Sunday, October 30, 2011

Best Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra evar.

Ok, it is a little bit of exaggeration to say that since I have not heard virtually ALL recordings of this warhorse. But this knocks the socks off the efficient but SNOREfest overrated Fritz Reiner's recording with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Its in bloody mono but who fucking cares, this is Bartok in one of his earthbound best, with much soul and humanity than much of mechanized precision of today's orchestral recordings. This should be on SACD ages ago goddammit.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Nice Mandarin, ho-hum Baldie, forgettable Rite

On package the album's repertoire looked absolutely tantalizing; Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain (reputedly original, not Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement), Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

The first few minutes of the Mussorgsky is a knockout, however as the music progresses the excitement kind of fizzled off. Bartok's "abridged" Miraculous Mandarin in concert suite where the works ends abruptly at the climax is the high point of this disc and its a pity Salonen did not record the full ballet including choir. I especially love how the orchestral textures especially when the piano and winds blend seamlessly with each other. The chase "fugue" is taken at a much faster clip than usual but a little too fast and thus the savagery feels rushed which is the only flaw for that piece.

As for Rite, this is arguably the biggest letdown of the disc. Salonen and his LA players doesn't produce anything to set them apart from already crowded field of recordings. The excitement is probably robbed off from "distant" engineering with too throbbing bass drum prominence disturbing. Maestro Salonen's earlier recording with Philharmonia trumps their LA counterparts in every department. Take instant the french horns in "Games of Rival Tribes" by Philharmonia sounds like Arnie on steroids compared with velcro-clad Micheal Keaton's Batman which exactly how I imagine the LA horns sounded. Better investment somewhere else I guess.

Recording: 7
Interpretation: 7
Technical: 9

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Classical Musician: Igudesman and Joo feat Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

16 Nov 09, 8:30 p.m, Dewan Filharmonik Petronas

Disclaimer: Review will contain spoilers that may be "recycled" in upcoming Igudesman & Joo concerts.

The YouTube sensational duo Igudesman and Joo, classical musicians cum comedian entertainers stopped by Kuala Lumpur during their tour and Malaysian audiences were lucky enough they brought with them the legendary violinist Gidon Kremer and his chamber outfit Kremerata Baltica to perform the first night. Maestro Kremer, an ever thought-provoking and one of the most original minds in classical music has worked with conductors as diverse as Karajan, Bernstein, Ozawa, Abbado and Giulini then helped to champion and premiere works of his contemporaries Schnittke, Arvo Part, Piazzolla and Glass. Is there anything else Gidon Kremer haven't done? From a shallow point of view, to collaborate with Igudesman and Joo playing "circus music" might seem a step backwards to an artist of Kremer's calibre but there is more to the eye about "The Rise and Fall of Classical Musician" than just juxtaposing Bach with Piazzolla or Bond with Mozart.

Indeed the seemingly autobiographical theme of the concert indirectly tells the story of Kremer's journey as a musician, whether it is real or made up. One of the "sets" has Kremer in a sort of a mafia-style interrogation led by Richard Hyung Ki-Joo who must get assurances that this virtuoso will at least win the Paganini competition that he will be taking part while at the same time showing impatience with contemporary "garbage" such as SCHIT-nittke (pun intended). Then there is a classroom tutorial where a lesson in playing Bach turns into a riverdance jig (yeah y'all are screamin "We've watched it on YouTube already", pipe down). Igudesman turns into a violin coach, coaxing a Kremerata member with his satarical German accent and throws in Bahasa Melayu words into great effect! The most brilliant sketch is definitely "recording studio" where Igudesman played Kremer and records a Bach partita in studio where he is "tyranised" by an overzealous manager (Richard Joo on mikes) forced to add gimmicks such as "reverb" and 1930's era grainy noises to "sound like Yehudi Menuhin", an obvious dig to nostalgists who worship Heifetz, Kreisler etc.

