Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Schnittke Musica Nostalgica Leonard Elschenbroich

SCHNITTKE Cello Sonata No. 11. Suite in the Old Style1. Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan. Musica Nostalgica1.
ELSCHENBROICH Shards of Alfred Schnittke1
Leonard Elschenbroich (vc); 1Petr Limonov (pn)
ONYX 410 (60:00)

Is Schnittke’s music really nostalgic? I ask because Leonard Elschenbroich has entitled his new CD Musica Nostalgica, and the idea permeates his every interpretation. Admittedly, the title comes from one of Schnittke’s own works, which is included, but in general, the composer’s attitude to the past seems more complex than simply a lost Utopia. Elschenbroich explains in his liner note that the Russian equivalent, nostalghia, “is a feeling more painful, more severe, regarded with respectful fear.” That translates, in these readings, as a deep expressive intensity, which works well for all the chosen works. Some interpretive decisions are open to question, but the coherence and commitment that characterizes Elschenbroich’s Schnittke are not, and the results are stimulating and emotionally engaging throughout.
The First Cello Sonata begins with a simple, unaccompanied monologue for the cello, which Elschenbroich delivers in a whispered, straight tone—a beautifully eerie effect. He treats the movement as a single dramatic arc, gradually increasing the intensity, although glossing over some of the moments of repose in the process. The same is true of the moto perpetuo second movement. Again, Elschenbroich begins at a whisper, and the sudden left-hand interjections from pianist Petr Limonov are spectacularly powerful. Both cello and piano are well recorded, with the bass of both instruments particularly intense, giving a real sense of presence to these dramatic moments. But, again, the contrasts towards the end of the second movement are downplayed to emphasize the gradually building intensity: It’s a legitimate approach, but not the last word. Speaking of last words, the obbligato figure at the top of the piano at the end of the third movement is played with a wistful rubato that completely changes the effect—that feeling of nostalgia creeping in again.
Suite in the Old Style is presented in nostalgic terms too. This is Schnittke at his most Neoclassical, but Elschenbroich and Limonov take a more Romantic than Classical approach. The first movement Pastorale is marked Moderato, but is here presented at a very stately pace, with much expressive rubato. So too the “Pantomime” finale, again at a slower pace than the Andantino marking suggests. But it is not all sentimental indulgence, and the one discord in the work, a double-stopped semitone clash held for nine bars, is presented with real menace.
The Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan is a rarity on disc, at least in the cello version (it was originally for violin, naturally), making Elschenbroich’s reading all the more valuable. This is another heart-on-sleeve account, and one that makes no concessions in terms of drama and intensity for the music’s apparent lack of substance—just two pages of unaccompanied cello music, none particularly virtuosic. But, as in the sonata, Elschenbroich makes a real statement out of every note, fully exploiting the wide-ranging dynamic markings for his expressive ends. It’s the highlight of the disc.
Musica Nostalgica may seem like overkill, given that it is derived directly from the Minuet movement of Suite in the Old Style, heard just a few minutes earlier. But Schnittke takes the music in a different direction, adding queasy glissandos to the cello part and making the previously unambiguous major tonality a little more complex.
The program ends with Elschenbroich’s own Shards of Alfred Schnittke, a pastiche of several of the works already heard. We hear the Neoclassicism of Suite in the Old Style, the moto perpetuo of the sonata’s second movement, and the high piano obbligato of the third, all mixed together into the kind of the nebulously structured homage that Schnittke himself often wrote on the music of earlier composers. But, again, there is more nostalgia here than Schnittke would have brought to such a project, at least in Elschenbroich and Limonov’s wistful, emotive reading.
An impressive album, then of Schnittke’s cello works. With the exceptions of Madrigal (currently only available on one other recording, from Torleif Thedéen on BIS) and Elschenbroich’s own piece, all are well represented on disc. But these are distinctive readings, deeply expressive and with often surprising dramatic impact. That impact is also aided by the audio quality, which is excellent throughout. There are enough cello works by Schnittke to fill another disc, so a second visit by Elschenbroich to this composer’s work would be welcome indeed.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Reger String Chamber Music

REGER Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, op. 42/1 and 2, op. 91/2 and 6. 3 Duos, op. 131b. Piano Trio, op. 2. 3 Suites for Solo Viola, op. 131d. Aria, op. 103a/3. Caprice & Kleine Romanze op. 79e. Albumblatt in EI, WoO II/13. Caprice in A, WoO II/10. Wiegenlied, op. 79d/1. Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4.Mariä Wiegenlied, op. 76/52.

KLENGEL Kleine Suite for 3 cellos. Scherzo for cello and piano in d, Op. 6. Hymnus for 12 Cellos, op. 57 

Erich Höbarth, Catherine Meyerscough, Sara Glombitza, Hannah Burchardt, Daniel Tauber, Jueyoung Yang, Jae Jun Park, Tatjana Masurenko (vn); Friedemann Hecker, Neasa Ní Bhriain, Ronen Shifron (va); Peter Bruns, Martina Biondi, Carmen Dreßler, Timothy Hopkins, Jungin Huh, Moritz Klauk, Elisabeth Kogan, Angèle Legasa, Lukas Plag, Nerea Sorozábal, Friedrich Thiele, Fermín Villanueva, Margarethe Vogler, Dana de Vries (vc); Alexander Schmalcz, Annegret Bruns, Ayako Tanaka, Mizuki Waki (pn)

Querstand1617 (3 CDs: 200:37)

Querstand is a Leipzig-based label, so it is little surprise that they have put out a Max Reger release for the centenary of his death in 2016, given the extensive performances and commemorative events that city organized to for its one-time celebrity resident. This collection is entitled String Chamber Music, and boxes together three previous, but recent, releases, Works for Violin, Works for Viola, and Works for Cello.
The project came about as a result of a focus on Reger at Leipzig’s Mendelssohn Hochschule, where 25 string students were given the opportunity to study the composer’s music with the violinist Erich Höbarth, violist Tatjana Masurenko, and cellist Peter Bruns. This culminated in a series of recording sessions in the Hochschule’s Grosser Saal in November and December 2015, hence the huge number of contributing artists to these three discs.
Given that background, the most surprising aspect of this release is its consistency, in both audio quality and the standard and style of the performances. Unaccompanied works make up the bulk of the violin and viola discs, the opp. 42 and 91 Sonatas and the op. 131d Suites respectively, and none of the student performers are found wanting for the high degree of exposure. Technically, there are a few, very minor issues with consistency of articulation and security of pitch, but nothing to challenge the utterly professional standard throughout. Even picking out the teachers from the students is a tricky task. And perhaps it is the influence of these teachers that lends the recordings such consistency. The style of performance on the violin and viola discs is disciplined, with few Romantic indulgences of articulation and rubato. The cello performances are a little broader, slower and more flexible, but not to a fault.
That said, the sheer discipline of these performances is what prevents them from competing with the very best. Most of this music is now well represented on disc, with numerous performers demonstrating how individuality can be projected, even through the strictest of Reger’s neo-Baroque textures: I’m thinking of Ulf Wallin in the solo violin music, Tabea Zimmermann in the viola works, and Alban Gerhardt with the cello music. Obviously, it is a tough call to expect conservatory students to compete with their like, but the overall impression here is that individuality has been constrained for the sake of consistency. If so, it has succeeded, but at what cost?
Otherwise, my major objection is the brazen randomness of the programming. The op. 131d Viola Suites is the only such collection of works presented here in its entirety. The other two collections jump around Reger’s prolific output, making orientation very difficult. The viola disc opens with the op. 2 Piano Trio, hardly a “work for viola” and also, as juvenilia, a poor substitute for the far more distinctive and accomplished op. 102 Piano Trio. Also, as a sampler of Reger’s chamber music, the focus on unaccompanied works places too much emphasis on his neo-Baroque style, and we hear very little his high Romantic music, which makes up more of his chamber music and which is, again, more distinctive. The cello disc is the exception here, offering an accomplished rendition of the op. 116 Cello Sonata from Peter and Annegret Bruns, the highlight of this collection.
That sonata was dedicated to the cellist Julius Klengel, another name closely associated with Leipzig, so the cellists have taken the opportunity to include two of his own works (not that Reger’s own cello catalog is remotely exhausted). Klengel’s style is mainstream, post-Brahms Romanticism, and the three works, a Suite for three cellos, a scherzo for cello and piano, and Hymnus for 12 cellos, are proficient and elegant. The harmonic style may not actually be as conservative or as relentlessly consonant as it sounds here, but that is what comes of being programmed with Reger.
This is a collection of satisfying recordings by excellent young musicians, but the bizarre programming makes it difficult to identify an audience. It’s not comprehensive enough for collectors, nor representative enough for those wishing to sample Reger’s chamber music. The discs are available separately, so Works for Cello gets a nod, for the excellent op. 116 Cello Sonata and for the Klengel rarities.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

WAGNER Meistersinger Kempe Semperoper Dresden

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Sachs - Ferdinand Frantz, Veit Pogner - Kurt Böhme, Sixtus Beckmesser - Heinrich Pflanzl, Fritz Kothner - Karl Paul, Walther von Stolzing - Bernd Aldenhoff, David - Gerhard Unger, Eva - Tiana Lemnitz, Magdalene - Emilie Walter-Sacks
Chorus of Staatsoper Dresden, Staatskapelle Dresden
Rudolf Kempe, conductor
Recorded 1951
PROFIL PH13006 (4 CDs)

On April 9, 1950, the Semperoper Dresden staged its first Meistersinger since the war. This was a significant event for the company, which prided itself on its long association with the work: Dresden had been only the second house to present Meistersinger¸ in 1869, the year after the Munich premiere (and long before it reached Bayreuth). To commemorate the 1950 milestone, the company took the work into the studio the following year, making this recording for MDR. The tapes were archived at the Berlin Radio Research Centre, and have now been remastered for this release, Volume 6 of the Semperoper Edition, a commemorative venture undertaken by the Semperoper, MDR, and Profil.
The CD remastering was carried out by Holger Siedler at the THS Studio in 2013, but no further information is given about the restoration process. The sound is excellent for its age, presumably through a combination of state-of-the-art recording, careful preservation, and some modern-day digital retouching. There is absolutely no tape noise or any other noticeable artifacts (my suspicious ear picked out what sounded like pre-echo in one of the quieter passages of act II, but I’m not going to swear to it). The recording, and perhaps the restoration too, focuses on the singers, bringing them impressive clarity and presence, while the orchestral tone is less distinct, although woodwind solos often jump out disconcertingly.
The performance itself more than justifies the attentions of the restoration engineer. It finds Rudolf Kempe near the start of his career, during his 1949–51 tenure at Dresden, and a few years before his more renowned Wagnerian successes at Bavarian State Opera and Covent Garden. His communication with the performers here, especially the soloists, is exemplary, and the entire recording has the feeling of a closely knit company performance. The sense of drama is also palpable—it’s a recording that, first and foremost, tells the story through the music—perhaps a unique achievement for a studio recording of the work.
Kempe often chooses daringly slow tempos, or so it seems to modern ears, yet the music’s flow and progression are never compromised. He also maintains a lightness and immediacy, his rubato continuous and intuitive, energizing and shaping the phrases. Many of the set pieces are structured to emphasize climaxes, rather than to fit seamlessly into the musical fabric. For example, Pogner’s solo early in act II, and “Wahn! Wahn!” in act III both begin at very slow, with the orchestra brought down to a whisper, but then gradually, almost imperceptibly, build in intensity. It is a coherent and convincing approach, although it sometimes feels overindulgent, especially the way Kempe leans on cadential pauses; everything momentarily grinds to a halt, for example, at “O Le-ne! Le-ne! O Mag-da-le-na!”
The cast is excellent, another strong justification for setting the production down for posterity. The clarity of pronunciation from every soloist is exceptional, with every word crisply articulated. The male voices all sound deep for their respective Fach, a consequence perhaps of the restoration process, although these are undeniably big voices. Technically, there is little to fault in the singing, but stylistically some of the interpretations jar, at least with my modern tastes. Bernd Aldenhoff is an emotive Walther, but his liberal legato is wearying, especially in the Prize Song, where he continually slides around between the notes. As Eva, Tiana Lemnitz is more disciplined vocally, but her pronunciation is very plummy, with a curious inflection to all her vowels. The splendidly named Emilie Walter-Sacks was, no doubt, destined to appear in Meistersinger one day. Her Magdalene is a good balance for Lemnitz, with a similar vocal quality but a more direct delivery. Gerhard Unger is an excellent David, clear and bright, and convincingly youthful-sounding (he was 34 at the time). A few high notes tax him, but even then his tuning remains secure. As Sachs, Ferdinand Frantz is suitably commanding, but also nimble and intimate as required. His portrayal feels like a collaboration between singer and conductor, making the most of each of his set pieces, and while Kempe sometimes overindulges in the rallentandos, Frantz always has the vocal support to carry through. Heinrich Pflanzl is an articulate and emotive Beckmesser, though with little overt comedy in his characterization. And Kurt Böhme is an exceptionally deep Pogner, his voice weighty and imposing, bringing ideal authority to the role.
Choir and orchestra exhibit the company’s impressive Wagnerian credentials, the tuttis and ensembles all delivered with class and with a tonal luster, readily apparent even from a 1951 recording. That said, the string sound lacks body and substance, though this is the only aspect of the early recording that significantly impinges on listening pleasure. But the technology cannot be blamed for some surprisingly scrappy ensemble in the brass, especially the horns, whose quiet ensemble entries in act II are poorly co-ordinated.
Such minor technical issues apart, this is a satisfying Meistersinger, and a valuable document of its times. The substantial liner is big enough to be a libretto. It’s not; instead we are offered artist bios, a detailed essay about the history of Meistersinger in Dresden, right up to the present day, and many stills and sketches for set and costume designs from the production—conservative by today’s standards, of course, but useful context for this always engaging performance.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Reger Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano Odom Samolesky

