There's little competition for the best recordings of Bruch's symphonies, but what competition there is is stiff, very, very stiff. On one side, there are Kurt Masur's opulent accounts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester from the late '80s, on the other, there are James Conlon's urgent readings with the Gurzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker from the mid-'90s. And yet Michael Halász and the Staatskapelle Weimar have found a way to top them both by delivering performances of surpassing warmth and beauty that still have unstoppable drive and momentum in this 2008 recording of Bruch's First and Second symphonies. One is reminded here and there of the composer of the famous violin concertos, but for the most part, Halász turns in performances of such conviction and authority that it makes one think Bruch's reputation as a symphonist has been seriously underestimated for the past century and a half. Captured in clear, colorful digital sound, this disc deserves to be heard by all fans of 19th century German symphonic music.
Wolfgang Rihm (born in 1952) is one of the most important European composers of the late twentieth to early twenty first centuries, but his work is little known in America. He is famous for his productivity; before his 50th birthday, he had written over 400 pieces. The four concertos recorded here are similar in their manic energy, offering few moments of repose. The expressive directions for Music for oboe and orchestra include the instructions "as if overwound," "wild and funny," and "frantic," and those phrases aptly describe the effect of his work. Rihm is an unabashed modernist, and the surface of his music may be too prickly for some listeners, but it's deeply expressive, and at times very funny, such as at the end of the oboe concerto.
Faded old-world flowers adorn both sides of the cover with a big strip of black grease disturbing the lovely imagery on the back. Beginning with Arthur Crudup's "My Baby Left Me," like that other band of famous backup players, the Section, how can this be anything but very musical? Guitarist/vocalist Henry McCullough's "Mistake No Doubt" has eerie backing vocals and is suitably well done, as is his "Let It Be Gone," and though this is far from commercial, it is important to have this document of the guys who made magic behind Joe Cocker in 1969 and Marianne Faithfull in the mid-'70s. This came right in the middle, and the Grease Band's collaborative effort, "Jesse James," could be mistaken for Doug Yule singing Lou Reed's "Train Comin' Round the Bend." It's got that chug-a-lug subdued rock sound. With Henry McCullough's Wings connection, The Grease Band gets a touch of the Beatles' guilt-by-association mystique. As intriguing and wonderful as this album is, had Joe Cocker guested on bassist Alan Spenner's "Down Home Mama" or had Marianne Faithfull taken on the traditional "To the Lord," there would have been that something extra, that intangible that makes records so very special.