Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Yerin Kim First and Last Words Schumann and Schnittke

Schumann Variations on the Name “Abegg.” Allegro, op. 8. Schnittke 5 Preludes and Fugue (1954–5). Five Aphorisms
Yerin Kim (piano)
SHEVA  217 (62:30)

Pianist Yerin Kim has chosen an adventurous and notably unvirtuosic concept for her debut recording. First and Last Words presents the earliest and latest piano works of Schumann and Schnittke. The result is a curiously angled double portrait, charting very different stylistic trajectories, and arguably doing both composers a disservice by omitting their finest piano works. But the musical connections that Kim draws are fascinating and make for satisfying listening, even if the biographical and historical significance remains tenuous at best.
Stylistic connections between Schumann and Schnittke are not obvious, and Kim makes no effort to trace specific links in her liner note. Both composers used note ciphers in their music, as in the Abegg Variaions that opens the recital. Also, Schnittke saw his musical outlook as intrinsically Germanic (his father was from Frankfurt), and there is a strong 19th-century Romantic element to much of his work as well. In 1993–4, Gidon Kremer organized a festival of chamber music by the two composers at the Philharmonie in Cologne. Hans-Joachim Wagner was given the unenviable task of drawing connections in program notes for the recitals. Those notes were published together in the volume Begegnungen: Alfred Schnittke und Robert Schumann : Beiträge zu einer Kammermusikreihe in der Kölner Philharmonie (Dohr, 1999), for readers who want to explore the connections further.
Yerin Kim is mostly happy to let the music speak for itself. Her approach to both composers is emotive and fluid. The readings are dramatic, although climaxes are rarely emphatic, and the loudest sections, especially of the Schnittke, lack a sense of physical presence. Perhaps the issue is one of taste, of Kim always making the piano sing, rather than emphasising the physical, percussive aspect of the instrument—something that both composers explore.
Schumann, both early and late, sounds lyrical and elegant in Kim’s hands. In the early works, the Abegg Variations and the Allegro, op. 8 (a first movement of an abandoned sonata), she makes the most of the rhetorical gestures—the imposing introductions, the consciously reticent transitions and developments—but also lets melodies run freely. The Ghost Variations are more austere, and while Kim retains the flexibility of phrasing, her flourishes are now limited to occasionally leaning on melodic ornaments or subtle weighting of broken-chord gestures.
Schnittke’s Five Preludes and Fugue is a student work, from 1953–54. The composer considered them juvenilia, and they were not published in his lifetime. Since his death, the set has gone under two titles (the manuscript has none). The first recording was released in 2010, played by Drosostalitsa Moraiti on the Toccata album Schnittke Discoveries (TOCC 0091). There, the set was called Six Preludes for Piano. Since then, Sikorski has published the set as Five Preludes and Fugue for Piano, so that looks set to become the official title. The Preludes were not included in the Simon Smith album of 2014 (Delphian 34131), Alfred Schnittke Complete Piano Music (though that was before the Sikorski publication), making this only the second recording. The Preludes play out as a series of stylistic studies, though we probably shouldn’t read too much into that: They are more likely composition exercises than early experiments in polystylism. But whichever way, they provide an effective transition from the Schumann. Kim mentions Chopin and Liszt as influences, and her performances locate the music squarely in the 19th century.
The Five Aphorisms for piano and reciter date from 1990. In performance, the short works are intended to be interspersed with poems by Joseph Brodsky. The choice of poems is left up to the performers, a clever ruse, given that Schnittke’s fame by this point had spread across the Russian- and English-speaking worlds, and that Brodsky wrote in both languages. The music is in Schnittke’s late style, ascetic and bleak. Kim invokes this atmosphere well, with a fairly neutral performance style, still legato, but now with only impulsive rubato at climaxes. Schnittke’s notated dynamics occasionally go to extremes, but Kim retains a continuity across each of the movements. That increases the sense of bleakness, although it compromises the textural variety—the first-movement chorale in particular could be more ethereal, and more separated from its context.
Kim’s notes for the Five Aphorisms are a little misleading. She writes: “By this time in 1990, Schnittke was mainly living in Hamburg Germany after being exiled from Russia. He had survived a few strokes by this point and was physically remote and weak.” Schnittke was not exiled from Russia: he was a dual citizen and dual resident, maintaining an apartment in Moscow. And by 1990 he had only suffered one stroke, the next would be in 1991. But Kim’s documentation is fully redeemed in the last two pages. This is at least the sixth commercial recording of Aphorisms, after Boris Berman (still the first choice for all of Schnittke’s piano music), Anna Gourari, Denys Proshayev, Simon Smith, and Peter Martin. But all the previous releases I have heard have ignored the stipulation that Brodsky’s poetry should be recited between the movements. There is no reciter with Kim either, but she has done the next best thing and selected five Brodsky poems, one for each of the movements, and reproduced them in the liner—a nice touch that elevates the whole project.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:3.

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.