Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Brahms Symphonies Kubelik Vienna Philharmonic

Brahms Symphonies 1–4
Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic
Decca Eloquence 482 4969 (2 CDs: 158:23)

Rafael Kubelík doesn’t have the reputation he deserves. The reason may be that, as a Czech conductor, we expect him to excel in Smetana and Dvořák. His recordings of those composers are undoubtedly fine, but when compared with other Czech conductors of the mid-20th century—Neumann, Talich—he is found wanting. In fact, Kubelík’s greatest strength was his distinctive approach to the core Austro-German repertoire, marrying a keen sense of architecture with a lyrical freedom of expression. These Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic are a case in point, and so their return to the catalog, apparently for the first time on CD is most welcome.
At the time of these recordings, in the late 1950s, Kubelík was effectively an itinerant conductor, though was coming to the end of a short tenure at the Royal Opera in London, where he was hounded out by Thomas Beecham, who believed foreign artists should not be engaged there. Fortunately, his genius was widely recognized, and he was in high demand elsewhere. Kubelík would later return to the Brahms symphonies, in a period of greater professional stability, recording them with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 1983 (that version now available on Orfeo), then more than 20 years into a close relationship with that orchestra.
Interpretation-wise, the two cycles are similar, both demonstrating Kubelík’s hands-on approach, while still allowing the music to flow. His respective relationships with the two orchestras distinguish the cycles. By 1983, the Bavarian RSO was finely atuned to Kubelík’s approach, giving a sense interpretive unity to all four symphonies. The Vienna Philharmonic, of course, hardly needs a conductor at all in this music, and Kubelík can often be felt to hold back with his interventions. The woodwind soloists are given greater freedom, and the few ornaments in the melodic lines are presented in a surprisingly flamboyant manner, presumably just the way this music is played in Vienna.
Kubelík’s tempos tend to be on the steady side, although every movement bar one (Symphony No. 4, movement 2) times out faster here than in Munich. The third movement of the Fourth Symphony is particularly patient and deliberate, while the third movement of the First eventually reaches a scherzo pace, but only after Kubelík gradually approaches the tempo from a similarly steady opening. Kubelík’s tempo interventions are usually subtle, for instance the first movement of the Second Symphony flows elegantly through the exposition, only becoming slightly more angular in the drama of the development. The first movement of the Third Symphony gets more intervention from the podium, with some intrusive tempo changes in the transitions. Only the Third Symphony is played with the first movement exposition repeat, though the first movement repeats are observed in the First and Second Symphonies in the BRSO cycle.
The recordings were made in Vienna’s Sofiensaal between 1956 and 1957, in other words just before the same orchestra recorded Solti’s Ring cycle there (and, indeed, John Culshaw is among the recording producers listed). The greater attention afforded to those Solti recordings by remastering engineers may be the reason for the difference in sound quality, but Kubelík’s Brahms doesn’t come close. Generally, the sound feels top heavy for a lack of weight in the bass, so the woodwind-dominated opening of the First Symphony comes off much better than the cello and bass oriented opening of the Third. On the other hand, the recordings are in stereo, a rare bonus in that era. The stereo separation is not too exaggerated, although the left and right positioning of the first and second violins is clearly apparent.
The Bavarian RSO version remains the Kubelík Brahms of choice, not least for the audio—the comparison is very much one of “modern” vs. “historical” sound, but this set makes a fascinating complement. Eloquence squeeze the four symphonies on to two well-filled discs, the first over 80 minutes, and include an excellent booklet note on the history of the recordings by Rob Cowan, Kubelík’s most eloquent and enthusiastic advocate of recent times.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Pfitzner Die Rose vom Liebesgarten Beermann

Pfitzner  Die Rose vom Liebesgarten 
Frank Beermann, cond; Erin Caves (Siegnot); Kouta Räsänen (Der Waffenmeister); Andreas Kindschuh (Der Sangesmeister); Astrid Weber (Minneleide); Jana Büchner (Schwarzhilde); Tiina Pentinen (Rotelse); André Riemer (Der Moormann); Ch & Children’s Ch of Op Chemnitz; Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie 
CPO 777 500-2 (3 CDs: 165:08) Live: Chemnitz 6/7–9/2009

