Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Berg Lulu: Warlikowski, Daniel, Hannigan

Alban Berg: Lulu
La Monnaie, Brussels. Recorded 19 and 26 October 2012
Belair BAC 109 (2 DVDs)

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Who’s going to complain about a Regietheater Lulu? The usual Luddite clichés surely don’t apply here – if you want an evening at the opera to be pretty and soothing, you’re unlikely to choose Berg. But even so, director Krzysztof Warlikowski has taken his concept to sensationalist extremes, and rather than just suggesting all the sex and exploitation angles of the story, he confronts us with them head-on.
The set and designs, by Małgorzata Szczęśniak, place the opera in a 60s/70s environment, the era of Cerha’s completion perhaps. There is a full-sized escalator to one side and a moving glass box to the other. Costumes are gaudy and surreal, and there is a definite pop-art dimension to much of the conception. So the painter (the wonderful and here sadly underused Tom Randle) is now a video artist, and a giant video-instillation screen looms over the action, its semi-abstract images often commenting on the action. Lulu’s background as a dancer is an important inspiration for Warlikowski. It turns out his Lulu, Barbara Hannigan, can dance en pointe (what can’t she do), a skill he puts to good use throughout the first act. He also uses the ballet theme to introduce two alter egos for her, a child ballerina in white and a mature one in black – so White Swan/Black Swan. One of the director’s indulgences is to frame each of the acts in brief spoken or silent episodes, the most effective of which is at the end of the first act, where the black-clad ballerina dances a silent solo, graphically representing Lulu’s mental decline.
The staging doesn’t change much throughout the production. Only curtains and lighting are used to alter the mood and atmosphere. There’s the costumes too, particularly Hannigan’s – she seems to be in a continually evolving (or degenerating) state, in shabbier attire every time we see her.
Warlikowski has a lot of ideas to present, but, at least on video, his conception is never overwhelming. The young ballerina alter-ego develops her own sub-plot, and by the last act has spawned a whole ballet school, all the young ballerinas at the back of the stage watching the action. The glass box offers an alternative stage, where abstract reflections on the action can be played out, usually by characters who should be off-stage. A camera in there is linked to the giant video screen in the first act – a kind of Big Brother video room setup. Warlikowski also has fun with the dual role of Schön and Jack the Ripper (the excellent Dietrich Henschel). As Jack the Ripper, he is presented as the Joker from Batman, but this is presaged in act I, when Schön starts applying lipstick across his face to begin the transformation. Tom Randle also takes a double role, reappearing as the Negro in the last act. This time, though, the costume – he’s got a giant afro wig, and he is kind of whited-up – makes recognition all but impossible. The Ringmaster (Ivan Ludlow) is masked and in sexually ambiguous dress. He is onstage almost throughout, a continually oppressive and controlling presence.
Yet Barbara Hannigan is the dominant presence here, and her performance dictates every aspect of the staging. She is fantastic at just about everything. The precision and power of her voice is ideal – she doesn’t have a particularly broad or rich tone, but this isn’t Wagner. Her acting and dancing abilities make here ideal for the role, and even without the multiple costumes (and she is often without), her portrayal of the character’s decline is graphic and gripping. In fact, she is so good that the onus is on the director to use her to her full potential, and even with this idea-heavy staging, there is the occasional suspicion that she is carrying the show.
That said, she is supported by a strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky’s Geschwitz, Deitrich Henschel’s Schön and Charles Workman’s Alwa are all well acted and well sung. Vocally, the only disappointment is Pavlo Hunka as Schigolch; his voice lacks presence and depth, and there is no richness to his lower register. The Orchestra of La Monnaie plays well for Paul Daniel. He was apparently a late substitution for Lothar Koenigs. Daniel paces and balances the score well. He is a little pedestrian at times though, and we rarely feel the indulgences and excesses that the score can offer in more daring hands.
Given the visual complexity of the staging, the video team has had quite a job. Typically, at any given point, the front of stage action will be accompanied by at least two other scenes upstage, plus the video screen. And the stage is too big for a single frame to offer the required detail. So there are a lot of close-ups and some fast editing in places. None of this distracts, but it means that the video experience is clearly very different from the live one. The audio is reasonable, and none of the singers ever sound distant. There is some peak distortion though, a result perhaps of the very wide level range.
Colourful packaging from Belair. It is unusual to get colour stills in DVD booklets these days, so they are welcome here. An essay from Barbara Hannigan herself is included, an indicator of how much this production revolves around her. All round it is a success, I think, though hardly an enjoyable experience. Warlikowski provides an idea-rich environment for the drama to play out, but ultimately even his contribution is dwarfed by that of his leading lady.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Brahms Choral Works Reuss

