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.

27 March 2010

Marek Janowski -- a Brucknerian name to conjure with

Marek Janowski, of Polish descent, is a conductor with extensive training and experience in Germany. The mention of his name to experienced classical music buffs will usually make them recall his Wagner Ring cycle recorded in Dresden. His credentials as a Brucknerian, however, have yet to establish, given the sparsity of his Bruckner recordings: the 4th and 6th before his recent 6th, 9th and now 5th. But what expectations they create in the mind of this humble listener!

This new B5 is rather special in my listening experience -- the more I listen to it, the more I like it. When I first listened to it on 19 Mar, my impressions were just lukewarm. I said to myself, "Nothing special, just yet another B5." But when I returned to it a couple of days later, albeit in movements, my fondness for it increased. Finally I set aside another 70+ minutes and listened to it once more on 23 Mar, my appreciation peaked. It is not the usual epic or monumental interpretation that some people cry for, but rather it is infused with a rare sense of calmness.

This CD is well-recorded at least in stereo as I'm a cave-man in multichannel surround. The sonority of the orchestra is not that of French orchestras that we're used to in the past. It just shows that modern orchestras are becoming more and more alike, and unfortunately in this regard, have become faceless. But here I can still discern some minor "characteristics" of the sonority of this orchestra.

I've always taken the first few minutes of B5 as very important in my overall impression and appreciation of this symphony. The pizzicato of the cellos and double basses, and the sustained notes in the upper strings in the opening can give me an idea of the string sound, the captured acoustics of the venue, and the overall recording sound as well. The orchestral palette is shown a little further on from bar 15 when the first fortissimo tutti begins, then only the brass section from bars 19-21, and then only the trumpets in bar 26. Here in the first tutti, the tubas of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande stand out, a lovely touch that I quite like. The overall brass section and in particular the trumpets are so rounded, warm and polite. Even Celi's Munich brass sound more strident in comparison. In bar 31 where Bewegt is marked, a sudden change of gear to a good allegro is made by Janowski, quite out of expectation, but it never sounds forced. So in just 30 bars, I can anticipate what the grand chorale at the end of the symphony will be like, and Janowski here gives me quite a great expectation. This pre-taste, however, may not work in the hands of the "old-styled" Brucknerians like Eugen Jochum who would employ the extra "11 Apostles" to add to the brass section in the final chorale. The woodwinds are beautiful and Janowski has ensured that their dialogue is transparent and lovely.

The musical flow is smooth. The tempo control is not rigid but flexible yet not loose. If I have to use just one word to describe my impression it is "integration". The all 4 movements are made to sound as integral parts of the whole symphony, and the overall effect under Janowski's treatment is a natural and solemn calmness, even in the Adagio where suffering and anger are often very enthusiastically portrayed by other conductors, like in the recording by Benjamin Zander. You can say that Janowski is too subdued, underpowered or even bland here. But I'd say calmness is different from impersonal blandness. Even so, those who want excitement and grandeur and what not in B5 are forewarned here -- Janowski's reading may simply be not your cup of tea.

At the end of the day, I'm happy and grateful that I can get to know so many lovely but different renditions of B5 in my experience, and it all boils down to the magical fact that Bruckner's music can transcend so many different, some even polarised, interpretations and still remains dear to the listener's heart. Thank you Professor Bruckner.

20 March 2010

Chopin Year -- The Best Kept Secrets in Germany -- Just

Any classical music lover will know that in this Chopin Year (200th anniversary), new and old Chopin recordings will abound. Who wouldn't make business with the slightest excuse? It's almost like St. Valentine's Day. But does anyone, or at least the recording companies, pay much attention to the fact that 2010 is also the 200th birth-year of Robert Schumann? If you prefer round numbers, it is also the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the birth of Stravinsky and Mahler respectively.

So much for numbers. 

Chopin box-sets and sales will be taken for granted, but even if there are copious choices, we still have to make them. I opt for the box-set from the Eloquence series in Germany. It is a generous box, to say the least of it. It is not the usual box-set that once you've taken a glimpse of the detailed listing of pianists playing the works you'll put it back to the shelf of the shop. Here you can almost have all the top recordings for each particular work, of course among Universal artists and recordings only. I say almost because for example the Nocturnes are played by Barenboim, at least not my first choice. It is unusual to see in a Chopin box-set the first Piano Concerto being played by Arrau, and the second by Pogorelich, and the Preludes by Argerich, etc.

Then the Chopin disc by Olga Scheps, which is on sale only in Germany and not even in the UK or Japan. She has fine pianistic attributes beneath her pretty-looking face. Her touch is exquisite and she dares to take risks too. Not at all a boring debut Chopin disc.

I can envisage that I'll have many evenings bathed in the romanticism of Chopin.

