Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 29 September 2022

Dvořák Complete Symphonies Serebrier

DVOŘÁK Symphonies Nos. 1–9. Czech Suite. In Nature’s Realm. Legends. Scherzo capriccioso. Slavonic Dances, op. 46/1, 3, 6, 8; op. 72/2, 4, 7, 8

José Serebrier, cond; Bournemouth SO

WARNER 0190296238819 (7 CDs: 515:15)


The symphonies of Antonín Dvořák are always worth revisiting. That is the view at Warner Records anyway, as the recordings in this box set have been released multiple times over the last decade. The sessions, in Poole, Dorset, took place 2011–2014, and each of the seven discs was released separately over that period. A box set followed in 2015 (0825646132010). Here we have a reissue of that box, with a different cover and catalog number, but no other obvious changes. A trawl of streaming platforms shows different availability in different regions, but the individual discs have general distribution, whatever the status of the various boxes.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is on good form here, but there is no getting around the fact that it is clearly a regional ensemble. The orchestra has recorded much, and its best recordings show that the players always respond well to inspiring leadership. José Serebrier fits that category. He is a brisk, dynamic conductor, who brings a sense of propulsion to all of Dvořák’s many dances. But he is sometimes limited by the scope of the orchestra’s sound. The string tone lacks weight, and the violins sometimes struggle with tuning in the loud upper register passages, as in the development of the Eighth Symphony first movement. The brass could do with more heft as well. Serebrier draws punchy accents from the trumpets and trombones, but in more sustained passages the tone begins to wane. The recording quality is generally good, but some corners of the orchestra feel distant. The timpani could do with more presence, as could the piccolo. No further complaints about the woodwind section though, nor the horns, whose stentorian tone bolsters every climax.

And the cycle begins with that imposing horn sound, with the opening of the First Symphony. The greatest pleasure that a cycle of Dvořák symphonies affords is the chance to return to this frustratingly neglected work. Serebrier clearly agrees, and he puts his heart and soul into this account. The conductor’s own liner note (presumably abridged from those of the individual issues) relates how he went to great lengths to sort out textual issues in the finale. Apparently, there are some suspicious dissonances that seem accidental. Serebrier went back to previous recordings, to see what they did, and then came up with his own solution, which also draws on a recent scholarly edition of the score. Importantly, this is only the third ever complete recording of the symphony. Just as importantly, Serebrier’s survey brought him in contact with the superlative Kertész account, which he aims to match in the drama and subtly of his own reading. So those opening horns are imposing indeed, and the simple melody that follows, little more than an ascending scale, is shaped with tender care, as if every note matters.

It turns out that this is not typical of Serebrier’s Dvořák, and in the symphonies that follow he takes are more generalized approach. He clearly loves the folk dances that inspire so many of the main themes, and once a spirited melody is in full swing he rarely intervenes, leaving the music to spin its course. That suits some symphonies better than others. Nos. 2 and 3 are modest affairs, and Serebrier makes no real effort to elevate them. Nos. 4–6 come off best. Here, Dvořák finds the sweet spot between the naïve optimism of his folk sources and the Beethovenian symphonism that he aspires to. The Sixth comes off best, Serebrier conducting with a light touch and the orchestra responding with bright, spirited playing.

When we reach No. 7, we are in much-contested territory, and the final three symphonies must compete against much more than just the box sets. The Seventh is the least successful. It is a piece that needs more weight and more drama—more intervention all round from the podium. This account is light and breezy where it needs to be brooding and sullen. The Eighth comes off better. The low strings are gorgeous at the opening, and there is much fine orchestral playing throughout. Less so in the Ninth. Here we need incisive brass and a weighty string tone, both of which are lacking. But who would buy a box set for the Ninth anyway?

Speaking of boxes, one advantage of reissuing individual releases is that none of the symphonies are spread across more than one disc. However, the fillers are eccentrically chosen and placed. We get the complete Legends, op. 59, selections from the Slavonic Dances, opp. 46 and 72, the Czech Suite, In Nature’s Realm, and Scherzo capriccioso. Given the comprehensive approach to the symphonies, this is a curiously erratic sampling. But the focus on up-beat Bohemian-dance-type movements clearly reflects Serebrier’s interests, and his strengths. His approach of whipping up a dance movement and then letting the melody run its course is ideal in the Slavonic Dances. I just wish the discs were organized differently. You put on disc five, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Seventh Symphony, or disc six, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Ninth, but in both cases you are immediately blasted with a single Presto Slavonic Dance that has been prefixed for no obvious reason.

