La Scena Musicale

Friday, August 14, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Nagano/OSM/Hampson Outstanding in Brahms/Strauss Programme

by Paul E. Robinson

Last night at the Knowlton Festival, Kent Nagano continued his Brahms cycle with the OSM playing the Symphony No. 3 in F major Op. 90. The evening’s guest soloist was American baritone Thomas Hampson (photo: right) in three songs by Richard Strauss. It was arguably one of the best concerts of the festival.

The Brahms Third opened the programme and from the first bars, Nagano’s ear for balance and beauty of sound was again evident. As the first movement unfolded, there was more. I wouldn’t say there was abandon – that quality doesn’t seem to be a part of Nagano’s artistic persona – but there was real intensity. This symphony is regarded as autumnal and reflective, and is the only one of the four Brahms symphonies to end quietly. In the first and last movements, however, there is excitement and grandeur and Nagano and his musicians captured much of it. I must say I have rarely heard the orchestra play better. The wind solos were not just accurate, but memorable. The string textures were rich and finely detailed.

Musicians know that the Third Symphony is very difficult as an ensemble piece. Nagano and the OSM players had obviously done their wood-shedding, and it paid off. The syncopations in the last movement were exceptionally precise. Much of the credit for the standard of playing must always go to the musicians themselves, but the conductor’s perception of sound is obviously crucial to the shape of the whole.

Nagano has an ear for both the big picture and the smallest detail. As far as the big picture is concerned, I was struck by his slower than usual tempo for the second movement. At this tempo, the lower strings had time to be expansive in their phrasing; they positively glowed. In the fourth movement, Nagano chose to maintain the quick tempo right into and through the second subject, where other conductors ease up. This strategy worked perfectly and added to the excitement without any loss of melodic grace.

Programming Major Work Before Intermission May be Wise
A minor point, but a significant one perhaps: at most of the Knowlton Festival concerts, the major work concludes the concert. At the final chord, a fair number of concert-goers – understandably – make a dash for the exits to make sure they don’t get caught up in the long lines to board busses.

Last night the Third Symphony, the major work on the programme, opened the concert. At its conclusion audience members stayed in their seats – or, more accurately, on their feet – to applaud Nagano and the OSM at the end of the performance. The ovation was warm, vocal, and sustained. Conductor and musicians clearly appreciated it.

Incidentally, in his opening remarks tonight, Knowlton Festival president and executive director Marco Genoni apologized for the transportation challenges and assured folks that these were being dealt with by management.

Baritone Thomas Hampson Beguiles Knowlton!
After intermission, one of the leading stars of the Metropolitan Opera took the stage to perform some rarely-heard songs by Richard Strauss. Thomas Hampson is by now a beloved figure in New York and around the world and everything he does is informed by scholarly preparation, intelligent phrasing and a ringing voice. He was in fine voice last night and I thoroughly enjoyed the repertoire.

Hampson sang three songs, written in the years 1897-99, around the time Strauss was composing works such as Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, but before the composition of his most famous operas.

For me, the most impressive of the songs presented was Notturno Op. 44 No. 1. The poetry is by Richard Dehmel, the same man who later inspired Schönberg in his Verklärte Nacht. Since these are orchestral songs and the composer is Richard Strauss at the top of his game, it is not surprising that something amazing happens in the orchestra in every bar.

The orchestration, with its use of trombones at the bottom of their register combined with double basses and contrabassoon, suggested a sort of dry run for Elektra or Salome. The sustained chords played by this combination of instruments were ominous and unsettling. On top of these chords were frequent violin solos – virtually the top and bottom of the orchestra playing together. The sounds were mesmerizing and gave Hampson the ideal framework for his rendering of the text. A great song and an ideal performance.

Hampson also sang Hymnus Op. 33 No. 3 and Pilgers Morgenlied Op. 33 No. 4. Even without the texts available to them, the audience loved what they heard and demanded an encore. Hampson obliged with Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This is folk poetry rendered into Mahlerian folk song and Hampson sang it beautifully. With all the accompanying body language, it was obvious to the audience that Hampson was telling some kind of amusing story. One wished he had let the audience in on at least the outlines of this charming tale before he sang it.

