|Beethoven - The Ideals of the French Revolution
Maximilian Schell; Adrianne Pieczonka; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Chorus; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9942-3
The first of these two CDs contains The General, an allegory in the form of a soliloquy with music. The text is based on the writings of General Romeo Dallaire who was head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during 1993-4. Beethoven’s entr’acte music for Egmont is heard between the spoken passages conveyed with compassion and conviction by Maximilian Schell, a perfect choice to portray the alienated general whose explicit orders were to merely observe the continuing brutality and slaughter.
The concept for this 21st century utilization of Beethoven’s 200 year old scores came from conductor Kent Nagano who continues to prove that he is a sensitive musician who habitually sees beyond the score to find the composer. In the notes, musicologist Paul Griffiths, who wrote the text, explains how he achieved his goal to blend words and music into a tale, using neither names nor location, not of victory but defeat. He wrote new words for Beethoven’s oddity, Opferlied, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, opus 121b, with which The General ends.
The second CD has a lyrical, beautifully balanced and finely nuanced performance of the Fifth Symphony, the orchestra sounding, to my ears, better than they ever did under Dutoit. Perhaps it’s that they recorded in the Place des Arts, their home. The disc is rounded out with the Egmont Overture and two excerpts plus the Opferlied, again sung by Pieczonka as heard on the first disc. This only makes sense if Analekta also intends to release this disc separately.
Excellent sound throughout this most unusual and attractive package, which is, we hope, just the first Nagano/OSM recording from Analekta.
|4; Waltzes; Mazurkas; Barcarolle
EMI 5 14899 2
|Brahms - Variations Op.21; 24; 35
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907392
Two recent CDs feature repertoire from the romantic period, performed by artists who both made their Toronto debuts in recent months – Ingrid Fliter who performed with the Toronto Symphony in January and Olga Kern who was featured with the Moscow Virtuosi under Vladimir Spivakov’s baton at Roy Thomson Hall in May.
I admit I had never heard of Ingrid Fliter before I was introduced to this all-Chopin recording on the EMI label. Ms Fliter is a native of Argentina, where she was the laureate of several competitions, and where she made her debut in Buenos Aires at the age of 16. She later continued her studies in Freiburg and Rome and, in 2000, was the silver medalist at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Could she possibly be the next Martha Argerich? Admittedly, an all-Chopin disc is an easy way to my heart, but I find this one particularly outstanding. The program itself is finely balanced, featuring three major works – the B minor sonata, the Barcarolle, and the fourth Ballade, interspersed with various mazurkas and waltzes. In addition to her flawless technique, the playing is noble and poetic, at all times displaying the subtle nuances ever present in the music of Chopin. Martha, I do believe you have a successor!
I was more familiar with the name Olga Kern whose disc on the Harmonia Mundi label features three sets of Brahms’ variations, Op. 21, 24 and 35. Gold medalist at the 11th van Cliburn competition in 2001, Kern studied in her native Russia, where she initially won acclaim as the prize-winner at the Rachmaninov competition at the age of 17. Since then, she has earned a reputation as an artist of international stature. The earliest set of variations on this disc, the Op. 21, dates from 1853, the year Brahms toured with the violin virtuoso Remenyi, so it was perhaps not surprising that this music has a decidedly Hungarian flavour, even to the point of using a Hungarian theme as the basis. Kern plays with a strong assurance, displaying a formidable technique that we might expect from a Russian-trained pianist. More familiar are the variations on a theme by Handel, and the two sets of variations on a theme by Paganini, the latter used by Rachmaninov 70 years later. This must be among the most difficult piano music Brahms ever wrote, requiring an almost super-human technique – as challenging for the pianist as Paganini’s etudes are for the violin. Not surprisingly, Ms Kern effortlessly captures the ever-changing moods of the music, from the delicacy of Variation 5 in the first set, to the robust bravura of the first variation in the second. In all, these are two most satisfying discs – great music superbly performed – who could ask for more?
|Karajan - In Concert
Herbert von Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4399
|Karajan or Beauty as I See It
A Film by Robert Dornhelm
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4392
From audio recordings alone it can be hard today to understand why Herbert von Karajan so dominated his age. Now, almost twenty years after his death, his unified textures and seamless phrasing have lost favour to a less mannered, more historically informed style. Yet those who heard him live tend to consider the experience transformative.
The centenary of Karajan’s birth this year has inspired record companies to make even more recordings by him available. These two video releases are especially valuable for allowing us to not just hear but see him at work.
The two-disc set Karajan in Concert contains filmed concerts with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded in the 1970’s, with Karajan both conducting and directing the innovative filming. In a gripping performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 with Alexis Weissenberg, the intrepid camera peers over the pianist’s shoulder, sweeps around the players and pans out to the renowned Berlin Philharmonic Hall. Karajan conducts every work from memory, without a score. That’s just as well, since he keeps his eyes closed. The one-hour documentary portrait of Karajan made by director Vojtech Jasný in 1970 shows how the real work was done in lengthy rehearsals, where Karajan keeps his eyes wide open. He even tells jokes.
Robert Dornhelm’s recent one-and-one-half hour documentary Karajan or Beauty as I See It lets the historic footage and interviews with prominent musicians who worked closely with Karajan speak for themselves. In interview, pianist Evgeny Kissin says that Karajan opened hidden potential in him. Daughter Isabel von Karajan recalls seeing her father in tears only once – after a performance with Kissin. Both René Kollo and Christa Ludwig recall how, when they started having vocal problems, he dumped them, even though they were still in their prime and had worked together for years. Dornhelm cleverly cuts between footage of Leonard Bernstein and Karajan rehearsing the Berliners to highlight their contrasting conducting styles, Bernstein uninhibited and Karajan thoroughly disciplined.
A few of the historical clips appear in Jasný’s documentary as well, but Dornhelm, freed by Karajan’s death, is able to present a more well-rounded portrait. So it is disappointing that he skims so lightly over key controversies in Karajan’s career, such as his ties to the Nazis, his later problems with the Berlin players and, above all, his distinctive orchestral sound, which today remains the most important aspect of his legacy.