Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 21 July 2014

Liszt B Minor Sonata Richter

LISZT B Minor Sonata.  Transcendental Études: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11. Années de pèlerinage: Aux cyprès de la Villa d'Este.  Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17. Valse oubliée No. 3
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
PRAGA 350078 (SACD: 79:29)

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Classic Richter this. The B Minor Sonata brings out all the qualities that made his playing unique. It is mercurial, tempestuous and volatile, while always finely controlled. And, somehow, he manages to make the music unpredictable as well, quite a feat given the work’s ubiquity and the tight cohesion of its form. Tempos are extreme, the fast sections taken at a real lick, but then suddenly dropping away for the slower lyrical passages, where, on many occasions, time seems to stand still as Richter holds the first translucent chord, before confiding with us the tempo he is to take. Among modern interpreters, only Argerich comes close to this, but even she seems more grounded and rational, though they’re clearly kindred spirits when it comes to Liszt.
The rest of the programme is made up of selections from other Liszt works. We get eight Transcendental Studies (Richter was never one for complete sets), “Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este” from the Third Book of Annés de Pélerinage, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17, and Valses Oubliées No.3.  Richter can occasionally sound overwrought in some of these miniatures, too serious and symphonic for the music’s more modest ambitions, but he also occasionally finds the lightness the music requires, such as in “Feux follets”, which is given a sprightly and elegant reading.
The Sonata was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1965 (he also made a later, stereo, recording of the work, in 1966) when Richter was clearly at his peak in every respect. The shorter works were recorded in Eastern Europe - Prague, Moscow and Budapest - between 1956 and 1958. Despite the SACD remaster, the sound isn’t great. All, or most, of the tape noise has been removed, but the piano always sounds distant. There are a few pitch glitches in the Transcendental Studies too.  Fortunately, Richter’s playing overcomes all obstacles. The sheer immediacy of his playing and the focussed timbres he draws from the piano shine through, and the audio problems are soon forgotten.
The Sonata is divided into four tracks, reflecting one interpretation of the work’s structure, although perhaps not a universally accepted one, and the later works follow hard on its heels. (The first note of the Sonata begins the moment you press play, so you don’t get the crotchet rest at the start – in very minor quibble.) The ending of the Valses Oubliées seems a bit of an anticlimax – the programme just tails off rather than ending conclusively. Still, at almost 80 minutes, this is a generous programme, and everything here is well-worth hearing, although the Sonata is clearly the main draw. This disc is the first of a series of 12 Praga (Svjatoslav as they call him) Richter releases, all on SACD. The benefits of the format in this context are open to question, but the quality of the playing is not. Recommended.

Monday, 14 July 2014

BRAHMS, SCHOENBERG, Ensemble Epomeo, Orchestra of the Swan

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (sextet version)
Brahms: Serenade Op. 11 (arr. Bousted)
Ensemble Epomeo, Orchestra of the Swan, Kenneth Woods (cond)
Somm SOMMCD0139 (71:24)

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Both works here are better known in larger, later arrangements, but Ken Woods and his colleagues demonstrate that impressive clarity and focus can be achieved through the original incarnations. Verklärte Nacht is presented in its string sextet version, while the Brahms op. 11 Serenade is performed by an ensemble of nine, the forces for which it was originally written, although that score is lost and the version here was reconstructed by Alan Bousted in the 1980s.
Whether performed by sextet or string orchestra, Verklärte Nacht is usually interpreted to emphasise the dense textures, and half-lit effects of its richly voiced scoring; scene setting is usually the order of the day. But this group, the string trio Ensemble Epomeo with three extra players, instead strives for, and achieves, clarity of line and texture. The textures are appropriately bass heavy, and the two cellos dominate, but every line comes through with exceptional clarity. This gives the piece a new profile, with the complex but now clear counterpoint driving the music and leading the ear through the harmonic web. There is atmosphere here too, and much warmth in the ensemble’s sound, but that is never at the expense of the individual lines. My only complaint is that there is a slight reticence that holds back the magisterial climaxes. Those cadences, where suddenly a radiant major chord appears from the dense and increasingly dour lead-up, they don’t quite have the sense of exaltation you will hear in other recordings, especially of the orchestral version. Generally, though, this is an impressive recording, and one that exposes many details of the score that usually remain obscure.
The chamber version of the Serenade is similarly open in its textures and is presented with equal clarity and precision. This time round, though, there is less need for such an analytical approach. Even in its larger version, this work is all about clarity and directness of expression. Woods, who now moves from the cello desk to the podium, gives an appropriately bright and carefree account. The players interact well, and there is a clear unity of intent within the ensemble. A few slight tuning problems in the midrange woodwinds are the only technical problems to report with the playing. Sadly, the quality of the recording doesn’t match that in the Schoenberg. Despite the small size of the ensemble, many of the players, the winds especially, sound frustratingly distant. There is plenty of bass, but it often sounds boomy and unnatural. All of which is a shame, because this is otherwise and enjoyable and engaging reading.
Ken Woods, as ever, provides detailed and very readable liner notes. Both recordings are of live performances, full details of which are also provided in the liner. All round, a revealing and enjoyable disc, but recommended primarily for the Schoenberg.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Schubert Late Piano Sonatas Paul Lewis

