Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 31 May 2010

Klaus Huber: Erniedrigt – Geknechtet – Verlassen – Verachtet ... (1975/1978–83)

Klaus Huber: Erniedrigt – Geknechtet – Verlassen – Verachtet ... (1975/1978–83)
for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and tape
Texts by Ernesto Cardenal, Florian Knobloch, Carolina María de Jesús, George Jackson
Anne Haenen, mezzo-soprano
Theophil Maier, tenor and speaker
Paul Yoder, bass-baritone
Treble solo from the Tölzer Knabenchor
Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, Clytus Gottwald, rehearsals
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Helmut Franz, rehearsals
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Matthias Bamert, conductor, Kenneth Jean/ Burkhard Rempe/ Arturo Tamayo, co-conductors
Recorded: 14th October 1983 at the Donaueschinger Musktage STEREO DDD
NEOS 10809 [67:58]
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‘In memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola’ – the dedication of the fifth movement of Klaus Huber’s oratorio speaks volumes. For, like his Italian predecessor, Huber is an avant-gardist with a political agenda. This is a work which employs an uncompromising serial and electro-acoustic aesthetic to deliver an equally uncompromising Communist message. The title, which translates as ‘Abased-Fettered-Abandoned-Despised’, is taken from one of the more poetic passages of the Communist Manifesto, and the trajectory of the work is from various representations of human suffering towards a call to arms and some (relatively) optimistic depictions of possible Utopian futures.

The seven movements of the oratorio where written in stages between 1975 and 1982. Each has a different instrumentation and a different text source. The result strikes a good balance between diversity and coherence. Indeed, the serialism upon which much of the music is based never leads to aesthetic monotony. Huber is from Switzerland, and this work fits squarely in the tradition of central European post-war Modernism. Various cultural bearings are evoked, most of which link to the history of the Austro-German tradition. This adds to the aesthetic variety, but also inadvertently attests to the cultural insularity of the avant-garde, the Germanness of the music contrasting the cosmopolitan texts, which include passages in German, American English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. 

The opening of the work fades in from silence, with a musique concrète tape track made up of overlaid voices gradually increasing in volume and complexity. There are a number of other very quiet taped effects throughout the work, and the recording levels of the disc are set very low to allow these passages definition. (Don’t be afraid to turn the amplifier volume up though, there is nothing monumentally loud enough to blow your cones.) Huber is apparently using electronic manipulation of the human voice as a representation of the dehumanising effect of industrialisation. 

This leads into the first main part ‘On the will of the oppressed’, a setting of words by Florian Knobloch, a foundry worker describing his experiences of industrial manufacture. This is the first of three disparate movements exploring the condition of human oppression, the second sets texts from the diary of Carolina María de Jesús describing her experiences as a resident of a Brazilian favela and the third takes as its source the prison letters of George Jackson. Erratic vocal effects in the first movement are often reminiscent of Ligeti, his Aventures or the third movement of his Requiem. The second movement mixes spoken and sung texts, and the result recalls the operas of Berg. The solo bass-baritone in the third movement (Paul Yoder) intones the text as recitative, its pitch content erratic, but its rhythm faithful to the agogics of the English language.

The fourth movement is the call to arms, with militaristic oppression graphically depicted through brief march episodes (for which Mahler’s Third Symphony is clearly the model) and even through the use of chains in the percussion section. The will of the people is represented by the voices of the choir, who gradually gain the foreground. The sixth movement gives much needed respite in the form of a calm interlude. Here a boy treble sings over representations of birdsong from the woodwind. Shades here of the calm before the storm in Strauss’ Alpensinfonie a reminder that the peace will soon be shattered. The conclusion, when it comes, offers what the composer describes as a ‘profane version of the resurrection’. What Marx might have made of this version of his Utopian ideals is anybody’s guess, but for Huber it is an opportunity to conclude in pseudo-religious mode with a serial reworking of Bach’s chorale setting Christ lag in Todesbanden, although the complexity of the result all but obscures its source.

The musical parallels highlighted in this brief précis demonstrate both the variety and approachability of Huber’s oratorio, and anybody who enjoys the operas of Berg, the vocal music of Ligeti or the lyrical serialism of Dallapiccola while find much of interest here. Both the performance and the recording do the work proud, and the brass and percussion sections of the SWR Sinfonieorchester deserve a special mention for their handling of the music’s considerable demands.

One question hangs over this release, however, and that is its timing. The work was completed in 1982 and the recording made in 1983 – so why wait 25 years before the CD release? The high production standards have stood the test of time admirably, but the aesthetics of the work are now very much history. For those like me with an interest in 20th century musical modernism, this is not necessarily a problem, and the music more than holds its own, even by comparison with the biggest names in the field. The only problem is that the aesthetics and the ideology are so closely intertwined, and while the music retains artistic value, even as a historical artefact, the anachronism of the underlying politics makes the whole project seem redundant, advocating as it does an already long-lost cause.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Katharina Wagner’s Baptism of Fire: the road to her debut in bayreuth [Katerina Wagners Feuertaufe] (2007)

Katharina Wagner’s Baptism of Fire: the road to her debut in bayreuth
A Film by Dagmar Krauss

Sound Format: DD 5.1 (German), DD 5.1 (English)
Picture Format: 16:9
DVD Format: DVD 9, PAL
Running time: 82 mins
FSK: 12
Regional code: 2

Distributed by Clasart Classic
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‘I don’t like being booed, it hurts every time.’ This behind-the-scenes documentary about Katarina Wagner’s Meistersinger production at Bayreuth in 2007 treads a fine line between celebrating its originality and acknowledging the negative publicity it generated. Most of the footage however was shot during the rehearsal process, so the reaction of the press and the opening night dignitaries is mostly discussed in anticipation rather than retrospect. And momentous as the production was (it was Katharina’s first for the Festspielhaus and the prelude to her later appointment as its co-director) the preparations and behind the scene activities were fairly run-of-the-mill. She has some grand set pieces – dancing statues, a paint fight, the entire chorus rising though the floor in the last act – and most of the interviews are with the technical staff who are charged with pulling these off. Most of the discussion therefore focuses on the impracticality of the staging rather than its historical significance for the house.

But tensions are apparent from the start. On the first day of rehearsal (or the first that the cameras attend), the lead singer, Robert Dean Smith as Walther, pulls out of the production in protest at Katharina’s approach. He is replaced by the more compliant Claus Florian Vogt, who apparently tows the line. Vogt is later shown fielding awkward questions from a roomful of journalists and assuring them that the atmosphere in rehearsal is relaxed and friendly. It is clear from his body language that he would rather be somewhere else.

The format of the programme intersperses the chronology of the preparations with the acts of the opera. Katharina is regularly interrupted from her work to explain to the camera the rationale of her interpretation. And the sheer number of interpretive ideas that this staging applies to the piece means that a large proportion of the documentary’s generous 82 minutes is given over to these explanations. Fortunately, the brief excerpts from the performances show a very clear, visual symbolic language, suggesting that such explanations would be unnecessary for the live audience. 

To briefly paraphrase Katharina’s approach: the idea of ‘Sacred German Art’ is set in opposition to creative artistic activity. The Meistersinger are old-fashioned and bureaucratic. Walter is a cool ‘performance artist’ whose appearance in Nuremberg upsets these traditions. The fight at the end of act 2 represents the people rebelling in favour of funky new art (hence the paint fight). The most radical reinterpretations are of the characters of Hans Sachs and Beckmesser, the former becoming more conservative in reaction to the changes (hence his paean to German art at the end), and the latter transformed into the work’s hero, the artist who actually gets it and starts producing something genuinely new.

The autobiographical dimension for Katarina is hard to ignore. As a young innovator challenging deeply ingrained orthodoxies her surrogate in the story passes from Walter in act 1 to Sachs in act 2 to Beckmesser in act 3. But the documentary leaves that point unsaid. It is also light on the historical significance of the production, concentrating instead on the details of the staging. Its radicalism is regularly mentioned, of course, Franz Hawlata, who sings Hans Sachs, points out in one interview that Meistersinger is one of the few core-repertoire works not to have been presented in a modern staging, giving the team extraordinary interpretive freedom. Among the cast and crew, Hawlata is the most regular face to appear in front of the camera as defender/champion of Katharina’s approach, but conductors Christian Thielemann and Sebastian Weigle also do so on a number of occasions, and the point is made towards the end of the documentary that support for her amongst the senior music staff is crucial to her long-term future with the house. This comes as part of the closing sequence, which is already outdated, in that it speculates about succession to the directorship of the festival; the programme was made in 2007 before the issue was settled in the autumn of 2008 with Katharina and her half sister Eva Pasquier sharing the post. Katharina was the first choice for Wolfgang Wagner, their father, who was then in charge. His presence in the documentary is as a silent observer of the preparations, regularly attending rehearsals, but making sure that he does not give a hint of what his opinions might be of this radical reinterpretation.

If I have one grumble with the programme, it is with the post-production. It has been edited to look like America’s Next Top Model with John Williams soundalike library music, those cuts where a halo appears around everything, which then expands to fill the screen with white, and the originally German voiceover dubbed into very annoying American. The programme does everything in its power to get the audience on Katarina’s side, we are told at one point that ‘she loves rock and roll and working out’. She comes across as likable enough, but radicalism and ambition are the personality traits that come through most strongly. One criticism of Katharina’s Meistersinger that this documentary inadvertently supports is the excess of ideas, there are just too many reinterpretations, visual gags and cultural references. On the other hand, this augers well for the future of the festival, its new co-director is clearly going to be an abundant source of new and original concepts. It is also clear that she is going to annoy a lot of people along the way.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bach: Organ Sonatas, Christopher Wrench

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Sonatas
Sonata No. 1 in E flat major, BWV 525 [11:35]
Sonata No. 2 in C minor, BWV 526 [11:47]
Sonata No. 3 in D minor, BWV 527 [15:28]
Sonata No. 4 in E minor, BWV 528 [10:33]
Sonata No. 5 in C major, BWV 529 [15:33]
Sonata No. 6 in G major, BWV 530 [12:05]
Christopher Wrench: organ
Recorded in Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen 3,4,5,6,18 July 2003 DDD/DSD
Melba hybrid SACD MR 301125 [77:45]

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Organists are more in the habit of practicing the Bach Organ Sonatas than actually performing or recording them, and they have a reputation for sounding much easier to play than they actually are. This new recording by the Australian organist Christopher Wrench makes an admirable case for the music to be enjoyed rather than merely admired, and his solutions to the various interpretive problems they pose add up to an interpretation that is both convincing and compelling.

The works are also known as Bach’s ‘Trio Sonatas’, a reference to their structure and Italian stylings, both inspired by the (instrumental) trio sonatas of Corelli. Johann Sebastian apparently compiled these works around the start of the 1730s as exercises-cum-recital repertoire for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedman, who was soon to take up his first appointment as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden. It is a testament to Bach’s genius that the pieces function equally well as concert works as as technical studies, the three-part counterpoint is strictly adhered to, but musicality is always the first concern. The challenge for the performer is to highlight the independence of the three lines while simultaneously ensuring the balance between them.

The choice of the Garnisons Kirche organ in Copenhagen is sensible from this point of view. Its range of stops offers just the varied yet restricted palette that the presentation of the three part textures require. And Wrench emphasises continuity of tone in his choices and changes of registration. His forays into the more unusual sounds on offer, the tremulant for example in the Adagio of Sonata no. 3, and the ‘Subbas (open) 16’’ in the Vivace of Sonata no.6, are modest enough not to upset the delicate balance of Bach’s counterpoint.

The organ itself was built in 1995 by Carsen Lund, based on a 1724 design by Lambert Daniel Kastens. Its diapason sounds are all on the windy side, and many registers have a pronounced chiff. Discussion of the Bach Organ Sonatas in the early 20th century usually focussed on the question of their intended instrumentation, with claims made both for organ and pedal harpsichord. Performing them on such an airy organ seems polemic in that context, but the distinctive character of the instrument more than justifies the choice. It also helps lay to rest the suspicion that they are mere keyboard exercises, displaying as they do the impressive performance specifications and balance of the instrument. The recording is a hybrid SA-CD, and while I have not heard the surround sound mix, the super audio stereo gives an elegant and precise aural perspective. There is little in the way of stereo separation, and the reverberation of the church is not prominent, allowing the counterpoint to be defined through the timbres, each of which is served magnificently by the audio.

As with his astute registration choices, Christopher Wrench has a keyboard technique which is ideal for this music, making it far too easy to forget just how difficult it is to play. His approach to ornaments is satisfyingly indulgent, the lines briefly departing from exact synchronisation for the sake of a brief trill in the upper part, for example, and cadences regularly leant on with unhurried appoggiaturas or mordents. Greater liberties are taken with the slow central movements than the outer fast ones. Rubato is the rule rather than the exception here, the bass lines all the more ponderous and the upper part dialogues all the more lyrical for this shaping. Again, the performance decisions all seem intended to emphasise the musical rather than the didactic value of the sonatas. They are not the most flamboyant organ works in Bach’s output, but this recording demonstrates how the sounds they make, rather than the challenges that they pose, justify their central position in his catalogue.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Friday, 28 May 2010

Bruckner Symphony no. 5 Neeme Järvi Residentie Orchestra The Hague

Bruckner: Symphony no.5 in Bb Major
Residentie Orchestra The Hague
Neeme Järvi – conductor
Recorded at Dr Anton Pilipszaal, The Hague, 17-19 September 2009 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Chandos CHSA 5080 [62:05]

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There is much about this recording to commend. It offers good audio, a competent and committed orchestra, a scherzo which has a good balance between momentum and gravity. But there’s a problem, and it’s a big one: the whole thing is just too damned fast.

Bruckner wasn’t one for metronome marks, so there is a wide range of different tempi among the recordings available of any one symphony, but at 62:00 Neeme Järvi sets what must be a record. I’m sure he must be trying to make a point, and to his credit his tempi are always rigorously maintained.

Perhaps propulsion and excitement are his goals? The orchestra certainly provide sufficient clarity for the super fast tuttis of the outer movements to retain their textural definition. And he often holds back at caesuras to give the following entries emphasis. 

The greatest loss is to the grandeur of the work. There’s nothing magisterial about Bruckner at this speed, no cathedrals of sound, no ethereal transcendence.

Bruckner loyalists (whom I suspect Järvi is hoping to agitate) are going to have most trouble with the second movement. Even in the absence of metronome marks Bruckner specifies Sehr Langsam. I make the crotchet count at the opening about 80 bpm – that’s fast by anybody’s standards and is about twice the speed of most other recordings. Again the orchestra offer the clarity required to bring out all the details, but they don’t add up to much at this speed.

The scherzo is the one movement in which some sort of sanity is maintained. It’s still fast, but it’s not hell-for-leather. In fact, some of the weightier brass passages come across well. Ratcheting up the tempo one peg seems to keep the orchestra on their toes here. And this is the point at which to admire the SACD audio. Those pp timpani rolls, for example, exist on an entirely different dynamic plane to the rest of the movement, and the interplay between the solo woodwind and brass instruments are all elegantly played and magnificently recorded.

The opening of the finale, like the opening of the first movement, is marked adagio, and for the first time in the symphony, Järvi heeds the advice. The introduction to the movement is made up of quotations from earlier in the symphony, and Järvi seems intent on increasing the overall frustration by presenting these themes at the tempos we had been initially expecting, then accelerating back up to his breakneck speed for the main part of the movement. It breaks my heart to listen to the great chorale that crowns this movement reduced to just another up-tempo tutti run-through, and it makes for a sorely disappointing anticlimax to the work.

So what is Neeme Järvi trying to say by bring in Bruckner 5 in at just over an hour? Perhaps he is trying to provide a corrective to some of the more ponderous readings out there. I can imagine that there are some who lose patience with Wand or Karajan in this repertoire, but I can’t help the feeling that they were both on the right track. There probably is scope for innovation, for an interpretation that tells us something genuinely new about Bruckner’s music, but this certainly is not it.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Mahler Symphony no.5 Simon Rattle Berlin Philharmonic

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Simon Rattle – conductor
Recorded at the Philharmonie, Berlin 7-11 November 2002
EMI Classics 50999 9 65935 2 3 [69:06]

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Rattle’s Mahler 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic has become an ‘EMI Master’, meaning that it has been reissued as part of a series of top draw recordings that includes Klemperer’s German Requiem and Schwarzkopf’s Four Last Songs. A little too early, some might say, to attribute such greatness to a recording that was only first issued in 2002, and that is still available in its original packaging.

To recap its history: the recording is of a live performance, Rattle’s first as principle conductor of the BPO. In order to capitalise on the buzz, EMI got the disc out in record time, and it was available in the shops (that was when people still bought CDs in shops) within a month of the performance. They also released a DVD, which included Thomas Ades’ Asyla, and that too is still on sale, for not much more than the price of this reissue incidentally.

Critical opinion of Rattle’s early years with the BPO was mixed, and he came in for a lot of stick in the German press for a perceived drop in the orchestra’s standards. English-speaking critics were more sympathetic, as was the orchestra itself, who re-elected Rattle to a second term without too much internal debate. On the strength of this reissue, we can assume that the original CD of his debut concert sold well, but acclaim for it was far from universal.

The problem, I think, was that both the performance and the recording were close to benchmark standard, so close in fact that the tiny deficiencies really stood out. The fact is that this is a live recording, and there are a number of slips from the orchestra that would have been tidied up if it had it been done in the studio. Having said that, this is the Berlin Philharmonic, and the slips we are talking about – the occasional split from the brass and one or two ensemble problems – really are miniscule. In fact, the orchestra acquits itself very well. You’ve got the silky string sound, fruity yet focussed woodwind solos, plenty of power from the brass... the complaints I’ve read about the performance seem very pedantic when you listen to the results.
From a technical point of view, the audio is very close to studio standards, and high studio standards at that. The Philharmonie is a great recording venue and the sound here shows it off at its best. Not a peep out of the audience (no applause either) suggesting rapt attention for this historic performance.

Rattle is his own man when it comes to Mahler. He has said in interviews that he distances himself from Bernstein’s reading of the 5th, and that is quite clear from this recording. Whereas Bernstein maintains a passionate intensity throughout, Rattle shapes the emotional contours and regularly allows the temperature to drop. That makes for more comfortable listening, which may not be to everybody’s taste, but is certainly to mine. The second movement, for example, doesn’t open with the burning intensity you will find elsewhere, Rattle holds back on the opening gambit from the lower strings. Why? To create anticipation and to build the texture up to a really searing climax a few minutes in. Control and reserve are also very much in evidence in the outer movements. Some have complained that the opening doesn’t have the momentum required for a ‘Trauermarsch’ and I can see the point. But this is another case of Rattle dropping the intensity between the climaxes in order to shape the music and to always have something in reserve.

The climaxes can sometimes get a little carried away, and this is perhaps a consequence of the live recording. Take the opening: the trumpeter makes a great job of his unaccompanied solo, but when the orchestra enters tutti it is pretty intense. He is still required to carry the remainder of his solo over the top, and ends up sounding quite horse as a result.

No such problems for the horn soloist (Stefan Dohr) in the scherzo. In line with a direction given to Mengelberg by the composer, Rattle places the solo horn at the front of the orchestra. It works well, although probably is not entirely necessary, as the orchestra retains a sense of reserve throughout the movement and rarely reach the dynamic peaks of the earlier movements. In fact, the scherzo is impressively carefree, counterpointing the angst earlier on. I would say it is the most successful movement of the recording.

In the Adagietto you can forget all about Dirk Bogarde, or about Leonard Bernstein for that matter. This is a fast reading coming in at 9:32. That’s not the fastest out there, Abbado’s recording with the same orchestra allots only 9:00 to the movement. I understand that Rattle blames the earlier fashion for slow Adagiettos on Bernstein’s misreading of Mahler’s intentions – similar perhaps to his misreading of Elgar’s intentions with Nimrod. The advantage of the faster speed is that the harp creates a coherent framework for the movement through its pizzicato punctuation: it’s much more directed, more symphonic, but still retaining plenty of intrigue. Wonderful string playing here, incidentally, but then you’d expect that from the BPO wouldn’t you?

Clarity and suppleness are the characteristic traits of the finale. Rattle maintains an impressive balance between the episodic rondo character and the overall dramatic trajectory. Some of the tempo changes are quite abrupt, as if the new conductor is ostensibly exerting his authority over a work that players must know backwards. 

A benchmark recording then, or merely a document of a historically significant concert? As I say, you’d have to be pedantic to complain about the slips from the orchestra or any other misfortune stemming from the live recording situation. Many listeners of my generation grew up with Rattle’s CBSO Mahler recordings, and to hear those same interpretive insights with the added benefit of the Berlin Phil’s virtuosity makes this disc an attractive prospect indeed. Let’s just say that it is a recording that is very much of its time, but that is also deserving of its reissue status as a highlight of EMI’s sizable back catalogue.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Heinrich Schütz: Musikalische Exequien, Bußpsalmen, Weser-Renaissance, Manfred Cordes

Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Musikalische Exequien SWV 279-281 [29:34]
Psalm 51 SWV148 “Erbarm dich mein” [6:32]
Psalm 6 SWV 24 “Ach Herr, straf mich nicht” [4:24]
Psalm 143 SWV 248 “Herr mein Gebet” [7:01]
Psalm 130 SWV 25 “Aus der Tiefe” [3:52]
Psalm 102 SWV 200 “Hör mein Gebet” [12:21]
Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Manfred Cordes – conductor
Recorded: Kirche St. Marien Osterholz, April 4-7 2008 Stereo DDD
CPO 777 410-2 [63:64]
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Funeral arrangements are likely to weigh heavily on your mind if you’re gone through your life with the name ‘Posthumus’. Heinrich Posthumus von Reuß came by his name on account of being born after the death of his father, and his arrangements for his own funeral were precise to the letter, with every text and reading prescribed.

We are not certain that Reuß selected Schütz to be the composer for his funerary observances, but the texts that are set are very much of his own choosing. They are also inscribed into his copper coffin, which according to the liner notes for this disc has recently been restored and put on public display in the Thüringen city of Gura.

The posthumous challenges set by von Reuß for Schütz were formidable. The texts are a selection of scriptural readings and hymns with little obvious sense of musical or semantic coherence. Schütz’ solution is essentially episodic, with homophonic chorales interspersing recitative-like solo and small ensemble passages. We are in early baroque territory here, so polyphony is at a premium and double choir textures predominate.
Weser-Renaissance, a professional choir specialising in 16th and 17th century music, do a fine job of expressing the plaintive simplicity of this music. Clarity and precise balance are everywhere in evidence, and solo voices have character and warmth. The choir is supported by discreet accompaniment from chitarrone, organ and harp, all of which lend elegant and subtle period colour.

The second movement of the ‘Exequien’ is a simple yet poignant double choir motet. The style and clarity of the antiphony here owe much to Schütz’ formative experiences in Venice and his study there with Giovanni Gabrieli.
The closing canticum of the funeral service uses an extraordinary choral effect, in which the spirit of the deceased is represented by bass voices, while angels accompanying it heaven are represented by the sopranos. Again, the clarity of the choral singing contributes to the success of this effect, as does the intimacy of the recorded sound.

The remainder of the disc is given over to a selection of Schütz’ penitential psalm settings. These again are plaintive and straightforward works. The strophic settings can feel a little repetitive, especially in the final ‘Hör mein Gebet’, which in purely musical terms struggles to justify its 12 minute span. 

On the other hand, the minimal music content and the multiple repetitions accord with much recent choral repertoire, and this certainly fits squarely into the ‘spiritual’ category under which much liturgical music is recorded and sold these days. I’ll confess to being surprised by who little counterpoint there is on this disc, but it is clearly identifiable as music of the German baroque. Having said that, its affinity with the antiphonal music of Gabrieli and Monteverdi is striking.

I’ve nothing but praise for the performance and the recording. There seems to be a strong tradition in Germany at the moment of professional choirs releasing excellent recordings of early music via record labels in conjunction with public broadcasters, and the collaborators here are CPO and Radio Bremen. For as long as the results are to this standard, long may it continue!

Gavin Dixon 2010

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Brahms performed by Quatuour Ébène

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet no.1 Op.51 No.1 in C minor [34:33]
Piano Quintet Op.34 in F Minor [44:09]

Recorded: (Op.51 No.1) Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, 5-8 May 2007, (Op.34) Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris 1-3 October 2007 STEREO DDD
Virgin Classics 5099921662225 [78:42]
French interpreters of Brahms face a range of prejudices. Can they do justice to the Classical rigour than underpins his Romanticism? Are they sufficiently in touch with his oedipal relationship with Beethoven? In the case of Quatuour Ébène the answer is...yes, just about. The players have no hang-ups about these issues, they give these readings of the First String Quartet and the Piano Quintet the ebb and flow the works need to breathe. The players are all young, raising the prospect of another set of prejudices about the automatic need for personal maturity when interpreting works of this depth (a view that wilfully ignores the relatively young age at which Brahms wrote them). Again, this has a bearing on the interpretation. The readings have a certain face-value quality, not so much pedantic loyalty to the indications in the score as a sense of imposed correctness in the way that rubato and dynamic deviations are applied.

The performance of the First String Quartet (Op.51 No.1) is admirable for its delicacy: the way that individual phrases are sculpted, the precise balance in the contrapuntal development sections. The recording acoustic is dry, and the microphones are close, allowing the quietest textures to be reproduced with a satisfyingly visceral sound of bow hair against string. The stereo array of the recording is also impressively engineered, and the viola is clearly heard throughout, despite sharing the right channel with the more robust cello.

The argument could be made that there is not enough structural thinking behind the interpretation, but we are not talking about Bruckner symphonies here, and the focus on the moment rarely seems inappropriate. The repeats in the score are all faithfully observed, with changes of dynamic and timbre added in each second iteration to give musical justification. The ensemble is good, but it’s not faultless, and passages at the dynamic extremes are usually the ones that suffer, stratospheric pianissimo octave doublings between the violins, for example, and fortissimo section climaxes. It’s not a big grumble, but with this repertoire the competition is fierce.

The Piano Quintet (Op.34) is given an appropriately epic reading, by turns expansive, heroic, even symphonic. Pianist Akiko Yamamoto matches the Ébène sound magnificently. Here again the precision of the recorded sound pays dividends, with Yamamoto’s touch at the quietest dynamics complimenting the strings, and all picked up in sensational detail. As for the more dramatic passages, neither pianist nor quartet holds back on the music’s extremes. The details of Brahms’ dynamics pose a certain problem with regard to tastefulness; he often gives very brief hairpins between extreme dynamics over the course of a few notes. The quartet achieve an impressive feat in honouring these directions and making the results sound dramatic rather than histrionic.

These are much recorded works, so it is to the credit of Quatuour Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto that their interpretations are both fresh and individual. They are unlikely to wrest the benchmark status from recordings by more mature performers - the Takács Quartet - or top name German groups - the Artemis Quartet - but this is an elegant and accomplished recording, and deserves to be appreciated on its own considerable merits.

Gavin Dixon 2010
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Monday, 24 May 2010

Josef Suk - Asrael Symphony, A Summer's Tale, RLPO, Libor Pešek

Josef Suk
‘Asrael’ Symphony Op.27 [62:09]
‘A Summer’s Tale’ Op.29 [51:56]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Libor Pešek – conductor
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool May and December 1990 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 6 28530 2 6 [62:09+51:56]

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‘Asrael’ started out as Josef Suk’s homage to his father-in-law Antonín Dvořák, but after the early death of Suk’s wife (who was also Dvořák’s daughter) midway through its composition, went on to become a memorial to both. Considering the connections of both the composer and the work to Dvořák, it is surprising how little it sounds like any of his symphonies. The cor anglais has a prominent role in the first movement, recalling perhaps the 9th, and the woodwind colouring has a similar Czech flavour, but in general this is the music of a composer who has successfully moved out of the shadow of his great predecessor.

And while Dvořák’s music succeeds or fails on the strength of its melodic invention, Suk is far more interested in drama, texture and above all innovative orchestration. He is brave enough to regularly reduce the orchestra to a handful of instruments, and to give solos to the tuba, to the low woodwinds and to all sorts of other unlikely candidates. The percussion section is also put through its paces; there aren’t too many unusual instruments there, but cymbals and timpani make regular and unusual contributions to the louder passages.

The work is usually known as Suk’s 2nd Symphony, and it is interesting that this designation is not given on the packaging for this recording. Generically, it sits somewhere between tone poem (albeit of the most abstract kind) and late Romantic symphony. In Dvořák, these two creative impulses serve a common cause, but Suk sets them apart, leaving interpreters the job of deciding which direction the music should take.

Libor Pešek is determined to maintain a symphonic coherency, which occasionally means forgoing atmosphere and involvement. There are occasional caesuras between sections that seem all too brief, and the conductor’s restraint is often apparent in the tuttis. On the other hand, the build-ups and other large-scale structural devices are all excellently handled, and a work that could otherwise seem incoherent and rambling is presented as a tight symphonic unit.

The Liverpool Philharmonic are on good form, demonstrating that even before the arrival of Vasily Petrenko (the recordings were made in the early 90s) the orchestra was a force to be reckoned with. Top musical honours go to the woodwinds, who have their work cut out in both symphonies but prove they are well up to the task. The strings and brass are occasionally a little messy, but not to the extent of spoiling the experience. ‘Asrael’ proved to be a defining point in Suk’s career, and many of his later orchestral works function as sequels of one sort or another. ‘A Summer’s Tale’ was the first of these. As the title suggests, it is slightly more cheery, although it is never carefree as such, and there is always a sardonic streak underlying its happier episodes. We are really in tone poem rather than symphony territory here, but Pešek maintains a firm grip on the structure and large-scale progressions. It is a more melodic work that ‘Asrael’, and again the woodwind carry the bulk of the melodic material. Generally speaking though, the melodies are pleasant and stylistically coherent, rather than memorable and propulsive as in Dvořák.

This double CD is a rerelease of two discs that were originally issued separately. Given the modest price, anybody buying it for the ‘Asrael’ alone would be churlish to complain about the addition of the lesser known ‘Summer’s Tale’. The ‘Asrael’ was nominated for a Gramophone Award in 1992, and that confidence in the recording’s merits is fully justified, as is the decision to rerelease it. The sound on both discs shows its age; neither has the clarity of detail we would expect from a more recent recording. But the woodwind solos are all admirably conveyed, which is a real boon for this music.

A recommended release then, but with the proviso that the recommendation takes into account the budget price. Both recordings are also available on Spotify if you don’t want to take the plunge, but I suspect the lower bit-rate online and the adverts between the movements will make purchasing the discs the more attractive option.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Sunday, 23 May 2010

A Place Between

John TAVENER (b. 1944): Ikon of Joy and Sorrow (premiere recording) [2:54]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935): Hymn to a Great City, for two pianos [3:12]
Alexander KNAIFEL (b. 1943): O Heavenly King (premiere recording) [5:19]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937): Ikon (premiere recording) [4:23]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b. 1937): 25.X.1893. P. I. Tchaikovsky No. 2 – “Lullaby” [6:05]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935): Da Pacem Domine (premiere recording of string quartet version) [4:20]
Henryk GÓRECKI (b. 1933): Good Night, Op. 63 [27:50]
John CAGE (1912-92): In a Landscape [10:18]
Total time: [64.36]
Recorded at St. Peters Church of Ireland, Drogheda 28th Febuary-2nd March 2009
Louth Contemporary Music LCMS901

Patricia Rozario - soprano
Michael McHale – piano and celesta
Ioana Petcu-Colan – violin
Voureen Ryan – flute
Stephen Kelly - percussion
Callino Quartet
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The inaugural recording by the Louth Contemporary Music Society offers religious minimalism in a range of flavours. It’s essentially an ambient album, subdued chamber music recorded in the warm acoustic of a large church, but the choice of works and composers makes for a varied programme.

Alexander Knaifel and Valentin Silvestrov make the most interesting contributions. Both composers include a point of aural focus in each of their musical textures, creating a sense of inner purpose and balancing the prevailing sense of ambience. Knaifel’s O Heavenly King is scored for soprano and string quartet, but with an intermittent obliggato shared between piano and celesta giving a percussive foil to the otherwise sustained textures. Silvestrov creates a similar sense of inner contrast in his textures through the clear profile of his melodies, standing apart and leading the ear. In Ikon the melody derives (or so it seems) from Orthodox chant, and in 25.X.1893. P. I. Tchaikovsky No. 2 – Lullaby the melody is borrowed from Tchaikovsky.

John Tavener and Arvo Pärt are presented in a more strictly ambient mode. Tavener’s Ikon of Joy and Sorrow and Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine are both slow, quiet works for string quartet with homogenous religioso textures throughout. Hymn to a Great City is Arvo Pärt’s homage to New York. It is a piano duet work with a simple chordal theme underpinned by repeated A flats and decorated by the occasional arpeggio flourish at the top of the keyboard. Frustratingly monotonous but mercifully short.

Henryk Górecki could be considered a minimalist, even a religious minimalist, but not in the sense that unites Tavener, Pärt, Silvestrov and Knaifel. His Third Symphony has associated his name with the religious and ambient tendencies in Eastern European music, but the work presented here, Good Night, is in a more uncompromising vain. There are echoes of the Third Symphony, especially from the soprano in the third movement, but in general this is music based on a sterner aesthetic philosophy. It is a long work (around half an hour) and is based on rigorous principles of thematic and textural development, or at least metamorphosis. The textures remain subdued throughout, yet it is an intense listening experience, and the preceding works seem somewhat trivial by comparison.

The disc concludes with In a Landscape, a solo piano work written by John Cage in 1948. Music from a different time, then, and from a different continent. Nevertheless, it fits comfortably into this programme, and serves to demonstrate the immense significance John Cage and his music had on European music in the second half of the 20th century.

The performances are of a consistently high standard, and a special mention should be given to the ensemble’s guest star, the soprano Patricia Rozario, although her two short appearances are all too brief. Good recorded sound too, although the church acoustic is perhaps a little overly resonant, even for that ‘ambient’ sound. The halo around the solo piano in this environment is strikingly similar to that of many of the ECM recordings of works by some of these composers. The economic success and iconic status of those recordings would be a laudable goal for this and future recording projects from the contemporary music enthusiasts of Louth.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Brahms Piano Quartet no. 2, Clarinet Trio, Nash Ensemble ONYX 4045

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114 [24:36]
Piano Quartet No.2 in A Op.26 [49:01]
The Nash Ensemble
Ian Brown – piano
Richard Hosford – clarinet
Marianne Thorsen – violin
Lawrence Power – viola
Paul Watkins – cello
Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Menuhin School, Cobham, Surrey, 13, 15, 16 July 2009 Stereo DDD
Onyx Classics ONYX 4045 [73:46]

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This is an impressive addition to the Nash Ensemble’s growing catalogue of Brahms recordings. And as with their recording of the String Sextets, and of the First and Third Piano Quartets, a real sense of collective endeavour permeates these performances. You really get the impression that the works are being played as chamber music: passionate without being histrionic, precisely coordinated but with freely expressive solo lines, and balanced to give each player equal prominence.

The scoring of the Clarinet Trio – clarinet, cello, piano – helps to delineate each of the voices, and in this work it is to the credit of the players and the sound engineers alike that so much coherency is achieved in the ensemble. All three players come across with a warm yet focussed tone. The democracy of the Nash Ensemble’s approach is demonstrated by the fact that the clarinet never seems to dominate as a solo instrument. Again, this may be in part due to the sound engineering and the way that the upper register of the piano has a roundness of tone that perfectly complements the clarinet’s sound. Dynamic and tempo markings are observed but never exaggerated, the poco F at the opening for example, is interpreted as an indication of clarity of tone and phrasing rather than an actual loud dynamic, thereby retaining a sense of mystery for this slow introduction.

The louder passages in the opening movements of both works demonstrate the extraordinary facility the Nash Ensemble has for presenting chamber music as chamber music. Brahms cranks up the tension, and the volume, but the players never let the music’s intimacy suffer. All the passion is there, but there is never any danger excess. Surprise dynamic jumps in the finale of the Clarinet Trio are another case in point; each sF jumps out of the texture, but never to the extent of disrupting the music’s lyrical continuity.

Fine balance and close communication between the players also characterise the Nash Ensemble’s reading of the Second Piano Quartet. So there is never any danger of the piano competing with the strings. As in the Clarinet Trio, the roundness of the piano tone really helps it to integrate into the texture of the other instruments. And yet despite that integration, the sound of each of the instruments is always clearly audible. I’m particularly impressed by the sound of the cello in the mix. It’s not a particularly bottom-heavy balance, but the cello really sings.

Perhaps these performances are a little too sophisticated? Is there enough rustic charm in the scherzos? Enough drama to engage in the Allegros? Well, from where I’m sitting they gauge it just right. True enough, I would probably be just as content with a reading that was a little more boisterous, provided it retained the same balance and ensemble. But, as I say, this is chamber music played as chamber music. Intimacy and immediacy are the guiding principles here, from the communication between the players to the clarity and warmth of the sound engineering. Highly recommended.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Friday, 21 May 2010

Springs of Genius, Works by Bach and composers who influenced him

Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665–1697) Praeludium in G [8:10]
Johann Kaspar KERLL (1627–1693) Passacaglia [6:44], Toccata 6 [3:04]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653–1706) Partita: Alle Menschen müssen sterben [9:27], Toccata in E minor [1:52]
Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616–1667) Fantasia: Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La FbWV 201[8:11], Capriccio FbWV 501 [3:04]
Georg BÖHM (1661–1733) Chorale Prelude: Vater unser im Himmelreich [4:40], Praeludium in C [4:34]
Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643–1722) Fugue in G minor [5:00]
Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637–1707) Chorale Prelude: Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herr Gott BuxWV 199 [4:30], Chorale Prelude: Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist BuxWV 208 [2:56], Ciacona in E minor BuxWV 160 [6:09]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750) Toccata in E BWV 566 [10:34]

Margaret Phillips - organ
rec. in Louis-en-L’Île, Paris 5th-6th August 2008 DDD
REGENT REGCD300 [78:58]

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Recording projects that seek to contextualise the organ music of J.S. Bach have a tendency to backfire. Interspersing his works with those of his teachers, contemporaries or pupils rarely does those other composers any favours, and often merely reinforces the assumption that Bach’s music was the result of unique and unqualified genius. The careful programming on this disc has obviously been prepared with a mind to these dangers; Johann Sebastian only makes a single appearance, his Toccata in E BWV 566 the spectacular conclusion of the disc, and works by other composers have been chosen to highlight their stylistic diversity and individual merits.

