28 June 2010

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – MISSA SOLEMNIS (Kammerchor der KlangVerwaltung; Orchester der KlangVerwaltung; Enoch zu Guttenberg; FARAO B108053)

Beethoven - MISSA SOLEMNIS (Enoch zu Guttenberg; FARAO B108053)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) – Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123: S. Bernhard, A. Vondung, P. Breslik, Y.F. Speer; Kammerchor der KlangVerwaltung; Orchester der KlangVerwaltung; Enoch zu Guttenberg [recorded in concert at the Herkulessaal der Münchner Residenz, Munich, on 07 March 2009; FARAO B108053]

It is evident from the opening chords of this performance, recorded ‘live’ in Munich in March 2009, that Maestro Enoch zu Guttenberg intended this to be a refreshingly ‘new’ Missa solemnis, even after much-discussed ‘period’ performances by the likes of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe.  Textures are cleaner, not necessarily lighter than in ‘traditional’ performances but articulated with admirable clarity, and balances are often little short of revelatory in the sense that details of Beethoven’s dense orchestration are granted welcome prominence without undermining the broader structure of each movement.  This is a performance that sets out not so much to ‘rethink’ the Missa solemnis from an academic perspective as to simply approach the score with unbiased eyes and ears.  What seems an instinctive approach to a work as famously complicated as the Missa solemnis has nonetheless eluded many conductors and performances, the former pursuing ambitious efforts at leaving individual marks on the music and the latter becoming mired in those efforts.  In the celebrated performances conducted by Otto Klemperer, listeners were allowed to see through music the rage and exaltation of Beethoven’s concept of the Divine.  On this recording, Maestro zu Guttenberg presides over a performance that provides glimpses of a slightly less tumultuous but no less glorious firmament, decisions regarding tempi and instrumental color varying widely from those familiar in Klemperer’s performances and also those of period-practice specialists but equally rooted in a deep respect for Beethoven’s score.  What Maestro zu Guttenberg exhibits anew is that conductors need not strive to make the Missa solemnis monumental: the quality and profundity of the music, when allowed to unfold as Beethoven indicated in his score, are all that are required to reveal the spiritual significance and musical importance of what is by any measure one of the greatest achievements of Western art.

FARAO, a label responsible for the preservation of a number of fine operatic performances from Munich, present this performance of the Missa solemnis in sound of demonstration quality for ‘live’ recordings.  There are a few coughs and other noises off to be heard, mostly in the pauses between movements, but these are never disturbing and are merely inevitable elements of recording a work in concert before an audience.  These are more than offset in this recording (and would be were they increased ten-fold) by the immediacy of sound achieved by recording ‘live.’  There are unique qualities of a ‘live’ performance before an audience that cannot be duplicated even by recording in the same space under studio conditions, qualities that are not limited to the frisson of a live occasion and the interactions among performers and their audience.  There are very basic sonic implications of a sea of human bodies in the space: opera houses and concert halls were designed with the intention of being inhabited by audiences, their physical presence contributing to the spatial ambience of the acoustics.  FARAO have ideally captured the acoustics of Munich’s Herkulessaal with the charged atmosphere of a live performance combined with the clarity and careful balances typical of studio recordings.  This is among the best-recorded accounts of the Missa solemnis in the discography and one that is a credit to the performance that it documents.

The Orchester and Kammerchor der KlangVerwaltung are relatively new ensembles in the context of Teutonic instrumental and choral groups.  The Orchester, founded in 1997, is comprised of players from many of Germany’s and Austria’s most prestigious orchestras, including the Berliner, Münchner, and Wiener Philharmonikers.  Playing with the distinction and accomplishment that this implies, the Orchester meet Maestro zu Guttenberg’s demands with unwavering dedication and an impressively high level of execution.  Founded three years later, in 2000, the Kammerchor is likewise comprised of members of other distinguished choral ensembles, as well as experienced young singers from throughout southern Germany.  For musical accuracy and security of tone, the members of the Kammerchor need fear no comparisons with the famed choirs that take part in other recorded performances of the Missa solemnis.  Both instrumentalists and choristers consistently rise to the challenges of Beethoven’s music with heartening fearlessness, completely obliterating recollections of staid performances in the Teutonic tradition from generations past.  Maestro zu Guttenberg takes advantage of the various experiences of his orchestra and choir to shape a performance of a work that is audibly of the early Nineteenth Century but not limited in scope or impact by its time.

