29 November 2009

My AVID interest in pianists

I was often asked by friends of the pianists I like. On the other hand, some would be interested in those I don't like. As I have an avid interest in pianists, I've devised, for convenience's sake, a classification system of my own called none other than AVID.

'A' is for those I simply adore. 'V' is for those I value much, 'I' for those I feel indifferent to and 'D' for those that are disappointing or those I even despise. Simple enough. At least it serves me right up to this moment.

Here is my very personal list from memory:

A: (in alphabetical order)

Samuel Feinberg,
Clara Haskil,
Constantin Lifschitz,
Dinu Lipatti,
Sviatoslav Richter, and
Grigory Sokolov.

V: (in alphabetical order)

Martha Argerich,
Nelson Freire,
Emil Gilels,
Nelson Goerner,
Friedrich Gulda,
Nikolai Lugansky,
Victor Merzhanov,
Vladimir Sofronitsky,
Emil von Sauer,
and a few others.

Many others.

Don't force me to disclose.

There must be some pianists that I don't know, but I suppose I've known quite a number of pianists from the 19th century till now that I can make an informed choice. That's the reason that many notable names are absent, or at least not revealed, in my list. Such a list is useful to me in housekeeping for my collection which has been scattered among different places.

28 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (10) -- Sinopoli's Beethoven Ninth

This Beethoven Ninth is a recording which has not been much talked about. Some of my friends did not even know its existence. But if you somehow come across it, I'd urge you to buy it at once before it is gone.

Sinopoli is well-known for his idiosyncratic interpretation. That usually brings us many surprises in standard repertoire. Not so here, in a sense. He adopted a romantic but not unusual approach. He allowed the music to speak for itself. The minor details were not missed. The Adagio was beautiful.  The choir was really superb, and it crowned the Finale.

A very satisfying Choral Symphony.

An enlivening path to re-tread (9) -- Eduard van Beinum's Brahms First

20 Sep 1947


6-7 Oct 1958

Eduard van Beinum's recordings of Brahms First are memorable for his mastery in maintaining the delicate balance among the tragic elements and the intensity of feelings, the natural flow of music, and an unobtrusive degree of rubato.

These records also brought to mind the effort I put into obtaining them, from different countries and at a time when internet purchase was not as effortless as now.

The complete symphonies set from Dutch Masters is particularly treasurable, not only in terms of its rarity, but also in terms of intense musical satisfaction.

Brahms First has a special meaning to van Beinum. He died of a heart attack at the age of 59 while rehearsing this symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

27 November 2009

Jonas Kaufmann -- What a tenor! What a voice!

Gorgeous voice.
Looking forward to his Wagner performances or recordings.
Abbado is also superb here.
Thoroughly enjoyed.

25 November 2009

Deutsche Grammophon -- The Story

At long last I received the long-awaited book this afternoon.
To share my joy with you, the unpacking process is shown here.

P.S. Thank you Dave.

17 November 2009

Gold fish

Sixteen years ago

An enlivening path to re-tread (8) -- Schubert Quintet in C major

Schubert's Quintet in C major, D.956 occupies a special place in chamber-music repertoire. It dated from the last months of Schubert's short life of 31 years, in 1828. It is difficult not to be filled with awe that the last 3 piano sonatas, the "Schwanengesang" song collection and this Quintet are among the works written in that year, when he was terminally ill.

I suppose no lovers of chamber music, or classical music at large, should be unfamiliar with this great Quintet. And I further suppose that no such persons should pass by any opportunity to listen to these 2 recordings. Both recordings reveal musicians who patiently and responsively listen to one another. The ebbs and flows are all there, but down under the surface the inner voices can clearly be heard and enjoyed. The mixture of drama, turbulence, lyricism and etherealness simply makes this Quintet a celebration of life.

It is the quintessence of chamber music not to be missed.

15 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (7) -- Young Mutter

The cellophane tape binding the broken edges is a telltale sign of how many times this CD booklet has been taken out and browsed over. It was more than 20 years ago that I bought this disc and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto played by the then young Anne-Sophie Mutter became my first love of this concerto.

Since then the youthful innocence and abandon radiated from her performance here has sadly, or should I say naturally, attenuated and eventually disappeared altogether from the "mature" Mutter.

A budget-priced CD at that time, but now a true nostalgic item. Listening to it again the other day with my young boy Brian, I could really feel this cogent evidence of how time flies.

Bruckner Fourths (1874 version) review

Before the brief review of the recorded 1874 version of B4, I'd like to write a few words about the first published edition, and Bruckner's involvement in all the versions and modifications.

The notion that Bruckner is too weak mentally to refuse all the changes suggested to him by his friends or followers is a misconception that has been perpetuated for years. This argument simply doesn't reflect the whole picture.

The fact that he kept the many versions of his manuscripts rather than discarding them speaks volumes for the importance he attached to his own works and the resolution he made to revise his works in pursuit of perfection.

The role played by his well-meaning pupils or followers has been somewhat misunderstood or over-exaggerated. This is particularly true in the case of the first published edition of Symphony No. 4.

I've tried to consider the genesis of Bruckner's symphonies from a modern business viewpoint, and thus the following analogy can be quite useful.   A product devised by the R&D department will usually incorporate some input from the marketing department to make it more customer-friendly before it is released to the market. As anyone who has gone through such a process should know, it is very difficult to delineate which modifications are considered unduely influenced by the marketing personnel contrary to the wish of the designer, as cooperative modification is a far more complicated process than a "purist" would like to think or believe.

A practical designer who wants his product to finally see the light of day would listen to the suggestions of the marketing people and modify his product appropriately to make it more attractive, or more "marketable", to the public, particularly if it is deemed "unmarketable" previously by practitioners in the trade. It is not craven submission to persuasion, but open-mindedness to the realities of life.

To complete the analogy, just substitute the appropriate persons into this process. Bruckner is the designer. The products are  his symphonies. The marketing people are the Schalk brothers, Levi, etc. The practitioners who say that his product is not marketable are those who decline to perform his symphonies in the first instance. Now you can see that it is just logical that Bruckner needs to modify his symphonies to make them marketable or "playable" by the VPO. And from the manuscripts we all can see that nearly all the modifications were entered by Bruckner himself, that applies to even the Stichvorlage, or the engraver's copy, before the first publication of his scores, especially in the case of Symphony No. 4. The authenticity of this first published score has previously been doubted, but now the "Bruckner problem" has more or less been resolved in this case with the publication of the 1888 version edited by Benjamin Korstvedt published in the Gesamtausgabe recently.

For Bruckner Symphony No. 4, musicologists nowadays have identified and classified up to 7 versions, but for practical purposes, these 7 versions can be considered as stemming from only 3 main versions, or groups of versions depending on one's frame of reference, with major differences. The rest have only minor differences among them. These are the:
  1. 1874 version
  2. "1878/1880" version(s): 1878, 1880, 1881, 1886
  3. 1887 and 1888 versions
The 1874 version was published in an edition by Leopold Nowak (1975), and is relatively uncontroversial. It  is the version/edition used in the recordings discussed here. 

The "1878/1880" version is so called as it is printed as such on the cover of the Nowak edition of this second version (1953).  After the 1874 version was completed, Bruckner revised the first two movements in 1878, and replaced the finale with a new one entitled Volkfest. In December that year Bruckner replaced the original Scherzo with a new one, sometimes called the "Hunt" Scherzo which we are familiar with in the majority of recordings of this symphony, and the "1878 version" (under the umbrella of the group of "1878/1880" versions) was completed. 

The Volkfest was to be replaced by another finale one year later.  It was published as an appendix to Robert Haa's edition (1936) and later as a solitary moverment in an edition by Nowak (1981).  From 19 Nov 1879 till 5 Jun 1880 Bruckner composed yet another new finale, although it shares much of its thematic material with the one in the first (1874) version. This becomes the "1880 version". Although it has not been published in its original form, it was the version used in the premiere of this symphony on 20 Feb 1881, by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter.

After the premiere, Bruckner made some changes to the symphony in 1881, and it was in this form that Haas published his edition in 1936 -- hence the name "1881 version". This edition has caused some confusion in the past as Haas called it the "original version" (Originalfassung).

Later in 1886, Bruckner prepared a copy of this score for Anton Seidl to bring to New York for a performance there. Again some minor changes were made by Bruckner himself, and Nowak published his edition in 1953 incorporating these changes -- hence the name "1886 version", although as mentioned above, Nowak still called it "1878/1880 version".

So far, even after the first performances, this symphony had not been published, and Bruckner was understandably eager for it to be printed by a publisher. So with the help of others, Bruckner thoroughly revised this symphony in 1887 for its printing by the Vienna publisher Alfred J. Gutmann. The manuscript for this version is the engraver's copy (Stichvorlage) which showed the changes. Here is where lies the long argument as to the authenticity of these changes, i.e. has Bruckner sanctioned these changes? This was the version used in the performance by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter on 20 Jan 1888. This version is probably of interest to Bruckner scholars only as it is an interim version, not the final thoughts, and this Stichvorlage has been held in a private collection. 

After this performance, Bruckner made yet further changes in Feb 1888 in the Stichvorlage and it was the version finally published by Gutmann in Sep 1889. Again the authenticity of this version has been debated since the 1930s, but recently opinion has changed to accept it as the Fassung letzter Hand, i.e. the last manuscript version of the symphony in Bruckner's own hand. Benjamin Korstvedt edited this version in the publication by the Critical Complete Edition (Kritische Gesamtausgabe) in 2004.

For listeners familiar to the commonly used "1878/1880 version", the 1874 version will be an eye-opener in the sense that it is longer, has a completely new Scherzo, and a radically different finale. The thematic and melodic material is largely the same in the two versions in the first movement. For the second movement, there are altered transitional and developmental passages, and the codas are different. 

So much for textual differences. Let's see how some of the recordings of this 1874 version go, particularly the new ones by Simone Young and Kent Nagano.

I'd say Young is a very "brave" Brucknerian, never shying away from loud forceful tuttis and climaxes. However, a loud statement in Bruckner does not equate to shouting, but she just sounds brusque. When I compared her performance with Nagano's, I found that her sound picture was only two-dimensional, whereas Nagano could portrait a three-dimensional soundscape with much dynamic and orchestral colour shading. Why two-dimensional? Orchestral transparency is something that sadly eludes Young, and it fact it sounds muddled most of the time. Her positive attribute is the forward momentum that is evident everywhere, and the reading is full of energy and verve. Sometimes it was overdone however. In the opening of the second movement, the upper strings are to play con sordini (with a mute) piano, whereas the cellos will carry the melody mezzo-forte. Young allowed the upper string ostinato, originally as an accompaniment, to become incessant militant steps, which make this nice passage sound like two people talking at the same time rather loudly, and intrusive to say the least. 

Nagano's first movement is slower but it just allows time for the themes to unfold. His approach imbues flexibility to his phrasing by using, but not excessively, rubato, and this breathes fresh air into an otherwise rather long-winded version compared with the 1878/1880 one. His meticulous treatment can be seen in this example: the way he moulds the buildup to the climax (10'42 to 11'02) in the Andante. 

One major error in Sony's documentation of Nagano's disc is that they wrongly use the movement titles of the second version for this first version (See the picture above).  This error occurs not only in the back inlay but also in the CD booklet. This should not have happened in such a release from a major label. 

Turning to older competitors, I found Lopez-Cobos' Cincinnati strings too lean and thin. His reading  is largely a stop-and-go affair. Dennis Russell Davies has a very slow first movement, but the Andante is too fast. He seems hurried in his phrasing and tends to surge towards the end of a phrase. 

Rozhdestvensky's orchestra has distinctive woodwind and horn timbres, which provides a  passionate Russian feel. The horns do not manage the legato passages too well, but the pizzicato in the basses is so deep and cavernous. His reading is very romantic, with lingering phrases and sentimental rubato. I'd say he speaks Bruckner's language in a Russian accent, which is quite amusing. 

That brings me to my favourite ones for this version. The first recorded effort was made by Eliahu Inbal in Sep 1982 with the RSO Frankfurt. It is a very good and idiomatic reading which can stand the test of time. What an orchestra it is! No wonder Paavo Järvi chose this orchestra to record his Bruckner. Inbal has an excellent rhythmic control, and it is most evident in the dancing rhythms. 

Michael Gielen recorded this 1874 version in Apr 1994 with SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden. The orchestral sonority is transparent and all sections blend well together. The horns are more stringent however. The best thing is he allows the inner alto and tenor sounds to be heard clearly in a chord among the uppermost and the lowermost ones. One example is the bassoon, where in many other recordings or performances has always been drowned by other instruments, but not so for Gielen. This orchestral balance allows the listener to better appreciate the harmonic and melodic beauty of Bruckner's music. He also knows to present the dominant melodic line in a way for us to follow easily, quite unlike those who just play everything in the instrumentation and get nothing more than an inter-sectional quarrel. He is a master Brucknerian at work here. My heart is with him. 

To conclude this long-winded post, Nagano's is a clear winner in these 2 new releases. Young has a task to clean up her orchestral balance and to understand forceful loudness is not sublimity. But at the end of the day, this first version of Bruckner Symphony No. 4 is more a curiosity to me than a lasting joy to return to, compared with the 1878/1880 version which teems with so many wonderful recordings. As far as this version is concerned, Gielen's is the one I'd not part with.

