30 January 2010

Exciting New Releases

Following the excellent first box-set of Günter Wand and the DSO, a second set is coming soon. It will include Beethoven 5th, Bruckner 6th & 8th, Mozart KV550, Stravinsky Firebird and others. After what was really a surprise from the first set, this second set will be very much eagerly awaited by me.

Another live recording which will be issued, so I heard, is Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in Bruckner 8th. It might just be the concerts he was asked at short notice to stand in for the ailing Fabio Luisi, on 13-15 September, 2009. If it is not the case, the last time he conducted this orchestra was in 2003. Another recording to look out for. He is still using the Haas edition of B8, quite rare among "young" conductors these days.

This year being the 200th birth year of Chopin, many new releases and also old commemorative re-issues will appear sooner or later. We will be spoilt, if not overwhelmed, with choices. It will also be a year when pianists will face the harsh reality of survival of the fittest.

Mary Wang introduced to me this beautiful cover art of a DG compilation disc.

It was designed by Olaf Hajek.

21 January 2010

Bruckner Eighth with Haitink -- An Interesting Evolution

Bernard Haitink has 5 commercial releases of Bruckner 8th up till the end of 2009. There are some  more "pirate" releases of mainly radio broadcasts of his performances, but as you may have already noticed from my previous posts, I don't really care much about these recordings as their authenticity can never be certain or even ascertained.

Sep 1969

May 1981

Jan 1995

3 Dec 2002 (live recording)

18 & 20 Feb 2005 (live recording)

Listening to these B8s by Haitink in chronological order is an interesting and edifying experience, in that we can compare (1) his interpretative styles in different phases of his conducting career, (2) the different orchestral sonority of 3 important European orchestras in a Bruckner symphony, and (3) the different acoustics of 3 important European concert houses.

Who else can you think of has existing recordings which spanned some 40 years? Well, an easy one that comes to mind is Karajan, with his first B8 recorded during WWII in 1944, albeit with only the last 3 movements remaining, and his last in 1988. Other examples are Eugen Jochum who recorded B5 first in June 1938 and whose last live recording was in December 1986, and Karl Böhm who had his first and last recordings of B4 in June 1936 and November 1973 respectively.

However, although the last movement of Karajan's 1944 B8 recording is amazingly in stereo on tapes, the recording technology has advanced fundamentally from 1944 to the late 1980s, and as such the sound quality cannot be compared on a fair basis. This is more true for the case of Jochum and Böhm, whose first recordings were on 78s with a much inferior sound quality. Not so for Haitink. From his first in 1969 to his lastest in 2005, notwithstanding the fact that we have witnessed a significant change from analogue to digital technologies (some would even say a step backwards), the sound quality does not differ to a very significant degree, particularly for a non-hi-fi buff like me.

Haitink first recorded B8 at the age of 40, in 1969. He adopted a brisk tempo, much more so than his later re-makes, and the whole symphony lasts more than 10 minutes shorter than his later ones. This sort of tempo is reminiscent of van Beinum. The flow of music is smooth and the analogue sound is warm.

When he recorded B8 again in 1981, his vision of B8 had changed a lot, particularly in the tempo he adopted. The basic attributes of Haitink are still very much evident there: musical flow is always natural and smooth and not mannered, the different climaxes in a movement are "terraced" with peaks getting higher and higher, the deft treatment of transitions, and a non-threatening overall atmosphere, almost to the point of being cosy. But this B8 is much more than just a broader tempo. It is played with conviction, and the music is filled with emotions and pathos, which are expressed especially by the woodwinds.

The VPO recording in 1995 is undermined by a slightly distant sound picture. The strings are not as convincing as for Karajan's or Giulini's recordings with this same orchestra. The sound is somewhat muddled at times. The pauses are longer. Infused with a sense of emotional detachment, this reading conveys 80+ minutes of beautiful but bland music.

The 2002 live recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden is the latest one issued. It was released later than the 2005 RCO live recording. When the music begins, you are immediately bathed in glorious sound in a gorgeous acoustic. The strings, woodwinds and brass are simply spellbinding. The playing makes this Bruckner Eighth almost aristocratic, with traces of sadness and anger palpable beneath the surface. My attention is drawn not so much to the death clock at the end of the first movement than to the woodwinds just before that. It is the last cry of life before the eventual death. In every one of these 5 recordings, this coda is never haunting, and it is as if Haitink has ensured a dignified death, which is all the more moving.

The 2005 RCO recording is issued in the SACD/CD hybrid format, and the sound is justifiably excellent. Here Haitink's vision has once again changed, to a mellower vintage interpretation. The whole symphony has a sense of grace which I'm afraid no other conductors would match in this aspect. It is like a wise old man retelling his life story with tranquility and grace. This may not be to everyone's liking, but after experiencing many overtly emotional or even hysterical B8s, I have found Haitink's reading a haven of repose. It also shows that Bruckner's symphonies can stand not only the test of time, but also the trials and tribulations of different human emotions however hidden in the recesses of the mind.