Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Brahms Violin Sonatas Geneviève Laurenceau

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Sonata in G major Op.78 [26:15]
Sonata in A major Op.100 [20:43]
Sonata in D minor Op.108 [21:23]
Geneviève Laurenceau – violin
Johan Farjot – piano
Recorded at l'eglise de Bonsecours, Paris 15-19 August 2010 Stereo DDD
Zig Zag Territoires ZZT100802 [69:23]

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Brahms is one of those industrious composers who seems to have condemned many of his works to undeserved obscurity just through his sheer industry. Unless you are a violinist or a Brahms aficionado, the chances are that your knowledge of his Violin Sonatas is sketchy at best. But they are great works, fine examples of the composer's later chamber music. Brahms never had any hangups about presenting unadorned, simple music, even in his later years, and the beauty of much of this music stems from the uncluttered melodic style – a violin melody and a propulsive piano accompaniment, what more do you need? There are denser textures too, and plenty of contrapuntal episodes, although the clarity of texture is retained in these as well.
There are similarities between these works and the Schumann Violin Sonatas. Like Schumann, Brahms has conveniently left three contributions to the genre that fit neatly onto a CD, and like Schumann's, each sonata is a perfectly crafted chamber work. But, in an unusual reversal of their relationship, Brahms' Violin Sonatas are the more modest. They are structurally more conservative, texturally lighter, and are based primarily on melodic invention rather than structurally integrating development.
By the later years of Brahms' career, his writing for the violin and for the piano was as proficient as that of any 19th century composer. And while most of the textures in these sonatas sound straightforward, both players, and the violinist in particular, are being put through their paces in terms of technique. Brahms knows how to make the most of the lower end of the violin's range to create richness and depth. His use of the middle register is usually for very simple textures, which need to be straightforward without sounding naïve. And on the rare occasions he ventures about the stave, it is usually for dramatic effect, to give brilliance to a climax.
Geneviève Laurenceau is at her best in the lower register. All those rich, flowing passages on the G string come across magnificently, and her precision with the tuning of double stopping in the lower register is faultless. The simple midrange textures also come across well, thanks in part to her vibrato, which she is able to reduce to the point where it is barely perceptible for those plain melodic expositions. I'm less impressed by the high passages, which bring out a slightly unpleasant edge in her tone. But as I say, Brahms rarely ventures up there anyway.
Johan Farjot is a sympathetic pianist, always alert to the soloists changes of tempo and mood, both the subtle gradations and the immediate shifts. In general, he leaves all the drama to her and never competes for the limelight. That apparent subservience may be in part a result of the recording balance that favours the violin over the piano. That isn't usually a problem, but it can sometimes give the impression that the recording engineer knows better than either the composer or the performers how the instruments should interact. Whenever Brahms writes high pianissimo chords in the piano accompanying the violin in midrange, the piano seems very distant indeed. And given the discretion of the violin playing in these passages, the intervention at the mixing desk seems unnecessary.
In general, though, this is a good recording, and is worth hearing simply for the quality of the violin playing. Brahms' chamber music repertoire contains many works that are more ambitious and involving than these, but it is a real strength of this performance that the players don't try to make more of the music than the notes on the page can justify.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Beethoven, Brautigam: Complete Works for Solo Piano Volume 9

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Works for Solo Piano Volume 9
3 Sonatas WoO.47 'Kurfürsten Sonatas' [40:54]
Zwei Sätze einer Sonatine WoO.50 [2:34]
2 Leichte Sonatinen, Kinsky-Hahn Anh.5 [8:38]
Zwei Stücke für Klavier (Orphika) WoO.51 [7:29]
Ronald Brautigham fortepiano
Recorded August 2008 at Österåker Church, Sweden, DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
BIS-SACD-1672 [60:54]

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Ronald Brautigam could easily have overlooked these early unpublished works in his survey of Beethoven's piano music, but his fans will be grateful that he didn't. It's not the greatest music in the world, but that hasn't stopped the pianist preparing and presenting the works with the same level of care and dedication that he brings to the mature music. And the high-end audio is put to good use reproducing the nuanced textures of the fortepiano.
The three 'Kurfürsten Sonatas' are the main offering here. The musical language of each of them is well within the rigorous formulaic conventions of the late 18th century, so if continual use of Alberti bass and whimsical cadential ornaments makes your teeth grate, this might not be for you. On the other hand, the sheer life the Brautigam brings to this music transcends all the conventions. He finds wonderful humour in many of the movements, as if they were the work of a younger and less selfconscious Haydn.
The dynamic range that the fortepiano offers is surprising. Sure, it doesn't have the very loudest sonorities of a modern grand, but it has just about everything else. Brautigam really makes the most of these dynamic possibilities, often articulating the structure of a movement through the subtlest of gradations in crescendos or answering phrases. The bass end of the instrument is a little boxy, as you might expect, but Beethoven never demands more from his left hand figurations than the instrument can deliver. And again the high quality audio ensures that nothing in the middle or bass register is every obscured.
The 'Zwei Sätze einer Sonatine' may be familiar to former piano students, who'll have come across them at about the grade 6 level. I did myself, but they never sounded like this when I played them. Brautigam again delivers a performance filled with bounce and vitality. So too in the '2 Leichte Sonatinen' and the 'Zwei Stücke für Klavier (Orphika)'. The justification for skipping these last two works in a Beethoven piano survey is even stronger, the former are only tentatively attributed to the composer, while the later was written for a completely different instrument. (The orphica was apparently a kind of small spinet.) Again, the performances are first rate. The music of these fragments and short movements is slightly more liberated from the stylistic conventions, at least in terms of texture, which ranges from the monophonic to the heavily chordal. There are no memorable melodies to speak of though, and it is easy to find yourself marvelling at the sound of the instrument and forgetting all about what is being played on it.
And you really can't forget that this is a fortepiano. The sound is as civilised as you could hope from such an instrument, but it still has a certain rustic colour. Brautigam is conservative with his pedalling, or rather with his kneeing, as he is using a sustaining knee lever under the keyboard. But even with more knee, I suspect the instrument would produce a fairly dry sound. Fortunately, it is in the safe hands of the BIS engineers, who by volume 9 of this project have really mastered the instrument's recording potential. In lesser hands, the sound could seem distant and uninvolving, but here the fortepiano has a real presence. It's almost like having the instrument in front of you. Repertoire-wise, this wouldn't be my first choice from the Brautigam Beethoven cycle, but in terms of performance and recording it is the equal of any of its predecessors.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 26 November 2010

Berg, Hartmann: Tief in der Nacht, Juliane Banse, Alexander Madžar

Berg, Hartmann: Tief in der Nacht, Juliane Banse, Alexander Madžar
Alban Berg:
Sieben frühe Lieder (1905–1908)
Jugendlieder (1904-08)
Zwei Lieder:
Schließe mir die Augen beide (1900)
Schließe mir die Augen beide (1925)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann:
Lamento (1955)
Juliane Banse soprano
Aleksandar Madžar piano
ECM New Series 476 3848
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Juliane Banse has the ideal voice for Berg. She has the power and range of a soprano, but the richness and depth of an alto. Her vibrato is pronounced, but always very focussed and controlled. Most importantly of all, she sings with an intense expressivity which imparts depth and feeling into every phrase. From a lesser singer, these songs could sound like mere juvenilia, but Banse demonstrates that they are the work of a sophisticated and fully developed musical personality.
Chronologically though, they are early works. Most of the songs here date from the first decade of the 20th century. Technically then, the music is still tonal, but everything here is forward looking. This is most evident in the lack of formal certainties; each song has a specific mood and pace, but there is no feeling of constraint from either the tonality or the form. The music floats and twists, dictated only by the expressive demands of the poet and the composer.
Berg's early songs cover quite a range of poets, and you'll hear, amongst others on this disc, Nikolaus Lenau, Goethe, Altenberg and Theodor Strom. If, like me, your German isn't quite up to this meaty fare, you'll need to refer to the excellently translated lyrics in the liner. However, if you can cope with the German, you will have no trouble in picking out every single word, such is the clarity of Banse's diction.
The Berg portion of the programme concludes with two settings of Theodor Strom's 'Schliesse mir die Augen beide' dating from 1907 and 1925 respectively. The two tiny works (each is just over a minute) make a fascinating comparison. The latter setting demonstrates what happens to Berg's music when the already arbitrary framework of tonality is replaced with the equally arbitrary (at least to Berg's music) system of serialism. The similarities between the two works outweigh the differences, and it is almost as if Berg is resisting the formalising tendencies of serialism in 1925 almost as hard as he had been those of tonality in 1907.
The three Hartmann songs that complete the programme fit well, but are clearly the music of a different composer and a different age. That said, they were originally part of a cantata (called 'Lamento') that was written in memory of Alban Berg. But Hartmann is a more down to earth composer. His phrasing is more four-square and his harmonies are more traditional. It is still great music though and it shows off another aspect of Banse's art, in particular her ability to sing in a robust, declamatory style while still retaining all the warmth and humanity that makes her Berg so special.
Alexander Madžar provides the ideal accompaniment. Like Banse, he combines impressive technical control with the exceptional freedom of expression. Hartmann gives him more notes, both in terms of more heavily voiced chords and contrapuntal textures beneath the voice. But here too he retains a valuable sense of lightness.
As ever from ECM, the recording quality is good, providing a vibrant and involving soundscape, and the packaging is excellent. The performers and the label have struck a rich seam with this early 20th century lieder. There is plenty more of it out there that could work wonders, I'm thinking of Zemlinsky perhaps, or Schreker, not to mention Webern. All could benefit as much as Berg and Hartmann have from the attentions of these fine performers.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Havergal Brian Symphonies 17 and 32

Havergal Brian (1876-1972)
In Memoriam
Festal Dance
Symphony No.17
Symphony No.32
RTÉ National Orchestra
Adrian Leaper conductor
Naxos 8.572020
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At first appearances, the most impressive aspect of this music is the numbers associated with it. We have: a 32nd Symphony, music written by a 92 year old composer and a time span between the works on the disc of 60 years. But that said, the actual music itself doesn't go to extremes. Havergal Brian was always an individual, but his work fits squarely into the English pastoral tradition of symphonic composition. Among the British influences you will hear are Elgar and Vaughan Williams (there are also resemblances to Robert Simpson, but I'm not sure which direction the influence is working there). It is, of course, a long standing tradition in British music to take inspiration from the continent, and you can also hear echoes of Richard Strauss and even Prokofiev at times.
Given that Havergal Brian is best know as a symphonist, it is ironic that the tone poems on this disc are superior to the symphonies. However, that is not to compare like with like, as the tone poems 'In Memoriam' and 'Festal Dance' date from 1910 and 1908 respectively, while the 17th and 32nd Symphonies were written in 1960-1 and 1968. The earlier works are more direct in expression, and paradoxically have more symphonic coherency. 'Festal Dance' was originally conceived as a finale to a symphony, so perhaps its symphonic credentials should come as less of a surprise. The symphonies are more radical in their structure and dramatic shape. They have much greater flexibility in the lengths of phrases and in the regular disjunctions between sections. It is as if Brian reveres the genre, and even though it is not wholly appropriate to his muse, he is determined to find some reconciliation between his music and the form he applies to it.
No such concerns though in the tone poems. 'In Memoriam' originally had a programme based on the events of a funeral ceremony, although there is little sign of any narrative impulse remaining in the finished work. Elgar can often be glimpsed in the background of this music, but Brian doesn't suffer from Elgar's pomposity, nor his repression. The work is about the same length as the two symphonies on the disc, so it is interesting that the composer didn't apply the title here, and perhaps it is just as well that he didn't.
'Festal Dance' is a more upbeat affair, with lots of dance rhythms and bright open orchestration. Given that Brian continued to write music for another 60 years after the composition of this score, we are probably obliged to consider it as early period Brian. He was already in his 30s though by 1908, and his mastery of form, counterpoint and orchestration speak of absolute maturity.
Of course, they were many developments ahead for the composer, as the 17th and 32nd Symphonies demonstrate. This size of the orchestra seems to go up and down between these works, but the large and active percussion section is an almost constant presence. And if there is a change in the composer's use of the orchestra over the years, it is in the increased variety of textures. There are a good number of elegant woodwind solos in the symphonies, often only supported by the thinnest of accompaniments. Extended tuttis are another feature that appear more in the symphonies that the tone poems, and perhaps they constitute more symphonic writing in the composer's eyes.
The disc is part of a series of reissues, recorded in 1992 and originally released on the Marco Polo label. Adrian Leaper remains faithful to the music as it is rather than as it aspires to be, by which I mean he doesn't make it any more symphonic of dramatic than the scores can justify. The RTÉ National Orchestra play well, although the composer doesn't pose them many challenges, apart from the percussion section perhaps, who are clearly on top of their parts. The recorded sound is reasonable, although it is not very involving and a wider dynamic range would be appreciated. The liner notes by Calum MacDonald are up to the usual high standards of this erudite but readable author and are a godsend for those listeners (like myself) who are a little hazy on the details of Havergal Brain's life and work.
A fascinating insight, then, into the world of one of the UK's more esoteric musical minds. Stylistically, the symphonies fall somewhere between those of Vaughan Williams and Robert Simpson. If you like either of those men's essays in the genre, there is sure to be something here of interest to you.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 22 November 2010

Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.2 "The American Four Seasons"

Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.2 "The American Four Seasons"
Robert McDuffie violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Marin Alsop conductor
Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London 17 April 2010
Orange Mountain Music 0072
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The London Philharmonic's Winter Season Programme for 2009/10 raised some high expectations with three much-anticipated new works: a symphony (the first ever) from Ravi Shankar, a 4th Symphony from Henryk Górecki and the European première of a 2nd Violin Concerto from Philip Glass. In the event, Shankar's Symphony got a warm but mild reception and was soon forgotten, Górecki was to ill to complete his symphony, and subsequently died leaving the work unfinished, and the Glass Concerto? Well, it came closest to meeting expectations. As this recording of the event demonstrates, it received a fine performance, and ended up posing more questions than it answered.
Glass' previous – now his First – Violin Concerto was written in 1987 and his since firmly established itself in the repertoire. It was written at a time when Glass was moving towards traditional genres. With the First Violin Concerto he hit the sweet spot where the popularity of his all-American tonal minimalism combined with audience-friendly Romantic rhetoric to create a work with genuine mass appeal right across the classical audience base. Glass has many detractors, but it is the one work that is most often cited as an exception by those who otherwise dislike him.
Glass might just have pulled that feat off again with his Second Violin Concerto. This time the model is Baroque rather than Romantic, and whereas the First could be described as loosely based on Mendelssohn or perhaps Brahms in terms of its structure and dramaturgy, the Second is, by the composer's own admission linked to the concertos of Vivaldi. It was commissioned as a companion piece to The Four Seasons, and like Vivaldi's masterpiece, it is structured as a long series of movements, eight in total, with the tenuous thematic connections that you might find in a baroque suite.
In fact,there are only four numbered movements, but they are interpolated by three unaccompanied 'songs' and preceded by an unaccompanied prologue. Unlike in the First Concerto, the composer projects a fairly relaxed attitude to formal structuring, and it often seems as if the music is going off at a tangent on a whim. That said, there are a lot of transitions in the music, as if he feels the stark contrasts between tempos or moods would jar. It is that feeling for continuity that distinguished this from Glass' more radical early music.
Are there references here to Glass' earlier work? His music used to rely heavily on fast, repeated arpeggio patterns, but in this work longer, more directed melodies predominate. This means that when he does launch into one of those episodes of fast arpeggios bouncing across the strings, it sounds almost like a reminiscence of earlier days. He adds an electronic keyboard to the orchestra, which could conceivably take us back the very earliest years of his career. There is also a harpsichord in there, and in one or two passages the harpsichord and electronic organ take turns playing the continuo bass line, as if Glass is in dialogue with Vivaldi.
The concerto is long and varied, and even if you don't like it all there is bound to be something here for you. Robert McDuffie's credentials as a performer of Philip Glass were firmly established in 1999 with his recording of the First Concerto (Telarc CD-80494). Of the dozens of recordings to have appeared of that work, his is surely among the very finest. On the whole, this performance is equally successful. It is a shame though, that Glass doesn't write any music here that is in the spirit of his First Concerto's second movement. McDuffie's finest moment in that work is the arching melody that seems to last for the whole movement and which he plays with a luminous intensity. But his sound is just as good in this new recording. He has one or two intonation slips in some of the high passage work, but nothing serious.
The London Philharmonic are ideal in the accompaniment, not because of any particular affinity with American music, but rather because of their ability to turn their attention to almost any music and sound like they have been playing it for years. Marin Alsop has, of course, been conducting Philip Glass for years, and her expertise was no doubt invaluable. She paces the music well and ensures that the progression of the music always sounds logical, and I suspect it might not in lesser hands.
This is the first recording I have heard that was made in London's Royal Festival Hall since it was renovated a few years ago, and the sound is excellent. Even the unaccompanied violin movements have a warm glow to them, and if that has been supplemented at post-production then the digital jiggery-pokery is more than justified by the results. 'Orange Mountain Music' is Philip Glass' own label, and given the inevitable commercial interest in this work, I suspect that he has reserved the rights to the first recording for himself, a sound decision both in artistic and financial terms. This will probably go on to become the first of a great many recordings of the concerto, but its benchmark status seems secure for a good few years yet.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Bach John Passion Yorkshire Baroque Soloists Peter Seymour

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion BWV245 
Charles Daniels Evangelist
Stephen Varcoe Jesus
Stephan Logue Pilate

Yorkshire Baroque Soloists
Peter Seymour Director
Recorded in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 2010 Stereo DDD
Signum Classics SIGCD0209 [33:22+73:16]

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For many people, the words 'Bach' and 'Yorkshire' used in the same sentence evoke images huge choral societies performing the B Minor Mass and the Passions at a dirge pace and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. But, of course, Yorkshire is also the home of the York Early Music Festival, of the excellent York University Music Department, and of the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists. Judging by the number of London-based players in the orchestra, I'm assuming the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists is a professional part-time ensemble. I suspect there is some institutional link with York University, where this was recorded and where all of the soloists seem to have studied, but the liner doesn't go into details.
Their St John Passion is an impressive recording. Orchestra, choir and soloists all deliver secure performances, and there are some moments of real beauty. In terms of performance conventions, we are looking at a period instrument orchestra of 14, a choir of 20 and three soloists, with smaller parts taken by singers from the choir. The pitch is A=415hz and the continuo organ is tuned to Valotti temperament. Tempos are in the range of moderate to brisk, but there are no radically fast choruses. The continuo accompaniment is solid and largely undecorated.
The opening chorus, which is really the only chorus in the work, puts the performers through their paces. Both choir and orchestra come through clearly in the audio, with plenty of detail if perhaps a slight lack of presence. The balance of the choir is good, although the tenors struggle a little to compete. In the orchestra, the ensemble of the strings is excellent, but woodwind are the real stars, their individual woody colours mingling beautifully in the introductions and obbligato accompaniments.
Elsewhere, the choir excel in their hushed chorales, which are low key without being unduly restrained – simple but effective. The soloists are an ideal combination, their voices distinctive but complimenting each other well. Stephen Logue comes close to stealing the show as Pilate, and the sweetness of his tone in the upper register suggests his potential is not limited to bass roles. Charles Daniels is suitably declamatory as the Evangelist, a little more tone in his recitatives might be nice, but not if it is at the expense of his exemplary diction.
All round then, an impressive John Passion. In the grand scheme of things, it may seem a little unadventurous for being middle-of-the-round, interpretively speaking. But this is a performance that takes on board many lessons from the history of the period performance movement (with the notable exception of those from Joshua Rifkin). It has plenty of life and never goes to excesses of tempo or dynamics to make its point. And it doesn't force any more drama on the work than it can handle. A coherent, articulate and engaging performance that balances well the work's twin identities as narrative and contemplation.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Schoenberg String Quartets 3 and 4 Fred Sherry Quartet

Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
String Quartet No.3 Op.30 [30:50]
String Quartet No.4 Op.37 [33:51]
Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op.47 [10:10]
Fred Sherry String Quartet
Rolf Schulte – violin
Christopher Oldfather – piano
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters 19-20 October 2009 (Opp.30,37) and 20 November 2005 (Op.47) Stereo DDD
Naxos 8.557533 [74:51]
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What exactly is Robert Craft's involvement in this recording? He is credited as having 'supervised' it, which is apparently enough to justify, not only its inclusion in the Naxos 'Robert Craft Collection' series, but also an advert for the conductor's recent autobiography on the back of the liner. No doubt it is an advantage to have Schoenberg's representative on earth in the control room, but it does seem that Naxos are stretching their links with Craft slightly beyond the realms of credibility.
The real star of this disc is Fred Sherry. He is almost as steeped in Schoenberg performing traditions as Craft, and the string quartets he has assembled for these performances prove to be well up to the task in hand. I say 'string quartets' because the personnel of the Fred Sherry Quartet is evidently variable, and only Sherry himself on the cello performs in the same part in both works. The other players are from a younger generation, and the most famous of them is Leila Josefowicz who plays first violin in the Fourth Quartet. It is a testament to the high standards of all the players that neither Sherry nor Josefowicz really excel, and all their colleagues perform with equal conviction, stylistic sensibility and technical proficiency.
Interpreting these works is a bit of a balancing act. Schoenberg's radicalism seems to be in eternal conflict with his veneration of tradition. So, for example, the music is serial throughout, but the forms of the movements hark back to the 18th century. Performers must reconcile the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern, and without the result sounding laboured or overly cerebral.
These performances find the ideal balance while maintaining an impressive sense of immediacy. Engagement comes in the form of dramatic tension rather than emotive excess, suggesting Expressionist rather than Romantic readings. The tempos are often just on the fast side of comfortable, creating valuable momentum, and without obscuring any of the detail.
The two works were written in 1927 and 1936 respectively, meaning that one was written in Europe and the other in America. Given the momentous shifts and changes throughout Schoenberg's life and career, both biographical and artistic, the stylistic continuity between these works is remarkable. If anything, the Fourth seems the most accomplished, and less encumbered by its traditional forms. The 'Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment' that concludes the programme is less exciting, a work that is as pedantic and unambitious as its title suggests. It is well played though, with plenty of life and sparkle, by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather.
The recorded sound is reasonable but in no way exceptional. The quiet passages (and yes, there are of them) seem a little distant while the tuttis are clear but uninvolving.
The recording is a worthy addition to the Schoenberg discography. It is yet another demonstration of the extent to which American instrumentalists dominate the performance of Schoenberg’s chamber music these days. There certainly seems to be a healthy tradition of Schoenberg performance in his adopted country, of which this is just the latest example. And perhaps Robert Craft is the conduit through which that tradition flows, but I still think they could manage just as well without him.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 19 November 2010

Stefan Klaverdal Revelations

Stefan Klaverdal
The Sacred Family (2005-2008): The Tippet Quartet
Revelation Pieces: Soloists from the ContemporarY Ensemble
C-Y Contemporary CY1001 [46:10]

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Stefen Klaverdal is rapidly carving a niche for himself as a composer of music that mixes chamber music and dance music conventions. If what he does is crossover (and I'm not entirely convinced that it is) then it is at the radical end of the spectrum. The relationship between the live performers and electronica is never ambivalent, and a clear timbral distinction is almost always maintained. This allows him to avoid many of the aesthetic problems of crossover, and where much of the more commercial music of this sort suffers from being neither one thing nor the other, Klaverdal always ensures that the legacies of both the classical and the dance music are clearly perceived. Having said that, he regularly takes his music right to the edge of good taste and seems to delight in the almost constant threat of kitsch. But he knows what he is doing, and the artistic integrity of the results is never seriously threatened.
The two works on this disc present two facets of Klaverdal's work. In 'The Sacred Family', chamber music conventions predominate, not least through the use of string quartet, albeit with accompanying electronics. 'Revelation Pieces' tip the balance the other way, each is for one or two instrumentalists with electronic backing, but here the electronics have the foreground, or at least compete on equal terms with the soloist. But the balance between live and electronic music is in a constant state of flux in both works, and it is rarely clear which will triumph from the struggle.
Klaverdal has found some powerful and sympathetic advocates in the Tippet Quartet. Those who have heard the quartet's recordings of their namesake's works for Naxos (read my review of vol. 2 here) will know that their musical sensibilities are ideal for this sort of project. In common with Tippet, Klaverdal is a composer who constantly wrestles with tradition, yet mixes the new and the old with such fluency that the whole process seems almost intuitive. The Tippet Quartet know just how much convention to introduce at any given point. The opening of 'The Sacred Family' for example, is painted in broad tonal strokes reminiscent of middle period Beethoven, which is just how they play it. But then later, and admittedly in stark contrast to the work of Michael Tippet, dance music electronica is introduced and the instrumental parts respond by moving to minimalist textures, creating intense textures but without saturating the music with new ideas. The players manage to maintain the energy and logic of the music, even in the face of these stylistic shifts. There are one or two slips of intonation, particularly in the final fortissimo passages of the work, but otherwise this is a fine reading.
'Revelation pieces' is a series of works for one or two instruments and electronics, each inspired by a verse from the book or Revelation. (Don't be put off by all the biblical references by the way, the music is much more fun and lively than they would lead you to expect.) The four movements here are for trumpet and percussion, bass clarinet, recorder, and percussion duet. The music is very rhythmically focussed, and the solo parts are mostly based on fast rhythmis pulses spiced up with unpredictable off beat accents. I have to confess that I don't keep up with the many trends in dance music these days, but the electronics here invariably put me in mind of Lemonjelly. So we are talking about lively, consonant textures, very little in the way of sustaining tones, and rhythms articulated through a range of beats and pulses resembling synthesised percussion. I wonder what logic informs Klaverdal's choice of solo instruments? Perhaps he is following Berio's example and is trying for a comprehensive survey of them all. To my ear, the trumpet movement is the most effective, if only because the sound of the trumpet has the most success in its competition with the electronics. When Klaverdal uses percussion, it seems to be as some sort of middle ground between the live and the electronic, but the results are usually indistinct. The recorder movement is fun. In this one the electronics are to the fore, and gradually build up from short, dissipated snatches into more continuous textures. The recorder plays a kind of obbligato over all this, always diatonic and based on four-square rhythms, but also continuously evolving in unpredictable ways.
An interesting album then, and with plenty of musical ideas you won't find anywhere else. There is something curiously provisional about these pieces, as if each is a work in progress. No doubt Stefan Klaverdal has all sorts of ideas up his sleeve about the directions his future works are going to take. If he continues to produce music of this originality and energy, in should be fascinating journey.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Kirill Gerstein plays Schumann, Knussen and Liszt

