06 December 2011

From Pearl Harbour to a largely overshadowed Japanese conductor (Part 1)

Time flies. It all happened 70 years ago. Nowadays Christmas is a day of joy and fun for the new generations in Hong Kong. For my grandparents, 25 December was a day to be remembered in sorrow and fear. The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII started on 25 December, 1941. Over the years, I had a decent collection of those tragic and horrendous tales about the 3 years and 8 months of Japanese occupation told by my grandparents and even my parents who were just children at that time. Their first-hand experiences are testamentary to the sufferings and atrocities of life under Japanese occupation. These were burn marks scorched in their minds which our generation, who has always been living in peacetime, will never be able to appreciate fully. I realised this in my grandparents' eyes when the stories were told. Particularly affecting was my grandma telling me how helpless they were when her whole family clustered in a small room waiting for fate to decide their survival during the area bombing of Wanchai, Hong Kong Island at that time.

My grandma was the person closest to me, apart from my parents, during my childhood and teenage years. She passed away a few years ago. She is the epitome of all the virtues present in traditional Chinese women. Her words were always soothing to my mind. I still miss her very much. 

The Japanese attack on Hong Kong started on 8 December, 1941, only less than half a day after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. When I think of Pearl Harbour, I start to think of the US-Japanese negotiations in the months before the attack occurred. What if the talk had been successful and the Pacific War aborted? One person involved in these US-Japanese negotiations was Kaname Wakasugi (若杉 要), Minister-Counsellor of the Japanese Embassy in the USA in 1941. How important his role was in affecting the final outcome of the negotiations is of interest to historians, and I've read a fair bit of it, but not to me here. It is his son, Hiroshi Wakasugi (若杉 弘), a conductor largely overshadowed internationally by Seiji Ozawa (小澤 征爾), and domestically by Takashi Asahina (朝比奈 隆), that I'd like to discuss.

03 December 2011

Music once again

I was so busy in the last two to three weeks that I could not pay much attention to this blog and, sadly, to music as well. However I didn't miss out on ordering some CDs for Christmas. Just-arrived items include the Audite RIAS box-sets of Klemperer and Knappertsbusch, Venzago's Bruckner 0&1, Blunier's Bruckner 8 and Bünte's Bruckner 7. Those in the mail include Abbado's 3 Pergolesi discs on DG Archiv (not new, but nonetheless eagerly awaiting) and Nezet-Seguin's new Bruckner 4. Now I can listen to music to my heart's content over the weekend.

I returned to the string orchestra version of Beethoven's op. 131 as my first sublime sojourn, one disc by Bernstein and the other by Previn. Then perhaps I can post some more blog entries.

It seems that record companies are quite desperate to make the most of money from their archives. Hot on the heels of EMI's Celibidache Munich recordings comes Wand's Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner packaged in a box-set to be released next month. Price-wise both are really attractive for those who haven't got them. The cover art is quite stylish.

Again, as I said before, Wand is truly ubiquitous.

Another happy thing is that this morning I got a ticket for a March 2012 BRSO concert of Bruckner 5, conducted by Daniel Harding, in the Hong Kong Arts Festival when counter booking first opened today.

12 November 2011

Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with SPCM Completion of Finale on BPO Digital Concet Hall

John Berky's site has listed the live performances of the latest SPCM completion of the Finale of Bruckner 9 in the 2011- 2012 season.

What is surprising is Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rattle will perform this completed Finale in three consecutive concerts in February 2012 in Philharmonie, Berlin , and then on 24 February in Carnegie Hall, New York. An EMI CD release of the live performance is planned. Those of us who are less fortunate and unable to attend the concerts can have a virtual taste of it from the live streaming in the Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall on 9 February 2012 (the last of the 3 concerts in Berlin) at 19:00 GMT. Of course, it's not free of charge. Update: It is now known that this concert relay will be included in the Concert Archive for future viewing.

The timing is not the most convenient for viewers in the Far East: 3 am in Beijing/Hong Kong/Taiwan and 4 am in Japan. As it is a Thursday, most people will need to go to work in the following day.

03 November 2011

A review of Haitink's Bruckner Symphony No. 4 recordings

The new LSO Bruckner 4th: thrives with an inner glow and finishes with monumentality

14 and 16 Jun 2011

10-12 May 1965

21 Feb 1985

Bernard Haitink's commercial recordings of Bruckner Symphony No. 4 are marked with an interesting fact: the first and the latest recordings are separated by just 4 years short of half a century. He first recorded it when he was only 36 years old, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and then 20 years later, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and after a further 26 years, with the London Symphony Orchestra, a live recording with takes from the concerts on 14 and 16 June 2011, at the ripe age of 81. To say that not many Brucknerians will have recordings of the same symphony separated by so long is an understatement. Karajan's first and last Bruckner 8th are just 45 years apart (1944 and 1989).

                              1965 RCO                    1985 VPO                     2010 LSO
1st mov't                   18'18"                          20'39"                          20'35"
Andante                    15'55"                         15'27"                          15'07"
Scherzo                      9'46"                          10'37"                          11'11"
Finale                        19'49"                          21'46"                         22'11" (no applause)

It can be seen that apart from the second movement, Haitink has broadened his tempo over the years, and quite significantly. It is just part of the story, the way he moulds the symphony and the total effect also differ much.

Despite its age, the 1965 recording still sounds excellent, capturing the lovely sonority of the orchestra and the famous acoustics of the Concertgebouw. Haitink adopts a lively poise. I'm touched by the immediacy of the recording, and the directness of the reading coupled with Haitink's deft hands in ensuring a high degree of coherence produces very engaging music. Haitink is more passionate in his accents in the Andante compared to the later recording in Vienna. Very refreshing.

At the time of the release of Haitink's second B4 recording, I was full of expectation. I just wanted to see how this fine Brucknerian would sparkle with the Brucknerian orchestra. However well played the ensemble, beautiful the violins and lovely the legato, this reading lacks the engaging immediacy of the earlier one. This is not helped by the dim sound and the rather soft focus. It became laden with attempted dispassionateness.

The new recording is admirable in conquering the rather dry and boxy acoustic of the Barbican Centre for such a large-scale orchestral work. This is at once felt at the opening of the first movement when the masterly solo horn of David Pyatt is portrayed within a background of immense Brucknerian landscape. Haitink's magical moments of seamless transitions between themes are still there, or even more so. What establishes Haitink as one of the foremost Brucknerians is his sense of balance. Within this nicely balanced framework one can find the beauty of LSO's playing, ablooms with an incandescence from within, warming the listener as the music unfolds. The violas and cellos are simply gorgeous in the Andante, with a particularly mesmerising moment at the reprise of the viola theme (letter I). The Scherzo may not be as exciting as some would expect, especially when the opening is somewhat underwhelming, but I think it is appropriate to the overall introspective mood of the other three movements. The Finale is so different from the earlier two recordings, in that orchestral opulence and monumentality are the hallmarks here. Haitink shows us splendidly in this performance that the conception of the Finalsymphonie is not the sole privilege of the Fifth Symphony. It is a Fourth that is not about a young man's passion and excitement, but an old man's introspection and awe.

I'm happy to have this wonderful opportunity to see (or to be more exact, to listen to) the change in interpretive stance Haitink has adopted in his golden years.

31 October 2011

Bruckner -- Nagano -- Vatican

Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra (Bayerisches Staatsorchester) performed Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in Vatican on 22 October 2011. Bruckner's Te Deum was also performed by soloists from the Bavarian State Opera Choir and the 92 member strong Audi Youth Choir Academy (Audi Judendchorakademie) for Pope Benedict XVI.

Nagano was interviewed just before the concert and the audio clip can be heard from the Vatican Radio.

While still on Bruckner Ninth, a very interesting and thoughtful "walk-through" by pianist Peter Tiefenbach was broadcast on CBC Radio 2.

Sony 88697909452

I've listened to Nagano's latest B7 disc on Sony and been impressed by his fine use of rubato and the light touches he applied to his phrasing. It was a live recording made on 23 September 2010, during a long European tour, in a cathedral in Gent, Belgium -- Saint Bavo Cathedral or Sint Baafskathedraal. After this concert, an orchestral member spoke of this unique experience of playing a Bruckner symphony in a cathedral and having a feeling of conversing with something higher. The Adagio is particularly affecting.

26 October 2011


My heart beats faster knowing Paavo Järvi's next Bruckner disc will be released in December in Japan: a June 2009 recording of Bruckner 5th in Alte Oper, Frankfurt before their successful European tour. His B7 recording is one of my favourites. The B5 will be a hybrid SACD/CD disc (Sony SICC 10120).
Update (April 2012): This recording is re-scheduled to be released in Japan on 9 May 2012. Listed price 2940 yen. 

Around the same time, Günter Wand's second round of NDR Bruckner recordings will appear in SACD format in Japan: B3 (1992) (Sony SICC 10125), B5 (1989) (SICC 10126), B6 (1995) (SICC 10127) and B8 (1993) (SICC 10123). 

They can become the best Christmas presents, at least for me.

A tale of two concurrent issues of Keilberth's 1960 BPO Bruckner Ninth -- Part 2

Testament's release has revealed the sonic decapitation and overzealous noise reduction of Orfeo's corresponding release.

