Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Brett Dean Shadow Music

Brett Dean: Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, Short Stories. Beethoven (arr. Dean) String Quartet op. 59/1: Adagio. Dean: Testament
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Brett Dean, conductor

Brett Dean has a rare gift, an ability to make the avant-garde accessible, and without any compromises. He now holds a position similar to Luciano Berio in the previous generation, as the composer of serious Modernist music that always keeps its face to the audience. Both composers often employ a Postmodern element in their music to achieve this, writing works with clear links to the much-loved music of earlier eras. But both also pursue more abstract paths, though even then giving helpful clues—evocative titles, clear thematic or textural ideas—to allow listeners to keep up. The five works presented here come from relatively early in Dean’s career and present a compositional voice gradually approaching full maturity. All of the textural, timbral, and even structural ideas that make his more recent works so successful are already securely in place, but what’s often missing is a sense of substance, of having an important message to express.
Or perhaps that is the wrong way to approach this music. The opening work, Etüdenfest (2000), was inspired by the sounds emanating from conservatory practice rooms. It is filled with extended string techniques, playfully layered and juxtaposed. There is a quiet and often haunting atmosphere to the work, but Dean seems determined to ground the music in its own prosaic origins: Just when you feel something emotionally profound is about to happen, he introduces an obbligato piano, incessantly practicing his arpeggios. And then the work ends. A playful étude and nothing more.
But the brittle, half-lit atmosphere of Etüdenfest continues throughout the program. In Shadow Music Dean orientates the entire work around the idea of shadows, with dark sounds and eerie percussive effects looming out of indistinct background textures. Winds and percussion are added to the ensemble, following the strings and piano of Etüdenfest, but this is still predominantly string music, and while Dean writes proficiently for every orchestral section, it is always the strings that get the majority of the interesting extended techniques.
Short Stories (2005) is, as its title suggests, more pictorial and more narrative. The five “interludes” each have a different character, the quieter ones following the shadowy mood of the previous two works. A narrative quality comes through more strongly in the faster music, where we hear long, weaving violin lines drawing the ear onwards through the ever-beguiling textures. No actual stories are told (or at least acknowledged by the composer), apart from in the penultimate movement, “Komarov’s Last Words,” a memorial to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first casualty of space flight.
A greater emotional depth is evident in Testament (2002, rev. 2008), a work inspired by Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testimony.” Dean prefaces the work with a chamber orchestra arrangement (flute, clarinet, and string orchestra) of the Adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 59/1. The arrangement itself is very elegant, and Dean’s penchant for held string pedals informs his settings of the accompanying textures. Testament follows the mood of the Beethoven movement, but the actual allusions to Beethoven’s work within Dean’s are subtle, brief quotations from the Adagio, and also, apparently, allusions to the upbeat character of the finale of the quartet. The result, in Dean’s words, is an ambivalence “somewhere between languor and resolve.”
The BIS label has done great service to Brett Dean’s music, and this is just the most recent in a long line of excellent SACD recordings. Dean himself conducts here, and the focus on textures and balances that characterize his composition transfer well to his work at the podium. The pace at which he unfolds these works always feels patient, searching for, and achieving, excellent clarity in each of the textural ideas he presents. Orchestral playing is excellent throughout: It always seems to be with Brett Dean’s music, a virtue, no doubt of his idiomatic writing. Recorded sound is very fine, too, clear SACD audio, not the kind that shows off its high fidelity credentials, but instead articulates the details without any harshness or edge and gives subtle but valuable weight to the bass.
None of these works is labeled as a first recording. With Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, and Testament, BIS is here catching up with ABC, who recorded the three works with the Tasmanian Symphony (ABC 4763219, released 2014). The latter work is an orchestral arrangement of a piece by the same name for 12 violas, written in 2002, and the original is available on BIS 2016, as a filler for the Violin Concerto “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” to date perhaps Dean’s most accomplished work. No other recording of Short Stories appears to be available at present, but, given the huge interest in the composer’s work from a range of record labels, it is probably only a matter of time before the next appears. No need to wait though—these composer-led versions are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ustvolskaya, Silvestrov, Kancheli – Works for Piano and Orchestra, Elisaveta Blumina