Mixed fortunes, then, for Serebrier’s Dvořák. If the box is available in your territory, it sells at super-budget price, currently £16 here in the UK. It is well worth that for its highlights, Symphonies 1, 5, and 6. Most of the other readings are attractive too, but are recommended mainly to those who like their Dvořák lively and light.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.




Friday, 15 July 2022

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Schnittke String Quartet No. 3
Silvestrov String Quartet No. 1
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8
MATANGI 04 (69:40)



This new album from the Dutch string quartet Matangi is titled Outcast. In the liner notes, they explain, “This is an ode to musical troublemakers and outsiders; three Soviet-Russian composers who wrote music that went dangerously against the tastes of the regime under which they lived. Described as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘western’, they stuck their necks out for their work....” That last statement, about sticking their necks out, is certainly true of all three composers: Schnittke, Silvestrov, and Shostakovich. But the argument is taken too far. To underline their dissidence, all three composers, and their music, are presented as explicitly political, which they aren’t. The idea of any of them being condemned as ‘western’ is also questionable. Later in the liner notes, we read of Schnittke that, “ the 1960s he traveled as much as possible to the West to learn about its various musical styles.” He didn’t. Schnittke lived in Vienna until 1948, but after that did not visit the West again until 1977. I would say that all three composers can equally be heard as Russian/Ukrainian. And, more the point, while they all exercised considerable artistic freedom, none of them did so simply as an act of defiance.

All that aside, the real reason for this program is to find a home for the group’s recording of Silvestrov’s First String Quartet (1974). Matangi has worked extensively with Silvestrov, who has even featured at their (Un)Heard Music Festival in Holland. Their performance of the quartet is stunning. The album was recorded in studio in Belgium, and the engineers have furnished the players with a warm, even ambiance. That proves ideal for Silvestrov’s airy, contemplative textures. The music is not explicitly religious. Rather, it is made up of fragments of motifs and melodic lines. You get the impression that coherent voice-leading is at the heart of the music, but that it has been dissipated and strung out. Matangi maintain just the right amount of propulsion and coherence to keep the focus, and that warm ambience also helps to hold the textures together.

The Silvestrov is framed by Schnittke’s Third String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Eighth. As a continuous sequence, this makes a lot of sense. Schnittke’s work is based on quotes from Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich—his musical monogram that forms the basis of his Eighth Quartet. It begins with a sense of Beethovenian logic and architecture, but gradually becomes more disillusioned with its form, tending to a mediative statis in the last movement. This provides the ideal introduction for the Silvestrov. On its own terms, the Schnittke performance tends a little too far towards this meditative state, partly, no doubt, to fit the ethos of the album, but also because of the warm recorded sound. The Lassus quotation wins out against the Beethoven and Shostakovich, and Schnittke’s allusions to Renaissance polyphony come to the fore.

Similarly, the Shostakovich Quartet begins in the same meditative frame as the preceding Silvestrov, and the first movement is unusually spiritual. Then a jolt with the fast second movement, although again, the warm sound and beautifully resonant tone of the quartet present this music on an epic scale. It lacks bite, and the terse, self-doubting, introspective aspects of the music are barely felt.

But that seems to be the message from Matangi. Shostakovich is expressing “artistic freedom”; its all about him vs. the machine. At the very least, this is a Western perspective on these three composers. The Silvestrov is excellent, and that performance justifies the album’s concept. But in Schnittke and Shostakovich, I like to hear more of the inner psychological drama and less of the public face. 


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.

Casablancas L’Enigma di Lea

Josep Pons, cond; Allison Cook (Lea); José Antonio López (Ram); Sara Blanch (Primera dama de la frontera); Anaïs Masllorens (Segunda dama de la frontera); Marta Infante (Tercera dama de la frontera); Sonia de Munck (Millebocche); Felipe Bou (Milleocchi); Xavier Sabata (Dr Schicksal); Ch & O of Liceu Grand Theatre

NAXOS 0143 (Blu-ray: 122:00) Live: Barcelona 2/12–13/2019


L’Enigma di Lea is the first opera by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas (b. 1949). The libretto is by novelist Rafael Argullol, and the work was commissioned by the Liceu Opera in Barcelona. This video, a collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya, presents the first production, from 2019. Casablancas locates himself in the European Modernist tradition (he was a pupil of Fredierich Cerha), and the opera, too, draws on many of the narrative and character architypes that developed over the course of early 20th-century opera.

The plot begins in “a mythical age,” and with an act of mythical, or metaphysical, violence. Lea dances alone, but is struck down amid complex lighting effects. We are later told that she has been raped by a god, but that this has bestowed on her a secret wisdom that everyone she meets will desire. We then meet two guards, Milleocchi and Millebocche, who are to accompany her as she travels to the modern world. Then comes an encounter with the Three Ladies of the Frontier, warrior types, all of whom have mystical prophesies to deliver. Finally comes Ram, the love interest, although he is introduced in a death-like state, and the relationship is a gradual process of Lea bestowing on him her life force.

