Bruno Monsaingeon is best known for his films of classical musicians off-stage — Piotr Anderszewski musing on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or traveling round Poland on a train, Glenn Gould talking against the backdrop of resplendent Canadian landscapes, and so on. It’s therefore surprising to find him the director of a simple filmed concert — not his sort of thing at all, you would have thought.
The concert is by the prestigious Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, featuring Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Valery Sokolov as soloist) and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. Two other Sibelius items, Rakastava and Valse Triste, top and tail the program.
In the event Monsaingeon doesn’t introduce any novelties. There are perhaps more individual instrumentalists highlighted than usual, though with still a lot of attention given to the well-known first violinist, Lorenza Borrani. But in the concerto the focus is almost entirely on Sokolov, and rightly so. His performance is outstanding, simultaneously sensitive and strong. This is a recording of the beautiful Sibelius concerto to treasure.
But the Schumann symphony is very good too, and benefits from the thinner textures from this 50-strong ensemble than you might be used to hearing. These give Schumann the extra clarity and bite he so needs. Ashkenazy, as always, is a delight, kindly and good-natured, though with the highest possible musical standards.
The Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music series contains many attractive items, and the DVD featuring Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major is one of the best. It’s played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado and, as with all the other items in the series, you first get an illustrated analysis of the piece lasting around 30 minutes, then see the entire work performed without a break.
On this disk there are two analytical experts, musicologist and Brahms expert Wolfgang Sandberger, speaking in German, and then the soloist, Gil Shaham, speaking in English. More commentary is read by a female voice whose tones, as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, are far too adolescently reverential to suit this otherwise critical and admirable project.
Also of interest is the outstanding performance of Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” in the same series. It’s again played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado, and is an absolutely stunning performance. But it’s with a slight shock that you realize that this and the Brahms Violin Concerto were originally both part of the same remarkable concert, given in Palermo in 2002. Also more than slightly numbing is the fact that you can buy them together on the same DVD — the complete concert, in other words, but without the Discovering Masterpieces interpretative treatment beforehand.
Also included in the complete concert are Beethoven’s Egmont Overture overture and, to conclude, Verdi’s overture to I Vespri Siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) — this last in tribute to Palermo, presumably.
Staying with the Discovering Masterpieces series, Giuseppe Sinopoli’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie (Alpine Symphony) is also recommendable. It’s never been a work that’s caught the popular imagination in the way Strauss’ tone poems such as Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) or Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) have. But if we’re to believe the music scholar Habakuk Traber in his explicatory commentary on this DVD, then the Alpensinfonie is one of Strauss’ greatest masterpieces. It’s always nice to have one’s ears opened in this sort of way.
The Australia-born pianist Leslie Howard, nowadays resident in London, has not only completed his project of recording all of Liszt’s solo piano music, but has in addition added some extra CDs as previously forgotten works came to light. This extraordinary effort amounts to 99 CDs in all, and is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest recording project ever completed by any artist. Hyperion issued all 99 in a boxed set last year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth.
It’s impossible to do more here than simply hail the achievement, and one CD must stand as representative of the whole. Howard’s Liszt: Ballades, Legends and Polonaises was the second to be issued and contains much to savor.
And it’s arguable that a limited selection such as this CD is of more value to the ordinary listener than the pathless prairies represented by 99 disks. It certainly has some fireworks of the kind Liszt specialized in. Most memorable for me were the Second Ballade (in B Minor), a truly tumultuous foray that makes you think Liszt was trying to make the piano do things it had never done before, as indeed he was, and the Legend of St Francois de Paule Walking on the Waves, a showpiece of literalism where the sea rolls and breaks in the left hand while the saint strides, confident and unconcerned, in the right.
Howard is equal to the best when it comes to Liszt, and more or less any CD in this huge sequence is probably as good as any other. All 99, however, are surely only going to be of interest to music libraries and professional pianists.
Violin Concerto/Symphony No. 2
Violin Concerto/Symphony No. 9
Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado
Complete Solo Piano Works
Leslie Howard, piano