Recommended recordings: September

Recommended recordings of the pieces performed by the Pacific Symphony on its programs in September.

Shostakovich: Festive Overture. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, conductor. Chandos.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Krill Kondrashin, conductor. Martha Argerich, piano. Philips.

Rimsky-Korsakov: “Procession of the Nobles” from Mlada. Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, conductor. On “Rimsky-Korsakov’s Greatest Hits” album from Sony Classical.

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Bernstein at the Skirball

I went to the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, an entertaining way to beat the excessive heat. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is organized by the GRAMMY Museum and curated by its founding executive director Robert Santelli, a music historian. I doubt that any exhibit could capture the plentitude and variety of Bernstein’s life, but this one — with genuine artifacts, as well as replicas and facsimiles — does a good job at showing just how central Bernstein once was in American life. Here are a few of the items that were on display. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Entrance to the exhibit.

A photo of a young Bernstein with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1940s.

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Remembering ‘The Passion of Ramakrishna’

During my career as a music critic, I had the pleasure of reviewing two performances of “The Passion of Ramakrishna” by Philip Glass, which Pacific Symphony revives this week and takes to Carnegie Hall on April 21.

The first time I heard and reviewed it was on the second night of concerts in the brand new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in September of 2006. That was the world premiere. My review is here.

The second time I heard and reviewed it was in 2011, when Carl St.Clair and the orchestra revived it for their annual American Composers Festival, which that year was devoted to Glass. They also recorded the work then for Glass’ own label, Orange Mountain Music. My impressions of the piece were much the same the second time around, not because I copied what I had written before, but because it’s a direct and effective piece and that is just the way it hits me.

Of the Glass I know, it is one of the more underrated, I feel.

Instant recording libraries: Classical CD box sets for Christmas

[This article was first published in 2016. Some of the prices may have changed, but the general situation discussed is the same.]

Browsing through the Amazon classical music section recently, in search of ideas for Christmas, I once again noticed that CDs are now, in many cases, dirt cheap, especially when ensconced in gargantuan boxed sets. They are not only cheaper than downloads, but also higher fidelity, which is to say for you youngsters out there, better sounding.

In some cases, you can make a single purchase and have an instant and respectable library of classical music.

For instance, a newbie could buy “Karajan: Official Remastered Version,” released in September by Warner Classics/Parlophone, and get 101 CDs at about $1.70 a pop, and a large swath of the Western canon to boot. OK, some of these recordings are mono, but with current remastering techniques these will no doubt sound just fine. The orchestras featured include the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and others, in other words some of the best on the planet.

The new complete edition of Mozart, “Mozart 225,” a bestseller, is similarly low-priced, 200 CDs, and some 240 hours of music, for a mere $340.

OK, so you don’t have a couple hundred to blow on CDs, there are plenty of boxed sets for cheaper. I had my eye on the complete Chicago Symphony recordings of the great French conductor Jean Martinon, 10 CDs of wonderful repertoire (by Mennin, Varese, Roussel, Martinon, Hindemith … the Weber clarinet concertos played by Benny Goodman … as well as more common fare) for a mere $19.

Boxes devoted to conductors from the golden age are especially attractive. I have a thing for French conductors (as anyone who reads this blog will know). Decca has released a complete package of the recordings made for the label by Pierre Monteux, 20 CDs for $70, great recordings with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. (I probably won’t buy it, though; I have virtually all of it on vinyl.)

Or there’s a hard-to-surpass set of French music recorded by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, 32 CDs of definitive accounts of music by Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Dukas, Martin and others for just $80.

71fgsdyn1yl-_sl1200_Need a set of the Beethoven Nine? Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (no slouch) is $11. George Szell’s exceptional traversal with the Cleveland Orchestra is $13. Slightly higher in price is a compelling Nine led by Monteux. Want some history? You can find Toscanini leading all nine symphonies for less than $9, Furtwangler for $16.

Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the nine Bruckner symphonies (9 CDs): $35.  Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic in the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies (7 CDs): $18. Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the seven Sibelius symphonies (4 CDs): $13.

