Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Peter Philips: Cantiones Sacrae 1612 Choir of Trinity College Cambridge

Peter PHILIPS (1560/1-1628)
Cantiones sacrae 1612
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Richard Marlow – conductor
Recorded in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge 11-13 January 2002 stereo DDD
Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0770 [77:55]

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Composers who emigrate from these shores tend to end up more or less neglected in their homeland. 400 years may separate them, but the plight of Peter Philips, or rather his music, is curiously similar to that of Brian Ferneyhough. Both moved to the continent at the start of their careers, and in both cases the result was unwarranted neglect among English performers and audiences.

Aesthetic politics played an important role in both cases, and whereas Ferneyhough was moving into musical communities who were receptive to his unreconstructed Modernism, it was unapologetic Catholicism that made continental Europe an attractive proposition for Philips. But leaving aside his counter-reformationary zeal, Peter Philips seems to have been a very open-minded musician indeed. Five years separate his leaving England on pilgrimage to Rome and his finally settling in The Netherlands. They were years of travel, and the number of influences that his music displays is remarkable. Listening to the Cantiones sacrae, a set of choral works published in 1612, is like a series of meetings with the most important composers of the age. There is tenuous evidence that Philips studied with Byrd before he left England, and there are occasions here where you expect the polyphonic texture to play out as one of Byrd's strict but florid mass movements. The polychoral opulence of Tallis is reflected in many of the more grandiose textures. In terms of Roman composers, the influence of Palestrina and Victoria is also felt in these grander movements. He has also picked up Palestrina's Tridentine technique of interspersing sections of flowing counterpoint with more homophonic refrains.

If all this suggests cheap imitation, well it is difficult to class the Cantiones Sacrae with the greatest works of the aforementioned composers. Despite the cosmopolitan influences, the music maintains stylistic continuity. On the other hand, it never quite manages to be truly distinctive or memorable. Many of the phrases seem shorter than what you might find in, for example, Victoria or Tallis. This prevents the contrapuntal textures taking flight in quite the same way, but it links the structure of the music closely to the phrasing of the text, creating valuable intimacy and directness of expression.

The performance is excellent. Given that the choir is made up of undergraduates, I assume that its makeup is considerably different today than it was in 2002 when this recording was made. It has provided a springboard for at least one young singer, Andrew Tortise, listed here in the tenors but now a rising star in the opera world. The chapel of Trinity College Cambridge has the ideal acoustic, warm but never threatening the clarity of the counterpoint. Richard Marlow directs a thoroughly musical performance (it is a shame though about his smug headshot on the inside of the liner) and the, presumably editorial, dynamics and hairpins are presented with real authority, making them integral to the music.

The question of boy's vs. women's voices is acute in this repertoire. That is partly because of its vintage and the fact that choral music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries is slowly being commandeered from cathedral choirs by mixed professional ensembles. More specifically though, these five part settings are written with two soprano lines, which are all the more dominant for their independence and close harmony. Any doubters about the appropriateness of ladies voices in the context of a chapel choir should listen closely to this recording, as it is about the best advocacy they could have. The timbres mix beautifully, yet maintain the necessary independence for the polyphonic textures. Peter Philips' intention in writing two soprano lines appears to have been to create brighter, headier textures than the traditional four part choir could achieve. This choir demonstrates that ladies voices on those top lines provide the ideal medium for the composer's elegant, upbeat and always lively textures.

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 30 July 2010

Mahler: Symphony No.7 Jansons

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.7 in E minor
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Mariss Jansons – conductor
rec. live at the Philharmonie im Gasteig 8-9 March 2007 DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
BR KLASSIK 403571900101 [77:31]

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By accident or design, two high profile recordings of Mahler’s Seventh, both conducted by Mariss Jansons, have been released in recent months. His Oslo Philharmonic recording on Simax (PSC1271) has garnered praise in some quarters, but is going to have to beat the odds to compete with this one, which sports both SACD sound and the revered Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jansons uses a new edition of the score, prepared by the International Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, and whatever its innovations might be, he directs a performance that emphasises every detail, as if striving to make audible each minute amendment and correction.

The approach sits well with the superior audio quality, and on one level, the recording functions as a catalogue of fascinating orchestral details, obscured in previous recordings by poorer orchestral standards and more homogenised sound reproduction. But it is not just the details that make Mahler’s Seventh an unusual work, and Jansons’ also brings his interpretive clarity to the symphony’s unique structure. Other conductors (and I’m thinking of Bernstein and Rattle in particular) often treat the work’s sprawling structure and wayward progressions as problems that need fixing or covering up, their methods include faster tempos, less rubato, and emphasis on the excitement of the louder passages over the quieter meditative ones, so as not to lose the audience. Jansons takes the opposite approach. He does not apologise for anything he finds in the score. Rather, he goes to great lengths to ensure that every passage and every counterpoint is clearly articulated, skilfully phrased and propelled as if with an inner momentum.

The result demonstrates just what a revolutionary work the Seventh Symphony is, with its incongruous dance episodes, its evocative orchestration (guitar, mandolin, cowbell), its precisely notated string portamento, and its dizzying climaxes. Tempos are almost always on the slow side, which again emphasises the details to the possible expense of the whole. Adhering to Mahler’s notated rubato gives the composer’s structural thinking its due. It is found wanting, of course, but Jansons never goes so as far as to offer a purely sectional structure as an alternative; the immaculate details are always part of a symphonic argument, however flawed.

While the overall sound quality is extremely high, some sections of the orchestra benefit more than others. The string sound is particularly impressive, the intensity of the high violins, the presence and timbral variety of the violas and the agogic weight of the cellos and basses. It may well be that the most radical aspect of Mahler’s orchestration in the Seventh is his use of the strings. Its soundworld relies on a complex vocabulary of counterintuitive doublings, chord spacings and bowings, and the combination of high quality audio, world-class playing and forensic detail from the podium allows each of these curiosities to shine through. Things are slightly less clear from the back of the stage, and the percussion in particular often seems muffled, or at least not given the clarity that a studio recording would have been able to ensure.

Those, like me, who are more familiar with British and American orchestras performing the work may be surprised by the central European brass sound, which can be quite nasal and vibrato-laden. Even the bass trombone solo in the first movement has a pronounced wobble. It is an upward trajectory throughout the work for the brass. The opening solo for Tenorhorn in Bb’ (presumable a Wagner tuba here rather than a euphonium) has a rich tone, but amazingly struggles to compete with the woodwind. The trumpets in the first movement struggle to synchronise in a number of important passages, and the horns are on the brash side. However, the horns more than redeem themselves in the solos of the second movement, while the trumpets come into their own in the finale.

In fact, the finale is the best part of this recording. The rondo structure withstands Jansons’ emphasis on detail better than the more complex structures of the earlier movements. His loyalty of Mahler’s notated rubato pays dividends, as there are many surprises in the tempo changes that would be lost in a more foursquare reading. It remains a long and challenging movement, but Janson’s balances the expansiveness with a focussed orchestral sound and a clear sense of direction. The result, in the closing pages, is a paradoxical sense of inevitability, the music’s goal apparently preordained, despite its remaining unconventional and unpredictable right up to the very last chord.

Although I have mixed feelings about this recording, it has a great deal to commend it. The standard of the audio is sufficiently high to appeal to the SACD buyers who would consider it for this reason alone. I would also recommend the disc to those who have heard the work and think they know it. I was in that boat and found myself continually surprised by Jansons’ many revelations. To those completely unfamiliar with the symphony, I would have reservations about recommending this recording, if only because the interpretation is so radical. But there is an admirable honesty about every interpretive decision Jansons makes, and by highlighting the many unusual details of the score, he demonstrates just what an innovative and unusual work it is. These are not the interpretive priorities of most performers approaching Mahler’s most problematic symphony, but Jansons’ advocacy, and his multiple recordings, may yet persuade other conductors to stop making excuses for it.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Chopin: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra Vol.1

Frederick CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra Vol.1
Fantasy on Polish Airs Op.13 [16:00]
Rondo à la Krakowiak Op.14 [15:12]
Piano Concerto in E minor Op.11 [42:46]
Tatiana Shebanova – piano
Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra
Tadeusz Wojciechowski - conductor
Recorded at the Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio No.2 of the Polish Radio in Warsaw 1-4 December 2009 STEREO DDD
DUX 0741 [74:02]

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Tatiana Shebanova's recording of Chopin's complete music for solo piano was one of the more significant contributions to the composer's discography in his bicentennial year. That was partly because of the inspired decision to present the works in opus number order, but also because Shebanova clearly has something original to say with the music. In contrast to the bombast of many of her (usually male) colleagues, Shebanova takes a measured, precise approach to Chopin. 'Refined' is a word that could apply to almost every phrase. 

In the concertante works, this refinement runs the risk of sounding dispassionate. Even in these early works on volume 1, the pianist needs to inject some emotional turmoil, but that is not really the way Shebanova does things. The two shorter works on the disc, the Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Rondo à la Krakowiak, seem on first appearances to be jumping the queue, appearing as they do before rather than after the concerto. I suspect they have been placed at the start because they best suit Shebanova's approach and are the most successful performances. Even here though, the pianist's sophistication risks obliterating the fragile folk character of the Polish sources. She is at her best when playing those delicate mid to high register filigree phrases. The recorded sound of the piano isn't particularly transparent or luminous, but the register around the top of the treble clef comes across better than the rest of the range, creating brief and tantalising moments of transcendental pianism recorded with utmost clarity. 

Whatever my reservations about Shebanova's approach, she deserves a better orchestra. The Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra, as the name suggests, is made up of young players. It's not a youth orchestra; they all seem to be conservatoire graduates in their 20s. Technically, the group is serviceable enough, but very little about their playing seems truly inspired. In the 1st Concerto, this workaday approach combines with the soloist's reserve to create a very dispassionate interpretation indeed. Technically, there are a few problems in the orchestra; the string ensemble has some shaky moments in the first movement and the brass struggle throughout to play as a section. But it is the lack of passion that really deflates the performance, both from the piano and the woodwind soloists.

The sound, too, is serviceable rather than exceptional. The balance between the piano and orchestra is always rigorously maintained, but there is little depth to the sound of either. As I mentioned, that mid to upper register of the piano is where the sound works best, but further down the keyboard there is a distinct lack of presence or clarity. Having heard Shebanova's solo Chopin recordings, I'm not inclined to blame her for this. In fact, I'd love the chance to hear her left hand passage work with greater clarity. 

Tatiana Shebanova provides an important insight into Chopin's music through her unfashionable modesty at the keyboard. Her playing serves the music, unlike that of most of her colleagues, for whom ego often comes first. But there is a danger of her taking it too far. This is revisionist Chopin, and I'd only recommend it to those who find the bravado of the top name pianists too much to stomach.

Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Hindemith Chamber Music

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (1938) [27:50]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1939) [18:43]
Drei leichte Stüke fot Cello and Piano (1938) [6:24]
Quintet for Clarinet, two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Op.30 (1955) [20:34]
Annette von Hehn and Elisabeth Glass, Violins
Hartmut Rohde, Viola
Frank Dodge, Cello
Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, Clarinet
Ya-Fei Chuang, Piano
Recorded at the Siemens Villa, Berlin, Germany, on 10th and 11th March, 2009 Stereo DDD
NAXOS 8.572213 [73:31]

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Hindemith’s music has been more susceptible than most to the changing currents of musical taste since the war. He was certainly a versatile composer, as the stylistic range of the works on this disc demonstrates, but the English-speaking world has yet to embrace the composer in the same way as German audiences, apprehensive of both his reputation for dispassionate Modernism and the openly functional nature of his educational works.

This recording does little to dispel those prejudices. Each work presents a different perspective on the composer’s inner dialectic between Brahmsian Romantic expression and 20th century austerity. In the first work, the Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano (1938), the two forces compete as expressive linear melody versus ice-cold clarity of ensemble. Hindemith’s use of instrumental colour to separate these lines is masterful, and is never taken to excess, giving the unusual grouping a sense of inner logic. The clarinet is the instrument that links nearly all the works on this disc, but it is Hindemith’s use of the strings, the violin and especially the cello, that really elevates this music. The cello has a natural expressivity that forms the ideal compliment to Hindemith’s austerity. The cellist here is Frank Dodge, the founder of Spectrum Concerts Berlin, at which the recording was made. He brings both an elegant tone and a suppleness of phrasing to this music, and his playing across the range of the instrument is well served by the recorded sound - courtesy of German Radio.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano of 1939 comes from the composer’s impressive and still unmatched series of sonatas for every instrument of the orchestra. What is fascinating to me about this music is how difficult it is to gauge its indebtedness to Brahms. He is certainly there, in the wide ranging clarinet part, the way that phrases occasionally tail off with a sigh, and the disciplined yet atmospheric accompaniment figurations. This is another fine performance, well balanced, musically phrased, and finding a surprising amount of expressive potential in Hindemith’s occasionally Spartan textures.

The Three Easy Pieces for Cello and Piano from 1938 is a curious inclusion. It is very much an educational work, gebrauchsmusik in the strictest sense. As such, I can’t help the feeling that it would be better suited to an exam syllabus than a chamber music recording. On the other hand, Hindemith himself was committed to the principle that functionality and artistry need not be mutually exclusive in music. But whatever the justification for their inclusion, these brief works are convincingly rendered, Frank Dodge again putting his seductive cello tone at Hindemith’s service.

The final work on the disc is the Quintet for Clarinet, two Violins, Viola and Cello Op. 30. This work was written in 1923, but substantially revised for its first publication in 1955. It is substantially more complex than the other works on the disc, with five movements alternating fast and slow. The faster movements present a range of prickly textures, the first in particular combining pizzicato strings, driving ostinatos and an erratic clarinet line. The slow movements have a delicacy that is rare in Hindemith’s music, with expressive solos supported by the barest minimum of supporting textures.

Overall, the disc is well performed and well recorded. The packaging conforms to recent Naxos conventions, and like Hindemith himself, the company is apparently unconcerned about compromising artistic principles with bare functionality. Clarinettists may be interested in the works on this CD, and Hindemith’s important contributions to the instrument’s chamber repertoire are excellently served here. But for a composer who divides opinion so sharply, this disc is unlikely to win any new converts to his cause. At the end of the day, you either love it or Hindemith. 

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Gounod: Faust from Vienna State Opera

Piotr Beczala (Faust)
Soile Isokoski (Marguerite)
Kwangchul Youn (Mephistopheles)
Adrian Eröd (Valentin)
Michaela Selinger (Siebel)
Hans Peter Kammerer (Wagner)
Zoryana Kushpler (Marthe)
Chorus & Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper
Bertrand de Billy - conductor
Vienna 2009
Orfeo C 805 103 D (3CDs)
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This release presents a recording of a very fine performance indeed, but you'd expect nothing less from the Vienna State Opera. It is a house that takes great pride in its repertory system, and in many ways, this recording demonstrates just why that is such an advantage: it is very much an ensemble piece, and you really get the feeling that everybody involved knows the work and the interpretation like the backs of their hands, yet nothing feels stale or over rehearsed.

The 2008 outing for the production saw Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu take the lead roles (they were still an item at that point). They're not missed though, because Poitr Beczala and Soile Isokoski put in performances that could easily be classed in the 'A-list' category. Beczala is in real bel canto mode, with a warm, uninhibited vibrato and a warm, expansive tone. He never makes it sound easy though, especially those top Cs. All the notes are secure, but it is the kind of performance where the audience gets as much out of its empathy with the singer as with the character.

The sophistication of Soile Isokoski's tone is ideal for the role of Marguerite. The timbre of her voice is infinitely variable, yet always distinctive. She is particularly impressive in the lower register, although most of this part seems to be somewhere in the middle, and she sounds great there too.

I'm less impressed with the other male leads, Kwangchul Youn and Adrian Eröd as Méphistophélès and Valentin respectively. Neither has a particularly large voice, and Youn often seems to struggle to fill the hall with the sound of his lower notes. He is also occasionally behind the beat, not fatally so, but it stands out in this otherwise technically perfect performance.

I can't decide whether the Vienna State Opera fields a large chorus or just a very powerful one, perhaps both. But whichever way, they really make their presence felt, and even when they are at the back of the stage, the clarity of their diction makes every word audible. Impressive orchestral playing too. The orchestra is a little constrained perhaps, and while conductor Bertrand de Billy clearly gives the vocal soloists space, I get the impression that he is keeping his woodwind players on a shorter leash. All of which is probably just as it ought to be, and the strict Viennese hierarchies that keep the singers at the top of the playbills while the orchestra and choir do all the real work go unchallenged as ever.

The sound is good for a live recording. As I say, the choir have a real presence in the mix. The orchestra are well balanced, if a little emulsified, although whether that is through the microphone placement or the acoustic I couldn't say. As with most recordings from largerhouses, the singers sound clearest when they are down stage, but the difference really is minimal.

The packaging follows a modest but sophisticated design, with the Vienna State Opera's distinctive crimson appearing as a stripe across the top of the cover. There is no libretto, although of course that's the rule rather than the exception these days. The liner notes are interspersed with production stills; a nice idea but I wish they were bigger and in colour.

In general, though, this is a Faust worthy of recommendation. I guess there is no real point in lamenting the passing of the era of studio recordings of operas, that horse has long bolted. In their absence, the industry continues with live recordings, and too often that is an excuse for mediocrity. Not here though, instead we are presented with a more than acceptable audio recording of a night at the opera that makes you wish you'd been there. You can't ask for more than that.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 26 July 2010

Wagner: Lohengrin with Victoria de los Ángeles

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Franz Crass - King Henry I
Fritz Uhl - Lohengrin
Victoria de los Ángeles - Elsa
Carlos Alexander - Frederic of Telramund
Christa Ludwig - Ortrud
Gian Piero Mastromei - Herald
Orquesta y Coro Estable del Teatro Colón
Lovro von Matačić – Conductor
Recorded live at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires October 1964 Stereo ADD
Columna Música 1CM0229 [62:19+76:45+60:11]

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Arriving just a few weeks after the grand reopening of the renovated Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, this recording is a timely reminder of the stellar operatic performances the venue has hosted in its long history.
Given that the name of the lead soprano appears in larger lettering than that of the composer on the cover, it is safe to assume that the target audience for this remaster are the still loyal devotees of the late, great Victoria de Los Ángeles. They won't be disappointed – she puts in a classic bel canto Elsa – but there is plenty more of interest here. The cast is uniformly strong (why is it so difficult to muster the necessary talent today?) and there is a palpable sense of drama in every bar.

If, like me, you are wary of ancient opera reissues because of the sound quality, then I can offer a cautious reassurance that the recorded sound is unlikely to ruin the enjoyment. An apologetic note appears at the end of the libretto (yes, there's a libretto I'm pleased to report)saying that the disc was mastered from a 'non-professional' recording. A bootleg then? Whichever way, the apology is unnecessary as the sound is perfectly adequate for most of the music. There are far better early 60s opera recordings out there, and this doesn't come close to what Decca were managing at Bayreuth at the time, but it's still not bad. The tuttis can be muddy, and the choir, who I assume are usually at the back of the stage, are indistinct, but the quieter scenes, the duets and the quasi-recitatives, all come across with an engaging sense of intimacy. If that has been achieved through digital remastering then I'm impressed. The mix is quite bassy, another product perhaps of artistic licence at the mastering stage. There is one bass frequency that finds a sympathetic resonance from somewhere and blasts out every time the cellos hit it, but it's a distraction rather than an annoyance.

Victoria de los Ángeles brings a real star quality to the part of Eva. Technically, I can't fault her singing, but I would say that some listeners today are likely to find it old fashioned. She is not averse to exaggerating Wagner's hairpins and often adds huge swells to her longer notes at the top. She is refreshingly modest with her vibrato, it's there all right, but it's not the first thing you notice. I'm not sure if it is the recorded sound, but her tone is quite narrow and direct. That gives her voice all the projection and presence the role requires, especially in such a dramatic production, but if I'm honest, I'd rather hear rounded tones in the top register.

Another interesting name on the cast list is Christa Ludwig as Ortrud. She, too, brings an impressive star quality to the role. She has a wider vibrato, although still well within the bounds of taste. It is a wonderfully menacing performance, helped, I think, by the fact that the recorded sound is sympathetic to her rich lower register. The pasted on maniacal laughs don't do much for me though, another element of Wagnerian performance practise that has thankfully since been lost in the mists of time.

The men in the cast: Franz Crass, Fritz Uhl and Carlos Alexander all put in strong performances too. Again, all are in classic bel canto mode, which can sound a little too Mediterranean for Wagner, but he would surely have appreciated the passion and projection that this performance tradition brings to his music. 

It is something of a macaronic performance, as the leads sing in German while the choir sings in Italian. Why? Tradition I guess. It is something that Victoria herself felt obliged to apologise for, saying 'Don't worry. They do this in many theatres. This doesn't stop the Colón from being great.' In fact, the choir are so poorly served by the recorded sound that you can't make out their words anyway, but the libretto is given in the languages used, which can be quite disorientating.

I've one last grumble, and it is about the brass section of the orchestra. They really are dire. The trumpets in particular split just about everything, which is a real shame considering their prominence in the work. The rest of the orchestra does better, and conductor Lovro von Matačić allows the woodwind soloists plenty of space, while still keeping the ensemble tightly coordinated. All the set pieces – the procession to the cathedral, the prelude to act 3 – have impressive dramatic intensity, although, as I say, these louder sections are where the recorded sound really begins to detract.

Essentially, this recording is a historical document, but it would be a great shame if it was treated only as that, as there is much in it to enjoy. Performance traditions of Wagner have certainly moved on in the intervening years, but listening to it you might well find yourself pining for the old days. You'd be unlikely to find a professional production of a Wagner opera today with such a poor brass section, but then, you'd also be unlikely to find one with such a uniformly proficient cast. And all that Latin passion really adds something special to Wagner's already passionate music. They don't make them like they used to.

Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri from the Bad Wildbad Festival

Gioachino ROSSINI (1792–1868)
L’Italiana in Algeri
Lorenzo Regazzo - Mustafà
Ruth Gonzalez - Elvira
Elsa Giannoulidou - Zulma
Giulio Mastrototaro - Haly
Lawrence Brownlee - Lindoro
Marianna Pizzolato - Isabella
Bruno De Simone - Taddeo
Gianni Fabbrini, Harpsichord continuo
Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj (Chorus master: Cornel Groza)
Virtuosi Brunensis (Artistic Director: Karel Mitas)
Alberto Zedda –conductor
Recorded live at the Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany 2,3 and 5 July 2008 Stereo DDD
Naxos 8.660284-5 [68:57 + 67:17]

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Nimbleness and transparency of tone are essential in Rossini, so it is gratifying that Alberto Zedda, the 82 year old conductor on this recording, still has all the energy and insight required to pull off an impressive reading. L'Italiana in Algeri, a work written when its composer was 21, requires a paradoxical mix of innocence and experience, it requires direct, unmediated expression, but it also needs a deep understanding of the operatic conventions of the day.

