Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Strauss Feuersnot Schirmer

Strauss Feuersnot op. 50
Lars Woldt (bass), Simone Schneider (soprano), Arabella Wäscher (vocals), Monica Mascus (mezzo-soprano), Sandra Janke (alto), Olena Tokar (alto), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass), Ludwig Mittelhammer (bass), Michael Kupfer (baritone), Sung Min Song (tenor), Jutta Neumann (alto), Andreas Burkhart (baritone), Markus Eiche (baritone), Rouwen Huther (tenor), Joachim Roth (tenor), Catalina Bertucci (soprano), Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Ulf Schirmer, conductor
cpo 777 920-2 (2 CDs)
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Strauss’ second opera is a rarity, both in live performance and on disc. But it contains some glorious music, from a composer at the height of his powers, so cpo is to be congratulated for what appears to be the first commercial recording in many decades. It is easy to see the work as deserving of its obscurity: the salacious plot got it into all sorts of trouble in the years following its 1901 premiere, and the contrived satire behind it seems self-serving and wholly dependent of the cultural milieu of its times. None to which can be ignored, of course, but the music that Strauss writes elevates the whole project and sets it in a wider context. This is Strauss on his way from tone poet to master of opera, and everywhere the music is looking forwards, particularly to the sophistication of Rosenkavalier and the physiological depth of Die Frau ohne Schatten. It is given here in a performance that brings out all those qualities, and that makes an excellent case for Strauss’ score.
Wagner looms large over everything here. Strauss is dealing with Wagner’s legacy in an open and often confrontational way. The result is a satire of Wagner, of both his music and his ideals. Musically, you’ll hear overt references to many of Wagner’s mature operas, and particularly the Ring, which proves fertile ground for satire, given the recognition factor of its Leitmotifs. Fortunately for Strauss, Wagner is just as well-known today as he was then, and idolised to almost the same extent. So the references are easy to spot, and the deflation of the Wagner cult retains its relevance. The story concerns preparations for a St. John’s Day midsummer celebration. The local mayor has a daughter and there is much debate about her possible betrothal to a newcomer in town. So far so Meistersinger. But the place is Munich (the better to lampoon Wagner himself) and the newcomer, Kunrad, is an apprentice wizard. When Diemut, the mayor’s daughter, rejects Kunrad, he takes revenge by extinguishing the fires that are central to the midsummer celebration. In the end Diemut relents, and the impasse is resolved through “redemption by sex”, a deliberately crass inversion of Wagner’s redemption by love, but a great excuse for one of Strauss’ many erotically charged musical climaxes to close the work.
Despite the relatively straightforward plot and the short running time (it’s a one-acter of 90 minutes) the score includes a remarkable 15 named parts and also calls for choir, children’s chorus and a huge orchestra. So, on top of its questionable morals and taste, there are also practical issues that keep it well beyond the standard repertoire. But for this recording, an excellent company has been assembled. The project is a co-production between Bavarian Radio and cpo. It was recorded at Munich’s Prinzregententheater in September 2014, a few days ahead of a live concert performance there, a video of which is available at
The pick of the cast is Simone Schneider as Diemut. Her voice has a richness and alto-like warmth, right up to the top of the soprano register, always attractive and with excellent intonation and tonal control.  Markus Eiche is also good as Kunrad. He has the lion’s share of the singing, and strain is occasionally evident, especially towards the end of his mammoth 10-minute narration on the second disc. No notable weak links in the supporting cast (impressive given the sheer numbers), and special mention should go to bass Lars Woldt, who perfectly channels Pogner as the mayor. Credit too to the Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtner platz. Strauss places some heavy demands on his children’s choir, but this ensemble is well up to the demands
Ulf Schirmer leads a propulsive and incisive reading, full of rhythmic vitality and crisp, focussed phrasing. The sound is of a good broadcast standard, with plenty of detail although a little lacking in vibrancy and presence. A libretto is included, in German and English (somehow squeezed into the double jewel case) and there is also handy “Kleines Münchner Glossar”.
Competition here comes from historical reissues, a Keilberth recording from 1965 and a Kempe recording from 1958, the latter a leisurely account at the far end of the spectrum from this. There is also a 1985 recording from Heinz Fricke, which received mixed notices when re-released in 2013. Chances are, then, that for the quality of the audio, the consistency of the cast and the vitality of the conducting, this will become the recording of choice for Strauss’ morally suspect but always highly listenable opera.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Bruckner Symphonies 6 7 Jansons

Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
RCO Live 14005 (2 SACDs)

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Patient, controlled, structured, considered: There is no doubt that all of these terms can be applied to Mariss Jansons. What’s more debatable is whether that’s for better or worse. Jansons has a knack for imposing symphonic rigour on even the most tenuously structured works, listen to his Shostakovich 13, for example, or his Mahler 7. What we get with these Bruckner recordings is very much in that spirit. Neither work has ever sounded so compact and logical, and the interconnectedness that Jansons demonstrates in Bruckner’s thinking serves as an effective defence of the composer against most of the criticisms levelled against him. There is plenty of passion here too: These performances are not unduly fast, nor are they ever mechanical. But Jansons works within tight self-imposed limits. The readings are certainly expressive, but discipline is always the watchword.
The combination of the Concertgebouw and Bruckner inevitably calls to mind the legacy of Bernard Haitink, and the comparison is instructive. Haitink too is a fairly disciplined Brucknerian, but he sets his limits differently. His tempos are generally slower, and his tuttis are louder, but the two conductors have similar visions for Bruckner’s music. They also both have excellent rapport with the Amsterdam orchestra, which plays as well for Jansons as it does for Haitink. Given the air of perfection that Jansons cultivates, orchestral playing of the very highest standard is an absolute necessity, and it is exactly what he gets. The players are also able to project the character of their ensemble – the burnished string tone, the warm brass – and add it into Jansons’ precisely calculated equation. Audio is fabulous too, and it is great to see that RCO Live has returned to SACD after a few releases without. Players, hall, and engineering come together to make for an always satisfying aural experience.
The downside though, to Jansons’ approach is the niggling feeling that he is playing it safe. Take the opening of the Sixth Symphony, which starts off at a moderate dynamic, but quickly ramps up to a blazing, trumpet-crowned tutti. This really needs a sense of abandon, as if the sheer exuberance of the orchestra is carrying the music. Of course, Jansons never lets that happen; his sense of control here is clear from the limits he sets on the brass dynamics. His phrasing is always supple, but again without ever going to extremes. He has an excellent feel for the way that some phrases should tail off gently into silence. But those Luftpausen are never dwelt on, and the next phrase is never obliged to wait.
The Seventh Symphony fares better under Jansons’ baton than the Sixth. The later work is Bruckner’s most carefully and traditionally structured symphony, so there is less of a feeling that the conductor is taming or constraining the work. The first movement of the Seventh has an eerie feeling of calm, as if the music’s sense of order has been predetermined and everything is passing as fate decrees. That sense of fate adds and extra dimension to the Adagio second movement. Here, the movement seems to be structured around the chorales; each achieves its incredibly impact partly through the impeccable preparation in the preceding phrases, and partly through the sheer unity and tonal control of the playing. It is that sense of inevitability, of a prophesy being fulfilled, that makes each of these statements so powerful. That comes from a very deep engagement with the structure and expressive language of the music – it’s what makes Jansons unique.
A personal take, then, on two great symphonies. If you are a fan of Jansons’ recent work, you’ll know what to expect here and you certainly won’t be disappointed. It is an unusual coupling, and presumably the fame of the Seventh Symphony is going to be the selling point over the less loved Sixth. That’s just as well, because the Seventh is the standout performance of the two. Not a top choice, but definitely worth hearing for Jansons’ deeply devotional approach, even if his observances are strictly to Apollo and never to Dionysus.  

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Der fliegende Holländer Nelsons Concertgebouw

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer Nelsons Concertgebouw
Terje Stensvold (Der Holländer), Kwangchul Youn (Daland), Anja Kampe (Senta), Christopher Ventris (Erik), Jane Henschel (Mary), Thomas Russell (Der Steuermann)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln & NDR Chor, Andris Nelsons

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A Flying Dutchman  from Amsterdam – what could be more appropriate? In fact, this recording is as international as any Wagner performance, the orchestra itself the only Dutch contingent (even the choirs are German). Based on two live performances given in May 2013, the recording has much to offer, not least the cast of world-class soloists that would be the envy of any opera house. The greatest interest, though, is likely to be generated by the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons – hot property in Wagner just now, as he is in Mahler, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and … just about everything else. He certainly makes this Dutchman his own, and he clearly knows how to get the best out of the assembled company.
One aspect, though, of Nelsons’ performance is likely to meet with controversy: his tempos. Everything here is slow – not to the point of ridicule, but almost always well behind the norm. That really stands out in a work that is more often presented as a single, breathless expanse, as best exemplified by Barenboim’s Berlin Staatsoper recording on Teldec. Barenboim whips up a storm in the opening bars, which never seems to subside until the very end. Nelsons takes the opposite approach. The energy he generates in the opening bars has already dissipated by the time we reach the second theme. The results are more considered and more episodic. Fortunately, Nelsons always keeps the tempos flexible – there is space here for momentum when required – and finds an appropriate pace for each section and scene. His approach is most effective in quiet, ruminative passages, like the timpani introduction to Daland’s “Mein kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle…” in act II. The downside is that the storms never quite have the energy we are used to experiencing.
The big names in the cast all deliver, and singing-wise this is a very satisfying recording. Kwangchul Youn and Terje Stensvold are both known quantities as Daland and the Dutchman, and both give commanding performances here, even if they are frustratingly difficult to tell apart. Arguments rage over the relative merits of Anja Kampe and Nina Stemme, but for the time being, Kampe seems to be the first choice for Senta. Her performance here is powerful but nuanced. Her vibrato can be heavy on the ear but is certainly appropriate to the repertoire. Less convincing is the way she swoops up to the high notes – a deliberate phrasing device no doubt, but one that feel like an affection after a few minutes. She also breaks phrases for very obvious breaths in some exposed passages, though perhaps this is a consequence of Nelsons’ slow tempos. Christopher Ventris has a lot of character and presence as Erik, it is just a shame that his tuning is occasionally wayward, only in a few passages, but enough to stick in the memory.
As so often with orchestra own-label recordings of operas, the real star here is the orchestra itself. The Concertgebouw is on top form, and the recording engineers seem to have prioritised their contributions throughout. In the runs in the overture, every note in the violin parts is audible, and the balance and clarity of the inner textures is always impressive. The deep, rumbling timpani are satisfying too. Vibrato from the solo horn might jar in some ears, but it is only very slight. Excellent choral singing too, from the WDR and Bavarian Radio choirs (how did they get this gig?) – larger forces than you’d hear on an opera stage, but the added heft is used to impressively dramatic effect.
No SACD for some reason. Any concerns that RCO Live has dropped the medium are allayed by more recent releases, including an impressive Bruckner 6 and 7 with Mariss Jansons (review to follow). The difference in resolution is obvious, but this is still a very well engineered recording, and aided at every step by the warm but clear acoustic of the venue and the orchestra’s affinity with its many virtues. RCO Live provides a libretto in German, English and French, an increasingly rare luxury, but a deciding factor for many prospective buyers.
Mixed views then. Nelsons’ slow speeds set this apart from the burgeoning competition, though not necessarily for the better. Most of the cast can be heard singing these same roles in equally fine recordings elsewhere.  Definitley worth hearing for the orchestra itself, and for perhaps too for Nelsons’ idiosyncratic approach, if other recordings leave you short of breath.  

