Pt. 2 of 3  May 2003

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies 1-9 - Barbara Bonney, soprano; Birgit Remmert, contralto; Kurt Streit, tenor; Thomas Hampson, baritone. City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. - EMI Classics 57445-2 (5 CDs):

In concerts at the fabled Musikverein last April and May, Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic bridged the centuries at the intersection of modern scholarship and tradition, as if they had happened on the secrets that alchemists once sought. Contrary to popular opinion, which has this new set as either an anachronism ("Why do we need another set of Beethoven symphonies by the Vienna Philharmonic?") or a marketing blunder ("Why do we need another set of the Beethoven symphonies at all?"), this is quite simply a recording that had to be made. In the process, Beethoven has been reborn.

The scholarship comes by way of new performing editions of the scores, prepared by Jonathan Del Mar and published by the great German house of Bärenreiter. These scores have been used before for recorded cycles by David Zinman, Sir Charles Mackerras and Claudio Abbado, but those earlier results, although they stripped away textual inaccuracies and the accretions of years, did not so comprehensively integrate mind and heart. The enormous outburst of creativity that shines through every bar of this new set comes from Rattle and the orchestra paying attention with unabashed joy to the amazing precision with which Beethoven assembled his marvelous musical machines. It is not Beethoven the musical architect we hear, but Beethoven the magical inventor.

This set not only illuminates what there is left to learn about Beethoven, and there is left to learn about every great composer, it demonstrates how an orchestra steeped in the traditional ways of the past can find itself liberated. The way the in which Vienna Philharmonic responds to Rattle's leadership is amazing: breathtaking freedom of phrasing from the woodwinds, exhilarating horn playing, dynamic surges of the entire ensemble that have nothing to do with convention. There is not one bar that is ordinary, that is not touched by the imaginative genius of Rattle nor of the orchestral magnificent of a Philharmonic absolutely willing and able to take a chance on Rattle's interpretive approach. In doing so, they seem to have experienced a reawakening of their own most vital musical instincts.

And always, there is Rattle's ferocious zest for life: His lead-ins to the allegros of the first movements of the Second and Fourth symphonies, his excitement at the storm in the Pastoral, his involvement in the first movement of the Eroica. Speeds are moderate to fast, and accents are direct and powerful, but since there is nothing doctrinaire about Rattle's approach, there is no way for eve the most knowledgeable listener to predict or to anticipate. Those who have never heard Beethoven's symphonies before will be luckiest, perhaps, for they will have an opportunity to hear the music scrubbed clean of all preconceptions. But those who know the music well, as long as they come with an open mind and heart, will also find so much to treasure - and far beyond just one hearing.

These results are not surprising. Of all today's young conducting lions, Simon Rattle understands the original instrument movement best (witness his provocative work with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). Rattle knows, as only a conductor with his access to the world's great orchestras could, what orchestras are capable of - and not! I once asked Rattle why he did not ask all orchestras to incorporate lessons of the original-instrument movement; he said some were just not willing, or able.

The sound is suitably large and powerful, and not too polished. EMI has packaged the recordings in an elegant, sturdy box with a hardbound booklet that includes straightforward essays on the music and the Vienna Philharmonic, and comments by Del Mar. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

Two major works by two major French composers...

MESSIAEN: Des Canyons aux Etoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars...) - Roger Mujraro, p./Jean-Jacques Justafre, horn/Francis Petet, xylorimba/Renaud Muzzolini, glockenspiel/Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung Whun Chung - DGG 471 717-2 (2 CDs):

This is the massive American work from the path-breaking composer who died just 11 years ago. It was a commission from the Chamber Music Society of New York but is certainly far from chamber music. A limitation of the string section to only 13 seems to be the only chamber-like design here. After accepting the commission, Messiaen opened an encyclopedia and found his subject in the canyons of Utah, which he then visited before writing the work. In 12 movements arranged in three parts, it seems to be a summation of all his instrumental writing. Each of the parts ends with a visit to one of the great Utah sights. These include: The Desert, Bryce Canyon, Zion Park, and many different birds - from orioles to four exotic birds common to Hawaii (I guess he took a side trip). The birds of course provide the opportunity for the composer to work with his beloved bird song material. The piccolo, glockenspiel and top notes of the piano all assist in creating the bird songs. The French horn solos in the work are also a standout. The entire suite displays the trademarked ecstatic quality common to Messiaen, and is one of his few works without direct connections to his strong Catholicism, although there are references in some of the titles to the Gift of Awe, the Resurrected, and the Celestial City. In a work as sonically spectacular is this, I found myself again wishing for a multichannel version of the same performance. Switching to ProLogic II got me partway there at least. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande concert suite; Three Nocturnes; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun - Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado - DGG 289 471 332-2:

I wasn’t aware that conductors Sir John Barbirolli, Pierre Monteux and Erich Leinsdorf had all arranged concert suites of music from the unique Debussy opera, but since I lean toward instrumental rather than vocal music and enjoy all of Debussy’s music, the half-hour suite on this CD caught my eye. Abbado uses the Leinsdorf version and this selection was recorded during a live concert in Berlin whereas the other two were not. The three main characters in the opera each have their own leitmotif, so drawing from various preludes, postludes and interludes in the score, the suite is similar to a symphonic poem but without a narrative line. The love scenes and the killing of Pelleas by his half-brother Golaud are not included in the music selected. This is a welcome addition to the catalog of opera-without-singing, and very well performed/recorded. The Three Nocturnes is Debussy at his impressionistic best, with the distant song of the Sirens a hallmark of the last Nocturne, and the tone-painting of Fêtes picturing a fantastic procession approaching from the distance, passing, and continuing over the horizon. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Two new releases of orchestral works by the tuneful Spanish composer Rodrigo...