SBT2 1472

In Part 1, the inferior sound of Orfeo's Keilberth 1960 Salzburg Festival concert live recording has been noted. After comparison with Testament's release which I just got, it is clear what Orfeo's has missed sonically. It is also evident that the original master does not have the state-of-the-art sound of that period; not least it is in mono only. However comparison is always cruel. The Orfeo's release has truncated upper frequencies and applied overenthusiastic noise reduction, resulting in the poor sound it (re)produces. It also robs the vitality of sound as shown in the Testament release. The timbre of the woodwinds is particularly affected, and so the delectable Lother Koch's solo oboe, Karlheinz Zöller's solo flute and Karl Leister's solo clarinet in the middle part of the Scherzo, which can hardly be appreciated in Orfeo's release, have been captured nicely in Testament's transfer.  Even Karlheinz Duse-Utesch's trombone becomes more vividly portrayed. This is the Berlin Philharmonic in the early 1960s we are familiar with, in sound and in character. The frisson of the concert can now be felt in Testament's transfer.

Compared to his 1956 studio recording, Keilberth had more agogic accents in the live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. The gesangperiode is so beautifully played as can be heard in the Testament disc. The same subject group in Orfeo's transfer is marred by a sound picture turning dim inexplicably and it becomes quite difficult to enjoy the beautiful dialogue between the strings and the woodwinds. However, at the beginning of the third subject group, there was a sag in tempo and Keilberth had to give the orchestra a push, resulting in a rather abrupt accelerando. The distinguished woodwind soloists whom Karajan brought in did not disappoint. 

The magic of Keilberth is that he could make the Scherzo sound so musical instead of the militant feel that permeates so many other performances or recordings. It is so in both his 1956 studio and the present 1960 live recordings, but the latter is more animated and exciting, fully exhibiting the thrill of a live performance.

The Adagio is affecting, more so in the Abschied vom leben (starting 2'50") and it is where the present live recording becomes more loved than the 1956 studio one. Pauses are shorter in the live performance and the reading on the whole is more urgent. The brass plays a major role in this great Adagio and it is exactly where another reason to prefer the Testament transfer comes in: the Orfeo brass sound is just not up to par. After the climax, Keilberth gently eases the music into silence, but then not long after, starts a build up on the dominant of F major as if another climax of dissonance is coming. But it is not to be, because the resigning coda sets in at this moment. Keilberth fully enthralls the listener here. In the dying moments of this movement, Karlheinz Zöller's flute is truly riveting.

A live recording not to be missed. The music in the companion disc is no less attractive. 

21 October 2011

A tale of two concurrent issues of Keilberth's 1960 BPO Bruckner Ninth -- Part 1

Orfeo's issue: A stunningly dedicated performance in glaringly compromised sound

Orfeo C838112B

Keilberth had recorded a memorable Bruckner Ninth in 1956 for Telefunken with the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg before this 17 August 1960 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic at the 1960 Salzburg Festival, in the new Grosses Festspielhaus.

Given the scarcity of Keilberth's Bruckner live recordings, it is tempting to compare this live recording with the studio one he made almost 4 years earlier. I have 2 versions of the studio recording. One is the Japanese Teldec release. The other is from the label Spectrum Sound which apparently is sold in Japan with a limited edition of 1500. The sound source is the German Telefunken LP SLT 43043 Black Silver first edition. In the CD booklet a long list of sophisticated equipment is named to show the care put in in remastering. They are not bluffing; the resulting sound of the CD is very impressive.

Japanese Teldec WPCS-6053
Spectrum Sound CDSM 007 JT

Let's see the timings first.

                            1956 Teldec             1956 Spectrum Sound              1960 Orfeo
1st mov't                 23:16                             23:21                               23:57
Scherzo                   10:53                             11:02                               10:45
Adagio                     22:22                             22:34                               23:57
                                                                                (music ends, applause not counted)

As it is now well known that Testament is also issuing the same 1960 Salzburg performance, it is inevitable that comparison of the sound of the CD transfers will be made. A little bird in Europe told me that Orfeo had someone with the possession of a batch of Salzburg Festival archive recordings "sell"/"license" them this batch in a lump sum of a few thousand euros. Testament, on the other hand, had their license through someone close to the Berlin Philharmonic, presumably Dr Helge Grünewald. There is no contest of copyright infringement issues now as the sound recording of this performance has passed the 50-year rule and is effectively in public domain. What counts for consumers now is the difference in sound, documentation, packaging and price. For Orfeo, the liner notes are written by someone closely connected with the Salzburg Festival, Gottfried Kraus, detailing Keilberth's performance history in this Festival and the press response at that time. For Testament, the writer is Mike Ashman, a musical historian, opera director and critic. He gives us a short biography of Keilberth and his diary entry of this concert. The packaging is just typical of either company's. Which cover photo is better is up to personal taste. Not much difference price-wise.

Then we come to the most important element -- the sound. As I haven't got my Testament CD, direct A-B comparison cannot be made at this time. But even considered on its own, the sound of the Orfeo issue is really disappointing. The sound stage is narrow, the dynamic range limited, the sound dull and distant, and the whole sound picture well below par of recordings of that vintage. When I brought the CD to Savio's home for him to have a listen, he just remarked that it sounded like an aircheck.

