Literature / Recordings

Berkshire Review’s Recommended Books and Classical Recordings 2011

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I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.


Modern Flash Dictionary by George Kent (1835). The British Library Board.
Modern Flash Dictionary by George Kent (1835). The British Library Board.

David Crystal, Evolving English – One Language, Many Voices – An Illustrated History of the English Language, The British Library, 2010. (Distributed in the U. S. by the University of Chicago Press)

This on the whole spectacularly realized picture book was produced as a catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the British Library that closed earlier this year.

The English language and its history have attracted more enthusiasts than any other, it seems, not only because so many people use it, either as a mother tongue or a second language, and its spelling and grammar unleash so many irrational demons at the poor people who try to learn it, but the particular distribution of the linguistic streams which flowed together to create it have left easily identifiable signs of their separate identities: the Germanic, the Celtic, the Latin, Danish, French, Dutch, Indian, etc. English is by no means unique in this respect, but it wears the most colorful plumage. English speakers have also created a particularly fascinating body of physical artifacts and images relating to the language. The British Library is particularly rich in these holdings, and this exhibition was pretty much the last word—or display—on the subject, although some important and impressive objects, like the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum (the sumptuous handle of a pointer King Alfred gave his bishops to encourage them to learn to read), were necessarily not included, since there were no loans. In the book you will find every object superbly illustrated, although some illustrations are too small to read. On the other hand, everything is transcribed, both as written and in modern English. You will find Runic inscriptions, the Franks casket, the MS of Beowulf, Bibles of Wycliffe, Tyndale, King James, et. al., the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the usual Shakespearean materials, various grammars, dictionaries, and language aids (including the now quaint BBC pronunciation guide for radio announcers of 1928), medieval and Renaissance letters and diaries, cookery books, guides to slang, hornbooks, broadsides, advertisements, children’s books, instructive and entertaining, novels, and of course Alice in Wonderland.

Dialects and global English are not neglected. In fact the thrust of the book is very much in the direction of an inclusive view of Global English and welcoming the now diverse population of Great Britain.

Everything is explained and laid out with the utmost clarity, for the layman, and simplification goes almost too far, inasmuch as some of the more technical topics in the history of the language are skirted over or ignored, partly for the very good reason that there is no way to represent them in an exhibition. In fact calling it an “An Illustrated History of the English Language” may be a little ambitious. For a real history of the English language, you will have to look elsewhere. This doesn’t make the book much less useful and certainly not less entertaining. A perfect gift for any friend or relative who loves language.

From Michael Powell's Peeping Tom
From Michael Powell's Peeping Tom

Dave Kehr, When Movies Mattered, University of Chicago Press, 2011.

In recent times, Dave Kehr is best known as a reviewer of DVDs. mostly classical reissues, for the New York Times. His mostly weekly reviews, which he has called, I believe, a surreptitious history of cinema, are accessible, witty assessments of classics, including Birth of a Nation, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Il Gattopardo, as well as obscurities, routine Hollywood products, and even lower creations—all of special interest and some telling importance in the history of film.

Earlier in life, between 1974 and 1986, he wrote longer, more extensively thought-out essays for The Chicago Reader. (Chicago was a great film center back then.) In these he applies his impressive, but personable analytical powers to a group of films he considered then and now to be important. The pointedly chosen selection focuses on the major auteurs and directors who should be among them, or almost.

Kehr is a writer who says as much by omission as by emphasis or amplification, so pay attention when you read it! E.g. Why is Alan Rudolph in the book and not his mentor, Robert Altman?

The collection not only provides an absorbing survey of some great films, it brings to life a time when art films and classics were first being discovered by later generations, and an idea of cinema was in the process of coalescing in the United States, as it had done in France.

You could go further and use this book as a buying guide for video recordings, as well—or for that matter his New York Times column, depending on whether the lucky recipient likes Hitchcock, Buñuel, or Welles, or Roger Corman and Mario Bava.

Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011

The most recent update of a classic survey of music since 1945 by a scholar and writer who appreciates the music of our time with more sensitivity, consciousness, and clarity than any other. A must for anyone open to the music of our time. Enough said.

