25 December 2010

Meryy Christmas and Happy New Year to You All

During this festive season, may I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a healthy, peaceful and fruitful New Year.

P.S. And of course happy listening.

26 November 2010

Lorin Maazel, the as-of-yet equivocal Brucknerian

The recently released Bruckner cycle by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra adds more substance to our understanding of Lorin Maazel as a Brucknerian. His first Bruckner recording was way back in 1974 (Vienna Philharmonic, the Fifth), a strange performance, and it was followed in the 1980's with the Seventh and the Eighth (Berlin Philharmonic), again very idiosyncratic ones.

His approach to Bruckner has fundamentally changed based on the comparison of these 3 symphonies with the "new" set recorded in 1999. Such drastic changes are seldom seen in Brucknerians, albeit with the exception of Celibidache in his late years. Even Celibidache had changes which can be expected to run through all, or at least the late, symphonies in a global sense, but Maazel had changes which were just equivocal and segmental.

Maybe just because of his revolutionalized (as far as his own is concerned) approach that this new set is interesting in itself. More later...

21 November 2010

More on Takashi Asahina (朝比奈 隆)

I have to say that the "yield rate" of truly outstanding performances among Asahina's numerous Bruckner recordings is relatively low. However, it is not to say that his Bruckner is mediocre. In fact his Bruckner has invariably been, with few exceptions, able to impress. I have attended only one of his Bruckner concerts, in Osaka in Februrary 2001, ten months before his death. This Bruckner's 8th was a very good performance, but it ultimately lacked the kind of incandescence and inevitability of Wand. To be fair, it was much better than many Bruckner concerts that I've attended, however.

What is unique about his Bruckner is the high degree of transparency despite a sound picture with emphasis on the basses. Small details in the score will thus be revealed to the attentive listener. Here he bears a not too remote resemblance to Celibidache. He is able to sustain long lines with a generally broad tempo, but I was rather disturbed by his sometimes hurried and seemingly impatient phrases within a part of a movement.

Among his recordings (I suspect that I've collected all), Bruckner's 5th and 8th were considered his specialties in Japan, and I tend to agree. His Bruckner's 4th and 7th were not particularly brilliant, at least when compared with those venerable Brucknerian giants. His Bruckner's 9th is sort of a special case. 

In general, his recordings can be more easily classified according to the record label. The Jean-Jean set shows a budding Brucknerian in a provincial orchestra, the Osaka Philharmonic founded by Asahina in 1947 when it was first known as the Kansai Symphony Orchestra and later changed to the present name in 1960. The JVC set involves many different orchestras and shows signs of improvement. The full Pony Canyon set featuring the Osaka Philharmonic recorded in the 1990's reaches the peak of his Bruckner performances with some prime recommendations among his huge discography. There is also a partial set issued by Pony Canyon (with Tokyo Symphony Orchestra) but it does not surpass the full set. Fontec issued different series of his cooperation with mainly three orchestras: New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Metropolitan SO and NHK SO. The 3 discs with NHK SO show very focused playing with excellent ensemble and acoustics. The discs with the other 2 orchestras are OK, but there is one excellent 7th with TMSO. Exton presents live recordings of his Osaka Philharmonic concerts in the last years of his life, with generally gorgeous sound, but regrettably also shows his art in decline.

Here are my comments on individual symphonies:
4th: Not his strong point. Either NHKSO (2000, Fontec) or Osaka PO (2000, Exton) is good if you want to hear his Bruckner's 4th.

5th: His Osaka PO performance for his 90th birthyear (1998, Mainichi) is a memorable experience. Another good one is with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (1995, Pony Canyon) in the small boxset.

7th: Many Japanese critics were very enthusiastic about the concert at St. Florian in 1975 (JVC single disc) with the church bell unexpectedly sounding right after the Adagio. There is a spiritual quality to this performance but the playing is not tiptop in his case. A surprisingly nice recording is the one with Tokyo Metropolitan (2001, Fontec), with very natural flow and smooth sonority.

8th: Asahina has always used the Haas edition. Some may prefer his last recording (July 2001, Exton), but I'm concerned with some clumsiness here and there, and at times the Adagio even sounds somewhat stolid. The earlier performance that year (Feb 2001, Exton) is better. It was recorded in Nagoya three days after the concert I attended in Osaka. The pianissimo was exquisite and the long lines were held solidly. The NHKSO disc (1997, Fontec) is good in its own right. But if I have to choose only one disc to represent Asahina's Bruckner, it'd be the 1994 recording with "his" orchestra, the Osaka Philharmonic (Pony Canyon). It show him in his best light, in the prime of his Bruckner career.

9th: Again the 1995 Pony Canyon (Osaka PO) is preferred among his many recordings, an expressive yet not oversentimentalized interpretation. His very last Bruckner recording on Exton can only be recommended for sentimental reasons, it being let down by what I'd call a "disjointed poignancy".

People of course will differ in their opinion, and so I welcome comments from you.

20 November 2010

The hard-working Brucknerian from the Far East -- Takashi Asahina

Takashi Asahina was the most officially-recorded Brucknerian. He enjoyed a cult status in Japan. His credential in Bruckner conducting was recognized in the West only a decade or so before his death at the age of 93 in December 2001, through his guest conducting appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was much praised by the President of the Chicago SO, Henry Fogel.

I first encountered his Bruckner CDs when I went to Japan in the early 1990's. I was curious that one single conductor could have so many different versions of Bruckner's symphonies issued, and so I bought one and tried. It could be sensed that he was a Brucknerian with heart. The orchetral palette sounded very Teutonic, and there was a delicate balance within and between movements in terms of tempo and phrasings. And so began my long journey of collecting his CDs, which has been really arduous, to say the least of it. 

Here is my collection, arranged by record labels and roughly in chronological order, so far:

10 November 2010

The Magic Wand strikes again, in Bruckner Eighth

Günter Wand has been dubbed the "Magic Wand" as far as Bruckner is concerned. In his late years, tickets for his concerts were much sought after. I was lucky to attend his concerts playing the last 3 symphonies of Bruckner, two in Edinburgh and one in Japan.

Altus, for the 10-year anniversary of its label, has just released his concert of Bruckner 8th during his Japanese tour in 1990, his penultimate appearance in Japan before his final concerts there in 2000. I just envy the audience in that concert. This 8th has a magical touch. All Wand's positive attributes are there. I'd say it is the most memorable among all nine Wand's Bruckner 8th recordings that I possess.

Wand's working style in Bruckner is well documented by reviewers and journalists. Wand described his mission in Bruckner, "When I conduct Bruckner, I want to show that he is a great symphonist and not just a composer characterized by solemnly sacred moods; I simply want to perform the music as Bruckner intended it." (quoted from his biography).

If I'm asked to choose only one of his characteristics to describe his art in Bruckner, I'd say "unflagging tension". His Bruckner never sags in tension, vigour or fervour. It is all done with a nice balance: his music never sounds hard-driven, and no sudden accelerando or ritardando are employed within a theme or section. Change of basic tempo between themes is usually marked with a slight pause to enable a clear perception of the juxtaposition of blocks of sounds rather than a fading-out and fading-in between thematic groups (in contrast to Haitink here). The tension is maintained simultaneously by a taut but polished rhythmic control, and by clarity and transparency in harmonic consonance. This delicate balance between the verical and horizontal aspects of music is almost inimitable in Wand's case. Celibidache can also muster such a balance, but at the expense of a general slow pulse. He just has that uncanny ability to draw the audience's or listener's attention from the very beginning.

Wand was very meticulous, or even fastidious, about rehearsals and performances. This meticulousness is particularly suited to Bruckner's symphonies, as Bruckner himself was also very meticulous about his composition. While some may criticise Wand's Bruckner as too "straightforward" or "literal", I would disagree. Compared with other lesser Brucknerians who only dwell on the "mood" of the music, or are too eager to present the "blocks of sound", resulting in a transformation of Bruckner's music into a form of protracted blues or unplugged heavy metal respectively, Wand is the quintessence of the masters in conducting.

