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The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

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

The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings
The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings

Following the overwhelming popularity of our list of the 50 Greatest Mozart Recordings, we have now gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Beethoven's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from legendary performers like Artur Schnabel and Otto Klemperer to modern masters like Isabelle Faust and Riccardo Chailly. 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. The 'Buy Now' links take you to the relevant recording at the website of classical music retailer Presto Classical.

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Teldec

The freshness of this set is remarkable. You do not have to listen far to be swept up by its spirit of renewal and discovery, and in Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made an inspired choice. Theirs are not eccentric readings of these old warhorses – far from it. But they could be called idiosyncratic – from Harnoncourt would you have expected anything less? – and to the extent that the set gives a shock to received ideas it is challenging. It does not seek to banish all conventional wisdom about the pieces, but it has asked a lot of questions about them, as interpreters should, and I warm to it not only for the boldness of its answers but for finding so many of the right questions to ask.

These are modern performances which have acquired richness and some of their focus from curiosity about playing styles and sound production of the past. What can be deduced about the likely nature of mass, weight and orchestral perspectives and how the musical language was spoken from what is known of instruments and performance practices in Beethoven’s time? Harnoncourt offers some answers that will be familiar to admirers of his Teldec recording of the symphonies (11/91). He favours leaner string textures than the norm and gets his players in the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe to command a wide range of expressive weight and accent; this they do with an immediacy of effect that is striking. Yet there is a satisfying body to the string sound, too. From all the orchestral sections the playing is of the highest class – the woodwind and brass often pungent, the thwack of the timpani leathery and distinctive in tutti passages (and the player of them relishing the big solo moment after the cadenza in the first movement of the Concerto No 3 in C minor). The performances gain an edge from all this which has nothing to do with a ‘period’ stance but everything to do with what I take to be Harnoncourt’s objectives: to regain the freshness and force of what was once new, to recover the qualities of exhilaration and disturbance that these works possess.

I also like very much the way the playing seems to have recourse to eloquence without having to strive for it, and that is characteristic of Aimard’s contribution as well. Strong contrasts are explored and big moments encompassed as part of an unforced continuity in which nothing is hurried. Melodic values are sustained to the full, yet even when the playing appears at its most relaxed it is moving forward, alert to what may be around the next corner. The big moments do indeed stand out: one of them is the famous exchange of dramatic gestures between piano and orchestra in the development of the E flat Concerto’s first movement (at 10'55"); another the equally dramatic but very different exchange when the piano re-enters at the start of the development in the first movement of the G major Concerto (8'21"). At these junctures, conductor and pianist allow the gestures to disrupt the rhythmic continuity to a degree I don’t remember previously encountering. (And there is another instance at Aimard’s very first entry in the B flat Concerto.) Over the top? I think not, but risky maybe, and if you have strong views as to what the rubrics permit in Beethoven, or have swallowed a metronome, you may react strongly. For make no mistake, Aimard is as intrepid an explorer here as Harnoncourt – by conviction, I am sure, not simply by adoption. I find him personable and persuasive, as well as abundantly capable of firing up the orchestra to make things happen as much as they and the conductor inspire and set the scene for him.

Technically, he is superbly equipped. You notice this everywhere but perhaps especially in the finales, brimful of spontaneous touches and delight in their eventfulness and in the sheer pleasure of playing them. I need to single out the finale of the Emperor, which tingles with a continuously vital, constantly modulated dynamic life that it too rarely receives; so many players make it merely rousing. And among the first movements, I must mention that of the G major Concerto as a quite exceptional achievement, as I see it, for the way Harnoncourt and his soloist find space for the fullest characterisation of the lyricism and diversity of the solo part – Aimard begins almost as if improvising the opening statement, outside time – while integrating these qualities with the larger scheme. It is the most complex movement in the concertos and I cannot remember when I enjoyed a version of it at once so directional and free as a bird.

The first movement of the E flat Concerto is nearly as good, lacking only the all-seeing vision and authority Brendel brings to it, and perhaps a touch of Brendel’s ability to inhabit and define its remoter regions. In general, Aimard imposes himself as a personality less than Brendel – I have been revisiting his sumptuous set of the concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and Rattle while getting to know this new one. In spite of being different exercises, their distinction touches at several points and is comparable in degree. What Aimard doesn’t match is the variety of sound and the amplitude of Brendel’s expressiveness in the first two concertos’ slow movements. Exactly how you hit largo in the C major Concerto (No 1) while conveying two slow beats in the bar, not four, is tricky; but it is immediately evident that Brendel is moving (and keeping moving) in a much richer interior world. These magnificent early achievements are no less characteristic of Beethoven than his later music; the slow movement of the B flat Concerto (No 2) is another high point of Brendel’s set, and by the side of it, inevitably perhaps, Aimard’s version seems plainer.

