Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Taneyev Orchestral and Choral Works Svetlanov

Sergei Taneyev: Cantata No. 1 “John of Damascus”, Symphony No. 4, Suite de Concert, “Temple of Apollo at Delphi” from The Oresteia

Andrey Korsakov, violin  
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra
Academic Choir of the USSR All-Union Radio
Evgeny Svetlanov, conductor
Melodia MEL CD 10 02374 (2 CDs)

Buy from:

Evgeny Svetlanov has always held a prominent position in the catalogue, but in recent years a good number of forgotten recordings have surfaced on various labels. ICA and Testament have been issuing recordings from London and Berlin, while Melodia has been mining its archives for recordings with Russian orchestras. These have been particularly interesting for the neglected Russian repertoire that Svetlanov championed – and usually performed to the highest standards – notably Arensky, Weinberg, and here Taneyev.
This collection gives a good survey of Taneyev’s most popular works. It’s an excellent starting point for anybody wanting to know more about the composer. It is also competitive with the very best in each of the works presented. The programme is front loaded, opening with the wonderful First Cantata, “John of Damascus”. The cantata is funereal in tone (it’s dedicated to the memory of Taneyev’s recently deceased teacher Nikolai Rubinstein). The two strongest currents in Taneyev’s work, his broad Romantic expression and his interest in Medieval counterpoint, come together here in a work of extraordinary power and conviction. And Svetlanov really makes the most of it, giving a grand heart-on-sleeve interpretation that never sidelines any of the essential contrapuntal details. Despite its uninspiring name, the Academic Choir of the USSR All-Union Radio sings with passion and commitment. Particularly impressive is the way that counterintuitive balances are achieved to clarify the unusual counterpoint. For example, in the very final chord, the tenors almost overpower the rest of the chorus, but this is clearly the sound Taneyev had in mind. A more recent recording of the cantata by Mikhail Pletnev on DG is also impressive, and has superior sound. But Svetlanov achieves a greater sense of dramatic sweep, making this the version of choice.
Taneyev’s Fourth Symphony is a better-known quantity, with at least five recordings in the catalogue. But this too is a very convincing reading, and all the more so for the distinctively Russian sound of the orchestra, the earthy strings and blaring brass. Svetlanov again achieves an ideal balance of drive and breadth, giving a suitably symphonic feel. The Adagio second movement is particularly impressive, slow and expansive, but without ever seeming to sprawl or lose its way.
The Suite de Concert (here rendered as Concert Suite) is Taneyev’s only venture into concertante music. It is not a violin concerto as such, more a collection of symphonic dances with violin solo. Nor is it one of Taneyev’s finest works, although it has remained popular, largely thanks to the advocacy of high profile Russian violinists, notably Oistrakh. Andrey Korsakov gives an impressive reading here, technically secure and delivered with real conviction. He and Svetlanov are of common mind in terms of the drama and weight they apply to this music. Sometimes it goes too far, as in the second movement Gavotte, which feels burdened by the heavy accents and in need of a lighter touch. But Taneyev’s orchestration, imaginative as it is, always allows the soloist to predominate. He may be given a helping hand by the audio, either in the original edit or in the remaster, but it is a fairly subtle balance shift. The audio throughout is fine, nothing special but as good as can be expected from late Soviet technology (the recordings date from 1984-90). There is always plenty of clarity, though sometimes a lack of presence, with the wind and brass in particular lacking bloom.
To conclude, “Temple of Apollo at Delphi”, scene change music from Taneyev’s opera The Oresteia. This is a great little piece, starting out with atmospheric harps, in the spirit of the opening of Khovanshchina, and building to a grand processional, almost worth of Lohengrin. But there’s no forgetting this music’s Russian origins, nor those of the recording. The blaring Russian trumpets completely dominate the climax, just as they should. It’s only six minutes, but it’s a great way to close the programme. A slightly frustrating one though, given that this and the overture are all that’s currently available of what is apparently one of the greatest Russian operas of the 19th century.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Bruckner Symphony No 5 Young Hamburg Philharmonic

Bruckner Symphony No 5
Simone Young
Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra
OEHMS (SACD 73:23)

Buy from:

Simone Young here completes her Bruckner cycle, and with it her tenure with the Hamburg Philharmonic and Opera. Her reputation has risen steadily throughout the decade she has been there, largely thanks to her impressive recordings on the Oehms label, not least her Ring cycle and her Bruckner symphonies. Both demonstrate how Young has positioned herself as a potent and guiding force within the German musical establishment. Her performances of this core repertoire are always deeply idiomatic, but also have enough personality to stand out from the crowd. Young’s Bruckner (and her Wagner too) is always suitably grand and imposing, but it never drags. Relying on the virtuosity of her Hamburg players, she is able to give the music its full weight and sonic opulence, but usually at tempos slightly faster than the norm. That, combined with a keen sense for the music’s agogic impulses – all the varying accents and attacks that create the foreground texture and articulate the phases – allow her to propel the music, but without ever trivialising it.
One selling point of this Bruckner cycle has been Young’s use of William Carragan’s editions of the earliest versions of each symphony. The Fifth, and before it the Ninth, were presumably left until the end because no such Carragan edition exists for either (a lost 1876 version of the score awaits his reconstruction work). Young chose not to use Carragan’s completion of the Ninth Symphony finale, but compensated by presenting a very fine reading of the standard Nowak. That recording was the highlight of the cycle, the work really responding to Young’s disciplined but dramatic approach.
The Fifth ought to work just as well, and Young’s interpretation is certainly similar, but this recording is not the all-round success of its predecessor. The balance between propulsion and grandeur too often veers towards the former. The fast tempos are not the problem – at 73:23 Young shaves off just two or three from the average – so much as the lack of sympathetic rubato. Brass chorales always seem integrated into their context, rather than transcending above it. That is a minor, if recurrent, problem in the first movement, but is fatal to the finale. The grand chorale, that completely changes the course of the symphony at its first appearance and goes on to form the redemptive conclusion, is introduced without any great ceremony, and its repeated appearances, while always loud, seem lacking in gravitas. All this, combined with a lack of intrigue and mystery at the start of the first and last movements – partly a result of the fast tempos, but probably a deliberate interpretive choice – narrows the work’s dramatic profile, and with it the spiritual conviction on which it relies.
Which is a shame, because in many other respects this is a fine reading. Both of the inner movements benefit from Young’s debonair refinement. Phases in the Adagio are always elegantly shaped, even within the generally strict tempos, and the Scherzo is given a visceral intensity through the combination of hard attacks and weighty textures. On the whole the orchestra plays well, although the brass loses tonal control in the some of the first movement climaxes. Audio standards (listening to the SACD stereo mix) are as high as ever, the strings in particular given real immediacy.
For all its disappointments, this final release in the series has the distinct advantage that it continues an interpretive trajectory common to every release in the cycle. Bruckner recordings today seem to fall into two camps, the old-school weighty and monumental approach of Thielemann and Haitink, and the fleet, dynamic approach that is becoming fashionable and is best exemplified by Gerd Schaller’s competing cycle of the Carragan editions. Simone Young has found an effective way of combining the best of both worlds, and has demonstrated that her distinctive perspective has benefits for each of Bruckner’s symphonies. This Fifth isn’t the best of them, but it is still a decent one to close the cycle. If you haven’t been keeping up with these releases as they have appeared, and want to know what Simone Young can do with Bruckner, the Ninth Symphony recording would be good place to start.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bruckner Symphony No 9 completed Josephson Gibbons

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 (with finale reconstructed by Nors S. Josephson)     
John Gibbons, cond; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra   
 DANACORD 754 (80:31)

Buy from:

Few conjectural finales seem as surplus to requirements as that of Bruckner’s Ninth. The ending of the Adagio, with its somber yet consoling Wagner tuba chords, feels like the ideal conclusion to a perfectly formed three-movement work. Bruckner himself, of course, didn’t see it that way, laboring over the finale for the last year and a half of his life, and still working on it on the morning of the day he died. The work’s tortuous history suggests that listeners, if nothing else, have a personal obligation to the composer to perceive the symphony in terms of a four-movement whole.
In fact, the finale as Bruckner left it is not as skeletal we’d like to believe. Bruckner completed approximately the first half, left most of the remainder in short score, and only the coda is missing. The apparent perfection of the three-movemenet version has led to this incomplete finale being almost completely ignored, at least by performers and listeners. Scholars, on the other hand, have taken the matter more seriously. Bruckner’s surviving sketches (there is some evidence that material for the missing coda was pilfered by trophy hunters soon after his death) reside in the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna and the Viennese Hochshule für Musik. They were first published under the editorship of Alfred Orel in 1934 (now available online at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ excellent new Bruckner web site, Looking at that edition, it is clear that much interpretive work is required for the second half of the movement. The short score is usually on four staves and usually only includes two lines, typically a melody line and a repeating accompaniment figure.
Then there is the issue of the coda. From the finales of Bruckner’s earlier symphonies, we can infer that he would have brought back some of the thematic ideas from the earlier movements. But how to do that without the results sounding cheap? As so often with Bruckner, his (inimitable?) genius shines through in his ability to make the obvious sublime.
The first completion of the Ninth Symphony’s finale was made by William Carragan in 1983, with revisions up to 2010. Gerd Schaller included this in his traversal of Carragan’s Bruckner editions, although Simone Young, in her competing Carragan Bruckner cycle, did not. The Oehms web page for Young’s Ninth (which is excellent, incidentally) seems curiously apologetic, “Simone Young presents Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony here in its three-movement version – the last movement was never completed by Bruckner and is therefore not included in this cycle.”
Young’s reticence may be a result of more recent editorial activity, specifically the new completion by a team of four Bruckner scholars led by Nicola Samale. The first Samale version appeared just a year after Carragan’s, with revisions up to 2011. This 2011 version brought the whole project of Ninth Symphony completion into the public eye, thanks to Simon Rattle and his recording of it with the Berlin Philharmonic.
All of which makes the present recording seem slightly anachronistic. It presents, for the first time, the edition made by Nors S. Josephson in 1992. Comparing the Josephson with the Samale, we find the same kinds of issues that separate the various completions of Mahler’s Tenth. Josephson, like Deryck Cooke, avoids ostentatious additions wherever possible. As a result, the sound is often threadbare: grandly orchestrated, but with harmonies based on excessive doubling, and a notable absence of counterpoint. That makes it all the harder for him to justify quotations from earlier movements that appear in the coda, which now seem all the more pasted on. That said, that standard Bruckner tropes are all elegantly served, the brass chorales are suitably voiced, and the running string lines are well balanced within the section.
Sadly, the performance itself does no favors to the edition it is designed to champion. There is little drama or tension in the earlier movements, and the generally slow tempos that John Gibbons takes never lend the music any of the grandeur he seems to be aiming for. The scherzo is the most successful movement here, for the breezy, light-hearted approach Gibbons takes (in stark contrast to the rest of the reading). But throughout the performance the Aarhus orchestra is on poor form. The string sound is thin and scratchy, and the brass intonation is very poor. These problems are particularly apparent in the Adagio, which is ironic, given that this is exactly where the performance needs to excel in order to make the best cast for the finale to follow.
It is difficult to separate the performance issues from the editorial issues in the finale itself. However, the first 235 bars were completed by Bruckner, making direct comparisons possible. The conviction and dramatic momentum that Rattle and the Berlin Players bring to these opening five minutes or so leave Gibbons and the Aarhus Symphony for dust. As the two recordings diverge, the editorial issues no doubt come into play, but Rattle is on top form here, and imbues a sense of inevitability into the Samale edition through the sheer force of his interpretive conviction. Going back and listening more closely to the Samale, many of the same issues start to become apparent, particularly the excessive repetition and the thin chord voicing disguised under heavy orchestration. But comparisons with the present recording elevate everything in the Rattle/Samale version. If you want a Bruckner Ninth finale that feels like the real thing, listen to Gibbons/Josephson and then listen to Rattle/Samale. The comparison is like a journey straight into the mind of the composer. Otherwise, avoid this recording, and this edition too. Neither makes a remotely convincing case for hearing the Ninth Symphony as a four-movement work.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Mahler Symphony No 9 Fischer Elder

MAHLER Symphony No. 9    Iván Fischer, cond; Budapest Festival O    CHANNEL 36115 (SACD: 75:55)

MAHLER Symphony No. 9    Mark Elder, cond; Hallé O    HALLÉ 7541 (2 CDs: 81:56) Live: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 5/22/2014

Buy from:

Two excellent new Mahler Ninth Symphonies, similar in spirit and execution, and both highly recommendable. A difficult task, then, to tease them apart and make a preference.
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra are nearing the end of a well-regarded Mahler symphony cycle for Channel Classics. Audio quality throughout the cycle has been up to the company’s usual high standards, and this release is no exception. Both conductor and orchestra have a natural affinity for this music, but in some earlier releases that seemed a mixed blessing. The First Symphony recording (Channel 33112) often felt like it was lapsing into complacency, so comfortable were the players with the idiom. That impression also returns occasionally here in the Ninth, although to a lesser extent, and others may hear it as deliberate detachment, the composer increasingly distancing himself as he makes his long goodbyes.
Mark Elder’s recording with the Hallé is of a live performance (a single night, but with patches from rehearsal). The sense of occasion, and possibly the generous acoustic of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, may account for the extra five minutes he takes over Fisher. It is a taught and dramatic reading though. If the players are less naturally sympathetic to Mahler’s central European sound, they compensate with a more gutsy and emphatic performance. Nothing ever coasts here, and Elder always ensures a high level of concentration and focus.
Both orchestras sound very fine. The Hallé strings have the upper hand over their Budapest counterparts, both for the corporate elegance of their tone and the sheer accuracy of their playing. For woodwind and brass, however, the Budapest players take the palm. Their playing is more accurate and more idiomatic, the latter perhaps due to their equipment, wider woodwinds, narrower brass.
Interpretively, there is little else to separate the two readings. Even though Fischer and the Budapest players sound more comfortable, they always provide plenty of drive and excitement. Their faster pace is evident in every movement, but most acutely in the first, where the drive rarely lets up. Elder, by contrast, makes the interludes more relaxed and the thematic statements more punchy, with greater dynamic and contrast and harder accents. The results are more expansive, but no less focused.
No real distinctions between the readings of the inner movements, both of which just under a minute longer under Elder. That central European woodwind sound gives Fischer the upper hand in terms of coloring the rustic dances, but again, Elder’s ability to highlight subtle contrasts and immediately change the character from phrase to phrase makes his an equally engaging approach.
If Iván Fischer gets the recommendation, it’s due to the final Adagio, or at least the way that the SACD audio (heard in stereo) presents it to us. Early on in the symphony, the SACD seemed less significant. In fact, the opening of the first movement seems overly emphatic: The Hallé’s cellos can fade in from silence; in superior audio the Budapest players don’t have that option. However, in the last 10 minutes of the symphony, the high-quality sound comes into its own. The quiet, sustained high notes from the violins and woodwind have a beautiful, crystalline quality for Fischer, which the Hallé engineering can’t match. You can turn the dial up, but the results are still muddy, at least by comparison. It is a great shame that the Hallé own label hasn’t gone down the SACD route (or perhaps some other high definition format). Their excellent Walküre a few years ago (Hallé 7531) could have benefited immeasurably, and so could this Mahler. Where it not for that, both of these Ninth Symphony recordings would be of equal standing.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 39:2