Thursday, August 12, 2010


Alex Ross nominates a performance of Wilhelm Furtwängler's Piano Quintet as the worst recording ever made, and offers a clip as evidence. "The work is an immensely earnest mishmash of Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, and Reger, full of unmemorable ideas developed at unrelenting length" also describes the worst work I have ever heard performed by a professional ensemble, Amy Beach's Piano Quintet. Perhaps almost no one can write a decent piano quintet, but the several minutes I've heard of Beach's piano concerto are no better.

That said, the worst recording in my personal collection is very likely Lorin Maazel's Tosca. I had to take it off somewhere in Act I. Honestly, is there another recording with two artists so badly miscast as Birgit Nilsson (Tosca) and Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau (Scarpia) are on this??

Conrad L. Osborne loves this recording, claiming that Nilsson gives the best purely vocal performance on record as the Italian diva, but he is just plain wrong. I don't give a damn whether she sings every note with perfect accuracy. She is completely at sea stylistically, her legato is nonexistent, and she sounds like she should be singing Isolde or Elektra. Oh, wait.....


Joe Barron said...

The other morning, while I was driving to work, I heard part of a long, pointless symphony on the radio. It sounded like an old recording -- I guessed something from the 1940s. Didn't hear the end of it, but I looked it up on the station's website. It turned out to be a symphony of Furwangler's, recorded, with the composer conducting, in 1951. (There probably isn't a more recent recording. I can't imagine anyone else would want to touch it.) If the piano quintet was anything like the symphony, I can understand Ross's distaste. I do disagree with you about Piano Quintets, though: there are several good ones, by Schumann, Brahms (wow), Carter and Wuorinen, to name some. Then again, those are the only ones I can name, so maybe you have a point. Four composers would qualify as virtually nobody. Didn't Mozart write one, and wasn't it an arrangement of one of his concertos?

Henry Holland said...

Yes, that Tosca is all wrong, but it has two things going for it: Franco Corelli, in general and during "E lucevan le stelle" in particular and the final high Bb on "Scarpia! Avanti e dio!" is one of the most thrilling sounds I've ever heard on records.

My nomination would be a disc of music by (the better known as a conductor...hmmm...a trend?) Igor Markevtich, on the Marco Polo label with the pieces,

Le nouvel âge, Sinfonietta in Cinéma-ouverture

Bone dry Boulanger school counterpoint and harmony, not a hint of lushness to found, no catchy tunes and done by an orchestra that sounds like its sightreading the piece (probably not far from the truth).

Lisa Hirsch said...

Joe, the piano quintet line was a joke - my feeble attempt to make a connection between the dreadful Furt. and Beach pieces.

Thanks, Harry!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Er...HENRY. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Good piano quintet: Sergei Taneyev.

Dubious piece (though Gerald Moore admired it): Arthur Bliss piano concerto. But is it the worst ever? In Billy Wilder's movie "One, Two, Three" a shocked young idealist asks despairingly "Is everybody corrupt?" The thoroughly corrupt guy he's talking to answers, in a reasonable tone, "I don't know everybody."

Lisa Hirsch said...

You know, I'm pretty sure that I've heard Bliss's piano concerto, in NYC at an ASO concert in 2006....and here's the evidence, a Times review by Anne Midgette of the program I attended.

I agree with her assessment; a fascinating program, not-great conducting, good players.

I've since heard Yan Pascal Tortellier conduct a tremendous RVW Fourth, at SFS.

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. I have a CD of piano quintets by Franz Berwald. They are eh.

Joe Barron said...

Oh, and Dvorak. Dvorak wrote a good one.

You know, I've been thinking about it, and I don't have a candidate for worst recording in my collection. I usually have a reason for getting the things I get, and if I buy something blind and don't like it, I usually get rid of it. Grand Pianola Music comes to mind, and I took the needle off Claude Bolling's Jazz Suite after about six seconds.

Anonymous said...

My nominations for worst symphonies:

Khachaturian's Third. The first two are overlong and full of hot air. The Third is very short, but it packs more sheer Soviet emptiness into the smallest possible space than anything else I know.

Tchaikovsky's Manfred. Yes, I know there are people who love it. It's unspeakably dreadful.