The show raises obvious questions to audiences who could see through the humour and the slapstick effects. What is a celebrity's role in art? Can an artist still maintain his/her integrity despite pressure to "sell out"? What is their intention of juxtapoxing Mozart with James Bond even though their programme notes states that they hope the show helps to distance classical music from usual commercial "dumbing down"? Indeed there are a few numbers in the show where comedy takes a back seat, one which has Kremer playing a radical cadenza to Beethoven Violin Concerto's 1st movement with obvious quotation from Berg's Violin Concerto to a reflective final number of Mahler's 10th symphony Adagio which Kremer remarks before the Kremerata plays the abridged version "Would life be a mistake, if music didn't exist?".

Monday, July 20, 2009

J.S Bach's Mass in B minor (Malaysian Premiere)

Conductor: Lee Chong Min
Soloist: Chia Yee Yean (soprano), Anna Koor (mezzo-soprano), Ndaru Darsona (tenor), John Tan (bass)
Choir: Yin Qi Choir, SBC Singers, Hallelujah Singers,
JB Chorale
Venue: Dewan Wawasan, Menara PGRM, Cheras, KL.
Date: 18/7/2009 (Saturday)

It took an awfully long time for J.S Bach's mammoth setting of the Catholic mass, premiering in Malaysia just recently (if not mistaken) when the American premiere was held 100 years ago. This is a very different league from Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requeim if you consider the complex fugal writing for the choirs alone to tackle.

The performance was organized by Yin Qi Center and also Singapore Bible College and Te Deum Music Workshop (hopefully got my facts right) so obviously it is a Christian-sponsored initiative. It is good for these organisations to promote more of performances of classical works in Christian canon as opposed to attempts by so-called charismatic groups organizing "Christian metal" or Christian clubbing" events which is a lame way of using MTV to lure non-believers. While acknowledged that Bach's works were written for the glory of his God alone, his music does not necessarily be exclusive to Christians.

For starters I do not understand the abnormally imbalanced proportions of choir:orchestra ratio. The choir members I counted roughly 120 of them while the orchestra accompaniment is pretty sparse; 2 or 3 first and second violins if I remember, two violas and celli, one double bass, horn, 2 flutes, oboes and 3 trumpets. The orchestra played with influences of H.I.P school of playing (whether authentic enough is another matter) but still if they double the players to complement the choir and play it in old-school way (Klemperer or Karajan) it doesn't matter. Despite using miked settings, the orchestral parts are audible enough to be heard. The sucker are the two oboe d'amores that Bach required and even in non-H.I.P recordings under Karajan and Klemperer these were used. I was informed one of the oboists had to petition the organizers to at least borrow these d'amore oboes and they only got one (from MPO) while the other oboist have to substitute for oboe/cor anglais combination which is ridiculous. At least having one saves the evening although Bach purists may differ.

Conductor Lee Chong Min from the programme notes I understand is a seasoned conductor of Christian productions which includes classical Christian canon (Haydn's St Theresa Mass, Mozart and Brahms Requiem etc) and his credentials include training under a renowned Helmuth Rilling (who recorded the Mass with Bach Colleagum-Stuttgart on Hanssler). Chong Min's choices of tempi seems to be a "modular" style akin to a little bit like Jascha Horenstein, that means transitions from one movement to another seems very natural and not boggled down by "gear changes" and the music isn't drag down by "episodic" moments which may stood out and compromise the architecture of the work. One example that comes to my mind is Crucifixus where conductors often slows down the tempi to crotchet = 45-50 and Chong Min's tempi is also perfectly natural neither too draggy nor too swift, more Andante than Largo. However some profound music in the Mass, especially the moments with mysterious dissonances the performers sounded eager to glance over them. Also the concluding movement Dona Nobis Pacem was disappointing as it does not give the feeling of summation of the moment or sense of departure after two hours of meditation in music.

Technical wise, the choirs did a tremendous job and they are the heart of this work. Apart from a little shaky start at second half's Credo and the almost train-wreck at the first half of Et Rexurrexit (the dissonant harmonies sounded very comtemporary by still today's standards) you have to hand it to them for terrific hard work and effort put in. The soloists are fine and I adore Anna Koay's mezzo singing and the tenor Ndaru Dossana has a very fine clear tenor voice. The violin obbligatto for Laudamus te sounds as if the performer was zipping through, the ornaments played way too quick but that solo part is akin to walking circus tightrope anyways.

Again kudos to the performers and pulling off the Mass with minor hitches is already a tremendous achievement. The almost exclusively Singaporean orchestra has two MPYO members playing the winds. However the Mass is best experienced in a more appropriate acoustical setting (as in a church) and a balanced orchestra to choir ratio. It would be nice to hear this performed in DFP, if the day comes that the Powers to-be acknowledges the role of Christian music in classical music canon.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mahler AGAIN?! Recordings of Tragic symphony

For those who wants to purchase recordings of Mahler's Sixth Symphony entitled "Tragic" (especially in light of recent MPO performance by Claus Peter Flor) here are my rundowns on recordings I heard so far:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti (Decca).

This was my very first recording of this symphony, bought from Tower Records at neat RM 34.90. Decently played, the Finale thrilling but not quite in the league as the two MPO performances by Bakels and Peter Flor. The hammerblows sounded as if twacked from a bass drum. Better investment elsewhere.

Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

This is one recording I worship and a benchmark which others are judged. I have not listened to the earlier New York Philharmonic recording, but whoever says that one is superior to this should have their ears checked (we all know how hammy the NYPO recordings on Sony sounds anyway). A live recording that is stunningly and vividly captured, there are imperfections one must deal with first; an exaggerated and almost cheesy interpretation of Alma's theme, the trio of Scherzo ("Altvaterisch") crawls at a tortoise pace which sounds like a grandma doing tango just to name few. But the Viennese brasses are menacing and puts their CSO colleagues to shame. Listen to a howling cry on Viennese horn first few minutes into the Finale and also the way the brasses sustains tensions between the hammerblows at a superhuman stamina. I also like the cowbell effects which is a little more like muted clomps of coconut shells which is still more evocative than "tin kosong" clangings in other performances. No other performances of the Finale is as visceral and devastating as in this recording. In the coda, Bernstein swings an axe at our heads, and dump it into oblivion. It is that damned good.

Royal Concertgebouworkest, Riccardo Chailly(Decca)

My general complaint of Chailly's Mahler is too much polish on his Mahler and prefer the grit of Horenstein, Klemperer or even Bernstein. However this recording is exception, despite the first movement crawling at almost half an hour (or 25 mins roughly). But in Chailly's case his choice of tempi is convincing and RCO supplements it with much weight and dread. The wind department shows us again why they are the best Mahler orchestra in the world. The feel is roughly like Bernstein's recording with Vienna Philharmonic, but with less eccentric mannerisms we come accustomed with his conducting. If you only see this in your store, its worth every penny. The gorgeous Zemlinsky songs are a bonus.

Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander (Telarc)

This recording is an audiophile Mahlernut's feast. There are numerous vivid details in that recording that are stunning and the hammerblows literally knock your socks off. However if you are accostomed to Bernstein like I do, you may want to ask "What is the fuss?". Bernstein may not be a literalist who follows everything that Mahler asks in the score, but there is no doubt who is a more superior Mahler conductor. It comes at whopping 3-cd package inclusive of an hour's lecture regarding the performance and the only recording which has two Finales, one the original with 3 hammerblows and the revised version with 2 hammerblows.

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Köln/Dimitri Mitropoulos

Finally, this recording may be sonically inferior to the above, but no less visceral and unnerving as the best recordings out there. A live recording, the orchestra is pretty much what you expect in the 50s, not perfect. Worse are the absence of cowbells and only ONE hammerblow in the Finale (the bugger forgot his first Hammer cue). Still Mitropoulos' vision of this symphony is undisputable and the human drama depicted are unforgettable. The performance comes with Debussy's La mer, Berlioz' excerpts of Romeo and Juliet and Strauss' Dance of Seven Veils, all with New York Philharmonic and sounds very good in this Great Conductors of 20th century package.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The greatest Bruckner 5th symphony ever?

