Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Bach Without Words Anna Christiane Neumann

Anna Christiane Neumann, Anja Kleinmichel (pn) 
GENUIN 15375 (69:33)

Transcriptions of chorales and chorale preludes for piano and piano four hands by Kurtág, Riemenschneider, Busoni, Neumann, Lambert, Kempff, Berners, Howells, Walton, Willner, Vaughan Williams, H. Cohen, Reger, Bridge, M. Hess
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It’s not often Ralph Vaughan Williams and György Kurtág appear on the same track listing. The list of arrangers and transcribers here is amazingly diverse, although, perhaps predictably, the results are more unified. But each has a subtly different take on Bach’s music, and the results are continually fascinating, engaging, and all do justice to the great man’s work.
The arrangers’ art is not the primary focus of this album. It is titled, Bach Without Words and, as its slightly pretentious liner notes (with quotes from Heidegger, among others) explain, the primary issue here is the viability of Bach’s vocal music separated from their texts. This must be a greater concern for native German speakers than it is for the rest of us, and the extent to which the album needs to justify itself may give us more secular listeners pause for thought—how much are we sacrificing by not engaging with Bach’s words and the liturgical culture in which he worked?
The sheer popularity and fame of many of the transcriptions here suggests that the battle for them is already won, and despite the pianist’s stated aims, the over-riding impression is of a celebration of the art of transcription, and of the versatility of Bach’s music, even his vocal music, in contexts beyond those for which it was intended.
The program moves between Bach’s chorale harmonizations and his chorale preludes based on the same themes, typically presenting the chorale followed by a prelude based on it. The chorale harmonizations are taken from the Albert Riemenschneider anthology, and if, like me, you spent many undergraduate years studying this purely as a textbook, you will be pleasantly surprised at what satisfying piano music it makes. Pianist Anna Christiane Neumann, no doubt with the words of each chorale going round her mind as she plays, gives elegant and beautifully shaped renditions, appropriately strict in style, but always with the emotional experience of the listener as the primary concern.
Among the arrangers of chorale preludes are some familiar suspects. The appearance of Busoni’s name comes as no surprise, and the warm, flowing textures that he achieves with this music are satisfying indeed. But the success of every selection here calls into question the amount of input that each of the arrangers has had. Obviously, the pedal line must be integrated into the music for (mostly) two hands, then there is the question of realizing ornaments, and finally of adding phrasing and dynamics in ways that the organ might not be able to express. Frank Bridge deals with the extra notes from the pedal part in Komm süßer Tod, BWV 478, with some audacious broken chords, but all the other arrangers manage to avoid this. Arthur Willner’s (1881–1951) arrangement of “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, is the most ambitious downsizing project. It fits well into the tone of the album, even though, unlike in the organ music, there is a definite feeling of missing out, on extra counterpoint as much as on vocal and instrumental texture.
Neumann gives excellent performances throughout. Most of these arrangements are from the Romantic era, and that is exactly where she locates the album’s aesthetic, playing with a warm, rounded tone, and not skimping on the sustain pedal when required. The Mendelssohn-Saal of the Leipzig Gewandhaus has an ideal acoustic, the perfect balance of clarity and warmth, captured with gratifying immediacy by the engineers.
To further vary the program, Neumann is joined in five numbers by a colleague, Anja Kleinmichel, for four-hand arrangements by Reger and Kurtág. The Reger, which closes the program, is a curiously restrained transcription of Air on a G-String, which has a certain austere beauty but feels bare without any ornamentation, written or improvised. The Kurtág, by contrast, is the absolute highlight of the disc. The sheer imagination that he puts into distributing the lines among the four hands far surpasses any of the more dutiful Romantic-era contributions. Kurtág transcribes Bach to play with his wife, Márta. She is the professional pianist, and gets all the knotty counterpoint. He plays the cantus firmus, often leaning over her to play between her hands, or taking the lines right up to the top of the piano. He’s also fond of doubling the chorale themes at a distance of two or three octaves, an effect at once stately and ethereal. The Kurtág arrangements here are the opening Sonata from Cantata 106; O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687; and Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her’, BWV 711. All are given exemplary and profoundly moving readings by Neumann and Kleinmichel. Simply exquisite.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Bruckner Symphony No. 5 Lance Friedel London Symphony Orchestra

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (Nowak ed.)
Lance Friedel conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
MSR 1600 (73:19) SACD

