Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 17 November 2014

Art of Fugue Angela Hewitt



Bach: The Art of Fugue
Anglea Hewitt: piano
Hyperion CDA67980 (2 CDs)

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The end of a long journey, but hardly a valedictory summation. Angela Hewitt has been recording Bach’s solo keyboard works for a long time, and an advert in the liner here tells us that a 15-CD set is now available covering pretty much the rest of it. She’s not the only pianist to leave The Art of Fugue until the end, and like so many of her predecessors, she is able to bring a wealth of experience to its many interpretive challenges. The results are impressive, and very much within the idiom she has established: lyrical, flowing and elegant, but propulsive too, and always keenly focussed.
As ever, Hewitt performs on a Fazioli piano. It is the perfect instrument for her touch, accentuating her precision and grace, and offering warmth, but never bombast or excessive weight. For all the elegance of her approach, there is often a stark simplicity to her tone production and phrasing. Compared, for example, to Sokolov or Feltsman, everything seems very up-front: phrases are shaped with dynamics, but there is never any sense that the music is coming from, or receding to, some nebulous or opaque background. Even at the quietest dynamics, she favours directness. In fact, Hewitt is more often looking at the bigger picture, with the shaping of movements more explicit than of phrases. She will often build up to thundering dynamics for a climax, all the time retaining her even tone and clarity of voice leading. But even more impressive is the patience with which these climaxes are prepared, often so gradual as to be barely perceived until the later stages. It’s certainly a Romantic approach, but achieved with such discipline and authority that it is likely to win over many with more ascetic tastes.
The character of each movement is securely established by the rhythm, tempo and articulation of each opening statement. The balance between contrast and continuity is weighed more toward the latter, but even so, a distinctive atmosphere and temperature is chosen for each movement, however subtle the differences. There is also a feeling of progression through the work as a whole, with some movements taking on a transitional character for the sake of their neighbours. One surprise early on is the climax to the Second Contrapunctus, which seems to overwhelm everything we have heard so far, as if the First was leading up to this. Such nuances of weight and balance continue as the work goes on, all small but welcome surprises.
On the second disc, the four canons appear between Contrapunctus Nos. 13 and 14. This separates out the final movement, allowing Hewitt to give it a different character, more reflective and introverted. Or, at least, that is how it starts, but as its Bach spins his contrapuntal intrigues, Hewitt adds weight, through both tone and attack, to dramatically shape the movement. After which, we hear the chorale Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, which C.P.E. appended to the first edition – a welcome gesture towards closure, especially in Hewitt’s compassionate reading.

The sound quality is good, with the piano miked closely, but still retaining some warmth. The accompanying literature is exemplary, and is dominated by a detailed essay by Hewitt herself detailing the contrapuntal and harmonic structure of each movement. The many fans of Angela Hewitt’s Bach won’t need a recommendation from me, but enthusiastically recommended nonetheless.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Beethoven Emperor Concerto Freire Chailly



Beethoven Emperor Concerto Freire Chailly
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Piano Sonata op. 111
Nelson Freire, piano
Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
DECCA 478 6771 [61:58]


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Decca brings together two of its biggest stars for this “Emperor”, both seasoned Beethovenians. Nelson Freire and Riccardo Chailly don’t have quite the same take on this music, but their approaches prove to be complementary. Freire is lyrical and supple, always letting the line flow. Chailly offers more drama, drawing a focused tone from the orchestra, and always propelling the music in the faster sections.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra also fits well into the equation. The strings provide the ideal support for Freire, matching the smoothness and intensity of his piano tone, just as intense but just as nimble too. The woodwind soloists are another of the orchestra’s great strengths, and although their solos are only ever short here, each comes through with character and individuality.
The Adagio second movement is a particular treat. Freire’s tone sounds completely effortless, as if he is just breathing through the piano. Yet he has enough presence to carry across the orchestra without the players having to restrain from their elegantly shaped phrasing.
If I’ve one complaint, it is a lack of muscularity from Freire. This, the most heroic of piano concertos, could sometimes do with more gravitas. The opening of the finale, for example, flows too smoothly out of the Adagio, and there is little feeling of turbulence or grandeur. Freire compensates with yet more lyricism and elegance, and it is to the credit of both Chailly and his orchestra that they follow the soloist’s lead here; judging by their recent symphony cycle, they’d probably have done something more emphatic if they’d been working with a more heavy handed pianist.
The concerto is coupled with the Piano Sonata op. 111, but at approaching 25 minutes it is more than just a filler. Freire gives another lyrical, flowing performance, making what in other hands can seem a complex and intellectual work into an exercise in grace and elegance. It’s seductive and beguiling, and the work’s complex structure is well served by the pianist’s narrative approach, leading the ear through the various sections and always offering logical connections from one to the next. The opening of the second movement is magical. Here, for a few minutes, time seems to stop, as Freire draws out the Adagio melody with little concern for pulse or tempo. Then, as Beethoven elaborates the theme into a series of variations, Freire gradually brings us back down to earth, imposing discipline and pace, but still maintaining the elegance of his tone and line.
The documentation provided is slight, just a brief and severely edited interview with the pianist by James Jolly. Freire tells us he has been playing the “Emperor” since he was 12. That’s well over 50 years, and his intimate knowledge of the music is certainly demonstrated. He also reveals that this is to be the first release in a complete Beethoven concerto cycle. Apparently it is going to take a few years, the next release will be the Fourth Concerto, scheduled for 2016. On the strength of this first recording, it should be worth the wait.

