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D. S. CROWE "Music Lover" (UK)

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Strauss: Tone Poems Vol. 3 [Francois-Xavier Roth] [Hanssler Classic: 93.320]
Strauss: Tone Poems Vol. 3 [Francois-Xavier Roth] [Hanssler Classic: 93.320]
Price: £16.66

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Also Sprach Maestro Roth-and he has something to say well worth listening to. Gloriously illuminating., 18 Jun. 2015
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I am not in general an admirer of HIP- or HAP practice, as it is increasingly dubbed being applied to Romantic period music, even less to 20th Century Music.
A notable exception is the work of François-Xavier Roth and his band Les Siècles whose recreation of the “big 3” Stravinsky Ballets using in many cases genuinely contemporary instruments and well researched original scores has provided boundless joy on the 2 CDs on which they feature. I commend them to everyone who loves those works!

Maestro Roth took up the post of Music Director of the SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg Orchestra in 2011, succeeding Dr Michael Gielen who remains Conductor Laureate. A word or two about this orchestra-it was founded in 1946 by the U.S Administration from the rump of the pre-war Baden-Baden Spa Orchestra, of which Furtwangler was a regular conductor, and was soon adopted as the official orchestra of Southwest German Radio.

It survived the musical directorship of Hans Rosbaud, a conductor much taken with contemporary music and who spent much of his career getting second rate orchestras to perform music they did not understand, could not play and which no-one liked!

Under Gielen the orchestra developed a truly rich, typically German golden tone, with plenty of weight-but which in the early days lacked precision. There is a glorious recording of a live Mahler 3 in which the orchestra sounds fabulous-if you ignore the fact that they do not play together in the opening movement-the timps are evidently playing a different piece-and the brass “cracks” become painful.
By the end of his tenure, all these issues had been resolved and the orchestra is now truly a world class band.

All of which is a shame as if current plans are adhered to, the orchestra will disappear in 2016 being subsumed into the other SWR orchestra, the former Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra which inflicted such suffering on the listening public under Roger Norrington with his obsessive eschewing of vibrato and mannered interpretations. The current economic climate is the cause of much artistic grief.

Maestro Roth wasted no time in tackling the mainstream repertoire, and his first recordings have been of Strauss and Mahler, proposed cycles but which may not now progress further.

These are not live recordings, but are put down in sessions over 2 days. The recorded sound is nothing short of sensational-there are no versions of these works better recorded, not even the re-mastered Maazel BRSO set, and which of course does not include Aus Italien.

I have already commented on how “right” the sound is, and Maestro Roth actually enhances this. There are 2 major surprises-I had expected the conductor to offer a radically different approach to these works-the first surprise is just how well this works with Zarathustra, the second is that he takes Aus Italien absolutely “straight”-and makes a masterpiece out of it!!

This Zarathustra begins swiftly-I expected that-and indeed it is one of the swiftest on disc, but it is wonderfully shaped and every one of the “BIG MOMENTS” is caught to perfection. This is a reading that dwells in the uplands of joy and ecstasy-the glorious release from the bounds of religious stricture and the revelling in the joy of nature rather that in the deep canyons of philosophical contemplation.
The fugal interludes do not become moribund, the contemplation is swiftly resolved and we arrive at the thunderous climax of the first part quickly, so that we can move on to the joy of the second-and what joy.

Maestro Roth gets his players to uncover musical lines I have never heard, the trumpet plays a more prominent part-and oh, those horns. No cracks here. He imparts gossamer-like delicacy to the chamber sections in the Tanzlied-beautiful solo violin playing by the way-which contrasts so well with the full weight of the orchestra when he unleashes it!
The bells at the climax of the Nachtwanderlied are huge and sonorous, and Roth wraps up a truly joyous performance.
There are traces of his HIP background-the cellos and basses after the glowing sunrise opening bark out their chords stopped short-an effect totally in keeping with the reading and startlingly effective, and there are other instances throughout-and they really do prove to be illuminating.
There have been swift readings in the past-Boulez and the CSO made a recording which is an unforgettable experience-now matter how hard I try!-but the conductor whose reading this most resembles is-Richard Strauss!

Roth tackles Aus Italien as a true symphony-Strauss’s only composition in that form despite other titled works-and invests as much care and attention as if it were by Schumann or Brahms. The extended second movement is extraordinary-Roth glosses over nothing and he even makes a witty triumph of the finale-no mean feat!
This reading joins my favourites by de Billy with the RSO Wien and Lusi with the lustrous Dresden Staatskapelle.

As for Zarathustra, the stature of readings by Karajan with both VPO and BPO, Maazel with VPO and BRSO, Blomstedt in Dresden and Tennstedt with the LPO remains unchallenged, and I could add Previn, Reiner, Sinopoli and Sawallisch to the list of truly exalted, but this reading brings something different and shines new light on this old masterpiece.
It won’t be for everyone-but the open minded and the true Straussian will be bowled over!

I can report that a companion disc of Ein Heldenleben and Tod und Verklarung is similarly brilliant-it has revolutionised my view on the “Tod” in particular.
5 Glorious Stars. Stewart Crowe.

Petrushka / Bartok - Miraculous Mandarin
Petrushka / Bartok - Miraculous Mandarin
Offered by westworld-
Price: £7.87

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Finest Recording of The Miraculous Mandarin-bar none-coupled with a superb 1947 Version Petruchka make this- essential!, 15 Jun. 2015
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In my recent review of the companion Firebird release, I commented on the same conductors’ somewhat forensic approach paying dividends in terms of excitement and brilliance, but losing out in the more romantically expansive passages.
In the Petruchka, recorded in 1977, this same approach works better as the work is a much quirkier, “spikey” piece.
The Vienna Philharmonic are majestic, the remastered recording in Eloquence’s SBS process is superb-so what is not to like?