Galina Ustvolskaya: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani
Valentin Silvestrov: Four Postludes, Hymn
Giya Kancheli: Sio for Orchestra, Piano, and Percussion

Elisaveta Blumina, piano
Thomas Sanderling, conductor
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
Grand Piano GP 678 (58:03)

Elisaveta Blumina and the Grand Piano label have done sterling work in recent years in promoting the piano, both solo and concertante, music of post-Soviet composers. The aesthetic politics here are complicated: Silvestrov and Kancheli are both of a religious Minimalist persuasion, even when writing music, as here, that is completely secular. But that school has increasingly moved into a radical, even confrontational position, with tonality and textural simplicity presented not only without apology, but almost in deliberate contravention of Western tastes. The challenge to Modernism here is obvious, but both composers go further, and if the West is willing to concede a neo-Romantic or Postmodern dimension to recent musical culture, even that is challenged. Kancheli is quoted in the liner note extolling Romanticism, with no “neo-” attached, as ‘a high dream of past, present, and future.’ Conflict seems inevitable, if only at the level of the individual listener coming to terms with this radically ahistoric stance. Blumina herself is Russian but based primarily in Hamburg, a city with a long tradition of supporting recent Russian music (thanks largely to the music publishing industry there), so presumably performs for audiences accustomed to the challenges this music presents. She and her colleges perform the music with real conviction, and there is no sense that the players share my reservations. As such, then, this is an important release, not least because it presents two world premiere recordings, and excellent performances of two other rarely heard works.
Such reflections have little relevance to the first work on the program, although it somehow manages to fit neatly into the ethos of the recording. Galina Ustvolskaya’s Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani was written in 1946 when she was 27 years old and just completing her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory (following a long disruption caused by the siege). The style is some distance from the austere Modernism of Ustvolskaya’s mature work, the single movement written predominantly in the keys of C Major and C Minor. As well as being in a single movement, the music also seems monothematic, with a four-note trochaic motif dominating from start to finish. The composer herself resisted comparisons with her most famous teacher, Shostakovich, but this motif, and its emphatic recurrence, are reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. On the other hand, that insistence, the continual focus on a single idea, repeated through different textures and harmonies, is similar to the approach in her later music: For all its tonal convention, this is music of an insistent and uncompromising bent. And, as often with Shostakovich, the positive and optimistic ending feels at least slightly ironic—exaggerated almost to the point of satire.
No such mixed messages in Silvestrov’s Four Postludes of 2004. Silvestrov specializes in music with a sense of belatedness, hence the regular us of “postlude” in his titles. That can come through in stylistic play, but just as often, as here, it is achieved through an unspecific sense of nostalgia. The music, throughout, is quiet and reflective, typically with the piano giving attacks to chords and textures, which the strings then sustain in clear, uncomplicated, diatonic harmonies. Silvestrov displays an impressive skill in handling this simplicity. The way that silences are integrated into the discourse is always seamless. And although the music is nostalgic, it is never sentimental, giving a sense of focus, even efficiency, to the work’s 16-minute span. The Hymn (2001) that ends the program is in a similar spirit. This work is shorter and is written for strings alone, one to a part. The dynamic never rises above mezzo-piano, and is usually lower, and so the music requires careful concentration, and, again, a sense of deep stillness and reflection is the listener’s reward.
Between, we hear Sio for string orchestra, piano, and percussion by Giya Kancheli. The work is based on, or at least invokes, the folk music of Kancheli’s native Georgia. He explores the available textures and sounds, including some prominent tuned percussion, over what feels like a series of loosely structured variations. Occasional abrupt changes of texture and mood help to define the contours of the work, and to distinguish it from the more flowing and even Silvestrov scores that frame it. But, like Silvestrov, Kancheli favors simple, diatonic textures, doubled between the piano and the strings, and the simplest of accompaniments. For all its melodic appeal, this remains, at least for me, a radical, even provocative aesthetic stance.
Excellent performances throughout from Blumina and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling. This music isn’t about virtuosity or high level technical skills, but the sheer amount of rhythmic unison and the radical simplicity of the textures make perfect ensemble and tuning a key requirement, and that is exactly what we hear. The climax of the Ustvolskaya feels a little underwhelming, but it is difficult to decide whether the performers or the, still little-experienced, composer are to blame. I could also imagine the junctions in the Kancheli to be more pointed, although excessive drama would probably ruin the effect. At the other end of the spectrum, the delicate, quiet string textures are ideal, especially for the Silvestrov. Maintaining that sound throughout the Hymn must be real challenge, and the last of the Postludes gradually disappears to nothing, a beautiful effect, especially as presented here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Desyatnikov Children of Rosenthal Vedernikov

