MAHLER: 5 Lieder. 4 Lieder. 5 Songs / Catharina Kroeger, soprano; Monica Lonero, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95469, or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
For most of my life I’ve been hearing how great the music of Clara Schumann was; in fact, there are some misguided souls who actually think it superior to her husband’s. I don’t hear that at all. In fact, I find it predictable and largely uninteresting. On the other hand, both Fanny Mendelssohn (discussed further below) and Alma Mahler were very fine composers, despite their small output. This album, which also includes a terrific cantata called Canto di Penelope by Patrizia Montenaro, does full justice to this unusual and very colorful music.
Gustav Mahler’s music is so omnipresent nowadays, and has been since 1960, that we take him for granted as one of the major pillars of classical music along with J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner and Strauss. But it was not always thus. In fact, Berlioz, like Mahler, was never part of the musical mainstream before 1960, but now both are considered staples of the repertoire. Up through 1960, the only Mahler work that gained some traction with audiences and musicians was Das Lied von der Erde, which was commercially recorded at least four times, three of them by Bruno Walter (1936, 1953 & 1959; the fourth recordings I know of was by Paul Kletzki). Were it not for the two conductors who were acolytes of Mahler, Walter and Otto Klemperer, we probably wouldn’t have had any recordings of his symphonies prior to 1960. Dmitri Mitropoulos liked Mahler and conducted his symphonies, but only in live performance. Stokowski only conducted the Eighth Symphony; Furtwängler only liked Songs of a Wayfarer; while Muck, Hertz, Abendroth, Weingartner, Knappertsbusch, Beecham, Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Monteux, Munch, Reiner, Busch and many others of their contemporaries hated Mahler and refused to conduct his music. (Mitropoulos once tried to convince Toscanini to at least conduct the accessible and lyrical Fourth Symphony, but the Italian maestro barked, “Mahler’s music is only good for toilet paper!”)
Thus we have very, very few historic recordings of Mahler: only one acoustic recording of one of his symphony, the Second by Oskar Fried from 1923, the 1938 live performance of the Ninth by Walter, Stokowski’s historic New York Philharmonic broadcast of the Eighth, and a few straggler recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s (you will see some of those recommended below). The two conductors who were the springboard for the Mahler revolution were Leonard Bernstein in America and the much older Jascha Horenstein, another conductor who championed Mahler early on, in England during the later phase of his career. Eugene Ormandy, of all people, made the first recording of the reconstructed Tenth Symphony in 1964, yet for decades many committed Mahler conductors like Klaus Tennstedt refused to conduct any completed version of that symphony. But within 20 years of the Mahler revolution nearly every conductor of note was on his bandwagon in whole or part, including Riccardo Muti who made a splendid recording of the First Symphony. Ironically, most conductors of today are judged as much if not more by their Mahler interpretations than they are for Beethoven or Brahms.
Anyway, you will see below what my favorite performances are…and in many instances they contradict what the Gramophone and Penguin Guide choices are. Why? Because they’re looking for features that I’m not, generally some sort of metaphysical “meaning” in the score that frankly eludes me. Just give me drama when it’s required and that wonderful touching, aching reaching for something beyond the physical plane when called for, pull the music together and make it sound like a matter of life or death and I’m happy.
Before getting into my selections, I should point out something very interesting. In my view, Mahler is one of the very few composers whose work can be conducted in a manner that is not always close to the score and still be effective. By this I mean that you don’t need to conduct his fast movements at a really zippy tempo nor his Adagios at a true adagio tempo; in addition, you can introduce a lot more moments of rallentando, tempo rubato and other tempo-shifting devices without damaging the flow of the music. It’s uncanny, actually, but it works—within moderation. One of the reasons I don’t have more Bernstein performances in my list of recommendations is that I don’t like the way he italicized phrases well beyond the bounds of good taste. For him, a passionate forte meant screaming hysterically, a touching moment was a reason to let the music sag and fall apart, producing performances that many untutored listeners enjoyed but many musicians did not. That being said, his Vienna Philharmonic performances and recordings were generally much finer than the ones he made with the New York Philharmonic, thus his later recording of the Sixth Symphony is my #1 choice.
MAHLER: Frühlingsmorgen; Ich ging mit Lust; Nicht wiedersehen!; Scheiden und Meiden; Um Schlimme Kinder Artig zu Machen; Hans und Grete; Starke Einbildungkraft; Ablosung im Sommer; Erinnersung / Lucia Popp, soprano; Geoffrey Parsons, pianist / Arts Music 47367
These early songs by Mahler have never, ever been better sung than by the magical voice of the late Lucia Popp. Popp was one of my all-time favorite sopranos during her lifetime, and her musicality and interpretive skills are fully on display here. The remainder of this CD consists of Brahms songs, also sung very well.
MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder / Heinrich Rehkemper, baritone; Berlin State Opera Orchestra; Jascha Horenstein, conductor / Mahler Symposium 1337 (mono)
MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder / Thomas Hampson, baritone; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / DGG 427697 (with Symphony No. 6)
MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Scottish National Orchestra; Jascha Horenstein, conductor / available for free streaming here.
Kindertotenlieder is undoubtedly the saddest and, some would say, dreariest of all Mahler’s scores, written for the death of his daughter. Probably because audiences associate such grief with mothers rather than fathers, in recent years it is usually sung by mezzo-sopranos, but Mahler wrote it for a baritone and, in fact, it was premiered by baritone Friedrich Wiedemann in January 1905. The 1928 recording by Heinrich Rehkemper, an outstanding light baritone who is generally forgotten today, along with conducting by a then-young Horenstein, is not only my historical choice but my top choice for this music. Rehkemper digs deep into the words, phrases beautifully, and is accompanied splendidly by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Were it not for the limited mono sound and the surface noise, this recording would easily merit six fish. You will see more recommendations from this interesting disc of historic Mahler recordings further on.
My favorite of all stereo and/or digital versions is the one by a then-young Thomas Hampson with Bernstein; this was a filler on his superb DGG recording of the Sixth Symphony. This is almost, but not quite, on as high a level as the Rehkemper performance.
If you insist on a mezzo performance, you won’t do much better than Janet Baker, singing here with a much older Horenstein from 1967. His conducting is not quite as much “on point” as on the 1928 version, but it’s still very fine.
MAHLER: Das Klagende Lied / Susan Dunn, soprano; Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo; Markus Baur, boy alto; Werner Hollweg, tenor; Andreas Schmidt, bass; Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly, conductor / Decca 425719
Mahler’s early orchestral song-cycle is, for some reason, not as well known or as well liked as Des Knaben Wunderhorn though the music is much more original. Soprano Susan Dunn isn’t the steadiest singer in the world, but the other soloists are simply fantastic and Chailly’s conducting pulls everything together with remarkable acuity.
MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Geraint Evans, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Wyn Morris, conductor / Nimbus 5084
Rarely is there critical consensus on any single recording of a Mahler work, but this mid-‘60s version of Des Knaben Wunderhorn has been considered a classic since the time of its first issue. Geraint Evans sings his songs with perfect peasant gruffness without losing control of his voice, an amazing feat that has not been duplicated by any other baritone since. Baker is her usual splendid self, and the little-known and under-appreciated Wyn Morris conducts the music so perfectly that six fish almost seems to be too few to give this recording.
MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: No. 4, Wer hat dies Liedlein / Grete Stückgold, soprano; No. 11: Das irdische Leben / Karin Branzell, contralto; No. 12: Der Tambourg’sell / Heinrich Schlusnus, baritone; Berlin State Opera Orchestra; Hermann Weigert, conductor. Songs of Youth: No. 7, Ich ging mit Lust / Grete Stückgold, soprano / Symposium 1337
Various excerpts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn can be found on various compilations. These early recordings feature the little-known but excellent soprano Grete Stückgold along with the much better-known contralto Karin Branzell and baritone Heinrich Schlusnus. Schlusnus didn’t interpret very much, but his voice is magnificent, and the others are very good indeed.
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde / Kerstin Thorborg, mezzo-soprano; Carl Martin Öhmann, tenor; Concertgebouw Orchestra; Carl Schuricht, conductor / Grammofono 2000 78578 or for free streaming here. (live, October 5, 1939)
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde / Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlos Kleiber, conductor / Wiener Symphoniker 007 or for free streaming here. (live, June 7, 1967)
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde / Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht, conductor / PentaTone 5186502
How ironic that my choice performances of Das Lied von der Erde run in chronological order from the late 1930s to the modern digital age! The one flaw, so to speak, in the 1939 Concertgebouw broadcast is the voice of a German fraulein, obviously a Nazi and an anti-Semite, who openly declares, “Deutschland uber alle, herr Schuricht!” in the middle of the “Abschied.” Nowadays this may just seem like an annoying interruption, but in 1939 there was a good chance that she would report you to the Gestapo and you wouldn’t live to see your next morning. How Thorborg and Schuricht maintained their composure and continued on as if nothing had happened is beyond me, but they did. And what a performance it is! Schuricht, a vastly underrated conductor anyway, gave the performance of his life here, substituting for Willem Mengelberg. He brings out every detail of the score in almost X-ray fashion without overdoing or italicizing anything. And he has, in my view, the best pair of singers who have ever attempted this music. Swedish tenor Carl Martin Öhmann is barely remembered nowadays, but he had a fine heroic tenor voice and manages to get through his music with both fine style and decent interpretation without the least bit of strain, and of course nearly all aficionados of early Wagner performances know that Kerstin Thorborg was the greatest dramatic mezzo of her time. This is her second Das Lied; she had already recorded it for EMI under Bruno Walter in 1936. The most amazing thing about this performance, however, is the astonishingly clear sound, almost good enough to qualify as high fidelity. Were it not for the vicious comment by the Nazi bitch, I would give it six fish.