Hampson is justly famous for his Mahler, having recorded most of the songs with Leonard Bernstein and written extensively about the composer and his music. Come to think of it, it was more than twenty years ago that he made the Bernstein recordings and Hampson sounds better than ever! Anyone wanting to know more about Hampson should visit his website. It is filled with information including titles and texts of all the songs in his repertoire.

Incidentally, the violin soloist in Strauss’ Notturno was Andrew Wan, one of the OSM’s two concertmasters. Wan just joined the orchestra last year and it is already apparent that he is a huge asset for his stellar playing and for the obvious energy and leadership he brings to the role.

Good Sound Might Go Further with Portable Shell
I have long thought that where one sits at a concert has a lot to do with one’s impression of the performance. This is probably less true in a great hall but critical in a poor or mediocre hall. Le Chapiteau (tent) at the Knowlton Festival is not a great concert hall nor does it pretend to be one. Last night I sat in the sixth row – for many of the other concerts I have been much further back and off to the side – and for the first time I really began to feel I was hearing the orchestra properly and well. I would guess that anywhere in the first ten rows one will have a similar experience. The problem is that these are also the most expensive seats. A great experience for those who can afford to sit there; for the rest of the audience, some work needs to be done to enhance the sound. A portable shell of some kind might help.

Coming Next: Today at 5 pm Susan Platts gives a free recital and tonight at 8 pm Massimiliano Muralli leads the Festival Orchestra with prize winners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia competitions in excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Kent Nagano conducts excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning the busiest day of the festival begins at 10 am with a children’s opera Orfea and the Golden Harp presented by Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, followed by a master class with Italian conductor Massimiliano Muralli. Marianne Lambert gives a recital at 2 pm. In the evening, there is a second performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula led by Kent Nagano and featuring Sumi Jo. Finally, on Sunday morning at 11 am – note the unusual time for the concert – Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in the closing concert with soloists June Anderson, Sumi Jo and Susan Platts in the final scene from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Nagano also completes his Brahms cycle with the Symphony No. 1. For more information visit the festival website.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Rising Stars and Heroic Strauss

By Paul E. Robinson

Knowlton was awash with tourists and classical music-lovers this weekend. The tourists are a familiar sight in these parts, drawn by the beauty of the location, the antique stores and boutiques selling lavender products and a tempting variety of other country fare. The music-lovers, however, are a relatively new phenomenon, attracted by the Knowlton Festival. On the basis of what I have heard so far I don’t think they would be disappointed.

At its Saturday evening concert in the Chapiteau (photo above: bar area) the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) under Kent Nagano offered another lyrical and transparent Brahms performance – this time the Fourth Symphony – and earlier in the day there was some fine singing to be heard in two different locations.

Cagli's Master Class an Education in Bel Canto Technique
The morning event was held in the charming Old Brick Church in West Brome. Bruno Cagli (photo: right), the president of the distinguished Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, presented a master class in bel canto with some young singers he had brought with him from Italy. In fact, these singers were already pretty accomplished in bel canto and Cagli spent less time teaching them and more time educating the audience of about 200 – a full house in this intimate setting – in the “rules” of bel canto.

Cagli took his captivated audience through the history of singing, with particular emphasis on nineteenth century composers, including Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Tosti, and some of the most renowned singers from that period. There was also considerable talk about breathing and ‘proper’ voice production. Each of the singers contributed very good performances. One of them, tenor Antonio Poli, sounded like a major talent. All of them will be heard again during the festival in a concert with the Festival Orchestra on Monday night.

Domingo's Rising Stars Take the Stage
Later, I dropped by the Saint Édouard Chapel in Knowlton to hear a recital by winners of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition.

This concert was announced in the programme as featuring “Winners Operalia 2008” (Québec City). Only Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva (photo: above left), who took “The People’s Prize” there, fits that description. The other soloists are fairly recent Operalia winners in other countries. All were well worth hearing and have deservedly advanced beyond the promising ‘student stage’ to become busy professional artists.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would Kramaryeva. She is a genuine Verdi dramatic soprano with presence, richness of tone and considerable dramatic skills. Kramaryeva and her Operalia colleagues will all be featured again during the festival on Friday August 15. Kent Nagano will conduct excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin and Massimilliano Murrali will lead excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

And From Ben Heppner - An Almost Perfect Set of Strauss Songs
The founders of the Knowlton Festival – Marco Genoni and Kent Nagano – based their new venture on the glories of the Italian bel canto tradition. While the content of the festival has shifted somewhat in the second season, singing in general and bel canto in particular remains a major component; it is, therefore, entirely within the concept of the festival that one of the world’s great heldentenors should be featured in orchestral songs by Richard Strauss.

