01 Beethoven Symphonies RattleBeethoven – Symphonies 1-9
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle
Berlin Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 160091

When setting out to listen to these new performances from Berlin one would reasonably expect to hear, yet again, the familiar, well-known sonorities of the Philharmonic in this basic repertoire. After all, with five complete cycles available with this orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan and versions by Claudio Abbado and André Cluytens, we may be pretty sure what, with some interpretive differences, the timbre will be. EMI had recorded the complete cycle with Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic in concert in the Musikverein in April and May of 2002, the year he assumed his new post in Berlin. Those performances broke no new ground. This one most certainly does.

Starting with, as usual for me, the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, the ensemble sounded distinctly textured, noticeably different from the suave sonorities of so many admired performances one hears both in concert and on recordings. Listening to all nine confirmed that here are performances that bloom from inside Beethoven’s scores versus the subjective smoothing-out-the-details fashionable today. In these performances every symphony sounds newly minted. There are felicities in each and every one that capture and hold even the most jaded listener. No, particularly the most jaded listener!

For instance, the Pastoral is quite special. After the opening pages there comes a palpable feeling of serenity, a moment I don’t recall hearing before. More so than in other versions, this delicate-where-appropriate performance allows us to experience the surroundings that inspired the composer. Throughout the entire work we are with Beethoven and not looking out from a Mercedes, with the windows closed.

Bound into the sumptuous edition are five audio CDs, two Blu-ray videos of the concerts with additional material including rehearsals and observations on each symphony from conductor and players, and an engrossing impromptu talk by Rattle on Beethoven, problems of tempo, what size orchestra to employ, etc. Also a high definition Blu-ray audio disc of the nine; and included in the bound-in book is a piece by Jonathan Del Mar on his edition used in these performances.

This package is pricey … but priceless.

02 Mahler 10Mahler – Symphony No.10
Seattle Symphony; Thomas Dausgaard
Seattle Symphony SSM1011 (seattlesymphony.org)

Mahler’s final work, composed in the summer of 1910, survived in a complete though sometimes skeletal short score form before his death at the age of 50. A facsimile of the sketches was eventually published in 1924. Several efforts have been made to reconstruct the work, the most well-regarded being the three editions issued by Deryck Cooke from 1960 to 1976 (this last in use here). Questions of authenticity aside, the symphony remains a deeply moving, intensely personal and profound last testament.

Thomas Dausgaard, principal guest conductor of the re-invigorated Seattle Symphony, has a special affinity for this work, which he has performed frequently around the world. His interpretation is among the finest I have ever heard and the gorgeous sound he draws from the Seattle forces is outstanding. Their expanded string section in particular has never sounded better. The engineering of the live performance from November 2015 is peerless, surpassing that of the acclaimed 1999 Rattle/Berlin DG pressing. Wildly recommended.

03 Ravel OzawaRavel – L’enfant et les sortilèges; Shéhérazade
Isabel Leonard; Susan Graham; Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa
Decca 478 6760

This new Decca release marks Seiji Ozawa’s 80th birthday and gives a nod to the particularly fruitful career of a conductor with a lifelong rapport with Ravel’s music. The pairing of a lyric fantasy, a triptych for mezzo-soprano and orchestra and an orchestrated movement from a solo piano suite creates an impressionistic jewel of tonal patterns and colours, oriental elements and imaginative stories.

Colette’s libretto for L’enfant et les sortilèges is whimsically charming and particularly suited to Ravel’s music. It tells the story of a young boy whose misbehaviour brings objects and talking animals to life. The opera is full of interesting characters – the armchair, the clock, the teapot, the Chinese cup and a whole array of animals (cats, frogs, squirrels and dragonflies). Ravel underscores the fantastic elements with indisputably beautiful orchestration. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s portrayal of the mischievous child is light and playful and, even more notably, the whole cast is outstanding.

Ravel’s affinity for the oriental world is evident in Shéhérazade, a trio of vocal works set to expressively romantic poems by his friend and fellow member of the avant-garde artist group Les Apaches, Tristan Klingsor. The music is dreamy, sensuous, in full rapport with the text. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is powerful yet full of emotional nuances.

Alborada del gracioso, showcasing Saito Kinen Orchestra’s engaging interpretation of Ravel’s world, completes this highly recommended recording.

04 Brass RootsPassion For Brass: Brassroots at 30
Brassroots; Bram Gregson
Independent CB-B-07 (brassroots.ca)

Although they are little known outside of their home community of London, Ontario, Brassroots is one of the finest brass ensembles in Canada. With this recording they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. In 1986 when the famous Philip Jones Brass Ensemble disbanded, Karl Hermann, a trombone student at the Western University, organized a brass ensemble with the same instrumentation of four trumpets, one horn, four trombones, one tuba and percussion. Over the years there have been changes in personnel, but the only significant change has been an enlargement of the percussion to enable performance of a more expansive repertoire. Under the direction of veteran conductor Bram Gregson, Brassroots can certainly be proud of this 30-year-celebration recording.

