Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

WAGNER Siegfried Jaap van Zweden Hong Kong PO

WAGNER Siegfried
Jaap van Zweden, cond; Simon O’Neill (Siegfried); Valentina Farcas (Forest Bird); Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde); Deborah Humble (Erda); David Cangelosi (Mime); Matthias Goerne (Wanderer); Werner Van Mechelen (Alberich); Falk Struckmann (Fafner); Hong Kong PO
NAXOS 0069 (Blu-ray audio: 241:58) Live: Hong Kong 1/6–25/2017

Jaap van Zweden’s Hong Kong Ring cycle continues apace, a flagship project for Naxos and a boost too for the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s international standing. When the project was launched, with Rheingold in 2013, it was a victim of bad timing, coinciding with a far superior version, also from concert performances, from Simon Rattle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (BR Klassik 900133). But no cycle followed from Munich, and since then, Ring recordings have been few, at least audio versions. The Naxos cycle also has an almost unique selling point of being in high-definition surround sound—in Blu-ray audio, the preferred format of Naxos over SACD—and the results fully justify the technology. The interpretation and casting are good, although neither stands comparison with the historical best, and views on the lead singers are likely to come down to personal taste.
Everything about this performance speaks of careful preparation and investment of time. German opera house orchestras have dominated the recent Ring discography, especially on DVD, but the Hong Kong Philharmonic is clearly a different ensemble. They don’t have the burnished string tone or the warmth from the woodwinds of a Central European Ensemble, though the brightness and clarity they offer instead is a bonus, even if it leads to a slight sense of detachment from the drama. The string sound, while usually secure in ensemble, can be thin, especially with the violins in the top register, leading to a transparency in the tutti textures—impressively clear but occasionally uninvolving. Zweden, for his part, gives a measured but fluid reading. Tempos are generally mid-range to slow, though he always builds impressively to climaxes. He communicates well with the singers, offering generous supporting textures, but also reigning in any rubato excesses. All round, a real ensemble performance then, meticulously prepared and well presented.
The cast is a curious mix of Wagner veterans, relatively new names, and, in the case of Matthias Goerne’s Wanderer, a Lieder singer branching out into pastures new.  In fact, Goerne has a reasonable track record with Wagner, having sung Wolfram, Amfortas, and Kurnewal onstage, but he still sounds like a Leider recitalist seeking for the vocal weight and dramatic presence required to bring the role off. His sound is more volume than heft, big on character but lacking in gravitas, and with a hazy quality that you either love or hate. His diction is excellent though, and he fits well into the ensemble. Simon O’Neill is a similar case as Siegfried. For all his undeniable musical qualities, the most apparent trait—or flaw, depending on your perspective—is his plumy English accent (though he is actually a New Zealander). He is a very lyrical Siegfried, too lyrical perhaps, as he often sounds Italianate in his rounded, florid phrasing. But he has plenty of Wagner on disc already, so buyers will know where they stand.
The rest of the cast is less controversial and generally very fine. David Cangelosi is an articulate Mime, mildly sinister and certainly not caricatured. Werner Van Mechelen is a little hollow-sounding as Alberich, but hardly to a fault. Falk Struckmann probably counts as luxury casting here as Fafner. He is not as profundo as some, but he’s still ominous. Deborah Humble has a very young-sounding voice for Erde, and struggles with some of the lower notes. She has a heavy vibrato too, that sometimes sounds labored. Brünnhilde isn’t a huge role in this opera, but Heidi Melton makes the most of it. Her tone is a little thin at the top, but all the notes are there, and she and Simon O’Neill bring the third act to a suitable passionate conclusion.
The surround sound is involving, though it does the orchestra more favors than the cast. By accident or design, the anvil in the Prelude appears at the back left of the soundstage, just as the libretto specifies. There are some thunder effects, which seem pasted on, though they probably worked better live. The timpani dominates the center channel and sounds more closely miked than most of the orchestra. The singers occasionally seem distant: Siegfried, for example, seems to begin offstage, coming towards the microphone for his first entry, and, as the Forest Bird, Valentina Farcas, seems to be positioned behind the orchestra or in some other remote spot stage left. She sings well, but the recording doesn’t do her justice. The orchestra, however, is afforded a spacious setting, all the more welcome given that most DVDs of staged Wagner operas don’t explore their surround sound capabilities for the back of the pit. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall seems to have a fairly dry acoustic, so there isn’t much going on in the rear speakers.
An impressive, if not exceptional, Siegfried then, from Jaap van Zweden and his Hong Kong forces.  Unless you’re a diehard Goerne fan, you’re unlikely to seek it out for the cast, but Zweden’s detailed reading, along with the quality of the orchestral playing and the audio elevate the project, and auger well for the Götterdämmerung to come.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Wagner Parsifal Ivan Fischer

WAGNER Parsifal
Iván Fischer, conductor
Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas)
Mikhail Petrenko (Titurel, Klingsor)
Falk Struckmann (Gurnemanz)
Christopher Ventris (Parsifal)
Petra Lang (Kundry)
Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Challenge 72619 (DVD+Blu-ray: 240:00)

Pierre Audi’s Parsifal was clearly a big event for Dutch National Opera when it premiered in 2012. This video was made during that first run, and its release now coincides with a revival of the production in Amsterdam, and with Audi’s departure from the company; in 2018 he takes over as artistic director of the Aix en Provence Festival.

Audi’s take on Parsifal is low key, with a minimum of stagecraft and an apparent reluctance to engage with the work’s philosophical themes. In an age when directors seem to feel duty-bound to impose contemporary themes onto Wagner, this hands-off approach feels retro, recalling Wieland Wagner in the 1950s. The abstraction is aided by the set designs, from Anish Kapoor, which are scenic for the first act but strictly geometric from then on. (The sets are very close in design to those Kapoor produced for Daniel Kramer’s Tristan at English National Opera in 2016.)

The set for the opening of the first act is a collection of what seem like rocky outcrops. When we come to the Grail Ritual, these rotate to reveal the Grail Knights on wooden scaffold platforms. The earthiness of this scenario, combined with the almost total absence of Christian symbolism, suggests a Pantheist angle. The second act is more arresting visually, with a huge reflective sphere suspended at the back of the stage. Distorted reflections follow the Flower Maidens, Parsifal, and Kundry about, and even the conductor is clearly visible, but, elegant as it is, the significance is never made clear. In the final act, a circular hole in the backdrop takes the place of the sphere, suggesting absence and emptiness at Montsalvat. And indeed the ending of this production is uncompromisingly bleak—after two and a half acts in which religious imagery has been completely absent, the Grail Knights now appear, each with a black crucifix painted on their face, and, although Parsifal accepts the spear and heals Amfortas, the assembled company all eventually wither to the ground, as if in death. It’s a curious ending, and all the more pessimistic for being the only significant directorial intervention in the entire production.

A cursory glance at the box cover suggests that the production features Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal, but a closer look reveals it to be Christopher Ventris. He has a weightier tone than Vogt, closer to Peter Sieffert, perhaps, whom he also resembles. Ventris is a competent Parsifal, and has the stamina to see it through, but his voice lacks the character required to make his long narrations memorable. Similarly Falk Struckmann as Gurnemanz, another dependable Wagnerian, though getting on in years, but he too has the stamina for the role. Perhaps both singers can be forgiven for not giving memorable characterizations in a production so notably low on Personenregie. That said, Petra Lang excels as Kundry, here consolidating her reputation as the Wagnerian mezzo du jour. She has an uneasy stage presence, always unsettling the quasi-mystical discourse, even when she is not involved—just the sort of singer a production like this needs. She is in fine voice too, her singing dramatically engaged and always attractive, even at her most bitter and vitriolic. Mikhail Petrenko is luxury casting for Titurel and Klingsor, though the production does little to highlight either character, with Klingsor in particular seeming like an imposter in his own castle.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a long and proud tradition of Wagner performance, and the players’ affinity with the music is a real asset here, although this appears to the only complete performance of Parsifal the orchestra currently has in the catalog. Iván Fischer is less associated with Wagner than is his brother, Ádám, but he has an excellent feeling for the music’s drama and scale. Many conductors linger over this score, so it is refreshing to hear Fischer taking brisker tempos, and only very rarely to the detriment of the music’s atmosphere. That upbeat approach also suits the visual style, and the combined efficiency of music and spectacle affords valuable dramatic coherence.

The package includes DVD and Blu-ray discs: Sound and image are good on both, with the Blu-ray notably superior, especially in image. Microphones are positioned at the front of the stage, but so too is most of the action, so the singers rarely sound distant. The camera work mixes close-ups with wide angle, and impressively captures the scale of the second act setting. The set is released on the small Dutch label Challenge Classics, and seems to be the first and only video in the company’s catalog. But their many audio releases always have high production standards, and they have a commitment to the SACD format. Given the excellent production standards here, here’s hoping they have further collaborations with Dutch National Opera in the works.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Bruckner Symphony No 3 Thielemann

Bruckner Symphony No. 3 (1877 version)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, conductor
C Major 740904 (Blu-ray: 68:00)

If you’ve been following Thielemann’s Bruckner cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden, you’ll know what to expect from this Third Symphony. It’s a classic Thielemann account, with long, sinuous lines; a warm, well-grounded orchestral sound; and a sense of scale and grandeur that is all too rare among recent accounts.
Thielemann is well known as a Bruckner specialist, but this is his first commercial recording of the Third Symphony: This DVD/Blu-ray cycle has so far covered Symphonies 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9, and his other recordings, with this orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic, include Nos. 4, 7, and 8. It will be interesting to see what he does with the earlier symphonies, because this Third Symphony is presented in the spirit of the later works, just as grand and imposing, with no sense of reducing the scale of the performance for the (slightly) lesser scope of the work’s conception.
The opening is wonderfully atmospheric, with the sumptuous strings supporting an equally warm and broad solo trumpet. The string tone sometimes tends toward the nebulous, especially in surround sound, but Thielemann knows when to impose greater agogic emphasis to maintain the focus of the musical argument. His first movement tempos are slow, especially at the opening of the development, and while this is usually to create a placid starting point for greater drama ahead, the increase in tension is only accompanied by modest tempo increases.
Those slow tempos speak of a daring approach, and dynamics too often go to extremes. The very quiet opening of the second movement brings an appealing sense of fragility to the Dresden sound, still as characterful and complex as ever, but reedy in the woodwinds and transparent in the strings. The sheer unity of the woodwind playing is impressive throughout this performance (performances, rather, the video is edited from two concerts), especially so in the quiet dynamics early in the second movement. The Scherzo is taken relatively fast, with the rich orchestral tone here trading against nimble rhythmic figurations, Thielemann always finding a satisfying balance between the two.
The Finale can sound poorly structured in lesser hands, but Thielemann finds logical tempo choices at every turn. The rising string 16th-note figure at the opening is fast and sleek at every appearance, appearing out of nowhere after each interlude to revive the momentum. And the conclusion is suitably triumphant, the horns and trombones adding a bronzed sheen to the major-key dénouement—buoyant but without frivolity.
Earlier installments in this series were recorded at the Semperoper Dresden, in its concert hall guise, but this one is from the Philharmonie in Munich. The modern decor there is not as grand as the Rococo interior of the orchestra’s home, and the sound is considerably less resonant. Nevertheless, the recorded sound is clear and detailed, and atmospheric in surround, which serves the brass and timpani better than the stereo mix. The video work is busy, and six cameramen are credited. Lots of close-ups, then, of the players and of the ever-stentorian Thielemann, who conducts from memory. There are a few arty zoom and cross-fade effects, but they are kept to a minimum, and the camerawork is never distracting.
Another success, then, for Thielemann and his well-honed orchestra, demonstrating that their mastery of Bruckner’s music applies as much to the earlier symphonies as the late. Fans of the conductor won’t be disappointed. 
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Braunfels String Quartets Nos 1 and 2 Auryn Quartett

Walter Braunfels: String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, “Verkündigung,” op. 60. String Quartet No. 2 in F, op. 61
Auryn Quartett
CPO 999 406-2 (59:14)

Walter Braunfels came late to the string quartet medium, and his Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (of three) date from 1944, when he was in his early 60s. At the time, he was based in Überlingen on Lake Constance, an internal exile in Nazi Germany, having been forcibly removed from his position as director of the Cologne Academy of Music on account of his part-Jewish ancestry. Immediately after the war he was reinstated, and the two quartets were premiered in Cologne in 1946.
The light and gracefully melodic nature of this music gives little impression of the traumatic times in which it was written. Braunfels devoted much of his time in southern Germany to chamber music, and was clearly engaging with Classical-era models. The structure and scale of the two works harks back to middle-period Beethoven, as do many of the expressive features, the rigorous thematic development and the modest but proficiently voiced counterpoint. Some of the textures are more radical, especially the regular division of the quartet into two pairs of instruments in the First Quartet, and the harmony is a little more advanced as well, but, from a technical perspective, everything here speaks of a composer who came of age at the turn of the century.
The First Quartet is the more adventurous of the two in terms of mood and texture. Its subtitle, “Verkündigung” (Annunciation), refers to the opera Braunfels composed in 1933–5, from which the quartet derives most of its themes. A sense of operatic mood setting is apparent in the sprightly opening phrases, and in the third movement scherzo, where flageolet harmonics give a spectral quality to some of the later variants. The Langsam second movement is conceived on a grand, operatic scale, yet retains a sense of intimacy for the refinement of the textures and melodic language.
The Second Quartet is more Classical in conception, more upbeat for its major key and for its light bouncy textures, often with delicate melodies in the violins supported and propelled by repeated-noted figures in the cello. The middle movements of the First Quartet have German performance directions, whereas in the Second all are Italian, an indication, perhaps that Braunfels was focusing more on Classical models in the latter work.
The Auryn Quartett gives energetic and elegant readings of these two works. The unity of ensemble is impressive, especially in the passages of rhythmic unison, such as the opening of the Second Quartet. The tonal control is impressive too, although the sound sometimes takes on an abrasive edge in very loud passages, of which there are many in the First Quartet—but better that than hold back for the big climaxes. While sound is mostly rich and warm, the Adagio of the Second Quartet sounds a little thin, a consequence perhaps of Braunfels’s Classical inclinations here.
This release is not described as a first recording, but it is the only version of these quartets currently available. It is a reissue of a release from 1998: The reissue is simply a renewed distribution of the original disc in its original packaging, no doubt designed to cash in on the Braunfels revival that has recently been taking place in Germany, a canny move on the part of CPO, and fully justified, given the label’s central role in bringing it about in the first place.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 41:3.