Kirill Gerstein plays Schumann, Knussen and Liszt 
Robert Schumann Humoreske for piano in B flat major, Op. 20 25:35
Oliver Knussen Ophelia's Last Dance, for piano, Op. 32 10:16
Franz Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178 (LW A179) 29:30
Myrios Classics MYR005 [65:30]

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It is difficult to categorise Kirill Gerstein. He is a young Russian pianist, yet he has spent much of his life in the US, and his playing shows little of the heavy-handedness of traditional Russian piano technique. Just as interestingly, he is a pianist who takes nothing for granted in his interpretations, and his readings of the Schumann and the Liszt here bring new life to some old warhorses. But the paradox is that he manages to do this without resorting to extremes, and if anything his performances are more faithful to the dots on the page than those of most of his predecessors. That approach makes for a very saleable artist, and I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more about Gerstein in years to come.
Schumann's 'Humoreske' Op.20 is presented with delicate precision. For Gerstein the title is a licence for a light, brisk reading. I wouldn't say it is humorous as such, and the focussed energy in each phrase speaks of an earnest concentration on the details and the shape of the music. But there is plenty of life here and plenty of contrast too. As with all the works on this disc, the overall impression is of discipline without restraint. It is Schumann in a classical mould, and it is no worse for that.
'Ophelia's Last Dance' was written by Oliver Knussen for Paul Crossley in 2004, but receives its première recoding here. The music is quite conservative in style, the textures are almost impressionistic, constantly moving between transient tonalities via unpredictable chromatic shifts. It isn't Knussen's greatest work, nor his most interesting, but its inclusion on this programme is inspired. Firstly, it fits a stylistic link between the Schumann and the Liszt, especially the way that its closing phrases segue seamlessly into the opening of the B Minor Sonata. And secondly, the music is the ideal vehicle for Gerstein's pianism. The are no extremes here of dynamic or emotion, but the exploration of the musical middle ground is detailed and subtly variegated. This is exactly where Gerstein excels, and the patient precision of his technique brings out the best in Knussen's music.
The B Minor Sonata puts Gerstein's musicianship in perspective. He is clearly a talented pianist, but his temperament is so far removed from that of Liszt that there is a constant battle going on here between the performer and the composer. That's not such a bad thing, and it puts this well-known work in a completely new light. As with the Schumann, the over-riding impression is of absolute loyalty to the notes as they appear on the page. Gerstein does nothing that is not prescribed, although given the amount that is prescribed that doesn't mean the performance is in any way stilted or pedantic. Where other pianists would pull right back in the build up to the massive climaxes, or add caesuras between the sections, Gerstein goes for a more disciplined approach. To pull that off you need exceptional technique, which Gerstein clearly has, and his focus on the details of the textures produce some remarkably clear and lucid results.
The sound quality is good, and the clear, strident sound of the Steinway piano is ideal for Gerstein's focussed technique. The cover claims that the recording was made in DSD, although I don't know how significant that has for a disc that is not being released as an SACD. In fact, Gerstein would be the ideal candidate for the full SACD treatment; the clarity he injects into every single texture would make an SACD of these performances something very special. No complaints though about the CD quality sound, which is lively and engaging. A promising album from a pianist who clearly has much to show us about the music we think we already know.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Official Soundtrack

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Official Soundtrack
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
Sony Music 88697794712

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Alexandre Desplat is the fourth composer to take on the Harry Potter franchise. The first film was scored by John Williams, whose themes and motifs created a musical identity for the fantasy world. After Williams, Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper each did stints, both doing their best to move away from the thematically saturated score of the original. Desplat continues in that vein; the links between his score and that of The Philosopher’s Stone are tenuous to say the least. The OST album includes just two unadulterated statements of the 'Harry Potter Theme'. The music does make subtle references to it elsewhere, but you'd be unlikely to clock them with the distractions of a film going on at the same time.
The gradual evolution of the soundtracks to the Harry Potter films reflects the narrative progression of the story. If the music is anything to go by, this will be a very dark and psychological outing. The music is impressively sophisticated, and if I didn't know, I wouldn't have guessed that it is for a children's film. But of course it is Hollywood music too, and while the atmosphere is often intense, the actual musical textures are usually quite straightforward. But the quality of the music is demonstrated by Desplat's ability to create the maximum effect from the minimum of musical material. So climaxes are often scored with heavy tremolo arpeggios in the strings (almost, but not quite minimalism), and the quieter sections make impressive use of solo flute and piano. The sound of the flute is a distinctive feature of this score, often playing quietly in the lower register and over a bed of slowly moving string chords.
It is difficult to identify any new themes that Desplat may be introducing. He is in a bit of a catch 22 joining the franchise at this late stage, in that he is obliged to move away from John Williams' themes, but doesn't really have the license to introduce any of his own. The result is music that focusses more on atmosphere than identity. Most listeners will have the advantage over me of having already seen the film, and the visual associations will probably make the experience of listening to this considerably less abstract. I don't know if the album presents the music in the order that it appears in the film, but whether it does or not, the disc seems to be front-loaded, with all the dramatic and memorable music in the first 20 minutes or so.
It is all too rare these days to hear a studio recording by the London Symphony Orchestra. Most of their appearances on CD in recent years have been on their LSO Live label, all of which are live recordings of concerts, mostly recorded in the acoustically sullen Barbican Hall. The studio situation is, of course, also acoustically inert, but there is a little more scope here to alter and focus the sound at the post-production stage. The results are richer and timbrally more complex than on most of the LSO Live recordings, showing that a little bit of jiggery pokery at the editing stage is not necessarily such a bad thing.
Of all the orchestras in the UK to hire for film music sessions, the LSO has to be one of the most expensive. So do the results justify the expenditure? Well, in my opinion they have the best string section of any London orchestra, and the strings certainly impress here. They have excellent unity of ensemble and a timbre that is both open and rich. The dark, sinister textures often rely heavily on the cellos and basses, who, as on the concert stage, really make the most of every opportunity to shine. The woodwind, brass, percussion and harp are all heard at one point or another but none of them are ever put to any particularly interesting use. Again, it is a case of maximum effect from minimum notes on the page.
So all round, not a bad Hollywood film soundtrack at all. Buyers of the disc are able to download a surround sound version of the album, which is a nice touch, and should appeal to those movie lovers whose audio system is set up specifically to watch films. In fact, as this is primarily atmosphere music, having it coming at you from all sides should add considerably to the experience.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Shai Wosner plays Brahms and Schoenberg

Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Suite for Klavier Op.25 [15:25]
BRAHMS: 7 Fantasien Op.116 intersperse with SCHOENBERG: 6 kleinen Klavierstücken Op.19 [28:36]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op.24 [26:36]
Shai Wosner piano
Recoreded at Friedberg Hall, Peabody Institute, Baltimore USA 12-14 January 2010 Stereo DDD
ONYX 4055 [70:43]

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Brahms and Schoenberg have much in common, their historicism, their devotion to the Austro-German canon, their learning, the Viennese pedigree of their works... but the one thing that would seem to separate them is the noise their music makes.
Shai Wosner is evidently out to prove that contention wrong. The centrepiece of this programme is a performance of the Brahms Op.116 Fantasias interspersed with Schoenberg's Op.19 piano pieces. Does it work? Well, yes the musical coherency and intrigue of the result is undeniable. Historically the distance is less than you might think, the Brahms being very late and the Schoenberg relatively early. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the Schoenberg is Expressionist rather than serial, and clearly owes much to Brahms' late works. That said, you are very unlikely to confuse the two composers, the issue of tonality (however lose) the clear divider. There is also a discipline about all of Brahms' piano music that Schoenberg rarely shares. But Wosner is clearly soliciting individual opinions about the musical relationships between the two composers, so you'll have to decide for yourself at what level, if any, the musical styles meet.
This Op.116/Op.19 experiment is framed two large works, each an early but major contribution to the repertoire by the two composers. To begin, we hear the Schoenberg Op.25 Suite, and for me this is the highlight of the disc. The work is historically significant for being the first in which Schoenberg uses his serial technique consistently from beginning to end. As is so often the case with historical landmarks, it is a piece that is studied and discussed far more than it is heard. That's a real shame, because it is a great piece. It is one of those 20th century works which is obviously very difficult to play, or rather to interpret, but is also quite demure and so does not give the pianist many chances to show off his skills. It is structured as a baroque suite with each of the movements in a dance form, but paradoxically, the rhythmic identities of each of these dance genres are almost completely ignored and Schoenberg instead injects energy and propulsion into the music with his own more sophisticated rhythmic ideas. The success of Wosner's performance is largely down to his feeling for the detail of this music. He really focusses in on the relationships between successive notes and chords, which given the detail of Schoenberg's score is surely appropriate. You get the feeling that the dynamic and placing of every note has been painstakingly considered. And just as importantly, the music retains its immediacy and spontaneity, even in the face of some heavy intellectualising from both the composer and the pianist. It is a tricky balancing act to interpret this music effectively, but Wosner is clearly up to the task.
The final work on the disc is the Brahms Variations on Handel Op.24. Like the Schoenberg Op.25, this represents the composer's first significant mature contribution to the piano repertoire. Wosner takes a more laid back approach to this music, he lets the melodies sing more and doesn't worry so much about the internal balance of the textures. This more lyrical approach is surely what the music requires, but it sits uneasily with the programme's aims of comparing Brahms and Schoenberg. The Brahms Op.25, especially when played like this, is closer to Schumann or even Schubert. But if the Brahms/Schoenberg idea does work (and I'm still undecided) it is because of the Brahms' multifaceted musical persona. He was both progressive and conservative, and it is to Wosner's credit that he demonstrates both sides, both in his programming and in his playing.
The audio here is excellent. The piano is recorded in a fairly resonant acoustic, but the precision of Wosner's touch, of his articulation and of his pedalling, is such that no details are lost. Wosner has done both composers a service with this recording, but I think that in the long run Schoenberg is going to come off better for his attentions. The performance of the Op.25 Suite that opens this programme is a real revelation. The Brahms is good too, but it is the Schoenberg I’ll be returning to soonest.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Mendelssohn Concertos for Two Pianos: Aglika Genova, Liuben Dimitrov

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Concertos for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Concerto no.1 in E major (30:35)
Concerto no.2 in A flat major (43:42)
Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov pianos
Münchner Rundfunkorchester
Ulf Schirmer conducutor
Recorded at BR München, Studio 1, September 28-October 2 2009 Stereo DDD
CPO 777 463-2 [74:29]
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Do Mendelssohn's early Concertos for Two Pianos recive more attention than they merit these days? If so, it makes up for over a century of complete neglect; they were only first published in the early 60s. Today, however, they are doing very well in the CD catalogues, a fact at least partly explained by the relative paucity of great works in the genre.
Like almost all composing prodigies, Mendelssohn initially gained fame for the fact that he was composing at all at such an early age rather than for the quality of his music. It wasn't until his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture at the age of 18 that he produced a lasting contribution to the repertoire. These concertos predate that, and by my calculations were written at the ages of 14 and 16. Those two years made a real difference and the Second Concerto is by far the more accomplished. That said, they are both attractive works, and the skill in their construction is undeniable. The First is stylistically very close to many of the String Symphonies, while the second moves more towards the virtuoso styles of some of the great pianist/composers of the day, early Chopin and perhaps Field. All the melodies have bounce, but few are memorable. Contrapuntal development plays out in textbook fashion, impressive but rarely engaging. And structurally both works hold together well, although the musical material doesn't really justify the huge length of either.
Even in his mature output, Mendelssohn rarely indulges in complex or dense textures, and simplicity is certainly one of the virtues of this music. It begs the question, though, of why two pianos are required. It rarely sounds like two pianos, and while I suspect there is a good deal of discourse between the solo instruments, they are not separated in the stereo array in this recording, so it is difficult to tell. They could both by more prominent against the orchestra, although the sheer quantity of orchestral music here suggests that the composer considered it an equal partner. The pianists put in good performances, and never try to milk the music for more emotion or substance than is there.
The performance style balances a fine line between the Classical and the Romantic. Beethoven was, after all, still alive when these works were written, and the very disciplined use of rubato, by orchestra and pianists alike, alludes to the Classical conventions that were surely still in force in 1820s Berlin. On the other hand, the velvety sting lines, the occasional cantabile indulgences by the pianists, and the sheer size of the orchestra look forward to Schumann and even Brahms.
But this is music to just enjoy rather than to ponder at length, and whilst its pleasures are simple, they are also numerous. For me, the best of it is to be found in the finale of the Second Concerto. The rondo theme, based on a descending four note figure, is about the most memorable on the disc. The pianos really take the fore, and the orchestra only intercede to provide brief up-beat tutti episodes that aren't a million miles from Haydn. But for all that classicism, you can really hear Mendelssohn's mature voice forming. Both the soloists and the orchestra are more indulgent here in terms of rubato and dynamic extremes, but this more mature music can cope. It is as if the players had been biding there time up to know, waiting for the composer's famous sophistication to emerge. When it does, it is well worth the wait.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Katherine Bryan plays Concertos by Liebermann, Hüe, Poulenc and Nielsen