Balances are good, with the piano placed in a concert-hall perspective. However the balance on the piano tends to change a bit when we reach the first-movement cadenzas, and sometimes very slightly within them. The cadenzas, all Beethoven’s, are the long one in the C major Concerto (the soloist has a choice of three) and the second (less often played than the other) in the G major. Given the daring quality of the enterprise, it’s curious to find the first movement of the C major treated so sedately by Aimard, the cadenza included (his timing 19'13", as opposed to Brendel’s 17'06"). I shall return to this work less often than to the other four, I think, where I’ve found a balance of imagination and rigour that is exactly to my taste, much delight and refreshment, and where I’ve sometimes been blown away. Stephen Plaistow (April 2003)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Paul Lewis pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek

Harmonia Mundi

With this three-disc album of Beethoven’s piano concertos Paul Lewis complements his earlier set of the 32 sonatas and also his appearances at the Proms this summer where for the first time all five concertos will be played by a single artist. So may I say at once that Harmonia Mundi’s eagerly awaited set is a superlative achievement and that Lewis’s partnership with Jirí Belohlávek is an ideal match of musical feeling, vigour and refinement.

True, for aficionados of eccentricity – even of brilliant eccentricity – from the likes of Gould, Pletnev and Mustonen, Lewis may at times seem overly restrained but the rewards of such civilised, musically responsible and vital playing seem to me infinite. Above all there is no sense of an artist looking over his shoulder to see what other pianists have come up with. Throughout the cycle Lewis is enviably and naturally true to his own distinctive lights, his unassuming but shining musicianship always paramount. His stylistic consistency can make the singling-out of this or that detail irrelevant, yet how could I fail to mention Lewis’s and Belohlávek’s true sense of the Allegro con brio in the First Concerto, in music-making that is vital but never driven? Less rugged than, say, Serkin, such playing is no less personal and committed. In the central Largo Lewis achieves a quiet, hauntingly sustained poise and eloquence, while in the finale his crisp articulation sends Beethoven’s early ebullience dancing into captivating life.

The same virtues characterise the Second Concerto; but when it comes to the Third, Lewis and Belohlávek (and one is always aware of a true partnership) hit a more controversial note. The first movement is less con brio than from most, as if to emphasise Beethoven’s step towards a darker region of the imagination (what EM Forster memorably called “Beethoven’s C minor of life”), while the finale is thought-provoking in its restraint. Yet once again Lewis’s comprehensive mastery is devoid of all overt display, and in the Fourth Concerto his playing achieves a rare nimbleness, affection and transparency. And if there are those who, again, wish for a higher degree of drama and assertion, others will recognise an artist who, in Charles Rosen’s words, achieves so much while appearing to do so little (pianists such as Lipatti, Solomon and Clara Haskil come to mind). At the same time the Fourth Concerto contains some delightful surprises. Lewis’s ad libitum flourish at 6'12" in the finale provides an exuberant touch, as do his deft and witty arpeggiations of the chords just before the concerto’s homecoming. Here in particular is an engaging and playful rejoinder to the Andante con moto’s introspection, the entire performance delectably animated and light-fingered. Nor is there a hint of strain or strenuous characterisation in the Fifth Concerto. Lewis’s first entry in the Adagio has a slight catch in the voice, as it were, to register the music’s sublimity, and his overall approach is devoid of the tub-thumping rhetoric familiar from too many Emperors.

And so, all in all, these records take their place among the finest Beethoven piano concerto performances so that even when you recall beloved issues by Wilhelm Kempff, Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia (to name but four), Lewis ensures that you return refreshed and with a renewed sense of Beethoven’s range and beauty. Personally I would never want to be without any of those previous discs, nor without Argerich’s never-to-be-completed recordings (sadly she considers the Fourth Concerto outside her scope; can her friends and musical partners Nelson Freire and Stephen Kovacevich persuade her otherwise?). Balance and sound are natural and exemplary, leaving us to look forward to Lewis’s forthcoming CD of the Diabelli Variations, for Brendel the greatest of all keyboard works. This is a cycle to live with and revisit. Bryce Morrison (September 2010)

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'The Beethoven Journey' (Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf

Sony

Review of Vol 3: To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity, for the company has been most engaging, by turns profound and delightful. It’s a rare treat to have the Choral Fantasy as a juicy extra to the concertos. I was made more than usually aware of its original context – as the finale of the famously epic concert that also saw the premieres of, among others, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Concerto; suddenly I noticed connections between the Fantasy and the Fourth that previously passed me by. Robert Levin may be matchless in conveying the rhetoric of the extended piano opening but Andsnes manages to be lithe and spontaneous-sounding, and doesn’t overplay hints of melodrama – dangerously tempting with all those diminished sevenths scattered about. The Mahler CO wind are predictably characterful in their variations on the theme that prefigures the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the chorus are fervent without sounding too butch. That’s in part down to the performers and in part surely the recording, in that most eloquent of spaces, the Prague Rudolfinum.

The Fantasy is much more than just a handy filler but it’s the Fifth Concerto that is likely to be the real draw. So how does this one stack up? Andsnes makes his mark in the initial flourish with playing that has the requisite steel but which is tempered with a twinkle. The qualities that made the previous instalments so compelling are here too: the naturalness with which piano and orchestra meld and converse and, at times, tussle; the airiness of the textures; the subtlety of the details. The clarinet phrases (at 1'21"), for instance, dance more than those of Rattle’s BPO. And the Mahler CO’s timpanist adds to the buoyancy of effect but again subtlety is the watchword. In a way Andsnes reminds me of Schnabel in his sureness of touch, albeit in a very different style; Kissin’s point-making and self-conscious massiveness have no place here.

The string introduction to the slow movement is another glorious passage and – praise be – it’s not too slow (though I must confess to a guilty pleasure in Gilels’s rapt reading, ultra-spacious though it is). Andsnes is limpid, apparently simple, in those deliquescent phrases. But one of the most impressive aspects of this reading is the transition from slow movement to finale. So often it bumps: Pollini, Kissin…I could go on. Perahia on the other hand is just right, as is Brendel. And so is Andsnes. It helps that none of these go hell for leather in the last movement, instead imbuing the muscularity of the writing, with its ungainly rhythms, with a healthy dose of gleefulness. The unanimity in the closing bars between Andsnes and his orchestra says it all. Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy. Harriet Smith (Awards issue 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Yefim Bronfman pf Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich / David Zinman

Brilliant Classics (originally Arte Nova)

This Zurich performance of the First Concerto is beautifully articulated. True, there are moments of grandeur but the overall impression is of a poised, at times chamber-like traversal, with sculpted pianism and crisply pointed orchestral support. The sensation of shared listening, between Bronfman and the players and between the players themselves, is at its most acute in the First Concerto’s Largo, which although kept on a fairly tight rein is extremely supple (the woodwinds in particular excel). In the finale, Bronfman and the Tonhalle provide a clear, shapely aural picture.

Bronfman’s B flat Concerto (No 2) has the expected composure, the many running passages in the first movement polished if relatively understated. Again the slow movement is full of unaffected poetry and the finale (with the odd added embellishment) is appropriately buoyant – has Bronfman ever played better?

Rather than opt for superficial barnstorming, Yefim Bronfman and David Zinman offer us a discreet, subtly voiced and above all durable Emperor, that rewards listening with increasing musical dividends. Bronfman plays with a light, precise though never brittle touch, always phrasing elegantly and dipping his tone whenever important instrumental lines need to be heard. There are numerous details that reveal how minutely all the participants are listening to each other. The slow movement unfolds in a mood of unruffled calm, Bronfman’s first entry gentle, delicate, with an appropriate, even touching simplicity. The finale is brisk and energetic and the way Bronfman keeps accompanying rhythmic figurations light and well buoyed is most appealing.

The fill-ups are worthwhile, the Choral Fantasy’s long solo opening more thoughtful than usual and with a bright, easy-going contribution from the chorus. Nothing is ever forced or overstated and the contrast in the seven-minute Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage between worrying stillness and the first signs of a redeeming breeze, ingeniously painted by slowly swirling triplets, is superbly handled.

It is hard to imagine anyone being less than satisfied with Bronfman and Zinman, the Tonhalle Orchestra scoring top marks for teamwork, their woodwinds sounding fully on a par with Europe’s best. Superbly balanced sound helps clinch an unmissable bargain.

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Maria João Pires pf Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

DG

Even with a never-ending stream of Beethoven piano concerto recordings, whether from established masters (Kempff, Arrau, Gilels, etc) or work in progress (Andsnes and Sudbin), few performances come within distance of Pires’s Classical/Romantic perspective. In her own memorable ‘artist’s note’ she speaks of that knife-edge poise between creator and recreator, of what must finally be resolved into a ‘primal simplicity’. And here you sense that she is among those truly great artists who, in Charles Rosen’s words, appear to do so little and end by doing everything (his focus on Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Solomon).

Not since Myra Hess have I heard a more rapt sense of the Fourth Concerto’s ineffable poetry, whether in the unfaltering poise of her opening, her radiant, dancing Vivace finale or, perhaps most of all, in the Andante’s nodal and expressive centre, where she achieves wonders of eloquence and transparency. Never for a moment does she over-reach herself or force her pace and sonority. Others such as Arrau may speak with a weightier voice but even that great pianist would surely have marvelled at the purity and sheen of Pires’s playing. Few pianists have ever been more true to their own lights and it is hardly surprising that her many performances of this concerto in London and elsewhere have become the stuff of legends.

Much the same could be said of her way with the Third Concerto, where she is equally attuned to Beethoven’s ‘C minor of that life’ (EM Forster). Few have achieved a greater translucency in the central Largo or more subtly poetic virtues elsewhere. All this makes it difficult to celebrate the ‘interpretations’ of pianists such as the not always endearing Glenn Gould, Pletnev or Mustonen. Pires’s performances are quite simply of another order. She is well balanced and recorded, and Daniel Harding and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are more than warm and sympathetic partners. It is my dearest wish that this will become a complete cycle. Bryce Morrison (October 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Murray Perahia pf Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink

Sony Classical

Integration: the difference in quality of this recording has to do not so much with the remarkable soloist as with the definition that comes from superb orchestral playing and direction and from everyone working together. The placing, length, weight and colour of every note have been considered and these quantities and qualities are precise. The air of purpose about the playing – and I do not mean that it sounds just well drilled – is so compelling as to make you feel these concertos couldn’t be done in any other way.

