23 February 2010

An enlivening path to re-tread (12) -- Bruckner 7th by Matačić


I have to thank my good friend Savio for reigniting my interest in this CD and for that matter this grossly underrated Brucknerian, Lovro von Matačić. I came back to this B7 recording just because of a conversation with Savio yesterday: he called me asking for my opinion of this recording because he was lately taken to HQ-CD issued by Columbia Japan. Within the first two batches of these HQ-CDs, two Bruckner symphony recordings are included: this one, and B4 by Blomstedt and Staatskapelle Dresden.

I've always had a personal fondness for the Czech PO because of their special strings and woodwinds sonority. Matačić has recorded B5, 7 & 9 with Czech PO, and this B7 is one of the finest on record. The only other conductor who has recorded more Bruckner symphonies with Czech PO is Gerd Albrecht, with B4, 7-8 for Pony Canyon, and B5 & 6 for Exton. However, Matačić's B7 occupies a special position in my heart.

There are many loveable qualities in this recording. The first to strike me is his rhythmic stability and drive, which goes hand in hand with a natural flow of music. That is not to say that his rhythm is welded on rigid steel, far from it, but there exists nice and gentle rubato which leads to the second nicety of prudent expression of passion and ethos. The orchestral playing is first-rate. I'm also amazed at the degree of transparency Matačić brought to his orchestral palette. The details are all clearly audible there. That may have something to do with the Albert Gutmann edition (1885) he used, which contains a little more "ornamentations" in the orchestration compared with the Haas or Nowak editions, but checking with the Nowak study scores just shows that how meticulous Matačić caressed this music, which brings Sinopoli to my mind.

The felicitous orchestral sonority is consistent with that of Czech PO that I love, and here reinforced by the transparent treatment is all the better. The strings are silky albeit without the sheen of those of VPO, but beautiful in a way of itself. The rich basses should attract many hi-fi buffs, particularly the pizzicato of the double basses which sound so springy. The woodwinds, especially the flute here, are lovely.

I was filled with awe that the exposition of the first movement was so full of bass, almost like a bass continuo. The recording belies its age, as around 18'42" the tympani rumble in the background is clearly audible when the theme reappears. The development is treated like chamber music, which is so delightful.

Matačić is excellent in climaxes and transitions. The buildup to the climax in the Adagio is filled with a strong undercurrent that is wave-like. After the climax the serenity is so beautiful and that is also true in the transition from the flute tune supported by bass pizzicato to the horn tune (19'50" - 20'03"). This is here after the climax that creates a special moment in my mind -- it is so Celibidache. I'll come back to that later. The rhythmic energy is strong in the Scherzo but the trio with much warmth. The finale may be the only blemish in the whole diamond with the brass chorales a little raucous, but what musical energy is released in these chorales which are dotted with some nice rallentando!

In the end, when I listened to the whole symphony yet once again, I was telling myself half-jokingly that it is exactly late Celibidache style with a "normalized" tempo, with the transparency, details, dynamic range, buildup to those climaxes and serenity in the slow passages. But wait a minute. As this recording was made in 1967, well before Celibidache developed his unmistakable late style, should I rather say Celi's most-loved style is just Matačić's with a much broadened tempo?  That may bring me much trouble from Celi fans, but it is really fruit for thought. To be fair, what Matačić ultimately lacks, with his more "down to earth" approach, is what Celi does best in providing his listeners with ample space to imagine and search for their own otherworlds -- in a sense the lure of Zen Buddhism.

18 February 2010

Chinese New Year (Year of the Tiger)

Spent the first four days of Chinese New Year in Taipei. The bookshops there are impressive, and there is one which opens 24 hours a day. So it is natural that we spent quite some time in these bookshops. 

Didn't quite manage to buy any classical CDs. I didn't visit any of the specialist classical CD shops suggested by eaquson because of lack of time. Well, I don't mind, as I see it most important to spend some good time with my family on books, food and window shopping. Classical CDs are not the primary aim of this trip.

With the recent release of "Richter in Hungary", it's time I revisited his recordings and the book about him. It was the book by Bruno Mosaingeon that accompanied me on this trip. Reading it again did not change the feeling that it imparted on me when I read it first time round -- an unknown melancholy that permeated my whole body. Not very appropriate for the supposedly joyful atmosphere of the Chinese New Year, but then I like this book and this man and the stories told by him. That's what is really important.

My respected pianist, Fou Ts'ong, will play an all-Chopin programme in a recital in Taipei on 1st March. The poster of this recital is really nice.

This lightbox is at least 10 feet high.
Sorry for the barrel distortion of the lens.

Dining in Taipei is an enjoyable experience for someone like me who is not too demanding. Variety may not be as abundant as in Hong Kong. Food stalls in the streets remain an important attraction to tourists, but I'd like to say we have to be quite selective in choosing the type of food from them. I like plain food, and thus many of these local delicacies prove to be too exotic or salty for my taste.

The sausage is quite nice, but we all couldn't finish the cups of noodles.

One of the most famous dumplings restaurants in Taiwan. 
Being able to get a table is like some kind of a blessing. Must try.

We didn't miss the chance and had a feast.

 "High tea" within the 101 building. 
Recharge the tiring legs.

All in all, a pleasant sojourn in Taipei.

12 February 2010

An unexpected enrichment of Sviatoslav Richter's discography

Sviatoslav Richter is a pianist I really adore, and yet he is also a pianist whose art many  may find it difficult to characterise.

I remember very fondly what Artur Rubinstein commented after hearing Richter for the first time, "It really wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Then at some point I noticed my eyes growing moist: tears began rolling down my cheeks..."

