Monthly Archives: June 2016

Zubin Mehta Conducts Symphonies & Tone Poems

It’s hard to cherry pick and put into digest form a career so long and varied as that of Indian born conductor Zubin Mehta. He’s had major stints as music director with such prestigious orchestras as the Montreal Symphony, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, The New York Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic, as well as numerous opera companies.  The venerable maestro is now 80 years old, so he’s been around some time. Decca was faced with the task of picking his recordings for that label made slightly before, during, and slightly after his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: 1962-1978. During his time in California he built the already good ensemble up to world class and helped it to have name recognition from the numerous recordings for the Decca label, the label where Mehta had made early, successful recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Zubin Mehta Box

I would been fine with a box of all Los Angeles recordings but Decca has opted to take many of those out and replace them with recordings made in Vienna, Israel, and one from New York. So you won’t find the superlative L A recordings of Holst’s The Planets (the best of all of Mehta’s LA recordings), John Williams Star Wars, Nielsen’s 4th symphony, or the plethora of Ives, Copland, and Gershin recordings. You will find from L A the sturdy, exciting, yet sometime pedantic complete Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings, Sweeping romantic readings of Dvorak’s 8th 9th symphonies,  and the first-rate, near definitive recordings of the Richard Strauss tone poems – Also Sprach Zarathustra, An Alpine Symphony, Ein Heldenleben (this one five stars for me), and the Domestic Symphony. You will find his magnificent, warm and wonderful reading of Bruckner’s 9th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a stupendous, one of the top-three, performance of Mahler’s second symphony, and the New York Philharmonic in an exciting Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. With the Israel Philharmonic you’ll get all of the Schubert Symphonies, plus Rosamunde in performances that are sturdy but don’t sparkle enough to make them first choices, and near perfect readings of Tchaikovsky’s music from Swan Lake and Nutcracker from the same source.

One thing in common for all of the recordings: Decca’s amazing 70s recorded sound, microphoned from the conductor’s point of view. Most exciting and overall a big thrill. The low price makes this a set to consider since there are no complete missteps and many towering triumphs.

A Genre Bending Chiller That Delivers

I get so tired of watching ads on television for movie thrillers. In these ads they usually show you the best, or most arresting, parts. You watch the movie and find the rest is pretty tepid. Not so with 10 Cloverfield Lane, a genuine thriller that will get your heart racing and rivet your attention to the screen.  In it, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) comes to after an automobile accident to find herself in a bunker run by survivalist John Goodman.

10 Cloverleaf Lane

She’s told that there’s been trouble outside and the air is poisonedand that she is only safe in the bunker,  but she comes to suspect that crazy old John has trapped her for other reasons.  I can’t tell more so I won’t ruin the surprises, but let’s just say that Goodman is magnificent, good enough to earn an Oscar nomination, though those aren’t generally give for this sort of movie. Genres are combined and bent and the ending will astonish you. This is one thriller that delivers! It’s available now on an  immaculately produced Blu-ray with terrifying surround sound that also includes a DVD and a digital copy.

A Delightful Dukas Disc, or Discs

Gee, am I having fun going back through the catalog titles of such cool audiophile labels as Chandos, the British label that has recorded so many premieres yet finds time to do sterling sessions of more familiar fare. I stumbled on their double-disc Dukas disc which contains most of the composers output for orchestra and solo piano. Dukas was very exacting and destroyed much of his work before it could be published. It is one of music’s great mysteries as to what those scores might have been. We do know that several operas and tone poems were scrapped. It seems odd for a man who penned one of the best known tone poems in the orchestral lexicon, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Thanks to Fantasia, Leopold Stokowski, and Mickey Mouse, this work is know to thousands who might not usually absorb classical music.

Dukas Tortelier

Yan Pascal Tortelier’s reading of this familiar piece with the Ulster Symphony is dramatic, colorful, and immaculately recorded. Even without Mickey on screen, one can imagine the lazy apprentice conjuring up a spell to have the broom tote the water buckets to fill the cistern, then see proceedings stop when the broom is chopped in two. Then the anguish as the screams of French horns and trumpets announce an army of brooms that gets completely out of control. Tortelier has rapidly become one of my two or three favorite versions. The double-disc Chandos reissue offers the colorful dance piece La Peri with its scintillating fanfare (successfully taken at a rapid clip by Tortelier), a sole symphony, and the Wagnerian style overture Polyeucte. But I discovered that you can buy the orchestral music on two separate CDs, available in used condition for a penny and not much more on Amazon.com. I’ve printed the cover of one of them here. You can find the discs at Amazon.com, the downloads at ClassicsOnlineHD.

“Zootopia” is Lots of Fun

Disney’s newest, Zootopia, is a beautifully animated feature length film with somewhat ambiguous messages about tolerance and discrimination.  Against all advice from her parents and 225 siblings, Judy Hopps, a young rabbit, goes to the big city of Zootopia determined to be a police officer. She perseveres through vigorous training to graduate first in her class, but is assigned, on her first day at work, to be a meter maid. She runs into scam-artist Nick Wilde, a wily fox, and the two end up trying to solve a case of missing predators. Zootopia, you see, is set up so that predators and prey can live together, but the desire to stray can be understood as it’s in the genes. It’s like the alcoholic who goes to AA meetings and adheres to a spiritual program. His natural bent is to drink, but by practicing a program he or she can keep from acting out on his/her natural desire.

Zootopia

There are lots of lovable characters in this movie. Both Judy and Nick, of course, but also a lot of animals we meet briefly along the way in the source of the investigation. Then there are animals behaving with human twists that will elicit smiles from most viewers. For instance, the DMV is staffed by sloths, who naturally take more time than anyone to process simple forms and answer to the point questions.  But secretly… The Blu-ray transfer is state of the art for both video and audio presentations, and there are copious extras to let you in on how the movie was made.  There are also sections devoted to deleted characters and scenes. All in all Zootopia will delight the kids while giving adults fodder for discussing social issues with those children. Highly recommended.

Tchaikovsky Times Three

Due to medical procedures, financial ills, and just plain winter lethargy, I’ve neglected reviewing classical music recordings. That ends now. Thanks to Naxos Records’ new Critic’s Download Portal, I have almost endless access to new and old recordings from well known and not so well known labels. I can explore and pass along my findings to you.

Tchaikovsky 6th NOezck

It happened that I was hit with three recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the ‘Pathetique,” in a row. The one from maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony on Reference Recordings has received the most publicity. The pubic seems to have roared their approval for the German conductor’s testosterone laden readings of the basic repertory in a most fanatical manner. I’m not that big a fan, but have to admit that he has the Pittsburgh players performing exceptionally well and that his Tchaikovsky 6th, though slightly eccentric, has its moments. Honeck writes his own program notes, exceptionally well, it must be said, and outlines and defends his reasons for doing certain passages a particular way.  The sound for the Pittsburgh recordings, however, has been relegated to an outfit called Soundmirror and not to Reference Recordings usual excellent team. And I have yet to be convinced that Soundmirror can make a recording that is half as good as those Reference turned in consistently with the Minnesota Orchestra. The main fault is that there’s just too much sound, which dulls the precise execution of the orchestral choirs and muddies their interface.

Tchaikovsky 6th Jurowski

On the other hand, LPO Live has gotten live recording down to an art and produces recordings that are well balanced and exciting. One is more aware of the performances than the sound, which is probably as it should be. The Russian maestro and Music Director of the London Philharmonic is young Vladimir Jurowski and on the LPO Live double release he turns in a reading Of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” that is absolutely superb. He creates passion and tension and gets precise playing from his Brit musicians, but never crosses the line from sentiment to sentimentality, an easy thing to do in this music, finding not only drama, but lyricism and ballet references in this interpretation. Moreover, his “filler piece” is perhaps the best recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (“Winter Daydreams,” or “Winter Reveries”) that I’ve every heard. In treating this early work just like one of the later ones, he causes us to discover that it is, indeed, a great piece of music, not the trifle it is usually thought to be. Honeck’s “filler,” by the way is opera for orchestra, a suite from Dvorak’s Russalka.

Tchaikiovsky Dausgaard

Finally, on the BIS audiophile label, we find a curious yet successful against all odds performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th from Thomas Dausgaard and his Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Dausgarrd has been playing big pieces with his smaller forces to expose their inner voices and make us aware of their construction. Since his orchestra is first-rate, this often works – as it does here. I wouldn’t want to have his as my only recording of this piece, but it is surely worth a listen or two to hear those marvelous woodwind parts so immaculately played. The sturdy filler is a crackerjack performance of Tchaiokvsky’s Romeo & Juliet.

All of these recordings are available as downloads, or on disc, from Naxos America’s Classics on Line. On disc the Honeck and Dausgaard performances are Hybrid SACD’s, with multichannel  surround.