I'm not sure why so many seem to like this 1980s RCA cycle from Saraste. I find the symphonies bland, run-of-the-mill and completely forgettable. (Incidentally, his 1993 live remakes for Finalandia are very similar. There is no extra spark from being live performances; they are still bland and thoroughly unnecessary). What makes this set even remotely interesting is the inclusion of so much incidental music and suites. It's very useful having all this music compiled in a convenient box.
If only RCA's recorded sound was at all helpful. It's not. (And SONY hasn't bothered with remastering it for this reissue.) It actually mirrors the readings - flat, bland, airless, lacking life and sparkle all through. This box is one to avoid unless this particular compilation is essential to complete one's collection. But even then, it would be very much worth the effort to seek out all this music in alternative recordings, even if it entails buying several individual discs.
As Pentatone is phasing out their SACD releases and we see more and more CD-only titles on this label, it is just mind boggling that this one got the SACD. This confirms my earlier complaints that there seems to be no logic behind Pentatone's decision-making; it's just arbitrary. Or perhaps it all comes down to star power - although even then, I wouldn't call Arabella Steinbacher a "star" by any measure. So who knows.
What makes this especially exasperating is that in the same month, Pentatone has also released two discs of Masses by Mozart, Bruckner and Stravinsky - on CD-only. Why this violinist churning out some completely unnecessary Vivaldi merits the full multi-channel hybrid SACD treatment is beyond belief.
In the end, what everyone really needs is yet another Vivaldi Four Seasons, right? Mixing it up and interspersing it with Piazzola's thoroughly pointless take on it is gimmicky (at best) and sure to make some sales. And therein lies our explanation for where Pentatone is headed these days. Survival is the best word that comes to mind. And Classical music as we knew it takes another nose-dive toward triviality.
For the record I didn't buy this. I won't. But I'm sure she plays it all just fine for those who are desperate for yet another Four Seasons.
The CD cover tells all. The smirk on Krzysztof Urbanksi's face seems to say: "Wait till you hear what I do to this score". And from the very first note, I'm annoyed. And it sets the stage for everything which is to come.
Let's take a quick peek at the score - there's plenty of time to do so while that very first bassoon high C is playing. It is a quarter note with a fermata. But Urbanski has his bassoonist sustain it a full ten seconds! It's as if nothing is ever going to happen. And it is played the same way when it recurs 3 minutes later (on a Cb this time). And this is just the first extreme in a reading of extremes - extremely slow tempos (will the Spring Rounds or Mystic Circle of Young Girls ever end?); extremely soft passages followed by extremely loud, obnoxious ffff outbursts, which are just short of vulgarity.
Yup, Urbanski is determined to startle us with his "insight" and that's exactly what he sets out to do. Details are thrust aside in the point-making, and any sense of danceability - the spirit of the ballet - is eschewed. It is a heavy, weighty pronouncement of Mr. Urbanski's "take" on the score. (Glance again at that smirk on the cover.)
To be fair, there are sections in which this heaviness works. For example, the Glorification of the Chosen One in Part Two is rather impressive, with a real sense of menace and terror. But then, the Ritual of the Ancestors which follows practically comes to a dead stop. It's so slow even the English Horn player has trouble sustaining its long D# in one place, presumably running out of air.
And just when one thinks the end is near, and maybe, just maybe, it wasn't really that bad, the final Sacrificial Dance simply buries it. It is so slow, ponderous and thick that forward momentum comes to a halt. Urbanski drags out this torture for a endless 5'17". There is absolutely no sense of any kind that this is a ballet. This virgin isn't dancing herself to death; the poor thing is left to die stuck in drying cement.
Alpha-Classics must have been happy with it; perhaps this reading's outlandishness would garner them notice for having participated in it. And as such, the recorded sound is serviceable, dutifully providing a murky, dark, weighty lower half of the orchestra.
There is an accompanying Blu-ray video of a Live performance recorded 3 months after the studio CD was made. It is a very high quality production, with a beautiful picture and better sound than the CD. The performance is more involving too, aided by the visuals. But I found it almost more painful watching Urbanski conduct than just listening to the CD, with the ridiculous snarl on his face and clawed left hand, as if he's about to maul the players closest to him. Oh give me a break - it's simply too much to endure. How the orchestra players sat there with a straight face is astonishing.
So while the Blu-ray disc should have been a real bonus, as it turns out, it is scant compensation for a CD lasting just 36 minutes. And be reminded that 36 minutes is a VERY long Rite of Spring.
