Review of 2012: CDs, DVDs and BDs

bannerWho says classical music recording industry is dying? Being an active listener and reviewer, 2012 was a busy year as usual for me. My time was only enough for a very small fragment of the universe. Nor have I got the chance to hear many of the top-charters as reviewed here, here, here, here and here. And not to mention The Grammy.

But I was a diligent record reviewer for the year. So I shall share some of the most memorable recordings that I heard and videos that I saw in 2012.

Leonard Bernstein: The Rite of Spring and Sibelius Symphony No. 5
ICA Classics ICAD 5082 | DVD

ICA Classics ICAD-5082Lenny was the one who got me deep into classical music. As I grow older and older, I would sometimes find his music quite over-reacting. May be I am growing more and more introverted.

And then it was Lenny who brightened me up again.

My first recording on Igor Stravinsky’s monumental Le sacre du printemps is a recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. That is a highly-charged, motivated, but not quite perfect performance. It gradually gives way to the precise Pierre Boulez, or the gargantuous Valery Gergiev. Here Bernstein is pictured doing this with the London Symphony Orchestra. This is somehow quite a rare thing to see, performing Le sacre in the sixties. You may safely expect imperfections. From 1966 to now, orchestras worldwide must have been practising Le sacre pretty hard to get it much more perfect than it was.

It is the Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony the most heart-wrenching. Bernstein was at his best in musical sensitivities and liberties, dramatising it to the extreme. The victory in the end is somehow a bitter one, after some unexpected turbulences of the previous movements. Unlike his more reserved 1980s recordings, this Sibelius Fifth is less natural but much more thrilling and powerful. The musical narrative is exhaustingly attractive, with so much to see in the surface and so much to feel beneath the turbulence.

ICA Classics has put up a trailer with the beginning of the third movement which, in my opinion, is just a little teaser. You must get to see the whole thing.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and 5; The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra / Jan Willem de Vriend
Challenge Classics 0608917236422 | SACD

Challenge Classics | 0608917236422We lack no Beethoven symphonies. How many have you got in your rack? And how often would you find it surprisingly fresh when hearing a newly released Beethoven symphony?

Here comes a challenger. Jan Willem de Vriend.

Twenty-twelve was a year with at least three sets of complete Beethoven symphonies release. I heard praises from my fellow reviewers on the Christian Thielemann set with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Then I reviewed the Daniel Barenboim rendition with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as part of his Beethoven for All project. Then I heard this one.

The most interesting thing on this recording is: it challenges the border of contemporary performance practices. The symphony here is played with a historically-informed performance narrative — articulation crisp and refined, vibrato reduced, tempi raised, timpani bouncingly hard and the horn accented but unsustained. The instruments used, however, are absolutely modern. Folks at jokes that “a random excerpt test could fool any expert” in mixing up them with a period ensemble.

There is a trend of new recordings with increasingly “historically-informedness” (okay that’s my creation) — Emmanuel Pahud plays Bach’s flute sonata and Han-na Chang plays Vivaldi’s cello concertos, just to name two that impress me the most with the possibility of modern instrument crossing over musical touches that are not that modern. And there’s a reason for Mr. de Vriend to do so — he is a director of an Amsterdam period ensemble. Have I mentioned that Amsterdam is the capital of early music, by the way?

However, this recording transcends the arbitrary border of “historically-informedness.” The border simply doesn’t exist. Every technical decisions are made for the music, and they come together naturally so for a cause. It is not only refreshing to hear Beethoven this way, but quite enlightening. It is a challenge to our preconception of every single Beethoven symphony.

I have yet a chance to hear the complete symphony, but surely this is on my wish list. And there’s one (the fourth cycle of 2012) on my wish list too, one that is truly HIP: Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.

Music is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons
C major 709708 | BD

Mariss Jansons: Music is the language of heart and soulIt is advertised as the only documentary Mariss Jansons has done. Filmed by Robert Neumüller, the documentary sees Mr. Jansons talking, walking through the historic city of Riga and revisiting the old places in St. Petersburg.

Suddenly there’s a sense of rue — Mr. Jansons was a conductor of younger generation when I first indulged into classical music. The silvery hair master looking out the open Baltic Sea is a picture full of impact.

Mr. Jansons is pictured as a humble musician who has worked hard in his whole life, from the student life of St. Petersburg Conservatory to tackling the busy rehearsals. There is a bonus feature in this documentary: the Mahler Resurrection Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as featured in the trailer below.


Rachmaninov: Complete Piano Concertos / Leif Ove Andnes
EMI 3193852 | 4CDs

EMI 5099931938525This is a compilation release of the concertos that were released earlier.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’ superb balance of sensitivity and power is in full display in these concertos. Less refreshing than the Beethoven symphonies that I mentioned earlier, this is still an enlightening read of the oft-heard, if not overplayed, concertos.

