If you have been thinking of getting yourself a present for Beethoven's 217th birthday Wednesday, there is no shortage of first-class recordings. Currently high on my list of favorites is a survey of his piano concertos, played on period instruments, with Anthony Newman as fortepiano soloist and Stephen Simon conducting the Philomusica Antiqua of London. The series is now 60 percent complete, with Concertos 1, 3 and 5 available on Newport Classic compact discs, and the performances and sound are excellent, taking full advantage of the special flavor of old instruments in their original condition.
Two of the three recordings issued so far also take advantage of the special facilities of compact discs. The First and Fifth Concertos, as a small notice on the cover states, are "analytically indexed" -- that is, such musicological arcana as expositions, developments, recapitulations and codas are catalogued in the program notes and can be tracked throughout the composition via the readout panel of your CD player. Thus, when the first theme of the "Emperor" Concerto segues smoothly into the second theme at 1:51 of the first movement, the numbers on the panel help interpret what the loudspeakers are telling your ears. This is a superb idea, enhancing clarity of perception for serious-minded listeners without intruding on those who just want to hear the music. The idea was apparently developed after Concerto No. 3 had already been issued, but we can expect to see it on the other four concertos and hope to see it later in other works that deserve serious, analytical treatment.
Newman, better known as an organist, is also an excellent pianist. He reminds me of the late Glenn Gould in his combination of intense intelligence and dazzling technique, though his manner is less eccentric, his phrasing less angular and his choices of tempo less extreme. Simon is well known in Washington as the conductor of the Handel Festival Orchestra. In the past decade, we have seen him grow as a conductor -- not so much in technique and scholarly preparation, where he has always been first-class, but in stylistic flexibility and emotional nuance. Their collaboration in this music is memorable.
The concertos all come with interesting fillers: Mozart's Fantasy in C minor, K. 475, with the Concerto No. 3 in C minor (NC 60007); the "Egmont" Overture with the "Emperor" Concerto (NC 60027); and the Choral Fantasy with the Concerto No. 1 (NC 60031). These discs are brief by current CD standards (45 minutes or less), but the performance and sound are excellent.
Also on old instruments and (on the whole) beautifully played is the latest installment in the cycle of symphonies being recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (Oiseau-Lyre 417 615-2). The sound is robust in Symphonies No. 4 and 5, though the orchestra numbers fewer than 50 players, and the instruments are tuned lower than the current standard pitch. Sometimes the tempo seems a bit fast, but never faster than the composer's own metronome markings. Hogwood has restudied the symphonies and he makes them sound fresh and new.
A choice between old instruments and modern ones, a small orchestra and a large one, has to be based ultimately on personal taste. There is an undeniable excitement in the new Beethoven Ninth performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and chorus with four excellent soloists and Sir Georg Solti on the podium (London 417 800-2), and it is all the more exciting because Solti approaches the music with a commendable restraint, tailoring his orchestra's almost terrifying power to an appropriate scale. The Chicago Symphony not only outnumbers the Academy of Ancient Music; its players rank somewhat higher on the virtuosity scale. So do the members of the Cleveland Orchestra in a superb new "Pastorale" Symphony, conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi and coupled with "Leonore" Overture No. 3 on Telarc CD-80145.
On the Hogwood record, a moment or two of imprecise technique in more than an hour of music-making is just as "authentic" as the use of gut strings or the observance of every repeat marked in the score and a couple that were accidentally omitted in the first edition. All of these records meet high standards.
On Harmonia Mundi HMC 905190, Robert Taub, a brilliant young American pianist, has had the interesting idea of recording Beethoven's first and last piano sonatas together. There is a sharp contrast between the self-assured exhibitionism of Op. 2 and the serenity won through anguish that pervades the otherworldly Op. 111. But both are perceptibly the work of the same man, and Taub's skilled performance emphasizes the continuities in this music as well as the contrasts.
The 30 sonatas that come between these two are not exactly suffering neglect. British pianist Bernard Roberts is midway through a complete recording for Nimbus Records. His fifth volume (NI 5054) contains the three sonatas of Op. 10 (Nos. 5, 6 and 7), while his Volume 6 (NI 5055) offers Sonatas No. 11 in B-flat, No. 15 in D and No. 20 in G. There is a special interest, perhaps, in Op. 10, some of the last music the 28-year-old composer produced before becoming aware that he was losing his hearing. There is no hint of that, of course, in the music, which is light, brilliant and a bit superficial, but the later works in the next volume show the composer exploring new musical and psychological depths as his loss of hearing gradually cuts him off from social superficialities.
