Sunday, April 16, 2006

Classical Wackiness

Some classical recordings I've listened to recently that I can recommend:

- Mozart, "La Clemenza Di Tito", conducted by René Jacobs. Excellent as usual with Jacobs: energetic, dramatic conducting, fine cast, great playing by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, lively performances of the recitatives (presented complete and uncut). Jacobs and the Freiburg orchestra have two more Mozart recordings planned: a complete Don Giovanni and a recording of the 38th and 41st symphonies (which will be only Jacobs' second orchestral recording, after a great Haydn disc last year).

- Tchaikovsky, Suite # 3, Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Tchaikovsky's third suite is practically a symphony: a 40-minute work concluding with a gigantic theme-and-variations movement that's often performed as a separate piece. It's a great, tuneful and varied piece that is actually quite a bit more entertaining -- and certainly less pompous -- than some of Tchaikovsky's "real" symphonies. The performance here is very good, maybe a little slow for my tastes in the opening Elegy, but rousing in the big Polonaise that concludes the work. The fill-up is the suite from Stravinsky's ballet "The Fairy's Kiss," based on songs and piano pieces by Tchaikovsky.

- Bruckner, Symphony no. 4, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. I've always found the symphonies of Anton Bruckner to be a bit monotonous and square -- with his thick scoring and lack of interest in varied rhythms, he sometimes sounds to me like, as I once put it, "Wagner in Church." So I liked the opportunity to hear a Bruckner symphony on period instruments, as the smaller, tougher-sounding (but very good) orchestra helps to make the music sound less soggy and gives it a bit more of an edge. Hearing this new recording, I was more entertained by Bruckner than I thought possible, though I don't know how the performance compares to the great Bruckner recordings of the past.

- Mahler, Symphony no. 10, conducted by Michael Gielen. This is the symphony Mahler was working on when he died; he'd completed all or most of the first movement (which is often performed as a separate concert piece) and the short third movement (in Mahler's trusty mock-rustic style), and sketched out the other three movements. In 1964, British musicologist Deryck Cooke created a performing version of the symphony, which is the version Gielen has recorded here. Cooke, by his own admission, stuck very closely to the sketches, even in spots where they are probably incomplete. As William Malloch explained in High Fidelity in reviewing the first recording of the symphony:

Cooke claims only to have prepared a "performing version of the sketch" and has done a minimum of note-adding, i.e. filling in a conjectural harmony or secondary voice here and there and painting all in Mahler-like colors... So, in a way, such a "realization" represents Mahler well, but, equally, as Cooke admits, it does not -- for with Mahler there is always something extra, something a bit different, each time a given musical idea passes by once again. The fantastic shell game Mahler plays with his ideas as they poke their noses out of the orchestra now here, now there, the delightful and terrible super-elaboration, is only minimally in evidence in this score.

But had Cooke been more daring... he surely would have been damned from many quarters for "composing" Mhaler's music for him, and would have been unable to demonstrate how much essential Mahler the sketch contains.

Gielen has chosen Cooke's version, instead of one of the later versions (by people who added more to the sketches), on that basis, that though Cooke's version is not what Mahler's final version would have been, it does retain the "essential" work that Mahler put into the symphony before he died. Gielen's Mahler cycle is about the best we've had in the last couple of decades, and this new recording is as good as the previous nine.

No comments: