Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Weinberg Penderecki Schnittke String Trios - Trio Lirico


Weinberg Penderecki Schnittke String Trios - Trio Lirico
Audite 97.753 (54:57)


The German ensemble Trio Lirico made an impressive debut on disc in 2016 with the two string trios of Max Reger. For their second album they have ventured further into the 20th century, with recordings of the string trios by Weinberg, Penderecki, and Schnittke. The liner note draws connections between the three works by presenting them all as messages of defiance against communist regimes, and as two of the three players grew up in the GDR, this angle no doubt has a personal resonance. But the three works are characterized more by contrast than similarity, and the program is cleverly structured to move from the Shostakovich-like tonality of the Weinberg, via the complex mix of Sonorism and tonality in the Penderecki, and finally on to the more austere utterances of Schnittke.
Now that Weinberg has been fully recognized as a distinctive musical voice, comparisons with his close friend Shostakovich seem increasingly redundant. But the music of the String Trio, composed in 1950, comes closer than most, especially in its outer movements. The difference is more one of temperament than style—the chamber music of both composers works within the remit of Socialist Realism, but Weinberg is less focused and furrow-browed. His musical discourse is substantial and well argued, but you get the feeling that he could just drop it all at any time, and make out it was all a joke. Many of Weinberg’s endings give that impression too, functional but abrupt, without any grandstanding. This trio seems to just grind to a halt, an impression beautifully realized by the players. The other interesting feature of Weinberg’s String Trio is the distinctly Jewish Andante middle movement, with a melody rich in augmented seconds and played with daring portamento by violinist Franziska Pietsch. Performance-wise, this is the highlight of the disc, and it’s little wonder that Spotify trailed the release with this as a preview: It’s clearly the single of the album.
Penderecki’s String Trio opens with a series of polytonal dissonances. The work was completed in 1991, but this opening looks back to the composer’s avant-garde period in the 50s and 60s. It soon moves into other areas—expressive, lyrical, even Minimalistic at times. Trio Lirico give an impressively even account, maintaining the directness of expression while acknowledging the music’s textural fluidity. Schnittke’s String Trio is probably the best-known and most often recorded work here. It was written to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alban Berg in 1985, with Schnittke drawing on his own German roots (his father was a German Jew and his mother Volga Deutsch) to plug into the Second Viennese School aesthetic. In fact, the work demonstrates that Schnittke’s musical outlook was more Russian than he would be prepared to admit; structurally ambiguous, filled with progressions between unrelated harmonies, and regularly interrupted by the sound of Orthodox Chant. The music is by turns anguished, furious, and meditative, moods that Trio Lirico express with a direct passion.
The most obvious comparison for this release is a disc on Avie (2315) from 2014 by the now-disbanded Ensemble Epomeo (review here). They presented an identical program, but also included a collection of Signs, Games and Messages by Kurtág. Trio Lirico have the better audio quality (surround-sound downloads are also available from the website, audite.de), but the difference of interpretive approach in instructive. In the new recording, Trio Lirico lives up to its name, and when any of these composers lets their musical argument give way to a beautiful melody—and they all do at some stage—the players really make the most of it, applying rubato that often seems audacious against the Epomeo accounts. That really benefits the Weinberg; the Andante movement comes to life here in a way that makes it seem like a different piece compared to Epomeo’s more pedestrian reading. In the Penderecki and Schnittke, the superior audio gives an immediacy to the grinding dissonances that the earlier recording can’t match. But there is something about Epomeo’s more austere accounts that is lost in the floating and ethereal sound to Trio Lirico. That is particularly the case in the Schnittke, where the Orthodox chant should feel like a voice from beyond, an interjection into the musical discourse rather than a continuation. But the sheer listenability of the Trio Lirico recording is an advantage in all these works. The fact that the players can spin their melodic lines, often across continually dissonant harmonies, allows the ear to follow the musical argument in a way that requires much more effort with the earlier release. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

Friday, 25 October 2019

GOLDSCHMIDT Beatrice Cenci Bregenz Festival


Johannes Debus, cond; Christoph Pohl (Count Francesco Cenci); Dshamilja Kaiser (Lucrezia); ​ Gal James (Beatrice); ​ Christina Bock (Bernardo); ​ Per Bach Nissen  (Cardinal Camillo); Michael Laurenz (Orsino); ​ Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger (Marzio); Sébastien Soulès  (Olimpio); ​ Peter Marsh (A Judge); Prague P Ch; Vienna SO

C MAJOR 751504 (Blu-ray: 107:00)



The Bregenz Festival has an impressive track record for reviving neglected operas. The festival has two stages, and most of the international attention focuses on the Spiel auf dem See, the floating stage on Lake Constance. That one tends to show the more traditional repertoire, leaving their indoor venue, the Festspielhaus, free for more adventurous projects. In 2010, the Festival staged Weinberg’s The Passenger, kick starting a major revival of the composer’s work, culminating in centenary celebrations around the world in 2019. And since then, the programming has been just as adventurous, with commissions from Detlev Glanert and Judith Weir, as well as The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikovsky, Amleto by Franco Faccio, Nero by Arrigo Boito, and this, Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt and his powerful second opera have not suffered the complete neglect that befell many of those other names, but both have been sidelined and deserve greater attention. The composer was active in Weimar-era Germany, but was only in his early 30s when he was forced to flee the Nazis, moving to London, where he spent the rest of his life. His music received little attention in the UK, where he was more active as a conductor, notably giving the first performance of Deryck Cooke’s realization of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, at the Proms in 1964: Mahler was a key figure for Goldschmidt, that much is clear from the music of Beatrice Cenci. He lived into his 90s, long enough to see a small but significant revival of his music, headed in the early 1990s by Simon Rattle and the CBSO.
Beatrice Cenci was written in 1949, for a competition associated with the Festival of Britain, and although it won, the promised staging never materialized. But the score surfaced during the revival of Goldschmidt’s music, and was given a concert performance in London in 1988 and its first full staging at Magdeburg in 1994.
The libretto, by Martin Esslin, is based on a play, The Cenci, by Shelley. (The libretto was written in English, but the Bregenz production used a German translation by the composer himself.) The action takes place in Italy at the end of the 16th century. It’s a story of a disfunctional father-daughter relationship—common currency in opera, but this one even more perverse than anything you’ll find in Verdi. Beatrice (Gal James) is the daughter, and she, her brother Bernardo (a trouser role, Christina Bock), and stepmother Lucrezia (Dshamilja Kaiser) live under the oppressive tyranny of her father, Count Francesco Cenci (Christoph Pohl). Shelley’s five acts are whittled down to an efficient three. In the first act, a priestly contingent discuss the count and the many crimes in which he has been implicated. Beatrice appeals to Orsino (Michael Laurenz), who is about to take religious orders, for the Church to grant her permission to marry without her father’s consent, though a complex relationship between Beatrice and Orsino then ensues. The act concludes with a feast, at which the count’s tyranny is demonstrated when he drinks a toast to the death of two of his sons, murdered in Spain. In Shelley’s play, the scene concludes with the Count raping Beatrice, although Esslin’s libretto is mercifully coy on this point. By the second act, almost everybody in the story has a motive to murder the Count. That eventually happens, and Beatrice is implicated. The third act is a prison and trail scene of the Spanish Inquisition kind, leading ultimately to Beatrice’s execution.
Given the date and place of composition, the music is remarkably Romantic and remarkably Austro-German. Goldschmidt described the score as bel canto, and it is certainly voice-focused and lyrical, too lyrical perhaps for the subject matter. The influence of Mahler comes through in the playful mix of styles, eclectic though always coherent. The music also recalls the Expressionism of early Schoenberg, and the operas of Schreker and perhaps Strauss, although the tonal style is more consonant, leaning more towards Zemlinsky or Pfitzner. Goldschmidt’s orchestration is particularly attractive, employing a large orchestra, but always ensuring clarity of texture. The tuba has a particularly important role in the first act, and that bottom-heavy brass sound is used effectively to underpin the Count’s menace. There is also impressive use of xylophone and glockenspiel throughout, with the orchestral textures light enough for both to shine through. The most memorable music is in the third-act prison scene, with lots of richly voiced string writing beneath Beatrice’s appeals, the melodies presumably Beatrice’s Leitmotif’s, now coming to the fore as she becomes the center of attention.
The production, directed by Johannes Erath with sets by Katrin Connan, acknowledges the 16th-century setting, but also the rich color and Expressionism of the music, the result a Pre-Raphaelite-tinged Renaissance world. The table for the feast scene is a long glass box filled with gold. This reappears in the second act, but with the gold replaced by the bodies of the Count’s murdered sons. There are one or two Regie indulgences that stand out as excessive, or at least provocatively anachronistic. In the feast scene, a microphone is set up centre stage, and several of the Count’s and Beatrice’s monologues are delivered into it like a stand-up comedy routine. There are also a lot of pistols, most gratuitously a gold pistol that Orsino points at the Count throughout the feast scene and eventually shoots himself with. And Beatrice has a child, represented here by a large doll, which she gradually dismembers in the last act—presumably to portray her deteriorating mental state, but it’s wholly unnecessary. But these are exceptions in a production that otherwise remains faithful to the spirit and setting of the opera, and the staging is visually coherent and logical.
Although the cast is fairly large, with nine named characters, plus chorus, the drama revolves around Beatrice and the Count, both of whom are well cast. Christoph Pohl has an athletic frame, and his fast, slick movements make the character of the Count all the more maniacal and menacing. His voice is a little light, but Goldschmidt’s clear orchestration ensures that he never has to compete. It seems a great shame when he is killed off in the second act, though just when you are starting to miss him in the third, the director brings him back for a totally superfluous mute recollection scene, and you he hadn’t. Gal James also looks and sounds the part for Beatrice. Again, she sounds a little underpowered, but is never obscured by the orchestra, and the sheer passion she brings to the role elevates proceedings, especially in the final act. James’s eyes are not quite straight, which gives her an imposing glare. That, combined with the Pre-Raphaelite wild red hair wig, makes for an always-distinctive stage presence.
Johannes Debus leads a convincing account of the score. The Vienna Symphony bring life and color to Goldschmidt’s music, a job made easier, no doubt, by the composer’s always idiomatic writing, even for his unusual instrumental combinations. Video director Felix Breisach keeps the cameras busy, often zooming slowly in full-stage shots, and with plenty of close-ups, but never to distraction. The video was a co-production with ORF, but Blu-ray viewers get superior sound and visuals (you can see the wig lines, and the piles of gold don’t look realistic under this scrutiny, but never mind), as well as subtitles in German, English, Korean, and Japanese. All round, an impressive production, given a faithful rendering on video, and, provided you can overlook a few Regietheater indulgences, a compelling account of a neglected opera fully worthy of repertory status.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Polina Osetinskaya Bach Scarlatti


BACH Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (arr. Wilhelm Kempff). Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147: No. 10, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Arr. Wilhelm Kempff). Italian Concerto.  Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 (arr. Wilhelm Kempff). Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (arr. Wilhelm Kempff). Flute Sonata in E, BWV 1031: Siciliano (arr. Wilhelm Kempff). Prelude b, BWV 855 (arr. Alexander Siloti). Organ Concerto in d, BWV 596: Largo e spiccato, "Sicilienne" (arr. Alexandre Tharaud). Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208: No. 9, Schafe können sicher weiden (arr. Egon Petri). SCARLATTI Keyboard Sonatas, Kk 98, 377, 87, 32, 141
Polina Osetinskaya (pn)
MELODIYA 10 02602 (73:50)




Russia has a distinguished tradition of Baroque music played on the piano, but the styles and techniques, and even the instruments, increasingly distance it from Western trends, towards historically informed, which is to say lighter, sounds. But a significant exception needs to be made for transcriptions, by Romantic-era pianists, of harpsichord and organ works. Here, pianists the world over seem to agree that round, flowing phrases and warm, legato harmonies suit the style—a period performance of sorts, but of the transcriber’s time. This new album of Bach and Scarlatti from Russian pianist Polina Osetinskaya is therefore conventional in some ways, though it stands out for the sheer elegance of Osetinskaya’s playing, and for the intriguing approach to the program. And, despite the common currency of Bach transcriptions, this is clearly the playing of Russian pianist, with immaculate and finely honed technique. Every piece here has that unmistakable Russian virtue of clear and definite voicing, with each note carefully placed, and each harmony voiced with confidence and clear intent. The result is an absorbing performance, the textures even and well controlled, the rubato modest, but with everything imbued with a pervasive feeling of depth.
Osetinskaya was born in 1975 and studied at the Moscow Conservatory. She plays all over the world, but the main focus of her career seems to be in Russia, since she is, amongst other things, a specialist in contemporary Russian music, collaborating with composers such as Leonid Desyatnikov, Vladimir Martynov, Pavel Karmanov, all leading names there, but none with any particular traction—sadly—in the West. Osetinskaya also performs a great deal of Romantic Russian piano music, and her previous albums for Melodiya have featured Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Presumably that link with the late Romantics was her impetus for this album, an affinity more with the arrangers than with the music itself (though it is probably worth remembering the pedagogical role of Bach in Russia—you’re not likely to graduate as a pianist from the Moscow Conservatory without gaining a thorough knowledge of his keyboard works).
The liner note to this release, by Ekaterina Biryukova, describes how Osetinskaya has planned out the program as a “single composition” with a “strict tonal plan.” Osetinskaya’s starting point is the fact that Scarlatti and Bach were both born the same year, but never met and wrote in contrasting styles. And yet, by focusing on minor-key works, and choosing works in related keys, a continuity emerges. Arrangements of Bach choral preludes—the well-known ones have been deliberately chosen—appear at regular intervals as “identification beacons.” Between these, we hear faster works, predominantly Scarlatti sonatas, but also Bach’s Italian Concerto and a Siciliano from a flute sonata.
The playing is luminous from beginning to end. In Osetinskaya’s hands, none of this music is ever trivial. Even cadential ornaments are emphatically placed and rhythmically precise. Similarly, the phrasing is conceived over broad spans and articulated through gradual dynamic changes rather than localized tempo shifts. In the chorale preludes, the cantus firmus always stands out clearly, but the separation of voices seems to be achieved more through varied articulation than dynamics, with the main melody always the most legato and the counterpoints lighter for their feeling of separation. That effect is particularly apparent in the Andante of the Italian Concerto, where the bass line chimes in round, clear, bell-like tones, while the melody unfolds playfully above.
Slow movements are often surprisingly slow. That Andante, for example, times out at 6:40—barely an andante at all—but Osetinskaya always manages to hold the mood through her long, arching melodic lines. Faster movements are brisker, though still well below HIP tempos. The Scarlatti sonatas are a mix of fast and slow, but the faster ones, Kk 377 and especially 141, are characterized by well-placed and focused accents, punctuating a still-legato touch, though now given a greater sense of momentum and drive.
Recorded sound is good, from Cinelab Studios, which seems to be in London, although the engineering team are all Russian. The bass end has excellent presence, but without overpowering, which is ideal for Osetinskaya’s generous pedaling and often bass-heavy voicing. If you are listening to a download or stream, the liner can be accessed from the Melodiya website. The English translation of the Russian liner note is hardly idiomatic, though it gives a good idea of the concept behind the album: Bach transcriptions and Scarlatti sonatas organized into a continuous recital-length unit, and performed as such by a pianist with a gorgeous tone and keen sense for broad structural connections.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:3.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Yerin Kim First and Last Words Schumann and Schnittke


Schumann Variations on the Name “Abegg.” Allegro, op. 8. Schnittke 5 Preludes and Fugue (1954–5). Five Aphorisms
Yerin Kim (piano)
SHEVA  217 (62:30)





Pianist Yerin Kim has chosen an adventurous and notably unvirtuosic concept for her debut recording. First and Last Words presents the earliest and latest piano works of Schumann and Schnittke. The result is a curiously angled double portrait, charting very different stylistic trajectories, and arguably doing both composers a disservice by omitting their finest piano works. But the musical connections that Kim draws are fascinating and make for satisfying listening, even if the biographical and historical significance remains tenuous at best.
Stylistic connections between Schumann and Schnittke are not obvious, and Kim makes no effort to trace specific links in her liner note. Both composers used note ciphers in their music, as in the Abegg Variaions that opens the recital. Also, Schnittke saw his musical outlook as intrinsically Germanic (his father was from Frankfurt), and there is a strong 19th-century Romantic element to much of his work as well. In 1993–4, Gidon Kremer organized a festival of chamber music by the two composers at the Philharmonie in Cologne. Hans-Joachim Wagner was given the unenviable task of drawing connections in program notes for the recitals. Those notes were published together in the volume Begegnungen: Alfred Schnittke und Robert Schumann : Beiträge zu einer Kammermusikreihe in der Kölner Philharmonie (Dohr, 1999), for readers who want to explore the connections further.
Yerin Kim is mostly happy to let the music speak for itself. Her approach to both composers is emotive and fluid. The readings are dramatic, although climaxes are rarely emphatic, and the loudest sections, especially of the Schnittke, lack a sense of physical presence. Perhaps the issue is one of taste, of Kim always making the piano sing, rather than emphasising the physical, percussive aspect of the instrument—something that both composers explore.
Schumann, both early and late, sounds lyrical and elegant in Kim’s hands. In the early works, the Abegg Variations and the Allegro, op. 8 (a first movement of an abandoned sonata), she makes the most of the rhetorical gestures—the imposing introductions, the consciously reticent transitions and developments—but also lets melodies run freely. The Ghost Variations are more austere, and while Kim retains the flexibility of phrasing, her flourishes are now limited to occasionally leaning on melodic ornaments or subtle weighting of broken-chord gestures.
Schnittke’s Five Preludes and Fugue is a student work, from 1953–54. The composer considered them juvenilia, and they were not published in his lifetime. Since his death, the set has gone under two titles (the manuscript has none). The first recording was released in 2010, played by Drosostalitsa Moraiti on the Toccata album Schnittke Discoveries (TOCC 0091). There, the set was called Six Preludes for Piano. Since then, Sikorski has published the set as Five Preludes and Fugue for Piano, so that looks set to become the official title. The Preludes were not included in the Simon Smith album of 2014 (Delphian 34131), Alfred Schnittke Complete Piano Music (though that was before the Sikorski publication), making this only the second recording. The Preludes play out as a series of stylistic studies, though we probably shouldn’t read too much into that: They are more likely composition exercises than early experiments in polystylism. But whichever way, they provide an effective transition from the Schumann. Kim mentions Chopin and Liszt as influences, and her performances locate the music squarely in the 19th century.
The Five Aphorisms for piano and reciter date from 1990. In performance, the short works are intended to be interspersed with poems by Joseph Brodsky. The choice of poems is left up to the performers, a clever ruse, given that Schnittke’s fame by this point had spread across the Russian- and English-speaking worlds, and that Brodsky wrote in both languages. The music is in Schnittke’s late style, ascetic and bleak. Kim invokes this atmosphere well, with a fairly neutral performance style, still legato, but now with only impulsive rubato at climaxes. Schnittke’s notated dynamics occasionally go to extremes, but Kim retains a continuity across each of the movements. That increases the sense of bleakness, although it compromises the textural variety—the first-movement chorale in particular could be more ethereal, and more separated from its context.
Kim’s notes for the Five Aphorisms are a little misleading. She writes: “By this time in 1990, Schnittke was mainly living in Hamburg Germany after being exiled from Russia. He had survived a few strokes by this point and was physically remote and weak.” Schnittke was not exiled from Russia: he was a dual citizen and dual resident, maintaining an apartment in Moscow. And by 1990 he had only suffered one stroke, the next would be in 1991. But Kim’s documentation is fully redeemed in the last two pages. This is at least the sixth commercial recording of Aphorisms, after Boris Berman (still the first choice for all of Schnittke’s piano music), Anna Gourari, Denys Proshayev, Simon Smith, and Peter Martin. But all the previous releases I have heard have ignored the stipulation that Brodsky’s poetry should be recited between the movements. There is no reciter with Kim either, but she has done the next best thing and selected five Brodsky poems, one for each of the movements, and reproduced them in the liner—a nice touch that elevates the whole project.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:3.