Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Ligeti String Quartets Quatour Béla

LIGETI Strings Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Sonata for Solo Cello
Quatour Béla
AEON AECD 1332 (50:20)

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Quatour Béla has named its disc of Ligeti’s string quartets after the First, “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” That may seem a strange choice, given that the Second is the more iconic, and certainly the more historically significant, but it is apt, as the First Quartet is the real revelation here. That’s not to say that either the Second Quartet or the cello sonata is found wanting—the quality is exceptionally high throughout—but where other recordings of these works demonstrate a clear hierarchy, the Béla’s account presents the First Quartet as fully the equal of its successor.
The quiet and mysterious opening of the First Quartet rarely taxes performers, and from the opening bars alone it would be very difficult to separate out the great recordings from the also-rans. But then comes a sudden sforzando, and rarely have Ligeti’s shock tactics have been as effective as they are here. This account is all about contrasts, with the many sudden changes of tempo, dynamic, and texture presented as starkly and brutally as possible. And for all its undoubted sophistication, the work really responds to this approach. Its gradual unfolding—a metamorphosis by thematic transformation across a single-movement, 20-minute span—is punctuated and delineated by these outbursts. Even more impressively, the tonal control and balance between the instruments is always maintained, even at the loudest dynamics. There is lyricism here too, and a certain folk character to the quieter melodic music, but that isn’t really the priority for these players, who sensibly avoid over-interpreting the more naïve passages.
The Ligeti quartets are now well served on disc, particularly by young ensembles specializing in new music, and Quatour Béla follow in the footsteps of similar groups in recent years, including the Artemis , Parker, JACK, and Keller  Quartets. Although I won’t claim to have heard them all, I will express a preference for a more senior ensemble, namely the Arditti Quartet, whose 1994 recording (Sony 62306) has long seemed, to me at least, the definitive account. This new recording is the first I’ve heard that seriously challenges the Ardittis’. But these are very different readings, and the qualities that Quatour Béla brings put both works in a different light. That sense of immediacy and total immersion in the First Quartet is as much a product of the sound engineering as it is of the playing. The recording quality here is exceptional, better even than that on the Ardittis’ account. The miking is not too close, and there is warmth to the sound, but each of the instruments comes through with absolute clarity, and the wide stereo array places each of them at a definite and separate point around your living room.
The Second Quartet is given a reading just as fine as that of the First—though perhaps it doesn’t pull away quite as far from the competition this time, as the Second is the work that most other ensembles give the greater attention. But, again, the wide dynamic range, the excellent ensemble, the responsiveness of the players to the composer’s sudden changes of direction, and the crystal-clear audio all add up to make for a compelling account. The pizzicato third movement is particularly impressive. Unlike the Ardittis’ recording, where the more homogeneous sound makes the gradual phase shifts sound like a single, increasingly dysfunctional mechanism, the autonomy of the individual players granted by the superior audio here instead gives it a more heterogeneous character—makes it sound more like chamber music. Conversely, the brutality of the cluster writing in the fourth movement is all the more oppressive for the unity of intent the players display, and again for the immediacy and clarity of the recorded sound.
It’s not a perfect account, and in one or two crucial regards the Ardittis’ retain the upper hand. Much of the writing in the outer movements involves pp, sul ponticello, tremolo effects on artificial harmonics, and in my experience, only the Ardittis’ can make that sort of device sound truly musical. There is also a sense of poise lacking, a common failing with many younger ensembles approaching this music, but again something that makes the Arditti Quartet stand out. The last movement in particular needs to express a paradoxical mix of languorous stillness and episodic progression. And then it needs to disappear off at the very end, melting away in one of those scurrying tremolo effects. Quatour Béla doesn’t quite manage either, and so the conclusion loses some of its effect.
That’s a minor criticism though, and is the only thing that keeps this recording from taking the top spot from the Ardittis’. The two works together come to about 40 minutes, and choosing a filler can be tricky. This time round, the Quartet’s cellist, Luc Dedreuil, gives us the early Sonata for Solo Cello. This too is a fine reading, although of a much more straightforward work. Again, the sonics are excellent and the playing is both committed and engaging.
An excellent recording all round and highly recommended, especially for the First Quartet, which, these players conclusively demonstrate, is anything but juvenilia. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:6.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Nielsen Symphonies 4 and 5 Oramo RSPO

Nielsen: Symphonies 4 and 5
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, cond

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This Nielsen symphony coupling, the first release in a projected cycle, promises much. Everybody involved, Oramo himself, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and even the record label BIS, have impressive track records in this repertoire. Nielsen’s symphonies have become well-represented on disc in recent decades. From one perspective, that increases the competition, especially given the quality of some of the cycles out there, but from another, it demonstrates the subjectivity of interpretation and the level of interpretive input required. Nielsen’s symphonies rely on a certain shock value, their radical structuring and unusual orchestration are central to their appeal. Familiarity blunts their edge, so any conductor coming to them today has to find a way to make the music sound fresh and new, but not to the point of wilful idiosyncrasy. Oramo’s readings are energetic and dynamic. They are also intelligently structured. The only problem is that they are a bit safe, and never go to extremes of dynamic and expression.
Oramo drives the music, pushing through every phrase. But he also prioritises clarity and focus of tone. There are rarely any extreme outbursts, of the kind the punctuate Bernstein’s Nielsen, and instead the climaxes and complex tutti passages fit seamlessly into the simpler surrounding textures. The control and intelligence of Oramo’s interpretation has clear benefits: he always ensures that the important lines come through, even when they are in the middle of the textures (the prominent viola lines in the Fourth Symphony are particularly clear and resonant) and the sense of direction he gives the music ensures that there is always a feeling of underlying logic, however esoteric Nielsen’s structures become.
All of this comes at a cost to the spontaneity and dramatic effect of the music. Tension, while often present, always feels controlled. The conflict between the snare drum and the orchestra in the Fifth Symphony, of example, has little sense of anger, let alone danger. The (unnamed) drummer himself is suitably disruptive, but the response from the rest of the ensemble is too accommodating, too genteel.
All of which is a shame, because in all other respects this is an excellent recording. The orchestra clearly has this music in their blood, and the fine balance in the textures should probably be attributed in equal measure to the players’ sensitivity to the work, to Oramo’s attention to detail and to the sound recording. Given BIS’s phenomenal reputation for sound engineering, the sonics here may disspoint some. The orchestra sounds distant and the recording slightly uninvolved, although the extreme channel separation on the SACD stereo mix compensates somewhat. The clarity of sound, though, is never in question, and the recording does full justice to Nielsen’s groundbreaking orchestration in every respect.
Among recent recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies, this projected cycle seems most similar to that currently underway with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on Da Capo. In both cases, a world-class orchestra demonstrates their superior technical proficiency working with a conductor whose main piorities are pacing and structure and who are prepared to sacrifice some drama to these aims. If anything, Oramo has the edge over Gilbert for the idiomatic playing of his orchestra (which, ironically, used by Gilbert’s orchestra). The big, glossy, American sound of the NYPO sits uneasily with Nielsen’s often astringent textures, and that is as much a problem for Bernstein’s cycle as it is for Gilbert’s. Oramo, like Gilbert, seems to be imposing some very modern anti-Romantic ideas about the way this music should be performed. Nielsen’s own anti-Romantic disposition suggests there is some validity to this approach, but it remains a minority position. Even so, both Oramo and Gilbert seem intent on dominating that niche, and if their respective first volumes are anything to go by, it is Oramo who is going to come out on top.

Monday, 24 March 2014

BRUCKNER Symphonies Nos. 0 and 00 Marcus Bosch Aachen SO

BRUCKNER Symphonies Nos. 0 and 00  Marcus Bosch, cond; SO Aachen  COVIELLO 31315 (SACD: 77:52)
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Symphony No. 0 “Cancelled”: Bruckner doesn’t exactly go out of his way to sell this Symphony to us, does he? But, as the tortuous revision histories of many of his symphonies demonstrate, the composer’s painfully self-critical attitude to his own works is never a reliable indicator of their worth. In fact, the Zero Symphony postdates the First and, to my ear at least, is superior, closer in spirit to the Second and Third, if not quite as involved, nor as long. The “Studiensinfonie,” No. 00, by contrast, is very much an early and exploratory essay in the form. It is a kind of graduation piece, written in 1863, immediately after the end of Bruckner’s studies with Otto Kitzler. Given Bruckner’s stylistic trajectory over the course of his numbered symphonies, we might expect to hear the influence of Schubert and Haydn here, but in fact Schumann and Mendelssohn are stronger voices. In No. 0 we hear Bruckner’s mature musical personality, perhaps not yet fully formed but clearly recognizable. In No. 00 we have to strive much harder to make the connection, although there are plenty of clues in the detail.
My first exposure to the Zero Symphony was via a recording from Stefan Blunier and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn (MDG 937 1673-6). Blunier makes a good case for the work, not making any concessions for its early date, seeking out, and often finding, the depths of expression we more naturally associate with the later symphonies. But this new version from Marcus Bosch is even better, slicker, better structured, and more dramatic all round. The most significant difference between the two versions is in the tempos, Blunier takes 50:11 while Bosch is finished in 41:23. Yet Blunier never feels lethargic, nor does Bosch feel rushed. Both apply a good deal of rubato, allowing for supple and naturally shaped phrases at their respective speeds. Both orchestras play well, and both are captured in excellent SACD audio. Bosch is a little stiff in the second movement Andante (despite its tempo marking a clear ancestor of the great adagios of the late symphonies) and the phrases occasionally feel clipped. However, the rest of his interpretation is excellent, particularly the Scherzo, which he drives home with thundering intensity, and the Finale, which is dramatic, varied, and nuanced throughout.
Symphony No. 00 is a more modest conception, and Bosch is wise to avoid the extremes that he applies to the later work. But his reading isn’t exactly “Classical” either. There is still plenty of rubato, and he is generous with the freedom he allows the woodwind soloists (more prominent here than any of the composer’s later works). There is no getting away from the fact that this is a minor work, but Bosch makes the best possible case for it.
This release marks the end of a complete Bruckner symphony cycle from Marcus Bosch and his Aachen forces. The project has been on the go since 2003, when an Eighth Symphony recording was so well received that it gradually brought about an entire cycle. Coviello claims that this is the first complete Bruckner cycle on SACD. That may or may not be the case, but the “complete” appellation is certainly appropriate; not only are these to early symphonies included, but these is also a Finale for the Ninth Symphony, edited by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips, and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs.The way Bosch approaches Bruckner is unlikely to be to everybody’s taste, his tempos are generally fast, although he’s not of the “revisionist” school: However fast he takes the music there is always plenty of ebb and flow, and usually very wide-ranging dynamics. Of the releases I have heard, my favorite is the Second Symphony. Like the Zero Symphony here, Bosch demonstrates through his impassioned but controlled performance that the Brucknerian tendencies of the late symphonies are just as evident early on, they just need a committed interpreter who doesn’t make concessions to their slightly narrower musical vocabulary. Most of the cycle was recorded in the church of St. Nikolaus in Aachen, which has proved an ideal acoustic, the reverberance round and clean, adding further gravitas to Bruckner’s quasi-liturgical statements. This recording was made in a different Aachen church, St. Michael, which I assume is smaller. It is certainly equally appropriate to the music at hand.
A box set of the entire cycle was issued at around the same time as this release. Although Bosch’s fast tempos might make some of the individual movements less attractive, I suspect that, in its entirety, the cycle will be well worthwhile, especially for the sheer drama he draws from this music, the quality of the orchestra, and of the recorded soundscape, both from the acoustic itself and the SACD engineering. Of the individual discs, the early symphonies deserve the highest recommendation, the Second Symphony in particular, but also this, although chiefly for the Zero Symphony, by far the finest of the two compositions on the disc. 

 This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:6.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Hindemith Complete Viola Works Vol. 2 Tabea Zimmermann

Hindemith: Sonatas for Viola and Piano Opp. 11/4, 25/4, (1939). Sonatas for Solo Viola Opp. 11/5, 25/1, (1937)
Tabea Zimmermann (va), Tomas Hoppe (pn)
Myrios MYR011 (2 SACDs)
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Tabea Zimmermann devoted the first volume of her Hindemith survey to his concertante works for viola and orchestra. This, the second, covers the sonatas, three with piano and four unaccompanied. The works date from 1919 to 1937 and, at least as a first impression, suggest a clear stylistic development from melodic simplicity to gritty complexity later on. In fact, the progression is more complex than that. The first two works, a clear and open textured sonata for viola and piano and a much more introverted solo sonata, sound like they were written decades apart, but in fact they have consecutive opus numbers (11/4 and 11/5) and both were written in 1919. The liner note, by Hindemith expert Dr. Susanne Schaal-Gotthardt, cites both Bach and Reger as influences in the more knotty solo sonata. Indeed, Reger’s voice, as expressed in his own solo violin works, comes through strongly, as does his 20th-centurty reinterpretation of Bach’s models for solo string writing. The op. 25 and 31 sonatas are more in the Hindemith mainstream, filled with clever musical devices, complex but clearly rendered, and beautifully suited to the viola. And the programme ends with two late sonatas, one solo from 1937 and one accompanied from 1939. The music here is more direct, muscular and modern, but melodic and engaging too. As an overview of Hindemith’s compositional output, his sonatas for his own instrument make for a concise and representative survey.
Tabea Zimmermann’s performances are excellent. Although Hindemith writes well for the viola, he demands a great deal from the performer. Some of the music is deeply expressive, and is presented as such. One the other hand, some of the music eschews emotion, such as the middle movement of op. 31/4, which is marked “with little expression”, which Zimmermann not only adheres to, but also compensates for with the richness and complexity of her tone. The notes tell us that Hindemith often sidelined beauty of tone in the pursuit of other musical virtues, but Zimmermann insures that her sound, if not always “beautiful” as such, never fails to be interesting, engaging and satisfying. The fast passages hold no terrors for her, although she always retains an earthy quality, a real viola sound, never leading the listener to suspect that she is trying to imitate the violin. Some of the more discordant double stopping is presented in an astringent, throaty tone, but one that is very carefully modulated and served always by immaculate intonation.
Pianist Thomas Hoppe also has his work cut out but always rises to the challenge. Hindemith’s accompaniment parts have reputation for being tortuous and needlessly difficult to play, but Hoppe makes them all sound logical and idiomatic. The recorded sound is quite resonant, adding to the richness of Zimmermann’s tone, especially in the lower register. The piano sounds somewhat distant, and some of the detail in its overtones is lost, although the balance between the two players is ideal.
The Myrios label is a small and relatively new venture – if the catalogue number of this release is to be believed this is only its 11th disc – but it has poached some big name performers and is engaging them in very interesting projects. All their releases so far have been on SACD, and the engineering on this disc fully justifies that decision; even when hearing just the solo viola, the richness and immediacy of the sound is compelling. Volume 1 of Zimmermann’s Hindemith was very well received: Volume 2 looks likely to attract similar acclaim.