Recent Releases

Mike Silverton

[March 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:1.]

LORIN MAAZEL Works for Violin, Violoncello, and Flute: Music for Violoncello and Orchestra, Op. 10. Music for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 11. Music for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 12. Mstislav Rostropovitch (cello). James Galway (flute). Lorin Maazel (violin). Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Lorin Maazel (conductor, Opp. 10, 11); Arthur Post (conductor, Op. 12) Wilhelm Meister (producer); Peter Jütte (engineer, Opp. 10 and 11), Peter Urban (engineer, Op. 12) RCA VICTOR RED SEAL 09026-68789-2 (playing time 73:54)

We know Lorin Maazel best, and quite likely only, as a conductor. Usually, when a conductor, instrumentalist, vocalist presents himself to the public as composer – e.g., John Lennon as classical bombadier – one wants to to paraphrase Dr Johnson’s scandalously sexist metaphor with regard to the female novelists of his day: The astonishing thing about dogs walking about on their hind legs is not that they do it well but that they can do it at all.

So along, inter alia, comes George Sand, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather to put a quip to bed, and with conductors, of course, there’s Gustav Mahler, in his lifetime far better regarded in the commission of that craft. So I suppose the first thing to say about these three “musics” – concertos in all but name – is that they stand well and handsomely on their own. There can be little doubt that this is the work of a master composer.

The second thing to say is Oh my! to these performances and their recordings. From where I sit, Maazel as violinist sounds the equal to that instrument’s first-rank; with Rostropovitch, Galway, and a virtuoso instrumental ensemble (of which the composer is music director till 2002), Maazel cannot have asked for better. All of which brings us to an aside: Harry Pearson and I have been having a borderline-cordial exchange about the respective merits of analog and digital sound. It’s Harry’s contention that digital, which he allows as occasionally excellent, occupies a universe parallel to that of real-world analog. I’ve maintained from the silver disc’s inception that examples of splendid sound abound. To give Harry’s position its tangential due, I’ve made comparisons that have shown me the superiority of latterday digital end-user hardware, and by no slight degree. In any event, we’ve arrived at a place beyond dry disputation where it’s possible to hear the 16-bit medium, properly utilized, doing remarkably convincing things.

Is this perfection? Perish the thought! But it does seem appropriate to observe that good technology at the service of good art plays for the music-loving audiophile as a slice of secular heaven. (Do you find “music-loving audiophile” redundant? I know too many whose collections, vinyl and/or silver, occupy a shelf shorter than a leg.) As to short lists, I’ve a handful of CDs I play for skeptics. This Red Seal joins them. Within the same discussion (more or less), I’ve suggested to Harry that my musical preferences direct me to releases this side of overproduction, as a listening preference that may help to account for our differences in outlook. Especially impressive over the years have been the art-music productions of Germany’s media-cultural apparats, with West German Radio (WDR) as among the most active in this regard, a fact of life I mention (as an American with no little embarrassment) because Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio) co-produced the disc here reviewed with BMG Classics, RCA’s parent organization. I hope in future issues to go into more of these European, state-supported productions.

Maazel’s three concertos share in a programmatic-narrative demeanor; each has its soloist and ensemble conversing ohne Worte in a harmonic setting that never wanders too far from its approximately tonal center. (As to that, I hear wonderfully graceful similarities between Maazel’s Op. 12 and Alban Berg’s sole essay in this medium, “To the Memory of an Angel,” which has never sounded to me especially atonal in that still difficult term’s dissonant, épater le bourgeois sense.) Perhaps most rewarding Maazel’s savvy balance of wit, whimsy, and big moments of “seriousness,” a term I cannot use without squirming (thus the Mouseketeers ears). Wit, in the early event dry, makes its presence straightway known as the cello concerto, the disc’s first offering, opens to an otherworldly violin solo. A traycard misprint? No; in about a minute the cello enters in Romantic dialog, the texture soon embellished with airy touches of metal percussion. It’s purely delightful to listen to Maazel at work at his colorist’s palette.

It was Hemingway, I believe, who enriched criticism’s vocabulary with the term bullshit detector. Excepting brief instances of hyper-earnestness in the explicitly programmatic Music for Cello and Orchestra (Maazel provides his own good notes), I hear precious little overcooked rhetoric. The composer’s textures are at once complex and transparent, no easy accomplishment, that, and the architecture’s solid. I rather expect that this release will attract a lot of attention. It deserves to.

BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14. Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette, Op.17 Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch (conductor) John Pfeiffer (producer); Richard Mohr (producer, Love Scene); John Crawford (engineer); Lewis Layton (engineer, Love Scene) RCA VICTOR LIVING STEREO 09026-68979-2 (60:02 total time)

At once a most gratifying and puzzling “Golden Age” re-release on CD. No need to linger on the symphony’s performance. Munch’s way with this music stands in a class of its own. His remarkably relaxed ensemble shapes phrases into movements as if a crew of Doppelgängers. Let’s let easy malleability serve as our byword. (And yet, this music is intemperate. While in no way approaching the present disc’s sonic rewards, I favor for its febrile extravagance Igor Markevitch’s 1962 reading with the Orchestre Lamoureux, Paris, on one of those cute little LP-lookalike Deutsche Grammophon “The Originals” CDs [447 406-2]. I also relish Roger Norrington’s 1988 “original-instrument” reading with his London Classical Players [EMI Classics CDC 7 49541 2] not for the performance, which is, frankly, boring, but rather for its untoward sonorities, as in the March to the Scaffold’s delightfully flatulent ophicleides, a big, Napoleonic-era brass, replacing the housebroken tuba.)

The great news from Boston and, again, puzzling, is the sound of this 1954 Living Stereo recording. I’d call it stupendous by any measure. The soundstage is enormous and nicely proportioned, and the orchestral timbres are luscious. I need only remind the reader that the first commercially available stereophonic LPs were not to appear for a few years; indeed, 1954 marks stereo’s initial experiments.

Lewis Layton’s career at RCA spanned the mono-stereo era. Audiophiles revere the name. I have written my headnote to correspond to the traycard: Richard Mohr is specifically credited as the Love Scene’s producer; for the engineering, John Crawford and Lewis Layton are listed in that order, albeit unspecified. Problem is, the Love Scene’s recording, given as 1961, is far inferior to that of the symphony. I keep my amp on a low platform directly behind the speakers, its red “on” light marking the centerpoint. The image’s breadth is only a tad wider than that of the light. One strains to detect stereophony. Could this possibly be Layton’s work? As they say in the Highlands, I hae me doots.

One dwells on an enigma largely for something to say. Best to forget it (unless you’re a stickler in these matters) and enjoy a drop-dead delicious fantastique.