Monday, 3 November 2014

James MacMillan Clemency



James MacMillan Clemency
Schubert Hagars Klage (arr. David Angus)

Christine Abraham, soprano
Michelle Trainor, soprano
Samuel Levine, tenor
Neal Ferreira, tenor
David Kravitz, bariton
David McFerrin, bariton
Brett Hodgdon, piano
Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra
David Angus, conductor
BIS 2129 (58:55)
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The BIS label continues to do well by James MacMillan. This is their ninth release dedicated to his music, and, as with those previous recordings, a new work is presented, just a few years after its premiere, in a good performance and with the benefit of the company’s trademark high-quality audio.
Clemency is MacMillan’s third opera, following Inés de Castro and The Sacrifice (the latter is available on CHANDOS 10572, a Radio 3 recording). Unlike them, this is a chamber opera, for five singers and string orchestra. MacMillan and his librettist, Michael Symmons Roberts, proportion the work appropriately, the drama on a modest and domestic scale, and the duration less than three quarters of an hour. Unsurprisingly, the composer opts for a religious theme, a story taken from the book of Genesis about a visit by three travellers to the home of Abraham and Sarah. Over the course their exchanges, it becomes clear that the travellers are angels on their way to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Although little happens, there is plenty of psychological nuance here for the composer to address. Sarah is told by the travellers that she is to have a child, despite her advancing years, an issue that keeps her preoccupied from then on. Abraham intercedes on behalf of the residents of the doomed cities, and with some effect, though he is left feeling he could have done more. The sheer abstraction of the setting is problematic. The composer suggests in the liner note that there is something “terroristic” about the travellers, offering a tenuous thread of contemporary relevance. In fact the abstraction is well handled in the music, which includes some passing references to Middle Eastern scales and folk styles, but otherwise leaves the setting open.
The drama then is mostly verbal in nature, but proves ideal for the scale and scope of MacMillan’s musical intentions. He sets the words in a direct way, declamatory and clear with few melismas or decorative indulgences. Even without the visuals, the characters are well defined and the exchanges easy to follow. The string orchestra provides an imaginative support, more often than not confined to the lower registers to provide bass lines and varied accompanying textures. The harmonic language is fairly consonant, with both aggressive dissonances and explicit tonal harmonies reserved for key points in the drama.
The work was co-commissioned by Scottish Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Royal Opera and the Britten Sinfonia. It was premiered as Covent Garden by Scottish Opera, who then toured their production to Scotland. This recording is taken from the Chicago performances, which were apparently of a completely separate production with a new cast. The recording was made live from three staged performances. That’s never ideal, but the engineers do a good job of capturing the voices without any recessing apparent. The cast is strong, especially David Kravitz and Christine Abraham in the roles of Abraham and Sarah. Given the scale and duration of the work, their stamina is never tested, yet there are significant demands in terms of range and of tonal control at quieter dynamics, none of which pose either of them problems.
The only disappointment here is the filler. For the Scottish Opera production, the short work was presented as a stand-alone, but in Chicago it was decided to prefix it with Schubert’s Hagars Klage. A common biblical source links the two, but no other connections are apparent. The Schubert was apparently integrated into the staging, with Michelle Trainor singing both the lament in the role of Hagar and taking that role in the MacMillan. The Schubert is sung in English and presented in an orchestration that supplements the original piano with the string orchestra. All this may have made some sense when staged live, but on record it all seems somewhat irrelevant. The string arrangement makes Schubert’s already baggy hybrid work seem even more diffuse, and the tessitura of the solo part is too high for Trainor, who struggles in many of the higher-lying passages.
It is a shame that the Schubert comes first, and that it lasts for a full quarter of an hour. But once we are past that, the rest of this recording is well worth hearing. MacMillan doesn’t offer anything radical, and he deliberately limits the scale of his ambitions in every sense. Yet those ambitions are all met, and the result is a chamber opera that translates successfully to the audio medium, and that is well served here by both the performance and the recording.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki



Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki
Schnittke: String Trio
Weinberg: String Trio
Kurtág: String Trio
Penderecki: String Trio
Ensemble Epomeo
AVIE AV2315 [71:21]


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Four modern masterpieces are presented here in distinctive and engaging interpretations. The idea of “interpretation” may seem anathema to musical Modernism, as many 20th-century scores seem to require little more of their performers than faithful execution. But none of the works here is in that category, as is amply demonstrated by the differences of tone and approach between these recordings and most earlier versions. It’s a diverse collection, but Ensemble Epomeo applies similar criteria to each. The tone is elegant but focussed throughout. Tempos and articulations are quite strict, with few indulgences of rubato or portamento. Yet within these self-imposed interpretive limits a great deal of expression and variety is achieved. The title of Ken Woods’ excellent liner essay is “Reconciling the old and new”, and that dichotomy is apparent in the performances through continual balancing of Romantic expression and Modernist austerity. Every ensemble approaching these scores, especially the Schnittke and the Penderecki, has to work out that balance for themselves, but more often than not, this group seems to achieve the impossible by having it both ways.
Ensemble Epomeo was founded in 2008 to perform the Schnittke String Trio, and the players’ close affinity with the work today is clear from every note of this recording. It’s not an easy piece, and it is rare to find a version on disc with the sheer level of technical accuracy of this one. The interpretive questions come down to the relationship between the work’s tight, and fairly conventional, structure and its inclusion of various stylistic references, specifically Viennese waltzes and Russian Orthodox chant. In this recording, structure and progression take the upper hand. The various styles are acknowledged, but never to the point of leading the music off course. Again, discipline is the watchword. The opening statement is delivered with a blank, emotionless tone (I was reminded of the opening Aria of Glenn Gould’s first Goldberg recording). There’s no portamento here, no expressive swells, and no attempt to make the music sound sentimental or distant – all of which we might expect from earlier recordings. Instead, these players make the opening the starting point on a journey, with the music and its expression becoming ever-more complex as the movement goes on. For all its sophisticated structuring, the work is also quite sectional, with juxtapositions of mood and style between successive phrases. But continuity is achieved here by moving seamlessly from one into another. That is partly achieved by avoiding gaps between phrases, but also by keeping down the louder dynamics. Those vicious tuttis retain their bite though, through the acerbic timbres that the players apply. Although a little lacking in the sheer abandon that can make this music so compelling, another advantage is that the harmonic basis of these sections becomes clear. Schnittke usually superimposes diatonic triads to create his dissonances here, a principle demonstrated in this recording with unusual clarity.
The Schnittke is the main work on this programme, but the other three are more than just fillers. Weinberg’s String Trio dates from 1950, difficult times, not only was Weinberg’s music then suppressed due to the Zhdanov decree of 1948, but it was also the era of the most intense repression of Jews in Soviet cultural life, which would culminate for the composer a few years later in arrest in connection with the “doctor’s plot”. But the Trio is wholly unapologetic, especially in its use of Jewish folk styles and klezmer. Ensemble Epomeo finds an ideal balance between the works structure and its many stylistic divergences. And again, clarity of tone and of interpretive focus elucidates the work’s structure and logic. There is also a sense that the players have half an eye on the overall programme of the disc as they perform this piece. It is the most stylistically conservative of the four, but by giving it a more modern edge, they fit it more logically between the Schnittke and the Kurtág.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, an ongoing project represented here as a series of seven short and aphoristic movements, perhaps comes closest to anything on the disc to the model of Modernist music that requires little interpretation. But even so, all those qualities of clarity of tone and intent are again brought to bear, and to impressive effect. Kurtág’s art relies heavily on expressive extremes, so Ensemble Epomeo expand their self-imposed dynamic constraints for him, especially for the louder outbursts, which have astonishing impact here. But there’s plenty of subtly too, for example in the ways that the sounds of open strings are contrasted to those of stopped strings, or in the curiously inverted or contrived balances he seeks in some of his harmonies. The work is given a clear-eyed interpretation, but that clarity never diminishes the sophistication of the music.
A big surprise at the start of the Penderecki. His String Trio opens with three huge, dissonant chords, wrenched from the instruments with painful deliberation. Or that’s what usually happens – here the opening is played fast and at a moderate dynamic. The chords are there all right, but are presented as a casual opening gesture. Like the Schnittke, this piece sits on a borderline between different styles in its composer’s output. It was written in 1990-91, by which time Penderecki had long turned his back on the sonorist Modernism of the 50s and 60s and had seemed to settle into a more consonant and tonal idiom. But in the String Trio many aspects of his earlier self return, not least his fluency in dissonant discourse and his taste for expressive extremes. In fact, these aspects are somewhat superficial to a more tonal language and classical form, and it is these more traditional aspects that the present recording emphasises. Again, the players are reconciling new and old, although in this case the two terms are reversed, at least in terms of the composer’s artistic trajectory. As in the Schnittke, the result is impressive for the clarity of textures achieved and for the discipline applied to music that can elsewhere tend towards anarchy. Perhaps the control goes a little too far though, and it is surprising that, on this disc, the Penderecki sounds closer to the Weinberg than it does to the Schnittke.
But again, the sheer individuality of this interpretation sets it apart. All four works are given compelling interpretations, often unusual but never to their detriment. The sound quality is very fine, finer than on any other recording of the Schnittke I know, the packaging is elegant, and the liner essay by Ken Woods is well worth a read. Recommended.