Canada’s own Ben Heppner is in constant demand at all the top opera houses in the world and it was a coup for the festival to be able bring him here. He chose for his programme a group of six songs by Strauss, including the beloved Zueignung, along with some less popular pieces.

In the opening bars of Cäcilie we heard Heppner’s effortless purity of sound and beauty of phrasing. The darkly imaginative Ruhe meine Seele was also given a fine performance with Nagano taking care over every detail and the members of the OSM playing beautifully. We heard five Strauss songs presented as well as one is likely ever to hear them.

Then came Befreit. Suddenly, Heppner’s voice simply failed him. It was painful to hear and undoubtedly most painful for Heppner himself. One could only reflect on the vagaries of the human voice.

Texts, Translations, Projections?
As a festival grows, it learns from its mistakes and tries to improve things that need improvement. For any festival that makes vocal music the core of its mission, great care must be taken to provide the audience with texts for songs, operatic excerpts and complete operas being performed. This can be accomplished by means of texts and translations in the printed programmes or through the use of modern technology with projections on screens situated around the auditorium. Whatever the means used, it is not only important – some might add ‘respectful’ - to provide audience members a comfortable way into a full appreciation of the music they are hearing.

The Knowlton Festival continues on Sunday with the first of two performances of Bellini’s La Sonnambula starring Sumi Jo with Nagano conducting. More bel canto follows on Monday night, with an all-Handel programme by the period instrument orchestra Les Violin du Roy under Bernard Labadie on Tuesday night.

The concert on Tuesday will include, in addition to a group of opera arias featuring soprano Hélène Guilmette, Handel’s very popular Water Music.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Nagano, OSM and Idyllic Brahms

by Paul E. Robinson

The Knowlton Festival, which started life as Festival Bel Canto last summer, opened officially last night with an all Brahms program. Maestro Kent Nagano did his best, in a well-attended pre-concert talk, to make the case that one could legitimately see the music of Brahms as no less bel canto than the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Basically, he was saying that all music is 'singing' or an attempt to emulate 'singing' using instruments. But such a broad definition obscures most of the very real and interesting differences between styles of music.

Nagano was on firmer ground when he took baton in hand and mounted the podium. His Brahms was decidedly lyrical rather than dramatic or rugged, as it is in the hands of some conductors. One didn’t have to agree with Nagano’s general approach to find his Brahms conducting refreshing and satisfying in its own way.

The concert opened with a musical but all too careful reading of the Academic Festival Overture. In this rousing piece based on German student songs, being careful doesn’t get the job done. Even in the big moments, the brass was kept on a tight leash and the extra percussion might as well have stayed at home.

On the other hand, the Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 was fascinating. It too was careful, but more appropriately so. This is a dark, brooding piece that can easily sound thick and ponderous. With his sharp ear for balances, Nagano made the piece exquisitely beautiful. He was helped enormously by mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the men of the OSM Chorus. I am sure the sound system had something to do it with it, but the balance between voices and orchestra was nearly perfect. Quite a feat in this piece in which voices and instruments alike are pretty much all in the same register.

Lemieux was even better in the Two Songs for Contralto with Viola and Piano. Her phrasing was remarkably expressive and she fully deserved the ovation she received.

The major work on the program was Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 73. Over the course of the festival, Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) will perform all four symphonies of Brahms and it was fitting to start this festival set in the Québec countryside with the symphony often called Brahms’ “Pastoral”.

This symphony also made the best case for Nagano’s bel canto approach. From the opening bars, each player was directed to ‘sing’ his or her part and did just that. But it was not only the singing quality in the music that Nagano captured; the transparency of the sound was astonishing. Nothing was covered in over-saturated textures. Even the trumpets managed to function as extensions of the woodwind section rather than as the aggressive intruders they often seem to be in this music. The final coda never fails to bring a crowd to its feet and Nagano and the OSM whipped up plenty of excitement. Some prefer a more ‘hell for leather’ approach, but Nagano showed that precision and taste work wonders too.

