Queue 'Gramophone Top 10s'

The 50 greatest Mozart recordings

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Mozart recordings available

The 50 greatest Mozart recordings
The 50 greatest Mozart recordings

It is a sure sign of the greatness of Mozart's music that it has proved so ripe for re-interpretation and discovery by every generation of musicians for 250 years. In the list below we have gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Mozart's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from Dennis Brain and George Szell to Arabella Steinbacher and the Jussen brothers. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

 

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Clarinet Concerto. Oboe Concerto. Flute and Harp Concerto

Wolfgang Meyer cl Hans-Peter Westermann ob Robert Wolf fl Naoko Yoshino hp Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec/Warner Classics)

There are happy and shapely performances of all three concertos here, but the particular delight is that of the latest and greatest of them, the Clarinet Concerto, which Wolfgang Meyer plays on a basset clarinet – that is, an instrument with an extension allowing it to add four semitones at the bottom of its compass. This is the instrument for which the work was originally composed, although only a text adapted to the normal clarinet has come down to us. The reconstruction used here, slightly different in some of its detail from others I have heard, works very well, making the familiar text’s rough places plain and logical; and it serves ideally for Meyer, with his rich and oily bottom register.

The first-movement tempo is on the leisurely side, giving him plenty of opportunity for refined and subtle moulding of the lines. Even the bravura music, shaded with delicacy, emerges with expressive content, and I admired especially Meyer’s light, fluid articulation of semiquaver runs. There is a rapt account of the Adagio and a lively Rondo, beautifully articulated; in both, the availability of the extra notes makes clear the logic of Mozart’s lines as he must have conceived them. Meyer has less rounded, more reedy a tone than many players favour. He adds a little ornamentation here and there, where Mozart seems to invite it; just once or twice I wasn’t quite comfortable with what he did. Altogether, though, a very musical and appealing performance.

In the Flute and Harp Concerto there is some delicate, clear playing from both soloists in what is perhaps a slightly austere reading of the first movement. The Andantino, too, is taken rather slowly, and with a chamber-musical refinement, with coolly aristocratic flute playing from Robert Wolf and gently expressive shaping from Naoko Yoshino. I thought the finale was a little restrained and pensive, certainly graceful but not quite as dance-like or as much fun as this gavotte-rhythm piece ought to be (and the interpretation of the appoggiatura in the main theme seems to me perverse). Hans-Peter Westermann contributes a sweet-toned and neatly phrased account of the Oboe Concerto, yet again rather leisured in tempo, in the finale in particular, and with one or two orchestral oddities especially in matters of accentuation (characteristic of Harnoncourt’s direction). But altogether a disc with much polished and sensitive playing. Stanley Sadie (March 2001)

 

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Horn Concertos

Dennis Brain hn Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

(Warner Classics)

Dennis Brain was the finest Mozartian soloist of his generation. Again and again Karajan matches the graceful line of his solo phrasing (the Romance of No 3 is just one ravishing example), while in the Allegros the crisply articulated, often witty comments from the Philharmonia violins are a joy. The glorious tone and the richly lyrical phrasing of every note from Brain himself is life-enhancing in its radiant warmth. The Rondos aren't just spirited, buoyant, infectious and smiling, although they're all these things, but they have the kind of natural flow that Beecham gave to Mozart.

There's also much dynamic subtlety – Brain doesn't just repeat the main theme the same as the first time, but alters its level and colour. His legacy to future generations of horn players has been to show them that the horn – a notoriously difficult instrument – can be tamed absolutely and that it can yield a lyrical line and a range of colour to match any other solo instrument. He was tragically killed, in his prime, in a car accident while travelling home overnight from the Edinburgh Festival. He left us this supreme Mozartian testament which may be approached by others but rarely, if ever, equalled, for his was uniquely inspirational music-making, with an innocent-like quality to make it the more endearing. It's a pity to be unable to be equally enthusiastic about the recorded sound. The remastering leaves the horn timbre, with full Kingsway Hall resonance, unimpaired, but has dried out the strings. This, though, remains a classic recording.

 

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Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra No 10. Flute and Harp Concerto. Horn Concerto No 3

Ulrich Hübner hn Frank Theuns fl Marjan de Haern hp Yoko Kaneko pf Anima Eterna / Jos van Immerseel pf

(Zig-Zag)

Director and fortepianist Jos van Immerseel is a veritable pioneer of period Mozart. Belgian period-instrument orchestra Anima Eterna’s exuberant performances reveal a natural union of pioneering spirit and refreshing musical flavours. The performers show commendable integrity in their approach to using historical instruments: the characteristics and origins of the solo instruments are each enthusiastically described in the booklet-note but the loving care given to detail in this joyful music means this is never in danger of seeming merely a dour academic exercise.

The invigorating Concerto for two pianos (Salzburg, 1779-80) opens proceedings with a revitalising fix of blazing horns, vibrant woodwind and articulate strings. Anima Eterna’s stunning playing in the tuttis is perfectly balanced with the fluent playing of Immerseel and Yoko Kaneko. After such joie de vivre, the Flute and Harp Concerto (Paris, 1778) features sensitively judged playing from Frank Theuns and Marjan de Haer. I have rarely encountered such an affectionate and warmly stylish performance of the Allegro, and the Andantino is ravishing.

Ulrich Hübner plays with attractive immediacy in the Third Horn Concerto, composed around 1787: the poetic Romance has a lyrical elegance one seldom hears from even the best natural horn players, and an infectiously sunny performance of the dance-like Allegro concludes this magnificent recording with a charismatic flourish. These performances are radiant: if you buy only one Mozart CD this anniversary year, let it be this one. David Vickers (August 2006)

 

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Complete Piano Concertos

English Chamber Orchestra / Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

Mozart concertos from the keyboard are unbeatable. There's a rightness, an effortlessness, about doing them this way that makes for heightened enjoyment. So many of them seem to gain in vividness when the interplay of pianist and orchestra is realised by musicians listening to each other in the manner of chamber music. Provided the musicians are of the finest quality, of course. We now just take for granted that the members of the English Chamber Orchestra will match the sensibility of the soloist. They are on top form here, as is Perahia, and the finesse of detail is breathtaking.

Just occasionally Perahia communicates an 'applied' quality – a refinement which makes some of his statements sound a little too good to be true. But the line of his playing, appropriately vocal in style, is exquisitely moulded; and the only reservations one can have are that a hushed, 'withdrawn' tone of voice, which he's little too ready to use, can bring an air of selfconsciousness to phrases where ordinary, radiant daylight would have been more illuminating; and that here and there a more robust treatment of brilliant passages would have been in place. However, the set is entirely successful on its own terms – whether or not you want to make comparisons with other favourite recordings.

Indeed, we now know that records of Mozart piano concertos don't come any better played than here.

 

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Piano Concerto No 22

Alfred Brendel pf Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(Philips)

Brendel's first recording of Mozart's expansive and luxuriantly scored Piano Concerto in E flat , K482 appeared 14 years ago (8/69), and it is fascinating to compare it with this new one. Both are notable for their sense of style and their clean but always sensitive and musical articulation in runs, and both show a readiness to embellish Mozart's oflen sketchy melodic line: indeed, Brendel's elaboration of the solo part in the lovely Andantino cantabile episode in the final Rondo might almost be considered overdone, tasteful though it is. But the new performance has, as one would expect, a maturity and authority not to be found in the earlier one; the cadenzas (by Brendel himself - Mozart's own were probably never written down, and have certainly not survived) are appropriate and reasonably succinct; and Brendel is less eager to join in the orchestral tutti, a practice which, though historically justifiable, makes musical nonsense when the solo instrument is a modern grand. In addition, the new recording, technically first-rate, has the benefit of exemplary accompaniment by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the unerring guidance of Neville Marriner. For anyone wanting a recording of K482 as near perfection as one is likely to get, this new issue is the obvious answer. Robin Golding (October 1977)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 18-22

Northern Sinfonia / Imogen Cooper pf

(Avie)

Imogen Cooper’s two previous Mozart concerto releases with the Northern Sinfonia and Bradley Creswick (12/06 and 8/08) have both been roundly praised and no one who enjoyed them is likely to be disappointed by this latest instalment. Indeed, the qualities that make Cooper quite simply one of the finest pianists this country has produced make her perfect for Mozart duty. Clear but velvety ringing tone, perfect voicing of chords, unsleeping alertness to the necessary subtleties of rubato and line, and above all an ability to realise this music’s intimate poetry that can make you catch your breath, make these performances the kind that any musician should listen to and learn from.