The second part takes place in the here and now, i.e., 2019. Lea is confined to a mental institution, overseen by Dr. Schicksal, previously a circus ringmaster but now a megalomaniac psychiatrist. Attention shifts very much to him, but when Ram reappears, the tension becomes between Schicksal and Lea over his destiny. The third part begins in the garden of the institution, but the setting becomes increasingly abstract. A love scene between Lea and Ram is played out in the most symbolist terms, and leads to gently transcendent conclusion. Ram gradually attains a living, human status. Milleocchi and Millebocche are vanquished. Finally, the Ladies of the Frontier reappear and announce that Lea’s actions have redeemed mankind. But the stage action gets increasingly abstract in the last half hour, and all these conclusions are merely suggested, a philosophical ending but also an anticlimax.

As should be clear from this outline, the narrative draws on many operatic plots, most notably, Götterdämmerung, Parsifal, Elektra, and Lulu. But the abstraction of the setting allows these diverse characters to interact without too many logic gaps. The cast is lead from the top by Allison Cook in the title role. Cook is a new music specialist and has a secure tone and commanding stage presence. She is a mezzo, and Casablancas makes good use of her lower register, which always projects clearly, even across the huge orchestra. Millebocche  and Milleocchi are performed by Sonia de Munck and Felipe Bou. So female and male—though their costumes and tessitura are gender ambiguous. The pair are a real menacing presence, something that Argullol emphasizes by making their appearances increasingly rare and brief. As Ram, José Antonio López seems to be made of stone in his early appearances, but gradually takes on human form as the opera goes on, an impressive make-up transformation. Casablancas is clearly intent on avoiding a traditional operatic relationship between Lea and Ram, casting the roles as mezzo and baritone. The most imposing characterization is the Dr. Schicksal of Xavier Sabata. The use of countertenor voice is so ubiquitous in modern opera as to risk cliché, but here it is ideal. The role is modelled on Klingsor, although with much more to sing. The idea of ringmaster-turned-psychiatrist sounds ridiculous, but Sabata pulls it off with his energetic and unpredictable behavior. He also has a huge voice, even in the upper range.

The staging (director Carme Portaceli, sets Paco Azorín) presents the action in a grimy industrial setting. The sets are simple metal grilles, onto which pastel lights are projected. A metal cage descends onto the stage to create the sense of moving from the mythical world to the real world, and then to show the transcendence of the lovers at the end.

Casablancas writes for a huge orchestra. There are occasional ecstatic outbursts from the pit, but on the whole the orchestral textures are reserved. In particular, the percussion is much more in the background than in much modern opera, although the bass drum is used to impressive effect. Instead, the flute and oboe soloists are the focus of the orchestral textures, subtle and songful accompaniments to the melodic lines. Conductor Josep Pons has an impressive background in modern opera and gives a dramatically charged but well-balanced reading here.

The sung languages are a bit of a mix. Casablancas instructs that the soloists sing in Italian, while the chorus sings in the vernacular of the audience, which in this case is Catalan. The difference between them is not great, but the subtitles are most welcome.

The camerawork for the video (director Miquel Àngel Raió) is ... creative. A camera glides on a boom across the orchestra pit, often zooming in on individual players from above. Lots of closeups of the soloists too. Dr. Schicksal has a camera attached to his wrist, which he points at his patients as he interrogates them. Presumably those closeups appear on a screen above the stage as well, but as cutaways in the video edit they really stand out. Sound and picture are good—TV quality—but not excellent. The sound is only in two channels, even on the Blu-ray. The bonus is a short series of interviews with composer, librettist, cast, and crew, each of their soundbites a small but valuable clue to what the opera is all about.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.


Thursday, 14 July 2022

Taneyev Orchestral Works Sanderling

TANEYEV Symphonies Nos. 1–4. Cantata No. 1, “John of Damascus.” Suite de Concert. Oresteya Overture. Oresteya, Act III: Entr'acte: The Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Adagio in C. Overture on a Russian Theme. Cantata for the Unveiling of the Moscow Pushkin Memorial, "Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvorniy" (I Have Built myself a Monument not Made by Hands). Canzona. Overture in d

Thomas Sanderling, cond;
Ilya Kaler (vn)
Gnesin Academy Ch
Novosibirsk Academic SO
Russian PO
Naxos 8.504060 (4 CDs: 301:20)

The Taneyev symphonies are rarities outside Russia, and the best chance you have of hearing one live is from a touring Russian orchestra. But for Russian orchestras, they are familiar repertoire, especially the Fourth, and so a good number of recordings have appeared in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, from conductors and players who clearly have a good understanding of Taneyev’s idiom. The composer was closely linked to Tchaikovsky, leading to inevitable comparisons between their works. Taneyev was more the contrapuntalist, while Tchaikovsky was the better melodist, and indeed the better composer. But Taneyev’s four symphonies inhabit the same dramatic and discursive sphere as Tchaikovsky’s first three, and so performing styles for Taneyev align closely with those for early Tchaikovsky.

