Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 28 August 2021

HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler Bertrand de Billy Theater an der Wien

HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler

Bertrand de Billy, cond
Wolfgang Koch (Mathis)
Kurt Streit (Albrecht of Brandenburg)
Franz Grundheber (Riedinger)
Manuela Uhl (Ursula)
Raymond Very (Hans Schwalb)
Katerina Tretyakova (Regina)
Martin Snell (Lorenz von Pommersfelden)
Oliver Ringelhahn (Sylvester von Schaumberg)
Magdalena Anna Hofmann (Countess Helfenstein)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Vienna SO
NAXOS 0130 (Blu-ray: 190:00)


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Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony is one of his most accomplished and well-known works. The symphony was composed as a precursor and companion to an opera on the same subject, but the success of the earlier work has had the effect of almost completely obscuring the latter. Fortunately, they share much music, the best music of the opera, so listeners coming to fresh to the stage work should be primed to its musical language. The work is set in Germany (Mainz specifically) in the early 16th century, and addresses issues of religion, censorship, and power, against the backdrop of both the Reformation and the German Peasant’s War, 1524–1525. As those familiar with the symphony will know, this scenario induces music from Hindemith that combines high drama with extended liturgical allusions, not consciously archaic in style, but curiously transcendental. The narrative of the opera, complex as it is, makes clear the nature of this dichotomy: Hindemith is addressing highly dramatic historical events, while also interpreting their significance in spiritual and metaphysical terms. That abstraction increases as the opera goes on, increasing the challenges for the stage director from one scene to the next.

Briefly then: Matthias Grünewald (Wolfgang Koch) is a painter of altarpieces, under the patronage of the powerful Cardinal of Mainz, Albrecht (Kurt Streit). Grünewald is sympathetic to the Peasant’s Revolt, led by Schwalb (Raymond Very), and is also in love with Schwalb’s daughter, Regina (Katerina Tretyakova). A letter arrives from Martin Luther (no less) suggesting that the Protestant cause could be furthered by the Cardinal marrying, and plans are made. Grünewald’s loyalties are now divided, and he spends several scenes attempting to pacify the revolting peasants and protect the aristocrats they are targeting, including the Countess Helfenstein (Magdalena Anna Hofmann), whose husband is executed in the fourth scene. (In this production, the Countess is raped in this scene, a gratuitous addition.)  Eventually, Grünewald and Regina retreat into the forest, where Grünewald experiences a series of mystical visions, which place the preceding events in a broader spiritual frame, transcending the various conflicts.

This production from the Theater an der Wien is directed by Keith Warner, who brings welcome visual subtlety to a story that could easily degenerate into graphic violence and crude allegory. The set (designer Johan Engels) is on a rotating stage, at its center a huge replica of a carved figure of Christ on the cross. As it revolves, it reveals three scenes, beneath the figure’s left and right arms, and one above his head. This last is particularly effective: it is used initially for the Cardinal’s reception in scene 2, where the outstretched arms above the action are particularly evocative of a liturgical setting. The opera was completed in 1935, and connections between Grünewald’s struggles and those of Hindemith under the Nazi regime are hard to ignore. There is also a long discourse on book burning in the second scene, something that triggers associations with the Nazis these days, just by default. Impressively then, Warner studiously avoids references to the Nazis or to any 20th-century history. Costumes are in that sort of drab 19th-century style that stage designers use when they are trying to avoid specific historical allusions. Instead, the transition through the story from the corporeal events of the early scenes to the transcendental discourses of the conclusion are represented through a process of increasing abstraction. Relics of saints are another subject of the narrative, and in one of the later scenes, the stage is filled with pristine glass coffins, each containing an elegantly decrepit corpse, an arresting visual device. But Warner is too reticent with the vision scenes at the conclusion. The narrative becomes alarmingly complex here, with the visions involving the appearance of one character from earlier in the story, but who is then misidentified by Grünewald as another character. The staging offers few clues to the significance of these mixed associations. It also misses an opportunity for lavish spectacle—we hear choirs of angels, for example, but then the chorus appears, still in their drab civvies.