There are good opportunities to display such artistry in these two concertos, both of which have minor-key slow movements of considerable emotional sophistication, to which Cooper responds with depth and grace. She is not always quite matched in this by the orchestra, it must be said – the wind episodes in the Andante of K482 are rather cold and the rapt beauties of Cooper’s playing of the minuet theme in the same work’s finale are slightly trodden on by the unison violin line that goes with it – but in general the Northern Sinfonia provide backing that is musically engaged, texturally transparent and technically right up to the mark. Their opening to K482 has all the rich grandeur it needs, and here indeed is one quality which some listeners may feel is a little lacking in Cooper. Likewise playfulness and simple hard-edged brilliance of tone, for instance in Paul Badura-Skoda’s witty cadenzas for K482 or the lead-backs in the finale of K456. But then, when what she does give us is so much, why worry too much about what she doesn’t? Lindsay Kemp (January 2011)

 

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Piano Concerto No 27. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365

Emil Gilels, Elena Gilels pfs Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm

(DG)

This is the most beautiful of Mozart playing, his last piano concerto given here by Emil Gilels with total clarity. This is a classic performance, memorably accompanied by the VPO and Böhm. Suffice it to say that Gilels sees everything and exaggerates nothing, that the performance has an Olympian authority and serenity, and that the Larghetto is one of the glories of the gramophone. He's joined by his daughter Elena in the Double Piano Concerto in E flat, and their physical relationship is mirrored in the quality, and the mutual understanding of the playing: both works receive marvellous interpretations.

We think Emil plays first, Elena second, but could be quite wrong. The VPO under Karl Böhm is at its best; and so is the quality of recording, with a good stereo separation of the two solo parts, highly desirable in this work. Stephen Plaistow (November 1974)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 18 & 22

Ronald Brautigam fp Cologne Academy / Michael Alexander Willens

(BIS)

In a letter to his daughter Nannerl, Leopold Mozart expressed his pleasure at the interplay of the various instruments after hearing Wolfgang perform the B flat Concerto, K456. I experienced comparable delight listening to this beautifully recorded performance from Ronald Brautigam and the responsive Cologne period band. In a Mozartian opera reimagined in instrumental terms, fortepiano, wind and strings conspire and banter with captivating grace and legerdemain.

Likewise using a modern copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano, Brautigam favours rather fleeter tempi, and a more direct style of phrasing, than Robert Levin on his fine L’Oiseau Lyre recording with Christopher Hogwood (11/96 – nla). In the first movement, with its suggestion of a march for toy soldiers, Levin is more reflective, Brautigam more playfully extrovert, stressing continuity of line above rhythmic and tonal nuance. I prefer Brautigam’s more flowing manner in the G minor Andante, where Levin’s minute inflections can sound over-exquisite. The period woodwind, led by the virginal solo flute, are especially delectable in the serenading G major variation. As to the ‘hunting’ finale, you’d go far to hear a performance of such darting wit and panache, or one that exudes such a sense of delighted collusion between woodwind – each one an operatic character in itself – and the fortepiano’s sweet, silvery treble.

In the more opulently scored K482 (trumpets and drums, oboes replaced by clarinets) I ideally wanted a fuller string tone than the 14 Cologne players can muster. That said, the performance is scarcely less enjoyable than that of K456, not least in the C minor Andante, which at Brautigam’s unusually mobile tempo is just as touching, and (in the confrontational second variation) more dramatic, than in more gravely paced readings. Brautigam generates an exhilarating forward sweep in the regal opening movement – Levin (9/98 – nla) is more inclined to linger over detail – and an infectious sense of fun in the finale, where swiftness never compromises immaculate clarity of articulation. His own cadenzas are short and to the point. Levin’s are longer, cleverer and more consciously showy. Again, some may find Brautigam too swift in the finale’s sensuous Così fan tutte-ish interlude, with its ravishing clarinet sonorities. For me the easily flowing pace and delicate touches of embellishment, predictably less lavish than Levin’s, mesh perfectly with the animated naturalness of the whole performance. Richard Wigmore (July 2014)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 20 & 25

Martha Argerich pf Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

(DG)

A disc of Mozart piano concertos recorded in concert by Martha Argerich with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart was always going to be a delicious prospect. Hearing of Abbado’s death as I write these words turns the pleasure of hearing it into something altogether more bittersweet. Lucky were those souls who heard these performances of the D minor Concerto, K466, and the C major Concerto, K503, at the Lucerne Festival last March – an experience denied London audiences a few months later when first the ailing Abbado and then Argerich cancelled their appearances. (Not that the stand-ins were any sort of disappointment – Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires.)

Both Argerich and Abbado have returned to Mozart late in their careers: she revisiting the piano duets and a handful of concertos; he forming the hand-picked and youthful Orchestra Mozart specifically for the purpose. Not uncharacteristically for her, the present concertos are both works she has recorded before – the D minor in 1998 (Teldec/Elatus, 6/99), the C major in 1978 (EMI, 4/00) and again as recently as 2012, during that year’s Progetto Martha Argerich at Lugano (EMI, 8/13). Of that last recording, Caroline Gill wrote that it was ‘musically and technically equal to anything she has recorded in the studio’; but here again she surpasses herself. The backing of the exquisitely refined Orchestra Mozart grants full rein to her personal brand of expressivity. Every note matters, both individually and as part of a phrase, and once again her microscopic alterations of touch make even the most mundane run of semiquavers dance and sing, imparting something undefinable and treasurable to her performances here.

The C major comes first on the disc, the grandeur of Abbado’s introduction contrasting with the spirited filigree of Argerich’s solo contribution. She is fully alive to the darker undertow of the D minor, perhaps the only disappointment being Abbado’s refusal fully to acknowledge the way the work’s Sturm und Drang demeanour is undercut by the whiff of Singspiel at the work’s close, the sound world of Don Giovanni giving way to that of Papageno and The Magic Flute. Argerich sets off with a will in the finale but doesn’t let herself get carried away in the Romanze’s central convulsion, sticking firmly to the tempo of the gentler outer sections. Where she does let go the full power of her virtuosity is in the cadenzas: her teacher Friedrich Gulda’s in K503, the familiar Beethoven in K466. Familiar, perhaps, but rendered almost hallucinogenic when refracted through the prism of her unique musical imagination. David Threasher (March 2014)

 

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Double Concertos

Lucas Jussen, Arthur Jussen pfs Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(DG)

Mozart’s Concerto for three pianos, K242, was composed in 1776 for the Countess Lodron and her two daughters, and later arranged for (the only slightly more convenient) two pianos. The Concerto for two pianos proper followed in 1779 and was conceived for Mozart himself and his sister Nannerl to perform together. Much play is made of the opportunities for the pianos to echo each other or hocket figures between the two instruments, as well as simply letting one accompany the other or one provide harmonic filling to the melody of the other. It follows that this music is ideally cast for a pair of pianists who match each other in tone, temperament and technique. Two brothers, for instance.

Lucas (b1993) and Arthur (b1996) Jussen are such an ideal pair, right down to their identical floppy blond hair, black T-shirts and winklepickers. It’s not quite that only their mother can tell them apart, but on hearing them play these two duet concertos, even she might struggle. The cadenza in K365’s opening movement ends with a chromatic scale over three and a half octaves, split between the two pianos, and I swear you can’t hear the join. Those moments where the two pianos toss a motif between each other sound for all the world like a single instrument. And each knows when to fine his tone down to pianissimo to let the other have his moment in the spotlight.

The Jussen boys have found perhaps the perfect collaborator in Sir Neville Marriner, who has conducted more Mozart than most; the Academy acquit themselves well. The disc closes with the sonata that all amateur duettists attempt – the D major of 1772 – perhaps not played with the freedom that comes with the experience enjoyed by Pires and Argerich in Lugano but with a youthful exuberance that’s entirely appropriate for music by a 16-year-old composer. David Threasher (January 2016)

 

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Violin Concertos

Giuliano Carmignola vn Mozart Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

(Archiv)

Virtuoso “violinism” and energising direction notwithstanding, neither Giuliano Carmignola nor Claudio Abbado seems inspired by the B flat Concerto, K207. Nor does slick dispatch do much for the first movement of the D major, K211; but this is not the shape of things to come. Carmignola steps away from neutrality in the succeeding Andante. The music breathes a life of its own as he ardently inflects its phrases to shape the tension and relaxation of his line which – as elsewhere – he also embellishes. And pauses are decorated with lead-ins. Here is personal involvement that from now on is present in full flower.

