Records of the Week: Reviews
Friday 10 January 1997
Symphony in F-sharp major; Einfache Lieder; Mariettas Lied
Philadelphia Orchestra / Franz Welser-Most
EMI 5 56169 2
Korngold's symphonic monument: a kind of morning, noon and night of his life's work. That's before, during and after Hollywood. He dedicated this Symphony in F sharp major - the leading key of Mahler's 10th (significant?) - to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a mark of respect for his adopted homeland (he only just made it out of Austria when Hitler signed the Anschluss) and one final excuse to think big and publicly. Hollywood had taught him that. When you've done the business for Errol Flynn, then what's another President between friends?
Roosevelt gets a tremendous send-off in the slow movement. This grandiose cinematic paean processes its way through the seven ages of Mahlerian remorse before sinking into respectful silence. It's by far the finest music in a significant but patchy work caught somewhere between late-romantic high-mindedness (bags of chromatic displacement and the obligatory shimmer of tuned percussion) and the afterglow of Hollywood dreams. The first movement fractures under the stress and strain of a sinewy clarinet theme turned horn-led rallying cry and curt unisons suggestive of Bruckner brutally parodied, while out of the scherzo's whirling tarantella be prepared for the sneak preview of ET on that bicycle (well, John Williams is our latter- day Korngold, so why shouldn't he steal classily?).
As for the performance (and Korngold's compatriot, Franz Welser-Most, instinctively knows where this music is coming from), where would you go to marry central European tradition to American independence? Philadelphia, of course. The legacy of opulence fair drips from the last of the vocal fill-ups - "Marietta's Song", the palpable hit song from the 23-year-old Korngold's opera, Die tote Stadt. Barbara Hendricks's husky, fluttery timbre has less of a reach these days, and in this aria it shows. But almost as if to compensate, Welser-Most has his Philadelphia violins lay on the most indecently long-fingered and sensuous portamento in the postlude. And that's what it's all about. Edward Seckerson
Song of the Nightingale
Chicago SO / Fritz Reiner
RCA 09026 68168 2
"Play with glow, not perspiration" - Fritz Reiner's exhortation pays off in a Scheherazade that is without equal, either in whole or in part. This so-called martinet paints Rimsky's "Prince and Princess" in the most mellifluous tones imaginable: the opening string melody wafts in with the utmost finesse, while the many eloquent solos that follow suggest an orchestra made up of regal virtuosos.
Knowledgeable enthusiasts will, of course, cite classic Philharmonia sessions for comparison; and yet could anyone honestly claim that even the late Dennis Brain produced a more seductive horn tone than Philip Farkas does on this 1960 recording? Producer Richard Mohr tells us that the lightning-framed "Festival at Bagdad" was achieved in a single take, though no one would have guessed: every strand is crystal-clear, every climax meticulously gauged. Delicacy alternates with drama, and warmth with a controlled wildness that brings this most lovable of tone-paintings vividly to life.
The coupling is a plush, lavishly coloured account of Stravinsky's parable of real and mechanical nightingales. Here the sound is marginally harder (the recording dates from four years earlier), but the performance brings out the Rimsky in Stravinsky's soul. RCA's "Living Stereo" reissue was produced by the late John Pfeiffer. Need I say more? Robert Cowan
I just knew I was going to hate this release. I mean, just look at that cast list - a calculated outrage to all right-thinking music-lovers, brought up to believe that Mozart (like God and Handel before him) was an honorary Englishman, only to be entrusted to the interpretative refinements of an Anthony Rolfe Johnson or a John Eliot Gardiner. And no, this is not a recording for purists: no concluding ballet sequence, no restored cuts, no appendices stuffed full of alternative recitatives. Just a straightforward, big-band version of "Mannheim 1781".
Nor is the opening scene any too promising, with an insipidly "petite" Ilia from Heidi Grant Murphy. A sense of calm before the storm may well be in order here, but these
Placido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli, Carol Vaness, Heidi Grant Murphy, etc
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / James Levine
DG 447 737-2
still waters conceal nothing but shallows beneath. Yet, from the moment Cecilia Bartoli's vibrant Idamante arrives on stage, the performance takes wing, her luscious, tight vibrato perfectly capturing the adolescent trauma of the young prince, torn between filial devotion and a guilty passion for his Trojan prisoner of war.
Then, from out the tempest that Carol Vaness's suitably squally Electra seems to bring in her wake, steps Domingo's Cretan king, the throb in his throat evoking tragic pre-echoes of another operatic hero emerging triumphant from the storm-tossed Med.
Verdian overtones persist throughout James Levine's sweeping, driven reading, which yet encompasses the still, hieratic mystery of the Act 3 temple scenes (try the exquisite Cavatina - pizzicato divisi strings, plangent wind).
With a briefly oracular appearance from Bryn "The Voice" Terfel, and Thomas Hampson almost too smooth as the oleaginous Arbace, ever ready to pour some vocal oil upon troubled waters, this is clearly a first choice for all but obsessive authenticsts. Mark Pappenheim
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