence more compact, and was ultimately discarded by Bruckner. As you might expect, otherwise timings and interpretation are very similar.

Both recordings are indeed very fine: the playing is sonorous and assured, with especially fine brass and woodwind and a lovely glow to the strings, but the balances here are better. The 1880 finale we now usually here has been criticised for its diffuseness and the slight incongruity of its attempt to incorporate themes from all three preceding movements and is is indeed perhaps fair to observe that it is amongst the less successful of Bruckner's concluding movements. I'm not sure that the "Volksfest" resolves that problem any better, in that while there is some brief allusion by the four horns to preceding material in the first movement, it otherwise first presents a cosier, folksier, more light-hearted aspect which is not necessarily consonant with the "Romantic" mood and programmatic content specifically narrated by Bruckner in his letters; it ends up being no more part of an an organic progression than the later finale. However, it is more of a piece and in its closing pages shares material with the movement which replaced it some very similar music: shimmering strings underpinning an assertive brass figure providing a suitably grand and climactic conclusion.

Bruckner devotees will want this for the variant offered and also for the sheer quality of the interpretation; the whole of Schaller's Bruckner cycle is highly desirable.


Strauss;Salome MET 1949
Strauss;Salome MET 1949

4.0 out of 5 stars Welitsch here in 1949, or the better-all-round recording in 1952?, 4 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Strauss;Salome MET 1949 (Audio CD)
This is rightly hailed as the better sung of Ljuba Welitsch's two live recorded performances at the Met conducted by Reiner, yet on balance I prefer the 1952 one for all that there is some (slight) deterioration in her voice three years after this classic 1949 version.

My reasons are several: first, even though it is very listenable, after re-mastering, the 1949 sound remains inferior to my Walhall issue of the 1952 account; both are 24 bit but the three years improvement in recording equipment technology seems to have made a difference. Secondly, Reiner is equally good in both performances so it doesn't matter which you buy to hear him in his element as a great Strauss conductor. Thirdly, the supporting cast in 1949 is markedly inferior to their later counterparts: both Frederick Jagel and Kerstin Thorborg were estimable singers in their day but even though they are here only in their early fifties they sound rather worn and wobbly compared with Set Svanholm and Elisabeth Höngen. Similarly, Herbert Janssen was a great Wagnerian but here in his late fifties sounds more like Salome's elderly uncle, mildly miffed by her inappropriate behaviour rather than a virile object of teenage desire; his under-powered "Du bist verflucht!" really doesn't chill as it should. Hans Hotter three years later, is much more imposing, even if he, too, sounds rather mature. My ears pricked up at the first notes of the First Soldier and sure enough, in 1949, it's the young Jerome Hines, but Norman Scott is pretty good in 1952, too, doubling as the Fourth Jew. Brian Sullivan repeats a terrific Narraboth - the best on record - in both versions.

Welitsch is wonderful in both - the most credible and arresting Salome ever, sounding like a crazed ingénue with her pure, piping sound and unexpectedly trenchant lower register. But on balance I'd go for the 1952 recording.


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