Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen, Runnicles, Herheim

WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen

Donald Runnicles, cond

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde); Elisabeth Teige (Sieglinde); Aile Asszonyi (Gutrune); Annika Schlicht (Fricka); Okka von der Damerau (Waltraute); Judit Kuasi (Erda); Clay Hilley (Siegfried); Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund); Ya-Chug Huang (Mime); Derek Welton (Wotan); Iain Paterson (Wotan, Wanderer); Markus Brück, Jordan Shanahan (Alberich); Tobias Kehrer (Hunding); Thomas Lehman (Gunther); Albert Pesendorfer (Hagen); Andrew Harris (Fasolt); Tobias Kehrer (Fafner)

Ch & O of Deutsche Op Berlin

NAXOS 0156 (4 Blu-ray discs: 301:00)


This Blu-ray set documents the new Ring cycle production at Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Stefan Herheim. The company’s previous production, by Götz Friedrich, had been in rep since 1984. That one was very much a Cold War conception, with a post-apocalyptic setting, so, given the political developments in Berlin over the intervening decades, it was clearly time for a change. In the event, the unveiling of Herheim’s new vision for the work was complicated by the COVID pandemic. These films were made at the first performance of the cycle as a whole, in November 2021. The individual operas had already been presented, but out of order, and by the time of this complete cycle, several significant case changes had already been made.

Herheim’s Postmodern readings of late Romantic operas, and particularly Wagner, are all the rage in Europe. He is certainly controversial, but more for his subversive deconstructions than for any visual outrages. In some ways, his aesthetic is reassuringly traditional, and the first point to make about this new Ring is that the director uses all of the resources that this major opera house affords to present a production on a suitable visual scale. With all the expectations around modern and traditional stagings, Herheim seems to deliberately pick and choose, taking visual elements from both and mixing them provocatively. So, for example, Alberich (Markus Brück) appears throughout the cycle in clown make-up, a particularly tired cliché of Regietheater. But Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (Clay Hilley) appear in the winged helmets and Viking breastplates of sacred memory. But both are subjected to transgressive code shifts, with characters sometimes dressing as each other, or simply removing their costume to continue performing in their underwear. The result is a playful engagement with multiple traditions of Wagner performance—engaging and imaginative, but often infuriating too.

Das Rheingold opens with a bare stage, empty apart from a grand piano sitting at the center. A forlorn group of people trapse on in silence, carrying battered suitcases. One of them approaches the piano and plays a low E, and so begins the Prelude. The suitcases that they carry on become the basis for all the staging, and the suggestion is that they are creating the drama themselves out of nothing. This already poses some conceptual problems. The imagery of battered suitcases piled high invokes concentration camps, an association that Herheim neither develops nor refutes. The idea of creating the drama out of nothing leads to a play-within-a-play distancing, and many of the clever tricks that he pulls later on are designed to emphasize the fact that this is a stage production, with elements of the stagecraft brought into the dramaturgy. Presumably, the intent is to have the sheer emotion of the drama transcend the prosaic mis-en-scène, but for the most part, the results are decidedly “meta,” with the sense of distancing and cleverness at odds with the music’s emotional engagement.

The other big distraction throughout this cycle is the piano. It appears in almost every scene, and, given its scale (a full-size concert D), it is impressively agile—rotating, hovering, sinking into the depths at the end. Everything comes out of the body of the piano. Characters enter this way, and it doubles as Mime’s forge, Brünnhilde’s rock, Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The characters often pretend to play the piano. In some scenes, this is designed to suggest agency; Wotan, for example, regularly plays while the other characters sing, as if he controls them and their destiny, or thinks he does. Just as often, characters will play the piano just for something to do. Given the distance between the sound of a piano and Wagner’s lush orchestration, the visual metaphor feels tenuous, and the more animated this piano playing becomes, the more ridiculous it looks.

Fortunately, Herheim has plenty of imagination to exploit these visual motifs and to generate plenty of surprises and interest, despite his unpromising Konzept. The Rheingold continues with the individual characters making themselves known from among the anonymous refugees; Wotan, it transpires, played that first E. When the gold appears, it takes the form of a bass trumpet, an elegant image and a particularly astute visual reference.

Vocal casting throughout this Ring is strong, though tends more towards younger voices than established names. For Rheingold, Wotan is played by Derek Welton. He is more often heard as the Herald in Lohengrin, where his light but arresting tone is ideal. He lacks authority as Wotan, although his tone and expression are always attractive. No weak links among the gods here, although the casting seems more focused on dramatic potential. The standout among the Rheingold cast is the Fricka of Annika Schlicht. She has a big, deep tone but with focus too—a true Wagnerian voice. The giants appear accompanied by huge marionettes, all made of suitcases. Andrew Harris and Tobias Kehrer give emotive readings although, unusually for Herheim, the two characters seem dramatically inert without their doubles.

In the Nibelheim scene, the dwarves are represented in Prussian military uniform, seemingly a cautious reference to the Third Reich. This sets up a key element of Herheim’s reading: he presents Mime as a caricature of Wagner himself. Such a device appears in almost every Herheim production, but usually with the main character presented as the composer. Here it makes for a curious sideline, inviting interpretations rather than dictating any. Ya-Chung Huang is visually ideal for the role, which has a lot of dark humor, though voice lacks maturity.

Another Postmodern affectation is the presence of the vocal score on the stage. At one point during the third scene, Wotan reaches into the prompt box and grabs the score, to settle some dispute about the narrative. This leads to another great reveal and the end of the opera, when Erda appears as the prompt herself, climbing out of the prompt box to chide Wotan. This links back to the play-within-a-play idea, and the surprise is beautifully prepared.

During the final scene of Rheingold, Wotan seizes Nothung, again from the prompt box, and stabs is through the closed lid of the piano. That’s where we find it at the start of Die Walküre, and many of the transitions between scenes and operas are handled in a similarly continuous way. The big addition to act I of Walküre is a son for Hunding and Sieglinde, a mute part credited as “Hundingling” (Eric Naumann). Elisabeth Teige and Brandon Jovanovich make for convincing leads as Sieglinde and Siegmund. In the first run of the production, Sieglinde was sung by Lise Davidsen, and it is a shame that her account was not offered here: Teige is good, but not on the same level. Tobias Kehrer lacks vocal presence as Hunding, though his physical heft is suitably imposing. At the moment that Siegmund releases the sword, Sieglinde cuts the throat of the child. That feels unduly brutal, though it does afford her more agency that what Wagner writes into the libretto.

The second act is particularly well sung, with Iain Paterson taking over the role of Wotan and Annika Schlicht returning as Fricka. Both have impressive Wagnerian voices, and Paterson arguably has the standout voice of the entire cycle. Herheim’s Personenregie needs singers who can really engage with the physical drama, and the interactions between Wotan and Fricka here are excellent, a brutal and unsettling power struggle. Nina Stemme sings Brünnhilde and matches the quality of the cast, but without surpassing it. Having been the Brünnhilde of choice for several decades, she is now in her late 50s, and her age is beginning to show. All of the notes are there, but the tone is now more angular, with less flow and less ease. Paterson and Stemme lack chemistry in the final act, but Herheim compensates with some elegant stagecraft. After a spectacular Valkyrie scene, in which Brünnhilde rises resplendent through the piano, the stage is cleared of scenery, allowing the interactions of Wotan and Brünnhilde to take place in a more intimate setting. The Magic Fire is done with flame projections against a billowing sheet of parachute fabric—very effective.

Similar fire effects, this time coming out of the piano, provide suitable spectacle for Mime’s forge at the start of Siegfried. Clay Hilley is an impressive Siegfried here, his voice focused but with plenty of color. His acting sometimes feels stiff, especially up against the ever-amusing Mime/Wagner of Ya-Chung Huang. In act II, the Woodbird is sung by a boy treble, Sebastian Scherer. Herheim explains (in the bonus documentary on the Götterdämmerung disc) that he had two reasons, neither of them musical. The first was to emphasize that, when Siegfried meets Brünnhilde, she really is the first woman he has ever seen. The other is to give a suggestion that this child, who appears in bloodstained clothes, represents Siegfried’s sacrificed childhood. We are moving a long way from Wagner’s libretto here, but the idea makes sense as it follows a scene in the previous act, in which Siegfried sings of his parents that he never knew. As he sings, the pair appear in idealized form, literally as winged angels. The dragon in act II is great fun: the piles of suitcases suddenly come alive, with the entire stage representing the dragon’s head. Giant teeth appear, seemingly based on the bells of huge brass instruments, but the eyes alone are enough to create the effect. After the tenderness of the final act of Walküre, the ending of this Siefried is more carnal, as the cast again strip down to their underwear and engage in various sex acts. It feels like Herheim is trying desperately to keep up with metrosexual Berlin.

More underwear-clad extras for the Norn scene at the start of Götterdämmerung. The Norns themselves are bald and blindfolded, and the crowds presumably represent the Rope of Destiny (nothing else here does). Albert Pesendorfer has an impressive voice for Hagen, though he tires in the last act. In order to demonstrate the increasing influence of Alberich on Hagen, the latter appears in each scene in ever-more prominent clown makeup, a nice touch. When we get to an actual singing chorus, the director comes into his own, with effective and dynamic blocking. In fact, the scenery grows gradually less significant as the opera goes on, leaving the scene setting to the chorus. One memorable exception, though, is Waltraute’s Monologue. Here, a cloud of dry ice swirls above the two singers, gradually revealing Valhalla above, with the gods waiting patiently for their demise. Even on the small screen, the sheer scale of the effect is overwhelming. Okka von der Damerau gives a star turn as Waltraute, passionate and engaging, and with a beautiful, bronzed tone. Thomas Lehman and Aile Asszonyi give competent but non-descript accounts of Gunther and Gutrune, leading to the suspicion that Herheim made little account for these two characters in his interpretation. During Siegfried’s Funeral Music, Hagen severs Siegfried’s head, then wears his clothes and brandishes his horn atop the prompt box. Stemme cracks a few high notes in the Immolation Scene, but carries the drama, as does Herheim’s grand finale. The piano remains onstage, but most of this final scene relies on the movements of the chorus, often with projected lights, to create waves and flames. The ending comes full circle in impressive style, but I won’t give away the final image, as it is a welcome surprise.

Donald Runnicles leads an impressive account of the score. His deep knowledge of the music comes through in the naturalness of the discourse, the easy communication with the singers—many in role debuts—and the vibrant colors he draws from the orchestra. He is particularly keen to bring out the low woodwind solos, which always stand out prominently. He balances dramatic weight against dynamism, and never rushes climaxes, even at the ends of acts. The orchestra respond well, and provide a deep, rich string tone as the basis of the musical drama.

The video recording was made in collaboration with several broadcasters—rbb Kultur, NRK, and Marquee TV—and the editing style has a television feel, focusing on the main singers, and wholly ignoring the conductor, orchestra, and the corners of the huge stage. But Herheim’s imaginative use of colored lighting (designer Ulrich Niepel) and his focus on small props (the vocal scores for instance) lends the visual aesthetic to screen presentation. The sound quality is excellent throughout, with all the singers heard up close, and the orchestra broadly arrayed around the front speakers of the surround mix. Subtitles are given in German, English, French, Italian, Japanese, and Korean.

Stefan Herheim may be an acquired taste, but if you know his excellent Parsifal and Meistersinger productions, you will have a good idea what to expect here. Visually, the production is stunning, and musically the cast is never less than serviceable, with several excellent voices in each opera. Some of the ideas don’t add up, and it can feel like the director’s reinterpretive approach has been spread thin oven this long cycle. But his ability to direct singers to create real drama and emotion is much in evidence. Whether his decisions are right or wrong, this is clearly a major new production of the Ring, and is worth exploring for any but the most entrenched opponents of Herheim’s work.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:4.



Sunday, 18 December 2022

Adrian Williams Symphony No 1 Kenneth Woods

ADRIAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 1. Chamber Concerto, “Portraits of Ned Kelly”
Kenneth Woods, cond
English SO
NIMBUS 6432 (69:31)


This album is the fifth in the 21st Century Symphony Project, a commissioning campaign by conductor Kenneth Woods, designed to survey the contemporary symphony in the UK, and also presumably to give it a boost. Previous recordings have showcased new symphonies by Matthew Taylor, Philip Sawyers, and David Matthews. Woods has an impressive loyalty to each, and the completion and performance of one symphony often leads to a further commission for the project.

Adrian Williams (b. 1956) is new to the symphonic form, but not to large-scale orchestral writing: his Cello Concerto was given at the Proms in 2009. Woods approached Williams to write this symphony, and the work is dedicated to him, “for giving me hope,” as Williams puts it.

On the whole, I would rate this new symphony a major success. Williams has a style that works beautifully with the large scale and the abstraction of symphonic writing, and there is never any sense that he is over-extending his ideas or struggling to fill the time. He has his own distinctive voice, making comparisons with other composers difficult and often misleading. However, his conception of the symphony as a form owes much to Shostakovich and Sibelius. I’m also reminded of Walton’s First Symphony, especially in the way that Williams’s first movement unfolds so naturally, the music expansive and dramatic, but also coolly confident and assured.

In his brief liner introduction, Williams writes that the work begins with a rising motif, Eb–F–C, and that this returns throughout. The motif itself carries much of the work’s character. Its rising profile matches the “hope” of the dedication, and through much of the work we hear the rising motif against darker backgrounds—hope in the face of despair. The motif is also made up of tonal intervals, although it does not fit into any obvious tonality. That, too, reflects the harmonic language of the music, broadly consonant and usually tied to tonal centers, though often with modern-sounding harmonic complexes. Williams writes that the structure is based on a conflict between tonal centers derived from the motif, Eb and F.

The work is in a traditional four-movement structure. The second movement is a lively Scherzando, though still with some agogic weight. The third is a smooth Lento. This was the last part of the symphony to be completed, and was motivated by news footage of bush fires in Australia. Another late modification was the (relatively) positive character of the finale. This last movement is huge, almost 18 minutes, but plays out as a smooth and gradual intensification of broadly consonant orchestral textures. Structurally, it is the most ambitious section of the symphony, and, as with everything before, it succeeds in matching its material to its scale.

For me, the first movement is the best part of this new symphony. The variety of material and expression is well balanced against the inscrutable but highly coherent structure. The four movements do not have enough variety between them: the second is too similar to the first, and the third is too similar to the fourth. Of course, you can hear it as a grand two-movement form à la Saint-Saëns, and as such it works fine.

The coupling is an earlier Williams work, the Chamber Concerto of 1998. The work’s subtitle “Portraits of Ned Kelly” points to a remarkable friendship. At the time, Williams was a neighbor of the Australian painter Sidney Nolan on the Welsh borders. Nolan even let Williams practice on his piano. The Chamber Concerto was inspired by Nolan’s famous series of portraits of Ned Kelly. Kenneth Woods writes in his liner note that the piece originally had a narrative, which closely followed Kelly’s exploits, but became more abstract as composition progressed. Nevertheless, you hear a chase on horseback, mid-way through, with driving col legno from the strings. The abrupt ending also suggests Kelly’s death by hanging, and Woods rightly points to Till Eulenspiegel as a model.

The scale of the textures belies the modest instrumentation, just 11 players, one-to-a-part stings and woodwinds, plus French horn and harp. The opening is as arresting as that of the symphony, and Williams again shows an impressive talent for extended forms, the work in a single movement of 22 minutes. Again, the style is so distinctive that it is hard to name influences. A European Modernism, from Russian-period Stravinsky through to Ligeti, has been taken on board and digested into a distinctive approach. The textures are often prickly, scurrying stings and staccato woodwind interjections. The horn (James Topp) is a dominant presence in most of the sections, its more rounded sound bringing focus to the otherwise disparate textures.

Performances and recording are as fine as we have come to expect from Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. Both pieces find the players in excellent form, and the 11 players of the Chamber Concerto deserve particular praise for the lyrical virtuosity they bring to this highly demanding music. The recordings were made at the Nimbus’s own Wyastone Concert Hall, conveniently located for both the orchestra and the composer.

The “No. 1” might seem like an affectation for the title of the symphony presented here. But no, Williams is now hard at work on his Symphony No. 2, another English Symphony Orchestra commission (as here, with funds from the Steven R. Gerber Trust). The recording of that work is eagerly awaited. Watch this space.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 46:4.


Friday, 16 December 2022

Francisco Soto de Langa, 20 Laude Spirituali, Alessandro Quarta

Francisco Soto de Langa, 20 Laude Spirituali, Alessandro Quarta 

Capilla Musical de La Iglesia Nacional Espanola de Roma
Alessandro Quarta, cond
Brilliant Classics 96164 (54:02)


Francisco Soto de Langa (1534–1619) was a Spanish singer, publisher, and composer, active in Rome. He was probably a castrato, and if so was the first to be employed by the Papal Chapel, from 1562. He is best remembered today for his anthologies of lauda, most of them by other composers, but a substantial number by Soto himself, which are presented on this album.

“Laude sprituali” are a curious hybrid genre of sacred music that closely follows secular and vernacular conventions. The liner note, by Andrés Montilla-Acurero, traces the form back to Occitan troubadours of the 12th century. The defining feature is a bold melodic line, sometimes folk-influenced, but with regular, unsyncopated rhythm. Soto’s laude include counterpoint, but usually only in two parts, or with two groups of singers in clearly defined opposition. Just as common are numbers for solo singer with Baroque guitar accompaniment.

This recording, which was made in 2019 to mark the 200th anniversary of Soto’s death, is from a Renaissance group based in Rome. Alessandro Quarta is listed as “guest conductor” suggesting that he does not lead every number here, just the larger ensembles. Six singers are listed, but have a fulsome tone when singing Soto’s hearty homophonic textures. Women, rather than boys or countertenors, take the upper lines, a practice the liner notes make a tenuous effort to link with Soto’s time. True or not, the mixed voices have the effect of secularizing the sound further.

The ensemble makes various efforts to increase the timbral variety. The opening number has robust percussion, but this is only heard on a few of the subsequent numbers. One number, Alma dexa la tierra, begins with several verses played by an ensemble of bowed strings before the voices enter. The use of a small organ in place of plucked-string continuo also provides welcome variety.

The recordings were made at the Sala de conferencias de la Iglesia Nacional Espanola de Santiago y Monsterrat in Rome (the group is associated with the Spanish church in Rome), and photographs in the liner show sessions taking place in what looks like a museum setting. The acoustic is warm, but the mikes are set close, and textures are always clear.

The packaging for this release belies Brilliant Classics’ budget origins, and we get a substantial, glossy liner of 16 pages, with the Montilla-Acurero essay and artist bios, all in English and Spanish. No texts or translations though, sadly. The short running time should also be noted. Given the number of anthologies that Soto published which include his own laude, plus the two publications, of 1599 and 1600, wholly dedicated to his own works, there is clearly more material that could have been included.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:4.


Thursday, 15 December 2022

Martinů Larmes de couteau, Comedy on the Bridge, Cornelius Meister

 Martinů Larmes de couteau (Knife Tears). Comedy on the Bridge
Cornelius Meister, cond
Esther Dierkes, Elena Tsallagova (sop); Michael Smallwood (ten); Bjorn Burger, Adam Palka (bar); Maria Riccarda Wesseling, Stine Marie Fischer (alt); Andrew Bogard (bs)
Stuttgart State Orchestra
Capriccio 5477 (64:31)

These two one-act operas find Martinů in cabaret mood, writing sprightly music for small and varied ensembles, and always maintaining his sense of humor, even when the plots turn macabre. The composer lived a peripatetic existence, which is demonstrated by the languages of these librettos. Larmes de couteau (Knife Tears) was composed in France in 1928. He set a French text, but the work was first performed in Czech, in Brno in 1969. The present recording is the first with the original French text. Comedy on the Bridge was also composed in France, in 1935, but to a Czech text; it was a commission from Prague Radio. Martinů later adapted it to an English-language text, for a student performance at the Mannes School, where he was then teaching, in 1951. That English version is presented here.