The combination is achieved here through the collaboration of the senior conductor and a largely youthful cast. The standard of singing is high, yet nobody really excels: this is very much an ensemble performance. It is also a concert performance, which has the advantage of appropriately placed microphones for the singers. The recording was made for German radio, and while it is not a dazzling display of audio fidelity, the sound is perfectly serviceable, if not exactly absorbing.

The singing too falls into the serviceable rather than the exceptional category. Ruth Gonzalez takes a few minutes to settle into the role of Elvira at the start of Act 1, but soon finds her pace and delivers a very attractive performance. Lorenzo Regazzo combines a richness of tone with a suppleness of phrasing as Mustafà. He struggles with some of the patter passages, although he can be forgiven when Rossini takes them into the lower bass register.

Lively woodwind and brass solos are the highlight of the orchestra's performance. Again, the concert performance serves the recording balance well, and the interplay of wind and vocal soloists is presented with clarity and excellent balance. The ensemble in the strings is sometimes a little shaky, which occasionally dulls the brilliance of some of the faster passages. They make up for it, though, in the quieter passages, where they provide an impressively secure foundation for the soloists. Curiously, Zedda does not weigh into the Rossini crescendos, he seems more intent to maintain an even dramatic texture, to take the long view
And if this is not the most dramatic reading of the opera in the catalogue, there is still plenty of drama. Despite the concert hall venue, the singers interact well, and the many ensembles retain their fragile dramatic credibility.

As with many recent of the recent opera releases from Naxos, the value of this one is well represented by its price tag. It's good, and it is certainly an enjoyable listen, but the sound could be much better, the orchestra could be better, and the cast, serviceable as it is, would be much more impressive for the inclusion of one or two big names to bring some bravado to the main roles. On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of authenticity in every bar of this music. Respect for the score (in a new critical edition from Azio Corghi) and for its composer are everywhere apparent. That suggests the real star of this performance is its venerable conductor. Tradition matters in Rossini, and Alberto Zedda comes across as a living embodiment of the continuing Italian tradition of opera buffa.

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 23 July 2010

Tippett: String Quartets Vol.2

Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
String Quartets Volume 2
String Quartet No. 3 (1945-46) [31:42]
String Quartet No. 5 (1990-91) [28:23]
The Tippett Quartet: John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Maxine Moore (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Rec. St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 3rd and 4th March and 3rd April 2009 Stereo DDD
NAXOS 8.570497 [60:05]

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This second volume of Tippett string quartets completes the Naxos cycle by the group named in the composer’s honour. The third and fifth quartets are a curious paring, over forty years separates their composition, and the musical worlds they inhabit are at the far ends of Tippett’s spectrum.

The Third Quartet is cast in a Beethovenian mould, with Beethoven’s late quartets the principle point of reference. Like the mature Beethoven, Tippett strives here to combine the modest scale and intimacy of chamber music with the structural rigour of renaissance counterpoint. The result is a work in five movements, in which the contrapuntal movements, the first, third and fifth, are in a continual state of contrapuntal flow. Players approaching this music have the long-standing performing traditions associated with the Beethoven quartets as their guide, and as with the greatest of those, the Tippett Quartet combine a lyricism in each of their lines with an impressive discipline in the tuning and above all the balance of their ensemble. The pacing in these movements is steady – all the better to appreciate the contrapuntal intricacy – and their tone leans towards solid an earthy timbres. It is not the only way that this music could be presented, but by keeping these complex textures earthbound, without any flights of lyrical digression, the players instil a sense of loyalty to Tippett’s muse; a contained lyricism based on a dark inner poetry. The slower and less contrapuntal second and fourth movements are presented with great care. This is music of borderline tonal affiliation, but is, I suspect, much easier on the listener than on the performers, who are required to tune a range of unusual combinations and voicings without the support of traditional tonal conventions. They do so magnificently, and the care with which they place each note lends a sense of reserve to these movements, which again is perfectly accordant with Tippett’s paradoxically introverted expression.

The Fifth Quartet is a more esoteric proposition. It was written in 1990-91, when the composer was in his mid-80s, and employs an uncompromising aesthetic. That is not to say that it is continuously harsh and dissonant (though it often is, at the opening for example), but rather to emphasise that the work engages very little with the history of the genre, preferring instead to explore its thematic material in a state of Modernist isolation. On those terms it succeeds. It is cast in two movements, a dramatic and multifaceted opening movement followed by a calmer, almost post-apocalyptic epilogue. As with the Third Quartet, the players present a controlled and disciplined reading, and again the results accord well with the inner logic of Tippett’s Modernist aesthetic. A kind of suppressed lyricism occasionally comes to the fore, especially in the second movement, and the players give these passages their due, emphasising portamento slides, for example, to highlight the productive, if paradoxical discrepancy between these short passages of vocalise and the architectural austerity of the whole.

Both of these works deserve to be heard more, and as the Lindsay Quartet, who have been the primary advocates of this music in recent years, have recently disbanded, it seems that the (significantly named) Tippett Quartet are on hand to take the baton. Their performances here do justice of Tippett’s imaginative and diverse soundworld. Fans of the composer are unlikely to need my recommendation, though I offer it nonetheless. I’d also recommend it to those curious about Tippett and who are interested in going beyond his most famous oratorio. The Third Quartet in particular is a valuable door into the more esoteric corners of his output. And for anybody who has completed their pilgrimage through Beethoven’s late quartets and is ready for more music in the same vein, the contrapuntal intrigues of Tippett’s Third are unlikely to disappoint.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Sinikka Langeland: Maria's Song – Folk Songs and music of J.S. Bach

Sinikka Langeland – voice, kantele
Lans Anders Tomter – viola
Kåre Nordstoga – organ
ECM 2717097 (2127)
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This is yet another classic ECM project. Technically it is crossover, but of such an arty and esoteric type that all thoughts of lazy commercialism are soon dispelled. The two art forms in intersection are Norwegian folk music and the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and for those like me who are more familiar with the latter it is a fascinating juxtaposition. It's brave too; versatile as Bach's music is, it has a tendency to overshadow anything it is programmed with. But the folk singing holds its own and remains the focus of the disc, while the Bach organ and viola music takes a subsidiary role, fortunately without ever getting trampled on.

Sinikka Langeland has a clear cut, strident tone in her renditions of Norwegian folk songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There is nothing ambient about this disc incidentally, but then ECM don't really go in for background music do they? There is some quite rustic intonation in many of these songs, boldly untempered pitches that initially stand out from the texture. As with all unusual pitch conventions, the ear eventually tunes in, but it took me a few minutes to stop hearing those few notes as just flat. Langeland also plays the kantele on some tracks. This is a Scandinavian plucked psaltery-type instrument with a narrow, but attractively resonant tone. Langeland often constricts her voice tone to create nasal sounding vowels, a timbre that complements the kantele well.

The Bach comes in the form of chorale preludes on the Wagner organ at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and Cello Suites played on the viola. The organ is the more successful of the two. Oragnist Kåre Nordstoga finds registrations that both demonstrate the Baroque antiquity of the instrument and fit well with the folk music. So again we hear a selection of nasal, reedy tones, but in elegant, linear music that always flows despite the often constricted timbres. In a few of the tracks, the Bach organ music actually accompanies the folk singing, an incredible achievement in many ways, not only in terms of balance, but also the fact that the singer does not temper her folk intonation, and yet the results meld impressively.

Lars Anders Tomter plays movements from Bach's Cello Suites in keeping with the ethos of the recording, with fairly light textures, a linear focus and a minimum of rubato. Given the ongoing debate about the instrument or instruments for which the suites were written, there can be few complaints about the transcription to the viola. Complaints about intonation, would however be legitimate, and there are a number of places where the pitch is worryingly insecure. And arguments about folk intonation are less likely to wash here.

As ever, the ECM sound is excellent. The cathedral venue may be a practicality for the sake of the organ, but it benefits all the musicians. The sound is atmospheric, with a short but perceptible decay, and no apparent effect on the clarity of the details.

The disc is as beautifully packaged as any from ECM. A bit more info on the slip case could be useful for prospective purchasers, although 'Folk songs and music of J.S. Bach' sums up the contents well. There are plenty of people out there who revere Bach as a god, and they might balk at his taking a supporting role. Otherwise, I suspect this disc is likely to be very well received.

Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2, Nicholas Angelich

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op.83 [48:40]
Klavierstüke Op.76 [25:03]
Nicholas Angelich – piano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi – conductor
Recorded at the he-Sendesaal, Frankfurt 6-9 April 2009 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 266349 2 0 [74:37]

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It is curious that this disc, by a British label and featuring a German orchestra, an Estonian conductor and an American pianist, should be aimed the French market, especially given Brahms' reception there, which is nicely summed up in the liner notes by a quote from Debussy "Let's leave, he's about to start the development."

In fact, Nicholas Angelich is a long-time resident of France and has a considerable following there. And while this may seem a risky proposition (EMI could be forgiven for playing things safe considering their current finances) it follows a commercially successful and critically acclaimed recording from the same pianist of Brahms' First Concerto.

Of course, the Second is a very different work, with very different, not to say more numerous, interpretive challenges. Both concertos are long and both are more symphonic than most composers’ essays in the medium. But the First is a youthful work, in a clearly delineated form and with fairly open orchestral textures. The Second is much later and in many ways more radical. It is a work that the pianist must absolutely dominate, not the extent of overpowering the orchestra (surely a physical impossibility here) but rather through his lines and textures leading those of the orchestra.

That doesn't quite happen, and I'm not sure why. The sound engineering may be to blame, although the clarity of both piano and orchestra suggest otherwise. Angelich seems content to be an equal partner with the orchestra. So at the opening, it is as if he is accompanying the solo horn, and by the time the first orchestral tutti starts he has lost the limelight for good.

The performance is quite foursquare, with a surprising lack of rubato. One result of this is that the tuttis in the outer movements are stripped of some of their bombast. To my ear, that is no bad thing, but to think of Brahms, doing everything in his power to add something to Beethoven’s canon and so repeatedly resorting to excess. Angelich seems intent on reining the work back to Beethovenian dimensions. 

The orchestral playing is good without being exceptional. Paavo Järvi is sensitive to Angelich's approach, and delivers a similarly disciplined, almost Classical, orchestral environment for the soloist. The third movement Andante is where it all finally comes together, and the orchestra's string and woodwind soloists set the atmosphere beautifully for Angelich's light, flowing cantabile lines. His disciplined approach really comes into its own here, and combines wonderfully with a delicacy of touch that is all too rare.

The Klavierstüke Op.76 are hardly a filler, clocking in at over 25 minutes. Again, Angelich avoids indulgence and gives clear precise readings. The recording was made in the same concert hall-cum-radio studio (the hr-Sendesaal in Frankfurt) as the concerto, and while it is fine for the orchestral recording, it causes a severe loss of intimacy in the solo music. The piano is in a resonant acoustic and, I think, miced at a distance. The round, slightly opaque, piano sound that results would be ideal for some pianists, but not this one, his art depending so much on clarity and directness of expression. 

The many people who bought Angelich's previous Brahms instalment will probably know what to expect, and perhaps the programming here is designed specifically for them, with the Second Concerto continuing the First's symphonic tendencies and Op.76 continuing on from its chamber like textures. Angelich is a brave man to even contemplate the Second Concerto, and his recording is a welcome addition to a discography that ought by rights to be a good deal more substantial. But this is definitely a recording for those who like their Brahms measured and precise. If you want some real drama, you would probably be better off tracking down Ashkenazy or Pollini.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

José Serebrier: Symphony No.1

José Serebrier (b.1938)

Symphony No.1 (1956)
Nueve: Double Bass Concerto (1971)
Violin Concerto ‘Winter’ (1991)
Tango en Azul (2001)
Casi un Tango (2002)
They Rode Into the Sunset – Music for an Imaginary Film (2009)
Gary Karr – double bass
Simon Callow – narrator
Philippe Quint – violin
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
José Serebrier – conductor
Naxos 8.559648 [71:35]
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Around this time last year I interviewed José Serebrier (read the interview here). He had just come back from recording Glazunov symphonies in Glasgow, and was about to set off for Poole to record some of his own music. One of the Glazunov works he had just recorded was the composer’s 1st Symphony, written when he was a teenager, and one of the works he was about to record was his 1st Symphony, written when he too was a teenager. When I asked he denied that the comparison was particularly meaningful, saying that Glazunov’s voice appears in this 1st Symphony fully mature, with no need for further development.

Having now heard Serebrier’s own 1st Symphony, I realise that this was just modesty, because this work also demonstrates a completely mature musical outlook despite its composer’s youth. It is a work of energy and passion. His mastery of orchestration at such a young age is remarkabe, but significantly, is not the overriding message of the work, for this is much more than a technical exercise or tryout of the genre. I think it is appropriate that Naxos have released the disc as part of their ‘American Classics’ range, because it fits squarely into the mid-20th century American symphonic tradition. There is plenty of Rachmaninov in there, something that the composer would attribute to his Slavic roots, but there is also an admirable sense of discipline and restraint, as if neo-classicism has influenced its scale and structure, but without affecting its post-Romantic style.

Serebrier has said that as a young composer, he wrote single movement works because he felt that multi-movement forms had become redundant. In a sense, that view seems quite arbitrary considering how many traditional stylistic features his music retains from the 19th century. But somehow he always manages to avoid cliché or parody. Perhaps his diverse roots are to thank: he was born and brought up in Uruguay to Polish and Russian parents before moving to the US to study. Like many new world composers, his work takes elements of European musical traditions and reconfigures them. It’s this reconfiguration that makes the work distinctive, and surprising too. I get the impression (and I may be wrong) that the music comes naturally to Serebrier and that he doesn’t have to search too hard for inspiration. It was the 1st Symphony that put Serebrier on the map when Stokowski premiered and later recorded the work. The Stokowski recording has recently been reissued, and although I haven’t had a chance to hear it, I can imagine that this is just the sort of music Stokowski would have loved. Perhaps the orchestration is a little more modest than he would have written himself, but the passionate, full tutti textures, the innovative percussion, the sweeping string lines – it’s all very Stokowskiesque.

The Double Bass Concerto ‘Nueve’ is another story entirely. It is a much more experimental work, with offstage players, a choir, jazz breaks and even a text for the soloist to recite. Serebrier describes the work as being of its time (1971), and certainly all these ideas were in the process of becoming common currency then. In fact, the work is more lyrical and more approachable than its description suggests. The move from Copland-like symphonism to Berio-like experimentalism doesn’t significantly affect the overall style of the music. Somehow, and this is all the more impressive given the choice of solo instrument, the work functions as a traditional concerto. The performance of all the works on the disc is excellent, as is the sound, but the engineers have been faced with some unusual challenges in the Double Bass Concerto. Simon Callow (a close friend of the composer) reads the text instead of the soloist, but you don’t get the impression that they are sharing a stage. Perhaps they are, but Callow’s voice has been so isolated from the acoustic that it sounds like he is in the control room. An impressive performance here from soloist Gary Carr, the work’s dedicatee. He is an older man than he was in 1971, but you wouldn’t know it from his agility around the finger board and his impressive projection.

Philippe Quint is also impressive as the soloist in the following Violin Concerto ‘Winter’. If I’ve less to say about this piece, it is because it doesn’t go in for any of the theatrics of the Double Bass Concerto. It’s still a well written work though, but it is one of those more downbeat and diminutive concertante works that you can’t imagine anybody ever having occasion to programme.

The rest of the disc is essentially filler, two tangos and an orphaned piece of film music. Interestingly, though, these are all recent works, yet are stylistically and technically very similar to Serebrier’s earlier work. 

Excellent performances throughout from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I have always thought that they are an ensemble who need inspiring leadership to bring out their best, and Serebrier clearly has what it takes to get top quality music making from them.

I was reading an interview today with Klaus Heymann, CEO of Naxos (read it here). He says that orchestral recordings don’t make the company any money because of the production costs, and that they only continue making them for the prestige. With that in mind, this could well be considered an obscure project for label kudos. I think the answer to that paradox is the sheer quality of the result, both of the music being championed and of the production values of the release. They might not break even with this one, but it is more than worthy of all the prestige it attracts.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 19 July 2010

Bach: Keyboard Concerti, András Schiff

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 [15:34]
Keyboard Concerto in A major BWV 1055 [14:27]
Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV 1056 [9:52]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata in C major Hob. XVI-48 [11:21]
Sonata in C major Hob. XVI-50 [16:31]
András Schiff – piano
English Chamber Orchestra
George Malcolm – conductor
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, August 1979 DDD(?) stereo
Dal Segno DSPRCD042 [75:60]

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The 1981 Gramophone review of the first release of these Bach Concertos ( makes interesting reading. The reviewer (R.F. – Richard Fairman?) is listening to a brand spanking new digital recording, but pressed onto vinyl. He ensures any readers who may be timid of the new technology that ‘When you put the stylus down in the opening groove, you hear precisely nothing; normally you hear 'atmosphere', as indeed you do in an empty concert hall or is marvellous to have not a trace of distortion, a beautifully rounded tone and quite astonishing clarity.’

So how does it stand the test of time? Well, for one thing, I am surprised that this is a digital recording, the reissue sleeve notes make no mention of the fact (perhaps the Haydn is analogue), but also the sound has a warmth that I usually associate with analogue transfers. No question about the clarity though, it is a recording of pinpoint technological precision, where every line of counterpoint and every detail of instrumental balance is clearly reproduced. If this sounds like a 70s recording, it is because of the style and priorities of the sound engineering, not its quality.

András Schiff, it turns out, was a pupil of the legendary George Malcolm, so any concerns about Cold War era culture clash are easily dismissed. The close communication and musical empathy between the two men is everywhere apparent. Many readers will be familiar with Schiff’s flowing, but always disciplined, approach to Bach, and that’s the way he plays it in this early recording. And George Malcolm gets exactly the same interpretation from his orchestra; both piano and ensemble sing, with warm lyrical lines, subtle but intelligently employed rubato and the sort of variety of articulation that, if it were performed like this today, could well have the power to resuscitate the tradition of Bach on modern instruments.

So no danger of mechanical performance, and no danger Gould-like tempo extremes either. But while the performances avoid extremes, they never feel safe or middle-of-the-road. Where some period performers (and Glenn Gould) would be tempted to propel the outer movements with fast tempi, Schiff achieves an inner propulsion in the counterpoint that gives these movements all the life they need. And in the slow middle movements it is all about cantabile. The audio ensures that bass lines and counterpoints are all represented, but this music revolves around the melodic line, to spectacularly beautiful effect.

Haydn Sonatas seem like an incongruous filler, but the performances are of apiece with the Bach. Again, luminous, lyrical lines are the order of the day, and exaggerated dynamics, tempos and articulations are studiously avoided. The similarity in performance style makes the Bach seem quite Classical in retrospect. But anachronism aside, why not? Both composers benefit from interpretive rigour and pianistic virtuosity tempered by modesty. The Haydn is a generous filler too, and the overall running time exceeds 75 minutes. Anybody who is a fan of András Schiff’s piano playing should seek this out as it is a fascinating document of his early years. And for anybody who is not yet converted, this is as good a place to start as any.

Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Beethoven: Sonatas and Variations

12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” WoO 45 [12:18]
Sonata in F major Op. 5 no.1 [24:35]
Sonata in G minor Op. 5 no.2 [24:08]
12 Variations on the Theme “Ein Mädchen oder Wiebchen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” Op.66 [10:45]
Werner Bärtschi – piano
Wen-Sinn Yang – cello
Recorded at the Tonhalle, Zürich 12 May 2004 Stereo DDD
Hänssler Profile Edition CD PH10004 [73:08]

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It seems an unlikely partnership, at least from the cover photograph. In fact, Werner Bärtschi and Wen-Sinn Yang regularly peform together, and both are Swiss, Bärtschi ethnically so, while Yang was born there to Taiwanese parents.

Lorin Maazel is quoted in the liner as saying of Yang: ‘At the highest technical level he plays with a wonderful, round tone and perfect intonation. His phrasing is sensitive, and he has an extraordinary grasp of the philosophical dimension of the works he plays.’

Some, but not all, of these statements are borne out by the present recording. The ‘wonderful, round tone’ is everywhere evident, and is clearly Yang’s major asset. His sense of phrasing is also impressive; early Beethoven needs subtlety in the phrasing, it needs a player with a good grasp of the musical structure, but who can make it evident without recourse to dynamic extremes or indulgent rubato. And Yang is just such a player. His Beethoven is Classical but without ever being stuffy.

The one statement by Maazel that doesn’t ring true is his commendation of Yang’s perfect intonation. The intonation here isn’t catastrophic, but it is far from ideal. Fast passage work brings out some deficiencies and so do fortissimo movement endings. That’s my only real gripe though, as I say, it is not a huge problem, but at this stage it is what distinguishes Yang from the greatest proponents of his instrument.

An ‘extraordinary grasp of the philosophical dimension of the works he plays’ is almost beside the point in the case of early Beethoven. Unless, of course, the simplicity of the interpretation and the directness of expression has been calculated to accord with the straightforwardness of the music. His is an ideal approach, in many ways, to the Variations on Handel. Like Beethoven, he strives throughout for musical variety in spite of the limited material. But it’s not much of piece really, and it is curious that it appears at the beginning rather than at the end of the programme.

The two sonatas Op.5 are more substantial works, at least in terms of duration. Again, the players strive for musical variety rather than psychological drama, and again the results seem fully accordant with the spirit of the music. The cello phrasing is slightly more emphatic here, with more hairpins and more dynamic contrast.

Werner Bärtschi is a sympathetic and lively accompanist. Not that it is all accompaniment, this is 18th century music, after all, and the keyboard has at least equal prominence to the cello, which may or may not explain why Bärtschi has a higher billing than Yang on the cover. Like Yang, Bärtschi occasionally struggles with the faster passage work, resulting in one or two slips. They’re minor flaws though, and serve more to demonstrate that this is a live recording than to ruin the overall experience. 

Modest applause follows each of the works, and it certainly is modest, suggesting either a small or an unenthusiastic audience. Clearly, it takes a lot to animate the Swiss when it comes to musical prowess, because these performances deserve a better reception than that. 

The recorded sound is good, as of course is the acoustic of the venue. They combine to produce a warm, rounded tone for both instruments that never compromises the detail. And Yang’s performance is well worth hearing, even if it doesn’t quite meet the standards attributed by Maazel. An enjoyable disc, but one to file under ‘promising performer’ rather than ‘benchmark recording’.

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 16 July 2010

Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, Paul Lewis, Bělohlávek, BBC SO

Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, Paul Lewis, Bělohlávek, BBC SO
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902053.55 (3 CDs)
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Among the many highlights of this year’s Proms season is a complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos from Paul Lewis. After the near-universal adoration that greeted his Beethoven sonata recordings, his live concerto performances are likely to be preceded by very long returns cues and followed by raptures from the arena. 

This recording also promises much. Unlike the Proms performances, the recordings are made with a single orchestra, although like the live events, the recording is made with the participation of the BBC. A marketing ploy by the Beeb perhaps, getting a high-profile disc out in the weeks leading up to Paul Lewis’ Proms appearances? To be honest, I doubt it. After all, it is not like they are going to struggle to attract the crowds with this billing.

But whatever the marketing concerns, this is a very fine recording indeed. It is only a few years since Paul Lewis was known principally as a protégé of Alfred Brendel, but these performances demonstrate that he has now fully digested the influence of his mentor and become a distinctive artist in his own right. As coincidence would have it, the last high profile Beethoven Concerto cycle to appear on disc was from Brendel, accompanied by Rattle and the Vienna Phil. The expectations for that release were astronomical, leading inevitably to disappointment in some quarters.

Is Paul Lewis setting himself up for a similar reality check? I don’t think so. This is not the last word in Beethoven Piano Concertos (how could it be?) but Lewis’ playing combines open expressivity with a level-headed musicality. His performances, whether by intuition or design, are going to appeal to a very broad audience base. His is a very flowing Beethoven, which considering some of the composer’s more awkward figurations is a triumph of technique in itself. It is also the primary difference between Lewis and Brendel; both pianists make every note matter, but Lewis integrates that attention to detail into flowing, lyrical phrases in a way that Brendel would not. It’s just not as percussive as Brendel, and whereas Brendel’s recordings never let you forget the sheer mechanics of the keyboard technique, Lewis seems completely at one with his Steinway.

One cause for possible dissent is the Romanticism of Lewis’ Beethoven. These could well be described as traditional readings, and Lewis makes full use of the round tone of his modern instrument, rubato is tasteful, but there sure is a lot of it, and, as I mentioned above, lyrical passage work always takes precedence over clarity of texture or counterpoint.

Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC SO are in many ways the ideal partners for an approach like this. Bělohlávek, a core-repertoire 19th century specialist, was a surprise choice for Chief Conductor of the BBC SO a few years ago, especially since their strengths are usually considered to lie in the modern and the obscure repertoire. But this recording demonstrates his success in bringing the ensemble up to scratch in the big name works. Like Lewis, they give a heart-on-sleeve Romantic interpretation. A studio recording seems a rare luxury these days, but the precise balance between orchestra and piano here shows what an advantage it can be. The string section is too large for my taste, and while they do very well, there are just too many of them to manage the chamber ensemble accuracy we have come to associate with this repertoire.

It seems a little churlish to complain about the lush Romantic sound, especially given the integrity of these interpretations, for which it is essential. It is more of an issue in the first two Concertos, the most resolutely Classical of the cycle, although even here the sheer commitment of the approach wins the day. And that Romanticism also brings intimacy to the quieter passages and slow movements. In fact, the ability of Lewis and Bělohlávek to create those quiet, seductive textures without losing sight of the overall architecture is a major achievement. It demonstrates that the warm, expressivity of their Beethoven is not simply regression to some old-fashioned and comfortable performance style, it is their way of creating immediacy and direct communication. This is not a recording for purists who insist on gut strings and an old Broadwood, but for everyone else it offers a near-ideal Beethoven experience.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Chausson: Le Roi Arthus

Chausson: Le Roi Arthus
Guenievre - Teresa Zylis-Gara (soprano)
Lyonnel - Gerard Friedmann (tenor)
Arthus - Gino Quilico (baritone)
Allan - Francois Loup (bass)
Lancelot - Gosta Winbergh (tenor)
Merlin - Gilles Cachemaille (baritone)
Mordred - Rene Massis (baritone)

Choeurs de Radio France
Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique
Armin Jordan - conductor

Warner Classics 3cds 2564681476
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Le Roi Arthus has never quite made it into the repertoire, but is that through fault of its own or accident of history? I think a little of both. It is very difficult to assess the work on its own terms, because Chausson, like so many of his contemporaries, remains too deeply in the shadow of Wagner when it comes to operatic dramaturgy. Of course, like Beethoven before him, Wagner was admired and imitated by his successors because his work was worthy of such admiration and imitation, and even if this is a second rate knock-off of Parsifal and Tristan, that doesn’t necessarily make it redundant.

In fact, Chausson has a lighter touch than Wagner when it comes to orchestrating recitative, and his shorter timeframes mean that none of the work’s three acts outstays its welcome. The music is at its most Wagnerian at the end of act 2, which is too close to the Good Friday Music for comfort. The transcendental finale of act 3 recalls Berlioz’ Faust, and you may also hear Bizet or even Massenet elsewhere. All are fine models for operatic composition, and it would take a hard-hearted pedant to dismiss Arthus solely for lacking originality.

There is a slight lack of dramatic engagement in the music, a consequence perhaps of Chausson’s efforts to reconcile the dreamy stasis of Tristan with more conventional narrative structures. Reading the synopsis (which is included in the liner, no libretto though), the story is fascinating. It is the old love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, but with plenty of wars, soothsaying, swords in lakes and whathaveyou thrown in. It is indicative, I think, that the scenes are described as ‘Tableaux’, as the mood and pace of each is completely different, and only thematic connections string the work together. That, too, is a Wagnerian trait, of course, but unlike Wagner, Chausson never quite manages the necessary immediacy, the psychological empathy required to elevate the individual moments beyond their narrative function.

The performance may have something to do with this. Two recordings of the work are currently available, and the other, which has Leon Botstein conducting the BBC SO (Telarc 80645) has been much criticised for its Romantic excess. Botstein, it seems, is reluctant to restrain the orchestra for the sake of the singers, beholden as he is to the lush instrumental textures. Listening to Armin Jordan’s performance, it is difficult to understand how these temptations could have come about. For this is a much more controlled performance; the orchestra is certainly expressive, and regularly indulges in lush, sweeping tuttis, but there is never any danger of the singers being subsumed. In fact, Jordan appears to have gone back to Chausson’s roots in song as the basis of his approach. He is aided by the studio recording environment, and there is an admirable precision about the recording levels and the general ambiance of the sound. The recording was made in 1985 and it shows its age in a certain flatness of tone, not a big problem but it would be nice to hear a bit more bloom on these lush Romantic textures.

The cast is worthy rather than exceptional. The heavy vibrato of Teresa Źylis-Gara as Genièvre and Gösta Winbergh as Lancelot is probably in keeping with the spirit of the work, but can get wearing. Gino Quilico has a more modest, almost introverted, tone as Arthus, which to my ear is much more attractive. He plays the role as if the whole story were a psychological drama focussed on the one character. That makes for some wonderfully engaging arias, although he is constantly in danger of being upstaged by his more extrovert co-leads.

If you haven’t heard this work before and you’re curious, it is not going to break the bank to get hold of this mid-price reissue. The work deserves more though; it deserves a recording by top flight Wagnerians. It deserves staging too, and despite its grandiose setting, it isn’t an impractically large work. It would be an ideal one for Wexford.
Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

André Jolivet: Choral Works

André Jolivet (1905-1974)
Missa Uxor Tua
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
Members of the Radio-Sinfonieorchesters Stuttgart
Marcus Creed – conductor
Carus 83.445 [59:24]
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Jolivet’s choral music is a brave undertaking, even for a professional choir. His textures are always unconventional, and the only traditional elements, at least on this recording, are brief snatches of plainsong that are woven into otherwise innovative textures. Tonality has a bearing on this music, but it never determines the harmonies or progressions.

That is not to say that the music is wantonly atonal. It is French after all, and a commitment to the beauty of the human voice is a common feature of these three works. The two composers who come most readily to mind are Stravinsky and Messiaen. Jolivet strove to set his music apart from the fashions and trends of Parisian music, but he couldn’t completely distance himself from Stravinsky’s pervasive influence. But rather than follow Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, Jolivet goes back to the sounds of the Russian-era works. So there is often a raw angularity about the choral writing that calls to mind Les Noces or Zvezdoliki. Messiaen was happy to acknowledge the influence Jolivet had on his early development, although the influence is just as likely to have flown in the opposite direction in later years. Certainly, the raw sensuality of much of Messiaen’s music is reflected here, the impassioned homophonic fortissimos of the Trois petites liturgies, for example, or the elemental simplicity of line that elucidates the most complex textures in the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

The interplay of erotic and religious themes is explored in two of the works on the disc with reference to marriage. The first work, Épithalame, commemorates the composer’s 20th wedding anniversary, while the last, Missa Uxor Tua, was written for the wedding ceremony of his son. Épithalame opens with the imitation of chiming bells, but doesn’t labour the point. In fact, the invention and variety of textures throughout the disc is endlessly fascinating. Those bell chimes at the beginning, for example, develop into close harmony chords that suggest the bells’ overtones, almost a precursor of spectralism. Later the textures develop further, taking in fast scale passages, glissandos, quiet monotone successions of syllables, almost a textbook demonstration of how to create musical variety from the limited resources of an unaccompanied choir.

The other two works are accompanied, although both only employ small ensembles. Madrigal is a more substantial work than its title suggests, in three related movements. There is a hint here of serial structuring, especially in the instrumental parts, but on the whole this is music of a free and apparently intuitive atonality. But while the structural logic of the pitch content is difficult to pin down, the motivation towards clarity of line is evident throughout. The first two movements of the work are slow and quiet, while the third is a little more uptempo, but even at his quietest and most introverted, there is always a joie de vivre about Jolivet’s music, a propulsive inner life that engages the listener from beginning to end.

Missa Uxor Tua mixes the liturgy of the Catholic wedding service with that of the mass ordinary, in the process bringing together Latin and French. Gregorian chant has a presence, but like Jolivet’s use of tonality, it is by no means a controlling influence on the structure or the language of the music. Considering this is music for a wedding ceremony, much of it sounds austere. But here again, there is a deep sense of joy that underpins the music, and even when the textures take on that Symphonies of Wind Instruments homophonic angularity, there is always a sense that this formalism is just a veneer, a cooling influence to contain the mass of positive and very human emotions behind.

The SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart and director Marcus Creed really have the measure of this music. They studiously resist the many passing temptations to lapse into a warm Romantic sound. But the clarity they maintain instead is anything but austere. It is a little distancing, perhaps, but this is clearly the composer’s intention. Jolivet is a composer who knows how to write for the voice. He knows how to challenge the singers too, although he never introduces difficulties just for their own sake. I would have liked a slightly warmer sound from the sopranos in the top register, but otherwise both the choir and the recording are ideal. And full respect to the singers for their ability to pitch this music; atonal choral music is always going to be a challenge to performers, but the SWR choir demonstrate that it need not be so for the audience.

Gavin Dixon

Read more about André Jolivet at:

Monday, 12 July 2010

Strauss: Rosenkavalier from the Salzburg Festival 2004

Strauss: Rosenkavalier from the Salzburg Festival 2004
Adrianne Pieczonka - Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg
Franz Hawlata - Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau
Angelika Kirchschlager - Octavian
Franz Grundheber - Herr von Faninal
Miah Persson - Sophie
Ingrid Kaiserfeld - Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin
Jeffrey Francis - Valzacchi
Elena Batoukova - Annina
Florian Boesch - Ein Polizeikommissär
John Dickie - Der Haushofmeister bei der Marschallin
Michael Roider - Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal
Peter Loehle - Ein Notar
Markus Petsch - Ein Wirt
Piotr Beczala - Ein Sänger
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov - Conductor
Robert Carsen- stage director
Brian Large – video director
Recorded during the 2004 Salzburger Festspiele. Stereo and 5.1 surround sound
Arthaus Musik DVD 107 139 [131:11+69:47]

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Expectations run high for this Rosenkavelier, not least because of the involvement of Semyon Bychkov, the Vienna Philharmonic, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson. And the standard is as high as could be expected from any of these world-class Strassians. Canadian director Robert Carsen adds in a few little surprises to unsettle the Saltzburg Festival’s respectable clientele, but in general this is a solid, traditional reading, well performed and well presented on DVD.

The setting is updated slightly to late 19th/early 20th century Vienna, although with the exception of the 3rd Act Inn Scene, little of controversy is presented on the stage. But what a stage it is! Carsen has so much space to play with that he regularly divides the stage into three adjacent rooms, and even when the libretto calls for an anteroom to the Feldmarschallin’s chamber, Carsen adds on another for good measure.
Among the singers, top musical honours go to Franz Hawlata as Ochs and Miah Persson as Sophie, while dramatically, Angelika Kirchschlager puts in the most engaging performance. Hawlata is commendably repulsive as Ochs, and both monocle and wig are used to great comic effect. His voice is commanding in the baritone register, but he struggles slightly towards the bottom. That’s intentional of course, and Strauss only writes those low notes in to underline the character’s rare moments of vulnerability.

Miah Persson has the looks and the voice to play the part of Sophie. There is a directness and simplicity about her tone which is always attractive, and which is particularly impressive in the higher register, where her security and fluency really stand out, even in this impressive cast. Kirchschlager takes the part of Octavian to extremes, and worries little about continuity of character in the various cross-dressing transformations. But that doesn’t matter a bit, because she controls the stage in each of her guises. This is an opera filled with strong characters, but Kirchschlager makes sure that Octavian remains the focal point of the tale.
Adrianne Pieczonka is a little more stiff as the Feldmarschallin. She is always graceful though, and her tone is full of Straussian colour. Her tone is occasionally thin at the very top, but her tuning is never in question. The opening scene is enriched musically by the complementary timbres of Pieczonka and Kirchschlager, which never risk emulsifying Strauss’ often complex ensemble textures.

Semyon Bychkov delivers the kind of spectacular Strauss interpretation for which he is rightly famous. He has a rare skill in the orchestra pit of being able to keep tight control of both the singers and the players all the time, yet without imposing any apparent restraint on either. The Vienna Philharmonic don’t play with quite the unity that they might when on stage, but this too is to Bychkov’s credit, as he really gets the players to relax into the music. So without the visuals, you might be slightly (and I mean slightly) disappointed by the absence of that superprecise VPO sound, but in the context of this production, the easy Viennese charm with which they present the various woodwind solos, or strike up waltzes, is more than enough to win the day.

The video direction by Brian Large involves a number of moving cameras and some editing between close-ups of singers, but it is all done with discretion and never feels excessive. The exceptionally wide stage means that we occasionally watch scenes in one corner, but are only aware of the fact because all the voices are concentrated on one channel of the stereo array. That can be slightly jarring, but only if you haven’t been paying attention. The sound is good, but is much better down stage than up, a consequence, presumably of live recording.

So, all in all, a solid, traditional and well performed staging, with lavish production values and no real surprises...or so the audience thinks at the end of the first half. At the start of Act 3 things change significantly, as Robert Carsen transforms the ‘Inn’ into a seedy red-light district brothel. The visual innuendos that the setting allows are fully commensurate with the libretto, and you get the feeling that the shock value of the idea has missed its mark. On the other hand, the Salzburg Festival caters for a slightly more aristocratic demographic than the home DVD market, so perhaps it had its effect live. The only sticking point between Hofmannsthal’s inn and Carsen’s bordello (apart from its occasionally being described as the former) is the reaction of the police, who seem disproportionately concerned about the Baron’s vices considering the other goings on in the establishment. 

In fact, the seediness of this scene is ideal. For despite the palatial surroundings of the rest of the opera, it is after all a work about sexual deviancy, about infidelity, cradle snatching, cross dressing, polygamy...the list goes on. These may be aristocratic circles, but Carsen does the work a service by peeking behind the veneer of decency and showing us how this society really works.

Gavin Dixon