Sunday, 8 February 2015

SCHNITTKE Concerto for Piano and Strings Proshayev

SCHNITTKE Concerto for Piano and Strings. 5 Aphorisms. Gogol Suite   
Denys Proshayev, Nadia Mokhtari (piano)
Alexander Dmitriev, cond.
St. Petersburg String Soloists
PIANO CLASSICS 0071 (62:38)

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Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings is one of his most popular works, but it’s been a slow burner on disc, a recording every couple of years since early 90s (it was composed in 1979). The concerto is unquestionably one of Schnittke’s greatest works and, despite its often intense dissonance, it’s one his most accessible too. Those unfamiliar with the composer’s work could do worse than starting here, and Denys Proshayev’s reading makes an excellent case for it: clear, lucid, and engaging throughout.
A brief word on nomenclature: The cover describes the work as “Piano Concerto,” a singularly unhelpful designation, given that Schnittke wrote four. But each is for a different ensemble so the full instrumentation will usually suffice, in this case concerto for piano and strings. There has been a tendency in recent years to number Schnittke’s piano concertos, but it hasn’t really caught on. If and when it does, this one is No. 3.
The concerto was written for Vladimir Krainev, who was Proshayev’s teacher, and to whose memory this recording is dedicated. Krainev premiered the concerto with Alexander Dmitriev, who also conducts here: valuably continuity indeed. Proshayev has a clear tone and lucid technique. He prioritizes clarity over histrionics, yet never skimps on drama. If the reading occasionally seems overly controlled, that is only by comparison with some of the more impetuous readings out there, which seem messy in comparison to him.
He has an excellent feel for the music’s quasi-liturgical atmosphere, something that comes across all the better for the church acoustic in which the recording was made (the concerto was recorded in St. Petersburg, the other works in Berlin). Working with a Russian string ensemble has the advantage that the players really understand the significance and the gravity of the quotations from Orthodox chant. A few more players would have helped though, as the string sound is often very thin (the Russian score gives 6,6,4,4,2; the Western edition 12,12,8,8,4—we’re clearly in the former category here). Schnittke doesn’t help matters by demanding big, round textures but for harmonies that are intensely dissonant. The smaller ensemble does have the advantage of allowing a very natural sense of balance with the piano—everything is always clearly heard and without any sense that the strings are being restrained for the pianist’s benefit.
The number of versions of this concerto currently available is at least into two figures. An episode of BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library a few years ago went through those then available and come down in favor of Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky on Erato (now also on an Apex reissue). Though I haven’t heard that recording in some years, I remember it being more incisive than this—less atmosphere but more drama. At any rate, Proshayev comes in pretty close to the top, even in a crowded field that also includes Marc-André Hamelin, Roland Pöntinen, and Krainev himself.
The disc opens with the Five Aphorisms, a late work, written in 1990. Its textures are ascetic: The liner note by Susanne Stähr cites Webern as an influence. As with Webern, there is a fine line here between studied austerity and casual indifference, so maintaining the sense of concentration is crucial. Proshayev manges that well—the silences are as meaningful as the sounds. The benchmark is Boris Berman on Chandos, but again Proshayev is competitive with the best, and has marginally superior sonics.
The Gogol Suite presents Schnittke’s lighter side—it is slapstick theater music, full of comedy effects and gratuitous historical quotations. It’s another work with identity problems, also going under various translations of Gogol’s title: Dead Souls, The Dead Soul Register, and The Inspector’s Tale. What we have here is twice removed from the original incidental music, which was arranged into an orchestral suite by Rozhdestvensky and from that to a two-piano version by Valery Borovikov. One of Rozhdestvensky’s movements is omitted, but as that accounts for less than a minute of music, it’s no great loss. The absence of an orchestra is more keenly felt, especially as most of the historical references—Beethoven’s Fifth, Swan Lake—are from orchestral works. It is a shame to lose the comb-and-paper episode in the finale too. Well played though, by both Proshayev and his duo partner Nadia Mokhtari. They really get into the spirit of the piece, plenty of slapstick, and this time not even a hint of undue restraint.
A well played and well recorded program then. My only complaint is with the selection of works, which seems almost random, moving between eras and performing forces with each piece. There is plenty more solo or concertante music that could have filled out the disc, and the result would have been more coherent. Also, the Five Aphorisms are actually for piano and reciter. The idea is that poems by Joseph Brodsky are interpolated between the movements. Schnittke wisely chose a poet who wrote in both Russian and English, facilitating performances in both East and West. But as yet, nobody has recorded the Aphorisms with the poems included. No reason then to direct the blame specifically at Proshayev, but it would have made a good selling point. Otherwise, the disc is recommendable primarily for the concerto.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 38:5.