Visually, then, the earlier part of the production is the most satisfying. The titular protagonist is Grünewald, of course, and Wolfgang Koch gives a serviceable account. His voice lacks flair, but he embodies the drama, both musically and in stage presence. Perhaps a low-charisma singer was deliberately cast, because the real interest in these early scenes is the Cardinal, sung by the impressive Kurt Streit. Hindemith compromises the gravitas of the Cardinal’s position by writing for a high tenor (if he were writing today, it would probably be a countertenor), and Streit perfectly embodies the hollow pomp of the character, initially appearing in gaudy red leathers, in high contrast to the monochrome setting.

Though an accomplished work, both dramatically and musically, Mathis der Maler is not staged often. That may be because of the demands it makes on the cast. Three strong tenors are required, the Cardinal, Schwalb, and Sylvester, the army officer, here Oliver Ringelhahn. The three female leads are also demanding, Regina, the Countess, and Ursula (Manuela Uhl), the Protestant aristocrat suggested as the Cardinal’s bride. This production clearly benefits from the vocal resources available to the Theater an der Wien. All of the roles are given a serviceable reading, and if none of the voices stands out, for purity or power, that only increases the sense of ensemble. Some may hear Wolfgang Koch as a weak link, but the production copes by finding dramatic and musical interest in the other characters.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy gives a flowing and discursive account of the score. He prioritizes narrative flow over dramatic intensity, and Hindemith’s often dissonant climaxes sometimes feel underplayed. But he communicates well with the singers, and skillfully co-ordinates the many contrapuntal ensembles. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra are generally in fine form, though the tone of the string section is no match for that of their more famous neighbors. Special mention should go to the percussion and lower brass sections, who dominate this score and give excellent performances here.

The clear picture from the Blu-ray technology shows that the singers are wearing head mikes, and the balance between stage and pit is excellent. Frustratingly, though, there is no surround sound offered, just stereo, a serious omission for a Blu-ray release. The filming, by Peter and Paul Landsmann, is good for the first four scenes, unobtrusive, but with discreet close-ups that follow the music and action well. But then after the interval, everything changes. Suddenly we have camera angles from all over the place: the camera on the floor of the stage, in a box adjacent to the top of the proscenium. A curious change, and wholly unnecessary. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Japanese, and Korean. There are no extras.

The rarity of productions of this opera is reflected by its recording history. The most famous account is from Kubelík, and, given that the ubiquitous criticism is that Fischer-Dieskau could not handle the title role, we should perhaps be more sympathetic to Koch on the present account. Elsewhere, an early version from Gerd Albrecht and a more recent one from Simone Young with Hamburg Opera have both received positive notices. Incredibly, though, this seems to be the first ever video release of the opera. If so, it is a much-belated debut. That makes it a welcome release, one that captures the spirit of this complex but compelling work, even if Warner’s production, and Billy’s conducting, both shortchange its dramatic and mystical dimensions. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45

Friday, 20 August 2021

FURTWÄNGLER Symphony No. 1 Haimor

FURTWÄNGLER Symphony No. 1 

Fawzi Haimor, cond; Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen

CPO 555 377-2 (2 CDs: 88:14)


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The success of Furtwängler as a recording artist has been a mixed blessing for his own music on records. He considered himself first a composer and only second a conductor, but the flourishing of his latter career meant that the majority of his compositional activity was early on. The later music is a mix of chamber and orchestral works, a piano quintet, two violin sonatas, a piano concerto (Symphonic Concerto), and three numbered symphonies (an unnumbered symphony dates from 1902). Of these, the Second Symphony is by far the most well-known, a magnum opus although far from a masterpiece. It demonstrates the qualities and flaws of Furtwängler’s mature style. The major flaw is a tendency towards large-scale, expansive structures, which, although in traditional forms, are not supported by the scale or invention of his melodic writing. But if you can overlook this, Furtwängler’s Second has much to offer. He has a conductor’s ear for orchestral color, and although the influences of his favorites are clear—most significantly Bruckner and Mahler—he has a distinctive voice and all identifiable influences are clearly well-absorbed.

