• A Delightful Double Concerto with an Articulate Tchaikovsky Reading

    Tchaikovky: Symphony No. 4/Leshnoff: Double Concerto
    Michael Rusinek, clarinet.  Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
    Reference FR-738
    Total Time:  63:12
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Manfred Honeck pairs a world premiere modern concerto with one of the great classical war horses on this new “Fresh!” live release from Reference Recordings.  As the orchestra’s music director over the past decade, Honeck has continued to raise the orchestra’s profile with often invigorating explorations of classic literature and expansions to the groups repertoire.  Their series of highly-acclaimed releases continues here in amazing Super 5.0 Stereo realization.  The Tchaikovsky was actually recorded in 2016 and is the last of the three later symphonies to appear in the orchestra’s recent releases.

    Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies are among his most-performed and popular works.  The fourth (composed over 1877-1878) in particular holds fascination for its motivic development and intensity that seem to expand upon Beethoven’s own exploration of fate and destiny.  This is the third of the symphonies to make it to disc with Honeck and the PSO.  A quick glance at the overall timings for each of the movements suggests a rather traditional performance with just a slight more time taken in parts of the second movement.  What is most striking about the performance, and which is apparent from the opening bars, is the extreme care that is being taken to the shaping of themes.  One can hear parallel articulations across the sections of the orchestra.  Honeck also makes a lot more out of the sudden shifts in dynamics which can make those moments doubly exciting.  The wind playing throughout the symphony is quite exquisite as a result and that sinuous oboe melody in the second movement moves forward without too much pathos.  This allows some of the yearning to grow more as the movement proceeds.  Brass also are on great display here, especially in the powerful opening and conclusion.  The strings do well, but seem a bit lower in the sound picture, sometimes being overwhelmed by other parts of the orchestra.  This is particularly the case in the opening movement.  The second movement also seems to have some sense of balance adjustment that is not distracting (and might be a result of the 5.0 imaging).  Throughout the bass end seems particularly boom-y at times.  The scherzo really lets the strings shine with the pizzicato playfulness casting itself nicely in the outer sections and a light, trio section.  The finale brings us back to those large monolithic brass blocks of sound and crisp, shots that balance against the lyrical contrasts.  There is solid, controlled energy to get us to the exciting conclusion and Honeck lets the music play for itself without adding any additional, artificial urgency.  This makes the final minutes quite satisfying.  (There is just a brief moment, where it feels like the orchestra was getting a bit over-excited and Honeck manage to pull them back).  That makes those final moments really exciting.  Personal favorites of this symphony include Montreux’s classic Boston set, and Gergiev’s Vienna series (also a live recording).  The latter has a bit more passion (though arguably the bassoon solo in Honeck’s recording in the second movement could not be more emotionally plaintive).  Honeck’s is not a “careful” rendition, but a rather deeply thought out interpretation that draws out Tchaikovsky’s emotional core and creates a consistent performance approach across the orchestra.  In that respect, it is certainly a wonderful performance that is worth exploration and the solo work throughout is really worth the price of admission here.

    The album is paired with a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in June 2019 (when the recording was made).  A collection of his orchestral music appeared last year on the Naxos label exploring his lyrical orchestral music with its always engaging thematic ideas.  Leshnoff’s music is a link to the great Neo-Romanticists of the 20th Century (Creston, Diamond, Harris).  In this new work, he pairs clarinet with bassoon for a rather fascinating exploration of the double concerto genre.  The work is cast in three movements.  The first movement begins with long, descending string lines that shift into the bassoon’s upper, songful register.  The clarinet then enters to twine itself around this idea with some stunningly beautiful, romantic harmonic backgrounds.  A brief off-kilter waltz follows with a delightful lower bassoon staccato line to open and a nice lyrical clarinet commentary to provide a contrast.  It features a delightful section for solo bassoon accompanied with the orchestra’s bassoons as well.  The final movement brings us a more energetic dash that brings the soloists into more dialogue with the larger orchestra in a more traditional fashion, kicked off with a brass chord before the perpetual motion lets the soloists display their technique.  Leshnoff’s music is always quite engaging and the interaction between the soloists here helps create a lot of delightful interplay.  The accessible harmonic style also invites the listener in with its almost cinematic qualities.  Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek are quite superb interpreters of the work.  They seem more forward in the sound picture and imaged on either side to create a somewhat realistic spatial feel though sometimes they get shifted more to the center.