Like his father, Erich, Carlos Kleiber didn’t much like Mahler, but this was in his younger years when he was still trying to establish himself as a great conductor and, like Schuricht, he was pressed into service to replace another conductor, so he did it. And boy, did he ever. Despite the mono sound (yep, even in 1967 we’re stuck with mono sound!), Kleiber wrenches each and every drop of energy out of this music. Waldemar Kmentt, a splendid tenor who never received his just due, didn’t have the most glamorous timbre in the world but his voice was attractive enough, his breath control splendid and his interpretive skills first-rate. Christa Ludwig, of course, was one of the most celebrated mezzos of her time, as much admired in Verdi and Mozart as in Gluck, Beethoven or Wagner, and here she gives one of the greatest performances of her life. To hell with the limited sound, this is a six-fish performance!
Alice Coote is fairly well known nowadays as a great Mahler interpreter, and as it turns out her contribution was the only thing the Guardian liked about this recording. They think that tenor Burkhard Fritz sounded too strained for the music, but in my view that’s exactly what Fritz Wunderlich sounds like in the 1964 recording with Klemperer, which the Brits jump up and down over celebrating. Well, that’s nice for them. The little-known conductor Albrecht does as fine a job as anyone not named Schuricht, Walter or Kleiber; I took the Carlo Maria Giulini recording off my shelf to make room for this one, that’s how good it is, and I am a huge fan of Brigitte Fassbaender. Six fish, easily.
Honorable mention should also go to the 1960 live performance by Richard Lewis, Maureen Forrester and Bruno Walter on Music & Arts, easily a five-fish performance, but once you’ve heard these three recordings I’m not sure you’ll want any others.
MAHLER: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen / Eugenia Zareska, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Eduard van Beinum, conductor / Symposium 1337 (mono)
MAHLER: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen / Hermann Prey, baritone; Concertgebouw Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor / available for free streaming here.
MAHLER: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Philharmonia Orchestra; Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor / available for free streaming here.
Everyone has their favorite version(s) of the Songs of a Wayfarer; these are mine. The historic Zareska performance (also from the Symposium CD with Kindertotenlieder) has a certain feel about it that I like despite the limited sonics. The Prey-Haitink recording is one for the ages; I’ve never heard a better match of singer and conductor than here. Best historical recording probably goes to Fischer-Dieskau and Furtwängler, which is fairly easy to find, although I personally like the Fischer-Dieskau/William Steinberg live performance with the New York Philharmonic even better. More concise conducting.
MAHLER: Rückert Lieder / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor / with Symphony No. 3 on Sony Classical 44553
MAHLER: Rückert Lieder / Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, pianist / Onyx 4146
MAHLER: Excerpts from Rückert-Lieder: No. 1, Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft / Charles Kullmann, tenor; Sir Malcolm Sargent, conductor / Symposium 1337
MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder: No. 1, Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft; No. 2, Liebst du um Schönheit; No. 5, Ich bin der Welt abhanden / Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Otto Klemperer, conductor / look for them
We’re back to Dame Janet Baker for yet another gem, the Rückert Lieder with Michael Tilson Thomas. This is, alas, only available as a filler on his recording of the Symphony No. 3, which is a very fine performance—at one time my #1 pick in digital stereo until I discovered Tennstedt’s live performance, so it’s certainly not a bad acquisition. Plus, it’s a six-fish recording.
Anne Schwanewilms’ version with piano has often flown under most critics’ radar, but not mine. She is a more subtle and less overt interpreter than Baker, to be sure, but I really like her performance a great deal and wouldn’t live without it.
Various excerpts from this brief cycle exist by many other singers. My personal favorites are the ones by Christa Ludwig with Klemperer, issued as fillers on other recordings. Tenor Charles Kullmann also does a very nice job with the first song on the historic Symposium CD.
MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION Vol. 6 / MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Christiane Iven, soprano; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Peter Mattei, baritone / Symphonic movement, “Blumine.” Symphony No. 9 (live performance). Symphonies Nos. 1-10 / Juliane Banse, soprano (2nd Symph); Europe Choir Academy; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano (Symphs 2 & 3); Freiburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir (3rd Symph); Christine Whittlesey, soprano; Wolfgang Hovk, violinist (4th Symph); Alessandra Marc, Jane Margaret Wray, Christiane Boesiger, sopranos; Dagmar Pečková, Eugenie Grünewald, mezzo-sopranos; Glenn Winslade, tenor; Anthony Michaels-Moore, baritone; Peter Lika, bass; Aurelius Sängerknaben Chor; Europe Choir Academy (8th Symph) / Kindertotenlieder / Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano / Rückert-Lieder / Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano / Das Lied von der Erde / Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19042CD
performances rating: to
I’ve heard several complete Mahler Symphony sets, particularly those by conductors I admire the most, such as Klaus Tennstedt, James Levine, Bernard Haitink, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti, and can attest that, despite a few movements here that fall short of my ideal—the first movements of the Fourth, Sixth and Tenth, to be specific—this set by Michael Gielen is the finest I’ve ever heard by one conductor, bar none. Below you will find my recommendations for individual symphonies that I like just as well or better, and these are of course to be taken as my all-time favorite performances, but I still recommend the Gielen set for one very specific reason and that is absolutely incredible sonics. Gielen and his engineers brought out orchestral details in these symphonies you’ve never heard before in your life, in movement after movement and work after work. Moreover, in certain movements, i.e. the “Blumine” movement of the First Symphony, the last movement of the Fourth, and the entire Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, Gielen achieves something quite remarkable, making the music come alive in ways I’ve never quite experienced before. The first movement of the complete Tenth Symphony is also a bit disappointing, but there’s an alternate version of that movement recorded back in 1989 that will absolutely blow you away.
As for the remaining works, his performances of Der Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Lied von der Erde suffer from somewhat underwhelming soloists—the unsteady-voiced Hanno Müller-Bachmann in the former and the emotionally cool (and occasionally fluttery voiced) Cornelia Kallisch in the latter—but the conducting is stupendous. In addition, the Kallisch performance of Kindertotenlieder with Gielen is my absolute favorite of that work, and Elisabeth Kulman’s singing in the Rückert-lieder will impress you deeply. All in all, a magical set of almost all of Mahler’s great orchestral works (missing only Das Klagende Lied) brought to life by a master conductor who always seemed to have a few tricks up his sleeve.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D / London Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Adrian Boult, conductor / Everest 9022
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D / SWR Baden-Baden & Freiburg Symphony Orch.; François-Xavier Roth, conductor / Hänssler 93.294
We’ve probably had more excellent recordings of the First Symphony than any of the others except, maybe, the fourth. I place Boult performance at the #1 slot because he follows all of Mahler’s tempos and phrasing while still creating a real performance. This 1959 recording for Everest came about as the result of his stepping in at the last moment for an indisposed Jascha Horenstein. What could have been a “nothing” occasion resulted in one of the most exciting recordings of all time. Granted, the LPO plays somewhat scrappily in comparison to modern orchestras, but so what? This is as wild a ride through the first symphony as you are likely to hear in your lifetime, and Boult was seldom more emotionally involved than he is here. He might almost have been channeling his good friend Toscanini, if Toscanini would have bothered to conduct the score.
François-Xavier Roth’s late-period digital recording is also outstanding, following the score with great excitement. I still prefer the Gielen and Boult overall, but there’s no denying that Roth feels the Mahler pulse rushing through his blood, and he manages to transmit it to his orchestra.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection” / Maria Cebotari, soprano; Rosette Anday, contralto; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Bruno Walter, conductor / (mono, live, September 16, 1948) available for free streaming here.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection” / Kathleen Battle, soprano; Maureen Forrester, mezzo-soprano; Westminster Choir; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Zubin Mehta, conductor / look for it (live, 1980)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection” / Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Jard van Nes, contralto; London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir; Klaus Tennstedt, conductor / LSO (no number)
Three superb Mahler Seconds, and I’ll bet that some of you have favorite performances that are different from mine. The live 1948 Walter performance is in mono broadcast sound, and contralto Anday was a few years past her expiration date (she sounds a bit whiny and sour), but both soprano Ceborati and the Vienna Philharmonic make up for that. This is both the most intense and the most arresting performance in terms of tempo rubato I’ve ever heard. As Toscanini once said of him, “When Walter comes to something beautiful, he melts!”, but in this case it works, over and over and over again in movement after movement. Listen and hear for yourself. With better sound and a better contralto, this would easily be a six-fish performance.
The 1980 live performance with Battle, Forrester and Mehta only came out in a multi-disc set issued by the New York Philharmonic in a limited edition, but if you can find a copy it’s the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, in fairly good early-digital stereo sound. For once, Mehta pulled out all the stops and produced a hair-raising performance that will stay with you for ages. If you can’t find it, however, a good substitute is the 1962 studio recording with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, mezzo Hilde Rössl-Majdan, and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Otto Klempere,which can be streamed for free here.
