A Crop of Recordings XXIII: Barenboim’s Brahms, Orozco-Estrada’s Strauss, Szell’s Walton and Stravinsky

If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.

The Devil, Greed, War, and Simple Goodness: Ostrčil’s Jack’s Kingdom (1934)

Otakar Ostrčil was a prominent Czech composer who has fallen into obscurity. His dates, 1879-1935, span a key moment in the history of Central Europe, for it was in 1918 that the Czech lands became part of the new country of Czechoslovakia, independent of Austrian rule. In the preceding decades, Czech writers and artists had often attempted to define a national identity for themselves, as can be heard in many works of Smetana and Dvořák.

LACI BOLDEMANN’S SVART ÄR VITT SA KEJSARN (BLACK IS WHITE, SAID THE EMPEROR): A FAMILY-FRIENDLY FABLE FROM SWEDEN (1965)

We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges(which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”), which has recently been blessed by two astounding new recordings (conducted by, respectively, Stéphane Denève and Mikko Franck).At the present site I have recently reviewed a very engaging Czech opera by Otakar Ostrčil, based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.

The Landmarks of Chopin’s Development as a Composer, 1827-1846

In preparing a review of last year’s Bard Music Festival, Chopin and his World, I was especially struck by the ability of a festival to present his oeuvre in such a way that the audience could clearly perceive the course of his development as a composer. Jim Samson, one of the preeminent Chopin scholars, I found, had an especially convincing view of his development, which he published in his The Music of Chopin (London, Boston, 1985). The organizers of the Board Festival presented a rather different selection of Chopin’s works, which was nonetheless valid. I still thought it worthwhile to put together musical illustrations to Professor Samson’s outline of the points de repère, the landmarks of Chopin’s development. In my review I suggest that an extra concert devoted to Chopin might fill some gaps. This offering, with multiple performances of some of the works, is more of a Chopin orgy than a concert, but you can listen anywhere and pick and choose.

A Crop of Recordings XX: Gardner Read, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, and Pfitzner

If you ever wondered who stole a Paderewski Prize from under the nose of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, here is the culprit, and here is the work that did it. It’s better than you think. Gardner Read (1913-2005) seems to have been one of those composers who wins competitions and gets punished by history for it. His music skirts the wild edges of the safe and known. Dismissed by Copland as “too romantic,” Read has largely been forgotten.You can find three of his symphonies on YouTube. But although the composer lived until his nineties in Manchester-by-the Sea, Massachusetts, I had never heard a note of his music before curiosity about the Second Symphony drove me to the bizarrely wonderful and nightmarish work it turned out to be.

A Flood of Unfamiliar Operas by Rossini, Saint-Saëns, and Others, Now on CD

Over the past year or so (2017), an unusually large number of fascinating and rarely performed operas were made available, mostly for the first time ever, on CD.

NewYorkArts/Berkshire Review for the Arts has asked me to share some of my delighted discoveries from this flood of new arrivals, as well as—in separate articles—my (rather lengthy and detailed!) reviews of two contrasting operas that seem to me particularly worthy of discovery:

A Master Already at 23: Vincenzo Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, Now Superbly Recorded

This past year, I was privileged to get to review a flood of wonderful CD releases of little-known operas. I summarize my impressions of fifteen of these in a separate article here. But I feel that two of these unfamiliar works deserve special discussion because the quality of the music—and its dramatic applicability—so surprised me: the recent adaptation of the beloved novel Jane Eyre, by a composer I had never heard of, John Joubert; and, the work discussed below: Bellini’s first opera, composed during his last year as a conservatory student and already showing remarkable mastery.

Indeed, there were not one but two big discoveries for me in this CD recording: Bellini’s first opera (here receiving its first fully adequate recording) but also and Enea Scala (seen at left in the photo above), a splendid, heroic high tenor who can perform the extensive coloratura fluently.

A Brilliant, Touching Adaptation: John Joubert’s Opera Jane Eyre, Finally (and Finely) Performed and Recorded

I had never heard a note by John Joubert (1927- ) before. Critics have often praised his works for organ and for chorus. Several of his hymns and carols are widely known. Joubert, I have now learned, was born in South Africa but received his training in England and has made his long and continuing career there, mainly in Birmingham. (His last name comes from a French Huguenot ancestor.)

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