DESYATNIKOV The Children of Rosenthal 
Alexander Vedernikov, cond; Pyotr Migunov (Rosenthal); Kristina Mkhitaryan (Tanya); Irina Rubtsova (Nanny); Elena Manistina (Wagner); Maxim Paster (Tchaikovsky); Vsevolod Grivnov (Mozart); Vassily Ladyuk (Verdi); Alexander Teliga (Mussorgsky); Bolshoi Theater Chorus and Orchestra MELODIYA 10 02432 (2 CDs: 119:28) 

Leonid Desyatnikov’s opera caused a stir in Moscow when it was premiered at the Bolshoi in 2005. Protests by a pro-Putin youth organization took place outside the opera house, and an obscenity case was brought before the Duma. The controversy centered on the choice of librettist, Vladimir Sorokin, a novelist with a reputation for presenting historical figures in compromising, and often pornographic, scenarios. In post-Soviet Russia, the nation’s 20th-century history is still a sensitive topic, and radical re-interpretations stir strong emotions.
The Duma investigation soon fizzled out—it turned out Sorokin’s libretto wasn’t as pornographic as his opponents were expecting. It is just as Postmodern though, and proves an ideal fit for Desyatnikov, a composer with similar interests in resurrecting (literally in this case) and radically reinterpreting the past. The opera was a commission from the Bolshoi, the first, and still only, new work by the company since the fall of the Soviet system. But given the changes in Russian society and culture in those years it could hardly be more timely, presenting modern Moscow as city of confused identity, still clinging to outmoded ideas about its past, even as they become tenuous to the point of absurdity.
The plot centers around a genetic scientist called Alex Rosenthal. He arrives in Soviet Russia as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, already having mastered a technique of human cloning. The reasons for his Jewish identity are not clear (to me at least), but the approval by the Soviet authorities of his research is more germane to the satire. As the story opens, he has already cloned Wagner (a mezzo voice here, Elena Manistina), Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Mussorgsky, and is in the process of cloning Mozart. The actual opening of the first scene is an impressive coup de theatre, with an eerily amplified voice telling the audience to switch off their mobile phones before giving the background and presenting the laboratory scene. All the actual cloning procedures are presenting in suitably sinister mood: Desyatnikov’s polystylism dominates most of the opera, but he is a Minimalist too, and ominously churning repeated figures in the orchestra underpin these opening scenes.
The story then follows the adventures of Rosenthal and his “children” through the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, with both presidents making cameo appearances. Eventually, with the fall of the Soviet system, Rosenthal loses his funding and soon dies. The orphaned clones are thrown out onto the streets, and the final act takes place in Moscow’s Komsomolskaya Square, a famously run-down area with the city’s four main terminus stations in close proximity. The five cloned composers are now living rough and busking for a living. Mozart falls in love with a prostitute named Tanya (Kristina Mkhitaryan), and the heroes’ efforts to buy off her pimp, Kela (Boris Statsenko), result in their all being poisoned. Only Mozart survives, and the final epilogue is a hallucination sequence, in which the four other clones return to sing in his dreams.