Leonard Freed, Naples, 1958
Leonard Freed, Naples, 1958

Leonard Freed, The Italians, Quantuck Lane Press, 2011/Io Amo l’Italia, Admira, 2011. Introduction by Michael Miller. Bilingual edition in Italian and English.

The great Magnum photographer Leonard Freed decided to become a photographer while travelling in Italy as a young man, and his passion for the country stayed with him throughout his life. These photographs of Italian people and life begin with photographs of Italian-Americans made in New York’s Little Italy in 1954  and ended with his last visit in 2005, the year before he died. While his view of the world was brighter and softer when he was in Italy, the same sharp eye for human behavior we know from Police Work and Black in White America tempered his poetic joy in Italy. The 190 photographs in the volume were selected and arranged by his widow, Brigitte Freed, and editor James Mairs. Copies are available at a discounted price ($60) from The Brill Gallery, Eclipse Mill, North Adams, Massachusetts. Vintage and later prints are also available for purchase. 800.294.2811; 845.661.3593 cell; Since the Brill gallery has been promoting the accompanying exhibition, now at the Fondazione Le Stelline in Milan as “Io Amo l’Italia” (curated locally by Admira) and will continue during its American venues next year, these purchases will aid the continuance of the project.

BAM The Complete Works, by Steven Serafin, Quantuck Land Press, 2011.

The same publisher has produced a sumptuous volume in celebration of The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 150 anniversary. Amidst the hundreds of vivid color photographs there are interesting essays by some of the great artists who have contributed to BAM’s present-day distinction and others, among them Joan Acocella, Peter Brook, William Christie, Lin Hwai-min, Deborah Jowitt, Akram Khan, Phillip Lopate, Chuck Mee, Sam Mendes, Meredith Monk, John Rockwell, Ed Rothstein, Roslyn Sulcas, and Charmaine Warren.


Wilhelm Furtwängler, The Great EMI Recordings, EMI Classics, 21 CD Set.

This is one box I would love to find under the Christmas tree, if I didn’t already have it. This boxed set includes most of the studio and live recordings HMV made of Furtwängler in the latter years of his career. This includes the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the great concerto recordings Furtwängler made with Yehudi Menuhin (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bartók No. 2). The operas are Fidelio and Tristan und Isolde. The great Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto with Edwin Fischer is there, as is the legendary Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” with the Berlin Philharmonic of 1938. And many other treasures, including a disc with interviews and a documentary. The Vienna Philharmonic plays in most. Although many earlier live broadcasts have emerged since these recordings were first issued, the EMI recordings remain absolutely essential for their sound quality and their own intrinsic character as studio work. For that matter, it is worthwhile having a recording of Furtwängler coughing.

Some of the recordings have been upgraded since their earlier reissues on CD, but EMI has basically reproduced the sound of the recordings as originally issued, in most cases with the conductor’s approval. It is possible to improve on this, but one cannot say that this is not a sensible course, when the materials as is are not especially lacking.

Wilhelm Furtwängler
Wilhelm Furtwängler

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI, Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor,
Recorded by Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI), 1953. EMI Classics, 2011, 13 CD Set, with one bonus CD-ROM containing the German libretto, translations, and a synopsis.
Also available from Pristine Classical.

This may not be the recorded Ring for newcomers to begin with because there are recordings made live from stage performances with better casts (e.g. Krauss, Bayreuth 1953), but it is the recording to end with, as Furtwängler was the greatest of all interpreters of the Ring. One cannot say that one knows the Ring, unless one knows this recording, which was made in a radio studio, mostly before a live audience for broadcast, and Furtwängler’s staged La Scala Ring of 1950. Das Rheingold was the only music drama that was performed as a whole on October 26, 1953. The rest followed, act by act, over the next month. It took many years for the rights to be sorted out. EMI finally released it on LP in 1972, and their subsequent reissues have remained the standard.  The sound is quite clear for the most part, reasonably full in range, and not lacking in ambiance, even to the point that the voices sound a bit recessive. There is some wow and flutter, noise, constricted dynamic range, and distortion.

