Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 7 April 2014

Nielsen Symphonies 4 and 5 Oramo RSPO

Nielsen: Symphonies 4 and 5
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, cond

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This Nielsen symphony coupling, the first release in a projected cycle, promises much. Everybody involved, Oramo himself, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and even the record label BIS, have impressive track records in this repertoire. Nielsen’s symphonies have become well-represented on disc in recent decades. From one perspective, that increases the competition, especially given the quality of some of the cycles out there, but from another, it demonstrates the subjectivity of interpretation and the level of interpretive input required. Nielsen’s symphonies rely on a certain shock value, their radical structuring and unusual orchestration are central to their appeal. Familiarity blunts their edge, so any conductor coming to them today has to find a way to make the music sound fresh and new, but not to the point of wilful idiosyncrasy. Oramo’s readings are energetic and dynamic. They are also intelligently structured. The only problem is that they are a bit safe, and never go to extremes of dynamic and expression.
Oramo drives the music, pushing through every phrase. But he also prioritises clarity and focus of tone. There are rarely any extreme outbursts, of the kind the punctuate Bernstein’s Nielsen, and instead the climaxes and complex tutti passages fit seamlessly into the simpler surrounding textures. The control and intelligence of Oramo’s interpretation has clear benefits: he always ensures that the important lines come through, even when they are in the middle of the textures (the prominent viola lines in the Fourth Symphony are particularly clear and resonant) and the sense of direction he gives the music ensures that there is always a feeling of underlying logic, however esoteric Nielsen’s structures become.
All of this comes at a cost to the spontaneity and dramatic effect of the music. Tension, while often present, always feels controlled. The conflict between the snare drum and the orchestra in the Fifth Symphony, of example, has little sense of anger, let alone danger. The (unnamed) drummer himself is suitably disruptive, but the response from the rest of the ensemble is too accommodating, too genteel.
All of which is a shame, because in all other respects this is an excellent recording. The orchestra clearly has this music in their blood, and the fine balance in the textures should probably be attributed in equal measure to the players’ sensitivity to the work, to Oramo’s attention to detail and to the sound recording. Given BIS’s phenomenal reputation for sound engineering, the sonics here may disspoint some. The orchestra sounds distant and the recording slightly uninvolved, although the extreme channel separation on the SACD stereo mix compensates somewhat. The clarity of sound, though, is never in question, and the recording does full justice to Nielsen’s groundbreaking orchestration in every respect.
Among recent recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies, this projected cycle seems most similar to that currently underway with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on Da Capo. In both cases, a world-class orchestra demonstrates their superior technical proficiency working with a conductor whose main piorities are pacing and structure and who are prepared to sacrifice some drama to these aims. If anything, Oramo has the edge over Gilbert for the idiomatic playing of his orchestra (which, ironically, used by Gilbert’s orchestra). The big, glossy, American sound of the NYPO sits uneasily with Nielsen’s often astringent textures, and that is as much a problem for Bernstein’s cycle as it is for Gilbert’s. Oramo, like Gilbert, seems to be imposing some very modern anti-Romantic ideas about the way this music should be performed. Nielsen’s own anti-Romantic disposition suggests there is some validity to this approach, but it remains a minority position. Even so, both Oramo and Gilbert seem intent on dominating that niche, and if their respective first volumes are anything to go by, it is Oramo who is going to come out on top.