It’s not all orchestral. It goes on and on. The Tokyo String Quartet plays all of Beethoven’s string quartets (there are 16) on 9 discs for … $13. There’s a lot more; go look for yourself.

Many labels have also been releasing huge sets of their general catalog. Mercury Living Presence, justly celebrated by audiophiles, has three volumes, of 51, 55 and 53 CDs, respectively, with the highest priced at $119.

No longer have a CD player? Good portable models are easy to find for less than $30.

Update: The complete works of Stravinsky, conducted by the composer, 22 CDs: $26.

Review: Dover Quartet plays ‘Voices of Defiance,’ music of Ullmann, Laks and Shostakovich

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Reading the liner notes to the Dover Quartet’s “Voices of Defiance” before I listened to it was probably a mistake. They gave me the impression that the recording would be tough, unpleasant going.

The three pieces were written in three successive years during World War II. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, the centerpiece of the disc, in his dark and brooding wartime manner, was composed under the least desperate circumstances of the three, at a Soviet-led artist retreat in Ivanovo.

But Szymon Laks wrote his String Quartet No. 3 shortly after he was freed from Auschwitz, where he survived only because he supplied music for the Nazi guards and prisoners, many on the way to the gas chambers. And Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He left the manuscript there with a friend when he found out he was going to be transferred. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers on Oct. 18, 1944.

In his extensive and well written liner notes, Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover, interprets the music in the light of these and other facts, and rightly so. That is a note writer’s prerogative, even his duty. And I am not suggesting that we not know the stories behind these pieces, or that Shaw’s interpretation of aspects of the music in light of those stories is necessarily way off the mark.

But in the case of the quartets by Ullmann and Laks, I do not think that they can bear the burden of the stories behind them, and I feel it’s an open question what, exactly, the composers meant to express in them.

Less than 15 minutes in length (the second and final movement is less than three), Ullmann’s quartet isn’t expansive enough to express the desperation the composer must have felt when he was writing it. Ullmann’s piece is tightly knit and closely argued, serious and Bartókian, freely dissonant (there are some pseudo 12-tone sections) but basically tonal, ending, in fact, with major chords. “We know we have glimpsed into Ullmann’s great and powerful soul,” Shaw writes of the piece. Perhaps. At any rate, it’s a finely wrought string quartet.

Laks’s Third is, to my ears, a rather cheerful work, Bartók at his sunniest. The themes are Polish folk songs (forbidden at Auschwitz), and “their inclusion here,” writes Shaw, “sends a clear message: he is trying to find his way home.” This may or not be right, but it certainly leads Shaw to read a darkness into the slow movement that I do not hear. He calls it “one of the most impassioned and heartbreaking movements for string quartet.” I hear merely a kind of gorgeous melancholy.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 is his second longest, in four movements and lasting almost 36 minutes here. It is not encountered much, and its inclusion is most welcome. It is a fine piece, with typical Shostakovichian characteristics, including masterful counterpoint, folk tunes and simple melodies worked up to agitated and dissonant climaxes, and lonely, disenchanted solos. It ends unambiguously in minor.

In all, it’s a great, unhackneyed program, smartly unified and intellectually stimulating. What’s more, it is played beautifully by the Dover Quartet, a young ensemble that has quickly nabbed a spot in the vanguard of string quartets. Its virtuosity is of the type that doesn’t bring undue attention to itself, with warmly singing phrases and unhurried pace and polished tone that isn’t stretched to a breaking point. The pieces are laid out just so, detailed and expressive, and the ensemble breathes together. The recording — on the Cedille label, made in the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre — is first rate.

***

Here’s the finale of Szymon Laks’s String Quartet No. 3, played by the Dover Quartet.

Pacific Symphony tubist releases new recording

Longtime Pacific Symphony tubist Jim Self has released a new recording. Like several others of Self’s recordings, this one is jazz. It’s called “Floating in Winter,” and it features both originals and standards. With John Chiding on guitars, Self plays tuba and an instrument of his own invention called a Fluba, which is like a giant flugelhorn. Here’s what it looks like (with Self playing).

Here he is talking about the new recording:

And you can sample the album below: