25 September 2009

Günter Wand and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Profil will release a box set of 8 CDs (PH 09068) featuring Günter Wand and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The contents are mouth-watering:


Sym. Nos. 1, 3 and 4
Coriolan and Egmont Overtures

Sym. Nos. 1 and 4

Sym. Nos. 5 and 9

Sym. Nos. 8 and 9

Sym. No. 4

This is totally new to his discography. Really looking forward to it.

Günter Wand conducted his first concert with the then Berlin RSO on 3 April 1983 at the tender age of 71.

A tale of four cities for Wand: Cologne (Gürzenich-Orchester; Cologne RSO or WDR SO), Hamburg (NDR SO), Berlin (BPO; DSO) and Munich (MPO).

He had the best Indian Summer among all the great conductors.

(The photo of the actual box set replaced the original preview picture on 26 Oct 2009)

Bruckner Fourths (1874 version)

With the arrival of 2 new recordings of the 1874 version of Bruckner 4th -- Simone Young's and Nagano's -- it is time to search my cabinet for the old ones for a little comparison. Well it takes time.

Sorry Savio, please wait for a while. The review will be posted later.
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15 September 2009

Review of Paavo Järvi's Bruckner Seventh -- enthusiasm rejuvenated

When my friend asked me to review a new Bruckner 7th recording recently, I had a moment of hesitation. The disadvantage of listening to countless recorded versions of the same symphony is that one can become numb to the piece and also infected with the proverbial familiarity breeding contempt. The other side of the coin is that only the extraordinary will stand out and get the attention of the tired and wearied judge in the audition.

I make no excuse to the fact that music appreciation and enjoyment is a very subjective thing however much objective element is involved. So with the exception of my old favourites (Furtwängler’s, Wand’s BPO, Karajan’s last with VPO, Giulini’s, Celibidache’s 1971 with Stuttgart RSO, etc), only 2 discs come to mind at this moment as “special” in the last few years’ of listening. One is the eloquent and light-weight Philippe Herreweghe’s (Harmonia Mundi), and the other is the delectable and beautiful reading by Kurt Sanderling with the SWR RSO (Hänssler).

Paavo Järvi is a new Brucknerian, at least as far as recording goes. I remember many years ago when he came to guest-conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra on Estonian pieces by Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür, we had a brief interview with him in a hotel café one evening. He was charismatic and polite. When we asked him whether he would conduct Bruckner’s symphonies, he frankly answered that it was not yet time but he would consider it later. Now the time comes. Heading an orchestra with a Bruckner tradition so to speak (Inbal has recorded a cycle pioneering some early versions with this orchestra), he is now planning to record all Bruckner symphonies. Let’s see how his first installment fares.

His reading is a very romantic one. The orchestral sonority is excellent, with mesmerizing woodwinds, beautiful horns (so important in Bruckner’s symphonic world), and pleasing cavernous basses. One can say that the basses are not deep enough as compared with the Munich or Berlin Philharmonic, but one is really carping here. The recording has a nice warm acoustics with much space and “air” around each instrument, particularly the woodwinds.

I was stunned by my own reaction to the opening cello melody: I was moved, a feeling that eluded me for so many instances in my past contact with this symphony, both live and recorded. The flow of the music just carried you along. Note how well he makes the ritardando in the transition into the coda, which starts at 18’18 (bar 391, letter W) with the drum roll before the violas and cellos join in one bar later (but at 18’26) repeating the opening melody. And what a beautiful coda.

In the Adagio, note how graceful he moulds the second theme (starting 4’22, bar 37, letter D), and the heavenly flute playing in the second part of the second theme (5’25-5’50, bars 53-59, starting letter F). The cymbal crash, triangle roll, and tympani are there at the climax (17’24, bar 177, letter W), but the build up to this climax is a deft point he makes. Again his hands are gentle in the transition into the coda (18’09) where the flute plays to the pizzicato of the violins before the coda starts at 18’26 (bar 185, letter X). These transitions are important, at least to me, in joining blocks of sounds in Bruckner’s musical architecture, without which the whole building will just fall apart.

The scherzo is animated. The Trio (starting 3’33) is simply beautiful with very nice string legato. It is a lively finale, with exquisite woodwind playing. He plays a good conclusion to the whole symphony. The good thing about his reading is that although it sounds and feels very romantic, it never appears over-indulgent.

It is an excellent start to his planned cycle. I just can’t wait for his next disc, Bruckner 9th, which has been released locally in Japan.

13 September 2009

Carlos Kleiber's "legendary" disc

Not that I'm against Carlos Kleiber, but I must confess that although I still enjoy listening to these 2 symphonies, I can only do so with some, if not much, reservation.

No doubt the rhythmic drive is almost without peers, and that means a little too much for my taste. Almost hard-driven at times.

For the Seventh, the Allegretto is unconvincingly underpowered compared with those in my favourite list.