Roberts' performances are solid and utterly reliable, without tacked-on flash or personal eccentricity, a good, durable approach for the long haul of a complete cycle. Still, John O'Conor is more exciting in Volume II of his (incomplete) Beethoven series (Telarc CD-80160). That is partly a matter of personality, but it also reflects the fact that O'Conor has chosen the sonatas with the most immediate appeal -- also the ones with nicknames. His first volume had the unbeatable triple-threat combination: "Appassionata," "Moonlight" and "Pathetique"; Volume II has the "Waldstein," "Tempest"and "Les Adieux."
Christmas Music Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" was the first opera composed specifically for television and is a natural for home video. The original 1951 production was preserved on film, but Menotti has tried in vain to track down a copy of it in recent years. An outstanding substitute, with the added advantage of color, was filmed for television in 1978 (partly on location in Israel) and is now available from Video Arts International (Beta 29032 or VHS 69032) with an international star cast that includes Teresa Stratas and Giorgio Tozzi. There is also a fine new audio-only version, based on the Covent Garden production, recorded under the composer's supervision and issued by MCA on a compact disc (MCAD-6218).
In the rapidly growing category of Christmas video material, these items also deserve special mention:
Carols for Christmas (Pioneer LaserDisc PA-86-178). This is arguably the most beautiful of all Christmas carol records -- not so much for the singing and the selection of material, which are merely very good, but for its visual dimension. Each carol coming through the loudspeakers is accompanied on the video screen by thematically relevant images from the collections in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sources for the visuals range from Raphael, El Greco and Rubens to Victorian cards and posters. The music is provided by a small chorus and brass ensemble, tastefully directed by Sir David Willcocks and filmed in the cathedral of Bury St. Edmunds, England. Specially worth noting are the solos by the remarkable boy treble, Aled Jones. LaserDisc, the survivor in the battle of video disc formats, gives superbly sharp video images as well as digital stereo sound.
Messiah (Pioneer PA-86-174, two LaserDiscs). In its audio edition, this performance, conducted by Christopher Hogwood with the choir of Westminster Abbey and an orchestra on original instruments, has already become a best seller. The video edition, enhanced by the visual ambiance of Westminster Abbey and some exquisite close-ups of the performers, is well worth seeing as well as hearing.
The New Born King (Video Arts International Beta 29034; VHS 69034). This festival of carols opens with a solemn, well-photographed procession in Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the Abbey) and includes Aled Jones among the soloists as well as baritone Benjamin Luxon and mezzo-soprano Eirian James. Emlyn Williams is also on hand, not to sing but to give some thematically apt readings from Victorian novels.
The enchanting "L'Enfance du Christ" of Hector Berlioz, a composition somewhere between opera and oratorio, captures the wonder of the Christmas story with a unique tenderness and awe. Live performances are relatively rare, though the Montgomery Chamber Orchestra will give two next weekend. An excellent recording, not yet available in video though it was originally produced for British television, has been issued on ASV CD DCD 452, two CDs with libretto. An outstanding English cast and the English Chamber Orchestra are conducted by Philip Ledger.
Those who enjoyed Benita Valente's recital here a few weeks ago will want to hear "Gloria! Gloria!" (RCA 6559-2-RC), an excellent collection of Christmas songs in German, Latin, Italian and (most of all) English, chosen with exquisite taste, well performed and neatly balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. On another RCA record, "Christmas with Mario Lanza," (6427-2-Rg) the selections (recorded between 1950 and 1958) are mostly quite standard, though a few ("Guardian Angels," for example -- with a harp solo by Harpo Marx) are deservedly unfamiliar. The arrangements tend to be Hollywoodish; the voice, though untrained, is one of the greatest of this century.
Among choral carol recordings, I have been enjoying two by the Robert DeCormier Singers for the past year or two, and they are worth tracking down. "A Victorian Christmas" (Arabesque Z6525) has a charming period flavor, a good blend of old favorites with rarities and a charming essay in the program notes on "Queen Victoria's Christmas 1840." Selections for "Christmas Eve" (Arabesque Z6527) have a wider stylistic and chronological range. On both discs, the eight-voice ensemble sings beautifully.
Those who like a larger, richer choral sound will enjoy "To Catch a Christmas Star," featuring the Roger Wagner Chorale as well as carillon and handbell music (Delos D/CD 3072), and/or MCA's "An English Christmas Festival of Carols" (MCAD-5900), which features three choirs (notably that of Westminster Cathedral) as well as the fanfare trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music.
Finally, Washingtonians will be specially interested in a new compact disc just issued by Vogt Quality Recordings (VQR 2006). Titled "Noel," it features the National Cathedral Choir and organ in a fine selection of old and new carols, about half relatively unfamiliar but all worthwhile. Organist and choirmaster Richard W. Dirksen and his associate, Douglas Major, are both listed among the composers, and their works fit in well stylistically with the likes of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." Presumably, nobody in Washington needs to be told how good this choir is, or how apt the cathedral's acoustics are for this sort of music