If you love Pfitzner’s Palestrina, you are going to want this. That is a big “if” though, as the composer’s best-known work divides opinion, exciting near fanatical devotion in its admirers, but leaving others wondering what the fuss is all about. Die Rose vom Liebesgarten is an earlier work, Palestrina was completed in 1917, this in 1901, but the similarities outweigh the differences. Where Palestrina inhabits a devout and reverential soundworld, Die Rose is more fairytale, but with a similar combination of solemnity and mystical aura. Although this an audio-only release, it is also clear that Die Rose shares the greatest failing of Palestrina, the inability to function effectively as staged drama. But if you don’t worry too much about the story, or the flimsy allegorical characters, and just listen to the music, there are many delights here, and this new recording presents the work in the best possible light.
As usual, CPO provide full documentation, the accompanying booklet containing a side-by-side German and English libretto, a substantial essay on the work and cast bios (all translated into beautifully idiomatic English), and a brief story synopsis. Given the care with which all this is done, the brevity of that synopsis is surely intentional: They don’t want us dwelling too much on the story.
So I’ll be brief: Pfitzner and his librettist, James Grun, elaborate on a series of paintings by Hans Thoma, one of which features on the album cover. They depict a make-believe medieval world, all knights and sorcerers. The music of the opera continually struggles to move out of the direct influence of Wagner, and the libretto offers no help at all. The hero is a knight named Siegnot (yes, really!), and just as in Wagner, the early formalities involve him coming by the name and learning its significance. The eponymous “Garden of Love” is inhabited by Flower Girls, more Rhinemaidens and Flowermaidens, and we also meet a “Bog man,” clearly modeled on Mime. The Bog Man tells Siegnot of Minneleide, trapped in an enchanted underworld by the Night Sorcerer and his dwarves (so, still half in Rheingold). Siegnot attempts to rescue Minneleide. Both die in the process, but are reunited in death to spend eternity in the Garden of Love.
The music sits somewhere between Wagner and Palestrina. Pfitzner occasionally wanders into Parsifal for a few bars, but then returns to a more distinctive style. There are two prominent Leitmotifs, a stirring horn call, played out in daringly long notes at the opening, and a swooning romantic theme: Both are memorable and distinctive, aiding the score’s individuality. Those motifs translate well to the vocal writing as well, which has an endearing speech-like quality, but which also blends well into the orchestral textures. The orchestration is truly Wagnerian, a definite quality, with prominent horns, interesting, if subtle percussion, and richly voiced string accompaniments.
The booklet essay, by Michael Schwalb, gives an overview of the work’s performance history. An early advocate was Bruno Walter, who appealed to his boss at Vienna Opera, Gustav Mahler, to conduct it there. He eventually succeeded thanks to the intervention of Alma, whom Walter won round to the cause. The Vienna production wasn’t the first, but it put the opera on the map. In an interesting aside, Schwalb discusses the significance of the opera on later Viennese composers. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern all attended Mahler’s Vienna performances. Webern soon quoted the music in his Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 10, while the long-held horn notes in the introduction not only found their way into Marie’s death scene in Wozzeck, but even inspired Schoenberg’s theory of Klangfarbenmelodie.
Given that historical significance, the opera is clearly due an airing, and this recording is all that Pfitzner fans could hope for. The recording is from live performances in Chemnitz, the company there taking an even bigger gamble in actually staging the work. The production was directed by Jürgen R. Weber, and from the production images it looks to be a suitably lurid affair. The sound quality on the recording is very good, but it does sound like it is taken from the stage, with voices occasionally distant. The musical standards here are excellent, suggesting a committed company-wide project to do the best for this neglected work.
Frank Beermann conducts with efficiency and clarity; he doesn’t over-sentimentalize, but he always gives this highly Romantic music its full expressive weight. That said, I wonder what Kubelík would have made of this score, given his sublime transformative power with Palestrina, an opera that you won’t hear the same again after you’ve heard his recording. For that matter, it is interesting to speculate what Mahler made of it. Beermann is probably less expansive, and a little more relaxed, than either of those giants, and he gives the impression of moulding the music to his own personal vision. Vocally, this performance is excellent, almost uniformly so. Tenor Erin Caves is confident and secure as Siegnot, and is ably partnered by soprano Astrid Weber as Minneleide, her tone full and rich, though it thins towards the top. One of Pfitzner’s main motifs is a rising octave figure, and some of the singers struggle with the top note, especially in such declamatory phrasing. The worst offender is Andreas Kindshuch as Der Sangesmeister, and his occasionally wayward tuning makes him the one weak link in the cast. No such complaints though for the Chemnitz chorus and children’s choir, who are kept busy thoughout. The orchestra is also on excellent form, and the horn section deserves special praise, providing a key element of this soundscape.
So, have a flick though the libretto for curiosity’s sake, than forget all about the story, sit back, and luxuriate in three hours of exotic and beautifully rendered fairytale music. Then file it under “Guilty Indulgences.”

