Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Bruckner Symphony No. 9 Manfred Honeck Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Bruckner Symphony No. 9 (ed. Nowak) Manfred Honeck Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Reference Recordings 733 (SACD:63:12)

Manfred Honeck’s impressive discography with the Pittsburgh Symphony raises high expectations for this new Bruckner Nine, and it doesn’t disappoint. Honeck has a knack for reinventing core Romantic repertoire, but without moving outside of established performing traditions. He pays particular attention to dance forms—the Bohemian dances in Dvořák, the Ländler in Mahler—and interprets the music accordingly, often finding a wealth of rhythmic subtly and interest in forms that other conductors treat as merely generically rustic. Honeck also likes to tell stories: Even in the most abstract of works he will find associations and ideas, which he will then elaborate through his interpretation, that narrative impulse offering ever-more sophisticated nuances and variations to justify the repetitions of symphonic form.
All of which stands him in opposition to many of the prevailing tendencies in the recent history of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Unlike many conductors, he is not content to present the work as a monolithic edifice, nor to trust the work’s formal elegance to deliver meaningful structure or progression. The liner to this release is dominated by a huge essay by Honeck himself, giving a detailed account of his interpretation of the music. The first movement, he says, is all about death. Honeck suggests that Bruckner is anticipating his own death here. He quickly acknowledges that this is historically suspect, but it doesn’t matter, it is just the starting point for his interpretation. The performance is dynamic and incisive. Tempos are about average, perhaps a little faster, but Honeck has an impressive ability to deliver weight and impact without resorting to glacial tempos. And the tempos are continuously fluid, with brisk and often surprising accelerandos into big thematic statements. And when those big themes come, Honeck sways their rhythms in almost imperceptible ways (a legacy from his hero, Carlos Kleiber) to drive and shape the music. The orchestra is on excellent form here, particularly the brass, whose weighty but focused tone brings scale and majesty to the music.
True to form, Honeck interprets the Scherzo as a dance, though that takes a leap of imagination, given the drama of the movement. It begins with luminous pizzicato in the strings, before the brass enter, again delivering impressive weight and impact. And if none of this sounds particularly dance-like, the oboe countermelody, which Honeck describes as “played in the style of an Austrian country musician” provides suitable relief, and without relaxing the pace. The Trio is surprisingly fast, unnecessarily so perhaps, but is illuminated with glittering textures from the strings and woodwind.
In his essay, Honeck associates the Finale with the Agnus Dei, not through any specific word setting, so much as in tone and style. The result is a more subdued reading than the previous movements might lead us to expect, and a slow one too, 27:46 puts it at the longer end of the spectrum. The orchestral textures now feel more subdued, and the rubato and phrasing, while still flexible, no longer offer the immediacy and surprises that were so startling in the first movement. The Adagio is always the heart of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, but Honeck takes it to another level, of spiritual contemplation and personal reflection. He makes no apology in his essay for not including a Finale completion, but the music gives the answer: Nothing could possibly follow an Adagio of this solemn intensity.
The orchestra deserves equal praise for their performance here. The distinctively American brass sound works wonders in Bruckner, but the sheer precision of the playing from all sections elevates every phrase, and the distinctive woodwind solos—sometimes rustically styled, but not always—are another bonus. The SACD sound is immediate and involving, with a surprising amount of presence for the rear speakers. The double basses seem to be on an elevated platform centre-stage, and the sheer quantity of bass, from them and the timpani, in the central speaker takes some getting used to, but is welcome nonetheless. Another top-quality release from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony, recommended accordingly.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:3

Saturday, 3 August 2019

BACH Organ Concertos Bart Jacobs Les Muffatti

BACH Organ Concertos: in d, after BWV 169 and 49; in d, after BWV 146, 188, 1052; in d, after BWV 35 and 1055; in g, after BWV 1041 and 1058. Sinfonias: in G, after BWV 156; in G, after BWV 75; in D, after BWV 29 and 120a
Bert Jacobs (org); Les Muffatti
RAMÉE 1804 (79:59)

This album presents an audacious reconstruction of Bach organ concertos with a tenuous, though credible, historical justification. In 1725, Bach gave a concert at the Sophienkircke in Dresden to demonstrate the new Silbermann organ there. According to a newspaper report, he performed “various concertos with sweet underlying music.” The following year, 1726, Bach composed several cantatas with organ obbligato movements, most of them reworkings of lost violin and oboe concertos. The premise here is that the concertos performed in Dresden were those violin and oboe concertos, arranged for organ, and that these were the organ concertos that were then reused in the cantatas.
Bert Jacobs, the organist as well as the editor of the reconstructions, concedes in his well-translated liner note that speculative decisions have been made at every turn. Even the organ obbligatos in the 1726 cantatas are only written on two staves, requiring a keen understanding of contemporary performance conventions to establish the relationship between the left hand and the pedals. Fortunately, an organ has been found that has impeccable Baroque credentials, the Thomas organ in Bornem in Belgium, modeled on Silbermann’s 1721–22 organ for the Marienkirche in Rötha. The one complication is that it is tuned to A=440, with a fairly tame modern temperament, but even so, its small palette of timbres gives plenty of Baroque flavor, especially from its woody diapasons. But it is a small organ, just two manuals, largely controlling the same small group of registers, and a pedalboard with two eight-foot and two 16-foot stops.
The orchestra, Les Muffatti, is a Belgian collective, named for Georg Muffat and mostly working in early Baroque repertoire. On this recording they are a 10-piece string orchestra, plus harpsichord continuo. Jacobs writes that oboe parts have been omitted because they largely double the violins, but the incompatibility of Baroque oboes with the modern tuning of the organ seems a more likely cause.
As so often with rejigged Bach concertos, the listening experience here moves from comfortable familiarity in the opening tutti to the jarring introduction of an unfamiliar solo instrument. But Jacobs plays with smooth legato lines and well-chosen, if modest, registration choices, and ear soon adapts. These arrangements work best in the fast movements, and Jacobs makes much of the cascading sequences, subtly overlaying one note into the next to create warmth and flow. The orchestral sound is clean and precise, and benefits from the harpsichord continuo support, the only percussive sound in the entire ensemble and a valuable source of rhythm and propulsion. The slower movements are less effective, and here even the imaginative continuo struggles to maintain the shape of the music. Jacobs relies more on the elegance of his legato than on the colors the organ can provide, but the results feel bare. In two slow movements, BWV 156 and the Larghetto from BWV 1055, a temulant is added, but it feels intrusive and soon outstays its welcome.
Nevertheless, Bert Jacobs is clearly an adventurous and sensitive organist. And while his arrangements sometimes stretch the limits of historical credulity, he clearly has a close affinity with this instrument and shows it off to beautiful effect. The orchestra benefits from the church acoustic, giving warmth and body to the tutti textures. Good balance between organ and strings too, bringing the soloist to the fore, but without obscuring any orchestral detail.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

WAGNER Götterdämmerung Fjelstad Flagstad Svanholm

WAGNER Götterdämmerung
Øivin Fjelstad, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Brünnhilde); Set Svanholm (Siegfried); Egil Nordsjø (Hagen); Waldemar Johnson (Gunther); Ingrid Bjoner (Gutrune); Eva Gustavson (Waltraute); Per Grönneberg (Alberich); Norwegian St Op Ch & O; Oslo PO
ELOQUENCE 482 8809 (4 CDs: 264:05)

This 1956 Götterdämmerung is of significant historical interest for several reasons. It was the first version ever to be commercially released. It was also Kirsten Flagstad’s last performance as Brünnhilde—she had retired from the stage in 1953. Finally, and this might be pushing the historical angle a bit far, it marked the professional debut of Ingrid Bjoner, as Gutrune and the Third Norn. The whole project had a complicated history, but an engaging account is given in one of the liner essays, by Fanfare’s own Raymond Tuttle.

To paraphrase: Flagstad was coaxed out of retirement by Norwegian Radio for this studio production, with an almost all-Norwegian cast, the major exception being Set Svanholm as Siegfried. When John Culshaw heard about the project, he sought the rights to release the recording on Decca, a coup both for Flagstad’s involvement and for the claim to be the first-ever complete Götterdämmerung on a commercial recording. But it turned out the recording was not complete; around 40 minutes had been omitted. So Culshaw organized a team to go to Oslo, and in March 1956 recorded the missing sections, mainly the first scenes of acts I and II. Unfortunately, they ran out of time before they could record the scene change into Act II, scene 2, and so the recording was eventually released as “substantially complete.” But Decca still got in first, even if today we associate that period in the work’s history with the Furtwängler/RAI Ring cycle and the Keilberth from Bayreuth, both from 1953, but neither receiving official release for several decades because of singer contract issues.

The good news about this Götterdämmerung is that both of the lead singers were (still) on fine form. Flagstad, at 60, is a little more narrow of tone than in earlier years, but her voice still has presence and power, even in the high register. It is certainly a mature-sounding voice, but not matronly or plummy. Perhaps there is a little agility lacking, but that is not a huge loss in such a declamatory role. Svanholm was a mere 51, but if anything he sounds older than Flagstad. Both singers bring extensive Wagnerian experience to the project, and you end up admiring the idiomatic and dramatically engaged assumptions of the two roles more than worrying about technical deficiencies. I hear a slight wobble from Svanholm, but it’s of little concern against the strength of his vocal support and the sheer elegance of his every line.

The rest of the cast is reasonable, but without any standouts. Bjoner sounds suitably human as Gutrune, though she is clearly not in the same class at Flagstad. Eva Gustavson gives a passionate Waltraute, but without drawing much attention away from the star. Egil Nordsjø is convincing as Hagen, but he lacks weight, especially in “Hoiho! Hoho!” Waldemar Johnsen is a swoopy, wobbly Gunther, though all the notes are there and he fits well into the ensembles.