For me the problem is that Dohnanyi uses the 1947 Revision of the score, in which Stravinsky very cleverly reduced instrumentation and re-orchestrated the work entirely so as to be a genuinely different piece-but which sounds the same as the earlier as much as possible.
The reason for this as we know was purely commercial-the vagaries of international copyright law and 2 World Wars had left Stravinsky in 1945 with no copyright to many of his earlier works, including all the Ballet Russes commissioned pieces.

As performances and recordings of the 3 major ballets-Firebird, Petruchka and Rite of Spring-formed the composer’s “bread and butter”, under advice he revamped them sufficiently radically so as to avoid a legal challenge as to their being genuinely separate works, and thus he was able to receive royalties, including from his own recordings!

Many listeners either do not notice or do not care-and I DO enjoy all versions of these works, but my marked preference lies for the earlier versions-so if you want to hear the VPO in Petruchka, I would seek out the Maazel VPO disc of the Original Version on Sony BMG which is stunning in every respect.

HOWEVER-this disc becomes a top recommendation because of the performance of the companion work, Bartok’s last stage work, the ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” recorded digitally in 1981 and re-mastered here in sound which has never been bettered. It is quite simply the most powerful, most devastating and most brilliantly played I have ever heard-and I LOVE this work!

The plot is shocking-in a sleazy urban slum, a young nubile prostitute is coerced by 3 thugs into enticing victims with her charms who will then be robbed by the thugs before, shall we say, the arrangement is consummated. There is a grim humour in the first two “clients”, a drunken middle-aged roué and a callow youth, both of whom are impoverished and duly thrown out.
The third client is the magnificently robed Mandarin of the title, who enters but gazes impassively at the prostitute. She begins a seductive dance to entice him further in, but he remains impassive and she begins to be aroused herself. At the climax of her dance the Mandarin finally reacts, and overcome by lust he attempts, as the scenario coyly suggests, to “ possess “ her, and then the thugs enter and there is a violent scuffle-but the Mandarin continues to stare longingly at the young woman.
They decide to kill him-and attempt to smother him, stab him repeatedly and finally they hang him-but he remains alive and fixated on the girl. Only when he is cut down do his eyes cloud, his wounds bleed-and he expires.

There is enough material for treatises by Freud, Jung and Kraft-Ebbing and I’m not going to provide any analysis. To me it has always seemed the musical equivalent of paintings by Egon Schiele, depicting the corrupt decadence of sexual compulsion and the dissolution which can result-its power to excite but also to destroy.

The music is on the surface harsh and dissonant, but in fact this is frequently the result of conflicting tonal ideas played simultaneously. It is brilliant, with several moments of grim parody, folk melodies-and is incredibly spectacular.
There is in my view no better performance –or recording- of the work than this one. Dohnanyi picks out every nuance, every critical balance and every rhythmic change to perfection. He unfolds layer upon layer of subtle musical invention, and the recording matches his brilliance in every note.
The playing only emphasises a point I have made many times in reviews-when a work is “awful” in the true sense, this is highlighted by it being played beautifully.

The Vienna Philharmonic Musicians play this work as I have never heard it before, with beauty of phrasing and tone and such virtuosity that it takes the breath away. The Organ Bass Pedal in the prelude is thunderous-the choral interjections are wonderfully caught-be warned, there is a huge dynamic range to this recording. Prepare to be overwhelmed!

I have usually listened to Solti (LSO not CSO), Dorati (Detroit) or Welser-Most with a galvanised LPO as my first choice recordings-but the Dohnanyi renders them second best.

So, even at the high asking price this disc is essential for those who love the Bartok as I do, and there is a lot to commend in the Stravinsky where my own nit-picking preference will not be shared by everyone by any means. A superb 5 Stars and totally recommended. Stewart Crowe.

Mariss Jansons Live, The Radio Recordings 1990-2014
Mariss Jansons Live, The Radio Recordings 1990-2014
Price: £54.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Box of Delights!!!, 11 Jun. 2015
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In a recent interview in which he was questioned about his future plans, Sir Simon Rattle felt relaxed enough to answer the provocative question about his views on fellow conductors. When the name Mariss Jansons was brought up he replied "He is quite simply the greatest of us all."

My own enthusiasm for Mariss Jansons arose when I attended a concert here in Nottingham some 30 odd years ago when he conducted the then Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. It was a performance that galvanised and transformed my view that Jansons was something of a "the son also rises " figure clinging to the coat tails of his father, renowned conductor Arvid Jansons.
Since then I have collected his recordings avidly, and my admiration for his artistry has increased exponentially year on year.

The main characteristic of his conducting is that results in performances the listener-well, THIS listener-can really enjoy. That would seem to be a sine qua non where music is concerned, but it is not necessarily the case-time after time I find myself admiring a performance, being intellectually challenged by a performance or having my views on a familiar work challenged by a performance-but not necessarily being able to just sit back and wallow in the sheer joy of the music making.

Generally speaking, Jansons delivers performances that are stunningly well played, not really surprising considering the orchestras he directs, and exciting where they need to be, tranquil where they need to be....you get the picture.
It is true that a Jansons performance is rarely likely to provoke the thought, "Well, I never thought of it like THAT!" but neither is it likely to provoke the reaction "What on EARTH was he thinking?" and this applies across a repertoire ranging from Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms and Bruckner through Strauss (all of them!) Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel. Shostakovich, Henze, Lutoslawski and on all stops on the way!!

For me, he ticks all the boxes-and this set emphasises this in every way.
If there has been a cavil about his recordings in the last 20 years it has been that some of his RCO recordings have been a bit staid and stolid-as Haitink describes it, the "Dutch effect."
Recordings of the same works with the BRSO and other orchestras have been entirely different-energised and vibrant where the RCO performances were safe and even a bit dull.

I think I have may have at least a partial answer to this conundrum-the RCO commercial releases are "Live" in the sense that they are compiled and edited from usually 3 performances, the rehearsals and possibly even " patching" where required-standard industry practice. The live performances on this set are just that-seat of the pants, one-off performances, warts and all and they are not duplicates of any previous releases.