Okay, not all of them are overplayed. The fourth, a late concerto that was overshadowed by the gorgeous third, here is played cheeringly, and Mr. Andsnes seems to have grasped the way to laid the difficult concerto out in plain way. He asks us to focus on the melody that are carefully crafted and toned. Forget about how the music wanders around; fix your eyes on the beauties.

Mr. Andsnes is a rare talent in displaying the virtuosity of the music with a glamourous fare yet not sacrifice the music with emptiness.

The eloquence of second has recalled my emotional outburst after first hearing it many years back. It is a very touching performance.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Mahler Symphonies 1–10; TotenfeierDas Lied von der Erde
9401-9410 | 11 BDs

RCO Mahler Live BlurayThis is certainly one of the most important video releases of Mahler’s complete symphonies.

All the performances are good. Not all of them are interesting enough for Mahlerites’ eyebrows, but they are all good accounts, and there are marvelous moments in many of them. Generally I like Iván Fischer’s heartened fourth and Mariss Jansons’ intense third. Pierre Boulez’s seventh is quite a strange read on this strange symphony; it differs so much to his recorded seventh with the Cleveland Orchestra. Lorin Maazel’s sixth is disappointingly loose. Bernard Haitink’s ninth is sourly beautiful.

There are two rarities in this collection where you cannot find anywhere except in this collection: the complete Deryck Cooke’s tenth by Eliahu Inbal, and Totenfeier by Fabio Luisi.

If you have got the above-mentioned documentary of Mariss Jansons: congratulations, you have the same recording on two different sets of videos.

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta / Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.572486 | CD

Naxos 8.572486Talking about disappointment: Marin Alsop seldom fails me, but I have quite some reservations on this one.

Ms. Alsop is not one who often delivers radically different account on oft-recorded works. Her interpretations are candidly solid; she has great attention to musical details, yet she has not lost an eyesight on the music’s plan and structure. She is not one to please ears with excitement but with refinement and reason.

However, this Bartók is a very reserved performance, a performance that is way too cool. Concerto for Orchestra can be an orchestral showpiece; it demands individual virtuosity and total integrity. It is also a light-hearted work: consider the jokes by quoting other’s music that Bartók makes it quite deliberately (and quite messily). The burlesque character is evident. Ms. Alsop, however, suppresses the outburst and remains cautiously cool all the way through. It is neither too showy, and neither too joyful. It is rather plain.

My complain applies mainly to the Concerto; the coolness is quite justified for a work as intellectual as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which demands a certain level of clarity among dense counterpoint and crazy tone clusters. It is not an interpretation with vigour, though, that this piece may have been displayed. It is a solid performance, but certainly there are better recordings out there (Boulez on Sony resurfaced, and this is one of the great ones).

Beethoven: Pathétique, Moonlight, Appassionata / Yundi
DGG 476 5049 | CD

DGG 476 5049And finally, Yundi.

After interviewing the pianist and writing the interview (in Chinese), I have repeatedly, in private, discussed with my close friends about my cloudy uneasiness on the pianist.

“We lack no Beethoven symphonies,” and we lack no Beethoven sonatas either. Having said that, it is not a mandatory requirement for an artist to surpass whoever paramount figures in making a new Beethoven recording; nor is it a must to establish one’s own voice on Beethoven in the making of one recording.

However, as a classical music consumer, there should be a point acquiring a new recording of Beethoven sonatas, given that this is not likely the first disc on a consumer’s rack. I haven’t counted mine, but there should be more than a handful. With Yundi doing only three: PathétiqueMoonlight and Appassionata, the crash is unavoidable. It takes some time for him to establish himself as a respectable Beethoven interpreter.

Yundi dropped a previous announced venture of recording complete Chopin piano work by signing himself to EMI. Before that he changed course from a successful, highly personal performance of Prokofiev’s second concerto by leaving the DG. Now he changes his course again.

That’s only a single recording. May be he is not changing his course, you may argue. So, what is his course? After the talking to me, the answer of this question was not quite apparent.

The recording here is a proficient reading of the three most championed sonatas. He has maintained tasteful touches to the themes; he has brought in adequate tension to move the music forward, his fingers dextrous in rendering the monstrous passages at ease.  However,  Yundi’s natural introversy and shyness is evidently battling with a dramatic display he wishes himself to attain.

It remains to be heard if he is dealing with some other sonatas that are less fiery at the surface but deeper in musical meaning. This recording is far from making him truly unique. It lacks a unique view on Beethoven. Talking about uniqueness, I would go for András Schiff, and the more recently completed Paul Lewis.

And Yundi needs to work extraordinarily hard after this release to make his voice unique among the many pianists out there.

There is another Review of 2012 article in my blog, please click here for a review of last year’s concert.

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