'The City' and More With Washington Roots

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A classical music recap: Washington Post critic Anne Midgette surveys some of the recordings released in recent months by artists and ensembles with a local connection.

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos

Richard Goode; Iván Fischer leads the Budapest Festival Orchestra.


Iván Fischer, the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, is one of the most-recorded conductors around today. But his recordings are made not with the NSO but with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded and has built into one of the most interesting orchestras around. They recently issued the Mahler Fourth, the latest in their ongoing Mahler cycle. But in light of Fischer's project next year to do a Beethoven symphony cycle in New York jointly with the BFO and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, it is worth visiting this recently released Beethoven account, recorded live in Budapest in 2005.

And indeed, this is luminously clear Beethoven. Fischer is never going to have the crisp tautness of, say, a David Zinman (I really enjoy his Tonhalle Orchestra recording of the symphonies); Fischer's heart is always on his sleeve. But his approach here is relentlessly, restrainedly classical. Rather than wallowing in big phrases, he keeps clean and supple and out of the way.

In fact, restraint is a hallmark and, perhaps, a slight drawback of the set as a whole. It is, of course, a trait of the soloist, Richard Goode, whose presence here is the point of the exercise; for Nonesuch, this release represents a bookend to Goode's accounting of the complete sonatas back in the 1990s. Goode's playing is clean, often very beautiful, and sometimes finicky. And these recordings are so beautifully schooled that they take on a sort of sameness; even the Emperor is suspiciously well mannered. There are always moments that capture the ear, but overall, you can find many other more exciting accounts of the cycle -- including, in fact, Zinman's, with Yefim Bronfman.

"The City"

Documentary film with a score by Aaron Copland.

The Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.


Ralph Steiner and Willard van Dyke's Utopian documentary "The City," made for the 1939 World's Fair, depicts an ideal community where children grow big and strong, work is close to home, and every citizen has a right to amenities like public tennis courts: the federally planned community of Greenbelt. The film also represents an artistic Utopia, bringing together aestheticized images of city life (hearkening back to Walter Ruttmann's 1927 documentary "Berlin, Sinfonie einer Grossstadt") and a score by Aaron Copland, carving out his American identity in strong, sure musical strokes.

Following their remastering of Pare Lorentz's earlier "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River," with music by Virgil Thomson -- films that influenced "The City" considerably -- the Post-Classical Ensemble has given this Copland score its first modern recording (conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez) and issued it on a bountiful DVD that includes a version of the film with the original soundtrack, a discussion between Joseph Horowitz and the filmmaker George Stoney, and a documentary about Greenbelt.

"The City" unfolds without dialogue, to Copland's score and/or a narration that, hokey as it is, sounds slightly better in the rotund, golden-age-Hollywood diction of the original narrator, Morris Carnovsky, than in Francis Guinan's retake. The film's four-part structure -- a pastoral introduction about country life, an anguished section about the modern city (belching smokestacks and all), a scherzolike interlude of traffic jams, and finally the ideal community -- let Copland stay clear and relatively spare, identifying certain sections with repeated motifs. The crisp new recording sounds great, though giving pride of place to the music means the narration is sometimes drowned out and the clarion sounds of the instruments don't always blend as smoothly with the on-screen action as the blurry, less distinct original. Nonetheless it's a worthwhile recording that deserves watching more than once.

Mahler: Eighth Symphony

Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Choral Arts Society of Washington, Choir of Eltham College and soloists.

LSO Live

Valery Gergiev's cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra is definitely Mahler for the 21st century: powerful, idiosyncratic, but also a little twitchy and nervous. This last trait certainly fits Mahler's tendency to spring from one idea to another. But hyperkinesis is an unusual quality in the Eighth, which is often seen as the odd man out in this oeuvre. You could call it the opera Mahler never wrote: Massive even by Mahler's standards, it involves huge orchestral and choral forces and eight soloists singing the final and possibly most enigmatic scene of Goethe's "Faust," Part 2. It's a piece that tends to steamroll listeners.

Whether because of its weirdness or its power, Gergiev saved it for the final recording of his cycle. But it would have been hard to predict the singular effects of bringing his moment-by-moment approach and a host of fine musicians (including Washington's own Choral Arts Society) into St. Paul's Cathedral for this performance and live recording. The mikes do all too fine a job of capturing the church's echoey acoustic, which has an alienating effect: It creates a halo of indistinct sound on the one hand, and on the other the individual parts emerge in relief, without the warm blend of a wood-lined concert hall. Recording here was going to be a challenge.

The result is oddly episodic. The sound is a consistent distraction. And the soloists (from Gergiev's forces at the Mariinsky) are only decent, not great, though they sing honestly. Yet the odd space also focuses attention on some moments of truly gorgeous playing from the orchestra: silvery flutes, shining strings and, at the end, an actual sense that one is moving into an otherworldly realm. The massed choruses are fine and strong. And Gergiev, forced to work extra hard to keep it all together, is less prone to interpretive foibles than on some of the other recordings in this cycle. This Eighth is a glass-half-full proposition; some will be put off by the sound and the so-so soloists, but optimists will find some fine playing in its favor.

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