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Positive Feedback ISSUE 40
november/december 2008


Notes of an Amateur - November, 2008, Part 2
by Bob Neill



Bach, Cantatas, Volume 5. John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir. Soli Deo Gloria SDG 147.

So here we are at release number 18, with number 19 just released in Europe, of this eloquent and spirited Bach cantata cycle. And some of you still need persuading, right? Those who read these reviews know by now that these recordings were made over the course of one year, 1999-2000, as Gardiner led his troops of musicians and singers from church to church across Europe, ending up with three concerts in New York City. Their project was to sing the entire corpus of Bach's cantatas on the feast days for which they were written. All concerts were recorded 'live,' which gives them a fresh and natural quality impossible not to notice. Soloists vary from program to program but always include both excellent relative unknowns (to me) alongside established stars—in this case, for example, counter-tenor Daniel Taylor.

I have listened to each of the albums as it has come out—and as the series has grown it has become my favorite of the Bach cycles. Over Harnoncourt's (which I still have great affection for, on both vinyl and disc), Koopman's, and Suzuki's, among the most recent series. All three of these are competitive and have particular virtues and fans who value them accordingly. But what Gardiner brings is an energy and joie de vive which in the main escapes the others, who sometimes seem weighed down by reverence. It is as if they are over-awed by both the composer and holiness.

Harnoncourt, with his earliest (in design, construction, and performance skill) of early instruments and all male choir, gets a lot of the liveliness I seek in this music, in exchange for some of the polish and refinement Gardiner's performers achieve. Bach lovers more at home with the austerity of the northern European Koopman and worshipful Japanese Suzuki will find Gardiner's Bach too light, I'm sure. Too British. It may be, but I don't hear that. To my ears, it's just right.

The cantatas in this 2 disc release, BWV 178, 136, 45 and 46, 101, and 102, celebrate the eighth and tenth Sundays after Trinity respectively. I particularly noted and enjoyed the work of the English Baroque Soloists in these performances. It is easy to overlook the contributions of instrumental musicians in choral music; but it is impossible not to attend to the excellence of the string sections in these performances, which play a major role throughout but especially in BWV 178. They are at least as responsible as the chorus and soloists for the wonderful sense of musical energy we sense in the performance. Likewise the oboe(s) in BWV 136. Gardiner is right to identify his orchestra and chorus with their own names. This series would not be what is without the Baroque Soloists.

BWV 46, 101, and 102 on Disc 2 call for somewhat larger instrumental forces, including an additional cello, two recorders, an additional oboe, a trumpet (in place of the horn used in the cantatas on Disc 1), and two sackbuts!—ancestor of the trombone. The trumpet plays a major solo role in BWV 46 and is soon joined by sackbuts, recorders, and oboes, who accompany counter-tenor Daniel Taylor, the sackbuts' slightly darker tone helping them remain a bit behind Taylor. It is a nice change to hear wind instruments in the role usually occupied by a stringed instrument. Eventually Taylor backs off and the winds complete the section. The recorders then accompany the chorus in the final section. In BWV 101 we get a violin in the accompanying role, whirling about tenor Christope Lenz, and together they occupy this work's lyric center.

The third cantata in this set, BWV 102, is more virtuosic and sophisticated than the others. Here solo voices and instruments, mainly oboes and a flute, weave in and out of one another to wonderful effect. It is in this cantata that Daniel Taylor really comes to the fore as well: a great voice in both an aria and recitative that sound as if this music was written for him alone.

It's not to late to get into this series, folks.


Bruckner 9 [Hybrid SACD]

Bruckner 9, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal. ATMA Classique SACD2 2514.

Bruckner is an easy composer to undervalue. I have undervalued his music all of my life. It has always sounded blustery, overblown, grandiose and repetitious. It has sounded like a music full of undigested nineteenth century musical ideas, chief among them those of Wagner. But many of my musical friends, whom I consider otherwise rational, have kept telling me I need to revisit this composer, whom they all admire. And the appearance of this new, much lauded, release of the composer's Ninth and last (uncompleted) symphony from one of my favorite record companies, ATMA of Canada, struck me as a good time to take another whack at him.

