Monday, September 19, 2005

Classical Gas

Some new classical music releases of note, for those of you who are into that kind of thing:

- In my post on Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, I said that there was no good DVD of the opera. Now, happily, there is. The 1970s Glyndebourne Festival Production offers an excellent cast, including young stars-to-be Felicity Lott and Samuel Ramey, Bernard Haitink conducting, and famous sets by David Hockney, giving the whole production an exaggerated look and feel that's half Hogarth and half Pop Art. The sound is fine, though it seems to be mono rather than, as the box claims, stereo. At the low price, definitely worth getting if you want to get better acquainted with this strange but beautiful and funny opera.

Rene Jacobs seems to be on his way to being the superstar of today's recording industry; he's just about the only conductor who is still able to make big recordings of expensive operas and choral works on a regular basis. His recording of The Marriage of Figaro won just about every possible award, and his recording of Haydn's The Seasons looks like it will do the same. His newest recording is of Handel's "Saul", probably the greatest of English oratorios -- a real tragic drama with an excellent libretto. Jacobs, as always, likes to take baroque music to extremes: extreme contrasts of volume and tempo, with every dramatic effect brought out: in Jonathan's first aria, when Jonathan refers to David's "virtue," Jacobs slows down and then slows down the more, the better to emphasize the idea that this is where David and Jonathan's friendship begins. It's excellent music-drama conducting, well executed by a great orchestra. The cast is generally good, except for a somewhat nasal tenor as Jonathan. Also, the chorus, while musically excellent, doesn't have the clearest diction (it's a German chorus). Paul McCreesh's recording of this work is also excellent and is better than Jacobs' in those two respects -- the tenor and the chorus. But you can't go wrong with Jacobs, and since this is one of my favorite classical works of all time, I'm happy to have both.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra also have a consistently excellent track record; their last two recordings for the Channel Classics label, Rachmaninov's second symphony and Tchaikovsky's fourth, blew away most modern recordings of these warhorses. Now they've recorded Mahler's Sixth Symphony, complete with exposition repeat on one disc. Based on the one listen I've had so far, it's not quite as mean and ferocious and nasty as my favorite version of the symphony, Georg Solti's, but as a less brutal approach, it's quite enjoyable, with great orchestral playing and a really beautiful slow movement.

The new recording of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury didn't impress me, though I don't hate it as much as the Amazon reviewer does. The choral singing is good but stiff, the singers ham it up too much (the singer playing the Counsel for the Plaintiff affects a silly cartoon upper-crust accent instead of, you know, singing the music and words), and it's not very effective musically or dramatically.

Despite that last disappointment, I have to say, despite the constant insistence that classical recording is dying out, classical recordings may be better today than they have been for a long time. When I started collecting classical music on CD, the business was booming, and the big labels were signing artists left and right and letting them record almost everything. The problem was, a lot of the recordings were clearly made more to create product for the then-new CD market, rather than because there was any particular care put into making them or because the artists had a particular reaon for recording these works. So we got a string of forgettable Beethoven cycles, disappointingly cast operas (remember how Deutsche Grammophon had a five-year period where soprano Cheryl Studer was in every single opera recording they made?), and bloodless "authentic" performances.

Now the big labels have mostly gotten out of classical music, and a lot of fine artists aren't getting to record, and that's a shame. But a lot of fine artists didn't get to record during the boom years, either, because the companies were signing up big names or easily-promotable (e.g. pretty or otherwise media-friendly) young artists instead of trying to get the best people into the studio. Now, because there are fewer recordings made for purely commercial reasons, the recordings that do get made often have more care put into them, and more than a reason for being. Jacobs' Figaro was better than any previous period-instrument Figaro and, despite the lack of superstars, better-cast than any Figaro recording in the previous twenty years. And in the last couple of years we've gotten two new recordings of Saul that surpass any previous version.

So it's a good time to be a classical-music record collector. You just have to accept that the best recordings aren't going to be reviewed by the "Penguin Guide," and you'll do fine.

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