Best of Brahms

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slofstra
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Best of Brahms

Post by slofstra » Sat Jun 18, 2016 10:21 am

There are so many fine recordings of Brahms' music I don't know which is the best of the best. All I will say, is that the last few years I keep reaching for this one:

Image

This is such an exceptionally fine recording, and delights me every time I play it. Haitink wrote the following about Brahms' music for the liner notes of this recording.

"One of the secrets of playing Brahms is that you have to be very acute about how you pace the dynamics", Haitink says, "I think when we think of Brahms we conjure up a huge, inflated sound and that is totally wrong because Brahms wrote so much wonderful chamber music which is a fine indication of the textures he was after. If you look at the scores it's amazing how often he writes piano dolce or pianissimo dolce. I think it's probably the fault of bad interpretation, when the sound gets clogged, it's a problem. That can happen easily."

In listening to the recording these remarks make so much sense. The woodwind playing is always butter smooth and often front and centre and contrasted against the deep, brooding, intense strings, brass and full orchestral sound. Truly a feast for the ears every time I play these recordings, and surely every bit the music that Brahms intended this to be.

A point for discussion. Who else do you think plays or exemplifies Brahms this well, and perhaps, who muddles it all up?

maestrob
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Sat Jun 18, 2016 11:20 am

The Brahms I reach for most often is Solti/Chicago, to be honest. Solti's pacing is just right: disciplined with room to breath. As for muddied up, my target would be HVK's Brahms symphonies: they sound under-rehearsed as though they were dashed off just to make money without accompanying concerts.

Just now listening to Jaap van Zweden's excellent cycle with the Netherlands Radio, very fine.

I don't have the Haitink, so I cannot comment on it.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Sat Jun 18, 2016 2:27 pm

There are hundreds if not thousands of recordings of the Brahms symphonies, and I haven't listened to most of them. The ones I come back to were made by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950s - well paced (not too slow), judiciously weighted, and beautifully played by the orchestra. As for the concertos, I've posted the Leon Fleisher/George Szell #1 in another thread; for #2 I like Emil Gilels/Fritz Reiner; Nathan Milstein/William Steinberg for the violin concerto; and no clear choice for the double concerto, though I like Isaac Stern/Leonard Rose/Bruno Walter.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Sun Jun 19, 2016 1:20 pm

As for the concertos, I had to re-listen to several recordings before I could announce a favorite, and I still can't make up my mind. For the piano concerti, the choice is between Fleisher/Szell and Van Cliburn/Reiner in I, and Richter/Chicago/Leinsdorf and Fleisher in II, and no contest with Heifetz in the Violin Concerto.

Peter Serkin/Atlanta/Shaw comes in a close second with both piano concerti: why his recordings are so controversial, I find puzzling. Shaw is an able accompanist, and Serkin is more than up to the demands of both works.

I have the Gilels II and it's also excellent.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Jun 19, 2016 1:30 pm

I was introduced to the Brahms symphonies by the recordings of Bruno Walter. They still seem to me of the highest quality.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by slofstra » Sun Jun 19, 2016 2:09 pm

John F wrote:There are hundreds if not thousands of recordings of the Brahms symphonies, and I haven't listened to most of them. The ones I come back to were made by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950s - well paced (not too slow), judiciously weighted, and beautifully played by the orchestra. As for the concertos, I've posted the Leon Fleisher/George Szell #1 in another thread; for #2 I like Emil Gilels/Fritz Reiner; Nathan Milstein/William Steinberg for the violin concerto; and no clear choice for the double concerto, though I like Isaac Stern/Leonard Rose/Bruno Walter.
I'm pretty fond of the Klemperer/ Philharmonia Beethoven symphony set, which also includes the concertoes with Barenboim. The 9th is a disappointment and you'd think it would be good, but it's not. Anyway, I should look into the Brahms given your comments.
I didn't really focus on the Brahms concertoes in my comments above, of which I have many recordings. At one point I did try to suss out my favourite Second which turned out to be Richter/ Leinsdorf/ CSO with Ax/ Haitink/ BSO not far behind.
I haven't really taken to Milstein in general, which perhaps only mean I need to listen more.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by slofstra » Sun Jun 19, 2016 2:11 pm

maestrob wrote:As for the concertos, I had to re-listen to several recordings before I could announce a favorite, and I still can't make up my mind. For the piano concerti, the choice is between Fleisher/Szell and Van Cliburn/Reiner in I, and Richter/Chicago/Leinsdorf and Fleisher in II, and no contest with Heifetz in the Violin Concerto.

Peter Serkin/Atlanta/Shaw comes in a close second with both piano concerti: why his recordings are so controversial, I find puzzling. Shaw is an able accompanist, and Serkin is more than up to the demands of both works.

I have the Gilels II and it's also excellent.
I have also come to Heifetz lately, purchasing a number of recordings in the last couple of years. I had the idea that his recordings weren't in good sound ... but I was very wrong about that. The Heifetz 'Living Stereo' recordings sound incredible.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by slofstra » Sun Jun 19, 2016 2:17 pm

maestrob wrote:The Brahms I reach for most often is Solti/Chicago, to be honest. Solti's pacing is just right: disciplined with room to breath. As for muddied up, my target would be HVK's Brahms symphonies: they sound under-rehearsed as though they were dashed off just to make money without accompanying concerts.

Just now listening to Jaap van Zweden's excellent cycle with the Netherlands Radio, very fine.

I don't have the Haitink, so I cannot comment on it.
I have come to love recordings of the CSO, whether under Martinon or Reiner. And for some reason I don't have anything with Solti and the CSO, probably because that stuff hasn't hit the bargain boxes. The prospect of the CSO playing Brahms is indeed a tantalizing one. I bet it'll be a bit brassier than the RCO, not meant in a negative way at all.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Sun Jun 19, 2016 5:01 pm

My parents had the earlier Heifetz recording of the violin concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't have it and have pretty much forgotten it. However, I've just been listening to the stereo version with Fritz Reiner and it still strikes me as superficial, from the violin's very first entry. Similarly the Heifetz/Feuermann recording of the double concerto, which my parents also had; beautifully played but hurried and cold.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Sun Jun 19, 2016 11:55 pm

John F wrote:My parents had the earlier Heifetz recording of the violin concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't have it and have pretty much forgotten it. However, I've just been listening to the stereo version with Fritz Reiner and it still strikes me as superficial, from the violin's very first entry. Similarly the Heifetz/Feuermann recording of the double concerto, which my parents also had; beautifully played but hurried and cold.
The Double Concerto you mentioned is indeed rushed and cold: we agree. However, Heifetz made a stereo recording of the violin concerto which I think is quite beautiful, with Reiner/Chicago. I simply can't imagine Reiner doing anything superficial.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Mon Jun 20, 2016 1:51 am

It's not Reiner but Heifetz's playing that I think is unworthy of the concerto, starting with his very first solo. Brahms has the violin announce its presence with a large-scale, rhetorical cadenza; Heifetz's playing is non-rhetorical, I'd say anti-rhetorical, and far from large scale it's hurried and cramped. YouTube has another Heifetz performance, this one with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, and he plays that cadenza in exactly the same way, so it can't be blamed on Reiner.



For a recording that delivers the cadenza with the large-scale rhetorical variety I think the nature of the music calls for, here's Fritz Kreisler in 1927. Leo Blech and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra are no match for Reiner and Chicago, of course, but at least they're on the same wave length as Kreisler.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by barney » Mon Jun 20, 2016 10:36 am

John F wrote:My parents had the earlier Heifetz recording of the violin concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't have it and have pretty much forgotten it. However, I've just been listening to the stereo version with Fritz Reiner and it still strikes me as superficial, from the violin's very first entry. Similarly the Heifetz/Feuermann recording of the double concerto, which my parents also had; beautifully played but hurried and cold.
Yes, I very much agree. I think Heifetz' Sibelius is the most exciting I've ever heard, and he is obviously a superlative violinist, but depth is missing in the Brahms.
I don't think I could nominate a favourite for the symphonies or piano concertos.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Mon Jun 20, 2016 11:47 am

I second the motion on Heifetz's Sibelius, both recordings. And his heart was in the right place, as he also played chamber music and recorded quite a lot of it with various partners. Another recording in the family collection was the Schubert trio in B flat with Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Feuermann, and I still like it, though not the best of all the recordings and performances I've heard.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by slofstra » Mon Jun 20, 2016 12:17 pm

barney wrote:
John F wrote:My parents had the earlier Heifetz recording of the violin concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't have it and have pretty much forgotten it. However, I've just been listening to the stereo version with Fritz Reiner and it still strikes me as superficial, from the violin's very first entry. Similarly the Heifetz/Feuermann recording of the double concerto, which my parents also had; beautifully played but hurried and cold.
Yes, I very much agree. I think Heifetz' Sibelius is the most exciting I've ever heard, and he is obviously a superlative violinist, but depth is missing in the Brahms.
I don't think I could nominate a favourite for the symphonies or piano concertos.
The sound quality on this SACD re-release is incredible, as is the performance.

