Klaus Tennstedt, Vol. LV;  Grant Johannesen  -  Cleveland  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1364)
Item# C2007
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Klaus Tennstedt, Vol. LV;  Grant Johannesen  -  Cleveland  (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1364)
C2007. KLAUS TENNSTEDT Cond. Cleveland Orch.: Symphony #8 in F (Beethoven); 'New World' Symphony #9 in e (Dvorák); w.GRANT JOHANNESEN: Piano Concerto #3 in E (Bartók). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1364, Live Performance, 20 Dec., 1979, Severance Hall. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“The collector’s search for the next outstanding recording by Klaus Tennstedt has led to this new addition, made all the more exciting because it brings a major work by Bartók, whose appearance in Tennstedt’s discography is close to the vanishing point.

Tennstedt was as much a traditionalist as any conductor who rose up through the Kapellmeister system, the only difference being that he was a great example. In hindsight this makes all the difference, of course, if you are attuned to hearing the standard repertoire performed with a spark of inspiration. How a conductor crosses the line that separates talent from inspiration is unfathomable, but I recall, when I was first exploring Tennstedt’s commercial recordings, how he transformed Dvorák’s ‘New World’ Symphony from a thrice-familiar staple into something fresh and surprising, giving it unexpected new vitality.

That recording was an early digital studio release on EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1984. It was followed years later by the release of a live radio broadcast at the Philharmonie from March 1984, presumably the concert that preceded the studio sessions. Now we get another live performance with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1979. At 38 minutes it is four minutes faster than the two Berlin accounts, but the important question is whether Tennstedt was ‘on’ that day.

Undeniably yes - this ‘New World’ feels alive and vibrant. It might not display some of the tensile excitement that the first movement has in Berlin, but such differences are what makes Tennstedt fascinating. The Largo, which despite its famous melody is hard to bring off without beginning to sag, is poetry in motion here.

The distinctiveness of the solo English horn, but also all the other first-desk woodwinds, is perfectly lovely. The lyrical, flowing quality of the music feels effortless in Tennstedt’s hands. He adds extra speed and tension to the moving line in the Scherzo, making it a sparkling showpiece. The way the rhythm dances is irresistible. The finale is launched as a continuation of the same urgency and immediacy. There is no letup to the very end, but Tennstedt makes room for sensitive phrase-shaping in the second theme.

Expecting a conductor as spontaneous as this one to be constantly ‘on’ is unfair, and the Beethoven Eighth that begins the concert is straightforward at first. Like Furtwängler and Karajan after him, Tennstedt hears the Eighth Symphony as bigger than we tend to today. As a result some of the lightest writing in the score can seem heavy-handed if pushed to be more important. Tennstedt avoids this pitfall through a vibrant rhythmic pulse, and he seems to warm up as the first movement unfolds, until a point of genuine excitement is reached.

The Beethoven Eighth has no slow movement, and Tennstedt’s way with the two inner movements nicely balances a large conception with buoyant rhythm and affectionate phrasing. Touches of Beethoven’s broad humor are brought out, but one must be prepared for the pesante stamping that weighs down the Minuet in the traditional style. In contrast, the Trio is a lovely example of channeling Mozart at his most lusciously melodic. The finale, although not executed with Szell’s razor-sharp precision in the strings, is filled with good humor and sunlight. By comparison Tennstedt’s commercial EMI recording with the London Philharmonic feels rather flat, even though it is faster; nor is the recorded sound as close and detailed as here.

Between the two symphonies comes the rarity for Tennstedt, Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3 with Grant Johannesen as soloist. Johannesen, born in Salt Lake City in 1921, had a major touring career that isn’t represented by his few recordings still in print.