The rationale for the programme comes from Peter Williams’ recent J.S.Bach: A Life in Music, a biography that sticks closer than most to the verifiable facts. Its basic source material is the obituary of Bach written by Carl Phillip Emanuel and Johann Agricola (son and pupil of Bach respectively) which was published in 1754. All of the composers featured on this recording are named in that document with reference to Johann Sebastian’s formative musical experiences. Froberger, Kerll and Pachelbel, for example, are all mentioned with reference to the so-called moonlight episode (when Bach copied out their works by night because he did not have his brother’s permission to borrow the volume), and Böhm, Riencken and Buxtehude were all personal acquaintances to a greater or lesser extent.

There are no real surprises from the two best-known composers in the selection, Pachelbel and Buxtehude. The former is represented by a substantial set of variations (the Partita) and a short Toccata, neither of which challenge his reputation for worthy but pedestrian counterpoint. The two Chorale Preludes and Ciacona by Buxtehude are stylistically and technically the closest any of these predecessors come to the music of Bach himself, and programmed as they are immediately before the Bach finale emphasises the artistic affinity.

The lesser known composers all punch above their weight, and no concession need be made to Bruhns, Kerll or Froberger for the 17th century provenance of their work in terms of sophistication. But for me the highlight of the disc is the Fugue in G minor by Reincken. At only five minutes and having no pedal part it is a slight work by the standards of this programme, but its sprightly fugal subject, occasionally resting on repeated semiquavers before springing off again, and the lightness of its elaboration give the music a vitality worthy of Bach at his greatest.

Some eyebrows might be raised at the prospect of organ music of the German Baroque being recorded in Paris, but the credentials of the organ of St Louis-en-L’Île for this repertoire are impeccable. The instrument is by Bernard Aubertin and was completed in 2005. The commission specified an instrument suitable for the music of Bach, and Aubertin based the instrument on designs by Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688-1757), a maker whose work Bach himself apparently endorsed. Its sound on this recording is clean, focussed and balanced, and without a peep from the mechanical tracker action.

Margaret Phillips performs with precision and flair, and is sensitive to the details of stylistic variety in the programme. There is apparently a pedagogical aspect to this recording; it is produced in association with the English Organ School, an organisation that Phillips runs with her husband David Hunt. The booklet includes the full specification of the instrument, but also lists the registrations used throughout. A nice touch, and perhaps aimed at aspiring organists who wish to use the recording as a model for their own performances. They would be well advised to do so.

© Gavin Dixon 2010

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Costas Fotopoulos plays Rachmaninov JCL514

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943): Three Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39 [12:22]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943): Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [19:18]
Costas FOTOPOULOS (born 1974): Toccata [4:59]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943): Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (1913 Edition) [26:09]
Recorded at Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London on 7th-9th July 2008 DDD
Total length [62:45]
JCL Records JCL514

Costas Fotopoulos has made some good choices from Rachmaninov’s piano repertoire for his debut CD. The two substantial works on the disc are the Corelli Variations and the Second Sonata, the first of which catalogues many of the varied styles in Rachmaninov’s piano works: the heavy Slavic, the delicate Rococo the lyrical vocalise, while the latter is a substantial showcase for virtuoso pianism. Between them, the two works give Fotopoulos the chance to display both his stylistic versatility and his technical skill.

The programme opens in a relatively subdued mood, at least for Rachmaninov, with three of the Op.39 Etudes-Tableaux (numbers 4, 5 and 6). There is drama here, though, and Fotopoulos gives engaging performances, without sacrificing precision or clarity for the passion of the moment. The same is true of the Corelli Variations, although there is a slight tendency here for undue restraint, not a lack of rubato, dynamics or pedalling so much as a lack of spontaneity in their application. A secure reading though, with an impressive sensibility to the stylistic variety between the variations.

Fotopoulos has divided his musical studies between the piano and composition, and the next work on the disc is his own Toccata, composed in 2001. Film music is an important part of his portfolio (as is accompanying silent films) and filmic qualities are immediately apparent in the piece. Jump-cuts between styles and tempi pull the music between different moods and colours. Two styles predominate, a florid classical idiom – I’d like to say in the style of Rachmaninov, but it is closer to Ravel – and a selection of jazz textures, off-beat chords and vampy moto perpetuo obligattos. The convincing, if brief transitions between the two are impressive, and speak of long hours spent fitting piano improvisations around silent films.

Given this mastery of instantaneous musical gear changes, it is curious that Fotopoulos has opted for the original 1913 version of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Sonata. As he points out in the liner notes, the main difference between the two versions is that the smooth and often lengthy transitions between sections in the original are replaced in the revised version with briefer and more functional modulations. It is an engaging performance, though, combining a technique that is more than secure enough for Rachmaninov’s virtuoso textures with an acute ear for the harmonic colours that the composer draws from the piano.

The CD is part of an interesting recording project. The label JCL Records has been set up by Jonathan Cooke, who is also the pianist’s agent. At a time when orchestras and venues are sticking it to the man and setting up their own labels, it seems agents and artists’ managers are also picking up on the idea. This CD is well recorded, professionally presented and programmed to play to the performer’s strengths. All in all, it seems the ideal way to make a recording debut.

© Gavin Dixon 2010