Larmes de couteau has a ghoulish plot. It is a three-hander, featuring Elénore (Elena Tsallagova), her mother (Maria Ricccarda Wesseling), and Satan (Adam Palka). Elénore is in love with her neighbor, Saturne, but he has hanged himself. Her mother tries to turn Elénore’s attentions to Satan, but she is not interested. Eventually Elénore commits suicide, by the knife of the title. Saturne then returns from the dead, as does Elénore, but a happy ending is diverted by the resurrected Saturne being Satan in disguise.

Martinů writes light, catchy music that keeps pace with the story’s many changes of direction and mood. The orchestra is small and is dominated by the one-to-a-part winds, and by the piano. The distinctive sound of the banjo cuts through on several occasions, and there is also a harmonium, accompanying much of the singing. Vocal performances are good, and the French sounds idiomatic, even in the many spoken interjections (all accompanied). Elena Tsallagova has a more operatic tone, while Adam Palka is lighter, and occasionally slides playfully between the notes.

Comedy on the Bridge has a larger cast, with five singers and three spoken parts. The scenario, based on a story by the Czech dramatist Václav Kliment Klicpera, involves two parties, both stranded on a bridge. They are in no-mans’ land, between rival armies in a war, and guards at both ends of the bridge prevent them from leaving. Martinů again writes for a small orchestra, and again with prominent piano. But the balance is more towards the string body here, with regular military tattoos from percussion and trumpet. The recording is well cast. The opera was designed for radio, and Martinů writes distinctively for each of the voices, and this is reflected in the casting. The opening is dominated by Steven Ebel as the Enemy Sentry (one of the spoken roles), shouting “Stop!” and “Stand back!” in a pushy American accent. None of the singing roles are taken by native English speakers, but all do a credible job of (British) English in their performances.

Conductor Cornelius Meister is proving ever-more versatile with the expanding range of unusual operas he is recording—mostly from the 20th century. He has also recently recorded a well-received cycle of Martinů symphonies, with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, also for Capriccio (41:4). The recordings at hand were made with Stuttgart State Opera, where Meister has been Generalmusikdirektor since 2018. They appear to have been recorded under studio conditions, without an audience—a lockdown project perhaps? The results can sometimes sound a little studio-bound, and the cabaret style of both works suggests a certain amount of audience interaction, absent here. Still, they are good, vivid readings, very much in the spirit of the music—absurdist in all the right ways. Excellent notes from Jens F. Laurson fill in the background to what he calls these “neglected mini-operas,” and full librettos are included, with side-by-side translations into English and German for Larmes de couteau and into German for Comedy on the Bridge. In sum, an attractive follow-up project to Meister’s Martinů symphony cycle for Capriccio. The music is not profound, but it sheds a fascinating light on one of the less well-known aspects of the composer’s exceptionally diverse output.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 46:4

Friday, 11 November 2022

RIMSKY-KORSKOV Christmas Eve Frankfurt Opera

Sebastian Weigle, cond
Georgy Vasiliev (Vakula)
Julia Muzychenko (Oksana)
Enkelejda Shkoza (Solokha)
Alexey Tikhomirov (Chub)
Andrei Popov (Devil)
Anthony Robin Schneider (Panas)
Sebastian Geyer (Mayor)
Ossip Nikiforovich Peter Marsh (Deacon)
Bianca Andrew (Tsarina)
Frankfurt Opera Chorus
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchster
Naxos 0154 (Blu-ray: 153:00)

This video comes from a staging at Frankfurt Opera in December 21/January 22 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale opera with a Christmas theme. The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, the same story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s Valuka the Smith. The Tchaikovsky opera was later updated as Cherevichki, which is marginally the more popular of the three, and from which several story elements here may be familiar. Gogol’s tale mixes a peasant love story, set in a provincial Ukrainian village, with magical elements—the Devil, a witch—obliging the director to decide on a folksy or a fantastical setting. Christof Loy goes for the latter, with scenery that suggests outer space and lots of trapeze work for the Devil’s flights. But the costumes are more down-to-earth, and the love story is presented with due intimacy. There are also several dance numbers and a ridiculous farce scene, so it all adds up to a well-rounded package of Christmas entertainment.

The basic set is a white box, mapped out on all sides by square grid lines and specked with stars. A huge moon initially fills the stage, and we meet the Devil (Andrei Popov) and the witch Solokha (Enkelejda Shkoza) as the two scheme to obscure its light. Their goal is to prevent Solokha’s son, Valuka (Georgy Vasiliev), finding his way to his love, Oksana (Julia Muzychenko). They also conjure a snowstorm to hinder him, and the visuals are suitably dramatic, with both the Devil and Solokha riding around on trapezes. In the story, Solokha is only suspected of witchcraft, but Loy is unambiguous and has her riding on a broom. Most of the principals in the cast are Russian, so we get good diction and idiomatic singing. However, the female singers outclass the male voices, as is demonstrated immediately by the superiority of Shkoza over the less stable or secure singing of Vasiliev.