Friday, 23 June 2017

WAGNER Overtures and Preludes Wakasugi

WAGNER Die fliegende Holländer: Overture (1860 version). Tannhäuser: Overture. Rienzi: Overture. Lohengrin: Preludes to Acts I and III
Hiroshi Wakasugi, conductor
Staatskapelle Dresden
Berlin Classics 0300923 (51:54)

Another disc of Wagner overtures to sit on your shelf next to Böhm, Solti, Elder, Järvi, Barenboim, Boult....In fact, Hiroshi Wakasugi need fear no comparison with any of those luminaries—his collection turns out to be up there with the best. The Dresden orchestra demonstrates, yet again, their keen sense for Wagner’s idiom, the early digital sound, from 1984, though a little dry, is clear and involving, and the conducting is expansive but with plenty of detail and rhythmic focus.
Hiroshi Wakasugi (1935–2009) was born in New York to Japanese parents. He trained in Japan, then divided his career mostly between Japan, West Germany and Switzerland. In Japan, he was known as a new music specialist, conducting the national premieres of Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. He was also the principal conductor of the WDR SO 1977–83 and of the Zürich Tonhalle 1987–1991. As an opera conductor, he held appointments at Deutsche Oper am Rhein, New National Theater Tokyo, and with the Semperoper Dresden.
All of which suggests a conductor with a good working knowledge of the German repertoire, which this recording fully vindicates. Wakasugi generally takes slow tempos, and the soundscape always has breadth and scale. Yet he also retains a keen focus on the direction of the music, and draws strong attacks from the woodwind and brass. That, combined with the sheer quality of the orchestral playing, gives Wakasugi considerable interpretive freedom—not having to head straight into the respective operas is probably an advantage too. He takes risks, not all of which pay off. The Rienzi Overture is too slow here: The gentle introduction feels like it will never get going, and the following Allegro energico is anything but. He also sometimes pushes the brass too far, compromising their trademark tonal precision. In particular the Lohengrin act III Prelude, taken slow and with very loud brass interjections, is too much for the horn section, who audibly struggle.
The best of these performances is in the quieter music, where the strings come into their own. The Tannhäuser Overture and Lohengrin act I Prelude are both magnificent, with Wakasugi maintaining the long lines at his steady tempos—like Thielemann but without the frown. The Flying Dutchman is also given a weighty reading. The brass are more secure here, making this an ideal program opener.
The recording was made in a Dresden church, the Lukaskirche, and the resulting audio is studio quality. Berlin Classics describe this release as a 2017 remaster (by Christoph Stickel), so there may have been some modern magic worked on the tapes. The dynamic range is very wide, so don’t turn up the volume too high for the opening of Tannhäuser or you’ll be in for a shock. This is being marketed as a historic reissue, based I suspect more on the reputation of the orchestra than the conductor. Sadly, there isn’t much else from him in the catalog; he seems to mainly appear on opera selections CDs, many featuring Wagner. Still, I’d have liked to have heard a full Lohengrin from him; the Prelude here suggests he’d have done something special with it. The only other regret over this excellent release is its short running time, the premature ending emphasized by the unusually abrupt close to the Lohengrin act III Prelude. It leaves you wanting more.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Rémy Ballot

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Rémy Ballot
Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester
Rémy Ballot, cond
Gramola (SACD: 69:08)

This the fourth in a series of Bruckner recordings from conductor Rémy Ballot on the Gramola label, and the second to feature the Upper Austrian Youth Symphony Orchestra, following an Eighth Symphony with them in 2014 (Gramola 99054). All were recorded at the Brucknertage, a festival of the composer’s music held annually at the St. Florian monastery where he spent the early years of his career, and where he is buried—the basilica there obviously having strong connections with the composer’s work, but also providing a “cathedral of sound” atmosphere, conducive, in theory at least, with the scale of his symphonies.
The first thing to say about this interpretation is that it is long. Very long. At over 69 minutes it is well within Celibidache territory. In fact, it is even longer than the one currently available Celibidache recording, with the Munich Philharmonic from 1991 (Warner 56694), which times in at 66 minutes. That makes Ballot a strong contender for the slowest reading on record, a dubious honor indeed.
So why the snail’s pace? My guess is that Ballot is negotiating a resonant church acoustic and feels he needs space to bring out the details. But if so, I’d expect to hear tightly shaped phrases and long pauses after climaxes, neither of which he offers. Also, the acoustic doesn’t sound too resonant on the recording, bar a slight and distant echo on the lower brass after some tuttis, although close-up miking may be the issue here.
The comparison with Celibidache is instructive, as it demonstrates how fluid the older conductor’s stately tempos were. Ballot, by contrast, rarely uses significant tempo changes to shape the music significantly, and only speeds up when the score obliges him, and even then it seems under duress. The youth orchestra, to its credit, copes well with the inevitably drawn-out phrases, with the woodwinds in particular holding their tone across the long lines. The unity of the string sound is impressive for a youth orchestra, although their tone lacks character, and it would be nice to hear a bit more punch from them on the few occasions that Bruckner has them lead the charge into a climax. The brass sound is impressively controlled, with the narrow-bore instruments giving a good measure of central European color. Typically for a youth orchestra, the brass section is bolstered, with six horns playing four parts, and four trumpets and trombones playing three parts each. But the results balance well with the rest of the ensemble and never overpower.
The SACD audio favors precision over atmosphere, for reasons surmised above, and does full justice to all of the young players. Ultimately, though, Ballot’s slow and unimaginative conducting makes this release little more than a souvenir or a curiosity. A few seconds of applause is included at the end, but it doesn’t sound very enthusiastic.