CD Review - 17 May 1999
Beethoven and Varèse
PARIS, 17 May 1999 - Of these three
handsome box-sets that have recently been released - absolute summits -
the one I would most warmly recommend is perhaps not the one to which
the potential buyer would most spontaneously gravitate when in his or
her favorite record store.
He or she might most likely be
tempted to head for the Brahms symphonies recorded by the mythical
Sergiu Celibidache. We know that the Romanian conductor, up to his death
in 1996, was officially opposed to the idea of making records. For him,
the type of listening required of an audience and the type of tension
required of his musicians during a concert formed the only possibility
of truly appreciating music. In that respect, he was diametrically
opposed to Glenn Gould who shunned concerts (which he regarded as a sort
of circus) and considered recording as the most authentic means of
conveying musical emotion.
This complete set of Brahms
symphonies, recorded in concert, certainly helps us to understand
Celidache's reasoning, but to the detriment of Brahms's music: it is a
succession of moments, often quite beautiful, even of astonishing
amplitude (the start of the finale of the Second Symphony). In the
concert hall one would perhaps be glued to one's seat, for example by
certain passages of the first movement of the Third Symphony, but, on
record, one quickly realizes that these moments are quite badly linked
to one another. There is a temporal logic in Brahms, a coherent
pulsation, inside of which variation is organized. This very classic
mastery of tempo, very Beethovenian in fact, does not in the least agree
with the succession of moments proposed by Celibidache.
idea that a single moment can epitomize an entire symphonic movement
certainly functions for Bruckner: perhaps one recalls the formidable
conclusion of his Fourth Symphony as interpreted by Celibidache on EMI.
But it considerably reduces the construction of Brahms's writing. Add to
that that the Stuttgart Orchestra is not really in top form, let us even
say that it is somewhat below a reasonable standard: what horrible
woodwind attacks, violins incapable of sustaining the length of a bow,
In short, if you want to discover the powerful
architecture of these symphonies and not just the few beauties they
contain, listen to the Klemperer recordings once again reissued by EMI,
in its collection "The Klemperer Legacy".
Beethoven's complete sonatas for piano and violin recorded by
Anne-Sophie Mutter and her regular accompanist, Lambert Orkis, as you
may have noticed, have aroused controversy, or rather disappointment,
among most of the critics. Everyone has stressed that the formidable
German violinist is using her head too much, without really taking
proper care of Beethoven's text. Transforming the beginning of the "Kreutzer"
Sonata into a fantastic exercise in manipulation of sound (from no
vibrato to vibrato) gives it a little modern touch (I'm thinking of
Ligeti) that one might not necessairly look for when buying a disc of
Beethoven's music. And the often gratuitous graciousness of the first
three sonatas, the freshness of the "Spring", seem here to be
completely forgotten to the advantage of a sort of sonorous high that
gives these pages an uncalled-for solidity.
Let's not mention
a pianist who should play a role equally as important as that of the
violinst: these sonatas were written "for piano and violin" -
in that order - while what we hear are sonatas for violin with piano
accompaniment. And the accompaniment is even rather pale.
friends of the violin, lovers of the violin, idolaters of the violin,
don't under any pretext miss one of the most fabulous recordings ever
made of your favorite instrument. The extraordinary mastery of
Anne-Sophie Mutter, who seems to be able to do anything with her violin,
warm as well as cold sounds, from the impalpable to an extravagant
depth, is placed at the service of an inventivity that is absolutely
inexhaustible. Here each note is a technical prowess and also a stroke
If your primary goal is to discover
Beethoven's sonatas, listen to the EMI set by Christian Ferras and
Pierre Barbizet who arrive at a perfect balance between clarity and
commitment, or be sufficiently daring to listen to the confrontation,
very Beethovenian, of two such explosive personalities as Gidon Kremer
and Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon). If, however, it is the
sensuality of the violin, here carried to its paroxysm, that calls out
to you, let yourself to be tempted, seduced and carried away by
Finally, the most indispensable of the three albums is that, under the
leadership of Riccardo Chailly, devoted by Decca to Edgar Varèse.