Textures glow with sonority, the massive and the delicate alike. The colours are so sharp as to appear an aspect of the linear energy, inseparable from the continuity; you don’t have the impression they are merely playing over the face of the music. I am aware there are colleagues writing in Gramophone who have reviewed many more recordings of Beethoven piano concertos than I but I risk the statement that the excellence of Haitink and the Concertgebouw in these has not been surpassed. 

I noticed little deterioration in the quality of sound on the long sides. The recordings, made in the Concertgebouw, reflect the acoustic character of the hall, and the balances suggest the natural perspective of solo piano with orchestra as we might experience it there from a good seat. When you turn to other records you may be struck by how unnaturally imminent the piano often is in relation to the rest. You are likely to be impressed here, I think, by the depth of the perspective, by the clear placing of everything in the picture and by how well the recording team have captured the lightness and translucence of the sound. Above all, Haitink has given the sound variety of weight. The beginning of the C minor’s first movement, for instance, is refreshingly lithe and crisp, with a late 18th- rather than late 19th-century gravitas to it, and it makes you think straight away of the concerto in the same key by Mozart for which Beethoven had such admiration and without which his own might not have been written the way it is. The sound gives you a heightened sense of where the piece comes from and where it belongs in Beethoven’s work. But then equally admirable is the way Haitink characterises Beethoven, through the sound, when he is at his most original: at the beginning of the Fourth Concerto’s slow movement, for example, where the string writing has you by the throat, and again at the moment in the finale of the G major, at the first tutti, where the trumpets and drums enter for the first time, with electrifying effect. When Perahia enters in the C minor first movement you realize just how skilfully the scene has been set and the stage arranged for his performance to make the best effect. I would count this movement and the finale of the G major as two of the finest things he has done on records.

The Allegro con brio of the C minor is not at all small-scale, but it has a crystalline elegance of sound – and to that extent a Mozartian quality – which is greatly to my taste, and what Perahia does amounts in my estimation to a brilliant re-creation. The cadenza and the following dialogue with the timpani are high spots. The G major last movement too is irresistible, brought off as a tour de force with vivacity tempered by just the right quantities of delicacy and balletic grace: it is tremendously fast but impeccably articulate. The energy and the transparency are delightful but it is the range of the playing which astonishes. And there are marvels too in the finale of the C minor: but there I found brilliance and elegance a little too much to the fore, as if this was how Mendelssohn might have played it. The presto at the end doesn’t seem much of a change from what has gone before. 

I mentioned the range: the crystalline quality of Perahia’s sound, so characteristic of him, can sometimes appear too unvaried, though in saying this I express only the smallest of reservations. He never asks you to admire his fingers but you can be made aware of hammers and attacks in a way that would not be brought to mind by Kempff (DG), say, or Gilels (Warner Classics). In Pollini’s classic account of the G major Concerto with Böhm (DG) you sense that he is a little more relaxed with it and that all those notes in the first movement sound a mite longer, while being just as precisely played. (Perahia, by the way, plays the first movement exactly as Beethoven wrote it, avoiding, in bar 318 and elsewhere, the high D which was not available on Beethoven’s pianos but which, from analogous passages of figuration earlier on, he would surely have used if he could.) So perhaps Pollini is better at projecting the serenity; I certainly prefer him for his broader, less excitable handling of the ‘storm’ in the first movement’s development. You may agree too that Perahia doesn’t match the rapt, interior quality of Kovacevich (Philips) in the slow movement of the C minor Concerto, who takes a full minute longer over it. 

I do miss Brendel in these works – his Philips set of the five Beethovens with the same conductor as Perahia has been deleted. But, for the time being, my enthusiasm for the new record is paramount. 

If you have already enjoyed this artist in Beethoven sonatas you will not be specially surprised, I dare say, at his excellence here; and, for me, Haitink and the Concertgebouw have turned the record into a feast. Stephen Plaistow (July 1986) 

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Till Fellner pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano

ECM

Till Fellner, always among the more quietly celebrated pianists, includes Alfred Brendel among his mentors and together with Kent Nagano and the Montreal SO gives us two of the most supremely satisfying performances of both these concertos on record. This is a dream partnership with soloist and conductor working hand-in-glove, and even when you conjure with so many glorious names in such core repertoire (from Schnabel to Lupu) you will rarely hear playing of such an enviable, unimpeded musical grace and fluency.

Fellner surely belongs among that elite who Charles Rosen so memorably defined as those who, while they appear to do nothing, achieve everything. His playing is subtly rather than ostentatiously coloured and inflected, and if others might be thought more vivid or personal, Fellner’s and Nagano’s ease and naturalness always allow Beethoven his own voice. Fellner’s still small voice of calm in the Fourth Concerto’s central Andante con moto is one among many glories, and if many of us are looking ahead to Paul Lewis’s forthcoming cycle of the complete concertos, and also to a possible recording by Maria João Pires, whose performances have been universally admired, even they will be hard pressed to equal let alone surpass Fellner’s Olympian mastery. Some biographical reminders and a total timing would have been helpful but balance and sound are pleasingly natural and this memorable issue is crowned with a short but intriguing essay by Paul Griffiths. Bryce Morrison (June 2010)

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Emil Gilels pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Leopold Ludwig

Warner Classics

This is one of the – perhaps the most – perfect accounts of the Fourth Concerto ever recorded. Poetry and virtuosity are held in perfect poise, with Ludwig and the Philharmonia providing a near-ideal accompaniment. The recording is also very fine, though be sure to gauge the levels correctly by first sampling one of the tuttis. If the volume is set too high at the start, you will miss the stealing magic of Gilels’s and the orchestra’s initial entries and you will be further discomfited by tape hiss that, with the disc played at a properly judged level, is more or less inaudible.

