Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, etc - Dorati

Composer(s): Béla Bartók
Conductor: Antal Doráti
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Hungarica
Label: Mercury Living Presence
Catalog #: 432017
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 1 hour 11 mins

Reviewer: John Grabowski (Amazon Customer Review)
Boulez (DG) and Reiner (RCA) have "the reputation" in the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok, as the many reviews praising both recordings will attest. Yet for my money this disc is "where it's at," to use street slang. Dorati gives us stunning clarity and some real insights into a work that's a lot more complex than other recordings will have you realize. There are inner details revealing Bartok's complex cross-rhythms that often get lost in the frenzy of brass and percussion in many performances. Amazingly, this recording is as powerful and, well, "loud" as any other--in fact even more than most, including Boulez's effort with the CSO--yet all the delicate detail shows through. You'll hear lines you never heard before, and discover phrases to be make up of combinations of instruments you didn't realize. The same relevations are present in the Dance Suite as well. One almost feels like one is examing a score when hearing these performances, but that's not meant as an insult. Rather it means the clarity of Bartok's writing comes through in ways I've not heard before or since. Just listen for the way Dorati prepares, in the ostinato figure, for the forte entrance for the strings at 2:13 of the first movement (so often that entrance just sounds arbrtrary and out of nowhere), or the chilling blending of the winds at 1:10 in the third movement. Then listen to the descending line in the flutes (?) at 5:06 of the same movement--I've never heard them in any previous performance. That whole moment is prepared for brilliantly, with a slow gradual buildup of tension that had me holding my breath. Dorati seems to recognize something many other conductors have not--this mournful slow movement is really the spine of the symphony, the weightiest movement. After this gloomiest of moments, the next movement is not the light lilting flicker it often is played as, but rather sunlight emerging from cloudy skies, with muted optimism from the strings starting at 1:05. The comical turn at roughly two minutes in, based on everything from a bawdy jig to the first movement of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony, depending on whom you ask, is taken for all it's worth. The finale, which begins with a rarely-heard accelerando that works perfectly to raise the pulse, is like staring into a clear pond and seeing (or hearing) all sorts of intricate inner details for the first time. Listen to the trombone line(s) at 1:52. Bet you didn't know those were two deparate brass lines, did you, so often do we hear just one blast of trombone. But careful attention to phrasing throughout this recording--making sure this player doesn't step on that player's last note, or ensuring a syncopated phrase is clear--is what makes this recording stand above the rest.

Dorati also contrasts tempos more than any other conductor I've heard, bringing very different characteristics to the various sections within each movement and really differentiating them for the listener. Because of the distinctions from section to section, I got a sense of the structure in all the works here far more stronly than I do from most recordings, yet nothing is forced, or indeed even that extreme. I wonder instead why so many other conductors have been so tentative in infusing Bartok with their own personality. The much-heralded Boulez recording is especially disappointing here.

There are a few very minor flaws. Despite first-rate sound, there are occasional quick "drop-outs" here and there, probably due to the 35mm film recording medium and the recording's age. The miking is a bit too close perhaps. These blemishes shouldn't discourage anyone, however, except possibly the most hard-core audiophile who treasures great sound more than great music.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Special Tribute: Bryden Thomson conducts Nielsen 4th & 6th Symphony

Composer(s): Carl NIELSEN
Conductor: Bryden "Jack" THOMSON
Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Label: Chandos
Catalog #: CHAN 9047
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 70 min

Text Credit: David C. F. Wright
The death of Bryden Thomson in November 1991 was a painful blow to music. He was 63. Undoubtedly one of the most able conductors of his time, he possessed many qualities which, because of his inherent modesty, may not be fully recognised. He always spoke of getting to know the music, which statement belied his evident understanding of it; he believed that he was the servant of the music never suggesting that he could add anything that was not already implicit. Indeed he was not concerned with his personal advancement - only to realise faithfully each composer's wishes. Into his conducting he brought his conviction that the correct tempo was the key to a worthy performance and this made for one of his greatest qualities, namely the ability to ensure the most perfect clarity of orchestral texture, a phenomenal gift that is rare to the point of uniqueness Among his other many splendid attributes was that he was probably the best orchestral accompanist Britain has ever produced. This was fostered by his conducting of the Royal Ballet on tour for 18 months in the early 1960s and his natural gift for identifying with other performers - part of the fundamental goodness of his character.

Born in Ayr in 1928, his interest in music did not really begin until he was about 15. At the Royal Scottish Academy of Music he won almost every prize. He furthered his studies in Hamburg and on his return to Scotland became deputy to Ian Whyte, conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Later, after a brief return to teaching, he was conductor to the Norwegian Opera and developed his interest in the Scandinavian repertoire. In 1966 he became associate conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra. Two years later he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra and the general opinion is that it was he who so built up the orchestra as to establish its claim to a new title, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Clearly under his five-year conductorship, the orchestra widened both its repertoire and abilities. From 1977 to 1985 he was music director of the Ulster Orchestra, then almost completely unknown. As with the orchestra in Manchester, he built up this body into the highly professional and universally recognised orchestra it now is. For a year he was with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and between 1984 and 1987 conducted the Radio Telefis Eirann Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. It is entirely due to 'Jack' Thomson that this orchestra too became such a magnificent group of players. He introduced to Dublin all the symphonies of Beethoven, Sibelius, Bruckner, Nielsen and Dvorák. He also performed works by Irish composers such as Gerard Victory, Aloys Fleischmann and James Wilson; when in Cardiff he had similarly given works by such composers as David Wynne, Alun Hoddinott and a memorable cycle of all twelve symphonies by Daniel Jones.

It is his legacy of recordings for Chandos which will enable people to value the work of this superlative conductor. He recorded all the Bax symphonies with the London Philharmonic, apart from No. 4 which he recorded with the Ulster Orchestra. With this now highly-polished Belfast orchestra he recorded the works of Hamilton Harty. With the LSO he recorded the nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams which have deservedly won critical acclaim. His Elgar recordings have caused Elgar-haters to listen with interest; his Walton performances are as good as one could ever expect.

Jack knew what he wanted from orchestras. This occasionally brought him into conflict with some individuals and administrators, earning him a reputation for being peppery. But all this was worth while, as can be measured by the results. His recordings of the Nielsen and Martinu symphonies have discovered a new world for so many, and that, in itself, is evidence of the debt of gratitude we all owe this devoted servant of music. His like may not be seen again.

Reviewer: R.L. (from
This is the last release (and without question the best) in Bryden Thomson's Nielsen cycle. The Fourth Symphony has a splendid fire and enthusiasm, and calls to mind the ardent intensity of the pioneering Danish recordings by Launy Grondahl (HMV, 5/52—nla) and Thomas Jensen (Dana cord—nla). The orchestra play as if their lives depend on it and the violence underlying the score makes a strong impact, both at the opening and in the finale. In the slow movement the string playing has a fervour and anguish that call to mind Nielsen's own image of the melodic line soaring "like the eagle on the wind". I have heard performances of greater finesse, including a remarkably unaffected concert one by the Swedish Radio Orchestra under Leif Segerstam (and Blomstedt's LP and CD versions on HMV and Decca with the Danish Radio-10/75, nla—and San Francisco orchestras respectively, and also Igor Markevitch and the Royal Danish Orchestra—briefly available on DG, 1/67), but few that convey the spirit of this remarkable score to such telling effect. (Incidentally Ole Schmidt's account with the LSO on Unicorn-Kanchana--part of a three-disc set—is another, despite some sonic limitations.) In any event, this newcomer makes a useful alternative to the Blomstedt and Andrew Davis (Virgin Classics) listed above, both of them coupled with the Fifth Symphony.
In some ways I prefer Thomson's Sixth to any current rival, Including Blomstedt's cultured and splendidly recorded account on Decca. He strikes exactly the right tempo for the first movement, and indeed seems as every bit inside it as was Jensen (also on Decca, 12/54—nla). No praise I hasten to add, could be higher. Nor have I ever heard anyone make better sense of the problematic "Humoreske", which Thomson takes at a steadier pace than most rival conductors, so that its questioning spirit registers properly. The "Proposta seria" is as eloquent and searching as any I have heard. We are now well served on CD for this symphony; both Blomstedt and Berglund (RCA) are excellent, while the Salonen/Sony Classical account with the Swedish Radio orchestra is the best in his cycle. However, to my mind, the newcomer from Chandos brings one closer to this extraordinary work than any other. Strongly recommended.

