MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone).
5 Rückert-Lieder (Violeta Urmana, soprano). Kindertotenlieder (Anne Sofie
von Otter, mezzo-soprano); Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Pierre Boulez, cond.
DGG B0003894 (F) (DDD) TT: 61:28
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BARTÓK: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Krystian Zimerman, pianist/Chicago Symphony
Orch.). Piano Concerto No. 2 (Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist/Berlin Philharmonic
Orch.). Piano Concerto No. 3 (Hélene Grimaud, pianist/London Symphony Orch.).
Pierre Boulez, cond.
DGG B0003885 (F) (DDD) TT: 76:25
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DOHNÁNYI: Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra,
Op. 45. )Sara Cutler, harp; American Symphony Orch/Leon Botsein, cond).
Sextet in C, Op. 37.)Erica Kiesewetter, violin; Karen Dreyfus, viola;
Eugene Moye, cello; Laura Flax, clarinet; Jeffrey Lang, horn; Diane
Walsh, piano). Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 41 (Todd Crow, piano).
BRIDGE 9160 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:33
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DGG’s release of these two Boulez discs could have been
timed to celebrate his 80th birthday on March 26. For each of six works
on the pair of them, he has a different soloist – two of whom are
disappointments – and four different orchestras at his fastidious
disposal. The Mahler cycles were recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic
during June 2003 by the same production team, whereas the Bartók
piano concertos were made during November 2001 (the First, in Chicago’s
Orchestra Hall), February 2003 (the Second, in Berlin’s Philharmonie),
and October 2004 (the Third, in London’s Jerwood Hall). A different
technical team was responsible for No. 1, not only the least persuasive
performance but the least vibrantly recorded; Nos. 2 and 3, however,
had the same producer and “balance engineer” as Mahler. DGG’s
European sound is characteristic of several different venues, yet overall
of world-league finesse and clarity.
The oldest music is Mahler’s – three of his four collections
of songs (Des Knaben Wunderhorn needs a full-disc for itself) – starting with Songs
of a Wayfarer to the composer’s own texts, created between 1884
and 1893, which baritone Thomas Quasthoff sings with extraordinary beauty
of sound and passion, yet never beyond the music’s expressive periphery
(as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was wont to do, following his early ‘50s
collaboration with Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic on EMI).
Both the five Rückert-Lieder and five Kindertotenlieder (also to
poems by Friedrich Rückert) were begun in 1901, the former completed
in 1902 with its first song “Liebst du um Schönheit” (although
Boulez places it third), and the latter cycle in 1904. Anne Sofie von
Otter sings these “Songs on Death of Children” with heart-touching
tenderness, managing the while not to let her voice and interpretations
become either sentimental or morbid.
The big disappointment here is the bizarre miscasting of a lirico-spinto
soprano, Violeta Urmana, in the Rückert-Lieder, which include
two of Mahler’s most moving songs: “Um Mitternacht” (At
Midnight -- the fourth -- which Boulez puts last), and “Ich bin
der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have lost touch with the world),
the fifth and last in Mahler’s sequence and the one about which
he said “that is my very own self.” It is his most beautiful
creation for voice in my private pantheon of Lieder, even more than the “Abschied” that
ends Das Lied von der Erde, just as “Um Mitternacht” is
the most awesomely powerful. Despite velvet-cushioned playing by the
Philharmonic here and elsewhere, Urmana is not up to any of the songs
compared to her betters in the past – Dame Janet Baker and Christa
Ludwig, both still available, or Kathleen Ferrier, who recorded only
three of the five with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Phil before her death
but also still available, or the incomparable Jessye Norman, who taped
them for Philips in the early ‘70s with piano, but performed all
five Rückert-Lieder inimitably at Tanglewood in 1978 with
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony – broadcast, too, if anyone
is lucky enough to have a copy. (Mine on cassette is worn, alas, while
Nakamichi “Dragon” deck at age 22 sounds as if it’s
giving up the ghost.) Anent Urmana, Boulez also used her in his recording
of Das Lied made in Vienna with tenor Michael Shade that I lambasted
back in 2001 (REVIEW) – casting as preposterous then as her employment
in the Rückert-Lieder at hand. In 1979 he still had the good sense
to use mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton in a Sony version with the London
Phil, given Baker’s allegiance to EMI and Ludwig’s to DGG
(but why not Norman, or was she a Philips exclusive?). So, Mahler-wise,
we have two prizes out of a possible three (and one can always skip Urmana
Mahler was not yet 21, at the very start of his career, when Bartók
was born in what then was Hungary but now is Romania, and had been dead
15 years when Bartók wrote his First Piano Concerto. He introduced
it at an ISCM concert in Frankfurt with Furtwängler conducting in
1927, and played the American premiere in 1928 at Cincinnati with Fritz
Reiner on the podium, when Willem Menbgelberg and the New York Philharmonic
backed off for lack of sufficient rehearsal time. The composer and Reiner
took it to Carnegie Hall where audiences were as thunderstruck (and prevailingly
hostile) as Cincinnatians had been by its motoric outer movements and
postwar-I, post-Romantic dissonances. It was not taken up abroad for
almost 30 years, and in the US by Rudolf Serkin at Reiner’s instigation,
by then with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the peak of its powers.
It’s startling today to see how many pianists after Bartók’s
death not only played but recorded No. 1, but most idiomatically Geza
Anda in 1959 for DGG with Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin Radio
Symphony Orchestra. A year later they added the Second and Third Concertos,
composed respectively in 1932 and 1945, recordings still available on
a DGG “Originals” disc digitally remastered (expertly, too)
in 1995. Otherwise, the players of No.1 on discs include Pollini, András
Schiff, Zoltán Kocsis, György Sandor, Stephen Kovacevich,
John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, and most recently on Sony Yefim Bronfman with
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Phil. There is even a wretched-sounding
pirate of Serkin and Reiner’s March 1960 broadcast performance
with the New York Phil on Italian AS, with the indignity (for a “Legendary
Conductors”disc) of Eugene Ormandy’s picture instead of Reiner’s
in the brochure.
On DGG’s evidence in 2005, however, the Chicago Symphony – even
with Boulez at the helm – has become a coarse-sounding echo of
Reiner’s great orchestra. And Kristian Zimerman is heavy-handed
as well as capricious at times in matters of tempi and dynamics; there
is not a sense of comaraderie between him and Boulez until the finale.
It is the disappointment on this otherwise fascinating disc. Leif Ove
Andsnes is a pianist to the manner born in the Second Concerto, which
has no strings in the first movement, beautifully played by the Berlin
Phil that Abbado retrained so spectacularly, here recorded with uncommon
transparency yet full-bloodedly. Hélène Grimaud is a most poetic
champion of the Third Concerto, which Bartók wrote but didn’t
quite finish for his wife Ditta to play after his death. She is freer
in matters of tempo than Anda, to whom in greater part the concerto still
belongs, but her tone is crystalline and her musicianship impeccable.
I could wish for a solo oboe in the London Symphony that sounded less
like a duck during the slow movement, full of bird calls that the composer
heard at a resort in Asheville, NC, where he composed most of the piece,
and where – at performance I heard there ca. 1950 by a superb American
pianist, David Smith (who opted to become a forest ranger), with Thor
Johnson conducting – birds outside imitated their instrumental
counterparts during the slow movement. Boulez is sympathetic to Grimaud’s
music-making, and the orchestra asserts its current British primacy without
quite challenging the Berlin Phil in No. 2. Let me conclude by saying
that Zimerman is not negligible, but I am keeping Anda/Fricsay as my
reference recording while I cherish Andsnes and greatly admire Grimaud.
As for Boulez, happy 80th birthday and many more.
In the company of Mahler and Bartók, Ernö von Dohnányi
(1877-1960), was the longest-lived but musically the most backward-looking – to
Brahms – and most overlooked, with the exception of his Suite in
F minor, Op. 19, and Variations on a Nursery Tune for piano and orchestra.
He was both a virtuoso pianist in his younger years and the concert conductor
at Budapest for a quarter of a century as well as director of the Franz
Liszt Academy, yet comparatively a minor influence outside his own country.
After a Postwar-2 period of clearing his name as a Nazi sympathizer,
Dohnányi settled in Tallahassee where he taught piano almost to
the end at Florida State University. The featured Harp Concertino on
Bridge’s painstakingly produced and annotated CD is a late work
(1952), with a long solo at the start for Sara Cutler. She is joined
by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, recorded in Olin
Hall at Bard College upriver from New York City, which is Botstein’s
academic base. The Septet in C, Op. 37, was composed in 1935 for violin,
viola, cello, clarinet, horn and piano – Dohnányi’s
last (and immemorably pretty) work for chamber players, while the Six
Piano Pieces date from 1945 – light music until the concluding “Cloches” (or
Bells), as if in memory of his German-born and -raised sons, both victims
of World War 2. Todd Crow plays them puckishly until the end-piece on
a CD of much fine music-making but music of transitory interest, hard
to recollect without replaying it.
R.D. (February 2005)