Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Verdi: Macbeth from the Sferisterio Opera Festival

Macbeth - opera in 4 acts (1865 revision)
Macbeth - Giuseppe Altomare (baritone); Lady Macbeth - Olha Zhuravel (soprano); Banquo - Pavel Kudinov (bass); Macduff - Rubens Pelizzari (tenor); Malcolm - Marco Voleri (tenor); Doctor - Luca Dall’Amico (bass); Chorus Lirico Marchigiano
Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/Danielle Callegari
Stage direction, set design and costumes by Pier Luigi Pizzi
rec. live, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 2, 5 August 2007 Stereo DDD
Sung in Italian
NAXOS 8.660259-60 [CD1 – 77:02, CD2 – 66:42, TT: 152.27]

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Although a number of the cast are from Eastern Europe, this is distinctively Italian Verdi interpretation. From the point of view of the singing, the main benefit is consistently clear diction, while the main disadvantage (at least for me) is the continuous, heavy vibrato. Guiseppe Altomare, in the title role, was apparently a late addition to the cast, but you wouldn’t know. His voice is rich and characterfull, although his intonation is a little shaky towards the top. He has a good range of colours and emotions, and in the absence of visuals, it is his performance that keeps the drama alive in the sound recording. Olha Zhuravel, as Lady Macbeth, is the most vibrato-laden of the soloists, which is not to my taste, although Verdi himself would have been unlikely to complain. In fact, the vibrato gives her voice impressive projection and, when required, a menacing intensity. Pavel Kudinov and Rubens Pelizzari give similarly convincing performances as Banco and Macduff respectively, the former with a noble, rich tone, the latter slighter lighter and more guttural, and both articulating the words with welcome clarity.

There is a certain amount of stage noise in the first act, which is not unduly distracting, but gives a tantalising suggestion of the visuals we are missing. Otherwise, the sound quality is of a very high standard. After having heard the recording, I was surprised to read that it was made in an outdoor arena with a very large stage, as neither of these factors has impinged on the audio quality. The balance between stage and pit is finely judged throughout and the clarity of the orchestra sound is impressive, although there is a slight tendency for the percussion to sound distant. The Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana sound distinctively Italian, and the light brass sound gives an internal balance within the orchestra that is easily lost with larger instruments in this country. The chorus, Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’ also deserve a mention. Again, there is more vibrato in the ladies’ voices than I would like, but the intonation and ensemble are excellent.

The presentation of the CD is to the usual serviceable, if not exceptional, Naxos standards. There is no libretto, of course, and even the linked webpage gives only the Italian. But the few stills from the production give the impression of a visual spectacle that was fully the equal of the musical drama presented here. All in all, this is a good ensemble performance, and if none of the soloists really excel, that is a testament to the high musical standards of the overall production. It is not the best recording of Macbeth out there, but it certainly does Verdi’s score full justice, and is worth considerably more than its diminutive price tag.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Albert Schnelzer: Predatory Dances

Predatory Dances (2003) [12:52]
Dance with the Devil (2000) [7:32]
Frozen Landscape (2002) [8:14]
Requiem (2004) [14:28]
Solitude (1999) [6:47]
Lamento (2004) [7:11]
Wolfgang is Dancing! (2002) [8:33]
Tobias Ringborg – violin
Claes Gunnarsson – cello
Per Lundberg – piano
Staffan Mårtensson – clarinet
Susanna Andersson – soprano
Francisca Skoogh – piano
Recorded in the Rosenbergsalen, Malmö 4-5 April 2007 (Dance with the Devil and Requiem) and Swedish Radio, Stockholm Studio 2 10-12 September 2008 STEREO DDD

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For Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer, composition is about looking for ‘true personal expression’ rather than striving to be ‘modernistically correct’, but the relationship in his music between expressivity and modernist austerity is more complicated than this suggests. The craftsmanship of his writing comes through in its remarkable clarity of texture, even in the densest passages. A mastery of rhythm is the secret to the success of his faster music, and as the title of the disc suggests, dance is an important inspiration. Klezmer rhythms are stated as a source of his rhythmic ideas, but their modernist heritage is also apparent. Predatory Dances, the work from which the disc’s title is taken, is written for piano trio, but owes much to Stravinsky’s ballets, both Russian period and neo-classical. Off-beats and cross rhythms drive otherwise dense textures, the strings playing repeated note figures with irregular downbeats created by regular metre changes. As the work progresses, the strings overlay long, arching melodies over frenetic piano accompaniment, the expressive and the modernistic played out here in counterpoint.

Dance with the Devil is a solo piano work based on a similar combination of rhythmic complexity and textural clarity. Stravinsky again lurks in the background, although his influence is a few stages removed, reaching Schnelzer via Bartok and especially Ligeti, whose L’escalier du diable is strongly evoked, both in the music’s textures and its title.

Textural contrast is clearly of central importance to Schnelzer’s work, and the music of this disc can be divided roughly in half between this fast rhythmic music and its slower, often almost arrhythmic, counterpart. The three ‘dance’ works -Predatory Dances, Dance with the Devil and Wolfgang is Dancing! – use both textures, while the other works on the disc are restricted to the quieter, slower style. If the four quieter works seem more consummate, it is because of the crude ternary form with which the dance works are structured. Each of these has related, though not identical, outer dance sections separated by a quieter interlude. It is a stark contrast, and the two textures interact powerfully, but this only goes to increase the frustrating predictability of the basic three-part form.

Frozen Landscapes for cello and piano is music of a Northern European cast. Bleak landscapes are powerfully evoked, with isolated notes and chords appearing from sustained textures. The music calls to mind recent Russian minimalism, especially that of Alexander Knaifel. It is really music for a cathedral acoustic rather than a recording studio, but generous digital reverb makes up the difference without undue intrusion.

Requiem is a song cycle for soprano and piano, written as a memorial to Fadime Sahindal, a Kurdish woman who was the victim of an honour killing in Sweden in 2002. The solo piano opening suggests Messiaen at his more laid back, while the vocal writing is more straightforwardly lyrical. The soprano, Susanna Andersson, sings with an unaffected simplicity, although more vibrato than the music warrants, and copes admirably with the occasional ascent to the top register at the ends of phrases.

Solitude for solo cello takes us back to frozen landscapes, and this time double stopping creates the simple duet textures that were achieved by cello and piano in the earlier work. Most of the textures are at the quiet end of the spectrum, and while the music is linear, you would be hard-pushed to describe it as melodic. Instead it strives for a sense of bleak expanse, achieved through the contrast in scale of the overall work with its minimal resources.

Lamento is another work based on attenuated textures, with pinpoint notes and chords appearing over sustained pedals. The work is for violin, clarinet, cello and (modestly) prepared piano, and is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about the sandman. Sleep and snoring are therefore the imperatives for these various sounds, with swells into notes and glissando slides off. Atmosphere is again the order of the day, and is achieved without even a hint of pedantry.

No prizes for guessing who the title character of Wolfgang is dancing! The idea behind this piece was apparently to apply klezmer rhythms to Mozart’s music, but thankfully all that is buried deep, and the music gives no suggestion of pastiche. If this is a joke, it is a sophisticated one. The work is another of Schnelzer’s ‘dances’ with the instruments (violin, clarinet and cello) distributed between a spiky melodic contour and a cross-accented repeated note accompaniment. Then comes a sharply contrasting calm interlude before the return of the main material. It would be a highly accomplished work, were it not for the pedantic and unimaginative structure.

The young Swedish performers are all on the music’s wavelength, and the works are given sympathetic and energetic readings. While many of the pieces contain obvious technical challenges, Schnelzer is a composer who thinks of his performers. He creates rhythmic complexity out of easily performed repeated note patterns, structures melodies around breath durations, and fashions ornaments from scale runs. It is clearly satisfying music to play, and this a recording made by players who are committed to every note of it.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 28 June 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.3, Nagano

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No.3
Dagmar Pecková – mezzo-soprano
Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin
Knabenchor Hannover
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano – cond.
Recorded live at the Philharmonie Berlin September and November 1999
Warner Classics and Jazz Apex 2564 68161-7 2 CDs

The image of mint leaves on the cover of this CD is presumably intended to imply a fresh, new recording of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. If so, it is highly misleading, as this is a rerelease (and not the first) of a Warner recording first issued in 2000. It is not a bad reading though, and from the sound quality you could mistake it for new. I have a few reservations about the interpretation, especially in the outer movements, and would struggle to recommend the disc at its original full price, but the budget price tag of the reissue makes it an attractive prospect.
It is a live recording (aren’t they all these days), but the sound is nevertheless impressive. The acoustic of the Philharmonie in Berlin should take at least part of the credit for that. And while the tuttis are not quite as detailed as they could be, the soloists are very well served by the sound. There is not a peep from the audience (have they been remastered out?) and the applause has been removed.

My main reservation about this Mahler 3 is the lack of emotional involvement, especially in the outer movements. The first movement is a tricky one, as it is stubbornly episodic yet requires a sense of dramatic narrative to weave the short sections together. It doesn’t really get that and consequently feels a little meandering. The individual sections work well enough in isolation though: good horns at the opening, good woodwind solos, a slightly throaty but impressively strident trombone solo. 

The last movement also suffers from a sense of superficiality. Tempos are on the fast side and rubato is kept to a minimum. That’s not to say that this is a mechanical reading, but rather that the various indulgences that Mahler tempts the conductor with along the way are all chastely avoided. And like the rest of the symphony, the recording of the last movement is more involving in the solos than in the tuttis.

The best of this recording is to be found in the inner movements. From the start of the second movement, it really comes alive. Those woodwind solos, the oboe and later the flute and clarinet, are magnificent, and the string sound in this second movement is warm and inviting. The third movement is imbued with all the rustic charm you could want, and the posthorn solo, played by Joachim Pliquett, is spot on: distant, yearning and militaristic all at the same time. 

Dagmar Pecková is a competent rather than exceptional vocal soloist, although the success or otherwise of a Mahler 3 is never going to rest on the shoulders of the alto. Nagano returns to clear, open textures in the fourth movement, laying himself open to charges of shallowness, perhaps, but achieving a noble elegance nonetheless. And a good performance from the Knabenchor Hannover in the fifth movement, the ladies of the Rundfunkchor Berlin are a little brittle at the top, but the textures of the movement are saved by the rounder tone of the boys choir.

A recommendation then, but with the proviso that this takes into account the budget price tag. Nagano’s Mahler 3 is a revisionist exercise in some ways; as if he is trying to rescue the score from the Romantic excesses of his forbears. It is a noble effort, and the payoff is clarity of ensemble and focussed textures throughout. For me, though, it served as a reminder of how much I love all those Romantic excesses.

Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.1, Honeck, Pittsburgh SO

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.1 ‘Titan’
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck – conductor
Recorded 26-28 September 2008 (live recording) at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh Stereo DDD/DSD
Exton EXCL-00026 [57:59]

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Manfred Honeck is a musician from the heart of the Viennese tradition. He took to conducting after ten years in the viola section of the Vienna Philharmonic, so when he tells American orchestras how they should be playing Mahler they listen. That authentic Viennese approach, combined with one of America’s top flight orchestras promises the best of both worlds. 

Both are certainly evident, but there are limitations here too, and I wonder if Honeck is trying too hard to impress his Viennese views onto the players. The central European performing traditions are most evident in the inside movements. Honeck writes in the liner note that an important property of the second movement ländler is an emphasis on the second beat of the triple meter, which Mahler expected his players to know and therefore did not notate. Fortunately, he is not too pedantic about this; the second beats stand out in the basses at the opening, but in that and many of the following phrases, the agogic profile is smoothed out as the phrase tails off. The landler character is also emphasised through a slower tempo, and some really woody clarinet solos, all of which contributes to a pastoral, although not necessarily rustic, atmosphere. In the slow movement, Honeck emphasises the dotted downbeat rhythms, almost to the extent of suggesting double dots. This is presumably another example of Viennese flavour, but I find it a little jarring.

The outer movements are presented with focus and clarity, valuable attributes, no doubt, but the clarity often seems to be at the expense of atmosphere and drive. SACD technology poses new challenges in the opening of the work, how to appear from nothing when every minute detail is perceptible. (The SACD sound is excellent, but it is only stereo, there is no surround mix.) The assertiveness of the woodwind solos – the cuckoos and the fanfares – makes for a strident transition into the main theme, although when it arrives it is a little lacklustre. Again, this is a case of clarity of sound and texture trumping dramatic or propulsive urges.

The finale could also do with more energy and more atmosphere, more adrenalin in the rondo theme and more hushed expectation in the interludes. But again it is all about detail here, and you’ve got to admire the sheer range of articulations, dynamics and note lengths. Honeck’s control of the orchestral balance combines with the superior audio to ensure that the strings are always audible over the winds. 

The orchestral playing is good, although not uniformly so. The Pittsburgh Symphony has an impressive string sound, and the players have done well to incorporate Mahler’s and Honeck’s unusual articulations – glissandos, ricochets, spiccato – seamlessly into their collective style. The woodwind function better as soloists than as an ensemble, and there some co-ordination issues in the second movement. And the brass sound isn’t to my taste at all, it is very nasal and underpowered. That’s a great shame, because a punchy brass section is the one thing an American orchestra could usually be relied on to deliver in a Mahler recording.

These things come down to taste of course, and it is interesting to speculate about whose tastes this recording is aimed to satisfy. For not only are American and Austrian parties involved, but there is also a strong Japanese contingent. The record label is Japanese, and they take pride in describing how the recording was mixed in Yokohama – there’s even a picture of the inside of the studio. Could it be that Honeck and his forces are thinking specifically of Japanese listeners when they focus obsessively on the tiny details, somehow losing the bigger picture along the way?

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 25 June 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.2: Paavo Järvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Alice Coote – mezzo
Natalie Dessay – soprano
Orfeón Donostiarra
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi – conductor
Recorded live at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 6-8 May 2009 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 694586 0 6 [23:17+61:54]

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Another Mahler 2 for the composer’s anniversary year, but not one that stands out from the crowd. Competency is evident in every aspect of this recording: the orchestra, the choir, the soloists, the sound. But there are no surprises here, and Paavo Järvi errs on the side of caution in every aspect of his interpretation.

Or perhaps I should say lack of interpretation. Järvi takes pride in his fidelity to details of the score (as he explains in the video interview below), and true enough, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. But this music needs more from the podium, it needs passion and drive and at least half an eye on the bigger picture. It is telling that the last Mahler disc from Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra was entitled ‘Mahler Movements’, because this latest project also focuses on the individual moments and movement at the expense of the whole.

Most of the first movement is slower than you will hear elsewhere. The tempos call to mind Rattle’s famous CBSO recording, but where Rattle creates tension and anticipation through his restraint, Järvi’s slower tempos have the effect of draining the music of its drama and energy. Much of this first movement sounds positively relaxed, which often makes for pleasant listening, but is hardly the intended effect.

That laid-back approach is more appropriate to the second movement, which is largely successful as a result. In the vast discography of this symphony, interpretations of the second and third movements fall into two broad categories, with some conductors pulling the music around, emphasising the phrasing through exaggerated rubato, while others maintain a steady pace throughout. And despite his otherwise relaxed demeanour, Järvi is very much in the first category. It is another case, I think, of concentrating on the moment at the expense of the whole. Questions of taste are also raised by the regular violin glissandos. True enough, they are written in the score, but their emphatic presentation, were other conductors would be inclined to tone them down, speaks of a curiously blind faith in the stated performance directions.

The orchestra gets its chance to shine in the finale, and there are moments here of quite phenomenal playing. The percussion section both perform well and come across distinctly in the audio balance, allowing the individual instruments to be clearly distinguished. The brass is less impressive, with intonation problems in many of the solos, and regular spilts in the tuttis.

An impressive turn from both soloists, although it seems a frustrating waste of talent booking Natalie Dessay for such a small role. But both singers, and Dessay in particular, bring a sense of operatic bravado to the movement. And it turns out, in the last 20 minutes or so, that Järvi has one final surprise up his sleeve, Orfeón Donostiarra, a Basque concert choir, presumably invited to Frankfurt specifically for the project. They have a dark, focussed tone, an impressive dynamic range and spot-intonation.

All of which goes to make the ending of the work the highlight of this performance. As I say, I’ve no specific complaints with any of the playing up to here, it is just a very middle of the road interpretation. The sound quality is good, especially given that this is a live recording. In fact, it is only the modern audio standards (and possibly the surrealist cover art) that distinguish this from the many unexceptional recordings of the work from the 1970s and 80s. A competent but old-fashioned Resurrection Symphony.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.2, Nott, Bamberger Symphoniker

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) 
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [84:17]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); Lioba Braun (contralto)
Chor der Bayerische Symphoniker/Rolf Beck
Bamberger Symphoniker and Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie/Jonathan Nott
rec. 14-15 March 2008, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Germany
2 SACDs for the price of 1
TUDOR 7158 [32:53 + 51:24]

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This Mahler 2 is a very fine recording indeed. The orchestra are on top form and the recorded sound is excellent. But most importantly of all, the conductor Jonathan Nott delivers an interpretation that exploits every dramatic possibility of the music and also suggests some solutions to the structural problems that dog the work.

This innovative structural thinking is most evident in the first movement. The problem, and it is a problem that most conductors ignore, is that the movement is too long and too autonomous to function as an opener. Nott’s solution is to vary the textures and tempos, so that only the most intense climaxes are given full weight. One result is that many passages seem less consequential, although never less committed, than in other recordings. The opening, for example, is very fast. It is cleanly articulated by the lower strings, but there is no sense of bombast, not yet anyway. The faster tempi and lower dynamics give the advantage to the woodwind soloists, who really shine, floating above the nervous strings with ease. And when the great climaxes do come, in the development and the recapitulation, they are all the better for the waiting. The brass are really effective in the louder passages, they have a searing tone which sounds as if bordering on the uncontrolled, which may or may not be the case, but certainly adds to the frisson. 

The break between the discs is put between the second and third movements, an unusual move, given that the break usually comes between the first and second. Mahler states in the score that there should be a 5 minute break between the first and second movements, and putting the switch after the first gives the listener the opportunity to emulate that practise at home. But how many people actually do that? And does it increase their enjoyment of the work? No, it is just a clumsy solution to a major structural problem. But Jonathan Nott has a better idea, and I suspect that he has had a say in the positioning of the break. Instead of a five minute pause between the movements, his solution is to play down the drama of the first movement coda so that it does not overwhelm the second movement opening. He takes the descending chromatic scale superfast, but he has already set this up, because the tempo indication in the score is ‘Tempo 1’, and as he had taken the start of the movement similarly fast, it coheres elegantly. Genius!

The second and third movements are more relaxed than you will hear on many recordings. The second in particular is slow, gently flowing, almost pastoral. The SACD sound picks out some wonderful details here, particularly the low woodwind and the harps. There is slightly more drama in the third movement, but as in the first, it tends to be localised, bringing implicit emphasis through comparison with the more relaxed passages.

The vocal soloists are both good, although it is a shame that their timbres don’t match. Lioba Braun has a rich, husky alto, while Anne Schwanewilms has a much purer, crisper soprano. The finale is another dramatic tour de force, but like the first movement, Nott allows for plenty of variety in his tempos and dynamics. As with the first movement, I’m particularly impressed by the originality of the tempo decisions. Much of the movement is quite slow, but even when Nott pulls the tempos around from one bar to the next it never feels indulgent. The choral climax, by contrast, is slightly faster than most other readings, but no less monumental for it. Detail is the key to Jonathan Nott’s art; he knows that if he can get the internal balance with the orchestra right, and have every player agree on the articulations and note lengths, then he will be in a position to concentrate on the bigger picture. I have been impressed in the past by a number of Nott’s recordings (have you heard his Ligeti Requiem? Phenomenal) and he strikes me as the kind of recording artist for whom superior audio is a major benefit. Those inside lines in the strings, the subtle differences of timbre in woodwind duets, gradual dynamic changes in the harp, all these things are essential to his approach. Hearing his work presented at this audio quality you can really see where he is coming from. 

It says on the back of the box that this is a live recording. I’ll take their word for that, but it surprises me, given the finely tuned balance of the orchestra, not to mention the absolute absence of audience noise or applause.

Gone are the days when we talked about benchmark recordings of Mahler symphonies, there are just too many high quality recordings out there for the idea to remain feasible. But perhaps this could be described as a benchmark of recent Mahler interpretation. It is certainly among the best of the many Mahler discs I have heard this year. On the other hand, it is such a coherent and self-sufficient interpretation, that comparison with others seems irrelevant. Highly recommended to all fans of Jonathan Nott and Mahler – however many Resurrection Symphonies you already have on your shelf.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Larcher: Madhares

Thomas LARCHER (b.1963)
Böse Zellen for piano and orchestra [20:00]
Still for viola and chamber orchestra [23:49]
Madhares (String Quartet no.3) [21:54]
Till Fellner piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Quatuor Diotima
Münchener Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded August 2008 at the Bavaria Musicstudios, Munich (Böse Zellen, Still) and Liederkranzhalle, Stuttgart (Madhares) Stereo DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 2111 476 3651 [65:43]

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Thomas Larcher made quite an impression in London a few years ago when he came to perform his new piano concerto with the London Sinfonietta. Böse Zellen (translated here as ‘Malign Cells’ although I seem to remember the Sinfonietta opting for ‘Free Radicals’) did the rounds of the European new music scene in much the same way as Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen had a few years previously. They are very different works, but both are of such quality, substance and originality that both London premieres seemed like Zeitgeist defining events.

For this recording Larcher has handed over performing duties to his young compatriot Till Fellner. Both are gifted pianists, and Fellner’s reading is as competent as the composer’s. It is an interesting choice for Fellner, given that not so long ago he was known primarily as a protégé of Alfred Brendel. His mentor wouldn’t touch this sort of repertoire with a barge pole, so perhaps Fellner is taking the opportunity to move out of Brendel’s shadow.

The use of objects on the strings of the piano struck me as a particularly visual aspect of the work in live performance, but the unique timbres that result are so distinctive that little is lost in the transfer to audio recording. The most striking effect is the use of a large metal sphere, which is rolled across the strings as the key is depressed. This dampens the fundamental but allows the harmonics to sound, and as they do so from both sides of the ball, simultaneous ascending and descending glissandos sound as it is slowly rolled across the string.

Interestingly, the use of prepared piano does not have the effect of evoking John Cage. Some of the music is fast and rhythmic, and when played on muted strings distantly recalls the Sonatas and Interludes, but beyond that, this is clearly music from a different culture and time. Larcher’s aesthetic is difficult to categorise; he has obviously distanced himself from avant-garde modernism (if such a thing still exists), yet his engagement with more traditional notions of voice leading, orchestral hierarchy and genre do little to link his music with either postmodernism or reactionary Romanticism. He is not the only Austrian composer to feel the weight of history on his shoulders, but it doesn’t come across as Anxiety of Influence so much as creative engagement with the vocabulary of earlier music. And while the music is not Romantic in the sense of heart-on-sleeve expression, it conforms to 19th century notions of aesthetics, in the sense that every note and every effect obviously means something. This is particularly evident in the use of prepared piano, and is the primary distinction between this music and that of John Cage. 

But without speculating too far about what the music means, its surface textures never fail to be of interest. Larcher doesn’t go in for complex of dense textures, and most of the concerto involves quiet prepared piano effects discreetly supported by a subdued orchestra. Repeated notes are an important part of his musical vocabulary, as are slow string lines doubled at multiple octaves. The ‘malign cells’ of the title translate to an episodic structure, with short passages fading in and out of focus and interacting in various subtle ways. All in all, it is a fascinating piece, and in a fine performance that does it full justice.

The other two works on the disc contribute to a clearer picture of Larcher’s art. Still is a viola concerto, although it is interesting that it is not described as such by the composer. In fact, Böse Zellen is nowhere described as a piano concerto, and the string quartet that closes the programme is only so described in parentheses, where it also has a number; perhaps Larcher’s relationship with tradition is more complex than it first seems. Still is another work based on clear, unambiguous textures and linear, bordering on melodic solo and orchestral parts. There are a number of allusions to folk music, which are all the more puzzling for their brevity, although they seem to fit quite naturally into the contexts Larcher concocts for them. The folk music allusions align this work, and the string quartet that follows, with the ECM brand identity. In fact, the sound of Kim Kashkashian performing central and southern European folk tunes on the viola in an otherwise classical context recalls both ECM’s disc of Berio’s Voci and their more recent Naherot. Larcher also adds a piano into the mix, and there are lots of atmospheric string tremolo textures. You could be forgiven for mistaking much of this for film music, but film music of the highest quality.

Madhares, the string quartet that closes the programme has been privileged with the status of title track for the album, which is curious considering that Böse Zellen is better known, more substantial, and given first place on the track listing. The quartet is named after a mountain range in Crete, and while it isn’t programmatic as such, there is a real feeling here of Mediterranean sun-drenched atmosphere. There are also some more folk tunes to bring the picture into sharper relief, but in general this is a work of atmospheric abstraction. It is another work that fits easily with the ECM corporate identity, and I was particularly reminded in the quieter passages of the ECM recording of Knaifel’s In Air Clear and Unseen.

Excellent performances throughout, and a particular mention should go to the young Quatour Diotima, whom I think to be new to the ECM label, but who are more than capable of maintaining its high standards. And the high standards of packaging and documentation associated with the ECM brand are much in evidence too.
Thomas Larcher is a unique voice in modern music, and one that is well worth hearing. While it is difficult to link him with a compositional school, his aesthetics fit very comfortably with the ECM ethos. That could make for a great partnership further down the line. Long may it continue.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Mozart: Così Fan Tutte, Te Kanawa, Von Strade

Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Philippe Huttenlocher, David Rendall, Teresa Stratas, Jules Bastin, Choeurs de l’Opéra du Rhin, Alain Lombard – Conductor, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg
Warner Classics & Jazz 2564 68230-6

This rerelease of the 1978 Ta Kanawa/Von Stade Così Fan Tutte is welcome indeed. Theirs is a spectacular pairing, and as both are now in process of winding down their singing careers, this is a timely reminder of their former glories.

The recording has been in the catalogue long enough for virtually every kind of opinion to have been expressed about it. One criticism that is often made is that Alain Lombard is an uninspiring conductor. That is a fair point, perhaps, but he does a proficient job. His slow tempi have come in for criticism too, and it is interesting how the debate about the speeds of Mozart’s operas have moved on in the intervening years. With the speeding up in the 1980s and 1990s, to the more recent slowing down, even in period performance, this recording seems like a document from the ancient history of Mozart interpretation. In a sense, much of what has happened since is prefigured here. There can be a certain frustration at the slow tempi, yet when you try to imagine the same singers performing faster, you begin to realise that something about the music would be lost. And all the leads have the vocal support for the longer notes that the tempo creates. What’s more, each has such an interesting and elegant tone that nothing ever feels drawn out. My own view, at least as far as tempos go, is that what is presented here is ideal for a ‘Romantic’ reading of the opera, and of all Mozart’s works, this is surely the most deserving candidate for such an interpretation.

The singers seem to be sympathetic to Lombard’s smooth, lyrical approach. Much of their articulation has a fluid portamento quality, which would probably seem a bit syrupy today, but which fits ideally here. Duets and ensembles permeate the drama, and all work beautifully, thanks to the well matched cast. Te Kanawa and Von Stade match their timbres and their modest vibratos well. You sometimes get the feeling that Von Stade is pushing her voice just that little bit harder to balance with Te Kanawa, but the timbre is never adversely affected. David Rendall and Philippe Huttenlocher complement the ladies well in the male lead roles. Both have a warm, attractive vocal tone, excellent intonation and the musical ability to fit seamlessly into the ensembles. Neither has quite the star quality of the more famous soprano or mezzo, but both certainly pull their weight. Good support too from Teresa Stratas and Jules Bastin as Despina and Don Alfonso. Despina’s high jinks can seem excessive on record, where you have just the comedy voices of her alter egos and no costumes to complete the effect. Stratas doesn’t hold back; she gives a real buffo performance, which is just about within the bounds of taste. You certainly can’t ignore her.

The Orchestra Philharmonique de Strasbourg are also in 19th century mode. They play with a satisfyingly round tone, all very atmospheric. The strings are occasionally a little imprecise, in the overture for example, but otherwise they turn in a fine performance. Sound quality is good, in fact it is very good for 1977. As with the performance, the audio prioritises atmosphere over pinpoint clarity. That is more to the benefit of the ensembles than the solos, but all the voices are well represented throughout. 

The packaging is a bit Spartan, you get a cast list, a list of tracks and a synopsis. Such is the way of opera reissues I suppose, but I would have liked to have read something about the history of the recording. Perhaps, in years to come, this will be elevated to the status of an iconic recording from the history of opera, and will be rereleased in an elaborate casing with copious notes detailing its entire history. In the mean time, I’m more than happy to settle for this budget-price box set.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Monday, 21 June 2010

Neharót: Olivero, Mansurian, Komitas, Steinberg. Kim Kashkashian - viola

Betty Olivero (b. 1954)
Neharót Neharót (for viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape) [16:20]
Tigran Mansurian (b. 1939)
Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord (for viola and percussion) [5:31]
Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat) [19:11]
Komitas (1869-1935)
Oror (for piano) [2:57]
Eitan Steinberg (b. 1955)
Rava Deravin (for viola and string quartet) [15:59]
Kim Kashkashian viola
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose conductor
Kuss Quartett
Rec. March 2008, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich (Neharót Neharót), October 2007, Aula Nova, Academy of Music, Poznań (Tagh and Oror), January 2006, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston (Rava Deravin) STEREO DDD
ECM New Series 2065 476 3281 [60:13]

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Violist Kim Kashkashian is a big name on the ECM roster, and it is easy to hear why from this disc of her recent pet projects. All of the works have vocal origins, for which her distinctive lyrical tone is ideal. But beyond this, the whole ethos of the recording is pure ECM. Each work makes some reference to cultural contacts and conflicts in the Middle East, but none is overtly political. Instead, a relaxed tone, bordering on the ambient, is adopted throughout, and the various songs and styles are allowed the space to tell their own stories. The result carries a powerful message about the compatibility of neighbouring cultures, a message given all the more power through the subtly of its communication.

The title track Neharót Neharót is by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero. The title means ‘Rivers Rivers’ in Hebrew, but its musical references stretch far beyond Israeli Jewish culture, encompassing Kurdish and north African songs as well as quotations from Monteverdi. As with most of the music on this disc, the solo viola plays a lyrical singing line over the top of ensemble accompaniments, with the ensemble making the specific cultural references while the soloist spins out a more directly emotional melodic line. An accordion is used in the ensemble to remarkably subtle effect. Less subtle is ‘atmospheric’ percussion, including an occasionally irritating bell tree. Recordings of women’s singing voices (the singers Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia) are added into the texture in places and fit remarkably well. Olivero has skilfully anticipated any possible jarring that their introduction could cause and both prepares and supports the voices with rich string textures. For all these effects though, the most satisfying and interesting music in the work is to be found in the passages where the viola plays alone, or against static drone accompaniments, the stylistic and timbral complexity of Kashkashian’s playing more than a match for any of the accompanying effects.

Like Kim Kashkashian, the composer Tigran Mansurian is of Armenian descent, although neither was born in the country. His three works on this disc (really two works and an arrangement) address various issues of diaspora Armenian identity. Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord has as its generic basis an ancient Armenian song form (the ‘tagh’). The work is for viola and percussion, principally isolated vibraphone notes and deep, quietly struck Thai gongs. As with all the works on the disc, the success of the piece rests on the composer’s ability to introduce exotic elements in casual yet assured contexts, thereby avoiding confrontation, musical, cultural or otherwise. The viola plays in the d-phrygian mode with a quarter-tone sharpened seventh, a temperament that sits on the borderline of familiarity, continually suggesting exotic origins without ever insisting on a unique identity.

Oror is little more than an interlude. It is a piano arrangement made and played by Mansurian of a lullaby by the Armenian composer Komitas. Three Arias, however, is a much more interesting work. Issues of cultural alienation are apparent from the subtitle ‘(Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)’ and the composer’s statement that the work is a testament to the memory of ancient Armenian sites that are now within the borders of Turkey. But this too is a work that presents its constituent plurality as cultural interaction rather than political specificity. It is a work for solo viola and chamber orchestra (the Boston Modern Orchestra Project), and its most persistent internal tension is its oblique relationship with the genre of the concerto, continuously skirting its conventions, but also relying on the certainties of its expectations. The work opens as klangfarbenmelodie with a single note passed around the ensemble. The accompaniments get louder, but rarely more complex than this. The long viola solo towards the end of the first movement would be a cadenza in any other context, but it so restrained, lacking in bravado and seamlessly linked to the earlier music that the name seems curiously inappropriate. The second and third movements (Arias?) take on an unashamedly tonal euphony, the second slightly more upbeat, the third more lamenting. Vibraphone and celesta are introduced in this last movement to subtle but imaginative effect. But again, the most interesting aspect of this work, and of its performance, is the solo line, the lower strings of the viola giving a satisfying richness and effective vocal analogy.

Rava Deravin is an arrangement for viola and string quartet by the composer Eitan Steinberg of his own work of the same name for voice and ensemble. The arrangement was made at the suggestion of Kashkashian, apparently confident of her own ability (amply demonstrated by the other works presented here) to imitate vocal performance on the viola. The work fits well into the ethos of the programme, setting as it does a Hasidic melody for the very masculine-voiced viola over an accompaniment usually of almost static drones. The accompaniment at the start calls to mind Olivero’s accordion, but it is an effect produced solely by strings. The form is sectional, almost strophic, with the individual lines of the chant each supported by a different string texture. And despite its fifteen minute duration, the work has a diminutive profile, an epilogue to the programme rather than a finale.

The packaging is up to the usual ECM standards with an arty blue-washed water surface image on the cover illustrating the rivers of the title work. The liner note is by Paul Griffiths, who starts out in an unusually ethereal mode ‘...the viola is more an open space, desert or wilderness’ before settling down to a more prosaic discussion of the programme, which is highly informative and will no doubt be of great use to the many listeners who will come to the recording with little knowledge of the music. 

For followers of the ECM New Series project, recommendation of this disc will probably be unnecessary, but I offer it nonetheless. As with many of their most successful recordings, the fact that an accomplished and distinctive recording artist has been given the scope to explore personal interests (and they may be pet projects, but they combine to a magnificent whole) ensures an artistic integrity that, when combined with the company’s high production standards, have the makings of yet another ECM classic.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Mozart and Mendelssohn: Beloved of the Gods

MOZART: Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in E flat major, K498, 'Kegelstatt' (1786) [19:17]
Papamina Suite - music from Mozart's The Magic Flute arranged by Stephen Emmerson (2003) [16:25]
MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op. 13, 'Ist es wahr?' (1827) [32:20]
Dean Emerson Dean Trio (Mozart)
Tinalley String Quartet (Mendelssohn)
Recorded at the Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne 7-8 June 2008 (Mozart) and 18-19 August 2007 (Mendelssohn) DDD DSD
MELBA RECORDINGS MR 301121 [68:08]

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The Mozart Clarinet Trio, an arrangement of themes from the Magic Flute and a Mendelssohn string quartet, it is an unusual and eclectic programme for a CD. In fact, the Magic Flute arrangement is for the same forces as the trio (clarinet, viola and piano) and Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 quartet is an example of his more Mozartian side, so it all just about works. However, it is a disc of two halves, and the maturity of the Dean Emerson Dean Trio in the first two works is in stark contrast to the youthful exuberance of the Tinalley String Quartet in the Mendelssohn.

The Dean Emerson Dean Trio is made up of viola player (and respected composer) Brett Dean, his brother Paul playing clarinet and Stephen Emmerson at the piano. Their reading of the ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio is muscular and assured. Dialogue between clarinet and viola makes up much of the work, and the two brothers achieve an impressive stylistic continuity, complimenting each other elegantly with their respective timbres. Paul Dean has a satisfyingly woody clarinet tone and suppleness in the quieter dynamics that is ideal for this chamber music environment. Brett Dean is not a shy or retiring sort of viola player, and the focus of his tone prevents his playing being subsumed by the potentially more dominant clarinet and piano. His lower register is particularly satisfying, drawing cello-link sonorities from the lower strings.

If I have one complaint about the Mozart Trio, it is a certain lack of commitment. The players cope well with the technical challenges, but seem unwilling to inject any drama into the music. It is not the most passionate of Mozart’s chamber works, but it really requires more emotional engagement than this to properly shine. The Pamina Suite, an arrangement of Pamino and Pamina’s music from the Magic Flute by the group’s pianist, is also a suspiciously comfortable ride. Again, the technical accomplishment of the performance is undeniable, and the interplay of tone colours in the arrangement demonstrates a keen ear. But the purpose of the arrangement is never clear, nor its role in this programme, a feeling that seems to be shared by the performers.

The Tinalley String Quartet are a young Australian ensemble who clearly have the technical skills and tight sense of ensemble required for Mendelssohn’s 2nd String Quartet. But, as with the preceding Mozart, there is an anonymity about their playing, which makes it very difficult for the listener to get involved. This is not helped by the tempi, which are generally on the slow side. They cope well with Mendelssohn’s rapid transitions of tempo, texture and key, but have little in reserve for the more immediate changes, the con fuoco in the first movement for example, or the con moto in the third. Their steady reading is at its most effective in the slower passages. The second movement, despite being marked Adagio non lento, benefits from the measured, deliberate pacing. The end of the work reprises the Adagio opening of the first movement, and again, the unaffected simplicity of the quartet’s tone and their cautious tempo provides a stately frame for the work, a touch of classical elegance to counter any suspicions of triviality in Mendelssohn’s music.

Recent advertising features for recordings on the Melba label have carried the tagline ‘The perfect gift, superb sound and superior presentation’. Their claims to superior presentation are well founded, with both the design of the box and the information in the liner notes up to the company’s usual high standards. I have to say, though, that the sound recording does not match that of other recent Melba releases, the quartet is very top-heavy, with the cello often struggling to be heard. The balance in the clarinet trio is better, but there are a number of instances of peak distortion, around two minutes into the first movement, for example, and on the last chord of the second. Not a fatal flaw, but a surprise considering the high standards of sound production that the company is justly proud of. The claim that the CD would make a perfect gift seems reasonable. The performances are cautious enough not to offend and the box looks spectacular. Put it in your granny’s stocking it should keep her entertained until Boxing Day.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Friday, 18 June 2010

Reger: Clarinet Sonatas Op.49, Florent Héau, Patrick Zygmanowski

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Sonata Op. 49 No.1 in Ab Major for Clarinet and Piano [19:00]
Sonata Op. 49 No.2 in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Piano [18:12]
Albumblatt [1:29]

Florent Héau - clarinet
Patrick Zygmanowski – piano
Rec. at l’Eglise de Bon Secours PARIS XI 1-4 July 2002 DDD

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The clarinet sonatas of Brahms were the catalyst for Reger’s first forays into the genre. His Op.49 pair was written as a direct response to his first hearing Brahms’ Op. 120. They were written fast, and were completed within just a few days of this first acquaintance with their model. The Brahms connection is a useful starting point for performers and listeners alike when coming to this music. Reger’s textures are more dense and his modulations more daring, but Brahms’ disciplined approach to melodic phrasing and chordal voicing are at the heart of Reger’s aesthetic.

Florent Héau and Patrick Zygmanowski regularly fall back on Brahmsian performance practice in their performance of the Op. 49 sonatas, and no more so than in the opening movement of the second. The density of Reger’s accompaniments are here countered by a confident and strident clarinet sound, firmly intoning the melodic line to imbue the music with a sense of inevitability that is pure Brahms.

The speed at which these works were written was not unusual for Reger, and many performers of his chamber music have taken this as a license to play his music in a throwaway, slightly dismissive style, concentrating, like the composer himself, on the bigger picture rather than the numerous details. One occasional consequence is a lack of rubato or shaping of phrases. Héau and Zygmanowski are clearly aware of this danger, and their approach to phrasing is scrupulous. They take both sonatas at a relatively fast pace, but regularly hold back on the tempo to shape phrases and sections. Most of this rubato, it must be said, is not mentioned in the score, and is often taking to extremes. However, the flow of the music is never interrupted; Reger’s bigger picture is always given the foreground, and the performers know just how far they can stretch their indulgences.

What is less forgivable is the lack of dynamic variety, especially given the precision with which Reger notates his dynamics. The rubato shaping of phrases in the recording substitutes Reger’s similarly painstaking approach to do the same thing with dynamics. Admittedly, the score often calls for impractical and sudden dynamic changes within fast and complex passages, but the performers seem to treat the notated dynamics as optional. Perhaps we are all better off without the fff clarinet passages in the top register, but the pp entries and phrase endings below the stave lose their magic when played mf.

The recording was made in a church acoustic, which suits the clarinet better than the piano. Héau has a distinctive, woody sound, which benefits from the roundness of tone afforded by the warm resonance. The piano, by contrast, lacks definition in this environment, and the susceptibility of Reger’s complex textures to congestion and muddying regularly becomes apparent. The acoustic also has the effect of amplifying the upper bass register, which also works to the detriment of Reger’s dense chord voicing.

But for all this, the overall impression is of the performers coming to this relatively unusual repertoire as an opportunity rather than as a problem to solve. Their daring rubato speaks of a confident approach to the interpretation of the music, an interpretation that that excels in logic and coherency. The sense of energy and momentum they bring to each movement seems intended to dispel reservations that audiences may have about the density of Reger’s textures. It will probably work, but they would win more converts to Reger’s cause with a little more attention to the details of his scores. 

Gavin Dixon 2010

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Moniuszko: Masses volume 2

Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
Masses vol.2
Latin Mass in E flat major [27:41]
Mass in E minor for 2 sopranos and alto with organ [18:14]
Mourning Songs for Holy Mass for the souls of the dead for four voices and organ in D minor [14:27]
Mass in A minor for Two Voices (soprano, alto) and organ [15:59]
Marta Boberska – soprano
Agnieszka Rehlis – alto
Rafał Bartmiński – tenor
Andrej Białko – organ
The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir
Henryk Wojnarowski – conductor
Recorded at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, June and August 2009 stereo DDD
DUX 0720 [76:22]
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Given that he is best known as an operatic dramatist, Moniuskzko’s liturgical music is surprisingly pious. These four masses, one in Latin, three in Polish, are very much functional liturgy, without any unnecessary decoration, little counterpoint, and only the faintest hint of the Polish folk idioms that permeate much of his other work.

The opening Mass in Eb major is the most straight forward of the four. Setting Latin rather than Polish seems to have increased composer’s piety, not to mention his rigorous conservatism. You can perhaps detect elements of early Brahms or Bruckner here, but really it is difficult to locate it any more specifically than to Central Europe of the mid 19th century. 

Although you wouldn’t know it from the track listings, none of the other three masses set liturgical texts, and all use Polish language poems from various 19th century sources. The E minor mass has an impressive variety of tempos, textures and moods. At times the effect is quite atmospheric, although it is never dramatic and is always set with narrow stylistic constraints.
The Requiem, or rather ‘Mourning Songs to Holy Mass for the souls of the dead’ is curiously upbeat, or at least uptempo, given its genre. It remains as reverential as the other works, but without knowing, you’d be hard pushed to pick it out as a requiem. The final Mass in A minor returns us to the austere simplicity of the opening E flat major mass. Rather than the full choir of the E flat major, the A minor uses only ladies voices, simplifying the textures yet further.

The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir sing well, although I doubt their musical abilities are particularly stretched by this music. From their tone, they sound like a fairly large choir, yet their accuracy of pitch and ensemble is never in question. The four soloists are stylistically attuned to this music, and manage some characterful solos without disrupting the pious simplicity of the textures. All the masses have organ accompaniments, which are well played and recorded, if unimaginatively written.

So all in all, this one for Moniuszko fans only. Vocal music was clearly the composer’s greatest strength, and as well as his operas, a number of song cycles are currently available from various Polish labels. Unless you have a particular interest in mid-19th century Polish church music, you would probably be better off exploring those before venturing into this curiously austere liturgical repertoire. 

Gavin Dixon 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Simon Keenlyside: Wigmore Hall Recital

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) 
An Sylvia D891 (1826) [2:47]
Die Einsiedelei D 393 (1816) [1:33]
Verklärung D 59 (1813) [3:36]
Die Sterne D939 (1828) [3:35]
Himmelsfunken D 651 (1819) [3:03]
Ständchen D 957 No. 4 (1828) [4:25]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Der Knabe und das Immlein [2:56]
Gesang Weylas [1:37]
An die Geliebte [3:20]
Auf eine Christblume II [2:12]
Lied eines Verliebten [1:44]
Lied vom Winde [3:10]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Aubade Op.. 6 No. 1 (1873) [2:10]
En sourdine Op. 58 No. 2 (1891) [3:09]
Green Op. 58 No. 3 (1891) [1:58]
Notre amour Op. 23 No. 2 (c 1879) [1:58]
Fleur jetée Op. 39 No. 2 (1884) [1:35]
Spleen Op. 51 No. 3 (1888) [2:29]
Madrigal de Shylock Op. 57 No. 2 (1889) [1:32]
Le papillon et la fleur Op. 1 No. 1 (1861) [2:49]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Histoires naturelles (1906) [18:51]
Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
Hôtel (1940) [2:35]
Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 26 October 2008. DDD
Original texts and English translations included

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So much unreserved praise has already been afforded to this CD that more seems almost redundant. Nevertheless, it is so fully deserved that perhaps a little more wouldn’t go amiss. In years to come, this recording may well be seen as a milestone marking the halfway point in Keenlyside’s recording career. It captures his voice and his artistry at an ideal moment, his voice still supple and rich but with the burnished tones of maturity, his expression personal and immediate but also benefiting from a clear knowledge of his forebears.

He is well served by his companion, the recording team and the acoustic. Malcolm Martineau is, of course, an accompanist with a long pedigree of sensitive yet engaging lieder accompaniment, and his playing hear is exemplary. The way he matches Keenlyside’s phrasing and rubato speaks of close artistic empathy, and his masterly stylistic transition from the Germanic repertoire on the first half of the disc to the French in the second matches that of Keenlyside himself.

The technical side of the recording was overseen by Tony Faulkner, who opts for a very bright sound. This could seem out of place in a recording of such intimate chamber music, but for a release on the Wigmore Hall Live label it is ideal. The generous acoustic is such a distinctive feature of the venue, that to lose it in such a project would risk diluting one of the key features of the label’s identity. The generous sound also works to the piano’s favour, giving the instrument a warmth commensurate with Simon Keenlyside’s rich baritone.

Keenlyside is in the habit of rearranging the order of works after recital programmes are in print, and I understand that he reorganised this concert, but that the original order was reinstated for the recording. The first work on the disc, Schubert’s An Silvia certainly sounds like an ideal opener: fresh, forthright and exuberant. The six Schubert lieder are performed with a balance of emotion and restraint, passionate yes, but never operatic. In fact, and as Hilary Finch observes in her liner notes, Keenlyside creates variety of expression by exploring the opposite extreme, his rich tone occasionally giving way to a vocal timbre drained of colour.

A selection from Wolf’s “Mörike Lieder” follows. They are a little more angular than the Schubert, and Wolf struggles to match his predecessor’s natural instinct for melody. Texturally though, the selection compliments the Schubert, the voice is often in a higher register (where Keenlyside also excels, albeit with a lighter tone) and the wider ranging piano figurations are clearly from a later date in the instrument’s history.

The Faure songs are lighter fare. Keenlyside’s pronunciation of the French texts is a delight, and he’s not above leaning on the nasal vowel sounds for added French colour. But it is the intimacy instilled by both performers into these mélodies that makes the performances really special, allowing even Faure’s more dramatic moments (the conclusion of Fleur jetée, for example) a sense of freshness and immediacy.

So too with Ravel, whose Histoires naturelles is surely the ideal repertoire for a zoology graduate like Keenlyside. More significantly perhaps, the range of these songs is lower; they’re in real baritone territory, and to my ear that is where he sings best. Not his upper register is deficient, but the complex, richness of his sound lower down is perhaps his most satisfying and distinctive vocal trait.

Poulenc’s Hôtel closes the disc by way of an encore, a nice touch for those approaching the disc as a surrogate for the live experience, but a shame for those of us who would rather have heard one of the other Schubert lieder from the recital that was cut for the sake of space. But that is a minor grumble about what is otherwise an excellent disc, both a fine recording on its own terms, and an elegant document of the sort of world-class recital for which the Wigmore Hall is justifiably famous.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Bach: Leipzig Chorales, Craig F. Humber

Bach: Leipzig Chorales
CD1: BWV 651-661
CD2: BWV 662-669
Craig F. Humber – organ
Recorded on the Silbermann organ St. Petri Freiberg 16-18 October 2007 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 906 1619-6 [58:31+47:00]

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Composer and organ builder very nearly get equal billing on this CD. Bach’s name is in larger letters than Silbermann’s on the cover, but the latter gets twice the column inches inside.

Craig Humber is happy for the organ to be the star of the show, or so it seems from the fact that it was he who penned the comprehensive notes about its history and construction. They are an interesting pair J.S. Bach and Gottfried Silbermann; almost exactly contemporaries and equally distinguished, and yet there is no evidence they ever worked together or even met. 

Issues then of authenticity, or at least historical verisimilitude, ought by rights to be the starting point for a project like this. They are certainly important motivations for Humber, but he is also at pains to emphasise that traditions of organ building in the 18th century were as diverse as those of performance. So, where Bach borrows freely from courtly dance styles of France, so Silbermann borrows the designs of ‘fiery reed and powerful mutation stops’ from his Gallic contemporaries.

But historical issues aside, the most valid and obvious justification for recording this music on this instrument is that it works supremely well. Bach’s lyrical counterpoint in these, for the most part gentle, works ebbs and flows beautifully when rendered in these warm, restrained timbres. Humber claims to use every stop of the organ at some point on this recording, but he mixes the colours subtly, and his restraint with the mutation stops in particular makes their few appearances all the more effective. 

Two discs of Chorale Preludes, even if they are by Bach, can be excessive for a single sitting, and this is music best appreciated in small, but of course regular, doses. Almost any recording of works in a single genre by a single composer risks monotony, and that can be a particular problem here, as almost every work is slow, quiet and made up of unbroken contrapuntal textures. On the other hand, Humber is to be congratulated for not attempting to sex it up for the sake of impatient listeners. Each of these works functions as a perfect artistic entity, whether heard in a liturgical context or heard in succession, and Humber is happy to present them just like that, with nothing added or subtracted. It is quite a conservative approach, even for an organist, but it’s ideal.

The SACD sound is good, almost too good. The liner notes make much of the imperfections of the organ, statements which sit uneasily with the balance and evenness of tone in the recording. And how have they managed to avoid excessive resonance from the cathedral acoustic? Dabringhaus und Grimm make a big thing out of their opposition to any kind of digital manipulation, so it can only come down to astute sound engineering on the day – or on the night rather, if the stories I’ve heard about organ recording sessions are anything to go by. 

Craig Humber is clearly passionate about the work of Gottfried Silbermann, and he demonstrates on this recording that he has the artistic skills to show off the organ builder’s work at its very best. A recording project that makes such a feature of its instrumentation is always going to require the highest possible standards of recorded sound. Fortunately, that’s exactly what this one gets.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Monday, 14 June 2010

Heinrich Kaspar Schmid: Chamber Works

Heinrich Kaspar Schmid
Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano Op.114 [25:34]
Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.106 [18:02]
Allegretto for Clarinet and Piano Op.34/2 [6:17]
Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.111 [22:28]
Capriccio for Flute and Piano Op.34/4 [7:15]
Nils Mönkemeyer – viola
Johannes Zurl – clarinet
Pirmin Grehl – flute
Nicholas Rimmer – piano
Recorded BR München, Studio 2, 14-15 December 2007 and 17 February 2008 Stereo DDD
CPO 777 391-2 [79:58]
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Heinrich Kaspar Schmid was definitely an also-ran in the history of German music in the 20th century. He was born in Landau in Bavaria in 1874 and during his lifetime was as famous for his work as head of the Karlsruhe Conservatory and later the Augsburg Music School as he was for his composition. The works on this disc are from his later years and display an unbending loyalty to the musical aesthetics of the late 19th century, not least those of Brahms.

Apparently folk music was an important element of Schmid’s musical vocabulary, but there is little of it to be found here. In general, the music could be described as Brahms-lite, and Schmid shares his hero’s knack for pithy yet attractive melodic lines. The music is generally less contrapuntal than that of Brahms, and his climaxes don’t quite pack the same punch. But traditional as it all is, it is difficult to think of a contemporary who provides a fitting comparison – it’s less congested than Reger, less Wagnerian than Pfitzner, less declamatory than Franz Schmidt – suggesting there is something unique about this music after all.

The diversity of the works presented here makes for an attractively varied programme. The Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano Op.114 is the longest and most involved work, and there is more drama in its opening movement than on the rest of the CD put together. 

The lightness of Schmid’s textures can make the remainder of the Trio seem lacking in substance, but in the Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.106 it provides the ideal medium for the flute as a solo instrument. This is a charming work and is probably the finest piece in the selection. There are certain similarities to Poulenc, especially in the way that both composers are able to weave varied and intricate textures for the flute without ever resorting the sorts of heavier textures it might struggle with.

The Allegretto for Clarinet and Piano and the Capriccio for Flute and Piano Op.34 nos. 2 and 5 respectively, are elegant but largely insignificant concert works. Again, both display an impressive aptitude for idiomatic woodwind writing, although sadly little else.

The Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.111 is a more significant work. It, too, feels lacking in musical substance, but the various light duet textures between the two instruments are never less than entertaining. A lot of the viola writing is in lower part of the instrument’s register, and while it occasionally manages to approach the timbre of the cello, for the most part these lower passages serve to emphasise the distinctiveness of the viola sound from that of the violin.

The performances are good but not great. The viola player is the weak link in the line-up with an often abrasive tone and persistent intonation problems. That said, his performance in the sonata is markedly superior to that in the Trio. If any player excels, it is the flautist, whose tone is both warm and focussed, and who makes a very impressive case indeed for the flute sonata. The piano sounds a little distant in the mix, but then Schmid doesn’t really use it soloistically in these works anyway. 

The liner notes are similar in spirit to Schmid’s music, in that they are very long but don’t contain very much information. It is more biographical than musical and is filled with bizarre irrelevances. For example, we are told that after his retirement, Schmid moved to the Bavarian village of Geiselbullach, interesting in itself perhaps, but why then are we given the directions to get there by road from Munich? “ drives on the A8 toward Stuttgart and takes the Dachau-Fürstenfledbrück exit.”

