Music on CD
Friday 21 February 1997
Philharmonia Orchestra / Christian Thielemann
DG 449 981-2
Christian Thielemann has just been championing the cause of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina at the Royal Opera House, greeting every exalted cadence like he's been waiting a lifetime to do so and isn't about to let go. He's a young head on old shoulders, he's Germany's hottest conducting prospect in many a long year, and I'll wager he burns a candle for Karajan at his bedside. And Klemperer. And Furtwangler. The tradition lives on here in performances of such wilful disregard for changing fashion, such breathtaking political incorrectness, that it's almost subversive. It's as if the period movement never happened, as if nothing - perception, style, manner - in our attitude to the "classical" repertoire had changed in the last half century. Or perhaps this is reactionary Beethoven? Either way, its bigness of gesture, its dark, saturating hues, its rhetoric and drama are as startling now as Roger Norrington's lean and hungry period instruments were just a few years ago.
Thielemann's Beethoven is all long, heavy bows, emphatic marcati, and the kind of rubatos you'd expect to find in... well, Pfitzner. It's the kind of Beethoven that belongs in the theatre. The solo oboe recitative towards the close of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony is a soliloquy, an oration. The slow movement is monumental, lugubrious, searching to the point of extinction. But then there is a tendency here for "atmosphere" and "drama" (or is that melodrama?) to sound contrived, manufactured for effect. That which was organic to a Furtwangler or Klemperer can, in Thielemann's hands, seem a touch applique. And there's too much starch in the mix. The weight and girth of the sound is apt to compromise the articulation, blunting the attacks and blurring the rhythms.
For all its muscle, the first movement of the Seventh sounds cumbersome, a great, heaving bulk of matter whose forward propulsion sporadically gives cause for concern. And yet the finale positively boils over, the final shoot-out of divided violins driving us on to a nail-biting climax. So, bad copies of old masters? No, they're more than that. Sometimes they almost had me fooled. Edward Seckerson
Bizet's Carmen Irina Arkhipova (Carmen), Mario del Monaco (Don Jose), Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra / Alexander Melik-Pashaev
Live recording from 13 June 1959
Russia Revelation RV 20001
One shouldn't of course believe all the hype surrounding the origins of the Russia Revelation label: after all, the idea of someone simply stumbling upon the "long-lost" Soviet State Radio Archives is a bit like crediting Carlton with "rediscovering" the BBC sound library - and Carlton's BBC Radio Classics series certainly boasts as many gems from the Proms (and in far superior sound) as anything so far released by Telstar. Nor is this, as claimed, this particular recording's debut in the West. It remains, however, an utterly treasurable memento of a truly historic occasion - the first appearance since the Russian Revolution of an Italian tenor upon the Bolshoi stage.
And what better work, the Soviet authorities must have reasoned, in which to display the Mediterranean temperament and tenorial talent of the mighty Mario del Monaco than... Bizet's Carmen? Not! (as my eight-year-old would say). The culture clash is deafening: not only does Del Monaco sing (or rather bellow) in his native Italian (bar a brief, inexcusable, lapse into Bizet's original French after the Flower Song) but the rest of the company deliver their lines in Russian; while even the Bolshoi Ballet make a surprise guest appearance outside the bullring in Act 4 to delay the tragic denouement with an impromptu divertissement served up to an interpolated sequence of dances drawn from L'Arlesienne and elsewhere. These discs really ought to carry a (mental) health warning.
Still, for all its failings (raw radio sound, erratic applause, intrusive stage noise, abrupt fades in and out between acts, audible prompting - in at least two languages!), the set is still worth a listen - for Melik- Pashaev's impassioned, high-velocity conducting; the often ravishing orchestral filigree; Arkhipova's awesome (if not exactly alluring) heroine; and even, I admit, for Del Monaco's unstinting vocalism (relentlessly mezzo forte, but ever so virile). Above all, perhaps, for one delicious moment when, surlily tra-la-la-ing to Zuniga's interrogation, this Carmen returns to their original tongue those few lines that Bizet's two librettists pinched from Pushkin's Gypsies. A real Russian revelation. Mark Pappenheim
Huberman in Recital
Music by Bach, Brahms, Schubert and Sarasate
Boris Roubakine (piano)
Arbiter / Complete Record Co 105
Although something of a sonic assault course, this CD is of unique historical importance. No rival Bach "Chaconne" is nobler in spirit, no Schubert Fantasia is more searching; there's no lovelier Romanza andaluza anywhere and certainly no finer account of Brahms's First Violin Sonata. But then Huberman actually knew Brahms. When he played Brahms's Violin Concerto in Vienna on 29 January 1896 - to an audience that included Bruckner, Mahler and Johann Strauss - the composer was moved virtually to tears.
He even proposed to write a "Fantasy" for him, but died before he could realise his promise.
Huberman's Brahms is intimate, limpid and rich in revelatory detail: note, for example, the pizzicatos "with vibrato" in the first movement and the wistful phrasing of the finale's second subject. The Schubert contrasts bird-like upper reaches with a pin-sharp spiccato, judicious portamento and lovingly moulded phrasing. True, there's the odd scuff or spot of sour tone, but put on Bach's D minor Partita and even surface noise, cramped tone and distortion cannot mask playing that has an almost Biblical authority. Arbiter's annotation is extremely informative. Robert Cowan
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