Liszt Piano works Wilhelm Kempff DG 4779374 Buy from Amazon
"Spirituals in Concert" Kathleen Battle; Jessye Norman; James Levine DG 4779377 Buy from Amazon
“Con amore” Elgar. Kreisler et al Solo works Kyung-Wha Chung; Philip Moll Decca 4782660 Buy from Amazon
Brahms Symphony No 3 Dvorák Symphony No 8 VPO / Herbert von Karajan Decca 4782661 Buy from Amazon
Mozart Horn Concertos Barry Tuckwell; LSO / Peter Maag Decca 4782659 Buy from Amazon
The latest batch of Originals dips into the DG, Decca and Philips catalogues, serving them up with reproductions of the original sleeves and cute little quasi-LP finishes on the CDs themselves. The Originals series (launched by DG in February 1995) was a genius idea, revisiting some of the classics of the catalogue and re-appraising them in the context of the performers’ career. It was good to read notes that spoke of the interpretation rather than the music, and that tradition has been maintained: the Karajan Brahms/Dvorák coupling has a typically elegant, informed and informative note by Richard Osborne, and Jeremy Siepman’s note for the Kempff/Liszt is a beautifully gauged description of his Road to Damascus conversion to the music of Liszt thanks to Kempff’s playing. I remember visiting DG’s offices in Hamburg when they were talking about coupling Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh – apparently against the letter of his contract. They ignored that detail, coupled them together and I wouldn’t be surprised if the disc didn’t become the best-selling Original of all.
After 16 years it would be difficult to argue that most of the plums have not been pulled from the DG and Decca pies (Decca at least had the advantage of a later start), but there are still some modest gems. Let me start with a disc that I bought at the time of its release on LP, Maurizio Pollini’s recording of two Mozart piano concertos. Thirty-four years on, Pollini’s playing still entrances, more direct than, say, Perahia, but it has a freshness and honesty that’s given a warmth by Karl Böhm’s wonderfully sympathetic accompaniments. It’s strange that Pollini only ever recorded four of the concertos (a second disc was recorded live in Vienna in 2005 – a huge time to wait).
Wilhelm Kempff’s Liszt (excerpts from the Italian book of Les années de pèlerinage as well as Venezia e Napoli and the Deux Légendes) is, for me, the stand-out from this batch. I remember Alfred Brendel telling me that he thought Kempff’s 1950s Decca recording of the First Légende, “Saint François d’Assise: La Prédiction aux oiseaux”, one of the greatest of all piano recordings. And it is indeed a thing of wonder: so vivid that you can almost see the individual feathers of the magically fluttering birds. Well, this DG recording is very fine too, Kempff drawing the poetry from the music and never making you aware of how ferociously difficult this stuff is. As Jeremy Siepman said of Kempff in his Gramophone review (11/75): “Through him we no longer listen to the music; we too become a part of it, and it of us.” My only regret is that Kempff didn’t record the whole of the Italian Year, or indeed the complete Années – but in 1975 he was already 80 and maybe such a project would have been too much. (The cover image, Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s San Francesco, is particularly lovely and apt.)
The Karajan Brahms/Dvorák coupling falls into the brief period when, having stopped working with the Philharmonia, and before recording almost exclusively with the Berlin Phil (except for opera), he made a number of purely orchestral discs for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic. What’s really striking here is the gorgeous, mellow and quite rustic sound Karajan meshes with – I’m sure he didn’t create it but merely engaged with the VPO’s innate sonority. It gives the Brahms a really appealing quality – the close of the development of the Brahms’s opening Allegro con brio digs deep and if one had to suggest a colour, it’s a deep, dark purple hue. And a similarly relaxed, warm sound adorns the Dvorák (a logical coupling as both men were both friends and admirers of each other’s music). Of all of Karajan’s recording of this piece this is one I love the most – it’s so unforced and at times joyously “fruity”.
And for characterful orchestral sonority look no further than the disc of Mahler songs from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (this is a conflation of three different LPs – five songs with piano from 1959; the Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder with the BPO and Böhm from 1963 and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the BRSO and Kubelik from 1968). The booklet, incidentally, lists the texts in an order different to the track listing, clearly under the impression that the Rückert-Lieder follow the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Dieskau is set back a little bit in the sound picture for the two cycles with Böhm, integrating him more into the orchestral weave – and there’s some terrifically flavoursome playing from the Berlin Phil. I’d never really associated Böhm with Mahler’s music but he proves himself to be characteristically attentive and Karajan’s hand-picked wind players are on magnificent form. The heart-rending final Rückert song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” is wonderfully gauged – the man’s loneliness portrayed with a warmth of tone that prevents it becoming indulgent or narcissistic. The five piano-accompanied songs – Karl Engel at his delightful best – are intimate, witty, fresh and totally winning.
Barry Tuckwell’s disc of the Mozart horn concertos is self-recommending, one of the many magnificent recordings made by principal players from London’s orchestras (from Dennis Brain and Alan Civil to David Pyatt). Joined by his colleagues in the LSO – who clearly want to give him the best possible accompaniment – Tuckwell is on terrific form though you might be surprised at the restraint that Peter Maag takes in his choice of tempi for the finales.
The Wagner/Beethoven/Berlioz disc from the Chicago Symphony and Sir Georg Solti I find less appealing – in Vienna his Wagner had a joy and glow about that in Chicago tended to be replaced by power and a bright glint. There’s no denying that excitement but a work like the Prelude to Die Meistersinger should surely have a humanity and warmth (the usual concert ending is used). The Tristan Prelude and Liebestod uses the purely orchestral version so expect some pretty impressive brass playing. The Beethoven Leonore No 3 and the Berlioz Francs-juges overtures both come from different discs and both are slightly fierce though undeniably exciting.
A regular Solti partner, the violinist Kyung Wha Chung, crops up in a solo disc with the pianist Philip Moll. Chung’s rather Cossack couture on the cover might suggest a disc of Russian repertoire but “Con amore” is devoted to bonbons by Elgar, Kreisler, Wieniawski et al. It’s a delightful programme balancing faultless technique, superb musicianship and, above all, the ability to pitch these charming miniatures at exactly the right level. (Tully Potter’s notes are characteristically wise and affectionate.)
Of Cecilia Bartoli’s debut recital of Rossini arias, I think John Steane puts his finger on it ideally – no surprise there! He makes much of the promise of this hitherto unknown singer and this disc comes laden with the promise of things to come. And those things to come are well known – yes, it’s fascinating, impressive and enjoyable, but Bartoli has done so much more since that this journey back to the beginning seems rather irrelevant.
Of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman’s “Spirituals in Concert” I guess it’s a case of “You’ll like this if this is sort of thing you like”. I find the orchestral arrangements a bit slick and showbiz, but there’s no denying the energy levels and both singers are on fine form. And it was certainly Original!