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Cue Sheet – May 2011

WACKY MULTICHANNEL BRAHMS AND VIVALDI

Here are a couple of reviews I wrote a year or two ago for Fanfare covering discs that make unusual use of multichannel sound.

BRAHMS String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 • Auryn Qrt • TACET D155 (multichannel DVD-A: 102:26)

Richard A. Kaplan reviewed the conventional two-channel CD issue of this set in Fanfare 32:2; he rightly praised the group’s “remarkable ensemble, intonation, and rhythmic precision,” but found the readings to be “consistently unbreathing and inflexible.” I wouldn’t go that far; I hear sufficient tempo differentiation from one section to another, although moment-to-moment phrasing is not very loose. Like Kaplan, one of my longtime favorites in this matrial is the Melos Quartet on DG, which employs a more relaxed, elastic Central European style. Still, I find the Auryn Quartet’s traversal quite satisfactory. It’s also your only choice if you’re looking for the Brahms quartets in DVD-Audio.

The problem here for some listeners is that each instrument of the quartet comes from a different direction: the first violin from the left front, the viola from the right front, the cello from the right rear, and the second violin from the left rear. This is a configuration that you will never hear in nature, unless you are a music stand in a practice room. Somehow the effect is not claustrophobic; there’s a bit of distance between the listener and the instruments. Not surprisingly, the individual lines are remarkably clear, and the viola has an unaccustomed prominence. But if you insist on a realistic concert-hall perspective, this DVD-A is not for you; nor should you consider it if you’re using cheap “effects” speakers in the rear, because the instruments’ timbres won’t match and you may be creating balance problems. For many listeners, a better high-resolution-audio choice would be the Prazák Quartet’s Brahms series on Praga, if the label ever releases everything on SACD (it hasn’t as of this writing).

One final two-part question: Why did Tacet release the Auryn Quartet’s collaboration with Peter Orth in the Brahms Piano Quintet on a separate DVD-A? Wouldn’t there have been room for it on this single, long-duration disc? James Reel

VIVALDI The Four Seasons (two mixes). Concertos: in g, RV 317; in E-flat, RV 257 • Daniel Gaede (vn); Wojciech Rajski, cond; Polish CPO • TACET 16342 (DVD-A: 98:16)

In Fanfare 32:2, David L. Kirk declared the SACD version of this release to be “extraordinarily pleasing to the ear and the performances were equally pleasurable.” This DVD-Audio version is not simply the same thing in a different format; The Four Seasons appear twice, the second time in a surround-sound remix that will captivate a few Fanfare readers and send many others into a state of high dudgeon.

First, let me just reinforce my colleague’s positive reaction to the modern-instrument performances. Some of the solo work is absolutely fierce, and many of the fast passages—tutti as well as solo—really fly by, but elsewhere the playing eases off and lingers over the programmatic details. The opening sequence of “Spring” is especially arresting; the orchestral portion comes off like a quick march, which I don’t think is very effective, but then the solo instruments play their birdcalls with extreme rubato. It’s a very hands-on performance of The Four Seasons; the two extra concertos are played less audaciously, but the renditions are still quite nimble and extroverted.

DVD-A never really took off in classical circles, and at this point the only reason to flirt with it is the extended storage capacity. In this case, The 56-minute music program is presented in Tacet’s usual concept of surround sound, which places the listener at the center of the ensemble. Here, violinist Daniel Gaede is positioned front and center, with the first violin section on the left, the second violins and double bass on the right, the violas rear left, and the cellos and harpsichord rear right. The first time around, the instruments stay there. The second time through, things get wild.

What Tacet calls its “Moving Real Surround Sound” mix bounces everything around; sometimes sections hold their positions through a movement, but more often they jump to a new location between phrases. The sense of ambient space is large and reverberant enough that it usually sounds as if a very large orchestra encircles the listener, and only a few players from each direction participate at any time; in other words, it doesn’t usually sound like an electronic stunt. Usually. By the time we’re into autumn, though, the engineers seem to be reproducing some acid trip from the 1960s. They start manipulating the timbral nature of the instruments while they move things around, and that concerto’s slow movement sounds like a quadraphonic Wendy Carlos synthesizer production. Things do ease off thereafter, but it’s less a musical experience than a display of engineering virtuosity. This would work very well as part of an art installation, and some home listeners will love the sonic roller-coaster ride. If you know it will offend you, stick to the straightforward SACD edition. James Reel