One cannot truly say that this composer born in France who became an
American citizen has until now aroused a large audience. But these two
CDs should change this attitude. Varèse is incontestably "modern"
and probably went farther than all the 20th century revolutionaries -
Schoenberg, Webern, Bartók or Stravinsky - in his desire to shake
For him, one should make music "with all
possible sounds". Before seizing, and among the first to do so, the
possibilities offered by electro-acoustic music, he seems to have
imagined the transformation of the orchestra into a generator of sounds,
rhythms and colors, with no regard for notions of melody, regular
pulsation or definite timbres.
Varèse, to feed his
imagination, thus uses sounds produced by the city (his Amériques
are teeming, strewn with the sounds of sirens and with no connection to
such common places as the "wide open spaces"). The percussion
alone suffice to build an entire piece (Ionisations), just as do
the laws of physics (Hyperprism). Varèse uses sound like
a raw material, modulating the textures and density. The colors that he
brings out are absolutely unheard of (he gets that from Debussy); and
his rhythms do not mark the passing time but rather resolve themselves
into convulsions (in this respect, he is diametrically opposed to
Of the 15 or so works left to posterity by this
fascinating composer, Robert Craft (CBS), glacial, and Pierre Boulez
(Sony), surgical, have given us exciting but hardly attractive readings.
Nagano (Erato) and especially Mehta (Decca), in Arcana, allow us
to sense that he possessed a sensuality and the capacity to hypnotise.
With this set, Chailly uses the voluptuous colors of the Concertgebouw
Orchestra and the flexibility of the ASKO Ensemble to the full and
simply plays Varèse like a classic. It is not a question of
showing to what point his music is violently new, but to allow it to
develop, accepting of course the noises of a large orchestra in Amériques
and Arcana as well as the brilliance of the wind and percussion
ensembles in Hyperprism and Intégrales.
Never has Varèse's music been recorded with such care thereby
rendering tribute to its intense beauty. If we add that music lovers
already familiar with the work of the composer will also discover an
unpublished work from 1947 (Tuning Up, which parodies an
orchestra in the process of tuning up) and an "original"
version of Amériques (from 1918-1921), you will
understand that this box-set can be regarded as a magnificent portal
opening out on to some of the most striking music of the 20th century.
Your turn to discover these new territories!
Klassiknet's exclusive interview of Riccardo Chailly in Amsterdam.
Brahms (1833-1897) :Complete Symphonies.
Sergiu Celibidache (1974-1976), conductor.
Grammophon 459 635-2 (3 CD + 1 CD orchestra rehearsal).
Brahms (1833-1897) :Symphony No. 1; Tragische Ouvertüre;
Otto Klemperer, conductor.
Classics : The Klemperer Legacy, CD 7243 5 67029 2 9.
Brahms (1833-1897) :Symphonies No. 2 and 3
Otto Klemperer, conductor.
EMI Classics : The
Klemperer Legacy, CD 7243 5 67030 2 5.
(1833-1897) :Symphony No. 4; Akademische Fest - Ouvertüre
Schumann (1810-1856) : Ouvertüre: Genoveva; Ouvertüre: Manfred
New Philharmonia Orchestra (Schumann Ouvertures)
EMI Classics : The Klemperer Legacy, CD 7243 5
67031 2 4.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Contredanses WoO 14 nos 4 and 7. Minuet
WoO 10 n° 2 (arrangement Mischa Elman).
(violon), Lambert Orkis (piano).
Deutsche Grammophon 457 619-2 (4
CD). CD plus score
Edgar Varèse (1883-1965) :The
Sarah Leonard (soprano), Mireille Delunsch (soprano)
Kerdoncuff (piano), Kevin Deas (bass), Jacques Zoon (flute)
the Prague Philharmonic Coir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
Decca 460 208-2 (2 CD).
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