21 August 2009

The most endearing Beethoven symphonies records in my collection

I was asked by a friend to post those Beethoven symphonies records that I like, including those which are my favourite. This is not an easy task, not least because I've placed my CD collections in different places. But it is also a fruitful task, helping me in housekeeping, both physically for the CDs and psychologically and mentally for my appreciation of these records.

I'll try as much as possible to post the scanned images of both the CD booklet front cover and the tray card of the selected CDs, and indicate my preference in the title of the post or within my comments.

They are my personal choices out of my personal taste. I have no intention whatsoever to present what are the bests, because different people have different artistic and aesthetic yardsticks.

Please leave your comments if you wish.

19 August 2009

When the heart is touched and hurt

Sometimes I think I can understand the psychology of Bruckner when he was getting old, and his apparent neurotic behaviour towards women.

I have seen not too few men who have the courage to tell me their stories and air their grievances. I say “not few”, but I believe there must be far more men who don’t have the courage or the mood to tell others their plight out there in society. The reverse can also be true – the so called selection bias in research.

Their stories are very similar, and they go on like this. When a man gets old or just gets older, when his job is not secure, and has little money in reserve, he may lose his confidence. He will think he is no longer young now, and with all the family burdens piling up on him, he feels he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despondence, because his wife is leaving him, albeit not physically, at least psychologically. The cruel fact is, I was told, even those who have said they love him are just paying lip service, and will mock him and desert him, and that includes his very wife. The help that we can offer is some supportive counselling or psychotherapy, but some will even need drug treatment for the resulting depression. Is that part of the symptomatology of andropause (male menopause)? We are still uncertain of the answer. But what we can perceive and be sure is that these men will feel the pain, deep inside.

I hate to mention it, but men are at times, if not most of the time, very naïve. I’ve seen many cases of men who have devoted all their time, energy and money to the family, and in return their efforts come to a naught. (Of course the reverse can happen to many a woman.) This is the stark realities of life. It is sort of similar to Bruckner’s great effort in composing symphonies, and in the end he was only left with the torso of an unfinished symphony, albeit his greatest one, at the time of his death. Listen to the Adagio of Bernstein’s 1990 VPO Bruckner Ninth and experience how the strings mourn and weep and you will encounter the moment when the heart is touched and hurt.

16 August 2009

On the brink of oblivion

I have the habit of archiving my CDs in the form of wav files (CD backup) and mp3 files (for listening in portable devices). Although it is a never-ending project as I have scarcely any free time to do that, I still have a sizeable amount of these files in my PC hard disks. Just a couple of days ago when I took out my van Beinum collection, I thought I had never had his Apr 1955 B8 on Tahra TAH 614-615 as it was not there with the other van Beinum CDs. However, when I looked at my PC Bruckner folder just now, I could find an mp3 file of this CD, but alas, I have not even a trace of idea of where it is! The same happens with Gielen’s B3 and B8.

The most tragic loss is the disappearance of a number of important B5 CDs, most of them landmark recordings, including Schuricht’s VPO (issued celebrating VPO 150th anniversary), Karajan’s BPO (one of the jewel-boxes among the three in the entire box-set), Celibidache’s MPO (EMI), Asahina’s 1988 Osaka PO 90th anniversary concert, and less importantly Thieleman’s and who-knows-what-else! In fact I have been looking for them for almost 2 years, and they seem to sink into oblivion. I must have taken out all these CDs for a comparison test and then forgot where I had placed them. I will find them someday. I just wish there was a Lost Property Counter at home that I can just go there and reclaim them.

Salute to a true doctor - Jodis

Jodis is truly a very good friend of mine, in every sense of the word. Although we don't see each other very often, we keep our friendship in our hearts.

What impresses me most is his unselfish dedication to the care of patients, which, really sad to say, does not come by too often in many doctors these days. I may be harsh to say this, and in fact may ruffle many's feathers, but the fact is...............

This is just a tiny example. He is going to have his leave starting tomorrow, for a pleasure trip with his family. But when I called him the other night discussing a patient recently diagnosed with a cancer in another hospital, he was still very adamant in helping out, even during his overseas trip. I was a litte hesitant in spoiling his holiday, and asked him to take care of this problem when he returned to work next Friday. He just said, "I can still manage to entertain emails during my trip, so just email me when you get more information. Don't bother if it will spoil my trip or not, as it is a matter of life and death." How moving! (Just to make things crystal clear in case you may suspect his motives, he works in a government hospital, and there is absolutely no financial gain in this case.)

The message coming across is beyond words, the personification of the quintessence of medical care in its purest form.

Three cheers to you and your benevolence Jodis.

