Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Max Reger for Guitar Laura Young

REGER (arr. Young)
Preludes and Fugues for Solo Violin, op. 117/3; op. 131a/3. Sonata for Solo Violin, op. 42/1. Suites for Solo Cello, op. 131a/3; op. 131c/1 
Laura Young, guitar
GRAMOLA 99072 (56:05)

Reger for guitar? The idea seems perverse at best, until you look closer at the program. It turns out that all of the works here are for solo violin or cello, and all are from the neo-Baroque end of Reger’s stylistic spectrum. The results fit comfortably in the tradition of Bach cello suites arranged for guitar, and while the music is a bit more adventurous harmonically, guitarist Lara Young does a good job of convincing us that the music fits naturally under her fingers.
Which isn’t to say it is easy. She her liner note, Young writes of the violin music “This is extraordinarily difficult technically because of the music’s density  and content, which demand great commitment, energy and emotional expression from the performer.” That certainly characterizes her approach, and, unlike most violinists and cellists approaching this repertoire, Young makes no attempt to play this in a Baroque style. The guitar tone is full and round (as is the acoustic), phrases are broadly and liberally shaped, and a hint of vibrato is evident on the longer notes. As with Bach on the modern guitar, a case could be made for treating this as lute music, but that is not Young’s goal.
Reger’s melodic lines are often longer and more chromatic than Bach’s, but Young has the nimble fingers and interpretive focus to bring them off. The preludes of the two violin preludes and fugues, opp. 117/3 and 131a/3, both benefit from her lightness of touch. Conversely, the fugues that follow in both works maintain their contrapuntal integrity thanks to her flowing legato lines. The other violin work, the First of the op. 42 Solo Sonatas, is more complex and not as strictly neo-Baroque. Here, Young must distinguish main melodic lines from accompaniments and subsidiary themes, which she does with excellent clarity. In all these works, the guitar’s ability to resonate longer than the violin benefits the voice-leading, although this must also be a result of Young’s careful control. It makes for a completely different character to this music though, much more modern, and occasionally jarringly Spanish, at least to my ear.
The cello works that conclude the program, the First and Third Solo Suites from op. 131, pose different challenges. Reger often indulges in broad quadruple-stopped chords, and while these are more easily performed (presumably) on the cello, the effect is very different—real rather than suggested harmonies. On the other hand, Reger’s use of the gutsy tone of the cello’s lower strings transfers well to the guitar, and Young digs into bass lines, particularly in the finale of the First Suite, and the result has plenty of impact. She also achieves an impressive density of tone in the mid-register, for instance in the Third Variation of the Third Suite’s finale, and without compromising clarity of line.
Technically, then, this recording is an impressive achievement. But as a listening experience, the whole enterprise is very distant from the original works. That is, of course, partly a result of the instrument substitution, but equally of Young’s interpretive approach, treating this as purely 20th-century music and playing down its debt to Bach. That can feel exploitative, but the performances all work on their own terms. More valuable as an addition to the guitar catalog, in other words, than as a new perspective on Reger. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:2

Friday, 19 August 2016

Reger Songs Bevan Martineau

REGER Mein Traum, op. 31/5.Unbegehrt, op. 31. Flieder, op. 35/4. Volkslied, op. 37/5. Glückes genug, op. 37 No 3. Zwischen zwei Nächten, op. 43/1. Meinem Kinde, op. 43/3. Wiegenlied, op. 43/5. Sag es nicht, op. 43/8. Am Dorfsee, op. 48/6. Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben!, op. 51/3. Zwei Gänse Zur weißen Gans sprach einst vertraulich eine graue, op. 55/8. Viola d'amour, op. 55. Waldseligkeit, op. 62/2. Sehnsucht, op. 66/1. Morgen!, op. 66/12. Kindergeschichte, op. 66/12. Aeolsharfe, op. 75/11. Hat gesagt - bleibt's nicht dabei, op. 75/12. Du meines Herzens Krönelein, op. 76/1. Volkslied aus Franken – Waldeinsamkeit, op. 76/3. Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4. Glück, op. 76/16. In einem Rosengärtelein, op. 76/18. Des Kindes Gebet, op. 76/22. Die Mutter spricht, op. 76/28. Das Wölklein, op. 76/33. Mittag, op. 76/35. Schelmenliedchen, op. 76/36. Mariä Wiegenlied, op. 76/52. Mausefangen, op. 76/58. Oben in dem Birnenbaum, op. 76/59. Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe!  

Sophie Bevan (sop); Malcolm Martineau (pn)   

As his anniversary year draws to a close, a disc exploring yet another huge but neglected area of Max Reger’s catalog. Reger wrote almost 300 songs, spanning his career. On the evidence of this sampling—a generous 33 Lieder on a well-filled disc—the form brought out the best in him. The composer’s sense of humor is often in evidence. There is atmosphere, and sometimes melancholy, too, but generally these follow on more from the lighter end of Schumann’s song output than from the dour offerings of Brahms.
Reger’s desire to keep up with his times is demonstrated in his choices of texts, and most of the lines set here are by poets of his era. Richard Dehmel (1863–1920), of Strauss and Schoenberg fame, is the only name familiar to me, but other poets include Anna Ritter (1865–1921), Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865–1910), Detlev von Liliencron (1844–1909), Gustav Falke (1853–1916), and Oskar Wiener (1873–1944). The mood veers between the upbeat and the dreamy, the former most often in folksong-like texts (always suitably rendered by Reger), the latter in nocturnes and lullabies, which make up a significant proportion of the program.
Soprano Sophie Bevan is a rising star in the UK, and rapidly becoming a stalwart at both the Royal Opera and ENO. While she is clearly at home on the opera stage, this is apparently her first Lieder recording, and it bodes well. Her tone is rich, her phrasing supple, and her German idiomatic. Reger always poses challenges, though, for any performer, and some of the high and loud passages, in Zwischen zwei Nächten, op. 43/1 and Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4, threaten the evenness of her tone. Bevan also has occasional tuning problems in the lower register, most noticeably in Das Wölklein, op. 76/33. But in general, this music is ideal for her voice—just listen to the sheer agility that she brings to Schelmenliedchen, op. 76/36, perfect!
Malcolm Martineau is a sensitive but not unduly reticent accompanist. Typically, Reger writes piano lines that are note-heavy and often independent of the solo line, but are formulated with such skill that they never sound dense and always complement the sung line … or so they always sound under Martineau’s skilled fingers.
At present, the competition in this repertoire is slim, a recital on CPO by Iris Vermillion and Peter Stamm from 2000 (9993172) and another by Frauke May and Bernhard Renzikowski on Arte Nova (750760). Both are sung by mezzos, and the overlap with the present program is limited to a few numbers in each case. I haven’t heard the Renzikowski, but comparison between Vermillion and Bevan shows both to be fine Regerians. But Bevan is graced with better, more immediate, recorded sound (the recording was made at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley) and a more imaginative accompanist in Malcolm Martineau.
Nevertheless, both recordings are well-worth hearing, and especially the one at hand. Many labels have committed their valuable resources to Reger’s music in recent years, but none with more dedication than Hyperion. This release is as fine as any from them, well programmed and well performed, with comprehensive notes and full texts and translations. Recommended.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 40:2.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Steinberg Passion Week Steven Fox Clarion Choir

STEINBERG Passion Week
Steven Fox, cond; Molly Netter, Sarah Brailey, Esteli Gomez (sop); Kate Maroney, Luthien Brackett (mez); Michael Steinberger (ten); Timothy Krol (bar); Philip Cutlip (bas); Clarion Choir
NAXOS 8.573665 (58:59)

Maximilian Steinberg is a name we come across in the late biography of Rimsky-Korsakov (his teacher) and the early biography of Stravinsky (a fellow pupil). Little of his music is performed today, and, until recently, his commercial discography was limited to recordings of the first two of his four symphonies, by Neeme Järvi with the Gothenberg SO for DG. So Passion Week, a major liturgical work in the Orthodox tradition unperformed until recent times, is a significant find.
The work’s initial obscurity is perhaps unsurprising, given that it was written during the turmoil that followed the Russian Revolution (the work was completed in 1923). None of that disorder is evident in the music itself, which continues the traditions of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Gretchaninov; like Rachmnaninoff’s All Night Vigil, the work feels like an appendix to the great flowering of nationalist-inspired Orthodox choral writing at the end of the 19th century.
The scale of the work is comparable to the All Night Vigil, but the style is more restrained. This is very much music of contemplation, and an even pace and tone are maintained across its hour-long duration. The work moves through the story of the Passion, yet there is no sense of narrative or description here, instead somber contemplation of the events and their significance. The textures are broadly homophonic, but often anchored by held pedal notes—one effective device is the starting out of a melody and pedal on the same note, before the melody gently rises above. The movements are interspersed with appropriate Znamenny and Kievan chants, sung in unison by male or female voices.
Curiously, this is the second recording of Passion Week to appear in the last two years: The world premiere recording was made by Alexander Lingas and Cappella Romana of Portland, Oregon and released on their own label in March 2015. YouTube samples of that earlier recording are too short and too low in resolution to make a meaningful assessment, but, like this one, it is sung by a mixed choir, the choir smaller than here and the acoustic apparently more resonant.
Steven Fox and the Clarion Choir give a compelling account. Thirty-three singers are listed in the booklet, and this proves a suitable number, both in terms of tonal weight and clarity. In fact, the purity of tone is exceptional, helped by near ideal balance and intonation. The acoustic, too, of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, New York, is well chosen and ideal for the scale of the choir and the music. A slight boxy feel is apparent in the opening solo-voice “Alleluia” (from bass Philip Cutlip), but this opens out into a warm and inviting soundscape as soon as the choir enters. Excellent sound, full texts (in Cyrillic and transliterated Russian and in English translation), and erudite liner notes from Vladimir Morosan round out an attractive and engaging recording.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 40:2.