16 March 2010

An enlivening path to re-tread (13) -- Karel Šejna's Dvořák Slavonic Dances

This is a much-treasured item in my collection. I have a soft spot for Czech classical music, be it related to composers, conductors or orchestras alike.

If I have to name only one best kept secret in the Czech classical scene, I'd unhesitantly vote for Karel Šejna. This recording of  Dvořák Slavonic Dances is the quintessential example of Czech classical music in its best. Rhythmic vitality, so important in these dances, and a natural sense of joy in the music making are very much evident here.  Even the great Talich is tamer here.

Experience it yourself if you come across this disc. I'm pretty sure that you won't regret it.

14 March 2010

Philippe Herreweghe and Roger Norrington the Brucknerians

At last I could squeeze some time to listen to Herreweghe's Bruckner 7th again (Sorry eaquson I take so long to do it). I add Norrington's to the party as both are supposedly HIP oriented. There are important differences however. Herreweghe used period instruments while Norrington's orchestra is a modern force. Only their performance styles are similar, but on face value only I have to say.

My immediate and unfortunately also the only feeling of Norrington's reading is "fast". Just because he employs such a fast tempo for the first theme in the opening movement that when the second theme arrives, he has to speed up and it becomes so brisk that the music becomes unconvincing and not engaging at all. His insistence on shunning vibrato and predilection for "pure tone" makes the end of each phase sound so abrupt and blunt. It is rather like human speech, which can sound blunt and impolite if the end of the sentence is articulated short and abrupt. This is not helped by his use of modern instruments with metallic strings, which just pronounced the effect.

Herreweghe is different. He breathes life into each phrase. Compare the relative tempo he uses for the first and second themes in the first movement and you can sense his good judgement even when his overall tempo is on the brisk side.  His phrasing is beautiful with lovely legato. It has been studied and argued that Bruckner's orchestration owes its origin to Bach, and to this end I believe that Herreweghe's success in Bach performance goes a long way in helping him to show us the beautiful contrapuntal textures with good integration of harmony and melody in Bruckner. The concept of stratification in Bruckner's orchestration as proposed by Julian Horton is nicely illustrated in practice here. The gut strings in this recording is not a put-off, rather they produce powerful and moving sonority in this tightly woven music.

This recording has a very wide dynamic range, and so if the volume is turned up the tuttis can be shattering, particularly in the final movement when the orchestral palette is dominated by the brass, as the strings players are smaller in number here.

Running the risk of bias and oversimplication, I'd say Herreweghe's Bruckner 7th is the most Bach-like performance I've listened to. And that is enough to win him a place in the front row of the overcrowded field of Bruckner 7th recordings.

13 March 2010

HQ CD -- Differences That I've Never Dreamt Of

When I came back to the Bruckner 7th by Matačić and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, I mentioned the prompt of the HQ CD query from Savio. At that time I thought it might be a waste of money to buy a much more expensive HQ CD when I've already enjoyed this recording so much. But I believe Savio's ears, and he said after he's listened to the sampler he made up his mind to buy some of these HQ CDs. So I asked myself, why not take the plunge and try?

So here are the pictures of the pair, the "normal" CD alongside the new incarnation.

I quite like the discreet cover and back tray design, not falling into the trap of blandishing in large typeface the advantages of the new medium.

One fine Monday afternoon I listened to this new HQ CD using low-fi gears: a pair  of headphones with the disc played by a notebook computer via the Creative SB Digital Music SX connected by USB.  I started with the  "normal" CD first, then followed by the HQ one. The original CD has very good sound already, but the HQ CD has more definition in the strings sound and a firmer bass. This is not important, and I'm not particularly excited about it. However what went on was really eerie. My body was covered with goose bumps and then my eyes were wet but I was not crying. (That sounds quite similar to Artur Rubinstein's reaction when he attended Richter's concert.) Then came the sudden exclamation of "Oh, God" with a feeling of inevitability in the music. The music simply touched my heart. My heart strings were in resonance with it.

I didn't have many instances of these reactions when I listened to records as far as I can remember. Those that came quite naturally to my mind are the times when I listened to the  Funeral March in Furtwängler's wartime Eroica, and the long-held notes of the opening motif of Beethoven 5th in his first return to the BPO podium in 1947. As for Bruckner, it was when I first listened to the opening of Bruckner 4th by Wand and BPO in a sample excerpt provided by Gramophone. I can list a few more if I search my memory but does it have to?

This HQ CD all of a sudden becomes an indispensable part of my collection. I'm really blessed in this way. What else can I ask for?

05 March 2010

Earthquake in Kaohsiung (高雄)

Wish all the people in Kaohsiung well. My thoughts are with them.

Hope that eaquson, who lives there, has not been adversely affected by the earthquake.