Perhaps Heinrich Kaspar Schmid is due a revival. The musical voice presented by these works is one of melodic fluency and formal coherency, if perhaps a slight lack of invention and a large lack of adventurousness. Worth a listen though if you are a Brahms chamber music fan who can’t quite stomach Reger. And also highly recommended to flute soloists on the lookout for additions to their meagre repertoire. The Flute Sonata deserves to be better known, and could yet prove its worth on the recital stage.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bach: The Toccatas, Andrea Bacchetti

Bach: The Toccatas, Andrea Bacchetti
Toccata in G Major BWV 916 [7:13]
Toccata in E minor BWV 914 [8:43]
Toccata in D minor BWV 913 – earlier version [16:10]
Toccata in G minor BWV 915 [10:29]
Toccata in D Major BWV 912 – later version [14:38]
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV 910 [9:12]
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 [12:21]
Recorded at Fazioli Concert Hall of Sacile, Italy 13 October 2009 to 12 January 2010 Stereo DDD
DYNAMIC CDS 658 [79:43]

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Once was the time that piano recordings of the Bach Toccatas, like those of the Goldberg Variations, fell into two categories: Glenn Gould and not Glenn Gould. A younger generation of pianists now seems intent on changing all that, integrating elements of Gould’s Bach without necessarily falling under the shadow of his larger-than-life musical persona.

Andrea Bacchetti’s decision to record the Toccatas is itself instructive, they being works long dominated in the catalogue by the Gould recordings. But Bacchetti already has highly regarded recordings of the English Suites, Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias already under his belt, which clearly demonstrate he is his own man when it comes to Bach.

The relative neglect of the Toccatas by pianists is difficult to explain. They are early works, from the composer’s Weimar period, but then most of Bach’s keyboard music predates his move to Leipzig. They are somewhat lacking in contrapuntal ingenuity, although the BWV 913, 914 and 915 Toccatas each ends in an impressive fugue. They also lack the stylistic variety of the suites, although they more than make up for this in textural variety.

Bacchetti avoids extremes in his interpretations. The performance style favours smooth legato, reserved ornamentation and an even balance between the hands. He is rarely tempted to emphasise fugal subjects or thematically significant bass lines. His touch is delicate rather than muscular; everything is confident and decisive, but nothing is emphatic or overstated.

Little surprise, then that the greatest interpretive distance between Bacchetti and Gould is in the louder and faster movements. Compare, for example, their readings of the final fugue of BWV 914. Where Gould is fast and angular, Bacchetti is even and lyrical. He is not as heavy on the left hand as his predecessor either, so you have to listen all the more closely to pick out the counterpoint. But Bacchetti shapes the movement in a way that would probably be of little interest to Gould. He gradually builds up to the recapitulation, but even when he reaches it, there is little sense of exaltation, as he maintains a sense of control and balance to the very end. In a way, it is just as impressive as Gould’s fireworks, even if it doesn’t grab the attention in quite the same way.

Gould’s legacy is much clearer in the adagios. Both pianists share a desire for the piano to sing in these movements, although Bacchetti refrains from any Gould-like vocalisations of his own. The closest the two men come is in the Adagio of BWV 911, where Bacchetti creates a luminous inner beauty in the sound of each of the piano chords. It is all a little faster and more foursquare than you would expect from Gould, but it is clearly in his spirit.

The recorded sound is good, although not particularly crisp. This may be deliberate, an attempt to compliment the rounded, legato style of the pianist with a warm sound profile. It all adds up to an attractive offering, nothing extreme but a performance with clear artistic focus, and based on a desire to find beauty in every element of the music. After the rapturous reception that greeted Bacchetti’s previous Bach recording, he is clearly not resting on his laurels.

Gavin Dixon 2010

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Schumann: Complete Works for Pedal Piano/Organ, Andreas Rothkopf

Schumann: Complete Works for Pedal Piano/Organ
Sketches for Pedal Piano Op.58 [13:52]
Six Studies in Canonic Form Op.56 [19:11]
Six Studies on the Name BACH Op.60 [28:38]
Andreas Rothkopf – organ
Recorded on the Walcker organ at the Ev. Kirche, Hoffenheim, Baden 23-24 September 1987 Stereo DDD
Audite 97.411 [61:56]
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Schumann’s ‘organ’ works are well represented on record. The three almost consecutive opuses make an attractive collection and fit neatly onto a CD. Their paucity must be a frustration for organists, elegant as the works are, and representing a potentially impressive talent for idiomatic organ writing. All the works have been arranged for multiple pianos or for chamber ensembles, in some cases many times, demonstrating their popularity beyond the organ loft.

In the case of opuses 56 and 58, even organ performance is a reappropriation, as the music was originally composed for pedal piano, a fact rarely acknowledged in CD titles and so all the more creditable for being so described here. That could lead to a potential disappointment for listeners hoping for a taste of this exotic instrument, although the early 19th century Walcker organ on which the music is played is interesting enough in its own right, especially as it is almost contemporaneous with the music.

A recording is available of the two works performed on a pedal piano, the adventurous pianist being Martin Schmeding (ARS 38 011). The comparison is interesting, in that one work, the Op.56 Studies, transfers very well to the organ, while the other, the Op.58 Sketches, relies much more heavily on pianistic textures. The opening of the Op.58 is all staccato chords, never an ideal texture for the organ. And later textures use tremolo effects in the right hand over a melody in the left hand and pedals, again a specifically pianistic texture. On the other hand, Schumann’s dynamics are simple and stepped, allowing the organist to switch between manuals to distinguish answering phrases, for example.

Rothkopf never tries to make the organ sound like a piano. Much of the music is written in long legato lines, for which he can rely on the smoothness of the organ sound and the church resonance, which is always evident on the recording but not to the detriment of the clarity of articulation.

Both the Op.58 Studies and the Six Fugues on the Name BACH, are products of a brief but intense period of Schumann’s life when he became obsessed with the study of strict counterpoint. This makes the instrumentation less relevant, because, as with much of Bach’s keyboard music, the counterpoint plays out in long melodic lines that transfer well between instruments. 

Bach is an abiding presence in both works, and not just on account of his name running through the themes of Op.60. The Op.56 studies bear strong stylistic resemblances to much of Bach’s organ music. Many of the themes imitate the ways in which Bach made music playable on the pedal board, such as alternating between a stationary note on one foot and a scale passage on the other.
The idea of fugues based on the BACH cipher seems old hat these days, not least because of the similar works by Liszt and Reger, but in their day they were revolutionary. However, I would have to say that 30 minutes of contrapuntal music based on a single four-note theme can tend towards monotony. True enough, Bach succeeded spectacularly in both The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue to maintain the interest purely through contrapuntal ingenuity in long monothematic works. It is no discredit to Schumann to say that his skills in this respect don’t quite match up to those of his hero.

The performance of these three works is very fine. As befits what are essentially studies in counterpoint, Andreas Rothkopf never attempts to spice up the textures with unusual or rapidly changing registrations. The recording was made in 1987, some 13 years after the restoration of the 1846 instrument. It sounds in fine condition, excellently tuned and balanced and with no audible tracker noise. In general, it is quite a soft sounding instrument, all warm, woody tones, which I personally find very attractive.

Good recorded sound too, especially given that it dates from the mid 1980s. The microphones are set quite close, I think, or I assume from the subdued resonance of the church. (This is not an SACD by the way, despite what you may read elsewhere on the net, but the recording date alone should make that obvious.)

This music isn’t the sexiest that Schumann ever wrote, but it is a valuable contribution to the organ repertoire, not to mention the pedal piano repertoire. This reissue coincides with Schumann’s anniversary year, and the record labels have so far done a great job of demonstrating the incredible diversity of his art. He is not really known as an organ composer, and what a shame he did not write more music for the instrument, given the quality of what is on offer here.

Gavin Dixon 2010