Of the nine recordings pictured above, I'd take the latest one issued (Altus ALT198/8, 3 Nov 1990, Suntory Hall, Tokyo) if I'm allowed to choose only one. While the Berlin version exhibits excellent ensemble and orchestral sound which are highly likeable, I've always missed that little something that was present in Wand's other versions, be it NDRSO or Munich Philharmonic. It is what I'd call a "trace of anguished embitterment", particularly in the Adagio, that left a memorable aftertaste, and this is all the more evident in this 1990 performance. Listen to the long ascent to the climax in the Adagio (from m. 185; 16'43") and also the few measures before this transition, and my heart was subjugated. By the way if the violins are divided (e.g. as in Sinopoli's recording), it would be even nicer, for the second violins carry the melody while the first violins bring out the counterpoints, and a divided desk will highlight this orchestral masterstroke.

A truly memorable performance and recording.

08 November 2010

New picture added

A new picture was added to "My Celibidache collection many years on". It shows the new Altus CDs on his tours in Japan in 1986 and 1990.

07 November 2010

Blomstedt's new Bruckner 5th

I just couldn't wait to open the CD and slotted it into my car audio system when I journeyed back home. The initial impression was very very impressive. The orchestral sonority was excellent and the recording captured the warm and suitably reverberant acoustics of the hall. The introduction was on the slow side. Nuances were everywhere for you to hear and savour. I need some more time to take in the performance, which was not in the distant past: it was recorded in May 2010.

More later.

02 November 2010

In anticipation

An eagerly awaited CD, Blomstedt's new Bruckner Fifth, arrived today at long last. Coming with it is Tennstedt's Bruckner Eighth with LPO in the format of HQCD from EMI Japan, very reasonably priced at 1200 yen.

I'm still waiting for Gunter Wand's Bruckner Eighth with NDR during his Japan tour, on Altus. And a couple more on the BR label. Bruckner cycles are not things that come along every day, or every year for that matter. Now one is coming and it is a commercial release of Maazel's cycle with BRSO. Although he is not one of those conductors that I particularly savour, a new Bruckner cycle is still something to look forward to.

24 October 2010

A long overdue accolade to a scantily recorded Brucknerian -- Klaus Tennstedt

Klaus Tennstedt may not be the first few Brucknerians to come to mind when Brucknerites think of notable conductors of Bruckner's symphonies, but nevertheless he has always occupied a secured place in my Hall of Fame.  He may be more well known for his Mahler recordings, because his recordings of Bruckner symphonies numbered only 2 not too long ago. Thanks to several small companies, live recordings of his Bruckner concerts surfaced one by one in the last ten years or so. Even so, we only have 9 official Bruckner recordings of his by now, including the 2 EMI studio ones.

I'd say he is one of those conductors truly exemplary of the Austro-German school. He could hone a very Teutonic sound palette from not only German orchestras, but also his London Philharmonic Orchestra. He conveyed the full range of human emotions, but he never overdid them in his interpretation. As a result, his performances, especially live ones, are invariably moving. I have been more than once moved to the verge of tears listening to his recordings, not by a sense of sorrow per se, but rather by the vivid encounter of deep profound human feelings and emotions laid bare by his music making: the fire of passion can incinerate you, the fruit of merriness can intoxicate you, and the solemnity and religiosity can dwarf you because of kneeling.  If the life cycle of the universe can span many millennia through its quiet and fiery moments, Tennstedt can compress, in a sense, millennia of time comprising different moments of the universe neatly and convincingly in the four movements of a Bruckner symphony, and it testifies fully and painfully the immortality of Bruckner's music. I may have stretched the analogy too far, but this is just how I naively feel.

The 3rd.

The 4ths

The 7th

The 8ths

Hats off to Maestro.

05 August 2010

Christian Thielemann -- The very reason why the passion for Bruckner's music is still thriving

A short preliminary note.

It is strange. So much anticipation. And now so much relief and satisfaction.

Thielemann has only 2 commercial releases of Bruckner symphonies on CD and 1 on DVD so far, covering barely the 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th.

The most recent CD on the 8th becomes an immediate member in my small group of "indispensables".

More later.