This disc is exactly the case, in Fowler's scientific sense, of "the exception that proves the rule". Well, I mean the rule that Kleiber's recordings are always the best doesn't hold up well.
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My favourite Beethoven Seventh (5)

It is sometimes rather demoralizing that only a few modern recordings get into my favourite list. It either indicates that I'm too old to accept new things, or reflects the fact that modern Beethoven recordings seldom reach the artistic levels of those in the past.

Not so with this Abbado's Berlin Beethoven Seventh. It is part of his second Beethoven symphonies cycle.

The orchestral playing is immaculate. Abbado's phrasing is beautiful and natural and so very convincing. There is, however, no lack of drama here. The finale is devilishly exciting. The best-sounding Seventh in my favourite list.
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My favourite Beethoven Seventh (4)

This is Beethoven with enormous power and weight. A quintessential example of the "old school".

Konwitschny provides a slow but very steady and full (all the repeats are observed) reading. It seems that his aim is not beauty of sound, although the orchestral playing is superb, but crude impact. Some may object to his heavy-handed treatment, but his phrasing and tempo are infused with such a purposeful momentum and tension that I am practically enthralled by the music.

I enjoy emerging myself in the sweep and grandeur of his reading. Something you can't get these days.
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My favourite Beethoven Seventh (3)

Guido Cantelli should have been the true worthy successor to Toscanini, if not for his early tragic death.

His existing recordings are mostly in unsatisfactory sound (so many airchecks or bootlegs). This one is different. In fact all the pieces in this CD are excellent.

A true bargain of a disc. Hats off to EMI.
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My favourite Beethoven Seventh (2)

Nothing more needs be said. Carl Schuricht at his best. He simply storms the heavens with his personal accent.

VPO seldom played their heart out for a conductor, but it was one of those few treasurable moments.

The sound is acceptable.

My all-time favourite.
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My favourite Beethoven Seventh (1)

Up till 2010, this is the only recording in my favourite list that I did not own the original. I've tried to collect almost all of Fricsay's DG recordings, including the large box-set of Ferenc Fricsay Edition, but this one somehow still eluded me for a long time. At long last I got this Fricsay Beethoven Seventh together with his Beethoven Third, Fifth and Eighth all in the French DG Double series (457 952-2).

My first encounter with it was when I listened to my friend's Orchestral box-set in the Complete Beethoven Edition. It was coupled with Anne Fischer's Beethoven piano concerto no. 3. What a revelation. What a tragic loss to the musical world given Fricsay's short life-span.

The tempo is slow but the inner tension is exciting. Fricsay has the special gift to have the apt feeling of pulse and the shaping of the pulse. My admiration is drawn to the way he so beautifully moulds the opening phrases of the first and second movements, and still carries me cogently on into the drama. The dance is rhythmic and uplifting.

As a consolation, it is still available for download, albeit in mp3, from the DG webshop.

A fine tribute to a great conductor.
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My favourite Beethoven Pastorale (2)

Böhm's recordings of Beethoven symphonies have nice touches.

Here he raised himself up above the Kapellmeister label imposed on him by many. A true Maestro. A perfect "exercise" on a Sunday morning.
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My favourite Beethoven Pastorale (1)

A walk in the park. Lyrical in the right place, and thunderous in the appropriate section.

Fully enjoyable, even with the mono.

I prefer this to his later stereo remake (as part of the famed cycle with BPO).
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My favourite Beethoven Fifth (3) and Sixth (4)

Teutonic. Positive. Sunny. Almost perfect symbiosis between conductor and orchestra. No undue mannerisms, melodrama or tempo extremes.

This recording is often being neglected, but it stands out among the murmurs of so many imposters.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Gunter Wand, but why not?
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12 September 2009

My favourite Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (1)

The circumstances of the time must have a significant influence on Furtwangler during WWII, as his performance in 1943 tells us. Full of angst and anger, reminiscent of the horrors of wars.

The May 1947 reunion with "his" Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was an emotional event, to say the least of it. The passionate sostenuto on the eighth note of the famous "motto" characterizes this reading of the struggle between mere mortals and fate.

The Japanese DG Originals transfer is lovely.
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11 September 2009

Other nice Eroica recordings

Although no match for Karajan's 1944 Eroica, Kabasta's is also a fine reading.

George Szell's Cleveland Eroica has all the good ingredients of a Toscanini counterpart, and the sound is much better than any of the latter's recordings.

When Szell travelled back to Salzburg and performed the Eroica with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on 4 August 1963, a special alchemy happened. The only unsavory blemish to an otherwise great reading is the obvious mistake made by the first horn in the transition to the recapitulation in the first movement. The East-European timbre of the oboe is an extra delight.
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My favourite Eroica (9)

Last, but certainly not the least, is Gunter Wand's live recording of Eroica with the NDR SO in 1989.

It is placed here not because it is the least favoured in my favourite list, but just because it is the latest issued. Incidentally the bracketed number after each favourite symphony has nothing to do with the order of preference; it is just a number for archiving purposes.

I have nothing to say about this recording, except perhaps the word "superb".

In these days when every new recording of Eroica is being compared with and then overshadowed by those of the historical giants, Wand's reading can not just stand on its own, but also among them.
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My favourite Eroica (8)

While Furtwangler left us with a memorable account of a war-time Eroica, his successor did just the same. Karajan's first recorded Eroica in 1944.