The Second is well represented on disc, but its catalog demonstrates another major problem: you really need the composer himself on the podium. The go-to recording is Furtwängler’s studio account with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1951, but his four live accounts, all with different orchestras, are similarly authoritative. Since then, the work has been taken up by several conductors, most of whom had a personal relationship with Furtwängler himself and aspired to his podium presence: Jochum, Barenboim, Asahina. But none are able to bring the combination of gravitas and tempo flexibility that Furtwängler achieves, and that proves vital here. The First Symphony, then, is at a major disadvantage, as Furtwängler never performed or recorded it himself. He was apparently unhappy with the work, withdrawing it 1943, and then tinkering with the score for the rest of his life. But prior to this current recording, two earlier versions have been released, George Alexander Albrecht conducting the Staatskapelle Weimar (Arte Nova 76828 2), and Alfred Walter conducting the State Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra (Opus Arte 8.223295), the latter one of a series of releases from Opus Arte in the early 90s that covered most of Furtwängler’s significant orchestral and chamber music.

The First Symphony was composed between 1938 and 1941. The impetus was a slow movement that Furtwängler had written in 1908, that became the basis for the First Symphony’s Adagio. My earlier contention that Furtwängler had a distinctive voice is supported by the similarly in style and tone between the First Symphony and the Second. In both cases, we hear elements of Bruckner and Mahler, but if you know the Second Symphony, the composer of the First will be immediately apparent. Just for the record, in the First Symphony, the opening of the Adagio borrows from the opening of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Eighth, and the ending of the work resembles that of Mahler’s Third. But connections with Furtwängler’s Second include an insistent and emphatic quality to the voice-leading, prominent bassoon in the quiet passages, and an extraordinary Bacchanalian spirt to many of the tuttis. The two works are similar in scale and duration, and so the First cannot escape similar criticisms about lack of structural focus and imbalance between aphoristic motifs and their extended, if always rigorous, development. But the second movement Scherzo deserves mention as an honorable exception. This is a rare moment of lightness from Furtwängler, and the light woodwind filigrees that characterize the movement are continually engaging and inventive—a real highpoint of the work.

I had previously written off Furtwängler’s First Symphony on the basis of the Alfred Walter recording, and if you are in the same boat, I’d encourage you to give it a second chance with this new one. In comparison, Walter seems to be trying to compensate for the music’s excessive breadth by taking fast tempos and keeping the tuttis under tight control. Where Fawzi Haimor takes 88:14, the Walter is only 77 minutes. (The Albrecht, which I have not heard, times out at 83:12, suggesting that the Walter is the real outlier.) But Fawzi Haimor gives the sort of account that you could imagine from Furtwängler, broad and flowing, with a real focus on the long lines, and always with a keen ear for orchestral color. The first movement makes extensive use of a short motif, which in Walter’s hands become a hectoring and nauseatingly repetitive device. That might be Furtwängler’s bad, but in this new account, every return of the idea is different in tone and texture, wholly avoiding any sense of repetition. The Württembergische Philharmonie also plays much better than the Slovak orchestra and has clearly been prepared well for the score’s many challenges. A lack of depth and richness to the string tone confirms that this is a regional German orchestra rather than one of the big names, and there is also some shaky woodwind ensemble in the finale, but these are minor concerns. CPO provides demonstration quality audio for the project, giving the orchestra valuable presence and particularly benefiting the bass drum, prominent in the first movement.

Fawzi Haimor is an American conductor, and may be familiar to audiences there as a former assistant conductor to the Pittsburgh Symphony. He has since pursued a career in Europe and was music director of the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen when this recording was made in 2019, although his contract there has since expired. On the basis of this recording, he is a major talent, and one to watch. This piece is very much a conductor’s symphony, and comparison with the Walter recording shows that it stands or falls on the strength of the conductor’s interpretation. As with Barenboim and Asahina with the Second Symphony, there is a strong feeling here that Haimor aspires to fill the shoes of Furtwängler-as-conductor. To his credit, this compelling account justifies that ambition.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Boten der Liebe – Wagner and Mahler Vogler Quartet

WAGNER (transcribed and recomposed by Andreas Höricht) Tristan und Isolde: Prelude. Wesendonck Lieder
MAHLER (transcribed and recomposed by Andreas Höricht) Streichquartett Nr. 1.0, A-Moll
Voyager Quartet
SOLO MUSICA 358 (67:58)

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There wasn’t much Wagner going on at Bayreuth in 2020, so the Voyager Quartet took the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of the festival’s other favored composer, giving a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle at Wahnfried for a “small but enthusiastic audience.” The quartet then returned in December to record this album, entitled Boten der Liebe (Messages of Love), an innovative reimaging of music by Wagner and Mahler. Works are chosen that link the two composers to women, Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck and Mahler to Alma, and these are “transcribed and recomposed” by the quartet’s viola player, Andreas Höricht.

