Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Beethoven Symphony No.9 Rattle Vienna Philharmonic

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 Op.125 in D minor ‘Choral’
Barbara Bonney – soprano 
Birgit Remmert – contralto
Kurt Streit – tenor
Thomas Hampson – baritone
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey – chorus director
Simon Rattle – conductor
Recorded live at the Vienna Musikverein 12 May 2002 Stereo DDD
EMI CLASSICS 9 65924 2 [69:57]
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Given the current financial woes at EMI, it is hardly surprising that the company has taken to delving into its recent back catalogue in search of marketable gems. Hence ‘EMI Great Classical Recordings’, a title that implicitly acknowledges that none of the material is yet old enough to market on its historical status.

They will probably get away with it if they stick to recordings of this high standard. Rattle’s reading of the Ninth is hardly controversial, but has all the markings of a landmark of recording, history in the making. It was recorded in 2003 and was initially released as part of a complete cycle. It wasn’t the first Beethoven cycle to be recorded live, but that was still something of an innovation at the time.

The other historically significant issue is the relationship between the conductor’s preference for period performance techniques and the orchestra’s more traditional approach. This was more significant in the recordings of the earlier symphonies, where the reduced vibrato and dry woodwind raised eyebrows. In the Ninth, he lets the orchestra have their way more, and the result is a more traditional approach, but with a handful of surprises thrown in.

Of course, not even Rattle can please everybody all of the time when it comes to Beethoven, but most listeners’ expectations will be running high with a lineup like this: even the acoustic of the venue – the Vienna Musikverein – is widely considered to be the finest in the world. The combination of the VPO ensemble, the clarity of the acoustic and the high standard of the recorded sound makes for an elegantly textured sound, where the ear is endlessly drawn into the details of Beethoven’s orchestration. The audience is eerily silent throughout, coughs have perhaps been digitally doctored and applause is wholly absent.

What is there to dislike about this recording? In the first two movements I can’t think of a thing that any listener could possibly object to, unless they are diehard authenticity nuts who think Rattle has sold out from his OAE days. The speed, or rather lack of it, in the adagio is likely to aggravate them more. Not me though, I love this Brucknerian approach, sustained, lyrical...sublime. In contrast, the tempos in the finale are often on the fast side. There is no danger of Rattle catching out the VPO players, of course, but he has them on the edge of their seats with speeds that are clearly a notch above what they are used to. I’ve nothing but praise for the quartet of singers and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, though I wonder whose arm Rattle had to twist to organise that trip for them. The singing is clear and expressive throughout the finale, and the soloists make their chronically difficult ensembles sound like second nature.

The edition used is the new Bärenretier Urtext, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. He sets contrabassoon an octave lower than we are used to in that flatulent interlude in the finale. Amazingly, it really works, injecting menace into the passage and wholly avoiding unintended comedy. The coda of the finale is probably the most impressive part of the whole recording. The structure of Beethoven’s finale has come in for criticism is some quarters, but Rattle demonstrates how it can really work. The joy is undiminished in this final passage, but the structural coherency and emotional depth of these closing phrases should be enough to dispel any doubts about Beethoven’s sincerity.

If anybody reading does not own a recording of the Ninth Symphony (I know, that’s quite unlikely) then this budget price release is a must. Personally, I’d sooner listen to this than Karajan or Furtwängler, though I except I might be in a minority there. But if they are too extravagant for your taste and Norrington is too dry, then Rattle and the VPO might be just the compromise you’re looking for.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5 Yutaka Sado

Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.5 in e minor op.64 [50:35]
Slavonic March op.31 [9:23]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Yutaka Sado – conductor
Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin 13-15 May 2008 Stereo Multi-ch DDD DSD
Challenge Classics CC72356 [59:58]
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The close relationship between SACD technology and small independent record labels has repeatedly proved to be of mutual benefit in recent years. Many labels have been able to capitalise on niche audiophile markets through a conspicuous emphasis on sound quality, while their A&R teams nab the top talent that was once the preserve of the major internationals.

But sometimes the results don’t quite meet the heightened expectations, and in the case of this Tchaikovsky 5, I suspect financial considerations have let the project down. The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin is a fine ensemble, even by German standards. Their home is the Philharmonie, surely the finest recording venue in the city. Why, then, was this recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, one of Berlin’s larger protestant churches? There is no untoward reverberation to the acoustic, but the recorded sound is muddy and indistinct. Perhaps without the SACD layer this would be less of an issue, but from an audio point of view, it’s a wasted opportunity, especially considering the quality of the orchestral playing: the unity of the string sound, the distinctively toned woodwind and horn solos. And there are details of the orchestration – contrapuntal lines, PP answering phrases – that are all but inaudible, a great shame.

I’m not a fan of Sado’s interpretation either. He is good in the quiet passages, the clarinet opening, for example, and the horn solo at the start of the second movement. But elsewhere much is lacking. The climaxes lack urgency, the third movement Valse lacks grace and the finale lacks momentum. In many places, these issues are clearly the result of conscious interpretive decisions. He obviously has no desire to emulate Mravrinsky’s furioso intensity in the finale and presents the movement as something altogether more civilised. So the motif of a dotted crotchet followed by two semiquavers that recurs throughout the work loses its doom-laden menace as a harbinger of fate and becomes instead an innocuous idée fixe. 

Perhaps, then, it is to the orchestra’s credit that they provide such a coherent realisation of Sado’s ideas. And the orchestral playing really is impeccable. The opening of the Slavonic March (didn’t that work used to have a French name?) is another quiet passage where Sado conjures some real atmosphere. But again the following tuttis all fall flat. Tchaikovsky is quite modest in his notated articulations in these two scores, but more are required than are stated for a successful performance, and without them the results are monotonous.
All things considered, I would struggle to recommend this recording. There are already a good many Tchaikovsky 5s out there, and at least half a dozen on SACD. That’s probably to be expected; it’s the sort of work that could really show off the technology. Sadly, it fails to on this occasion.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: 

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli Ensemble Officium

Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Missa Papae Marcelli
Ensemble Officium
Wilfried Rombach – conductor
Recorded Ev. Kirche Peter & Paul, Mössingen 23-25.8.2004 STEREO DDD/DSD
Christophorus Records CHR 77313 [64:55]
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By and large, there seems to be a general consensus about the ideals to which modern performances of Palestrina should aspire. Most seem intent on balancing the clarity afforded by clear articulation and even balance between the voices with a warm, all-embracing aura, either from a generous acoustic or from homogeneity of choral tone.

