31 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 7b) -- Not-my-favourite diversions

The pun in the title is not entirely intended, but it nevertheless reflects some truth in it. Talking about these 5 'unique' recordings is a diversion from the original topic of my favourite Bruckner recordings. On the other hand, some of these CDs can become something that amuses me when I feel like listening to them.

Let's go through the 'unique' discs listed in episode 7a one by one.

This live recording was made in 1977 when the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was in that seven-year 'dark' period of not having a single principal conductor.  The immaculate ensemble cultured by Ferenc Fricsay in the fifties and early sixties was unfortunately nowhere to be found in this performance, although it was not bad. Richter gave us one of the slowest first movements of Symphony No. 4 at 22'13". To get an idea of how slow it is, it is even slower than Celibidache's on EMI (21'56") and three minutes longer than Wand's with the Berlin Philharmonic (19'11"). Fortunately Richter could usually maintain a long line in this symphony. The second movement was taken as the andante it was intended to be, but the Scherzo was too broad to my taste, even verging on sluggishness. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were definitely more delectable with its pretty exuberance here. The Finale glided along with a tempo rather disproportionate to the slow tempo of the first movement.

Gerhard Pflüger's was the Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1957. This Bruckner Fifth CD was based on a Urania LP issued soon after the recording was made in 1952. The sound of this CD has a limited dynamic range with quite a significant cutoff in the treble and bass. As a result, the chorale in the Finale becomes underwhelming. The reading is quite orthodox without much personal characterization.

Bongartz's Bruckner 6th enjoyed almost a cult status among some fans, of course with some good reasons.

Without doubt, he gave us a very beautiful Adagio. Here, the music is almost enlivened into a living creature because it can weep and lament (what wonderful oboe playing!) in the first theme, sing in the second and dance and run in the third. It is also endowed with a regular steady pulse, a key attribute of Bongartz. I've more than once in the past played this Adagio alone to my intense enjoyment. If the Adagio is so good why doesn't this recording become one of your favourites, I can almost hear you ask? The problem is you have to go through the inhospitable tempestuous terrain in the first movement before you can arrive at the oasis of the Adagio. The terrain may be inhospitable to me but it has proved to be heaven for others. The first brass outburst, yes outburst, in the first movement is frightening and indeed startling. If it happens once, I may still call it special effect to enhance the excitement, but if it recurs and recurs later in the movement, I can only take it as hysterical, especially after I've listened to the 'normal', beautifully played movement that follows. Bruckner is not a temperamental person after all, is he? Furthermore, compared to the mellow sound Blomstedt honed from this orchestra, you can never tell it was the same Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

If you relish such exciting bombardment in Bruckner Sixth, you've found the right record. You need not look further.

Muhai Tang may be the only Chinese conductor to have recorded a Bruckner symphony. He could maintain a nice long line in this symphony. The cello theme in the opening movement is very lyrical and the third theme beautiful. Perhaps in an attempt to sustain legato throughout, he did not allow adequate space between phrases in the development section. The coda is glorious however. The Adagio has its moving moments despite the feeling that he sounded a little hurried here. The orchestra, its good ensemble notwithstanding, is light on bass and this weakness is more the apparent in the Adagio. The remaining two movements are eloquent enough. I'd say this reading is unexpectedly good and in particular lyricism shines through. Although I didn't include it as one of my favourites, I enjoyed it very much.

It is a special recording. It would not be overstating to say that Delman is an iconoclast in Bruckner. His approach to Bruckner is beyond what one is used to in the many recordings that come before or after his.

In the first movement, the opening is muted, with the string tremolo almost inaudible. The brass playing is acceptable, but just here. In the second thematic group where usually the strings carry the melodic line, Delman changed the emphasis constantly, sometimes to the woodwinds, sometimes to the lower strings and then to the horns. He went on to exert much personal rubato in the third thematic group. His tempo is quite slow in this movement but you don't really feel it this way, because your attention is diverted to different sections of the orchestra he highlighted as the music unfolds. The Scherzo shows the limitation of the orchestra and the ensemble barely keeps itself together in the slower pulse, losing much of the urgency expected. There is no doubt that Delman was much engrossed by the music as he was almost singing along with the orchestra in the Adagio. However he was let down by the inadequate strings, especially the cellos which are so important in this great movement, and the unsteady pulse. It is surely a recording that will satisfy my curiosity rather than my taste. Maybe I'm too stupid because I still struggle to understand the message Delman wanted to tell us even after listening to the disc a couple of times.

25 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 7a) -- Rarity is not a criterion

It doesn't require the sharp mind of Sherlock Holmes to diagnose self-aggrandizement in the classical music world, from players on stage to listeners at home next to a pair of speakers. Nor, indeed, does it need an insightful mind to see that rarity has often been equated with supremacy in recorded classical music. Hard-to-find records have been hailed as treasures unable to be appreciated by the Tom, Dick and Harry in music lovers -- these rare finds are hors concours recognised only by the connoisseur. That's nothing wrong with someone enjoying his/her rare gems. However, as usual, life is not so simple. Problem arises when these 'knowledgeable' persons assume that all-too-familiar condescending attitude towards their poorer fellow listeners who cling to their common and popular records.

How familiar it is to hear " You like Wand and Karajan right? Oh yeah you people usually do. Have you ever heard of so-and-so?" Popular choices are considered low taste, and the same applies to modern recordings compared to old ones. Just as the premise that everything old is good in classical music recordings is based on the skimpiest of underpinnings, not everything rare, or simply just hard-to-find, must be good either. I'll take five examples to illustrate this point. These 5 conductors each have only one extant Bruckner symphony recording up to this moment. Aside from one record, by Heinz Bongartz, which is still available only in a box-set of 8 CDs in some areas, and another, by Karl Richter, which is available only in Japan, all the rest are out of print at this moment. Most of these recordings have been eulogised as the 'best' in the respective symphony somewhere over the internet. My purpose of commenting on these 'unique' recordings is not to taunt those immensely satisfied listeners, far from it, but just to present a different view to balance the picture.

These 5 CDs are:
1) Symphony No. 4: Karl Richter, Radio-Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, live 7 Nov 1977 (Altus ALT068)
2) Symphony No. 5: Gerhard Pflüger, Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra, 3&4 Apr 1952 (Dante LYS 417)
3) Symphony No. 6: Heinz Bongartz, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Dec 1964 (Berlin Classics 0184512BC)
4) Symphony No. 7: Tang Muhai (湯沐海), Queensland Symphony Orchestra, 22&23 Nov 1996 (ABC Classics CD 456 664-2)
5) Symphony No. 9: Vladimir Delman, Orchestra Sinfonica dell'Emilia Romagna "Arturo Toscanini", Apr 1994 (Aura AUR 425-2)

A mixed bag, I'd say. But a very interesting mixed bag, I have to add. Although none of these CDs make it to my favourite list, they are entertaining in their unique ways. Picture scans and comments later.

21 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 6) -- What are my criteria?

One of my friends asked me yesterday, rather bluntly but with no malice. "Why did it take so long for you to post your favourite Bruckner recordings? It's not difficult to just give me a list?" I was a little taken aback. My frank answer is, "I'm too fastidious."

Yes, I'm a fastidious person, particularly in classical music. Maybe that's why I like Bruckner's music so much, as I suppose he was also fastidious. When I decided to compile a list of my favourite Bruckner recordings, I prepared seven flash cards, each dedicated to one symphony, from No. 3 to No. 9. I just jotted down my choices off hand. Then I went to my CD shelf and briefly browsed through my collection to see if I'd left out some which did not come to mind in the first place. I understand that some will say those which do not come to mind in the first place should be no good. There must be some truth in this statement, but I reckon that I don't have an elephantine memory and I have quite a lot of Bruckner CDs, so this sort of reminder is necessary for me, especially when I'm preparing a list of many and not a single favourite for each symphony.

Then I had to take out all the CDs in my draft list and listened to all of them once again to see if the impressions in my memory are still valid. With so many new additions in the past ten years, some old warhorses are bound to come up to great competition. So it takes time. Too short a list may just be too biased and oversimplify things unnecessarily. Too long a list will render it useless. However there is no magic number. My initial decision is around 6 for each symphony and if possible list at least one for each version in one symphony (but the total number for each symphony is still around 6). After that I had to scan the covers or take pictures of the CDs.

A big question is: what are my criteria for my favourites? It goes without saying that personal tastes are very subjective, and can be quite different from objective judgement. Some would say why not prepare two lists, one subjective and one objective. I don't agree because I believe that separating objective and subjective choices is too artificial. We live in a world when we base our actions or decisions on both objective and subjective factors; we just cannot segregate them meaningfully. Either way it is biased. When music appreciation is a personal experience, there is no true objectivity in the strictest sense. It also applies to other forms of art. It makes me task no less easier as I have to find the right balance between objective judgement and subjective personal taste, as they are intertwined.