For all its innovation, the dramatic ambitions of this project are modest, as is demonstrated by the cool reading of the Tristan Prelude that opens the program. Reducing the textures to four voices has the effect of simplifying and clarifying Wagner’s harmonies and textures. The ensemble performs with care and precision, and the acoustic of the main hall at Wahnfried, while generous, does not compromise that effect. Microphones are placed close, creating intimacy, although also catching a lot of breathing and extraneous noise. Then follows an arrangement of the Wesendonck Lieder. This time, the quartet expands the scale of the voice and piano original, and the settings sit mid-way between the Lieder and the orchestral textures that Wagner later fashioned from the music in Tristan and Isolde. The effect resembles Uri Caine’s lounge version of the Liebestod on his album Wagner e Venezia, although, for the time being at least, Höricht sticks closer to the original music.

But when he gets on to Mahler, Höricht takes greater liberties. The following work is credited to Mahler, but is titled Streichquartett Nr. 1.0, A-Moll. It begins with an arrangement of Mahler’s 1876 piano quartet movement, an effective reworking, even if the rolling piano textures sound labored when transferred to the lower strings. The second movement is marked Adagietto, so no prizes for guessing where that is taken from. But Höricht includes a deft transition into it from the piano quartet movement, an effective device. Like the Tristan Prelude, the Adagietto is performed with great reserve. It is not fast (11:46), but there is very little vibrato, and the climaxes are always controlled. Movement 3 is the Adagio opening of the 10th Symphony. Or that is where it starts, at least. Höricht takes the extended harmonies of the movement’s pained climaxes as license to move into a more modern sound world, and the fourth movement, Allegro, appears to be entirely of his own devising. It is an effective conclusion, although crediting it to Mahler seems dishonest.

Another interesting pandemic project, then, and a demonstration that Bayreuth did not completely write off 2020. But the reserved performances sit uneasily with the theme of Messages of Love, even if the intimacy of the Wahnfried setting gives everything here a personal touch.

Friday, 2 July 2021

STRAUSS Elektra Salzburg Festival

STRAUSS Elektra Salzburg Festival
Franz Welser-Möst, cond.
Aušrinė Stundytė, Elektra
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Klytemnestra
Asmik Grigorian, Chrysothemis
Derek Welton, Orest
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Vienna Philharmonic
UNITEL 804404 (Blu-ray: 120:00)


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When live performances tentatively resumed in the summer of 2020, most were small-scale affairs in front of modest audiences, or even just cameras for webstreams. But the Salzburg Festival aimed higher. That year was the 100th time the festival had taken place, an added impetus to stage an event as large-scale and “normal” as possible. The festival opened with this new staging of Elektra, a work that would be impossible to downsize, given the scale of the orchestra and the importance of the chorus. Fortunately, the producers had the cavernous Felsenreitschule at their disposal, allowing for as much social distancing as was required. In the event, that amounted to having the chorus positioned in an alcove stage left, although the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t seem particularly spread out in the pit. And stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski successfully harnessed Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s gritty psychological drama to ensure the staging had all the intensity and focus it needed, even with the singers widely spread across the stage.

Warlikowski is very much of the Regietheater school, and there is plenty of that on display here, although mostly in the first half hour. Instead of beginning with Strauss’s brutal opening chords, Warlikowski adds a prelude. Against a background of cicadas, Klytemnestra (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) comes to the front of the stage and gives a spoken monologue into a microphone. Presumably this is taken from the Sophocles, a fraught and irate justification of her murder of Agamemnon. When the opera proper begins, Agamemnon appears, all blood and gore, and silently observes the action. The setting is modern but ambiguous, and the costumes have a 30s feel. The stage is dominated by a long rectangular pool, through which various characters troop over the course of the story, a fairly blunt metaphor for psychological turmoil. There is also a large, room-like box that moves around the stage, its walls translucent so that the action inside can be illuminated or obscured through the lighting. All the murders take place in there, plus various other nightmare scenes, most memorably an autopsy. The box idea is effective in creating distance between the actual events and the more psychological realm of the sung discourse. However, Warlikowski has used it before, in his Lulu at La Monnaie, so the idea is starting to feel stale. One Regie cliché that grates is that everybody is smoking for the first half hour or so of the opera. Why? Who cares? There is also a naked woman paraded around the stage for the first 10 minutes, just for good measure.

When the story gets going, most of the action is discourse between two characters, and so these distractions become less relevant. And Warlikowski’s Personenregie turns out to me more effective than his mise en scene. The production is well cast, but is dominated throughout by the mesmerizing performance from Aušrinė Stundytė in the title role. Stundytė has worked with Warlikowski at least once before, Lady Macbeth in Paris, and he clearly knows how to make the most of her talents. Stundytė’s voice has an ideal combination of bite and resonance, it feels like she is speaking the words, and yet her sheer musicality is never in question. And she has a fantastically disturbing stage presence: erratic, flighty, unpredictable. Perhaps Warlikowski was aware that Stundytė could completely steal the show, and added the monologue for Klytemnestra to give her more presence in the narrative. But Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is another impressive voice here, and an uncompromising presence on the stage. Asmik Grigorian sings Chrysothemis with great power too. She sometimes swoops up to the highest notes, but when she reaches them, they are always secure. Derek Welton has the voice for Orest, but he seems to be a victim of Warlikowski’s conception. He wears a big wooly jumper that makes his bald head look small, and the idea seems to be that he is a victim of Elektra’s schemes as much as he is a perpetrator. Welton portrays the character well, even if the director limits his significance.

Franz Welser-Möst takes a while to get into his stride. He is always able to whip up the climaxes, but the quieter music needs intensity too. He manages that later on, but there are some dull moments in the first half hour. The Vienna Philharmonic are predictably excellent, and the rich string tone is particularly satisfying. The audio on the recording is very resonant, no doubt a result of the sheer scale of the Felsenreitschule, and of the limited audience not absorbing the sound as a full house would. The sound takes some getting used to, but the clarity, of both orchestra and singers, is never compromised. The video director, Myriam Hoyer, has to contend with a huge and widely distributed stage, and as a result we hardly ever see it in its entirety. But the close-ups are not too close, and there is little obtrusive camera movement. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Korean and Japanese.

Musically and dramatically, this is a convincing reading of Strauss’s psychodrama, and Warlikowski manages to give it a sense of claustrophobic intensity, despite the size of the venue. But the ending is the most convincing part, and it is only after watching the whole thing that the pieces fall into place. So, not a production for Regie-phobic audiences, and even those with a tolerance for it should be warned that every visual device and cliché of the Regie canon is indulged in the first half hour.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:2.


Thursday, 17 June 2021

Beethoven Schnittke Violin Concertos Vadim Gluzman

BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto. SCHNITTKE Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra 

Vadim Gluzman (vn); James Gaffigan, cond; Lucerne SO

BIS 2392 (SACD: 67:28)


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Most of the music on this album is by Beethoven, but the program is actually a homage to Alfred Schnittke and the diverse trends in his music of the 1970s. In 1974, Schnittke’s First Symphony was premiered, the work a manifesto of his “polystylistic” approach. Initially, Schnittke’s polystylism involved violent stylistic clashes between quotations of music from different eras. But it soon settled down into more subtle interactions between styles. His cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto was composed in 1975 and demonstrates this new approach, combining themes from the concerto with those of several 20th-century violin concertos, but always to highlight the similarities rather than the differences. But Schnittke’s output was moving in two different directions at the time. In 1972, his mother died, and many of his works in the following years took on a somber, memorial character in her memory. That trend is represented here by his Third Violin Concerto, written in 1978, a dark and quasi-liturgical piece in stark contrast both to Beethoven’s vibrant concerto and to Schnittke’s ingenious contributions to its cadenzas.

The first movement cadenza for the Beethoven was composed at the request of Mark Lubotsky, who began including it when he performed the concerto around the world. This proved hugely controversial, and immediately established Schnittke’s reputation as an iconoclast. The cadenza was soon taken up by Gidon Kremer, who also asked Schnittke to write cadenzas for the second and third movements. Kremer recorded the cadenzas with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips 6514 075). But the fad soon passed, and, to my knowledge, the Kremer is the only previous commercial recording of Schnittke’s cadenzas.

Between his First Symphony and his Beethoven cadenzas, Schnittke had become acquainted with the Berio Sinfonia. Where Schnittke’s First Symphony is an anarchic mix of styles and quotes, the third movement of Berio’s work is a carefully wrought tapestry of snippets from 20th-century orchestral works, all appearing in their original keys but all fitting together seamlessly. Schnittke’s first-movement cadenza is a similar project. It includes the timpani strokes that appear in Beethoven’s own cadenza to the piano version of the concerto. From here, he exploits the fact that the Bach chorale Es ist Genug, as quoted in the Berg Violin Concerto, is very similar to the rising scale theme of the Beethoven Concerto. He then weaves in quotations from the violin concertos of Bartók and Shostakovich, before coming back round to the duality between Beethoven and Bach/Berg, with which he opened. The second-movement cadenza is a brief, one-minute transition into the finale, with the finale cadenza is a more dramatic affair. The timpani returns, and 10 orchestral violins appear at the cadenza’s climax, segueing back to the main theme with a rising glissando-trill effect.

It seems churlish to complain about performers taking liberties with cadenzas, but Vadim Gluzman does so here. When Kremer recorded the work with Marriner, he made several changes and cuts. He made a major cut in the first movement cadenza, bars 91–98, and replaced the second movement cadenza with one of his own. He also prefaced the third movement cadenza with 8 bars, again presumably of his own invention, and removed about 6 bars of Schnittke’s cadenza as written. Gluzman does likewise. His accounts of the cadenzas follow all the cuts and additions in the Kremer recording, but he makes an additional cut in the first movement, bars 53–64 (wholly omitting the quote from Bartók’s First Concerto), and comes up with his own second movement cadenza, and brief downward-scale flourish. Performance-wise, Gluzman emphasizes the continuity over the contrast in the first movement cadenza. That is a shame, because Schnittke goes to some lengths to distinguish the Beethoven theme from the Bach/Berg theme, initially presenting them in arco and pizzicato respectively, a contrast that Gluzman plays down. But the payoff is a heightened unity to the cadenza that demonstrates Schnittke’s sheer skill in constructing it from untransposed quotations (Schnittke compared the task to building a house without nails).

The rest of the Beethoven Concerto is a workaday affair. The timpani at the start sound flaccid, although that rough-around-the-edges sound gives more impact to their unexpected reappearance in the cadenzas. James Gaffigan leads a clear but underinflected account from the Lucerne players. Gluzman plays with emphatic articulation and always into the strings, a very Russian sound in other words, that suits Beethoven’s declamatory utterances. There is a valuable clarity to Gluzman’s tone, but his lower register lacks weight, at least in this music, and the result is an occasional lack of drama and heft.

Gluzman’s catalog for BIS to date has focused primarily on modern music from Eastern Europe—his recent recording of the Pēteris Vasks Violin Concerto, “Distant Light” (BIS 2352) is a highlight—and so his stylistic sympathy for the Schnittke Third Concerto comes as no surprise. The work was written to be performed with the Berg Chamber Concerto, and is written for a similar ensemble. It moves from an erratic unaccompanied opening, via austere and quasi-liturgical wind textures to a neo-Romantic conclusion. Gaffigan handles all these moods well, and the precision of the Lucerne winds, combined with the trademark high-end audio from BIS, does the music full justice. Gluzman’s focused tone is ideal here, and he creates all the atmosphere the music needs without exceeding its chamber music scale. Among the four versions of the concerto now available, this is the clear favorite. Gidon Kremer’s box set of all four Schnittke concertos with Eschenbach (Teldec 3984-26866-2) is a useful reference, but lacks enthusiasm from all involved. The other leading contender is also from BIS (517), a 1991 account with Oleh Krusa and Eri Klas. That version is more febrile and unpredictable, but the faster tempos and cleaner textures in Gluzman’s account better suit the music’s contemplative and austere elegance.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.


