29 April 2012

April showers bring May flowers

We indeed had many showers and thunderstorms here in Hong Kong in April this year, a little too many compared with previous years. On the other hand I could only find very few CD releases that interested me in April, the EMI Schuricht/VPO Bruckner's 8th and 9th SACD being the only one that comes easily to mind. Barenboim's magnificent Bruckner's 7th was released in late March. As the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers, so I'm looking forward to many attractive CD releases, as well as beautiful flowers, in May.  Let me share with you some of the notable ones.

Celibidache's video products have always been much-sought-after items, and chances are if you miss it in the first batch of release, you'll more often than not miss it altogether. Now EuroArts will give us a treat in the form of a 5-DVD box set. All have been previously issued, but it is the first time that they are grouped together in one convenient box set. It contains the piano concerti of Schumann, Tchaikovsky (No. 1) and Brahms (both) with none other than Daniel Barenboim at the piano on DVD1 and DVD2, Dvorak Symphony No. 9 and Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 on DVD3, and Ravel and Debussy on DVD4, all with the Munich Philharmonic. DVD5 contains Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, this time with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR.

Bruckner fans are not forgotten as well. The long out-of-print LDs and VHSs of B6-8 will now be reissued in 3 newly remastered DVDs, coupled with a "re-discovered" audio recording of B4 in 2 CDs, of concerts on 5&6 February 1989 in Musikverein, Vienna. It was a significantly slower reading than the one performed 4 months previously in Gasteig, Munich issued previously in the EMI set (about four minutes longer in the Adagio and more than three minutes longer in the Finale, discounting the applause recorded at the end). It was reportedly due to Celi's meticulous adjustment of tempo according to the acoustic of the performing venue, i.e. shorter reverberation in Munich.

When Bruckner is mentioned, how can we not come to the ubiquitous Günter Wand? Following the issue of his Bruckner recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic in a budget box set in January 2012 (RCA 88691922952), and those in Cologne included in the Günter Wand: The Great Recordings 28CD+1DVD box set, now comes a Korean release of 33 CDs of his live recordings on RCA (RCA S70845C) in the late 1980s till his last recording, including all his Bruckner recordings with NDRSO and BPO, apparently filling the gap left by the The Great Recordings set. What is particulary tempting is the inclusion of his only recording with the Chicago SO in 1989 of Brahms Symphony No. 1 which I praised in a previous post, and his incomplete live Beethoven cycle (lacking the 7th -9th) with NDRSO, with excellent Eroica, 4th, 5th and 6th.

Here comes a major reissue from Universal Italy: The Art of Giuseppe Sinopoli, a 16-CD box set featuring many out-of-print recordings, among which are his lovely Beethoven's Ninth, and Ravel's Bolero and Daphnis and Chloe suite. A little disappointing is the inclusion of only two of his Bruckner recordings, the popular 4th and 7th, which IMHO do not serve as good examples of how wonderful a Brucknerian he is. Yes his 5th and 9th may still be in circulation and thus not "allowed" in such a set, but why not his superb 3rd and 8th?

Michael Gielen's Beethoven recordings referred to in the post

When Beethoven symphonies recordings are mentioned, how can I forget Michael Gielen?  This is not the reissue of his recordings in the EMI set (recorded in 1986-1994), but a newly remastered audio products of his live recordings (recorded 1997-2000) issued on DVDs by EuroArts. Sample excerpts can be found here. The Eighth within this cycle has been issued by Hanssler before (CD93.56) but I don't know if there is a new remastering for the present release.

Claudio Abbado's Bruckner recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic may have received at best luke-warm reception in the past, but his performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in recent years have made him a master Brucknerian of wide acclaim. His 4th is among one of my favourites. And now comes the 5th on DVD and BD (Accentus ACC10243BD), recorded in performances on 19 and 20 August 2011 which were highly lauded in the press.

04 April 2012

Barenboim's Staatskapelle Berlin Bruckner Symphony No. 7 -- An embodiment of tragic beauty and elegiac mellowness

If Dudamel's Bruckner Symphony No. 9 recording contained in his 3-CD set issued in August last year was not counted, we've had to wait for 7 years since the last release of a new recording of a Bruckner symphony from Deutsche Grammophon, of Thielemann's Bruckner's 5th in March 2005. In a sense it reflects the saddening fall of the recorded classical music industry. Now after listening to the new Barenboim's Bruckner Symphony No. 7, the first Bruckner recording released since his 'reunion' with DG, I'm glad to say that the wait is worth it. (By the way, the same could not comfortably be said of Dudamel's B9).

