Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 24 October 2014

Sergei Zhukov Piano and Violin Concertos

Sergei ZHUKOV (b.1951)
Piano Concerto Silentium (2001) [37:27]
Violin Concerto Angel’s Day [37:07]
Eleonora Bekova (piano)
Karelia State Symphony Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
Elvira Bekova (violin)
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Konstantin Krimets 

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Tailor-made concertos for piano and violin appear here in premiere recordings by the soloists who inspired them. There is certainly a synergy here, with the composer, Sergei Zhukov, responding to both the technique and the temperaments of his intended soloists, sisters Eleonora and Elvira Bekova, and the soloists, in turn, giving idiomatic and finely crafted performances. But the music itself is heavy going—populist perhaps, but in a furrow-browed, Slavic way—and demands much of the listener, not least sympathy for its high-minded artistic aims and a superhuman attention span.
Zhukov (b. 1951) is a Ukrainian composer of Russian training. On the evidence of this recording, he is an eclectic musical thinker who is happy to steer his music into episodes of jazz or religious Minimalism, always confident that he can get back out again and return to his personal idiom. That basic style is Modernist, with some Expressionist outbursts at times, but usually quite consonant in its harmonies, the dissonances more diatonic than chromatic. While there is no tonal architecture here, some of the individual passages have a strong tonal identity, especially climaxes, which often fall back on film music clichés.
The piano concerto is entitled “Silentium,” after a poem by Osip Mandelstam. The poem itself is recited by the pianist over some mood music near the end, a very direct gesture but one of questionable musical taste. The concerto is in five parts, each addressing in a different way the relationship between sound and silence. The 20 seconds of silence at the start of the first track isn’t tape leader, it’s part of the work. The music gradually emerges from the silence, and regularly returns to it as a point of repose.
The violin concerto carries the title “Angel’s Day,” and explores themes of celestial transcendence as understood in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. It too is a multifarious and semantically complex work, moving in and out of styles and moods, with everything given a feeling of earnest philosophical significance by the sheer symphonic scale of the proceedings. There are occasional quotations, or at least fleeting references, to earlier works. The liner identifies Prokofiev and Glinka, but I hear Wagner and Strauss too. But these evaporate almost as soon as they appear, leaving yet more questions unanswered for the uninitiated listener.
The solo parts are adventurous and as stylistically diverse as the orchestral writing. They don’t sound particularly virtuosic, although that may be a result of the soloists’ proficiency. Zhukov creates some interesting relationships between soloist and ensemble, for example setting the piano against the percussion, or combining the orchestral strings with the violin soloist as a kind of halo around her ethereal lines. The performances are proficient, with the orchestras as atuned to Zhukov’s aesthetic as the soloists. Audio is reasonable, though a little recessed and not very involving. The piano in particular sounds distant and boxy, especially in the upper range, though it is difficult to tell if this the fault of the engineering or the instrument itself. Some audience noise in the violin concerto reveals this to be a live performance, though no recording information is given.
It’s puerile and childish to lampoon the poorly translated liner texts, but I can’t resist. Violinist Eleonora Bekova is, we are told, “both eye and ear catching with an intriguing provenance.” Her being eye-catching is presumably the reason she gets the front cover to herself, but her intriguing provenance is not explained any further. In fact, the Bekova sisters are from Kazakhstan, but both play very much from within the Russian tradition: Both have a precise, emphatic technique, often delicate of tone, but never casual. The bio for violinist Elvira Bekova opens with an encomium from Aram Khachaturian, suggesting she’s no spring chicken. Khachaturian was impressed, though, with what he described as her “fiery temperament and virtuosity,” so too was David Oistrakh, who is quoted describing her sound as “unique,” though it is not clear if he meant that in a good way.
Zhukov’s concertos are serious business, and for those with a taste for mainstream new music from Russia, there is much here to savor. Both works are long, each approaching 40 minutes, and neither attempts to justify that length through continuous invention. Instead, the sheer breadth of the music, with long, arching phrases built on repeating figures, accounts for the duration. Minimalist means to maximal ends.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 38:3.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Bach Cello Suites Viola de Hoog

Bach Cello Suites
Viola de Hoog, cello
Vivat 107 (2 CDs: 135:25)

