27 October 2009

Enjoyable homework

After more than a month of hustle and bustle, at last I can find some time to finish my "homework" prescribed by Savio. There is one left, the review on B4 1874 version discs. But this should be finished in one or two days.

I can also start my "Memories" series of posts.

Further I could squeeze some time to attend the HKPO concert conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. His son, Sasha, played the Beethoven violin concerto. The second half was Shostakovich Symphony No. 10. The Beethoven concerto lasted almost an hour, but some reviewers said they liked this broad tempo. Sasha was mediocre at best, but most of the audience were so thrilled that they enticed him to an encore.

The Shostakovich Tenth showed the committed playing of the HKPO and the mastery of the Maestro. Savio was so enthralled that he declared this symphony becoming the best symphony under the baton of Gennadi. As I've never been attuned to Shostakovich's symphonies, I'm bound to be biased. My short answer to him was "blessings upon you" for he could find and experience something in life that he could rejoice from the bottom of his heart, which is something verging on a luxury these days when people became so blase as to dismiss even a blaze of wonderful music making before them.

Many exciting new CDs to come, and I still haven't finished listening to the glorious Wand/DSO set. Oh dear!

Volkmar Andreae / Wiener Symphoniker Bruckner cycle

Recently Music and Arts released a Bruckner symphonies cycle conducted by Volkmar Andreae in 1953, in which he was portrayed as an important Brucknerian. If that is the case, he is over-valued. The least I could say is that love of his Bruckner is an acquired taste.

My first encounter with his Bruckner was through his B4 issued by Orfeo almost 20 years ago. My impressions were not too enthusiastic. His tempo control is slack. The reading is characterized by an uneven pulse, which wanders all over the place. Ensembleship is just so-so. The recording sound is just barely acceptable, with a thin mid-range. Horns are sullen and strings undernourished.

His flexibility of phrasing together with his fastidious attention to details may please some, but the end result is that he missed the drama of the music.

This past experience of course will not warm me to this new cycle in the first instance. After I’d sampled most of the tracks, my initial impressions were just reinforced. A special mention is needed for his B6, which is hideously fast, so much so that at certain points the orchestra seemed about to collapse.

The only attractive point about this box-set is that it allows me to get a glimpse of performance practice in that bygone era. With that in mind, Andreae reminds me of those “free to go” conductors as Georg Ludwig Jochum or Sigmund von Hausseger. Eugen Jochum is in a similar vein, but apparently more masterful and of course more famous for artistic reasons.

I believe that there is, and must be, a good reason why Andreae’s Bruckner recordings have never been better known. You can find out why by yourself.

What is interesting is the “sound restoration” performed by Aaron Z Snyder. He is frank in admitting what might amount to a “schwindel” from Otto Klemperer’s viewpoint: "It should be noted that the momentary pitch errors in the horns and other instruments have been corrected by digital means. I strongly believe that the purpose of a release such as this is to preserve the conductor's vision of each piece. Obviously performance errors are not part of this vision, and hence do not belong in the released version." 

Cracked horns among the playing of other instruments can still be “repaired”. In a discussion group Snyder wrote, “I know it sounds like magic, but this is really possible to do with Adobe Audition 3.0 by way of very careful cutting and pasting in the frequency domain. Remember that discrete frequencies are being made by all the instruments playing, and that when one of them hits a wrong note, it's as if that instrument is indeed playing solo! I can then isolate that instrument's fundamental frequency and harmonics, shift all the components to the correct pitch, and then add them back into the full orchestra. Yes, it takes a bit of work -- there's nothing automatic here by any means -- but the method does indeed fix these bad spots.”

The arguments for or against “restoring” historical recordings to their “intended” artistic or sonic perfection will be endless. The choice should be ours, but when I am faced with no choice and have to accept the “well-meaning” doctoring of a restoration engineer, I just cannot help feeling being cheated. This uneasy feeling is further fuelled by comparing the B4 recording issued by Orfeo and that by M&A. The latter has more tape hiss or surface noise, but the orchestral sonority becomes almost unrecognizable from Orfeo’s “original” version, and it is further decorated with a warm ambience. This is a wonderful sonic facelift, but it cannot escape from the fact that in so doing the recording has lost its identity and become a good-sounding fake. What a shame.

