Boulez: Live at the Louvre
Ideale Audience 3078628
Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5,
Salonen, UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra
Medici Arts 3078648
JOHANN GOTTLIEB GRAUN
CPO 999 887-2 [CD]
It’s a strange phenomenon that music tends to throw up child prodigies. Mozart is only the best-known example. Consider, for instance, Camille Saint-Saens who, at the end of his first concert as a pianist at the age of 10, offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas complete, from memory, as an encore.
Less precocious, perhaps, but still remarkable were Igor Stravinsky having private lessons from Russia’s greatest living composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, at the age of 23, while Esa-Pekka Salonen first came to international notice by, at the age of 25, conducting London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at extremely short notice, barely knowing the work beforehand.
Saint-Saens, Stravinsky and Salonen all feature in significant DVDs that have come to my notice this month. First, from Ideale Audience, comes a DVD of Pierre Boulez conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird under the glass pyramid in the forecourt of the Louvre in Paris. It appears an informal affair, with the male musicians in open-necked white shirts and the female ones in black dresses (thank goodness someone is getting away from evening dress). Boulez, in a three-piece suit, conducts with minimal emphasis.
But what is unusual is that there are captions, or subtitles, throughout carrying Boulez’s thoughts on the piece as delivered on an earlier occasion to an audience, whose members ask questions. This is for the most part extremely useful, despite being incongruous here and there, such as when Boulez says things like, “We’ll play that passage again,” when what you’re actually watching is a complete, uninterrupted performance.
He’s especially valuable when he explains the story the music is illustrating, after having made the point that all Stravinsky’s earlier music tells a story, even though in later life, wanting to be considered a classicist, the composer started to claim otherwise. Most important, however, is that here is Boulez, one of the 20th century’s most prominent advocates of 12-tone serialism, and himself a major composer in that style, giving his thoughts on such a very different imaginative artist as Stravinsky. The concert ends with a short, early piece of Stravinsky’s called Fireworks. For this there are no subtitles.
EuroArts has come up with a DVD of a concert in which Yefim Bronfman plays Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Kurt Sanderling (who was to die in 2011). Bronfman attacks the piece with extreme vigor, and receives an ovation at the end as a result. Then something rather unusual happens. He returns to the stage several times to acknowledge the applause, and then the orchestra leaves. This usually signals the interval, but instead Bronfman returns to the now empty stage and plays a short encore, a tiny “sonata” (here meaning a single brief movement) by Alessandro Scarlatti. Nothing could contrast more strongly with his persona in the Saint-Saens concerto, and it feels as if this is the whole point of the exercise.
The Internet comes up with a quote from a Philip Roth novel, The Human Stain: “Then Bronfman appears ... [and plays] at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring.” Clearly Bronfman’s style when playing Saint-Saens on this DVD was par for the course. The extraordinary genius of Saint-Saens himself is hardly represented by this genial piano concerto, however.
After the interval Sanderling conducts the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Being the Berlin Philharmonic, this is also a memorable experience.
Esa-Pekka Salonen takes the lead in another DVD, this time from Medici Arts, where he conducts the youthful UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, a group consisting of players between the ages of 17 and 29. The main work they play is Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, the sonorous work that marks a return to his former style after the attempted modernism of the Symphony No. 4.
Also in the concert is a piece composed by Salonen himself, LA Variations — Salonen was the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 2009. It’s approachable, fun, and even boisterous.
Ever since discovering the violin concertos of Grazyna Bacewicz last month, I’ve been looking for CDs of other “new” composers, that is to say composers new to me. There are plenty of them, needless to say, but their music is rarely arresting on first acquaintance. An exception has proved the 18th-century German composer Johann Gottlieb Graun who became music director at the court of the future King Frederick II of Prussia.
The CD I discovered, and much enjoyed, is entitled Concertos and contains a short symphony (“sinfonia grosso” in those days), two violin concertos, and a concerto for the viola da gamba, all played by the Wiener Akademie under Martin Haselbock. All of them are well worth listening to, and the quality of the recording is in addition exceptionally high.
Especially striking is the viola da gamba concerto. This ancient instrument went out of fashion shortly after Graun’s time (he died in 1771) but Frederick was an enthusiast, and the concerto offered here certainly demonstrates its unique character. The soloist, Vittorio Ghielmi, sounds like a real virtuoso on an instrument whose dark and subdued tones made it more suited to a domestic room than a concert hall.
But it was capable of both passion and technical complexity, and Graun exploits both dimensions to the full. This is altogether an outstanding CD, brilliant in sound and with unexpected novelty of content. It’s not like Bach, nor quite like Vivaldi (though there are echoes). This is, instead, a style and a sound all its own.