The performance is also fortunate to have a quartet of capable young soloists.  Munich-born soprano Susanne Bernhard, already at her young age an experienced Violetta in La Traviata and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, sings the soprano’s solo lines—which are nothing less than operatic—beautifully, soaring into her upper register with appealing freedom.  Anke Vondung, a very promising young German mezzo-soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera début as Cherubini in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro on 2 October 2007, effectively delivers the alto lines, which admittedly do not allow plentiful opportunities to display the beauty of her voice.  Many performances of the Missa solemnis are let down by inadequate work by the bass soloist, to whom Beethoven entrusted the heartrending opening of the Agnus Dei.  Young German bass Yorck Felix Speer sings admirably throughout the performance, however, bringing special intensity and pointed vocalism to his critical contributions to the Agnus Dei.  Most impressive among the soloists is Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik.  One of the finest tenors of his generation, he made his début at the Metropolitan Opera as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni on 13 April 2009, and will return to the MET in the 2010 – 11 season to sing Ferrando in the much-anticipated revival of Così fan tutte in which famed Baroque specialist and founder of Les Arts Florissants William Christie will make his MET début.  In this performance, Mr. Breslik brings to the tenor’s solo lines the plangent beauty and security of tone that have won the appreciation of audiences and critics throughout Europe.  His contributions to the opening Kyrie set the high standard for the performance, and he completes a solo quartet that is unique among recent recordings of the Missa solemnis for reliable, attractive singing.

In a matter of musicological significance, Maestro zu Guttenberg prefers the choral singing of the great ‘Osanna’ fugue rather than the assignment of the passage to the solo quartet—a decision based upon ambiguous markings in Beethoven’s manuscript—preferred by Klemperer and other conductors.  There is an undeniably rewarding precision possible when the fugue is sung by the soloists, but in a performance such as this one, in which the choristers diligently articulate the interweaving subjects in contrapuntal passages, the resulting breadth of the music makes the singing of the ‘Osanna’ by the full chorus seem inherently right.

Reviewing a 1934 performance of the Missa solemnis conducted by Arturo Toscanini, the first performance of the work by the New York Philharmonic (with the almost unbelievable quartet of Elisbeth Rethberg, Sigrid Onegin, Paul Althouse, and Ezio Pinza), an article in Time magazine stated that ‘few conductors choose to give the Missa solemnis because of its great technical difficulties, its demands on the human voice for which Beethoven never learned to write considerately.’  Those who love Fidelio might take exception at the suggestion that Beethoven never mastered composition for the voice, but it is an oft-repeated notion that is supported by plentiful examples of performances featuring singers stretched to and beyond the limits of their abilities.  Beethoven was not known during his lifetime as an adaptable man: in life and in music, he wanted what he wanted, and compromise was improbable.  Perhaps it is the lot of a great genius to demand perfection without ever truly hoping for it, to put forth visions to which contemporary eyes are not yet ready to adjust.  This is a performance, compelling not just in its unruffled grandeur but equally in its moments of sublime simplicity, that redeems the Missa solemnis from its reputation for near-insurmountable technical demands.  Enoch zu Guttenberg and his teams of excellent soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists display a communal acceptance that, in his Missa solemnis, Beethoven wanted what he wanted and, giving him what he wanted, prove that he was right.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven, shown holding the manuscript of the Missa solemnis

17 June 2010

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – MASS IN B MINOR (Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt; Linn Records CKD354)

