Classical Review Roundup for December


Between reviews I'd been accumulating, things I listened to for my best-of-2014 list, and a couple of comparisons I'd planned to make, there's enough for another review roundup before the close of the year. Note that the three that could fit into the reissue category -- Rilling, Berman, and the first 71 tracks of the lead review here -- would all have been on my best-classical-reissues-of-2014 list if I'd made one.

This is part of Hungaroton's monumental Kodály Complete Edition, and contains exactly the sort of tidying-up-the-loose-ends program such editions must have to live up to the name: it's a complete survey of short (often under a minute) vocal pieces written for teaching music to children. Kodály (one of the most influential music educators of the 20th century and also, of course, a respected composer of some well-known works in the classical repertoire) was very modest about these pieces, saying that they were not intended for public performance. Not suitably mighty music for a best-of-the-year list, you might think, yet these pieces (many for just two voice parts), arranged into little suites, make for a surprisingly addictive listening experience -- all 225 of them on three CDs. The first 71 of them were recorded in 1970 by the Budapest Zoltán Kodály Girls' Choir led by Ilona Andor; these cherry-pick in the sense of avoiding some of the ones where the words are just solfege syllables, and this segment is one of the most welcome reissues of 2014. The rest of the tracks were made in 2012 with a variety of choirs. There is a great deal of folk music-derived material here, much pentatonic in nature, but also much new material. Often rhythmically snappy, and subtly sophisticated harmonically, this is recommended to anyone who enjoys Eastern European choral music, and as we learned in the '90s with the success of the Bulgarian Women's Choir, that's actually quite a lot of you.

Antoni Wit has conducted so many great recordings for Naxos that I approach a new Wit release expecting wonders. It is a shock, then, to report that this is not just a disappointment by his lofty established standards but actually painful to listen to. The choir (especially the sopranos) frequently slips out of tune (mostly flat) in the first movement, and though comparing track timings doesn't show the first two movements as especially slow, they feel like they drag on eternally. While trudging through them, Wit summons some moments that, in isolation, sound spectacular, particularly from the orchestra, but these can't redeem his reading. It gets better after that, but it's hard to recommend a German Requiem whose first 27 minutes are tedious and occasionally grating (because of the choir's tuning). Fans of Christiane Libor will not be let down by her full-bodied and luminous solo in the fifth movement, though; I'm not usually fond of operatic sopranos with big vibratos in sacred music, but she controls hers so precisely that it doesn't bother me in the least. Bauer is like a baritone version of her; certainly the soloists both hold up their end. By the time the sixth movement comes around, the sopranos are much better, with only a few stray notes sounding pressed, but then go astray again in the final movement. There are so many great performances of this masterpiece that the first two movements here knock this one out of the competition.

Hänssler's series of Rilling reissues continues with his occasionally eccentric 1991 take on the German Requiem. Rilling is one of the great choral conductors, and there are absolutely no problems with tuning here. Here the second movement takes a minute longer than in Wit's rendition, yet Rilling's reading sustains tension of line and seems suspenseful rather than turgid. The eccentricity comes from a couple of tempo manipulations in different movements, but though they are momentarily startling, they're fine if you like a hyper-Romantic approach; both of them work within his interpretation. What's most striking about this reading is Rilling's absolute mastery of accents and phrasing. He's also, that second movement aside, not one who lingers especially, but then again, he never seems to rush, either; his reading is emphatic and, a few brief sectionalizing slowdowns aside, has a nice natural flow. His soloists are lighter-voiced than Wit's, and also caught in a more natural sonic perspective rather than being spotlit, which combines to make them seem a tad recessed in the sonic picture (especially Brown), but not detrimentally so. This is an excellent German Requiem that ranks close to the best.

Yes, it's another Melodiya back catalog deal. Anyone who doesn’t already have this classic 1963 recording should make sure to get it before this deal peters out as so many Melodiya reissue projects have. Berman had already started establishing his reputation with high-ranking piano competition results, but that was nothing compared to the hubbub after this fire-breathing run through Liszt's daunting set of technical challenges for pianists first made its way to the West back in the days of the Iron Curtain, when Russian pianists were something of an exotic and untamed species. Sure, Berman (1930-2005) was forever after typecast as all chops, no soul (unfairly so), but boy, what chops! Berman and these pieces go together like Scotch and eggnog; never were repertoire and pianist better suited for each other.

This is billed as a "reconstruction of [the] first performance," which is one way of justifying the Süssmayr completion. It's more than that, though, as this takes it back before the first published edition of 1800, which already found somebody making changes to what had been presented in Vienna on December 14, 1793 at a benefit concert for Mozart's widow that Mozart's patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten arranged (not the supposed performance at Mozart's own funeral on December 10, 1791, where only two movements were likely to have been performed; those, with the smaller forces involved, form an appendix to this recording along with Mozart's much earlier Misericordias Domini, parts for which, dating from around 1791, were found at the church where the funeral was held, leading to the assumption that it was also performed at the funeral). The performing forces are extrapolated from those of a Mozart-arranged Handel performance by the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere in the years before Mozart's death; besides the size of the orchestra and chorus, this means the soloists sing as part of the choir rather than being separate. So basically this is another period-performance recording of almost the long-standard edition (the differences must be very subtle), with a less-orchestrated version of the Kyrie in the appendix making for a moderately interesting oddity. So what really matters is whether this is a good performance, and it certainly is.

And here's another Mozart Requiem performed by a 36-voice choir with a separate quartet of (more famous) soloists, with a period orchestra. The textures are a bit richer, the tempos sometimes a bit more relaxed. It's easy to be blasé about Mozart Requiems that don't have a "hook" like the above one, but Equilbey & Co.'s version is top-notch. The brass (especially horns), so often problematic in period performance groups, sound nicely pungent but without any out-of-tune braying. Anyone looking for the weight of a "traditional" performance but the nimbleness of an "authentic" band should find this an excellent combination of the virtues of both. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.