Eloquent and deeply-felt but without self-indulgence, and devoid of his trademark sheen imposed on his BPO recordings since the 1970's.

When compared with another contemporaneous recording made by Oswald Kabasta, Karajan shows us he is the master craftsman, rendering Kabasta's fine reading appear so mediocre.

I'd venture to say that judging from this recording alone, he is a worthy, if not the only worthy, successor to Furtwangler.
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My favourite Eroica (7) and Pastorale (3)

Now comes to the magic 7. Would it be too many? Well, as the saying goes, you can't have too much of a good thing, can you?

Monteux may not be the first conductor that comes to many music lovers' mind when Beethoven symphonies are mentioned, but his account of Eroica is mesmerizing, if it is the correct word to use.

Excellent playing from the VPO, from start to finish as if in one breath. No fuss. No nuisance. But not bland. A fine example of Monteux's "natural" conducting style with an inner glow.
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My favourite Eroica (6)

This one is different from the 1951 Eroica Kleiber recorded with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (where the first movement exposition repeat was not observed).

I prefer this VPO recording to the earlier Amsterdam one for the tighter control here and the sense of inevitability generated by his rhythmic control.

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My favourite Eroica (5) and Beethoven Fifth (2)

This Eroica came from the famous 1939 NBC cycle. The ghost of the usual stereotype of Toscanini's rigid inflexible conducting style was exorcised by his pre-war recordings.

Here we can hear subtle plasticity of expression and his (Italian) singing quality, before these were degenerated into a rigid pulse throughout a movement in the post-war NBC recordings that many come to know the Maestro. The mourning in the funeral march is almost personal.

The indomitable will as expressed by him in this symphony can readily be felt.

This is the true Toscanini we should get ourselves accustomed to.
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My favourite Eroica (4)

Who will guess a conductor of Russian origin and the core of Austro-German repertoire will have a happy and memorable marriage? That is not to slight Russian conductors, far from it. They excel in many areas.

Kondrashin is, forgiving the pun, the hero here as much as Beethoven, for you can hear that he paid careful attention to the score (although the first movement exposition repeat was omitted), and constantly tried to bring out the music's inner details.

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My favourite Eroica (3)

A hair-raising experience. I remembered it only too well. When I listened to it again the night before Barenboim's Beethoven cycle at Royal Festival Hall, I was shocked on my hotel bed in London; I was covered in goose pimples. The ferocity of the reading is like emptying a glass of Vodka in one gulp.

He has been branded by an orchestral member as a "cross between Caesar and Satan". An apt description in a way.

Toscaninian rigour lightened up with the fire of passion.

The sound is good for that era.
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My favourite Eroica (2)

This is the latest incarnation of this glorious recording. Before any international issue of this BPO recording in the CD format to whet the appetite of those who know, I was fortunate enough to enjoy it through a 1993 EMI Taiwan release in the Treasure series. This budget series usually would not raise the attention of many, but the moment I discovered this was a moment of speechless rapture.

Kempe's reading is restrained and polished to a degree that some may find it lacking punch and tension. Is it a must that every Eroica needs to be punchy? My own preference tells me it is not.

The Testament transfer is as usual excellent. Kempe at his best.
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My favourite Eroica (1a)

Another good transfer of Furtwangler's war-time Eroica.
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My favourite Eroica (1)

This recording should be no stranger to connoisseurs. Of many transfers to CD, this one by Preiser is one of the best, if not the best.

The intensity of the war-time angst. The connotations of death or glory..... All in all an ovewhelming experience.
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08 September 2009

My favourite Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (2)

Not a popular choice I'd say. Also not a popular pairing of Sawallisch and RCO in recordings. You need to listen to them to appreciate the lithe reading and the amazing sonority.
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My favourite Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (1)

Beethoven's First and Second are averse to heavy-handed treatment. Not so for Wand here, even if his reading was not HIP. The vitality and classical feel are all here. Simply lovely.
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A happy happy day!

Less than a month ago I lamented that I lost a number of important Bruckner 5th CDs. Now they are all back. So now the Karajan and Celibidache ones are back to their homes (the full sets). The most important is the Asahina one, which cannot be replaced. It is out of print even in Japan.

Some extra finds as well: 7 Bruckner CDs by Altus (Bohm x1, Schuricht x3, Kna x2 and Richter x1). All the happier, shouldn't I? Even though I now have 2 copies of Harnoncourt's 5th and Bohm's 7th (Altus), how can I complain?

I also got back several sheets of notes I wrote during the comparisons of these versions of Bruckner 5ths.


07 September 2009

Barenboim's BPO Beethoven Seventh

The speical thing about this disc is the sense of occasion.

The piano concerto no. 1 was nicely played with his personal stamps coming in here and there. The Symphony No. 7 is one of the shortest readings as nearly all repeats were omitted. Barenboim proverbially donned the jacket of Furtwangler and it was quite evident here.

Very interesting, though not my first choice.
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