The live Tennstedt/LPO performance is one of the slowest I’ve ever heard, but the conductor imbues it with so much feeling that it will absolutely devastate you emotionally. The vocal soloists are good if not exceptional, but no matter; it’s Tennstedt who will grab you by the throat and not let you go. At the time of writing, this performance can also be streamed for free on YouTube, split up into several videos.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in d minor / Helen Watts, contralto; Dennis Egan, posthornist; Highgate School Choir; Orpington Junior Singers; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Jascha Horenstein, conductor / Archipel 557 (live: London, November 16, 1961)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in d minor / Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano; Eton College Boys’ Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus; Klaus Tennstedt, conductor / ICA 5033 (live, October 5, 1986)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in d minor / Ewa Podleš, contralto; Krakow Boys’ Choir & Philharmonic Chorus; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit, conductor / Naxos 8.550525-26
Jascha Horenstein’s historic 1961 performance may shock you if you’ve never heard this fabulous Mahler specialist in his prime. “Intense integrity” is the way I describe it; everything falls into place beautifully, and let’s face it, Helen Watts was about as great a contralto as Great Britain ever produced. Only the mono sound keeps me from awarding it six fish.
Ah, but then there is the live Klaus Tennstedt performance on ICA Classics, and this is undoubtedly the greatest of all performances, bar none. Waltraud Meier doesn’t have as lovely a tone as Watts, but a great singer she most certainly was (and is) and Tennstedt pulls out all the stops here as Mehta did in the Symphony No. 2. This is the recording that made me finally give up on the Tilson Thomas recording, great though it is.
Many British critics don’t like Antoni Wit and aren’t shy about saying so, but I really liked this performance as an alternate to the other two, particularly the outstanding sonics. In addition, Wit has here the finest living contralto of our time, Ewa Podleš, and a sterling boys’ choir. A third choice, to be sure, maybe fourth after Tilson Thomas, but very fine nonetheless.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G / Judith Blegen, soprano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; James Levine, conductor / RCA Red Seal 8287659413 2
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G / Max Emanuel Čenčic, boy soprano; Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra; Anton Nanut, conductor / Stradivari 6050 or available for free streaming here.
George Szell, another conductor who didn’t much like Mahler, did like the Fourth Symphony and gave us a splendid recording of it in the 1960s. For years it was many critics’ preferred version, but then the James Levine recording came along and wiped everyone away. It has been consistently in print since the 1970s in one format or another. And why is it so good? Because Levine copied the accents and drive of the 1941 Willem Mengelberg broadcast version without using the widely-fluctuating tempos that Mengelberg employed (which, he claimed, he jotted down in the score from a performance by Mahler himself). It is without question the best of all of Levine’s Mahler recordings and the best Fourth Symphony in existence, despite the fact that soprano Judith Blegen is just good and not great.
I might have listed the Szell recording as my second choice, and yes, I still think it very fine, but nearly as good is this vastly-underrated recording by the little-known conductor Anton Nanut, a fine Mahlerian (I also owned his Fifth Symphony), here using a boy treble to sing in the last movement. And what a boy treble Max Emanuel Čenčik, now a leading countertenor, is! Not only a crystal-clear voice, but outstanding phrasing and a senstive reading of the text. Worth getting if only for him, although Nanut gives an excellent performance as well.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in c# minor / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniele Gatti, conductor / RCA-Conifer Classics 75605-51318-2
Klaus Tennstedt’s New York Philharmonic performance of the Fifth Symphony hit a high for this conductor in this work that, try as he might, he never quite achieved again. You talk about lightning in a bottle! It’s so good from start to finish that it literally dwarfs every other performance ever recorded, although Tenstedt’s London Philharmonic version on ICA Classics comes close. But close is not perfection.
Daniele Gatti’s recording of the Fifth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is being pushed as the greatest thing since Swiss cheese, but I love this earlier version with the Royal Philharmonic even better. Gatti takes tremendous risks here in his use of rubato while still maintaining a fairly good forward momentum—and lots of intensity. This is a splendid complement to the Tennstedt triumph.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in a minor / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / DGG 427697
MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in a minor / Gewandhaus Orchester; Riccardo Chailly, conductor / released as a stupid DVD
My first Mahler Sixth was the earlier Philips recording by Bernard Haitink, and I liked it very much, particularly the slow movement for its smooth, beautiful phrasing and outstanding horn playing. The Bernstein-Vienna Philharmonic performance isn’t quite so suave in that movement, but in all other respects it runs rings around the Haitink. I just like it the best, that’s all. The live 1955 performance by Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic on Archipel is electrifying in its own way, fitting the entire symphony on one CD with almost blistering tempos, and will excite many listeners, but my own second choice is the Chailly recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, issued as a DVD but well worth acquiring for the actual performance.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in e minor / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik, conductor / Audite 95476 (live, February 5, 1976)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in e minor / Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász, conductor / Naxos 8.550531
There was once a time when the Seventh Symphony was Mahler’s most difficult to come to grips with, but then recordings by Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado “unlocked” its mysteries for many listeners. I liked the Abbado recording, too, until I heard this live performance by Rafael Kubelik which puts all others in the shade, including Kubelik’s own studio account. For more modern sound, you may also want the underrated recording by Michael Halász and the Polish National Radio Symphony on Naxos. It’s no match for Kubelik, but it’s as good as most everyone else’s.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand” / Frances Yeend, Uta Graf, Camilla Williams, sopranos; Martha Lipton, Louise Bernhard, contraltos; Eugene Conley, tenor; Carlos Alexander, baritone; George London, bass; Schola Cantorum; Westminster Choir; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, conductor / United Classics 2013008 (live, April 6, 1950)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand” / Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, sopranos; Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, contraltos; Donald Grobe, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Franz Crass, bass; Choruses of North & West German Radio; Women of the Munich Motet Choir; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik, conductor / Audite 95.551 (live, June 24, 1970)
Stokowski’s 1950 New York Philharmonic broadcast of the Eighth Symphony is still my pick for best historic performance: great soloists and a lively interpretation that still holds up well. But neither it nor Tennstedt’s studio account are any match for the live Kubelik performance, in good if not mind-blowing stereo with the finest cast of singers I’ve ever heard.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D / Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Sir Georg Solti, conductor / Decca 410012
MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor / BR Klassik 900109
I didn’t care too much for most of Solti’s Mahler Symphony recordings, but his Ninth was just perfect in terms of musicality, feeling and sheer sound. An excellent alternative is Haitink’s later account with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. Neither will disappoint you. Stay away from Bruno Walter’s coarse-sounding 1938 live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. The sound is awful and the orchestra’s string section scrapes abominably.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (1976 Deryck Cooke version) / BBC Natinoal Orchestra of Wales; Mark Wigglesworth, conductor / BBC MM124
MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (1966 Wheeler version, ed. Olson) / Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Robert Olson, conductor / Naxos 8.554811
I’ve never understood those conductors, like Solti and Tennstedt, who steadfastly refused to conduct or record any version of the complete Mahler Tenth. Nearly all of the music exists in Mahler’s own hand, but only the “Adagio” and “Purgatorio” were scored. Well, so what? This is nothing compared to how people have tried, unsuccessfully, to complete the Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony, Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, Scriabin’s “Preparation for the Final Mystery” or other such works. Can you say Beethoven’s Tenth? What a disaster THAT was! By comparison, the reconstructed Mahler Tenth was a piece of cake.
My favorite versions are the 1976 Deryck Cooke edition, first recorded (I believe) by Kurt Sanderling in an outstanding performance, but that recording was outstripped by the little-known Mark Wigglesworth performance. And this was a recording given away for free as the “CD of the month” by BBC magazine! I found it in a Half Price Books store for a few dollars, but it’s worth much more than that to me. This is, to me, THE Mahler Tenth, and I stick by that judgment no matter what you say.
If, however, you can’t find it, your consolation prize is the very fine recording by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharominic Orchestra on EMI Classics CDC5 56972-2. It’s not quite as vibrant and intense as the Wigglesworth—as one critic put it, this might have been the first time the Berlin orchestra ever played anything but the “Adagio”—but it’s really the only other recording of the later Cooke edition that’s really intense.
I also happen to like the 1966 edition by Joe Wheeler, modified by conductor Robert Olson, for Naxos. This is the last of Wheeler’s four versions of th symphony, which was premiered in New York by the Orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music conducted by Jonel Perlea in 1966.
Well, anyway, that is my “take” on the music of Gustav Mahler.
Malipiero, Gian Francesco
MALIPIERO: Armenia. Dai sepolcri. Ditirambo tragico. Grottesco. Sinfonia degli eroi / Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra; Amaury du Closel, conductor / Naxos 8.572766 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
The strangely dark, neoclassic music of Giovanni Malipiero is scarcely known outside of Italy, but as these works prove they deserve to be better known. The best description I can make of his music is that it sounds like a more Italianate version of late Ravel, but he really had a style all his own.
MARKEVITCH: Cantate.* Icare. Piano Concerto+ / *Lucy Shelton, soprano; +Martyn van der Hoek, pianist; Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee, conductor / Naxos 8.572157 or available for free streaming by clicking on titles above
Igor Markevitch, world-famous as a conductor, is scarcely known as the great composer he was. Obviously influenced by Stravinsky but not a slavish imitator, he developed his own unique style and was in fact one of the most sought-after young composers of his day, but after an emotional crisis in 1942, brought on by the catastrophic events of World War II, he found himself unable to compose any further and switched to conducting. Although Lyndon-Gee’s performance of the music from Icarus is not available online for streaming, an equally fine performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic is available here.