I've said "warts and all"-but there are precious few warts and they are provided mainly by the audiences at the respective venues.

With very little exception, each performance on this set is electrifying! The sound quality from all of the venues is never less than excellent, and is frequently superb with only the performances from London's RAH being a tad dry and airless. They are all DDD recordings, and the re-mastering has used very little compression-the dynamic range is colossal. Once again, Berlin Radio Engineers demonstrate that they can get better results in the Philharmonie than DG and Warner can, and the items recorded there are in superb sound-the Concertgebouw recordings we can take for granted!

In more than one admittedly meaningless poll, the RCO has been voted "World's greatest or World's number one orchestra." Though such judgements are spurious, they do serve to emphasise just how great the playing and virtuosity of this orchestra is-and you can hear this throughout the 13 CDs and bonus DVD-a sublime Mahler 4 with the ravishing in every sense Anna Prohaska as soloist.
The mix of repertoire is astonishing, and I commend Jansons for his courage in tackling the most modern pieces-and I suspect it will require a deal of courage from many listeners too.

I'm particularly fond of Sofia Gubaidalina's jaunty "It's a Wonderful Life - So Let's Dance."
NO-I am not being serious; it is a piece entitled "Feast in a Time of Plague" and is yet another threnody of concerted misery-though to be fair with many beautiful cadences-but not for me. I do like the Berio and the Varese is fun, but the remaining contemporary works are startling and brilliant but largely meaningless to me.

Absolute triumphs are both Bartok works-as fine as any in the catalogue, stunning in fact-the Janacek, Hindemith and Webern "Im Sommerwind" are glorious, the Mahler 7 uses the New Critical Edition and has the giant tympanum in the finale commissioned by Mengelberg and rediscovered in the attic of the Concertgebouw some 15 years ago. A slight moan is that it is split over 2 discs to accommodate content, but hardly a major fault.
A particular surprise to me is the Martinu Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmerman as soloist-a fascinating work to which I will return.
The Bruckner 3-the 1889 Version in Nowak's 1959 Edition-is vastly different from the earlier RCO release in that it is full of energy, drive, tension and drama-almost entirely missing from the earlier " safe" reading.
The Wagner Tristan Prelude and Liebestod is powerful and noble by turns.

It will be easier to suggest works that might disappoint-the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann are very conservative-almost a tad too much even for me.
They are very fine of course, but do not set the pulses racing as the other works do, but I need hardly add that the Russian repertoire works-Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and on the final CD-a GLORIOUS Prokofiev 5 (where we came in!)-are exciting, dramatic and as fine as one could hope for. There are other delights too numerous to mention-Berlioz, Ravel and unsurprisingly, Sibelius are all sublime!- and the harrowing Schoenberg " Survivor of Warsaw" is powerfully narrated by Sergei Leferkus-not a work to return to too often, but one which makes it mark here.

Thielemann is not unfairly touted as the leading Straussian these days, but Jansons vies for his title-the Tod und Verklarung is hair raising, and the Till Eulenspiegel, a Jansons calling card, is as infectious as on his other readings, with the RCO outshining even the VPO (a live recording only available from the VPO).

Applause is included after each piece but truncated, and there is a lengthy interesting essay in the thick booklet and artist photographs.
Having now listened to all the works, many of them several times, I can only invite the reader to agree that perhaps-just perhaps-Sir Simon was not wrong-this set certainly makes a strong argument!!!
If it seems expensive, I would point out that £6.50 approx at the time of writing it is in fact very cheap for this quality, and it IS a limited edition of only 1500. Whether the price will drop I cannot say, but I would snap it up while you can. A cornucopia of delights- and 5 Glorious Stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 1, 2015 10:12 PM BST

Firebird / Bartok - Two Portraits
Firebird / Bartok - Two Portraits
Price: £11.37

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 4.5 Stars for this fascinating if not entirely satisfactory account of the Stravinsky in glorious re-mastered sound., 8 Jun. 2015
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It comes as somewhat of a surprise to realise that this is the only recording which features the VPO in The Firebird-not even in a recording of any of the suites-a work ideally suited to their rich golden tones. It's not as if they don't ever play it-one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended had Maazel conducting the 1911 Suite, and in their guise as the orchestra of the Staatsoper they have played the full score regularly in Fokine Ballet Programmes.

This recording of The Firebird was made in 1979 alongside one of Petruchka by Decca's top recording team under producer James Mallinson at a period when Decca were already running experimental trials of Digital recording, and in fact sessions of only a few weeks later with the same artists resulted in Decca's first digital release comprising Schumann Symphonies.

The Stravinsky recordings in this set represent the apex of Decca's analogue recording with the VPO, and I vividly recall comparing the LP releases and being utterly disappointed by the sound quality of the Schumann!

The Stravinsky was available briefly as an Ovation release, but has been absent from the catalogue for many years, and we must once again be grateful to Universal Australia for this Eloquence SBS re-mastering, which results in sound quality that would be difficult to improve upon-it is superb in that aspect.
By 1979 the famed Decca sound had been refined to a less exaggerated sound picture than in the John Culshaw era, and this re-mastered issue adds to the more realistic balance we have come to expect in the modern era.

The slight reservations that I have always had with this performance are with the conducting of Christoph von Dohnanyi.
He shares many of the characteristics of Pierre Boulez-a master technician who elicits playing of the highest order from any orchestra, a tremendous sense of orchestral colour, rhythmic precision and forward thrust.

However, like Boulez-and indeed Stravinsky himself- he adopts a swift tempo which is very exciting, but which passes through the more Romantic elements eschewing any attempt at rubato or tempo variance to add more fantasy. This reading is brisk, crisp, brilliant and very "modern"-Dohnanyi uses the leaner 1947 revision of the score which Stravinsky revised after he lost copyright to the original versions in a post-war legal upheaval-and for me that in itself is a matter of regret as I much prefer the extravagance of the 1910 original version.

A good example is in the most Romantic section-the Ronde des Princesses. After the oboe introduces the beautiful theme, there is a hushed pause broken by two pizzicato chords which can be tear- jerking in their hushed beauty. Here there is no pause, just two quick plucks as we forge on to the string melody-and certainly no tears.

Now this approach does have its merits-it is what is in the score after all, but in gaining tautness we lose romance.
Nor does he draw out the glorious closing fanfare-he is even brusquer than Stravinsky and it is over before you have had any time to wallow in the glorious Vienna Brass!

As against that, the leaner orchestration allows Dohnanyi to uncover layers of musical invention usually subsumed in the rich orchestration, and he is assisted in this by the superb recording. So there are losses and gains-but it is well worth exploring and I think of it as "Firebird (2)" so to speak.

The Bartok "Two Portraits" are from 1980, originally coupled with the Miraculous Mandarin which is now paired with the Petruchka reissue! These are Digital recordings, but there is no noticeable gain in quality.
The solo violin is Gerhard Hetzel, who plays with passion and warmth and the VPO are magnificent throughout. Dohnanyi's approach is the same again, and this works very well with Bartok's music, and especially in the First Portrait which is more or less the uncompleted First Violin Concerto he prevents the music becoming a lugubrious wallow.

Hetzel recorded both Bartok Concertos just before his tragic early death in a climbing accident in a disc which is my favourite for both works, but both Portraits here are absolutely superb (as is the Mandarin on the companion disc, where my review of Petruchka would mirror this one!).

A fine set then, well worth the outlay and if you want to hear the VPO in this repertoire on CD, you have no other option. It's not my favourite complete Firebird-that remains the currently unavailable Haitink with the BPO (Hello Eloquence!!!)-and Salonen with the Philharmonia is also superb and has an unmatched "Jeu de Cartes," a favourite and underrated score as a companion. The Stravinsky conducted recording is fascinating though disappointing, and the Xavier Roth reconstruction of the premiere takes us to another realm (in a good way!) and is a MUST for lovers of this work.

Presentation here is as ever with this series minimal but informative, and I recommend it with the caveat that if you want your Firebird to be a late, great Romantic wallow, then you will be surprised by this version-and possibly disappointed- but hopefully also enlightened! Much to recommend-4.5 Stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 14, 2015 6:42 PM BST

Price: £12.25

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Always superb in artistry, this set emerges in newly resplendent sound from Eloquence Australia., 5 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: ELEKTRA (Audio CD)
I am indebted to Kevin Mulder for bringing to my attention that this recording had benefited from Eloquence Australia’s SBS re-mastering process in a reissue long overdue.

On its initial release on LP, it was praised for its artistry but divided opinion over its recording quality. This recording really emphasised the difference in philosophy between Decca and DG-the record collecting world in 1960 was reeling from the sonic impact of the Solti Das Rheingold and the newly released Tristan. Of course the balance in those recordings was engineered and wholly artificial, but DG in trying to present a more natural sound picture went to the opposite extreme of having the voices too forward, and as an inevitable consequence the orchestra was too recessed!

In this of all works, which has the largest orchestral forces in the opera canon, it resulted in major disappointment for many-it lacked the heft and impact the work deserves, and this was made more obvious 7 years later with the release of the Culshaw/Solti/Nilsson recording, their swansong as a team and to my mind their finest achievement.

The previous CD mastering of this set did little to remedy this-whereas Decca in its last 24Bit re-mastering of their recording re-balanced the work giving it a much more realistic sound picture, DG basically just stuck the LP version on a CD!

We must therefore be infinitely grateful to Universal Australia for this release which improves matters no-end. There is now a more forward balance to the orchestra, more “oomph”-and much, much more detail revealed in this new version.
There are signs of its age too-an occasional thinness and rough edge to the brass, but overall it is a triumph.

Artistically it needs little further praise for me-I can argue that this is the best cast of all, Borkh at least the equal of Nilsson, and sounding more vulnerable at times when required.
Jean Madeira’s imperious, haughty Klytemnestra is a triumph in a role which boasts many great interpretations, and there are no weak links in the cast overall.

Bohm of course is a master of the score, though applying some but not all of the possible 18 cuts suggested by Strauss himself, and the orchestra which premiered the work is incomparable.
I commend you to the excellent review by Ralph Moore of the earlier reissue-as he opines but in MUCH better sound!

There is minimal presentation-certainly no libretto, but cost is reasonable.
It is an important document, a must for Strauss lovers and lovers of great singing-but the Sinopoli, Solti, Sawallisch and Ozawa are all available cheaply in truly glorious sound and there is a remarkable Jeffrey Tate live version with Gwyneth Jones astonishing in the role which is expensive but well worth pursuing, so if forced to make an absolute recommendation it would be Sinopoli, though I would be loathe to part with any of the others.

Bohm can be heard with Nilsson at her peak in a live recording from Vienna, though in decent Mono only which joins the Karajan and Mitropoulos on Orfeo as historical performances which are a necessity-not an option!!
I shall return regularly to this set with renewed joy nevertheless and it can only be 5 Glorious Stars! Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 10, 2015 1:19 PM BST

Strauss: Ariadne Auf Naxos
Strauss: Ariadne Auf Naxos
Price: £12.25

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Re-mastered in excellent sound, there is much to enjoy-but much that disappoints also!, 28 May 2015
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For some 15 years, the LP choice for this work was the renowned Karajan Philharmonia recording, in mono only though it could and should have been recorded in stereo but for Walter Legge’s intransigence and his refusal to countenance stereo as anything other than a flash-in-the pan gimmick. (He re-wrote history later in many articles).

Although there was an unsatisfactory 1958 Leinsdorf/Vienna recording, the release in 1969 of the VEB recorded Kempe Dresden recording by EMI was the next recording of significance, and indeed it remains a firm favourite and first choice for many to this day.

Less than a year later DG released the recording under review to very subdued reviews, certainly when compared to the Kempe, and even to the Karajan.