The poor sound will definitely hamper our appreciation of Berlin Philharmonic's sound and its distinguished soloists. Heinrich Kralik in his review in Die Presse 3 days after the concert: "In the Bruckner symphony it was possible to hear the outstanding artistic merits of the Berlin Philharmonic: its stylistic rigour, its straightforward playing, the mellow, rich sound of its string section and the special qualities of its winds. Nor was there any lack of the fullness and mellowness of tone that Bruckner's music demands." All these cannot be discerned through the poor sound of this CD. Lother Koch's solo oboe, Karlheinz Zöller's solo flute and Karl Leister's solo clarinet in the middle part of the Scherzo should be delectable but there is no way to enjoy them fully in this transfer. 

Although my copy of the Testament CD has yet to arrive, judging from previous releases from Testament of recordings of that vintage, I have every reason to believe that their CD will have much better sound than this Orfeo release which simply does not do justice to this important sound document of history, not just for the Bruckner but also for the Schubert and Berg. 

As for Keilberth's reading it is best to wait till the Testament transfer has arrived before a full review is made. This will be the job of Part 2. However, even fettered by the poor sound, there is no mistaking that it is a stunningly dedicated performance.

16 October 2011

The new EMI Wilhelm Furtwängler box-set -- equivocal sound improvement in Beethoven and Brahms symphonies

In a previous blog entry, the mistakes in documentation of the newly issued EMI box were mentioned. As the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies within this box-set were remastered based on the remastering for SACDs issued in Japan, it was hinted that there would be an improvement in sound compared with previous remastered versions. This arouses my curiosity, so I went to my friend Savio's home for A-B tests as he has high-end gears, quite unlike my own at best mediocre system. Savio's system is shown below.

CD transport : Marantz PMD331

D/A converter : Weiss DAC 2

Pre-amp : Primaluna Prologue Three

Power-amp : Primaluna Prologue Five(bridged) x 2

Speakers : Dynaudio '30th Anniversary' Sapphire

We gathered different versions for comparison as shown below.

Versions for comparison

Brief notes on the sound difference:
For Beethoven 1&3, the new remastering, compared with the old References version, has better sound in terms of details and richness, but Savio has the impression that the old version sounds more Furtwängler-like in line with his impressions of "Furtwängler-ness".

For Beethoven 5, the new version has warmer sound but the Japanese ART version (TOCE-59006) has a more distinct sound stage particularly where the brass and string pizzicato are concerned. The Japanese 2088 version has much surface hiss with a limited dynamic range, really disappointing compared with the other 2 versions.

It is interesting to compare the old References version of Brahms First Symphony with the new version. The difference in details and sound is apparently not much, but the overall impression tells quite another story. The old version has a tympani-dominant opening while the new version has a string-dominant one.

Where Brahms 4 is concerned, although the old References CD has muddy and turbid sound compared with the new version, oddly enough the brighter and more limpid new version sounds disordered in terms of orchestral balance, which gives the listener an umcomfortable feeling. The best sounding in this group is the Japanese ART version (TOCE-59003) with a firmer bass, more beautiful strings and woodwinds.

The overall impression is that the new version sounds more 'modern' -- cleaner and brighter, with little background tape hiss -- but not necessarily more satisfying musically.

P.S. Thanks are due to Savio's wife Julie for her patient help in putting the CDs into the player without our knowing which is which, thus allowing a blind test.

13 October 2011

Thielemann's Bruckner Fifth -- Apple of discord

One of the readers of this blog, Sky, has made the following comment:
"DG released Thielemann/MPO's Bruckner Symphony No. 5 some years ago, some people raved about it, but I also found some people(i.e. David Hurwitz) critized it. Could you share your opinion on that recording?"
I'm more than happy to share mine with you.

Before any discussion of Thielemann's B5, it has to be understood that extremes of tempo will invariably invite skepticism. Classical examples include Celibidache in his Munich years at the slow end, and Norrington at the fast end of the tempo spectrum.

Thielemann's Bruckner recordings

Another fact one has to consider is Thielemann's explicit identification as the torch-bearer of the old German school of conducting, and in this context he has long attracted controversy, especially when one thinks of the authentic movement marching into the Romantic period these days. I have followed Thielemann's progress ever since his debut recording, as he offered us something that was unusual at that, and even the present, time. If one further considers the history that one of his earliest recordings for DG was Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with Philharmonia Orchestra, a disc I liked very much, one can realise that he is someone who prides himself on the core traditional Austro-German repertoire. So there is no surprise that he chose Bruckner's 5th for his inaugural concert as General Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic, and also to record it live. His confidence in himself is further supported by this choice, as Celibidache also performed this symphony for the opening of the new concert hall in Munich. Although Thielemann wrote in the CD booklet asking others not to compare him to the old masters, his choice of performing this symphony at that important moment in face of the rich Bruckner tradition in Munich, however, casts an obviously paradoxical shadow on his request.