13 August 2009

Off the Beaten Track -- steer away from the Big Eight for the moment

I coined the term the Big Eight just for convenience’s sake. This group includes, in alphabetical order, Sergiu Celibidache, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bernard Haitink, Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Hans Knappertsbusch and Gunter Wand.

But why are they in the same group? Their recordings are usually readily available, except perhaps Knappertsbusch. They are all well-known conductors in general and revered Bruckner interpreters in particular. They all have box-sets of their “cycles”, some complete cycles like Haitink, Jochum, Karajan and Wand, and some incomplete ones like Celibidache, Furtwängler, Klemperer and Knappertsbusch. Klemperer is a special case. He has recorded B4-B9 with the Philharmonia or the New Philharmonia, but no box-set for this series of recordings as such has been issued – a rather expensive way to buy this series in the form of individual CDs. The Big Eight's Bruckner output is huge with many versions of the same symphony, a fact much aware of by seasoned listeners or collectors.

The obvious exceptions to this list, you may have wondered already, are Bruno Walter and Takashi Asahina. Walter is undoubtedly a very good Brucknerian, but his recorded output is scanty. Asahina is altogether another story. His Bruckner discography is a prohibitively long list. With much time and effort, I still haven't collected all of his CDs. I still have a few of his CDs lacking. Fortunately all his cycles (box-sets) are there in my cabinet. His recorded Bruckner output is unsurpassed in the world, but his name is still not popular in the Western world except to some seasoned Bruckner lovers, hence he is not included in the Big Eight.

The choice of Haitink may raise a few eyebrows, not just because he is the only conductor still alive in this group. Even if one can have many criticisms on his Bruckner, one cannot argue with the fact that his Bruckner is never objectionable or fuss-riden. His cycle with the RCO was the first budget-priced Bruckner box-set issued back in the early 1990's by a famous conductor, at a time when the Karajan, Jochum and Wand complete cycles were sold at full price. The only inexpensive exception around that time was the set by Inbal (at mid-price?), which was interesting mainly because of the different, usually the first, versions used and the inclusion of an attempted completion of the Finale of B9 by Samale and Mazzuca (1984 draft). But by and large, the Haitink set is preferable, not just because of the price, but also of the artistic value. In fact his later recordings with the VPO have much to be admired, particulary B3.

So, where to begin? As I've just finished listening to B3&4 by Jansons, a good place to start is the long line of conductors associated with the Bruckner tradition at Concertgebouw. It is an exercise which can bring back a lot of fond memories.

"The Bruckner tradition fostered and perpetuated by van Beinum, Haitink, Chailly and now Jansons at RCO" will begin the journey.

11 August 2009

Talking to Savio about Bruckner

Last night I talked to Savio about Blomstedt's new Bruckner 6th. We then went on to talk about Bruckner recordings in recent years. He admitted that after the death of Gunter Wand, he sort of cut down on listening to Bruckner symphonies.

We both agreed that Wand's Munich Phil Bruckner recordings on Profil are very good. In fact I can say that his Munich 8th is the best among his many versions with all the other orchestras, including the BPO. The deep, powerful basses are like tsunami kept at bay by the upper strings, while the woodwinds are like birds singing in the middle of the chorale sung by the brass. Savio can perceive a hint of remnants from the Celidibache era. My response was that when I was listening to Wand's Munich Bruckner, I had the mental picture of the sun rising from the sea.

What I relish most in Wand's performance is that despite all the rehearsals he demanded, and the emphasis on structural and temporal balance, he is not rigid by any standard. Far from it, his subtle rubato, especially in the strings and the woodwinds, is always so mesmerizing. This is a quintessential example of very organic music making within the confines and beauty of the structure of (modified) sonata and symphonic form.

06 August 2009

A special day for me.

A special wish to all my family to stay healthy, happy and harmonious.

Buddha bless you all.

02 August 2009

Welcome to the Brucknerian family, Maestro Jansons

This CD is the first official commercial Bruckner recording from Jansons and RCO. His previous Bruckner CDs are airchecks issued by suspect labels.

I first knew his name when his recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies with his Oslo ensemble won a rosette in the Penguin Guide some 20 years ago. Time flies.

The Third was taken from 3 performances 18 months apart (7 & 8 Feb 2007 and 28 Aug 2008) and the Fourth from 4 consecutive performances (17, 18, 19 and 21 Sep 2008).

This is cool-headed Bruckner in tuxedo. A welcome change to those who just want to "make a statement". There is much to offer here: good ensembleship, crystal clear transparency, clean and neat playing, a harmonious sound picture incorporating different sections of the orchestra without any one section being over-prominent, cultured and rich brass, pleasing woodwinds, mellow upper strings and sonorous lower strings, and above all a distinctive Concertgebouw sonic footprint.