No surprise, the issue that Bruckner forced me to address as always is the difference between grand and grandiose. To hear Bruckner's music as the former, you have to be patient, which in the past I have not been; and let him lead you toward his conception of grandeur. You have to wander with him along paths of mezzo-piano lyric lyricism through which larger matters often seem to loom…and then withdraw. The music in this symphony, which frankly sounds a good deal like his others that I've heard (which may or may not reveal my unfamiliarity with his oeuvre), builds and retreats, takes us from valleys of lyric reflection up onto plateaus of greater intensity and heroic splendor and then lets us drift back down again. Though even down off the plateaus, the music swirls, as if in an attempt to build up enough …emotion? confidence? to regain the intensity and scale of emotion of the higher, grander ground. I understand this musical strategy, which hasn't caused me suspend my disbelief in the past; but this time I did find myself buying in. It is the Wagnerian idiom we are listening to here, Wagner's musical themes given a new context—the symphony—in which to develop themselves. So to enjoy this music, we do have to feel at home in a heavy, dark, nineteenth century aesthetic, out of which we 'see' glints of dark gold. It is the antithesis of modern ways of imagining meaning in the world, which may account for Bruckner's wobbly reputation throughout much of the twentieth century.

The above remarks were written out as notes as I listened to the 27-minute long first movement. I clearly found myself softening a bit toward the composer and made a note to consider why later on. The second movement, a ten-minute Scherzo that moves into a Trio section toward its conclusion, uses a similar strategy but at a more rapid tempo, galloping along in mainly ¾ time. The movement back and forth between relative quiet lyricism and considerably louder celebration or fanfare here works for me even more effectively than in the opening movement, perhaps because there is less time consumed here: everything feels tighter.

The third movement, Adagio, which we assume would have led to something like the first for a final movement but on a higher plateau, is a half-hour long …meditation? vision? To sustain our interest for this long with relatively quiet music requires considerable melodic and harmonic interest and beauty, not something composers of modest ambition and inspiration should be foolish enough to attempt. Surprising to me, time flies in this movement and I'll have to say my interest and emotional involvement never flagged. The musical narrative does increase in intensity from time to time, raising the emotional stakes. But these passages mainly serve to mark off larger ones of a more contemplative mood. Listening back through Mahler from our later perspective, it is fascinating to see to what extent the later composer went to school to Bruckner. Mahler is more elusive and ironic in his unheroic passages, but a week or two spent listening to only Bruckner and Mahler would, I expect, teach us a lot about how the pre-modern world worked its way musically to its conclusion.

I have not heard another performance of Bruckner's Ninth in years, so it's hard to say whether this one seems more accessible to me because the composer has brought me around or because M. Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra are as eloquent and sensitive as they seem. I am eager to give them a lot of the credit here, especially for the undeniable sustained power of the Adagio. They do all of the essential small things so well, the large ones seem to flow from and build on them with utter inevitability and, perhaps equally important, credibility. By the time we are in the final moments of the Adagio, I'll have to concede, to return to my initial concern, we really are in the presence of the grand. Bruckner died before he could write a final movement, but I'm not sure there was one to write. I see that the writer of the album notes came to a similar conclusion, suggesting that ending with an Adagio really is a harbinger of modern musical thinking.

So this performance has brought me to Bruckner with appreciation for the first time. If you have my Bruckner problem, I urge this recording on you. If you are already a Bruckner fan, I urge it on you too.


Brahms: Symphony # 1; Bergrabnisgesang, Op. 13; Schicksalslied, Op. 54; Mendelssohn- Mitten wir in Leben sind Op. 23

Brahms, Symphony 1. Also: Brahms, Begräbnisgesang; Schicksalslifed and Mendelssohn, Mitten wir im Leben sind. Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique; Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. Soli Deo Gloria SDG 702.

