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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Beethoven, Wagner, and Blake

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new recordings of Beethoven, Wagner, and Howard Blake.


BEETHOVEN: Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op. 120. Two separate versions: András Schiff playing, in each, respectively:  a 1921 Bechstein piano and a fortepiano built in 1820 by Franz Brodmann. Piano Sonata No. 32 in c minor, op. 111.  Schiff playing the Bechstein piano.  Six Bagatelles, op. 126.  Schiff playing the Brodmann fortepiano.  ECM New Series 2294/95: two CDs, with booklet with extensive notes and facsimiles of Beethoven’s manuscripts.

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The release of any recording by pianist András  Schiff, whether by himself or in collaboration with one or more colleagues, is always an event that provokes great interest.  The inclusion of two different renditions by the same artist of one work is reminiscent of Paul Badura-Skoda’s traversal, a little less than sixty years ago, of a Mozart program on a genuine mid-1780s-vintage fortepiano and a modern piano, each piece getting a rendition on each instrument.

Mr. Schiff has chosen to record the last sonata and one of two versions of the Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli on a 1921 Bechstein that once belonged to Wilhelm Backhaus and which has, thankfully, over the years, been the recipient of the tender loving care that such a fine musical instrument deserves. It has not been altered or revoiced in any way.  It sounds like a sympathetic instrument.  It is clearly apparent in the opening introduction and allegro that each octave has its own character, that there is an unusual clarity in the bass registers and that the left hand and its role take on new meanings.  This is even more apparent in the Arietta of the op. 111 Sonata, where subtleties of voicing as well as voice-leading and greater opportunities for softer shadings come into play.  If the player wishes, an “orchestral” quality can be evoked. A sustained trill on the main note in the right hand — a “shake” in eighteenth-century British argot — can be brought up or under, made more prominent or more derrière la scène, louder or softer with no loss of intensity or speed. Even if the listener’s attention is temporarily diverted to the activity of the left hand, the trill is never buried or made borderline inaudible.  The Bechstein sound is a generally mellower (and—this is a guess) the action probably more responsive than the modern concert grand, with its emphasis on hardness and brightness.  The upper registers sing rather than scream (at any dynamic level).  Mr. Schiff takes a dig at “Steinway enthusiasts” in an interview, a transcript of which is included in the accompanying booklet.  He points out that the Bechstein was the preferred piano of Artur Schnabel; it was also the preferred instrument of Arthur Rubinstein in the early days of his career.  Christoph Eschenbach always kept a Bechstein grand close at hand—-the same instrument on which he had taken his first lessons.

In the Variations, the Bechstein is a most expressive partner in delineating voice-leadings as well as subtleties and contrasts of dynamics.  It sounds like the kind of instrument that can be anything the player wishes it to be.  An infinite variety of sound, texture, mood, anything—-well, that’s a definition of a good musical instrument.  Because of both the uncommon sensitivity of the player and the unusual qualities of the instrument, this is one of the more significant recordings of either the op. 111 Sonata or the Diabelli Variations to emerge in a long time.  The extremes of dynamics in the unexpected insertion  — smack in the middle of the work —  of Mozart’s Nott’e giorno faticar from Don Giovanni, and the wicked humor of this gesture, are vividly brought out.  The fugal sections are new adventures. 

The fortepiano version of the Variations seems to accentuate the satirical nature of the formidable Beethoven work—-and Mr. Schiff gets as much out of the instrument (an instrument by Franz Brodmann dating from around 1820, which he notes is the same time as the composition of the Variations) as can be extracted from it, and it is sympathetically recorded—probably very close, but with enough room sound to create something as close to a concert experience that can be created on records,  with superb stereo imaging.  Mr. Schiff, at the time of the infancy of his international career, once castigated the authentic performance movement—-“this Collegium Aureum, this Academy of Ancient Music…..perfectly dreadful!”  He says that his fascination with fine musical instruments led him to the Brodmann, just as much as it led him to the Bechstein.  The Brodmann sounds as though it has a bigger sound than most of its contemporaries.  Its bass register is telling, and its apparent sustaining power (not a virtue of most early pianos) surely was something of which Beethoven could have approved.  The Nott’e giorno episode is even more thigh-slapping, typically German humor than it sounds on the Bechstein.  The moments of delicacy and roughness are shaped with appropriate contrast, as this is a work where exuberance and introspection meet to share the stage.   The penultimate variation – a double fugue in which both subjects are given out at the same time — is appropriately vigorous and transparent in the fortepiano version. 