Apart from his choice of tempo, another special attribute in this recording is the sound colour. Building up from the low bass, his orchestral sound picture portraits a dark solemn mood and at the same time resembles plangent organ music. His crescendos and decrescendos are gradual and smooth, making the ride through a Bruckner's symphony an undulating wave-like experience rather than a rough jumpy one.

In this symphony he uses the first three movements to gather momentum for a fine release in the Finale. His long legato is mesmerizing. This is no ordinary, routine Bruckner performance practice. I'm glad to have this listening experience.

By the way, David Hurwitz had a change of heart in his review of Thielemann's recent B8 live recording which, in terms of dynamics, tempo, orchestral palette and tension, did not differ significantly from his B5's in question.

03 October 2011

Venzago's second instalment is just around the corner

Not too long ago it was announced that Mario Venzago would embark on a new Bruckner symphonies cycle, and B4 and B7 were released. Now just a few months later, his B0 (1869 version) and B1 (1866 "Linz" version) will be released two weeks from now, although with another orchestra: Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Although his first B4 and B7 are unremarkable to my ears, the coming release still arouses much interest in me, as the early symphonies can provide refreshing experiences.

On the other hand, King Record in Japan will issue a local release (KICC967) of Wand's B9 with RSO Stuttgart originally issued by Profil. Whether it will be just a local copy of the original release or a newly remastered recording is not known at this moment.

Hanssler will reissue in their Premium Composers series 2 Bruckner recordings coupled together: Kurt Sanderling's lovely B7 and Giulini's somewhat less successful B9, both with RSO Stuttgart.

The Sanderling B3 is one of my favourites.
For the past 10 days or so, I was fully occupied in various tasks and no spare time could be squeezed out to listen to music. Finalising the schedule of a certificate course and performing the standard setting (complicated and tedious calculations) for a postgrad examination -- alas they are not doing well this year -- are time-consuming yet no mistakes can be entertained. Even today I have to drive some 40 km to the airport as my son is going back to the UK for the new term. Just returned home feeling lost and tired, I really need a good sleep. Thinking of starting to write something tomorrow, on the many discs I've listened to for the past month, e.g. the Dudamel B9, the TMSO's B5s, the Tahra SACD of Furtwangler's wartime Eroica, the rumours I heard about the contemporaneous release of Keilberth's 1960 Salzburg Festival concert (with B9) on Testament and Orfeo, etc. Can I finish all these? Can I resort to the overused and straddling term "cautiously optimistic"? Just senseless babble in a hypnagogic state.

20 September 2011

In Memoriam - Kurt Sanderling

Kurt Sanderling passed away on 17 Sep 2011. May he rest in peace.

He left many memorable recordings for music lovers to cherish. His Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 (mono), Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7, and, above all, Shostakovich symphonies are particularly remembered by this humble listener. I took out some of these recordings and listened once again with sadness and at the same time admiration and respect.

His Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra stands proudly alongside the only other two cycles by this orchestra with Karajan and Klemperer.

Each recording of Brahms symphonies by him is memorable,  for his unmannered, natural music making.

Simply inevitable.

While he might not exhibit the type of astringency and ferocity of Mravinsky's Shostakovich, he graced his reading with a fine balance of Slavic warmth and  melancholy, which is more moving.

This box-set was bought in 1997 in Berlin. The price tag was still in Deutsche Mark. I missed his concert when he stood in for an ailing Giulini in Feb 1998.

His Bruckner 3rd and 7th are among my favourite recordings of these symphonies. Just three months ago I revisited his Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 and that gave me a happy afternoon. Thank you very much Maestro.

19 September 2011

The new EMI Wilhelm Furtwängler box-set -- disappointing documentation

The new EMI Wilhelm Furtwängler 21-CD box-set, The Great Recordings, should be a convenient and relatively inexpensive route for young music lovers not familiar with this great conductor to get to know his art. There are also surprises for seasoned Furtwängler fans: new Abbey Road  24-bit digital remastering of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies recordings following the footsteps of the SACDs of these recordings released by EMI Japan not too long ago. Although I've already had many Furtwängler recordings, I was still lured by this new gimmick and bought this box-set with HK$500.

The card-board packaging is quite nice and neat. So far so good. However when I read the enclosed booklet, I was really disappointed. They got the orchestra for the last three Brahms symphonies wrong. In this and previous EMI sets, only the First Symphony was played by the Vienna Philharmonic, and the rest the Berlin Philharmonic. The dates of the recordings corresponded to the old set. Here in the new box-set, it is incorrectly documented that all the Brahms symphonies were recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic as shown below:

The booklet of the old EMI References box-set of Brahms symphonies is shown alongside the new one below:

Such a pity. 