The recording of the Emperor Concerto is also pretty good, making one wonder what aberrations of LP technology led Roger Fiske and Trevor Harvey to get so angry about the mono and stereo originals when they first appeared in 1957-8. As to the performance, this is not quite on a par with that of the Fourth Concerto. Ludwig and the orchestra tend to follow Gilels rather than integrate with him in the way that Menges and the Philharmonia do on Solomon’s classic 1955 recording (EMI, 11/95). There are times, too, especially in the slow movement, when Gilels’s playing borders on the self-indulgent. (Do I hear Szell’s shade stirring and muttering, “Now you see my point”?) This is not, however, sufficient reason for overlooking this fine and important Testament reissue.

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Violin Concerto

Itzhak Perlman vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini 

Warner Classics

Perlman's first entry couId hardly be more deceptive, that ladder-like climb of spread octaves which many virtuosi (Anne-Sophie Mutter on DG for example) present commandingly, but which Perlman plays with such gentleness that he emerges almost imperceptibly from the orchestra. It is a measure of Perlman's artistry that an effect which could sound selfconsciously poetic or even weak at once establishes the soloist's command; for this is a spacious performance which uses a relatively measured tempo, steadily maintained, to create the strongest possible structure in a movement which in time at least (almost 25 minutes) is Beethoven's longest symphonic first movement. Where both Chung (Decca) and Mutter are above all lyrical and meditative, illuminatingly so, Perlman's is a more obviously virile purposeful reading with the orchestral tuttis closely co-ordinated - just as they are in the Krebbers version (Philips) with a soloist who at the time was also concertmaster of the orchestra. One might even relate the reading of that first movement to Giulini's spacious but concentrated reading of the Eroica Symphony with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra (DG, 5/79). It is striking that even in the Kreisler cadenza Perlman prefers to keep the feeling of a steady pulse, and the entry into the coda in its total purity and simplicity is even more affecting than the fine accounts in the other three versions.

Both there and in the slow movement Mutter and Chung adopt a more consciously expressive style, but there is no question at any point of Perlman sounding rigid, for within his steady pulse he 'magicks' phrase after phrase. The hushed third theme of the slow movement has an easeful serenity to set against the more tender, vulnerable emotions conveyed by Chung and Mutter. With them poetry is perhaps more important than drama, but Perlman - certainly poetic in his way, always noting the many key passages marked dolce - confirms the strength of his reading in his superbly sprung account of the finale, the tempo marginally faster than that of any of the others (markedly faster than Chung) but masterfully confident. With full, warm digital recording, there is no finer version available, combining as it does so many of the special qualities one finds in the Chung and Mutter versions on the one hand, and in the strong, incisive Krebbers on the other. Edward Greenfield (September 1981)

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Violin Concerto

Isabelle Faust vn Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

Harmonia Mundi

The Beethoven and Berg violin concertos aren’t commonly paired on disc. However, in this case it seems like an inspired piece of programme planning, with an account of the Berg that plumbs its depths of melancholy, setting off a radiant, life-affirming performance of the Beethoven.

Berg could be accused of giving too many instructions to his performers, of not allowing enough room for individual interpretation. He certainly presents them with plenty to think about; in the waltz-like second section of the concerto’s second movement, Isabelle Faust is required, within a few bars, to characterise her part as scherzando, wienerisch and rustico. She succeeds brilliantly; one feels, in this and other places, that such precision actually helps her to convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind this concerto dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’.

Faust’s stylish way with the waltz episodes brings a suggestion of gaiety that renders more poignant the effect of the dark, complex harmony – a bright memory rendered sad and bitter. In the second movement, after the fierce virtuosity she brings to the declamatory opening section, she chooses the alternative version of the canonic cadenza (suggested by the composer) where she is joined by a solo viola, rather than realising unaided the four-part counterpoint. This passage sounds truly beautiful, like an uneasy oasis of calm in the middle of turbulent conflict, and I’ve become convinced it’s the best way to hear the music.

Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart also take careful notice of the score’s myriad directions, and the effect is similarly to liberate the intensity and beauty of the music. After the harrowing climax at the end of the first part of the second movement, where the Bach chorale (whose melody is related to Berg’s 12-note row) makes its appearance, the effect of having the grieving voice of the solo violin answered by the clarinet choir more quietly, but also slightly faster, and so less weighed down, is perfectly realised – we immediately appreciate why Berg wrote it so.

Few recordings of the Berg have achieved this level of detailed commitment from soloist and orchestra. One that does so is Josef Suk’s, made in 1968 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel An∂erl, and they manage to stay closer to Berg’s metronome markings – some passages in Faust’s recording are on the slow side, though I can’t see that it spoils the performance in any way. And this new account enjoys more mellifluous recorded sound, with far superior definition.