I reckon that it is an inevitable paradox on Richter. While his art embraces many strong pianistic attributes, it is precisely the lack of easy characterisation into a certain category that can best summarise his art. For example, some pianists can be characterised or labelled as keyboard acrobats, some as virtuosos, some as poets, or some as iconoclasts. But when you think about it, Richter is none of these but at the time he is all of these. It appears that he can transcend all these descriptions to a higher level where truths are palpably near, or to a deeper level where the heart is touched, be it tenderly or painfully. 

Writing something on the vast discography of Sviatoslav Richter is a daunting task, to say the least of it. The number of Richter's concert appearances is enormous: about 70 per annum from 1960 till 1989. That means, if each concert has been recorded, we can expect to run into more than 2000 concert recordings! This hasn't included his concerts before he began to perform in the West. (P.S. According to Bruno Mosaingeon's chronology, Richter gave 3590 concerts between his first and last recitals.)

Now more than a dozen years after Richter's passing away, when we admirers begin to resign ourselves to the possibility that the best part of his recorded legacy must have already all surfaced, given the numerous CDs issued in the past couples of decades, we are informed of yet another box-set containing many hitherto unissued live recordings. A 14-CD set called "Richter in Hungary" issued officially by the Hungarian Radio Station will soon grace our CD players.

Just before the Chinese New Year, this box-set at last reached my hands. Pictures below:

Apart from the official sources and the time span of 39 years (from 1954 to 1993), mention has to be made that this set includes at this moment the oldest published Richter recording of Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 (on 26 March 1954), and most of the contents have never been issued on CD. I've quickly sampled those pieces previously issued by other companies and compared the sound, and the result shows the new box-set a clear winner.

Previously issued material includes:

1) CD3 tr 01-05 in "Sviatoslav Richter in Budapest" (WHRA-6023): Although this CD sounds OK, the new issue from Hungarian Radio sources has better ambience, body and clarity.

2) CD3 tr 06 in Doremi Vol. 15 (DHR-7940/1).

3) CD3 tr 07-13 in Doremi Vol. 18 (DHR-7959).

4) CD7 tr 01-02 in Doremi Vol. 17 (DHR-7954).

5) CD7 tr 06-18 in Pyramid 13507: The Pyramid disc has a warmer sound and an apparently richer bass but the new issue is more balanced over the full range, with better ambience and crispness in the treble and mid-range, and makes the music sound more urgent. The Pyramid filters out the audience noise and by doing this it also cuts out the liveliness of the music.

6) CD10 tr 01-10 in Doremi Vol. 6 (DHR-7766): Again the new set gives you the impression that the thin veil covering the sound in the Doremi disc has been removed. It sounds fresher and more immediate.

One minor error in the track listing occurs in CD10 track 12 where it is wrongly attributed to Chopin Waltz in G-flat major, op. 70/1, which in fact should be Waltz in D flat major, op. 70/3. I was filled with expectations when I read the track listing because if the former is correct, it would have been a brand new addition to Richter's repertoire. Well, life is  usually adamant in not giving out surprises when you are most desperate for them. 

Here are the pictures of the CDs mentioned above:




The Debussy Preludes Book II on Pyramid needs to be compared with that in the new set. Trovar.com listed it as a 1967 Budapest performance, but the CD listed it as a 1968 Prague performance. However according to the programmes record, the two Chopin pieces on the Pyramid CD were not performed in Prague in August 1968 but in Budapest in 1967, although both recitals featured the same Debussy Preludes.  Maybe comparing with the CD in the new set will solve this query.


Both sonically and artistically this set is an excellent enrichment of the Richter discography.  Richter fans will need no introduction to it. Those who would like to experience the lure of Richter can certainly derive much pleasure from listening to this awesome set. I'm sure it is an invaluable addition to the Richter discography, however overcrowded it's already been. 

With the release of this set, it will be harder to get away from Richter for a fairly long time. But then, who really wants to?

09 February 2010

Memories of the late Sviatoslav Richter (2)

In the first post on memories of the late Sviatoslav Richter, I didn't post the pictures of some CDs of certain labels in my collection. I'll try to include them now. Why now? As a preparation for the new Richter in Hungary 14-CD box-set, I have to take out some discs in my collection for comparison purposes, as a small part of the material in the new box-set has been issued by other companies.

Here are those from Music & Arts, apparently most, if not all, of them have been out of print or withdrawn. 

06 February 2010

Brahms Symphonies from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

I've bought the new Simon Rattle Brahms symphonies set for quite some time. When I was listening to these records, the thoughts of all the previous chief conductors, or whatever they were called, naturally floated into my mind. Brahms symphonies have an introverted passion 'hidden' underneath the meticulous contrapuntal structures, and it is this passion or pathos, when expressed prudently in an interpretation, that will win my heart for that performance or recording.

Quite a few notes of my listening experience have been made, and when I have time I'll weave them into a readable post. Below is the picture of my basic frame of reference. A CD of Karajan's 1960s Brahms 2nd and 3rd, his Brahms 1st on Testament, and many other Furtwängler recordings (which I believe I have collected almost all for the major works) are not shown, as they were not on hand when the scan was made. I suppose all the commercial BPO Brahms cycles are included here: Furtwängler's (sort of, as the 1st is with VPO), Eugen Jochum's, Kempe's, Karajan's x3, Abbado's, Harnoncourt's and finally Rattle's.

P.S. Oh how can I forget? Celibidache's Brahms 4th in his fiery years is also a recording for one to sample, particularly as a comparison with his recordings in his autumnal years  (albeit with other orchestras) to show the evolution, or should I say revolution, of his style, which is nothing short of shocking.