I'll go to my friend Savio's home to compare the sound of the CDs in the new box-set with different previous incarnations by EMI Europe or Japan. Savio has good high-end hi-fi gears and he is also a very experienced classical music lover and critic. Let's see what results we'll get.

15 September 2011

The ubiquitous magic Wand

Following closely the release information of Wand's Bruckner concert in the NHK Japan archives comes another release of his conducting Bruckner 5th on 9 Sep 1990 leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra at BBC Proms, this time on DVD by ICA Classics, to be released in November. Added as a bonus is a short interview lasting 2'54".

Timings of the tracks for the symphony: 20'58", 15'27", 14'02", 24'58".

It can only be said that the magic Wand is truly ubiquitous.

10 September 2011

Totally unexpected felicities from NHK archives

When one is about to believe that maybe all of Gunter Wand's "early" concert recordings have been unearthed and released, here comes the total surprise from King Records in Japan. In a series commemorating the 85th Anniversary of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, many previously unissued concert recordings will see the light of the day. Bruckner 8th (15/12/1983) and Schubert D944 "The Great" (9/11/1979) conducted by Wand are coming in October.

Another Bruckner double-CD which will be very interesting is Suitner conducting Bruckner 2nd (6/12/1971) and 4th (27/11/1980), again with the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

For fans of Michelangeli and Gulda, they will be more than happy to see these 2 pianists featured in another double-CD, with Michelangeli playing Ravel and Liszt piano concerti (3/4/1965 and 31/5/1965) conducted by Alexander Rumpf, and Gulda playing Beethoven piano concerti no. 1 (22/2/1967, under Sawallisch) and no. 4 (2/5/1969, under Matacic). Really mouth-watering.

The mastering was done by Altus, so I can be quite confident that the sound will be very good.

There are more to come. Top WOW factor.

04 September 2011

Live Broadcast of Bruckner Symphony No. 9 (Simon Rattle and BPO)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Simon Rattle – Ian Bostridge
Benjamin Britten "Nocturne“, Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 9

Alongside two ACCENTUS Music productions with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in August there is another late summer highlight at KKL Lucerne: Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker present works by Benjamin Britten and Anton Bruckner on 1 September 2011. Benjamin Britten gathered eight musical-poetic night pieces together under the title “Nocturne”: musical settings of English poets throughout the centuries performed by tenor Ian Bostridge. This cycle of orchestral songs is coupled with Bruckner’s “Swan Song,” his last symphony, which was unfinished and which he dedicated to “Dear God” - Symphony No. 9 in D minor.

A production of ACCENTUS Music in co-production with SRF/ARTE and in co-operation with LUCERNE FESTIVAL, directed by Michael Beyer and produced by Paul Smaczny.

The concert will be broadcasted on Sunday, 4 September 2011, at 6.10 p.m. on ARTE.

Simon Rattle and the BPO will also perform Bruckner Symphony No. 9 in Taipei in November.

31 August 2011

Another chance to acquire the inimitable Celibidache EMI Bruckner set

The Celibidache EMI Bruckner box-set is going to reappear in a new reissue next month. Those who missed out this box-set in the past can now have another chance to grab it. Inimitable in every way is Celibidache's late style in Bruckner from his Munich years. It will be released in Japan in mid-October with a listed price of 3770 Yen (c. US$49) -- quite a bargain. (Update: UK release on 24 Oct, at 27.50 quids, and there are discounts everywhere.)

The repeatedly delayed B7 and B8 discs from Kent Nagano on Sony are now on their way to the store shelves with the CD covers revealed. Judging from his previous recordings of Bruckner symphonies (Nos. 3 & 6 with DSO on Harmonia Mundi, No. 4 with Bavarian State Orchestra on Sony, and a DVD of No. 8 with DSO on Arthaus Musik), I have some expectations from the new ones. With his rumoured departure from Munich in 2013, any further Bruckner recordings with this orchestra will remain a doubt, although it may be too early to say that.

(5 Sep 2011 Update: The Nagano B8 release is once again postponed, this time to Feb 2012!!)

20 August 2011

It is reissued by DG at long last! -- The Barenboim/CSO Bruckner cycle

This Barenboim/CSO Bruckner cycle brings back memory of a bitter experience to me. It has also left a regretful gap in my collection of Bruckner box-sets for a long while. I got this set in the early 1990's but lost it when I moved house a couple of years later. Right now only 2 sets are missing from my collection. One is the set by the Korean conductor Lee Dong-Ho recorded with the Jeju Philharmonic Orchestra, which still hasn't managed to attract my desire to acquire it for the time being. I might do so if I go to Korea to spend my holiday there in future. The other is this DG set by Barenboim. All the other complete or partial sets listed in John Berky's discography are all safe and sound in my cabinets.