The Six Bagatelles, op. 126 — which constitute Beethoven’s last piano composition — are given only on the fortepiano.  While the style is ostensibly “simpler” than that of the Variations, there are abundant opportunities for dynamic shading and expression.  The interrupted germs of phrases that make up the second (Allegro) of this group stand out in bold relief.  This piece is by no means without its lyric element, which Mr. Schiff feels keenly.  The hymnlike third item in this collection (Andante cantabile e grazioso) is treated to a similarly heartfelt rendering.  The fourth (Presto), reminiscent of the 2/4 Scherzo of the op. 110 (A-flat) sonata, is an arresting essay in Beethovenian humor.   Some use of one of the Brodmann’s modifying pedals is made at the end of this piece.  The fifth (Quasi allegretto) is a kind of song without words, and here the damper pedal is used to the hilt—-Mr. Schiff being of the opinion that Beethoven intended different harmonies to flow into each other, rather than to let the pedal up when the harmony changes.  (It has been observed by contemporaries of Beethoven that the composer played the slow movement of his third piano concerto with the damper pedal down all the time, which is probably no exaggeration.  The Brodmann, made in 1820, probably has greater sustaining power than did the instruments of seventeen years before, when that concerto was new.  But Beethoven still liked the merger of different harmonies, maybe more than less in his later years.) The concluding Bagatelle is another thigh-slapping Presto that dissolves into tranquillity.

A word, briefly, about the Brodmann’s accessories: it has a six-octave compass from F1 to f4.  There are four pedals, left to right: una corda, bassoon, moderator and damper.  The bassoon pedal engages a strip of parchment and silk mounted on a strip of wood, curved in a semicircle, to be pressed against the strings of the bass register.  It produces a nasal, buzzing sound much like a bassoon’s.  The moderator pedal causes a piece of cloth to be placed between the hammer and the three strings, softening both the attack and the tone.  The damper pedal, as in most instruments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, can be used more liberally as the fortepiano has a more rapid decay of sound than its descendants. 

This is an album worth having, and a milestone achievement by Mr. Schiff — long known as a player with a strong affinity for this music.  More significantly, it provides valuable insight into what made Beethoven the kind of artist he was.  It does not descend into the dark reaches of pseudoscholasticism and “that’s the way they did it back then”.  This reviewer is no devotee of pre-1840 pianos, but was powerfully persuaded by Mr. Schiff’s partnership with the Brodmann.


WAGNER: Prelude to Act I of LohengrinJames Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58.  Levine and the MET Orchestra; with Evgeny Kissin, piano.  BEETHOVEN: Rondo à capriccio, op. 129, “Rage over a Lost Penny”. Kissin, piano.  SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944, The GreatLevine and the MET Orchestra.  All items recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 19 May 2013. Deutsche Grammophon B0019094-02: two CDs.

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This concert last May marked James Levine’s return to the podium after a two-year absence.  His entrance can be heard at the beginning of the recording: as his motorized wheelchair negotiates the stage of Carnegie Hall and moves toward a special podium/lift constructed for him, he gets a standing, screaming ovation.  And then the proof: Levine is in fine shape (he says he hopes to walk again, and that he has made tremendous gains in upper body strength); his gestures are vigorous and expressive, and the sound of the orchestra reveals his stamp—the introduction to the first act of Lohengrin is a marvelous choice to illustrate this.

It is generally acknowledged that James Levine, over the years, has greatly improved the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  The defining characteristic of this ensemble seems to be the fullness of the strings, the vocal quality which he tirelessly advocated over many years—-practically from the very start of his career.  It is strikingly evident in the Wagner prelude.  One of the beginnings saw him as an apprentice to George Szell in Cleveland, where he was coached by Szell (who reportedly told him, “You’re already a good conductor—I can make you a great one”), took over some conducting duties and played piano, celesta and harpsichord parts as needed.  Szell, who despite his own considerable gifts was not a man truly secure within himself, became jealous—-even though he was glad to write some very flattering letters of recommendation for his younger colleague and promoted him from apprentice to assistant conductor.  Donald Rosenberg, in his book about the Cleveland Orchestra, says that – at one point — Szell wanted to telephone Levine to tell him that he was forbidden to enter Severance Hall again.  Szell’s associate conductor, Louis Lane, talked him out of making the call. 

Levine says he learned a lot about classical structures and how to get chamber music-like orchestral balances from Szell, but took exception to the older man’s drive for precise articulation (especially in the string parts) at the expense of fullness of tone.  There is an anecdote that Szell once observed Levine in rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Szell told him afterward, “Jimmy, you’re never going to get that kind of string sound in Cleveland.”  “I bit my tongue”, Levine recalled.  “I wanted to say, ‘but, Uncle George, you always choose the violinists at auditions who can hammer out sixteenth notes like machine guns!’”  Levine also took exception to Szell’s tendency to over-rehearse, which he said had the effect of “killing” the orchestra.

