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.