Schubert Piano Sonatas D 784, 958, 959, 960
Paul Lewis, piano
Harmonia Mundi MHC 902165.66 (2 CDs)

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Paul Lewis must have been a very young man when Harmonia Mundi first signed him in the late 1990s. But their faith in him has proved well-founded, and has led to an impressive series of releases of the core solo and concerto repertoire, as consistently well performed and recorded as any comparable project of the modern era. Now the company has taken to repackaging and releasing some of these back issues, and is doing so in interesting ways. All of Lewis’ Beethoven and Schubert recordings are now available to download, and some are only available that way. There is no suggestion, though, that the company is giving up on physical media, which is a relief given the high production standards they always lavish. For this new release, an old recording has been combined with a recent one: Disc two (Sonatas D 959 and 960) was recorded in 2002, while disc one (D 784 and 958) was recorded in 2013. The consistency between the two recordings is remarkable, both in terms of Lewis’ interpretation and the high quality of the recording. And together, they make up a set of Schubert’s “Late” Sonatas that is arguably as good as any on the market.
Lewis never goes to extremes, but that doesn’t mean that he is ever middle-of-the-road either. His tempos are moderate and his rubato is minimal, although phrases are always elegantly shaped. Compare, for example, his opening of the Sonata in A Minor, D 784, with Uchida’s. Where she dwells on individual notes and rushes headlong into the dotted rhythms, Lewis instead plays the whole passage very evenly, and with a deft touch to his piano that gives this opening all the atmosphere it needs. As a pupil of Brendel, we might expect to hear emphatic articulation and a dryness to the phrasing. But while, Lewis certainly has the definite, focussed touch of Brendel, his is a more flowing, rounded Schubert.
Most significantly, Lewis always lets the melodies lead. Schubert rarely goes more than a few beats without introducing some melodic idea, and under Lewis’ hands all these lyrical lines take centre stage. The accompanying figures are varied and nuanced, giving a range of satisfyingly warm supporting textures, but the hierarchy is clear – the melodies always come first.
Both recordings were made at the Teldex Studio in Berlin, and both give a seemingly identical sound profile to the piano, warm but clear, and with the emphasis on immediacy and presence. Add to all that some fun packaging, with various pictures of Lewis holding a wicker basket of piano keys, those keys also printed on the discs themselves, and this adds up to a very attractive set.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Turangalîla-symphonie Luntu Hewitt

Messiaen: Turangalîla-symphonie
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Angela Hewitt, piano
Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, ondes Martenot
Ondine  ODE 1251-5 (SACD)

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Plenty to get excited about here. A Turangalîla on SACD, only the third I think. A new recording from Hannu Lintu and the Finnish RSO, a team rapidly developing a reputation for the clarity and precision of their work. And, most significantly, a recording of Angela Hewitt in the Turangalîla’s titanic solo piano role.

There are so many variables and so many interpretive choices with the Turangalîla that no recording is going to satisfy all tastes. Predictably (after his recent Ligeti release) Lintu emphasises clarity and transparency over emotion and drama, which given the turbulent passions of this score, and its continual pushing of expressive extremes, may  seem perverse. But the payoff is spectacular. The orchestra is on top form, and delivers all the inner detail that Lintu seeks. For all the yearning passions, there is a lot of maths in this score too, and rarely, if ever, have the minutiae of its structural logic -  its complex rhythms, its finely-judged instrumental textures – come through with such clarity. The SACD audio helps, and the sound engineering makes the most of both the quality of the playing and the potential of the technology.

Do we lose any of the emotion? Well, yes, we do a bit. Despite Messiaen’s carefully calculating approach, it often seems that he wants his working-out to be buried under the welter of sound, and Lintu never allows that to happen. Some of the extended tuttis feel constrained, of at least overly controlled. It’s not the rollercoaster we’ve come to expect, although the gentler ride is easier on the listener’s stamina.

No such concerns about the quieter passages though. The many soloists, in the orchestra and on the keyboards, are given the space to make their lines their own. Accompanying textures are brought right down, while still retaining their clarity. The greatest revelation here is the prominence that Lintu and the engineers allow the ondes and the piano. Again, the balance might not be exactly what Messiaen had in mind. The ondes spends more time reinforcing large orchestral textures than playing solo, so to hear it rise above the brass and percussion to take on a predominant role even at climaxes is unusual. But so too is the sound it makes, and the whole score takes on a more eerie and ethereal quality for the prominence of the ondes.

But best of all is Hewitt. It is an open question whether or not she needs the help the engineers give her to dominate. But whichever way, the platform she is given here allows her to present the solo part with the nuance we would expect from her, but that is rare for this work. She plays the complex part with effortless virtuosity, making the music sing, even in the most knotty passages. And she maintains a paradoxical sense of lightness and grace, even when fully projecting the thundering climaxes.