By those standards, this is a remarkably successful recording. Ensemble Officium is a relatively small choir, seventeen singers are credited, but has plenty of power in reserve for Palestrina’s more opulent textures. Some may find the readings a little on the dry side, dry for Palestrina that is, and certainly clarity is the overriding concern here. The balance between the voices is impeccable, as is the articulation of the texts. Pope Macellus would surely have approved, as he would that the texts are also provided.

The liner notes go into some detail about why these works are performed a fourth lower than notated. Whatever the historical justification, the musical benefits are clear. The sopranos are never strained, the alto lines are taken by tenors, adding to the evenness of the tone, and none of the lower voices is ever compromised by the tessitura. The recorded sound is exquisite: clear, warm and above all involving. There is no surround mix, but the stereo SA-CD layer demonstrates all the other virtues that this technology can field. In fact, those Trentine ideals of clarity and engagement are ideally met through the combination of a smallish choir and high-specification recorded sound.

The programme breaks up the Missa Papae Marcelli with interpolated plainchant and motets by Palestrina. The idea is to recreate the music of an Ascension Day service from Palestrina’s time. From a purely musical point of view, this has the effect of introducing a range of Palestrina’s lesser known but equally fine works into the flow of his famous Mass. The ordering is probably not to everybody’s taste, but I surprised myself in not skipping the Gregorian chant, which is sung here (often in small unison ensembles) with an unadorned and unornamented simplicity. Stylistically, it is the ideal compliment to Palestrina’s strivings for polyphonic clarity.

When it comes to Papae Marcelli recordings, the field is already crowded, but even so this disc deserves recommendation. If you like boy’s voices on the top lines, driving tempi or halo-like cathedral acoustics, give this one a miss. On the other hand, if you like clarity, engagement, precision and top-notch audio, this could be the Papae Marcelli for you.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 27 September 2010

Erkki-Sven Tüür Symphony No.6 'Strata', 'Noesis'

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Symphony No.6 'Strata'
'Noesis' Concerto for Clarinet, Violin and Orchestra 
Jörg Widmann clarinet
Carolin Widmann violin
Nordic Symphony Orchestra
Anu Tali conductor
ECM 476 3799
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Symphonies and concertos dominate Erkki-Sven Tüür's catalogue, yet both genres seem curiously irrelevant to the way he actually makes music. His conception of the orchestra is as a monolithic entity, providing a range of interrelated timbres that can be put to the service of rhythmically propulsive but texturally quite straightforward music. The symphony and concerto presented here conform to the conventions of their respective genres to the extent that their scale is appropriate and the latter features solo instruments, but beyond that the terms are little more than names. It is curious, then, that both also have individual names, although neither of these – Strata and Noesis – help us very much either. If anything, the names reinforce the abstraction of the music, an abstraction that even takes it beyond the absolute status suggested by the generic affiliations.
Yet there is a strong corporeal element to Tüür's music that balances the abstraction. It is most evident in his writing for percussion. If you know his percussion concerto 'Magma', then you'll know what to expect from the 6th Symphony. Untuned percussion is an almost continuous presence, both grounding and propelling the music. And for the most part, the percussion writing is unrepeatative, a welcome change from the industrial minimalist approach of much contemporary percussion-led orchestral writing. Tüür has a distinctive musical voice, but you will also hear echoes of other composers here. James MacMillan's Veni Veni Emmanuel is often suggested in the percussion writing. The way the rest of the orchestra is treated is usually through clusters or complex chords that gradually accrue over the course of 20 or 30 seconds. This suggests, to me at least, the influence of Alfred Schnittke, and the string wiring in Schnittke's 2nd Symphony is, I suspect, and influence.
The overall result is music of monumental power but fairly straightforward construction. Tüür's predilection for titles taken from geological terminology is appropriate to the extent that his music constantly eludes to slow moving processes while always maintaining a sense of groundedness through the ever-present percussion. And while his musical ideas may lack sophistication, they are always well-served by his skill at orchestration. Indeed, the ideas seems to be founded on the orchestral colours used to present them. This is truly idiomatic orchestral music, with every instrument put skilfully to the service of the musical ideas. In this sense, perhaps it is symphonic, although on an extremely abstract level.
The concerto Noesis for clarinet, violin and orchestra is a similar work. There is less percussion here and the textures are more linear. Fast modal scales are the basis of most of the textures, calling to mind Ligeti's Melodien. There is percussion and brass aplenty, less perhaps than in the symphony, but more than you will find in most concertos. The two solo instruments are used to their full potential, and given some excruciatingly complex figurations. In general, the clarinet stands out better from the large orchestra than the violin, the reason I suspect that the figurations of the solo violin are often closely replicated by the strings of the orchestra.
The brother and sister team of soloists are clearly on top op this music. Both are given a helping hand by the audio to rise above the orchestra, but when they fail to do so, it is clear that the composer intends them to be subsumed. I wonder what Jörg Widmann makes of this music. It is similar to his own in many ways, especially the brittle orchestral textures and the punishing solo parts. But Widmann tends to favour more continuous spans. This music comes in waves, repeatedly climaxing then falling away, where Widmann would be more inclined to keep the textures at an even and sustained level of intensity.
Good playing from the Nordic Symphony Orchestra and their young conductor Anu Tali, always precise and measured, but also full-blooded and energised. The Estonia Concert Hall, at least as represented here, appears to have a fairly resonant acoustic. That favours the swirling, hypnotic textures from the strings, but can cause some distractingly long decays on the drums.
Erkki-Sven Tüür is one of the more aggressive modern composers on the ECM books, and comparisons with their other Estonian signing, Arvo Pärt, are unlikely to yield meaningful insights into either composers' work. But gritty as it is, I'm sure there is an audience for this music. Powerful percussion writing is the common thread running through Tüür's orchestra output. If you've heard that in his earlier works and liked it, then you'll like this too.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Hartmann and Eisler String Quartets

Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963) 
String Quartet no. 1 ‘Carillon’ (1934) [21:52]
String Quartet no. 2 (1945) [28:48]
Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
String Quartet Op. 73 (1937) [13:36]
Vogler Quarett Berlin
Recorded at Wyastone Leys, Monmothshire 19-21 February 2001 Stereo DDD
Nimbus Records NI5729 [64:16]
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Anyone who, like me, is most familiar with Karl Amadeus Hartmann from his orchestral music may be surprised by the lean, ascetic textures in these string quartets. There is a certain Mahlerian Romanticism about them, and the solo openings, viola in the 1st Quartet, violin in the 2nd, both call to mind the Adagio of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. But this is clearly the music of a later period, and the intercession of Schoenberg and Berg always mediate Mahler’s voice.