Horenstein conducts Mahler 7th Symphony

Composer(s): Gustav MAHLER
Conductor: Jascha HORENSTEIN
Orchestra/Ensemble: New Philharmonia Orchestra
Label: Music & Arts
Catalog #: CD 727
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 74:18 min

Reviewer: Tony Duggan (Reviewer from

Horenstein performed the work at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London with the New Philharmonia and a tape of the BBC broadcast has found its way on to a number of issues since then. (Music and Arts CD-4727, Descant 02). The opening of the work is deeply imposing with a real funereal tread in the strings, straight out of the Fifth Symphony - a remarkable effect. Notice also the high woodwind squealing out of the texture. As ever, Horenstein shows himself to be the master of the total sound. What he also achieves in the exposition is what Rattle tried to do but failed and that is relate the tempo changes to each other, knitting the exposition together with a sure grip. He also manages tenderness and real sweep in the second subject. Then in the wonderful development section there's a palpable inner tension that Horenstein somehow seems to carry over from the start and which will distinguish this reading of the first movement to the end. Evidence again of Horenstein's ability to "read" an entire movement and then deliver it almost in one "breath". At the recapitulation note the slight pause before it starts, like a "pause for breath", then beneath the earthy trombone solo the presence of a lower string cushion that I think is unique. His delivery of this passage is not pretty, though. It's more reminiscent of the trombone solo passages in the first movement of the Third than many I have heard and shows a true natural grandeur. So complete is Horenstein's grasp of every aspect of this first movement that the end is genuinely triumphant, the feeling that you have lived through something important. The second movement's opening has about it an analytical quality but this then gives way to a freer treatment of the main material and the Trios. Horenstein seems to see these as much lighter passages in tone than many of his colleagues, recognising the need for contrasts in this work. Overall he is a full two minutes quicker than Abbado and Bernstein, for example, but the music never sounds rushed. Indeed, it sounds perfectly natural with wit and irony that's a joy to hear. The second Trio then slows a little, allowing Horenstein to explore the possibilities of the music. In the Scherzo, contrasting again, Horenstein favours a slightly slower tempo with the shadows taken care of in his care for lower registers helped by the large acoustic. Mood rather than effect seems to be Horenstein's philosophy where the temptation must be to go for the latter. But he wasn't that kind of conductor. He always looked beyond the obvious and since this "one off" concert performance is available to us we can appreciate how the benefits of this kind of approach accrue over time. It's such a pity he never recorded it commercially, of course. There are rough patches to the playing here and also the way the recording was made means the sound you hear is not ideal. However, it's hard to believe a studio recording would have bettered this in anything other than those areas. His second Nachtmusik, like Rattle's, is quite quick, more andante, which I think is right in that it suits the concept of a serenade far better. I would also make the suggestion that since this music doesn't represent Mahler at his best it might be better if it doesn't detain us too long. To those who like their Mahler indulgent I would point to this movement needing to provide a bridge to the finale, which under Horenstein it does, making his last movement sound a natural conclusion to this work, marking the end of our journey out of Night and into Day more successfully than most. The fact that he and his orchestra play it for all it's worth just adds the cherry to the icing on the cake with the momentum kept up to a degree other conductors only dream of. At the close the threads are pulled together and the very end, horns blazing like a great shout of joy, means you will want to join in the applause of the audience. Those strange, haunted, benighted souls for whom perfection of sound and playing come before everything will moan that this version falls short of their definition of the acceptable. But I believe this to be one of the greatest Mahler Sevenths on the market.

