Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bernard Haitink: Symphony Edition and The Philips Years

Decca 478 5671 (20-disc box set) (2013)
Bernard Haitink: The Philips Years
works of Andriessen, Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner, Debussy, Dvorak,
Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Mozart, Ravel, Schubert, Smetena,
R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Takemitzu, and Wagner
Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw/London PO/Vienna PO/Boston SO et al.

Decca 478 6360 (36-disc box set) (2014)
Bernard Haitink: The Symphony Edition
complete symphonic cycles by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner,
Mahler, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky
Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Discophiles, musicologists, and critics will undoubtedly have their debates about Bernard Haitink's place in the pantheon of 20th-century conductors for decades to come, and only the long hindsight of history will properly sort out his significance. In the meantime, it is, I think, fair--nor would it be stretching a point-- to say that Haitink is among the most remarkable and consistently engaging conductors of the past fifty years. His recorded performances are unfailingly fine; brilliantly understated, technically impeccable, exquisitely detailed, probing, revelatory, moving and memorable. An interpreter with a musical Midas-touch, his readings of Brahms, Bruckner, Debussy, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky (among others) have attained a rarefied reputation, and still remain easily among the first-choice recommendations for much of the standard repertory. These two recent box sets from Decca, marking Haitink's eighty-fifth birthday in 2014, offer a broad, tantalizing overview of the great Dutch conductor's  compelling artistry, together making a perfect introduction to one of the truly magnificent recorded legacies of our time.

Both sets are sturdily packaged in heavy, attractively laminated cardboard. Discs are individually sleeved in stiff--but not overly snug-- cardboard jackets, all reiterating the box-cover illustration on the front, with titles, track numbers and basic artist information on the back. Track timings and recording data are included in the large semi-glossy booklets accompanying the set. (The booklet in my copy of  The Symphony Edition was missing eighteen of its pages; a few other pages were bound out of order, and several showed up twice.)

Re-mastered sound is consistently superb--as listeners have come to expect from these Decca retrospective sets. Levels vary somewhat from disc to disc; the Mahler cycle in The Symphonies Edition (SE) was transferred at an annoyingly low level, necessitating a rather substantial rightward twist of the volume knob. (Admittedly, once properly amplified, the sound of these performances is nothing short of breathtaking.) I did not notice the same problem with the two Mahler symphonies included in The Philips Years (TPY).

Somewhat perplexing, too, is the SE transfer engineer's irritating habit of splitting up some of the symphonies across discs (Bruckner's  #1, Mahler's #2, #6 and #9), which is neither necessary or desirable. The same recordings of the Mahler #6 and #9 both comfortably occupy single discs in the TPY set, and the "Resurrection" might easily have been accommodated on a disc of its own in the SE had the Adagio from Symphony #10 simply been coupled with the "Titan" (#1) on Disc 19. But this is, at worst, a small-ish complaint.

There is relatively little overlap from one set to the other. Points of duplication include: Brahms Symphony #3 from 1970; Bruckner Symphony #8 from 1970; Mahler Symphony #6 (1969), and #9 (1970); Tchaikovsky Symphony #1 "Winter Dreams" (1980) and Symphony #2 "Little Russian" (1978). The Symphony Edition features the superb analog Bruckner Symphony #3 (1877 version) from 1964, and #9 from 1966, while The Philips Years includes the early digital recording of #9 from 1982, and the 1989 reading of #3. The Beethoven symphonies included in the TPY box are the earlier 1977 readings with the London Philharmonic as opposed to the equally fine 80s-era recordings with the Concertgebouw in the SE.