Conductor Øivin Fjelstad leads a carefully paced account. He accompanies the singers well, giving each plenty of space to shape and color phrases. But the reading lacks the frisson of a live staging, or of a studio account that can successfully recreate it. And he is not helped by an orchestra that lacks precision and focus. The strings often sound approximate in fast passages, and the brass intonation is also problematic. The horns do well though—no splits at the opening of act III or in any of the other horn calls.

This Eloquence release claims to be the first CD release on Decca and remastered from the original tapes. But, of course, most of those are Norwegian Radio tapes, and while the sound is a serviceable and quite vibrant mono, it is a significant step down from Decca’s stereo projects at the time in Bayreuth and later in Vienna. Curiously, the worst-sounding section is the opening, which was recorded by Decca—tape deterioration perhaps? On other labels, the recording has previously been released by Urania, Walhall, and Naxos. The first two of these are available on Spotify, where they sound more congested than the present release and have much more crackle. So whatever cleaning-up has gone on, it has brought more immediacy to the sound and reduced extraneous noise. Although we are not told anything about the remaster, documentation is otherwise very good. The front cover of the liner reproduces the original LP, where the work is titled “Die Götterdämmerung.” As well as Tuttle’s essay, there is a biographical essay about Flagstad, a recollection of her from Richard Bonynge, and an essay about the work, which includes a synopsis.

This is a recording that was clearly significant in its day, even if it was soon obscured by major Wagner releases in the 1960s, and on the same label. It is worth revisiting today for Flagstad and Svanholm, even if nobody else in the cast approaches their stature.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

BACH Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust

BACH Violin Concertos: in d, BWV 1052R; in E, BWV 1042; in g, BWV 1056R; in a, BWV 1041. Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R. Concerto for 2 Violins, BWV 1043. Cantata No. 174: Sinfonia. Cantata No. 21: Sinfonia. Cantata No. 182: Sonata. Trio Sonatas: in C, BWV 529; in d, BWV 527. Overture (Suite No. 2), BWV 1067. Sinfonia, BWV 1043
Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck (vn); Xenia Löffler (ob, rec); Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI 902335.36 (2 CDs: 143:48)

Isabelle Faust takes a generous approach to Bach’s violin concertos, and a surprisingly collaborative one too. The three concertos that survive in that form are supplemented with three that are reconstructed from keyboard concertos, plus, for good measure, a suite, two trio sonatas, and instrumental movements from three cantatas. The result is a well-filled twofer offering impressive musical variety, and with as much attention paid to the orchestra—the excellent Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin—as to Faust herself.
Even in the solo concertos, violin and orchestra are presented as equals, with Faust integrated into the orchestral textures. Everything has a warm, bottom heavy sound, a result both of the relatively large ensemble, with three cellos and two basses, and the rich recording ambience. The recordings were made at the Teldex Studio in Berlin, produced by the ever-dependable Martin Sauer. He is a stickler for sonic detail, and has no qualms about including players’ breathing in the final mix, or the rasp of bow hair engaging with strings, so you’ll hear plenty of extraneous noise. You’ll also hear details from within the ensemble that you never knew were there—a rare quality in a concerto recording.
Faust is a lively and imaginative soloist. Straight tone is no impediment for her to create warm and welcoming timbres. Her ornamentation is extensive and flowing, an integral part of the melodic lines more than decoration. Tempos are generally brisk, but Faust has an intuitive ability to gently relax the momentum by holding back on the last few notes of a phrase or run, each time creating an entirely new perspective on Bach’s allegro or vivace. The orchestra, led from the concertmaster chair by Bernhard Forck (also co-soloist in BWV 1043), is more disciplined with tempos, but displays an impressive sense of phrasing, with small but emphatic dynamic swells and subtly varied articulations in the strings.
As the album progresses, it becomes increasingly easy to forget this is a concerto recording at all. In the Trio Sonata, BWV 527, arrangement, for example, the oboe is given the top line over the violin. Oboe/recorder player Xenia Löffler excels here, as she does in Sinfonia from Cantata 21, Sonata from Cantata 182, and the Two Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1060, here rendered/reconstructed as a double concerto for oboe and violin. A mention too for continuo keyboard player Raphael Alpermann, whose move from harpsichord to chamber organ for the Cantata 21 Sinfonia takes the orchestra’s sound in a satisfying liturgical direction.
Packaging, as ever from Harmonia Mundi, is colorful if a little obstructive: a three-way card gatefold, but with no track listing on the back, and the one inside obstructed by the liner booklet and omitting the final work. No information is given on who carried out the reconstructions and arrangements, and you’ll have to go into the liner essay itself, by Peter Wollny, to find out exactly what they were arranged from. All of which suggests a project designed more as an exploration of the musical potential of this expanded repertoire than an academic survey of its history. That is all to the best for an album that offers much to enjoy, not least the surprising variety of ensembles and genres from one work to the next. Isabelle Faust is on top form here, but the orchestra and its soloists deserve equal billing.