Reviewer: Customer Review from
I did until I heard this performance. Horenstein digs deeper in this great sprawling work than any conductor I know except Barbirolli. The recording stands as a great testament to Horenstein's uncanny sympathy with the composer.

For those who complain that say the finale is a rag bag of pastiche, try this recording - all becomes clear; the blazing, kaleidoscopic score is melded into a great arching whole in Horenstein's hands. The Philharmonia are their usual brilliant self - and Horenstein's brilliance at the podium is in complete contrast to the stumbling, gaunt Klemperer recording made only 2 years before.

For Mahlerians, this CD along with the ultimate Das Lied recorded by Horenstein a few years later are essential items in the collection.

The sound is decent, but the performance is unique.

Abbado conducts Mussorgsky

Composer(s): Modest MUSSORGSKY
Artist(s): Zehava Gal
Conductor: Claudio ABBADO
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus
Label: RCA Victor Gold Seal
Catalog #: 661354
Release Date: July 26, 2007
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 54 min

Personal Thoughts:
When the word "Abbado conducts Mussorgsky" comes out, most people would almost associate to the now famous live recordings he made with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the acoustically superb Philharmonie.

The above CD represents Abbado initial attempt at these works, during his time with the London Symphony in the 80s. This was a much younger Abbado, full of energy and passion. You can immediately sense it in the music, especially in the original version of the "Night on Bald Mountain", which was pretty much made famous by this CD.

Having heard both this and the BPO version of the Night on Bald Mountain, I'll have to say I prefer the LSO version. Technically speaking, the orchestra playing could be a little neater and tighter than the Berliners. But in terms of the getting to the meat and soul of the music, LSO triumphs here. Take for example, the wind section, the trumpets were screeching like witches in a crazed state, (don't expect the BPO trumpeters to do that as readily). You can almost see the witches dancing in their demonic fiendish delights (9:51) in the bassoon solo passage.

In my humble opinion, this is one of those landmark recordings that makes everyone else in the music world relook at Mussorgsky's music, especially the original version of Night on Bald Mountain.

Reviewer: Christopher McCoy (Customer Review from
Yes, the original version of "Night on Bald Mountain" performed on this CD is much better than the Rimsky version. It's ferocious and almost terrifying at times. But it is Abbado's recordings of Mussorgsky's early choral works that make this CD such a gem. I have never been able to understand why these brilliant works have not achieved wider currency. Outside of Abbado, very few conductors have recorded these pieces (a Valeri Polyansky CD on Chandos Records has a couple of them and Abbado recorded all of them again for Deutsche Grammophon a few years ago but this CD is sadly not available in the U.S.).

If you are captivated--as I am--by the choral pieces from Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, then you will surely enjoy Mussorgsky's early choral works. The choral pieces on this CD, though written by a young Mussorgsky, are no less inspired than those from his later operas. "Joshua" and the "Chorus of Priestesses" are from Mussorgsky's first opera Salammbo, which he left unfinished after completing only one act (Salammbo was recorded about 20 years ago in Italy for CBS Records but this recording has unfortunately never been transferred to CD). "The Destruction of Sennacherib" and "Oedipus in Athens" are independent choral pieces, both of which are quite striking and contain moments of great depth. To be sure, there is little of Mussorgsky's more 'advanced' harmony in these pieces, of the sort employed in the song-cycle Sunless, for instance. But it scarcely matters! These pieces stand on their own. The "Destruction Of Sennacherib" contains a central section that is supposed to depict the Angel of Death, which in my view is one of the most arresting and haunting passages in all of Russian--or Western--choral music.

I should also note that the Prelude and Galitsin's Journey from Khovanshchina live up to the quality of Abbado's live recording of the complete Khovanshchina on Deutsche Grammophon. (I have to agree with the other reviewer that Abbado is the greatest conductor of Mussorgsky.) I would frankly recommend all of Abbado's Mussorgsky recordings, but especially his Khovanshchina. If you don't want to get the entire opera, try the Sony CD with Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, which contains some further excerpts from Khovanshchina not included on the CD under review here. Anatoly Kotcherga's singing on Shaklovity's aria is profoundly moving.

Russian Horn Concertos - Marie-Luise Neunecker

Composer(s): Reinhold GLIERE, Alexander GLAZUNOV, Vissarion SHEBALIN
Artist(s): Marie Luise Neunecker (French Horn)
Conductor: Werner Andreas Albert
Orchestra/Ensemble: Bamberg SO
Label: KOCH SCHWANN 3-1357-2 H1
Release Date: January 24, 1995
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 65.37

Personal Thoughts:
The first time I heard the Gliere horn concerto, it was from the radio, it was already halfway into the middle of the 1st movement, my first thoughts were, "this sounds late romantic, my kind of music!".

Before that the only horn concertoes I knew were Mozart's and Richard Strauss's, composed in the strictest of Germanic traditions.

Since then I have fallen with love with Mr Hermann Baumann's beautiful, unabatedly Romantic rendition, and I told myself then, "this is as good as it gets with this piece".

Then came that fateful day, when I heard the concerto again, but played with a different voice, it sounded full of feminine sensitivity. I desperately tried to find the name of the player, and eventually a french horn player friend told me, "Oh! It's Marie-Louis Neunecker, a huge Amazonian of a woman!" Her name was so difficult to remember (just like Asian names are difficult for Westerners), I kept remembering her as the "Female Amazonian Horn Player" =P

I think she really brought a new dimension to all the music she plays in this CD, very distinctly different from what the gentlemen horn players can offer. She plays with an intoxicating mix of musicianship, sensitivity and passion We should have more top notch female brass instrument recording artists.

Review from Mr Rob Barnett from
Neunecker has, with minimal publicity, gradually tackled much of the neglected 20th century repertoire for French Horn. Not all that long ago she recorded the Schoeck and Ethel Smyth concertos for Koch.

The Gliere was, in the 1950s, made famous within the USSR by an LP of the composer directing the Bolshoi orchestra accompanying the dedicatee, Valery Polekh. The Concerto radiates old-fashioned sun-warmed Germanic romanticism courtesy of Schumann and adds to the 'soup' a measure of Tchaikovskian delirium. The 'Hollywood' sentimentality of the strings at 3.55 in the andante is as close as you can get to Korngold without being Erich Wolfgang. The cadenza in the long Allegro (I) is a conflation of Neunecker and Polekh. The 'troika' allegro of the finale is straight out of Prince Igor. It is pleasantly poetic rather than outright compelling although there are some commanding moments (5.30) in the finale. Pleasant poetry also sums up the neatly rounded little pieces for horn and piano. Rivinius's pianism is extremely sophisticated in its moment by moment responsiveness to the horn. The music is in style with the Rachmaninov preludes.

Glazunov's three pieces are most lovingly done. These are fragile, musically speaking, and only the most sympathetic culture will allow them to speak as they do here. The Reverie must surely have taken the famous horn solo from Tchaikovsky's Fifth as its point of departure in much the same way as the Serenade relates to the second movement of the Fourth. The Idyll is a seven minute andante. There are no abrasive edges to Neunecker's playing and she is ideally partnered.

Shebalin is rather well represented on the excellent Olympia label where one collection includes this Concertino alongside a number of other substantial works. This is much better recorded and an antidote to romantic noodling. Although it certainly has its share of 'waldlied' it is also lively and even pungently vehement (cf Walton's Scapino). Shebalin was condemned for formalism in the late 1940s and stripped of his academic posts. The silver-threaded lyricism of this music implies a sort of Soviet John Ireland although the finale is closer to de Falla and Shostakovich.

This is a first class collection which is obscure only because its virtues have not been 'trumpeted'. Koch seem to get precious little attention in the media.

Neunecker is a musician of outstanding musicality and technical brilliance. Snap it up while it is still available.

