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Best of 2009

In Sunday's Washington Post: My picks for the best CDs of 2009.

By Anne Midgette  |  December 20, 2009; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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As I said before:

1. The CDs that I buy are not necessarily the latest releases.

2. My major discovery of this year was the art of Klaus Tennstedt. Thus, I followed up the Schubert / Bruckner CD (performances for the ages, live from Japan from the TDK label) with a few other CDs. I managed so far to listen to three of them, with more coming in the queue.

A first one includes studio recording from 1972 with the Berlin Radio Orchestra (Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, now Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) in works by Haydn (Symphony no. 57) and Mozart (Piano Concerto no. 12 with Karl Engel soloist.) Tennstedt tries to get a light sound from the orchestra, and these are perfectly serviceable performances, but ultimately recommended only to his most ardent fans.

Much better is a BBC Legends recording. In fact the Beethoven 5th is a great performance, if not the overwhelming one that was the Schubert / Bruckner CD. There's also a great performance in the Egmont Overture, but the sound is a little muddy. The Beethoven 1st is good, not great, and likewise, is the Oberon Overture by Weber. Tempi do tend to be on the slow side, but Tennstedt is able to maintain the necessary tension. The playing is not blemish-free, being all recorded live - and anyway, with great musicmaking, I don't care.

Finally, another marvellous CD, this time on the Profil label. Here Tennstedt conducts the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, still at that time under Kubelik's directorship. There are two works by Mozart: Symphony no. 1 (in which even such a dedicated performance cannot obscure the fact that this is juvenilia) and the Symphony no. 32, which is a great performace. Tennstedt uses a large section of strings, there are no sharp attacks, tempi are standard, the reading is seemingly straight-forward, yet it somehow sparkles. This is what a great conductor can do (as an asside, on the what-if category: why wasn't Tennstedt nominated Kubelik's successor with the orchestra?)

But the truly great thing here is the performance of Sibelius' violin concerto. The soloist, the Israeli violonist Yuval Yaron, is good, but it is the conductor who gets that unbearable intensity and dark color. I would certainly love to hear more Sibelius from Tennstedt.

Outside Tennstedt, my other CD of the year is one that was actually released this year. It contains (surprise!) the music of Enescu (among others) conducted by Constantin Silvestri. About this one, tomorrow.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 21, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

OK, here are my impressions of the Enescu / Silvestri CD. First of all I would talk about the conductor which is little known, but like the Croat Lovro von Matacic or the Russian Nikolai Golovanov, has his own die-hard fans (me among others) who believe he belongs with the greats.

Indeed, Silvestri was a great conductor in the age of great conductors. What I like about him is that his performances are the antithesis of today's more objective readings and that he's not afraid to take chances. He once said something along the lines: "if Tchaikovsky expressed all his passions in music, why shouldn't the interpreters do the same?"

As a sample of his greatness listen to his recordings of Liszt Tasso, perhaps the greatest recording ever of a Liszt poem, of Elgar's In the South, of Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia or Wasps Overture (proof that you don't have to be English to master English music), of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, or to his Supraphon CD of Ravel, Lalo, and Enescu - the reference version of the Rhapsodies.

And this brings us to the CD, which I know thanks to a Romanian friend, since it can be only ordered through this web site: (I am not affiliated and have no financial interests.) It is a priceless record, because Silvestri was the greatest conductor of Enescu's music and because it's a miracle that the recordings have survived. BBC has erased almost all of the tapes with Silvestri's concerts (a similar situation happened in Switzerland with those of another hero of mine, Hermann Scherchen), yet Silvestri himself has recorded them as well. These are the sources of these recordings, as well as of the BBC Legends Silvestri series.

The Enescu 1st Symphony gets here its reference version, the 1st Suite is almost as good (only an aircheck from Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony and Enescu's own recording are in the same class), the 2nd Suite good but surpassed by Enescu's own version as well as by an aircheck from Antal Dorati. Plus there is a composition of Silvestri himself, folk-infuenced, and very intense - at least in this reading. There is some Prokofiev and Dvorak which is right on Silvestri's alley (especially the later, though one could well imagine what if Silvestri had the Czech Philharmonic which he conducted so wonderfully with other occasions.) And also some of the best big-band Mozart this side of Casals and Tennstedt (the Magic Flute Overture especially.)

The orchestra is the Bournemouth Symphony which Silvestri did improve during his tenure, but which was still not world class. There are some mistakes (after all these are live recordings) but generally the orchestra gives the conductor everything that he asks for. And, as I said, the sound is one that can one expect from a live radio recording.

Now, I am an Enescu nut, but I have to admit that the three works on this CD are perhaps not his masterpieces; the Enescu masterpieces are, I believe, are the Chamber Symphony Op. 33, his 3rd Violin Sonata, Impressions d'enfance, his opera Oedipe and his Carillon Nocturne (a wonderful miniature for piano anticipating Messiaen), followed closely by his 3rd Orchestral Suite, his Octet, and perhaps the 3rd Symphony. Still, Silvestri makes the best case for them.

The first symphony is a feel good piece, full of vitality, in which one can sense some of the weakness in Enescu's music: he's full of ideas, his melodic invention in great, but he does sometimes gets carried on instead of tightening the phrase. Yet with Silvestri one rarely senses this, and the slow movement is really gorgeous.

The second suite is a neo-classical piece. Enescu did the smae thing with the baroque suite what Prokofiev did with the classical symphony - and the suite was written before Prokofiev's symphony. The opening double-fugue is more impressive as a composition lesson; the most inspired parts are again the slow ones (gorgeous oboe solo in the Air.)

The first suite is more problematic. The first movement, the Prélude à l'unisson, has a life of its own and is mostly executed by itself (Ivan Fischer did that) or even by a solo violinist (Aaron Rosand recorded it that way.) Some consider it a work of genius, others wonder what exactly was Enescu thinking (my own take depends on the mood I am in.) The next two parts are pleasant but perhaps weeker (though Silvestris makes as good case as possible of them), and in the finale Martinon is king. A good and fluent reading from Silvestri though.

So perhaps a CD mostly for the fans of Enescu and Silvestri, but they should not miss it. Since I am both, this is my CD of the year.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 22, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

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