The leanness of the sound is at least partly the result of a conscious decision by the performers, I suspect. You could give this music a warmer, rounder profile, and results would be completely different. But what is presented here sounds truer to the music. The sound often has richness, and the cello is very prominent in the mix, which adds a satisfying gravity. But overall, the Hartmann works are presented as skeletal vestiges of the proud German music traditions, surviving in emaciated forms under the yoke of the disapproving Nazi regime. There is a linearity to the music, which relates back most directly to Schoenberg and often beyond, especially when fugal forms evoked. But then there are times when, for example, the parts run in parallel chromatic reflection, bringing the more recent influence of Bartok into focus. There isn’t much levity (how much would you expect in a work like the 2nd Quartet that was written in Berlin in 1945?) but there is often lightness of texture. Hartmann comes across in these works as a paradoxical figure, his language essentially Romantic, but expressivity is always at a premium.

Listening the contemporaneous Eisler Quartet leads to the suspicion that this icy demeanour was a product of the time (so why didn’t Richard Strauss suffer from it?) Eisler is more ‘advanced’ in his techniques; the music is strictly serial (so far as I can tell), but that in itself does not distance it from the soundworld of the, at least nominally, tonal Hartmann. Both composers maintain a psychological stability in the way that their music evolves through linked textures rather than through abrupt changes. Hartmann’s music is more melodic than Eisler’s, but both maintain that direct sense of logical linearity that allows the ear to follow the music’s progression, be it through melodic contour or contrapuntal intrigue.

The Volger Quartet give convincing interpretations throughout. As I mentioned, the cello is satisfyingly prominent, and in fact all of the instruments have an immediacy of tone that suggests close micing. Dry never means austere for these performers. They hold back on excessive vibrato and often create fairly brittle tutti textures, but never to the detriment of the music. The music of both composers, and Hartmann in particular, presents opposing demands of Romanticism and Modernism to the interpreters. Bartok offers them a model for the middle way they need, and you get the impression he has been as important to the players as he was to the composers.

Overall, this is a fascinating disc, of most interest, perhaps to those with a taste for 20th century string quartet writing who are seeking to fill in the gaps. Hartmann bridges the pre- and post-war worlds of German music, and perhaps the stylistic distance from one side to the other is one of the reasons this music is so difficult to place. Eisler is at least as well known for his writings and his politics as he is for his music. His String Quartet presents him as a thoughtful and committed man, and not one to sacrifice musical values for ideological principles. 

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Schmidt String Quartets

Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
The String Quartets
String Quartet in A major (1929) [38:42]
String Quartet in G major (1929) [38:56]
Franz Schubert Quartett Wien
Recorded at the Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation 3-6 April 1995 Stereo DDD
Nimbus Records NI5467 [77:53]
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Unless you are a devotee of Franz Schmidt, you are going to need patience to get anything from this recording. But patience will be rewarded, as there is a great deal of beautiful music here. It is just that the pace of the various musical arguments tends towards the geological. Schmidtt was briefly a pupil of Bruckner, and his conception of musical scale owes much to that great predecessor. These quartets also show a fidelity to early musical forms, especially those of baroque counterpoint, which may also call Bruckner to mind.

Of course, this is music of a later age, the two quartets were written in 1925 and 1929 respectively, so any 19th century precedents (Brahms is another) are going to be remote. Reger is often cited as a kindred spirit, but this music is much less congested than Reger’s, less angsty. Elgar’s contemporaneous late chamber music would be a better comparison, or Delius perhaps. Schmidt remained a melodist to the end. And why not? Melody is probably his greatest strength. Both of these works, and the first in particular, unfold though long, arching melodies. A motivic structure is sometimes apparent, the falling fifth throughout the first movement of the 1st Quartet, for example, but development never means fragmentation. Movements tend to venture into remote tonalities as they progress, but the long, linear melodies remain.

Unswerving loyalty to formal archetypes is both a strength and a weakness in this music. Both works are long, and the material justifies the duration, but only just. The long melodic lines need space to breathe, of course, but there is a sense of formal functionality about virtually every section. In general, the formal skeleton of the 1st Quartet is more apparent than that of the 2nd, where intentions and directions are slightly more veiled. But extended sectional repeats are the rule rather than the exception. In the 2nd movement of the 1st Quartet, for example, the music moves from a Schubertesque opening to neo-baroque contrapuntal second subject. Both are very elegant, and the stylistic contrast is fascinating, but it is easy to find yourself thinking too hard about these things as the two sections are given lengthy repeats without any added interest.

The one structural commitment that Schmidt takes refreshingly lightly is closure. Endings are never abrupt, but none are drawn our either. The 3rd and 4th movements of the 2nd Quartet both end in satisfyingly efficient ways. The scherzo ending is particularly impressive, the music rapidly drying up and concluding with an ascent through the harmonics on a violin string.

The performances by the Franz Schubert Quartett Wien seem very much in the spirit of the music. Melodies are allowed to flow, to meander through development sections, but to conclude with the curt precision of Schmidt’s cadences. Much of the music emphasises the middle register, high cello, low violins and prominent viola. The sound in these sections is rich and satisfying, and the individual identity of each player is never compromised by the narrow tessitura. When the violins play higher, the sound can become a little constricted. The problem may be with the recording, or even with the scoring, but not with the intonation or ensemble, which are excellent throughout.

This is a CD of long, substantial works by a composer who seems destined to always command greater respect in his homeland than abroad. My earlier comparison with Elgar – and they do sound very similar – suggests such national distinctions are musically arbitrary, and non-Austrian audiences should find just as much to interest them from this, the work of a composer who is always astute to his craft, occasionally intense, but never concise.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 24 September 2010

Jan Garbarek Hilliard Ensemble Officium Novum

Officium Novum

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
The Hilliard Ensemble
ECM 476 3855
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This new ECM release oozes sophistication and class, which given that it is both a crossover album and a sequel is quite an achievement. It is the third collaboration between renaissance specialists The Hilliard Ensemble and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Their first, 'Officium' of 1994 was a runaway hit, while their second 'Mnemosyne' applied the sax and choir concept to more esoteric repertoire. As the title suggests, 'Officium Novum' is a return to the more accessible sounds of the first album, with liturgical polyphony overlaid with sax improvisation.

East meets West is the concept behind the album, so as well as Pérotin and Spanish folk-song we also get Arvo Pärt, Komitas and Byzantine chant. These additions to the repertoire align the concept even more closely to the core ECM ethos, and you'll find plenty of both Pärt and Komitas elsewhere in the company's catalogue.

To be honest, though, the choice of choral repertoire is largely irrelevant to this concept. Jan Garbarek is the star of the show, a fact emphasised both by the proportion of running time he spends playing (about 95% at a conservative estimate) and his positioning in the recording environment. The recording venue is a Benedictine monastery up in the Austrian Alps. The chapel acoustic adds a lush layer of resonance to the sax sound. It's a clean reverb, and it doesn't really get in the way. But way does it mean? I suspect the idea is to create a subconscious sense of sacred meets profane, with the ungodly saxophone elevated through the acoustical environment of the church. When I hear this, my thoughts turn to A Touch of Frost, with David Jason lurking around in the shadows. That's an unfortunate connection, but it's one that's difficult to shake off.

The performances are to the high standards that you'd expect from both choir and soloist. There is an impressive range of sax sounds, and I'm particularly impressed by his seemingly infinite gradation of articulations. By comparison, the choir sound quite neutral. That's the idea I guess, but it strikes me as a bit of a waste of talent, especially from a group who don't even break into a sweat with Gesualdo.

The packaging is as elegant as any from ECM, its visual theme courtesy of the high contrast night-time landscape photography of the late Mario Giacomelli. Unusually though, the information inside is difficult to interpret. The playlist takes two pages, which are separated by two other pages containing a photograph and the performer credits. There are no track numbers on the playlist, so you end up counting your way through all the names to work out where you are. And the recording location is given as Propostei St. Gerold, by which I assume they mean Propstei St. Gerold. Minor quibbles only, but they stand out from the ECM label's usual flawless perfectionism.

No doubt this disc is going to sell like hotcakes. There are probably many copies of 'Officium' out there that have been spun on a regular (probably late-night) basis for the last 16 years. This follow-up does everything a sequel should do. It is very much in the spirit of its predecessor, and while it adds a few more ideas in, it never strays far from the original concept. If your primary interests are renaissance polyphony or the superior skills of the Hilliard Ensemble, give this one a miss. On the other hand, if you are on the lookout for some imaginative sax playing, some intelligent ambient music, or simply the latest musical adventure with Jan Garbarek, go for it.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Franz Schreker und Ausdruckstanz

Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Franz Schreker und Ausdruckstanz
Der Geburstag der Infantin [33:56]
Valse lente [7:03]
Festwalzer und Walzerintermezzo [7:05]
Der Wind [10:22]
Ein Tanzspiel [12:02]
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester
John Axelrod – conductor
Recorded at KKL Luzern, Konzertsaal 21-24 June 2005 Stereo DDD
NIMBUS NI5753 [71:02]
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These short ballet works really bring out the best in Franz Schreker. They demonstrate his natural ability to make music fit stage action, with various narrative or pictorial allusions but nothing so concrete that you feel the need of a synopsis. And his orchestration is both masterly and imaginative; quieter textures predominate, and the originality of his tone combinations in the various small ensembles is continually fascinating.

Ausdruckstanz was a dance form developed in the first decade of the 20th century in Vienna, its rebellion against ballet conventions making it a sort of choreographic equivalent of Jugendstil. All the works presented here are associated with the Wiesenthal sisters, pioneers of the form. But, as I say, the value of the music transcends its origins, its focus on flowing rhythm characterises it as music for dance, but its musical originality, variety and craftsmanship dispel any notions of mere accompaniment.

Considering the radical times in which these works were written, they must inevitably be considered conservative. Melody is the motivating force, and without the philosophical baggage of his weightier operatic projects, Schreker shows himself to be a master of light Viennese melodic tradition. By comparison, the orchestration is more daring, his prominent use of celesta in the opening of the Valse Lente, for example, or his luscious pianissimo textures in the Die Rose movement of Der Geburstag der Infantin, which are only a short step from the expressionism of early Schoenberg. Der Wind is scored for a group of five players, but the imaginative use of each of the instruments – the piano in particular – means that it approaches the timbral variety of the preceding orchestral works. The final piece, Ein Tanzspiel, is surprisingly based on baroque dance forms. It isn’t really ‘neo’ anything though, rather the composer turning his craft to another utilitarian project for the stage and coming up again with music that is distinctively Schreker.

Good performances from the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and their American conductor John Axelrod. The music needs space to ebb and flow, and Axelrod is obviously confident enough in his players to hold a watching brief without too many insistent downbeats. For their part, the orchestra really get into the music’s fluid style, their performance by turns lyrical and dramatic, and always expertly coordinated. There are the occasional moments when other conductors would be inclined to drive the music on to create headier climaxes, but Axelrod’s priorities are more in colour and mood, and he makes a compelling case for his interpretation.

This is apparently the first time that these works have been brought together and recorded as a sequence. In one sense that is a shame; this is music that really needs to be interpreted and I’d love the chance to compare this reading with those of other performers. But this is clearly a step in the right direction. It is a must-have for Schreker fans and yet another striking demonstration of why his neglect in the English-speaking world is so thoroughly unjustified.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Stockhausen Mantra Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra
Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer pianos
Jan Panis electronics
Naxos 8.572398 [67:33]
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Finding Stockhausen's name in the Naxos catalogue is a welcome surprise. In the last decades of his life, the composer revoked all the copyright agreements he had hitherto organised with publishers and record labels, and had taken to releasing recordings and scores exclusively through his in-house Verlag. Presumably his wives have now taken a more media-savvy approach to his legacy and have begun loosening the estate's grip on his long list of game changing works. Naxos have been making significant inroads into the avant-garde repertoire in recent years, so perhaps it shouldn't be such a surprise that they are amongst the first to exploit this new opportunity.

Mantra was something of a turning point for Stockhausen. It was written in 1970 after a number of works in which text scores and conceptual, indeterminate elements predominated. But from Mantra onwards, he returned to actually putting notes on paper. It is also the first work to employ a 'formula', a small musical cell which determines the overall structure of the entire work. In the case of Mantra, the formula is a 13-note series, clearly articulated at the start of the work, and then used as both motif and structural determinant.

The work is for two pianos and electronics. The sound of the pianos is subject to almost continuous electronic manipulation, mainly through ring modulation, and according to the sleeve of this recording, that makes the piece effectively a trio, with the electronics designer/manipulator having a status equivalent to that of the pianists. I'm not so sure about that, but I can report that the electronic element in this recording is executed to a very high standard.

Jan Panis was a close collaborator with Stockhausen, and this recording makes a big thing out of the fact that it is the first to render the sound manipulation in digital rather than analogue terms. Again, I'm sceptical about how much of an achievement that actually is, ring modulation is, after all, a fairly easily analogue effect to emulate by digital means. Another effect is achieved by one of the pianists turning the dial on a short wave radio so that the interference patterns play out over the sound of the piano. Was this achieved digitally here? The liner doesn't say, but the effect sounds pretty old-school, whatever the technology behind it.

The recording balance is excellent. We have the two pianos clearly separated in the stereo array, and all the electronic effects and manipulations are clearly audible, forming the ideal timbral bridge between the sound of the piano upper register and the various percussion instruments that the two pianists also play from time to time. Pianists Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer really get into the spirit of the work. There is a complex serial dimension to the rhythms here, but more importantly, there is a wry sense of humour that underpins much of the music. The performance is at its most successful in the quieter passages, where the two pianists have a wonderful sense of poise, not rushing any of the effects or rhythms, but letting each of the motivic devices play out as a response to its situation, to the utterances of the other piano, and of course to the electronic manipulations. There is sometimes a slight lack of urgency in the louder and faster passages, although that often feels as much a fault of the music as of the performance. Stockhausen relies heavily on sudden crescendos and accels to create climaxes, not a very subtle effect and certainly not one that these players have any intention of trying to excuse or sophisticate.

That apart, this is a great recording. Jan Panis appears to be very proud that his digital version of the electronics will ensure the potential for future performances in years to come. In the same spirit, it is great to see younger performers taking up Stockhausen's cause. The last years of the composer's career didn't really do much to ensure continued interest in his earlier music, but its significance is undeniable, and its musical value is beyond question. Here's hoping that this will be the first of a long series of Stockhausen releases from Naxos.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Zemlinsky String Quartets Vol.2 Artis Quartett Wien

Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) 
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 19 [21:50]
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 25 [23:31]
Johanna MÜLLER-HERMANN (1868-1941)
String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 6 [22:10]
Artis Quartett Wien
Recorded at the Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation 23-26 March 1998 Stereo DDD
NIMBUS NI 5604 [67:50]

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As with volume 1 of the Artis Quartet’s survey of Zemlinsky, volume two charts times of turmoil and change. His 3rd and 4th Quartets are both considerably more post-Romantic than his 1st or 2nd, and even the stylistic progression between them is remarkable. Zemlinsky was not a particularly prodigious composer, and these are both mature works, despite their seemingly low opus numbers. And both deal with issues of grief and death.

The death in the case of the 3rd Quartet was of the composer’s sister, Mathilde. The music takes on that particularly Viennese neurosis through rapid changes of pace and focus. It’s apparently conventional four-movement structure hides a more complex micro-level of more chaotic ordering. The textures are often reduced to just a single instrument, but even then the music retains an emotional intensity. As in the earlier quartets, glissandos make regular appearances, and seem ill-matched to the otherwise very precise contrapuntal textures. And for all the chopping and changing, the music maintains a stylistic distance from the Second Viennese School. There is nothing here of Schoenberg’s klangfarbe or Webern’s concision.

Alban Berg is the closest of the serialists to this music, so it is fitting that the 4th Quartet was written in his memory. Unlike the 3rd, the 4th has a freer six-movement structure, a conscious reference no doubt to the Lyric Suite. If there is any further homage to Berg in this music, it is through the reliance on melodic flow, but stylistically that is a tenuous link. Texturally, this is the barest of Zemlinsky’s quartets. As with the 3rd, much of the music involves individual players of duets. But the difference here is that you feel the solitude. The work has all the rhythmic and melodic variety of Zemlinsky’s earlier Romanticism, but it is clearly music of a later and more desperate time.

If Johanna Müller-Hermann’s 6th Quartet sounds naive in comparison, it is not necessarily because it is the work of a lesser talent, nor that it was written by a woman (perish the thought), but rather that it was written in 1908, before the artistic and political turmoils that colour Zemlinsky’s later work. Müller-Hermann was a pupil of Zemlinsky, and like him, she was a composer who put melody first. And what magnificent melodies they are! You may think of Elgar or possibly Delius when listening to this, the way that the music conforms to the precepts of the form is closer, perhaps, to the former composer. But this is music from well within the Austro-German tradition. The fact it can conform to the requirements of that tradition without displaying any particular angst about it is little short of a miracle. Perhaps this is where the composer’s gender comes into play. This is the premiere recording of the work; it is quite a find.