    This is an overall an excellent release.  Really, one should pick this up for Leshnoff’s delightful concerto.  The Tchaikovsky is obviously what will grab the attention of the casual listener at first, but what a great way to introduce a new work to a broader audience.  Of course, it is second on the album so it might not get that first listen it might otherwise have.  It is also rather odd that neither soloist is listed anywhere on the cover or really anywhere.  One sort of discovers by leafing through the booklet who they are and there is a little Q and A section there.  Notes for the Tchaikovsky are fine and a nice overview of this more familiar work.  Whether one is attracted to this release for either repertoire, there will be much to enjoy in both cases.

  • The Dresden Staatskapelle Light Music under Bohm


    Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 43: Karl Bohm
    Overtures & Entertaining Concert Pieces
    Dresden Staatskapelle/Karl Bohm
    Profil 18035
    Disc One: Total Time: 76:12
    Disc Two: Total Time: 75:43
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The great Austrian conductor Karl Bohm (1894-1981) rose to prominence as an important interpreter of Mozart, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, as well as a supporter of modern German music.  His style, steeped in the German romantic tradition, would be captured in a long legacy on record.  His recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle from live performances in 1967 is a cornerstone of his recorded legacy and is among the finest available.  With the Berlin Philharmonic he recorded all the Mozart symphonies.  In 1971, he would commit to disc a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic that is still highly regarded today.  Bohm was among the conductors pegged early on as a possible “star” to sell early recordings of classical music.  Thus, his early discography features a great variety of music from early shellac LPS for Electrola which are the focus here.

    In this new set exploring the great history of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra we get a chance to hear the ensemble from its very earliest recordings.  The ensemble has a long history which goes back to 1548!  It was one of Richard Strauss’s favorite orchestras and was the orchestra where Richard Wagner served as Kapellmeister.  Also notable were its first recordings ever of Bruckner (the 4th and 5th symphonies).  Christian Thielemann is its current director.

    This new set in the Dresden’s early recordings were essentially “live” performances requiring a sort of attention to detail and focus that left no room for mistakes, retakes, or editing later.  The result is that there is an extra sense of energy and excitement underlying the performances.  Many longer pieces had to be split across two sides to accommodate the play time that was available on these 30 cm discs.  That makes longer works that real challenge for early recordings, but in this case, many works fit on a single side which adds to an even more fascinating listen to this collection of overtures and lighter pieces.  Sometimes it is hard to believe how engineers managed to find the right balance for these single microphone performances cut directly to cylinders.  The pieces featured here were recorded between 1935-40.  Disc one focuses mostly on music from Germany and Austria while the second disc opens up to music from throughout Europe.

    The repertoire here features a number of classics that continue to be perennial favorites as well as some interesting, but somewhat forgotten, little gems.  To get a sense of how much fun runs through these performances one can begin with the exciting performance of the Die Fledermaus “Overture” by Johann Strauss, Jr. which opens disc one.  Bohm’s approach really has this music sparkling along with a sense of energy and shape that tends to get overlooked.  The rich orchestral quality of the Dresden orchestra also comes through.  The dramatic “Interlude Music” from the composer’s operetta A Thousand and One Nights is a wonderful contrast. The interior of the program features the more popular Mozart overtures to The Abduction from the Seraglio (minus its concert ending) and The Marriage of Figaro.  More serious music of early German Romanticism then follows.  First is a riveting performance of the third “Leonore Overture” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (the trumpet fanfare solo is quite fascinating with its seeming recess in the sound picture) and the Egmont Overture, Op. 84.  The former’s sound suffers slightly from the second disc source which improves as it continues.  Weber is represented with overtures from Der Freischutz and Oberon, respectively.  Smetana’s Bartered Bride “Overture” closes off the CD.  But not before we are treated to the two earliest recordings in the set.  They represent the very first pieces Bohm recorded with the Dresden orchestra.  Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) was a composer and singer who expanded upon the German singspiel by combining elements of French comic opera.  His music was in vogue in Berlin in the 19th Century with the opera Undine (1845) one of his more popular works.  Its “Ballet Music” and a “Clog Dance” from the 1837 Zar und Zimmermann provide a nice transition historically from the Weber and into the nationalist style of Smetana.  The performances are all quite compelling on this release.  Strings sound quite good.  As is more the result of the mike placement than anything, wind passages in big moments can get lost, but they do manage to cut through when needed and it is obvious these players were brilliant technically in order to match the tempi in some of the faster segments.  Here we have the inherited tradition of how this music sounded as handed down to the present generation.

