Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Firsova A Triple Portrait Marsyas Trio

Elena Firsova: Hommage to Canisy. Lost Vision. A Triple Portrait. Night Songs. Spring Sonata. For Slava. Meditation in the Japanese Garden. Three Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Tender is the Sorrow
Marsays Tr; Maacha Deubner (sop); Hannah Pedley (mez); Patrick Dawkins (vn); Morgan Goff (va) 
MERIDAN 84635 (72:00)


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The music of Elena Firsova deserves a wider audience, so this disc, the first to be devoted entirely to her chamber music, is welcome indeed. Firsova was born in Leningrad in 1950, and by the 1980s had become one of the leading ‘unofficial’ composers of the Soviet Union’s burgeoning underground classical scene. But, as with many of that generation, her dissidence was expressed more through willful indifference to state precepts than through explicit opposition to Socialist Realism. Firsova early on developed a distinctive and personal style, certainly Russian in outlook – there is little in the way of Germanic dialectics here, and however Modernist her music is always expressive – but influenced as much by Berg, and even Debussy, as by any Slavic predecessors. Firsova’s music always follows a clear train of thought, or at least of expression, but it is often difficult to rationalize this in terms of thematic or harmonic logic. Such logic is clearly at play, but mood and texture are always just as important in maintaining the flow and character.
In 1991, Firsova, along with her husband, Dmitri Smirnov, and children Alissa Firsova and Philip Firsov (now a composer and artist respectively), moved to the UK, and they are now based in St Albans in Hertfordshire. Remarkably, though, the move had little effect on Firsova’s style. The music on this disc spans the period from 1980 to 2012, and the sheer stylistic continuity is remarkable. By circumstance alone, we are obliged to describe Firsova as a UK-based Russian composer, but the style of her work also bears out that description: Always Russian in temperament, yet always cosmopolitan in outlook.
This disc marks the culmination of a five-year collaboration between Firsova and the Marsyas Trio, a London-based ensemble made up of flute (Helen Vidovich), cello (Valerie Welbanks), and piano (Fei Ren). The title work of the album, A Triple Portrait, was commissioned by the Trio, who premiered it in London in 2012. The work introduces the three players individually, and then combines them into more complex tutti textures. As with much of Firsova’s music, there is a dichotomy here between light and darkness. The music always retains a floating, ethereal quality, but this is often shaded by darker undertones. The work carries a fitting epigram from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, “The clock, calm evil god, that makes us shiver,/ With threatening finger warns us each apart: ‘Remember!’”
Several different instrumental combinations are employed by the program’s various works. We hear solo cello in For Slava (no prizes for guessing which Slava, the work was written in response to Rostropovich’s funeral) and solo piano in Lost Vision. This work was written shortly after the composer was diagnosed (wrongly as it turned out) with a condition that would have led to blindness. Reflection quickly turns to anger and frustration, the only time on this disc that such fierce emotions are expressed. But what power! Firsova’s restraint is clearly one of her greatest compositional assets, but how revealing this brief passage is of unrestrained and wild emotion.
Flute and piano combine in Spring Sonata, the earliest work on the disc, dating from 1982. The flute turns out to be the ideal instrument for Firsova’s lighter side. That airy, floating quality that pervades her work comes through clearly in her elegant flute writing.
We also hear two song cycles, both to poems by Osip Mandelstam. His work has been a defining influence for Firsova’s music, and she has set his poems more than those of any other writer. The result is a perfect combination of words and music, Firsova’s aesthetic perfectly atuned to Mandelstam’s aphoristic style, seemingly causal expression, but often of very dark sentiments.
Two singers join the Trio players for these song cycles, soprano Maacha Debner and mezzo Hannah Pedley, and both sing in eloquent Russian, perfectly capturing the mood of each song. The Trio is also joined by a violin and viola, Patrick Dawkins and Morgan Goff, for the final number, Tender is the Sorrow. Despite the larger ensemble, the scale of the music here remains small. The work is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s aunt Tania, and with her the generation of which she was the last surviving member. It is the perfect culmination to the program, bringing together all the qualities we have heard in the earlier works, the long flowing lines, the bittersweet sentiments, and those light textures that always carry a slightly sinister undercurrent.
Performances and recording are excellent throughout. Despite the unusual combination of instruments, the players work closely together and always produce a unified tone. All Saints’ Church in Orpington provides an atmospheric but clear acoustic, admirably captured by Meridan’s “Natural Sound Recording” technology. Informative liner notes from flutist Vidovich, texts in English and transliterated Russian, and an apt, if slightly gruesome cover image by Philip Firsov, the composer’s son. This disc provides an excellent introduction to the music of Elena Firsova. Her work is also represented on a handful of other commercial releases, also worth seeking out. Firsova and her husband, Dmitri Smirnov, have also taken full advantage of Internet to disseminate unpublished recordings of their works, and both have YouTube accounts that are well worth exploring.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 39:1.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Alfred Schnittke Film Music Edition Strobel