This version of the Turangalîla probably isn’t going to make it to the top spot, simply for the sacrifices in drama and intensity Lintu has to make for the sake of the clarity he desires. But it is a valuable document for the spotlight it shines on the complex structures that underpin the work. It is also well worth hearing for Hewitt, who makes a real solo out of the piano part, something that happens all too rarely with this work, which usually comes across primarily as an orchestral showpiece.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra Skrowaczewski

Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra, Symphony No. 1
NFM Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, conductor
ACCORD 196-2 (58:23)

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Poland really knows how to celebrate its composers. Anniversary celebrations, for everybody from Chopin to Panufnik, are typically marked with concerts of their music around the world, academic publications, and major recording projects, all lavishly subsidized by the state. And given the extraordinary talents that have emerged from the country in the last half century or so, the global music community is all the better off for it, even if it leaves many of us non-Poles with a distinct feeling of resentment that our own governments don’t promote or foster native talent in the same way.
It could be argued that Witold Lutosławski doesn’t need this kind of treatment. He certainly became a global new-music presence in the last few decades of his life, and major artists and record labels have ensured that his greatest works have had the exposure they deserve. Even so, there are always forgotten corners to any great composer’s catalog that warrant investigation. This, presumably, was the motivation behind the Witold Lutosławski Opera Omina series, instigated in his centenary year. This release is the fourth in the cycle, and if it is representative, then the whole enterprise looks very promising.
Stanisław Skrowaczewski is an interesting choice of conductor and, as it turns out, a good one. Given the amount of impulsive energy and youthful zest behind these early works, his age might seem to count against him—he was 89 when these recordings were made. On the other hand, Skrowaczewski is more or less of Lutosławski’s generation, and the two men knew each other well, even though Skrowaczewski has spent most of his career abroad. His obvious affinity with this music fits into a pattern that he has established in his recent recordings, giving interpretations—mostly of core repertoire—that speak of intelligence, engagement, and emotional commitment. He’s not the most physically active conductor on the podium these days (understandably), yet he is still able to give the music all the energy and life it needs. It is a combination that results in exceptional Bruckner, slightly idiosyncratic but still compelling Brahms, and Beethoven that seems completely reinvented through a long lifetime’s engagement.
So what about Lutosławski? The one over-riding impression that these live performances give is of a conductor and orchestra seeking to emphasize the profundity and importance of the music. Which isn’t to say that anything here is stuffy or reverential, but it is undoubtedly “symphonic” in every respect. Textures are always full, yet the many details of Lutosławski’s inventive orchestration are meticulously observed. Even when the tempos are fast, as in the Capriccio movement of the concerto for orchestra, nothing is ever throwaway.
The competition with the concerto for orchestra is fierce, and there is no point in arguing that this is the finest available. (On a Polish radio program last year, a panel of experts listened blind to all the available recordings and came down in favor of Edward Gardner’s Chandos version, a verdict I’ll happily endorse.) But Skrowaczewski’s is a reading brimming with musical intelligence. Everything is finely wrought, and everything happens for a reason. His tempos are agile and fluid, and he can bring a real sense of weight when required (at the opening for instance) and a sense of lightness when that is called for (such as in the second movement).
The First Symphony is represented by fewer recordings, and is widely seen as a lesser work. In fact, the liner notes tell us that Skrowaczewski himself tried to persuade the composer to withdraw it soon after its premiere. Perhaps it lacks the formal coherence of the concerto, but it’s just as inventive, with that continual sense of spontaneity that keeps Lutosławski’s music so engaging. Again, Skrowaczewski gives an interpretation that is excellent on its own terms, but that doesn’t quite match the best available, and I suspect consensus here would point to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The NFM Wrocław Philharmonic sounds like a world-class ensemble in the concerto, but this may be down to sheer familiarity with the work. In the First Symphony they don’t have that advantage, and while it is still a good performance, the clarity of texture that Lutosławski’s music relies isn’t so apparent. There are many good aspects to the orchestral playing though, especially the dark, rich tone of the lower strings. That seems to benefit particularly from the sound engineering, which, presumably in an attempt to create a realistic soundstage, brings the strings close but recesses the winds and percussion to a fault.
Minor quibbles only, though, and the recording is recommended nonetheless. Fans of Skrowaczewski will certainly want it for the distinctive readings he gives. (I’m looking forward to the day when the Polish musical establishment puts its resources behind a celebration of Skrowaczewski’s compositions; it can only be a matter of time.) One other major selling point is the packaging and accompanying literature. The slipcase arrangement is attractive indeed, and the accompanying booklet it contains includes a fascinating essay by Rafał Augustyn, which addresses the vexed issue of the folksong sources for the concerto for orchestra. It is lavishly illustrated with musical examples from the compendium the composer originally consulted.
These may not be the only recordings of the two works available, nor are they the best, but they are still very good, and if the series continues to maintain these production values, it may earn an authoritative status, irrespective of the competition. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 38:1.