Reviews in November 1997


Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)

Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op.23

Vladimir Horowitz, piano / New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra / John Barbirolli (APR 5519)

"This is a Rachmaninov Third to end all Rachmaninov Thirds…" wrote Bryce Morrison in his review of this disc in Gramophone.

I must say that on the whole, this performance, an original broadcast made in 1941, is quite incandescent. Horowitz, the man often identified with this piece, gives new meaning to the term "pianistic fireworks". You can tell it's him playing from the outset. We should not be surprised at how he rip-roars through the big virtuoso passages at inhumanly rapid tempi and with lightning-quick, precise yet characteristically delicate fingerwork; how he shapes phrases with utmost flexibility and freedom; and how he storms through the heart-stopping fortissimo passages and running chords with barnstorming superhuman strength. This is about the fastest, most viscerally exhilarating performance of the Rach 3 (as it's affectionately known these days) you'll ever encounter, putting his later accounts with Fritz Reiner and Eugene Ormandy (both on RCA) very much in the shade.

But as with those later recordings, I'm not all that sure if it's a performance to look to in the long run. Horowitz's brand of pianism, while bewilderingly virtuosic, still demands an acquired taste. It is quite an experience, no doubt, but as a model performance for pianists to listen to and to learn from, I have serious reservations. This is like going to the concert hall to listen to Horowitz, not to listen to Rachmaninov. To put it crudely, it's almost like a circus act. As an experience in great piano-playing, it cannot be bettered, but to assert that this is how all Rach 3s should be played, I'd suggest that one thinks twice.

Earl Wild/Horenstein (Chandos), Byron Janis/Reiner (RCA), Janis/Dorati (Mercury) and Martha Argerich/Chailly (Philips) make sterling role-models for all time.

I was surprised that I actually preferred the Tchaikovsky on this disc. Oddly enough (because we are talking about Horowitz here), the opening is fairly measured and expansive. But there are a fair bit of the usual speed changes we expect from Horowitz, but hardly ever just for showing-off. The second movement is taken at a more flowing speed than usual, more songful, less sickeningly sentimental and no less lyrical. The finale begins at an appropriate tempo, somewhere between Argerich/Kondrashin (Philips) and Argerich/Dutoit (DG), but accelerates as we move on. Horowitz plays with breathtaking digital dexterity and clarity of fingerwork, and sounds like he is having a great time, emphasizing the scherzando elements here. A coruscating, brilliant display of furious, maddeningly fast crashing octaves lead us to the coda which accelerates even more to a glorious finish.

I have never heard Barbirolli conducting with such uncharacteristic abandon and dash in both works to match the leonine power of his soloist, although in the Rachmaninov, it is sometimes at the expense of some imagination and detail.

The sound is understandably dated. Surface noises, crackles, 'pops' and even some skipping abound, but these transfers by Bryan Crimp are nothing short of amazing considering how much more pathetic the original sources were. Nevertheless, the historic sound is still tolerable, and does not stop the performances from shining through. This CD is well worth getting if not as a valuable document of the sheer power of Horowitz's playing, then for its significant historical interest.

Written by Lionel Choi


Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

The Four Symphonies; Haydn Variations, Op.56a; Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op.83

Adrian Aeschbacher, piano (Op.83 only) / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / North German Radio Orchestra / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor (Music & Arts CD-941) (4 CDs)

If there is such a thing as the best possible set of Brahms' symphonies, I would vote for this one with not just profound respect but wholehearted enthusiasm as well.

These performances, recorded between 1943 and 1954, represent legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler at his inspired best. To get a good idea of the superlative quality of this set, just sample the thrilling 1945 recording of just the finale of the First Symphony (track 5, CD 1) - music-making of such inexplicably divine inspiration and blazing vision hardly exists today. If one thought Karajan made magic with the Berlin Philharmonic (which is, in itself, a debatable point), then his predecessor must have created miracles.

These are performances so extraordinary that one hardly believes that one is actually hearing them. True, purists would cavil at the swooning tempi changes and the unmarked dynamic liberties he takes. But so what if he arches melodies with a strong arm to fit his unerringly idiomatic perceptions of melodic line; terraces and then combines symphonic colours and textures at free will to fit his breathtaking vision; and relaxes gloriously and then goes on to drive the music at white-heat with dazzling aplomb? Is the doubt as to his lack of fidelity towards the tiniest score markings to continue to cloud one's true senses even when everything else in you tells you that this is music-making that defies logical analysis?

Whatever he does, it always seems so right. Why bother asking if rubato were really necessary here or there, and why phrases were moulded in this or that way, when you know that it doesn't in the least bit sound wrong at all? Perhaps it can be said that Furtwängler's energy and powerful perceptions are derived from sure instinct and talent. I respectfully suggest that he has that rare ability to merge mind and soul, and to utter in a cohesive language that at once transcends simple understanding, and at other times seems unmistakably human.

All the works here are directed with disarming spontaneity and refreshing alertness. And the various orchestras involved are miraculously attuned to his ideas.

Furtwängler's energy seemed to have spurred pianist Adrian Aeschbacher to give one of his finest performances ever. Perhaps he can do without the shameless ebullience and don a shade more poise and dignity, as have others like Solomon and Edwin Fischer, but results on the whole are still pretty compelling.

The sound quality is not as bad as the recording dates suggest. It is a little blur on absolute detail at times, but there is hardly any discolouration at climaxes, and the sound still has warmth, ambience and rather startling immediacy to allow (or rather, induce) comfortable, repeated, prolonged listening.

The four CDs are retailing at the price of 3 CDs only.

(Music & Arts has a website at http://www.musicandarts.com/)

Written by Lionel Choi


Anton Bruckner (1824 - 1896)

Symphony No. 3 (Original Version, 1873; Novak ed.)

London Classical Players / Roger Norrington, conductor (EMI CDC 72435-56167 - 2)

Roger Norrington has been a controversial figure in the music world because of his rather individual (some would say "dogmatic") approach in the "historic instruments" movement. Overall, though, he must be regarded as a major figure in this realm in both his musicianship and in his influence. Still, it's hard to imagine extending this method to include the music of Bruckner: in the first place, the difference in the sound between instruments indigenous to late nineteenth century orchestras and those of today is hardly consequential; and where it is perceptibly different, the modern ensemble arguably has the edge. In addition, Norrington here, perhaps reflexively governed by his urge to seek the original soul of the music, serves up the original version of this piece, which has been rarely performed and was recorded but once before (by Inbal on Teldec). This version is perhaps 10% longer than the two commonly performed later ones, the 1878 (officially the first) and the 1888-89 (the second). This might all sound like a recipe for failure, especially when you add Norrington's consistently brisk tempos into the equation. Surprisingly, however, this recording scores a decided success.

From the brisk opening, you sense you're in a world of Bruckner dominated by kinetic impetus and muscle, rather than by the majestic and ponderous elements so typical of traditional approaches. Not that Norrington misses or eschews the grandiose side of Bruckner; it's just that he seeks out many facets of the music to produce a more kaleidoscopic kind of yield. Throughout the first movement he is alert to the score's subtleties, always phrasing intelligently, always finding the proper instrumental balances, and always deriving fine playing from the orchestra, especially from the reeds and brass.

The second movement soars with passion, even if it is rendered with a greater febrile urgency than most listeners are used to. The music builds, then subsides, then repeats the process again and again, until at 12:21 (track 2) the main theme builds up to reach a magnificent climax beginning at 13:02. After yet another outburst by the brass the movement ends quietly. This Adagio sounds nearly as animated as an Allegro in Norrington's hands, and for Bruckner that's highly unusual and quite effective here.

The ensuing Scherzo is weighty and colorful, full of energy and sunlight, mischief and muscle. High spirits abound in the finale, though tension emerges toward the middle that leads to some truly hair-raising outbursts by the brass beginning at 7:46 (track 4). The playing here is so well executed and conceived that one can hardly imagine it more finely wrought. The movement builds to an appropriately powerful close in a typically stop-and-start, loud-soft Brucknerian manner. This is truly thrilling playing.

EMI offers splendid sound and intelligent notes by Norrington on performance practices, orchestral size, and other matters relating to historic performance issues. While many may prefer one of the two later versions of this symphony to this early one, I can't say there's a substantial superiority in either of them. There have been many fine performances of this work by Jochum, Haitink, Schuricht and others. This one can stand with the best in any version.

Written by Robert Cummings


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

The Year 1812: Festival Overture, op 49 (arr. Igor Buketoff); The Sleeping Beauty, op.66: Suite of 9 excerpts from the complete ballet (arr. Andrew Litton); The Voyevoda: symphonic ballad, op.78; Moscow: Coronation Cantata

Svetlana Furdui, mezzo-soprano (Op.49 only) / Vassily Gerello, baritone (Op.49 only) / Dallas Symphony Chorus (Op.49 only) / Dallas Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Litton (Delos DE 3196)

The myth that only the Big Six play with the oft-mentioned American glossiness and virtuosity is dispelled in this very special release. Many other lesser-known orchestras have recently given us first-class CDs, proving that their prowess could be compared with the finest in the country. These include the symphony orchestras of Houston, Detroit, San Francisco, Washington (the National Symphony), and - arguably finest of all - Leonard Slatkin's in St. Louis.

The performance of the Dallas Symphony, conducted here by Andrew Litton, indicates that yet another ensemble has joined that hallowed company.

Unlike the others however, the Dallas has daringly chosen what is undoubtedly a mainstream piece as its main work on this disc: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, one of the composer's most popular orchestral masterpieces. But what we are given here is not what is usually heard in concert halls around the world. The version here was arranged by Igor Buketoff and comes complete with chorus plus all the familiar bells and whistles - and of course the cannons!

The hushed opening featuring an a cappella chorus singing what is usually played by the lower strings is most effective. Tempi are brisk and vital throughout, and all sections of the orchestra acquit themselves most admirably.

The three main hymns are excellently sung in Russian. Litton really lets himself go in the final minutes of the piece, revelling in the triumphant celebration of the two national anthems. A small complaint though - the descending four-note motif that is heard just before the first entry of the cannons exposes a slight lack of body in the strings when compared to some rival versions.

Elsewhere however, the strings fare much better.

(This, by the way, is not the only CD containing the choral enhancements to the 1812 - there is Neeme Järvi's Gothenburg performance on DG (429 984 - 2), and Buketoff's own, long-deleted LP. If you want a purely orchestral version without vocals, I would recommend either Dorati on Mercury Living Presence or LPO/Sian Edwards on EMI. There are at least 10 performances that are quite remarkable, take your pick. And incidentally, PDQ Bach's "1712 Overture" on Telarc is a hilarious lampoon of the original 1812.)

What sets the present disc apart from its competition is the rarity of two of the coupled works. The Voyevoda is a fine symphonic poem that makes one wonder why Tchaikovsky decided to destroy the music. Fortunately, the orchestral parts survived. The orchestration is deft and the musical ideas are not inferior in any way. The music does not have the psychotic power of say, Francesca da Rimini, the Hamlet or even the Romeo & Juliet Overtures. But it definitely justifies an occasional airing.

The patriotic and devotional cantata Moscow abounds with good tunes, and the fourth movement, an Allegro, is an expression of joyous celebration. The two soloists are both very fine indeed, singing with great fervour and feeling for the text (following the words in the booklet can be quite an experience). The final pages are suitably thrilling a la Tchaikovsky.

I'm not all too certain what "arr. Andrew Litton" means in the Sleeping Beauty "Suite". Is it that he chose which excerpts were to form the suite? Whatever it is, the performance here could be set against any number of fine CD versions of the complete ballet. The violin soloist in Variation d'Aurore is a fine example of a US concertmaster at his best.

The sound is most commendable. This recording was made in the beautiful McDermott Hall, Dallas, using Delos' new Virtual Reality technology, which is comparable Sony Classical's 20-bit and DG's 4D recording standards. The booklet contains not just programme notes by scholar David Brown, but pretty good pictures as well.

Andrew Litton has made a fine Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle with his old Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and has done some fine work for EMI with the London Philharmonic as well. The ensemble at his disposal now is even more substantial, and I hope this fine conductor continues to provide us with such exciting performances. I recommend this first instalment of this new partnership without hesitation.

Written by Rajeev Aloysius


The Yearning Spirit, Voices of Contemplation

If Ye love me; Spem in alium (40-part motet) (Tallis) / Ave Regina caelorum (Lassus) / Gregorian chant - Pange lingua; Kyrie, from Missa La sol fa re mi (Josquin) / Sarum Chant Salvator mundi, Domine; Kyrie, from the Requiem (Victoria) / Versa est in luctum (A. Lobo) / Funeral Ikos (Taverner) / Sanctus & Benedictus from Missa Vox clamantis (D.Lobo) / O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth; Ave verum corpus (Byrd) / Ave Regina caelorum (De Rore) / Ego flos campi (Clemens non Papa) / Otche nash; Bogoroditsie Dievo (Stravinsky) / The Lord's Prayer (Rachmaninov) / Agnus Dei 1 & II from Missa Nasce la gioja mia (Palestrina)

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Philips (Philips 454 993 - 2)

This CD is a collection of the very best performances of the celebrated Tallis Scholars, ranging from Gregorian Chant all the way to Stravinsky. The music, featuring subtle and intricate harmony, counterpoint and phrasing, is guaranteed to ravish the senses and tug at the heartstrings. I used to think that no music could be greater than Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. As performed by the Tallis Scholars, the music on this disc almost runs a close second.

The sopranos heard here are absolutely stunning (they really sounded like trebles). I felt they succeeded in achieving a tone that is clearer and more focused than the famous Vienna Boys' Choir.

Sonorities on this disc are varied. Occasionally in the Spem in Alium, which must be one of the great musical enigmas, the 8 five-part choirs overload the senses with aural information that would take several listenings to unravel.

In their performance of plainchant, I dare say the Tallis Scholars with their better-trained voices could put even the best singing monks to shame, and perhaps even outdo the men in habits in terms of spiritual reverence.

As an amateur singer, I understand all too well the challenge of trying to maintain tone quality and clear diction especially when dealing with harmonies as intricate as those to be found in some of the pieces here. Peter Philips, the Scholars' leader, has evidently gone to great lengths to solve these problems. The group also does not overlook the religious and devotional aspects of the works they perform.

The two settings of the Lord's Prayer by Stravinsky and Rachmaninov offer many pleasant discoveries and surprises.

The Tallis Scholars' disc of Josquin's music was the 1987 Gramophone Record of the Year. The track from that disc that is included in the present collection is a masterpiece in itself. Just as an aside, I definitely feel that Josquin's music, which is too often neglected, can be as profound as the works of other better-known composers in this genre and deserves to be more widely heard.

The Tavener piece is a mournful, funereal ode that expresses rather different emotions from the other works on the disc, The male voices harmonise while moving in contrary motion, and the balance is at times light, at others full. Other groups (like the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), however different their styles might be from the Tallis Scholars, could certainly learn a thing or two here.

Whatever your religious beliefs, I heartily recommend this CD without any reservations. I doubt if anyone can fail to be moved by music such as is to be found on this disc, especially when it is performed with such artistry.

Written by Rajeev Aloysius


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Copyright © 1997 Lionel H Y Choi, Robert Cummings, Rajeev Aloysius