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is regarded as one of the giants of late Romantic era, despite his limited output to merely ten symphonies (including a Symphony no. 0 or eleven including curiously numbered"00"), three masses, a string quartet and some number of minor works. Therefore like Mahler, Bruckner is well regarded as a symphonist. But while Mahler's vocation as a conducting maestro with ridiculously hectic schedule justified his output of works, Bruckner's case was "squandered" by numerous revisions to his symphonies due to his insecurities and attacks by the Pro-Brahms camp led by notorious Eduard Hanslick. Even so I may use a wrong word since some revisions did justice, particularly the transcendent Eighth symphony.
This legendary recording is much touted in music forums as those who listened it will proclaim it THE Bruckner 5th despite the numerous versions in market; Gunter Wand/Berlin PO (RCA), Harnoncourt/Vienna PO (RCA), Sinopoli/Dresden Staatskapelle (DG) and overrated Welser-Most/LondonPO (EMI). Conductor Eugen Jochum gave his last appearance with the Royal Concertgebouw before his demise at the same year and the occasion was recorded. Here this 2-CD set is sold by Tahra at a single-CD price but then these days your only problem would be finding it.
This is one of the most vividly captured live performance ever on record. It feels like you're in the Concertgebouw itself and every instrumental balance is natural save some moments if you feel like nitpicking, such as some horn textures not coming out enough (alas too easy to consult the score) but still, terrific . It doesn't feel "artificial" as in example of Decca's Concertgebouw recording where sometimes the halls resonance feels exaggerated. I think this a classic textbook reference for a superb live recording demonstration.
On to the performance. Maestro Eugen Jochum at this very last performance achieved a somehow Zen-outlook on music and his trademark flexibility evident in recordings is notably absent in this performance. Jochum takes a more traditional approach adopted by Karajan, Celibidache etc; broad tempi which comes with intense concentration and focus on long lines and overall architecture. From the first moments of the pizzicato of the Adagio, one feels Jochum takes a Celibidache-ian view of the work, with broad tempi and a sense of space by use of pauses and dynamics. When the orchestra plays the Allegro theme at bar 80, Jochum adds a subtle sforzandi effect which raises goosebumps in my skin. Throughout the whole performance, maestro Jochum's masterful control of long arches of phrasing and dynamics demonstrates a Brucknerian at peak of his art. You wouldn't believe for example, the string tremolos do their descrescendo at some places in this recording. At the beginning of Finale, listen to the strings recap the beginning of 1st movement. The way they dig their bows ala Berliners is jawdropping, you just need to listen yourself.
How is the legendary coda of the Finale that this recording boasts also "teh most orgasmic coda evar"? Here Jochum enforced the orchestra by adding "11 apostles" consisting of 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and 1 bass tuba, which they enter from bar 583. The coda is also a culmination and the absolute Everest peak of this work, whom conductor Furtwangler proclaimed as the greatest coda ever conceived in a symphony. An Olympic feat for brass players, failing to sustain the momentous Coda of the Finale leaves some listeners feeling effects of "premature ejaculation" or feeling shortchanged after the 20 mins of intimidating double-fugue writing by Bruckner. There are pros and cons in this approach. For one, in lesser hands such as Frankly-Worst-Than-Most maybe, the brass "amplification" will stood out too much and the reversal of "premature ejaculation" is the feeling that the engineers abruptly tweaked the volume several notches up. Under Jochum, the purpose is simply to lessen the burden on the stamina of brasses and sustain the tension and energy until the closing bars. Nevertheless I still feel as if reinforcements of reserve brass battalions suddenly parachuted into Concertgebouw and blared their brasses at that moment, but after second listening the effect is still awesome.
Another shortcoming of this recording is the "Transfiguration" episode in Adagio, which I believe at the Recapitulation of that movement. Jochum took the tempi twice than what normal listeners would expect and despite terrific playing from the Concertgebouw players, the dirge was crawling too slowly for my taste and also despite the fact Jochum and his players managed to reached a stuning climax for this section of the Adagio before going to the Coda.
So in the end, the hype was a little bit disappointing for me. Not the perfect Bruckner 5 I've been waiting for but has this recording has the greatest playing of Bruckner 5 ever? I would not hesitate to say yes. The only recording to rival this in sheer terms of depth is Gunter Wand with Berlin Philharmonic, also live on RCA. This is still a disc every Brucknerite should listen in their lifetime.
Recording: 10
Technical: 10
Interpretation: 8