13 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (6) -- Nelson Freire debut concerto recording

Nowadays the term "under-rated" or "under-appreciated" has become nothing more than a cliché, but not so for Nelson Freire. He has my utmost respect.

This recording (22-27 May, 1968 at Burgerbrau, Munich), together with the Tchaikovsky piano concerto no. 1 made around the same time, effectively launched Freire's career to another level. He was not yet 24 at that time. He is now 65. These 2 concertos are among the finest recorded ones I've listened to. I won't say these are the finest because that would be unfair to my favourite ones by Dinu Lipatti, but they are on much the same level of artistic achievements.

Freire's technique is exceptonal, but it only forms the necessary foundation for the layer of subtlety, finesse, poetry and power that steals the heart of many a listener. His technique will never shine through as the only attribute, as keyboard acrobatics, in his artistic interpretations, unlike so many keyboard technicians who have enjoyed star status.

He is best in elusive romantic works.

This Japanese remastering brings out the best sonic fullness and colour so far. I felt lucky that I came across this Japanese local reissue in Tokyo in 2002.

12 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (5) -- Günter Wand's Chicago Brahms First

The happy marriage between Teutonic conducting finesse and American orchestral rigour.

This is a live recording of Wand's American debut, at the fine age of 77, on 19, 20 and 21 January, 1989 at Orchestra Hall, Chicago. When first released, it was an "expensive" disc, featuring only 46 odd minutes of music in Brahms Symphony No. 1 without any coupling. But what music it was! Simply awesome!

The grandeur, gorgeousness and urgency of this symphony has been captured in this performance. It is a telling testament to great Brahms conducting. Clear orchestral balance and colour, with much inner detail heard, is Wand's magic within the Teutonic symphonic palette.

Tension is maintaned all through the entire first movement. Grace decorates the inner movements. The epic finale erupts with immense power, culminating in a grand coda amidst the convincing rhythmic ostinato of the strings. This is the beautiful product from a perfectionist who demanded 11 hours of rehearsal, roughly double the norm, for this performance.

I'm infused with undiluted pleasure every time I listen to this recording again.

11 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (4) -- Instruments of the Orchestra

This is one of my favourite discs, and it has proven its worth in the musical education of my children, and me as well.

Lord Menuhin had a very good voice and his crystal-clear diction provides extra joy and excitement to this excellent disc.

I suppose this CD has been deleted from EMI's catalogue, and it is ridulous that it is currently sold from 39 to 108 British pounds at Amazon UK!

An enlivening path to re-tread (3) - The Young Menuhin

Seldom did I buy compilation discs, especially those with only excerpts, but there must be exceptions, as in all other things in life. This CD is virtually exceptional, in that Lord Menuhin recorded his verbal comments on the excerpts (recorded from 1928 to 1944) in this disc. He recounted his impressions on Kreisler, Heifetz, Sibelius and Bartok, and little anecdotes regarding the recordings reproduced in this CD. It is a cogent historical document, and salute to Biddulph for masterminding this production at the 80th birthday of Lord Menuhin in 1996.

Listening to these recordings today, I was as amazed as I first heard them in 1996, and the linkage of history with all these first-hand reminiscences became so touching. It is  so moving when I remember the famous anecdote that after his debut with the Berlin Phiharmonic performing concertos by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, conducted by Bruno Walter, Albert Einstein embraced him and said, "Now I know there is a God in heaven!" Lord Menuhin was then only 12 years old.

10 November 2009

An enlivening path to re-tread (2) -- Menuhin's Beethoven Ninth

I've always treasured Menuhin's early violin recordings, and I'd try to avoid his later post-war ones which in fact might just tarnish his image as a wonderful musician. His work as a conductor in his late years fared much better. Just imagine the wealth of musical experience he has got since his first appearances as a child prodigy, and coupled with the humanitarian stance he took and you have a musician of the highest order of integrity and musicianship.

At the beginning of the liner notes that were written by him, he stated, "For me the orchestral works of Beethoven represent one of humanity's most sacred Temples. Not only a temple as a place -- as most temples -- one location of a given performance -- but a temple in music's own, unbounded dimensions of time and space."

His commitment to Beethoven's symphonies shines through in this Ninth. Feel the energy, vitality and dedication, and you'll be in the heaven of true musicality. With this kind of musical experience, any flaws in this recording will become negligible, and in fact form an integral and human part of this document in music and life.