18 July 2010

Christian Thielemann's Bruckner 4th and 7th on DVD

I watched this DVD back in April. I even extracted the sound track for playing in an ordinary CD player. I was amazed. Thielemann remains almost the only one to have a distinct sound palette for Bruckner these days. I was too busy to write anything about it until now.

The orchestra sings with a sexy, deep voice. There is ample resonance of the basses, I don't mean just the double basses but the bass part of the vocal quartet, if Bruckner's  orchestration is thought of as such.  In a sense his sound picture places an emphasis on the bass-baritone part of the vocal palette whereas other orchestras, especially American ones, tend to go for the alto, or even soprano, part.

He favoured a slow tempo, but nothing like Celibidache. Whereas the latter usually evokes a vision of the otherworld, Thielemann convinces me with a sense of seriousness and dutifulness, and deep passions and emotions are not overtly displayed but nicely and thinly covered by the symphonic scaffolding.

This should not be missed. 

20 April 2010

Neeme Järvi and Bruckner 5th

This disc came as a total surprise. To be honest, when I came across it, I had just finished listening to another very nice Bruckner 5th by Janowski, and my desire of acquiring this one was its sheer cheapness (mid-price for an SACD), or maybe a little of curiosity.

For all his experience and credentials as an eminent conductor, Neeme Järvi has recorded Bruckner symphony only once, the 8th. It did not leave a special impression on me, and in fact mine is pretty dim now.

I had waited for a couple of weeks after getting this CD before playing it because I thought I'd had too much of Bruckner 5th recently and needed a "washout" period.

When I listened to it the other day, I was amused. The introduction in the first movement is a little brisk, but as the movement unfolds, it is quite obvious that both the conductor and orchestra enjoy the playing very much. I'd say Järvi the fathter is wearing his heart on his sleeves here. Then comes the Adagio. Oh is it really an adagio? Does it not sound more like an andante? It must be the shortest Adagio of Bruckner Symphony No. 5 in recorded history, clocking in at a little more than 11 minutes. That is less than half of Celibidache's timing. But the wonderful thing is however brisk it is, it never sounds headlong or overdriven. I can immediately sense that someone must frown on this treatment, as all the anguish, uncertainties and sufferings in this "great" Adagio has been replaced by a simple pulse of happiness. It's never occurred to me that this Bruckner Adagio can sound so joyful. This symphony has been transformed by Järvi from a "complicated" experiencing, questioning, and then affirmation of faith to a simple hymn to God, a singing of joy. How wonderful!

The recording sound is excellent. The mellow orchestral palette goes very well with the happy mood throughout. 

Life is really full of surprises. And this CD proves it once more. It may just be an acquired taste, however.

P.S.(23 Apr) Although his tempo is fast, you don't feel that it is fast. Instead it only feels lively. His basic pulse is stable and doesn't wander around like some other conductors who adopted a brisk tempo. This stability and consistency can be appreciated when different themes of the first three movements recur in the Finale, and their tempo is virtually the same as when they first appear in their respective movements. Thus the tempo for the theme from the Adagio is faster than that of the theme from the opening movement, which is so amusing. It makes you rethink.


14 April 2010

Part of the log of a morning with a good mix of ......

I've never written anything directly related to my profession, but today is a little different. My professional clients (I've never accepted calling them cases -- it is so inhuman to do so) this morning provided a good mix of the spectrum of feelings that they evoked in me, and it became natural that I made a little log of them.

AA is a 45-year-old lady who first came to see me in February. Hypertension was diagnosed 5 years ago and she was treated with medication with fair control of BP. In the recent 2 years, her doctors stepped up her medication in view of worsening control. When I saw her she was on 4  kinds of antihypertensive pills. She consulted another doctor because of some side-effects of the pills and she stopped taking some of them. Her BP was disturbingly raised, up to 200/108. I explained to her the management plan: adequate control of her BP, assessment of any end-organ damage, and exploration of any secondary causes. Blood and urine tests were normal but USS kidneys showed a discrepancy in their sizes, one being 2.1 cm larger than the other. MRA for renal arteries was suggested but she'd like to consider. Her BP was quite well controlled at around 130/82 in subsequent visits after I changed some of her medications, and she agreed to MRI adrenals + MRA renal arteries after she couldn't get it done free from her past medical carer. Today the results came back and fibromuscular dysplasia is highly suggestive. I'm pleased to have found a treatable cause for her hypertension and also grateful for her trust in me. What is most important in the end is that I can help her. Not at all a bad beginning to a busy morning.

