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 Vienna 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 the vaunted 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)