Beethoven may not give as many directions as Berg, but from the very first bars the Orchestra Mozart’s woodwind choir show the same care over detail, the instruments perfectly balanced and with a commitment to bringing out the music’s soulful, expressive character. This sets the tone for the performance, Abbado encouraging his players to maximise the expressive quality of each theme, while keeping a firm hand on the unfolding of the larger design. He and Faust see eye to eye in wishing to preserve a proper Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement and not to be awed by the work’s reputation into presenting it as a grand, Olympian utterance with little vitality (as on the Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich recording). It’s not just a matter of tempo, either; to all the running passages in the first movement and finale, Isabelle Faust brings a spirited style that at moments becomes positively fiery. A notable example is her cadenza in the finale (track 5, 6'20"). Faust bases her cadenzas and lead-ins on those Beethoven wrote for his adaptation of the work as a piano concerto. This is often an uncomfortable option: Beethoven’s cadenzas (that in the first movement includes an important role for timpani) take the music in surprising directions – more extrovert and playful – and it’s quite difficult to arrange some passages idiomatically for the violin. However, by judicious omission, brilliant playing and sheer conviction, Faust finds a solution that’s both authentically Beethovenian and violinistically convincing.

The Larghetto’s initial theme is most sensitively shaped by the Orchestra Mozart strings and, at Faust’s entry, she is accompanied by especially beautiful solo clarinet and bassoon lines. In this movement, Faust finds a particularly wide range of tone colour, twice receding to the merest whisper and in several places practically omitting vibrato, relying for expression on changes in bow speed and pressure, so creating a powerful sense of concentration in the melodic line. It’s entirely characteristic of this performance that the sudden orchestral outburst at the end of the Larghetto, heralding the cadenza that leads to the finale, which so often seems inappropriately formal, here comes as a shocking surprise, a rude awakening from an exquisite dream.

In recent years, there have been several fine recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Faust’s performance has a grandeur that Christian Tetzlaff’s sweeter, more intimate account doesn’t attempt to match. Janine Jansen has the grandeur but doesn’t quite rival Faust’s expressive range or emotional intensity. Outstanding performances of both concertos, then; I’ll want to return to them often. Duncan Druce (March 2012)

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Composer: 

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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Top 10 Gluck recordings

Gramophone Fri 1st July 2016

Ten of the finest Gluck recordings, including long-established classics alongside some rarities

Top 10 Gluck recordings
Top 10 Gluck recordings

Gluck: Italian Arias

Cecilia Bartoli mez Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Bernhard Forck

(Decca)

'This is something very much out of the ordinary. These eight arias‚ taken variously from Gluck’s early operas (that is‚ those preceding his ‘reforms’ that began with Orfeo in 1762) or his non­-reform later ones‚ are almost wholly unfamiliar‚ but they are music of great power and character; and they are sung with an extraordinary emotional force and technical skill‚ not to say a sheer beauty of tone‚ that I cannot imagine being matched by any other singer today...' Read the review

 

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‘Blessed Spirit – A Gluck Retrospective’

Classical Opera Company / Ian Page

(Wigmore Hall Live)

'It’s possible – who knows? – that these unknown operas would not hold one’s attention if staged today. But there is some first-rate dramatic music here, some of it recycled later. The aria from Ezio resurfaced as “Che puro ciel” in Orfeo, for instance, and the “A” section of the aria from La clemenza di Tito became “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie” in Iphigénie en Tauride. Sophie Bevan sings the Tito excerpt with such intensity as to make one almost sympathise with Sesto, the poor sap, in his infatuation with Vitellia. She is joined by Ailish Tynan in a recitative and duet from Il re pastore: their perfectly matched roulades in thirds, and the high horns in the accompaniment, provide the evening’s highlight. A substantial chunk from Orfeo ends with “Che farò”, taken at a cracking pace by Ian Page and sung with desperate urgency by Anna Stéphany. She brings a comparable passion to Clytemnestra’s scena in Iphigénie en Aulide, as does Bevan to the Italian Alceste. This is a terrific, unmissable disc...' Read the review

 

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Armide

Mireille Delunsch, Charles Workman, Laurent Naouri, Ewa Podles; Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski

DG Archiv

'Armide has two features that set it apart. One is the extraordinary soft, sensuous tone of the music; Gluck said that it was meant ‘to produce a voluptuous sensation’, and that if he were to suffer damnation it would be for the passionate love duet in Act 5. And certainly his orchestral writing here has a warmth, a colour and a richness going far beyond anything in his other reform operas (apart from parts of Paride ed Elena). Secondly, there are several great solo dramatic scenes, two of them for Armide herself: the opera’s closing scene, in which she rails furiously at Renaud’s treachery, and one at the end of Act 2, where, discovering him asleep and torn between love and hatred of her enemy, she cannot bring herself to kill him...' Read the review

 

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Orfeo ed Euridice

Sols; RIAS Chamber Choir, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / René Jacobs

Harmonia Mundi

'With three distinct editions – 1762, 1774 and the Berlioz (1859) – plus various mix-and-match versions, a final choice is hardly straightforward. If you want a mezzo Orpheus in the Berlioz edition, go for von Otter with Gardiner. In the 1774 Orphée the Rosbaud recording still stands as a classic; but Minkowski offers a more complete theatrical experience. For Gluck’s 1762 original with a countertenor hero, I’d go for Gardiner with the uninhibited Ragin. But to the crucial question in this opera: which Orpheus moves you the most? I’d have to answer Fink, who, transcending questions of gender, makes a tender, infinitely touching and intensely human hero. Gluck wrote of ‘Che farò’ that ‘nothing but a slight alteration in the manner of expression is necessary to turn my aria into a puppet dance’. He would surely have had no qualms about Fink’s performance, a distillation of loneliness and grief too deep for tears.' Read our overview of all of the recordings of Orfeo

 

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Iphigénie en Aulide & Iphigénie en Tauride

Sols; Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble & Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera / Marc Minkowski 

Opus Arte DVD

'The set is a platform with steps and a scaffold on each side, the orchestra behind. The costumes are modern, with Agamemnon and Thoas in uniform. An invisible chorus and the absence of dancing make the production far removed from anything that Gluck would recognise but that and one or two oddities are far outweighed by the intensity of the acting that Pierre Audi secures from his team. Minkowski conducts superbly. Buy this wonderful set, then read Barry Unsworth’s brilliant version of the Aulis story in his novel The Songs of the Kings...' Read the review

 

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Paride ed Elena

Sols; Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh 

DG Archiv

'Kožená, whether putting across the restlessness of Paris’s first aria or the mixture of anxiety and resolution in ‘Le belle immagini’, or bringing an exquisite mezza voce to the set-piece in praise of Helen, is out of this world. Susan Gritton and Carolyn Sampson not only handle the recitatives with the same subtlety but sing their arias magnificently. One or two reservations about Paul McCreesh’s direction are insignificant in the context of the overall sweep of the drama. The Gabrieli Consort and Players are excellent, the high horns especially. It’s hard to imagine this set ever being surpassed...' Read the review

 

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Iphigénie en Tauride

Sols; Boston Baroque / Martin Pearlman

Telarc

'The principal existing recordings both have rather starrier casts. Muti’s is a big, modern opera-house performance, powerful and exciting, Gardiner’s more stylish, more concentrated dramatically. Both have Sir Thomas Allen’s superlative Orestes and for Gardiner Diana Montague is an outstanding Iphigenia. But I am inclined to think that this new set, in which Gluck’s ‘long sweep’ is so well captured and the work’s scale so tellingly conveyed without prejudicing its range and intensity of feeling, is the one I shall chiefly want to turn to...' Read the review

 

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'Il tenero momento: Mozart & Gluck Arias'

Susan Graham (mezzo) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Harry Bicket

Erato

'It's a very long time since I heard an operatic recital by a modern singer that satisfied me as much as this one does. Graham, now at the apex of her career, displays her skills as singer and interpreter in a sensibly planned and executed programme, comprised of arias from roles she has sung on stage. Graham sounds entirely inside all her music and dispenses it with a confidence and attack that is truly amazing, but the refulgent, vibrant voice and faultless technique are wholly at the service of the music, the mezzo showing a sensitive empathy with the emotions of every character she portrays...' Read the review

 

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Alceste

Sols; ROH Chorus and Orchestra / Charles Mackerras

Opus Arte

'Alceste was the second of Gluck’s “reform” operas for Vienna, composed in 1767 and published with a preface in which the composer (or his librettist, Calzabigi) proclaimed his resolve to divest his music of “all those abuses…which have so long disfigured Italian opera”. Mozart knew it well: witness the choruses in Idomeneo and the indebtedness of the Commendatore to Gluck’s Oracle. In 1776 Gluck rewrote the opera for Paris: it is this version that Janet Baker performed for her farewell to Covent Garden. It is wonderful to have her deeply moving portrayal made available after all these years...' Read the review

 

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Il Trionfo di Clelia

Sols; Armonia Atenea / Giuseppe Sigismondi de Risio

MDG

'The set-up is typically Metastasian: three acts, six royal or noble characters, a succession of recitatives and arias. There is one duet, for the lovers Clelia and Orazio, and a final brief ‘coro’ in praise of Porsenna. All very old-fashioned, you might think, and indeed there is much secco recitative and plenty of coloratura. But Gluck is looking forwards as well as back, with several accompagnato recitatives and rich scoring: pairs of flutes, oboes, horns, trumpets and timpani, with an obbligato bassoon at one point and divided violas at another. His Achilles heel, as so often, is the plodding bass-line and the repeated notes in the upper parts; but in a performance as splendid as this you hardly notice...' 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

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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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Top 10 Mendelssohn recordings

Gramophone Wed 3rd February 2016

Like Rossini and Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn wrote effortless, life-enhancing, optimistic music. Here are 10 of the best recordings.

No 1

Violin Concerto

James Ehnes (vn) Philharmonia / Vladimir Ashkenazy

'The first thing that hits you about Ehnes’s reading is the rhythmic propulsion of the concerto’s outer movements, which lifts the music, revealing its glorious bone structure. In the hands of lesser musicians than Ehnes and Ashkenazy this could simply sound fast, yet there is so much compelling, beautifully observed phrasing that the effect is instead completely uplifting. Ehnes is a musician of consummate imagination (and technique!) coupled with a lack of ego that is completely winning. Just sample the way he and his Seattle Chamber Music colleagues judge the coda of the Octet’s Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. Con fuoco indeed...' Read the review

 

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No 2

Piano Concerto No 2

Stephen Hough (pf) City of Birmingham SO / Lawrence Foster

'With Stephen Hough we enter a new dimension. The soft, stylish arpeggios that open the first work on the disc, the Capriccio brillant, announce immediately that something special is on the way. But this is just a preparation for the First Concerto. Here again, ‘stylish’ is the word. One can sense the background – especially the operatic background against which these works were composed (Weber is very much present). The first solo doesn’t simply storm away, fortissimo; one hears distinct emotional characteristics: the imperious, thundering octaves, the agitated semiquavers, the pleading appoggiaturas. It’s far from overdone, yet after Hough Schiff seems merely impersonal, Perahia even a teensy bit mannered....' Read the review

 

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No 3

Hebrides Overture ('Fingal’s Cave')

London Symphony Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner

'Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Hebrides Overture must be one of the most thrilling ever recorded, adding volleys of sea-spray to well-navigated execution, achieving en route some breathtaking pianissimos (ie from around 4'50", and the clarinet at 7'22" just before the coda). Ebb and flow is of the essence in this proto-Wagnerian masterpiece and there’s plenty of it here, with vivid accellerandos and a subtle use of vibrato. So nice when scholarship sits comfortably on the sidelines and doesn’t compromise the narrative....' Read the review

 

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No 4

Symphony No 4, ‘Italian’

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

'On any count this is an indispensable issue for any lover of Mendelssohn’s music, when it tells you so much about the creative process, notably the danger of second thoughts on what was initially white-hot inspiration. Gardiner, as in Schumann, proves the ideal exponent, here drawing from the Vienna Philharmonic incandescent playing, not just highly polished and full of fine detail, but exhilarating in its energy and rhythmic thrust....' Read the review

 

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No 5

Symphony No 3, ‘Scottish’

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

'Imposingly solemn wind harmonies open the Scottish; here is the weathered, exposed stone of the ruined Holyrood chapel (and its sacred 'aura', absent at Norrington's faster pace). Abbado's violas tend to dominate the scene, adding, perhaps, an inappropriate warmth; and how memorably Harnoncourt shapes the theme's transformation at the start of the Allegro, retaining some of its original dynamic gradation....' Read the review

 

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No 6

Octet

Ensemble Explorations 

'It’s easy to love the Mendelssohn Octet, and I found the Ensemble Explorations' account irresistible. True, the recorded sound is rather too resonant, but the playing has real fire and vitality and the more soulful solo passages, violinist Christine Busch’s especially, are truly eloquent; at the first movement’s climactic moments her tone rings out effortlessly above the texture. The recent Emerson version is much more sharply recorded, with much finely polished detail, yet their earnestly projected tone doesn’t give the sense of joyful flight that characterises this new recording....' Read the review

 

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No 7

String Quartets, Op 44

Cecilia Quartet

'The Cecilia prove to be compelling advocates. They find a fine balance between the composer’s skittish qualities and his tenderer side, resulting in notably open-hearted readings. Their tremolos – such a favourite device of Mendelssohn – seem to come in 57 varieties, while even at fortissimo textures remain open and airy, thanks to their minutely considered voicings, conveyed via a sympathetic recording....' Read the review

 

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No 8

Songs without words

Javier Perianes (pf)

'There’s no doubt that charm is in abundant supply in these pieces, but even in the finest hands, there can be a danger of aural toothache if listened to en masse. Javier Perianes surmounts this risk completely: first, in the selection itself; second, by interspersing them with some of Mendelssohn’s most brilliant piano pieces; and third, by the playing itself. There’s nothing small-scale about his conception of this music and, where need be, climaxes are bold....' Read the review

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No 9

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Incidental Music

London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn

'On this CD, Previn's performance – which I rate the best of all counts – sounds wonderfully fresh. The strings in the Overture are deliciously clean and transparent and throughout the recording is clear and natural without losing its bloom, the overall enhancement and tangibility almost startling when compared with the LP. Moreover Previn not only includes the Melodramas – flimsy little bits of orchestration, that are nevertheless quite charming – but makes them seem structurally essential, in most cases...' Read the review

 

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No 10

Elijah

Bryn Terfel (bass-bar) Renée Fleming (sop) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Paul Daniel

'Terfel simply gives the most exciting and vivid account of the prophet’s part yet heard. His range, in terms of vocal register and dynamics, is huge; his expression, mighty and immediate, befits a man of Elijah’s temperament. As the score demands, anguish, anger and sympathy are there in full measure, displayed in exceptional definition of words, and when this Elijah calls on the Lord for the saving rain, the Almighty could hardly resist such a commanding utterance. Yet there is always the inwardness part of the role demands, not least in “It is enough”: you sense a man at the end of his tether....'Read the review

 

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