Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Kirill Gerstein Imaginary Pictures

Mussorgsy: Pictures at an Exhibition
Schumann: Carnaval
Kirill Gerstein, piano
MYRIOS MYR013 (SACD: 63:08)
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These two piano cycles may seem disparate – they certainly sound very different – but Kirill Gerstein has good reason to programme them together. As he points out in his liner notes, both are filled with vivid portrayals, or Imaginary Pictures as the album title has it. That comparison only goes so far: Mussorgsky’s landscapes are more literal and Schumann’s portraits more psychological, but Gerstein never overstates his case, ensuring the works also retain their distinct identities.
His readings are assured and well conceived. They build on the representative aspects of the works though a real focus on the atmosphere and character of each movement. His technique is “Russian” in many ways, specifically his very definite touch – even in the more mystical movements, the textures are always founded on clearly audible individual notes, each with its own articulation. The SACD audio helps bring out that level of detail, but the sound is not unduly analytical, and the technology is used as much to bring atmosphere and presence to the piano sound.
Gerstein has plenty of physical power behind his playing, but it is always used sparingly. Climaxes and heavy downbeats are just as often emphasised through slight delay as actual force. That rubato is often applied quite daringly, in the first Promenade of Pictures, for example, and in Bydło. It is unusual in both cases, given their processional character, but, as befits the theme of the album, it invites programmatic responses. Our visitor to the exhibition is, after all, promenading – he’s not marching so there is no reason his steps should be even. Similarly the ox pulling the cart seems here to be straining under the weight, its gait becoming plodding and slightly irregular. The momentary dissonances in the middle of the left hand texture are also brought out to impressive effect, and some surprising staccatos in the melody add character, but without disrupting the flow.
There is an earthiness about Gerstein’s playing that lends atmosphere and gravitas to many of the Mussorgsky movements. The Old Castle is given a particularly characterful reading, and more from the tone colour than through any indulgences of rubato or dynamic. Some of the faster movement lack lightness, or at least that quality often seems hard-won. Tuileries is quite slow, and doesn’t quite find the capriccioso quality prescribed in the score. Similarly with The Market Place at Limoges, although Gerstein brings back his daring rubato here, which serves to enliven the proceedings.
Similar dichotomies abound in Carnaval. Much of the music seems heavier than in the Mussorgsky (thicker chord-voicing perhaps?) yet the playing is always propulsive and never weighed down, either by the details Gerstein applies or by his interpretive aims. But again, the pictorial dimension of the music comes through more in the earthy qualities of Gerstein’s tone and in the variety of means by which he invokes drama and passion – so more Florestan than Eusebius.  The latter gets his due, though, especially through the warmth and lyricism that Gerstein often finds in the quieter movements.
As the Schumann goes on, it seems Gerstein gets further and further from his aim of drawing parallels between the two works (an aim that seems particularly pressing at the start, where the Schumann begins immediately after the Mussorgsky has finished). But in an impressive stroke of programming genius, he brings us back round in the finale by presenting the Davidsbündler march almost as a recollection of The Great Gate of Kiev. Both are bold, strident and joyous, with Gerstein finally giving his performance the full physical power he is capable of, while still maintaining the absolute precision and detail. Memorable conclusions to impressive readings of both works.