Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 27 April 2015

MAHLER Symphony No. 4 Manning RCS Chamber Ensemble

MAHLER (arr. Simon) Symphony No.  4
Peter Manning, cond; Heather Jamieson (sop); Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Chamber Ensemble
NIMBUS 6300 (50:27)

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This one seems to be a case of keeping up with the Joneses. In 2013, the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble released a recording of Erwin Stein and Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (Linn SKD438), part of an ongoing project to revive the repertoire of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances concerts. I haven’t heard that recording, but a later release in the series, of Bruckner’s Second Symphony, in a new arrangement by Anthony Paine (Linn CKD442, review here) proved a revelation, bringing new insights to the work and fully justifying both the arrangement itself and the recording.
Now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is getting in on the act, with a very similar release, Mahler’s Fourth in a different chamber orchestra arrangement, one by Klaus Simon from 2007. The attraction of these arrangements for music conservatoires is clear; they are ideal showcases for the cream of their student talent, and if done well provide excellent publicity for the institution.
It is not clear why Simon chose to make a further arrangement of the Fourth Symphony, given the enduring popularity of the Stein/Schoenberg version. But Simon’s too has been widely performed, and is published by Universal Edition, although this seems to be its first commercial recording. The only obvious change in instrumentation from the Stein/Schoenberg is that the earlier arrangement calls for two pianists while the newer needs only one. Despite this, the single piano part is particularly prominent in Simon’s version. It is heard clearly reinforcing the sleighbells at the start, for example, and in the coda of the first movement.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Chamber Ensemble is conducted by Peter Manning, better known as concertmaster of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, but also holder of a joint professorship at the Conservatoire and Edinburgh University. Manning uses the lighter textures of the arrangement as the basis for a fleet and agile interpretation, often faster than the norm, but never feeling rushed. The greatest benefit the arrangement brings is to highlight the many fine soloists of the ensemble. Violinist Gongbo Jiang is excellent in her every solo turn, as is horn player Enako Carroll. The soprano, Heather Jamieson, has a thin tone, not especially attractive but certainly expressive. The clarity of her diction is also impressive, making apparent how closely she ties her interpretation to the meaning of the words.
The downside of this arrangement, at least as performed here, is the thin sound of the tuttis. The string quintet often sounds threadbare and lacking in bass, especially at the more emotive climaxes. More liberal deployment of the harmonium may have helped here. Poor tuning in the string ensemble suggests that the playing may also be to blame, and textures that should be warm and euphonious are often rendered less so by wayward intonation.
It is still a decent performance, but hardly an outstanding one. The playing is serviceable, and the young instrumentalists to justice to Peter Manning’s dynamic interpretation, which emerges as the most exciting aspect of this project. If this is, in fact, the first recording of the Simon arrangement, then he and his publishers are clear beneficiaries, as are the conservatory and its players, particularly the soloists, for whom this is an excellent platform. Sadly, few benefits accrue to the composer, or to his audience, who can undoubtedly find many recordings, even of chamber orchestra arrangements, that are more exciting than this.  

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 38:6.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Raffi Besalyan: The Return

Raffi Besalyan: The Return
Works by Rachmaninov and Babajanian
Sono Luminus DSL-92187 (65:42)

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The music of Rachmaninov is clearly dear to Armenian pianist Raffi Besalyan’s heart. This is his second album, after the 2012 Dance, Drama, Decadence, and while both programmes are mixed, both are dominated by Rachmaninov. This time round we hear a selection of preludes (from opp. 3, 23 and 32), Etudes-Tableaux and the Correlli Variations. They are popular works all, and well represented on disc, but Besalyan more than justifies his survey with playing that is passionate and involving – plenty of drama and plenty of poetry – but which is also precise, disciplined and intelligently paced throughout.
The programme begins with a lollipop, the C Sharp Minor Prelude, op. 3/2. But from the very opening phrase it is clear that Besalyan intends to keep us on our toes. The pause after the first three chords is teasingly held far longer than the opening tempo suggests. Then the quieter textures enter, and the music gradually gets back up to pace. The structuring here is excellent, with the tempo and density of texture gradually increasing up to the climax. Within this, individual phases are shaped, but with infinite subtlety, so as not to disturb the flow. To continue, the G-Minor Prelude, op. 23/5, another favourite, and a chance for Besalyan to demonstrate a more strident approach. Louder dynamics never compromise Besalyan’s clarity of tone or precision of articulation, which gives these passages all the more impact. The quiet music, too, benefits from that impeccable control.  A real highlight of this disc is the B-Minor Prelude, op. 32/10 “The Return”, from which the album takes its title. The prelude was inspired by a painting by Böcklin, and the entire album takesthis as a theme. It shines through this performance, and through Besalyan’s ability to express Rachmaninov’s bittersweet nostalgia without ever wallowing in sentimentality.
The Etudes-Tableaux introduce more varied textures and moods. A highlight here is the Appasionato, op. 39/5, one of the more substantial and involving of Rachmaninov’s piano works, and an excellent showcase for Besalyan’s structural thinking: Despite the agitated and dramatic textures from the very start, he is able to shape and build the music, giving focus and direction to every phrase.
So too with the Corelli Variations. The theme is presented here with the utmost simplicity, giving no hint of the complexity and turbulence to follow. As ever, discipline and clarity are as evident as emotional engagement in Besalyan’s playing, and the contrast between each of the variations, while unmistakable, is never exaggerated, the better to articulate the work’s overall structure.
An unusual choice to conclude: four short works by the Armenian composer Arno Babajanian. We’re not far from Rachmaninov here, Babajanian drawing on the older composer’s work for textural and harmonic ideas. But the melodic material is Armenian, as lyrical as Rachmaninoff’s but less complex. There is less emotional sophistication here than in any of the Rachmaninoff, but that very directness itself is attractive. The best of the Babajanian works is the Vagharshapał and Dance, it has the most regional colour of the four and the expansive piano textures are engaging, especially when rendered with the clarity and evenness of touch Besalyan brings.
Attractive packaging, with plenty of pictures of the pianist, although sadly no reproduction of the Böcklin painting from which the recording indirectly takes its name. The liner essay is informative, erudite and intelligent (full disclosure: it’s by me). Sound quality is good, the recording made at the Sono Luminus Studio with what sounds like an excellent Steinway D. A Blu-ray audio disc is supplied along with the standard CD, and chances are that sounds even better still. Recommended.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Bruckner 3 Skrowaczewski London Philharmonic

Bruckner Symphony No. 3
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, conductor
LPO-0084 (56:35)

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Another gem from Skrowaczewski’s Indian summer. Over the last four or five years, this nonagenarian conductor has been appearing regularly with European orchestras, giving superlative performances of Bruckner symphonies, and this one, with the London Philharmonic in March 2014 was no exception. Skrowaczewski is a Brucknerian in the mould of Günther Wand. Both conductors avoid bombast, yet achieve the scale and drama required by other means. A lot of the playing here is light, and much of it is surprisingly fast. Yet nothing is ever trivial. Skrowaczewski’s tempos are varied, but his rubato is minimal (a difference there, perhaps, with Wand). So phases are left to unfold at their own pace without continuous adjustment. Instead, Skrowaczewski makes his interventions between phrases, often applying sudden if slight tempo changes. His structural thinking is impeccable – all tempo relations are perfectly judged – yet he is able to maintain a feeling of unpredictability, and even spontaneity, that prevents his Bruckner from ever seeming formulaic.

I attended the concert at which this recording was made, and I’m pleased to report that I am still in full agreement with my observations then:

“This evening’s Third Symphony was … distinctive, often surprising, and utterly unique.

Many conductors give Bruckner’s Third everything they’ve got, huge dynamic contrasts, tempos that range from the frenetic to the static, and sensational climaxes that are all thundering timpani and blazing mariachi trumpets. Skrowaczewski is not in that game. His Bruckner is more considered, carefully balanced and always working within reasonable interpretive limits. He’s full of surprises though, often jerking the music into a different tempo or dynamic in just a few beats where others would labour a transition. His climaxes are loud, but always controlled, drawing excellent tonal control from the brass. Phrases are carefully shaped, but also flow naturally into each other: joined up musical thinking. But he’ll also make a point of cutting off sudden phrase endings, his left hand slowly raising and then shutting down the music with a decisive swoop. Movement endings are always definite but are never exaggerated. The ending of the first movement, a bit of a messy coda on Bruckner’s part, gradually builds up under Skrowaczewski’s baton, but he makes no effort to disguise the bitty and amorphous structure here, knowing that, despite its heterogeneous surface, Bruckner’s underlying cadential chord patterns will do the job. Similarly, the end of the work, where the opening theme returns in the major, is not presented as an earth-shattering apotheosis, but rather as a logical conclusion to the logic of the finale’s internal structure. But whatever restraint Skrowaczewski exerts, the results remain deeply emotive, the music’s religious depth communicated more through the sense of inevitability that he gives to its progression than to the otherworldliness of its climaxes.”

Listening to the recording is a slightly different experience. Perhaps I was too much in awe of the great man to notice some occasional intonation problems in the strings (only slight in any case). These come through because of the analytical quality of the sound, partly a product of the dry Festival Hall acoustic. The brass sound somewhat thin, which again may be from the combination of the acoustic and the recording, as it wasn’t apparent live. That dry sound isn’t usually ideal for Bruckner, but it fits with Skrowaczewski’s approach, his neat phrasing and often swift tempos.

There is some confusion about the edition being used here. The CD inlay tells us it is Skrowaczewski’s own unpublished edition, while the concert programme was equally emphatic that it was Nowak’s edition of the 1889 version. If it is the conductor’s own version, it is clearly based very closely on the 1889 Nowak, but it would be interesting to hear from him what changes he has made, and why. I understand that two documentaries about him are currently in production, so we may get our chance then. In the mean time, the conductor himself is as busy as ever. He returns in the autumn to perform Bruckner’s Fifth with the London Philharmonic. That should be something really special.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Schnittke Symphony No 3 Jurowski

SCHNITTKE Symphony No. 3
Vladimir Jurowski, cond; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
PENTATONE 5186485 (SACD: 52:16)

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Vladimir Jurowski may be the ideal conductor for Schnittke’s Third Symphony. It is the music of a Russian composer, but of German descent, exploring German music musical traditions from both inside and out. Many Russian conductors miss the Classical poise behind Schnittke’s historical references, while Western conductors have a tendency to tame the more chaotic outbursts, to maintain that sense of order when chaos should reign. But Jurowski offers the best of both worlds. He has studied both in Russia and Germany and demonstrates a native competency in both musical languages. Of the many Russian conductors currently active in the UK, Jurowski is the only one who is praised as much for his Brahms and Wagner as for his Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
The symphony, which was composed for the opening of the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1981, was one of the composer’s greatest triumphs. Schnittke dedicated the work to the “German symphonic tradition” and the music explores the history of German music from a range of angles. It opens with a gloss on the Rheingold Prelude, which then evolves into a complex texture based on musical monograms of German and Austrian composers’ names— a roll-call of the big players, all name checked in chronological order. The second and third movements also take a chronological approach, each taking a theme and presenting it in different historical styles. The second movement is the most explicit in its historical allusions, and all the more heterogeneous for it. The third explores the dark side of German culture, a diabolical scherzo in which the main theme is based on a monogram derived from the letters of “Das Böse” (evil). In the finale, Schnittke brings things up to date, at least up to the early 20th century, channeling Mahler and Berg, two of his greatest inspirations.
This is the third commercial recording of the Third Symphony. The first was made in 1984 by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. It was released on Melodiya, but only seems to be available now on Spotify, at least in the UK. A second version was made by Eri Klas and the Stockholm Philharmonic, for BIS in 1989. That is still available, both separately and as part of the BIS box set of Schnittke’s symphonies. Until Jurowski, the Rozhdestvensky was the preferable option. Rozhdestvensky releases the primal power of this music. When Schnittke makes things messy, Rozhdestvensky ensures they are very messy, and that any redemption or clarity is only ever won with a struggle. That sense of embracing the irrational is also evident in some of the less chaotic music. He brings a unique feeling of disorientation to the ending of the first movement, dissolving the complex textures into a kind of timeless cloud of indistinct tones (and in the process making the movement two minutes longer than either of the competitors). That might be viewed as an acceptable interpretive decision, but what is more jarring is his brutal stylistic disjunctions in the second movement. He seems to be going for shock value here, where the composer is seeking something more subtle. The other major disadvantage of the Rozhdestvensky version is the poor quality of the orchestral playing, an issue evident when heard in isolation but brought into sharp relief by comparison with Jurowski’s Berlin players.
The Eri Klas recording is smoother. Klas takes a more symphonic approach, always finding ways to bring the juxtaposed styles into dialogue. But it lacks bite. For all his subtly, Schnittke does have his shock moments, especially in the third movement—sudden explosions of sound, lurid episodes of distorted electric guitars and flutter-tongued brass—and Klas’s take on these is always too civilized. It is better played than Rozhdestvensky’s though, and better recorded.
Vladimir Jurowski trumps both in almost every respect. His reading has the primordial power of Rozhdestvensky, but combined with the broader scope and symphonic coherence of Klas. Rozhdestvensky seems more at home in the chaos, and all the historical references, the Mozart piano concerto, the Beethoven wind chords (all stylistic allusions, there are no quotations) appear as external objects, in the music but not of the music. With Jurowski it is the other way round. He shapes and structures each of these devices as if he actually were conducting a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony, bringing all those ideas into the heart of the work. The finale is particularly impressive, as Jurowski brings the full scope of his Mahlerian experience to bear on music that, in this recording, sounds as fine and as deep as anything in Mahler’s late symphonies.
The one movement where Rozhdestvensky trumps Jurowski is the third. Jurowski’s sense of order here becomes an impediment. This music needs to go closer to edge, to be pushed to excesses, to grate and roar. At the conclusion, the music builds to a huge climax, dense polyphony in which almost every player is doing something different, and all very loudly. But then it distills into just the BACH monogram, which in turn segues into the quiet opening of the finale. Rozhdestvensky makes this into a moment of divine, spiritual transcendence, while Jurowski settles for a smooth and otherwise eventless transition from one texture to the next.
That’s the only major disappointment here though. And it is commensurate with Jurowski’s general approach—to give us an engaged but faithful account of the score as written. Rozhdestvensky often seems idiosyncratic in comparison, which may be reason enough to make this new version the benchmark. But that is not all: The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is on excellent form, and the SACD audio is first rate. Vladimir Jurowski is rapidly becoming the go-to conductor for Schnittke. He is one of the few conductors of his generation to share the passion and commitment to this music of the older conductors who worked with the composer himself. This is his first commercial recording of Schnittke’s music, and it bodes well. Most of Schnittke’s orchestral works are available on disc, but very few of those even approach the standards achieved here. Fingers crossed then, for many more Jurowski/PentaTone collaborations in this repertoire.