26 June 2012

Please, stop these unfounded accusations on Bruckner

Anton Bruckner has been plagued by too many nasty stereotypes even till this day. Many of these labellings were based on a mixture, of varying proportions, of misunderstanding, misinformation, prejudice or simply a mindless spreading of the rumour. This will influence not only people's impressions of his personality, but also opinion and appreciation of his music. Fortunately many of these wrong labels have been disputed against in books and journal articles in recent years, but while we think that the situation is improving, here comes a remark by Norman Lebrecht linking Bruckner with anti-Semitism. 

On page 40 of his book published in 2010, Why Mahler?, Lebrecht writes: “Mahler calls Bruckner his 'father-in-learning', overlooking his repeated disparagements of Mahler’s Jewishness. It is the price he has to pay for having a mentor.”  The word "repeated" when coupled with "disparagements of Mahler's Jewishness" makes a very strong accusation. If this statement were quoted repeatedly in future, what it implies would have become "truth" to many. Some would say that it is no big deal, as Bruckner was already a dead man more than 100 years ago. If this is the case, where are the values we are holding dear to our heart: respect and justice?

Mr Ken Ward, Editor of The Bruckner Journal, has made great efforts to analyse Lebrecht's accusation in a scholarly manner and found that it is basically unfounded. I have high respect to Mr Ward who has taken so much time and trouble to bring us the evidence. His well evidence-based article, Bruckner, Mahler and Anti-Semitism, appears in the current issue of The Bruckner Journal and it can be read online here (hosted in Mr John Berky's website).

I sincerely appeal to you to read this article and help stop the rumour. We should treat Bruckner with the respect that he deserves.

17 June 2012

My frugal photography gear for travel

Happy Father's Day.

We had a happy family gathering today involving three generations. The semi-buffet lunch was really nice. An occasion to take some pictures as well. My son Andrew just came back from the UK last night and he has recently taken up an interest in photography. However our choice of photography gear differs. He is a DSLR man (in Canon) through and through, although he can't afford more than 2 lenses (one used) at this moment. I have more diversified choices. We talked about what gear I used when I travelled to Jeju, Korea last month.

As I'm not young anymore, weight consideration is of paramount importance now. I remember quite well my heavy camera bag, weighing more than 10 pounds, in my younger days, an act often ridiculed by my wife. Now I become lazier and aim at light weight even if that means some compromise in image quality (IQ), or so it seems. I reckon that even if not all lenses are created equal with some better than others on measurement, what really matters is the quality of the pictures and it is not necessarily in direct proportion to the accepted quality or price of the lens one uses.

Although good lenses are never too cheap, I've always maintained that frugality is not impossible in one's choice of photography gear: I've never taken to the foolish habit of showing off one's exotic lenses -- the "see what I got" superiority complex. Andrew asked me to post my choice of gear for travel in this blog, and here it is in the following picture.

The list of gear from left to right in the picture above:
1) Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED (465g)
2) Nikon D5100 body and Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P (560g + 120g)
3) Panasonic Lumix G3 with Lumix Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 ASPH (200g for the lens)
4) Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 (761g for the G3 body + lens)
Total: 2106g

This 2.1kg set serves my purpose and pocket well. It covers the 35mm camera equivalent of focal lengths from 18mm to 36mm (zoom), 50mm (prime), 67.5mm (prime) and 90-400mm (zoom). And it contains 2 bodies. Low-light scenes can be tackled with the f/1.4 normal lens.

As Jeju is well known for its beautiful natural scenery, a good wide-angle lens is a must. This Nikon 12-24mm zoom was bought together with my D70 when they were first released many years ago, and has been a stellar performer as far as wide angles are concerned. I have thought of acquiring the Lumix 7-14mm f/4 ASPH before, but since no filter can be attached to it because of the bulging front lens and it is not cheap, I may as well use my well-tried Nikon zoom.

I chose D5100 because of its tiltable LCD and its middle of the road specifications and price. It also fits the DX format of the 12-24mm zoom. The 45mm f/2.8P lens is not only cute but also sharp and has the lovable "footprint" of old lenses. Although it is manual focus, automation in metering is still possible because it is a "P" lens. I may change it for an autofocus lens in my next trip, using the cheap but very good Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G instead (not much heavier at 185g).

The micro 4/3 system is chosen for its light weight. The IQ of the "Leica" 25mm f/1.4 lens is excellent. The tele-zoom is particularly handy given its feather weight compared with similar zooms for any DSLR system. For comparison the NIkon AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED weighs 745g alone, almost as much as this micro 4/3 lens together with the G3 body. The much coveted AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII is 1540g in weight and costs significantly more.

The total cost of this set is still less than what one would pay for the new D800 body alone.

Oh I forget to mention that this set has an all-weather mini backup in the form of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 which my wife carries. This camera has proven to be very handy both in rain and in snow.

10 June 2012

An oft-overlooked bright star at twilight -- Günter Wand's live NDR Brahms symphonies cycle

So much for Celibidache, now it should be Günter Wand's turn, as they were both born in 1912 and the anniversary this year should be remembered for both of them.

When notable Brahms symphonies cycles are mentioned, "Wand's NDR cycle" is often among one of them. However, the term "Wand's NDR cycle" serves to perpetuate the misconception that Wand has recorded only one cycle, the studio one in 1982-1983. This misconception was further reinforced by critics who largely neglected his second cycle, also with NDR SO, but from live concerts in 1995-1997. A quick search in the Internet will confirm this phenomenon. It is such a pity because if you like his first cycle, I'm pretty sure you'll love his second if you get to know it.

Wand's live cycle (in lower left corner) along with the different issues of his earlier studio cycle

Since the late 1990s, Wand has made up his mind to do away with studio recordings as much as possible, and tried to preserve for us the spontaneity of a live concert in his recordings. His second Brahms cycle was initially planned to be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of Brahms. However only Symphonies Nos. 1-3 were finished in time, because illness delayed his Brahms 4 concert to the end of 1997. The complete cycle was released only in 1998.

Before I listened to his second cycle, I was filled with some ambivalence. On the one hand I was full of expectations, of the excitement of his live concerts. On the other hand there was a certain degree of trepidation as I asked myself, "His first cycle is so good already; how can this second one better it?" Thank goodness I was not disappointed. I was beaming while listening to the First. Then I was filled with awe when subsequent symphonies were played, culminating in a true marvel at a magnificent Fourth.

Wand has a strong grasp of balance in Brahms, between movements and also within movements. His strong attribute in maintaining tension, as mentioned in my previous post on his Bruckner 8, is evident in each symphony here. Each phrase breathes with organic vigour, a magic brewed by the combination of his thoughtful articulation and the very nature of a live concert. Not unexpectedly from Wand, precision is a hallmark of the performances. Astounding is his exhibition of rigour in thematic and tonal relationship and motivic development, so important in Brahms. This rigour is finely balanced with romantic gestures of a prudent nature. Nothing is overdone. In his readings there is also a lovely degree of intimacy and warmth as the inner voices are not masked by the apparent thick scoring as under less-abled hands.

Wand opens the First Symphony with an urgent, even angry, pace. The transition into the Allegro proper is deftly done with a slight retardando. The music just flows seamlessly without mannerisms. It is crowned with an amazing Finale with vitality and exaltation. The Second Symphony is attractively bucolic on the whole. Light, shade and darkness are carefully taken care of. The Allegretto is full of sunny lyricism and the dancing is truly graceful reminiscent of Wand's felicity in those old Minuets. Wand exposes, balances and resolves the dichotomy or duality of rhythms, themes and emotions in the Third Symphony with expert control and prudent restrain, without indulging in excessiveness. There is a natural progression of the melodic line from one orchestral section to another, as in the Andante, where the woodwinds are particularly lovely. The autumnal glow is so mesmerising. Wand ushers in the final measures of the Finale, a recurrence of the first movement's descending main theme, with such humble poetic poignancy that moves me almost to tears. To me it is one of the best Brahms' Thirds on record. But that's not the end. More is to come in the Fourth Symphony.

After listening to the Fourth, Elisabet von Herzogenberg, a good friend and piano pupil of Brahms', wrote to him: "I have had a strange experience with the work, the deeper I look into it, the more the texture deepens, the more the stars appear in the twilight which at first hides the sparkling points, the more pleasures I have, expected or unexpected, and the clearer the continuous tension becomes." I will finish by saying that this quote expresses succinctly, and much better than I could have put into words, my feelings towards Wand's readings in his second Brahms cycle.

Recording details:
Venue: Musikhalle Hamburg
First: 21-23 April 1996
Second: 9-11 July 1996
Third: 9-11 April 1995
Fourth: 7-9 December 1997
All live recordings

P.S. I'm happy to learn that my love of this Brahms cycle, particularly the Third and Fourth, is echoed by a friend of mine who is a veteran classical music critic. Surprisingly he told me he was not aware of this set when I mentioned to him that one of the attractions of the new Korean 33-CD set is the inclusion of this live Brahms cycle. He asked me to lend him these CDs and, lo and behold, he emailed me a couple of weeks later telling me happily that he could find someone to hunt down these CDs for him, but at a premium of more than double the original price! He seldom, if ever, bought CDs at such ridiculous price.

05 June 2012

The falsification of Celibidache's Bruckner concerts at your home -- an emerging partial cycle

For Celibidache, an audio or video recording of his concert is not his concert at all. The dimension of space is absent in the recording, according to his understanding of the phenomenology of music.

For lesser mortals like us, these recordings are the only things that can approximate his concerts, apart from the memories that exist in the brains of those who have attended his concerts in person. In fact memories are still not equivalent to the experience at the time of the concert when the music was playing. Hence in 2012, the only practical and existential way to get in touch with Celibidache's Bruckner concerts is by way of recordings, be they audio or video.

Thanks to the coming releases of DVDs of his Bruckner concerts, one can finally experience a falsification (I'm sure Celi would have insisted this word) of a partial cycle of Bruckner symphonies from No. 4 to No. 9 being played in one's home theatre or computer or whatever one feels like to use. Here is the playing list:

Symphony No. 4 -- a newcomer from Arthaus Musik (101645)

Munich Philharmonic 1983

The following is from the back cover:

The Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96) was one of the most adamant personalities in the music world. He rehearsed three times as much as other conductors and avoided making recordings because he believed they were a false representation his musical intentions. This concert from the Herkulessaal in Munich captures one of the rare occasions on which he consented to a recording being made. He conducts the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Anton Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No. 4 in E flat major.
Also included is an interview with Sergiu Celibidache about conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.

Symphony No. 5 -- again from Arthaus (101639), Munich Philharmonic 1985 (Picture here)

Symphonies Nos. 6-8 -- from Sony, Munich Philharmonic (Picture here)

Symphony No. 7 (Berlin version) -- from EuroArts (2011408) (Picture here)

Symphony No. 9 -- from Opus Arte, Denon or TDK, Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI 1969

If you feel like, you can add Bruckner's Mass No. 3 in F minor from Arthaus (100251) to complete the 'cycle'.

This 'cycle' will be available by mid-July 2012.

The only regret is that there is still a Munich Philharmonic B9 DVD wanting. One can only hope.