Classical fans might want to study before fall

Critical Eye

August 13, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

WITH THE START OF THE classical music season only a few, sweltering weeks away, it's a great time to prepare for the sounds in store. I'm not talking hard work, though. Just a little summer school for the ears.

Although lots of the 2006-2007 repertoire may be familiar and comfortable, there's also a fair amount that is bound to be new -- and possibly intimidating -- for many listeners. Getting over the hurdle in advance, rather than winging it at performance time, can mean the difference between boredom (or grouchiness) and an arresting, maybe even life-changing experience.

Here's just a sampling of the unusual (for this area) and potentially challenging musical adventures on the horizon, along with recommendations for recordings and reading material. Spending a few hours now delving into these pieces should help you arrive at concert halls and opera houses next season not just prepared, but totally psyched.

Symphonic

At least four symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich are scheduled in the Baltimore / Washington area, including two that aren't performed very often.

Having fallen out of favor with Soviet authorities unhappy about his modernist style, the composer kept Symphony No. 4 under wraps for 25 years. It's a tough, uncompromising piece, with many arresting, often Mahler-like elements. Hajime Teri Murai conducts the piece with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in October.

To get more familiar with this remarkable work, try the vivid recordings by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony Classical), Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI) or Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra (Philips).

You can hear Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra live when they visit Washington in October to perform another of the rarer Shostakovich symphonies -- No. 11, a gripping, nearly cinematic depiction of the tragic October Revolution of 1905 in St. Petersburg.

The most startlingly individualistic interpretation of this work is the one conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich with the National Symphony Orchestra (Teldec). Just the way he lets the bell ring on and on at the very end, like a defiant plea for freedom -- as far as I know, no other conductor has ever thought of doing this -- is enough to make the recording a standout. A sturdy alternate: Jansons and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI).

Suggested reading: Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel E. Fay (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Gustav Mahler, whose music inspired Shostakovich in many ways, turns up almost every season, but his Symphony No. 7 and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) rarely appear.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director emeritus Yuri Temirkanov will offer Kindertotenlieder with mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby in the season-opener at the end of September (the Mahler work takes the place of originally scheduled pieces by Prokofiev and Sviradov). Murai and the Peabody Symphony will perform the Seventh in February.

The combination of touching poems by Friedrich Ruckert and Mahler's equally touching, subtly orchestrated music make Kindertotenlieder one of the great works in the repertoire -- and, as recent events near and far make all too plain, one of the most continually relevant.

Top recordings: baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with conductor Rudolf Kempe and Berlin Philhamronic (EMI); mezzo Janet Baker with John Barbirolli and Halle Orchestra (EMI).

Mahler's Seventh doesn't get as much respect as his other symphonies, but this is a strikingly original piece, by turns atmospheric (two movements are called "Night Music"), satirical, weighty and lighthearted.

Persuasive performances on disc include those from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony on the orchestra's own label, and Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI).

Suggested reading: Mahler by Jonathan Carr (Overlook Press, 1998). Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies by Constantin Floros (Amadeus Press, 1993).

Anton Bruckner may never enjoy the popularity he deserves, but it's good to see that the BSO continues to make room for his symphonies every now and then. No. 7 is scheduled next May, with Gunther Herbig conducting.

The Seventh is grand in scale, yet filled with intimate, lyrical moments. The spirit of Wagner hovers over the score -- the slow movement is a eulogy to that composer -- but the soul is pure, uplifting Bruckner.

On disc, you can't get much better than Herbert von Karajan's eloquent account with the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) -- his final recording. If you don't mind dated sound, consider the spirituality and warmth of Wilhelm Furtwangler's 1949 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (various labels).

Suggested reading: Bruckner by Derek Watson (Oxford University Press, 2001). Bruckner's Symphonies by Julian Horton (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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