Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Elisaveta Blumina: Memories from Home


SCRIABIN Preludes, op. 16. PROKOFIEV Visions fugitives: Nos. 1,4,10,11,16, 17. WEINBERG 2 Fugues. FRID Hungarian Album. KANCHELI Miniatures for Piano: Selections
Elisaveta Blumina (pn)
DREYER GAIDO 21120 (2 CDs: 80:29)



Elisaveta Blumina is a Russian-German pianist now based in Berlin. So, Memories of home refers to her early years in the Soviet Union. Though, as she herself states, Russian piano training tends to focus on the Austro-German repertoire: They play Czerny études just like everyone else. But, she says, “Russian and Soviet music is, in some natural but subtle way, ‘in my blood”’. Another motivation for the selections on this recital is Blumina’s sense of synaesthesia. She says “Ever since childhood I have associated notes and sounds with colours.” This led Blumina to pursue visual arts as an avocation, and a detail from one of her canvases is reproduced on the album cover. It also leads to an intensely coloristic approach to the textures in each of these works.
That is particularly evident in the Scriabin, the early op. 16 Preludes set. There is no sense in this performance of looking forward to Scriabin’s more adventurous harmonies, but even in this traditionally Romantic framework, the sense of harmony as color, shared by composer and pianist, is everywhere evident. Six of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives follow, and again, the music is richly shaded and carefully nuanced, although lacking some of the angularity of phrasing that other pianists apply for focus.
Blumina makes a claim to be the instigator of the recent revival in interest in the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, and devotes two pages of the liner note to him, despite the two Weinberg works on the program lasting around three minutes. She has certainly been an important voice in the Weinberg revival, with many recordings of chamber music and solo piano works, mainly on the CPO label. These two short fugues are typical Weinberg, well-constructed but self effacing, the first ending with a grandly Baroque cadence, stylistically disjointed, but woven in with typical fluency by the composer.
Grigori Frid is another forgotten Soviet composer whom Blumina has championed, a recentrecording of his clarinet sonatas on MDG was a fascinating discovery. Here we have Hungarian Album, a set of piano works written in 1966 when was a guest of the Hungarian Composers Federation. The music consciously draws on Hungarian folk music, but remains foursquare and Classical, at least compared to Bartók. But Frid explores the modal character of his sources instead, and—again, typically for this album—the results are richly colored.
The second disc is devoted to Kancheli’s Miniatures for piano, 22 selections from a collection of 33. Blumina knew Kancheli personally (he died in 2019), and it was he who entrusted the works to her: They receive premiere recordings here. Blumina reports that she took issue with the composer’s slow metronome marks, and played the works faster, with his blessing. The music is derived from Kancheli’s film work, as is immediately evident from the character of each of the movements: atmospheric, gently melodic, and conventionally styled. This isn’t music of great interest, and Blumina was probably wise not to include the entire set (there would probably have been space). But Blumina’s devotion to the Eastern Minimalist cause is everywhere apparent, and she brings color and warmth to each of Kancheli’s miniatures.
The recorded sound, from Deutschland Kultur, is warm and involving. Blumina’s liner notes are engaging, and well translated into English by David Boyd. They generously include all of the poems that preface the movements in Frid’s Hungarian Album, which remarkably, still make perfect sense after translation from Hungarian to German, and then to English. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 43:5.

Friday, 20 December 2019

REGER Organ Works Vol 6 Gerhard Weinberger


REGER Introduktion, Passacaglia und Fuge, op. 127. Choral Preludes, op. 67: selections. Chorale Preludes, op. 79b: selections. 12 Pieces, op. 80: Nos. 5 and 6. Prelude in c, WoO VIII/6. Fugue in c, WoO IV/8. 30 Chorale Preludes, op. 135a. Prelude and Fugue in d, WoO IV/10.  Postludium in d, WoO IV/12
Gerhard Weinberger (organ)
CPO 777 539-2 (2 SACDs: 125:22)