One reason was the recorded balance-DG favoured voices in a very forward position in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the beautiful but somewhat cavernous acoustic of the Herkulessaal the chamber orchestra employed by Strauss was very distant indeed, with much of the glorious orchestration being inaudible.
VEB on the other hand, though recording in the Lukaskirche, had created an artificial balance wherein voices and orchestra were more or less on the same plane, which if unrealistic was very effective and highly detailed!

Bohm was not exempt from criticism either-although a noted interpreter of this work, it was felt that this reading was rather “po-faced “and lacking in character compared to Kempe especially.
Lastly the cast was not enthusiastically received overall, with Hillebrecht in particular being compared unfavourably to Schwarzkopf, Price-and especially Janowitz and Jess Thomas not being everyone’s favourite.

Universal Australia strikes again with this excellent re-mastering using the Eloquence SBS process more or less identical to Eloquence Germany’s AMSI process.
One area of the criticism is now swept away-the balance between orchestra and voices has been adjusted and is now nigh-on perfect.

It is certainly the case that this is a very well-mannered version of this work, even compared to Kempe whom I also find to be a little staid in his conducing, and there is not as much as bubbly fun as in other readings-but nonetheless, it is a beautifully polished reading played with utmost distinction by the BRSO members.
Bohm’s conducting of this work can be heard to much greater advantage in his live 1971 Vienna recording-that really DOES border on perfection!

The criticism of the singing remains justified however-Troyanos and Grist are both sublime, with Grist’s Zerbinetta being the equal of Battle’s in sheer brilliance and even better characterised (Sumi Jo sings the earlier version with dazzling brilliance too!).
The female cast are all excellent in fact-other than Hillebrecht who disappoints with her hard forced ungainly tone, rather harsh in the upper register and frequently just below the note.
She sings forcefully and securely-but the singing is effortful, and the tone unlovely.

The male cast members are in general fine too-Fischer-Dieskau in his prime is a fine Music Master, a role that really suited him, and the Comedia dell’ Arte comprimario roles are very well taken, though the Major Domo is disconcertingly polite and reasonable-Otto Schenk is incomparable in this role for Levine !

Jess Thomas actually does very well in the thankless role of Bacchus-and if he sounds strained at times, most tenors do. His performance, however, is not flattered by the rather unlovely tone of Hillebrecht in their rapturous and extended duet which forms the closing 30 mins of the work, and it sounds raw and unappealing.
Having said all that-would that we had more of their like today!!!

It’s a good bargain-no libretto of course-and Strauss lovers will want to add it to their collection, and there are great swathes of glorious music-making to enjoy.
However, there is also a great deal that is less than glorious, though I must emphasise that it is never “awful” or even “ bad”-just not of the same quality as other available recordings.
It’s certainly not likely to be a first choice for anyone.

Popular opinion awards that honour to the bargain priced reissue of the Sinopoli, and it is very fine indeed, though some may be taken aback by Dessay’s very raunchy Zerbinetta, a much more powerful reading than usual.
For me personally, it is Bohm live in Vienna with the incomparable Janowitz on her best form, and the Kempe is still a contender. I love the Levine, despite Gary Lakes singing Rambo rather than Bacchus-and the Sawallisch Salzburg live recording is also a favourite, like the Bohm Vienna on Orfeo.

This recording?-disappointing, but not without its merits. 4 Stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 26, 2015 4:36 PM BST

R Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten
R Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten
Offered by FastMedia "Ships From USA"
Price: £45.32

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some reflections and meanderings on a landmark recording from a bygone era that still sets a benchmark-a labour of love!, 19 May 2015
1955 was a landmark year in the history of Austria-and of Vienna in particular. The occupying Russians left-finally-(and without there being a Third World War)- the new non-aligned Austrian Republic was established-and after 10 years of reconstruction, many of them being occupied with what form it should take-the restoration of the war damaged State Opera House was completed and the first post-war season opened on November 2nd under newly appointed Music Director Karl Bohm.

The opening works were all about the triumph of all that is good about the human spirit triumphing over the forces of evil and adversity, the first being almost inevitably being Fidelio, followed by Die Zauberflote and then Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

These last 2 works were doubly apt in that they both followed a very popular Viennese tradition of "Magical Theatre" and both were premiered in Vienna-the Mozart in the Theater an der Wien where as well as at the Volksoper the opera company had been performing since 1945, and the Strauss in the Hofoper in 1919, just before it was renamed the Staatsoper in 1920.

The Decca Record Company had exercised great foresight in sensing that the newly emerging LP and especially stereophonic recording market would enter a boom period and had newly signed an exclusive recording deal with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which brought much needed financial stability to the still impoverished band.

Decca planned well in advance to record the Zauberflote, which they did with great success, but there were no plans to record the still rather obscure FROSCH which was seen as not a commercial prospect.

However, the production was a huge success, acclaimed worldwide and the story of the management pleading with Decca to record it only to be rebuffed, followed by conductor and cast pleading with Victor Olof and offering to waive fees etc. is well known.
Bohm argued that the producers, engineers and equipment were still in place following the Mozart sessions and that it would require very little extra investment to record FROSCH.

Decca reluctantly decided that it was better not to alienate the then powerful music director at the start of this new relationship, and the hastily arranged sessions took place in the freezing winter conditions of late November and December 1955 in an unheated Musikverein, with the cast wearing coats and scarves and peering through clouds of their own freezing breath
This brings an interesting aside-the recent Salzburg Production by Christopher Loy and conducted by Thielemann -available on DVD/Blu-ray-sought to recreate this event in the stage production.
However, the setting lovingly recreated is in fact the Sofiensaal which was not used as a venue until John Culshaw replaced Victor Olof (who had defected to EMI), and the first complete recording from the new venue was the 1957 Arabella conducted with little preparation by Solti after Karl Bohm withdrew late in the day.
(Culshaw and Bohm did not see eye to eye over artistic interpretation)
Thus the conceit of the Loy Salzburg production is a misplaced one!