The Beethoven Fourth Concerto with Evgeny Kissin emerges as one of the better recordings of this work, and it benefits from (like the rest of the concert) having been very well-recorded.  Kissin and Levine are sympathetic collaborators.  As a bonus, Kissin encores with a frenetic Rage over a Lost Penny.

The Schubert “Great” C major symphony receives an appropriately expansive treatment.  The work was a fulfillment of the composer’s obsessive desire to produce a large symphony.  Levine’s performance is another fulfillment.

It is hoped that Maestro Levine will continue to grace the Metropolitan Opera podium, as well as the concert stage, for years to come; and that his eighth decade will provide him with a nouvelle jeunesse and a regeneration of health.  For this reviewer, this is one of the year’s very best orchestral recordings.


HOWARD BLAKE: Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra, op. 493a (1996).  Jaime Martin, soloist.  Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra, op. 329a (1984; revised, 2011). Andrew Marriner, soloist. Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra, op. 607 (2009). Gustavo Nuñez, soloist.  All the preceding with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Serenade for Wind Octet, op. 419 (1990). Members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. PentaTone 5186506.

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Almost all of the pieces listed above are being heard on records for the first time; the Clarinet Concerto, in which Sir Neville Marriner’s son Andrew (principal clarinet of the London Symphony) is soloist, is being recorded for the first time in the revised edition.  Howard Blake, an Englishman who is now 75 years old, is much like his late American counterpart Alec Wilder in that he sees little if any distinction between “popular” and “serious” music—for want of better nomenclature.  His style is lyrical above all, and his professional and contrapuntal grounding sets him apart from mere tunesmiths.  He can write memorable melodies and he knows how to shape them and how to orchestrate them—in the marvelously compact first movement of the Flute Concerto, for instance, the melodic line is briefly traded off with the ‘cello.  The Scherzo (second movement) is superb idiomatic flute writing, with deft handling of the strings.  The slow movement is a deeply felt Andante espressivo, a piece that seems to be all about the flute’s middle register and the warmth of the lower strings.  The finale is a march marked Grazioso.  Jaime Martin is a marvelous artist who plays expressively, securely and without affectation. 

The Clarinet Concerto in particular shows Blake as a truly great composer, and Andrew Marriner as a great clarinetist.  This is not to draw attention away from the other exceptional soloists on this disc, but in this performance a meeting of minds between composer and performer seems to be taking place.  The three movements are entitled Invocation, Ceremony and Round Dance.  The first begins with the clarinet alone, taking the lead in a rather dark-hued recitative, including some real virtuoso writing.  The Allegro section of Invocation has a wonderful contrapuntal fabric and juxtaposition of musical ideas and occasional close harmony with the clarinet in its chalumeau register and the lower strings.  The first movement leads without a break into the second, with a single clarinet note providing the bridge.  Ceremony is a study in intense, impassioned lyricism; it all seems to bloom from the sound of the clarinet.  Toward the end, there is an exquisite trio with the two oboes in the orchestra and the clarinet.  The final Round Dance is quintessentially English.

The Bassoon Concerto, in which soloist Gustavo Nuñez is in wonderful form, is the only one of the three concertos presented here that has an extensive cadenza—-in the last movement.  It begins with a march-like first movement, in which’s Blake’s lyrical spirit soon takes over.  The whole concerto is an ingenious adaptation of the stile gallant to today.  Indeed, all of these concertos are written for a Haydn-sized orchestra, more or less, without percussion.  Two of them are scored for a string group, but one has the sense that Blake is using strings as a total orchestra, not just as several choirs of one species of musical instrument.  It is the newest work on the album, having been completed just four years ago.

The Serenade for Wind Octet seems to be dominated by a personalized chorale style; the second movement, Serioso, has a marvelous oboe solo and the finale is a dance that might be called worthy of Byrd or Bull.  But, stylistically, this music belongs to no one other than Howard Blake.  To steal a phrase from the late composer and critic Herbert Elwell, Howard Blake has shown us that “new things are still possible within the diatonic system”.

The album is titled The Barber of Neville, since Neville and Andrew Marriner — as well as Howard Blake —-frequented the Kensington hairstyling salon of a man called Jean-Marie.  Through Jean-Marie, the three men got together and planned the making of this recording.  All four of them are shown in photographs in the accompanying booklet.

The Academy under Marriner (who will be 90 next year, and who has passed the symbolic baton to Joshua Bell while continuing to conduct the group from time to time), is one of the marvels of orchestral playing, having begun as a string ensemble and now greatly varied in size and scope as the repertory demands, with a core membership of about fifty to sixty musicians.  It continually reveals new aspects of itself, having been heard over the last half-century plus in an unbelievable variety of repertory for ensembles of almost every size and description.