There is, however, an alternative. The Ring, Tristan und Isolde, the Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” are all available in restored form from Pristine Classical as CDs or as downloads in either the same 16-bit format used on the CDs or in superior 24-bit replicas of the final restored audio files, which can be downloaded to your computer for storage on a hard drive, optical disc, or whatever storage medium you choose. If you have been living with the limitations of the commercial releases for any time, you will be astonished at the improvement Andrew Rose, owner, producer, and restoration specialist, has achieved. A former BBC sound engineer, Rose has worked tirelessly to find and to develop on his own new solutions to the vices inherent in acoustic and electric 78s, magnetic tape, and LPs. But his primary tool is his exceptionally astute ear.

Pristine’s restorations, which are also made by other leading figures in the field, Mark Obert-Thorne and Ward Marston, are just that: restorations. Software and hardware are employed to modify the digital data converted from the best sources that can be found, until they recreate the closest approximation of what the engineers consider to be the sound produced by the musicians in the hall many years ago. This requires not only technical resources and skill, but research, a deep knowledge of music, and an ear, as well as taste and intelligence, which all these gentlemen possess in abundance. The restoration depends on the decisions of mere mortals, but in this case these decisions or in the best possible hands. The one weak link in the chain, is that these people usually do not have access to the original masters. Nonetheless, they have wrought near-miracles working with what they can get. Music-lovers owe these men tremendous gratitude for the way in which they have removed a barrier to the great performances of the past.

In the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, for example, Andrew Rose has filtered out noise, corrected and steadied the pitch, and improved the equalization, so that the sound is clearer, more present, and more open. Along with many formerly obscure nuances of attacks, dynamics, and phrasing, you can hear the immediate presence of the musicians. In Tristan, the Ring, and the “Pathétique” the improvement is astonishing. Anyone who doesn’t know or have these versions of these classic recordings will be thrilled with them.

One other milestone in Rose’s achievements this past year has been his restoration of Artur Schnabel’s complete recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, some of the variations, including the “Diabelli,” as well as the Bagatelles. Made from 1930 to 1938, these remain the essential statement of these central works. There have been other compelling recordings, many of them technically (in a pianistic sense) superior, but none have matched Schnabel’s for expressive immediacy, musical insight, and imagination. Schnabel’s eccentricities have always seemed a perfect match for Beethoven’s. Just as he was beginning this project Rose learned about new software which could aid in determining the correct pitch and correcting variations in it. The result is an uncanny steadiness of pitch, which was never heard in recordings until digital recording arrived. Schnabel’s Beethoven solo recordings are another absolute must, not there aren’t many others in the Pristine catalogue.

A Pristine Audio recording is the easiest gift you can possibly give, because you can either buy a gift certificate, or simply by the recording and e-mail the download to the recipient.

It is thought that the CD will disappear in about a year, with a few specialized exceptions. I, for one, will be happy to see them go. They are easy to drop and scratch, and they are ugly on the shelf. I prefer to buy and receive downloads, which I store on on a RAID array. One should have one or two backups beyond that, and there are various solutions, but if you lose a recording most companies will make replacement downloads available to you. We will publish more about this new way of acquiring and keeping recorded music in the near future.

Another company which takes advantage of this new technology to offer the absolute state of the art in contemporary recorded sound is Linn Records of Glasgow, a firm that makes high-end audio equipment as well. This will lead me to a group of recent Mozart recordings, which only a few curmudgeons will fail to appreciate.

Over the past few years, Linn have been recording Sir Charles Mackerras’ latest views on Mozart’s symphonies, played on period instrument by the matchless Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The recorded sound of this series has been astonishingly good, but for what sadly turned out to Sir Charles’ final recording, Linn outdid themselves, producing the finest digital sound I have heard, available in a variety of formats, beginning with MP3 and CDs on to the very best, 24bit FLAC files at 192kHz. These recordings consist of a group of Mozart’s earlier symphonies, Nos. 29 (K. 201), 31 (“Paris” K. 297), 32 (K. 318), 35 (“Haffner” K. 385) & 36 (“Linz” K. 425). The performances are brisk, robust, and finely honed, and the intimate recording space attempts to suggest what Mozart’s patrons would have heard at early performances. One should not live without these recordings by one of the great authorities on Mozartian performance practice, and in such amazing sound, not to mention his earlier set of the final symphonies.

While Sir Charles is sorely missed we live in great times for Mozart pianists. Over the past few years, a number of young pianists have approached his piano works with impressive insight and originality, and of course there are the old hands, like Mitsuko Uchida, who released a recording of K. 466 and K. 595 this year on Decca.

Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010. Photo Marco Borggreve.
Kristian Bezuidenhout 2010. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Without a doubt the most powerful and original mind in Mozart playing today is the South African period instrument specialist, Kristian Bezuidenhout. He has been pursuing research on Mozart’s manuscripts and published scores, as well as other relevant materials like notations and arrangements by Mozart’s pupils to arrive at a better understanding of his playing style. Mozart’s scores for pupils and other players are extensively and precisely marked for phrasing and dynamics, while the scores of works he played himself are almost devoid of markings. Bezuidenhout extrapolates from one class to elucidate the other. In the process, he has developed a unique sense of Mozart’s personality, both as a person and as a musician-composer (…and who could separate them?), and the character that emerges is rather more aggressive and eccentric than the Mozart of Meissen figurines and Mozartkugeln. Who can blame Bezuidenhout for focusing on the Fantasien, which originated in Mozart’s own improvisations? He has been busy recording for Harmonia Mundi this year, and I will list them all, although I have only heard the first. The third won’t be available until  January.

Harmonia Mundi, Volume I:

1. Fantasy for Piano in C minor, K 475
2. Sonata for Piano no 15 in F major, K 533
3. Variations (10) for Piano in G major on Gluck’s “Unser dummer Pöbel meint”, K 455
4. Sonata for Piano no 17 in B flat major, K 570

Harmonia Mundi, Volume II:
1. Sonata for Piano no 10 in C major, K 330 (300h)
2. Rondo for Piano no 3 in A minor, K 511
3. Rondo for Piano no 1 in D major, K 485
4. Adagio for Piano in B minor, K 540
5. Sonata for Piano no 14 in C minor, K 457

Harmonia Mundi, Volume III:
1. Variations (8) for Piano in F major on “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding”, K 613
2. Sonata for Piano no 13 in B flat major, K 333 (315c)
3. Sonata for Piano no 12 in F major, K 332 (300k)
4. Fantasia for Piano in C minor, K 396 (385f)

Some may find Bezuidenhout’s approach challenging, and of course there are still people who don’t appreciate the fortepiano, but these are the most important statements on Mozart playing in recent years, and one should be familiar with them, even if one rejects them—which would be a mistake, I think.

The young French pianist David Fray has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years and has received a great many rave reviews, to which I’ll add one more. His 2011 EMI release of Mozart’s Piano Concerti K. 482 and K. 503 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the amazing Jaap van Zweden is a must: the interpretations are subtle and deeply considered. Fray’s understanding of the music goes beyond his elegance and sensitivity to style: he plays ornaments impeccably—in the old style.

Vassily Primakov
Vassily Primakov

The small American label Bridge is one of the busiest, and there are many I could recommend enthusiastically, including any of Vassily Primakov’s recordings, but especially his ongoing series of Mozart piano concerti:

Vol. I (2010): 2 discs
Odense Symphony Orchestra, Scott Yoo, Conductor
1. Concerto for Piano no 24 in C minor, K 491 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2. Concerto for Piano no 25 in C major, K 503 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
3. Concerto for Piano no 26 in D major, K 537 “Coronation” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
4. Concerto for Piano no 27 in B flat major, K 595 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Vol. I (2011): 1 disc
Odense Symphony Orchestra, Simon Gaudenz, Conductor

1. Concerto for Piano no 11 in F major, K 413 (387a) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2. Concerto for Piano no 20 in D minor, K 466 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
3. Concerto for Piano no 21 in C major, K 467 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

These are immensely intelligent readings which combine the control and pointing of Alfred Brendel with the fluency, delicacy, and effervescence of a Gieseking. You will find yourself listening to them over and over again for subtle and surprising details in his interpretation.

Primakov is anything if not a brave musician, and he takes risks, even in recording. Some moments skirt eccentricity, but it is only the brilliant perception of a passing moment. I don’t believe that anyone will accuse him of affectation, as some did Alfred Brendel—an opinion with which I do not agree! At first I was a bit disappointed that the Odense Symphony is not the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or the Vienna Philharmonic, but the more one listens to them the fonder one becomes of their playing. Scott Yoo’s accompaniments are a bit laid-back, while those of Simon Gaudenz, tending to short phrases of historically informed playing, are more energetic, a necessary quality in the D Minor. Superb intimate, but  resonant recording.

Primakov’s disc of Rachmaninoff Preludes, recorded in the splendid acoustics of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, for which he played a gorgeous Bechstein instrument, also belongs on this list. I have already discussed it in my review of a Tannery Pond recital in which he played them—in an entirely different order!

Schumann’s Piano Trios are perhaps a bit rare for a Christmas gift, but you may well find that the EMI release with Leif Ove Andsness and Christian and Sonja Tetzlaff comes in handy for people with large collections. For my part, I just love it, and can’t recommend it more warmly. Reviewed here.

I can’t pass over one very recent chamber music release. Wu Han and David Finckel have joined forces with clarinettist David Shifrin in a program built around Brahms’ great Clarinet Trio, Op. 112, which includes Beethoven’s Op. 11 Trio in B Flat and four of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83. They produce and distribute their recordings themselves on their own label, Artist Led, working with the brilliant engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, who is himself an excellent musician. Like the other Artist Led releases, the sound is of audiophile quality, immediate, but warmly resonant, also made at the Academy.

No list of best recordings could be taken seriously without something from Nicolas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Although there are others, I will choose the disc of three Haydn symphonies recorded live: Nos. 88, 101 (“Clock”), and 104 (“London”). Balances, voice leading, the balance between the lyrical and the jolly are all just right in these performances. Almost no conductor achieves this in the “London” which is replete with subtle shifts of key and mood. I have always taken refuge in Otto Klemperer’s studio recording, and now McGegan’s can take a place beside it. Actually it has rather more going for it.

There could be many others, including some, I suspect, which haven’t come into my hands yet.

Finally, on a lighter note, there is perhaps the perfect gift for anyone, the legendary 1960 Decca recording of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. The cast includes such Vienna Staatsoper greats as Hilde Gueden, Erika Köth, Waldemar Kmentt, Walter Berry, and Erich Kunz. In this Peter Rose of Pristine Classical has turned his attention to a stereo recording which has always been regarded as one of the best of its time, and a benchmark in the development of opera recording. Through all the effort of creating a sonic space that was intended to be the auditory analogue of a staged production, as if it were an elaborate radio play, the singers and Karajan managed to maintain the electricity of a live performance. Karajan was at his very best in this, vital and even humorous, still in what I consider his golden age, the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rose has found that the Decca release was sharp and has adjusted the A downwards. He has steadied the pitch variations and opened up the sound, so that the singers are even more immediate and rich in tone than they were on the already excellent LPs—one of the first recordings I acquired when I was first discovering classical music. I listened to it until I couldn’t stand J. Strauss anymore, only to come back to him and his family years later. I am delighted to revisit the old treasure in this splendid form.

I fear this may mean that Andrew has a Solti Ring in store for us. I’ve never been an admirer of Solti’s aggressive, showy way with Wagner, but it is an important document. If you need a stereo Ring, I recommend Böhm’s Bayreuth performance. Otherwise there is the great Janowski recording, soon to be supplemented by a series of concert performances on the Pentatone label, which will include all ten of the mature music dramas. Janowski’s already released Flying Dutchman should be on this list, but I have not heard all of it yet. Still, Rose needs to attend to Furtwängler’s La Scala Ring first, a recording that desperately needs his ministrations!

And one DVD/Blu-Ray

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ landmark performance of Lully’s Atys (reviewed here) has been videorecorded by François Roussillon on a very high level. If you give that to someone who has seen it in the house, they will probably take it to bed with them.

From Lully's Atys, Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, directed by Jean-Marie Villégier.
From Lully's Atys, Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, directed by Jean-Marie Villégier.

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