    Disc two features an additional collection of overtures and preludes but also gives us Mozar’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 from 1938.  (Originally issued on a 2-disc set with one movement to a side!  There is some occasional surface noise here from time to time).  Here too the musical choices are a blend of familiar classics and interesting rarer pieces.  Humperdinck’s magical overture from Hansel und Gretel receives a gorgeous performance.  This and Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture bookend three Italian opera excerpts by Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci’s “Intermezzo”). Mascagni (the “Intermezzo sinfonico”—in a most beautifully delicate reading— and the “Easter Hymn” from Cavelleria Rusticana sung in Germanwhich includes the State Opera chorus and an organ as well) and the “Prelude” from Verdi’s Aida.  Fun short pieces follow including Berlioz’s “Rakoczy March”, an arrangement of Schubert’s “Marche Millitaire, D. 733”, and Strauss’s Emperor Waltz.  An 8-minute excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 has its own tantalizing moments of what a complete performance of the work might have sounded like.  The sole contemporary work is Theodor Berger’s (1905-1992) Rondino giocoso, Op. 4 (1933).  Berger’s music is all but forgotten today, but no less than Wilhelm Furtwangler was a proponent and advocate for it.  The recording here was made by Columbia.Two Hungarian Dances (nos 5 and 6) by Brahms bring this collection to a close.

    Surface noise has been optimized here with an often crystal clear quality.  Admittedly, it really feels as though one were hearing these on an LP player at times rather than a CD.  (Another side realization is the overall performance attacks and style of playing that often can be heard in the studio recordings in Hollywood in this same period.)  Some sources are in excellent condition while others at times show some wear.

    One of the historical side notes related to recording light classical repertoire that would sell well has its roots in the growing anti-semitism of the time.  In the case of the Electrola company, many of their releases featured the Berlin Staatskapelle which was conducted by Leo Blech who was Jewish.  He was one of the few artists allowed to leave Riga where he had been in exile, under orders by no less than Hermann Goring.  He would end up in Stockholm where he would conduct the opera there.  It is an important side note as this political issue was tied to the Electrola’s commercial need to essentially replace all of the recordings he made with new ones.   An additional side note is also necessary related to Bohm’s somewhat controversial personal life.  Bohm was a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party, though some are yet unsure whether this was an extent of his own convictions or done to protect his family and progress his career.  This was especially present during his years in Dresden (1934-43), and even opened doors to his being the conductor of the Dresden Opera when Fritz Busch was dismissed.  After World War II, he was required to undergo two years of “denazification” before being allowed to return to conducting and public performing.  And so, we have here the beginnings of the recorded legacy by a decidedly somewhat controversial conductor of the 20th Century, but one whose musical ability is not denied.

    All of this historical reality is not intended to cast a shadow across what exists though in this release.  Profil has brought listeners an opportunity for an historical glance at the early days of a great conductor and one of the stellar orchestras of the early 20th Century.  The accompanying booklet has good information on the orchestra and recordings, less on the music itself though.  It is packages in a container that could hold 4 discs.  The musical legacy here is compelling with exciting performances of light classical works that in and of themselves reveal the taste and commercial viability of art music at the time.  Because many of these works remain popular, it gives even the most casual of classical music listeners an opportunity to explore historical recordings like these and potentially open up a door to many of the other releases in this extensive series.