Monday, May 11, 2009

Botched Mahler legacy

Finally the first complete Mahler cycle on DVD by no other than the great Leonard Bernstein. These performances were previously released on laser disc videos and the orchestras featured are Israel, Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra (for Resurrection). If you wondered, the videos were made after the complete sets with New York Philharmonic (made in 1960s) released on Columbia (now re-released by Sony) but before the later sets made on Deutsche Grammophon in 1980s. But is it really worth owning the whole DVD cycle?

These videos are excellent testament of Bernstein's art on interpreting Mahler and despite bonus DVD of rehearsal footage, I couldn't help feeling disappointed of the whole set. Sure the performances are great but the biggest drawback is the sound engineering. I tweaked my home theatre system tons of times and realised the sounds does sucked plain ass. One of the main factors are the climaxes which is muffled as if a shackled beast. Not the "Shit, here comes a huge fff, we have to turn the volume down!" but rather "Lets stick it to mf the whole time and little deviations from that" thus performances such as the Finale of Mahler 6th and the Resurrection final chorus suffered. You can sense collossal energy yet what blared from your speakers remains indifferent. Brasses seems "engineered" to be stuck at rear as if fearing they will "stood out". Something is very, very wrong when the dynamics for quiet ppp moments in Mahler 6 may even sound louder than most fortissimos for rest of the work. Listen to the Mahler 6th by the same orchestra on the DG cd. The visceral impact of the CD never fails to grab one by the neck each listening as compared to the DVD performance, and its sad. Obviously the DVD medium is much superior in terms of information storage compared with the CD but in this case, terrible engineering blew what could've been an unbeatable Mahler cycle on DVD. Soundwise, any Mahler by Abbado/Lucerne DVD knocks out the performances in this set. The 8th symphony is a joke, listen to Tennstedt with London Philharmonic on DVD and you get the real collosal "Symphony of a Thousand" as close as it gets.

Also performance wise, I think the DVD set is inferior to the NYPO Sony set and the DG. The Vienna Philharmonic performances are still "work in progress" in learning how to play Mahler, and the differences between the 70s DVD performance and the late 80s on DG cd set speaks for itself. One glaring flaw is the string opening in the first movement of Mahler 1st which the tuning is all over the place. The Das Lied by Israel Philharmonic is horrible, except obviously for the singing of the soloists especially Christa Ludwig. One of redeeming graces of this set is to listen to Vienna Philharmonic giving some Scherzos a "Viennese" feel no other orchestras can supplement. Example are the 2nd mvt of the Third Symphony and the Scherzo of the Fourth, with the Viennese portamento highlighting the singing line sounds unbeatable. The bonus rehearsal DVD is intriguing but the bummer is the rehearsals have no subtitles save when commentators speak. Meaning to understand any instructions by Bernstein to his VPO players during rehearsal process, we're left on our own unless with a translator.

I feel this set is strictly for Bernstein fans. Any top notch live performances of Mahler on DVD will render this cycle forgettable in few years time save for purely nostalgic reasons. Alas one awaits SACD remastering for either NYPO Sony set or the DG for a pure revelation of Bernstein's art of conducting Mahler.