With this successful ‘official’ opening, the Knowlton Festival is off and running. This concert was sold out and the size of the crowd made for long waits for buses out of the festival site. Last night’s audience made the most of the camaraderie that standing in line can effect after a shared ‘good’ experience; nevertheless, if there are more big crowds – and there probably will be – something may yet have to be done to get the buses in and out much faster.

The festival tent is much larger than the one used last year. It is decidedly less claustrophobic and now has a bar area under cover. That it is still acoustically challenged should come as no surprise; it is still a tent and as such has no effective reflecting surfaces. Without amplification one guesses that very little sound would get to the audience.

When it comes to the amplification of classical music, I have serious reservations. On the other hand, music is meant to be enjoyed and it can be enjoyed in many different ways and in different settings. As executive director, Marco Genoni pointed out in his pre-concert talk there are very few concert halls where you can sit in your seat and see a sunset behind you and a little later a full moon rising in front of you. And I have to say that in quiet passages, the sound system works extremely well to give you not only more sound, but good quality sound. It is only when the music gets loud, that the lack of real resonance becomes an issue. And for the fine OSM musicians who have endured Place des Arts all these years, acoustical imperfection has become as way of life.

Everything considered a visit to the Knowlton Festival should be on every music-lovers list of things to do this year. The setting is beautiful and a conductor with refreshing ideas is leading a terrific orchestra in some of the greatest music ever written.

More Brahms Saturday night, with tenor Ben Heppner adding some songs by Richard Strauss, and Sunday afternoon a concert performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula with Nagano conducting and Sumi Jo as Amina. And there are other weekend events too including a master class by Bruno Cagli and two recitals. For more information visit the festival website.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Emotional Journey: Clarinet Works of Johannes Brahms

Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Loren Kitt, clarinet; Lambert Orkis, piano; David Hardy, cello)
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90902 (65 min 15 s)
*** $$$$

This disc contains all the clarinet works of Brahms’ late period except for the Quintet. I must confess that I have always considered these pieces to be second-rate Brahms and this new recording doesn’t change my opinion. The Quintet is a glorious piece but these works often seems tedious and uninspired. Clarinetists love them, of course, but then they have precious few works by major composers to call their own.

The performers are all members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., and the best-known is undoubtedly pianist Lambert Orkis. He is Anne-Sophie Mutter’s regular sonata partner and a fine artist. But listening to these performances I began to feel that either his personality was too strong or that of his colleague’s too weak. Especially in the sonatas clarinetist Loren Kitt plays beautifully but in a self-effacing kind of way. I think it is also Brahms’ fault in giving the piano much more to do. The notes by Kitt and Orkis are more interesting than the performances.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Marek Janowski
PentaTone PTC 5186 309 Hybrid SACD (57 min 01 s)
***** $$$$

Let’s make this official and unequivocal. With this concluding issue in the Janowski/Pittsburgh Brahms symphony cycle, we now have the best recordings of these works since the onset of the digital era. Here is an all-round collaborative triumph and full vindication of PentaTone’s policy of pursuing new performances of standard repertory. It is a mighty achievement. Think of Claudio Abbado and the BPO (DG), who turned out an excellent Brahms cycle until they stumbled with a congested Fourth. There are no errors in these live recordings from Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. Discriminating collectors starting with the present disc will not be able to live without the preceding two. This release presents performances of the highest artistic truth. The roster of musicians included in the booklet note is something to be grateful for; you will want to know who these people are. With this project, a great orchestra has gone through resurrection as a recording ensemble and a master conductor should now be recognized as such.
- Stephen Habington

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Brahms Piano Quartets

Xiayin Wang, piano; Amity Players
Marquis 774718-1377-2-2 (73 min 47 s)
*** $$$$
The young Amity Players collaborated with pianist Xiayin Wang on two of Brahms’ dramatic piano quartets, both conceived at times of personal tumult. He began the Piano Quartet in C Minor in the mid 1850s after his mentor, Robert Schumann, attempted suicide. His Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor was composed between 1857 and 1859, following Schumann’s death. Brahms had formed a close relationship with Schumann’s wife Clara that intensified after her husband’s death and was the subject of much speculation. Both quartets are informed by turbulent emotions, oscillating between anguished brooding and violent abandonment. In livelier movements, such as the G minor Rondo, the Player’s tempo and accent style detracts from the vigorous intensity that could electrify the composition. However, Wang sparkles with precision, solidifying and invigorating the quartet. Cellist Raphael Dubé plays expressively, with singing tone in the C minor Andante, and the group produces a thick, murky texture that beautifully darkens the G minor Andante con moto. Overall, the Amity Players and Xiayin Wang capture the dark and confused emotions that permeate the two compositions.

