TRANSFIGURATION

Berlin Phiharmonic Orchestra
The MET Orchestra*
James Levine (conductor)
Siegfried Idyll (Wagner), Verklaerte Nacht (Schoenberg),
opus 6 (Alban Berg), Six Pieces, opus 6 (Webern), Five Pieces, opus 16 (Schoenberg)`

DG 469 804-2 (2-CD)
TPT: 2:38:00

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Perhaps it is only those who can recall the days before the invention of the long playing record who can fully appreciate the miracle of the compact disc.

How very different expectations were in pre-LP days when a playing duration of 5 or 6 minutes was considered good value from a 12″, 78rpm shellac record.

Even the shortest work included in this compilation would have needed a good many shellac records to be heard in its entirety. Blissfully here, we’re able to listen to it without the sort of interruptions that were par for the course in the days of the 78s.

A vivid childhood memory is of my father stacking four or five or even more records on the turntable’s central spindle and how at intervals one after another of the records would crash down on the revolving turntable.

But if, say, side two was on the reverse side of record one, the stacking method was not possible and it would be necessary to manually lift the record after side one had been played, flip it over and replace it on the turntable . That this cumbersome arrangement was accepted for the most part uncomplainingly, now almost beggars belief.

Then, in 1948, came the long playing record which was a quantum leap forward, once again revolutionising t he way we listened to recorded music. This, many believed, was a breakthrough that would never be surpassed. It was looked on as the ultimate achievement in uninterrupted listening – and, at the time, there was nothing better available. Unquestionably, the 33 and one third rpm LP was a huge improvement on what had gone before. And the prospect of listening to twenty minutes or more of completely uninterrupted music was greeted with hosannas as a near-miraculous advance in technology.

(How many, I wonder, can recall that other, short-lived development, an LP running at 16 and two thirds rpm that made a sensational but brief appearance before being quietly dropped by its manufacturers.)

Some years later, it was the turn of the sound cassette, that ,too, heralded as THE breakthrough to take the world by storm. Yet again , it was considered a development of such significance that it would forever remain the standard by which all other recording processes would be measured . Wrong again. The CD, superseding all that had gone before, was, predictably, greeted with waving palm fronds and a mad rush to buy the new technology .

Right now, there are those declaring this to be the ultimate in recording technology, an achievement that can never be matched. Really? History teaches otherwise; the compact disc , for all its many attributes, may yet turn out to be just another way- station on the journey to ever better recording techniques.

For the present, the CD unquestionably provides listeners with longer uninterrupted stretches of music than ever before – and, more often than not, beautifully recorded without the crackles, hiss and pop that were the inevitable accompaniment to music played on shellac recordings.

Compilers such as the indefatigable Cyrus Meher-Homji have done wonders in exploiting the potential of the CD to advantage, bringing landmark recordings in formats that are as competitive price-wise as they are qualitatively excellent.

The Transfiguration compilation is a case in point, more than two and a half hours of some of James Levine’s most accomplished interpretations. Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklarung is a frankly marvellous reading, a particularly fine instance of Levine’s great gift for allowing the music to speak for itself. Here, as ever, Levine is scrupulous in avoid ing the temptation to interpose himself between the music and the listener, so allowing the work , as it were, to speak for itself.

Trademark fastidious attention to the minutiae of performance Without losing sight of the overall design of whatever work Levine happens to be directing, makes this CD a joy from start to finish..

The Strauss tone poem is played by New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with which Levine has had a long and distinguished association. All the other works are presented by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from which Levine coaxes readings at stellar levels.

His account of Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht borders on the sublime. This is a performance to savour with its perfectly evoked atmosphere of anguished despair that informs so much of the writing. Levine’s touch is faultless, too, in the extended episode that describes acceptance by the male protagonist of his partner’s pregnancy by another. And the compassionate tenderness the BPO and Levine convey is a stunning achievement. The CD is worth having if only for this exquisite interpretation .

There’s more splendour in Berg’s Three Pieces, opus 6 with Levine providing yet another moodfest. This is some of Berg’s most imaginative writing. Certainly, Levine and the BPO respond splendidly to the opening movement, with its eerie murmurs suggestive of desolation and fear. And the concluding movement calls to mind a procession of tortured phantoms.

In less than expert hands, Berg’s work can so easily sound meandering and terminally tedious. Here, every subtle nuance is captured in a way that would surely have brought approving nods from Berg himself had the shade of the great composer hovered over the proceedings.

There’s magic, too, in Levine’s direction of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll , the tenderness that informs so much of the writing evoked to the nth degree.

This CD is a celebration of excellence. Highly recommended.

© December 2003


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