Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Buy or live in darkness


Nielsen and Haydn arguably wrote the most life-affirming music in the classical canon. Which may explain why two sets of these composer's symphonies have been among my most listened to CDs in 2009. I have already written about Brilliant Classic's re-issue of Adam Fischer's set of Haydn's symphonies with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra and, interestingly, my Nielsen symphonies of choice come from the same Dutch budget label.

Theodore Kuchar's recordings of Nielsen's six symphonies with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra have become something of a legend among those who have sought them out since their release by Brilliant Classics in 2007. These Czech performances are not just superb bargain priced Nielsen, they are superb Nielsen at any price. No one has put it better than Jack Lawson in his Musicweb International review:
If this Brilliant set was marketed as a Limited Edition with wooden crate and gold-plated audiophile CDs at £110, I would advise everyone to buy or live in darkness. At £11 - at full UK price for all three discs [currently £8.79 on amazon.co.uk - Pliable] - I hope you will not hesitate.
From the very first bars of the First Symphony you know you are listening to something very special. Inspired music making is captured in beautifully natural sound with lots of bloom in the Ostrava Concert Hall in the Czech Republic. So often Nielsen's music is presented as no more than a worthy Nordic cul-de-sac; but in the hands of Theodore Kuchar and his Czech musicians we hear the six symphonies for what they really are, important contributions to global twentieth-century music. Some will attribute the success of the Janáček Philharmonic in Nielsen to its mastery of Dvořák and Smetana. Others may see significance in different repertoire listed on the orchestra's website:
Ostrava's Janacek Philharmonic (116-piece symphony orchestra), is among the five leading orchestras in the Czech Republic. Throughout its existence, JPO has been a strong advocate of contemporary music. Since 1997, JPO has regularly performed new music, including works by Earle Brown, John Cage, Maria de Alvear, Morton Feldman, Petr Kotik, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Somei Satoh, Martin Smolka, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu, Edgard Varese, and Christian Wolff.

The performance of 103 by Cage (90 minute composition for 103-piece orchestra) at the festival of Music of Extended Duration in Prague resulted in a CD release on the Asphodel label, San Francisco. Under the baton of Christian Arming, Petr Kotik and Zsolt Nagy, the JPO triumphed with a program of music for 3 orchestras at the 1999 Prague Spring festival, and the Warsaw Autumn Festival 2000. JPO performed Gruppen by Stockhausen, Diamonds by Lucier, Modules 1,2,3 by Brown, and Nest by Smolka.
American Theodore Kuchar has been making quite a name for himself in repertoire that is notably absent from the programmes of higher profile maestros. During his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine Kupar's recordings have included works by Ukraine’s leading contemporary symphonist, Yevhen Stankovych and by Borys Lyatoshynsky, and he has worked with many leading orchestras in America and Europe.

Credit must also go to Brilliant Classics who have made the transition from re-issue to new recording label with flair and imagination. At the moment many classical music journalists are sharing with us their views on the important events and trends of the past year and past decade. Oh, how wide of the mark these commentaries are, with their transparent agendas of 'you scratch my back and I will scratch yours'. How few of the reviews look beyond the music mutual admiration societies that flourish in London, New York and Los Angeles. How few look beyond the press releases and the free concert tickets and free CDs that are handed out on the gravy trains of 'big music'. If I had to nominate a label of the year I would struggle to make the call between Brilliant Classics, Alia Vox, Zig-Zag Territoires, Accords Croisés and Ad Vitam; not one of which is based in the self-styled world centres of music or records with 'big name' ensembles.

For proof there is life beyond the commercial hegemony of 'big music' just listen to Theodore Kuchar and Ostrava's Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in the Finale, allegro from Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia Espansiva. This is surely the musical equivalent of divine revelation and that reviewer really nailed it in one when he wrote -'I would advise everyone to buy or live in darkness'.


Back in 2005 I wrote - If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these.

Portrait of Carl Nielsen is by Michael Whittlesea. I bought the Brilliant Classics Nielsen symphonies set online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

2 comments:

JMW said...

Great to see Ted get some of his just due.

Garth Trinkl said...

I listened the past weekend to Yevhen Stankovych's powerful early symphonies #1,2, and 4 -- on Marco Polo, a disc from 1995. Those symphonies date from 1973 to 1977.

Your link has Stankovych composing six symphonies through 2002. An available updated link shows another six symphonies composed between 2002 and 2009.

I look forward to hearing all of these symphonies live or on CD.