Warum, ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen?
Brahms Choral Works
Capella Amsterdam, Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902160 (70:08)

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Nineteenth century choral music has suffered in the modern era through no fault of its own. The choral societies that sprung up across Europe, and for whom many of the Romantic greats composed, are no longer the cultural and social force they once were. Such choirs played a crucial role in Brahms’ career. Before his move to Vienna he conducted the Hamburger Frauenchor, and later he was chorus master of the Wiener Singakademie. Many short part-songs resulted from these appointments. But choral music was also an important dimension of the composer’s engagement with Renaissance and early Baroque music, documenting his research in his early years, and his absorption of those styles later on.
The selection of choral works here spans Brahms’ middle and late periods. The composer’s most popular choral works, the Liebeslieder Waltzes are avoided in favour of generally more serious works. The selection presented is not for completists. For example, it begins with the first of the two op. 74 Motets, but the second is omitted (though the liner note points out that 15 years separate them, no. 2 being composed first). We hear Schicksalslied, but in the arrangement for piano four hands rather than the orchestral original. And in a selection entitled Drei Quartette, we hear selections from opp. 92 and 112. Everything else, though, is presented in complete sets, the Fünf Gesänge, op. 104, Fest- und Gedenksprüche, op. 109, and Brahms’ final choral work, the Drei Motetten, op. 110. That last set is particularly evocative of the early Baroque, the liner note suggests Schütz and his Venetian mentors. Bach is another important presence throughout these works, with Lutheran chorale settings making regular appearances.
The whole programme is presented as a single, uninterrupted flow of elegant choral sound. A piano solo, the Intermezzo, op. 119/1, is included between two numbers, but the mellow elegance of both the harmonies and the piano sound allow it to fit seamlessly into the programme. The choir is quite large, about 30 singers, and the richness of their tone is continually satisfying. Harmonia Mundi captures the warmth and complexity of the choral sound well, and the church acoustic (of the Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam) is suitably warm and involving. Documentation, as ever from HM, is exemplary, with full texts and translations.
A satisfying sampling, then, of Brahms’ still underappreciated mature choral output. The composer may have had historical models at the front of his mind while composing most of this music, but Daniel Reuss and his Amsterdam Choir ensure that we are offered far more than just a history lesson.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Raskatov Monk's Music

Alexander RASKATOV (b. 1953)
Monk’s Music (2005)
Gordon Jones (bass)
Carducci String Quartet
Rec. March 2013, Wathern Abbey, London
Louth Contemporary Music Society LCMS 1302 [54:06]

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Alexander Raskatov is difficult to pin down. His music draws on many of the stylistic trends of the late Soviet Russia of his youth. Schnittke’s polystylism is often apparent, especially in A Dog’s Heart, the controversial opera for which he is best known in the UK. Other works tend more towards the religious minimalism of Arvo Pärt, but, unlike Pärt, his music is always grounded, with a strong sense of rhythmic focus and drive.
Monk’s Music is religious and minimalist too, at least in its structuring, which is sectional and with each part based on repeated phrases and note sequences. But it is far from mood music. Much of the writing here is surprisingly aggressive, loud and with biting attacks from each of the players of the string quartet. In fact, the expressive range is very wide, and there are also many quiet contemplative passages. But each section sets a mood and sticks with it. Ideas are not developed, so much as presented as indivisible units that run their course before the next begins. Yet, despite this rigour, the music is rarely austere. Sentiments from Russian Orthodox texts suggest the world of chant, and although none is quoted directly, the disciplined solemnity and fervent devotion of Orthodox ritual in continually evoked.
The work is structured as seven adagio movements for string quartet, each prefaced with a short unaccompanied recitative from the bass singer. The texts are by Starets Silouan, a 19th-century Orthodox elder, each running to just one or two sentences. Comparisons to Haydn are of limited use here. Clearly, the Last Seven Words was an influence, but Raskatov seeks a different kind of devotional music, less contemplative, more engaged.
The musical language of Orthodox Chant is also suggested by the modal nature of the music, although it rarely employs homophonic or chordal textures that might suggest a choir. Instead, we often hear a single melodic line repeated over a deep pedal, or textures built in very direct ways from a clearly audible note pattern. Hard accents and regular repetition often the combine to give the music an emphatically rhythmic feel.
The performances are excellent throughout. Bass Gordon Jones is clearly not from the Orthodox tradition, allowing him to engage with its performing culture, but from the outside, a relationship with Orthodox liturgy that reflects that of the work itself. His voice is deep and powerful, but there is great sensitivity to his singing, with carefully shaped phrases, and a range of dynamic nuance. The Carducci Quartet, who premiered the work, perform with accuracy and conviction. Raskatov writes unusual textures for the quartet, but they are always idiomatic. Even so, the players are often expected to create expansive soundscapes from minimal material, the sheer body of their sound giving the music its weight. Those heavy attacks are also executed effectively, and without ever compromising the evenness of the tone. The recording information suggests that the singer and quartet were recorded separately, but the ambience afforded to both, warm but not overly resonant, sounds very similar, given the impression of a single, unified performance.
Monk’s Music very nearly disappeared without trace. It was written, in 2005, for Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet. But Berlinsky left the quartet before they had a chance to perform it, and so it lay languishing in a drawer. In 2013, Eamonn Quinn of the Louth Contemporary Music Society approached Raskatov with the idea to perform some of his music in Ireland, and this was the work that was chosen. (Presumably it was at this point that the disappointingly prosaic title was chosen.) Quinn has certainly promoted the music well; the work has now had two public performances and has been released on this excellent commercial recording. And, as the recording demonstrates, the work itself is fully deserving of the commitment, time and resources he has put into it. It is a forthright and uncompromising work, but is highly recommended, especially to those with an interest in the more unusual directions that the Orthodox faith has taken new music in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Bruckner Symphony No. 1 Ivor Bolton

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 1 (1865/66 Linz version)
Ivor Bolton, cond; Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
OEHMS 436 (51:36)

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Oehms Classics has a curious habit of competing with itself. A few years ago, an impressive Ring cycle from Sebastian Weigle in Frankfurt appeared almost simultaneously with another version from Simone Young at Hamburg State Opera. Similarly, this Bruckner symphony cycle with Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg appears in the Oehms catalog beneath another recent entry, again from Simone Young, with the Hamburg Philharmonic. Young’s recording of the First Symphony (OC633) is one of the highlights of her series, and attracted impressive notices (not in Fanfare though, where Jerrfrey L. Lipscomb described it as “drab” in 35:6). I disagree, and find Young’s version both agile and lithe, but still retaining as much gravity as the music needs. The Hamburg Philharmonic is on superb form, and the SACD audio is first rate.
All of which is bad news for Ivor Bolton, whose reading, while serviceable, never excels in any of these areas. Like virtually every conductor of recent times, he opts for the Linz version (and that includes Simone Young—surely Oehms could have made good with their duplication by giving us a modern recording of the much neglected Vienna revision). But the nimble dexterity that characterizes Simone Young’s reading continually evades Bolton, and he turns in a reading that I found as drab as Lipscomb did its competitor.
At 51:36, Bolton’s is now the longest Bruckner First on my shelves. Taking Bruckner slow is almost always laudable, provided it is shaped with care and that enough contrast is provided in tempos and dynamics. Bolton does go to some dynamic extremes—the repeated chords at the opening are virtually inaudible, but by the time we reach the first climax we’re scaling the summits.
Tempo-wise, though, this is a very sullen reading. Passages that are usually slow, the quieter interludes in the first movement and most of the Adagio, sound elegant and stately now just a shade broader. But traditionally faster passages become ponderous and lose momentum. Bolton’s biggest problem is the rallentandos into climaxes in the outer movements; the logic of the music obliges him to slow down even further, but he has nowhere left to go. The expansive approach benefits the Adagio, and other recordings sound rushed after hearing this one. Punchy accents from the brass restore some vitality to the scherzo, but even here Bolton’s uniform and pedestrian pacing ground the music.
The orchestral playing and the audio are both good (thought neither match the Simone Young), and it is to the credit of the Salzburg players that they can maintain their tone and keep a sense of phrase structure over these extended spans.
In a sense, this is an old-fashioned reading. The majority of recent Bruckner recordings are by conductors who prefer swifter tempos and lighter textures. Bolton goes against that trend, seeking breadth and weight at every turn. But the results lack nuance, contour, and pace. It pains me to criticize any Bruckner recording for being too slow, but this one just is.  

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 38:4.