Classical Music,

PAUL PARAY

This May 24 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Paul Paray, an exceptional French conductor best known for his early-stereo hi-fi Mercury recordings with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, many of which were reissued on CD, and even in buffed-up SACD format (the latter taming Mercury's original over-bright sonics). You can read a little bio I wrote of Paray for the All Music Guide here, and, more importantly, listen to samples of his work through the day (Tuesday) on KUAT-FM. Stylistically, he was something of a French Toscanini, but had the benefit of an orchestra a bit superior to Toscanini's NBC Symphony, and of course much better sonics. We'll have Paray conducting items by Chabrier, Berlioz, Saint-Saens (including the "organ" Symphony), Bizet, Schmitt, Ravel and Debussy, and even Rossini, Lisz and, Dvorak (the "New World" Symphony). We'll cap it all about 6:20 p.m. with a recording of one of Paray's own compositions, the Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc.

Classical Music,

SACD REVIEWS: BRUCKNER AND TCHAIKOVSKY

From a past issue of Fanfare ...

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 • Simone Young, cond; Hamburg PO • OEHMS CLASSICS OC 638 (2 multichannel SACDs: 82:41) Live: Hamburg 12/2009

Simone Young has been working her way through a cycle of the very first versions of those Bruckner symphonies that were later heavily revised; her interpretations have been largely effective so far, and this latest installment is no exception. This is the first version, 1878, of Bruckner’s Eighth, an edition that has been issued on disc several times in the past; the most easily available have been Eliahu Inbal/Frankfurt RSO on various Teldec releases (75:35), Georg Tintner/Ireland NSO on Naxos (89:28), and Dennis Russell Davies/Linz Bruckner Orchestra on Arte Nova (80:30). As you can see, Young’s is one of the more leisurely versions of this edition—compared to Inbal, she takes a lot more time in the outer movements—but, without rushing, she always keeps a tight rein on the unruly score, always maintaining a focused through-line, not letting the music break apart into discrete units, and refusing to wallow in the moderate-paced and slow sections. Yet she does allow enough elasticity for the smaller details to emerge along the way. The performance is notable for its clarity and balance of voices, although at the climaxes the woodwinds can’t make themselves heard in competition with the strings and blaring brass.

It’s especially striking how Young illuminates how beholden Bruckner’s first movement is to the opening movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, although the episodic Bruckner lacks Beethoven’s staying power—Bruckner pauses for breath often, whereas Beethoven maintains unbearable tension throughout his movement. At least Young doesn’t let Bruckner sound like he’s stepping off the podium every few bars just to get his heart rate down, which can happen in other performances; she finds natural rhythms in the periodic release of tension.

This version of the first movement, by the way, ends triple forte, not softly. Other major differences between this and later editions: the trio of the second movement is substantially different; the first three movements require only double woodwinds and four horns, the section not expanded until the final movement; the Adagio is 38 bars longer, and includes more cymbal crashes (and a different climactlic key); the Finale is 62 bars longer.

I especially admire Young’s treatment of the Adagio, which is played with clarity and integrity, not soppy piety; she’s very good at holding it together without slighting its internal contrasts.

The SACD surround mix has lots of presence, although there are balance problems at the climaxes, as noted.

Personally, I think most of Bruckner’s later changes to the score actually improved the symphony, but Simone Young and her Hamburg forces make an exceptionally strong case for this original version. James Reel

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 3, “Polish.” The Voyevoda: Entr’acte; Dance of the Chambermaids. Dmitri the Pretender and Vassily Shuisky: Introduction; Mazurka. Serenade for Nikolai Rubinstein’s Name Day. Eugene Onegin: Entr’acte; Waltz; Polonaise • Neeme Järvi, cond; Gothenburg SO • BIS 1468 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 76:53)

I was so underwhelmed by the launch of Neeme Järvi’s Tchaikovsky Fifth (see Fanfare 29:2) that I haven’t bothered to follow his Tchaikovsky cycle. But now that I’ve heard his treatment of the “Polish” Symphony, I wonder what I’ve been missing; this performance is terrific.

Although the “Polish” Symphony (named in honor of its Polacca finale) is seldom recorded outside of complete cycles, most conductors who bother with it tend to carry it off quite well; indeed, you’re not likely to go wrong with nearly any major-label recording of the work (aside, suprisingly, from the listless Ormandy on RCA and Gilbert Levine on Telarc). Even so, Järvi’s account ranks among the very best. True, the quick reading of the introduction is hardly a marcia funebre in tempo or spirit, but it carries a high degree of anticipation that is rewarded in the movement’s main matter, which is festive but not manic (a perfect bookend with the quasi-Polish-themed CD’s concluding item, the Onegin Polonaise). There’s a nice, singing delivery of the lyrical sectinos without dragging everything down. Each movement of the symphony is equally well characterized.