Going home in music is about as hard as going home to anything else. You are not who you were and so it cannot be what it once was. In music, at least it hasn't changed, while some of your other 'homes' have. Unless …well, I'll get to that in a moment.

Brahms' First Symphony was where I and many others of my generation began our experience of classical music. Pure nineteenth century romantic orchestral music at its best—or at least as its most innocent and straightforward. Good honest melodic material, fulsome swells, rich harmonics. Predictably, going home to such a purely emotional, youthful experience has proved difficult, especially to the same recordings. We heard Brahms in the late 1950's via huge orchestras full of modern instruments and that big, rich Brahms is the one imprinted on our memories. It all feels…too familiar, too easy, too personally past. And on top of this, musical taste has changed and it has changed us. Modern romanticism is less straightforward than this.

Enter the Early Music movement. Nowadays, Brahms, like everything else composed before 1900, is often played by period orchestras, whose instruments have leaner, clearer, lighter sounding textures. In this sense, the music has indeed changed. What effect will this have on trying to go home to Brahms?

Enter John Eliot Gardiner and his nineteenth century orchestra—the same JEG of the Bach cantatas I just wrote about—who has decided to follow, among others, Roger Norrington who was first, by giving us what he thinks a Brahms symphony should really sound like: not as it sounded in the 1950s with Bruno Walter and Herbert van Karajan conducting their large modern orchestras, but closer to what it sounded like to Brahms himself in the 1870's. To take us there slowly, he takes us first to two choral works by Brahms (and one by Mendelssohn), and this is actually a very good idea. We get used to the sound and lighter orchestral textures before plunging into the beloved war horse. Because the first time I listened to this CD, jumping right into the symphony, I walked out on it. Too light. And I was distracted by other stuff anyway.

The second time, late on a cold Sunday evening, I listened to the whole recording, with no distractions. And to begin with, I heard little things that the richer modern performances usually plow under. This Brahms First was actually not just beautiful, it was also interesting. And it didn't make so much of everything: it let the music make its own case, section by section. It was less romantic, less dramatic, more something else. It didn't linger over every emotional phrase. It kept moving. And when it got to the final movement, which used to tear my heart out so many years ago, everything was pretty much as smooth and rapturous as ever but more…introspective, exploratory. And the famous horn calls were clear and tasty but less Wagnerian, perhaps because there was less (predictable) tension building up to them. And because the conductor and musicians didn't try to wring so much feeling out of the occasion. And the truly grand and sweeping theme the horn ushers in also didn't force itself on me. Restrained? Or is it just a sense that the music has more room to move, hasn't to carry the heavy romantic weight it is customarily asked to carry. No, I wasn't as 'deeply moved' by it as I remember being at age 18. Nothing moves me that much anymore. And that's really my point here.

I was very taken by this performance: very engaged, very satisfied. Gardiner hears something more sophisticated and mature in this music than I remember hearing (was capable of hearing?) and successfully gets it across. So I got home again and I found Brahms but he had changed. Or I had changed. Or we both had changed. Conductors who bring us period performances of music from earlier times are not just trying to 'antique' it, they really do think we have lost sight of part of what this music is truly about. Richard Taruskin tells us we like these performances because as moderns we like leaner textures anyway and distrust richness and romanticism. He is partly right, of course. But listening to Gardiner's Brahms, I sense Taruskin is only partly right. There is something in this performance that has the feel of musical truth to it.

This promises to be a terrific series. Yes, three more symphonies and the German Requiem on the way!

Systems used for this audition: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature, Blue Circle FtTH integrated amplifier, BC3000 II/GZpz preamplifier and BC204 hybrid stereo amplifier, new Jean Marie Reynaud Offrande Supreme stand-mount speakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas, Sootto, Sogon and AN-Vx interconnects and Lexus speaker cable.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.