This new set from Naxos is titled Taneyev Orchestral Works, but is simply four separate discs, in their original cases, boxed together in a new card sleeve. The recordings date from 2008–2010 and want for nothing in terms of sound engineering. The packaging, however, shows this to be a budget offering, although the liner notes for each issue are by Taneyev specialist Anastasia Belina, and are readable and informative.

Most of the works in this collection—and not just the symphonies—open with quiet brooding introductions, from which the main material bursts forth. For Thomas Sanderling, those introductions are clearly a central element of Taneyev’s message, and each of them here is presented very quietly, and generally very slow. The switch to the faster main themes is a jolt each time, but from then on Sanderling takes steady tempos, usually slightly slower than the norm, and with only modest rubato. The approach works well, and the results always feel well structured and coherent, an impressive feat in this repertoire.

One advantage of a complete Taneyev symphony cycle is the opportunity to explore the less-performed early symphonies. The First (1874) is the shortest at just over half and hour, and it does not have the breadth or dramatic ambition of the later works. Sanderling’s patient but full-bodied account gives it its due, and the orchestra gives a clean and precise account. That high level of orchestral execution is a common feature across this set. The Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra may not have the flair and panache for their Moscow and St. Petersburg counterparts, but their technical precision is on a similar level. The unity of the string tone is particularly impressive, as
is the controlled power of the brass.

The Second Symphony is another pleasant discovery for those exploring Taneyev’s lesser-known works. Like the First, it is an early work, dating from the mid-1870s. Taneyev did not complete the work, and the edition presented here was compiled by Vladimir Blok in 1977. He edited the outer movements and orchestrated the Andante second movement: a planned Scherzo was never even begun. It is all gorgeous music, with heart-on-sleeve melodies and expansive Romantic gestures. And, again, Sanderling’s measured but emotive account feels just right. The Third (1884) and Fourth (1898) Symphonies are more familiar, and both, the Fourth in particular, are recognized as Taneyev at his best, more dramatic and supple than the first two, and also more coherent.

In terms of competition, the Fourth Symphony has the most impressive discography. The Svetlanov account, rereleased on Melodiya in 2015 (10 02374) has the most drama and power of any available account and remains the one to beat. Also worth mentioning is the Neeme Järvi version with the Philharmonia (Chandos 8953). Järvi is in uncharacteristically expansive mood here; the Philharmonia sound surprisingly Russian too. For the first three symphonies, the obvious comparison is with Valery Polyansky’s set on Chandos (the First and Third there described as premiere recordings). Polyansky is generally faster—much faster in the first movement of the Third—and applies more rubato. In particular, he doesn’t make the emphatic shifts between slow introductions and faster main themes, instead smoothing over the tempo changes with coherent orchestral textures from one section to the next. The present accounts have superior orchestral playing, although one could argue that the narrower woodwind tone and more precarious balances of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Polyansky are more authentically Soviet/Russian.

For the next disc, Sanderling moves to the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra (since renamed the Moscow City Symphony) for accounts of the First Cantata, “John of Damascus,” and the Suite de Concert. The First Cantata is a choral spectacular, and it is another work in which the drama grows out of quiet, atmospheric textures. Sanderling’s account is clean and precise, but it lacks both the atmosphere of the quiet music and the drama later on. Again, the top contender here is Svetlanov (coupled with the Fourth Symphony), but Mikhail Pletnev gives a similarly fine account on DG 471 029-2. It is shame that Naxos have not recorded the Second Cantata, “At the Reading of a Psalm,” although, again, they are unlikely to match Pletnev’s superlative account (Pentatone, reissued on Alto). The Suite de Concert is a concertante work for violin and orchestra. It is Russian and rustic, but lacks virtuoso flair. The Oistrakh recording from 1956 (last reissued as EMI 0946 3 61570 2 3) is the benchmark, but violinist Ilya Kaler here gives a fine account, on a par with Lydia Mordkovitch under Neeme Järvi (Chandos 10491), the other modern option.

Finally in the Naxos box, a disc of miscellaneous orchestral works. The most important is the Oresteia Overture, linked with the opera of the same name, but eventually separated off as a symphonic poem (making the Naxos listing, Overture to Oreseia, slightly misleading). It is an excellent work and is given a fine account. Neeme Järvi’s version (coupled with the Fourth Symphony) is also excellent, but in this case, the paucity of available recordings makes any new version a welcome proposition. Most of the rest of the disc is early music, elegantly played but inconsequential.

As that final disc demonstrates, the primary benefit of this set is covering repertoire that may not otherwise be in your collection. On that basis, it is a success, as almost everything here is given in fine accounts. However, the Fourth Symphony and First Cantata deserve to be heard with Svetlanov, and the Second Cantata is a glaring omission, for which collectors should turn to Pletnev. Otherwise, recommended.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 1 and 3 Gringolts Quartet

Schoenberg String Quartets Nos 1 and 3 

Gringolts Quartet
BIS 2567 (SACD: 79:31)

The Gringolts Quartet here complete their two-disc survey of the Schoenberg string quartets for BIS. The Second Quartet is the “hit” of the cycle, so naturally that appeared on Volume 1. But the other three are more than just fillers. They chart the course of Schoenberg’s style, from the Expressionist First Quartet of 1905 (there is also an unnumbered 1898 Quartet, rarely anthologized) to the 12-tone explorations of the Third (1927) and Fourth (1936).

The First Quartet was written just a few years after Verklärte Nacht (1899). The harmonic language is similar, tonal but with disconcerting quartal and Wagnerian harmonies. Some of the upbeat music of Verklärte Nacht is also recalled, but generally, this is more goal-focused and less Impressionist music. The Third Quartet is a 12-tone work. It, too, is propulsive and dynamic, Schoenberg now relying more on rhythmic impetus in the absence of functional harmony.

Stylistically, both works have a foot each in fin de siècle Viennese Romanticism and mid-20th-century Modernism. The small but impressive catalog of recordings available—Kolisch, Juilliard, LaSalle—document several generations of players, all with a keen understanding of the composer’s transitional status and the competing demands of his music. In fact, Schoenberg’s notation and performance directions are commendably precise, and the differences between performances are slight, at least in terms of tempo and dynamic.

The closest comparison to this new recording is with the Fred Sherry Quartet (Naxos 8.557534, 8.557533). Like the Gringolts, the Fred Sherry recordings are clean, precise renditions in modern studio sound. The issue of “name” quartets comes up in the comparison: Sherry plays the cello, and those renditions seem to be led from the bottom as these new ones are from the top. But the common factor is a general avoidance of Romantic indulgence and a focus on tight, accurate ensemble.

The Gringolts are even more precise, and seem to play as one. In particular, unison and octave passages (more common in the First Quartet) are so precisely tuned as to sound like a single instrument. The common vibrato style plays a significant role. Each of the players employs a narrow but often intense vibrato. Again, that serves to balance the Romantic and Modern tendencies of the music, and to focus the sound. The players’ allegiance to Schoenberg’s performance directions can sometimes tend to the pedantic. In particular, transitions that are marked with tempo changes across a few bars feel sudden and externally applied. Schoenberg, it turns out, is more reliant on Romantic phrasing than these players are willing to admit.

The recording is a co-production with SRF Radio in Switzerland and was made at their studio in Zurich. The sound is up-close and dry, much more so than on in-house recordings from BIS. That suits the more austere Third Quartet better than the First, but both would benefit from more space around the ensemble. The distribution around the surround speaker array is good, though, and very involving. Informative liner notes from Arnold Whittall complete an attractive package.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Taneyev String Trio Piano Quartet Spectrum Concerts Berlin

Sergei Taneyev: String Trio, op. 31; Piano Quartet, op. 20
Spectrum Concerts Berlin
NAXOS 8.574367 (67:28)


Taneyev’s String Trio (1910–11) and Piano Quartet (1906) are both immediately attractive works, each with their fair share of memorable melodies, but also enough development and intrigue to justify their substantial durations. As a composer and theorist, Taneyev was known for his mastery of counterpoint, which is in evidence in both of these works. Small chamber ensembles proved ideal for his contrapuntal devices, and his understanding of string instruments and the piano allowed him to employ them with all the textural clarity his counterpoint required.

That does lead to some challenges in performance. The violin writing is often very high, to separate it out from the ensemble, and the piano writing is often complex too. Taneyev often jumps into fast, busy textures from quiet introductions, challenging his players to immediately find that new tempo and texture, and without compromising their ensemble or balance.

Spectrum Concerts Berlin meet all those challenges on this recording, and the results are impressive. The group is a mixed chamber ensemble who give regular concerts in Berlin. These are often recorded for German radio and the recordings then licensed to Naxos. The arrangement works well for Naxos, as the group tends to explore obscure repertoire, and can therefore help Naxos fill gaps in their catalog. On this occasion, the performance was a streamed concert during the pandemic (from MetaHaus Berlin, April 20, 2021).

The performances are engaged and vibrant. The string ensemble maintains the tricky balance that Taneyev demands between consistency of tone and clarity of individual lines. The general impression is more of a live performance than a studio recording—spontaneity is more in evidence than studied precision—but the technical standards are laudably high throughout. Recordings of Taneyev’s music in recent decades have tended to be more conservative in terms of rubato than those of the Soviet era, and these performances follow that trend. Rubato here is clearly apparent, but not over-indulgent. The slow movements, particularly of the Piano Quartet, get maudlin as their sentimental melodies play out, but that is exactly what Taneyev intended, and there is nothing wrong with a little Silver Age-indulgence for a few minutes here.

Despite their relative obscurity, both of these pieces have impressive discographies, and the competition is strong. A complicating factor is the range of couplings. Taneyev’s Piano Quintet, op. 30, and Piano Trio, op. 22, are also excellent works, and lend themselves to coupling with either the String Trio or the Piano Quartet, and most combinations are available. The Taneyev Quartet set the standard for Taneyev’s chamber music in the 1970s for Melodiya (now reissued on Northern Flowers). They remain the reference for Taneyev’s string quartets, but the String Trio and Piano Quartet benefit more from the cleaner, more focused playing style in more recent accounts, and from superior audio. My go-to for the String Trio is the Hyperion recording from the Leopold String Trio (CDA 67573). That account has more precise ensemble than here, and a vibrancy that is hard to match. But the new account has more immediate sound, also very valuable in this music. For the Piano Quartet, I would previously have recommended the CPO release 777 793-2, from an ensemble led by pianist Anna Zassimova. But this new one matches it on all counts. Again, vibrancy and clarity are the primary qualities the music requires, plus keen ensemble, especially at the switches of tempo. Spectrum Concerts Berlin delivers all that here. The CPO recording does too, but the new account just has the edge. All these comparison recordings are programmed differently, coupled with other Taneyev chamber works, so comparisons are tricky. But if you are looking to add Taneyev’s String Trio and Piano Quartet to your collection, this new release will do nicely.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

DE RIBERA & NAVARRO: Masters of the Spanish Renaissance

RIBERA Vox in rama. Beata mater. Dimitte me ergo. NAVARRO Laboravi in gemitu meo. Ave regina. Codex Santiago, Work Without Text. Ecce ascendimus hierosolimam. Erat Iesus eiiciens daemonium. Simile est regnum caelorum. VIVANCO Magnificat 1º tono. Sanctorum meritis. VICTORIA Salve regina a 8

José Duce Chenoll, dir; Ministriles de la Reyna; Amystis
BRILLIANT 96409 (48:27) 


This album focusses on the yearly years of Tomás Luis de Victoria. The composer was born c. 1548, and his earliest musical training was as a boy chorister at the Cathedral of Ávila. In 1565 he moved to Rome, where his training continued at the Roman College. The works presented here give a snapshot of the Victoria’s formative musical influences, from two composers who were dominant in liturgical music in Ávila in the mid-16th century, Bernardino de Ribera (c. 1520–c. 1580) and Juan Navarro (c. 1530–1580). The program is rounded off with two works by Sebastián de Vivanco (c. 1551–1622), a classmate of Victoria in Ávila, and a Slave Regina a 8 by Victoria himself.

The motivating force behind this project is the musical director, José Duce Chenoll. He explains in the (excellently translated) liner note that the recording came about as a result of his research into original sources in archives at Valencia, Ávila, Toledo, and Valladolid. Most of the works have been recorded before, but are presented in new critical editions by Chenoll himself. There are several recording premieres though, most of the Navarro works and the Sanctorum meritis, a short hymn by Vivanco. These are taken from the Santiago Codex, an early 17th-century manuscript containing works by many composers of the day, but dominated in both quantity and quality (so writes Chenoll) by the music of Navarro.

Chenoll also writes about the difficulties of recording this album during the pandemic, in September 2021. But impressive results have been achieved, in the acoustic of the Church of Santa Maria in Requena, Valencia. The choir, Amystis, is made up of two female sopranos and alto, countertenor, tenor, and bass. The singers are accompanied throughout by Ministriles de la Reyna, performing mostly as a cornett and trombone ensemble, but with two players also doubling occasionally on dulcian.

The results are warm and clear. The quality of the music is high, and the Victoria work that closes the program does not overshadow its predecessors. Perhaps there is a little more variety in the elaboration of the counterpoint in the Victoria, where the other composers employ stricter imitation and shorter phrases, but it is a matter of degree. The singing tone is bright but not bland. The instrumental ensemble is particularly impressive, the cornetts played with plenty of character and the trombones are richly voiced for Renaissance narrow-bore instruments. Chenoll tells us that the singers employ period Spanish pronunciation of the Latin texts, but their articulation is not good enough to make this out.

One final word on the album cover. It shows Chenoll holding out his left hand and pointing at the inside knuckle of the little finger. This is a reference to the Guidonian Hand system of choral direction, a didactic tool for liturgical singing in the Renaissance, of which the young Victoria would no doubt have been familiar. That is a nice touch, and it makes for a striking image to introduce this original and enlightening album.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Rihm Jagden und Formen Ollu

Rihm Jagden und Formen (2008 version)
Franck Ollu, cond;
Members of the Bavarian RSO
BR 900640 (61:41)


Jagden und Formen was a huge hit on the European contemporary music scene in the early 2000s. In a genre dominated by short, aphoristic works that sit uncomfortably together in concert programs, Rihm’s score is a substantial hour of music, with an innovative structure that fully justifies its scale. It is written for chamber orchestra, but with single strings, ideal for new music groups like Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the London Sinfonietta, all of whom performed the work after it appeared in 2001, and to great acclaim. A recording was made for Deutsche Grammophon in 2002 by Ensemble Modern conducted by Dominique My (4715582, reissued in 2014 as 479345), and it too was highly praised.

The title means “Hunts and Forms,” and relates to Rihm’s highly intuitive approach to composing the work. In a 1996 interview published in the liner of the present release, Rihm explains his ambition: “There is a moment when the chase after (a) form suddenly shifts into (its) form. But that moment cannot be captured; at best, it can only be conjured up.” In other words, the music is in a state of contingency, with its material resisting the formalizing tendencies of repetition and even of traditional development. Themes and ideas continually recur, but transformed and merged. The results play on the mind: you often feel you have heard the same music earlier in the piece, but you’re not sure, and if it is the same, the transformation is beguiling. Rihm employs repeated-note textures, and often dry, woodwind-forward sounds. The sonic palette owes much to American Minimalism (especially late Reich), but the harmonies and rhythmic complexity come from European post-war Modernism.

That dichotomy, between hunts and forms, transcends the structure of the work itself and also applies to the music’s genesis and revision history. The 2001 score was based on three shorter works written in the 1990s. Rihm’s “hunt” for a larger form meant expanding the transformations with those works into the 50 minutes of so of the 2001 score. And even then, he made clear that the score remained provisional, that it was in the nature of the music never to have a completed, definitive edition. Accordingly, he then returned to the score again, and the version recorded here is from 2008. The good news is that Rihm never reduces the quantity or sophistication of his material; each version maintains everything from before, enriched with “comments, admissions, expansions, overwritings, insertions, and so on.”

This new recording is 10 minutes longer than its predecessor. The interpolated sections include many smaller ensembles, and the score now has a greater focus on the alto range, with the duet of English horn and viola a prominent element. The “overwriting” involves more lines of counterpoint in the ensemble textures. This is all very rhythmic music, and the increased rhythmic sophistication has the result of distancing the music from its earlier associations with Minimalism. The music is no longer driving and insistent in the same way.

But revisions aside, that impression may come from differences in performance between the two recordings. Ensemble Modern achieved a very high standard in their original account. The atmosphere is electric, and Dominique My is able to maintain a sense of febrile unpredictability across the work’s huge span. DG create a detailed and immediate sound picture, with biting percussion and rich bass (especially from the electric bass guitar). This new recording, made in Munich by members of the Bavarian RSO in June 2021, doesn’t match its predecessor in atmosphere or sonic detail. It is still good, and the woodwind playing in particular is fully up to the strenuous demands of the score. The audio, from Bavarian Radio, is good too, especially for those woodwind ensembles. But the sound lacks the presence of its predecessor, and the bass is less substantial. Conductor Franck Ollu successfully navigates the complexities. The greatest challenge is to maintain the overall continuity, while also creating different moods and textures in each of the sections (the disc has 16 tracking points for these, the DG account has 15). He manages that well, and also gauges the balance between the sections astutely.

The album is valuable for recording Rihm’s most recent thoughts on this score. It is a satisfying “Jagd” to go over the two versions and identify the changes—an extension of the listening experience within the work. But this new account does not supersede its predecessor, in large part because the DG account was so fine. The recording is released on Bavarian Radio’s Musica Viva imprint to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday. Herzliche Glückwünsche, then, to Wolfgang Rihm!


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:6.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Bach Viola da Gamba Sonatas Robert Smith Sarah Cunningham

BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. SCHAFFRATH Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in A, CSWV:F:29. ROBERT SMITH Dido’s Torment
Robert Smith (vdg)
Francesco Corti (hpd)
RESONUS 10278 (62:51)


BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. Trio Sonata in a, BWV 1031 (arr. Cunningham). Flute Sonata in a, BWV 1013: Allemande (arr. Cunningham)
Sarah Cunningham (vdg)
Richard Egarr (hpd)
AVIE 2491 (56:16)


Bach’s viola da gamba sonatas are staples of the repertoire, but, as these two releases show, there is plenty of scope for interpretation. Of the three, only the G-Major, BWV 1027, survives in Bach’s own hand, and the later sources differ considerably in terms of articulation and phrasing. There is also a satisfying stylistic diversity between the three works. They were previously thought to date from Bach’s Cöthen period, 1717–23, but recent research by Christoph Wolff and others points instead to the 1730s/40s and Leipzig. Tellingly, the style of the works themselves is little clue: Bach remained the staunch Baroque contrapuntalist, even as the Classical age was unfolding around him. That is clear both from his choice of solo instrument and from his close alignment to the trio sonata model, especially in the G-Major Sonata, but significantly so in the other two sonatas as well.

Gambist Robert Smith and harpsichordist Francesco Corti are at the stricter end of the period performance spectrum in their accounts of the sonatas. Smith’s gamba (Pierre Bohr, after Colichon) has a light tone, and his delicate bowing emphasizes the higher partials. Tempos are brisk and steady, and Corti’s harpsichord (Christoph Kern, after Mietke) provides an even, cleanly defined texture beneath. The harpsichord, too, is light of tone, and the balance between the instruments is always well maintained, with the duets between the right hand and the gamba playful and clear. This recording presents the three sonatas in the reverse of the BWV order: 1029, 1028, 1027. That focusses attention away from the G-Major, 1027, a smart move given its greater familiarity.

The three sonatas don’t fill a disc, and there are no obvious fillers, even from Bach’s vast catalog. Smith makes two additions. The first is a sonata by Christopher Schaffrath (c. 1710–1763), a younger contemporary, based in Dresden. Schaffrath, too, is looking back in his writing for gamba, but not as far as Bach, and this is a much more galant work, with longer melodies and less focus on counterpoint. An elegant addition, especially in this sparkling rendition. The other filler is a work of Smith’s own devising, Dido’s Torment, an updated gloss on Dido’s Lament. The fact that this also fits into the program (just!) highlights the variety of styles and moods in the Bach sonatas. Smith’s sound is much broader here, suggesting that the lighter tone he adopts for the Bach is a conscious choice.

Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr take a different approach. Although harpsichordist Egarr has more name recognition, he takes a back seat to gambist Cunningham, who very much leads these accounts. She applies rubato—or at least emphatic phrasing—the way you might expect in an unaccompanied suite, and Egarr follows her lead. The tempos are slower than from Smith and Corti, and considerably slower than the norm. That can be a risky strategy: when a long note is held on the gamba, there is no scope for vibrato, and plainness of tone can become an issue. But Cunningham applies imaginative bowing techniques, often subtly modulating the sound towards the end of a held note. And Egarr always has much counterpoint to contribute beneath. A more resonant instrumentarium also helps, the gamba by Jane Julier, after Bertrand, the harpsichord by David Rubio, after Taskin. Another problem for gambists is the narrowing of tone in the upper register. That comes to the fore in the second movement, Allegro ma non tanto, of the G-Major Sonata. Both gambists sound more attenuated here, but Cunningham comes across best, still maintaining color and vibrancy in her tone.

The fillers on the Cunningham release are more traditional, a Bach trio sonata arranged for gamba and harpsichord, and the Allamende from the Flute Partita, BWV 1013, transposed down an octave and a half for performance by solo gamba. In the trio sonata, the high register again becomes an issue, and the fact that it is so rarely a problem in Bach’s own gamba sonatas suggests he was aware of this. The Allemande is elegant, but Cunningham’s stately pace draws it out to almost 10 minutes, which seems an indulgence.

Two attractive recordings, of much-performed repertoire. Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr offer the more approachable version, more directly expressive and warmer of tone. Robert Smith and Francesco Corti seem more disciplined by comparison. They are probably closer to the HIP consensus in a version that is more about rhythm and accent than tone and sustain. Take your pick.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:6.