Wednesday, 16 June 2021

SCHREKER Der ferne Klang Weigle

Sebastian Weigle, cond; Jennifer Holloway (Greta), Ian Koziara (Fritz), Nadine Secunde (Ein altes Weib), Barbara Zechmeister (Frau Graumann), Magnús Baldvinsson (Herr Graumann), Anthony Robin Schneider (Wirt), Iurii Samoilov (Ein Schmierenschauspieler), Dietrich Volle (Dr. Vigelius), Ch  of Frankfurt Op; Frankfurt Op and Museum O

OEHMS 980 (3 CDs: 156:26)


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This new recording of Schreker’s Der ferne Klang brings the opera full-circle. It was premiered at Frankfurt Opera in 1912, and this is the first recording of the work from that company. The opera has had a turbulent history in the intervening years. It was Schreker’s greatest success, and was performed regularly in Germany up until the Nazi era, when it was banned as Entartete Musik. Schreker moved to America, where he died in obscurity in 1934. Interest in the opera gradually revived from the late 80s, and two recordings were made in close succession, with the Hagen Philharmonic under Michael Halász in 1989 (Naxos 8660074-75) and with the Berlin RSO under Gerd Albrecht in 1990 (reissued as Capriccio 5178). Since then, several other contenders have joined the market. Leon Botstein led the American premiere of the work in 2007, and a recording of that concert performance was available for a time. There is also an SACD release of a staging from Augsburg under Dirk Kaftan (Ars 38080).

Ears prick up at the mention of hi-res audio, because Schreker reaches towards a sonic ideal in this opera that may be all but unattainable. He even writes that idea into his self-authored libretto. The story concerns a composer, Fritz, who imagines a “distant sound” within himself, but ends up destroying his own life, and that of his love, Greta, in pursuit of it. Schreker’s music is harmonically and texturally ambitious, employing a huge cast, chorus, and orchestra, and a harmonic language, which, while still tonal, is forward looking for its time. All previous accounts on disc have been found wanting in one way or another. The vocal demands on the cast are extreme, and the colors that Schreker seeks from the orchestra are ill-suited to a modest band situated in a theater pit.  

This new account is taken from live, staged performances, of a production directed by Damiano Michieletto. The sumptuous liner booklet offers tantalizing glimpses. Michieletto sets the story within a framing narrative, at an old peoples’ home, where the (surviving) characters look back nostalgically on the events. A lot of the mise-en-scène involves the principals front of stage, while shadowy actions are projected against a blue back-drop—just out of reach, like Fritz’s distant sound. The company is in a good position to do this music justice. They have a large chorus and orchestra and a good track record with Oehms for well-produced opera recordings. The recordings are made in-house, and the Frankfurt team employ close-range microphones, incorporated into the costumes, ensuring clarity and balance between stage and pit. There is some stage noise here, but it is never distracting.

Sebastain Weigle has his champions and his critics. All agree that he is a reliable conductor in the German Romantic repertoire, although some find him pedestrian. This recording supports both views. He understands the importance of orchestral color to this score, and brings out elegant textures from the orchestra. The lower winds—bass clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba—are particularly well represented. But the upper string tone is sometimes thin, and the celesta and harp could have been brought forward more—but we’re already back to the sonic ideals that even the composer himself acknowledges are unattainable. Weigle shapes the phrases carefully and clearly. Too much so perhaps: Gerd Albrecht is more flowing and free in his account. But the audio here is preferable to the Albrecht, arguably a more significant virtue in this music.

Greta, rather than Fritz, is the main character in the story, and has the most to sing. (Another important plot strand concerns her father losing her in a game of skittles and her protracted descent into prostitution.) It is therefore the most important role to cast, and American soprano Jennifer Holloway is up to the task. Her voice is bright and powerful with a well-controlled vibrato. As Fritz, tenor Ian Koziara doesn’t match her in vocal power, but he too has an attractive voice. Schreker often uses a device in which Greta and Fritz sing together, quiet and high in octaves in a tremulous tone, and the two singers seem to have been chosen specifically to bring off this effect. Elsewhere, Koziara’s lack of heft can be a liability, but careful post-production balancing keeps him to the fore. The rest of the large cast in generally strong. The only weak link is Barbara Zechmeister as Greta’s mother, which is unfortunate, as it is a major role.

Oehms, as ever, provide elegant packaging. The documentation includes a detailed essay about Schreker’s harmonic language, although some of the technical terms are garbled in translation. A libretto is included. Its only in German, but this is still progress, as this seems to be the first ever release to include one. Three CDs seems indulgent, when the other accounts are all on two, although that does mean no break in the second act. And while the discs themselves are very elegant, no clear indication is given as to which is which—to find the next act you have squint to read the catalog number.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:1.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Bruckner Michael Haydn Motets Philipp Ahmann

 Bruckner Graduale: Locus iste. Offertorium: Inveni David. Graduale: Christus factus est. Offertorium: Afferentur regi. Hymnus: Pange lingua. Graduale: Os justi. Motette: Ave Maria (1861). Hymnus: Vexilla regis. Graduale: Virga Jesse.

M. Haydn In Coena Domini ad Missam: Graduale: Christus factus est.  Responsoria in Sabbato Sancto: O vos omnes. Ecce quomodo moritur Justus. Graduale: Christus factus est. Salve Regina. Tenebrae factae sunt

 Philipp Ahmann, cond; MDR Leipzig R Ch PENTATONE 5186 868 (SACD: 61:52)


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This disc pairs motets by Bruckner with those of (Johann) Michael Haydn (1737–1806), Joseph’s younger brother and longtime court composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg. The liner notes, by Markus Schwering, explain the logic of the coupling. Both composers were raised in the tradition of “Austro-Danubian Catholicism,” and both are representative of a movement in Austrian church music that consciously moved away from prevailing Italian models. More compellingly, though, we know from surviving records at the St. Florian Monastery, where Bruckner was a choirboy, that Michael Haydn’s sacred works were regularly performed during that era, and so Bruckner must have known them well.

Haydn spent most of his career as a church musician, and sacred choral music dominates his catalog. Unaccompanied motets and hymns, however, only make up a small part of this (there are 47 Masses and seven oratorios among his larger choral works) and so the six works included here give a reasonably broad survey. Comparisons with Mozart (Haydn’s predecessor in the Salzburg post) are continually suggested by his high Classical style, but Haydn is more austere, and led more by harmonic progression than melodic line. Although the harmonic language is plainer than Bruckner’s, there are clear textural connections that may imply direct influence. In particular, a cadential device in Bruckner, where the upper lines move to the offbeat for a series of mild suspensions before coming together at the end of the phrase, and this is a favorite device for Haydn too. The Haydn selections include two settings of Christus factus est, and Bruckner’s famous setting is also included, offering direct comparisons. As Schwering notes, the fairly rapid modulations and the irregular phrase patterns in Haydn’s settings look forward beyond the Classical era, and those melismatic cadences link even more directly to Bruckner.

The selection of Bruckner motets is imaginative and spans his career 1861–1892. Several of the better-known motets are included, such as Locus iste, Os justi, and the 1861 Ava Maria, but most of the others are more obscure, or at least rarely anthologized. Trombones are included, but only for two numbers, Inveni David and Afferentur regi.

The MDR Leipzig Radio Choir is a professional chamber choir, and their discography on Pentatone to date has focused on opera, plus a Missa Solemnis under Marek Janowski (5186 565). Here, they perform in the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, an 19th-century Jugendstil affair to the south of the city center. The nave is tall and narrow, and not especially large. Despite the size of the choir, about 50-strong, and the church setting, the Bruckner in particular feels underpowered. A sessions photo in the liner shows long-armed microphones all around the singers, and yet the church acoustic is all but absent, with even the rear channels in the surround mix giving little sense of atmosphere. The singing is generally proficient, although the textures are sometimes a little blurred in the middle voices. Tempos, from Philip Ahmann, who took charge of the choir in 2020, are slow and steady, as if to accommodate the church resonance that we don’t hear. All of which makes the performance and recording style better suited to the Haydn than to the Bruckner. The Haydn sounds crisp and clear, while the Bruckner often feels in need of more space and warmth, especially given the well-documented ability of surround sound to reproduce generous church acoustics.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.