Reger Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano Odom Samolesky
Reger Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1-3, Albumblatt, Taranetella
David Odom, clarinet
Jeremy Samolesky, piano
ALBANY TROY1648 (76:00)

Clarinetist David Odom and pianist Jeremy Samolesky enter what is rapidly becoming a crowded field with their new recording of the Reger clarinet sonatas. ArkivMusic lists eight recordings of the First Sonata, four of which from the last two years. The composer’s centenary celebrations may have contributed, but an equally significant factor seems to be the discovery of this music by American clarinetists, or perhaps newfound opportunities they have for recording them.
This new version is close in spirit, and in duration, to the Alan R. Kay/Jon Klibonoff recording on Bridge (9461), which was the subject of a Fanfare interview in 40:2. Kay and Odom both opt for slow tempos. Kay explained in the interview that he was following Reger’s tempo markings, and that the tendency for faster readings is a result of Reger’s long phrases and the difficulty of supporting the line. Odom and Samolesky are presumably also faithful to Reger, and their versions are slower still, though not by much, around a minute in each sonata. Even so, this makes them, I think, the slowest on record, with the notable exception of the glacial Janet Hill and Jakob Fichert on Naxos 8.572173.
The best of these new readings comes in the slow music, and David Odom finds valuable breadth in his slower tempos, always able to sustain the line and, with Samolesky, create a warm and luxuriant atmosphere. It is occasionally too luxuriant though, and the sense of direction (always there in Reger, whatever his detractors say) requires greater concentration from the listener to follow. The faster music is less successful. Phrases are not shaped adequately, and cadences lack urgency.
The sound quality is good, but not exceptional. The piano sounds recessed, giving it a rounded sonic profile: good for atmosphere, but poor on detail. Odom has a beautifully rich tone in the lower register, which the audio picks up well, but a thinner tone at the top, for which the recording does no favors at all.
The most radical aspect of this recording is the running order, with the Third Sonata, op. 107, placed first. That is a great idea, and a daring one too. The Third is less immediately attractive than either of the first two, and it takes longer to warm too. It is in Reger’s late, more harmonically direct, style, but expressively it is the most complex of the series. It usually languishes in third place on disc (apart from on the otherwise excellent Florent Héau/Patrick Zyganowski recording, Zig-Zag 090303, which omits it altogether) and so the listener is obliged to consider it an appendix to the more stylistically interconnected first two. But hearing it first gives the piece a new lease of life: Here, it is not an answer to anything, but a bold, independent statement, even if its sentiments are mostly inward looking and nostalgic.
On the subject of running orders, Odom and Samolesky don’t seem quite sure what to do with the Albumblatt and Taranetella, the two short additions required to justify the Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano of the album’s title. Placing them at the end makes them into an afterthought, an impression confirmed by the performances, which, at each around the two-minute mark, probably are the slowest on record. Sadly, that only reinforces the impression given by the whole disc of needless languor in music that, while atmospheric, often needs more impetus than it gets here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Schreker Orchestral Music from the Operas

Schreker: Orchestral Music from the Operas
Royal Swedish Orchestra
Lawrence Renes, conductor
BIS 2122 (SACD)

Franz Schreker enjoys a modest but enduring reputation in the opera houses of the German-speaking world, and appearances of his music on disc follow suit—occasional but not uncommon, and mostly from Germany. So this Swedish recording of orchestral excerpts is a welcome exception. It’s an impressive disc, the selections presenting the composer at his finest, and all performed with precision and feeling, and recorded at the high standards associated with the BIS label, still laudably loyal to the SACD format.
The five tracks all relate to separate operas, in the case of the Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper, to an unrealized opera project about the Egyptian god Memnon. The feeling throughout is of operatic drama, Wagnerian in spirit through often with a light, lyrical touch that suggests a French influence (a chord sequence in the Das Spielwerk Prelude sounds identical to the sunrise in Daphnis et Chloé, with which it is almost exactly contemporary). But the program also works well as a series of standalone works, and all were arranged as such by the composer, so there are no bleeding chunks.
The most famous of the operas here is Der ferne Klang, the ravishing “Nachtstück” of which rounds off the program, although Horst A. Scholz’s liner note informs us that Der Schatzgräber was the most successful of Schreker’s operas in his day (Gerd Albrecht’s recordings of both full operas have recently been rereleased on Capriccio 5178 and 5175—fine recordings if you can see past the cheap library-image covers and negligible documentation). The Schatzgräber Interlude opens the program, with an uncharacteristic tutti outburst that soon falls back into the composer’s more typical languid textures. The orchestration in this first work is also typical of what follows, imaginative and continuously colorful, but without ever drawing too much attention to itself. So we hear a solo violin (beautifully played) for just a few bars, and later on there are elegant woodwind ensembles, subtle percussion effects, and discreet celesta interjections. Die Gezeichneten provides the second track, in the form of the work’s Prelude. The setting for this opera is 16th-century Genoa, and Schreker gives the music a Medieval flavor, although his late-Romantic style prevails, with plenty of swooning Romantic melodies to support the love story. (A video of the full opera is currently available on The Opera Platform web site, from L’opera de Lyon, and is well-worth investigating:
Lawrence Renes and Royal Swedish Orchestra do a fine job with Schreker’s music. The performances feel more disciplined than in Schreker recordings of the past, but no less passionate for it. A little more bravura from the brass, especially the trumpets, might have added to the climaxes, and a case could also be made for more warmth from the strings, but both are minor complaints. All of these works, apart from the Die Gezeichneten Prelude, also appear on two recordings from Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos (9797 and 9951), both of which were well received when released in 2000 and 2001. But this new recording stands up well on its own merits: welcome indulgences in Schreker’s expertly crafted orchestral sound world, and tantalizing tasters for his full operas, most of which are also well served by recent recordings.