There is obviously much subtle satire of modern Russia that is lost on me, and probably on most other Western listeners too, but the musical pastiche and commentary is much easier to engage with. Just flicking through the synopsis, we find all sorts of allusions to the operas of the five composers, for example, act I, scene 2 opens with a number titled “Schlafst du, Wagner, mein Sohn?” Desyatnikov divides the work into sections referencing the styles of Wagner, Mussorgsky, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky. He plays a subtle game of stylistic allusion, never including any direct quotes, but often getting so close in style that the notes seem to match up with the originals. So, in the Mussorgsky section, Orthodox chant is sung by the chorus in the weighty, emphatic style of Boris Godunov, and, in the Wagner section, motifs that sound like they should be in the Ring cycle, but aren’t, regularly appear in the orchestra. The fact that the four referenced composers are almost contemporaneous means that a more generalized late-Romantic operatic style predominates, creating valuable, if slightly paradoxical, continuity across the work. But Desyatinkov often reminds us that this is not neo-Romanticism, as such, particularly in the way that he structures climaxes, his Minimalist techniques returning to the fore, with repeated lines accreting to increasingly chaotic and dissonant tuttis.
Performance-wise, this is an impressive release. The recording was made in 2015, presumably live and on the Bolshoi’s huge main stage, resulting in the voices sometimes sounding distant. Balance is good though, between stage and pit, with the voices always clear. Diction is good too, and Desyatnikov’s relatively straightforward word setting allows the text to come across clearly. The cast is presumably drawn from the Bolshoi company, and all prove equal to the music’s challenges. In fact, the generally late-Romantic sound here, combined with the composer’s obvious care in writing sympathetically for the voices, makes this seem like a straightforward sing, at least for contemporary opera, although that might be deceptive. Conductor Vladimir Vedernikov finds a good balance between dynamism and clarity, and, even without the visuals, the listening experience is one of being carried along from one aural scenario to the next.
Melodiya have produced an impressive package for this release, suggesting they are anticipating a high profile for it. The two discs come in a hard-back CD-box sized book, that also includes the libretto in Russian (Cyrillic) and English. They are not side by side, sadly, and, although the tracking on the two discs is generous (17 and 20 respectively), the track numbers are not included in either libretto.
But these are small qualms for what is otherwise an impressive release. Hopefully a video of the production is also in the works. This opera is obviously as innovative in its stagecraft as it is in its music, and, given the specifically Russian focus of much of the satire, it is difficult to imagine a Western production at any point in the near future. Post-Soviet Russian music is a confusing field, led by composers with an increasingly philosophical and abstract approach to their art. Leonid Desyatnikov is as theoretical and abstract as they come, but don’t let that put you off this opera, which is surprisingly accessible and endlessly intriguing, at least to these Western ears.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3

Friday, 30 September 2016

Reger: Cello Sonatas, Schiefen, Leuschner

REGER Cello Sonatas Nos. 1–4. 
Caprice in a. Caprice in b, op. 79E/1.  
Kleine Romanze in D, op. 79E/2. 
Suite in a, op. 103A: Aria
Guido Schiefen: Cello
Jacob Leuschner: Piano
OEHMS 456 (2 CDs)