What a wonderful find is this new Naxos! It's hard to believe this particular coupling is unique, and that these delightful American symphonettes are so rarely recorded. Only #4, 'Latin-American Symphonette', has any real presence in the catalog.
I raised an eyebrow seeing these recordings were made with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. But not to worry. American conductor, Arthur Fagen, has this music securely in his DNA. He draws such idiomatic and authentically "American" playing from this great orchestra, I can't imagine these readings being bettered.
And what wonderful music it is! I had not heard #2 & 3 before, and only vaguely remember having heard #4 at some point. All three are similar in flavor and mood. And they are instantly recognizable as being "American", but mercifully don't sound like Copland. No, nothing wrong with Copland. But often times American music from around this time (30s, 40s, 50s) just can help but sound like Copland. This does not. If anything, it sounds more like Charles Ives and Don Gillis. But it's a unique voice and sounds like...well, Morton Gould. So perhaps I should say Ives and Gillis sound like Gould!
Spirituals is much better known and receives a warmly sympathetic reading here, filling out the disc to a most satisfying close and an impressive 66" playing time.
Playing and conducting are absolutely first rate. And so is the sound. Naxos has really mastered the art of recording the symphony orchestra in the past decade or so, and this one is simply outstanding. The orchestra is natural in perspective, clean and clear in a warm acoustic, with a brilliant "presence" and effortless dynamic range. It helps bring these performances thrillingly to life. This is one of my favorite discs of the year so far. I enjoyed it enormously.
Robert LaPorta, owner/director of MSR Classics, kindly alerted me to this ongoing series of Beethoven Sonatas played by James Brawn. I admit to not having heard of this series, or this pianist, before, which is a prime example of the plight of small independent record labels everywhere. Fabulous recorded music often goes unnoticed, overshadowed by the glut of marketing bunk from the big name labels, peddling their latest hottie superstar. Thankfully, we have many small independent labels in the Classical realm which still care about music - and for the right reasons - where making music is given priority above all else. Which brings me to the discs under review.
From MSR's website: "Founded in 1998 as Musicians Showcase Recordings, MSR Recordings (since August 2003) offers recording artists the opportunity to create and release an album, and to have it distributed and promoted in a global market..."
Pianist James Brawn was born in England, began piano lessons at age 5 in New Zealand, and made his debut in Australia at the age of 12. He began recording this series of Beethoven Sonatas in 2012, in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK. Six volumes have been released thus far. Listening to them, I am struck by James Brawn the musician, even more so than by James Brawn the pianist. Oh, certainly he can play the piano! But, then again, many, many pianists can play these notes. What makes Mr. Brawn's playing special is that these are some of the most musical readings I have yet encountered. He brings an almost symphonic grandness to them. Yet, he does so while remaining faithful to the printed page. Too many pianists just have to make a statement - some musical point - to stamp their mark on these pieces, in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. As a result, they too often tend to sound mannered and, what I call, "fussy". I prefer Beethoven as Beethoven, not Beethoven as envisioned by pianist such-and-such.
In general, Mr. Brawn favors briskly moving tempos. Slow movements never drag, and Andantes move with a natural forward flow. The results sound so authentic, so very "right", that it becomes difficult to imagine them played any other way. His scrupulous observance of dynamics adds to the sense of authority.
In the earlier Sonatas, and especially in the later "easy" ones (i.e. #s 19-20 and 24-27), Brawn plays with a stunning natural expression, positively infusing them with a sublime musicality. He also brings a sense of drama, which is so expertly accomplished without a hint of undue weight or emotional baggage. It suits these works perfectly, and also reveals them to be absolute masterpieces in the genre. We discover a newfound "validity" to them, which elevates them in importance to stand alongside the more famous "named" sonatas. It's absolutely remarkable and difficult to describe how utterly musical they sound. And they are among my very favorites in Brawn's set.
As we move into some of the middle/later sonatas, we hear more of this same natural expression but with even more of the aforementioned "symphonic grandness". Perhaps there is a bit too much pedal being introduced (most notably in the final movements of the Moonlight and Appassionata). But pedaling is certainly a matter of taste. I tend to prefer the crisp clarity of Arthur Rubinstein in Beethoven, where his sparse use of the pedal is simply magnificent, revealing endless details which are often obscured. Brawn sounds nothing like Rubinstein; which isn't a bad thing. It's just different. And again, he sounds almost symphonic in comparison. (I actually have similar observations of Igor Levit's excellent SONY set.)
And while Mr. Brawn generally avoids affectation, he does at last occasionally give in to the temptation in these same two Sonatas, where we hear an emphasis here, and slight hesitation there, which tends to disrupt the forward momentum inherent in the score. But I'm nit-picking; it is never intrusive. It is noteworthy simply because it is largely absent everywhere else in the set.
