Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Wagner Parsifal Ivan Fischer

WAGNER Parsifal
Iván Fischer, conductor
Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas)
Mikhail Petrenko (Titurel, Klingsor)
Falk Struckmann (Gurnemanz)
Christopher Ventris (Parsifal)
Petra Lang (Kundry)
Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Challenge 72619 (DVD+Blu-ray: 240:00)

Pierre Audi’s Parsifal was clearly a big event for Dutch National Opera when it premiered in 2012. This video was made during that first run, and its release now coincides with a revival of the production in Amsterdam, and with Audi’s departure from the company; in 2018 he takes over as artistic director of the Aix en Provence Festival.

Audi’s take on Parsifal is low key, with a minimum of stagecraft and an apparent reluctance to engage with the work’s philosophical themes. In an age when directors seem to feel duty-bound to impose contemporary themes onto Wagner, this hands-off approach feels retro, recalling Wieland Wagner in the 1950s. The abstraction is aided by the set designs, from Anish Kapoor, which are scenic for the first act but strictly geometric from then on. (The sets are very close in design to those Kapoor produced for Daniel Kramer’s Tristan at English National Opera in 2016.)

The set for the opening of the first act is a collection of what seem like rocky outcrops. When we come to the Grail Ritual, these rotate to reveal the Grail Knights on wooden scaffold platforms. The earthiness of this scenario, combined with the almost total absence of Christian symbolism, suggests a Pantheist angle. The second act is more arresting visually, with a huge reflective sphere suspended at the back of the stage. Distorted reflections follow the Flower Maidens, Parsifal, and Kundry about, and even the conductor is clearly visible, but, elegant as it is, the significance is never made clear. In the final act, a circular hole in the backdrop takes the place of the sphere, suggesting absence and emptiness at Montsalvat. And indeed the ending of this production is uncompromisingly bleak—after two and a half acts in which religious imagery has been completely absent, the Grail Knights now appear, each with a black crucifix painted on their face, and, although Parsifal accepts the spear and heals Amfortas, the assembled company all eventually wither to the ground, as if in death. It’s a curious ending, and all the more pessimistic for being the only significant directorial intervention in the entire production.

A cursory glance at the box cover suggests that the production features Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal, but a closer look reveals it to be Christopher Ventris. He has a weightier tone than Vogt, closer to Peter Sieffert, perhaps, whom he also resembles. Ventris is a competent Parsifal, and has the stamina to see it through, but his voice lacks the character required to make his long narrations memorable. Similarly Falk Struckmann as Gurnemanz, another dependable Wagnerian, though getting on in years, but he too has the stamina for the role. Perhaps both singers can be forgiven for not giving memorable characterizations in a production so notably low on Personenregie. That said, Petra Lang excels as Kundry, here consolidating her reputation as the Wagnerian mezzo du jour. She has an uneasy stage presence, always unsettling the quasi-mystical discourse, even when she is not involved—just the sort of singer a production like this needs. She is in fine voice too, her singing dramatically engaged and always attractive, even at her most bitter and vitriolic. Mikhail Petrenko is luxury casting for Titurel and Klingsor, though the production does little to highlight either character, with Klingsor in particular seeming like an imposter in his own castle.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a long and proud tradition of Wagner performance, and the players’ affinity with the music is a real asset here, although this appears to the only complete performance of Parsifal the orchestra currently has in the catalog. Iván Fischer is less associated with Wagner than is his brother, Ádám, but he has an excellent feeling for the music’s drama and scale. Many conductors linger over this score, so it is refreshing to hear Fischer taking brisker tempos, and only very rarely to the detriment of the music’s atmosphere. That upbeat approach also suits the visual style, and the combined efficiency of music and spectacle affords valuable dramatic coherence.

The package includes DVD and Blu-ray discs: Sound and image are good on both, with the Blu-ray notably superior, especially in image. Microphones are positioned at the front of the stage, but so too is most of the action, so the singers rarely sound distant. The camera work mixes close-ups with wide angle, and impressively captures the scale of the second act setting. The set is released on the small Dutch label Challenge Classics, and seems to be the first and only video in the company’s catalog. But their many audio releases always have high production standards, and they have a commitment to the SACD format. Given the excellent production standards here, here’s hoping they have further collaborations with Dutch National Opera in the works.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Bruckner Symphony No 3 Thielemann

Bruckner Symphony No. 3 (1877 version)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, conductor
C Major 740904 (Blu-ray: 68:00)

If you’ve been following Thielemann’s Bruckner cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden, you’ll know what to expect from this Third Symphony. It’s a classic Thielemann account, with long, sinuous lines; a warm, well-grounded orchestral sound; and a sense of scale and grandeur that is all too rare among recent accounts.
Thielemann is well known as a Bruckner specialist, but this is his first commercial recording of the Third Symphony: This DVD/Blu-ray cycle has so far covered Symphonies 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9, and his other recordings, with this orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic, include Nos. 4, 7, and 8. It will be interesting to see what he does with the earlier symphonies, because this Third Symphony is presented in the spirit of the later works, just as grand and imposing, with no sense of reducing the scale of the performance for the (slightly) lesser scope of the work’s conception.
The opening is wonderfully atmospheric, with the sumptuous strings supporting an equally warm and broad solo trumpet. The string tone sometimes tends toward the nebulous, especially in surround sound, but Thielemann knows when to impose greater agogic emphasis to maintain the focus of the musical argument. His first movement tempos are slow, especially at the opening of the development, and while this is usually to create a placid starting point for greater drama ahead, the increase in tension is only accompanied by modest tempo increases.
Those slow tempos speak of a daring approach, and dynamics too often go to extremes. The very quiet opening of the second movement brings an appealing sense of fragility to the Dresden sound, still as characterful and complex as ever, but reedy in the woodwinds and transparent in the strings. The sheer unity of the woodwind playing is impressive throughout this performance (performances, rather, the video is edited from two concerts), especially so in the quiet dynamics early in the second movement. The Scherzo is taken relatively fast, with the rich orchestral tone here trading against nimble rhythmic figurations, Thielemann always finding a satisfying balance between the two.
The Finale can sound poorly structured in lesser hands, but Thielemann finds logical tempo choices at every turn. The rising string 16th-note figure at the opening is fast and sleek at every appearance, appearing out of nowhere after each interlude to revive the momentum. And the conclusion is suitably triumphant, the horns and trombones adding a bronzed sheen to the major-key dénouement—buoyant but without frivolity.
Earlier installments in this series were recorded at the Semperoper Dresden, in its concert hall guise, but this one is from the Philharmonie in Munich. The modern decor there is not as grand as the Rococo interior of the orchestra’s home, and the sound is considerably less resonant. Nevertheless, the recorded sound is clear and detailed, and atmospheric in surround, which serves the brass and timpani better than the stereo mix. The video work is busy, and six cameramen are credited. Lots of close-ups, then, of the players and of the ever-stentorian Thielemann, who conducts from memory. There are a few arty zoom and cross-fade effects, but they are kept to a minimum, and the camerawork is never distracting.
Another success, then, for Thielemann and his well-honed orchestra, demonstrating that their mastery of Bruckner’s music applies as much to the earlier symphonies as the late. Fans of the conductor won’t be disappointed. 
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Braunfels String Quartets Nos 1 and 2 Auryn Quartett

Walter Braunfels: String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, “Verkündigung,” op. 60. String Quartet No. 2 in F, op. 61
Auryn Quartett
CPO 999 406-2 (59:14)

Walter Braunfels came late to the string quartet medium, and his Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (of three) date from 1944, when he was in his early 60s. At the time, he was based in Überlingen on Lake Constance, an internal exile in Nazi Germany, having been forcibly removed from his position as director of the Cologne Academy of Music on account of his part-Jewish ancestry. Immediately after the war he was reinstated, and the two quartets were premiered in Cologne in 1946.
The light and gracefully melodic nature of this music gives little impression of the traumatic times in which it was written. Braunfels devoted much of his time in southern Germany to chamber music, and was clearly engaging with Classical-era models. The structure and scale of the two works harks back to middle-period Beethoven, as do many of the expressive features, the rigorous thematic development and the modest but proficiently voiced counterpoint. Some of the textures are more radical, especially the regular division of the quartet into two pairs of instruments in the First Quartet, and the harmony is a little more advanced as well, but, from a technical perspective, everything here speaks of a composer who came of age at the turn of the century.
The First Quartet is the more adventurous of the two in terms of mood and texture. Its subtitle, “Verkündigung” (Annunciation), refers to the opera Braunfels composed in 1933–5, from which the quartet derives most of its themes. A sense of operatic mood setting is apparent in the sprightly opening phrases, and in the third movement scherzo, where flageolet harmonics give a spectral quality to some of the later variants. The Langsam second movement is conceived on a grand, operatic scale, yet retains a sense of intimacy for the refinement of the textures and melodic language.
The Second Quartet is more Classical in conception, more upbeat for its major key and for its light bouncy textures, often with delicate melodies in the violins supported and propelled by repeated-noted figures in the cello. The middle movements of the First Quartet have German performance directions, whereas in the Second all are Italian, an indication, perhaps that Braunfels was focusing more on Classical models in the latter work.
The Auryn Quartett gives energetic and elegant readings of these two works. The unity of ensemble is impressive, especially in the passages of rhythmic unison, such as the opening of the Second Quartet. The tonal control is impressive too, although the sound sometimes takes on an abrasive edge in very loud passages, of which there are many in the First Quartet—but better that than hold back for the big climaxes. While sound is mostly rich and warm, the Adagio of the Second Quartet sounds a little thin, a consequence perhaps of Braunfels’s Classical inclinations here.
This release is not described as a first recording, but it is the only version of these quartets currently available. It is a reissue of a release from 1998: The reissue is simply a renewed distribution of the original disc in its original packaging, no doubt designed to cash in on the Braunfels revival that has recently been taking place in Germany, a canny move on the part of CPO, and fully justified, given the label’s central role in bringing it about in the first place.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 41:3.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Kurtág Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir Reinbert de Leeuw

Four Capriccios to poems by István Bálint, Op. 9 
Four Songs to Poems by Janos Pilinszky, Op. 11 
Grabstein für Stephan Op. 15c 
Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, Op. 17 
…quasi una fantasia…op. 27 No. 1 
Doppelkonzert, Op. 27 No. 2 
Samuel Beckett: What is the word 
Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op 18 
Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 
Brefs Message

Netherlands Radio Choir (chorus), Natalia Zagorinskaya (soprano), Gerrie de Vries (mezzo-soprano), Yves Saelens (tenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Elliott Simpson (guitar), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Csaba Király (pianino, spoken word)

Asko | Schoenberg Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw

The new music world waits patiently for Kurtág’s long-delayed and much anticipated first opera, Endgame, initially commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, but now tentatively penciled in for La Scala in 2018. Meanwhile, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw has been documenting, with equal patience, Kurtág’s existing large-scale vocal and instrumental works, with these recordings made in Amsterdam and Haarlem between 2013 and 2016. The composer himself was not directly involved, but the project is only one step removed from his influence: Leeuw and his ensemble have previously recorded all these works under the composer’s supervision, and these new recordings also carry his blessing, albeit after the fact.
The set is entitled Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir, but that doesn’t give much of an idea of what is included. Song cycles predominate, with a single voice and ensemble featured in Four Capriccios, the Pilinszky songs, Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, and the Akhmatova settings. Vocal soloist, choir, and ensemble are heard in the Beckett setting and Colindă-Baladă. The Songs of Despair and Sorrow are for choir and instruments, and the remaining works, Grabstein für Stephan, …quasi una fantasia…, the Double Concerto, and Brief Messages, are all for instrumental ensemble.
Kurtág’s style is aphoristic, and even in these large-scale works, ideas are brief and pithy, and phrases are short. That makes extended listening a challenge. But it is a worthwhile one, not least for the invention and variety, even within individual movements. Although his voice is distinctive, Kurtág has a tendency to go back to basics with every new work, to forget everything he has done and to start from scratch with the basic building blocks of sound. That often means using very unusual instruments as if they were completely mainstream. So, for example, a choral movement might be accompanied throughout by just a cimbalom or accordion, playing delicate but inscrutably complex harmonies.
Performances and recordings here are excellent throughout. Kurtág’s personality shines through in the atmosphere of every work, that unnerving dichotomy of surface stillness and underlying Angst. In the songs, the solo singers are balanced equitably with the ensemble, but retain their clarity of diction and tone. Both the soloists and the choir tackle the extended vocal techniques with apparent ease, giving the impression—vital for Kurtág—that these are standard expressive devices rather than exotic additions. The audio is studio quality, and, thankfully, ECM has not applied its usual dreamy resonance, allowing the music a more precise and clear sound profile. Many of the works, notably Grabstein für Stephan, are written for groups of ensembles in specific spatial arrays, something that surround-sound could have better conveyed, reason enough, perhaps, for another traversal of these works in the future.
The most valuable aspect of this release is the access it offers to Kurtág’s larger-scale works. He is well-represented in the catalog: ArkivMusic currently lists 87 discs devoted to his music, but most of these focus on a small number of chamber works, the music for string quartet; Signs, Games, and Messages, Játékok, and the Kafka Fragments. Nothing on this set is a first recording, but most of the music is difficult to obtain elsewhere. A Hänssler disc from Marcus Creed and the SWR Vokalensemble is entitled György Kurtág: Complete Vocal Works (93174), but, bizarrely given the “complete” claim of both releases, shares only a single work, Songs of Despair and Sorrow—also on the SWR release are Omaggio a Luigi Nono, op. 16, and Eight Choruses, op. 23. Songs of Sorrow and Despair sound good in both versions, but Reinbert de Leeuw has the edge in terms of clarity and focus of tone. Grabstein für Stephan is also available on an excellent DG recording from Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, with Jürgen Ruck the guitar soloist (0289 479 0341 3), but that recording is of the full-orchestra version, whereas this is for a smaller ensemble. Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova is available in several versions, including recordings conducted by Boulez and Eötvös. It is a piece that relies above all on the Pierrot-like versatility of the soprano soloist, and Natalia Zagorinskaya here more than holds her own against the competition.
The packaging is in the usual arty, high-concept ECM format, the discs in separate envelopes within a card slipcase. The booklet includes some of Kurtág’s own artwork, which is fascinating, along with essays from Reinbert de Leeuw and Paul Griffiths, as well as an encomium from the composer himself endorsing the project. Texts are included, in the original Romanian, Hungarian, and Russian with parallel English translations (Russian is Cyrillic only). Finding the track listings among all the full-page images can be tricky, and linking performers to works requires tedious cross-referencing, but all the info is there.
An important document then, of major works from one of the great Modernist composers of our era. The presentation seems to encourage extended listening, but individual works are better appreciated in isolation. So treat it as a resource, and you’ll find yourself returning time and again.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.