It’s a flowering for Abbado too, as he summons a passionate advocacy that takes in the implications of key and time signatures on atmosphere and pacing, uses dynamic markings and intuitive accents to keep rhythm aloft, adjusts the timbres of the wind instruments (oboes are vivid or subdued, horns play in alto or basso) to suit the colouration he requires, and aerates the orchestral fabric for maximum clarity. Conducting and interpretation are in the realms of greatness – and no mistake.

In the solo concertos, Carmignola is recorded with varying but small changes of volume. His positioning is steadier in the Sinfonia concertante; and so is his placement with the artistic, if slightly reticent, Danusha Waskiewicz. Nevertheless, their skilled dovetailing and intelligent use of tone colour speak of symbiosis. Abbado remains primus inter pares, watchful, supportive and fortifying. Pity the sound isn’t always clear and detailed. Superlative music making deserves consistently superlative recording. Nalen Anthoni (September 2008)

 

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Composer: 

Top 10 Grieg recordings

Gramophone Wed 13th April 2016

Gramophone's guide to the essential recordings of Edvard Grieg's music – from Dinu Lipatti to Anne Sofie von Otter

Top 10 Grieg recordings
Top 10 Grieg recordings

Piano Concerto

Leif Ove Andsnes pf Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Mariss Jansons

(Warner Classics)

'However many times he has performed the Grieg, Andsnes retains a freshness and expressiveness that never sounds contrived, always spontaneous. That inspirational quality is more markedly perceptible with the new version’s faster tempi, but the expressive flights remain just as broad. In that contrast, Andsnes is firmly supported by Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic, with playing not just refined but dramatic too in fiercely exciting tuttis...' Read the review

 

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Piano Concerto

Stephen Kovacevich pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis

(Philips)

'Kovacevich’s indelibly fresh performance has enchanted for over three decades now. Felicities abound, not least the agile bravura of the first-movement cadenza and captivating skip of the finale.' 

 

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Piano Concerto

Dinu Lipatti pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Alceo Galliera

(Warner Classics)

'Very special playing from Dinu Lipatti; the poetry and rapt beauty of this famous 1947 performance linger long in the memory. It is included here on a seven-disc retrospective – pure gold, all of it!'

 

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Lyric Pieces – excerpts

Leif Ove Andsnes pf

(Warner Classics)

'Taking you on a journey of increasing subtlety and introspection, he makes you aware that so much of this music is for those long winter nights. At the same time the music is so richly varied: the insistent dactylic rhythm of ‘Melody’ creates a strange unsettling poetic ambience, while the central oasis of calm in ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ would surely melt a heart of stone. All Andsnes’s performances have that deceptive simplicity which is his touchstone...' Read the review

 

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Lyric Pieces

Emil Gilels pf 

(DG)

'Here, surely, is a classic recording, one of calibre and status for all time. Rarely can a great artist have declared his love with such touching candour. By his own admission Gilels discovered in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces a “whole world of intimate feeling” and at the 1974 sessions fought tirelessly to capture their intricate mix of innocence and experience. The results are of an unblemished purity, grace and contained eloquence...' Read the review 

 

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Songs

Anne Sofie von Otter mez Bengt Forsberg pf

'A superbly vigorous and urgent account of A Hope, a wistful, sweetly voiced and played account of Spring (another well-known piece)—extraordinary intensity in the second verse—the charming account of the teasing While I wait and a deeply poetic one of the justly renowned From Monte Pincio are just three definitive interpretations towards the end of a recital that will unquestionably be one of the discs of the year and is a 'must' for any collection of songs, indeed a collection of any kind. It cannot help but afford pleasure. Don't miss it...' Read the review

 

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Cello Sonata

Steven Isserlis vc Stephen Hough pf

(Hyperion)

'Isserlis and Hough balance the urgency of the opening theme of Grieg’s glorious sonata with a luminous reading of the rhapsodic second idea and everywhere their reading glints with conviction. Hough sets a slightly faster pace in the second movement than Pascal Amoyel for Bertrand (another exceptionally fine interpretation), and Isserlis is matchless in the way he tugs at the simple melody to heart-rending effect. The cellist is also deeply moving in the solo opening of the third movement before the lively Halling bursts in...' Read the review

 

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Ballade in G minor

Sigurd Slåttebrekk pf

(Simax)

'His way with the Piano Concerto is magnificently assured and free of self-serving idiosyncrasy but it is in the Ballade that he achieves his greatest stature and distinction. Played on Grieg’s 1892 Steinway in Troldhaugen, these performances are of a moving poetic empathy and musical devotion...' Read the review

 

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Peer Gynt Suites

BPO / Herbert von Karajan

(DG)

'Very impressive indeed. Somehow one feels that one could stretch out and touch the players, so vivid is the sound here. Peer Gynt is most beautifully done. At times you might think the wind could have been a shade more distant, particularly in the ‘By the seashore’ movement but there’s no want of atmosphere here – quite the contrary! Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a marvellous recording.'

 

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In Autumn. Lyric Suite, etc 

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Eivind Aadland 

(Audite)

'The first two discs in this ‘Complete Symphonic Works’ series were outstanding. This third is wholly exceptional. The presence of the overture In Autumn and the Old Norwegian Romance with Variations gives the programme a Beechamesque feel. But Aadland and his astonishingly well-integrated German ensemble – by this I mean that they are guided into a natural-sounding Nordic style – need fear nothing by way of competition, not even from the RPO’s dream woodwind section...' Read the review

 

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And one more – if you can find it!

Piano Concerto

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli pf New Philharmonia Orchestra / Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

(BBC Legends)

'A sense of joyous rhapsody buoys up Michelangeli’s playing from first note to last, yet everything is founded on a bedrock of high intelligence, taste and natural authority. And I nearly forgot to mention the fabulous tone-colours he draws from the instrument. His slow movement is by turns balmy and ecstatic, and the finale has terrific drive. Scarcely a phrase that does not sound newly minted; never a note that sounds contrived or unspontaneous. And the virtuosity … ! If your hair is not standing on end in the finale’s coda I suggest an urgent medical check-up. Forget the boxy recording and the hissy background. This is a performance that entirely merits the hysterical cheers that greet it...' Read the review

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Composer: 

Top 10 Ives recordings

Gramophone Thu 21st April 2016

Many of Ives's works present unique challenges for the performers brave and dedicated enough to tackle them, let alone commit them to disc. Here are some of the finest Ives recordings in the catalogue...

Top 10 Ives recordings
Top 10 Ives recordings

Psalms

Kay Johannsen org SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart / Marcus Creed

(Hänssler Classic)

'These 10 psalms are not first recordings but most of them have dropped out of the catalogue, so this is largely unknown Ives. This fine collection is a revelation in performances like these from the outstanding Stuttgart choir under its British conductor...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 2. The Unanswered Question

New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

(DG)

'This wonderful symphony begins sounding for all the world as though it longs to be Brahms's Second or Dvořák's Eighth. The old European traditions roll out in well-nourished strings and text-book counterpoints; here and there a hint of New England rural is tempered with a little Johann Sebastian; but only when ''Columbia, Gem of the Ocean'' pops up in the horns do we know we are well and truly in Ives country. Bernstein makes a point of playing it like Brahms, with bows richly drawn in appreciation – a thanksgiving hymn from old America. He conducted the scandalously belated premiere back in 1951 and is known to love it more than any other American symphony...' Read the review

 

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‘A Song - For Anything’

Gerald Finley bar Julius Drake pf

(Hyperion)

'Gerald Finley has made many excellent records and, as far as I can recall, never a poor or indifferent one. But if he is not by this time universally recognised as a singer of the front rank, this should leave no doubt of it. These songs can encourage at one extreme a rough declamatory style and at the other an almost voiceless intimacy. Without in any way underplaying, Finley is always essentially a singer – his tone and command of the singing line are a pleasure in themselves. But he also has the absolute mastery of the composer’s idioms and, with Julius Drake, his fearless and totally committed pianist, the technical, virtuosic skills to realise his intentions with complete conviction of naturalness...' Read the review

 

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Piano Works and Songs

Susan Graham mez Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf

(Warner Classics)

