Top Ear

Featured Musician: A Maazel Celebration

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The discs under consideration here.

Jeremy Lee writes

The passing away of veteran conductor Lorin Maazel (1930-2014) has triggered a torrent of re-releases from the back catalogues of the labels that he worked with, namely RCA/Sony, DG and Decca, as well as some new releases of some of his very last work.  Rather than try to review them all separately, I’ll resurrect Top Ear’s Featured Musician feature (long due, I know) and celebrate this charismatic musician’s career through combining shorter reviews of these new releases and reissues.

Who was Lorin Maazel?  This is a hard question to answer, if anything because Maazel was one of the few musicians that one would find difficult to pigeonhole.  You may say that Bernstein was an over-the-top interpreter who wrung every drop of emotion and intensity from the works he conducted, that Karajan’s truth was beauty and he strived to attain this ideal through all means, that Haitink was sure-footed and safe, that Sinopoli was perverse, that Szell was precise and that Boulez was clear and unemotional.  But no single adjective or phrase could define or describe Maazel accurately, because Maazel was many things.  A young, mercurial firebrand turned slow, pensive (and at times perverse) interpreter, Maazel’s range of artistic qualities made for colossal contrasts between the bookends of his career.  Sure, similar could be said about Giulini or Klemperer perhaps, or even about pianists Arrau or Pogorelich, but the thing about Maazel was not only that the style with which he started and ended his career was arguably more contrasting than all the musicians mentioned above, but also that few musicians were so consistently well documented (recording-wise) at any point of their career.  For those who do not have the chance or luxury to experience an artist’s career live in an extremely frequent manner (and this is the case with the large majority of music lovers), the closest thing that we can refer to is the artist’s recordings, and the larger amount of recordings performed in a certain style, the more music lovers will believe the musician’s music-making bore that particular style.  For example, what we normally recall of Klemperer and Arrau were their prolific Indian Summer late recordings, documenting performances of unprecedented philosophical depth and weight, rather than their exciting and volatile earlier selves (though their similarities end there), only because of the dearth of their early recordings (and which are often sonically subpar).  Pogorelich, on the other hand, is often defined by his genius early years with DG just after winning the Chopin competition, rather than his rather idiosyncratic present style (which did not produce any commercial recordings).  But Maazel continued to record so prolifically as his style evolved, that you can ask any music lover what Maazel’s style was like, and you’ll probably be confronted with the question, “Early or late?”

What a joy, then, to see this tide of new releases and re-releases document all that Maazel was, from his early DG and Decca recordings dating from the 1960s, by way of his Cleveland Decca recordings in the 70s, the various RCA and Sony recordings in the 80s and 90s and that Rachmaninov symphony cycle in the 80s, to his most recent Mahler cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded live in 2011.  Taken in totality, these releases do offer a satisfying survey of Maazel’s career, so without further ado, let us appraise his work and assemble a comprehensive look on this fascinating conductor’s artistry.

Lorin Maazel:  The Complete Early Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

Maazel’s recording career was launched with DG, and this very snazzily presented box (presented in original jacket format so you can appreciate the quite impressively beautiful cover art of the LPs) contains his recordings from 1957 (some items were still mono(!)) to 1965.  Most of the recordings were made with the then pre-Karajanized (as in sonority) Berlin Philharmonic, while the remainder were made by two then-great orchestras:  the French National Orchestra (Orchestre national de la R.T.F), and Fricsay’s RSO Berlin.

Maazel’s reputation for being a virtuoso conductor with a fantastic baton technique (a non-stylistic trait that remained constant throughout his long and distinguished career) is certainly in evidence here, for all the orchestras deliver uniformly world-class playing in terms of execution, precision and balance, while still retaining their own characteristic sound.  Interpretation-wise, here was Maazel at his freshest and fieriest.  Taking advantages of the technique of the players at his disposal, the tempi he took was often on the fast side, and coupled with the virtuosic playing as previously mentioned, this made for some thrilling performances, such as the astonishingly and colorfully executed Infernal Dance from The Firebird, the uncommonly cheerful tempo and articulation for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony (which the Berliners relish), and the surging finale of Brahms 3.

The young Maazel also had a feel for phrasing that made the slow movements of the aforementioned symphonies, and most of his Schubert, sound truly vocal.  It of course helps that the orchestras, especially Berlin, bear beguiling string tones, and Maazel coaxes them to produce phrasing that is at once supple, unfussy, lyrical, and most of all utterly natural.  I don’t particularly like my Schubert 5th Andante taken at such a slow tempo as Maazel (10:45), but with phrasing and playing this inevitable, I certainly can’t complain.  The same goes for the Allegretto of the 3rd (4:59).

But most importantly, the young Maazel conveyed real emotion in his music making, a dimension that one would struggle to find in his later recordings.  This is especially true when you compare the later remakes of the works featured here, such as the Beethoven and Brahms.  While the later recordings could sound analytical and impersonal, almost disembodied in fact, Maazel’s early recordings displayed real fire and majesty in the dramatic sections and genuine mystery, stillness, peacefulness, autumnal-ness and/or melancholy in the slow movements (where appropriate, of course).  For all the gorgeousness of the playing, at this sage Maazel’s and the orchestra’s virtuosity served to convey the inner feeling of the music, rather than becoming an end in itself as some of his later recordings would show.

The performances here are all so consistent in their excellent quality that I won’t bother going into further detail of each of the recordings; what I will do is embolden the recordings that particularly captured my attention in the Works Included list at the end of this review (and following reviews).  Just some housekeeping before we move on:  in 2004 DG released an 8CD set entitled “Lorin Maazel:  Complete Early Berlin Philharmonic Recordings 1957-1962” on their Original Masters series.  If you own that set you may safely jettison it; the present 8CD set contains all of those performances, and more (those that were done with other orchestras).

Details

  • Album name:  Lorin Maazel:  The Complete Early Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra*;  RSO Berlin^;  French National Orchestra°
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven*:  Symphony No. 5 & 6;  Overture “The Consecration of the House”;  12 Contredanses
    • Berlioz*:  Romeo et Juliette (excerpts)
    • Brahms*:  Symphony No. 3;  Tragic Overture
    • Britten°:  The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
    • Falla^:  El amor brujo;  Dances from “El Sombrero de tres picos”
    • Franck^:  Symphony in D minor
    • Mendelssohn*:  Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5
    • Mozart°:  Symphonies Nos. 1, 28 & 41 “Jupiter”
    • Mussorgsky*:  Night on Bald Mountain
    • Prokofiev:  Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)*;  Peter and the Wolf°
    • Ravel°:  L’Enfant et les sortileges;  L’Heure espganole
    • Respighi*:  Pini di Roma
    • Rimsky-Korsakov*:  Capriccio espganol
    • Schubert*:  Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8
    • Stravinsky^:  L’Oiseau de feu;  Le Chant du rossignol
    • Tchaikovsky*:  Romeo and Juliet (Overture);  Symphony No. 4
  • Label:  DG 479 4371
  • No. of discs:  23
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Lorin Maazel in Vienna

Lorin Maazel started his long and fruitful relationship with the storied Vienna Philharmonic with a debut concert featuring Debussy’s La Mer and made his first recordings with the orchestra of cycles of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius symphonies.  Despite the fact that the Philharmonic had played Tchaikovsky symphonies (particularly 4-6) numerous times in concert before, Maazel was the first (and currently only) conductor to take all the Tchaikovsky symphonies to the studio with the orchestra, while the orchestra never touched any Sibelius between 1954 to 1963 (and also made their first and only complete Sibelius with Maazel).  In many respects, then, Maazel’s early Vienna Philharmonic stints were pioneering and highly audacious.

I have reviewed the Sibelius cycle on Top Ear and noted that they were raw, fiery performances full of excitement of new discovery.  The Tchaikovsky cycle, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as successful.  For some reason, despite being recorded by the fundamentally same recording team (produced by Erik Smith and John Culshaw and engineered by Gordon Parry) in the same location (Sofiensaal) and around the same time (1963-1964), the Tchaikovsky sounds noticeably shriller and less supple.  The orchestra, too, plays with less precision or clarity than one would expect after hearing the Sibelius (the runs in the Finale of Tchai 4 are all over the place, despite a not-particularly-challenging tempo), and Maazel’s interpretations are not particularly special in general.

The Strauss items, however, are spectacular.  Don Juan is a very exciting performance, with the virtuoso conductor and orchestra easily up to the challenge of a brisk tempo (though Kempe’s two recordings, with Dresden and the Royal Philharmonic, still remain the most scorching performances of them all), while the Tod und Verklarung is unquestionably one of the most thrilling (if not THE most thrilling) recordings ever made, a function of quick tempi and raw brass playing in the allegros, and Maazel’s refusal to weigh down the Transfiguration episode is laudable.

Admittedly, I don’t actually own this 9CD box (and therefore have no idea whether the remastering, if any, has tamed the Tchaikovsky’s shrillness), but I do own all of the contents of this box from separate releases.  I also know that this set does not contain all of Maazel’s Vienna Philharmonic recordings–not even those recorded by Decca.  Where are the remainder of the Strauss items (obtainable on Australian Eloquence 480 8948), and where is that famous Vienna premiere recording of Stravinsky’s Rite?  Or that Beethoven Fidelio starring James McCracken and Birgit Nilsson, or that 1974 Bruckner 5th?  This box set’s dubious production values signifies yet another galling missed opportunity for Decca.  Shame.

Details

  • Album name:  Lorin Maazel in Vienna
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Works included:
    • Sibelius:  Symphonies Nos. 1-7
    • R. Strauss:  Don Juan;  Tod und Verklarung
    • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies Nos. 1-6;  Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture;  Manfred Symphony;  Hamlet Overture
  • Label:  Decca 4820828
  • No. of discs:  9
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD

Lorin Maazel:  The Cleveland Years

In 1972 Maazel succeeded George Szell as the Cleveland Orchestra’s Music Director (Boulez’s interim years of 1970-1972 don’t strictly count as he was titled Musical Advisor), thus inheriting an orchestra that was famous for its technical polish, precision and unanimity of attack, textural clarity and “chamber-like” orchestral playing (yet again, Szell gets a great review).  And then, to many, he ruined it with his lush, romantically inflected interpretations, as opposed to Szell’s cool-headed classicism (even in Romantic works).  I can’t agree with this critique; even though Maazel had of course a very different style from Szell, the standard of the playing not only didn’t deteriorate, but seemed to have improved.

It only takes a listen of this tremendous La Mer in CD1 to blow any reservations of whether Maazel would be a worthy successor to Szell out of the water.  The aforementioned virtuosity, precision, clarity and chamber musicianship is all evident here, particularly in that absolutely fantastic Jeux de Vagues (listen to how the flutes and clarinets in the opening swoop up and down with whiplash unanimity!), but Maazel obviously sympathizes with the Debussy idiom much more than his predecessor (remember how one of Szell’s players called his interpretation “Das Merde”!).  He brings romantic lushness (and even eroticism) to the phrasing and rubati, and induces a warm and beguiling sonority while always keeping the textures crystal clear.  He’s also not afraid to give climaxes their full due:  the glowing brass sonorities come proudly to the fore in the endings of the first and third movements, and are absolutely breathtaking.  This is a great La Mer by any standard, and to date my favorite.

And there’s also the Gershwin items.  Here Maazel really catches the jazzy idiom of the music to a hilt, never once allowing precious mannerisms get in the way of the music, and what verve, vivacity and stylishness he injects into the music!  The Cleveland Orchestra plays with uncommon textural clarity and precision, outclassing their Chicago Symphony colleagues for Levine (not least in the brass department!), which allows Gershwin’s thick rhythmic mesh to be heard effortlessly.  And let’s not forget the standard-setting Porgy and Bess recording–it’s probably safe to say that in terms of orchestral response, vocal casting, disarmingly idiomatic interpretation and sonics, no other recording comes close (and particularly not Harnoncourt’s mannered, badly cast recording).  I particularly enjoy Francois Clemmons’ sly, sensuous Sportin’ Life in It Ain’t Necessarily So–a characterization that nobody has been able to manage or match ever since.

The other recordings are scarcely less fine.  As you may have noticed, romantic or 20th century works take up the lion’s share of the box, and it is in these pieces where Maazel really shines.  Be it an uncommonly lean and dramatic Berlioz Harold and Rimsky Scheherazade (with two very fine string soloists), a really dazzling Ruslan and Lyudmilla Overture, a voluptuous Scriabin Ecstasy, a slightly less voluptuous but immaculately detailed and hued Daphnis et Chloe, the sinister and driven Prokofiev items, a beautifully played and crushingly powerful Pini di Roma (perhaps not as grand as the early Berlin performance), or the most visceral and slapstick Feste Romane on disc, Maazel and the Cleveland clearly demonstrate their dedication to these scores, no matter the style or idiom–thankfully, Maazel never indulged in histrionics or idiosyncrasies in these performances.  And back to my point about Szell’s Cleveland vs. Maazel’s Cleveland:  Maazel was able to retain Szell’s precision and clarity, but at the same time he expanded the sonority greatly by putting flesh and fat onto the bones and coaxing nuance and color from the orchestra, particularly the brass section which is always present and supportive regardless of the dynamic level.  (And this is a very personal preference, but I salute the timpanist’s decision to end each long timpani roll with a decisive “thunk”.)  Of course, in more classical repertoire such as the Beethoven Overtures and Brahms Symphonies, Maazel’s middling, uninteresting interpretations rarely inspire the way his great predecessor does, while in other works such as the Elgar Cello Concerto the performances never reach the greatness of the established “legends” (Du Pre), overall the performances never dip below the highest standards of professionalism.  Sonically, too, the recordings are uniformly excellent.  With results of such high quality, I’d go as far to say that if Maazel had a “heyday”, it would be with the Cleveland.

Details

  • Album name:  Lorin Maazel:  The Cleveland Years (Complete Recordings)
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  The Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven:  Overtures
    • Berlioz:  Grande Messe des morts;  Harold en Italie;  Overtures
    • Bizet:  L’Arlesienne Suites Nos. 1 & 2;  Jeux d’enfants
    • Brahms:  Symphonies Nos. 1-4;  Overtures;  Haydn Variations
    • Debussy:  La Mer;  Nocturnes;  Iberia;  Jeux
    • Elgar:  Cello Concerto
    • Franck:  Symphony in D minor;  Variations symphoniques
    • Gershwin:  Porgy and Bess;  An American in Paris;  Cuban Overture;  Rhapsody in Blue
    • Glinka:  Ruslan and Lyudmilla Overture
    • Prokofiev:  Symphony No. 5;  Romeo and Juliet
    • Ravel:  Daphnis et Chloe
    • Respighi:  Feste romane;  Pini di Roma
    • Rimsky-Korsakov:  The Golden Cockerel Suite;  Russian Easter Festival Overture;  Capriccio espagnol;  Scheherazade
    • Rossini:  La Gazza Ladra Overture
    • Scriabin:  The Poem of Ecstasy
    • Tchaikovsky:  Rococo Variations;  Pezzo capriccioso
    • Verdi:  Ballet music;  Overtures
  • Label:  Decca 478 7779
  • No. of discs:  19
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD

Lorin Maazel:  Great Recordings

We fast forward about half a decade or so to the late 1970s, when Maazel’s recording activity mostly switched to Sony/RCA, and his Cleveland tenure was about to come to an end.  Most of the Sony/RCA recordings dating from this time all the way to the late 1990s are contained in this budget 30CD original-jacket-collection box.  Unfortunately, this would be the time period that elements of perversity and unidiomatic stiffness crept into Maazel’s performances, and the general unevenness of the quality of the performances contained in this box reflect that fact.

While the magic of his clear, precise yet lush performances during Decca Cleveland years was largely retained in these Sony performances, I have to say that, concerning most of the early Sony rcordings here (by early I mean before 1980), that the sonics are horrendous.  Injudiciously multi-miked, artificially balanced and suffocatingly opaque, the sonics completely failed to represent the meticulous Cleveland sonority in a truthful manner that Decca (and later Telarc) managed.  This fabricated soundstage is particularly evident (and annoying) in the Beethoven symphony cycle–and askew balances and closely-miked strings are not what you want in Beethoven!  To add insult to injury, Maazel’s performances are dull and uninspiring:  compare these dry, analytical performances with his eloquent early Berlin Philharmonic recordings on DG and you’ll think they were conducted by different people!

The Strauss Heldenleben and the Berlioz Fantastique do not suffer from those recording defects quite as acutely (or maybe they do, just that it doesn’t wreck the music as much as Beethoven), but best of all, they are fantastic performances.  Ein Heldenleben, an unusually speedy performance (at 42 and a half minutes faster than even Solti, Reiner and Kempe) is quite thrilling and unusually texturally clear (maybe the spot-miking helps here), with refreshingly unfussy violin solos presumably played by Daniel Majeske, really colorful woodwind playing in the critics scene and impressively weighty brass in the battle scene.  Dohnanyi’s later recording for Decca is more sinewy than Maazel’s, but Maazel has the more fulsome orchestral sonority and an interpretation that is no less exciting.  The Berlioz is also wonderful.  There’s some wonderfully poetic playing in the first three movements, while the March to the Scaffold is thrillingly brisk, with uninhibited brass playing both here and in the marvellously grotesque Witch Sabbath (though the bells used could be deeper–here Karajan’s 1970s recording is unmatched).  True, it’s not as sophisticated or beautifully played as Boulez’s DG recording, but for knockout excitement Maazel is pretty hard to beat.

Around this time Maazel and Cleveland also pledged allegiance to Telarc, resulting in a number of quite famous recordings (Mussorgsky Pictures, Rite of Spring, Shostakovich 5), and some were remakes of the Sony Cleveland recordings, even if the time difference was only a few years (the Berlioz Fantastique, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth).  So all that remained left for the Maazel-Cleveland-Sony partnership was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies in 1981, recordings which were thankfully much more naturally recorded than those early Cleveland-Sony recordings (and that Vienna Philharmonic cycle for that matter).  The interpretations, meanwhile, are no more special than those in Vienna, but at least the orchestral response is much more precise, and as always the textural clarity makes the music sound more detailed (I say this because Maazel himself rarely brings out uncommon detail in the performances, rather it is the textural transparency that reveals the detail for themselves).  Yet for all the musical merits, all these performances operate at an conspicuously low level of emotional involvement, resulting in an inauthentic listening experience.

In 1977, Maazel added the post of Music Director of the French National Orchestra (Orchestre National de France) to his portfolio, and five recordings of this partnership are represented here.  Unfortunately, the French orchestra’s playing, while proficient, is not always world-class, exemplified by the biting yet thin brass, colorless woodwinds and ephemeral, undernourished, sometimes scrappy string playing (call it their “special sound”, if you will)–the shortcomings after comparing the French orchestra with Cleveland’s meticulous balance and precise orchestral response, or the Berlin Philharmonic’s rich strings, or the Concertgebouw’s characterful winds, are particularly evident.  And it’s not that Maazel’s conceptions were particularly refreshing as well.  This performance of the Holst Planets is for some reason quite famous, and it’s accordingly the best performance here, suitably exciting, dramatic and colorful (but not on the same level as, say, Dutoit or Mehta or Steinberg or Karajan or Bernstein or…you get the picture), while the Bolero reveals the high quality of the individual players (whether they work together well is another story entirely).  The Mahler 1, a performance here receiving its first CD release, gives us no further insights on Maazel’s uninspiring take on Mahler 1 (and he’s recorded it 4 times already), and the Prokofiev items are good but nothing special.

We arrive at 1982, when Maazel just divorced the Cleveland Orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, a post that he gave up only two years later.  In 1984 he took the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from Andre Previn (his “home band”, as it were), first as music consultant, and then from 1988 Music Director.  The centerpiece of this collaboration was a remake of the Vienna Sibelius cycle, also separately available on Sony Masters.  The differences in the two cycles are evident the minute you compare them:  firstly, the remake’s sonics are terrifically sumptuous and realistic, better than that of the Vienna cycle overall, and the Pittsburgh Orchestra turns in playing of the highest calibre, especially in the velvety but never suffocating strings and the marvellous horn playing, surpassing the Vienna Philharmonic’s sometimes rough-and-ready playing.

And yet not all the changes are for the better, depending on how you look at it.  First of all, while the Pittsburgh’s playing is closer to the textbook definition of “beautiful playing” than that of the Vienna Philharmonic (meaning darker, smoother, better balanced), I personally prefer the Vienna Philharmonic’s rougher edge.  Just compare the very first note that opens the Fourth:  Vienna’s low strings jolt you and instantly capture your attention, while the over-polite Pittsburgh strings do not.  Likewise, the brass dazzle with enthusiasm in the Vienna Second–they hardly do in Pittsburgh.  Maazel’s conducting, meanwhile, has also changed.  The Vienna cycle was youthful, fiery and enthusiastic; the Pittsburgh cycle is slightly slower and much more calculated, to the detriment of the first and second symphonies, which lack the drive and physicality of the first times round.  The upside of this, though, is the sheer amount of detail these performances reveal–such as the intricate dialogues in the 1st’s scherzo, or the scurrying strings in most of the first movement of the 5th.  Overall, this is a fine Sibelius cycle–a mixed bag, yes, but so is the Vienna cycle, albeit to a much smaller degree.  As far as my taste is concerned, I’ll mix and match an ideal Maazel Sibelius cycle by taking the Vienna 1-4 and the Pittsburgh 5-7, but as it stands this Pittsburgh cycle is quite recommendable, even if overall there are more consistently great cycles, such as Blomstedt’s.

The other Pittsburgh recordings share similar sonic and playing virtues as the Sibelius, but yet again the performances are not always even.  Maazel’s third and last Pini di Roma maintains the splendour and fire of his previous recordings, but this time round (and in the Fontane di Roma as well) the brass are so prominent in the climaxes that they’re pretty much all you can hear (besides the percussion).  The Feste Romane, however, falls flat on account of a certain lack of character and colour that makes the legendary Cleveland first recording preferable.  The Saint-Saens recordings are respectable but lack much flair (admittedly, I don’t care for the Organ Symphony very much), while the Grofe, taken at such relaxed tempi, is seconded by Bernstein’s recording in terms of sheer momentum and energy.

We are now in 1993, the start of Maazel’s 9-year stint at Germany’s most prestigious radio orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.  The previous music director, Sir Colin Davis, maintained a fruitful RCA recording contract with this orchestra, and possibly to continue this relationship Maazel switched to RCA around this time (but Sony and RCA are under the same company anyway).  More importantly, the silky smooth and mellow sound and virtuosic playing standards of Davis’ orchestra is what Maazel inherited, an invaluable asset that Maazel fully exploited in his choice of repertoire.

The main project that Maazel embarked on was a 5CD set of Richard Strauss that can also be found on RCA Masters, but quite annoyingly the Don Quixote is missing in this big box.  The 4CDs we are left with, however, are representative enough of Maazel’s later way with Strauss:  unabashedly romantic, sometimes indulgent but never overly mannered, and as always with Maazel, clarity of textures and absolutely fantastic playing (these players were incapable of giving him otherwise).  This is in stark contrast to his 60s Decca Strauss, which as mentioned a few thousand words above is driven, exciting, and intense.  In fact, it’s instructive to compare this series with a concurrent and competing Strauss series on Telarc (and some instalments of lesser-known works on DG), the highly acclaimed and more famous Previn/Vienna series.  Both are marvellous Strauss orchestras with all the virtuosic chops needed for these demanding works, conducted by tried-and-true master Straussians, and captured in spectacular sound, but the similarities end here.  Previn is leaner and tauter, both in terms of his conception and the sound he gets from the orchestra, while Maazel is slower, lusher and grander.  But in both cases, the results are so beautifully executed and musically satisfying that whether one would choose one over the other ultimately boils down to a matter of taste.

So I won’t waste words by describing every performance in detail, but suffice it to say that, for the Alpensinfonie, Rosenkavalier Suite, Tod und Verklarung, Till Eulenspiegel and Also Sprach Zarathustra at least, Maazel’s approach pays the most dividends.  In the other works perhaps one would wish for a bit more thrust (Don Juan, Heldenleben, both of which are surpassed by their previous recordings), but they certainly aren’t slovenly.  However, if you can handle a bit more quirkiness and want even more expansiveness and lushness in your Strauss (with added hints of decadence and eroticism), you are directed to Sinopoli’s inconsistently reissued Strauss series with the New York and Dresden orchestras, absolutely sensuous performances that never fail to polarize opinion, yet always fascinate.  I’m mentioning Sinopoli to raise a caveat about Maazel’s performances:  after hearing Sinopoli, you’ll come away with the feeling that Maazel is ever so slightly the blander conductor, in that he rarely has a distinctive interpretation of the work.  As a result, no matter how beautiful the results are, the feeling one gets after hearing Maazel is mostly neutral, while with Sinopoli, you either love or hate it.  But anyhow, this caveat really is a small one and does not significantly diminish the worth of these performances, which mostly lies in the execution and sonics.

The other Bavarian recordings in the box include some neoclassical, lesser-known Stravinsky and a disc of “Symphonic Battle Scenes”, and as far as I can tell the sole purpose of creating and recording the latter selection is to show off the “Dolby Surround” recording technique (as emblazoned on the original cover).  Yet again, Maazel’s not particularly distinctive interpretations take the back seat to the stupendous quality of playing and recording (and singing, in the case of the Symphony of Psalms).  Oh, and the (presumably digital) cannons in 1812 are mind-blowing.

The remaining selections in this box document Maazel’s long-standing guest conductor relationships with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.  As was common with Maazel, in these late Vienna items he often took the orchestra out of its comfort zone, programming and recording the Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky that you get here (as well as that maddeningly inconsistent Mahler cycle).  Any conductor choosing to do so will inevitably be faced with two possible and opposing outcomes:  either the orchestra plays with unbridled freshness and sense of discovery, as with Maazel’s Sibelius and Bernstein’s Mahler; or the orchestra sounds as comfortable and at home as a cultural shock (some of Maazel’s Mahler).  Unfortunately, the latter is what we experience here, to the detriment of the music.

And who is to blame?  None but Maazel.  His approach sounds as if he has grown tired with the music;  the excitement and physicality of the Cleveland La Mer, for example, is nowhere to be found here:  granted, you can’t expect the Vienna players to reach the level of precision and color that the Cleveland players achieved, but as Dudamel proved in his Schonbrunn 2012 recording, you can at least try and something good will come out.  Maazel doesn’t even try.  His direction is listless and indulgent, and he keeps the reins so tight that all the climaxes uniformly fizzle.  And about the Vienna Philharmonic’s uniquely beautiful sound in this recording:  whether this sound suits Debussy is another matter entirely.  For the most part it’s a very dark and heavy sound, one that precludes any sparkle or shimmer, qualities that you badly need in Debussy of all composers.  Maazel doesn’t try to change that sound, and the result is almost half an hour of awkward “unidiomaticness” (if I may coin such a term).

This same problem afflicts the Stravinsky Petrushka, only to a much greater degree.  With an interpretation so lacking in joy and spirit and playing so totally devoid of savagery, bite or brilliance, Petrushka might as well have remained a straw puppet through the whole ballet.  All the quirky and clever instrumental effects and colors Stravinsky imbued into the score go for naught.  The lower brass is depressingly timid, even when they carry the tune (the later parts of the final tableau), and the percussion has rarely sounded more reticent.  Again, the fault is clearly Maazel’s:  listen to how Dohnanyi encourages this same orchestra to deliver razor-sharp playing full of enthusiasm and verve in their earlier Decca recording (now on Australian Eloquence).  “Precious” is the perfect word to describe Maazel’s performances:  stiff, affected and excessively beautiful.

Oddly, though, this isn’t such a problem in the Ravel items, especially in Daphnis and Chloe, and this is surprising given that there aren’t many fundamental stylistic differences between D&C and La Mer.  Whatever:  maybe it’s just that this time round they had a better day.  At any rate, the Vienna Philharmonic really plays up the smoky mystery of the Lever du Jour that opens the second suite, and part of me actually prefers this Suite No. 2 over the Cleveland complete recording:  while it’s marvellous to hear every single instrumental strand in Cleveland, I prefer that the sound meshes together like in Vienna.  And of course, in those ravishingly long and melodious string melodies, the Cleveland strings can’t hold a candle to the sumptiousness of Vienna.  Thankfully, both Maazel and Vienna are suitably alert in the faster music, such as in the dances in the D&C Suites, La Valse and Rapsodie Espagnole, though the most kinetic versions (Reiner in the Rapsodie, Bernstein or Abbado in La Valse, etc.) still remain unsurpassed as top recommendations.  Bolero is naturally beautifully played, though with some flexibility in tempo that may not have been what Ravel intended.  And for the remaining two flashy Tchaikovsky items, there’s little more that can be said except that they are quite impactful (you choose between the BRSO and VPO 1812s).

With the Wagner items however the Berlin Philharmonic is on much more familiar territory, and they play it as if to the manner born.  The strings are, as expected, gorgeous and weighty, but this time even the brass and percussion are not afraid to play out in places that really matter–and with Wagner, that means most of the time.  Maazel is predictably slightly slower than most other performances (e.g. the 21 and a half minute Siegfried Idyll), but he’s never perverse, and he wisely uses the time to coax the players to produce ravishing finesse and delicateness in the slower music, while making sure that grand climaxes are given the full due.  As such, Isoldes Liebestod, here sung by Waltraud Meier, has rarely sounded so sensuous and moving (Karajan and Jessye Norman, however, has never been surpassed), while Gotterdammerung’s Funeral March is intense and crushing.

All in all, a mixed bag of performances in this box, and even the best performances in this box might not be top recommendations of those works, but they surely are worth your time and attention.  I have, however, one caveat with this box:  despite the fact that it is as mentioned quite cheap, and the repertoire selection is generally comprehensive of Maazel’s output on Sony/RCA, it does not come with any notes introducing who Maazel was, let alone commemorating Maazel on his death.  That’s not all:  even the technical and recording details are skimpy, and recording venues and dates of certain items are missing.  Then again, you pay for what you get…

Details

  • Album name:  Lorin Maazel:  Great Recordings
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra°;  Cleveland Orchestra*;  French National Orchestra&;  Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra%;  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra^;  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra@
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven:  The Complete Symphonies*;  Fidelio Overture*;  Egmont Overture*;  Wellington’s Victory^
    • Berlioz*:  Symphonie Fantastique
    • Debussy@:  La Mer;  Jeux;  Nocturnes
    • Grofe%:  Grand Canyon Suite
    • Herbert%:  Hero and Leander;  Favorites
    • Holst&:  The Planets
    • Liszt^:  The Battle of the Huns
    • Mahler&:  Symphony No. 1
    • Prokofiev&:  Symphony No. 1;  Lieutenant Kije Suite
    • Ravel:  Bolero (two recordings)&@;  Daphnis et Chloe Suites Nos. 1 & 2@;  Rapsodie espagnole@;  La valse@
    • Respighi%:  Roman Trilogy
    • Saint-Saens%:  Symphony No. 3;  Phaeton;  Danse macabre;  Danse bacchanale
    • Sibelius%:  The Complete Symphonies;  The Swan of Tuonela;  Valse triste;  Finlandia;  Karelia Suite
    • Strauss:  Ein Heldenleben (two recordings)*^;  Sinfonia Domestica^;  Tod und Verklärung^;  Also sprach Zarathustra^;  Rosenkavalier Suite^;  Don Juan^;  Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche^;  Eine Alpensinfonie^;  Macbeth^
    • Stravinsky:  Petrouchka@;  Le Chant du Rossignol@;  Feu d’artifice@;  Symphony in Three Movements^;  The Soldier’s Tale^;  Symphony of Psalms^
    • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies Nos. 4-6*;  Capriccio Italien^;  1812 Overture (two recordings)^@;  Marche Slave@
    • Wagner:  Orchestral Pieces°
  • Label:  Sony 88697932382
  • No. of discs:  30
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Rachmaninov:  Complete Symphonies & Piano Concertos

Released in 2014, this brand new Collector’s Edition box currently stands as the most convenient way to obtain Maazel’s complete Rachmaninov recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG, and as a bonus you get the complete works for piano and orchestra performed by Vasary/Ahronovitch/LSO–not particularly famous recordings, but enjoyable, technically secure and very well recorded.  But the Maazel recordings are the focus of my review, and so I won’t describe the concerto performances in any further detail.

These orchestral recordings are both Maazel’s and the Berlin Philharmonic’s first goes at Rachmaninov, at a time when cycles of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works weren’t exactly a dime a dozen (Previn, De Waart, Ormandy, Slatkin, Pavel Kogan and Svetlanov were just about it).  Most of these recordings play up the distinctive Russian flavor of the music, emphasizing the affecting lyricism of the music while in some cases also stressing the music’s darker, more morbid undercurrents.  Maazel’s is a very different view.  Of course, the fact that he has the Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal–and Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic at that–means that he gets playing of great virtuosity, refinement and tonal opulence in all sections, but when it comes to the long-lined melodies, Maazel refuses to indulge, preferring to shape the melodies swiftly in a long arc.  So in the uniquely affecting central section of the Non Allegro of the Symphonic Dances, or in the second subject of the finale of the Second Symphony, while almost everyone luxuriates in Rachmaninov’s melodic genius, Maazel only slows down by a hair.  And this is largely true with all the works here:  swift, lean and unsentimental, what we have here is Rachmaninov the Modernist, rather than Rachmaninov the Last Romantic.

Having said that, though, the star of the show really is the Berlin Philharmonic’s spectacular playing, because Maazel’s interpretations are, in the cold light of day, little more than ordinary.  He rarely reveals any ear-catching detail in the music, nor does he exhibit much passion or sensitivity to an authentic Russian style.  And let me at once say that a keen awareness of a Russian idiom does not preclude display of the score’s modernistic elements:  listen to Jansons/St. Petersburg, still one of the top recommendations in this music, to hear what I am on about.  In the end, no matter how spectacular the climaxes (and thankfully Maazel permits the orchestra to let loose) or how brilliant the playing, these performances still operate on a distinctly cold emotional level.  This impression may also be due to the early digital recording, which is very clear but at times shrill in the lower registers and lacking depth and bass.  So if a complete Rachmaninov experience is what you’re after, Jansons, Ashkenazy/RCO and Previn are still the names that you should turn to.

Details

  • Album name:  Rachmaninov:  Complete Symphonies & Piano Concertos
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor)*;  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra*;  Tamas Vasary (piano)^;  Yuri Ahronovitch (conductor)^;  London Symphony Orchestra^
  • Works included:
    • Rachmaninov:  Symphonies*;  The Rock*;  Intermezzo from Aleko*;  Vocalise*;  The Isle of the Dead*;  Symphonic Dances*;  Piano Concertos^;  Paganini Rhapsody^
  • Label:  DG 479 3631
  • No. of discs:  5
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Mahler:  Symphonies Nos. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9



After Maazel stepped down from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2002, and the classical music recording industry regained their sanity, Maazel’s recording activities declined.  He was engaged in a smattering of musical leadership positions that did not produce many recordings of note:  he took up the New York Philharmonic leadership post from 2002 to 2009, the Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic from 2004 onwards, the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana from 2006 to 2011, and the Munich Philharmonic from 2012 to 2014.  However, in 2011 he conducted a cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra live in concert, and these recordings have been preserved and issued on the Philharmonia’s house label Signum.  This makes this cycle Maazel’s third and final Mahler cycle (after the VPO and New York cycles), a feat that probably has only been surpassed by Haitink.

As readers of this blog may know, I have been generally indifferent to his VPO cycle, the first ever integral VPO Mahler cycle under a single conductor.  In that cycle, the 4th was one of the greatest recordings of the work (and to date my favorite), the 6th and 7th(!) were quite good, the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 9th were nothing special, and the 3rd was downright depressing.  (I haven’t heard enough of the digital-only New York cycle to reach conclusions.)  Thankfully, the Philharmonia Orchestra is a much more flexible orchestra, arguably responds to Mahler’s idiom with more enthusiasm, and has a tradition of Mahler performance and recording that traces back to Klemperer’s pioneering (and still timeless) Mahler.  Unfortunately, as clearly demonstrated in the VPO cycle, Maazel seems to have had little if any affinity towards Mahler’s music–I say this not in the sense that he dislikes the music (otherwise he wouldn’t have recorded three cycles), but rather in the sense that he refuses to allow his generally uninspiring, at times extremely perverse interpretations give way to the freshness and natural drama of Mahler’s idiom.

So I must admit that I approached this cycle volume by volume with great trepidation, and the timings only exacerbated my fear.  In terms of timings this Maazel/Philharmonia cycle is, without a shadow of doubt, the lengthiest Mahler cycle there is today.  The most striking timings all occur in the first movement:  that of the 3rd symphony, often brought home in around 33 minutes, is stretched to 38, and that of the 7th is taken at a glacial 26 and a half minutes, but most outrageously, that of the 9th is an unprecedented 36.  (Compare it to Salonen’s recording with the same orchestra on the same label made a few years before that, which takes a zippy 26 minutes.)  Slow tempi in itself is of course not a problem, if you play it with that kind of terrifying life-or-death intensity that Bernstein and Tennstedt imbued into their recordings, or with that lush decadence that Sinopoli brought to the Philharmonia’s other Mahler cycle.  But if anything, Maazel was famous for his icy musical demeanor.

Therefore I’m quite happy to report that this Mahler cycle both confirms and negates my worries.  Yes, it’s extremely s-l-o-w, and for that reason extremely perverse at times, but for some reason it doesn’t really bother me at all.

Let’s deal with that 96-minute Mahler 9th first.  It seems that if one is to appreciate the qualities of this colossal first movement, one is to put aside traditional aesthetic measures such as musical structure or how long one can stretch a phrase before it breaks down.  Instead, like examining a piece of complex modern art up close, marvel at the intricate detail of Mahler’s polyphonic and polyrhythmic writing, and be astonished at how much of such detail is obscured in other, quicker performances.  In fact, the perversity of experiencing the music’s disintegration in my opinion adds a dimension of psychological horror to the music, as if we were experiencing a nightmare that we could not escape.  This sort of fascination managed to grip me throughout the movement, and thanks to Maazel’s legendary baton technique and the present Philharmonia’s considerable virtuosity and power (those trombones at the climax sound as if directly imported from Valhalla), they get through the movement with flying colors.

The rest of the symphony is more conventional, if still slightly slower than the norm in the third and fourth movements.  As is customary with Maazel, whatever is lacking in sheer intensity or emotional involvement (the Rondo-Burleske lacks any sort of menace and the Finale any passion) is made up for with detail, detail and more detail.  The exception is the 16-minute second movement, quite incongruously fast (and slightly undercharacterized) after that horrifying first movement, but if we view Maazel’s conception of the symphony as a whole, it seems that everything else after the first movement seems to be an afterthought.

This interminable performance of the Seventh is slightly more evenly balanced, because all the movements are very slow.  The opening movement’s introduction is launched at the most cautious pace imaginable, similar to Klemperer’s gargantuan view, but when Klemperer speeds up slightly in bar 19 (marked “Etwas weniger langsam, aber immer sehr gemessen”), Maazel continues l’istesso tempo, a decision that seemingly caught some musicians off-guard, evident in some shaky ensemble.  Even the allegro proper is rendered more ponderously that anyone save Klemperer, sapping the stretto-like conclusion of any energy; but this pace pays off in the moonlight episode, which receives an unusually transparent, rapt and colorful reading.  The middle movements are all aptly sinister and shadowy (the Scherzo in particular is wonderfully spooky thanks to characterful solos), but it seems that Maazel can’t really get excited about the blazing yet problematic finale, which receives an extremely virtuosic yet conspicuously detached reading.  Compare this to Tennstedt’s similarly slow rendition and you’ll hear the difference between a super-heated nebula and absolute zero.

With most of the unconventionally slow performances gotten out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the other symphonies, and to save your time I won’t go into such great detail as I did with the Seventh and Ninth.  Maazel never seemed to identify with Mahler’s First despite having recorded it four times and this dull, uninspiring effort is no exception, while the crowning glory of the VPO cycle, the Fourth, is unfortunately indifferent here–the Philharmonia simply lacks the vivid colors that the VPO produced, and likewise Sarah Fox can’t hold a candle to the ravishing Kathleen Battle.  Yet with the Second, Third and Fifth, the Philharmonia sounds much more comfortable than the VPO, and the results are evident in the much more enthusiastic-sounding orchestral response and better balances.  In particular, the Philharmonia’s excellent brass section steals the show especially in the Fifth (has the Wuchtig section of the second movement ever sounded so…Wuchtig?) and the Sixth (everywhere in the first movement and the finale, though the lower brass in the VPO Sixth was nothing to sneer at either).  Maazel’s interpretations in these symphonies have not become more exciting or engaging throughout the years, but nor have they become more perverse, which is probably something to be thankful for–slightly on the slow side but perfectly natural and logical pretty much sums it up.  The Eighth, meanwhile, is almost certainly the most analytical version I have ever heard:  not only is every single texture effortlessly audible, every phrase and note seems to have been pondered over, with nothing left to chance or spontaneity.  And in case you were wondering about the big finales of the Second and the Eighth, they manage to sound absolutely humongous and powerful without sounding the least bit exalted.

Normally in Mahler, extreme perversity coupled with the absence of emotional involvement, let alone divine inspiration, would take the biscuit as far as I’m concerned, but this cycle really is an exception, not least because I was totally bowled over in the most part by the Philharmonia’s astonishing playing (whose praises I have sung extensively throughout my review).  Nor can I criticize Maazel’s direction, because despite the fact that he is the culprit of the less than engaging interpretations, his very presence is the factor that makes the Philharmonia play at such a world-class level, such a ruthless perfectionist the man usually was.  Sonics are always very present and clear, the audience is remarkably silent, and the applause has been edited out.  While none of the performances in this cycle can be considered to be “great”, let alone top recommendations, I return to these performances quite often just to hear the Philharmonia (brass in particular) strut their stuff–and I suppose most listeners who own the cycle would do the same too.

Details

  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphonies Nos. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9
  • Performers:  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Philharmonia Orchestra;  various choirs and soloists
  • Works included:
    • Mahler:  Symphonies Nos. 1-9
  • Label:
    • 1-3:  Signum SIGCD360
    • 4-6:  Signum SIGCD361
    • 7-9:  Signum SIGCD362
  • No. of discs:  15
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD

Epilogue

Listening to all these new Maazel reissues allows us to confirm the answer towards the million-dollar question that I posed at the very beginning of this article:  who was Lorin Maazel?  Was he a slow and perverse interpreter?  No; many of his interpretations are quite standard.  Was he a cold fish?  No; his early recordings were mostly fiery and passionate.  Did he “deteriorate” as he progressed in his career?  No; some of his late Mahler were significant improvements over his earlier Mahler.  All that we know for certain was that he was a staunch perfectionist, a master of baton technique, and a charismatic orchestral leader who could almost always draw the best from his orchestras and guide them to produce, in the most exacting manner, the interpretation that he wanted.  For that reason alone, Maazel is unique and irreplaceable, and his demise is a true loss to the musical world.

Thank you, Maestro Maazel.

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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

3 thoughts on “Featured Musician: A Maazel Celebration

  1. Many thanks for this. I was lucky enough to hear several very satisfying performances under Maazel with the CSO: Hindemith “Mathis,” Mahler 1, Mendelssohn “Reformation,” etc. He was able to make the CSO sound like the VPO — no small feat, and one otherwise accomplished only by Carlos Kleiber.

  2. Thank you very much for your enlightening comments! It’s quite interesting to know that for Solti’s ability to make every orchestra (e.g. the VPO) sound like the CSO, there’s a reversal to it, found in Maazel and Kleiber. In fact I had no idea that Maazel or Kleiber ever conducted the CSO. I’m glad to have found a YouTube clip of Kleiber’s CSO Beethoven 5th and am now listening to it.

    Jeremy

  3. Thanks a lot. I look forward to a little Maazel journey and thanks to streaming offers it won’t cost me fortune…reviews like yours are really inspiring.

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