P.S. (29 Oct) My friend Savio sent this blog's address to the distributor of M&A in Hong Kong, and in turn to M&A USA. I don't know what their reactions were as Savio didn't tell me, only forwarded some of the favourable reviews they provided. I have no commercial interests in revealing my thinkings and feelings about these CDs. This box-set has its undeniable historical importance, only hampered by the well-meaning "sound restoration". This is interesting, as Bruckner's scores had someone enthusiastic enough to "modify or improve" them, e.g. the Schalk brothers, and now even his recordings had someone similarly enthusiastic to do similar "improvements". The analogy is a little uncanny. 

Rob Cowan had a positive view in the October issue of the Gramophone and highlighted selected movements in some symphonies for praise. Peter Blaha in Rezension (in German) pointed out that in the last 50 years the tempo employed in performance has become slower and slower, and thus the contrast between the fast and slow movements in turn has become less distinct than that in Andreae's interpretation (with his generally brisker tempo).

However, when the recordings of the first 3 symphonies were released in LP in the 1960s, the reviewer (none other than the famous British musicologist Deryck Cooke) in Gramophone was less than impressed, as can be seen in the following links:

I have nothing to go against Andreae, and in fact I respect his contribution to the promotion of Bruckner's music through his lifelong dedication. His style is very special and quite different from those we are familiar with. However it is my personal taste that I prefer other Brucknerians to him, I regret to say. I understand that these comments may ruffle some feathers, but I'm just true to myself, particularly with reference to the "sound restoration" principles. Do you accept the argument that as food is intended to be tasty, so it is justified to make GM food?  So we now have GM music!

26 October 2009

Memories of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli

I don't know how to describe my fondness of his recordings of Bruckner's symphonies. Of course there must be someone who commented badly on them for whatever reasons, but I'm sure you must be lying if you don't think the orchestral playing is immaculate and the orchestral sonority is full-bodied, rich and colourful, and yet is also transparent. Sinopoli's interpretation is masterly and beautiful, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and my appreciation and enjoyment of his art will not be tarnished by others' negative comments.

The sad reality is, many of these recordings have been deleted from DG's catalogue.

Memories of the late Günter Wand

My collection of Günter Wand's audio and video recordings is part of my treasured memories of the great Maestro. Another part, which may be more important, lies permanently in my heart and soul, of the experiences of his live concerts.

I didn't post the picture of the CDs issued by Bell's of St Florian for prudent reasons as these are pirate CDs.

Of note is the cover art of the BPO B5 CD which belongs to the original release, and which is quite different from those of the rest of the series, even when the latter were first issued. RCA/BMG later changed the cover art many times in their "re-issues". Only the Japanese BMG issued the SACD versions of these Berlin Philharmonic recordings, which is shown above in the right upper corner of the relevant picture.

The double CD on the lower part of the "NDR years" picture is the Japanese BMG incarnation (BVCC 8889-8890) of the live recordings of B8 (1987) and B9 (1988) at the Schleswig-Holstein-Musikfestival made in the Lubecker Dom well-known of its "wonderfully" reverberant acoustics. This was issued way back in 1995 in Japan.

Mariss Jansons / BRSO Bruckner 7th Review

Well-played but focus, drive and idiom wanting.

It is always easier to find faults with a recording or performance than digging up the true merits of it, people would say or think. I'd concur. It is therefore after much care in repeated listening that I'd try to post what I think of this new Jansons recording of the Bruckner Seventh.

It was recorded in the Grand Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, known for its excellent acoustics.

The BRSO came 6th in the Gramophone's ludicrous ranking of the world’s orchestras in 2008, which is not a mean feat, the validity of the ranking notwithstanding. The orchestra has a sinewy string tone superimposed on a gritty, sometimes even gravelly, orchestral texture. This is in stark contrast to that of the RCO Jansons conducted for the B3&4, which I commented on earlier. The brass section has a fair deal in this texture, but sometimes it appears to be attached to the whole sound picture as an appendage rather than an integral part of it, particularly in the last two movements.