'Ives’s imagination – his rampant theatricality – should have made for great operas. Instead he wrote songs: capsule dramas laid out not in scenes or acts but moments in time. Susan Graham inhabits 17 such moments – nostalgic (‘Songs my mother taught me’), visionary (‘A sound of distant horn’), cryptic (‘Soliloquy’), brutal (‘1, 2, 3’), expectant (‘Thoreau’) – and the feminine and masculine qualities of her voice, to say nothing of her musical sensibility, easily encompass the ‘expectancy and ecstasy’ promised by the song ‘Memories’ – which appropriately enough recalls her (and others like her) as a little girl ‘sitting in the opera house’. Aimard is again a one-man band. Almost literally so in ‘The Circus Band’. When Graham shouts ‘hear the trombones’, you really do...' Read the review

 

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Violin Sonatas

Curt Thompson vn Rodney Waters pf

Naxos

'In reviewing ECM’s Hansheinz Schneeberger and Daniel Cholette, I indicated problems that European performers can have with Ives. Compared with Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon they failed to swing and their recorded sound is unattractive. There’s no problem with the Texan-born Curt Thompson, who has delved deeply into Ives in a doctoral thesis on these sonatas. He and Rodney Waters make an excellent duo...' Read the review

 

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'Charles Ives - An American Journey'

Thomas Hampson bar San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas

(RCA)

'If anyone has a hot­line to the cortex of Ives’s imagination‚ it is Michael Tilson Thomas. The programme he has devised here is not so much a journey‚ more a stream of consciousness through the hinterlands of Ives Americana. An alternative American dream. It’s about the things that mattered to Ives: the times‚ places‚ events that fashioned the nation and enabled it to find its own way. It’s a landscape of ballad songs and snatches‚ of hymns‚ marches‚ tall tales and short orders‚ assembled exactly as the man remem­bered them and entirely in keeping with the chaotic comedy of life. But above all‚ it’s about the spirit within us all – great and small...' Read the review

 

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Concord Sonata

Philip Mead pf

(Metier)

'Philip Mead’s performance is loud, rude and jammed with idiosyncratic corners. Charles Ives would have been hugely appreciative and admiring...'

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

 

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Three Orchestral Sets

Malmo Chamber Chorus; Malmö Symphony Orchestra / James Sinclair

(Naxos)

'The novelty here is the Third Set. The first two movements come from sketches edited by David Gray Porter. The opening Andante has a structure similar to Central Park in the Dark with typical Ives chords and a texture building to a crisis with something left hanging softly at the end. The second movement is called “During Camp Meetin’ Week: One Secular Afternoon”. This again is Ives’s idiosyncratic territory with lots of quotations including “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” twice and a four-part hymn about the Day of Judgement – not so secular after all?...' Read the review

 

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Central Park in the Dark. Three Places in New England, etc

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

(Chandos)

'The two early Ives symphonies recorded by the same team (5/15) are relatively plain sailing compared with some of these pieces, which are just as shocking as they always have been. I mean the great blasts of glorious frenzy in Central Park in the Dark; ‘The Fourth of July’; and the second and third movements of Three Places in New England, all written – amazingly – in the early years of the last century. The difference between the many recordings depends on which elements of an overcrowded texture are allowed to dominate. For example, Ives quotes his own Country Band March in ‘Putnam’s Camp’ – it’s first heard early on in the strings, but at the last climax, with everything else going on as well, it’s less prominent with the Melbourne performance than in some. That’s all part of the richness of the Ives experience...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 4

Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale / Ludovic Morlot

(Seattle Symphony Media)

'From the start of the Fourth Symphony, the Seattle engineers raise the piano in the mix, its basso profundo low register punching above its weight as expressionistic strings swarm. And you begin to get an inkling of the symphony’s vistas and perspectives: solo strings, then flute, join the piano in invoking the chamber music sections of the Concord Sonata as the orchestra and chorus muscle up the volume. The second movement is especially fine, the ragtime rhythmic energy of the opening frogmarched towards thunderous burn-out as Morlot keeps subliminal details ticking over: the microtonal skid of a honky-tonk piano shyly peeks above the orchestral frame before dragging a solo violin into its orbit, all abruptly snuffed out by a loud-mouthed, raucous marching band...' Read the review

 

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Explore Charles Ives's life and music...

Charles Ives: lonely American giant

'He plunged ahead solely on the basis of his ear, his stamina, his conviction, his talent and his need to create' (John McClure, Gramophone, April 1967)... Read more

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

Charles Ives left his Concord Sonata for solo piano unfinished for a reason. But what that reason was remains unclear – which, says Philip Clark, presents a challenge to pianists who tackle the work on record... Read more

Composer: 

Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings

Gramophone Fri 8th April 2016

There are many truly great recordings of Rachmaninov's passionate music, but these 10 recordings would grace any classical collection

Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings
Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings

Piano Concerto No 2

Krystian Zimerman pf Boston SO / Seiji Ozawa

'A romantic to his fingertips, Zimerman inflects one familiar theme after another with a yearning, bittersweet intensity that he equates in his interview with first love. Hear him at 6'52" and ask yourself when you last heard this melody played with such a rapt sense of inwardness. Every page is alive with a sense of wonder at Rachmaninov’s genius. Seiji Ozawa and the Boston orchestra are ideal partners and DG’s sound and balance are fully worthy of this memorable release...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 2

 

London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn

'It has to be André Previn, whose rehabilitation of this symphony ranks among his most enduring contributions to our musical life.'

Read Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 – which recording is best?

 

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Preludes

Steven Osborne pf

'It’s all too easy to coarsen Rachmaninov’s melodic genius with an overtly applied emotionalism, its clearly drawn lines becoming smudged. But Osborne conveys both the monumentality of these pieces, even the most fleeting, and their very human qualities. It’s rare to find the balance so acutely achieved – with Ashkenazy, Donohoe and Richter tending more towards the former, Lympany and Shelley (Hyperion) towards the latter. The composer himself, of course, knew how to achieve that equilibrium, but then he had a head start.' Read the review

 

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Piano Concerto No 3

Vladimir Ashkenazy pf LSO / André Previn

'What nobility of feeling and what dark regions of the imagination he relishes and explores in page after page of the Third Concerto in particular. Significantly his opening is a very moderate Allegro ma non tanto, later allowing him an expansiveness and imaginative scope hard to find in other more ‘driven’ or hectic performances. His rubato, his sense of the music’s emotional ebb and flow, is as natural as it is distinctive and his way of easing from one idea to another (the first movement Allegro – Tempo precedent ma un poco piu mosso) shows him at his most intimately and romantically responsive...' Read the review

 

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The Bells

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

'Such a small thing as being able to appreciate the timbre of the piano in the first movement makes all the difference, emphasising the fact that Rachmaninov had the skill and imagination to conjure up the sonority of bells with little recourse to bells themselves. The performance is strong on mood, individual movements probingly characterised and eloquently drawn together as a structural entity...' Read the review

 

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Piano Sonata No 2

Steven Osborne pf

'This is Osborne’s own conflation of Rachmaninov’s two versions plus some borrowings from Horowitz’s composer-sanctioned version. Osborne justifies it as ‘a natural extension of the interpretative process’. So, does it convince? In a word, yes. What comes across most winningly is the ebb and flow of the work: the more inward passages are allowed to breathe; the extrovert ones are absolutely fiery. It’s not a work that could ever be summed up by a single interpretation: Horowitz is of course essential; so too, I would argue, is Kocsis. And the list could go on. But this is another terrific addition to the shelvesy' Read the review

 

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The Miserly Knight

Soloists; BBC PO / Gianandrea Noseda

'Rachmaninov decided in The Miserly Knight to set almost exactly word-for-word a prose poem-cum-play by Pushkin, one of his so-called “little tragedies”. Its central panel is a long monologue for the Baron (the Miserly Knight of the title), a role conceived with Chaliapin in mind and here sung with commanding presence and rich, malleable tone by Ildar Abdrazakov as he drools over his wealth and the cruel ways in which it has been amassed. He is well matched by, and contrasted with, the passionate tenor of Misha Didyk as his resentful son, Albert, and by the sly, ingratiating characterisation of the Moneylender by tenor Peter Bronder. Orchestral atmosphere, backed by a spectrum of colour comparable to that of the Second Symphony, is compellingly established by Noseda, whose theatrical instincts also reflect and enhance the opera’s dramatic thrust...' Read the review

 

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Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Daniil Trifonov pf Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin

'The opening bars tell you this is going to be a good ‘Pag Rhap’. As things turn out, it is a great one, up there with the very best. That includes the indispensable benchmark recording with the composer and the same orchestra made in 1934, just six weeks after they had given the premiere under Leopold Stokowski. Let’s deal first with DG’s sound: in the Rhapsody it is sumptuous, full-bodied and realistic, with a near-perfect balance between piano and orchestra. The Philadelphia’s silky strings and characterful woodwind are a joy, while the percussion department is suitably punchy without being overcooked.' Read the review

 

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Etudes-tableaux, Op 39

Nikolai Lugansky pf

'A pianist who has sometimes shrouded his mastery in detachment, he is here at his most audacious, willing to step outside convention and declaim Rachmaninov’s glory to the heavens. There is nothing reserved in what is surely the most freely expressive, personal and, at the climax, seething performance on record of No 2. No 3 is of a shot-from-guns virtuosity that makes you cry out like Miranda in The Tempest: "If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them."'