Recorded at Philharmonie, Berlin in June 2010 (live)
Recorded at Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Berlin in February 1992
Recorded at Orchestral Hall, Chicago in March 1979

Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E Major is one of his most popular symphonies, and it has been well served in recordings. For this reason, one can easily find several different recordings of the Seventh by a certain conductor with some inclination for Bruckner. Barenboim, who has a natural affinity for Bruckner, now gives us a new live recording, making his total number of commercial recordings of the Seventh to three. The pictures and the recording dates and venues of these 3 recordings are shown above. His last Berlin Philharmonic endeavour was arguably one of the least successful members of his memorable cycle with this orchestra in the 1990s. His earlier recording in Chicago has the blessings of the famous Chicago brass and he has made very prudent use of them to good effect.

In fact the BPO recording is not without merits. The orchestra, as usual, played superbly. Barenboim conferred the music an elegance that made those beautiful melodies more lovable. He was also capable of achieving fluidity in whole movements, a masterstroke of the Seventh thanks to the presence of very few general pauses which were otherwise so often employed in Bruckner's earlier symphonies, together with organic flow between thematic groups. This fluidity is also evident in this new recording, but the emphasis has shifted from elegance to rich chromaticism. The orchestral palette and tone colour of the Staatskapelle Berlin is marked with magnificent sumptuousness, an attribute which is best appreciated in their live concerts.

In the subtitle of this post, I describe this new recording as an embodiment of tragic beauty and elegiac mellowness. The Seventh is widely known as one of the mellowest in Bruckner's oeuvre. However I'd say that this mellowness can be very different in different conductors' hands. Even subtle colouration can move your hearts in different directions. My experience in communicating with other listeners and reading articles or books tells me that people can have disparate ethos on the Seventh. Exactly for this reason, Barenboim's new recording can make those who fixate on what Derek Watson describes in his book about the Finale being "one of grand jubilation, uniting gaiety and grandeur" wince at the defiance and tragic unease which Barenboim nursed the exposition in the Finale. The Coda, however, makes me marvel at the transfiguration from darkness to light, the very arrival of the metaphorical Resurrection. After listening to the performance of this Finale, which moves me very much, I immediately took out the book Bruckner Studies and re-read Timothy Jackson's chapter on this Finale about tragic reversed sonata form. He asserts that the reversed recapitulation here has "tragic, programmatic implications". And then I listened to the CD again. The performance is indeed hand in glove with the tragic form.

In the first movement, the opening arpeggio of the cellos and horns is absolute beauty with a thin tragic overtone. It exudes an aura so captivating that, in my experience, only Wand's BPO Bruckner 4 opening can match. Barenboim has put to good use his wide experience in and good understanding of Wagner's operas here. The powerful crescendo arc in this movement's coda from pp/ppp to fff is overwhelming and unforgettable.

The treatment of the great Adagio can make or break an impressive performance of the Seventh. Barenboim's is touching to the heart. What a lament the first theme is! The second theme (from 4'14") is exemplary of what tragic beauty is. I'm lost in words as how painfully beautiful it is. I feel grateful to this experience because it occurs at a time when I have vague doubts about whether I would become numb to this wonderful music after having listened to more than 150 different recordings of the Seventh, many more than once, albeit over a long period of time. The long crescendo buildup to the summit (with timpani, cymbal and triangle at 17'06") is unusually peaceful, making the climax all the more shattering. DG has tried to recapture the atmosphere of the live concert by including a long pause (24 seconds) after the Adagio: the music ends at 21'18" but that track ends at 21"42". So if you listen through this recording without jumping tracks, this pause, together with the immediate sound by close miking, will give you an impression of being there. A thoughtful touch I'd say.

The Scherzo is marked sehr schnell (roughly equivalent to presto), and I just don't quite understand why so many conductors have made it so laggard. Although Barenboim is not fast here, the lively rhythm and his delicate inflections leave no sluggish feelings at all.

This new release will surely join those few who make it into my list of favourite recordings.

P.S. Daniel Barenboim is to conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in "The Bruckner Project" in Royal Festival Hall, London with B7 on 16 April, B8 on 17 April and B9 on 20 April. You can listen to the B8 concert on BBC Radio 3 Live in Concert within one week after the performance.