I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Monumental Schubert from Harnoncourt and the Berliner

Franz Schubert:
Symphony #1 in D Major, D 82
Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, D 125
Symphony #3 in D Major, D 200
Symphony #4 in C minor “Tragic”, D 417
Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, D 485
Symphony #6 in C Major, D 589
Symphony #7 in B minor “Unfinished”, D 759
Symphony #8 in C Major “Great”, D 944
Mass #5 in A Flat Major, D 678 *

Luba Orgonášová, soprano
Birgit Remmert, contralto
Kurt Streit, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Mass #6 in E Flat Major, D 950 *
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano
Bernarda Fink, contralto
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Christian Elsner, tenor
Christian Gerhaher, bass
Alfonso und Estrella, D 732 (Opera in 3 Acts) *
Dorothea Röschmann (Estrella)
Kurt Streit (Alfonso)
Christian Gerhaher (Froila)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Mauregato)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Adolfo)

* Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Bonus video – Nikolaus Harnoncourt in conversation
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR150061 8CD+Blu-ray [Full HD 16:9, Region Code: ABC (worldwide)]

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

Franz Schubert from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

To mark Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 85th birthday, as much as the successful cooperation between the Austrian conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic during some 25 years, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings (BPHR), the orchestra’s own label, releases a monumental Schubert box-set, including all the symphonies, two late Masses and the virtually unknown opera Alfonso und Estrella. Recorded in concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie between 2003 and 2006 and spread over eight CDs and one Blu-ray disc, this deluxe edition arrives in a lavish box, designed like last year’s Schumann/Rattle cycle from BPHR as a beautiful but hard-to-store landscape-sized book. (The discs are available separately as well for download on Qobuz in Studio Master quality and on iTunes and Amazon in low-res AAC and MP3.)

The Blu-ray disc contains all the music in PCM 2.0 Stereo 24-bit/48kHz as well as in 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit/48kHz), plus a 38-minute interview with the conductor (from 2014) about his passion for Schubert and his work with the Berliner. The box also offers a code for free download of the high resolution audio files of the whole edition and a seven-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, the Berliner’s video streaming venue. A 104-page book (in German and English) guides the listener through the music with articles, commentary from Harnoncourt, and the libretto of the opera and the masses texts.

The trouble, so to speak, for this new Schubert edition is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt already left us an outstanding, hard-to-beat Schubert Symphonies cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam back in 1992 (on Warner/Teldec, now available as a bargain box-set of four CDs). Needless to say, Harnoncourt’s insightful style, the incisive combination of timbres and vibrant textural analysis of the music, and above all his understanding of Schubert’s particular Viennese lyricism, remain in a class of their own. Harnoncourt sees the confrontation of the dancelike vitality with the sense of grief and ever-present nearness of death, a reflection of the so-called Viennese ‘joie de vivre’ at the edge of the grave, as the principal expressive level in Schubert’s music. The extraordinary array of dynamic inflections, harmonic shifts and energized rhythms he reveals prove hugely original and place even the earliest symphonies, often disparaged when seen from the perspective of the famous two last ones, on a higher level. Moreover, the Berliners have throughout the years just as successfully as their colleagues from the Concertgebouw adapted to Harnoncourt’s approach, especially in a time when historical performance practice was anything but taken for granted by a conventional formation.

Still, there is no denying that Harnoncourt is overall less consistent and persuasive in the new Berlin set. The message of sadness is hammered home a bit too emphatically. Take the lovely Andante of the First Symphony which in Amsterdam delicately changed its prevalent poetic mood by alternating major and minor tonalities, becomes in Berlin a pretty anguished piece from start to finish. The sound has somewhat thickened too (although the recording and venue might be partly to blame) and above all the natural flow which was quite miraculously handled in the older recordings is now more often sacrificed to mannered phrasing and tempo shifts (the Scherzo of the “Great” C Major is a prime example). In some cases the balances between movements as well as inside the movements themselves were better judged in the Amsterdam traversal. There are first-rate renditions of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, but Harnoncourt’s tempi frequently slowed down – as for example in the Menuetti of the Second and Fifth symphonies, sounding weightier in their Allegro sections and blurring the contrast with the respective Trios. More worrying is however the ultra-slow “Unfinished” (the Allegro moderato runs 2:20 min longer than in Amsterdam) and while Harnoncourt knows better than anybody how to defend his approach, the ponderous and massive pre-Brucknerian quality he suggests here won’t be to everybody’s taste. The two first movements of the C Major (called here the Eighth as Harnoncourt uses the New Schubert Edition) no longer flow as easily either with over-emphasized accents and moments of indulgence – and truth be told the Berlin woodwinds and brass are simply outgunned here by their Dutch colleagues in sheer character. Climaxes are more theatrical but less subtle (as in the Allegro ma non troppo of the opening movement). The Finale is excitingly driven, but all in all the older Concertgebouw “Great” C Major remains preferable.

The two last Masses are definitely worth having and performed here with tremendous dramatic fervor and a genuine sense of awe. These are extraordinary works, most likely composed out of impulse, according to the conductor even as efforts to come to terms with death – once you heard the dark-colored sonorities of the Kyrie of the E-flat Major, you’ll understand what he means. Harnoncourt’s transposition of period manners into a traditional environment worked tremendously well here and succeeds in bringing out the originality of much of the writing, combining incisive choral singing, superb orchestral parts – and some remarkable solo singing from Dorothea Röschmann, Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Elsner in the et incarnatus est and the Benedictus of the 6th Mass.