Read Rachmaninov's Etudes-tableaux, Op 39 – which recording should you buy?

 

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Vespers, 'All-Night Vigil'

Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Kļava

'Despite a wide dynamic range (which never sounds congested or harsh), the balance remains transparent. There is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic (though carefully graded) palette of vocal colours throughout, with plenty of sonorous bloom for those celebrated deep bass notes. Praise also goes to the tenors, whose highest notes sound so effortlessly sweet and fluid, and to the upper voices, who bring out the tolling bells in the Nunc dimittis most beautifully...' Read the review

 

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Composer: 

Top 10 Mahler symphony recordings

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Gustav Mahler said, 'My symphonies represent the contents of my entire life.'

Top 10 recordings of Mahler's symphonies

The reviews below are taken from our Reviews Database, which offers more than 40,000 fully-searchable reviews published since 1983. Want to see what we think of the latest releases? Interested in how our critics rated your favourite recordings from the past? The Reviews Database makes reading more than three decades’ worth of opinions by our expert critics easier than ever. To subscribe to this unique resource, visit gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

No 1

Symphony No 1

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík

(DG)

This distinguished coupling has already been available at bargain price so its appearance in The Originals livery comes as something of a surprise. That said, the packaging is first-rate and the notes interesting and thoughtful. On the first appearance of the symphony in 1968, Deryck Cooke observed that Rafael Kubelik was “essentially a poetic conductor and he gets more poetry out of this symphony than any of the other conductors who have recorded it”. Bruno Walter was, he felt, Kubelik’s only rival in this regard and he was much taken with the “natural delicacy and purity” of the interpretation. Unlike Walter, Kubelik takes the repeat of the first movement’s short exposition. Strange, then, that he should ignore the single repeat sign in the Landler when he seems so at ease with the music. Notwithstanding a fondness for generally brisk tempos in Mahler, Kubelik is never afraid of rubato here, above all in his very personally inflected account of the slow movement. This remains a delight. The finale now seems sonically a little thin, with the trumpets made to sound rather hard-pressed and the final climax failing to open out as it can in more modern recordings. The orchestral contribution is very good even if absolute precision isn’t guaranteed. In the first movement we do not get genuinely quiet playing from the horns at 9'30'' whereupon the active part of the development is rather untidily thrust upon us.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s second recording of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen has worn rather less well, the spontaneous ardour of his earlier performance (with Furtwangler and the Philharmonia – EMI, 6/87) here tending to stiffen into melodrama and mannerism. There is of course much beautiful (if calculated) singing and he is most attentively accompanied, but the third song, “Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer”, is implausibly overwrought, bordering on self-parody. By contrast, Kubelik’s unpretentious, Bohemian approach to the symphony remains perfectly valid. A corrective to the grander visions of those who conduct the music with the benefit of hindsight and the advantages of digital technology? Perhaps. David Gutman (February 1997)

 

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No 2 

Symphony No 2 

Royal; Kožená; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

The first movement was something of a sticking-point in Rattle’s CBSO recording of the piece and it’s still after all these years a bone of contention – only here it’s the well-upholstered Berlin Philharmonic strings that sound the first unconvincing notes. Even that naked tremolando at the outset has what can only be described as a “covered” sound such as might be deployed by a singer of the old school. The shuddering declamations from cellos and basses are similarly devoid of that rosiny edge. And though this might be a by-product of EMI’s handsome Philharmonie recording keeping its distance, the circumspection and low-tension plod of the opening paragraph most certainly isn’t.

With the first appearance of the second subject the Berliners’ famed sostenuto comes into its own, with Rattle’s pronounced rubato perhaps over-accentuating the keening harmony – but the theme’s return, shyly emerging from the mists of time, is very beautiful, with voluptuous cor anglais again pointing to the BPO’s exceptional pedigree. But this is an orchestra so reluctant to make an ugly sound that perhaps what I miss most of all at the dramatic extremes of this movement is the coruscating effect of shrill, demented woodwinds and the brassy penetration of trumpets and trombones. Time and again the tutti sound strikes me as too blended.

The pacing, too, feels overly expansive despite Rattle’s meticulous adherence to Mahler’s frequent and often extreme tempo fluctuations. Certainly we’ve come a long way from Otto Klemperer’s celebrated EMI studio recording in which he systematically disregarded all such indications as if he were still conducting Todtenfeier, the first incarnation of the movement where none of these markings exist. One might include in that assessment the unmarked but traditional ritardando into the battering dissonance at the climax of the development. Rattle makes a meal of that. But surely it’s more shocking not to signal the arrival of the molto pesante? Isn’t that the reason Mahler pointedly avoided suggesting any slackening of pace in the moments before this shattering derailment?

The life-in-retrospect inner movements bring playing of exquisite tone and quick reflexes, with Rattle making much of the headlong panic which snaps us out of rosy reverie in the second movement. Again, in the Trio of the third movement, the trumpets are too blended for my taste, the “barbershop” harmony not cheesy enough to convey that old rustic charm. And when the quirky little ditty goes cosmic at the climax I just wanted more definition of trumpets and horns spinning the movement off its axis.

Magdalena Kožená brings her customary depth of feeling to the still maternal voice of “Urlicht” (though one or two switches of register evidence some discomfort); and notwithstanding moments where I would like the veneer stripped off the brass (especially the first trumpet), the finale – with magical spatial effects – is magnificent. Rattle’s famous piano-pianissimos are deployed to breathtaking effect, the choral passages (radiantly illuminated at the top by Kate Royal) sound pure, mysterious and very Bachian, and the returning resurrection hymn is tremendous.

There is still no completely ideal recording of this inspiring piece: if we could somehow conjure an amalgam of Rattle, Fischer, Bernstein and Tennstedt we’d be getting close. I personally am drawn back to Iván Fischer, while the recent live Tennstedt lays bare the whole burning issue of mortality with uncompromising force. If he is the Beast, then Rattle is undoubtedly Beauty. If only we could bring them together. Edward Seckerson (March 2011)

 

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No 3 

Symphony No 3

Lipton; Choir of the Transfiguration; NYPO / Leonard Bernstein 

''This is the first time I have ever heard Bernstein conduct Mahler, and I certainly hope that it will not be the last.'' So wrote the late Deryck Cooke in these pages in December 1962 of this very symphony. And the rest, as they say, is history. For me too, that particular recording made an immeasurable and lasting impression. To this day, I have regarded Bernstein's handling of the last movement alone—that majestic D major hymn to life and love—as the model against which all others must be measured. The courageous breadth of line (only Abbado on DG has since taken a comparable overview), the sustained intensity, the nobility, the inwardness—this is quite simply one of the finest pieces of Mahler conducting in my recollection. So here we are, nearly 30 years on, with Bernstein no less, if anything more, in awe of the movement, communicating still an overwhelming sense of its transcendental reverence, and coming, what's more, to within five seconds of his previous timing over a duration of some 25 minutes. That in itself is remarkable. Remarkable, too, is the orchestra that makes it all possible: the New York Philharmonic. They have always surpassed themselves in this movement, this symphony (after a decade-plus at their helm, Bernstein chose it for his final concert as Music Director—so it is significant).

They do so again here. If I might single out the 'final paragraph' from fig. 25 (CD2, track 9) where the solo flute seems to levitate above the orchestra and three trumpets and one trombone (in the most exquisitely blended sound) softly voice once more the noble hymn, right through to the big release at 5'19'' of track 9 with its ecstatic brass harmonies (as fine an example as I know of consonance through dissonance). This is marvellous.