A pupil of Robert Casadesus and Nadia Boulanger, he specialized in French music. More to the point in this appearance, Johannesen was director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1974 to 1985. His popularity with Cleveland audiences might lead one to suppose that choosing the Bartók concerto was an administrative decision, not Tennstedt’s.The engineering puts the piano far forward, to the extent that it dominates the orchestra. Tennstedt, who made successful recordings of Prokofiev and Janácek, shouldn’t have found Bartók too foreign, but on the whole this is a scrupulous performance that verges at times on cautiousness. I imagine Johannesen is following the conductor’s lead, because his playing never quite takes off. What ensues is a reading that reduces the originality and Hungarian flavor of Bartók’s writing in favor of a more conventional sense of sweeping melody, which has its own appeal. The execution by the orchestra is beautiful, and Tennstedt leads a sensitive, flowing reading of the slow movement, fully evoking the marking of Adagio religioso. The syncopation in the finale seems to make conductor and soloist disjointed, however. In short, a brave stab in which Tennstedt is not quite a fish out of water.

Producer Yves St.-Laurent has expertly remastered the original source, which isn’t specified but I presume is an FM stereo broadcast in a Sunday series from station WCLV that began in 1965. Aside from the too-prominent piano in the Bartók, the balances are natural and the overall sound full and lifelike. In the end, this is something of a specialty album for collectors, since the Beethoven and Dvorák symphonies duplicate other Tennstedt recordings. But in the case of the Beethoven Eighth, this may be Tennstedt’s best performance.”

- Huntley Dent, FANFARE

“Grant Johannesen was a sensitive player who was more interested in exploring musical byways that fascinated him than in repeating the warhorses of the repertory, and as a teacher, he advised his students to follow a similar path. That is not to say that he ignored the standard works entirely: throughout his six-decade career, his recital programs often included music by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin amid contemporary American works and French scores, and he made superb recordings of Chopin in the 1950s and of Schubert in the late 70s. Mostly, though, his focus was on the music of Fauré, Poulenc, Milhaud, Dukas and Saint-Saëns, which he played with a graceful touch and an incomparable ear for coloration and nuance.

Mr. Johannesen championed American music, too. On his first tour of the Soviet Union, in 1962, his main showpiece was Wallingford Riegger's ’Variations for Piano and Orchestra’, and he performed and recorded music by Copland, Mennin, Barber, Harris and Norman Dello Joio, as well as that of earlier American composers like Edward MacDowell and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. After a performance of Gershwin's Concerto in F that was broadcast on the radio early in his career, Mr. Johannesen received a telegram from Duke Ellington saying that Mr. Johannesen's performance was the best Gershwin playing he had heard. More recently, Mr. Johannesen performed works by Crawford Gates, and undertook a project to publish and record the works of his first wife, Helen Taylor, who died in an automobile accident in 1950.

When Robert Casadesus gave a recital in Salt Lake City in 1939, he listened to Mr. Johannesen play and invited him to study with him at Princeton. Mr. Johannesen also studied with the pianist Egon Petri and was a composition and music student of Roger Sessions in New York and of Nadia Boulanger at her conservatory at Fontainebleau, France.

Mr. Johannesen made his New York début in 1944 and undertook his first tour of Europe in 1949 as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, having made his début with the orchestra two years earlier. Also in 1949, Mr. Johannesen won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition. In the early 50's, he performed regularly on the ‘Bell Telephone Hour’ and other television and radio shows, and was at the top of his form as a recitalist.

Mr. Johannesen played frequently with the New York Philharmonic through the early 70s, but starting in the '50s devoted himself increasingly to touring South America, Europe and the Soviet Union, where he performed to great acclaim in 1962, as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965, and in 1970.

Mr. Johannesen taught for many years. As the director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1974 to 1985, he tried to persuade students to take time away from practicing to visit art museums and to rethink their ideas about musical careers. ‘It's relatively easy to impress people with technique and virtuosity, but I don't believe that's the point of making music’, he once told an interviewer. ‘Music contains ideas, and it's the responsibility of the artist to communicate those ideas’, he continued. ‘Anything less than that doesn't interest me’."

- Allan Kozinn, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 March, 2005