Monday, 24 March 2014

BRUCKNER Symphonies Nos. 0 and 00 Marcus Bosch Aachen SO

BRUCKNER Symphonies Nos. 0 and 00  Marcus Bosch, cond; SO Aachen  COVIELLO 31315 (SACD: 77:52)
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Symphony No. 0 “Cancelled”: Bruckner doesn’t exactly go out of his way to sell this Symphony to us, does he? But, as the tortuous revision histories of many of his symphonies demonstrate, the composer’s painfully self-critical attitude to his own works is never a reliable indicator of their worth. In fact, the Zero Symphony postdates the First and, to my ear at least, is superior, closer in spirit to the Second and Third, if not quite as involved, nor as long. The “Studiensinfonie,” No. 00, by contrast, is very much an early and exploratory essay in the form. It is a kind of graduation piece, written in 1863, immediately after the end of Bruckner’s studies with Otto Kitzler. Given Bruckner’s stylistic trajectory over the course of his numbered symphonies, we might expect to hear the influence of Schubert and Haydn here, but in fact Schumann and Mendelssohn are stronger voices. In No. 0 we hear Bruckner’s mature musical personality, perhaps not yet fully formed but clearly recognizable. In No. 00 we have to strive much harder to make the connection, although there are plenty of clues in the detail.
My first exposure to the Zero Symphony was via a recording from Stefan Blunier and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn (MDG 937 1673-6). Blunier makes a good case for the work, not making any concessions for its early date, seeking out, and often finding, the depths of expression we more naturally associate with the later symphonies. But this new version from Marcus Bosch is even better, slicker, better structured, and more dramatic all round. The most significant difference between the two versions is in the tempos, Blunier takes 50:11 while Bosch is finished in 41:23. Yet Blunier never feels lethargic, nor does Bosch feel rushed. Both apply a good deal of rubato, allowing for supple and naturally shaped phrases at their respective speeds. Both orchestras play well, and both are captured in excellent SACD audio. Bosch is a little stiff in the second movement Andante (despite its tempo marking a clear ancestor of the great adagios of the late symphonies) and the phrases occasionally feel clipped. However, the rest of his interpretation is excellent, particularly the Scherzo, which he drives home with thundering intensity, and the Finale, which is dramatic, varied, and nuanced throughout.
Symphony No. 00 is a more modest conception, and Bosch is wise to avoid the extremes that he applies to the later work. But his reading isn’t exactly “Classical” either. There is still plenty of rubato, and he is generous with the freedom he allows the woodwind soloists (more prominent here than any of the composer’s later works). There is no getting away from the fact that this is a minor work, but Bosch makes the best possible case for it.
This release marks the end of a complete Bruckner symphony cycle from Marcus Bosch and his Aachen forces. The project has been on the go since 2003, when an Eighth Symphony recording was so well received that it gradually brought about an entire cycle. Coviello claims that this is the first complete Bruckner cycle on SACD. That may or may not be the case, but the “complete” appellation is certainly appropriate; not only are these to early symphonies included, but these is also a Finale for the Ninth Symphony, edited by Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John A. Phillips, and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs.The way Bosch approaches Bruckner is unlikely to be to everybody’s taste, his tempos are generally fast, although he’s not of the “revisionist” school: However fast he takes the music there is always plenty of ebb and flow, and usually very wide-ranging dynamics. Of the releases I have heard, my favorite is the Second Symphony. Like the Zero Symphony here, Bosch demonstrates through his impassioned but controlled performance that the Brucknerian tendencies of the late symphonies are just as evident early on, they just need a committed interpreter who doesn’t make concessions to their slightly narrower musical vocabulary. Most of the cycle was recorded in the church of St. Nikolaus in Aachen, which has proved an ideal acoustic, the reverberance round and clean, adding further gravitas to Bruckner’s quasi-liturgical statements. This recording was made in a different Aachen church, St. Michael, which I assume is smaller. It is certainly equally appropriate to the music at hand.
A box set of the entire cycle was issued at around the same time as this release. Although Bosch’s fast tempos might make some of the individual movements less attractive, I suspect that, in its entirety, the cycle will be well worthwhile, especially for the sheer drama he draws from this music, the quality of the orchestra, and of the recorded soundscape, both from the acoustic itself and the SACD engineering. Of the individual discs, the early symphonies deserve the highest recommendation, the Second Symphony in particular, but also this, although chiefly for the Zero Symphony, by far the finest of the two compositions on the disc. 

 This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:6.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Hindemith Complete Viola Works Vol. 2 Tabea Zimmermann