I was very excited when this set was reissued in Japan in Dec 2009 by Tower Records Japan in their Universal Vintage Collection but it was expensive (7500 yen) and Tower Records does not entertain overseas shipment. This DG reissued set comes at the perfect time because I was about to ask a friend of mine who would go to Tokyo to buy the Japanese set for me. Now I can save the trouble and money because the DG set is significantly cheaper.

Another highly attractive reissue is the "Rafael Kubelik conducts Great Symphonies" box on Sony/BMG. It includes the Bruckner Third and Fourth, lovely renditions one should not miss, late Mozart symphonies, again lovely and charismatic, and the 4 Schumann symphonies. All in all a true bargain.

The future seems bright but my experience with new Bruckner releases was not at all happy in the last few months. An eagerly awaited disc is Blomstedt's new B3 on Querstand, but much to my disappointment it was delayed till October. The Nagano B7 and B8 was originally advertised in HMV Japan as to be released in June or so, but B7 was delayed till next week -- I hope it won't be postponed once again -- and B8 till Oct. The Dudamel B9 should be available next week.

Meanwhile, I'm "working at" the Bruckner Fifth recordings by Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO, 東京都交響楽団) which prove to be very interesting, including a wonderful performance by Peter Maag from a recently released disc on the Japanese label Tobu Recordings. My friends were also very satisfied with the performance when I recommended them to have a listen.

29 July 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 10) -- Symphony No. 4 in E flat Major -- Reflections

Symphony No. 4 (Romantic) is one of Bruckner's most popular symphonies, and hence it has been copiously recorded. As such it is a Herculean task to choose my favourite recordings of this symphony. In fact most of the recordings are of a high standard, and the choices will very much depend on personal taste. (Please read the Remarks at the bottom of the list as well.)

1874 Version

[Nowak (1975) edition]
Michael Gielen / SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden (4/1994)

(Intercord CD 860.925)

A brief review of this recording together with a brief history of the revisions Bruckner made for this symphony, resulting in the different versions, was posted in Nov 2009:

1878/1880 Version

[Haas (1944) edition]
Herbert Blomstedt / Staatskapelle Dresden (7-11/9/1981) 

(Denon COCQ-84539 HQCD)

(Dal Segno DSPRCD045)

This is Blomstedt's second Bruckner recording made under the cooperation of Denon, Japan and (VEB) Deutsche Schallplatten, Germany, the first being B7 recorded one year earlier. Recorded in the Lukaskirche, Dresden, it benefits from the excellent acoustic of the venue. The Staatskapelle Dresden is luminous here. The string sound is warm and the brass timbre is lovely. Blomstedt is musically expressive, without losing his usual prudence.

The HQCD sounds best among the 3 versions of the same recording that I have. The bass is more solid and the strings are even warmer. The whole recorded sound becomes more engaging and realistic. The Dal Segno CD is satisfactory in sound, but the Denon HQCD's is superior.

Otmar Suitner / Staatskapelle Berlin (1-2/1989)

(Berlin Classics 0011612BC)

(King KICC3533)

It is a digital recording made in Christuskirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, less than a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the former East Berlin. This church is well known for its excellent acoustics and had been at one time used solely as a studio for the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin before its community function was restored after the reunification of Germany. It should not be confused with the Jesus-Christus-Kirche (or Jesus Christ Church in English) in Berlin-Dahlem, situated in the former West Berlin, where many famous Deutsche Grammophon and Karajan recordings were made. The Christuskirche provides a very warm but transparent sound with good definition of the different instruments as evident in this recording. Otmar Suitner may not be very well-known in the West in the past, but his art has been gaining much appreciation thanks to an easier availability of his recorded legacy in CDs issued by Berlin Classics.

One of the key elements in his art is the naturalness and liveliness he brings to the music. This Bruckner 4th is an excellent example of it. The opening movement is truly "bewegt". There is not a hint of idiosyncracy in the interpretation, yet it is never bland. I'm much impressed by the sound and playing of the brass which is cultured yet also very incisive.  I'm lucky to have attended quite a number of concerts of the Staatskapelle Berlin and I hold the sound of this orchestra dear to my heart: the dark hue of the strings complemented by the sonorous cellos and basses, the Eastern European feel of the woodwinds and the cultured yet incisive brass described above. I affectionately depict its sound in my mind as analogous to amethyst gold. This recording has admirably captured this amethyst gold sound colour of this orchestra. 

When I compared this recording with Barenboim's 15/10/2008 live recording with the same orchestra (in-house label, SKB-0001), the difference is enormous. The orchestra still played superbly in the new recording, but Barenboim's management just verged on mannerism and over-inhibition. In the exposition of the Finale, the music is lively almost to the degree of being exorbitant under Suitner, whereas it becomes lame and lackadaisical in Barenboim's hands. 