MARKEVITCH: La Taille de l’Homme [The Measure of Man] / Lucy Shelton, soprano; Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee, conductor / Naxos 8.572156 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
This is possibly the most remarkable work Markevitch ever wrote, complex and full of fascinating emotional contrasts. The performance brings out the full scope of the music superbly.
MARTIN: Cello Concerto / Alban Gerhardt, cellist; Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Frank Martin, the Swiss Huguenot composer with the surprisingly American-sounding name, has somehow continued to fly under the radar of many music lovers. This late concerto, written in 1965, is extraordinarily beautiful and varied in expression, forsaking flash for substance, and this performance captures its many moods splendidly.
MARTIN: Le Conte de Cendrillon (Das Märchen vom Aschenbrödel) / Clémence Tilquin, soprano (Cendrillon); David Hernandez Anfruns, tenor (Prince); Varduhi Khachatryan, sop (Stepmother, Fairy); Alexandra Hewson, mezzo (Stepsister); Orchestre de la Haute école di musique, Geneva; Gábor Takács-Nagy, conductor / Claves 50-1202 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Martin’s Cinderella ballet is considerably different from Rossini’s splashy, flashy opera; rather, it is inward-looking and intimate in scope, with almost chamber-orchestra scoring at times. There are also some sung and spoken passages, but by and large this is splendid music, interesting and engaging. The sound quality of this recording is a bit on the cold side, but the playing of the orchestra is well-detailed and enlivening.
MARTIN: Fantaisie sur des rythmes Flamenco / Paul Badura-Skoda, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Yet another example of how the discursive mind of Frank Martin worked. The unwary listener might approach this thinking the music will be harmonically simple and rhythmically alert, echoing the drive of flamenco dancers, whereas in reality it is very much “music inspired by flamenco,” using modern but not brutally clashing harmonies and playing around with the meter. A fascinating piece, played to perfection by Badura-Skoda whose work is largely forgotten today.
MARTIN: In Terra Pax / Ursula Bückel, soprano; Marga Höffgen, contralto; Ernst Häfliger, tenor; Jakob Stämpfli, bass; Pierre Mollet, bass; Lausanne Union Chorale; Lausanne Womens Chorus; Ernest Ansermet, conductor / Available in small pieces on YouTube
Having discovered Honegger’s superb Le Roi David, I stumbled across Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax, which coincidentally was also influenced in part by the Bach masses and passions. (It was a hearing of Bach’s music, in fact, that made young Martin determined to become a composer.) Written near the end of World War II (1944), In Terra Pax has an emotional impact similar to that of Le Roi David but is in many ways a more intimate and personal expression—Martin’s father was a Calvinist minister, and he remained a faithful if not always active member of that church for the rest of his life. This is the choral equivalent of Olivier Messiaen’s better-known Quartet for the End of Time, a fervent prayer for peace at a time of unnerving world chaos (similar to what we have today). Martin was a composer who combined tonal melodic structure with bitonal and astringent harmonies, creating a unique and (to my ears) very personal form of musical expression. It boggles my mind that this wonderful composer is not better known and, more than that, better appreciated. I think his music should be very much part of the standard repertoire.
Ansermet, who conducted the world premiere (tenor Häfliger was also a member of the original cast of singers), gives an exciting and sensitive performance in which he ties the disparate elements of the score together with splendid results. Martin was reportedly quite pleased with this recording and Ansermet’s conducting in general: three years later he composed The Four Elements and dedicated the score to the conductor. It’s hard to find fault with anything Ansermet does in this challenging yet touching score.
This recording, which has been issued in different formats (including as part of a Decca “Double Decker” 2-CD set) but I could not find a separate contemporary issue just for this work. Thus my somewhat snarky listing above rather than a specific release number. Since In Terra Pax only runs 46 minutes, it obviously can, and is, normally combined in a CD with other Martin works, but since I found it for free streaming on YouTube my feeling is that the recording (made in 1961, well beyond the European 50-year statute of limitations on copyright) is fair game to go and get for free.
MARTIN: Petite Symphonie Concertante, Op. 54 / Pierre Jamet, harpist; Doris Rossiaud, pianist; Germaine Vaucher-Clerc, harpsichordist; L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Ernest Ansermet, conductor / available for free streaming on Song365
There are several fine recordings of this gem by Martin, including one conducted by the composer himself, but I have a preference for Ansermet’s venerable recording.
MARTIN: Le Vin Herebé / Basia Retchitzka, soprano I; Nata Tuscher, soprano II (Iseut); Adrienne Comte, soprano III (Brangäne); Helen Moralt, alto I (Iseut of the white hands); M. L. de Montmollin, contralto II (Iseut’s mother); Vera Diakoff, contralto III; Oleg de Nyzankowskyi, tenor I; Eric Tappy, tenor II (Tristan); Hans Jonelli, tenore III (Kaherdin); Heinz Rehfuss, baritone I (King Marke); André Vessières, baritone II (Duke Hoël); Derrik Olsen, bass; Peter Ryben, Clemens Dahinden, violinist; Heinz Wigand, violist; Fritz Albert, violist; Antonio Tusa, cellist; Carlheinz Jucker, cellist; Klaud Holzmann, double bassist; Frank Martin, pianist; Victor Desarzens, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Martin’s intimate oratorio version of the Tristan und Isolde story is one of the great neglected gems of music. There are modern performances of it available, but they sound cold and uninteresting when compared to this splendid 1961 recording on which Martin played the piano part. The music has a French quality about it that almost sounds like Renaissance music, were it not for the unusual harmonies. A gem!
MARTINŮ: 7 Arabesques for Cello & Piano. Ariette for Cello & Piano. Nocturnes for Cello & Piano. Variations on a Slovakian Theme. Variations on a Theme of Rossini / Meredith Blecha-Wells, cellist; Sun Min Kim, pianist / Navona NV6092 or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits
MARTINŮ: Ariane (Complete opera) / Celina Lindsley, soprano (Ariane); Norman Philips, baritone (Theseus); Vladimir Dolezal, tenor (Boroun, Theseus’ friend); Richard Novák, bass (Minotaur); Miroslav Kopp, tenor (Watchman); Ludek Vele, bass (Old Man); Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Václav Neumann, conductor / Supraphon 3524, or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits
MARTINŮ: Bergerettes. Cinq Pièces Brèves (Piano Trio No. 1). Piano Trios Nos. 2 & 3 / Arbor Piano Trio / Naxos 8.572251 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra / Zuzana Růžičková, harpsichordist; Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra; Václav Neumann, conductor / part of Supraphon 4117-2 or available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra / Aglika Genova, Liubin Dimitrov, pianists; Hanover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; Eiji Oue, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Double Concerto for 2 String Orchestras, Piano & Timpani* / Josef Růžička, pianist; Jan Bouše, timpanist / Field Mass+ / Václav Zitek, baritone / Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca* / *Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; +Czech Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra; Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor / Supraphon LC358 or available for free streaming by clicking on individual titles above
MARTINŮ: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Oratorio) / Otakar Brousek, reciter; Marcela Machotková, soprano; Jíři Zahrdniček, tenor; Václav Zitek, baritone; Karel Průša, bass; Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir; Jíři Bêlohlávek, conductor / Supraphon SU39182 or available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Estampes pour Orchestre / Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Jíři Bêlohlávek, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Jazz Suite: I. Prelude; II. Musique d’Entr’acte “Blues”; III. Boston; IV. Finale – Allegro / Ebony Band / part of Channel 30611 or available for free streaming by clicking on movement titles above
MARTINŮ: Piano Concerto No. 2. Piano Concerto No. 4, “Incantations”: I. Allegro; II. Poco moderato / Rudolf Firkušný, pianist; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Libor Pešek, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
MARTINŮ: Songs / Jana Hrochová Wallingerová, mezzo-soprano; Giorgio Koukl, pianist / Naxos 8.573387 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MARTINŮ: String Quartets Nos. 4, 5 & 7 / Martinů Quartet / Naxos 8.553784 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Symphony No. 5 / Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sir Roger Norrington, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: Symphony No. 6, “Fantaisies Symphoniques” / Spanish Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Tamayo, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTINŮ: The Voice of the Forest / Helena Kaupová, soprano (The Bride); Jaroslav Březina, tenor (The Young Forester); Lenka Šmídová, mezzo-soprano (The Hostess); Roman Janál, baritone (Bandit 1/Reciter); Vladimir Okénko, tenor (Bandit 2); Zdenèk Haravánek, bass (3rd Bandit); Chamber Chorus; Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; Jiří Bêlohlávek, conductor / Supraphon 3524 or available for free streaming on YouTube
Certainly one of the most underrated of all Czech composers, Martinů’s neglect is due to the fact that he spent most of his life outside his native country, living in France and then the United States, but his music is among the most varied in style of almost any 20th century composer. His operas are largely tonal and quite beautiful, his large instrumental works dramatic and inspiring, and his chamber music unique. There is also a jazz kick to his Concerto for Two Pianos and the Jazz Suite. There is a recording available on YouTube of the Sixth Symphony conducted by the great Charles Munch, but the sound quality is dreadful and Arturo Tamayo does an amazing job with this beautiful and difficult symphony.