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Bach’s Cello Suites have rarely sounded as attractive or as melodic as they do here in Viola de Hoog’s new recording for Vivat. These are readings of direct and uncomplicated elegance, in which beauty of tone and the evenness of melodic contour always take precedence. They are a little lacking in drama and emotional weight, but make up for that in the sheer vitality of the performances. The music here is always either singing or dancing, inflected yes, with subtle rubato and careful dynamic shading, but never to the point of seriously disrupting the dance meters beneath each of the movements.   
We are in historically informed territory here, so the strings are gut (although the lower two are over-wound), the pitch is 415, and there isn’t a hint of vibrato. There haven’t been many such recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites; the first was made by de Hoog’s teacher Anner Bijlsma in 1979. De Hoog’s readings are more relaxed the Bijlsma’s, more comfortable in their dance rhythms, and even more distant from the more dramatic tendencies of earlier generations of cellists. The Prelude to the First Suite, for example, usually builds in volume and intensity in the phrases leading up to the final cadence. Not so here; the movement retains its shape, largely thanks to the cleanly articulated harmonica progression, but the playing retains its intimacy throughout. Just a hint of rubato acknowledges the arrival at the tonic chord, just leaning on that first note of the bar for the fraction of a second needed to make the point.
Tempos are never extreme, and if anything often feel slower than the norm. That allows de Hoog to bring out the singing quality in many of the more lyrical movements, such as the Sarabande of the Third Suite. And when the music needs propulsion and energy, de Hoog provides it more through the bounce of her articulation and her forward-looking phrasing than through extremes of speed, as in the final Gigue of the First Suite or the Courante of the Second.
The first five suites are performed on a very attractive-sounding Guadagnini cello of c. 1750. For the Sixth, de Hoog moves to a recently restored Bohemian five-string cello c. 1780. It doesn’t have quite the same richness or evenness of tone, but offers the extra versatility (and notes) the final suite demands. The recording was made in a church setting, at De Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, The Netherlands. The resonance the space provides is ideal, adding warmth and context but without detracting from the detail. Credit here too to sound engineer Adriaan Verstijnen for the impressive audio quality throughout. As ever, the Vivat label provides impressive documentation of the music, performer, instrument and recording sessions. All-round, a very attractive release.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Wagner Die Walküre Solti 1961

WAGNER Die Walküre  Georg Solti; Anita Välkki (Brünnhilde); Claire Watson (Sieglinde); Hans Hotter (Wotan); Jon Vickers (Siegmund); Michael Langdon (Hunding); Rita Gorr (Fricka); Marie Collier (Gerhilde); Judith Pierce (Helmwige); Margreta Elkins (Waltraute); Joan Edwards (Schwertleite); Julia Malyon (Ortlinde); Noreen Berry (Siegrune); Maureen Guy (Grimgerde); Josephine Veasey (Roßweiße); O of Royal Op House TESTAMENT 1495 (4 CDs: 225:01) Live: Covent Garden October 2, 1961

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Solti’s first Walküre. Given the iconic status of his Vienna Ring cycle, the first release of this contemporaneous recording from Covent Garden is guaranteed to generate interest. Recorded in 1961, it dates from the very start of Solti’s tenure at the Royal Opera and between the first and second installments of the Decca Ring (between Rheingold, 58, and Siegfried, 62; Walküre was recorded last, in 65). There is much to commend it, even if the proliferation of superior live Ring cycle recordings from the era, particularly from Bayreuth in the 1950s, rules out superlatives on all counts. Even so, it’s a strong performance, well conceived and well sung.
The excellent liner notes, from Tony Locantro, tell of the context, of the Royal Opera’s resurrection in the years following the war, and of the flagship Wagner projects with which the company demonstrated its return to the international opera scene. A new production of the Ring premiered in 1954 under Fritz Stiedry, with later performances conducted by Rudolf Kempe and Franz Konwitschny. It was quite an act to follow by all accounts, but when Solti took over in 1961 that was exactly his plan, with a new production of the cycle and, more significantly, a new conception of the music. And other changes were afoot. Through the 1950s, Royal Opera’s policy had been to present works in English with principals taken from the company, but from the early 60s, there was a reversion to original languages, allowing the company, as here, to book international names for the lead roles.
Comparisons with Solti’s 1965 Vienna version are unfair and largely irrelevant. Only Solti himself and Hans Hotter appear in both. This is a recording of a live staging, unlike Decca’s studio version. It’s in broadcast quality mono, against Decca’s state-of-the-art stereo. And, good as the performers are, they’re no match for the company assembled by John Culshaw. In terms of the aural experience, the biggest difference comes not from the audio quality but from the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House gives a punchy, dynamic reading, but lacks the tonal luster of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially in the strings.
That said, Solti’s reading is essentially the same. His trademark drive and energy are everywhere apparent, though his maniacal temperament seems less overbearing. There is poetry and elegance, but even in the quieter and slower passages, the direction and focus of the music are never forgotten. He also deserves credit for the sheer unity of this performance, for the fact that everybody is clearly working towards a common musical purpose, and one they all seem to believe in, however much they may, or may not, have been harassed into it by the “screaming skull.”
No weak links in the cast, but one or two particularly impressive performances. Jon Vickers, as Siegmund, is captured near the start of his Wagnerian career, he made his Bayreuth debut two years earlier in the same role. His performance here is noble and heroic, but agile and nuanced too. Claire Watson is less imposing as Sieglinde, but makes up for it in the dark richness of her tone, which comes across as an alto-like elegance in the lower register. Anita Välkki has an attractive purity of tone as Brünnhilde, accurate, if unsophisticated singing, characterized by big, round vowel sounds. Hans Hotter produced this staging as well as singing Wotan. The visuals failed to impress the critics, so it is just as well that his vocal performance was up to scratch. There is plenty of authority in his singing, and plenty of drama. Other recordings capture better Wotans from him though, particularly Solti’s Vienna version, where his tone has more focus and seems more controlled. Rita Gorr sounds quite abrasive as Fricka, certainly a dramatic performance but not a pretty one: You never forget she’s angry. The Royal Opera’s previous policy of engaging company singers for lead roles is only maintained here in the case of Michael Langdon, whose Hunding is as dependable as it is deep. And the company really excels in the valkyries it fields, some of whom went on to bigger things: Marie Collier, Margreta Elkins, Josephine Veasey.
The recording was made for broadcast by the BBC and, given its age, is very good. There is no noise at all, and only a few minor pitch fluctuations in the second act. Digital remastering is credited to Paul Baily at Re:Sound, but no details are given of what exactly he has done. Given the flatness of the tone, his noise removal seems to have been quite ruthless on the upper partials. The biggest problem with the source recording is the distance of the singers, and many of the players too, from the mikes. 
Given the recent backlash against Solti’s Vienna Ring cycle, many may feel that another Walküre from him adds insult to injury. Yet, despite the cover design, which features an image of him at the podium open-mouthed—very possibly screaming—and places his name above that of the composer in a much larger font, this recording isn’t really about Solti. He certainly gives the performance drive and focus, but it is a less distinctive interpretation than the one he set down in Vienna. Instead, it is the strong cast that makes this reissue worthwhile, some of the biggest names of the day, working together as a real ensemble.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lachenmann String Quartets JACK Quartet