Of course, one has to contend here with the somewhat thankless acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall, and DG have once more attempted to divert attention from its lifelessness by taking us in close to the action. I do miss the spacial perspectives of the old CBS sound, though arguably the reverse was true in that case and one craved a degree or two more impact from the flabbergasting sonorities of the first movement. One certainly gets that here: the dark grainy colour of low horns and contra-bassoon just after the opening summons, the dry rattle of bass drum triplets, the hollow oscillation of the woodwinds, the dramatic upsurges of cellos and basses as nature stirs, twitches from slumber. Bernstein injects great urgency into these seemingly involuntary impulses. Where Mahler marks bewegt (with mobility), one really feels movement in the phrasing. No one profiles the advancing march quite as zealously as Bernstein (piccolos, glockenspiel, trilling horns et al): the chaotic climax of the development, the passage Mahler himself dubbed ''the mob'', is given the full 'fife and drum' treatment, while the euphoric coda is precisely that, with Bernstein making even more now of those panoramic chords as summer sunshine floods the scene with light. A word, too, for the trombone soloist whose long solos progress so eloquently from primitive severity to melancholic regret.

As for the inner movements, Bernstein is possibly a little more relaxed and spontaneous of manner in his earlier account of the charming 'flower' minuet. One is marginally more conscious now of the rubato—the little nudges and hesitations—to say nothing of the puckish contrasts of the trios. In the 'animal' frolics of the third movement scherzo, there is little to choose between the two readings. Both are boldly characterized, Bernstein and his uninhibited New Yorkers revelling in the rough and ready polka rhythms and raucous bird calls. The magical post-horn obbligato of Mahler's second trio is as far-off and misty-eyed as it is possible to be without actually blurring clarity; perfect. My only serious disappointment concerns the Nietzsch ''Midnight Song'' setting—nothing, I hasten to add, to do with Christa Ludwig, who is fine, but a question of dynamics. The recording (surely not Bernstein?) never allows us a true pianissimo, leave alone the pppp marked at the close. The profound darkness, the inky misterioso of the opening page is all but lost here the murmuring cellos and basses (much too loud), and then muted horns, do not steal, as it were, into our consciousness.

But then, other contenders have their draw-backs too and none quite matches Bernstein's unique aura, not least in that wonderful last movement. I very much like the Tennstedt (EMI) Inbal (Denon), and—most of all—Abbado (DG) recordings. But even Abbado, for all his insight and sensitivity (his is unquestionably the most sheerly beautiful of current options), must yield to Bernstein in the matter of Mahler's elemental and uncompromising sound world. Tennstedt, too, scores heavily in this respect. If pressed, I might confess to having a slight preference for Bernstein's earlier CBS account (now on CD coupling the Ruckert and Jungendzeit Lieder), but tonally-speaking, the newcomer is not surprisingly the more vivid and opulent of the two. Either way, Bernstein's Mahler Third is special — and that cannot be overstressed. Edward Seckerson (June 1989)


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No 4 

Symphony No 4

Persson; Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer

What no one will deny is the amazing unanimity and precision of the playing here and the superlative quality of the sound engineering. But how to read a work that can feel brittle as well as heart-warming and graceful? Despite Iván Fischer’s eminently sane and central pacing overall, he courts controversy with inconsistencies of tone between (and individualised inflexions within) the four movements.

Some maestros choose between neo-classical modernity and old-world Gemütlichkeit. Fischer gives us both and more: he gives us instability. Rather than taking his cue from the opening bars in which the jingling sleigh bells might be construed to lose their way, Fischer mixes them down, introducing his own eccentric nuance a fraction later. He permits an oasis of exquisite repose just before the movement’s final flourish yet much of the rest is unsettling. While details unearthed are revelatory – often linear, maybe functional, certainly more than merely illustrative – the quest can seem obsessive, at odds with the sense of ease indicated by the composer. Make no mistake however, the playing has character and conviction, the divided violins enhancing transparency albeit at some expense of weight and blend. Less self-regarding or at least less wilful since the idiosyncrasies are intrinsic, the Scherzo goes wonderfully well, with solo violin and clarinets in particular excelling themselves. The slow movement is just a little pale, as if Fischer were deliberately avoiding the calculated sublimity and cushioned string tone associated with big-band performances of late Beethoven. The gates of Heaven are flung open with a great blare, possibly a bit much for home listening but replicating the immediacy of the concert hall. In the finale, Fischer achieves novelty chiefly through understatement, mindful of the need to avoid coyness at all costs. Miah Persson is ideally cast and as she invokes Saint Martha at 3'56" it’s as if we’re transported to a small village church, the organ made tangible in the exquisite treatment of the accompanying instrumental texture.

This is just one of countless imaginative touches on an exceptional hybrid SACD. That said, I’m still in two minds about it. Is Mahler’s emotive force blunted by Fischer’s careful manicure? David Gutman (April 2009)

 

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No 5 

Symphony No 5

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Philip Larkin famously suggested ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three… Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’. The seeds of Mahlermania were sown at much the same time, though not in Berlin where the Philharmonic barely knew who Mahler was. Barbirolli knew, of course, but there is no disguising the fact that this fondly remembered 1964 Mahler Ninth is orchestrally inadequate. The performance of the Adagio could be said to be a ‘Great Recording of the Century’. It is the earlier movements that are the problem. Barbirolli’s pacing of the first movement is forward-moving but the performance seems sluggish, the textures foggy, everyone waiting for someone else to make the next move. No wonder the recording soon died the death as a ‘selected comparison’.

Barbirolli’s 1969 Mahler Fifth already has its place in ‘Great Recordings’, and rightly so. The work is a terror to bring off but, brought off, is a joy beyond measure. It made a fine nuptial offering for Rattle and the Berliners on September 7 – festive yet challenging, a tragi-comic revel and a high-wire act to boot. ‘The individual parts are so difficult,’ wrote Mahler, ‘they call for the most accomplished soloists.’ I watched the television transmission slack-jawed as the principal trumpet performed dazzling feats of virtuosity without for a moment violating the tenets of good ensemble playing. Rattle brought the prodigious first horn to the apron of the stage for his obbligato contribution in the Scherzo. Mengelberg’s conducting score, which Mahler used for the work’s Amsterdam première in 1906, has an annotation to this effect, and the practice was followed at the work’s English première in 1945, but I am left wondering what would have happened had Rattle not brought the player forward. EMI’s recording is splendidly explicit, but the horn section, which plays a crucial role at key moments in the symphony, seems oddly distant on CD.

The tutti sound Rattle draws from the orchestra is clean and sharply profiled, not unlike the Mahler sound Rafael Kubelík tended to favour. Like Kubelík, Rattle separates the first and second violins, a mixed blessing in the Fifth Symphony where Mahler exploits the use of an antiphonal layout in contrapuntal passages yet also experiments with the sonic possibilities of unison fiddles. On the other hand, I doubt whether Kubelík would have been as solicitous as Rattle is of the Berlin strings with their suave legato and potentially inaudible pianissimi. Rattle’s tempo for the Adagietto is a good one by modern standards (not too slow) and the string playing has a lovely diaphanous quality, but you may find the playing over-nuanced.

Over-nuancing was a problem with Bernstein’s early New York recording. As Deryck Cooke observed in July 1964, it should have been a much more moving experience than Bruno Walter’s surprisingly brisk and uninflected 1947 account with the same orchestra. In the event, the Bernstein was less involving, not more. Nowadays it is not unusual to hear rhythm and line sacrificed to detail and nuance as old-established symphony orchestras are made to re-think their readings by conductors schooled in the arcana of ancient performance practice. Rattle has done his fair share of this. What is interesting about this live Mahler Fifth is the degree to which the detail is absorbed and the line maintained.

Like most latter-day conductors, Rattle tends to underplay the march element in the first movement. Mahler in his 1905 piano roll, Walter, and Haitink in his superb 1969 Concertgebouw recording all preserve this. Some may find the approach too dry-eyed in the long-drawn string threnody at fig 2. But an excess of feeling can damage both opening movements (the second is a mirror of the first) if the larger rhythm is obscured. Rattle, like Barbirolli and Bernstein in his superb Vienna Philharmonic recording, treats the threnody more as a meditation than a march but the pulse is not lost and the attendant tempi are good. The frenzied B flat minor Trio is particularly well judged. The second movement is superb (the diminished horn contribution notwithstanding) and none but the most determined sceptic could fail to thrill to the sense of adventure and well-being Rattle and his players bring to the Scherzo and finale, even if Barbirolli (studio) and Bernstein (live) both reach the finishing line in rather more eloquent and orderly fashion that this talented but still occasionally fragile-sounding Berlin ensemble.As a memento, the CD is undoubtedly a triumph of organisation and despatch.