MARTUCCI: La Canzone dei Ricordi / Brigitte Balleys, mezzo-soprano; Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne; Jésus Lopez-Cobos, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Most professional critics either hate or ignore Martucci, considering him an inferior Italian imitator of Brahms, but he had his own voice and wrote some incredibly moving music. This particular piece, The Song of Memory, begins in a fairly mawkish manner but quickly morphs into something much more personal and dramatic. The only other performance I’ve ever heard as good as this is the ancient 1941 NBC broadcast with contralto Bruna Castagna and Arturo Toscanini, but the sound quality mitigates against it.
MARTUCCI: Minuetto for String Quartet.1 Momento Musicale.1 Piano Quintet in C: I. Allegro giusto; II. Andante con moto; III. Scherzo; IV. Finale .1,2 Piano Trio No. 1: I. Allegro giusto; II. Scherzo; III. Andante con moto; IV. Finale & Piano Trio No. 2: I. Allegro; II. Scherzo; III. Adagio; IV. Finale.2,3 3 Pieces of G.F. Handel, transcribed for String Quartet: I. Minuetto; II. Musetta; III. Gavotte 1 / 1Quartetto Noferini; 2Maria Semerano, pianist; 3Roberto Noferini, violinist; 3Andrea Noferini, cellist / Brilliant Classics 95968, or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
Martucci’s chamber music ranges from charming (the short pieces) to brilliant (the Piano Quintet and Trios), and for once we have some really vital, meaty performances of them available for listening.
MARTUCCI: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat min., Op. 66 / Mieczyslaw Horszowski, pianist; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Martucci’s first piano concerto is a bit of a wet blanket, but his second is one of the finest late-Romantic works ever written. Toscanini pretty much owned this music, and this late broadcast (1953) with the great pianist Horszowski is in surprisingly good FM radio sound.
MARTUCCI: Symphony No. 1 in D min., Op. 75 / NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MARTUCCI: Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 81: I. Allegro; II. Scherzo – Allegro; III. Adagio ma non troppo; IV. Allegro / American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on movement titles above
Martucci’s two symphonies are probably the most Brahmsian of all his works, but they’re still solidly written and full of novel ideas. Toscanini’s performance of the first symphony is still the best, while the oft-overlooked Leon Botstein gives a surprisingly vital reading of the second (the slow movement of this symphony is particularly beautiful and interesting).
See Collections: Renée Fleming.
MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana / Renata Scotto, soprano (Santuzza); Placido Domingo, tenor (Turiddu); Pablo Elvira, baritone (Alfio); Isola Jones, soprano (Lola); Jean Kraft, contralto (Mamma Lucia); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; National Philharmonic Orchestra; James Levine, conductor / RCA Red Seal 39500 or available for free streaming on YouTube
Although L’Amico Fritz comes up once in a while, and Iris even more rarely, Mascagni was doomed to be remembered as a one-hit opera composer, and this is it. Despite some fine performances in the old 1940 recording under the composer’s direction, particularly the half-mad Santuzza of Lina Bruna Rasa, Mascagni’s pacing is far too slow and sloppy to be enjoy on repeated hearings. My favorite Turiddu is Jussi Björling in the 1957 studio recording, and Ettore Bastianini is my favorite Alfio, but Renata Tebaldi is a rather tame Santuzza and Alberto Erede’s conducting is also a bit slack. This performance, for me, captures the best of both worlds. Though Domingo’s voice is harder and less attractive than Björling’s, his Turiddu is similarly intense, and Renata Scotto’s Santuzza is the most fiery since Bruna Rasa. Add stereo sound, the outstanding Alfio of the little-remembered Pablo Elvira, and great conducting from a then-young James Levine, and you have the overall best Cavalleria on records.
MASSENET: Le Cid / Theodor Hodges, baritone (Don Alonzo); Paul Plishka, bass (Don Diègue); Grace Bumbry, soprano (Chimène); Placido Domingo, tenor (Rodrigue – Le Cid); Jake Gardner, baritone (King Alfonso VI); Eleanor Bergquist, soprano (L’Infante); Arnold Voketaitis, bass (Count Gormaz); Clinton Ingram, tenor (Don Arias); Peter Lightfoot, bass (L’Envoye Maure); John Adams, bass (St. Jacques); Byrne Camp Chorale; Opera Orchestra of New York; Eve Queler, conductor / CBS-Sony 888880973313
Manon contains perhaps 25 minutes’ worth of good music in it three and a half hours, Thais only has the “Meditation,” but Le Cid is one of the most rousing and well-written French operas in existence. Why it is so seldom performed remains a mystery to me, and to its legions of admirers, but happily we have this splendid live performance from 1976 with three star singers (Bumbry, Domingo and Plishka) and a supporting cast of outstanding but little-known performers from the New York City Opera. A must-have recording.
MASSENET: Werther (sung in Italian) / Leyla Gencer, soprano (Charlotte); Ferruccio Tagliavini, tenor (Werther); Giuliana Tavolaccini, soprano (Sophie); Mario Borriello, baritone (Albert); Vito Susca, bass (The Bailiff); Raimondo Botteghelli, tenor (Schmidt); Eno Mocchiutti, baritone (Johann); Children’s Chorus; Teatro Verdi, Trieste Orchestra & Chorus; Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / Opera d’Oro 1234, or available for free streaming on YouTube
MASSENET: Werther (highlights) / Rosalind Elias, mezzo (Charlotte); Cesare Valletti, tenor (Werther); Gérard Souzay, baritone (Albert); Rome Opera Orchestra; René Leibowitz, conductor / excerpts available for free streaming on YouTube
Werther is Massenet’s second-best opera, but it requires a truly great conductor to pull the dead spots together and make it work. For that reason, I’ve chosen the “wrong language” performance with Ferruccio Tagliavini and Leyla Gencer, conducted by the little-known Carlo Felice Cillario (also see Bellini: Norma). No one, but no one, makes Werther this exciting, and the usually cool-voiced Tagliavini gives the performance of his life in it. The highlights in French feature mezzo Rosalind Elias during one of those rare periods when she was in excellent voice, a tremendously sensitive Werther in Cesare Valletti, and luxury casting with Gérard Souzay as Albert, superbly conducted by René Leibowitz. What a shame that RCA didn’t record this complete!
MATTHEWS: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3. Journeying Songs for Solo Cello / Leonore Piano Trio; Gemma Rosefield, cellist / Toccata Classics 0369; trios also available in individual movements on YouTube
MATTHEWS: Romanza for Violin & String Orchestra / Harriet MacKenzie, violinist; English String Orchestra; Kenneth Woods, conductor / part of Nimbus Alliance 6295 or available for free streaming on YouTube
British composer David Matthews has flown under the American radar, but his music is very individual and creative. The above pieces are an excellent introduction to his sound world.
Maxwell Davies, Peter
MAXWELL DAVIES: Ave Maris Stella. Dove, Star-Folded. Economies of Scale. Psalm 124 / Gemini; Ian Mitchell, director / Metier 28503 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MAXWELL DAVIES: Mavis in Las Vegas / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 3. Cross Lane Fair* / *Mark Jordan, Northunbrian pipes; *Rob Lea, bodhran; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor / Naxos 8.572350, also available for free streaming on YouTube (click on Symphony title above; Cross Lane Fair in small bits)
MAXWELL DAVIES: Seven in Nomine. Suite from “The Boyfriend.” Suite from “The Devils.” The Yellow Cake Revue – Excerpts* / Aquarius; Nicholas Cleobury, conductor; *Peter Maxwell Davies, pianist / Naxos 8.572408 or available for streaming in small bits on YouTube
MAXWELL DAVIES: Symphony No. 6. Time and the Raven. An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Peter Maxwell Davies, conductor / Naxos 8.572352 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on titles above
Peter Maxwell Davies was a composer whose mature work bore very little resemblance to the piece that made him famous: the noisy, purposely confused-sounding theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. If you can stand to listen to this thing, you’re strong than I am, but his mature works, as posted above, retain that earlier sense of adventure but have a much more interesting sense of form. I’ve included two suites of music he wrote for films, which is rare for me—I normally detest film music unless it was written by a jazz musician—because they are so interesting, and I also highly recommend his orchestral piece Mavis in Las Vegas. The title for the latter came about when he was booked to conduct his own music in that city but, upon arriving, discovered that the hotel room promised him had never been reserved in his name. After checking with other hotels on the Vegas strip, to no avail, Maxwell Davis eventually returned to the original hotel where, it was discovered, the desk clerk had misheard his name and booked the room for him as “Mavis.” Maxwell Davies thought this was so funny that he wrote a piece depicting “Mavis” as a sort of bloated, middle-aged floozie dripping in jewels, strutting down the stairway looking for attention. It’s utterly hysterical.
MAYER: Dhammapada. 9 Portraits of Bengal. Tantrik Dances / London Music Fusions; Chris Taylor, flautist; Tony Coe, clarinetist/tenor saxist; Henry Lowther, trumpeter; Clem Alford, sitarist; Dreschen Theaker, tabla; Neil Colon, sarod/tanpura; John Leach, koto/cheng; Zack Laurence, pianist; Toni Campo, bassist; Harold Fisher, drummer; John Mayer, director / First Hand Records FHR50 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
The music of British-Indian composer John Mayer occupies a world of its own. He brilliantly fused the music of his native India with Western compositional forms, thus evolving Western music into a new realm and influencing such future musicians as Rabih Abou-Khalil. These recordings are classics.
McCABE: Symphony No. 1, “Elegy.”1 Tuning.2 Capriccio.3 Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt.3 Sostenuto3 / 1London Philharmonic Orchestra; 1John Snashall, conductor; 2National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; John McCabe, 2conductor/ 3pianist / Naxos 8.571370
McCABE: Symphony No. 2 / Albany Symphony Orchestra; Julius Hegyi, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
McCABE: Symphony No. 3, “Hommages” / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Dutoit, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
McCABE: Symphony No. 4, “Of Time and the River” / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Clark Rundell, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
The late John McCabe (1939-2015) was undoubtedly one of the most original and striking British composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His music, redolent of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Szymanowski and (at times) Ligeti, never really quite sounded like anyone else but McCabe. I’m not altogether convinced by his later symphonies, but his first four are all superb as well as highly varied in style. No one who truly loves creative music should be without these pieces in his or her collection.
McDONALD: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra / Jeanne Behrend, Alexander Kelberine, pianists; Philadelphia Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
The music of American composer Harl McDonald is scarcely remembered today, yet this surprisingly Slavic-sounded concerto for two pianos had a strong vogue in the 1930s. Leopold Stokowski’s recording of it with Russian-born pianist Kelerbine and his wife, Jeanne Behrend, has a surprising amount of darkness in it, an emotion that Stokowski normally could not elicit in the music he conducted.
MEDTNER: Nocturne No. 1 in D / David Oistrakh, violinist; Vladimir Yampolski, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
MEDTNER: Violin Sonata in E min., Op. 57 No. 3, “Epica”: I. Introduzione; II. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace; III. Andante con moto; IV. Finale: Allegro molto / Svetlin Roussev, violinist; Frédéric D’Oria-Nicolas, pianist / part of Fondamenta 902002, also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual movement titles above
MEDTNER: Wood Goblin / Michael Lewin, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Nikolai Medtner wasn’t one of Russia’s most important composers, but he was interesting and, particularly in miniatures, a very fine one. The recordings above are the ones I enjoy most.
MEFANO: Micromégas / Kaoli Isshiki, soprano (Storyteller); Nicholas Isherwood, bass (Micromégas); Eric Trémolières, tenor (Saturnian); Rayanne Dupuis, soprano (Saturnian’s wife); Pierre Villa-Loumagne, reciter; Sandrine Eyglier, soprano (Animacule 1); Iane Roulleau, soprano (Animacule 2); Olga Gurgovska, contralto (Animacule 3); Christophe Crapez, tenor (Animacule 4); Paul Alexandre Dubois, baritone (Animacule 5); Bruno Rostand, bass (Animacule 6); Ensemble 2e2m; Pierre Roullier, conductor / Maguelone 111.170 or available for free streaming in 22 bits on YouTube starting here
Paul Mefano’s mind-boggling concert-piece-with-voices, Micromégas, is based on a very early “science fiction” tale by the 18th-century wit Voltaire. The story is split into seven short chapters. The principal character, Micromégas (small/large), lives on a planet orbiting Sirius that is 21.6 million times greater in circumference than Earth. He is 20,000 feet tall, has 1,000 senses, and lives for 10.5 million Earth years. Banished from his home planet for 800 years, he decides to travel around the universe, first landing on Saturn. There he befriends the secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who is only 6,000 feet tall, less than one-third his size, has only 72 senses and lives for 15,000 Earth years. They join forces to take a philosophical journey together. When they arrive on Earth, they circumnavigate the planet in 36 hours, both of them being easily able to walk in the oceans, but believe that there is no life on the planet because it’s too small for them to see with the naked eye. In the Baltic Sea, however, the Saturnian sees a tiny speck swimming about and picks it up: it is a whale. While they examine it, a boatful of philosophers, returning from an Arctic exploration, runs aground near them.
The space men examine the boat; discovering its inhabitants, they believe that they are too tiny to have any intelligence or spirit, but gradually realize that the beings are talking to each other. They devise a hearing tube with their fingernail clippings so that they can hear their tiny voices. After listening for a time, they learn their language and begin talking to them, becoming shocked to discover the breadth of the human intellect.
As can be expected, the music is purposely exotic-sounding and “spacey.” It sounds as if Méfano was having a great deal of fun writing this music, and intends it to be enjoyed by the listener in a similar spirit of fun. He takes none of it really seriously and doesn’t want you to, either. The end result is a strange, non-traditional, but amusing score with more than enough little twists and turns (mostly in the orchestral writing, and most of them subtle) to hold your interest.
MÉHUL: Joseph en Égypte / Laurence Dale, tenor (Joseph); Frédéric Vassar, bass (Jacob); René Massis, baritone (Siméon); Brigitte Lafon, mezzo (Benjamin); Philippe Jorquera, bass (Utobal); Antoine Normand, tenor (Nephtali); Philippe Pistole, tenor (Ruben); Natalie Dessay, soprano (Une jeune fille); Intermezzo Choral Ensemble; Orchestre Régional de Picardie; Claude Bardon, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Once considered one of the greatest of living opera composers, Étienne-Nicolas Méhul has certainly fallen into oblivion, and this opera in particular was considered his masterpiece. By the earlly 20th century, all that was left of it was the beautiful tenor aria, “Champs paternels,” recorded and sung in concert by tenors from John McCormack to Richard Tauber, but even that aria has since sunk without a trace. This is a pity, because, as you will hear in this work, Méhul was one of those composers who changed the course of opera writing, moving away even from the more complex music of Gluck to a simpler, more straightforward mode of expression. Of course, shortly thereafter the “Bel Canto Boys” (Rossini-Bellini-Donizertti) moved opera into a completely different direction, one that was more of a high-wire act than dramatic, but fortunately Joseph en Égypte was not the only string in Mehul’s bow.
MÉHUL: Stratonice: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / Patricia Petibon, soprano (Stratonice); Yann Beuron, tenor (Antiochus); Étienne Lescroart, tenor (Séleucus); Karl Daymond, baritone (Erasistrate); Cappella Coloniensis; Corona Coloniensis; William Christie, conductor / Erato 12714 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on part numbers above
Stratonice, the fifth of his operas, was hailed as a masterpiece by Cherubini and likewise admired by Mendelssohn and Berlioz. The plot revolves around Seleucus, the King of Syria, who calls Dr. Erasistrate to cure his son Antiochus’s suicidal depression, which turns out to be caused by his love for his father’s fiancé, Princess Stratonice. The overture is very much in the Gluck style but immediately switches gears thereafter, particularly in his more intimate and original use of the orchestra, using solo instruments more often and much richer harmonies. Although the insistent use of straight tone in the orchestra robs the music of some of its richness, William Christie’s impassioned conducting saves the day and moves the opera with dramatic impetus.
MÉHUL: Uthal / Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano (Malvina); Yann Beuron, tenor (Uthal); Jean-Sébastien Bou, baritone (Larmor); Sébastian Droy, tenor (Ullin); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Le Chef des Bardes/Troisieme Barde); Reinoud van Mechelen, countertenor (1st Barde); Artavazd Sargsyan, tenor (Le Deuxième Barde); Jacques-Greg Belobo, bass (Le Quatrièm Barde); Les Talens Lyriques; Chœur de Chambre de Namur; Christophe Rousset, conductor / Ediciones Singulaires 1026
Though not available (yet) for free streaming, if you want to hear a truly innovative opera you need to hear Uthal. Based on a legend of the Irish poet Ossian, it concerns Larmor, the old chief of Dunthalmon, who now lives in the woods because his son-in-law Uthal has usurped his authority, deeming him no longer able to fight in battle. Larmor’s daughter Malvina tries to calm his anger and persuade him to reconcile with the husband he gave her. But Larmor, though touched, rejects her arguments. He sends his faithful bard Ullin to Fingal’s palace to inform the latter of the injustice done to him.
Méhul completely dispensed with violins in this score to give the music a dark character. Only edgy-sounding violas, cellos and basses are heard amid a largely wind and horn-based orchestra, and nearly all the scoring is low and ominous. This is a dark, powerful work that plunges headlong in its progression. Solos and duets are generally brief and wedded into the preceding and ensuing music. Occasionally, as in Malvina’s sung dramatic strophe “Quoi! Ce combat affreux!”, the music takes on a declamatory quality. There is nothing quite like Uthal in the whole history of opera.
F. MENDELSSOHN: Allegro di molto. Largo. Piano Sonata in G min: I. Allegro molto; II. Scherzo; III. Adagio; IV. Presto. Prelude & Fugue in E min. Prelude & Toccata / Joanne Polk, pianist / part of Bridge 9367, or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
F. MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio in G min. / Maria Bader-Kubizek, violinist; Hrvoje Jugović, pianist; Dorothea Schönweise, cellist / part of Brilliant Classics 94490
All my life I’ve been hearing about what a great composer Clara Schumann was. Oh, her compositions were so wonderful. She was as great a composer, if not greater, than her husband. BULLSHIT!! Clara Schumann wrote typically formulaic, la-de-da Romantic music. Her husband’s music was genius. On the other hand, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel did write excellent music that could easily be confused for that of her illustrious brother…she just wrote a lot less of it. The two CDs above are proof enough, although I’d like to hear more.