Back to the 1955 recording-it was produced as a Mono recording by Victor Olof, but simultaneously and unbeknown to the artists, Peter Andry, fresh from several weeks of stereo recording of The Ring, Dutchman and segments of Tannhauser in Bayreuth simultaneously produced a stereo version by the simple expedient of placing 2 balanced microphones high above the platform in the manner used so effectively by Westminster and Mercury.
The resultant recording gives the lie to Decca propaganda that persisted for a generation that the Musikverein was a difficult acoustic for recording purposes-this was instigated by John Culshaw and his team to enhance the reputation of their Sofiensaal recordings.
It is certainly true that the legendary "Christmas Tree" microphone setup that Decca developed for the Sofiensaal did not produce good results in the Musikverein, but this was a problem with Decca, not the Musikverein.
Within months of the completion of this recording there was a seismic shift in the fortunes of Decca and the Staatsoper. Olof and Andry "defected" to EMI resulting in John Culshaw's promotion, Karl Bohm in an embarrassing musico-political coup that failed resigned his post only to withdraw his resignation 24 hours later-and have his withdrawal rejected.
Herbert von Karajan was appointed in his stead-the rest is history.
It was not long before the ensemble that we hear on this recording was broken up, as Karajan began to bring in international stars to supplement and replace the company regulars.
One of the joys of this recording is hearing the legendary company that revived the fortunes of this great house-a true ensemble performance with everyone committed and understanding their fellow artist's roles as well as their own.
The stereo recording was not released until 1963 and was for many years with the live Munich Keilberth one of only 2 recordings available of this great work.
It is the "lesser cut" version sanctioned by Strauss, who was aware that smaller houses especially would inevitably make cuts and he prepared a selection of possible cuts for nearly all his operas-Salome is an exception. Over the years individual conductors and producers have made evermore swingeing cuts to FROSCH, no doubt with the best of intentions as it has proved a difficult work with audiences, but Bohm uses the least amount of cuts and is consistent in the various recordings available under his direction. One of the finest recordings that by Sinopoli, is sadly the most savagely cut of all.

Volumes have been written about what this work means. My advice is-don't worry about it. The plot is easy enough to follow, even if it does not appear to make sense, but what each scene-each line!-means is another matter better mulled over after you have stopped listening.
"Go with the flow" is my exhortation and let yourself be swept away by the inspired tsunami of musical invention that engulfs the listener.

The late Reginald Goodall when asked what was the meaning of Parsifal replied that he had no idea, but when he was conducting it he understood it perfectly. My reaction is the same-when I'm listening I understand every nuance, but don't ask me what it all means afterwards.

This is the best sung performance overall-the commitment of each artist offsets any vocal criticism one might have.
The young Rysanek is sensational, Goltz is effective though like Nilsson cannot find the allure that the character should have to offset the shrewish nature-Behrens is supreme in this role. Goltz and her Barak-57 year old Paul Schoeffler sound a mature couple-but the sheer beauty of the legato singing of Schoeffler is pure delight.

Hongen's Nurse is a touch shrill at times, but wonderfully well drawn-much better than Modl for Keilberth-and Hans Hopf is only surpassed by Heppner in the part of Emperor.
It is true that there is some clumsy phrasing, awkward breaths mid-phrase and some have unkindly commented on a slight lisp, but the sheer steadiness and rich tone sweep all criticism away for me.
One only has to experience the strangulated tonsils of the portly Stephen Gould in the role on the Thielemann film to appreciate just how good Hopf was!

The ensemble cast has never been equalled, let alone bettered!

The orchestra is on magnificent form-complete with sour oboe- and the recording brings out an astonishing amount of detail. There is some muddiness in congested passages but not enough to cause concern.
Bohm is a little restrained at times compared to his live recordings, but it is a magnificent reading nonetheless.

The set was re-mastered at 20 Bits in 1991, but eschews the Cedar 2 filter process meaning that the top is bright and shining. Happily it is transferred at a very high level, so slight tape hiss is only noticeable in some very quiet moments and is not an issue.

Sadly, the set is not in the current catalogue but can be obtained new and used from specialist dealers. I obtained my new sealed copy very reasonably through a seller on amazon USA who did not ship to UK, but my daughter lives in Washington DC and I obtained it via her good offices.
It is handsomely presented in the " London" livery with an imposing dark slipcase, extensive notes and a full libretto. No doubt there are easier ways to get hold of a copy.

This is a recommendation for connoisseurs of great artistry, recording from a golden age-and above all, lovers of this great work. It is a life affirming experience, as Strauss and Hofmannsthal intended.

Realistically the top recommendation remains the bargain priced Sawallisch, one of only 2 recordings of the complete work uncut (Solti is the other), in superb sound and with a first rate cast-and Sawallisch is an inspired interpreter.
An unlikely recommendation is also the DVD/Blu-ray Maryinsky version under Gergiev-which is both visually and musically remarkably fine (the production is an all British affair led by Jonathan Kent). It is superior to the Thielemann in just about every respect bar the playing of the VPO, and even then there is little to choose.

I hope that my meanderings will have piqued someone's interest, and I apologise to those whom I have bored. Stars are unlimited and irrelevant. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 4, 2015 2:26 PM BST

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10/Strav
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10/Strav
Price: £26.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Karajan's glowing and radiant account of this great work in newly revivified sound-just tremendous!-but from Japan only??!, 18 May 2015
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I well remember my first experience of the music of Shostakovich, a record of this symphony on a Saga LP costing twelve shillings and sixpence and played by the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by, as the label stated, Eugene Mravinsky.
Though the Mono sound was rather rough edged, I was mesmerised by the work and thus began a 50 year fascination with this composer’s music.

Herbert von Karajan studiously avoided any kind of political involvement in his post-war career, other than of the purely musical kind of which he was a consummate practitioner (in truth he avoided it in his pre-war career, but that is a long and well recounted saga!) but in 1965 it was arranged that the BPO would visit the Soviet Union under his direction.
This had propaganda benefits for both West and East, and the tour was planned for 1968.