The performances themselves are uniformly outstanding, revealing--especially in the Concertgebouw recordings-- the conductor's deep rapport with his orchestra, a studied understatement which allows detail to emerge from even the most complex score while eloquently elucidating structure and line. The quintessential Haitink interpretation is distinguished by the conductor's ability to achieve just the right degree of emphasis on each note and phrase--no more, no less-- lending the music precisely the momentum necessary to maintain structural cohesion and listener interest, while never drawing attention away from the composer's vision. Listen, for example, to the sublime opening bars of Brahms' Symphony #2 where the three-note figure in the bass gently propels the gossamer melodic statement in the horns and strings, like surface tension on water. Note, too, the unmistakably powerful--but never bombastic or distorted-- reading of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. This interpretive approach effectively opens up dazzling new vistas in pieces by Mahler and Liszt, composers whose work--under the batons of less-thoughtful "showboat" conductors-- so often comes off as pompous, overblown, or exaggerated to the point of caricature. Yet, listening to Haitink's recordings, one is enlightened--gobsmacked!-- by the depth, subtlety, and sheer endearing musicality of these works, as if hearing them for the very first time.

In fairness, it is true that Haitink's "laid-back"--some might say "self-effacing"-- approach is not always equally effective. His Schumann is good, but hardly great, and his Tchaikovsky, while lithe, luminous and gorgeously detailed, sometimes lacks the last full measure of drama and power. (I would give the laurel to Mariss Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos along with the classic recordings of Pierre Monteux for RCA, with Haitink a still very respectable second runner up.)

It seems fashionable nowadays to complain about what these retrospective albums leave out, as opposed to celebrating what they include. Yes, it would have been wonderful--albeit very possibly cost-prohibitive--for Decca to  have shoehorned Haitink's landmark Shostakovich cycle with the Concertgebouw and LPO into the SE box. Then, too, I would have liked more of the fabulous readings of Struass tone poems in the TPY set, including the 1978 Don Quixote and Also sprach Zarathustra from 1974. In any case, I strongly urge Decca to get to work on a dedicated box of Haitink's Strauss as soon as possible!

Muted grumbles aside, both sets are highly recommended, especially as they compliment one another so well, and, side by side, offer a colorful and compelling portrait of a truly great musical artist.

The Philips Years

Where known, I have included information about original LP releases and re-issues. To the best of my knowledge, at least a few of these recordings were initially available only in Europe, and some did not appear in the American market until after the advent of compact discs in the early 1980s.

Bartok: Concerto for Violin #2
Henryk Szeryng (violin)/CBW (recorded 1961)
Concerto for Orchestra
CBW (recorded 1970)
(LP: Philips 6500 021 (1970))
[Still probably the finest-ever recorded performance of Bartok's Violin Concerto #2]

Beethoven: Concerto for Piano, Violin & Cello in C major Op. 56
Beaux Art Trio/LPO
(Philips 9500 382) (1977)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61
Herman Krebbers/CBW
(LP: Philips 6599 851 (1975))
[not to be confused with the Szeryng/CBW performance of Op. 61
(LP: Philips 6500 531)]

Beethoven: Symphony #1 in C major Op. 21
Symphony #3 in E-flat major Op. 55 "Eroica"
(recorded 1977)

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45
Gundula Janowitz/Tom Krause/Vienna PO & Konzertverein
(recorded 1980)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod
VPO (recorded 1975)
Bruckner: Symphony #3 in d minor (1877 version)
CBW (recorded 1989) [not to be confused with the earlier analog recording (Philips 835 217 (1964)]
[An inspired pairing of music by Wagner and the composer who was, perhaps, his most enthusiastic disciple.]