A regular reader of this blog, eaquson from Taiwan, has told me the better sound quality of these VEB Deutsche Schallplatten recordings in CDs issued by other labels compared to those by Berlin Classics. This prompted me to try the Japanese version issued by King of this recording. The difference is not very obvious, maybe because my playback system is not up to it, but I can discern a more crystalline sound in the upper frequencies, a more powerful bass and better resolution of instruments in the middle frequencies. As this recording is one of my favourites, I think it is well worth the extra outlay.

Günter Wand / NDR Symphony Orchestra (28-30/10/2001)

(BMG 93041 2; 2-CD)

A certain type of recordings somehow seems predestined to remain in the memory of Brucknerites for aeons. The last studio or concert recordings of many conductors belong to this group. Wand's last recording of his concerts from 28 to 30 October 2001 of Bruckner's 4th Symphony certainly is one of them. Other examples that come to mind include Karajan's last B7, Jochum's last B5, and Sinopoli's and van Beinum's last and only B5.  These are all truly memorable recordings, and in the case of Karajan's and Jochum's, they pluck at your heart-strings that their respective earlier recordings didn't quite manage to do so at such intensity. Wand's BPO recording of B4 is a towering achievement and has become an indispensable part of my collection once I got it. This last recording of Wand's is no less essential. When I listened to it again recently, I was simply speechless with the performance, particularly the Andante where everything seemed so right in place, and I was just like a fool sitting there beaming with perfectly undiluted satisfaction with what I had just heard.

[Nowak (1953) edition]
Claudio Abbado / Lucerne Festival Orchestra (18-19/10/2006)

(Lucerne Festival Edition 120455)

Abbado's previous Bruckner recordings with VPO on DG have received some criticisms despite their merits, and for whatever reasons, his last commercial Bruckner recording was 15 years ago in 1996. After he left Berlin, his cooperation with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra transcended almost all his previous efforts to a sublime artistic level which many marvel at. His "new" Mahler recordings, now on DVD, with this orchestra were lauded as among the best, if not the best.  

This Bruckner 4th is also in the same league. Recorded live in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, and benefitted from its excellent acoustics, the sound is lush and warm yet at the same time limpid. If you agree to William Blake's idea that "exuberance is beauty", then this performance is utterly beautiful because it is a quintessential example of what exuberance is all about, in orchestral ensemble, sound and (Schubertian) colour, in musical expression and commitment, and in sheer radiance and exhibition of positive energy. 

Karl Böhm / Wiener Philharmoniker (19/11/1973)

(Decca Ovation 425 036-2)

This recording really needs no introduction to Brucknerites. The good things about his Bruckner 3rd recording with this orchestra on the same label can all apply to this justly famous recording. Its merits and the joy it brings to the listener are long lasting. 

Eugen Jochum / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (3-5/10/1955 Mono)

(DG 469 389-2)

This mono recording is not handicapped by the technology of the time. Here Jochum leading his orchestra in the early post-war years has brought us a performance of immense sparkle and a recording in very good mono with fine details. The orchestral sonority has a great nostalgic feel to it, decorated with a sonorous lustre. There are many delicate touches by Jochum here, e.g. in the early part of the development (bars 193-216). The special thing about this recording among Jochum's many is the way he played the music, in a fine balance of blissful abandon and an intensity of spirit, from the pianissimos to the building up of climaxes. It is a joyful musical journey free of the unnecessary brooding that mars many other recordings. It is also a very smooth musical journey devoid of the stop-and-go stigma that was awarded to Jochum by many critics for his later efforts. But above all it is a musical journey that I'm more than happy to travel again and again.

Wolfgang Sawallisch / The Philadelphia Orchestra (3/1993)

(EMI CDC 5551192)

I posted this picture with a heavy heart because of the sad news that The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy just a few months ago -- an orchestra once famous all over the world for its golden sound has now become a failing business. An embittered irony; a disillusionment of the battle between art and business.

The choice of this disc is of course not because of Sawallisch's autograph. In fact it is the other way round. I loved this recording and so I asked him to autograph this particular CD booklet. Compared with their European counterparts, American orchestras (even the "Big 5") do not make many Bruckner recordings, and even fewer truly memorable ones. Not so for this one by Sawallisch. It is a slow burning affair. The first three movements get a no-nonsense treatment but still you can bathe yourself in the golden sound of the orchestra. However when it reaches the Finale, everything springs to life. Great recordings owe their greatness to great moments, and it is exactly the case here in the Finale. A glorious tribute to this famous orchestra.

1) The catalogue numbers are those of the CDs in my collection. There may be other versions of a particular recording by the same label or even other labels, with a different catalogue number.

2) Not included in the list are those 'sets' I considered en bloc; see episodes 3 (link) and 4 (link). Special mention must be made of Günter Wand's Berlin Philharmonic recording which is my best loved among all his BPO Bruckner recordings. 

3) Selections for this symphony are based on a database of a guilty number of 112 distinct recordings, excluding single movements, e.g. 1878 Volkfest Finale, and transcriptions.