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Bang for your Bucks?

March 8, 2009 at 10:54 PM


Working on the general principle of `if you are broke, buy some CDs,` I splashed out again this weekend.  Spent a –huge- sum of money, even by Japanese standards, on ASM`s new Mendelssohn set.  So the 64000 dollar question, `was it worth it?`
The set includes two disks one of which is a DVD of her playing the Mendelssohn concerto life with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Masur.   This is a great performance. Highlights include her trademark use of non vibrato for extended passages such as the melody before the cadenza and the link passage between the 2nd and 3rd movements.  In the latter case the orchestra politely refrained from vibrato and the effect was just gorgeous. Whether that was spontaneous or not I have no idea but who cares?  A very telling reminder that orchestra and quartets of the early 20c did regularly play without vibrato and produced music of great beauty.  (Another artist of today making this point in stunning fashion is MR Gringolts.)   Another awesome moment occurs when the violin and flute play in unison in the second moment with the camera focused on the flute players face as she plays with such unanimity with ASM you can almost hear her thinking, `good heavens , this is extraordinary.`   Original colorings are another feature.  ASM takes the a#fd ddd, af#d ddd, triplets near the beginning which are more typically played first on the g string and then the d (or repeated on the g) and does the opposite. Plays first on the d string and then jumps back to the g string for a beautiful effect.   Or the repeated e string harmonics in the last movement where she jumps cleanly the first time and slides the second for variety. Another small detail I liked was how she started the trill sequences with trills that themselves began very slowly and sped up. As the trill got higher this effect was relinquished giving the whole trill passage a sense of increasing excitement rather than just a set of equivalent trills.
 The other outstanding aspect of this performance is the way she finds spaces to put the breaks on and give the music a mental breather.  Lots of little musical `corners` that make the difference between a competent player just playing all the notes and a real artist.   It was interesting to see her start the slow movement so quietly given that her sound can clearly dominate a whole orchestra. This sudden shyness was quite calculated and showed the later sections of the movement up to greater intensity. On the down side she has a peculiar mannerism I have noted in other recording of holding off on the vibrato and then splurging it on long notes with the bow following suit. She does this once too often in the slow movement making it just one small step less than perfection.
The documentary on the DVD seems badly constructed and banal.  Flashing between shots of Vienna (yes we know its cool), ceilings and chit chat it seemed as uninformative as it is haphazard. Perhaps for German speakers or the English version contains deeper content?   The DVD also has the D minor piano trio with Andre Previn and Lynn Harrell.  Frankly, this is a poorly matched trio that sounded under rehearsed. Andre Previn is not really up to the piano part and ASM over wide vibrato and relentless approach makes the whole thing sound ham fisted and extremely cold.  Interesting that in the documentary ASM mentions the difficulty of making a recording with no orchestra present. Whether she was over compensating out of desperation or not I don’t know but Andre Previn looked like he needed to go back on the life support machine.  Interestingly, the sound engineers have substantially reduced the roughness and added an element of warmth to the CD recording (which is the same thing!) . It remains however, vaguely unattractive to my ear, lacking in charm and tranquility between the moments of passion and fire which are sadly lacking in the piano anyway.
The violin sonata is given a compelling performance on the CD and it certainly needs to be played more often (but not that often…) A well created work but the first movement seems to me rather pedestrian as a talented composer finding his feet. The slow movement is nice and sleazy and the last a charming sort of moto perpetuo thingy all of it kind of paying homage to Bach, I guess.
All this begs the question why on earth release DVD and cd of the same works?  It seems a rather poorly planned project that could have been improved by for example including a recording of the first concerto instead.  Perhaps an encore arrangemement or even the less played second piano trio which is a real deep piece of work.   All in all I don’t feel I got full value for money but if you have the money go ahead anyway- we have to get out of this recession somehow.
My second investment was much cheaper,   (Jacqueline Du Pre Remembered) but annoying in another away.  If there is anything more annoying than an Englishman being phlegmatic it is an upper class twit indulging in hyperbole.  Yes,   I know DuPre was one of the greats but we could learn that from more music and less waffle and the relentless close ups of her face throughout the DVD demonstrated very well what we all know- her body ran the gamut of emotions from A to Z but actually began to feel vaguely pornographic after a while.   Good for nose fetishists I suppose. A pretty lazy attempt at a true representation actually.  A few more interviews with for example, Baremboim,   and some excerpts of her master classes (which I attended as a lad- quite extraordinary) would have shown that she wasn’t just a tragic artist who stopped playing but that her life entered a different and substantial phase after she left the concert platform for good.   What made this DVD worth owning however, was the slow movement of Beethoven Piano Trio no 5 with Zuckerman and Baremboim. Now this is trio playing. Three hearts and minds as one.  Zuckerman didn’t quite have the resonance to match DuPre but his rather tight focused sound provides an excellent foil and he turns some phrases of mind blowing musicianship.  This is how it should be.
The only other thing that nagged at me as I watched this was the faintest suggestion that unless you came from a very privileged background and had an awfully jolly, plummy voice then a decent music education for young talent is –very- hard to come by in Britain.  Class and privilege was a powerful thing when I were a lad.  Back to my cardboard box.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 1:10 AM

Buri, thanks for your thoughts on this. I also noticed the non-vibrato and thought it was interesting. The Mendelssohn is such an underrated concerto, in a way, among violinists. So many violinists play it as students, we begin to think of it as a "student" piece. It's even, in Suzuki circles, considered to be "Suzuki Book 12." (Just don't even talk to me about playing this piece as a group, that's just sick and wrong)

But the Mendelssohn is anything but a student piece. I hadn't played it since before I'd bought my really nice violin a few years ago, and in fact just today I decided to simply play it through. Looking at the markings from when I was 17, it's just kind of amazing how much more it makes sense, with time and with the right instrument. I really didn't know what to make of it back then, like I said a few weeks ago, I am a late bloomer in my own way.

I don't know, also, what do make of this little review. It's so easy for someone to dismiss the lifetime of work that it takes to play these pieces in just a few sentences, isn't it?

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 1:52 AM

Ain't it though!

But remember that it's only personal opinion.  Can't be anything but.  For better or worse.  If you think it's logical stuff, then you're dismissing in turn the lifetime of work of...uh...logic guys...

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 2:17 AM

Thanks for another good review, Buri! I’ve got the iTune version of it and was wondering if I should order the DVD....  I liked what I heard, as I usually when it comes to Mutter. Her interpretation is so different from the others and always has a lot of interesting things to ‘say’.  But I need to hide all her CDs when I practise the pieces that she recorded because if I’m taking any idea from her, I’m sure my teacher would chew me to into bits...:) Mutter is a great musician to be admired in distance but should never be copied by a student.

BTW, all my life I've been practising your general principle of dealing with being broke. It’s counterintuitive but works like charm – another amazing universal hidden truth!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 3:57 AM


from the little review

>Minute gradations of emotion gave way to exaggerated, pseudo-modern statements.

I made an exaggerated, pseudo-modern statement two days ago.  My cat has not been seen since.

On a more serious note ,  no its not my taste in the Mendelssohn but that sure as heck doesn`t mean we shouldn`t acknowledge serious artistic achievement.  How to play this piece will always be extremely elusive,  as so many artists have ruefully acknowledged.




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