On the other hand, there are so many examples where he plays with such an immersive, musical understanding of this music, criticisms are silenced, and one simply forgets about everything but the music. Of the named sonatas, the Waldstein and Tempest stand out to me, even above all the others, as being exemplary.
And, finally, some comments about the recorded sound. All of this excellence would be for not if the piano doesn't sound realistic. I have summarily dismissed many sets over the years for simply having poor recorded piano sound. (The same goes for Concertos.) I find, time and time again, many labels, especially the majors, simply cannot get it right. But once again, we are lucky to have the dedication of small independent labels who care as much about excellent recorded sound as they do about excellent musical performances. MSR firmly falls in this category.
Comparing the recorded sound of this set to Igor Levit's on SONY is enlightening. I initially thought SONY had done better than most. But after hearing the MSR, I must temper my previous admiration for the SONY, which now sounds almost too richly upholstered and plush. It makes Levit's Steinway sound more like a Fazioli, which isn't necessarily a negative, but it may not be quite realistic. Still, one can't help but luxuriate in that gorgeous, full-bodied left-hand tone, cushioned on pillows of air. However, switching to Brawn's MSR discs, one instantly enters a different world. This sounds like a real piano. Where SONY transports the listener to the hall in which it was recorded, MSR brings the piano into your listening room. It is more "present" and alive, powerful and grand. When played on a high quality stereo, the piano literally sounds in the room with you - and it is thrilling. As a matter of fact, heard from another room in the house, one would absolutely swear someone was playing a real piano in the living room!
Miraculously, the sound never turns bombastic or pounding like so many piano recordings do. (We certainly have Mr. Brawn's musicianship to thank for this as much as the recording, along with the marvelous piano he plays.) MSR's Robert LaPorta credits this outstanding recorded sound to the engineers at Potton Hall, where these sessions took place. Jeremy Hayes, Producer, and Ben Connellan, Engineer, have truly mastered the art of recording the concert grand piano. And they capture the acoustic perfectly. Once heard, it is difficult to adjust to other recordings. A similar statement applies to Mr. Brawn's Beethoven: once heard, it is difficult to accept other readings. It is remarkable how consistently satisfying this cycle is, and how it so closely matches the way I like to hear Beethoven played. I have gained enormous pleasure from it and simply cannot stop listening to it.
Mr. Brawn is recording these works seemingly in random order, or perhaps in the interest of maximizing recording timings. Each release contains an informative booklet and the entire production is first class. I eagerly await the final installments in this series, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.
Listed below are the contents of the currently available volumes.
Volume 1 (2012) - # 1, 3 & 23 (Appassionata);
Volume 2 (2012) - # 8 (Pathetique), 14 (Moonlight), 19, 20 & 21 (Waldstein);
Volume 3 (2013) - # 2, 17 (Tempest) & 26;
Volume 4 (2013) - # 9, 15 (Pastorale), 24 (a Therese), 25 & 27;
Volume 5 (2017) - # 5, 6, 7 & 10;
Volume 6 (2018) - # 4, 12 and 11
This newest Naxos is a 2020 recording of Cesar Franck's orchestral music, conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud. And it is a dandy, with one major caveat.
Tingaud has produced some very fine recordings for Naxos (Poulenc Les Biches, Duaks Symphony in C, Bizet Roma, etc.). However, those were all with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. This new one is with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This actually should be a positive change. However...
Beginning with Le Chasseur maudit, I became aware something was amiss almost immediately after the opening horn calls. The sound is 2-dimensional and hopelessly cramped. It simply fails to expand on climaxes, as if a dynamic range limiter has been applied. And what a pity! It is a very exciting performance and the Royal Scottish National plays brilliantly (as expected). But this airless, tubby sound simply stifles it. It actually almost sounds mono.
But then, magically, the acoustic opens up and rich orchestral colors emerge for Psyche. What a difference it makes. This is lovely, truly inspired music-making, showing Jean-Luc Tingaud at his very best. Fortunately, the final piece, Les Eolides, is similarly lovely.
Checking the booklet to try to explain what I'm hearing, I have the expected "ah-hah!" moment. Two different recording dates are listed, 18 months apart. Obviously Chasseur maudit was recorded at different sessions from the rest. What a pity Naxos didn't re-record it, as it is certainly the most well-known piece included here and is likely the big draw for many collectors.
One wonders why the change to a different orchestra and venue for this conductor. However, the majority of the disc is outstanding. Still, good modern recordings of Chasseur maudit are shockingly rare, making this Naxos blunder all the more frustrating and disheartening. I'll stick with the classic 1962 Munch/RCA, complete with its slightly rough recording quality, and Muti's incomparable 1983 Philadelphia/EMI, with its brash, early digital glare. They both sound better than this 2020 Naxos.
Disclaimer: I received this disc from the performer, gratis, with a request for a review.
From the excellent booklet notes:
"Violins of Hope is an artistic and educational project composed of instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust." - James A. Grymes, author of Violins of Hope
Violinist Niv Ashkenazi plays one such violin for this recording, and states in the booklet, "I have chosen Jewish repertoire from throughout its lifetime..."
Mr. Ashkenazi is an alum of the Perlman Music Program, and I often hear hints of Perlman in his playing. With this particular violin, his tone is gorgeous - husky and full of texture, perfectly suited to this music. He plays with passion and exceptional musicianship. There are times where I could do with less portamentos (for example, the opening Dauber Serenade and, especially Williams's Schindler's List Theme, here arranged for violin and piano), but elsewhere his playing is naturally expressive and free of excessive emoting.
As to the repertoire, listening to it from beginning to end, one gets the feeling of routine; it ends up sounding a bit too much of the same thing. However, taken in smaller chunks, one hears more variety and much very good music (most of which I was not previously familiar with). Highlights for me are Julius Chajes's The Chassid, and the very rhapsodic Three songs Without Words, by Paul Ben-Haim.
Mr. Ashkenazi benefits enormously throughout from the superb piano accompaniments played by Matthew Graybil, also a masters graduate from The Juilliard School. The recorded sound is excellent - warm, clean and intimately mic'd.
This is an interesting project and an interesting recording. Once again, Albany Records provides an invaluable addition to the recorded repertoire with an emphasis on American performers. I can recommend this CD to anyone with an interest in this project, and this particular program of music by Jewish composers. The entire production is first-rate and I enjoyed it.
Shame on Capriccio for not giving credit where credit is due. These are in fact original ASV recordings, not Capriccio, dating from 1999-2003. Nowhere is that fact disclosed, other than one sentence buried within the comprehensive booklet notes. However, that aside, this is a terrific collection of less-well-known music from Erich Korngold, all conducted by Caspar Richter. There are many riches to be found here, including his Cello Concerto, but not his famous Violin Concerto.
Most of these recordings have been available on various ASV compilations along the way. There was also an odd hodgepodge on a 2012 Regis CD (and again on a 2018 Alto), which had been remastered by them - which it didn't need - and didn't sound very good. So if you have that one, toss it and get this box set instead. They all exhibit invigorating and musically involving readings from Richter and very good ASV digital sound (although there is a bit of distortion on a couple sffz chords in the Cello Concerto for some reason). These discs are not exact duplicates of the ASV originals, which had commingled orchestral and vocal works among each disc. Capriccio arranges them into more logical collections, with two fully orchestral discs and two vocal/choral ones. Nicely done!
The Bruckner Orchester Linz is a smallish ensemble, sounding very much like a musical theater pit orchestra, intimately recorded. No harm in that; however the strings tend to sound a bit scrawny and slightly undernourished. But don't make too much of this, they play well and the sound is generally sweet. Just don't expect this orchestra to sound like John Wilson's Sinfonia of London on his new Chandos series (Symphony in F#, et al)!
This Capriccio box is nicely priced and is a great way to explore this composer further.
And the death of SACD continues.
Just as Pentatone is abandoning the format and switching to CD-only releases, mid-stream, Chandos follows suit with this second in the series of Korngold works. The first (featuring the Symphony in F#) was SACD, but this one is not. Similarly, Pentatone has done the same thing with their "Aspects of America" series with the Oregon Symphony. The first two releases were SACD, but the newest one is CD-only.
It's bad enough we are losing multi-channel and the higher-quality DSD recording format, but it's a stab to the collector that it's happening arbitrarily, without regard for continuity of ongoing projects. And it gets worse. Chandos continues to charge full-premium price for their CD-only releases. At least Pentatone is giving a substantial price-break for theirs.
Yes, I'm complaining.
