Dear La Folia 5.

Russell Lichter

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

Dear La Folia,

A lot of corned beef and rye has flowed under the bridge since I last wrote. I am back from my trip to Tierra del Fuego, nicely tanned, a bit overweight from all the yak butter on toasted aardvark, and dying for a Double-Double with onions. (Oh, right, you East-Coast audiophiles may have the culture, but you don’t have In-n-Out Burgers. Pity.) And what do I find waiting for me in the old mailbox but a unique recording of Mahler’s Fifth symphony [Laurel Record, LR-905]. I suppose I can understand someone not caring for Mahler’s music, but it is inexplicable to me that the Germanic critics of yesteryear regarded him as a less important composer than Richard Strauss. I wonder what our tomfool value judgements will look like in a few generations?

I’ve done two things I do not typically do. I read a series of articles by music critic Norman Lebrecht on (I do not read music reviews. The lingo is usually more than I can bear. I have traditionally relied on hearsay for CD recommendations.) Lebrecht’s excitement over this recording led me to seek out other reviews, and their excitement led me to the home page of Classical Music Consortium, whence I ordered the CD. (I almost never buy CDs any more, and I can count the number of my compulsive purchases on two fingers based on what reviewers have to say.) This CD, however, is everything the critics say it is.

One guy placed this version among the six greatest performances ever recorded. I am a relative newcomer to Mahler, and the only comment I can make on this statement is that I much prefer this version to the only other I know, that conducted by Benjamin Zander (not one of the other five). If I knew nothing about the provenance of this performance, it would still be extraordinary in its vitality, its sense of authenticity and heartfulness. What makes it all the more extraordinary is that this is a live concert recording and the musicians are high school students. Great credit must go to Rudolf Barshai, who conducts, but the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie bring to this performance a level of intensity and devotion and excitement that is rare. (This kind of involvement in the music is not necessarily limited to the young musicians, but it is not commonplace. Some striking exceptions: Myung-Whun Chung’s Nielsen’s Third symphony; Kun Woo Paik’s piano playing in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto; Pawel Przytocki’s Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony; Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven Fifth; Michel Block’s Iberia; Svjatoslav Richter’s 1960 Appassionata.) The sound quality of this CD is dynamic and well engineered for us imaging and sound stage aficionados.

Meanwhile, my fellow audiophile at work, Al, who has reached the breaking point with Stereophile, has been supplying me with unopened copies of that magazine. The brouhaha surrounding the John Atkinson-engineered recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas finally got to me. I was afraid I might miss something good, so I bought the set. (The Beethoven sonatas are among the music of which I have multiple versions.) The pianist is Robert Silverman playing a Bösendorfer 290SE Reproducing Piano. The recording session, done not all that far from my old digs in Santa Monica, was conducted sans pianist, just floppy, piano and computer. A great deal of thought and tweaking of microphone placement, documented on the Stereophile Website, went into this recording and the result is unique in my experience. I have long thought that for most classical recordings one volume setting only is right on the button (Peter Walker regarded volume as an analog of focus), but I’ve never encountered a recording for which this truism is so absolutely critical. The “right” volume level is quite low, so one either sits down and pays attention, or one sips organic coffee and writes music commentaries and mostly misses it. Correctly set, the piano is there on stage, as distinct from being a large presence a few feet behind your loudspeakers. Increasing the volume produces a peculiar and rather unpleasant sound, too full of the ambience of the small recording venue. As to Mr Silverman, aside from the fact that I’m still annoyed at his rather dismissive attitude to No. 22 (which I love) in his otherwise excellent notes, he’s a pianist of great skill and considerable originality. I would not say this is the set to have if you’re having only one. I’d look elsewhere, particularly to Wilhelm Kempff. Jenö Jandó’s performances on Naxos are straightforward and traditional but very nicely done and always enjoyable. (I could comment here at length as to why I rarely spin my several recordings played by Richter. It’s rather like my attitude toward certain books and certain films: the experience is so intense, so root-shaking, that I am not often up to it.)

Speaking of Sonata 22, I’m not the only one who loves it. Richter, too, had great admiration for it and actually recorded it in a studio. It was used to fill out space on the old RCA LP of the Beethoven First Piano concerto. I cut my teeth on this performance of the sonata, and truly I’ve never heard one to approach it. Somehow I lost track of that LP and have done without Richter’s performance for over a decade. However, eureka, it’s been reissued in CD format, at least in the EU if not in the USA, under the auspices of BMG, the entertainment conglomerate. An amazing event in these sad times for classical music. This inexpensive, two-CD set also contains the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s Sonatas 12 and 23. You know how every so often you get that rare and exquisite impression that a pianist is playing just the way the composer would have played it himself? Enough said. Svjatoslav “Fingers-of-Steel” Richter is, quite simply, the greatest Beethoven exponent I’ve ever heard.

It’s late night here. One can hear the whispered prayers from neighboring homes that the NASDAQ goes up again, and the plaintive call of the great horned owl. Hope you’re doing well and eating all your spinach.