The Artis Quartet again do Zemlinsky proud, and extend their passionate but precise artistry to the music of his pupil. There is a certain austerity to their playing, and if anything this is even more appropriate to Zemlinsky’s later quartets than his earlier. This isn’t Brahms after all, and the Artis Quartet locate the music squarely in the 20th century. They achieve an impressive feat, especially in the Müller-Hermann, of playing in a strict, disciplined style – narrow vibrato, and little rubato – and yet creating a sound world that is both passionate and involving. As with volume 1, I have nothing but praise for the sound quality and the packaging. I recommended that disc to adventurous Brahms fans. This one might be more for the Webern/Berg brigade, but anyone with an interest in slightly tangential string quartet repertoire should find much of interest here.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 20 September 2010

Zemlinsky String Quartets Vol.1 Artis Quartett Wien

Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) 
String Quartets 1 and 2
String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 [26:20] 
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 [38:18]
Artis Quartett Wien
Recorded at the Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation 15-18 December 1997 Stereo DDD
NIMBUS NI 5563 [64:48]

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Music from transitional times can often seem like it is in a continual state of modulation. Zemlinsky deserves to be appreciated on his own terms, but it is all too easy to hear his output as a gradual move from Brahms to Schoenberg. His first two quartets demonstrate the paradox: they are both excellent and stylistically autonomous works, yet the comparison between them portrays the composer as a Brahms acolyte gradually breaking free, moving beyond strict adherence to tonality, but never renouncing it nor accepting his brother-in-law’s alternative.

The designation Opus 4 gives a slightly misleading impression of the First Quartet. True, Zemlinsky was only in his mid 20s at the time of its composition, but this is mature and consummate writing in the most demanding and expectation-ridden of genres. It is post-Brahmsian in the most literal sense. Brahms had been critical of Zemlinsky’s previous essay in the genre (a D minor quartet that only survives in fragments) and Zemlinsky had composed his Op.4 with the criticism of the earlier work’s Modernist tendencies still ringing in his ears. Brahms makes his authority felt in the formal structuring and the slightly repressed Romanticism of the melodic lines. But the textures are generally more open than those of Brahms’ chamber music. For all that, there are moments of sheer Expressionist abandon, for example the intoxicating, intertwining melodies that open the third movement.

Passions run higher in the Second Quartet. It’s a much later work, and speaks of more turbulent times in the composer’s personal life, quite a racy business which implicates a few celebrity names. The main source of Zemlinsky’s turmoil was the ending of an affair with his composition pupil Alma Schindler, who had left him in order to marry Mahler. Then there was Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, who was married to Schoenberg, but who had had an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, who had then committed suicide when she returned to her husband. Schoenberg held Zemlinsky partly to blame and the incident caused irreparable damage to their friendship.

On top of all this times were changing. The Quartet was written in 1915, and Schoenberg’s radical restructuring of Brahms’ legacy in clearly evident. The work is effectively in a single 40 minute movement, although its structure is sectional, with a wide variety of moods, tempi and implicit tonalities. I say implicit, the rebellion against tonality comes through mostly as a preponderance of chromatic passing notes over otherwise stable (if wayward) key centres. The music doesn’t quite have the angst of Schoenberg; it is considerably more civilised than his Second Quartet for example, but its rhythmic and harmonic variety make for endlessly fascinating variation. If I’ve one reservation, it is that nagging suspicion that everything is transition, a historically conditioned response perhaps, but it is difficult to listen to this music without it invoking the more daring experiments of later composers, particularly Berg.

The Artis Quartet are excellent exponents of this music, bringing that authentic Viennese feel. Zemlinsky has a habit of writing extremes of dynamics and articulation, and the Artis players are right to take these with a pinch of salt. This is music that is really intended to flow – not quite stream of consciousness but approaching it – and the players help it do just that by toning down some of the more extreme disjunctures. They are quite glissando-heavy scores too, and the players strive throughout for tasteful results, usually opting for a halfway between glissando and portamento.

The packaging is also worthy of mention, with designs by Otto Wagner and a great Art Deco font on the front and back covers. All in all, this is an impressive release, with both the composer and the performers striving to create something both approachable and artistically substantial. Lovers of Second Viennese School quartets will find much here of interest. Lovers of Brahms’ chamber music need not be intimidated, there is plenty here for them too.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Dutilleux: D'Ombre et de Silence

Dutilleux: D'Ombre et de Silence
Piano music performed by Robert Levin
ECM 4763653
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This CD delivers far more than it promises. Dutilleux is not, after all, a name we normally associate with the piano. It turns out that he has been writing piano works, large and small, at a slow but steady rate throughout his long career, and they add up to a diverse and fascinating programme.

The works are ordered along roughly chronological lines, which in the case of many composers would be a dangerous strategy, forcing us to wade through the juvenalia before we got onto anything worthwhile. But that's not how Dutilleux's career panned out. It is a curious fact that the French musical establishment has always considered Dutilleux at the equal of his contemporary Messiaen, even though the rest of the world considers Messiaen the timeless genius and Dutilleux a more parochial figure. The reason may be the sheer quality of many of Dutilleux's earliest works. It is no disservice to the composer's later output to describe his early Sonate (1946-8) as probably his greatest contribution to the instrument's repertoire. Unless you count the preludes, this is the only genre piece on the disc, and while it is in a rigorous three movement form, it wears that rigour lightly. And the sheer variety of textures, harmonies and moods in the piece is incredible, especially for a composer barely into his 30s.

Of the later works, the most significant is 'Figures de résonances' (1970-76). In this two piano composition (Ya-Fei Chuang the second pianist) we find the composer keeping up with the ideas of his younger colleagues, distributing isolated, inscrutable chords between the two players in the manner of Boulez' pointillism or the spectralism of Grisey and Murail. But progressive tendencies never involve aggression or harsh dissonance where Dutilleux is involved, and even in these more sporadic textures, there is a lyricism that allows the four movements to cohere, both internally and with each other.

Two early works, movements from 'Au gré des ondes' and 'Blackbird' are kept back until later in the programme, and here it becomes apparent that there is some juvenalia floating about that would sit uneasily on the front of the playlist. Not that there is anything wrong with either work, but they have clearly been included for the sake of completeness rather than on their own slender merits.