In the second scene we meet Oksana. She praises her own beauty and generally monologues about how she is going to tease Valuka. When he arrives, she announces that she will only marry him if he brings her the Tsarina’s slippers. Both Oksana and Valuka have many monologues, their inner thoughts delivered directly to the audience, and Muzychenko is more dramatically convincing than Vasiliev, always finding some well-timed flirtation where he just stands and delivers. She has the superior voice, too. Vasiliev is lyrical, almost Italianate, but Rimsky demands more rigor, even of his romantic leads.

The second act opens with farce. The Devil visits Solokha, but is forced to hide in a sack when as a string of hopeful suitors visit—the Mayor (Sebastian Geyer), the Deacon (Peter Marsh), and the elderly Cossack Chub (Alexey Tikhomirov)—each also ending up in a sack as the next arrives. Russian bass Tikhomirov is the pick of these voices, a rich tone but agile enough for the comedy. Rimsky does not quite get the pace right here, and the successive appearances feel labored. Donizetti would have done a better job, and Ravel certainly did a few decades later. Valuka arrives and takes away all the sacks, unaware of their contents, and the four men emerge in his smithy to general embarrassment all round.

The third act is the most demanding in terms of magic and special effects. Valuka forces the Devil to fly him to St. Petersburg, and one whole scene is an orchestral interlude given over to the flight. Here, we get a ballerina dancing with a bear, for no obvious reason, but it is a fun interlude. The brief scene at the royal palace presents the chorus in regal costumes but no new sets. Mezzo Bianca Andrew is suitably regal as the Tsarina, but it is a tiny role.

In the final act, Valuka returns to the village, presents the slippers, and the couple are married. There is plenty of hearty choral writing in the finale, and while the Frankfurt chorus is strong, we begin to feel the lack of heavy Russian basses. Rimsky also includes an epilogue, a homage to Gogol. That would probably make more sense to Russian audiences, and here requires a portrait to be held aloft, to make clear what they are singing about.

The aesthetic is generally clear and straightforward, visually coherent, but not as homely as the folk story suggests. There is a lot of trapeze work, with the Devil, Solokha, and Valuka all singing from high wires, an impressive feat. The feel is modern, but nothing is gratuitous, and Loy makes no efforts to impose his own narrative. And the celestial theme is elegant and imaginative—suitably magical for a Christmas story.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle gives a vigorous and lively account of the score. Some of quieter music sometimes invite a more nuanced and atmospheric approach, but the music’s clean lines complement the similarly efficient visual themes. The sound quality is fantastic. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team. They used to collaborate with Oehms Classics, and the results were always excellent. Oehms has recently been bought up by Naxos, and that collaboration looks set to continue with the parent company. Rimsky’s orchestration is as colorful as his reputation would have us expect, and it is all captured with warmth and detail in this involving surround sound mix. Some of the instruments, the harp in particular, seem over-amplified, at least in comparison with live balances, but the spotlighting is always welcome. Subtitles are in English, French, Japanese, and Korean.

This is the first ever video release of the opera. Two audio versions precede it, a 1948 Moscow radio recording conducted by Nikolai Golovanov, and a Chant Du Monde release, also with Moscow forces and conducted by Michail Jurowski, from 1990. Both have been well received, with the 1948 version preferred for its superior cast. This new account is generally well sung, though it could do with stronger male leads, and is clearly first choice for audio. The production is fun too, and only requires a minimal tolerance for modern staging to get into the Christmas mood.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 46:4.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Barry In The Asylum Fidelio Trio

All day at home busy with my own affairs
Le Vieux Sourd
Baroness von Ritkart
In the Asylum
Triorchic Blues

Fidelio Trio
Darragh Morgan (vn)
Rose Redgrave (va)
Adi Tal (vc)
Mary Dullea (pn)
Gerald Barry (pn)

MODE 332 (63:00)

The Irish composer Gerald Barry (b. 1952) has a singular voice. He studied in Cologne with Stockhausen and Kagel, the two teachers passing down iconoclasm and absurdist humor respectively. Barry’s music avoids direct expression, favoring instead mechanistic repetitions and angular but unpredictable rhythmic processes. Repeating note cells churn away, without nuance but with pauses interspersed seemingly at random, as if satirizing the concept of phrase structure. It is a confrontational aesthetic, more often met in the concert hall or opera theater—Thomas Adès has championed his orchestral music and his operas, most notably The Importance of Being Ernest, have been well received on both sides of the Atlantic, his humor taken as a bold corrective to the seriousness of other major contemporary opera composers. Here, we have a collection of chamber works, for various combinations related to the piano trio (plus or minus one instrument) that demonstrates a similar aggressive playfulness, set in an even clearer perspective by the austerity of means.

The program opens with 1998 for violin and piano. In his typically esoteric liner notes, Barry compares the course of the music to the trajectories mapped in a particle accelerator. But he has no intention of telling us where the music came from, just how it appears to him now, “It is as if it were written by someone else and I woke to find it at the bottom of my bed like a Grimm fairytale.” The performance, by violinist Darrah Morgan (the motivating force behind the project) and pianist Mary Dullea, is excellent. The expression, or rather lack of it, is deadpan from both players, but the Pointillistic textures are maintained, without flagging or fatigue, for the full 22 minutes of the work’s duration.

All day at home busy with my own affairs is a short solo piano work performed here by the composer himself. It dates from 2015 and also forms part of his as-yet unperformed opera Salome. Does this recording date from the same sessions as the other works? The piano seems duller and less immediate, but that might just be Barry’s more sullen approach to keyboard technique.

Midday is performed here in a version for violin and piano, but it also exists, the composer tells us, in a “loud version” for eight horns and two wind machines. That is hard to square with the delicate pizzicato textures and high violin filigrees we hear throughout this version. Les Vieux Sourd for solo piano, is a chaotic disassembly of Auld Lang Syne. Baroness von Ritkart is a series of three very gentle miniatures for violin and piano. These show a different side to Barry’s compulsive aesthetic, closer to the daydream ambivalence of early Cage. The two following works also open with gentle textures, In the Asylum, for piano trio, which gives the album its title, and Ø, for piano quartet. But the disorder is soon ramped up, making the listening experience increasingly surreal and disorientating. Finally, Triochic Blues, not a blues, of course, but a portrait of a three-testicled castrato on the run from Dublin magistrates. As ever with Barry, the music is only slightly less lurid than the composer’s own descriptions, with the three instruments of the piano trio matching each other in exact unison in an erratic caper around registral extremes.

The Fidelio Trio and friends do an excellent job of presenting Barry’s music, presenting everything straight-up, without any direct acknowledgment of the humor and sarcasm, which are more than capable of making themselves felt. The recordings were made at the Music Department of Queen’s University, Belfast and, with the curious exception of the composer’s piano solo, all sound fine. The liner notes by the composer are as infuriating as the music itself, short aphoristic texts relating, often tangentially, to each work and an autobiographical essay, “Never was a shade” that defies any description from me. In sum, a representative survey of Gerald Barry’s often challenging chamber music, and a fine addition to a discography otherwise dominated by recordings of his operas.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.




Thursday, 13 October 2022

Reger Organ Works Volume 8 Weinberger

Monologe, op. 63 Book 1/1-4, Book 2/5-8, Book 3/6,7

Leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen, op. 67/1–5,8–11,16,15–18,23,25,30,31,35

Variationen und Fuge über “Heil, unserm König, Heil,” WoO IV/7

Leicht ausführbares Präludium und Fuge, op. 56 Nr. 4

Kompositionen, op. 79b/5–7,10,12. Präludien und Fugen, op. 85/1,2,4

Gerhard Weinberger (org)

CPO 555 342–2 (2 SACDs: 128:31)





This double-SACD album is Volume 8 in Gerhard Weinberger’s Reger Organ Works series on CPO. By my reckoning, that makes it the final installment, although there is nothing in the publicity to say as much. The programming for this cycle has been eccentric, to say the least, with Weinberger dividing up the many large collections of short works and distributing them across several volumes. The reason for this appears to be that many different organs are used, and Weinberger presumably wishes to allocate the individual works as best suits the instruments. But the consequence for this final volume is that there is a lot of mopping up to do. Most of the works presented here are modest processionals and interludes for liturgical use, some Catholic (op. 63), some Protestant. Other works from the opp. 56 and 79b sets appeared on the previous release. But there, as in previous installments, Weinberger slotted those short works in as fillers behind more substantial concert pieces. This time round, it is just the small works. That makes for an agreeable consistency across the program, and keeps Reger’s megalomania at bay.

Disc 1 is recorded on the Walcker organ of the Lutherkirche in Wiesbaden. That was an important town in Reger’s life, but the instrument was built in 1911, after he lived there, so he probably would not have known it. Even so, the thinking behind this cycle has been to chose “historical instruments from Reger’s days,” and all have proved to be splendid. The organ is of medium size, with three manuals and a disposition that fits on one page of the liner. The size feels just right for these Monologues and Preludes. The most obvious competition is from Bernhard Buttmann on Ohms. He plays these works on a larger organ, which can sometimes feel constrained and underused. Weinberger, by contrast, seems to approach the capacity of his instrument. Also, the recorded sound is closer, with less reverberance than for Buttmann, which gives the overall sound profile a straightforward, no-nonsense character. There is still warmth, but everything is within the modest scale of the music. The first disc closes with an oddity, the Variations and Fugue on “Heil, unserm König,” i.e., “God Save the King,” i.e., “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” At the time—1901—it was assumed the work had been written to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, but it was written earlier. Reger wrote that the piece is as easy as possible, in order to appeal to organists with “weak technique.” Here, and throughout the program, Weinberger uses the straightforward textures to display the range of tone colors at his disposal. And in this work, the recognizability of the melody allows us to hear Reger’s contrapuntal working with unusual clarity.

Disc 2 is recorded on the Jehmlich organ at the Stadtkirche, Pößneck in Thuringia. This instrument is about the same size, but the church is smaller. A photograph in the liner shows an ornate organ case with filigreed pillars, almost touching the flat ceiling above. Again, the program is made up of short works for Protestant liturgy. The most substantial pieces are the three preludes and fugues from op. 85. Weinberger selects airy, open-sounding stops here, and provides much variety though his range of dynamics. The first prelude begins particularly quietly, and the music often returns to this level. You might need to raise the volume occasionally, but these quiet passages are particularly lovely.

As usual, CPO provides full organ registrations and extensive liner notes, on both the organs and the works, well translated for the most part. Given Weinberger’s choice of instruments, this deserves to be considered a period-performance cycle of Reger’s music. The difference that makes is slight in most volumes, but in this, presumably, final installment, the modest scale of the organs employed is an interesting and attractive feature.



This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.


Sunday, 9 October 2022

Telemann Johannis-Oratorium Willens

 TELEMANN Gelobet sei der Herr. Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand

 Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Rahel Maas, Elena Harsányi (sop); Elvira Bill (alt); Mirko Ludwig (ten); Klaus Mertens (bbar); Mauro Borgioni (bs); Kölner Akademie

CPO 555 271-2 (78:47)


Michael Alexander Willens has been surveying Telemann’s sacred choral music for several years on CPO. After numerous releases of sacred cantatas, in 2019, he turned his attention to the Michaelis-Oratorium (CPO 555 214-2, reviewed by James Altena 43:2). Telemann’s sacred oratorios are much like his cantatas, musical interludes for church services. They are loosely structured around Biblical narratives, but with regular contributions for allegorical characters too. They are generally grand affairs, designed for special occasions and feast days. The major work here, at almost an hour, Gelobet sei der Herr, was written for the Feast of St. John, and Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand for Misericordias Domini, the Third Sunday after Easter. The librettos are by the Hamburg poet Albrecht Jacob Zell, and when published were dedicated to the more familiar Barthold Heinrich Brockes.

Zell takes a tangential approach to the birth and naming of John the Baptist, taking his narrative instead from the Book of Exodus, the common themes prophesy and salvation. The story tells of the flight from Egypt, from the death of Pharoh’s son to the parting of the Red Sea. The chorus variously portrays the Israelites and the Egyptians, most dramatically at the Red Sea, “Das Meer ist zerteilt,” where the two groups alternate, back and forth, across the waters.

For all the implied drama, note writer Ute Poetsch informs us that Telemann had only about 20 instrumentalists at his disposal, which is about the number Willens employs. Still, there is plenty of dramatic tension here. There is also an interesting solo timpani number near the end, which segues into drum-themed chorus of praise, “Schlaget die Pauken.” The chorus is also of modest size (15 singers listed) but delivers forceful accents and swift dynamic shifts as required. Telemann writes some elegant woodwind obbligatos, and the warm sound of the Baroque flutes in a modest church acoustic (the recording was made in the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal) is a satisfying support to the aria “Als Sklaven mussten wir am Joch der Sünden ziehen.”

That number is taken by bass Mauro Borgioni, in the role of “Divine Contemplation” (he also plays a timorous-sounding God). He is one of several young soloists employed here for the brief arias and recitatives. Sopranos Rahel Maas and Elena Harsányi are also ideal, both singing with pure but warm tone. More controversial, though, is Klaus Mertens, who dominates the first part of the oratorio in the role of Pharoh. When this was recorded, Mertens was already in his 70s. Generally, his tone is stable and clear, but Telemann has a tendency to raise the tessitura when things get dramatic, and Mertens struggles at the top.

The second oratorio, Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand, takes as its theme the Good Sheppard of parable. Zell concocts a scenario in which the Good Shepherd must pass on his knowledge and values to a group of hirelings. So it is Mertens again as the Shepherd instructing the chorus, as his hired help. Borgioni is now a solo hireling, and there are also arias for Maas and Ludwig in the allegorical roles of Prayer and Consideration.  

Generally, Willens avoids the worst excesses of HIP orthodoxy. In both works, he strives for warmth from his modest forces, and tempos are never excessively fast. In the first oratorio, he employs emphatic accents and clear dynamic changes to carry the drama. That is less of a requirement in the more contemplative second work, but the generally relaxed atmosphere is punctuated with occasional fast movements, notably the chorus “Wir fressen das Fette.”

CPO makes no claim to the effect, but these appear to be first recordings. The music is classic Telemann, though possibly on a smaller scale than the billing suggests. The only objection that the performance raises is to the decaying tone of Klaus Mertens, but given that Alexander Willens, Rudolf Lutz, Masaaki Suzuki, and so many other luminaries of the Baroque world remain faithful to him, I’m willing to concede my view as a minority position.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 46:3.