Helmut Lachenmann: Gran Torso, Reigen seliger Geister, Grido
JACK Quartet
mode 267

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The string quartet is a natural medium for Helmut Lachenmann. He has pioneered extended performance techniques on all sorts of instruments, and made them central to his art, but string instruments have always offered him the widest range of possibilities. The chamber music context is also ideal for expressing Lachenmann’s curious relationship with silence. He often takes his music right down, and beyond, the limits of perception, an effect that a small ensemble of strings is ideally suited for.
Lachenmann’s three quartets (they’re usually numbered, but not here) punctuate his career. Gran Torso was completed in 1972, Reigen seliger Geister in 1989 and Grido in 2001. All are around 20-25 minutes, and so comfortably fill a CD. Stylistically, the similarities outweigh the difference, but they are clearly distinct pieces. Gran Torso is the best of them. It is a kind of manifesto of Lachenmann’s approach. Pitched notes are very rare here, replaced by growls, pops and slides. The textures are ascetic, the better to hear the sounds in the individual parts, and the ensemble works through a kind of shared commitment to a sound that, at any given time, could probably be created just one or two players. It is sophisticated music though, and deeply involving. Reigen seliger Geister, composed around the time Lachemann was beginning work on his opera The Little Match Girl, introduces more conventional sounds: pitches, usually held, overtone series played as harmonics, even recognisable rhythms. Yet these feel like guests in a musical environment still dominated by the scratches and pops. By the time we get to Grido, in 2000-2001, Lachenmann has expanded even further into the traditional vocabulary. Textures are denser here, and the musical ideas often involve some or all of the players working as a unit. There are even suggestions of harmony, although the chords in question are acerbically dissonant.
The JACK Quartet, one of the better young quartets dedicating themselves to avant-garde music at the moment, worked closely with the composer in the preparation of these performances, and the results are excellent. Despite the earthy, and often imposing, soundscapes, the JACK players are able to bring life and detail to all the textures. Tone colour is clearly the basis of much of this music, and in these performances that is always the driving concern. The sheer variety of colours and textures the players find in these scores ensures continuous interest. They are also able to provide these diverse sounds at the very lowest dynamics.
There are at least two other recordings available of the three quartets, from the Stadler Quartet on NEOS and the Arditti Quartet of Kairos. All are good, but this new JACK Quartet version deserves the top ranking. The Ardittis, as ever, are a tough act to follow, and their version has the advantage of a sweeter, rounder tone (if that is an advantage here – they seem to make it so). The Ardittis programme the works in reverse order, perhaps because the Third Quartet is dedicated to them. Curiously, both their recording and this one where produced in collaboration with WDR. But the sound quality here is superior, giving greater immediacy to the ensemble and greater depth to the soundstage. This is music that needs to be felt as much as heard, and you really get the feeling of tactile engagement here in a way that previous recordings haven’t quite managed. Given the unusual performing techniques, being able to see the players would also be an advantage, and, as it happens, this recording is also available on DVD, and with surround sound. Even better still.