Then came CC who is by now 19. He is autistic with some behavioral problems a few years back. He was brought in by his father and a domestic helper. I first saw him when he was 9. I've always had empathy to his parents. They have gone through so much hardship and pains to raise him. The long necklace with many attached charms of religious purposes worn by CC just shows how desperate his parents are in their attempt to bring peace of mind to him. Empathy is essential in our profession, but sometimes strong empathy will require a long and difficult disengagement after the consultation to bring us back to our previous self. 

A big contrast followed. DD is now 23. I remember the shy innocent girl of 9 when I first saw her. She finished her university studies in the UK, and is now working as a professional in an international firm. Without realising how much time has passed, I now find before me a pleasant educated young woman. I feel happy for her parents. Life is full of contrasts, but the grim determination of parents to make sure that their children are safe and sound never changes. I thank my parents, wholeheartedly.

12 April 2010

If you are left with only one choice......

The other day I was asked a very difficult question. "If you're left with only one recording for each Bruckner symphony, what would you choose?" No matter how many versions there are for a particular symphony, just one symphony one choice, i.e. a total of 11 picks.

In the past I usually made do with a number of "favourites" for each version of each symphony, but this time it's different. It is ironic that if one has many choices one will usually find it harder to choose. Sometimes a Hobson's choice may turn out to be not a bad thing.

Well, I reckon that my choices will not be based solely on their artistic value at the end of the day. Other factors sometimes become more important, like emotional values or memorable experience or events associated with a certain recording or CD.

But I really need time to make the choices. I've at one time asked myself, "Why force yourself to do such a foolish thing?" Yes, I don't have to, but I can take it as a mental challenge. Life is strange, isn't it?

It's taken me three good days and I haven't even reached the halfway point.

28 March 2010

My Celibidache collection many years on

When I started to collect Celibidache's sound and video recordings many years ago, the official EMI and DG releases were unheard of, and was plain wishful thinking at that time. This is a journey full of frustrations and joy, sometimes all mixed together in one go. It all started with those releases from minor pirate labels here and there, and then came the plethora of CDs of his Munich concerts from what we somewhat affectionately called the "violet" and "green" discs (from Meteor and Audior respectively) among our circle of Celi fans. That was a joyful period for our ears but painful for our pockets, for these CDs didn't come in cheap.

The classical music world was then taken by storm with the announcement of official releases from EMI of his Munich recordings. It was a time of great expectations. Not long after that DG stepped in with a view to share the pie. The initial project target was almost too good to be true: to release all Celi's recordings held in radio or concert hall archives. But it was doomed as sales volume dropped when more and more box-sets were issued. We thought we would have no more of new releases.

Not until 2008 did we see a resurrection of this project masterminded by Celi's son. It was the very important box-set from Orfeo of Celi's brief Cologne period. I'd say it shows Celi's rite of passage to his future artistic aspirations and cult status.

Let's see the pictures arranged in roughly chronological order of Celi's career.

 Recordings of his years leading the Berlin Philharmonic issued by Tahra

His studio recordings: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 and Nutcracker Suite (LPO/Decca), Prokofiev Classical Symphony,  Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Siegried Borries (BPO/EMI) and Brahms Violin Concerto with Ida Haendel (LSO/EMI). These CDs are Japanese releases.

An important document of a brief period. I like these CDs very much.

The Fonit Cetra set of his Italian years.

This Celi recording is also included in the DG set.

The rather ill-fated DG releases.

The age of pirates.

The international version.

My treasured collection of the Japanese limited edition.
Believe it or not, the CDs have better sound than the international release.

The new releases from Altus for his tours in Japan.

The video products:

(Not included are  a few DVDs. A new pictures was added on 8 Nov 2010.)

An almost guilty pleasure, I have to admit.