It is palpably obvious that it was a very careful, if not at times gingerly, reading. However, if you want visceral impact from your Bruckner, you will be sorely disappointed. Not that the reading is loose, on the contrary, for example, the Finale of Symphony No. 3 was exceptionally well played and the tension was well maintained. The problem lies in the dynamic range.

There is no need for a health warning with this hybrid SACD/CD. Whatever the performance directions are, you will always get merely p, mf and f, maybe sometimes some half-hearted pp or ff, except perhaps in the Scherzi. I don't know whether it is the decision of Jansons or the recording engineer. It is easy to your ears at first, but if you follow the playing with a score in hand (or if you know the score by heart), you will get increasingly frustrated. There appears to be no difference among ppp, pp or p for that matter. Nonetheless it is a welcome addition to the Bruckner discography. Although I would still cherish the established ones, e.g. Karl Bohm's 3rd and 4th with the VPO, Gunter Wand's 4th with the BPO and his last with the NDR SO, Sawallisch's 4th with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Sinopoli's 3rd and 4th with the Staatskapella Dresden, and Schuricht's 3rd with the VPO, this Jansons/RCO newcomer has that mellow aroma and richness of a fine wine suitable for repeated tasting.

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If only Georg Tintner........

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If only Georg Tintner had been awarded the luxury of recording with any one of these orchestras conducted by Gielen or Haitink above. His Bruckner cycle with Naxos is a treasure trove for Bruckner lovers, even considering the orchestras employed. He is an idiomatic interpreter of Bruckner through and through. He is a true gentleman. He was very candid when my friend Savio and I interviewed him soon after his Bruckner Symphony No. 6 recording had been issued. We talked about everything concerning Bruckner. An unforgettable experience.
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If Klemperer's can enjoy legendary status, how about Stein's reading? It is a truly enjoyable experience. The latest Blomstedt's has all the qualities to stand alongside them.

The excellent trilogy from Blomstedt

The recently released Bruckner 6th recorded by Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra follows his two previous excellent ones on the 7th and the 8th in the 21st century. He recorded the 9th in 1995 (Decca), and the 3rd in 1998 (Querstand, only available in a box set) with the same orchestra.

He has recorded the 6th before, with the San Francisco Symphony on Decca in 1990. That was a fine interpretation. The oboe, which plays a very important part in the Adagio, was magnificent. Re-listening just confirms my memory of how expressive and melancholic the oboe sings.

Looking back on the recorded history of the 6th, one ought to mention the Klemperer version with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, which has been awarded a legendary status by many critics. That may be true in that era (it was recorded back in 1964) when the recorded output of the 6th was scarce, even well into the 80s. When many more recordings were appearing in the last 15 years or so, the situation has changed. I can never convince myself that this Klemperer recording is the best or even a great one. Yes, the lower strings are dark-hued, but how about the brass, which is so critical to an idiomatic Bruckner sound picture? Barely serviceable at best. Compare it to those of the Vienna Philharmonic, Concertgebouw or Gewandhaus and you will know. The Adagio is too brisk. I cannot connect with Klemperer’s expression of deep feelings, if there ever was some in this recording. Comparing it with some very good recent ones still doesn’t change my mind. Even his BBC SO recording on Testament is no better to my liking.

The one which has been undervalued for a long time is Horst Stein’s with the Vienna Philharmonic. The harmony was treated wonderfully. The woodwind, as usual with the VPO, is lovable. The brass section is divided with horns on the left, and trumpets and trombones on the right. This sonic antiphony works wonders in the coda of the first movement. That was back in 1974 when the VPO was in peak form. It has lately been reissued in the Eloquence series, a true bargain of a gem.

Gunter Wand recorded it twice with the NDR, and I prefer the first one recorded in 1988. The lower strings are so Teutonic, which is immediately apparent from the opening in the first movement. The rubato in the woodwind, particularly the oboe in the Adagio, and the legato of the strings, are all so mesmerizing.

Michael Gielen’s is also good. The lines are clean, as usual for him, and the Scherzo is played so Mahlerian to my ears, which is very interesting. The tone palette is fully utilized.

When Haitink’s with the Staatskapelle Dresden first appeared, I secretly hoped that it might fill the gap left by Sinopoli in his Dresden cycle. How naïve I was! This is not a bad reading, but Haitink apparently wore his heart on his sleeves in the first movement.

The new one by Blomstedt has all the ingredients of a successful reading. The entire work is perfectly paced. The orchestra has a lovable Brucknerian brass sonority, which is deep, rich and sonorous, without any hint of raucousness. The strings are sweet and mellow, with the upper and lower strings blending so well. This is a reading full of feelings, yet not over-sentimentalized. The acoustics of the concert hall was well captured. This is a real winner. To my mind, it deserves a place in the upper echelons of recorded Bruckner Sixth. This is a recording that I will look back on with undiluted pleasure in years to come.