This release is volume 6 in Gerhard Weinberger’s complete Reger organ works for CPO, and, given that each is two well-filled discs, presumably the penultimate installment. The recordings were made on two organs, the Steinmeyer organ of the Christuskirche Mannheim for disc one (opp. 127, 67, 79, 80) and the Bittner organ at the Pfarrkirche St. Walburga in Beilngries for disc two. The instruments date from 1911 and 1913 respectively, and the recording is billed as “played on historical instruments from Reger’s days.” Given the continuing loyalty to German traditions and tastes in more recent instrument construction, that claim is of dubious significance, and all of the updating to the organs in question, digital consoles and the like, also stands in the way of any implications of historically informed authenticity. But no matter, these are both fine organs, perhaps a little smaller in scale than many that are used to record Reger’s more gothic offerings. Both have plenty of power, but give a sense of contained might; volume, yes, but also a depth to the tone and complex, well-balanced richness, especially in the mid-register.
The main offering here is the Introduktion, Passacaglia und Fuge, op. 127, a truly colossal concert work, timing here at over 31 minutes. It begins with a series of huge minor chords, only distantly related, and linked tenuously with chromatic descents in several voices. But things settle down quite quickly, and the quieter music that follows is particularly luminous under Weinberger’s fingers. James Altena, who has consistently favored the Bernhard Buttmann series on Oehms over these Weinberger recordings, has complained (Fanfare 41:5) that Weinberger lacks the grasp of form that Buttmann demonstrates. That is certainly a crucial factor in huge sprawling works like this, but, to my ear, Weinberger makes a virtue of his focus on the moment, especially in these quieter passages. The melodic lines are played with elegant legato, and the counterpoint is easy to follow, and although the results can seem directionless, the sheer beauty of the textures is hard to resist.
Another of Altena’s complaints was about the seemingly random order in which the works are included in the various releases, and that certainly remains the case here. The logic seems to be that Weinberger is choosing his programs to fit the organ that he is playing at any given time, another aspect of that spurious authenticity drive. Any complete Reger set is going to be filled with a large number of chorale preludes, music for liturgical use that was never intended for anthology, so perhaps breaking up these sets is a virtue, or at least a mercy. In fact, Weinberger is able to maintain interest across all of these collections with his subtle but inventive choices of stops. The Bittner organ on disc two is a smaller instrument—three manuals to the Steinmeyer’s four—but it has plenty of character, if a little less weight. Weinberger makes greater use of the reed stops on this instrument, often taking the hymn tune down to just a solo stop to contrast the nebulous diapason accompaniments. He also finds occasion for tasteful use of the tremolo on the second manual in the op. 135 Chorale Preludes.
Recording quality is excellent from both churches. Surround sound is used discreetly to add warmth, especially in Beilngries, where the church resonance is more apparent than in Mannheim. Documentation includes full organ registrations, photographs of the instruments and consoles, and interesting notes on the instruments and repertoire with readable, if not wholly idiomatic, English translations.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies Frankfurt Opera


EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies, Nikolai Petersen, cond; Dmitry Egorov (Ogla); David DQ Lee (Mascha); Ray Chenez (Irina); Eric Jurenas (Natascha); Krešimir Stražanac (Tusenbach); Iain MacNeil (Werschinin); Thomas Faulkner (Kulygin); Barnaby Rea (Soljony); Mark Milhofer (Doctor); Mikołaj Trąbka (Andrei); Michael McCown (Fedotik); Isaac Lee (Rodé); Alfred Reiter (Anfisa)
Oper Frankfurt, Chor der Oper Frankfurt
OEHMS 986 (2 CDs: 103:36) Live: Frankfurt 9–10/2018



This recording is the latest in a hugely ambitious collaboration between the Oehms label and Frankfurt Opera. Given the stultifyingly conservative repertoire of most opera companies, and of record labels when it comes to opera, it is astonishing to flick through the “also available” section at the back of the liner here and find operas by Reimann, Glanert, Franco Leoni, Korngold, Antonio Cesti, and Flotow. Tri sestry (Three Sisters, based on the Chekov), by Peter Eötvös, is as ambitious and unusual as anything on that list, although it has received several stagings in Europe since its premiere, in Lyon in 1998. The work is dramatically complex, and you get an impression of its theatrical scope from this audio recording, but musically, the work is rich and varied, and very much worth hearing, even without the visuals.
Eötvös and co-librettist Claus H. Henneberg take considerable liberties with Chekov’s text. The original five acts are compressed to three “Sequences,” and the original chronology is abandoned, the events redistributed, and even occurring multiple times (the fire in the town, for example, occurs in both the First and Second Sequences). The liner essay, by Francis Hüsers, argues that the original play lacks a sense of plot anyway, and that the cyclical approach to narrative time imposed by Henneberg and Eötvös is equally valid. Remarkably, the resulting structure can be paraphrased in a brief synopsis, given in the liner, which, although disjointed, seems broadly logical. The librettists worked with German translations, and their work was then translated back to Russian, the language in which the opera is sung. It is a shame, then, that no libretto is included, although even with one, a listener could only hope for a broad outline of the drama.
Two ensembles are employed, a stage orchestra, which is positioned behind a gauze backstage, and a pit orchestra, hence the two conductors credited. The distinction between them is not apparent in the audio, and the generally intimate scale of the music belies the presence of two full-sized ensembles. The liner is generously illustrated with stills from the Frankfurt production, which show a 1950s setting, in one scene a house  interior, and in another a playground.
The composer seems at pains to make everything here strange and unsettling, and one very effective device to this end is casting the three sisters as countertenors, all cross-dressed as 1950s housewives here. In fact, the whole cast is male, with the two other female characters, Natasha and Anfisa, also sung by men. But the variety and invention of Eötvös’s vocal writing ensures that there is never any risk of monotony.
As a purely aural experience, Tri sestry is beguiling but never intimidating. At the start, we hear the aspirated tones of an accordion, a typical sonority in the accompaniments that follow. A diverse percussion section is employed, creating a soundscape of dry, hollow tones, from untuned metallic instruments such as cowbell. Violin glissandos are another regular feature, and Eötvös structures the Sequences through large-scale musical progressions, but made up of very simple devices—such as continuous upward glissandos in the strings. Loud climaxes are rare, but are disjointed affairs, the instrumental groupings—presumably the two orchestras—seemingly oblivious to each other. But for the most part, the musical fabric is made up of sophisticated vocal lines with modest, if colourful accompaniments. There is much melodrama, speaking over instrumental accompaniment, and the clear diction of the singers, none of whom are Russian, means that even a modest grasp of the language can help you find your bearings.
The performance and recording are excellent. Given the complex interplay of drama and music in this work, recording from a live staging is clearly a benefit. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team, who use radio microphones to ensure that singers are never recorded from a distance. That makes the recording of the voices clear and present, although it creates another barrier for listeners trying to get a grasp of the staging. This is actually the second commercial recording of the opera. A recording from the first production, in Lyon, was released on DG (20/21 459 694-2) and is now available on the Budapest Music Centre label. That version was well received, and the presence of Eötvös himself as one of the conductors adds authority. But either version would seem to be recommendable. Whatever its theatrical ambitions, this is an opera that works as an audio experience, and, as such, offers a valuable insight into the composer’s musical world.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

WAGNER Siegfried: act III (abridged) Inkinen Lindstrom Vinke


WAGNER Siegfried: act III (abridged)
Pietari Inkinen, conductor 
Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) 
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
Deutsche RP Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern 
SWR 19078 (59:12)



This release should probably be treated as a sampler. It presents a cut-down version of Siegfried act III—scene 1 with the Wanderer and Erde is omitted—from 2018 concert performances in Saarbrücken. That’s not much use for building a library, but it does offer a tantalizing glimpse of two major talents on the rise: conductor Pietari Inkinen and soprano Lise Lindstrom. Since this recording was made, Inkinen has been named the conductor of the new Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He has already conducted the Ring for Opera Australia, where Lindstrom sang Brünnhilde, an important stepping stone for both Wagnerian careers. But this is the first commercial recording to feature either of them in Wagner, so expectations run high.
Inkinen proves to be a patient but insightful Wagnerian, with a good eye for detail and an ability to structure the music well around the dramatic high points. The performance—presumably a concert second half—begins with the act III prelude, performed with precision and clarity by the Saarbrucken orchestra. Tempos are moderate from the start, and while the climaxes are impressive, the music lacks the gritty intensity of Solti or Boulez. The transition to scene 2 is smooth: After the prelude, we hear the first number of act I, “Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach’!,” but orchestra only, with the Wanderer omitted, then, immediately before Erde’s entry, we cut to scene 2, with Siegfried’s “Mit zerfocht’ner Waffe.” Unless you already know, you won’t hear the join. From here, Inkinen leads the singers well, and the unity between the orchestra and the voices is impressive, particularly the interplay between Lindstrom and the solo oboe, which seems to imitate her timbre. The orchestra is on good form throughout, and sounds well rehearsed. The strings sometimes lose focus at the climaxes, but the brass compensates with a dark, controlled tone, delivered with plenty of power. Inkinen’s tempos and rubato are generous without seeming indulgent. The Siegfried Idyll section is gorgeous, free and flowing, but I wonder if it would work as well on stage?
Lindstrom brings instant star quality to the role of Brünnhilde. Her voice clear but rich, and with plenty of character, even in the high register. Her vibrato is wide and slow, and ever-present, so there is never any sense of gradually warming long notes—it’s right there from the start. Stefan Vinke is more of a known quantity as Siegfried. He also sang the role in the Opera Australia production, but if you’ve heard the Met, Leipzig, or Covent Productions recently, you’ve probably come across him. He has also recorded the role, in the Seattle Opera production. Here, he comes across as reliable but not exceptional. In act III of Siegfried, the Brünnhilde usually has the advantage over the Siegfried of a fresh voice, but not so here. Even so, Vinke lacks color and sometimes wanders slightly below pitch. These are minor grumbles though, and are only brought into focus through comparison with Lindstrom.
SWR may be caching in here on Inkinen’s recent Bayreuth celebrity, and perhaps too on Lindstrom’s growing fan base. Both artists prove worthy of the hype, and Lindstrom fans in particular should seek out the recording. Bios of the three artists are included, in German and English, but no libretto, nor any explanation about the abridged performance.