I hope I can make good use of the weekend to post my favourites for Symphony No. 3 shortly.

18 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 5) -- Historical recordings vs. new recordings

It is difficult to define what historical recordings are. Before WWII? Mono? By the same token, one can always say, "how new is new?" Digital rather than analogue recordings? Multi-channel SACDs rather than CDs? How about DVD-Audio (as in one Asahina recording)?

All these of course are relative terms. For practical purposes, I'd take those recorded before 1960 as 'historical' as after 1960 you can have stereo (caveat: some stereo recordings before 1960 are extant). However, I'm fully aware that between 1950 and 1960 there were many mono recordings with very good sound quality. But then a line still needs to be drawn. I'm not a purist and this classification is good enough for me. In order to stay in a comfort zone, I'd take all non-historical recordings as 'new', so as not to make things complicated. Of course you can always argue that there are some newer than others, but again I won't bother about that. So far so good.

Then comes an obvious question: why such a distinction? I reckon that sound quality is an important factor in my enjoyment of recorded music. Yes, interpretation -- again I won't go into the argument of whether a conductor should interpret the music written by the composer:  that is a real Pandora's box -- is also important, but it should not be an overriding determining factor in the choice of my favourite recording. I'm not against historical recordings, even those issued originally in 78s. In fact my interest in Bruckner's music was nurtured by none other than Furtwängler's records which have never been considered of good sound by modern standards.

In fact, in my shortlists of favourite Bruckner recordings, many conductors of the past era are present, namely Böhm, Jochum, Kabasta, Keilberth, Schuricht and Walter. On the other hand, although I found many recordings by Abendroth, Adler, Knappertsbusch and Rosbaud interesting, for one reason or another, theirs still cannot find their way into the shortlist. Horenstein is a special case in this context, which I'll go back to in future.

Having said that, recordings made before 1940, even with undisputed historical or even historic significance, are of such inferior sound quality that I'm not being honest to myself if I say I choose them as my favourites. 

11 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 4) -- Celibidache, Tintner and Wand

Sergiu Celibidache in his Munich years is a love-it or hate-it affair for Brucknerites, and opinions can be polarised. What cannot be argued is that his recordings in that era is in a league of his own.  My collection has been posted previously:

George Tintner was briefly discussed in episode 2. I was fortunate to have had an interview with him when he was in Hong Kong many years ago. His insight in Bruckner and his candid opinion on many past conductors gave me much pleasure when I listened to the tape of the interview again the other day. On that occasion I was honoured to have him autograph the three Bruckner CDs that had been issued at that time.

Günter Wand's Berlin Philharmonic recordings on SACDs have stunning sound. An indispensable part of my collection. The box and the cover art are both a pleasure to see and feel.

Five SACDs and one DVD: My Life, My Music.

Sometimes you just can't have too much of a good thing.

10 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 3) -- Furtwängler's Bruckner recordings.

Before posting my favourite CDs for individual symphonies, I'd like to post some pictures of those sets which I'd never like to part with. These are the ones I mentioned in episode 2.

What comes first is my Furtwängler's Bruckner collection. He left recordings of Symphonies Nos. 4 to 9. Although the war-time recordings of each of these symphonies are extant, only three of them are complete performances, namely the 5th (28-10-1942), the 8th (17-10-1944) and the 9th (7-10-1944).  For the other three symphonies, there remain only fragments of the 4th and 7th, and the last three movements of the 6th. Apart from the fragmented war-time Fourth (14-16 Dec 1941) which I regretted much missing the chance to purchase the Delta issue, I've collected all the extant Furtwängler's Bruckner recordings. Here shows the pile stacking up on a table.

Symphony No. 4:

This Stuttgart performance was only 1 week earlier than the Munich recording but in much better sound. The interpretation was similar.

The sound is just acceptable.

Symphony No. 5:

Among all these issues the new Testament release is of best sound.
This release was from a private copy of tape from Madam Furtwängler, and the sound is dry and rather 'air-less'. The ensemble of the Vienna Philharmonic on this occasion was not first-rate, particularly in the Finale, which might reflect their declining level in this era.

Symphony No. 6:

An almost sensuous Adagio with mesmerizing ritardandos, and a white-hot Finale.

Symphony No. 7:

Fragments for Furtwängler completists.

The only studio recording in Bruckner by Furtwängler, but this Adagio is lovely nonetheless.
The EMI Historical release has a warmer sound than the HS-2088 Japanese release on the right. On the whole this recording sounds better than the two made in 1951 (below).

Basically the interpretation is more or less the same as the one made in Rome 8 days later.

The sound is not good in this Music & Arts release. Need to find a better transfer to replace this one: either Tahra or Delta.

Symphony No. 8:

The sound in the Altus release is surprisingly good.

The Japanese HS-2088 release is a failure, in an attempt to 'clarify' the sound and add artificial stereo, the remastering just resulted in a thin, rather metallic and separated sound.

This recording of the concert at the Titania Palast is marred by somewhat intrusive audience noise.

The reading is quite different from the other recordings made earlier, and is quite compatible with the serenity evident in the late Furtwängler style.

Symphony No. 9:
Coupled with Symphony No. 7 in the DG Double shown above. This recording is a quintessential example of the lure and power of Furtwängler.

06 May 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 2)

It's really nice to do some housekeeping from time to time. In the case of my Bruckner recordings collection, it provides an opportunity for me to meet my old friends so to speak, e.g. Schuricht's EMI recordings, van Beinum's, and revisit some relatively new ones.

For all lists, there are bound to be some omissions considered blatant and of course inclusions considered illaudable or even downright third-rate by "those in the know". I'd be the least disturbed by these. I believe everyone's choices should be respected so long as there is no intent of malice or discrimination. This is indeed the true beauty of freedom of speech. One example is Kurt Sanderling's Bruckner 7th on Hänssler, which I consider one of my best loved Bruckner 7th recordings. The Gramophone review written by their famous Bruckner reviewer Richard Osborne, however, just showed his dislike of this recording, and concluded with this statement, "Even if it was being offered gratis I would probably grudge it shelfroom." (transl.「就算這是免費贈送,我也可能不願騰出櫃裏空間放置它。」) So there you are. Please take my choices and opinion with a grain of salt!

There are some recordings by a few conductors which I think do not belong to the list of favourite individual symphonies; they are considered en bloc, with good reasons. Georg Tintner is one of them. To be honest, not many will remember the exact name of the orchestras with whom he recorded his Bruckner symphonies, and thus in a sense Tintner "single-handedly" made a name for himself as a reverential Brucknerian. It is his special way of Brucknerian music making that runs through all of his Bruckner recordings. This personal imprint also applies to Furtwängler, "the special one", and Celibidache in his Munich years. Those recordings are all marked by their unmistakable personal stamps. They are in a league of their own. I'm not saying that theirs are all better than other Bruckner recordings, but comparing them with others is almost pointless, so these 3 "groups" will not be included in the favourite list even if I like them very much.

Günter Wand is another special case. He has too many Bruckner recordings to love them all. However, his recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic formed an integral part of his Indian Summer legacy and also of my unforgettable experience, over the years, of dying-for anticipation of the next release to come. Having been issued in the SACD format lately, these five symphonies have secured a firm place in my heart and my shelf.

Happy listening to all Brucknerites.

05 May 2011

Furtwängler's Schumann cello concerto recordings

To answer a question from eaquson from Taiwan, I'd like to post some photos of the extant Furtwängler recordings of the Schumann cello concerto. There are up till now 2 known extant recordings, both from war-time concerts.

The first recording was dated 25-28 Oct 1942, on the same nights when the Bruckner Symphony No. 5 was performed. The latter recording was discussed in a previous post on 29 Apr 2011. The soloist was the Berlin Philharmonic's principal cellist Tibor de Machula. It was issued by DG many times. The one shown on the upper left in the photo below is from a set of 33+1 CDs issued in Japan in 1994, and the other on the upper right is from an international release of a box-set of 5 CDs (which also includes the Bruckner 5th).

Furtwängler's Schumann cello concerto recordings
The second recording was just a fragment of the whole piece (from the coda of the second movement to the end) dated 13-16 November 1943, with Pierre Fournier as the soloist. It was issued by Tahra back in 1994 in the "legendary" box-set FURT 1008-1011 shown below.

(This set was reissued later in the form of a jewel-box, quite different from this original set with each CD in a separate case.)

The "unissued recordings" CD in this set

Fournier's playing was more passionate with a broader tempo. It is really a pity that practically only the last movement was preserved. He took around 9' 54" to finish the last movement compared to 7'10" for de Machula. The sound is even more vivid than that in the DG issue. It is a treasurable document even in its incomplete state.