Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

DEBUT: Ben Goldscheider

WIDMANN Air for Solo Horn. KRUFFT Horn Sonata in E. SCHUMANN Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, op. 70. YORK BOWEN Horn Sonata. KIRCHNER 3 Poemi. SALONEN Concert Étude for Solo Horn
Ben Goldscheider (hn)
Daniel Hill (pn)
Willowhayne 045 (74:34)

Ben Goldscheider came to national attention in the UK as a finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. He is now 20, and a student at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin. This, his debut album, revisits several of the works he performed during the Young Musician heats and also includes some of the core Classical and Romantic repertoire for the instrument.
Goldscheider has an elegant tone and excellent agility for fast runs. But it is not a huge sound, the tone focused but slightly nasal. He gives the slightest hint of a slow vibrato in the Romantic repertoire, but otherwise maintains an even sound. Once or twice in this recital, there is a feeling of fatigue towards the end of long, complex phrases, but otherwise his technique is immaculate.
The program opens with Jörg Widmann’s Air for Solo Horn. Typically for Widmann, the work involves going back to the instrument’s acoustical basics, with the music growing out of an exploration of the harmonic series, and making great play out of the flattened seventh. The fast runs up and down the harmonic series are skillfully negotiated here, as are the extended techniques, which include singing into the instrument.
Following the Widmann with the Krufft Sonata is an ideal piece of programming, and the way that the Classical-era piano accompaniment emerges from the preceding sonoristic textures  makes for a dramatic transition. The Krufft is core horn repertoire, although it seems to have been commandeered by hand horn players recently, at least on disc. It is not the most exciting music, although it is far preferable to the retched Beethoven Sonata that would have been the obvious alternative. And Goldscheider demonstrates a keen affinity for the Classical style, with beautifully shaped phrases and dramatic, but proportionate dynamic shifts.
Schumann and York Bowen follow, showing Goldscheider to be equally at home in the Romantic repertoire. My one grumble here is the recessed piano sound. Accompanist Daniel Hill, who also performed with Goldscheider in the Young Musician heats, is clearly avoiding the limelight throughout this recital, which is reasonable given its focus. But the piano is also recorded at a distance, or at least a low level, and the Bowen in particular suffers. The Kirchner work was originally a song cycle for horn, baritone, and piano based on Rilke, and the piano here plays an even more subsidiary role, often just as a resonator for the horn, who plays into the body with the dampers raised for echo effects. The overall impression of the work is of an austere, gestural Expressionism, and Goldscheider makes the most of its dramatic potential.
The recital ends as it began, with a new work for unaccompanied horn, the Concert Étude by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Goldscheider clearly feels a close affinity with this music—he played it in two rounds of the Young Musician—and it is an excellent fit for his talents. Salonen, a former horn player himself, fits a wide range of extended techniques into the short work, and the piece is particularly effective for the Klangfarbenmelodie effects achieved by successively playing the same pitch, but at different sides of the double horn, or with different hand-stopping positions. It also has that mercurial energy that underpins all of Salonen’s music, an unpredictability that sees it shooting off in different directions in almost every phrase.
A promising debut, then, and a suitably diverse programme to demonstrate what is clearly a broad and diverse talent. Detailed liner notes on the music, most by Goldscheider himself, add to the attraction, as does the generous running time.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:5.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Weinberg Piano Sonatas 2 4 op49bis Blumina

Mieczysław Weinberg: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 4. Piano Sonata, op. 49bis
Elisaveta Blumina (pn)
CPO 555 104-2 (65:32)