The excepts from Tchaikovsky’s very early opera The Voyevoda (not to be confused with the later symphonic poem of the same name, which Järvi has also recorded) includes some delicate woodwind playing from the Gothenburgers, and the dances are full of Russian character. Picking up the Polish theme, the Mazurka from Dmitri the Pretender really does dance with a nice spring, and after all this Järvi’s equally sympathetic treatment of the familiar Onegin items can hardly fail to please.

The BIS sonics, as usual, are absolutely splendid, if you turn up the volume a bit to improve the orchestral presence rather than its loudness; there’s very precise section placement left-to-right and front-to-back, with true timbres and an absolute lack of congestion, even during the moments of big sonic impact at the climaxes and outbursts. James Reel

Classical Music,

MET DELAY

If you were wondering why the Metropolitan Opera performance began (and ended) about 35 minutes late last Saturday, here's why. It was yet another problem with the Ring cycle's elaborate stage machinery.

radio-life,

REVIEWS: LA FINTA AND LA RONDINE

I've gotten way behind in posting reviews and features I submit to various print publications, so let me now reach back a couple of years to a pair of my Fanfare reviews of video productions of not-quite-standard-repertory operas.

MOZART La finta giardiniera • Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond; Eva Mei (Violante/Sandrina); Isabel Rey (Arminda); Julia Kleiter (Serpetta); Liliana Nikiteanu (Ramiro); Rudolf Schasching (Don Anchise); Christoph Strehl (Belfiore); Gabriel Bermudez (Roberto/Nardo); Zürich “La Scintilla” Op O • TDK DVBD OPFINT (Blu-ray Disc: 187:00)

Christopher Williams reviewed the conventional DVD version of this, along with a competing Salzburg Festival DG issue under Ivor Bolton, in Fanfare 31:1. Williams found that this Harnoncourt performance on TDK offered “a fulluer text, tighter ensemble, and more ‘traditional’ stagecraft,” but less dynamism in individual roles. Still, wrote Williams, “Harnoncourt delivers a lively and captivating performance with that characteristic Harnoncourt ‘bite’ and penchant for surging hairpin dynamics.” That Harnoncourt “bite” is difficult to discern on the DTS-HD audio track, which softens the orchestral attacks and puts the singers at a great distance; they’ve got less volume to cut through the swimmy acoustics than in the closer, clearer PCM stereo version, which presents everyone to much better advantage.

I agree with Williams that Christoph Strehl displays “a voice of spun (and occasionally crooning) gold,” but with the exception of Eva Mei, whose performance is notable for its balance of warmth with lightness and delicacy, the other singers fall a bit short of perfection. Liliana Nikiteanu lacks the stamina to carry her all the way through some phrases, and Rudolf Schasching can be a little coarse, vocally. Furthermore, the cameras aren’t always pointing at the right character. Even so, it’s overall an enjoyable performance, for more details on which you should consult the earlier review.

About this Blu-ray version, I’ll say that the picture is very crisp, with subtle gradations and shadings of color. There are no extra video features, though, and no onscreen scene selection menu beyond the division of acts; on the other hand, individual numbers are indexed, and listed in the booklet, which also includes a little multilingual essay by director Tobias Moretti on his concept—and that’s about it. So in terms of both packaging and performance, this is a very good release that could have been better. James Reel

PUCCINI La rondine • Carlo Rizzi, cond; Fiorenza Cedolins (Magda); Sandra Pastrana (Lisette); Fernando Portari (Ruggero); Emanuele Giannino (Prunier); Stefano Antonucci (Rambaldo); George Mosley (Périchaud); Iorio Zennaro (Gobin); Giuseppe Nicodemo (Crébillon); Andrea Zoppa (Majordomo); Sabrina Vianello (Yvette); Giacinta Nicotra (Bianca); Annika Kaschenz (Suzy); La Fenice O & Ch • ARTHAUS 101 330 (Blu-ray Disc: 106:00) Live: Venice 2008