I’ve yet to understand why generations of music lovers are taught to bow down and worship Mozart whereas Mendelssohn is just admired. In my view, Mendelssohn’s music was where Mozart would have gone had he lived longer. It’s just as great if not greater.
MENDELSSOHN: Album Leaf in B min. Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Songs Without Words, Op. 109 in D. Variations Concertantes for Cello & Piano, Op. 17 / Keith Robinson, cellist; Donna Lee, pianist / Blue Griffin 237 or available in small bits for free streaming on YouTube
MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2: I. Allegro assai vivace; II. Allegretto scherzando; III. Adagio; IV. Molto allegro e vivace / Emanuel Feuermann, cellist; Franz Rupp, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual movement titles above
Mendelssohn, unlike Mozart, also wrote great chamber works for the cello, and the recordings listed above are my favorites. Feuermann’s performance is exceptional despite the dated sound.
MENDELSSOHN: Antigone (Incidental music) / Thomas Oertel-Gormanns, Thomas Ratzak, Gun-Wook Lee, basses; Andreas Fischer, Kristian Sørensen, tenors; Dominique Horwitz (Creon); Anna Franziska Srna (Antigone); Anne Berg (Ismene); Nikolaus Okonkwo (Guard/Servant); Tilo Prückner (Tiresias); Simon Zigah (Haemon); MDR Leipzig Radio Men’s Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Jun Märkl, conductor / MDR Klassik 1202
This is a perfect example of what I meant when I said that, in my mind, Mendelssohn was a greater composer than Mozart within the same basic style. The dark, dramatic feel of this work is something that Mozart seemed incapable of producing except for parts of the Symphony No. 40, Don Giovanni and the Requiem. I’m shocked that this work isn’t better known or more often performed than it is; it is surely one of Mendelssohn’s masterpieces, far greater than his dull oratorio Elijah.
MENDELSSOHN: Capriccio Brillante, Op. 22 / Gary Grafmann, pianist; Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Even in a “toss-off showpiece” like the Capriccio Brillant, Mendelssohn seemed incapable of writing garbage. This performance is, for me, the classic version, largely due to Munch’s conducting.
MENDELSSOHN: Concerto for Two Pianos & Orchestra in E / Alexander Ghindin, Ekaterina Metchetina, pianists; Academic Symphony Orchestra of Moscow State Philharmonic; Vladimir Ponkin, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Another piece written by Mendelssohn in his youth, this time at age 14. And what did you write? Some piece of shit for your grunge band? This is a muscular yet singing performance, just what the doctor ordered.
MENDELSSOHN: Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Kyrie / Brigitte Ballys, contralto; Gilles Cachemille, bass-baritone; Gulbenkian Chorus and Orchestra; Michel Corboz, conductor / Erato 45462 or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits
Yet another example of Mendelssohn’s brilliance is this dramatic cantata based on the legend of Walpurgis Night. His music is far more dramatic than Gounod’s in the opera Faust.
MENDELSSOHN: Infelice / Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Maxim Vengerov, violinist; Orchestra La Scintilla; Adam Fischer, conductor / part of Decca 4759082 or available for free streaming on YouTube
Written for the great soprano Maria Malibran, Infelice is yet another of Mendelssohn’s generally unknown gems. Cecilia Bartoli brings it to life in a manner befitting its stature.
MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Complete Incidental Music) / Rebecca Evans, soprano; Joyce di Donato, mezzo-soprano; Le Jeune Choeur de Paris; Oxford & Cambridge Shakespeare Company; Ensemble Orchestral de Paris; John Nelson, conductor / Virgin 45532
If there was a recording I could give 10 fish to, this one would be it. Although Nelson’s performance of the Overture lacks some of the wonderful tension of Toscanini, whose live broadcast of the Incidental Music with NBC is his best performance, it is certanly fine enough in its own way, and this recording gives you close to 45 minutes worth of Shakespeare’s play interspersed with the music, the way it was intended to be heard. No one else’s version even comes close to this.
MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E-flat / Jascha Heifetz, Arnold Belnick, Israel Baker, Joseph Stepansky, violinists; William Primrose, Virginia Majewski, violists; Gregor Piatagorsky, Gabor Rejto, cellists / available for free streaming on YouTube
Mendelssohn wrote this when he was 17 years old. And you? Though I sometimes felt that Heifetz dominated too much in chamber music performances, he does not really do so here. Despite many competitors, including an excellent version by the Kroll Quartet with guest artists, this is the performance to acquire. Four out of the eight names on here are among the greatest solo string players of their day, and they help you hear every individual strand of the music while still blending as a unit. Wowza kazowza!!!
MENDELSSOHN: 6 Organ Sonatas / James Lancelot, organist / Priory 1071 or available for streaming in individual movements on YouTube
I’ll bet you didn’t even know that Mendelssohn wrote organ sonatas. Well, he did. And they’re brilliant. Lancelot’s performance are the crispest and least bombastic I’ve heard.
MENDELSSOHN: Overture, “Calm Sea & Prosperous Voyage.” Athalie, Op. 74: Overture & War March of the Priests. The Hebrides – Overture. Symphony Nos. 3-5 / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor / Decca 460239
MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4, “Italian” / Philharmonia Orchestra; Guido Cantelli, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 5, “Reformation” / NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Mendelssohn only wrote five symphonies by comparison with Mozart’s 40-something, but the last three are gems. Dohnányi does an excellent job on them but an even better job on the overtures, while I find Cantelli’s “Italian” Symphony the most lyrical and Toscanini’s performance of the Fifth Symphony one of his greatest achievements. Sound quality dictates the number of fish, however.
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Songs Without Words: Op. 30, No. 5; Op. 38, No. 6; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4 / Christian Chamorel, pianist; Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois; Laurent Gendre, conductor / Fondamenta 1401012, available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Until I heard this recording, my favorite version of these piano concertos was Rudolf Serkin with Eugene Ormandy, but young Christian Chamorel brings out so much more detail in the piano part that the comparison isn’t even close.
MENDELSSOHN: Variations Concertantes for Cello & Piano, Op. 17 / Zuill Bailey, cellist; Simone Dinnerstein, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
A brilliant performance of one of Mendelssohn’s most underrated chamber works.
MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E min.: I. Allegro molto appassionato; II. Larghetto & III. Rondo allegro / Yehudi Menuhin, violinist; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clocking on movement titles above
There are so many recordings of the Violin Concerto out there, and many are quite good, but there was a certain symbiosis between Menuhin and Furtwängler that just edges out the competition as far as I’m concerned.
MESSAGER: L’Amour masque: J’ai deux amants; Mon rêve. Coups de roulis: Les hommes sont biens tous. Les Dragons de l’Imperatrice: Amour! Amour! Fortunio: Je ne vois rien…Lorsque je n’étais. La Petite Fonctionnaire: Je regrette mon Pressigny. Les P’tites Michu: Vois-tu, je m’en veux à moi-même / Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Yves Abel, conductor / part of Warner Classics 68625 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
MESSAGER: La Basoche: Elle m’aime / Lucien Fugère, baritone; Orchestre de l’Opéra-Comique de Paris; Elie Cohen, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
MESSAGER: Veronique: Swing song / Peter Dawson, bass-baritone; Eleanor Jones-Hudson, soprano / available for free streaming on YouTube
MESSAGER: Veronique: Petite dinde! Ah! quel outrage!; Ma foi! Pour venire de Provence / Maggie Teyte, soprano; unidentified orchestra & conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
André Messager was to the 1920s what Jacques Offenbach was to the 1870s in Paris, the most popular and successful operetta composer of his time. I personally find Messager’s music to be much better constructed and more interesting than the average Offenbach work, and the samples above are perfect examples of his charm and wit.
MESSIAEN: L’Ascension. Chronochromie. Des Canyons aux étoiles… Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà. Les Offrandes oubliées. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Oiseaux exotiques. Poèmes pour Mi.* Réveil des oiseaux. Un Sourire. La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ. Turangalila-Symphonie. La Ville d’En-Haut / *Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano; SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Sylvain Cambreling, conductor / Hänssler Classic 93.225
MESSIAEN: Harawi: Songs of Love and Death for soprano & piano. Cantéyodjayâ for Piano / Tony Arnold, soprano; Jacob Greenberg, pianist / New Focus 131 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MESSIAEN: Chants de Terre et de Ciel. La Mort du Nombre. Thème et Variations pour Violon et Piano. Troie Mélodies / Suzie Leblanc, soprano; Lawrence Williford, tenor; Laura Andriani, violinist; Robert Kortgaard, pianist / ATMA 2564, available for streaming in small bits on YouTube
MESSIAEN: Poèmes pour Mi / Renée Fleming, soprano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Alan Gilbert, conductor / part of Decca 16543 or available for free streaming on YouTube
MESSIAEN: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. Thème et Variations pour Violon et Piano / Yvonne Loriod, pianist; Wolfgang Meyer, clarinetist; Christoph Poppen, violinist; Manuel Fischer-Dieskau, cellist / EMI 54395, also available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
MESSIAEN: Cinq Rechants for 12 Solo Voices. O sacrum convivium! Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine / Marianna Shirinyan, pianist; Thomas Block, ondes Martenot; Danish National Vocal Ensemble & Concert Choir; Danish National Chamber Orchestra; Marcus Creed, conductor / OUR Recordings 6220612
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) occupies one of the strangest and most unique positions in the entire history of music. His mother, a poet, proclaimed him a mystic from the time he was a small child and Olivier believed this thoroughly. His music was different from everyone else’s, using a system he called “modes of limited transposition.” In essence, Messiaen was among the very first composers to use what we now know as “tone clusters” and to do so in a consistent manner that permeated the entire composition. A devout Roman Catholic, he wrote a great many pieces devoted to God and Jesus and an opera based on St, Francis of Assisi. He was also an ornithologist who believed that birds had souls and were vessels of God’s love and wisdom. His music was consistently dense, and the unusual system of harmonics that he used both confused and alienated many listeners.