However, it cannot be denied this release is outstanding. The Violin Concerto moves along with flowing tempos and natural musical expression. Violinist Andrew Haveron's playing is mercifully free of the fussy over-emoting and nauseating portamentos so many violinists insist on slathering on this music. The radiant recording highlights his rich, colorful and expressive tone beautifully. His playing reminds me of the wonderful, and sadly underrated, Henryk Szeryng. And John Wilson gives us endless amounts of delicious inner-details from the orchestra which normally go by without notice. The wonderful Sextet which follows is a substantial work, lasting a full 31 minutes (longer even than the Concerto). It is gloriously played by members of Wilson's own Sinfonia of London (which also features Andrew Haveron as 1st violin). The sound all through is remarkably good - airy, spacious and colorful. It's certainly better than some recent CD-only releases from this label.
Yes, CD still has life in it. And this one is exceptional. Despite the absence of multi-channel SACD, and it being proffered at full premium price, I can't help but recommend it heartily.
UPDATE: May 2020
The temptation to acquire the new SONY (2020) box set of Gerhardt's Classic Film Scores proved too great to resist and I now have had the opportunity to compare the sound to previous issues.
I used just one disc from the box set for comparison purposes - The Lost Horizon. I chose this particular recording because I have on hand not only both previous RCA/SONY issues, but also the 2017 Dutton/Vocalion SACD.
I started by comparing the 2011 SONY remastering to the new box set, because I believe the new box set has not been newly remastered and is thus an exact reissue of the 2011 release. Going back and forth many times, track by track, I conclude that for all intents and purposes the sound is indeed the same. Transfer volume levels and dynamic range are identical. However, there were times when I thought I heard subtle differences. I had to go back and forth several times to determine if I was imagining it. And I can't definitively say for sure one way or the other. But I thought I could hear more inner-details here and there, plus slightly more potent organ pedal tones (on track 2) on the 2011 issue. Conversely, were the strings just slightly sweeter on the newer CD in the box? Moving upstairs to a different CD player with a headphone jack (using a good pair of Sennheiser headphones), I simply cannot say with certainty that there are any differences whatsoever.
Next I listened to Dutton's 2017 SACD release - in stereo SACD. Now I can say for certain I hear subtle improvements over the two SONY CDs. But not as much as I was expecting. The primary improvement heard on the SACD (again in 2-channel, not 4), is in the atmosphere and ambiance of the hall acoustic. It is better defined and more spacious. But in all other aspects, the sound is very, very close. This surprised me and might help explain why SONY did not attempt another remastering effort for the new box set. If even the extremely skilled technicians at Dutton could provide only a subtle improvement, at least in 2-channel mode, SONY can't be faulted for not taking another stab at it. The benefit of the Dutton SACD, of course, is the ability to hear it in 4-channel surround sound, as it was originally recorded.
Finally, I dusted off the original 1989 RCA "Dolby Surround" CD. Here is a completely different sound from all three newer reissues. And it is not subtle. It is more laid back, smoother, richer, darker, more bass-heavy and less detailed. Dynamic range seems compressed as well. I suspect the original master tapes were not utilized for these initial CD releases. It is the aural equivalent of a blanket having been thrown over the sound. Yet, it does smooth over most of the technical flaws in the recording itself, which was likely very beneficial to early CD playback capabilities of the time. It reminds me of those RCA Gold Seal reissues from the 90s, which tended to be smooth and...well... "golden", but not particularly detailed or dynamic.
To summarize, it is a nice convenience having all 12 discs gathered together in one box, and at such a reasonable price. It is a pity, however, SONY did not also include Gerhardt's Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores, and his two discs of John Williams's Star Wars trilogy (plus Close Encounters Suite). SONY did not reissue these in 2011 either, thus they've never been remastered after the initial 1989 CD release. (1)
Also missing from the original series, is a disc of film scores by David Raksin, conducted by the composer with the New Philharmonia Orchestra (including Laura, Forever Amber, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc.). As it isn't conducted by Gerhardt, it's not an exact fit for inclusion in this box, as named. However, it is still a glaring omission from the "Classic Film Scores" series. (2)
This new box also has the significant drawback of not including a booklet or liner notes of any kind. But for those who don't already own the 2011 individual releases, this is self-recommending.
As a hopeless completest, I am keeping both collections on my shelves - along with the 1980's originals AND the Dutton SACDs, as they become available. (There have been 5 titles released thus far.) And it's worth noting, Dutton is harvesting individual tracks from the aforementioned Spectacular World album as fillers, as appropriate, for these SACDs. I hope they will resurrect the Star Wars recordings next, as they are the highlight of the entire series, both in performance and recorded sound.
(1) Gerhardt's Return of the Jedi was recorded digitally, in 1983.
(2) The David Raksin collection was included in SONY's 2011 remastered series, so that is the only CD to obtain the newer remastering. Alas, it is long out of print and difficult/expensive to find.