Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Mendelssohn Piano Concertos Brautigam

MENDELSSOHN Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Rondo Brillant. Capriccio Brillant. Serenade and Allegro Giojoso Ronald Brautigam (pn), Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Die Kölner Akademie BIS 2264 (SACD: 74:08)

Having recently completed a full Mozart piano concerto cycle, Ronald Brautigam, Michael Alexander Willens, and Die Kölner Akademie now turn their attentions to Mendelssohn. This well-filled disc covers the whole of Mendelssohn’s mature output for piano and orchestra, with the exception of the unfinished E-Minor Concerto No. 3. Also excluded are three early works, the Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra and the two concertos for two pianos and orchestra. Even so, the present collection—two concertos, a rondo, a capriccio, and a serenade—makes for a logical and satisfying program. A Hyperion recording with Stephen Hough (66969) claimed to be the first to bring Mendelssohn’s mature concertante piano works together. Brautigam appears to be the first to have repeated the program, although it is also represented by a collection of Rudolf Serkin reissues (Alto 1319), and both Benjamin Frith (Naxos 8550681) and Regina Schirmer (Berlin Classics 1775) have recorded discs featuring four of the five works. It is also worth noting that Brautigam has recorded the two concertos before with BIS, a modern-instrument version with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Lev Markiz released in 1995 (BIS-718).
This time round, Brautigam and co. perform on period instruments. That is still an unusual approach with Mendelssohn, previously confined mostly to the symphonies (Brüggen, Heras-Casado) and oratorios (McCreesh, Herreweghe). Brautigam here performs on a 2010 copy by Paul McNulty of an 1830 Pleyel. The photograph in the liner shows a sturdy concert grand in dark mahogany, its aesthetic all straight lines and hard angles where a modern grand is curves.
On a modern piano, most of this music is a flurry of light, bubbling passagework, in which the individual notes blur into the resonance. But this piano, at least under Brautigam’s fingers, gives a different effect. Its resonance is more selective and its sound more constrained. Brautigam is able to make phrases flow, but the attacks on individual notes are always a part of the sound picture in a way that modern-piano renderings avoid. The advantage is a greater sense of detail, focusing particular attention on the melodic ornaments. The bass end of the piano has a distinctive resonance too, solid and projecting well, but sufficiently nimble for the cascading arpeggio figures that make up so much of the piano writing.
A legitimate question might be asked about how much the performers have changed their approach to account for the 50 or so years between the Mozart they were previously recording and the Mendelssohn here. Brautigam plays a different piano (though from the same maker: They are all shown on his website,, and the string complement of the orchestra has, no doubt, been expanded. But we are still in strict no-vibrato territory, an approach which, whatever its historical veracity, stands out more in the Romantic repertoire than in the Classical. That said, in several movements, the strings indulge in a modest but satisfying portamento. This is particularly apparent in the Adagio second movement of the Second Piano Concerto, this a real gem from both Brautigam and the orchestra.
The studio recording was a joint venture by Deutschlandfunk and BIS, and producers from both companies are credited. The sound is clear with excellent balance between soloist and ensemble, though the winds and timpani seem surprisingly reticent, as if their levels have been significantly lowered in postproduction. The surround sound is effective but not emphatic, the piano spread across the front speakers, but the orchestra mostly confined to left and right.
For a composer so well-represented in the catalog, this is an impressively original project. Brautigam has a solid reputation, but mostly for Classical-era repertoire. He looks set to become a pioneer of Mendelssohn on period pianos, and other recent recordings include two volumes of Songs Without Words (BIS-1982, BIS-1983) and a disc of cello sonatas with Christian Poltéra (BIS-2187). It’s all music that tends to rush past us in a flurry of cascading arpeggios and fleet, transient melodies, so the opportunity to take stock with Brautigam, and to hear so many of the details that otherwise pass us by, is surely welcome.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:5.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Mahler Symphony No 2 Vanska Minnesota Orchestra

Mahler Symphony No. 2
Osmo Vänskä, cond; Ruby Hughes (sop); Sasha Cooke (mez); Minnesota Chorale; Minnesota Orchestra
BIS 2296 (SACD: 84:37)

Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra is shaping up to be a coherent affair. This Second Symphony is the third release, following a Fifth Symphony in 2017 and a Sixth in 2018. Like them, this is a relatively swift reading, often elegant and lyrical, but rarely grand or monumental—though he gives the conclusion its full weight. The orchestra plays well for him, with the quality and character of the woodwind solos a real asset throughout. The surround-sound audio is good, too, although for various quirks of miking or balance, it doesn’t quite reach demonstration quality.
As with the Sixth Symphony recording, this new disc stretches the limits of SACD capacity, coming in at over 84 minutes. A note in the liner says that a longer pause than usual has been left between the first and second movements, acknowledging Mahler’s desire that they should be separated by at least five minutes. This reads as if the company is showing off the sheer quantity of space that they have found on the disc, but the pause turns out to be only around 20 seconds and so hardly worth their comment.
Something that could have used more explanation is the publisher credit after the title “Universal Edition/Kaplan Foundation.” This suggests that Vänskä is using the edition prepared by Gilbert Kaplan some years ago. Kaplan was then owner of the autograph score, so presumably his amendments were to bring the published version in line with what Mahler wrote. Given the scope for interpretive freedom that Mahler afforded conductors, or rather the scope for variance in spite of his often pedantic instructions, the difference between editions is probably less than the difference between performances. To my ear, the unwritten, but here emphatic, crescendo in the second phrase of the trombone choral early in the finale (Fig. 10), is different enough from what is on the page to suggest an editorial intervention.
And, in fact, Vänskä generally follows the letter of Mahler’s instructions, especially with regard to extremes of tempo and dynamic, creating a distinctive character for each of the sections, and sometimes jarring contrasts between them. The opening is fast, with heavy accents and clipped phrases. But this is not typical of the movement as a whole, and in the quieter music, Vänskä focuses on elegance, the phrases always flowing and the violins always swooning right on cue. The lower end of the orchestra gets a work out in this opening movement, and the lower woodwinds always excel.
The second movement melody is performed with emphatic portamento by the strings. That isn’t marked into the score either, but when Mahler does give the occasional glissando mark in the melody, Vänskä, thank goodness, doesn’t take it as an excuse for greater indulgence. At the tutti pizzicato section, Fig. 12, you suddenly become aware of the resonance of the hall, each note given a warm halo around the speaker array. The third movement is a little lacking in energy and shape, apart from a sudden surge to the climax; impressive, but the only real moment of drama. Mezzo Sasha Cooke is ideal for “Urlicht,” her voice round and warm, but not overly sensual. The last movement plays out much as the first, with a huge rush of energy in the swiftly paced opening section, before Vänskä finds a more manageable pace for the movement proper. Soprano Ruby Hughes also has an elegant tone, but much narrower than Cooke’s, and the voices don’t blend. An excellent performance from the Minnesota Chorale, though, whose ensemble, balance, and tone are ideal.
There is no suggestion that this was recorded live, and indeed the uninterrupted decay after the final chord suggests that no applause followed. The surround sound audio is clear and lifelike, but not immersive. The middle channel is reserved for the woodwinds and timpani, and dominated by the latter. The second violins are seated stage left, and the separation between first and seconds is clearly delineated between the channels. Efforts have been made to acknowledge the distance Mahler calls for with the off-stage brass and percussion—some passages are marked as sounding close-by, others from the far distance—but all are too dim in the soundstage, and the distant calls can barely be heard at all. No such concerns, though, with the magnificent organ, which I assume is not in situ, but which has been skillfully integrated into the ending to give ideal weight and support.
If you’ve heard the previous installments in Vänskä’s Mahler cycle, there are no surprises here. Some listeners may wish for more intensity, and perhaps more continuity to the musical drama. But Vänskä’s commitment to the detail of these scores pays off, and, as in previous installments, the result is a richly variegated musical canvas, those details as much a concern for the sound engineers as for the conductor himself.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:5

Saturday, 2 February 2019

BRUCH Die Loreley Blunier

BRUCH Die Loreley
Michaela Kaune, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora, Thomas Mohr
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Münchner Rundfunkorchester
Stefan Blunier, conductor
CPO 777-005-2 (3 CDs: 143:06)

CPO specializes in reviving obscure works, with a particular focus on German-speaking composers of the Romantic era. This latest offering is no exception, a “Grosse romantische Oper” based on the Loreley legend, and composed by Max Bruch while still in his early 20s (completed 1863). It’s a live recording, taken from a single concert performance. That makes stagability a marginal concern, but as a purely aural experience, the work is compelling: juvenile, yes, and often simplistic to a fault, but fully justifying its grand scale, and beautifully orchestrated throughout.
The genesis of Bruch’s Die Loreley is bound up with the posthumous reputation of Mendelssohn. The libretto, by Emanuel Geibel, was originally written for Mendelssohn, and the older composer did in fact set several numbers, the fragments collected together as his op. 98. Several decades later, Bruch took an interest in the project, by then an aspiring prodigy himself, keen to fit the Mendelssohn mold. Bruch’s anti-Wagnerian tendencies also attracted him to Mendelssohn and his legacy. But Giebel was opposed, and only finally granted Bruch permission to use the libretto when the younger composer presented him with the completed score.
In Geibel’s version of the legend (the liner points out that Loreley is not actually a legend at all, but an idea of Clemens Brentano early in the 19th century), the spirit on the rock is a spurned lover, Lenore. The first act tells of how Otto rejects her in order to marry Bertha. In the short second act, Lenore enlists the help of the spirits and plots her revenge. Act III begins after the wedding of Bertha and Otto: When Otto’s double life is revealed, Lenore becomes the center of attention. She is tried for witchcraft and narrowly avoids being burnt at the stake. By the last act, Bertha has died, and the community is more subdued. But Lenore is still intent on revenge. Her singing attracts Otto to the rock above the Rhine. But when she spurns him, he jumps to his death, the Rhine spirits taking revenge and hailing Lenore, now transformed into the Loreley, as their Queen.
Musically, the story offers Bruch a great deal of variety and potential drama. Fittingly, for the wine-growing region of the Middle Rhine, the chorus and several of the minor characters are vintners, and much of the first act concerns the making of wine for the wedding of Bertha and Otto, all to hearty choruses. The church plays a major role the slightly two-dimensional morality, giving occasion for a tender Ave Maria in the first act, Lenore accompanied by the chorus, and some atmospheric organ interjections in the fourth. The second act, where Lenore communes with the spirits, clearly owes something to the Wolf’s Glen in Der Freischütz, but it doesn’t come close for atmosphere or menace.
The recording is a co-production with Bayrischer Rundfunk, who presumably broadcast the concert around the time it was given, in 2014. Stefan Blunier leads a lively account, sensitive to Bruch’s always-apparent aspirations to high drama, but never laboring the music when it lacks the substance to make its full impression. The singing is mostly fine, with the all-German cast delivering excellent diction. In the title role, Michaela Kaune has a throaty but elegant soprano, with a pronounced by well-controlled vibrato. Thomas Mohr sings the role of Otto with great assurance—there are plenty of vocal acrobatics in this lead tenor role, but Mohr has a solid tone and good support, plus the agility to tackle Bruch’s often intricate melodic lines. As Bertha, Magdalena Hinterdobler is well distinguished in tone from Kaune, Hinterdobler a slightly lower-set soprano, her breathy tone less musically pure, but always highly expressive. The comprimario roles are never less than serviceable, although the vibrato of Sebastian Campione, as Hubert, father to Lenore, is uncontrolled and distracting; while Jan-Hendrik Rootering brings an aging voice to the prominent role of Reinald.
The Munich Radio Orchestra are serviceable too, although the difference in standard between this ensemble and the BRSO is all too clear, not least from the unfocussed string ensemble of the former. The recorded sound is good, although the climaxes lack detail. The chorus, the excellent Prague Philharmonic Choir, are sometimes required to sing offstage, a sound effectively rendered, though it is not clear how this was achieved in a concert setting.
Packaging and documentation are up to CPO’s usual high standards, with detailed synopsis, full libretto, some artist bios, and an interesting liner essay, all presented in German and with excellent English translations.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:5.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

BUTSKO Diary of a Madman Yakovenko

BUTSKO Diary of a Madman. Lacrimosa for String Orchestra. The Canon to the Menacing Angel
Arnold Kats, Gennady Cherkasov, Stanislav Kalinin, cond; Sergei Spiridonov (ten); Sergei Yakovenko (bar); Anton Zarayev (bs); Moscow Conservatory Ch & C O; Novosibirsk PO
Melodiya 10 02556 (2 CDs: 129:32)

Yuri Butsko (1938–2015) was a prolific and influential composer in the last decades of the Soviet Union, but his reputation hasn’t travelled far beyond his homeland. When the 60s generation of “unofficial” composers began voicing their dissidence through religious themes, rather than outright Modernism, in the 1970s, Butsko was one of the pioneers of Orthodox music rendered as instrumental concert music. His experiments with harmonies from Orthodox chant, especially tetrachordal modes, were influential to Schnittke, a school friend of Butsko, and also undoubtedly to Rodion Shchedrin, whose Polyphonic Notebook is similar in spirit and technique to many of Butsko’s keyboard cycles. But, as this release demonstrates, religious works were just one aspect of his diverse output.
The set opens with a “mono-opera,” Diary of a Madman, based on a short story by Gogol. Frustratingly, no libretto, or even ploy synopsis, is included, but Gogol’s story, as its title suggests is written as a personal diary, so suits this treatment as a one-voice opera. Butsko was still a teenager when he wrote the work, making its subtle and dynamic dramatic style all the more impressive. The opera is more often performed with just piano accompaniment, but this recording presents the full orchestral version. In fact, this too features a very prominent piano part, and the other orchestral instruments are always used sparingly. The style is tonal and very Russian. Comparisons with Shostakovich are tempting, and no doubt the work show some influence. But there is less angst here, for all the dramatic impetus—Butsko may be working in the same cultural milieu as Shostakovich, but his personality is completely different. Baritone Sergei Yakovenko is a convincing madman, sometimes erratic, but always expressive, and with a leading, narrative quality, ideal for the work. The recording was made in 1976, but the sound quality is excellent, consonants a little fuzzy but otherwise close to modern standards.
The second CD begins with Lacrimosa for string orchestra from 1982. The work is dedicated to a family of Old Believers who were discovered by a geographical expedition in the foothills of the Altai in the late 70s. It is an excellent example of Butsko’s liturgically inspired instrumental writing: the music built on complex polyphony but always clear in texture and harmony. Unfortunately, both the performance and the sound recording let the work down. The orchestra is a student ensemble, so concessions can perhaps be made, but not for the audio, which sounds several decades earlier than its recording date of 1988.
Much better is the final performance, of The Canon to the Menacing Angel, one of Butsko’s final works, from 2009 and recorded in 2011. The oratorio sets texts by Ivan the Terrible, again frustratingly omitted from the literature. Given the late date, Butsko’s style now sounds conservative, though it hasn’t changed significantly. The work is more closely aligned with the sound of Orthodox liturgy, employing tenor and bass soloists, choir, and an ensemble of keyboards and percussion (a typical Butsko combination). The two soloists, tenor Sergei Spiridonov and bass Anton Zarayev, excel, both clearly conversant with Orthodox chant customs. The choir (another student group) is also very fine, singing with that combination of lyricism and unforced power that characterizes the best Russian vocal ensembles.
Lack of texts aside, the presentation is excellent. Melodiya include several evocative watercolor portraits of Butsko himself, and he appears to have styled himself a religious ascetic type, with long white hair and goatee. The liner notes are translated into a reasonable English (with German too, and the original Russian), and provide more information about the composer than any other English-language source to date. The album has been released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Butsko’s birth, and serves as a fitting memorial, even if it only scratches the surface of a hugely diverse life’s work.  

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:4.