An enlivening path to re-tread (1) -- Busch Quartet

Last Sunday I went to my parents' place and took a look at my "archive" of CDs stored there, and picked this one up at once for a rendezvous. It was an enlivening experience, a path to treasure when I stepped upon it again, hence the title.

Which quartet's rendition of the Beethoven quartets, particularly the late ones, would give you more pleasure and marvel in terms of beauty, passion, profundity and nobility? I can't find an answer with my limited experience with both historical and modern recordings. It is an understatement to say that their recordings set a benchmark. It's a magical experience listening to them, which were decorated with magical touches.

04 November 2009

Harp Concertos

Andrew's new companion while reading and studying. He likes the melodious harp music, and the recording is "hi-fi grade".  A shrewd choice.

Inheritance starting to surface

It's been more than a week now, and I'm still smiling to myself. My big muscular son Andrew has been listening to Clara Haskil's CDs while he is reading, and he likes them!

I ordered the Philips Clara Haskil box-set from Amazon UK and had it delivered to Andrew, as this box-set was sold out in HK and in many parts of the world.  I have so many of her CDs already but I like box-sets, especially "complete" ones, so I still want to have this set. It just proves that her music not only moves someone as old as me, but also soothes a young sporty young man like Andrew.

How wonderful.

He will in turn be enticed by Haitink's CSO B7.......................

02 November 2009

Bravo! Maestro Giulini Bravo!

Carlo Maria Giulini, a name often associated with slow and somewhat lacklustre readings if one knows him only by his recordings in his late years, has an inimitable style which can sing and dance in your heart if you know his recordings at the peak of his career. After 1984 when his wife suffered from a stroke and he insisted on travelling not too far away from her (hence his appearance in Europe only), his tempo lengthened and the spark of fire and energy which once so characteristic of him simply slid away.

His recordings with the VPO of the last three Bruckner symphonies on DG are the glorious documents of a true and venerable Brucknerian. The newly issued Bruckner 7th and 8th with BPO by Testament are gems that lovers of this Maestro just can't live without. The VPO 7th is arguably the less successful among the three issued by DG, but this BPO 7th has done more than "redeeming" his fame, it redefines his supremacy.

Listen to his Italian cantabile in Bruckner's melodies and especially in the gesangperiode, and it can melt your heart. The opening cello theme in B7 sang and the strings and woodwinds did the same later. In the great Adagio, I treasure how he maintained a long line and tension in the horns after the climax, providing a sense of solace, and not a sense of anticlimax as in less deft hands. It's all singing and dancing in the Scherzo. The Finale added the jewel to the crown with verve and carried the symphony to a full bloom.


01 November 2009

Gorgeous, Simply Gorgeous, Sound -- HQ-SACD


It comes as a surprise even to myself that I will write something about the sound of a type of classical music recording format, as I've always considered myself to be far from a hi-fi aficionado. My listening gears can at most be considered entry-level hi-fi, but "mid-fi" should be a better description, I reckon. I believe the law of diminishing marginal returns is especially valid in the world of hi-fi gears. These days the price of speakers, amplifiers, frontends and cables is relatively lower than that during the "golden age" of 2-channel hi-fi, i.e. the 1970s to 1990s. The difference between a HK$10k and a HK$50k system will be far more noticeable or obvious than that between a HK$200k and a HK$1 million system, or even between that of a $100k and a HK$500k system, although in each group the price difference is still 5X. I'm fortunate to know a number of hi-fi experts, and most of them agree that the sonic difference between "upper-end" or high-end systems boils down to differences in the listener's taste only, rather than to "fidelity" which even a HK$30k to 50k system can be more than able to reproduce. As I have only limited resources, my system was priced around HK$30k.

Listening to SACDs i can hear the sonic superiority to ordinary CDs. On the other hand, from my limited experience with XRCDs, I think they aren't worth the premium price for a somewhat "richer" sound, and my attitude to SHM-CDs is similar.

I didn't have high hopes on HQ-SACDs initially, thinking that they might just be another marketing gimmick. After listening to them (two of which are pictured above) I was blown away. What gorgeous sound! Exton Asahina Bruckner CDs have very well-recorded sound already, but these HQ-SACDs are miles ahead in sonic supremacy. They are even better than "ordinary" multi-channel SACDs when played in 2-channel. The age of 2-channel hi-fi is back.

P.S. For more information on HQCD, here is the link.