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An impressive release this, and a near miraculous one, given how rare studio recordings by symphony orchestras have become in recent years. The liner notes give little away about how MSR managed to finance the venture, and to book the London Symphony Orchestra, no less. The venture is even more surprising given the relatively unknown conductor, Lance Fridel. MSR has had a previous success with him, a disc of Nielsen with the Aarhus Orchestra (1150), but even so, his name alone is unlikely to promote sales. That of the London Symphony might, however, and the SACD format – a luxury that almost always rewards in Bruckner.
Artistically, the gamble pays off. Friedel shows himself here to be an accomplished and distinctive Brucknerian. He comes as close as any I have heard to the Holy Grail of modern Bruckner interpretation: a performance that is fashionably fast and dynamic, yet which also retains the grandeur and depth that so many present-day conductors are happy to sacrifice. The running time of 73:19 places this among the fastest I’ve heard. Most of the time is made up in the first movement, which here runs to 18:35, against an average of 22-25. The scherzo is on the fast side as well, although the Adagio and finale are closer to the average.
The opening of the first movement is slow, and the initial tuttis are suitably monumental. But when Bruckner gets busy with his thematic working, Friedel increases the tempo. On the whole it works well. Although the tempos are fast, they are a supple too, and Friedel knows how to structure the music at every level. I was sometimes frustrated by the lack of space between the phrases, which tend to run one into another. Given the generous acoustic (of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak – what a luxury to hear the London Symphony recorded somewhere other than the dreadful Barbican Hall!), there are many opportunities to let the sound die away before the tackling the next phrase. But that’s not Friedel’s way, he’s thinking in longer paragraphs and rarely lets the momentum drop. It’s an effective approach, although some of the tuttis later on sometimes sound a little rushed, and while he creates an appropriate sense of finality in the coda (no mean feat), the final chords of the first movement are a little lacking in gravitas.
The second movement is taken at a more traditional pace, even slower than many versions in some passages. Excellent balance here, for instance with the pizzicato accompaniment to the opening oboe solo. Friedel gives the woodwind soloists ample space the phrase eloquently. He also leads the strings in some delicious phrasing as the movement develops. The scherzo is also characterized by impressive balance, especially with the brass, who provide weight but without excessive volume. At 13:31 this is a fast reading of the scherzo, but it’s power and dynamism come from carefully weighted accents and precise playing as much as from sheer speed.
In the opening of the finale, Friedel recounts faithfully the various tempos of the earlier movements as their themes are reprised, still managing to integrate them effectively. The chorale, when it first appears, seems a little underpowered. But Friedel knows what he is doing, and gradually builds up from this point to the coda, adding volume, but again using increasing agogic weight and impact from the brass as much as he does sheer power to achieve the effect.
All round, this is an approach that makes the most of the world-class orchestra the MSR has put at Friedel’s disposal. Sound quality is excellent, with renowned engineer Phil Rowlands giving his very best. (Just another brief plea here: please LSO, can we have some recordings from this venue on the LSO Live label.) Interpretively, the fast tempos, especially in the first movement, may be unforgivable for some, but they are not fast-fast – we’re in Günter Wand or Marcus Bosch territory here, not the super-slick world of Neeme Järvi or Thomas Dausgaard. And, in the finale, Friedel makes an excellent case for his tempo choices by integrating them all towards a compelling, and monumental, climax. All round then, an impressive Bruckner Five, certainly a contender in the work’s rapidly growing SACD discography.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Dutilleux Cello Concerto Emmanuelle Bertrand

Dutilleux: Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher
Debussy: Cello Sonata
Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain (Cello Concerto)