Karajan was not drawn naturally to the music of Shostakovich, but the Tenth Symphony had been hailed as his crowning achievement and was and is widely interpreted as a post-Stalin critique of Soviet history (though there is no evidence that this was Shostakovich’s intent), and it was seen as something of a propaganda coup –“bearding the lion in his den” so to speak-for the BPO to perform it on Soviet territory.
He took on the work and took a year to prepare it, then recorded it in 1966 in advance of the tour. The 1968 tour was cancelled after the invasion of the Czechoslovakia, but revived in the era of Nixon détente in 1970.
All this was of such significance that it made the international press in many articles aside from the usual music related journals.

My returning to this topic has been prompted by an article drawn to my attention by friend and fellow reviewer Bernard O’Hanlon in which the author in expressing his admiration for Karajan opined that the live recording of this work from the 1970 Moscow concert was his most remarkable achievement, despite the crude stereo recording and Melodiya’s none too brilliant re-mastering.
As with all Karajan’s live recordings, it is a riveting experience but if we are awarding plaudits for recordings of this work, mine go to this recording particularly in this Japanese re-mastering which the discussion prompted me to seek out-and I’m very thankful that I did!

Recorded in the glorious acoustic of the Jesus Christus Kirche by Hans Weber and Gunther Hermanns, the luminous playing and the sheer beauty of the elegiac passages take the breath away. No-one has ever given us such a cogent yet beautiful reading of the third movement, and it does not lack power and drama either-the horn calls that dominate the movements climax have never sounded so imposing.
The brilliant second movement is just that –brilliant-and the finale bubbles with ironic wit.
The opening movement has all the elegance and beauty that we associate with Karajan’s approach to Tchaikovsky, and this remains my favourite reading of all for this work.

Once again Universal’s policy of having separate “ wings” in different countries produce their own editions baffles-this re-mastering at 24 Bits emanates from Japan where in truth most of Universal’s Decca and DG re-mastering now takes place (the recent Solti Ring and Karajan Strauss Deluxe Boxes being cases in point) and reproduces the original LP cover.
Comparing it to the DG Galleria 1991 mastering is a revelation-the muddiness in the lower strings is replaced by transparency, so much so that one can hear bows being dropped, music stands being clipped, pages turned and even a Karajan groan or two-there is a real sense of a performance about it.
The transformation applies to all areas of the sound spectrum and more than justifies the cost of obtaining the disc from Japan.

There is a bonus in the 1970 recording of the Stravinsky Symphony in C, which demonstrates yet again the beautifully poised approach that Karajan took to Stravinsky’s music pays real dividends in unearthing the real soul of the piece.
All the notes are in Japanese only.

The later Digital recording of the Shostakovich is very powerful too, the drier acoustic of the Philharmonie resulting in a much punchier sound picture, and Karajan too is in much more aggressive mood with less limpid beauty in the quieter passages offset by more weight and drive in the harsher sections-but for me it is the earlier recording that finds true genius in both the work and its performance.

I will not go so far as to say it is Karajan’s finest achievement, but it is certainly up there!
Worth every penny. Unlimited Stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 20, 2015 12:33 PM BST

Verdi: Messa Da Requiem
Verdi: Messa Da Requiem
Price: £14.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 3.5 Stars for what is sadly a disappointing performance of what could have been a truly great and fitting tribute ., 17 May 2015
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This review is from: Verdi: Messa Da Requiem (Audio CD)
In many respects this latest and perhaps last of the 3 Sony releases from Maazel's brief tenure as Director of the Munich Philharmonic is a poignant and fitting tribute to the great Maestro-the sectarian Requiem for a great artist who embraced many religions and philosophies.
It is beautifully recorded from performances in Feb 2014 by a team from Siemens under veteran producer Rainer Maillard, responsible for so many fine VPO recordings for DG with Abbado, Giulini and Maazel in days of yore-and is thus effectively a DG engineered recording released by Sony.
Only a few weeks later, he had to renounce the position and retire from conducting, and within a matter of months his death from pneumonia ensued.

The Gasteig hall has the opposite characteristics of the Berlin Philharmonie-condemned by critics, audiences and musicians alike for its poor concert acoustics, it seems to produce wonderful results as a recording venue, and so it proves here.

The Munich Philharmonic is a wonderfully rich toned, mellow sounding band under Maazel, with rich golden tones, and the seemingly vast chorus is caught in a sepulchral ambience most appropriate to the work.
So far, so good!
Maazel had a long association with the works of Verdi, and there are many recordings of his works under Maazel's direction, but this is the first and presumably only recording on disc of the Requiem, though there is a DVD/Blu-ray of an earlier performance in Venice.

Those who have been kind enough to read my reviews will know of my unbounded admiration for this great conductor-but I have never been deaf to his idiosyncratic interpretations either, and especially in the last 20 or so years he was prone to exaggerating tempi and dynamics-and so it proves here.
The opening is very hushed-all but inaudible-and very, very slow. This creates a template for a performance which though inevitably beautiful, and often VERY loud, has the stuffing conducted out of it!
It lacks drive and frequently drama-and strangely the orchestra does not help. The orchestral sound is just a bit too polished-Maazel particularly integrates the brass, so that trumpets and horns do not "bray" as they should in this work.
Of course, the Dies Irae is fast enough and loud enough with great strokes on the bass drum-but orchestra and chorus are terribly "civilised"-there is a lack of spitting venom and terror.
The Sanctus plods a bit-and by now you will have gathered the nature of the overall interpretation.

As often with Maazel he exposes a great deal of inner detail-there are woodwind passages I have never noticed before time and time again-but in so doing he loses sight of the drive the work needs. It is very, very beautiful with huge dynamic contrasts-but a bit dull!