Alfred Schnittke Film Music Edition
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Frank Strober, arranger and conductor
CAPRICCIO C7196 [4CDs]
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This is Alfred Schnittke’s CV, a portfolio of the best work from his day job. Between the early 60s and the mid-80s, Schnittke wrote music for over 60 films. It played a crucial role in his development as a composer, and particularly to his polystylistic aesthetic. All those stylistic juxtapositions, and the cuts and jumps in the musical narrative, stem directly from his incidental music. The film studio also provided a useful laboratory for the composer, at a time when concert music was subject to heavy censorship, music for films tended to get in under the wire. Melodic and accessible were required qualities of course, but the orchestral combinations with which these were delivered are invariably imaginative and unusual.
And just as film music proved ideal for Schnittke, so Schnittke proved ideal for film music. He had the ability to immediately set a mood or evoke a scene, right from the very first note. The 10 concert suites presented here, each derived from a separate film score, take in a range of genres. Most are light, music for comic films, with plenty of over-the-top marches, maniacal dances and slapstick sound effects from the percussion. But there are some darker scenes evoked here too: the surreal world of Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s cartoon The Glass Harmonica, and the oppressive atmosphere of Larissa Shapitko’s wartime drama The Ascent.
Just as in his concert music, Schnittke freely mixes the superficial with the profound. His language of musical reference and allusion is as engaged here as in his most polystylistic concert works. The score for Sport, Sport, Sport, a spoof documentary about a sports physiotherapist with delusions of grandeur, plays out like a Jacques Loussier jazz response to The Musical Offering. At one point we hear the main theme from the Manfred Symphony played on accordion, for reasons that are probably more clear in the context of the film. And everywhere Schnittke’s ability to switch into immediately switch into a chosen style is apparent, the level of irony in each case perfectly gauged to the context.
While the music here is entertaining on its own terms, it also tells us a lot about Schnittke’s concert works, many of which borrow freely from his film scores. So you’ll hear early versions of music that ended up in the Second Violin Sonata, First Concerto Grosso, Second Cello Concerto, Suite in the Old Style…. Often the music in its earlier incarnation is richer in texture. The music that became Suite in the Old Style, for example, is for full orchestra as the soundtrack to the film Adventures of a Dentist, but was reduced to violin and piano for the suite. But with that added richness comes a reduction in ironic intent. The score for The Fairytale of the Wanderings postdates the First Concert Grosso, but much of the music is almost identical. But, orchestration apart, the big difference is the fact that, in the film score, the Baroque allusions are taken at face value, and not used to subvert generic models or listener expectations.
Each score is presented in a concert suite arranged by the conductor, Frank Strobel, an ardent champion of Schnittke’s film music, and much other film music besides. I met Frank at a conference in Hamburg last year and asked him about his work on Schnittke’s music: It’s a labour of love, to say the least. He and Schnittke collaborated on several projects in the last years of the composer’s life, and Frank played an important part in facilitating Schnittke’s music for The Fall of St Petersburg, his only ever live score for a silent film. Schnittke also advised on much of Strobel’s work in arranging film scores for concert performance. Since Schnittke’s death, Strobel has continued to bring this music to the concert hall and the recording studio. Not an easy task. A typical Schnittke project will involve visiting Moscow to lobby an archive to release the manuscript. If and when this is achieved, Strobel must then check it against the final soundtrack, to account for the numerous, and often very significant, edits to the music made by Schnittke during the recording process.
Then it’s into the studio, with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, who sound excellent on these recordings. Technically, there is little to challenge the players here, but their ability to move between the various styles, and to make each sound authentic (especially the jazz) is a key factor in the success of the project.
This four-CD set is a reissue, the discs originally recorded and released separately between 2004 and 2006. Don’t let the generic cyberpunk image on the box put you off, the production standards of the reissue of higher than it suggests. The booklet contains an introduction that claims to be from Strobel himself, although the fact that it repeatedly refers to him in the third person suggests otherwise. Then we get details about the original films along with a brief plot synopsis for each.
My only major complaint about the reissue is that it is in standard CD format, where the original releases were SACD. That’s a great shame, and it is hard to imagine that the financial saving, to label or customer, outweighs the loss of resolution.
That apart, this set is highly recommended. It will be particularly attractive to those with an interest in Schnittke’s music and the path much of it took from the film studio to the concert hall. Also recommended to fans of film music in general, as this represents the genre at its finest. And there is much here too for general audiences to enjoy: Whatever historical significance this music may have, it’s well worth hearing just because it’s so fun.

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.