Saturday, May 26, 2007
Naughty but nice
What are your musical equivalents of chocolate cake? - the performances you know you really shouldn't be enjoying, but do. Here is my menu of 'naughty but nice' music dishes:
Uri Caine's Wagner E Venezia - yes, I know it is a serious taste crime to admit to enjoying the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg played in the Piazza San Marco by an ensemble that includes accordion, piano and acoustic bass. But I do. Quite appropriately the recording was made live at the Gran Caffé Quadri, Piazza San Marco, Venice, and is complete with authentic background café sounds which provide a splendid counterpoint to the Tristan Liebestod. If you've never sampled this lovingly crafted, and packaged, chocolate torte from Uri Caine (photo above) I warmly recommend ordering a portion.
Karl Münchinger's Art of Fugue and Musical Offering with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester reminds us of how Bach used to be performed before musical scholarship moved on. As one reviewer said: "This lush performance of Bach's complex Art of Fugue is as emotional as Barber's Adagio for Strings." But these 1976 recordings still blow me away. Stunning playing recorded in classic Decca sound in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart by the legendary team of producers Ray Minshull and James Mallinson, and recording engineers James Lock and Martin Fouqué.
Wagner makes his second appearance on my ultimate 'naughty but nice' disc. This is Glenn Gould playing his own transcriptions of Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger. This reissue is worth the price for these two transcriptions alone. The disc also includes Gould conducting members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a painfully slow Siegfried Idyll, which at almost twenty-five minutes outstays even Knappertsbusch's interpretation by several minutes. This conducting debut was the last thing Gould recorded before he went on tour with Bach, and it leaves us thankful that he didn't give up the day job. (Photo above shows a young Gould with one of his first teachers).
Bach sung in English may well be considered 'naughty.' But not only is my next nomination 'nice', but it is high up in my list of the greatest recordings ever made. Benjamin Britten set down his account of Bach's St John Passion in April 1971. With performers including Peter Pears, Gwynne Howell, John Shirley-Quirk, HeatherHarper, Alfreda Hodgson, Robert Tear, and the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir you know this is going to be something special. The English Chamber Orchestra reads like a Who's Who of instrumentalists. Kenneth Sillitoe is leader, Richard Adeney (flute), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Adrian Beers (double bass). Philip Ledger plays the harpsichord continuo originally prepared by Britten and Imogen Holst. And the 'naughty' English translation is made by none other than Peter Pears and Imogen Holst.
This recording of the St John Passion was made by Decca in Snape Maltings. It has to be said that if there is a weakness it is the engineering which falls somewhat short of Decca's signature Snape sound. Also watch out for the intrusive low frequency 'thumps' in the opening chorus which producer David Harvey really should have covered from alternative takes. But one factor places this performance in that stellar group of the greatest ever made - Britten's interpretation. Some of the tempi are surprisingly brisk, but this is one of those rare performances where musicality and humanity meet as equal partners. Naughty, but simply sublime.
Purists will consider any Bach transcription 'naughty but nice.' But my third Bach nomination comes just about as close to the spirit of the original as it is possible to get with a transcription. Paolo Pandolfo (right) was a founder member of early music group La Stravaganza, and is recognised as one of the leading exponents of the viola de gamba. His transcription of Bach's six Cello Suites (BWV 1007-12) on the enterprising Spanish Glossa label is really more of a re-interpretaion that a transcription. Four of the six keys are transposed, the well known G major Suite No. 1 is played in C major, the C minor Suite No. 5 is played in D minor, and so on. But this is done simply to make the most of the range of the viola de gamba, and it works beautifully allowing the warm tone of the gamba to really ring out. These are personal interpretations, and Pandolfo's reshaping of some of the lines will not be to everyone's taste, but this is wonderful music making.
To conclude with a 'naughty but nice' piece that I always find inexplicably moving - the finale to Bernstein's Candide, 'Make Our Garden Grow'. This is classic Lenny, over the top, superbly written, and absolutely heart on sleeve. One reviewer wrote of "its soaring sentimentality". I find it absolutely irresistible - just like chocolate cake. And if you want the recipe for the example seen in my header photo here it is.
Now read about my first classical record
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