J.S. Bach - MASS IN B MINOR (Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt - Linn Records CDK354) JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750) – Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: S. Hamilton, C. Osmond, M. Oitzinger, T. Hobbs, M. Brook; Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt [recorded at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13 – 17 September 2009; Linn Records CDK354]

Lest matters of scholarship and disparate editions of the score distract from the merits of the performance at hand, it must be stated at the start that this new recording from Dunedin Consort and Players presents a superb performance of Bach’s monumental B-minor Mass.  As in their prior releases of works by Bach (Matthäus-Passion) and Händel (Acis and Galatea, Messiah), Linn Records have provided top-of-the-line sound, preserving careful balances among singers and players but also granting space within the Greyfriars Kirk acoustic for tonal expansion without troublesome echoes.  This is a performance that, examined solely on the grounds of the quality of music-making, is competitive with the best recordings of the B-minor Mass in the discography.  The soloists—sopranos Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmond, mezzo-soprano Margot Oitzinger, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass Matthew Brook—are a splendid lot, perhaps less inclined to seem individually triumphant because the overall level of their singing is uniformly high.  The timbres of Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Osmond are sufficiently contrasted to lend distinction to each voice when the ladies are singing in duet, and both Ms. Oitzinger and Mr. Brook bring firm tone and great involvement to their singing: Mr. Brook gives a particularly fine account of the spirited ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus.’  Especially deserving of praise, however, is tenor Thomas Hobbs, a fine young singer whose naturally beautiful, fresh voice—Evangelical, one might deem it in the context of the vocal music of Bach—is complemented by a technique that encompasses all the demands made by Bach’s music.  Maestro Butt and the Dunedin Consort and Players bring to the performance their usual precision and zeal, which is to say that one has the sense of being on the leading edge of historically-informed performance practices, as it were, but also that those numbers in the Mass which require unhurried grandeur receive it.  Musically, this performance is on the best possible footing, and this recording joins Dunedin Consort’s other Bach and Händel performances in the Linn Records catalogue as another of demonstration quality in terms of both musical integrity and sonic reproduction.

As with many Baroque scores, however, matters of scholarship and disparate editions are central to any discussion of Bach’s B-minor Mass.  Perhaps less is known about the life of Bach than about that of any other of the truly great composers of the Baroque, and much of the information pertaining to Bach’s composition of the B-minor Mass is based primarily upon conjecture and theorizing.  It is known that Bach composed the Mass in segments—the Missa consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria; the Symbolum Nicenum (the Credo); and a final segment consisting of the Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—during the last thirty years of his life: what is not known is whether Bach ever consciously intended for these segments to be performed as a combined entity, a complete setting of the Latin Mass.  Much of the music in the B-minor Mass is recycled from Bach’s earlier works, but there is an unquestionable stylistic continuity maintained throughout the segments of the Mass.  Some scholars point to the differences in vocal and instrumental scoring among the segments as evidence that Bach never intended for the segments to be united and performed as a single, monumental Mass, the varying numbers and distributions of personnel involved in the different segments complicating performance to a degree that would have been virtually insurmountable during the Eighteenth Century.  It would surely have been atypical for the devoutly Lutheran (by personal practice and by employment) Bach to compose a full musical setting of the ordinary of the Catholic Mass, especially without commission, anticipation of aristocratic patronage, or expectation of performance.  Bach was, after all, an unfailingly practical composer whose works were carefully crafted to make full use of the abilities of the musical forces at his disposal.  It is possible to debate the sources of the creative impetus that led to Bach’s composition of the segments of the B-minor Mass, but the products of that creativity are of indisputable importance.

The present recorded performance is the first to use the 2006 edition of the score prepared by American conductor and musicologist Joshua Rifkin, published by Breitkopf und Härtel.  Mr. Rifkin was among the first scholars to propose the notion of performing Bach’s larger-scaled liturgical works with one voice to a part even in the most complex choral movements, as he believes was the practice during Bach’s lifetime, a theory also espoused by the British conductor Andrew Parrott and taken up by a number of influential conductors of Bach’s music during the first decade of the new millennium.  As stated at the start, the singers in the present performance are all capable of dealing competently and eloquently with Bach’s demands, both in their solo arias and ensembles and in the choruses, and there are unquestionable rewards in hearing the intricacies of fugal subjects and countersubjects executed with the clarity possible with single or doubled voices.  One of the most admirable qualities of the recording is that, even with the slim-lined vocal personnel, big-boned choruses avoid seeming conspicuously anemic because the singing and playing are so committed.  Maestro Butt and his band have found the most persuasive manner of realizing Mr. Rifkin’s concept of the B-minor Mass and achieve a performance of beauty, spirituality, and impeccable musicality that render the academic aspect of the enterprise unobtrusive.

Even in an era in which the musical environment is populated by many gifted Early Music specialists, Maestro Butt and his Dunedin Consort colleagues are surely exceptional, however, and the question of the suitability of Mr. Rifkin’s theories to the B-minor Mass lingers.  Without exploring the implications of Bach’s role as choirmaster-in-chief during his Leipzig tenure on his compositional modus operandi, there is surely evidence within the music of the Mass itself that provides clues to scholars and musicians alike about the nature of the music as Bach conceived it, despite the fact that very few passages in the Mass were newly composed specifically for their functions within the Mass.  What cannot be denied is that, whatever the circumstances of its conception and composition (matters upon which musicologists will almost certainly have to content themselves with uncertainty), Bach’s B-minor Mass is a monumental work that was without equal until Beethoven completed his Missa solemnis almost a century later, though had it been completed Mozart’s C-minor Große Messe (K. 427) would have run it close.  Indeed, the individual fragments of the B-minor Mass may well have been among the then-obscure works of Bach and Händel that Mozart studied in Vienna at the instigation of Baron van Swieten at the time during which he was composing his C-minor Mass.  Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, though strikingly original, was composed in the Viennese tradition inherited from Haydn and Mozart, whose liturgical works Beethoven knew and admired, a tradition derived from the late Baroque masterpieces of Bach and Händel.  [Haydn, for instance, cited Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel as an important influence on his own development as a composer, and it is known that the younger Bach advocated and performed segments from what would eventually be known as his father’s B-minor Mass during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century.]  Haydn’s, Mozart’s, and Beethoven’s masses were all scored for ensembles of soloists and choruses that, though it is impossible to ascertain their precise numbers, surely consisted of substantially more than one or two voices per part, but the fugal passages in their masses are nonetheless modeled closely on those found in Bach’s Passions and B-minor Mass.  While it might not be sound scholarship to suggest that Bach’s absolute familiarity with the abilities of the choristers at his command throughout his career contributed decisively to his style of composition in choral pieces, it is surely wrongheaded and disingenuous to ignore the fact that Bach had at hand during his last years in Leipzig the choirs of both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche, as well as the youth choir of the Thomasschule, which was significantly expanded under Bach’s guidance.  In Bach’s time, the Thomaskirche was—as it is now—equipped with two organs, reminiscent of the tradition of ‘grand’ and ‘choir’ organs in French cathedrals, an arrangement of which Bach took full advantage when he revised his Matthäus-Passion for performance in Leipzig.  Was it straightforward musical progress, a conscious effort at expanding the scope of choral music, that inspired Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to depart from the presumed one-voice-to-a-part tradition scholars like Mr. Rifkin suggest that they inherited from Bach?  Could these geniuses have merely misunderstood or misinterpreted the choral writing of their ancestor?

This recording by the Dunedin Consort and Players provides a sterling example of the viability of the one-voice-to-a-part concept proposed by Mr. Rifkin and other Bach scholars (including John Butt), but the excellence of music-making is to some extent damaging to the academic position the performance seeks to represent in that the quality of the singing and playing fully reveals the brilliance of Bach’s score.  Even when executed with skill and commitment that meet and veritably rejoice in the challenges set by the music, Bach’s music cries out for the thrilling sounds of massed voices, double choirs placed on opposite sides of a great space, if not thundering as was heard in Victorian performances at least raising a glorious din.  With excellent players and gifted singers, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort achieve a stirring performance of the B-minor Mass that is a gift to any listener who loves the music of Bach.  The recording is also an experiment, though, and its very success is also its failure.  It is suggested that gossip almost always begins with a speck of truth.  However hoary, however inconsistent with what academics deem to be ‘authentic,’ are decades-old performance practices completely arbitrary?  Is it not possible that traditions are merely the continuations of the better aspects of the past?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

01 June 2010

CD REVIEW: Frédéric Chopin & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – PIANO MUSIC (Miloš Mihajlović, piano; Bel Air Music BAM2046)

Chopin & Mozart - PIANO MUSIC (Miloš Mijahlović, piano; Bel Air BAM2046)

FRÉDÉRIC FRANÇOIS CHOPIN (1810 – 1849) & WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Piano Music – Miloš Mihajlović, piano [recorded at the Lucky Sound Studio in Belgrade, Serbia, during December 2009; Bel Air Music BAM2046]


Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397 [Mozart]

Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 [Mozart]

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 [Chopin]

Étude No. 8 in F Major, Op. 10 [Chopin]

Waltz in D-flat Major (‘Minute’ Waltz), Op. 64 No. 1 [Chopin]

Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 [Chopin]

Waltz in C-Sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2 [Chopin]

Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22 [Chopin]

Winner of the 2009 Southern Highlands International Piano Competition in New South Wales, Australia, Serbian pianist Miloš Mihajlović received in recognition of his victory the opportunity to make this recording of music by Chopin—much represented on disc this year in both new releases and reissues timed for celebration of the bicentennial of his birth—and Mozart for Bel Air Music, a venture underwritten by Australia’s award-winning Tertini Wines.  What in previous generations was essentially an inevitable rite of passage for a young musician after winning a major competition is in the economic environment of the present recording industry a decided luxury.  In the case of Miloš Mihajlović, it is a luxury for which those who appreciate the music of Chopin and Mozart and those who take special interest in wonderfully promising young pianists should be grateful.

None of the pieces on this disc is unfamiliar or under-represented on commercial recordings.  Whereas many young pianists who are fortunate enough to make recordings in the early stages of their careers are eager to make their marks with performances of lesser-known pieces of which there are not scores of recordings by the greatest pianists of the past century, Mr. Mihajlović possesses the courage and foresight to make his international recording début with music squarely at the center of the traditional piano repertory.  It can be dangerous for a young artist to invite comparisons of his work with decades of recorded performances by seasoned, celebrated pianists: when his playing is shaped by an assured technique and genuine interpretive insights, however, his credentials are appreciated on their own merits, and the risks are justified.  With the recent publicity concerning the concert performances by the legendary Ivo Pogorelić, perhaps merely the mention of a ‘new’ pianist from Serbia is sufficient to garner interest, but his playing on this disc reveals that Mr. Mihajlović has at his command the complete technical mastery and mature artistry not only to satisfy a music lover’s curiosity but also to stand proudly alongside Mr. Pogorelić and to join the ranks of the finest pianists of the new century.

The piece with which the disc opens, Mozart’s D-minor Fantasia (K. 397), is among the Salzburg master’s most enigmatic and difficult pieces for piano.  Little is known about the circumstances of the composition of the Fantasia except that Mozart never completed the piece.  The incomplete form in which it survives creates many mysteries: called a Fantasia because of its meandering musical moods and unpredictable changes in tempo, the piece adheres to none of the musical forms prevalent in music for the piano in Mozart’s time.  Though of great technical difficulty, this lack of formal boundaries has made the Fantasia popular with pianists because the scope for individual interpretation is broadened.  Mr. Mihajlović plays the piece with rhythmic freedom that exploits the rhapsodic nature of the Fantasia, but he also maintains an audible sense of grace that reminds the listener that this is music by Mozart.  The A-minor Sonata (K. 310/300d), one of only two of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas in minor keys, is also a seminal work.  Composed in Paris during the summer of 1778, Mozart’s work on the Sonata may have coincided with the sudden illness and death of his beloved mother, who died at their flat in the rue du Sentier on 3 July 1778.  It is perhaps irresponsible to suggest that any one of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas is his most profound, but the A-minor Sonata undeniably contains some of its composer’s most brooding music for the solo piano.  Mr. Mihajlović’s performance of the Sonata, observing every stylistic element of the piece with precision that suggests both absolute familiarity with the music and understanding of historically-informed practices in the playing of keyboard music of Mozart’s era, exhibits the same approach that sounds inherently right for the music that can be heard from a ‘period specialist’ keyboardist such as András Schiff—a considerable achievement for a young pianist.  So extraordinary is the stylistic aptitude with which Mr. Mihajlović plays the Mozart selections on the disc that it is possible to think that he is, in fact, playing a period pianoforte rather than a modern instrument.  Equally impressive, though, is his respect for the emotional nuances of the music, every shift in mood rendered poetically but without distorting the musical continuity.  Mr. Mihajlović’s playing proves as eloquently as that of any pianist in recent memory that the greatest test of a musician’s artistry is to perform in a manner that allows the music at hand to be heard on its own terms, and with his playing of these Mozart pieces Mr. Mihajlović rivals the best performances of this repertory by allowing the listener to hear, unencumbered, the voice of Mozart.

If more demanding from a purely technical perspective, it might be argued that the music of Chopin is, in comparison with that of Mozart, more emotionally direct, the later composer’s pieces more consistently evoking a specific mood rather than proving temperamentally chameleonic like the music of Mozart.  That Mr. Mihajlović so thoroughly inhabits through his playing the musical world of Chopin is remarkable after hearing his stylistically spot-on playing of Mozart.  In the first Chopin piece on this disc, the G-minor Ballade (Op. 23, No. 1), Mr. Mihajlović announces to the listener the dizzying virtuosity of his playing, a quality that never fails him in any of the pieces on the disc.  Even in Chopin, however, Mr. Mihajlović searches beyond the furious flurries of notes, quietly underlining rhythmic buoyancy and using dynamic contrasts to reveal unexpected hues in even the very familiar ‘Minute’ Waltz and C-minor Waltz (Op. 64, No. 2).  The wonderful B-minor Scherzo (Op. 20, No. 1) receives a particularly fine performance: with his exaltedly lyrical playing of the contemplative second theme, Mr. Mihajlović—on Chopin’s behalf—aims for the heart.  Both in the Scherzo and in the Opus 22 Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise (played here without its original orchestral accompaniment) that closes the recital, Mr. Mihajlović shapes Chopin’s delicate melodic phrases with unimpeachable poise, executing the ornaments with the distinction of a great bel canto singer performing an aria by Bellini.  Primary and secondary themes, harmonies, bass figurations in accompaniments, and the most elaborate of ornaments are all in Mr. Mihajlović’s playing equally important components of the music.  Chopin of course knew and admired Bellini during the time when both composers were in Paris, and without in any way diminishing appreciation of his technical brilliance perhaps the most memorable quality of Mr. Mihajlović’s playing of Chopin on this disc is his talent for truly making the piano seem to sing.

It also merits mention that this is an excellently-recorded disc, engineered by Mr. Mihajlović, produced by Aleksandar Radulović, and mastered for Bel Air Music by Ole Jorgensen.  Both balances and the timbre of the instrument are clear, with only a pair of the piano’s highest tones losing focus.  Throughout, the listener has the aural perspective of hearing a recital in a small venue.

The unfortunate truth is that, much as the advocates of both genres might deny it, serious concert music and popular music are very much alike in the ways in which talented youngsters come and go.  Artists who display from the first the indescribable affinity for survival are sadly rare.  If his artistry continues to develop after the manner represented by his playing of the music of Mozart and Chopin on this disc, Miloš Mihajlović is a pianist whose work will endure for decades to come and whose name will be synonymous with pianism of the highest order.