As a performance and as a recording, it has rather more character and bite than Abbado’s much admired 1993 Berlin version. Indeed, it can safely be ranked among the half-dozen or so finest performances on record. It is not perfect, but show me one that is. Richard Osborne (January 2002)

 

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No 6 

Symphony No 6 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado 

Whatever the revolution in playing standards since January 1966, when Barbirolli conducted Mahler’s Sixth in Berlin, I can’t remember hearing a tauter, more refined performance than this, nor one that dispenses so completely with the heavy drapes of old-style Mahler interpretation. The work concluded Abbado’s first Philharmonie programme since passing the reins to Sir Simon Rattle, an occasion bound to provoke standing ovations and a little myth-making, too. Only if one discounts Celibidache’s interregnum could this be considered the first time in the orchestra’s history that a former chief had returned to direct. Now, with the music repositioned on the sunny side of the Alps and seen through the prism of the Second Viennese School, an effortless, sometimes breathtaking transparency prevails.

In the first movement, Abbado’s sparing use of rubato precludes the full (de-)flowering of the ‘Alma theme’ in the Bernstein manner, and there are some curiously stiff moments in the Andante moderato, here an iridescent intermezzo quite unlike Karajan’s Brucknerian slow movement. This may not be a Sixth for all seasons and all moods – the Berliners rarely play with the full weight of sonority long thought uniquely theirs – yet I soon found reservations falling away. For all its fine detailing, Abbado’s finale lacks nothing in intensity, with a devastating corporate thrust that may or may not have you ruing DG’s decision to include an applause track.

A more serious stumbling block is the maestro’s decision to place the Scherzo third, following the lead of Del Mar, Barbirolli, Rattle and others. Purchasers of a a single disc CD version available in some parts of the world can re-programme, of course, but technical constraints for the hybrid SACD disc, available in the UK, have led DG to opt for a pair of discs containing two movements apiece. It must, however, be pointed out that the extra cost is borne by the manufacturer, not the consumer. And, apart from two curious pockets of resonance in the finale (on either side of the 10-minute mark), Christopher Alder’s team achieves a much more realistic balance than you’ll find in the conductor’s previous live Mahler issues. If a little cavernous, the effect is blessedly consistent, allowing us to appreciate that Abbado’s sweetly attenuated string sound is just as beautiful as Karajan’s more saturated sonority, a testament to the chamber-like imperatives of his latter-day music-making, not to mention the advantage of adequate rehearsal time!

I should add that the finale’s hammer-blows are clearer and cleaner than I have ever heard them. Abbado does not include the third of these before the final coda but the hard, dry brutality of his clinching fortissimo is guaranteed to take you by surprise. Donald Mitchell provides excellent booklet-notes to cap a remarkable release that I would expect to find on next year’s Awards shortlist. David Gutman (September 2005)

 

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No 7

Symphony No 7 

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado 

Abbado's view of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, like Haitink's on Philips, is judicious and clear-sighted. The playing of the Chicago Symphony, like that of the Concertgebouw, is exceptionally refined, free of all inadvertent exaggeration and histrionic display. Both conductors, in collaboration with their engineers, favour natural sound perspectives, a mid-stalls view. Aided by a clean acoustic and poised, clearly-projected solo playing in the orchestra, the most intimate details of Mahler's huge score seem effortlessly to carry.

The difficult outer movements are neither urged forward in the Kubelik style (at mid-price on DG) nor broadened in the highly-tendentious manner of Klemperer on CfP. As ever, Abbado is the unpretentious, keen-eared elucidator. So conscientious is he that there are moments in the first movement when it's possible to think the score over-annotated by the composer. Yet it is a measure of Abbado's general skilfulness that the somewhat episodic structure is held in a reasonably clean focus. The central meditation is unusually fine in this performance, notable for the concentration and fine-grained sensibility of the Chicago playing.

Nachtmusik II is also played without exaggeration, Abbado allowing the orchestra to register Mahler's Andante amoroso directly, eloquently. In Nachtmusik I he is strikingly relaxed, sehr gemachlich; yet he conducts as quick a performance of the eerie central Scherzo as I recall hearing on record. (I suspect that Scherchen's distinguished old Vienna State Opera Orchestra recording, on Nixa mono WLP6211, 7/54—nla, was as quick, but I don't have it to hand for comparison.) I must say I like the movement played with a modicum of drive. Unfortunately, Mahler's instructions are ambiguous and could be taken equally as chapter and verse for Haitink's most recent, and to my ears rather flaccid, performance. This is a movement in which Kubelik on DG Privilege is superb; as, indeed, he is throughout the symphony.

You may conclude from all this that Abbado's performance is almost too respectable. A symphony as bizarre as this occasionally is (Deryck Cooke once dubbed it Mahler's ''mad, mad, mad, mad symphony'') could be said to require a touch of hype, Bernstein-style (CBS SBRG72427/8, 6/66—nla). Abbado's clear appraisal of the score should, none the less, win friends for the work, not least because of the Chicago orchestra's distinguished and distinctive realization of Mahler's difficult and, at times, technically innovative writing. Richard Osborne (March 1985)

 

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No 8 

Symphony No 8

London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra / Klaus Tennstedt

The Royal Festival Hall was never a natural venue for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and I remember well how Klaus Tennstedt’s choirs spilled from the choir stalls into the adjoining side stalls and how boxes were deployed to accommodate the offstage brass and, at the highest point, Susan Bullock’s Mater Gloriosa. But what we lost in breadth and magnitude (the acoustic was much drier then) we gained in an all-enveloping and electrifying immediacy.

And so, with the biggest upbeat in music (and from days when the Festival Hall organ was complete!), Mahler’s hymnic invocation swept all before it. It was almost as if Tennstedt was striving to compensate for the constrictive sound of the hall by building the spatial perspective into his reading. Come the mighty development, he takes the text “Accende lumen sensibus” (“Inflame our senses with light”) at absolutely face value. As the fervour mounts to fever pitch – his sopranos Julia Varady and Jane Eaglen hurling out top Cs like they could be the last they ever sing – one almost doesn’t notice that the tempo is getting broader and broader. Tennstedt is one of the few conductors in my experience to almost convince me that impetus has nothing to do with speed. And, of course, though there is no ritardando marked in the momentous bars leading to the point of recapitulation, Tennstedt (who was nothing if not a traditionalist) is having none of it – the heavens duly open but in the certain knowledge that they will do so again, only bigger, with the Chorus Mysticus.

Part 2 begins with a poco adagio which, thanks to the kind of high-intensity string-playing only Tennstedt could elicit from the LPO, tugs at the emotional fabric of the music as few dared to do. To some it will feel overwrought, to most (or at least to staunch Mahlerians) it will be another instance of Tennstedt’s total identification with this music. His painting of the Faust scene is characteristically craggy, with the arrival of the Doctor’s heavenly escort prompting angelic high jinks far rougher and readier in tone than in some accounts. So, too, the casting of the male soloists, with Kenneth Riegel’s Doctor Marianus eschewing head voice for an often pained rendition of the cruelly high tessitura.

But as the Mater Gloriosa duly floats into view (the lovely Susan Bullock) and the force of love becomes unstoppable, Tennstedt is overwhelming. Try topping the orchestral peroration, offstage trumpets stretching the “Veni, Creator Spiritus” motif from the interval of a fifth beyond the octave to a heaven-storming ninth. Edward Seckerson (June 2011)

 

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No 9 

Symphony No 9 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

In 1980, Karajan and the BPO made a memorable LP recording of the Ninth Symphony in excellent analogue sound (DG). As a performance it went further than any extant recording in distilling the music's essentially impersonal, other-worldly character whilst at the same time suggesting what EG, writing in the Guardian, aptly called ''the emotional thrust of a live performance''. One or two critics here and in the United States thought Karajan held the work at arm's length; but the reading won plaudits from Mahlerians of many persuasions, for as Schoenberg observed, and as Karajan and his players so movingly reveal, ''this symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone. It consists, so to speak, of objective, almost passionless statements of a beauty which becomes perceptible only to one who can dispense with animal warmth and feels at home in spiritual coolness'' (Style and Idea, Faber, 1975).