Nor did this alienation include only lay listeners. Back in the mid-1960s, High Fidelity magazine published a long article by one of its critics bashing Messiaen for every compositional sin in the book from mere snobbism to actually writing music that was purposely evil and ugly. Nowadays there are a few of his pieces that have entered and stayed in the mainstream, particularly his famous Quartet for the End of Time, written while he was a prisoner of war in the 1940s. His other pieces that are often performed are the song cycle Poèmes Pour Mi, the Turangalila Symphony and Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà (Illuminations of the Beyond).
A virtuoso organist, Messiaen wrote a great deal of music for that instrument, but here I agree with those who find that music peculiarly dark and evil-sounding. Nor is this an impression gained only from the performances of others; Messiaen recorded nearly all of his organ works himself, and his own playing also sounds dark, muddy and sinister. Yet when he wrote for instrumental groups and even full orchestras, he spread his strange chords out over a wider series of intervals, and this “spreading out” of the music not only lessens its density but substantially brightens the timbral effects. This, in turn, makes it not only more attractive to hear but lightens the effect on the listener.
Although one may feel that I “shortcut” Messiaen’s oeuvre by selecting the boxed set by Sylvain Cambreling, I assure you that for the most part his performances are as good if not better than anyone else’s, including those of Myung-Whun Chung which received glowing reviews from many critics. Only in one piece, the Poèmes pour Mi, did I prefer an alternative version, and there only because I felt that Renée Fleming gave more of herself than Yvonne Naef and also had a more interesting voice.
There have been many fine recordings of the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps over the years, particularly the famous mid-1970s recording by Tashi, but the unusual feeling and aura of the recording made under the composer’s supervision, with his wife Yvonne Loriod on piano, just has a special aura about it. I am particularly fond of the song cycle Harawi, particularly as sung here by soprano Tony Arnold, and hope that it, too, becomes a repertoire piece in the future.
MEYERBEER: L’Africana (slightly abridged) / Antonietta Stella, soprano (Selika); Richard Tucker, tenor (Vasco); Anna Elgar, soprano (Ines); Mateo Manuguerra, baritone (Nelusko); Carol Weiss, mezzo-soprano (Anna); Malcolm Smith, bass (Don Pedro); Paul Aquino, bass (Don Diego); George Reed, bass (Grand Inquisitor); Melvin Wallace, tenor (Don Alvar); Will Roy, bass (High Priest of Brahma); Schola Cantorum; Master Chorale of New York; Opera Orchestra of New York; Eve Queler, conductor / House of Opera mp3-7732, available for download here
We start our survery of the operas of Jakob Beer, who Frenchified his name into Giacomo Meyerbeer, with his very last. Although I am aware of the full recording of the score released in recent years, I can attest that the singing is completely sub-par and does not do the work justice. Neither does the singing of Shirley Verrett and Placido Domingo in the various live performances they gave. These singers, particularly Tucker and Manuguerra, give the music its proper stature. Yes, I’d love to hear a complete recording of the work with singers this good, but so far it hasn’t happened.
MEYERBEER: Dinorah (a.k.a. La Pardon de Ploermel) / Deborah Cook, soprano (Dinorah); Christian du Plessis, baritone (Höel); Alexander Oliver, tenor (Corentin); Della Jones, mezzo (Goatherd); Marilyn Hill Smith, soprano (Goatgirl); Roderick Earle, baritone (Huntsman); Ian Caley, tenor (Reaper); Philharmonia Orchestra; James Judd, conductor / Opera Rara ORC5 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, which has come down to us primarily for its soprano aria (“Ombre leggere,” popularly known as the “Shadow Song”), is actually one of his most delightful and airiest compositions. Meyerbeer was mostly lauded during his lifetime as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of contemporary opera composers, but not long after his death his reputation went into the toilet. thanks largely to the nasty polemics written by Richard Wagner who had once admired him and in fact had benefitted from his promotion. Meyerbeer’s great “sin,” as Wagner and others put it, was that all of his musical and dramatic effects were “calculated,” that he never really wrote “inspired” music. That may be true, but the end result of some of these works is still interesting, well-constructed music that stands the test of time.
The real problem in performing Meyerbeer is that he wrote not just for solid, well-trained voices, but for voices that could sing both in a stentorian manner and bat out trills, roulades, runs and staccato passages, and such voices have been in short supply since the second decade of the 20th century—which is when his operas finally fell into oblivion. Thus the few revivals in recent years have had limited success, as stage producers either find singers who have the vocal flexibility needed or singers with strong, powerful voices, but not both. Happily, Dinorah only needs the former type of singers, and this excellent cast does the score full justice.
MEYERBEER: Les Huguenots (abridged) / Rita Shane, soprano (Queen Marguerite); Enriquetta Tarres, soprano (Valentine); Jeanette Scovotti, mezzo-soprano (Urbain); Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Raoul de Nangis); Dimiter Petkov, baritone (St. Bris); Pedro Farres, baritone (Nevers); Justino Diaz, bass (Marcel); Harald Neukirch, tenor (Tavannes); Radio Austria Orchestra & Chorus. Ernst Märzendorfer, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube: CD 1, CD 2
MEYERBEER: Les Huguenots / Joan Sutherland, soprano (Queen Marguerite); Martina Arroyo, soprano (Valentine); Anastasio Vreinos, tenor (Raoul de Nangis); Gabriel Bacquier, baritone (St. Bris); Huguette Tourangeau, mezzo-soprano (Urbain); Nicolai Ghiuselev, bass (Marcel); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Richard Bonynge, conductor / Decca 430 549-2
Meyerbeer’s three greatest operas, by general consensus, were Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and the complete L’Africaine. We’ve already dealth with the latter. In the case of Les Huguenots, there were two great recordings. The first of these was the very incomplete concert performance with Nicolai Gedda as Raoul, which despite its being severely abridged was the most exciting version ever recorded. The second of these was flawed by virtue of the soft-grained, mush-mouthed singing of Joan Sutherland as Marguerite and the underpowered tenor of Anastasio Vreinos, who was suffering from laryngitis at the time and was only able to record the part by virtue of spraying his throat with a pain-killer. He actually sang quote stylishly, but needed more power for many passages that he did not have. By cleverly combining these two recordings, you can make yourself a pretty good Huguenots.
By the way, there is a pretty well sung performance of the whole UNCUT Huguenots conducted by Marc Minkowski available on YouTube, but to be honest, three hours and 47 minutes of Huguenots is really overkill and the extra passages are really just filler and don’t add anything to the evolving drama.
MEYERBEER: Le Prophète / Placido Domingo, tenor (Jean); Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano (Fidès); Victoria Loukianetz, soprano (Berthe); Davide Damiani, bass (Count Oberthal); Franz Hawlata, bass (Zacharie); David Cale Johnson, baritone (Mathisen); Torsten Kerl, tenor (Jonas); Alexander Pinderak, tenor (Un Officier); Hasik Bayvertian, tenor (Un Citoyen); Mario Steller, baritone (Un Anabaptiste); Amadeus Kinderchor; Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Marcello Viotti, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
There are only two performances of this opera—in my view, Meyerbeer’s dramatic masterpiece—worth considering. The first was the 1970 concert performance with Marilyn Horne as a rich-voiced but dramatically boring Fidès, Nicolai Gedda as the best Jean of Leyden going, and Horne’s husband of the time, Henry Lewis, as the sad-sack conductor. The other was this 1998 performance where, sadly, Placido Domingo was forced to lower everything down in pitch in order for him to get through the opera. Thus this is NOT the best representation of the title character, but it IS the best representation of the opera as a dramatic entity. This is largely due to the wonderful conducting of Marcello Viotti, who runs rings around Lewis, the excellent supporting cast and especially Agnes Baltsa as a Fidès who teas up the floorboards in her every appearance, particularly in her show-stopping aria “O prêtres de Baal.”
MEYERBEER: Robert le Diable / Bryan Hymel, tenor (Robert); Martial Defontaine, tenor (Raimbaut); Carmen Giannattasio, soprano (Alice); Patrizia Ciofi, soprano (Isabelle); Alastair Miles, bass (Bertram); Carlo Striuli, baritone (Alberti); Angelo Nardinocchi, tenor (First Knight); Teatro dell’Opera Salerno Chorus; “Giuseppe Verdi” Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniel Oren, conductor / Brilliant Classics 94604 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Robert le Diable, one of Meyerber’s most sensational operas (the stage production includes the Devil as well as nuns on roller skates), hasn’t particularly worn its welcome well over the decades, but as this live recording proves it works pretty well in an abridged version. Opera lovers know that Bryan Hymel is one of those rare tenors who have the Meyerbeerian “goods” in every respect, including a well-defined trill, and the rest of the cast does very well. I was really pleasantly surprised by Patrizia Ciofi, who sings very well here as Isabelle, and Daniel Oren’s conducting is simpy wonderful.