Elisaveta Blumina here continues her project to record Weinberg’s chamber music, this her second album of solo piano works, adding to a catalog that also includes the Piano Trio, Double Bass Sonata, and a disc of woodwind sonatas. The three piano sonatas here span Weinberg’s diverse career, so there is plenty of variety. Another recording project, a complete solo piano works from Allison Brewster Franzetti on the Grand Piano label, runs to four CDs, so this constitutes about a quarter of the repertoire. The two numbered sonatas here, Nos. 2 and 4, are from a canonical six, while the op. 49bis is a reworking of earlier music into a sonata structure.
The program opens with the Second Sonata, dating from 1942, a period when Weinberg was predominantly occupied with film and television music: his famous contributions to the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh date from these years. Most discussion of Weinberg’s stylistic trajectory plots his work against the increasing influence of—or mutual influence with—Shostakovich, which is certainly apparent in the Fourth Sonata. However, the Second sounds closer to Prokofiev, especially in its percussive, toccata-like first movement. The energy and drive make for a highly engaging start to the program, and Blumina finds an ideal balance between the focussed attacks and the sonority required to maintain the long lines. With the exception of the slow third movement, most of this work plays out in two-part counterpoint between the hands, and Blumina’s clarity of texture plays dividends throughout. The Adagio third movement feels a bit too long for the work’s otherwise concise proportions, but it is beautifully structured in this performance, with Weinberg’s gradual build-up to the climax carefully paced in volume and harmonic density.
The Sonata, op. 49bis, is dated 1979 but is in fact a reworking of the Sonatina of 1951, itself an elaboration of music from Weinberg’s Childhood Notebooks, previously recorded by Blumina on CPO 777517. Despite having been twice expanded, the music retains an intimacy and appealing gentle character. Of its three movements, the first two are markedly more chordal than in the Second Sonata, while the fugal finale returns us to Weinberg’s contrapuntal tendencies, although his delicacy and charm remain, and, although the work fits squarely in Stalinist-era socialist realism aesthetics, there is never any pedantry or dryness, and the music’s simplicity works to its advantage throughout.
The Fourth Sonata, from 1955, is more serious. The notes, by Dr. Marion Méndez, describe it as the most tragic of Weinberg’s piano compositions, reflecting the composer’s grief at losing his entire family in the Holocaust. It is certainly solemn, but the music is never morose, and Weinberg always knows when to add rays of light into his otherwise melancholy moods. Like the other sonatas, it is based on simple, elegant material, although this is soon developed into more emotionally complex areas. Yet the emotion always remains understated, especially in the second movement (of four), where occasional piquant dissonances unsettle the otherwise smooth flow of the melody, and in the finale, which has a more upbeat mood, even if that is soon undermined by the sheer lightness of the textures, at least against the more weighty music of the previous movements.
Méndez tells us that Gilels recorded the work in 1960, but with much faster tempos. That recording is now available as part of Melodiya’s 50-CD Emil Gilels: 100th Anniversary Edition (1002433). Another Gilels recording (presumably), from 1957, is available on YouTube, and it is a full five minutes shorter than Blumina’s 30-minute reading here. By comparison, Gilels sounds rushed, especially in the first movement, although his tempos are supple, with plenty of restrained interludes. But Blumina’s interpretation is more convincing, not least for the directness of expression she achieves at her more measured tempos, as well as the clarity of texture and line. As in her previous Weinberg releases, the audio quality here is excellent—deriving from a co-production with Deutschlandfunk Kultur, the studio recordings made in January 2016. These aren’t the only recordings available of Weinberg’s piano sonatas, and as well as the Franzetti, there are also versions of Sonatas Nos. 2 and 4 from Murray Mclachlan on Divine Art. But, as the comparison with Gilels demonstrates, there are many ways to approach this music, and Blumina’s interpretations are convincing and compelling throughout.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 41:5.

Friday, 9 February 2018

BRUCKNER Chamber Symphony Die Taschenphilharmonie Stangel

BRUCKNER Chamber Symphony (after the String Quintet). MAHLER Symphony No. 10: Andante-Adagio
Peter Stangel, conductor. Die Taschenphilharmonie

This CD gives weight to the oft-repeated statement that Bruckner’s String Quintet is a symphony in disguise. In fact, Peter Stangel has only increased the forces modestly, from five players to 11, adding single woodwinds, horn, and double bass. It is effective approach, and while you couldn’t imagine Bruckner himself orchestrating in this way, it demonstrates how much orchestral thinking there is behind the original textures.
All of the movements apart from the last begin with just the strings, and the winds are added in at answering phrases. In the opening movement, the main, downward swooping, motif proves particularly amenable to woodwind voicings, especially in the lower reaches of the clarinet. In the second movement Scherzo, the horn contributions are telling, making clear that many of the viola ideas in the original are in fact horn calls. The entry of the winds in the Adagio third movement are so subtle that they require careful listening. They begin with the bassoon supporting the cello line, and the upper woodwinds are gradually added in as the textures expand. Winds and strings are more closely integrated in the finale, where trilled ornaments (are they in the original?) in the flute often dominate the textures.
Although the quintet original remains in the mind’s ear, the fact that such a small ensemble is used does underpower the climaxes, which may be why the violin tone sounds thin above the stave. Also, the addition of a double bass might be expected to bolster the lower end, but the recorded sound doesn’t emphasize that, instead retaining a chamber-like lightness in the textures. Finally, the fact that a conductor is involved could lead us to expect a more shaped and sculpted reading, but Stangel’s approach is restrained. The reading has plenty of life, but there are no rubato indulgences, with the climaxes in particular retaining their chamber music scale, on account as much of the steady tempos as the player numbers.
As a filler, the Adagio first movement of Mahler’s 10th Symphony is arranged in the opposite direction, the ensemble reduced down to 16 players. Again, the resulting sound is more chamber ensemble than chamber orchestra, with the intimate tone immediately set by the unaccompanied viola opening, now sounding all the more bare and isolated for being played on a single instrument. Mahler’s more sophisticated harmonies translate well to the smaller ensemble, and little is lost in the transcription, though the gains are more open to debate—a little more clarity of texture perhaps.
The Taschenphilharmonie is a Munich-based chamber orchestra dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. That may seem an esoteric pursuit, but it clearly has potential, as their own label, Edition Taschenphilharmonie, has secured a major distribution agreement with Sony and has a catalog that includes all the Beethoven symphonies, as well as symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven, and Mozart. They have also collaborated with the German newspaper Die Zeit on a 13-CD Grosse Klassik für kleine Hörer (Great Classics for Small Listeners) project that sounds like a lot of fun. The change of personnel between the two works recorded here suggests this is a part-time operation, but the musical standards remain high throughout. I’ve only one grumble: The documentation is negligible. The insides of the card gatefold give an orchestra list and a short piece about the ensemble, but nothing at all about the works or arrangements.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

WAGNER Die Walküre Thielemann

WAGNER Die Walküre
Christian Thielemann, cond
Peter Seiffert Siegmund
Georg Zeppenfeld Hunding
Vitalij Kowaljow Wotan
Anja Harteros Sieglinde
Anja Kampe Brünnhilde
Christa Mayer Fricka
Staatskapelle Dresden
C MAJOR 742904 (Blu-ray: 235:00) Live: Salzburg: 4/5–17/2017

This Walküre was staged at Salzburg in 2017, but harks back to an earlier era. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the Salzburg Easter Festival, and to commemorate the occasion, the first production in the event’s history was re-created. So what we have is the Karajan/Schneider-Siemssen with some slight adjustments for modern times by director Vera Nemirova. The sets are essentially those of 1967, with the glass screen backstage effects now achieved though computer projections. The costumes have changed though (the new designs by Jens Kilian), with the strictly abstract, neo-Bayreuth style of the original replaced by what seems to be 60s mufti. So, for example, Vitalij Kowaljow wears a huge fur coat as Wotan, but beneath is a 1960s business suit. Given the highly acrimonious state of aesthetic politics when it comes to opera staging these days, especially in Wagner, the whole project seems dubiously regressive, and if the 60s additions are designed to bridge the gap, they are a token gesture at best.
For act I, Hunding’s house is formed by the roots of the ash tree, an impressive and imposing piece of stagecraft dominating the Festspielhaus stage. Acts II and III have a more abstract setting, a ring set on the stage and broken at the back with one arm raised—so that’s the mountain peak on which Brünnhilde (Anja Kampe) is exiled at the end. The glass paintings-turned-computer projection backdrops consist of a lot of smoke effects in the first act, and later on a huge eye looking down on proceedings. Beyond that, the physical props are minimal. The valkyries have impressive feather-crested helmets, but ride hobby horses.  Fricka (Christa Mayer) is flanked by two rams—men with ram skull helmets—but her chariot is a beige easy chair that they carry on for her. Once that has gone, there is very little on the stage for the remainder of the opera. The Magic Fire follows the inner rim of the ring on the stage, which isn’t very impressive, but is supplemented by a torchlit procession of fallen soldiers over the final bars.
The musical side is more impressive, and the festival has assembled a world-class cast, most of whom are on top form throughout. The two leading ladies, both Anjas, give the finest performances, Anja Harteros as Sieglinde and Anja Kampe as Brünnhilde. Harteros has a rich, sweet tone and excellent vocal support, which Thielemann exploits for his steady tempos and long lines. Kampe has a brighter sound, which is perfectly even, right up to the top. The musical highlight here is act III, scene 1, for the Brünnhilde/Sieglinde interactions, the two voices equally accomplished and both perfectly cast.
Peter Sieffert is on his way down—but from what heights! He was 63 when this was filmed, and he still has all the vocal power of his younger years. But the tone is more husky and lacks bloom. There is also a wobble in the most taxing passages, like the act I finale. Even so, this is still an impressive performance, and one that few of his younger rivals could match. Georg Zeppenfeld is a reliable Wagner bass, but he seems miscast as Hunding. Maybe I’ve just seen him too often as Pogner, Marke, and Heinrich, but it is difficult to take him seriously as a bad guy. Nemirov has him groping Sieglinde to demonstrate his menace, but the aggression in his voice is more effective. Christa Mayer has an appropriately mature sound for Fricka, and plenty of character in her voice. She is a good balance to Kowaljow’s Wotan, whose voice is sufficient but not huge. All the words are there, and all the emotions, but he can’t compete with Kampe, who completely dominates the final scene.
Thielemann delivers a typically excellent account of the score. His tempos are generally slow but always fluid, and skillfully communicated to the singers. One big difference from the Karajan days of the Salzburg Easter Festival is that the Berlin Philharmonic has decamped, now spending its Easters at Baden Baden. But given the beautifully idiomatic performance here from the Staatskapelle Dresden, few are likely to complain. The woodwind solos are particularly elegant, though every section of the orchestra excels.
Given the huge stage, it is understandable that the camerawork is mostly close-ups, but, apart from a few arty slow zooms, the cameras are usually static, with unobtrusive editing. The surround sound on the Blu-ray is good, giving a sense of space and depth to both the stage and the pit. Subtitles are provided in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, and Japanese, suggesting that C Major are reaching out to a wide audience with this release. It should find a receptive audience in all those regions, though more for its musical virtues than its recycled visual conception.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:4