And yet the reading continued to develop. It already had great precision, beauty and tonal clarity—all hall-marks, Schoenberg tells us, of the late Mahler style—but there was clearly more to say. Like Mahler, Karajan has been accused by some colleagues of achieving results through a super-abundance of rehearsals. But, says Schoenberg, the great conductor knows in the ninth rehearsal that there is more to say in the tenth, whereas most conductors have nothing to say after the third: ''the productive man conceives within himself a complete image of what he wishes to produce''.

All of which is germane to the present performance. In 1982, the BPO's centenary year, Mahler's Ninth was played in an unforgettable series of concerts in Salzburg, Berlin and New York. Two things were evident in the momentous first performance in Salzburg in April 1982. First, Karajan was bringing an added toughness and truculence to the opening measures of the second movement, strengthening still further an already masterly unfolding of Mahler's powerful essay in the metamorphosis of the dance. Secondly, the LP recording was no studio fabrication. Schwalbe and his men really did play the work from first note to last with a degree of technical address which, by normal standards of human perfectibility, was well-nigh incredible. As the 1980 LP recording was not in digital sound and as the reading had itself evolved, Karajan seems to have needed little persuasion to allow the taping of the final, Berlin performance in 1982, I say performance advisedly, for what we have here is a single performance, though the dress rehearsal was taped as a precaution and used (I would suspect in the concluding Adagissimo) where audience of platform noise was likely to be damagingly intrusive.

The result is again exceptional. Certainly this is the finest live performance of a Mahler symphony to have appeared on any kind of record since Mengelberg's 1939 account of the Fourth Symphony.

Interpretatively and orchestrally, it is superior to the historic live 1938 VPO set of the Ninth under Bruno Walter (World Records SH193-4, 9/74—nla). Walter never realized the concluding Adagio (on record, at least) as steadily, as lucidly, as eloquently, as dispassionately as Karajan; and the old VPO is no match for our own latter-day BPO.

Only in one respect does the old Walter recording seem preferable and that is in some degree of distance that exists between the microphones and the orchestra. Make no mistake, the digital sound on this live Berlin recording is wonderfully clear and thrillingly actual; but I am not always at ease with the conductor's-ear-view of the proceedings, though of course long stretches of the score—the ruminations and chilly declensions of the first movement, the rapt Trio of the third (fabulous violin- and trumpet-playing here) and paragraph after paragraph of the fourth—derive immense benefit from the absolute clarity and absolute quiet of the CD.

Technically, there are similar swings and roundabouts with Solti's studio recording on Decca, as EG pointed out last November. But good as the Solti is, it isn't in the Karajan class as an interpretation. Which is no disgrace, for Karajan's reading and the Berliners' playing of it—the Adagio in especial but much else besides in this latest performance—is one of the seven wonders of the modern musical world. Richard Osborne (July 1984)

 

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No 10

Symphony No 10 (ed Cooke)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle previously recorded Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's incomplete Tenth in June 1980. He was not the first to do so. Eugene Ormandy taped an earlier, more tentative edition of the text in the 1960s (CBS, 6/66 - nla), and it was Wyn Morris's New Philharmonia LPs (Philips, 3/74 - nla) that unlocked the emotive force of the finale by the simple expedient of taking it at a more deliberate tempo. Rattle came in third, but the passionate sensitivity of his reading helped win over a sceptical public at a time when we were much less keen to tamper with the unfinished works of dead or dying artists. These days, it's almost as if we see in their unresolved tensions some prophetic vision of the life to come; Rattle's success looks to have been replicated by Paul Daniel's (second) commercial recording of Anthony Payne's speculative Elgar 3 (Naxos, 3/99). In truth, the hysterical edge of Bournemouth's Mahler will have owed something to the discomfiture of the players in what is, in every sense, a difficult score, although this is absolutely in keeping with the manuscript's scrawled invocation to unfaithful Alma: 'Fur dich leben! fur dich sterben!' ('To live for you! To die for you!').

Over the years, Rattle has performed the work nearly 100 times, far more often than anyone else. Wooed by Berlin, he repeatedly offered them 'Mahler ed Cooke' and was repulsed. He made his Berlin conducting debut with the Sixth. But, after the announcement last June that he had won the orchestra's vote in a head-to-head with Daniel Barenboim, he celebrated with two concert performances of the Tenth. It's a composite version that is presented here. Had the musicians ever played movements two to five? I doubt it, and it seldom matters: they have been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives even if the exhaustingly high writing for the trumpets is not quite without flaw and the brass can obtrude more cussedly than intended. As always, Rattle obtains some devastatingly quiet string playing, and technical standards are unprecedentedly high in so far as the revised performing version is concerned. Indeed, the danger that clinical precision will result in expressive coolness is not immediately dispelled by the self-confident meatiness of the violas at the start. We are not used to hearing the line immaculately tuned with every accent clearly defined. The tempo is broader than before and, despite Rattle's characteristic determination to articulate every detail, the mood is, at first, comparatively serene, even Olympian. Could Rattle be succumbing to the Karajan effect? But no - somehow he squares the circle. The neurotic trills, jabbing dissonances and tortuous counterpoint are relished as never before, within the context of a schizoid Adagio in which the Brucknerian string writing is never undersold.

The conductor has not radically changed his approach to the rest of the work. As you might expect, the scherzos have greater security and verve. Their strange hallucinatory choppiness is better served, although parts of the fourth movement remain perplexing despite the superb crispness and clarity of inner parts. Rattle allows himself some satiric palm-court stylization hereabouts, also pointing the parallels with the 'Trinklied' from Das Lied. More than ever, everything leads inexorably to the cathartic finale, brought off with a searing intensity that has you forgetting the relative baldness of the invention. The Berlin flautist floats his tone even more poignantly in the principal theme (from bar 29, 2'14''), while an older, wiser, albeit more self-conscious maestro, painstakingly avoids sentimentality and gets a real ppp for the entry of the strings - breathtaking stuff. Several conductors (Mark Wigglesworth is one) now impose a long glissando on the upward thrust of the heart-wrenching sigh that concludes the work; Rattle has no truck with this.

But then the Tenth is a work in progress in which the conductor has every right to innovate. With Berthold Goldschmidt's encouragement, some of Rattle's departures were signalled last time. In the first movement, he reallocates Cooke's bassoon line to a Nelson Riddle-ish bass clarinet (from bar 162, 14'37'') ; he enlivens the denouement of the first Scherzo with a cymbal clash (this revision got into the 1989 edition of the printed score), and he cuts out a drum stroke to pass seamlessly from the fourth to the fifth movement. In the finale, he still disagrees with Cooke, opting to reinforce the return of the Adagio's dissonant 'break-down' chords. At least the more obstreperous percussion has gone, leaving the low rumble of drums to underpin rather than obscure the harmony. There are other gains. The subtlety of the orchestral response allows more scope for special effects. Sample the gloriously scored, spaced-out cadence that concludes the Adagio. Or the achingly beautiful treatment of the episode marked A tempo aber sehr ruhig in the second scherzo (from bar 291, 5'32''). The woodwind playing in the Purgatorio is of a similarly exalted standard.

I had qualms about the recording quality, given that Rattle's live Viennese Ninth (EMI, 8/98) is by no means an easy listen. Nor is Berlin's fabulous Philharmonie the easiest venue: with everything miked close, climaxes can turn oppressive. In fact, the results here are very credible and offer no grounds for hesitation. What of the alternatives? Leonard Slatkin's CD, the first generally available commercial recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony to use an edition other than Deryck Cooke's, is uncompetitive for that very reason, although, like Riccardo Chailly's, it represents a genuine attempt to engage with what Tony Benn would call the 'ishoos'. Chailly's own, eminently lucid account, deploying a sympathetic orchestral layout in the lustrous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, has perhaps been underrated. That said, comparisons are pretty much beside the point when Rattle's new version sweeps the board even more convincingly than the old. According to press reports of the first night, the conductor was called back and accorded two Karajan-style standing ovations after the orchestra had left the stage. There is no applause here, but it is not difficult to imagine such a scene. Rattle makes the strongest possible case for an astonishing piece of revivification that only the most die-hard purists will resist. Strongly recommended. David Gutman (May 2000)

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