The soloists are not helped by Maazel's tempi, particularly Daniela Barcellona who is a major disappointment. She has an insistent vibrato, and frequently sits under the note-and as this recording was made from three different performances there is evidence of different takes being edited in. Her voice changes timbre and condition alarmingly in middle of the Kyrie and elsewhere.

The Korean tenor is very fine indeed, as is Zeppenfeld in the bass part.
Anja Harteros repeats her role from the excellent Barenboim recording, but here her tone is harder and she is more stretched than on the earlier recording, and her top register lacks the soaring beauty of Stoyanova on the recent Jansons recording.
Nonetheless, all the soloists give intelligent and committed interpretations.

It gives me no pleasure to be lukewarm about this recording, and the recorded sound and the playing and choral work are VERY beautiful indeed, but with that beauty must come drive and intensity, drama and compassion-and for me this is almost entirely lacking in Maazel's reading.

Less than 12 months ago I was extolling the virtues of the Jansons BRSO recording from the same venue-though sounding very different-and my admiration for that recording has grown to the point where it is my first choice above Giulini, Reiner, Solti (VPO), Karajan (both recordings) and the uneven but powerful Temirkanov, all personal favourites and with admiration for too many others to list, but certainly including the recent Barenboim and the Robert Shaw Atlanta recording.
If beauty and weight are enough for you and less than ideal solo singing is not a problem, then there is undoubtedly reward to be had from this recording-and it is at bargain price, but as wider recommendation I can only award 3.5 stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 3, 2015 11:37 PM BST

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 [Dmitrij Kitajenko, Gürzenich Orchester Köln] [Oehms: OC440]
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 [Dmitrij Kitajenko, Gürzenich Orchester Köln] [Oehms: OC440]
Price: £12.16

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much more than spectacular effects and empty bombast, this recording elevates the music to true symphonic greatness! Glorious!, 17 April 2015
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Dimitry Kitajenko and his Gürzenich Orchestra of Köln have carved out van enviable position in the ranks of those who have recorded great swathes of Russian music over the last 10 or more years.
Sadly, most of these recordings have appeared on “niche” labels and many of them are now difficult and expensive to come by, but sets of the complete symphonies of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky including the complete Manfred and the so-called Seventh rank with the very best in terms of interpretation, playing and recording.

The set of Prokofiev Symphonies, including the earlier version of the Fourth which I much prefer, is quite simply the best available on all counts.

Now the team has embarked on the 3 Rachmaninov Symphonies again with Oehms Classics, with the Second available newly released at the time of writing.

Kitajenko never opts for empty spectacle in his interpretations-they are always deeply felt and with a great sense of architecture, balance and colour and so it proves with this new recording of The First Symphony reconstructed from orchestral parts after Rachmaninov discarded it.
There are a number of variations possible with this work, primarily relating to the percussion used and the recent Petrenko RLPO was a rare occasion when the full battery of percussive effects was employed, as other notable exponents have shied away from the risk of vulgarity that including these effects inevitably brings.
Ormandy does use the glockenspiel in the First Movement, but otherwise he, Ashkenazy and Maazel eschew them.

Kitajenko also omits them in this new recording, but this does not mean that there are not surprises in store.
Kitajenko takes a broader view than most overall, but this does not mean that the work lacks propulsion-it is as exciting as any when it needs to be.
The opening is slow and grand with the phrases drawn apart, and then we settle into a very detailed and well balanced account of the first movement, with the conductor picking up the tempo in the fugal passages. The horns are magnificent.

The second movement is a triumph of balance and delicacy juxtaposed with weight and brilliance-wonderful solo violin playing in the “gypsy” section, and great weight from the plucked lower strings.

The third movement is particularly lyrical and delicate, truly elegiac until we reach the impassioned confrontation of the curtailed Dies Irae motif on which the whole work is based.

The finale opens with an opening salvo-then a daringly long pause-then another salvo and the introductory fanfare by a gleaming solo trumpet a tone higher than we expect- and then we launch into grand exposition of the march for which this work is perhaps best renowned.

We hear every element of the music forensically unfolded, tambourines and all-and then the most magical distant offstage horn calls beguile us! It is superb.
The lower strings are held in restraint as the development starts, Kitajenko keeping his powder dry for later. The discordant cascading strings as we rush towards the climax sound very modern indeed, and the massive tam-tam stroke that heralds in the coda is spine tingling. The coda itself is powerful and avoids becoming bombastic, no mean feat.

If I say that this is the most “musical” version of the work, I am trying to convey how well Kitajenko integrates what is at times rather flimsy material into a masterful whole, and in his hands it becomes much more than an overblown spectacular of lushness and “special effects.”

The playing is wonderful-Kitajenko to his credit has not tried to remould the rich golden Germanic tone of this orchestra into a more Russian sounding band, but instead has chosen to use the orchestra’s strengths to enhance Russian music.

There is a popular “ filler” in The Rock, an early piece which starts out as Tchaikovsky and develops into pure Mussorgsky in the swift middle section, before reverting to a more obviously Rachmaninov conclusion.
It is very well performed once again.

I love this symphony, warts and all, and recordings by Ashkenazy, Maazel and the pioneering Ormandy are all great performances in great sound too, and all 3 are available in bargain sets of the 3 symphonies at modest cost and are indispensible to collectors.

The earlier Svetlanov is a fascinating performance in restricted sound, the later one is a good recording but has dubious playing and an eccentric interpretation to my ears.
Litton and better still Petrenko offer us the added hardware, so we are spoiled for choice.

I suppose that Ashkenazy’s widescreen spectacular set in blistering Decca sound, still breathtaking after 30 years is the safest choice as it is a bargain set and the Ormandy, though great has a poorly recorded and heavily cut Second Symphony. The Maazel is deemed to be a little eccentric for some tastes (not mine!)

However, make no mistake-this new recording in state of the art sound has plenty to say about this work and I am revelling in it-and the Second is of similar inspiration and quality I am happy to report!
Unreservedly recommended with 5 Stars. Stewart Crowe.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 21, 2015 1:46 PM BST

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