Lowell LIEBERMANN (b.1961): Concerto for Flute and Orchestra Op.39 [19:25]
Georege HÜE (1858-1948): Fantasie [7:44]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) (orch. Lennox Berkeley): Flute Sonata Op.164 [12:40]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931): Flute Concerto FS119 [18:43]
Katherine Bryan flute
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Paul Daniel conductor
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall Glasgow 21-22 August 2009 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Linn CKD 367 [64:11]
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The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are clearly proud of their flautist Katherine Bryan. She was appointed to the principle chair with the orchestra at the age of only 21 in 2003, and even seven years down the line, her talent still seems precocious. The programme on this disc is varied, all the better to show of the many facets of her playing: her range of timbres, her flawless passage work, and (particularly in the Nielsen) her ability to switch between moods and styles at a moment's notice.
The Liebermann Concerto gets top billing, but I'm not sure why. The work is in a very populist American style, like John Williams' film music but without the memorable tunes. There now seems to be about half a century's worth of American concertos for wind instruments in this insipid pseudo-Romantic idiom, and I have to say I find most of it pretty vacuous. But aesthetic ideology aside, it does what it sets out to do, namely to showcase the emotional and technical capabilities of the flute and the flautist. Liebermann opts for a large orchestra, but is careful with the balance and makes sure the soloist is never subsumed. That does often require Bryan to play loudly for extended passages, and her tone sometimes suffers, taking on a hard edge that is ok in small doses but can get tiring.
Were it up to me, I'd have programmed this CD in reverse order, because as it goes on the music just keeps getting better and better. The George Hüe Fantasie is slightly insubstantial but is still far more rewarding than the Liebermann. Debussy is a clear influence on the Impressionistic textures here, especially in the waves of sound from the orchestra, each with a slightly different instrumental combination. The interplay between the soloist and the woodwind players of the orchestra is very impressive, and wonderfully captured by the SACD sound.
The Poulenc Sonata, as orchestrated by the composer's close friend Lennox Berkeley, makes for a convincing concerto. The orchestration is competent but shows some English reserve, and you get the feeling that, had the composer orchestrated the work he'd have been a bit more adventurous. But then, the reserved orchestration allows the work's original character as a sonata to come through. Those long, winding flute melodies are a real joy, and are wonderfully played by Bryan, always precise but never mechanical.
The programme ends with the magnificent Flute Concerto by Carl Nielsen. Bryan knows this work well; she got her big break when she won a competition with it at the age of 15. It is a paradoxical piece, both naïve and knowing. A light touch from the flautist is essential, but then so is a rigorous focus on the brief melodic segments and transient tonalities. Bryan negotiates the twisting and constantly evolving solo part well. This is another piece where orchestral tuttis (albeit from a chamber orchestra) often seem to be in competition with the soloist, but this time Bryan's tone is warm and secure throughout.
Excellent playing from the RSNO. The Nielsen is the only score with anything for them to get their teeth into, but they make a great job of it. The concerto has one of the great bass trombone parts in the repertoire, and it is given a great reading here, authoritative but with that essential sense of humour. As you'd expect from Linn, the sound quality is of demonstration quality. The arrangement between soloist and label is evidently a fruitful partnership, her impressive tone is the perfect subject for high-end audio reproduction. Add to that the variety of her tone and the sheer musicality of her performance, and the result is a must flute fans and audiophiles alike.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Vespers (exerpts)

Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Vespers (exerpts)
Eric Ericson Choir
Laurence Equilbey – conductor
Naïve V 5239

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Rachmaninov's two great contributions to the Russian Orthodox choral tradition more then justify their continual reappearance on disc. The regular appearance of recordings of both works, and the Vespers in particular, suggests that sales figures remain healthy. Perhaps the two works are benefiting from the popularity of more recent eastern minimalist composers. If you have come to eastern liturgical music via Pärt or even Shchedrin, the chances are you're going to find Rachmaninov's music considerably more substantial. In fact, the music is paradoxically sophisticated, Rachmaninov limits himself to a small set of harmonic and contrapuntal devices, yet the soundworld is often almost as sophisticated as in his symphonies. It is music that repays repeated listening, and also hearing in different recordings.
The performing traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church go back a long way and can be very difficult to untangle from a Western perspective. Curiously, there are very few recordings of this music from Russia, so most on the market present a more subjective approach from Western performers. They are singing for Western audiences too, which provides a certain justification for sidestepping issues of authenticity. And perhaps that isn't such a bad thing. If you hear choral music in a Russian church it tends to by sung very legato, with dynamics only used to create contrasts between phrases, and the sound enveloped by an obscuringly resonant acoustic.
This performance is at the other end of the spectrum. Two choirs have been combined, but the forces are still small. The recording environment is a church, but Catholic rather than Orthodox and with a warm but clean and unobtrusive ambience. Most significantly, the style of performance is quite straight: there is little in the way of sliding portamento and phrases are shaped using dynamics and even at times some limited rubato. Some may complain that the sound is a little top heavy, but the choir has at least one basso who is as profundo as the music requires. Tuning and ensemble are excellent throughout, which given the technical competency and stamina that this music requires is quite an achievement.
But why only excerpts? Both works fit individually onto a CD, so why not issue them complete as two CDs. In the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, it is the quieter movements and the solos that are omitted. For casual listeners (myself included) the larger choruses are the more satisfying musically, so the choice of movements is reasonable. And solo voices are used extensively in the excerpts from the Vespers, so the programme retains its variety.
The sound quality is good, and even though the choir is small, individual voices never stand out. The overall effect is of a very proficient reading, slightly buttoned down perhaps but never dispassionate. Many recordings strive for excess in this music, and that has its place, but this more refined interpretation is also very approachable. It might not have the raw passion of a Russian liturgical choir, but the combination of professionalism and commitment still makes for spiritually and musically rich experience.
Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg
Conductor Sebastian Weigle
Stage director Katharina Wagner 
Chorus Director Eberhard Friedrich
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Opus Arte OA 1041 D (2 DVDs, also available on Blu Ray)