Emmanuelle Bertrand cello
Pascal Amoyel piano
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester
James Gaffigan conductor
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902209
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Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto has been well served on disc, both in the number and quality of recordings available. Even so, this new version from Emmanuelle Bertrand stands out. Bertrand has an attractive and distinctive tone that is ideal for Dutilleux’s music, always focussed and deeply lyrical. Vibrato is used sparingly, and is all the more effective for it. Her dynamics go to extremes, and she has an impressive knack for making quiet music atmospheric without ever becoming indistinct.
The superior audio from Harmonia Mundi does Bertrand many favours.  It also allows us to hear the scintillating array of colours in Dutilleux’s orchestral writing. The balance between cello and orchestra is particularly impressive, a combination, no doubt, of Bertrand’s projection, conductor James Gaffigan’s sensitivity and the engineers’ skills. The recording joins a long list of impressive renditions, going all the way back to dedicatee Rostropovich. Bertrand stands up well to such comparisons, her distinctive tone bringing real personality to the performance, and the audio quality superior to any other version I’ve heard.
The programme is unusual but effective. It begins with Dutilleux’s solo work Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, before moving on to the Debussy Cello Sonata, and finally the Dutilleux concerto. The continuity between the works is impressive, and when the concerto begins, with just the cello alone, it feels like a transition between the two composers. That said, the ending of the concerto is a slightly indecisive way to end a programme, more a whimper than a bang.
Microphones are placed close in the recordings of the chamber works, and heavy breathing is sometimes heard, but the cello tone that results is close to ideal. There are some scratchy sounds in the louder passages of the Strophes, but they quickly pass. The Debussy is given a very fine reading, warm and lyrical but never sentimental. And again, ideal balance. It sometimes sounds like the piano is being suppressed, especially the big chords in the upper register, but the intended effect is achieved: the ear always follows the cello line.
Excellent liner notes from Pierre Gervasoni (look out for his Dutilleux biography later this year) tell us that the composer was a lifelong devotee of Pelléas et Mélisande, a work that leaves clear traces in the Cello Concerto. He also tells us that one of Dutilleux’s earliest pieces was a suite for cello and piano, which might have made a more obvious choice for this disc over the Debussy. No complaints though – the Debussy is a real highlight. As so often with Harmonia Mundi, actually finding the track information in the packaging can be difficult, and the ordering of the works is made all the more confusing by the fact that they are listed in the order concerto–Strophes–sonata on the back cover. Short running time might be another complaint, only 48 minutes. But recommended nevertheless, as much for the Debussy sonata as for the Dutilleux concerto.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Jacob Shaw Debut

Jacob Shaw Debut

Brahms: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
Britten: Cello Suite No. 3
Shaw: A Brit in Denmark
Bloch: Prayer
Wallensbourg: Persian Samā
Casals: El Chant dels Ocells
Wang Liping/Henderson: Song of the Burial of Flowers
Jacob Shaw cello
José Gallardo piano

Jacob Shaw is a young British cellist based in Copenhagen, and, as the title makes clear, this is his debut recording. It’s really two albums in one: The first disc, which was recorded in 2009, is devoted to the Brahms Cello Sonatas, while the second, which is more recent, offers more adventurous fare, the Britten Third Suite and some folk tune arrangements from around the world. It all adds up to a fascinating portrait, and gives a rich and varied picture of the artist.
Shaw’s tone is rich, but has a distinctive woody quality which he uses to valuable expressive effect. It allows him to sound intimate, even at louder dynamics and in fast music. It is not a lyrical sound, as such, but it never impedes the melodic flow. That is particularly evident in the Brahms, where the focus of his sound keeps the ear’s attention with the cello, even when set against complex accompanying textures. Shaw, and pianist José Gallardo, give expressive but disciplined readings of the two sonatas, finding an ideal balance between the Romantic language and the Baroque allusions. Audio quality, here and on the second disc, is excellent, although there is some peak distortion on the piano at some of the climaxes, a mastering issue perhaps but only a minor irritation.
The second disc is the more interesting of two, both for its unusual programming and for the insights it offers into Shaw’s musical tastes. The Britten Third Suite invites comparisons with Rostropovich, for whom it was written, and indeed, Shaw’s tone and musical sensibilities often call Slava to mind. The austere beauty of Britten’s music is powerfully conveyed, without any histrionics or excess; this is playing of impressive maturity and assurance.
The second disc is rounded out with folk songs arranged for cello. A Brit in Denmark is Shaw’s own arrangement of Scottish and Danish songs, and is followed by Persian, Jewish and Chinese songs as well as Casals’s popular El Chant dels Ocells. It is a tribute to the distinctive quality of Shaw’s playing that a consistency is maintained across this diverse collection. The Chinese work, Song of the Burial of Flowers, features traditional Chinese instruments (guqin, pipa, guzheng, yangqin, erhu), as performed by musicians from the Music Confucius Institute. The cello fits seamlessly into this ensemble, although it is a surprising soundworld in which to sign off the album.
As with everything else here, the Chinese track has an autobiographical dimension. The notes tell us that Shaw has recently been appointed International Music Ambassador for Dulwich Music College International (Asia), and that the Music Confucius Institute, which supplied the Chinese instrumentalists and provided financial support for the recording is at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. This album therefore represents the sheer diversity of a thoroughly international career (it was recorded in two countries as well, Germany and Denmark). All round a very satisfying listening experience, but particularly recommended for the Britten, music that seems perfectly suited to Shaw’s tone and temperament.