WAGNER: “DIE WALKÜRE”
Valery Gergiev; Mariinsky Orchestra
(Mariinsky: four CDs)
If you close your eyes and just listen to the opening bars, you can picture Valery Gergiev’s trademark fluttering fingers as he launches the storm that drives Siegmund to the house of his enemy Hunding. The first installment of this Russian “Ring” gives Wagner’s epic a human face, now turbulent, now tender, always dramatic but never tendentious. Gergiev’s own St. Petersburg orchestra is crisp and bracing; the thunder and lightning that announce Hunding’s pursuit are as bright and cutting as Siegmund’s sword.
This is, also, a “Walküre” in which the vocalists sing to each other rather than to the audience. It revolves around René Pape’s fragile Wotan, who in his pursuit of power has renounced love and is painfully aware of what that will cost him. Jonas Kaufmann offers a bluff Siegmund who has no qualms about marrying his already married sister; Anja Kampe grows into Sieglinde, blindly ecstatic at first, then sober and terrified. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde is a little closed and mature-sounding at the top, but she’s emotionally open in her confrontations with future father-in-law Siegmund and actual father Wotan.
The one disappointment is the closing pages. Brünnhilde’s transformation from dad’s “Wunschmaid,” or filial extension of his will, to independent woman is the pivot on which “Götterdämmerung,” and thus the entire “Ring,” will turn; it needs the kind of weight Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch used to bring to it. Gergiev is all magic fire at this point; he blazes but lacks substance. Still, for nearly four hours, this is an incendiary “Die Walküre” that augurs well for the rest of the set.
LUTOSLAWSKI: THE SYMPHONIES
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
At Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he greeted the orchestra thus: “I suppose that you know the Lutoslawski notation.” Surprisingly, those awkward words were the precursor to a phenomenally successful 17-year run with the orchestra. Here they mark the centenary of the Polish composer’s birth with a set of his four symphonies. The recordings of the Second, Third, and Fourth, classics from Salonen’s LA tenure, are reissued here, along with new live versions of the First Symphony and the brief “Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic.”
Here, in miniature, is the arc of Lutoslawski’s career. In the First he takes a neoclassical framework and infuses it with bold colors and rhythms that mark debts to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The Second sees a huge leap forward: clustered chords, a sometimes bewildering narrative structure, and odd timbres. It also introduced Lutoslawski’s aleatory technique, in which the musicians’ parts were notated but their exact interaction was left to chance. The single-movement Third is more accessible, suffused with color and melody and containing an astoundingly beautiful, brass-filled climax. The Fourth, completed in 1992, continues this almost Romantic turn, a beautiful summation of how one could write symphonies in the late 20th century that were steeped in tradition yet spoke to the present. Salonen and the Philharmonic play everything with command and urgency, helping to make Lutoslawski sound as relevant as ever.
Orchestre Philarmonique de Radio France
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Henri Dutilleux isn’t celebrating a centenary this year, but at the age of 97, every year should be an opportunity to recognize France’s most distinguished living composer. His sumptuous yet elusive way with orchestral timbre is front and center in this superb CD, which begins with the first recording of “Correspondances” for soprano and orchestra. Each song has a unique timbre, but what impresses most is the expressive depths of the text setting, especially in settings of letters from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent van Gogh. Barbara Hannigan’s shimmering sound is an amazing conduit for these songs’ mysterious, unforced power. Here, as elsewhere, Salonen conducts with keen and obvious sympathy for the composer’s aesthetic.
The cello concerto “Tout un monde lointain . . .,” composed for and premiered by Rostropovich in 1970, is a modern classic of both iridescent color and interwoven thematic ideas. No virtuoso display piece, it still makes considerable demands on the soloist, which Anssi Karttunen handles with great eloquence. “The Shadows of Time,” a set of five orchestral “episodes,” was commissioned and first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which, incidentally, hasn’t programmed it since 2001). It’s a more mercurial sample of Dutilleux’s work — themes and moods appear and mutate rapidly. The exception is the long-breathed third movement, “Memory of Shadows,” which uses the voices of three boy sopranos. That title could stand for Dutilleux’s entire, too-small output.
MOZART: KEYBOARD MUSIC, VOL. 4
Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano
The latest installment in Bezuidenhout's revelatory series of Mozart’s keyboard works begins and ends with the Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, which the composer left unfinished. At the opening of the CD, Bezuidenhout “completes” the Fantasy by following its anticipatory final chord with the D major Piano Sonata, K. 311. It’s a shrewd gambit that’s completely convincing.
Bezuidenhout has been moving in sort-of reverse chronological order through Mozart’s works, and he brings the same level of insight to these early- to mid-period pieces as he did to the later works explored in earlier volumes in the series. He draws out each dissonance, each odd nuance of the D major Sonata, without seeming self-consciousness. He brings drama and spaciousness to the Prelude and Fugue in C major, K. 394 — a product of Mozart’s encounter with the music of Bach and Handel — and sheer sparkle to the Variations on “Je suis Lindor,” K. 354. When the Fantasia returns at the end, it does so in a version whose last bars were written by a student of Mozart’s. The ending is more conventional but also feels like a fitting conclusion.