RODRIGO: Concierto de Aranjuez; Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre; Musica para un jardin; Tres viejos aires de danza - Marco Socías, guitar/Orquesta Ciudad de Granada/Josep Pons - Harmonia mundi HMC 901764:

The blind Spanish composer, who died just four years ago, continued the Spanish compositional lineage of Manuel de Falla. He looked to the 16th century Spanish vihuela tradition, early works for guitar, the harpsichord works of both Domenico Scarlatti as well as Falla’s late Concerto for Harpsichord. If you don’t already have the Concierto de Aranjuez in your collection - the most frequently-performed Spanish classical work in the world - this one is a winner. It pairs it with the suite-like Fantasia, which Rodrigo wrote for Segovia after the famous guitarist expressed his displeasure at not being involved in the premiere of the Concierto. The Music for a Garden began with the composer’s commission to write music for a documentary film on a park in Madrid, and the Three Old Dance Tunes are orchestrations in the style of Ravel of pieces he wrote early in his career. The Iberian performers deliver superbly authentic versions of all four works and HM delivers rich and transparent sound. Purchase Here

RODRIGO: Complete Orchestral Works Vol. 4 = Concierto para piano 7 orquesta; Preludio para un poema a la Alhambra; Musica para un jardin; Homenage a la tempranica; Juglares - Daniel Ligorio Ferrandiz, piano/Castile and León Symphony Orchestra/Max Bragado Darman - Naxos 8.557101:

More Iberian performers in more Rodrigo; never mind the 11-minute Garden music duplication - the sound is somewhat better on the HM disc. The Concierto is a revision by Joaquin Achucarro of the composer’s Concierto heroico, notably deleting two long cadenzas in the already longest movement, the Largo, and is still plenty virtuosic. The Prelude is strongly influence by Falla and evokes a twilight scene near the Alhambra. Juglares was the first Rodrigo work to have a public performance. This Rodrigo series on Naxos is a great way to become more familiar with the colorful music of the composer and at a bargain price. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

HAYDN Piano Sonatas = No. 31 in A Flat Major; No. 34 in D Major; No. 29 in E Flat Major; No. 49 in C Sharp Minor; No. 35 in A Flat Major - Emanuel Ax, p. - Sony Classical SK 89363:

Haydn was the model of the at-the-piano composing style. He once told a friend “I am just a living clavier.” So in addition to his over 100 symphonies and many oratorios, Haydn penned many keyboard sonatas. Many of them were written originally for the harpsichord, not the fortepiano, and I usually prefer them on that instrument. However, Ax does such a tasteful and convincing job of translating these five works to the larger and more dynamic grand piano that I find them immensely enjoyable. Previously I found most recorded performances of Haydn sonatas on the piano sleep-inducing, but not these! There is an intimate world of beauty and variety in these individual sonatas. The recording, using the DSD system but bit-mapped down to 44.1K, displays an exceptionally clean and natural reproduction of the piano. The opening No. 31 is one of the most-played of the sonatas and more technically difficult than most of the others. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Off-the-beaten-track music from the time of Mozart on the next pair of CDs...

“Mozart Noir” - The Music of JOSEPH BOULOGNE, CHEVALIER DE SAINT-GEORGES: Overture - L’amant anonyme; Symphony in D; Excerpts from L’amant anonyme ballet; Violin Concerto in D Major; Symphony in G Major; LECLAIR: Allegro from Violin Concerto in F Major; GOSSEC: “Pastorella” Symphony in D Major - Tafelmusik Orchestra/Jeanne Lamon - CBC Records SMCD 5225:

Saint-Georges - the “Black Mozart” - had an extraordinary life. He was the son of a French plantation owner in Guadeloupe and one of his African slaves. He was given the best education in France at the Royal Academy of Arms and developed great talents in fencing and military pursuits. He also must have studied music somewhere because he soon became one of the most important musician-composers of the pre-Revolutionary period. He was mentored by both Leclair and Gossec, which explains the inclusion of their works in this collection. St.-Georges’ two symphonies here are rather light, in the style of Mozart serenades, but his Violin Concerto is a major and extremely virtuosic work. He also wrote seven comic operas, of which the one from which the ballet excerpt here is derived is the only one extant. The last decade of his life was involved with the Revolution and his career in music almost over. Fascinating music from a fascinating personage at a fascinating time and place in history. Purchase Here

LUDWIG AUGUST LEBRUN: Oboe Concertos = No. 1 in D Minor; No. 2 in G Minor; No. 4 in B Flat - Bart Schneemann, oboe/Radio Chamber Orchestra of the Netherlands/Jan Willem de Vriend - Channel Classics CCS 16198:

Lebrun, who was Mozart’s contemporary, was about as famous as Mozart in the second half of the 18th century. He was the son of a French oboist who settled at the Mannheim Court in Germany and gained renown for his spectacular virtuoso playing as well as his 14 oboe concertos written to show off his expertise. These four demonstrate the rich invention of Lebrun, who employed many then-striking musical techniques developed by the famous Mannheim School instrumentalists and composers. Both in composition and playing, the boundaries of late Baroque style were always being expanded. Each of the concertos is in three movements, beginning with an Allegro and ending with a Rondo Allegro. The 39-member Radio Chamber Orchestra sounds fuller and richer than would a smaller ensemble, and Schneemann is clearly a master of his instrument - which fell into disfavor after Lebrun’s time because it simply couldn’t play loud enough for the large concert halls then coming into being. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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