Joel Kasow reviewed the DVD release of this production in Fanfare 32:3. My colleague is generally intolerant of updated stagings and Regietheater in general. Unlike Kasow, I believe that the story of Magda, a kept woman in fairly high society, still makes sense when transferred to the 1950s, so director Graham Vick has done absolutely no harm there. Some of his blocking, though, does the singers a real disservice. Fiorenza Cedolins has to sing the first half of her second major aria lying on her back on the floor, which does her tone and support no favors. Similarly, roly-poly Fernando Portari looks unintentionally comic when he’s playfully rolling around in the sand in the resort scene near the end (if he dropped a few pounds he could be a matinee idol, which is what every lead tenor should be). Kasow couldn’t warm up to most of the vocalism in this production, and indeed it’s competent but not special. The singing on a recent Naxos video of this opera (not issued on Blu-ray) is apparently quite mediocre, judging from Ray Tuttle’s review in Fanfare 33:1. This Arthaus release is clearly preferable. Alas, the surround-sound mix is cavernous and unpleasant, so stick to the PCM stereo. There were apparently no microphones in the audience, so during the applause we hear more chatter from the pit than clapping from the hall. There are no special video features, and the printed booklet consists only of a brief synopsis and background essay. Still, if you have Blu-ray capability, get this version, because the colors on the women’s party dresses in the first act really pop. James Reel

Classical Music,

NEW TUCSON SYMPHONY EXEC DIRECTOR

In case you missed the announcement in the newspaper last week, here's the press release. I'd like to see how they calculate that dubious figure in the last sentence, by the way.

TUCSON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA NAMES ANDREW BIRGENSMITH EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Kansas City Symphony General Manager to Assume Post August 1

(Tucson, AZ)—The Tucson Symphony Orchestra has named Andrew Birgensmith as the next Executive Director of the 83-year old orchestra. Mr. Birgensmith comes to the TSO after a decade with the Kansas City Symphony, where he has held the post of General Manager for the past eight seasons. Mr. Birgensmith was chosen after a year-long, nationwide search that yielded 40 candidates. The TSO brought five candidates to Tucson for meetings with Music Director and Conductor, George Hanson, orchestra representatives, board members and senior staff.

“Andrew has had tremendous success as an arts administrator, fundraiser and project developer,” commented Tucson Symphony Society Board of Trustees President Erwin Kratz. “It is a testament to the vitality of the TSO that we are able to attract candidates of Andrew’s caliber, and we are looking forward to working with him to continue building on our recent successes.”

Mr. Birgensmith moved to Kansas City in 1996 to open Station Casino where he served as Entertainment Manager for two years. His time there was spent overseeing the construction of the various performance venues and booking and producing entertainment for the entertainment facility. In 1998 Mr. Birgensmith joined the Union Station/Science City project where first he oversaw the construction of the entertainment district and later managed and created shows for the large format theater, planetarium, and City Stage while also supervising all special events.

In 2001 Mr. Birgensmith began working for the Kansas City Symphony as Associate Director of Marketing and then as Operations Manager. In 2003 Mr. Birgensmith was promoted to General Manager overseeing the day-to-day logistical operation of the business and seeking ways to increase business and revenue through community partnerships. Most recently his primary function was to serve as the principal liaison between the Symphony and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to ensure a smooth transition into the new facility opening in September 2011.

Mr. Birgensmith attended Shenandoah University and Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Virginia where he received his bachelor’s degree in Music Education and Trombone Performance. He later attended Florida State University for Arts Administration.

“I can't wait to begin working with the staff, musicians, and board of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra,” said Mr. Birgensmith. “I have gained a lot of leadership experience while working for the Kansas City Symphony and now it is time to share what I learned. Last season the TSO had to make some painful financial adjustments. As a result, the future of the organization is much brighter. I am impressed with the work that has been done. The foundation of the organization is strong and clearly in place. I look forward to the opportunity to continue to build the TSO.”

George Hanson commented, “I am very much looking forward to working with Andrew to enhance and strengthen the TSO’s presence in our community as we fulfill our mission to serve Tucson and southern Arizona communities with performances and education programs of the highest caliber.”

Mr. Birgensmith and his fiancée, Holly Swangstu, plan to live in Tucson. He will assume his post with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra on August 1, 2011.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra will open its 83rd season on October 14, 2011. It is the oldest symphony orchestra in the Southwest and the oldest continuously performing professional arts organization in Arizona. The concert season extends from October through April with more than 70 orchestra and 260 chamber ensemble performances each year. Each concert season offers Classic, TSO Pops! and MasterWorks Series, Classic, MasterWorks and TSO Pops! Specials, Moveable Musical Feasts and a series of free chamber ensemble performances for families entitled Just for Kids. In 2004, the TSO received the Governor’s Arts Award recognizing its 75 years of significant community impact.

With an annual budget of $3.6 million, the TSO pumps more than $20 million into the Southern Arizona economy each year.

Classical Music,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.