- Hannah Rahimi

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Austin 'Salon Concerts' Celebrates Violin & Cello Reunion

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson



Every month, forty or so music-lovers gather in one of the finest private homes in Austin to listen to chamber music: this is Salon Concerts, now in its nineteenth season.

Salon Concerts was created by two of the finest musicians in the area – violinist Robert Rudié and pianist/composer Kathryn Mishell. As Robert approaches his 90th year, he continues to appear as a violinist in the series – at this concert he played excerpts from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin with wonderful tone and expression - but more and more of the artistic direction has been taken over by his wife, Kathryn. I joined the group for their latest soirée called Instrumental Magnetism, and enjoyed it immensely, not least of all for the chance to hear a new work by Kathryn.

Made by the Same Master, Violin & Cello Notably Drawn Together
The piece was called "Duo for Violin and Cello: Reunion," and there is a fascinating back story. In the 1860s in Paris, one of the great makers of string instruments was Gand Frères. Of the many instruments produced by the company over the years, two of them found their way to Austin. There was a violin owned by Brian Lewis, a professor of violin at the University of Texas, and a cello owned by Douglas Harvey, principal cellist of the Austin Symphony and the Austin Lyric Opera. In fact, the two instruments were part of a set of four commissioned by Napoleon III and all were made from the same piece of wood!

While the two Austin musicians knew each other, neither knew until recently that the other owned a Gand. Lewis and Mishell had the brilliant idea of bringing the two musicians together to play chamber music on their “Gands.” But more than that, Mishell would bring them together to play music especially written for them and their precious instruments.

Against this background, composer Mishell set to work. As a unifying musical device she used the familiar French nursery song"Frère Jacques," thus indicating 1) the birthplace of the instruments - Paris, France, 2) the makers of the instruments - Gand Frères, and 3) the fact that in being created from the same piece of wood, the two instruments are natural brothers (frères).

Kathryn went a step further. She told me that since the sibling instruments were born in 1863 and 'grew up' in France, they would have known and 'sung' "Frère Jacques" as 'children', as the first publication of the words and music together dates from 1860.

Lewis and Harvey gave a fine performance of the new piece, showing off their Gands and their own considerable talents. Lewis even brought along some coins from the time of Napoleon III to show audience members, in the spirit of the occasion.

Vitizslava Kaprálová's Rarely Performed "Elegy" Rates More Play
The first half of the evening’s program included an impassioned performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s "Three Madrigals" by Lewis and Bruce Williams, principal violist of the Austin Symphony. Lewis and pianist Rick Rowley then presented the rarely-heard "Elegy" by Martinu student Vitizslava Kaprálová. Mishell is well-known for championing women composers – her KMFA radio series Into the Light won a Communicator Award of Distinction last year – and tries to work at least one piece by a woman into each Salon Concerts program.

Kaprálová was a gifted young Czech composer destined to become a major figure. Sadly, her life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five in 1940. The "Elegy" is a beautiful piece and deserves to be better-known. For more on Kaprálová visit the website of the Kaprálová Society. The society is based in Toronto and includes on its advisory board two old friends of mine: pianist Antonin Kubalek and conductor/broadcaster Kerry Stratton.

A Joyous Evening of Intimate Music-making...
The major work on the program was Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8, played by Lewis, Harvey and Rowley. I prefer the opening tune played with a little more restraint so that one can fully savor its breadth and nobility, but in this performance enthusiasm and the sheer joy of making music carried everything before it. After all, the tempo marking is ‘Allegro con brio’.

I think, however, that I have the composer on my side for the tempo in the slow movement. Brahms marked it ‘Adagio’ and ‘four to the bar’, but pianist Rick Rowley started off at what seemed to me double the tempo, with far too much volume. Surely, those opening chords are meant to suggest almost a suspension of time, just hanging in the air, at a distance, and barely audible. Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve in the living room of a private home - but it can be done.

...Followed by Mixing, Mingling and Fine Food & Wine
As always, the music-making was followed by some world-class cuisine, prepared by the ever-resourceful Chef Pascal.

If I am giving the impression that Salon Concerts is some kind of elitist enterprise, bear in mind that the price tag for the concert and the food was all of $35. Consider also that Salon Concerts manages to raise enough money to maintain its educational activities, in addition to its intimate concert series; the CHAMPS program provides weekly chamber music coaching to over sixty young musicians in Austin’s middle and high schools every year.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

Blog photo by Marita.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: May 7 (Brahms, Tchaikovsky)

1833 - Johannes Brahms, Hamburg, Germany; composer

Wiki entry

A mini-biopic of Johannes Brahms. The music is his Hungarian Dance no.11

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd movement (Vladimir Ashkenazy, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini conducting)

1870 - Piotr Tchaikovsky, Votkinsk, Russia; composer

Wiki entry

Tchaikovksy's 1812 overture - Berliner Philharmoniker. Seiji Ozawa, conductor

Rocco Rilippini plays Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana led by Karl Anton Rickenbacher

Soprano Egle Chisiu and baritone Nauris Indzeris sing the final duet of Tatyana and Onegin from Eugene Onegin - Klaipeda Opera Theatre (Lithuania), August 2007(Conductor - I.Lapinsch)

Ramon Flowers performs "Trepack" from The Nutcracker (production of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Montreal, Canada)

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
PentaTone PTC 4186 308 Hybrid SACD
***** $$$$ (79 min 17 s)

We might just be within an ace of the finest Brahms symphony cycle of the digital era. Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony commenced the series with impressive accounts of Symphony No 1 and the Haydn Variations. These live concert performances from November 2007 of Symphonies 2 and 3 confirm the partnership’s mastery of Brahms and elevate expectations for the Fourth, which should appear within a matter of months.

Marek Janowski’s contribution to the Pittsburgh conducting triumvirate (with Sir Andrew Davis and Yan Pascal Tortelier) appears to be a ‘back to basics’ approach to core repertory. It is easy to lose touch with the quality of an orchestra after an extended break in commercial recording activity. With the advent of this Brahms project, the PSO reveals itself again as a truly great ensemble. The stunning performances are enhanced by Direct Stream Digital engineering, which permits multi-channel surround playback. This mode provides one with the illusion of occupying the best seat in Heinz Hall.

In the Brahms symphonies, we are really spoiled for choice; the Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic cycle from the early 1990s (Deutsche Grammophon) continues to stand up very well. Just last year, Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic completed a distinguished four-disc traversal of the symphonies and other orchestral works for Naxos. Janowski’s interpretations benefit from more finely developed rhythmic propulsion to achieve a sense of buoyancy in these densely packed scores. A decision may boil down to excellent Brahms on a budget (Alsop) versus definitive Brahms at more than twice the price (Janowski). But it is nice to have options. The PentaTone issue includes a current catalogue of the label’s inventory.

Janowski the Wanderer: Marek Janowski was born in Poland in 1939 but is by background, training and temperament a German conductor of traditional outlook. We are indeed fortunate that the maverick PentaTone label has taken him up by at an advanced stage in his career. In this respect, and others, it is apparent that he has much in common with the late Günter Wand, who would be Janowski’s senior by nearly three decades. Although Janowski is more traveled throughout Europe than Wand was, they have similar tastes when it comes to recording the repertory (Janowski has also released a Bruckner 9th with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for PentaTone), as well as the rigour of their application to the scores. In 1991, Wand didn’t even rate an index entry in Norman Lebrecht’s survey of the conducting profession, The Maestro Myth. Neither did Janowski. At that time both were accomplished conductors, both had turned away from the opera house to concentrate on symphonic music, and each had made some notable recordings. By the end of the decade, Wand had secured a pre-eminent place among active conductors thanks, in large part, to the advocacy of RCA Victor. It would be a bonus for collectors if Janowski’s association with PentaTone lasts long enough to yield results of comparable magnitude.

-Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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