Bruckner: Symphony #8 in c minor (1890 version)
(LP: Philips 6700 020 (1970) [not to be confused with the digital LP (Philips 6769 050 (1981)]
[The 1970 reading is one of the great Bruckner recordings of all time]

Bruckner: Symphony #9 in d minor
(digital LP: Philips 6514 191 (1982))
[Somewhat disappointing in its original issue, due in part to exaggerated sonics and less-than-stellar mastering, a  better understanding of the technology and recent transfer techniques reveals this to be a very fine recording indeed]

Debussy: Nocturnes; Jeux
CBW/Collegium Musicum Amsterdam
(LP: Philips 9500 674) (1980)
La Mer; Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faun
(LP: Philips 9500 359 (1977))
[These late-analog recordings sound better than ever, especially the 1980 Nocturnes]

Dvorak: Symphony #7 in d minor Op. 70
CBW (recorded 1961)
Smetena: Ma Vlast; The Moldau
CBW (recorded 1962)
Schubert: Symphony #8 in b minor D 759 "Unfinished"
(LP: Philips 9500 099 (1976) (coupled with Schubert Symphony #5))
[What a joy to hear Haitink's beautiful Schubert readings again. The lovely 1976 "Great" C major is also included here on DISC 15]

Liszt: Piano Concerto #1 in E-flat major
Piano Concerto #2 in A major
Totentanz; Mephisto Waltz #1
Alfred Brendel/LPO (recorded 1972)
Les Préludes
LPO (recorded 1969)
[Haitink and Brendel elucidate a musical substance far beyond the kind of shallow virtuosity one usually expects in this repertory]

Mahler: Symphony #6 in a minor
(LP: Philips 6700 049 (1969))
[In highlighting details often hidden or overlooked by those more interested in the work's heavier, melodramatic elements, Haitink convincingly reveals the Sixth as a kind of maturely dark reflection of the youthful, sunny Third. A truly great performance, marvelously recorded]

Mahler: Symphony #9 in D major
(LP: Philips 6700 021 (1970))

Mozart: Overtures K 620, 527, 588, 492, 366, 384, 621, 486, 135
LPO (recorded 1981)
Haydn: Symphony #99 in E-flat major
CBW (recorded 1965)
(LP re-issue Philips (Festiva) 6570 083)

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet)
Boston SO/Tanglewood Festival Chorus
(recorded 1990)
Alborada del gracioso; La Valse
(LP: Philips 9500 347 (Alborada) and Philips 9500 314 (La Valse) (1977))

Haydn: Symphony #96 in D major
CBW (recorded 1965)
(LP re-issue Philips (Festiva) 6570 083)
Schubert: Symphony #9 in C major "The Great"
(LP: Philips 9500 097 (1976))

R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op. 40
Herman Krebbers (violin)/CBW
(LP: Philips 6500 048 (1970))
Tod und Verklärung Op. 24
(recorded 1983)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor Op. 64
(recorded 1960)
Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in g minor Op. 26
(recorded 1962)
Arthur Grumiaux/CBW

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #1 in g minor "Winter Dreams"
Symphony #2 in c minor "Little Russian"
(LP (box set) Philips 6768 267 (1980))

Wagner: Preludes to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Parsifal; Lohengrin (Acts 1 and 2)
(LP: Philips 6500 932 (1975))
Brahms: Symphony #3 in F major Op. 90
(LP: Philips 6500 155 (1970))

Andriessen: Symphonic Etude
(recorded 1960)
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite
(recorded 1963)
Takemitsu: November Steps
Messiaen: Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum
(recorded 1970)

The Symphony Edition
All of these cycles have been issued separately on CD in a series of Philips box sets from the mid-1990s (catalog prefix 442-). Where known, I have included information about previous CD re-issues as well as 60s-70s-era LP releases.
Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9:
Overture to "Egmont" Op. 84
(recorded 1987-88)

Beethoven: The Symphonies
Philips 442-073-2 (5-disc box set) (1994)
Brahms: Symphonies 1-4;
Tragic Overture:
Academic Festival Overture
Haydn Variations;
Serenades 1-2; Hungarian Dances 1, 3, 10


Brahms: The Symphonies
Philips 442-068-2  (4-disc box set) (1994)

Brahms: Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Decca 00147 9902 (7-disc box set) (2010)

4 Symphonies; Overtures; Haydn Variations
Philips 6747 325 (4-LP box set) (1973)
Symphony #1 in c minor Op. 68
Philips 6500 519 (1973)
Symphony #2 in D major Op. 73
Haydn Variations Op. 56a
Philips 6500 375 (1975)

Symphony #3 in F major Op. 90
Tragic Overture Op. 81
Philips 6500 155 (1970)
Symphony #4 in e minor Op. 98
Philips 6500 389 (1972)
Serenade #1 in D major Op. 11
Philips 9500 322 (1977)
DISCS 10-18
Bruckner: Symphonies 0-9


Bruckner: The Symphonies
Philips 442 040-2 (9-disc box set) (1997)
Symphony #0 in d minor "Die Nulte"
Philips 802 724 (1966)
Symphony #1 in c minor 
Philips 6500 439 (1972)
Symphony #2 in c minor 
Philips 802 912 (1969)
Symphony #3 in d minor (1877 version) 
Philips 835 217 (1964)
Symphony #4 in E-flat major "Romantische" 
Philips 835 385 (1965)
Symphony #5 in B-flat major 
Philips 6700 055 (2-LP set) (1972)
Symphony #6 in A major 
Philips 6500 164 (1971)
Symphony #7 in E major
[with Te Deum]
Philips 802 759/60 (2-LP box set) (1967)
Symphony #8 in c minor 
Philips 6700 020 (2-LP set) (1970)
Symphony #9 in d minor 
Philips 835 381 (1966)
DISCS 19-28
Mahler: Symphonies 1-9;
Adagio from Symphony #10

Mahler: The Symphonies
Philips 442-050-2 (10-disc box set) (1994)

Symphony #1 in D major "Titan"
Philips 6500 342
Symphony #2 in c minor "Resurrection" 
Philips 802 884/5 (2-LP set)
Symphony #3 in d minor 
Philips 802 711/2 (2-LP set)
Symphony #4 in G major 
Philips 802 888
Symphony #5 in c-sharp minor
Adagio from Symphony #10 
Philips 6700 048 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #6 in a minor 
Philips 839 797/8 (2-LP box set) (1969)
Symphony #7 in e minor "Nachtgesang" 
Philips 6700 036 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #8 in E-flat major "Symphony of a Thousand" 
Philips 6700 049 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #9 in D major 
Philips 6700 021 (2-LP box set) (1970)
DISCS 29-30
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4;
"Genoveva" and "Manfred" Overtures


Schumann: The Symphonies
Philips 442 079-2 (2-disc set) (1994)
DISCS 31-36
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6;
"Manfred" Symphony; Romeo and Juliet;
Marche Slave; Francesca di Rimini; The Storm;
Capriccio Italien; 1812 Overture 


Tchaikovsky: The Symphonies
Philips 442-???-2  (6-disc box set) (1994)

Tchaikovsky: The Symphonies
Decca 0019 15402 (6-disc box set) (2013)

Symphonies 1-6; "Manfred"
Philips 6768 267 (7-LP box set) (1980)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Favorite-Record Profile #2: Dubravka Tomsic plays J.S. Bach

Stradavari SCD 6010 (1987)
J.S. Bach: Italian Concerto in F Major BWV 971
Partita #1 in B-flat Major BWV 825
Toccata in D Major BWV 912
Dubravka Tomsic (piano)

Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic's 1987 readings of three familiar works by J.S. Bach are a singular delight, all the more so for being almost completely unexpected.  There is technical brilliance in abundance here, with just the right amount of lightness and panache, and Tomsic's playing is infectiously joyful. Think Glenn Gould without the in-your-face exhibitionist tendencies or "tortured-genius" eccentricity. These are, in short, treasurable performances, and the recorded sound that captured them is quite good as well; straightforward, full and natural, without any distracting  overabundance of reverb or the kind of annoying "clattery" quality one often expects from a budget label.

A true diamond in the rough, this recording first appeared on the fairly-obscure American budget label, Stradavari, disappearing from circulation fairly quickly. It resurfaced again on yet another-- somewhat better known-- discount label,  the Vienna Masters' Series (Pilz 160-202 (1990)) and was subsequently re-issued several more times by the Canadian Madacy label in ultra-cheap packagings of the sort commonly found in discount chain bargain bins (1994, 1995).

Well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Distler's "Lost" Harpsichord Concertos, plus A Basic Discography


Thorofon CTH 2403 (1999)
Distler: Chamber Concerto for Harpsichord & 11 Instruments
Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings Op. 14
Martin Haselböck/Vienna Academy
Musicaphon M 56860 (SACD) (2008)
Distler: Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings Op. 14 
Huguette Dreyfus (harpsichord)/Martin Stephani/Deutsche Bachsoloisten
Schauspielmusik from Der Ritter Blaubart
Katharina Wingen (soprano)/Stefan Livland (tenor)/Stefan Malzew/Neubrandenburger Philharmonie


The revival of interest in the harpsichord in the early decades of the 20th century, spearheaded by such charismatic interpreters as Wanda Landawska and Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, inspired a number of contemporary composers to write new works for the instrument. A handful of these are still performed on a regular basis today, most notably Francis Poulenc's Concert champetre, Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante, Bohuslav Martinu's blithely neo-classical Harpsichord Concerto, and the chamber-intimate Concerto for Harpsichord by Manuel de Falla. Any consideration of Distler's concerted works for haprischord must be placed into this historical context. Long before the "original instruments" revolution of the 1960s, all these composers conceived their works for large, multi-manual, grand-piano-like instruments by Pleyel, Neuport and other manufacuters.

Distler's fascinating Chamber Concerto for Harpsichord & 11 Instruments (1930-'32) suggests the influence of Hindemith's Kammermusiken both in scale and style, though the piece had to wait until 1998 for its premiere-- this superb recording from Thorofon made within days of that initial performance. Employing an authentic 1930s-era Neuport instrument similar to the one Distler owned, this reading is refreshingly free of the balance issues that vex so many other recordings of the modern harpsichord repertory, in which, all too often, the anachronistically "Baroque-authentic" keyboard is overpowered by the ensemble. The music displays great affective depth and emotional complexity, a searing, searching quality in its uncharacteristically acerbic dissonances. This is music of a deeply personal nature, movingly original notwithstanding its obvious influences. 

Hugo Distler (1908-1942) is probably best known for his sacred choral and organ music, most of it based on old Reformation-era chorales and texts. Many of these works are undoubted masterpieces, and the Choral Passion Op. 7, Weinachtsgeschicte (Christmas Story) Op. 8, and Totentanz (Dance of Death) from Op. 12, along with the lovely, often strikingly intense settings of Möricke poems have justifiably gained a foothold in the modern choral repertory. His organ works are often featured in recitals, though perhaps not with as much frequency as their quality would suggest they deserve.

The Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings Op. 14 was written between 1935 and '36, when the composer was in his late 20s.  Originally in four movements, the work is most often heard today in a rather thoughtlessly redacted three-movement version (the composer's peevish response to initial criticism of the work's length). The Haselböck reading on Thorofon has restored the original third Allegro spirituoso e scherzando movement with illuminating results, revealing for the first time a work of extraordinary maturity and expressive power, so far removed from the vaguely bijou impression left by so many previous "incomplete" performances. (Distler himself described the music as "angry".) Thorofon's recording venue is sufficiently natural, with an almost perfectly balanced ensemble, affording the work what is probably the most convincing, powerfully moving reading it has ever received.

By contrast, Huguette Dreyfus' muddled, cursory rendition for the Musicaphon label gives the impression of music that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Hearing this, one might imagine a composer struggling with an unfamiliar form, guilty of mindless "note-spinning", endeavoring to eke out some type of structure from woefully inadequate thematic materials. The slow Hindemithian second movement seems dismally ponderous and uninspired here. Without the original third movement, the theme-and-variations finale makes for a jarring contrast, and little sense, seeming hardly more than a quaint addendum, or, worse, an eclectic aftethought. While the Berlin Bach Soloists' playing is sufficiently energetic, the recording  might well have benefitted from a drier, less resonant acoustic, as the strings constantly seem to be getting lost in a deep echo chamber, rendering moments of the piece virtually incoherent. I was reminded of those early mono LPs that were incompetently "electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo". Overall, quite a disappointment, especially as Musicaphon advertises the recording as a super-audo production. The live performance of Distler's incidental music for Der Ritter Blaubart (The Knight Bluebeard), a play by Ludwig Tiek, is interesting for sharing some of the thematic material from the the harpsichord concerto, and may well be the best reason to get the Musicaphon disc. Performances are quite good, with a better acoustic ambiance than the concerto, and the recorded sound is excellent.  

The Thorofon CD  is recommended without reservation, equally to those would-be Distler complete-ists, as well as those curious about these two works' place in the neo-Baroque revival of the early 20th century. The Musicaphon disc is desirable only for the  Ritter Blaubart score.

Hugo Distler (1908-1942): A Basic Discography
(*) indicates recommended recording

Globe GLO 5175 (1998)*
Distler: Choral-Passion Op. 7
Totentanz Op. 12, No. 2 
(The Dance of Death)
Uwe Gronostay/Netherlands Chamber Choir


Thorofon CTH 2281 (1997)*
Distler: Die Wienachtsgeschichte Op. 10
(The Christmas Story)
Liedmotetten zu Weinachts (8) 
(Motets based on Christmas Carols)
Christian Grube/Chamber Choir of the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin


Berlin Classics 3288 (2005) *
Berlin Classics 9246 (MP3) (2006)
Brilliant Classics 94695 (CD) (2012 re-issue)
Distler: Die Wienachtsgeschichte Op. 10
(The Christmas Story)
Hans-Joachim Rotzsch/Choir of St. Thomas Church Leipzig


Rondeau Productions 6068 (2012)*
Hugo Distler (1908-1942)
Selections from Der Jahrkreis Op. 5
Totentanz Op. 12, No. 2;
Motets from Op. 12
Sjaella/Ensemble Nobiles


Cantate C 57007 (1994)*
Geistliche Chormusik
(Sacred Choral Music)
Distler: Motets from Op. 12
Totentanz Op. 12, No. 2
Bernd Stegmann/Berlin Vokalensemble

Cantate C 57620 (2001 re-issue)
(original recording, 1968) 
Distler: Der Jahrkreis Op. 5
Wilhelm Ehmann/Westphalian Ensemble


LP: Koch/Schwann 117 008 FA (1988)
CD Koch/Schwann  317 008 H1 (1988)
Distler: Totentanz Op. 12, No. 2
Bruckner: 5 Motets
Herbert Böck/Concentus Vocalis


Musicaphon M 51820 (1993)*
Thorofon 2231 (1994 re-issue)
Distler: Möricke-Chorliederbuch Op. 19
Bernd Stegmann/Berlin Vokalensemble


Thorofon CTH 2420 (2001)
Distler: Liturgische Sätze
(Liturgical Pieces)
(selections from Op. 5, 6, 11, and 13)
Wolfgang Unger/Leipzig University Choir et al.

Thorofon CTH 2551 (2007)
Distler: Eine Deutesche Choralmesse Op. 3 
Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr Op. 2
selections from Kleine Choralmotetten und Liedsätz
selections from Der Jahrkreis Op. 5
Erik Matz/Hugo Distler Ensemble


Thorofon CTH 2293 (1997) (Vol. 1)
Thorofon CTH 2294 (1997) (Vol. 2)
Distler: Das Orgelwerke
(Organ Works)
Armin Schoof