Reger’s cello sonatas are among his most demanding works, both for players and listeners, but they are some of his most rewarding too, especially when heard in performances of this standard. There is little of the neo-Baroque sensibility that characterizes his Solo Cello Suites here; instead we find a high Romantic style, with lyrical cello lines supported by terse and harmonically involved piano textures. Poor performance can make this music hard work, and the sheer complexity of the piano writing often threatens to completely subsume the cello. But not here: Cellist Guido Schiefen and pianist Jacob Leuschner give readings of clarity and textural focus, genuinely engaging from beginning to end.
The four sonatas span Reger’s short career, the First dating from 1892, the Fourth from 1910. The stylistic trajectory is from a Brahmsian early phase, through a complex and Modernistic middle period, to a more refined late style. The First Sonata is Reger’s op. 5, but his technique is already highly accomplished, and although this is more straightforward music than the later sonatas, it is still an accomplished work. Echoes of the Brahms sonatas are everywhere apparent, yet Reger is already writing denser textures than anything in Brahms, and already experimenting with the paradoxes that define his later work, the harmonic and textural ideas in the piano focusing on the moment, while long, lyrical cello lines hold the structure together.
The First Sonata is in three movements (although its duration is still substantial at around 25 minutes), but the Second establishes the four-movement form that is also common to the last two. In all three cases, the extra movement is a short and fast scherzo, a real workout for both players, although all are relatively short, in the three to four minute range. The Second Sonata, like the First and Third, lands running, with the weighty and highly involved piano textures heard from the very opening. But the Second also has many moments of calm, and the sudden sense of stillness these create is profound, like those brief moments of transcendence in Mahler symphonies that both offset and contextualize the grandeur of the tuttis around them.
The Third Sonata is probably the most daunting, in terms of its scale, harmonic and contrapuntal density, and in the technical demands it makes on the players. But again, Schiefen and Leuschner demonstrate that there is nothing to fear, that elegance and clarity are possible – and all this without diluting the sheer musical substance of this monumental work. All that density, or most of it at least, falls away in the Fourth Sonata. This work is as long as the others, and its melodic invention is no less sophisticated, but the textures are generally lighter, a fact emphasized by the solo opening, only a single phrase of unaccompanied music for the cello but a stark contrast to the turbulence that opens the previous three.
Guido Schiefen has the ideal tone for this music, plenty of breadth, but also with a tenacious, woody edge that allows him to project through the piano textures. That edge becomes even more prominent in the higher register, giving the often intensely expressive climaxes a sense of tonal focus, yet without ever turning ugly. Schiefen’s bow may have been used in the premiere of the First Sonata (it once belonged to the dedicatee, Oskar Brückner), which is about as tenuous a claim to authenticity as I’ve ever heard. But the bow, or at least the bowing, really elevates this performance, and the way that Schiefen can maintain the long lines, elegantly shaping the phrases and often adding broad swells at climaxes and at phrase endings, produces a performance fully accordant with the grand scale of the music. Accompaniment from Jacob Leuschner is equally accomplished, technically astute and with exceptional clarity of texture, for which the Oehms engineers no doubt deserve equal credit.
Many fine recordings of Reger’s music have been released in 2016 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death, but this release is the finest I’ve heard, and is definitely recommended. I’ve previously been partial to a recording of these works by AlexandreKniazev and Édouard Oganessian on Saphir 001103, but this new version is in a different league, both for performance and sound quality. The Alban Gerhardt/Marcus Becker version on Hyperion 67581/2 is much more competitive, and the two versions vie for top position. My main complaint with the Gerhardt, though, is that he intersperses the sonatas with the op. 131 Solo Suites, a jarring juxtaposition that over-emphasises the complexity of the sonatas. This new version does break the sonatas up with a few shorter works, two Caprices and two Romanzes on the first disc and an Aria on the second. All are elegant miniatures, well crafted but probably elevated here by the sheer conviction of the players. The Aria is a curiosity, a shameless pastiche on Air on a G-String. It is more often heard in the original violin and piano version, but including Reger’s own transcription here justifies the album title: Das Gesamtwerk für Violoncello und Klavier. These brief interludes apart, the album isn’t easy listening, but the sonatas are among Reger’s finest accomplishments, and these performances do them full justice.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.