MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E flat "Symphony of a Thousand."
MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL: Pictures at an Exhibition. BORODIN: Symphony No. 2
in B minor. Polovtsian Dances.
CORIGLIANO: "The Red Violin" Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Sonata
for Violin and Piano.
Pierre Boulez has, after a dozen years, with this new recording of Symphony No. 8, completed his Mahler symphony cycle. This recording made in Berlin in April 2007 brings the generally disappointing set to a worthy conclusion, in spite of a rather tame choral climax. Boulez's analytical approach clarifies many of the textures of the massive Eighth. His cool reading is quite similiar to his 1975 BBC Proms performance with BBC Symphony issued many years ago on Artists Live Recordings (no longer available). He still rushes the final pages (as does Sir Simon Rattle on his fairly recent recording). Women soloists are uniformly strong; of the men, only John Botha's Doctor Marianus truly impresses. For me, a major part of any performance of the Mahler's Eighth is the magic passage for the two leading sopranos beginning shortly after the beginning of the final chorus. In this radiant music, the first soprano reaches a high C, descending to B natural, then B flat. As she is singing this, the second soprano has a lower passage that ascends to the same B flat—both sopranos, briefly, are singing the same note—and the second soprano continues downward for three bars before returing to that glorious B flat. . If the two sopranos are perfectly matched, the effect is pure magic—an arching, long, descending line of indescribable beauty. Seldom does this come off ideally. Bernard Haitink's televised Concertgebouw performance in December 1988 had the misfortune of casting Gwyneth Jones—on an off day—as one of the sopranos. Perfection can be heard in Stokowski's New York Philharmonic 1950 broacast with sopranos Francis Yeend and Camilla Williams. Boulez's Twyla Robinson and Erin Wall come close. DG's two-disk set sells for the price of one. Sonic quality is quite good although bass is rather undefined.
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and the two Borodin works seem rather unlikely repertory for a New Year's concert, but they were selected by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic—actually apparently three performances according to production notes for this CD (December 29, 30 and 31, 2007). Ever since Mercury's 1951 recording with Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony, Pictures has been a favorite with audio buffs (and this half-century plus mono recording still impresses). With well over 200 recordings currently available, including three with the Berlin Philharmonic (conducted by Giulini, Karajan and Markevitch), one might question yet another one. However, this is surely among the best, both interpretively and sonically. The BPO plays spectacularly, recorded sound is close-up but warm and resonant. The massive ending of Pictures and lush sonorities of the two Borodin works are vividly captured. Recommended!
Joshua Bell and John Corigliano collaborated on the score for the 1999 film The Red Violin which included a Chaconne that played a major part in the movie's success. Both Bell and Corigliano felt the music should be expanded and the result was this concerto. The first movement features an expanded version of the Chaconne, followed by a shimmering, brief scherzo, a lovely andante and a tremendously exciting finale. The concerto is a virtuoso showpiece written specifically for Bell who plays it brilliantly, with superb support from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony, one of the orchestras that commissioned the work. This concerto is a major addition to the repertory and this spectacular recording and performance surely is definitive. The Prokofiev-esque Violin Sonata is an added plus. Highly recommended!
Dutch conductor Hans Vonk (1942-2004) had a distinguished career. Director of many major European orchestras including the Dresden State Orchestra in Germany, he also led Holland's Residentie Orchestra and the Netherlands Opera. He was an assistant conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra (in which his father played the violin), and associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. Vonk was music director of the St. Louis Symphony for six seasons beginning in 1996. In 2002 a neurological condition ended his career and he died in Amsterdam in August 2004. Vonk's conducting was highly praised and it is surprising a conductor of his stature made relatively few recordings. In his memory, Pentatone has issued four mid-priced CDs of performances recorded live in St. Louis. The one listed above is perhaps the most interesting: Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie from performances February 12 and 13, 1999, featuring Garrick Ohlsson and the ondes martenot played by Jean Laurendeau. Paul Hennerich did a superb job as recording engineer. This is a fine memento of a conductor who died far too young.
R.E.B. (March 2008)