Image

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Mon Jun 20, 2016 12:48 pm

barney wrote:
John F wrote:My parents had the earlier Heifetz recording of the violin concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; I don't have it and have pretty much forgotten it. However, I've just been listening to the stereo version with Fritz Reiner and it still strikes me as superficial, from the violin's very first entry. Similarly the Heifetz/Feuermann recording of the double concerto, which my parents also had; beautifully played but hurried and cold.
Yes, I very much agree. I think Heifetz' Sibelius is the most exciting I've ever heard, and he is obviously a superlative violinist, but depth is missing in the Brahms.
I don't think I could nominate a favourite for the symphonies or piano concertos.
De gustibus and so on........

Heifetz's Sibelius is very good, indeed, yet in that piece I prefer Oistrakh's stereo recording from Russia, released here on Mobile Fidelity some decades back, along with the Khachaturian. I still find much beauty and depth of feeling in Heifetz's Brahms, perhaps because it was my introduction to the piece as a lad. My Russian doorman has a son-in-law who plays 3rd fiddle in Boston, and is Concertmaster for the Seattle Symphony (his lovely wife plays further back in the first violin section), and he prefers the Heifetz/Chicago reading, so I know I'm in good company. :)

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by Wallingford » Mon Jun 20, 2016 3:52 pm

I'm not much of a Marriner fan, but he surprisingly does well by the Brahms Symphonies.

I'm a great fan of Ormandy, and it's heartening to know he had fine flair for the composer--particularly his second recording of the First. My very favorite Piano Concerto #2 is the third one he collaborated with Serkin on (the stereo disc).

My all-time favorite of the First Concerto is Rubinstein/Reiner.

But as for complete sets of the Symphonies, I think Weingartner nailed them as well as anybody--flawlessly timed & paced, rather atypical for the Austro-German tradition and all the better for it.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Mon Jun 20, 2016 5:02 pm

maestrob wrote:I still find much beauty and depth of feeling in Heifetz's Brahms, perhaps because it was my introduction to the piece as a lad. My Russian doorman has a son-in-law who plays 3rd fiddle in Boston, and is Concertmaster for the Seattle Symphony (his lovely wife plays further back in the first violin section), and he prefers the Heifetz/Chicago reading, so I know I'm in good company.
I'm sure you have plenty of company!

There's a question that's often on my mind, and I hope you won't take it amiss. The professional musicians I know - not very many of them - seem to respond to others' performances differently than non-playing listeners like me. They are often more impressed by a violinist's or pianist's technical capabilities, less so by nuances of musical interpretation and expression or even major issues. For me and many of my friends, who have no practical knowledge of what's really difficult or merely sounds difficult, our focus is largely on interpretive conceptions and details, and we forgive or perhaps don't even notice the odd technical shortcoming. So a Heifetz or Feuermann who can do just about anything with apparent ease is appreciated more by string players than by listeners, including critics. Does this agree with what you've observed in your colleagues, or maybe not?
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Wed Jun 22, 2016 2:11 pm

Hi, John.

My colleagues are people who admired a combination of Toscanini's accuracy along with the sound world of Ormandy/Stokowski. My judging panel had differing tastes when it came to voice types: some preferred lighter voices, others more dramatic sounds. That made for interesting voting! As for conducting style, we were appreciative of those conductors who used batons, because they're easier to read in most cases, although there were complaints about Schippers and Solti: even though they made great music, some said they were difficult to follow, and needed more rehearsal time to "put it together."

One of my pianists was an assistant conductor for Gergiev before she emigrated to the U. S. (sponsored by Igor Kipnis: she trained in Leningrad), and she was very critical of his style. My own opinion is that without his friendship with Putin and the financial support he was thus able to generate for the Kirov, his career would not have been possible.

As for technique vs. content, we mostly agreed that emotional content was only successfully conveyed when technical discipline was maintained: the basis for great music-making was first getting the notes right, then the architecture would fall into place. Faster did NOT mean more exciting, and slower did not mean more profound. IOW, the score itself is the map, not the territory, even for XXth century music. Try following Copland's Tender Land and comparing the indicated tempi in the score with how Copland actually led the music in his recording.

