Record reviews

There is nothing I know from the pen of the late Samuel Barber more beautiful than his “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” No performance I have ever heard — including that of Eleanor Steber, for whom the music was written — matches the radiant beauty of Dawn Upshaw’s new recording on Nonesuch, with David Zinman and New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
Barber wrote the piece in 1947, for Steber with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony; three years later he rescored it for smaller orchestra, and that is the version usually heard today. His text is the whole of James Agee’s intensely poetic, nostalgic prologue to his novel “A Death in the Family”: a small boy’s memories of a summer twilight in a loving home. In 15 or so minutes, Barber manages to tuck around Agee’s glowing prose a lovely patchwork of simple, quiet melody: a gentle, rocking pastorale theme that recurs, other music of great good humor.
Upshaw’s rise in the past few years has been a joy to watch. What I love about her performance here is the clear, limpid, unforced way she shapes Barber’s great lyrical phrases, and the pure beauty of her diction. For all the outpouring of a great vocalist’s art in the Steber performance (which she recorded twice), she never had the sense of phrase, and certainly not the diction, of this new performance. You couldn’t find a better piece to demonstrate the  beauty resident in music of our own century.
The record also includes John Harbison’s “Mirabai” song-cycle, more recent music of exceptional beauty by a composer whose best work — like Barber’s — has been in the realm of vocal music. A cute aria from an early Menotti opera, and Anne’s big aria from Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” round out this cherishable collection, Upshaw’s first substantial recording on a major label,  a glowing testimony to a great new artist whose horizons seem limitless.
The particular nerve endings so nicely soothed by Upshaw’s singing today were long ago gently stroked by the creamy tones and honeyed phrasing of the German soprano Tiana Lemnitz, whose best-known recording was her Pamina in the 1938 “Magic Flute” recorded in Berlin under Sir Thomas Beecham. The flood of old performances, mostly from radio broadcasts, resuscitated by small record labels for CD reissue now, implausibly and miraculously, turns up Lemnitz’s 1944 performance of Wagner’s “Wesendonck” Songs, in performances — on the Acanta label — that hover like silvery cobwebs in an ancient attic newly opened. Robert Heger is the conductor; the record is filled out with the overripe, late-romantic “Glockenlieder” of Max von Schillings, eloquently sung by Peter Anders. But the Lemnitz half of the record is the treasure, and it is beyond price.
Perhaps we’re all a little out of breath from the musical events hereabouts in the last couple of weeks, a game of musical chairs somewhat staggering to the credulity. Just a week ago I named the Estonian-born conductor Neeme Jaervi as a plausible top choice to replace Andre Previn at the Philharmonic; a day later Previn had (to no great surprise) walked away from his scheduled final week of the season, and here, lo and behold, was Jaervi  in our midst to rescue that final program.
My high estimate of his abilities stems mostly from recordings; I had missed his previous appearances here in 1985. But those recordings are spectacular. Chief among them is a complete set, on the Chandos label, of the nine symphonies and most of the tone poems of Antonin Dvorak, all performed under Jaervi’s baton by the Scottish National Orchestra.
It should come as no surprise to find Dvorak so eloquently performed by a non-Czech composer — an Estonian, at that. Like the Italian Giulini a generation ago, Jaervi is reached by the childlike grandeur, the ingratiating insinuation in this music. The music itself is full of revelation, especially if you still think Dvorak’s range of expression begins and ends with the “New World.” Listen to one of my favorite “unknown” symphonies, No. 5, and hear the work of an interpreter with the patience to allow the music to smile its own smiles, and amble at its own pace, and the forbearance to let the unruly finale rant and rave and, ultimately, storm the heavens with golden sonorities.
There is wonderful music-making on these Chandos disks. (The last, with the Symphony No. 8 and the extraordinary tone-poem “The Wood Dove” that seems to prophesy the melodic turns of a Kurt Weill, will be released in a couple of weeks.) You cannot blame me, therefore, for wondering if that brand of musicianship mightn’t be jwhat we need on our local podium.
A complete set of the Dvorak Nine, in performances of this quality, is always welcome. Did we also need another of the Beethoven Nine? I suppose there’s no point in asking, so long as every ambitious conductor on the face of the planet regards his (or her) personal view on these sovereign works as a kind of signature on a contract drawn up by supernatural powers.
Two major Beethoven-symphony projects are drawing to a close: Christoph von Dohnanyi’s complete set on Telarc, with the Cleveland Orchestra, and Roger Norrington’s on EMI, with his London Classical Players. Both sets, praise be, are issued as single records, so that their conductors’ respective outlooks can be sampled without mortgaging the premises.
I admire Dohnanyi greatly, and have no difficulty in regarding his Cleveland as our best American orchestra –and not far below the best anywhere. There is a quiet, respectful eloquence in these performances; they grow on you. The Dohnanyi Sixth comes very close, for me, to being my favorite recording of any Beethoven symphony. Its congenial way of unfolding, its sure and gentle way of holding the pace in that celestial slow movement, the humor throughout — all these are, to me, exceptional examples of a great conductor’s art. The odd-numbered symphonies, especially the Seventh, are here and there a little cautious. But there isn’t a false move, a wrong turning, anywhere in these performances, and the sound of the Telarc recording is its own catalog of miracles.
The Norrington series, with its adherence to Beethoven’s minutest rubrics thoughout including the unworkable metronome markings that the composer — already deaf — stuck in willy-nilly, continues fascinating. The sound is startling at times, especially when those hard tympani sticks exact their toll on the authentic skin drumheads. The tempos are all the more startling, justified mostly by Norrington’s own skill in clarifying orchestral balances. I could not conceive of owning these as my only Beethoven symphony recordings; at the same time, I refer to these disks often; their refreshing unorthodoxies (which Norrington, of course, identifies as strict orthodoxies) becomes a constant stimulus to rethink everything I think I know about these works. You can’t ask more than that from a record.
I wish I felt that way also about Norrington’s new disk of Berlioz’ “Fantasic” Symphony (also on EMI). Sure, there are enough “departures” — again, as always, in the name of honor to the composer’s own wishes — to make this an equally simulating, thought-provoking venture. But I feel more the cold hand of the laboratory dissector here, and less the ardent fire of a Berlioz devotee; that, in this music, is a fatal flaw.