Prokofiev & Stravinsky - Violin Concertos - Cho-Liang LIN, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Composer(s): Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev
Artist(s): Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Label: Sony Classical 53969
Release Date: November 1, 1994
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 69:16

Reviewer: Lionel Choi (Staff Writer) from
The best part of Lin's CD has to be his dazzling account of the second concerto. It is easily one of the best accounts ever made. He combines the lyrical finesse of Kyung Wha Chung and the power of Perlman and Heifetz to give a truly satisfying performance, swaggering and spiky in the final movement, direct, firm and lyrical in the first two. The most amazing thing about Lin's playing is his ability to maintain perfect intonation throughout the work. He fares very well in the first concerto too, though he does not displace Mintz here, whose account is very special. (In fact, beside Mintz, Lin's opening movement sounds rather too direct and literal.) Esa-Pekka Salonen, a very fine interpreter of Prokofiev's music, shines here and lends sympathetic support, with many imaginative touches here and there, though the Los Angeles players are a little less stylish when compared to the Chicago members. The recording is excellent, with every orchestral detail picked up by the microphones. (This CD is coupled with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which unfortunately, does not receive a performance in the same class as the Prokofiev, though it is still excellent by any standards.)

Reviewer: David Hurwitz
Cho-Liang Lin's performances of these two attractive violin concertos have been almost unanimously praised since they first came out (nothing in the classical music business is completely unanimous!), and the Stravinsky coupling makes this disc an excellent value for the money. The two composers couldn't be further apart stylistically. Prokofiev continues to mine the great Russian Romantic tradition, aided by his wonderfully personal melodic gift. All of Stravinsky's best tunes, by contrast, were borrowed from someone else. His dry, witty, neo-classicism sounds like a cold shower after his compatriot's warmth, but it's first rate entertainment all the same. The digital sound is great, too.

Baroque Horn Concertos - Tuckwell, Brown, ASMF

Composer(s): Johann Gottlieb Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, Johann Georg Röllig, Knechtl, Karl Mathias Reinhardt
Artist(s): Barry Tuckwell (French Horn)
Conductor: Iona Brown
Orchestra/Ensemble: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Label: Decca 417406
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 1 Hour 1 Minute

Reviewer: Ivan March (Gramophone [7/1987])
Seven baroque concertos in a row, played with exuberant virtuosity by a master hornist brings over an hour of music, none of it great music, but pleasingly inventive and creating electricity from the bravura demanded of the soloist—met here with confident aplomb by Barry Tuckwell. The high tessitura of the bouncing first movement of the Knechtl has a counterpart in the opening movements of the two concertos Rollig concertos, their basic atmosphere more relaxed and galant but still demanding the most nimble articulation and controlled trills. Reinhardt's decorative writing is so florid that one feels at times there are almost too many notes, and the soloist is also tested by wide leaps in the melodic line, even in the siciliano slow movement. The siciliano format is also favoured by Quantz and Rollig (in both his concertos). I thought Quantz's No. 9 all-in-all the most engaging work here, featuring as it does a concertante oboe soloist, whose melodic line often graciously echoes that of the horn. But the Graun is a good piece also, quite short (the Adagio only lasts 1'53'' but is still memorable) and the outer movements are strong in character, particularly the finale with its snapping grace notes.

Reviewer: "i like hermann baumann but..." (Amazon Customers' Review)
Throughout Iona Brown provides polished, stylish accompaniments: the sound made by the ASMF strings is clean and bright in allegros, seemingly reflecting the influence of the 'authentic' movement, although modern instruments are used by everyone (including the soloist) to excellent musical effect. The sound is fresh and transparent, the harpsichord continuo coming through realistically without a false balance.

Simply the best recording by Tuckwell. Unbelievable playing of some of the most remarkabilly difficult horn peices ever written. A must buy for any horn player. listen to the extraordinarily fast and clear tongueing, and the most extraordinary showcasing of horn virtuosity ever heard by any horn player on any horn recording. look out for the high Es and the ridiculous ease of the execution of lip trills, stupendiously jumpy passages, and the speed of the tongueing of semiquaver "broken triads".