Performances and recording are of the highest standard, as one would expect from the Levin and ECM. The piano has a warm resonant tone, and when the composer specifies extended use of the sustain pedal, as he regularly does, the extended harmonies wash around inside the piano and across the stereo array wonderfully.
This is the first Dutilleux release from ECM, and to be honest it would be quite difficult to think of anything else from his output that would fit as naturally as this into the label's ethos, although the Violin and Cello Concertos could be candidates. But the disc goes to show just how versatile the ECM model is, and how well this music responds to the exceptional production standards that the company have made their norm.

It is certainly a disc for Dutilleux fans this one, but also for those with a taste for Ravel or for early Prokofiev. And even Messiaen and Boulez devotees should get something from it. Dutilleux is a composer who has remained true to himself through years of incredible change in the musical aesthetics of his country. And despite that singular focus, he hasn't isolated himself from the changes either. The result in his piano music is a journal of one composer's journey through the 20th century, always finely crafted, often impressively adventurous, and never parochial.

Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Liszt 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante Alice Sara Ott

Franz LISZT: 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139
Alice Sara Ott - piano
Recorded Friedrich-Ebert-Halle Harburg, Hamburg, June 2008 Stereo DDD
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8362 [66:09]

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I can’t help the feeling the Deutsche Grammaphon have been keeping their young new signing Alice Sara Ott from us. For reasons best known to themselves, the label released this, her debut disc, in a number of countries in 2008, but held back in the UK until she had a second recording under her belt - of Chopin waltzes (DGG 00289 477 8095). The double-whammy debut approach seems to have backfired a little, with many critics finding the Chopin too dry and emotionless and then projecting those criticisms, albeit in a milder form, onto the Liszt.

But whatever the machinations by which this CD has reached us, it is a remarkable debut. Let’s not forget that the idea of a young pianist debuting on DG at all is a fairly recent innovation; it wasn’t long ago that their roster was made up exclusively of senior figures of piano royalty. And this newfound spirit of innovation stretches to the repertoire too. Most pianists’ debut discs consist of a mixed programme, where the major work is almost invariably Rachmaninov. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes are a daring choice from a number of perspectives. In terms of technical difficulty, they trump pretty much anything by Rachmaninov. They also call for more interpretive input from the pianist, more poetry, more...well, in a word, transcendence.

Listening to the disc, I can understand why some have found Ott’s Chopin wanting. Her technical skill is mind-blowing, and it is clear that control is a fundamental dimension to her pianistic persona. Her fingers are always in the right place at the right time, and her touch is both evenly graduated and crystal clear. Personally, I consider all these attributes to be sterling pianistic virtues, but I can understand how Chopin could sound sterile to some ears when played like this.

Liszt, of course, is a different story. His poetry is more intrinsic, more integral to his virtuosic demands. In fact, the Transcendental Etudes are a very sensible choice for introducing a pianist to the world stage as they amount to a compendium of the moods, textures and styles current in the early history of the modern piano. Surprisingly, perhaps, given her delicate frame, Ott excels in the louder, heavier movements, the Preludio no.1, for example, and Mazeppa no.4. There is a sheer physical force behind her playing in these movements, which when combined with her technical precision make for an aurally arresting effect. And her confidence belies her age (she was 18/19 when this was recorded), holding back in the build-up to the main Mazeppa theme in a way that speaks of a deep trust in her own musical instincts. She has an elegant legato, even in chronically note-heavy passages such as in the opening of Feux follets, where she finds a lightness that few of her seniors could match.

The control that makes the dramatic passages work can turn into undue restraint in the quieter ones. No. 3 Paysage has all the clarity and translucence of its more rowdy neighbours, but the precision of the phrasing and dynamic shaping make the result a little foursquare. And again with the 9th Ricordanza, it’s evenly arpeggiated opening chords speak of immaculate precision, but also of a reluctance to let go and allow the music to sing.

The last etude Chasse-neige is the exception among the quieter numbers. The clarity with which the legato melody is articulated across the top of the complex accompaniment is ideal. It is a great way to close both the set and the recording. Liszt balances his technical and lyrical demands in a way that elegantly culminates a set that has veered between the two. And that middle ground between the dramatic and the intimate is exactly where Ott excels, her even touch, precisely graduated dynamics and fluid legato, all supported by some real muscle in the left hand bass. As I mentioned, her second disc has met with mixed reviews, but her third is going to include Liszt’s 1st Concerto, and if she plays it like this, it could be something really special.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 17 September 2010

Schumann Violin Sonatas Nicolas Chumachenco Kalle Randalu

Robert Schumann: Violin Sonatas 1-3
Nicolas Chumachenco violin
Kalle Randalu piano
MDG 304 1647-2
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Nicolas Chumachenco and Kalle Randalu make a convincing case for a group of Schumann's chamber works that are all too often overlooked. The composer's natural gift for melody is everywhere apparent in these sonatas, especially when presented with such lyrical fluency as here. But there is more to these works, the range of accompanying textures, of colours and moods, which can easily be sidelines in an exclusively melodic reading. But this is where the present players really excel, creating engagement and a unique atmosphere for every section of each of the works.

Chumachenco has a rich violin tone, the best of which is in the lower register. Fortunately, Schumann regularly visits those lower registers, and the resulting warmth and intensity is satisfying indeed. There are also one or two points where the music moves to double stopping in the lower register, usually just for a note or two. Again, the sheer intensity of the timbre is wonderful, and all the more so for the composer's discretion in using the effect so infrequently. Higher up, Chumachenco diversifies his tone more. He again has a richness that he calls into play for the more sweeping melodies, but he also has a lighter, more nimble sound, which is ideal for the faster passage work.

Neither player takes the phrasing of these works for granted. Phrases and sections are often framed with slow, quiet introductions and conclusions. In lesser hands, such extreme phrasing could sound clumsy and exaggerated, but the sheer musicality of these players, combined with the rich, sustaining violin tone, ensures the credibility of every musical decision.

The ordering of the sonatas is unusual. Perhaps it is just a matter of personal taste, but to my opinion the Op.105 Sonata is the best of them, not to mention the most memorable. This combined with the fact it was the earliest written would suggest it as the ideal candidate for the opening spot. That is where you'll find it on most recordings, but it is shunted to second here.