Tempo markings in Verdi's "Caro nome..." for instance, are rarely observed: it's usually sung much slower than indicated by mature voices, so the singer can show off a long line, which is absolutely Verdi's intention. He wrote tempi so that young voices in the studio could master the piece (esp. the difficult trill at the end), and as their voices matured, they could then stretch the writing to a slower pace to match their growing capabilities. This is why young singers should not try to sing to recordings when learning repertoire: it can be very discouraging. What's better is to find a good coach who will play at a tempo that fits the singer's younger capabilities.

We were taught at Juilliard to conduct slightly ahead of a singer's or an orchestra's ability to play a line: never too slow and certainly not too fast. There is a sweet spot that allows the performer(s) to convey the emotional content and fulfill the notes at the same time. Interestingly enough this was the consensus of my colleagues, perhaps because those who didn't agree faded from view. I watched La Selva quietly send one or two young people in the class back to the financial office to get a refund if they disagreed with his musical ideas. I, too, developed a similar technique for the occasional rebellious or ill-prepared singer.

Hope that answers your question. :)

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Wed Jun 22, 2016 7:39 pm

Thanks for the very interesting comments. In a way, they seem to confirm what I suggested. You say, "emotional content was only successfully conveyed when technical discipline was maintained: the basis for great music-making was first getting the notes right, then the architecture would fall into place." But music's "emotional content" does not equate to its "architecture," any more than the emotional content of a Shakespeare sonnet equates to his use of sonnet form, and "getting the notes right" seems to imply that interpretive nuance such as an unmarked tempo change is getting the notes wrong. Please correct me if I've misunderstood you.

Here's a specific case to make my point clearer. We have no recording of Brahms's performances of his symphonies, but we can get at his preferences in two ways. First, there's his response to others' performances. Walter Frisch's fine book on the symphonies includes a chapter on their performance history, in which he writes,
Walter Frisch wrote:What many commentators admired as straightforward professionalism in [Hans] Richter, others, including Brahms, vilified as dullness and lack of inspiration. Stanford recalled in 1922 that when Richter led a performance of the First Symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, "so metronomic was [the slow movement] that Brahms, who was listening in a box with a friend, suddenly seized him by the shoulder and said, 'Heraus!', hurrying him away."
Brahms preferred von Bülow's approach with considerable elasticity of tempo, though he thought von Bülow sometimes went too far.

Second, it turns out we do have something like Brahms's own performances to listen to, though twice removed, in the interpretations of the conductor Fritz Steinbach.
Walter Frisch wrote:Kalbeck reports that Steinbach actually took Brahms himself as his "model" (Vorbild) for conducting and that his performances were highly regarded by the composer. In 1933 Blume, who had been a pupil of Steinbach's in 1914-15, transcribed and published the markings from Steinbach's scores.
Those markings are full of tempo changes and other interpretive ideas not "mapped" in Brahms's scores. We can't assume that Steinbach slavishly reproduced all of Brahms's interpretive ideas in his own performances - most likely he did not, and he probably added some of his own - but this makes clear that Steinbach's performances were consciously and deliberately in the Brahmsian manner.

Steinbach made no recordings, but there is a recording of all the symphonies incorporating many though not all of his markings, by Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Telarc. None of it is on YouTube, but if you're curious, you can get it from amazon.com very cheap. (The notes observe that while Brahms provided metronome marks at first, he then removed them, because he said they only applied to the opening bars.)

There's no one way to perform this or any other music. I'm not saying that the approach of Toscanini and the other score-bound literalists who dominate present-day musical life is wrong, though Brahms might have walked out of his performances as he did with Richter. Nor am I saying that Furtwängler - the closest approach to Steinbach/Brahms on record other than Mackerras - is definitive. What I am saying is that those who would dismiss Romantic freedom in favor of Modernist strictness don't have the composer on their side.

I believe you are mistaken in what you say about Verdi's tempo marking for "Caro nome." He never showed any interest in the development of young singers; he had strong preferences in the casting of his premieres and made them known to the impresarios. For the premiere of "Rigoletto" he wanted Teresa di Giuli, who was 34 and had sung in "La Battaglia di Legnano" two years previously. When she wasn't available he accepted Teresa Brambilla, who had been singing leading roles professionally for 20 years. The score I'm looking at gives a metronome mark for "Caro nome" of quarter = 76 for allegro moderato, which is not slow. If Verdi had wanted a slower tempo, he would surely have asked for it in the published score which took "Rigoletto" around the world; likewise the concluding high note that many prima donnas interpolate in place of Verdi's trill.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Thu Jun 23, 2016 1:47 pm

John F wrote:Thanks for the very interesting comments. In a way, they seem to confirm what I suggested. You say, "emotional content was only successfully conveyed when technical discipline was maintained: the basis for great music-making was first getting the notes right, then the architecture would fall into place." But music's "emotional content" does not equate to its "architecture," any more than the emotional content of a Shakespeare sonnet equates to his use of sonnet form, and "getting the notes right" seems to imply that interpretive nuance such as an unmarked tempo change is getting the notes wrong. Please correct me if I've misunderstood you.

I do think you have misunderstood me here. Copland himself did not follow his own tempo markings in his recording of The Tender Land. I agree with what Copland did, because it is effective music-making. Also, I believe that following the score WITH INTERPRETATION is the path to effective music-making. That includes tasteful rubati and tempo shifts within a musical idea (Listen to Bernstein's NY recording of the last movement of Shostakovich VII: there is a distinctive tempo shift half-way through the finale that's very effective.). Certainly Toscanini took a minimalist approach, yet if one studies his recordings, one can find some flexibility: maybe not enough for your taste, but it's there.

Here's a specific case to make my point clearer. We have no recording of Brahms's performances of his symphonies, but we can get at his preferences in two ways. First, there's his response to others' performances. Walter Frisch's fine book on the symphonies includes a chapter on their performance history, in which he writes,
Walter Frisch wrote:What many commentators admired as straightforward professionalism in [Hans] Richter, others, including Brahms, vilified as dullness and lack of inspiration. Stanford recalled in 1922 that when Richter led a performance of the First Symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, "so metronomic was [the slow movement] that Brahms, who was listening in a box with a friend, suddenly seized him by the shoulder and said, 'Heraus!', hurrying him away."
Brahms preferred von Bülow's approach with considerable elasticity of tempo, though he thought von Bülow sometimes went too far.

Second, it turns out we do have something like Brahms's own performances to listen to, though twice removed, in the interpretations of the conductor Fritz Steinbach.
Walter Frisch wrote:Kalbeck reports that Steinbach actually took Brahms himself as his "model" (Vorbild) for conducting and that his performances were highly regarded by the composer. In 1933 Blume, who had been a pupil of Steinbach's in 1914-15, transcribed and published the markings from Steinbach's scores.
Those markings are full of tempo changes and other interpretive ideas not "mapped" in Brahms's scores. We can't assume that Steinbach slavishly reproduced all of Brahms's interpretive ideas in his own performances - most likely he did not, and he probably added some of his own - but this makes clear that Steinbach's performances were consciously and deliberately in the Brahmsian manner.

Steinbach made no recordings, but there is a recording of all the symphonies incorporating many though not all of his markings, by Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Telarc. None of it is on YouTube, but if you're curious, you can get it from amazon.com very cheap. (The notes observe that while Brahms provided metronome marks at first, he then removed them, because he said they only applied to the opening bars.)

There's no one way to perform this or any other music. I'm not saying that the approach of Toscanini and the other score-bound literalists who dominate present-day musical life is wrong, though Brahms might have walked out of his performances as he did with Richter. Nor am I saying that Furtwängler - the closest approach to Steinbach/Brahms on record other than Mackerras - is definitive. What I am saying is that those who would dismiss Romantic freedom in favor of Modernist strictness don't have the composer on their side.

I have the Mackerras recordings of the Brahms Symphonies and find them puzzling with odd ideas here and there. The Scottish orchestra is no match for Solti's Chicago, which is the set I prefer. Of course there is no one way to interpret music, that's a given before we even started this discussion. Yet there are extremes that I don't care for. Chailly's recent popular release of Brahms's four symphonies is a case in point: to my ears it is so strict and mechanical it's like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa in a paint-by-numbers kit, and thus the interpretation fails utterly.

I believe you are mistaken in what you say about Verdi's tempo marking for "Caro nome." He never showed any interest in the development of young singers; he had strong preferences in the casting of his premieres and made them known to the impresarios. For the premiere of "Rigoletto" he wanted Teresa di Giuli, who was 34 and had sung in "La Battaglia di Legnano" two years previously. When she wasn't available he accepted Teresa Brambilla, who had been singing leading roles professionally for 20 years. The score I'm looking at gives a metronome mark for "Caro nome" of quarter = 76 for allegro moderato, which is not slow. If Verdi had wanted a slower tempo, he would surely have asked for it in the published score which took "Rigoletto" around the world; likewise the concluding high note that many prima donnas interpolate in place of Verdi's trill.
The tempo markings in my Schirmer score of Caro nome..... are in parenthesis, indicating to me that they were the editor's markings, not Verdi's. In working with several young singers, I found that they were able to sing the piece at the tempi marked, only more mature voices were able to sing it more slowly. I'm just reporting results, I should make no assumption about Verdi's interest in young singers Perhaps it was an intelligent editor's brainstorm to sell more copies. Who knows??.

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by barney » Thu Jun 23, 2016 10:47 pm

Fascinating discussion filled with information I didn't know. thanks Brian and John.
Don't stop now!

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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Fri Jun 24, 2016 11:04 am

Thanks for helping me sort this out. When you wrote, "Tempo markings in Verdi's 'Caro nome...' for instance, are rarely observed: it's usually sung much slower than indicated by mature voices, so the singer can show off a long line, which is absolutely Verdi's intention," I misread you as saying that the slower tempo was Verdi's intention, but I see you mean that the long line was his intention. Sorry!

To me, a musical line is essentially about phrasing, not tempo. A slow tempo might force a singer to break a long line in order to breathe, and not just a singer but a woodwind or brass player; if the musician has the breath control to sustain the line at a slow tempo, that can produce a fine effect, but if not, then the conductor needs to adopt a more manageable tempo or else sacrifice the line. (I'm in your territory here, and you know much more about this than I do.)

Apropos, one of Herbert von Karajan's tricks when he had it in for a singer was to take a slower tempo than rehearsed so the singer would repeatedly run out of breath, which would make her/him look bad to the audience. As Karajan's tempos were usually on the slow side anyway, the singer might be the only person in the house other than Karajan who knew what he was doing. For the most part, Karajan was expert at enabling singers to do their best, but you definitely didn't want to get on his wrong side.
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by maestrob » Fri Jun 24, 2016 11:59 am

John F wrote:Thanks for helping me sort this out. When you wrote, "Tempo markings in Verdi's 'Caro nome...' for instance, are rarely observed: it's usually sung much slower than indicated by mature voices, so the singer can show off a long line, which is absolutely Verdi's intention," I misread you as saying that the slower tempo was Verdi's intention, but I see you mean that the long line was his intention. Sorry!

To me, a musical line is essentially about phrasing, not tempo. A slow tempo might force a singer to break a long line in order to breathe, and not just a singer but a woodwind or brass player; if the musician has the breath control to sustain the line at a slow tempo, that can produce a fine effect, but if not, then the conductor needs to adopt a more manageable tempo or else sacrifice the line. (I'm in your territory here, and you know much more about this than I do.)

My point here is that a good conductor knows (in a slow passage) how to balance a singer's or player's capabilities so that the performer is comfortable singing (or playing) as long a line as possible without running out of breath. Conversely, in a fast passage, the balancing act is to go as fast as possible while allowing the notes to be articulated cleanly. Reiner was an expert at these skills, and so was Bernstein when in NY; Levine is also a master at this. IMHO, this is the essence of good conducting, along with energy level and tone quality, which cannot be achieved without balancing the above.

Apropos, one of Herbert von Karajan's tricks when he had it in for a singer was to take a slower tempo than rehearsed so the singer would repeatedly run out of breath, which would make her/him look bad to the audience. As Karajan's tempos were usually on the slow side anyway, the singer might be the only person in the house other than Karajan who knew what he was doing. For the most part, Karajan was expert at enabling singers to do their best, but you definitely didn't want to get on his wrong side.
HVK was not the kindest of conductors, yet he puzzles me on some recordings. His Brahms Symphonies lack energy and discipline, as does his Pagliacci: they're just too slow for my taste, and entrances are sloppy, yet he nails Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (w/Gundula Janowitz) and the tone poems. His live Trovatore w/Price nails it, yet his Tosca does odd things to the tenor (musically speaking) during the Act I duet. Very odd. His Brahms German Requiem is also slow, but it works beautifully (again with Janowitz & van Dam).

John F
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Re: Best of Brahms

Post by John F » Fri Jun 24, 2016 2:50 pm

I didn't hear many of Karajan's performances in person, but my impression is that they generally had more vitality than his later studio recordings, which often strike me as too calculated and overrefined. Back in the 1960s this wasn't so, and friends who heard some of his Berlin Philharmonic performances in the last years were impressed by the alertness and spontaneity of the playing.
John Francis

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