Hindemith: Sonatas for Viola and Piano Opp. 11/4, 25/4, (1939). Sonatas for Solo Viola Opp. 11/5, 25/1, (1937)
Tabea Zimmermann (va), Tomas Hoppe (pn)
Myrios MYR011 (2 SACDs)
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Tabea Zimmermann devoted the first volume of her Hindemith survey to his concertante works for viola and orchestra. This, the second, covers the sonatas, three with piano and four unaccompanied. The works date from 1919 to 1937 and, at least as a first impression, suggest a clear stylistic development from melodic simplicity to gritty complexity later on. In fact, the progression is more complex than that. The first two works, a clear and open textured sonata for viola and piano and a much more introverted solo sonata, sound like they were written decades apart, but in fact they have consecutive opus numbers (11/4 and 11/5) and both were written in 1919. The liner note, by Hindemith expert Dr. Susanne Schaal-Gotthardt, cites both Bach and Reger as influences in the more knotty solo sonata. Indeed, Reger’s voice, as expressed in his own solo violin works, comes through strongly, as does his 20th-centurty reinterpretation of Bach’s models for solo string writing. The op. 25 and 31 sonatas are more in the Hindemith mainstream, filled with clever musical devices, complex but clearly rendered, and beautifully suited to the viola. And the programme ends with two late sonatas, one solo from 1937 and one accompanied from 1939. The music here is more direct, muscular and modern, but melodic and engaging too. As an overview of Hindemith’s compositional output, his sonatas for his own instrument make for a concise and representative survey.
Tabea Zimmermann’s performances are excellent. Although Hindemith writes well for the viola, he demands a great deal from the performer. Some of the music is deeply expressive, and is presented as such. One the other hand, some of the music eschews emotion, such as the middle movement of op. 31/4, which is marked “with little expression”, which Zimmermann not only adheres to, but also compensates for with the richness and complexity of her tone. The notes tell us that Hindemith often sidelined beauty of tone in the pursuit of other musical virtues, but Zimmermann insures that her sound, if not always “beautiful” as such, never fails to be interesting, engaging and satisfying. The fast passages hold no terrors for her, although she always retains an earthy quality, a real viola sound, never leading the listener to suspect that she is trying to imitate the violin. Some of the more discordant double stopping is presented in an astringent, throaty tone, but one that is very carefully modulated and served always by immaculate intonation.
Pianist Thomas Hoppe also has his work cut out but always rises to the challenge. Hindemith’s accompaniment parts have reputation for being tortuous and needlessly difficult to play, but Hoppe makes them all sound logical and idiomatic. The recorded sound is quite resonant, adding to the richness of Zimmermann’s tone, especially in the lower register. The piano sounds somewhat distant, and some of the detail in its overtones is lost, although the balance between the two players is ideal.
The Myrios label is a small and relatively new venture – if the catalogue number of this release is to be believed this is only its 11th disc – but it has poached some big name performers and is engaging them in very interesting projects. All their releases so far have been on SACD, and the engineering on this disc fully justifies that decision; even when hearing just the solo viola, the richness and immediacy of the sound is compelling. Volume 1 of Zimmermann’s Hindemith was very well received: Volume 2 looks likely to attract similar acclaim.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Bruckner Symphony No. 9 Haitink LSO

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (ed. Nowak 1951)
Bernard Haitink, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live LSO0746 (SACD: 67:10)

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I’ve mixed feelings about this new Bruckner Nine from Haitink and the LSO. Haitink regularly conducts Bruckner in London, usually with the LSO, but often with visiting orchestras as well. And these performances are almost always major events. Haitink has a lifetime’s experience behind him with this repertoire, and he works well with the LSO. He knows how to pace the music, creating continuity but without ever sacficing immediacy. His tempos are slow, and rubato is moderate, with Haitink using carefully-sculpted phrases and emphatic attacks to create the punch that other conductors achieve with faster and more erratic tempos.
And it all really works in live performance.  That may be a result of Haitink’s ability to maintain the atmosphere of the music over long stretches, and to carry the audience with him. For some reason, though, it doesn’t seem to transfer well to disc. His 1960s Bruckner cycle with the Concertgebouw on Philips isn’t one of the greats, nor is it his best work from the period, although his interpretive integrity there, and the quality of the orchestral playing, is beyond question.
Being a live recording, this new Bruckner Nine falls somewhere between the experiences of hearing Haitink’s Bruckner live and hearing his studio recordings. Those slow tempos are not quite as convincing from a distance, and it is more difficult to stay in the mood. In many passages, especially in the Adagio, what should seem transcendent and mystical (and may well have done to the live audience) instead just seems slow and uninvolving.
Not everything here suffers so. The orchestra plays well and there are many moments when everything really comes together. The conclusion of the first movement is as thrilling here as on any recording, the focussed, penetrating sound of the timpani driving the music on. And in the Scherzo, Haitink demonstrates his rare ability to give the music drive and focus, but through accentuation rather than speed. The tempo here could seem perversely slow under other conductors, but Haitink is able to draw grandeur from this music, and without compromising the energy and feeling of momentum.
The dry acoustic of the Barbican has long been the Achilles’ heel of the LSO Live label, and it is more of a problem in Bruckner than in most repertoire; you get little feeling for the “cathedral of sound” quality of the music. On the other hand, Haitink compensates somewhat through his expansive tempos and the broad sonorities he draws from the orchestra. Coupled with the superior audio, and the fine orchestral playing, the acoustic does allow us to hear more detail than in many recordings, not that Bruckner’s orchestration requires all that much analytical listening.
In recent years, the London Philharmonic has been making great efforts to be seen as the leading Bruckner orchestra in the capital. On their own label, they have released superlative Bruckner readings under Tennstedt, Eschenbach and, most impressively, Skrowaczewski. The LSO’s long-standing partnership with Haitink is another strand in London’s recent relationship with Bruckner, and this disc is valuable for documenting the more recent fruits of their collaboration. But, at least as far as recordings are concerned, the London Philharmonic retains the upper hand in this repertoire.