The CD opens with the Music for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Cornetts by Matthew Locke (1621-1677), arranged for modern instruments. This is a stunning performance in its precision. It’s followed by works by Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli and Tylman Susato, a composer from Antwerp in the same period. Then, the recording moves on to Point Pelee by Howard Cable. One minute you are hearing Baroque and Renaissance music. Then you are ushered in to contemporary music from Billy May, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. For a radical departure, with The Cat by Jimmy Smith, the ensemble is turned into a hard-driving big band complete with a Hammond B-3 organ.

The CD comes with excellent program notes which are not printed on the package but are on a separate brochure. Unfortunately, the listing of the selections does not indicate track numbers. To select and play a specific track it is necessary count down the listings to determine the track.

In all, this recording covers a great spectrum. My personal favourites are the Locke work and a stunning rendition of the famous Czardas of Vittorio Monti. The soloist, Michael Medeiros, proves that a tuba in the right hands can be a fine lyric solo instrument. Over all this is a first-rate CD covering music over three centuries.

05 Scriabin SymphoniesScriabin – Symphonies 1&2
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev

Those who love to classify composers into neat categories will certainly have a stumbling block with Scriabin. He is Russian, but doesn’t sound a bit Russian (more like Richard Strauss if anyone, yet the Slavic spirit is unmistakable); his music doesn’t follow any rules and for the casual listener it all sounds more or less the same. He has been bypassed and rarely performed at concerts, as conductors do not like to take chances, but I suspect very few of them are capable of interpreting it, as the music is completely free with no comprehensible structure. But with total engagement and absorption, repeated listening and a great conductor like Gergiev, this music will conquer and you’ll never tire of it.

Gergiev has already recorded the better-known symphonies, the Third and Fourth (Poem of Ecstasy), with the London Symphony, one of the best orchestras in the world, in state-of-the-art sound, and here we have the two earlier symphonies from his formative years. The five movement Symphony No.2 is already a mature work and so makes a deep impact while Symphony No.1 has a vocal ending fashionable in those days à la Liszt, Berlioz or Mahler, with fine soloists and chorus, but so poorly received by the public at its premiere (1900) that it was condemned to oblivion.

Gergiev however quickly convinces us to the contrary. Luckily I have seen him a few times and can just picture him conducting without a baton as he hypnotizes the orchestra by his razor sharp gaze and with his undulating body and they follow his every movement. He and the orchestra become one organic unit with an inner logic that this indeed exalted, passionate music demands. A wonderful new issue I’ve enjoyed tremendously.

06 Florent SchmidtFlorent Schmitt – Antoine et Cléopâtre; Le Palais hanté
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573521


This remarkable disc suggests that Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts under outstanding conductor JoAnn Falletta are well worth the trip for Toronto area music lovers! The two three-movement concert suites of Florent Schmitt’s Antony and Cleopatra (1920) began as music for ballet interludes in a new Paris Opera production of the Shakespeare play. The Alsatian-born composer created an effective fin-de-siècle amalgam from his French and German influences; he was not simply being eclectic. The opening movement of Suite No.1 is an exotic foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, with delicate, intriguing timbres, a sultry oboe solo beautifully played and thick low- and mid-range scoring. As for succeeding numbers, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s brass shine in At Pompey’s Camp and the whole orchestra gives an exciting and heartfelt reading of the Battle of Actium. Suite No. 2 opens with Night in the Palace of the Queen’s evocative solo English horn, followed by the irregularly metred Orgy and Dances and the eerie, reverberant Tomb of Cleopatra, all played atmospherically and with technical assurance.

The earlier Study for “The Haunted Palace” (1904) dates from Schmitt’s time at the Villa Medici, after winning the Prix de Rome. It is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem as translated by Stéphane Mallarmé. Travellers through a valley see Spirits moving and hear Echoes singing in the enchanted building. The language of this work is late romantic; conductor Falletta draws a rich sound and expressive style from the Buffalo Philharmonic strings.

07 Bernstein Larger than LifeLeonard Bernstein – Larger than Life
(A Film by Georg Wübbolt)
Cmajor 735908

The beauty of Wübbolt’s documentary is the decision not to show Leonard Bernstein’s life in chronological order but rather in random, visually pleasing segments which drive the storyline, regardless how much one knows about his life.

Footage of Bernstein conducting illustrates that he put everything – mind, body, listening and soul – into his work. The swaying, jumping and arm swinging are not affectations but the means to achieve a great orchestral performance. It wasn’t always easy for him, as seen in a clip of orchestra members chatting during his verbal direction of his beloved Mahler. Composing was a great love. Bernstein loved to work with the musical teams, as shown by driving footage from the timeless West Side Story and comments by Stephen Sondheim. Bernstein is seen leading conducting classes with enthralled participants while fun clips from his television show Omnibus and Young People’s concerts convey his passion for youth, storytelling, conducting and piano performance.

Interspersed is footage from Bernstein interviews. Illuminating comments feature his children, Jamie, Nina and Alexander, and professionals such as Sondheim, Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop and Gustavo Dudamel, who are positioned in front of eye-catching Bernstein photographic stills from private and professional settings. In dramatic visual contrast, a bonus section has Nagano, Alsop and Dudamel speaking minus the backdrop.

This film’s uncanny strength lies in its ability to create a personal viewing experience; one may feel that Leonard Bernstein is speaking and performing only to you.

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