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Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger has been a subject of heated debate in the opera world since its première at Bayreuth in 2007. The release of this superbly produced DVD should help to make some of that discussion better informed. Préces of the production concept invariably highlight the controversial aspects, which is reasonable as this is a very radical reading. But watching the production from end to end, the overriding impression is of the high production values and the consistency of the concept. It's not perfect (what Wagner ever is?), but the success of the production lies in its tangential and paradoxical relationship with the work itself. There is damning critique here of many aspects of the opera, not least its nationalist undertones, but on the whole it works with rather than against the grain of the narrative. Katharina doesn't really need to do very much to change the trajectories of the main characters, and like her great grandfather, her overriding obsession is the sanctity of art. While the production updates the work, and acknowledges some of the uglier aspects of its reception history, the underlying message about the relationship between conformity and innovation in artistic activity remains curiously unchanged, even when the characters representing those opposing traits are switched.
If you're not familiar with the concept of this production here is a brief summary: Walther is initially represented as an innovative conceptual artist, while the Meistersingers begin (and remain throughout) pedantic protectors of artistic tradition. Throughout the first two acts, the imposition of Walther's creativity on the staid conventions of Nuremberg is represented by his painting on almost every object he comes into contact with. The riot at the end of act 2 is a paint fight, which proves to be a catalyst of change for both Walther and Beckmesser. In the singing contest, their roles are reversed, Beckmesser has become the free thinker whose work has attained artistic value through liberation, while Walther has succumbed to the Meistersingers' conventions to the point where he can only produce kitsch. Sachs goes through his own transformation when the scene change midway through act 3 is played out as a phantasmogorical ballet. In it, he is kidnapped by caricatures of Goethe, Lessing,Wagner and other figureheads of German artistic tradition. Having spent the first two acts as an alternative-thinking champion of innovation, he now becomes the most reactionary figure of them all. The most radical, and presumably most controversial, aspect of the production is Sachs' closing monologue. He has been transformed into a Nazi ideologue and his paean to the supremacy of German art is played out as a kind of Nuremberg rally.
The friction with the work comes from the production's critique of artistic convention. True enough, Wagner (Richard I mean) does that too, but ultimately the opera celebrates the self-renewing power of convention, specifically in the way that Walther's innovations are accepted and become part of the living tradition. Katharina makes an important and valid criticism of the work in her recasting of the final scene. The ending of the opera does not adequately resolve the narrative tensions of the previous acts, and that has problematic implications for the opera's message. Other directors tend to face down, or just ignore, the problem of Sachs' behaviour. The issue of his relationship with Beckmesser is left hanging by the libretto, and the nationalistic sentiments of his closing monologue don't even need the endorsement of Hitler to seem problematic. The weight of tradition is a pervading theme of this production, which is an issue more pertinent to German audiences than to most others, and perhaps this is where an autobiographical dimension creeps in. Of the caricatured figureheads from German history, the most prominent is Wagner himself, and there is an almost claustrophobically Oedipal dimension to his representation and ultimate disgrace.
But as I say, a précis of the ideas does no justice to the sheer theatrical spectacle of this production. For opera audiences used to seeing regietheater used for cost-cutting, the combination of interpretive innovation and Bayreuth financing comes as a refreshing change. There are some impressive set pieces, most notably the stadium seating arrangement that rises through the floor at the start of the festival meadow scene complete with chorus, and the giant hand that adorns the stage throughout act 2, one of the production's more inscrutable symbols. The quantity of ideas is large but not excessive. Katharina was clearly up against the challenge of her life putting on this (or any) kind of Meistersinger at Bayreuth, and there must surely have been a temptation to throw every conceivable visual device at it. But the results, while visually rich, speak of an impressive discipline in only including props and symbols that further the theme.
The cast have their work cut out reconciling their characters as envisaged by the composer and as transformed by the director. One weakness of the production is the reduced significance of many of the minor characters. Such massive transformations are going on for the three leads, that everyone else is in danger of becoming a bystander. David just about retains his three dimensions, but there is little to no engagement with Eva, Magdalene nor, with the exception of Sachs, with any of the Meistersingers. Eva in particular suffers in this version, she is a problem for every director coming to the work, but most manage to make her into something more than just a canvas for Walther to (literally) paint on.
Klaus Florian Vogt is a convincing Walther, both musically and dramatically. Franz Hawalta is a versatile baritone, but he struggles to find the stamina for Hans Sachs and loses some of his tone in the last act. Both make the best of their roles and adequately negotiate the competing demands of composer and director. But this production revolves around Beckmesser, and Michael Volle puts in an exceptional performance. Clearly, this isn't a production that presents Beckmesser as the comedy fool. Quite the opposite, in fact, he is the one sympathetic character. There is a significant imbalance here; Wagner (Snr.) gets away with his critique of Nuremberg society by populating it with sympathetic characters, but with Walther a lackey, Eva a nobody and Sachs a Nazi, it is left to Beckmesser to generate the empathy necessary for the audience to care. Katharina and Volle manage this by investing the character with profound dignity, which is perhaps the ultimate departure this production makes from traditional staging. If the production works – and I think it does although it is fair to say that the jury is still out – it is because of the credibility of Volle in this transformed role. Excellent singing from him too.
According to the liner booklet, the filming took place over the course of a single live performance, the first time this has happened at Bayreuth. How then to explain the onstage cameras? In fairness, they might not be literally on the stage, but they seem so close that I suspect some of the shots were taken during rehearsal. In the first act in particular, when Walther is climbing around the back of the set, he seems to meet a camera in every nook and cranny he visits. And then in the third act, cameras at the proscenium arch seem to be looking up the singer's noses. It is quite an invasive approach, but you certainly feel part of the action. Both the picture and the sound quality are to the highest modern standards, and it seems that opera singers, like newsreaders before them, are now going to have to pay closer attention to their makeup as the camera is recording their every wrinkle.
The orchestra sounds great, both in stereo and surround, and the sensuality of the strings compensates for the dispassionate atmosphere on stage in many of the scenes. There are one or two slips, which would probably have been edited had they filmed more than one performance. The woodwinds have occasional problems with their ensemble, and the whole orchestra comes unstuck on the last chord of the second act. In general, though, this is a musically convincing performance, and while a few of the voices in the cast stand out, the general vocal standard is significantly above what you would find in most opera houses.
In terms of packaging and extras, this disc offers more than the usual. The booklet is illustrated with colour stills, which remain the exception rather than the rule for opera DVDs. And the second disc has a making of documentary. Strangely, this is a different documentary to the one that has already been released on DVD (read my review here), but both seem to be based on the same interview footage. Both documentaries emphasise what a logistical nightmare the production was to stage, but that is quite obvious even from the production stills, let alone the video of the performance.
For those who have issues with Katharina Wagner's conception of the work, the musical side of this performance could well be its redeeming feature. But I would urge even the sceptics to take this production seriously. If ever you have sat through a traditional Meistersinger and felt your toes curl as Walther launches into his cheesy prize song or Sachs his nationalist diatribe, you will know exactly where Katharina is coming from. We all have embarrassing relatives, but most of us don't need to go to these lengths to distance ourselves from them in our professional lives. As ever, the Bayreuth Festival has demonstrated that it is not taking anything for granted, and Opus Arte should also be congratulated on the bravery of their beginning a worldwide distribution deal with the house on such a controversial note. A complex and troubling but also consummate and satisfying experience: even on DVD it leaves a lasting impression.

Hans Sachs Franz Hawlata
Veit Pogner
Artur Korn
Kunz Vogelgesang
Charles Reid
Konrad Nachtigall
Rainer Zaun
Sixtus Beckmesser
Michael Volle
Fritz Kothner
Markus Eiche
Balthasar Zorn
Edward Randall
Ulrich Eisslinger
Hans-Jürgen Lazar
Augustin Moser
Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel
Martin Snell
Hans Schwarz
Andreas Macco
Hans Foltz
Diógenes Randes
Walther von Stolzing
Klaus Florian Vogt
Norbert Ernst
Michaela Kaune
Carola Guber
Ein Nachtwächter
Friedemann Röhlig
Stage design Tilo Steffens
Michaela Barth/Tilo Steffens
Robert Sollich
Gavin Dixon