However you organise the works, there is little doubt that the WoO2 qualifies as 'Sonata No.3' and it is duly afforded the final position on the recording. This posthumous work is the most musically diverse of the three. or so runs modern opinion. In fact, it was only first published in 1956 and has suffered from a reputation for being long and incoherent. To the credit of the present performers, there is no effort made here to rescue it from those allegations, rather they exploit the wide range of emotions and moods. Yet again, the rich violin is often the saving grace, and long melodic lines that could so easily sound rambling and directionless here become meditative and satisfyingly self-contained.

As you'd expect from MDG, the audio is to a high standard. The make of piano is not stated, but it has a fairly soft, almost 19th century, tone. Magnificently played too, Kalle Randalu managing to cleanly articulate Schumann's complex accompaniments without ever intruding too far into the foreground. Given the label's commitment to undoctored sound, this must surely be the result of the pianist's sensibility to balance rather than to any post-production manipulation.

Impressive Schumann all round then. If you've heard other recordings of these works, you may find that Chumachenco and Randalu linger more than other players. They give the impression that they are often happy just to enjoy the moment rather than worrying about large-scale structural concerns. Some may read that as a lack of structural insight. To me, though, the sheer elegance of the violin sound absolves all. Schumann's formal logic isn't up to its best in these works anyway, so why not just enjoy the many passing moments of beauty?

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Bach Art of Fugue Vladimir Feltsman

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
CD1: Contrapuncti 1,2,3,4,12,5,6,7,13,8,9,10,11 [50:47]
CD2: Contrapuncti 15,14,17a,17b,16a,16b,18, 13a and 13b arranged for two kbds [44:23]
Vladimir Feltsman – piano
Rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 12-14 March 1996
Nimbus NI 2549/50 [1:35:10]

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Very Russian Bach, this. The touch is firm and deliberate throughout, the interpretation is lively but founded on a strong intellectual basis, and the structure of each movement is articulated through slow dynamic changes and long, interconnected phrases that imbue an almost narrative quality.

Vladimir Feltsman arrived in America from Russia in 1987, bringing with him a lifetime’s experience of playing Bach the Russian way, a way that soon found him admiring American audiences. This recording was made in New York in 1996 and is one of a series of classical and jazz recordings from the MusicMasters back catalogue currently being re-released by Nimbus.

The series also includes Feltsman’s Goldberg Variations, a recording which caused some controversy on its initial release for the liberties he had taken with the score. His Art of Fugue is less contentious in that respect, but it’s still the sort of recording that could get period performance types hot under the collar. It is performed on a grand piano in a generous acoustic, no effort is made to imitate the performance practice of the 18th century harpsichord (apart from the occasional hesitation before accented downbeats), and a strong sense of internal drama and turmoil is injected into many of the more expansive contrapuncti.

Given that this is an idiosyncratic performance of Bach for American audiences, comparisons with Glenn Gould seem appropriate. Like Gould, Feltsman often starts from an emotional ground zero by presenting the fugue theme quiet, straight and drained of all colour. The opening of Contrapunctus 1 is a case in point, pianissimo with even, light articulation. But the way that this, and indeed all the movements, unfolds is quite different to Gould. It’s certainly lyrical, but there is little in the way of rubato and the counterpoint is played evenly, each entry left to speak for itself. It’s intelligently structured like Gould, and achieves a similar unity of intent across the span of each of the movements. But there’s no angst, none of that eternal questing for Bach’s inner truth that makes Glenn Gould’s recordings so infuriatingly addictive. Feltsman is a man at peace with the music, he has established a coherent interpretation, which he offers without any apparent distress on his own part. It’s not that the performance is uncommitted of dispassionate; rather it is the product of a much more comfortable (and probably healthier) relationship between performer and composer.

The articulation of the counterpoint is exemplary throughout. Feltsman achieves variety through a number of technical means, but his articulation stays more-or-less even. It is a controlled, even semi-legato, which allows the voice leading to shine through any texture or dynamic. That Russian sense of deliberate, focussed interpretation does not mean heavy handed performance. So, for example, Contrapuncti 7 and 9 have a fleet footed delicacy, again with that even touch and strong sense of purpose, but neither of these weigh the music down.

One or two movements find Feltsman in a more contemplative mood, such as Contrapunctus 17a. The discipline is still there in the articulation and even dynamics, but we are at a slow, slow pace and with a slight wayward touch added by the irregular trills in each of the voices.

Ornamentation is also restrained. The Contrapunctus no. 6 is an interesting case, in that Bach designates it as being in a ‘Stile francese’. Feltsman adds a few brief ornaments, but it’s hardly rococo. And the ornaments he adds are played so deliberately that they seem integral to the contrapuntal texture rather than decorative flourishes. The opening of the Contrapunctus no. 6 is quite a heavy chordal affair, and Feltsman’s restraint is again notable in the way he communicates this sense of weight without even the suggestion of bombast.

A quotation from Feltsman in the liner gives the impression that he treats this work as some kind of holy text. ‘Art of Fugue is scripture, and as such is open ended. As all scriptures, it is pointing towards one source – the source of all from where it came and an expression of which it is.’ This may help explain his reverential approach to interpreting the work and it raises expectations of what he might do with the final Contrapunctus no.18. Well, and sorry for giving the end away, he treats the ending of the movement, as it tails off into incompletion as something far more definite that it actually is. The movement up until this point is performed in a contemplative, if disciplined, mezzo piano. The final BACH exposition, in contrast, is presented as if it were a conclusive statement of authorship. It’s one way to end the work, but I can’t help the feeling that it compromises its intrinsic open-endedness.

The two keyboard arrangement of the Contrapunctus 13, with Feltsman multitracking the two parts, completes the second disc. It’s another sprightly, if very deliberate interpretation. There is also some subtle rubato, which must have made the synching interesting.

As re-releases go, this is a curious choice from a transatlantic back catalogue. But Vladimir Feltsman has plenty to say with the Art of Fugue. Perhaps British audiences are now ready to hear resolutely inauthentic (of at least un-‘Authentic’) Bach interpretation without the automatic criticism that would have greeted it in 1996. It’s not the last word on the Art of Fugue, by any means, but its combination of intellect, discipline and emotion feels true to the spirit of Bach’s often nebulous intentions.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: