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Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Hasty Brahms

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

String Quartet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 51, No. 1 [34:33]

Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34 [43:21]

Quatour Ébène

Pierre Colombet (violin)

Gabriel Le Magadure (violin)

Mathieu Herzog (viola)

Raphaël Merlin (cello)

Akiko Yamamoto (piano)

Recorded at Ferme de villefavard en Limousin, France on 5-8 May 2008 (Quartet), and Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris, 1-3 October, 2007 (Quintet).

VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 216622 2 S [78:42]

Brahms’ Piano Quintet, which was published in 1865, saw several incarnations before taking on its masterful final form. It began life as string quintet with two cellos, modeled after Schubert’s famous example in C major. Neither Clara Schumann nor Joseph Joachim found much good to say about this initial effort. Brahms later cast the work as a sonata for two pianos, which pleased him, but was still met with a cold shoulder from his mentors. The conductor Hermann Levi encouraged Brahms to visit the composition a third time and in the summer of 1864, he finally created what was to be one of his finest examples of chamber music. The work was immediately declared a masterpiece by Clara, Joachim and Levi.

The stormy opening is full of sweeping gestures, thunderous episodes and complex rhythms. The Quatour Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto tear into the music with youthful abandon, and although their playing is of the highest technical order, I found the tempi to be rushed and breathless, leaving little room to express Brahms’ sweeping lines and seldom allowing phrases to settle before the next one is begun. Things go better in the slow movement where the music is allowed to breathe more and there is elegance in the turns of phrase. The Scherzo and trio hops along at good pace and the finale is performed with confidence and power in spite of the tendency to again rush a bit. Overall balance is fine and there is good give and take between the players, each allowing the other a moment in the sun where needed.

The same observations can be made of the String Quartet, a work that caused Brahms a bit of apprehension given the shadow of his predecessors Brahms and Schubert and their supreme achievements in the genre. Again, the ensemble seems too often to be on the verge of a loss of control where tempos are concerned. Too often I heard unseated phrases, gestures that were not given enough time to breathe and come to completion before the next idea was barreled into. Things were better in the slow movements, and it is evident that this group can play with a sense of lyricism when it has a mind to. It would have been nice to have heard a little more self-control in the outer movements though instead of just pure virtuosity for its own sake.

A Little Sample of von Karajan's Ego

Herbert von Karajan, Maestro for the Screen
A film by Georg Wübbolt. (2008)

ARTHAUS MUSIC 101459 [52:00]

Herbert von Karajan was not only one of music’s giant conductors; he was without a doubt in possession of one of its most giant egos. In an effort to secure his place in history, he left behind a huge trove of filmed performances, oftentimes reworking music from the standard repertoire with each new development in technology. The result is a trove of hundreds of hours of performances that document Herbert von Karajan. Oh yeah, and there is some pretty nice background music by Beethoven, Bach, Strauss, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms et. al.

Georg Wübbolt has put together and interesting portrait of Karajan the technology buff by using very candid interviews by some of the key people who helped make his films possible. He speaks with members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, Karajan’s personal secretary, music journalists, directors and key figures in the recording and television industry.

Karajan was practically unrivaled in his use of technology. The only other superstar musician to exploit the media so completely was Leonard Bernstein, who was rather a constant thorn in Karajan’s side having adopted especially the use of television some years earlier than his German colleague. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic began to have a love-hate relationship with Karajan’s media exploits, being annoyed at the amount of focus being placed on the conductor as opposed to the music and the orchestra, but at the same time, relishing the considerable extra income they received from the filming sessions and royalties. Much emphasis was placed upon appearances and musicians were forbidden from wearing beards and bald players were required to wear wigs.

Karajan’s relationships with film directors were often nightmares and after a few years, Karajan became his own director, further slanting all of his projects to be all about him. Whether or not the music suffered from the conductor’s ego can be debated. What is certain however is that Karajan was an innovator and pioneer, and despite his self-centered nature, he was a master musician. As such, he delivered the goods with the orchestra. His interpretations of the standard repertoire, particularly the romantic literature are often second to none.

This brief documentary (in German with French, Spanish, English and Italian subtitles) is a rather fascinating look at a man of tremendous talent and ability who for good or ill left an indelible stamp on the world of classical music. It is most interesting to see how the filming of music performances evolved from the earliest television broadcasts into the 1990s and how von Karajan learned, adapted and developed with the technology and the times. I am not sure that this is a DVD that deserves a permanent place on the shelf, but it is definitely worth renting once or twice.

Some Lovely Choral Music from Rheinberger

Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)

Sacred and Secular Choral Music

Morgenlied [4:49]

Abendlied [2:29]

Warum toben die Heiden [3:03]

Es spricht der Tor in seinem Herzen [3:06]

Adoramus te [3:11]

Ave vivens hostia [3:36]

Salve Regina [3:25]

Dextera Domini [2:36]

Eripe me [3:52]

Missa Sanctissimae Trinitas, Op. 117 [16:40]

Waldblumen, Op. 124 [18:52]

Regensburger Domspatzen

Georg Ratzinger, conductor

Eberhard Kraus, organ

Recorded July 12-15, 1993 at St. Emmeran, Regensburg and at the Tonhalle der Regensburger Domspatzen.

ARS MUSICI 232154 [67:09]

Joseph Rheinberger belongs to that large swathe of composers whom musicologists term “minor masters.” Usually well respected or even famous in their own time, for whatever reason these often prolific and highly skilled craftsmen have failed the test of time. Thanks to the seemingly endless thirst for underperformed or undiscovered works in the digital age, a number of these musicians have made a post-mortem comeback. One such composer is Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, a man of considerable ability whose refined technique and graceful style might easily compare favorably to that of the early romantics such as Schubert and Schumann and especially Mendelssohn, a composer with whom Rheinberger shared a very similar harmonic language.

Choral and instrumental music shared an equal place in Rheinberger’s output. His deep personal faith is reflected in his many works for the church which include numerous motets and mass settings and a sizeable collection of pieces for the organ. His intimate knowledge of renaissance counterpoint and thorough grounding in classical forms make for a winsome combination in his compositions. Couple his taut formal structure with a delicious harmonic language and you get music that is always pleasing to the ear.

This performance was a pleasant surprise to these ears, ears that as a rule find men and boys choirs a bit of a chore to listen to for very long. Over the years I have found that many a cathedral choir lacks the elements that make for a good choral sound. The boys are often shrill, the men harsh and abrasive and the blend nonexistent. Not so this choir which was initially established in the year 975! Truly deserving of their international reputation, this ensemble sings with a sweet and refined tone and with unanimity of sound that allows these gorgeous harmonies to ring out. This is the kind of music that is just awful if sung out of tune. With its predominance of dominant seventh harmonies and subtle shifts of tonality, one wrong turn can lead to an intonation disaster. Maestro Ratzinger shapes lovely phrases and only seldom is there a hint that a third or two might be pushed a little higher.

Highlights in this consistently fine recital include the lovely and contrasting Morgenlied with its joyous and sweeping melodies, and the intimately prayerful Abendlied with its text from the gospel of Luke in which the disciples implore Jesus to remain with them as the night is falling and they are afraid. Also of merit is the compact Missa Sanctissimae Trinitas, a work that is sharply contrasting to the expansive and glorious Cantus missa,(not recorded here) which is scored for double choir and won the composer a special citation from the Pope.

Rheinberger shows the influence of Schubert and Schumann in the charming set of nature poems Waldblumen. These little songs about the birds and the flowers are quite charming indeed, but Ars Musici are most remiss in providing no translations for the texts, an inexcusable act for an international release. That little flaw notwithstanding, this is a delightful collection of music, sure to please casual and serious listeners alike.