Equally rewarding is Schubert’s 1822 opera Alfonso und Estrella, which never found a place in the repertory (and was actually premiered by Franz Liszt in 1854 as an “act of reverence”). Unconventionally written, a reaction against the standard Italian opera pattern which ruled Vienna at the time, Alfonso und Estrella may be hard to stage in the theatre but on disc it’s foremost a small treasure trove of melodic invention, while Harnoncourt makes the utmost of the orchestration. It’s well sung, too, although Jonas Kaufmann would have been preferable to Kurt Streit in the role of Alfonso.

The Berlin Philharmonic offers playing of warmth and virtuosity yet is not particularly well served by the recording, which lack presence, bite and naturalness of timbre. In this respect, too, the older Teldec box remains unsurpassed.

Bottom line is that no real Schubert enthusiast will probably want to be without this box, even if it is something of a mixed blessing when it comes to the Symphonies. Those in possession of the older Concertgebouw set needn’t put that one too far away. Remakes of complete symphonies cycles are apparently much like movie remakes; they are only very rarely better than the original attempt.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/b/bpr50061a.php


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Pictures from Alice Sara Ott

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (Op. 53)

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 4790088 DDD

Alice Sara Ott

Pictures from Alice Sara Ott

For Alice Sara Ott playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition is like visiting an old friend. In the liner notes of her new CD called “Pictures”, she recalls how she was able to familiarize herself with the work during her student years at the Salzburg Mozarteum. I have heard her perform the Pictures on a couple of occasions in concert and there is no doubt she inhabits Mussorgsky’s various tableaux with confidence as well as insight. The current CD was recorded live during the White Night’s Festival in St. Petersburg in July 2012, where the sense of occasion was undoubtedly enhanced by the challenge to perform this quintessential Russian work before a Russian audience.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Complete Schubert Symphonies

Franz Schubert:
Symphony #1 in D Major, D. 82 (1813)
Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, D. 125 (1815)
Symphony #3 in D Major, D. 200 (1815)
Symphony #4 “Tragic” in C minor, D. 417 (1816)
Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, D. 485 (1816)
Symphony #6 “Little” in C Major, D. 589 (1818)
Symphony #7 (8) “Unfinished” in B minor, D. 759 (1822)
Symphony #8 (9) “Great” in C Major, D. 944 (1828)

Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Naïve V5299 4CDs DDD 3:38

Marc Minkowski plays Schubert

Complete Schubert Symphonies

Marc Minkowski founded Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble 30 years ago. Under his direction the orchestra developed into one of the foremost period instrument formations of the day, focusing on Baroque, Classical and Romantic vocal and orchestral repertoire. Coinciding with their 30th anniversary they released the complete Franz Schubert Symphonies cycle on the French Naïve label. The project was filmed and recorded live at the Vienna Konzerthaus by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) in March of this year.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Franz Schubert: Symphony #1; Symphony #9
Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 September 2012

Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble have embarked on an ambitious Schubert symphonies cycle (available as 4CD set on Naïve V5299). As most period-performance specialists Minkowski gradually ventured from the Baroque into the Classical, and now the early-Romantic era. Earlier this year he recorded with his ensemble the eight symphonies in Vienna for CD release and currently tours different concert venues across Europe. In Brussels I caught a performance of the First and Ninth Symphonies, as part of the Flemish radio music festival (Klarafestival) which offered the full cycle spread over three different cities.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Alice Sara Ott Exhibits

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Variations on a Theme by Duport
Franz Schubert: Sonata #17 in D Major, Op. 53 (D. 850)
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Alice Sara Ott, piano
Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, 31 July 2012

Alice Sara Ott isn’t afraid of challenges. This summer the German-Japanese pianist came up with a hefty recital program that at first glance looked quite unusual for her (having ventured so far mainly in Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt territory), pairing two monumental but very different works – the Schubert D major sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet for a pianist who used to perform the full set of Liszt’s Etudes d’exécution transcendante in concert no mountain is too high to climb. After performances at the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and at Verbier, she repeated the Schubert-Mussorgsky tour de force at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on July 31.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Volodos in Brussels

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata #16 in A minor, D. 784
Johannes Brahms: 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Arcadi Volodos, piano
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 11 October 2011

With the previous week’s media attention and box-office success of Lang Lang fresh in mind, the concert hall in the Brussels’ Bozar/Centre for Fine Arts looked sadly empty with only two-thirds of the seats taken for the Arcadi Volodos recital. While 39-year old Volodos is at least as much the jaw-dropping technician, we know he doesn’t come to town with the extra-musical gigs that the Chinese superstar package contains. And even if his pianism doesn’t eschew the occasional bit of ostentation either, it hasn’t become oddball. Volodos’ stage manner is unassuming and ritualistically simple. After each piece he can be seen standing behind the piano, arms crossed in front, sharing a timid but content smile and a stiff bow. All through the concert stage and piano remain in pure Sviatoslav Richter-style sparsely lit while the hall is bathing in darkness. But it is Volodos who sheds the light for the evening with his playing, or rather the light in all its shades ranging from solar brightness to abysmal darkness.
Read the full review on Classical Net