With due respect, I'd say Jansons still has not mastered the idiom of Bruckner, and the Adagio sounds much like a Tchaikovsky symphony. The magical counterpoints in Bruckner's music, which the composer must have taken great pains to mould them, were not fully depicted in this reading. Listen to the Paavo Jarvi recording and you'll appreciate the difference, and what wonderful counterpoints Bruckner has brought us. The cymbal and triangle are there at the climax (17'03), for the Nowak edition he employed.

The limited dynamic range I lamented in Jansons' B3&4 recordings is still very much evident. Two orchestras, two recording venues, and not to mention different balance engineers would simply provided the answer to the question of who is responsible for this mf or above dynamic bracket -- all pointed to none other than Jansons himself.

In general Jansons' reading was lethargic and this lack of drive is uncommon to him, given his credentials in the wonderful Tchaikovsky symphonies he recorded with the Oslo Philharmonic. His sudden ritardando at the height of the first tutti in the first movement did him no favour in this regard. Coupled with strongly inflected phrasings and the infelicities mentioned above, it makes quite uncomfortable listening.

The Adagio, with all the music's intrinsic beauty, sounded so sterile in terms of emotions and pathos. It's also unfocussed. If you longed for a better understanding and observance of Bruckner's Luftpause, you have to look elsewhere. This is where a true master Brucknerian will excel, and I regret to say that Jansons is not one, or at least not yet.

The Scherzo was mechanical and again fell prey to a malaise that permeated the previous two movements. Why the nonchalance? At long last, the drive and a purposeful forward momentum arrived at the beginning of the Finale, but stayed there not for long. Jansons presented us with many interesting felicities of textured sonority and details, but they all did not add up to an organic whole, and the solid architectural grasp so famous and treasured of Karajan's or Wand's was sadly not evident here.

Maybe I'm just unable to appreciate his Bruckner, but it's a disappointment to me.

21 October 2009

Wand and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (2)

So far I've listened to the Bruckner 5th and Schubert "Unfinished".

I've resisted the strong temptation to do comparisons with Wand's other recordings in the first instance, and decided to finish the journey through all the recordings as if I were attending his concerts one after another. I'd call it a pilgrimage.

The B5 has given me an impression of natural rawness and hence freshness. The orchestral sonority is different from that of MPO or BPO or even NDRSO for that matter. The woodwind timbre is quite distinct from the other orchestras, in particular the bassoon. The strings and the brass didn't have the polished and full-bodied sound of BPO or MPO, but the whole orchestra just sounds so unpretentious and natural. The lack of ostentatiousness, together with, or augmented by, Wand's insistence on respect to the music, conveyed a welcome sense of warmth to this humbled listener. I was totally enthralled.

Wand's rhythmic control is unsurpassed as ever. The three themes in the first movement were nicely done and seamlessly connected. The dialogue between different woodwinds, or that between woodwinds and strings, is chamber-music-like. There is much fire, drama and intensity throughout the symphony, which in some cases is lacking in the smooth and rounded sound picture of his performances with the BPO, and which in retrospect may appear "over-polished".

The orchestral playing is not without flaws, but these are more than made up by the positivism of the reading, and may even be considered "appropriate" in light of more than a hint of Mozartian Strum und Drang.

This is a Bruckner 5th which becomes quite dear to my heart. The applause recorded on the CD lasted more than a minute, which just echoed my thanks to Maestro Wand.

The "Unfinished" bears an appalling resemblance to his recording with the BPO, a benchmark for me for many years. It just shows us Wand's mastery of this symphony from an "early" age.

20 October 2009

Wand and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

The captioned box-set has arrived at long last.

I haven't been so excited because of a set of new recordings for a long time.

Initial impressions are very encouraging.

Link to the Wand edition at Profil: