Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Kagel and Keuris String Quartets The Lagos Ensemble

Kagel: String Quartet no.4 (1993) [24:05]
Keuris: String Quartet no.1 (1982) [22:24]
Lagos Ensemble: Ron de Haas (violin), Jan Koomen (violin), Kyra Philippi (viola), Sebastian de Rode (cello)
rec. at 28-30 August 2006 in the Hervormde Kerk Renswoude DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
TURTLE RECORDS TR75531 [46:41]

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The long shadow of Béla Bartók hangs over both of these late 20th century string quartets. The Keuris was written in 1982 and the Kagel in 1993, but both inhabit soundworlds that evoke the interwar years more than they do their own times. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and there is far more potential in Bartók’s musical ideas than his own music could fully exploit, but the string quartets presented here are from the conservative end of both composers’ outputs. Both are skilfully crafted and artistically accomplished works, but neither fully demonstrates the individuality for which both composers are better known.

Kagel’s Fourth Quartet achieves an impressive balance between atonal lingua franca and ambiguous stylistic allusion. He regularly strikes up dance tunes, or makes early preparations for tonal cadences. Neither the dance episodes nor the cadences ever fully materialise, but the thwarted preparations themselves become the basis of new atonal textures and sections. Coming, as it does, from the later years of Kagel’s career, the work demonstrates the results of a lifetime’s experience of integrating diverse elements into unified works. It is as if these disparate elements have been digested and artistically integrated to the point that all tension between them has been transcended. In this respect, it is similar to Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and both are works by composers so used to dealing with heterogeneous material that even when they distance themselves from musical montage, it shows itself as the basis of their mature art. But unlike the Schnittke, this is a frenetic work, full of fast music and abrupt changes of tempo and mood. Bartók’s presence is felt in the use of walking cello bass lines, Bartók pizzicatos and, most significantly, the paradoxical impression of cosmopolitan folkyness. He shares Barkok’s ability to take (or generate) folk material, and then to presented it in the most sophisticated contexts without any apparent disparity. But Kagel draws on no ethnic sources to create this effect, instead he somehow creates his own endearing vernacular, a musical platform from which he can both communicate directly and throw in his occasional surprises. One such is the little jig that interrupts the flow of the final movement. Again, it is not completely incongruous, but is an elegant reminder to the ear, by then so accustomed to the flowing Kagel ‘style’, that there is actually no such thing, and that the whole work up to this point has been based on a subtly compiled, but impressively diverse, range of styles.

The First String Quartet by Tristan Keuris is another skilfully crafted work, although it is not in the same league as the Kagel. Like the Kagel, it is music based on atonal, but by no means uncomfortable, textures. Again, this is the basis of Bartók’s influence on the work, all three composers creating Modernist textures with broad appeal simply through their technical ability rather than through any regression to tonal rhetoric. Having said that, the music also evokes the voice of Benjamin Britten, not least through the precision with which Keuris conceives, voices and notates his string lines. And if the results occasionally sound orchestral, it is thanks to the composer’s Britten-esque skill in handling the sting instruments to maximum timbral (and indeed musical) effect. The work is in three movements, an arch-form (again from Bartók) revolving around a central slow movement. The outer movements share thematic material and both are based on thematic manipulation which manages to be rigorous without ever risking pedantry. Most of the middle movement is based on a single solo line, shared around the group and usually accompanied by the other players. He is not afraid to reduce the ensemble to just this single line of occasion, an effect that benefits from the tenacious, yet elegant tone of each of the players.

The performances of both works are sympathetic to the composer’s aims: disciplined without ever feeling austere. That tone quality I mentioned in the Keuris is a great example, a focussed, deliberate sound in a passage that could easily by misinterpreted as romantic arioso. The Lagos Ensemble are a Dutch group (the box makes no mention of any connections with Nigeria), and they are joined for this recording by the guest viola player Kyra Philippi. She does them proud, and the SACD sound is especially beneficial to the viola and cello, both of whom come across with a rich, characterful tone. In general the sound quality is warm without being too reverberant, impressive considering it was recorded in a church, and the 1950s styling of the box is elegant if not exactly appropriate. Keuris fans are unlikely to be disappointed by this release, and nor are (the slightly more numerous) fans of Kagel. It might also be attractive to those with a taste for the Bartók or the Britten quartets who are looking for new directions in 20th century repertoire. These aren’t dazzling masterpieces of the calibre of either of those composers, but they are skilfully crafted examples of one of the paths taken by the genre in recent years.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Piano Music of John Ireland Vol.3 Mark Bebbington

The Piano Music of John Ireland Vol.3
Rhapsody (1915)
Two Pieces
Four Preludes
Two Pieces
Ballade of London Nights
The Almond Trees
Three Dances
Prelude in E flat
First Rhapsody (1906) 
Mark Bebbington – piano
Somm New Horizons SOMMCD 099 [75:48]

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For many formerly aspiring, but now lapsed piano students, John Ireland's name is synonymous with a certain genre of piece that seems to appear intermittently on the Associated Board syllabus, the sort of music that is easier to play than it sounds, but that includes short knotty passages that, try as you might, prove impossible to master.

I almost feel a sense of guilt towards this music, thinking back to the abuses it suffered under my unskilled fingers. Mark Bebbington, by contrast, has exorcised those demons of youth, and come up with four volumes of exquisitely performed Ireland piano works. No doubt he was a more gifted and more studious pupil than myself, so perhaps there never were any horrors here for him. Certainly, the greatest strength of his interpretations is the fact that he feels no compunction to make the music sound any more sophisticated or complex than it actually is.

The musical variety here is limited, but the technical accomplishment of the compositions is unquestionable. Ireland seems to have worked out the kind of music that suited him and stuck to it without feeling (or perhaps actively resisting) urges to explore some of the more adventurous techniques that even some of his compatriots were introducing. That said, there are clear influences here. You can't mistake the Englishness of this music, despite the composer's name, but French voices often bubble up close to the surface, and in particular those of Debussy and Ravel.

As befits the Debussian mood, Bebbington often allows himself the occasional indulgence in his phrasing, introducing pronounced rubato and dynamic shaping. Now I come to think back, much of this is stipulated in the music, at least in the Associated Board editions, but it still takes interpretive confidence and insight to create a coherent performance with this level of give and take.

'The Holy Boy' from the Four Preludes and 'April' from the Two Pieces are the works that suffered my abuses, all those years ago. In retrospect, I wish I had had a recording like this to guide me as I struggled to interpret them. The Four Preludes in particular really are easy works, to play if not to interpret, and I think my efforts to master one of them was for a grade 4 exam. If you were to look at the dots before considering this purchase, you might well consider the notes-per-pound ratio to make the price tag unreasonable. But if you don't do that, and forget all about piano exams, you'll get on fine with it. As I say, Bebbinton does not try and make anything sound more clever than it is. Instead, he finds the mood that each of these character pieces inhabits, and makes sure his performance of each is infused with it throughout. That can have the effect of stressing the pastoral side of the music, but he is always tasteful and never goes into full cow-pat territory.

The final work on the disc 'First Rhapsody' from 1906 is probably the most interesting. This is, apparently, the première recording, although in all honesty my first reaction on reading that was surprise that all the other works had previously been committed to vinyl or CD. But the First Rhapsody stands out as much as anything because for its ambition. At twelve and a half minutes it is the longest work on the disc. It also has the fullest textures, with wide ranging left hand arpeggios underpinning the long phrases. Debussy is still apparent as an influence, but Rachmaninov is also suggested. Bebbington's discipline is perhaps a little excessive here, if the piece were by Rachmaninov, he would surely have put more passion into it. Otherwise it is a fine performance, and a valuable addition to the Ireland discography.

Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Bach Sacred Cantatas for Soprano Siri Thornhill

Bach Sacred Cantatas for Soprano
Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht, BWV 52 [14:10]
Ich bin vergnugt mit meinem Glucke, BWV 84 [15:14]
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199 [23:36]
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 [17:37]
Siri Thornhill - Soprano
Cologne Bach Vocal Ensemble
Cologne Chamber Orchestra
Helmut Müller-Brühl – conductor
Recorded at Deutschlandfunk Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Cologne 19th-22nd Feb 2007 Stereo DDD
NAXOS 8.570435 [70:36]

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A series of recordings from Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra may be about to change the way we think about Bach performed on modern instruments. The Brandenburg Concertos have already been released, but the Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio are the works that have the potential to break the mould, or at least overturn the ingrained prejudices of the recording industry and the CD public.

Until that happens, recordings like this one of the soprano cantatas are destined to remain at best specialist interest items. As with almost all modern instrument Bach recordings, the music here struggles to take off. In a just world, it could be considered on its own merits, but the inevitable comparisons with the likes of Gardener and Suzuki make the strings sound hopelessly homogenised and the winds very much repiano, struggling, but ultimately failing to float above the texture in solos and obligatos.

The Cologne Chamber Orchestra has a curious history. It was founded in 1923 by Hermann Abendroth and later worked extensively with Otto Klemperer. What Klemperer would have made of their decision in 1976 to switch to baroque instruments is anybody’s guess. Stranger still was their move in 1987 back to modern instruments, while still espousing ‘the principles of historical performance-practice’. What that translates to here is a certain restraint with vibrato and rubato, a light sounding chamber organ for continuo, and a miniscule string section. Otherwise, this is essentially a modern recording conforming to modern artistic and technical principles. It’s a studio recording, so the resonance is presumably courtesy of the recording technology. The result is a warm, comfortable aural environment, pleasant but without ever a hint of the atmosphere of a church.

The Norwegian soprano Siri Karoline Thornhill has an attractive tone and very natural phrasing style. She applies a light vibrato to the longer notes, weighing her sound more to the modern than the baroque. Some of the higher notes are a little snatched, and some of the faster runs get a little congested, but on the whole it is a competent and attractive performance. By the way, check out her website, a minor masterpiece of Flash coding:

The Cologne Bach Vocal Ensemble also give serviceable renditions of the chorales. Again, not as sculpted or impassioned as what you might expect from Gardiner, say, but I’ve no complaints about the articulation, balance or tuning.
Cantata no. 52 Falsche Welt opens with a reworking of the Sinfonia from the 1st Brandenburg Concerto. The eleven years the orchestra spent on baroque instruments have shaken most of the ponderousness of Klemperer out of their Brandenburg, but there is still something of that inter-war Bach sound here. In fact, this opening movement is somewhere between new and old. There is a period performance lightness to the phrasing, but the roundness of tone from the modern instruments categorically distinguishes it from the sounds of the baroque purists. Thornhill gives us some heartfelt recitatives, ‘False world, I trust thee not’ giving her an opportunity for some operatic passion.

Cantata no. 84 Ich bin vergnüngt mit meinem Glücke opens with the sort of flowing oboe obligato aria that you might expect to hear at a brisk pace these days. This slower reading emphasises timbral warmth over contrapuntal intrigue, and is no worse for that. The ensemble exposition to the central aria Ich esse mit Freuden is similarly voluptuous, and the balance of all these contrapuntal lines with the voice, when it enters, is exemplary, a demonstration of the advantages of taking Bach out of the church and playing him in the recording studio instead.
Canata no.199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is the most sombre of the set, and benefits from Thornhill’s combination of operatic expression and baroque restraint. Long, impassioned phrases, with occasional discrete ornamentation and just a touch of vibrato, all add up to an attractive and convincing take on Bach’s vocal lines, whatever the purists might think.

Cantata no.51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! is the best known of these cantatas, largely I suspect because of the interplay of voice and trumpet obligato. The skills of the balance engineers are again much in evidence here, especially in the way that the trumpet’s lines are always clearly distinguished, yet always subordinate to the singer. A little more bounce from the strings in the opening aria might have been nice, but Thornhill projects enough energy through her phrasing to keep the momentum. Some very attractive singing it the other two arias as well, that just about compensates from the disappointing lack of crispness from the strings.

But as I say, most of my reservations about this disc stem from familiarity with the sounds of baroque instruments in this repertoire. Thornhill is clearly tuned in to the aesthetic of the orchestra, and she does them full justice by matching their balance of baroque and modern sensibilities. Ultimately, though, I can only recommend this to fans of Bach on modern instruments. Personally, I don’t know any, and while Riccardo Chailly may be about to change all that, the Cologne Chamber Orchestra don’t quite have what it takes.

Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Miklós Perényi Recital at the Wigmore Hall

Miklós Perényi Recital at the Wigmore Hall
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No. 3 in C major BWV 1009 for solo cello [22:57]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cello Sonata in C major Op. 65 [20:07]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Cello Sonata No.2 in F major Op.99 [25:58]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Cello Sonata in G minor Op.65 III: Largo [4:55]
Miklós Perényi – cello
Dénes Várjon – piano
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall 27 January 2009 Stereo DDD
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0035 [74:28]

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Miklós Perényi is a scandalously underrated cellist. The sheer diversity of his art, as represented on this CD, is breathtaking. There is a rare humanity about his playing that comes in part from the fragility of his tone. He is not the sort sort of cellist to paint his phrases in broad strokes, preferring instead a delicate, studied tone. That is not to say that he lacks power, both the Britten and the Brahms have sections of real intensity, but even here the cello tone in infused with a sense intimacy.

On first hearing this disc, I was convinced that there were tuning issues, especially in the Bach. But listening more closely, that isn't the case at all. It is rather that Perényi introduces such inflection into his playing: the leading notes always hanker to resolve, transitional keys are always entirely provisional, and quiet codas feel so belated you feel like the movement is already a distant memory before it even ends. And all of this is expressed purely through the timbre of the cello; an incredible skill, and probably unmatched by any living cellist.

As with all the releases in the Wigmore Hall Live series, this is first and foremost a document of a live event. The hall's trademark resonant acoustic is as much a star as the performers, and you can't help feeling an empathy with the receptive audience as they applause enthusiastically at the end of each work.

The Bach Third Suite is given an idiosyncratic reading; a full set of the suites played like this would probably be a feel a bit too subjective, but as a concert opener it is ideal. There are important aspects of this music that Perényi clearly expresses, yet without any exaggeration. Bach's various two-part textures, for example, where the cello plays phrases and responses consecutively in different registers. These are given a real conversational feel, but the subtlety of the approach comes through in the fact that Perényi does not sound explicitly like two separate players, but then neither does he sound like one. Rather he maintains that ambiguity, finally bringing the voices together at the cadence with consummate skill. In the final Gigue he really gives the music a rustic feel, more regional colour than Bach would have liked perhaps, but a rousing and invigorating conclusion nonetheless.

The Britten Sonata is something of a rarity. It was written for Rostropovich, but I'd imagine Slava doing something very different with it. Again, that very human fragility of Perényi's tone is a real asset, especially when supported by the security of his technique. For me, the most magical moment of this performance is the pianissimo coda to the last movement, right up at the top of the cello's artificial harmonics. He doesn't make it sound easy, it is pained, intense playing. It is another case of the music sounding vulnerable, but on close listening turning out the be note perfect.

The Brahms is an intense work, too intense perhaps for Perényi's style. His is a lighter reading than many. There's no harm in that I suppose, and there is never any problem with the balance between the instruments. (A good performance from fellow Hungarian Dénes Várjon, by the way, but he is a modest accompanist, and like all good accompanists, never steals the limelight.) The Brahms is well structured, and all those build-ups to climaxes are well paced. The climaxes themselves aren't exactly earth shattering – this is chamber music played as chamber music – but in the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall, anything more would seem excessive.

The Wigmore Hall Live label has done it again: they have produced a recording of a live event that makes you really wish you'd been there. Of course, if you have been to a recital at the venue in the past, you'll know exactly what the atmosphere is like. That atmosphere is elegantly captured, at least in part thanks to the way the acoustic is represented. You'll kick yourself for having missed it, but this is the next best thing.

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 27 August 2010

Gidon Kremer Hymns and Prayers Tickmayer Franck Kancheli

Gidon Kremer Hymns and Prayers
Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer 
Eight Hymns in memoriam Andrei Tarkovsky (1986/2004)
César Franck
Piano Quintet in f minor (1878/79)
Giya Kancheli
Silent Prayer (2007)

Gidon Kremer violin
The Kremerata Baltica
Roman Kofman conductor
Khatia Buniatishvili piano
Andrei Pushkarev vibraphone
Marija Nemanytė violin
Maxim Rysanov viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Sofia Altunashvili voice on tape
Recorded July 2008
ECM New Series 2161 4763912

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The care with which ECM fosters and develops its identity is extraordinary. Every disc they release fits neatly into their brand in terms of packaging, artists and repertoire, and yet each also subtly expands that identity, and usually in ways that are very difficult to pin down.

This is one of those discs where the whole concept is derived from the company's collaboration with a single performing artist, in this case Gidon Kremer. But plenty of Kremer's recordings for other labels would sit uneasily in the ECM roster, his Piazzolla recordings for example, or his Mozart Concertos. But he is also in touch with a great deal of the ambient new music coming out of Eastern Europe, the ECM core repertoire.

Both the choice of repertoire here, and the order of the programme, are inspired. The first composer, Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer, is new to me and probably to most listeners. Just as well then, that the Gidon Kremer's name adorns the cover, as I'm sure there are many out there like myself who are willing to trust the violinist about the talents of whatever new composer he has unearthed. And this piece is great. The Eight Hymns are dedicated to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, and it would be difficult to think of a more appropriate memorial to the director. The mood is subdued and the dominant sonorities are isolated vibraphone notes and pianissimo violin harmonics. The whole piece takes you into the dreamlike world of The Mirror or Solaris, and as in Tarkovsky's greatest work, the piece, calm as it is, invokes a range of images and sensations, with which the sounds themselves then interact. Everything hovers around the boundary between the real and the imagined, and without the music ever making that distinction emphatic. Needless to say, it's an instant ECM classic.

Curiously, the most radical programming choice on the disc is the Piano Quintet by César Franck. Again, context is all, and this really is not the sort of work you would expect to find on an 'ECM New Series' disc slotted between two Eastern European religious minimalists. But the biggest surprise of all is that it really fits. Like Tickmayer and Kancheli, Franck is able to relax into ambient and introverted textures, without any apparent need for structural or psychological justification. Listen, for example to the piano episodes in the introduction to the first movement, completely stalling the momentum of the expositionary string phrases. The liner notes suggest the influence of Wagner as the source for this transcendence of functional form, but I'm more inclined to hear it as a product of this particular performance, and possibly of the context in which it is presented. The recording was made live at the Pfarrkircke St. Nicholas as part of Kremer's Lockenhaus Festival in 2008. The marble lined, Rococo venue gives a bright, but not overly resonant acoustic, which really favours the piano, giving its sound a sparkle and bounce. And the players give it everything, taking the dynamics down to nothing in the quieter passages, but then really laying into the tuttis. Kremer prefers to work with young musicians, and this Franck performance demonstrates exactly why. It has freshness and vitality, unencumbered by expectations of sophistication or restraint. It won't be to everybody's taste, but as the pivotal work in this programme it is an inspired choice, and is performed to exactly compliment the minimalism that surrounds it.

Kancheli's Silent Prayer is a curiosity to say the least. It is a long work with a sectional structure, held together with some very simple thematic ideas, most notably an ascending and descending major scale. Given that this is a fairly recent work (2007), I'm surprised by the apparently polemic use of tonality. Tonality underpins all the harmonies, even when they extend into the harmonics or are adorned with clusters. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but what are we to make of the continuously repeating major scale runs? Surely tonality has long been reclaimed by Kancheli and his colleges. Perhaps there is influence here from Western minimalism, from Glass, Cage or even Andriessen. Certainly, some of the more energetic passages suggest the driving repetitive figures of Andriessen, while the more contemplative passages often call to mind Cage's music for string quartet. Whatever the answer, this is a fascinating piece. Its form and direction are inscrutable, but would be all the more frustrating for being easily comprehended.

It is interesting to compare the recent careers of Kremer, Kancheli and ECM. All have distinctive artistic identities that fit well with each other but that are all equally at home in a range of other contexts. And all are happy to continue experimenting, tweaking what they do, adding new elements, throwing in curve balls. They all surely have many more artistic triumphs ahead of them, and so long as they all continue to produce work at this high level of quality and imagination, long may they continue – together and apart.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique Norrington London Classical Players

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) 
Symphonie Fantastique Op.14 [53:36]
Les Francs-judges, overture Op.3 [11:31]
The London Classical Players
Roger Norrington – conductor
Recorded in Studio no.1, Abbey Road, London, 8-10 March and November 1988
Virgin Classics 50999 628579 2 5 [64:47]

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This is a reissue of a historically significant recording, although you wouldn't know it from the cheesy cover art, nor indeed from the meagre liner notes. It was one of the first period instrument recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique, dating from the late 1980s when the period performance movement was first turning its attentions to the Romantic repertoire. It also pre-dates the more famous Gardiner, so it is interesting to hear how Norrington reconciles the technical challenges of his ophicleides, tinny percussion and such like with entrenched audience expectations.

Of course, the unusual brass and percussion sounds only really come to the fore in the last two movements. In the first three, the most significant period colour is the sound of the gut strings playing without vibrato. To my ear, these earlier movements are the most successful. The precision of the string playing is excellent, and the atmosphere they achieve in both the first movement and the Bal is at least the equal of any modern instrument version. The audio quality is also impressive, at the top end of what was possible in the late 1980s. In fact, listening to this, it is easy to get nostalgic about the days when studio orchestral recording was the rule rather than the exception.

In the third movement, the focus moves from the strings to the winds, and both soloists play with elegance and passion. The playing here is surprisingly modern, and there is no apparent attempt by the woodwind soloists to emphasise the antiquity of their instrumentation. Then the timpani make their piano entrance, and we get the first taste of the more exotic colours to come. I'm guessing (in the absence of any information from the liner) that the drums are small, shallow and have hide skins. The focus of their sound is a real benefit to the dramaturgy, whether representing thunder or the executioner's drum.

In the last two movements, it is the brass that makes the real difference. The Dies Irae played on ophicleides is a completely different effect, loud but not forceful, and with a couple of really dodgy notes where the key technology fails to maintain the intonation. The trombone pedals in the March to the Scaffold are great, but suggest wider-bore instruments than Berlioz would have known. I'm not very impressed with the bell sound, whoever authentic they might be, they come across as tinny and congested.

But leaving aside issues of instrumentation, the main problem with this recording is a distinct lack to drama or excitement in the last two movements. The pace of both is on the steady side, and although Berlioz writes few tempo markings, there is surely scope for more rubato than we are presented with here. That lack of punch is a real shame, because the orchestra are on top form, and demonstrate a real mastery of their exotic instruments. It is a good recording, but it could be so much more.

Les Francs-judges is given a serviceable outing and brings the running time up to an acceptable 65 minutes. The nasal but peircing piccolo is the period instrument sound to keep an ear open for here. They could have squeezed another concert overture in if they'd tried, but lets not quibble too much about that.

A historical curiosity is probably the best way to summarise this recording. It's good, but it doesn't quite deliver on its considerable potential. And whatever you think of the recording, the ethos of the reissue is bound to leave a sour taste. The cover gives the impression that it is being marketed at buyers who neither know nor care about period instrumentation. But for those who do, the timing will seem suspicious. To put this out just a few months after the acclaimed, and in fairness much more imaginative, period instrument recording from Jos van Immerseel (Zig Zag Territoires ZZT 100101) seems like very cynical marketing indeed.

Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Elgar and Bax Violin Sonatas Tasmin Little Martin Roscoe

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 [26:16]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor [33:48]
Tasmin Little – violin
Martin Roscoe – piano
Recorded at The Old Market, Hove, UK 15-27 July 1999 Stereo DDD
Dal Segno DSPRCD047 [60:04]

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These two violin sonatas are already well represented on disc, surprisingly so in the case of the Bax, but these budget reissues are very welcome nonetheless. Tasmin Little has made the British violin music of the first half of the 20th century her speciality, and her stylistic sensitivity to the work of both composers is a real asset. I have to say that I don't think the Bax is the equal of the Elgar, but in a sense that doesn't matter, because the players present the two works as stylistically distinct. To make some crude generalisations, the Elgar is in an Expressionistic vein, while the Bax is more of an Impressionist work. And the players emphasise the contrast, injecting passion and drama into the Elgar, but then settling into more relaxed tone painting in the Bax.

There is an incredible variety to Little's timbres and textures in the Elgar. This may be a late work, but it retains that distinctively Elgarian trait of continuously transforming from one mood to another through subtle harmonic and textural shifts. Little is the ideal guide through the complex psychology. And when Elgar takes repose in occasional extended passages of plaintive simplicity, neither player stands in his way. Such passages are only transitory, of course, and when the return to more impassioned writing comes, the playing immediately picks up the drama again, and without missing a step.

In fact, the precision of these performances is remarkable. It is not the most technically demanding music in the world, but both are impassioned works, and for many players, too much involvement in the emotional side of things can lead to technical slips. Not here though. The level headedness of both players is an important part of the success of the readings, plus their ability to retain that control without the results sounding dry or lifeless.

The Bax may not have the dramatic breadth of the Elgar but it is still an emotive and deeply Romantic work. Much of the violin writing is in the lower register, and Tasmin Little draws some rich sonorities from the G string. And like the Elgar, there are regular changes of mood and character, but here the piano is usually expected to lead the way or to introduce the slight changes of figuration that move the music into its next phase. Martin Roscoe is quite demure at the piano; he never forces any of these changes or makes any effort to wrest the limelight from the soloist; the ideal accompanist you might say. He is also quite far back in the sound array, giving the piano a rounded, homogeneous sound.
To be honest, I'd like to hear a little more definition from the piano, but apart from that the sound quality here is perfectly acceptable. As ever with these budget reissues, you're looking for a bargain when with the performance, but not expecting too much from the recording or the packaging. That's pretty much what you get here. In fact, Dal Segno offer more than many of their competitors in terms of booklet info; they tell you where and when it was recorded for example.

If your a Bax fan and don't already have this recording, it is worth looking out for. If your not, then the Elgar is likely to be the main attraction, and I'm happy to report that in this recording it is very attractive indeed. In other hands, Elgar's Sonata can sound like salon music. No fear of that from Little and Roscoe. Their reading is impassioned and intense, but also perfectly controlled and structured. Just as Elgar would have liked it I suspect.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

JS Bach in the Italian Style James Tibbles

JS Bach in the Italian Style
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata in D BWV 912 [12:03]
Capriccio sopra la lontananza BWV 992 [14:08]
Fantasia in a minor BWV 904 [4:10]
Concerto in the Italian Style BWV 971 [11:00]
Fugue in a minor BWV [7:10]
Goldberg aria BWV 988 1 [5:09]
Concerto in C for 2 harpsichords BWV 1061a [18:24]
James Tibbles - harpsichord
Jenny Thomas – harpsichord (BWV 1061a)
Recorded in the Music Theatre, School of Music, The University of Auckland February, July 2008 Stereo DDD
Atoll ACD 509 [75:25]

A fine disc, this, of Bach’s Italianate keyboard works, but it is hard to determine which is its most compelling attraction, the lyrical and historically sensitive performer, or the lyrical and historically sensitive instrument he plays. James Tibbles teaches at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, for whom he recently commissioned this harpsichord, a copy of the ‘Hamburg Zell’ of 1728. The instrument is very much the star of this show, appearing in numerous illustrations in the packaging. The picture of the original instrument on the back of the CD liner shows Christian Zell’s harpsichord to be a sumptuous creation. It has two manuals, eight legs and classical scenes painted onto every possible surface. The picture of the Auckland copy (the work of the plentifully-credited maker Paul Downie) shows a structurally identical instrument, but without the decorations. There is a modest painting on the soundboard, which is given pride of place on the front cover of the booklet.

Tibbles has played the original, so was presumably in a position to advise on the action and acoustical properties of the copy. The instrument has a sumptuous, resonant sound that is fully the equal of the original’s physical appearance. It has sweet tone, but projects well, and the sound from the lower strings has a satisfyingly pert focus. Tibbles makes the most of all these qualities. His playing is lyrical and flowing, fully exploiting the instrument’s rich resonance. His liner notes emphasise that Bach’s early works ‘in the Italian style’ are at least as German as they are Italian, a fact driven home by both player and instrument through a combination of muscularity and lyricism.

Tempos are generally on the relaxed side, pianist tempos rather than harpsichordist tempos I’m almost tempted to say. The fabulous sustaining properties of the instrument allow him to take his time. Ornamentation is discreet but never stingy. Phrasing is coherent and based on occasionally liberal rubato.
The Toccata in D BWV 912 is a boisterous opener, but even here Tibbles’ approach is based on a steady pace and clarity of texture. The Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother is perhaps more stately and genteel than its narrative structure demands, there’s a nice touch in the penultimate Aria though, where what I assume is a buff stop is engaged to create a lute-like tone. The Fantasia and Fugue in a minor BWV 904 is another performance emphasising clarity of tone over showmanship. The Italian Concerto (BWV 971) is again on the slow side, but the payoff is exceptionally clear melodic detail. The fugue from BWV 904 and the Goldberg Aria (BWV 988 1) that follows it both left me wanting more, more fugues would have been great, and a recording of the Goldberg Variations on this instrument would be a very welcome follow up disc.

Don’t be fooled by the rounded corners on the box; this isn’t an SACD. However, the recorded sound is, for the most part, crisp and immediate. It only really suffers in the last work, the Concerto for two harpsichords BWV 1061a, where some of the clarity of the tone in the middle register is lost through the competition of the two instruments. But Jenny Thomas, a pupil of Tibbles at Auckland University, is an excellent partner for the performance, seamlessly synchronising, even in the more rubato-laden passages.

All in all, this is a satisfying selection. James Tibbles has a distinctive take on repertoire that can be prone to anonymous conformity in other hands. But fine a player as he is, he’s not the main attraction here. That accolade goes to his magnificent harpsichord, which on the strength of this release is a fine recording instrument indeed.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 23 August 2010

Brahms Piano Sonatas Grimaud

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor Op.2 [27:08]
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5 [36:11]
Intermezzi from 6 Klavierstüke Op.118 [15:29]
Hélène Grimaud – piano
Regis RRC 1327 [78:55]
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Don't be fooled by the low opus numbers on these Sonatas, they are both mature and sophisticated works, even if they are amongst the composer's earliest. The attitude towards Beethoven that underpins Brahms' Symphonies is already very much in evidence here, and the music gives us a picture of a composer intent on continuing where his hero left off. The links to Beethoven's middle and late sonatas are everywhere apparent, occasionally verging on pastiche. At the opening of the second movement of the Third Sonata, you could be forgiven for thinking you are listening to the Pathetique. But there is also a muscularity about this music that is distinctively Brahms; densely voiced chords hammered out and fully exploiting the dramatic potential of the more powerful instruments available by the mid 19th century.

So far as I can tell about the history of these recordings (there is no mention of it on the box) they are reissues of Denon releases from the late 1980s. Like Brahms himself, Hélène Grimaud was evidently had a precocious talent, producing impressively mature interpretations while still only in her mid 20s. The amount of physical energy these works require is phenomenal, but she always seems to have the necessary power in reserve. It is not all 2nd Piano Concerto type bombast, of course, and her performance also contains moments of real delicacy. One problem about Brahms' piano writing, and it is something he never really solved, is the conflict between dense chord voicing and lyrical melodic lines in his quieter movements. Grimaud's approach is usually to exaggerate the legato in order to let those dense harmonies flow into each other.

The audio quality is acceptable but it shows its age. All the detail is there, but there are a number of occasions where the sound quality is quite flat and uninvolving, a real shame given the quality of the performances. The bass end of the piano is also poorly represented in the mix. I don't think that is Grimaud's fault, you always get the impression that she is working those thundering bass lines for all they are worth, but also that it is happening at some distance from the listener.

If I've a major grumble about this release, it is the packaging. As I say, there is no information given about the date or location of the recordings, nor of the engineers or label involved in making it. And to release a recording of Hélène Grimaud without a photograph of her handsome features on the cover is surely a wasted marketing opportunity. Still, we are in the realm of super-budget reissues here, so it is probably as well to concentrate on the content and not worry too much about the lack of frills.

In sum, then, a valuable addition to anybody's Brahms collection. These early works demonstrate one of the most remarkable facets of his work; that despite being hugely prodigious, every single thing he wrote is of a high technical and artistic standard, even in his earliest years. And, while speculation is required about the exact date of the recording, it also demonstrates that the same is true of the pianist, one of the great Brahms interpreters of our time.

Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Canzoni per Sonare Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries

Canzoni per Sonare Giovanni Gabrieli and his contemporaries
Giovanni GABRIELI (b c.1554-7; d 1612) Canzon Vigesimaottava ‘Sol sol la sol fa mi’, à 8 [1:41]
Gioseffo GUAMI (1542-1611) Canzon Vigesimaquinta, à 8 [2:30]
Giovanni GABRIELI Canzon Prima ‘La Spiritata’, à 4 [2:39]
Pietro LAPPI (c.1575-1630) Canzon Undecima ‘La Scrasina’, à 4 [2:41]
Pietro LAPPI Canzon Vigesimasesta ‘La Negrona’, à 8 [4:20]
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (?1545-1607) Canzon Decima, à 4 [1:50]
Girolamo Alessandro FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643) Canzon Terzadecima, à 4 [1:49]
Giovanni GABRIELI Canzon Seconda [2:25]
Costanzo ANTEGNATI (1549-1624) Canzon Nona ‘La Battera’, à 4 [2:58]
Bastian CHILESE (fl 1608) Canzon Vigesimaseconda, à 5 [1:55]
Girolamo Alessandro FRESCOBALDI Canzon Vigesimaprima, à 5 [2:35]
Giovanni GABRIELI Canzon Terza, à 4 [2:03]
Giovanni Battista GRILLO (d 1622) Canzon Quartadecima ‘Capricio’, à 4 [2:16]
Gioseffo GUAMI Canzon Decimanona, à 5 [3:12]
Orindio BARTOLINI (c.1580-1640) Canzon Trigesima, à 8 [2:26]
Giovanni GABRIELI Canzon Quarta, à 4 [2:35]
GUAMI Canzon Sesta, à 4 [3:06]
ANTEGNATI Canzon Vigesima ‘La Moranda’, à 5 [2:46]
Florentio MASCHERA (c1540-c1584) Canzon Settima ‘La Mazzuola’, à 4 [3:15]
Tiburzio MASSAINO (b before 1550; d after 1608) Canzon Trigesimaquarta, à 8 [2:20]
MASSAINO Canzon Trigesimaterza, à 8 [3:12]
Claudio MERULO Canzon Quinto, à 4 [3:56]
MERULO Canzon Vigesimaterza, à 5 [1:27]
Giovanni GABRIELI Canzon Vigesimasettima ‘Fa sol la re’, à 8 [2:53]
FRESCOBALDI Canzon Vigesimanona, à 8 [2:35]

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
The Purcell Quartet
Rec. in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London 28-30 November 2007 Stereo DDD
SFZ MUSIC SFZM0209 [66:43]

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Giovanni Gabrieli is known today as one of the greatest composers of the early 17th century, a reputation that is fully justified but also one established early by the fledgling music publication industry of the Venetian empire. This recording takes one of those early publications as its starting point, the ‘Canzoni per Sonare con ogni sorte di stromenti’, issued by Alessandro Raverii in 1608. The choice could be considered quite arbitrary, considering the volume contains music by 12 different composers and little (if any) of it was written specifically for this publication. However, Gabrieli is well served by this programming; all six of the canzons he contributed to the publication are presented, and the selection of works by his contemporaries and recent predecessors gives a fascinating insight into the environment in which he worked.

Few of these works are antiphonal and most are written in four or five voices. If programmed with his grander polychoral conceptions for St Marks, the Gabrieli canzons could have been overwhelmed, another sound reason for the present programme. His superiority over his colleagues is rarely called into serious question, and the fluid intricacy of his counterpoint is never outclassed. The way, for example, that he brings a voice to the fore with an ascending scale leading up to the crucial note, or the way that the logic of his counterpoint transfers so seamlessly between duple and triple meters. And how telling that the consummate intricacy of his counterpoint works as well in the four and five voice works presented here as it does in the ten and twelve voice works for which he is better known.

Of the other composers, the best known is Frescobaldi, whose three contributions are all in a clearer, more direct contrapuntal style. Unlike Gabrieli, his motifs tend to be slightly more intricate, while the ensuing counterpoint is simpler and regularly reverts to chordal textures. Claudio Merulo is an interesting inclusion, given that he too was a music publisher, but had died just a few years before Raverii’s publication. Poaching from the competition perhaps? More significantly though, he was also Gabrieli’s predecessor as organist of St. Mark’s, and his music offers another interesting insight into the world in which Gabrieli worked. Of the Merulo works presented here, the most interesting is the ‘Canzon Vigesimaterza a 5’, which is played at a brisk tempo by brass and organ, and benefits from a clear, if rhythmically reserved contrapuntal style. Again, it’s not quite up to Gabrieli’s standards, but it stands up well on its own merits.

The issue of instrumentation is a tricky one in this repertoire, and the players have taken the book’s subtitle ‘con ogni sorte di stromenti’ (with all sorts of instruments) as license to alternate and mix various combinations of cornets, sackbuts, lutes and renaissance violins, organ and harpsichord. This is primarily a recording project by His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (it is released on their own label) so brass takes precedence, with the other ensembles, the Purcell Quartet and the Chordophony lute ensemble appearing in a more occasional ‘guest star’ capacity. The only composer to contribute works with the instrumentation specified was Tiburzio Massiano. His ‘Canzon Trigesimaquarta a 8’ is scored for ensembles of choirs of lutes and viols, while his ‘Canzon Trigesimaterza a 8’ uses only trombones. The instrumentation of both seems extreme, especially when compared with the more balanced groupings that modern players tend to apply to the music of this era. But the antiphony between plucked and bowed strings is an effective contrapuntal device, while the sound of sackbuts playing at lower dynamics without having to compete with cornetts is an unusual and satisfying treat.

Not that there is anything wrong with the cornett playing on the disc, indeed the lightness and fluidity of the upper brass serves all of these composers well. And the keyboard interludes, chamber organ and harpsichord performed by Gary Cooper, maintain a similar lyrical flow.

Given that the recording was made in a church, the acoustic is surprisingly dry. Too much so for some tastes, perhaps, but all the better to hear the intricacies of these small polyphonic ensembles. Overall, this CD is a fascinating addition to the renaissance music catalogue, or rather to the Giovanni Gabrieli catalogue. Of the 36 works in Raverii’s publication, 25 are presented here, and unsurprisingly all of Gabrieli’s contributions are included. Perhaps a double disc could have included every work in the volume, or would that have run the risk of diluting the Gabrieli contribution too far?

Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Reger Variations on Mozart and Hiller, van Kempen, Böhm

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Adam Hiller Op.100 [41:48]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart Op.132 [33:16]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Paul van Kempen conductor (Hiller)
Karl Böhm conductor (Mozart)
Recorded at Jesus Christus Church, Berlin July 1951 (Hiller) 19-21 December 1956 (Mozart) mono ADD
Guild GHCD 2363 [75:04]

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It must be the devil's own work trying sell recordings of Reger's music in the UK. Guild are to be congratulated then for the bravery of this enterprise, but also on the quality of their archive finds. The two recordings are taken from vinyl in the collection of the Max-Reger-Institut in Karlsruhe. Their absence from the digital transfer market is probably understandable, at least in the UK, given the continuing resistance here to his music. But they are well worth a listen. With both recordings you really get the feeling that you are in the presence of the real thing. Both conductors were Reger devotees, and the Berlin Philharmonic has, of at least had in the 1950s, an unbroken tradition of performing the two works that stretched right back to the composer's lifetime when their conductor Nikisch was one of his most ardent champions.

Of the many criticisms that are regularly levelled against Reger's music, the most cutting and probably the most valid is that he struggled to write memorable tunes. This may explain his fondness for extended variation sets based on other people's melodies. These two works are the best known examples, and they demonstrate the elevated status that the composer achieved for the otherwise lowly genre. Despite his lack of melodic invention, his ability to manipulate melody is unparalleled. In each work, the theme is always there in spirit, but only rarely appears on the surface. Reger's orchestral textures are thick, but the combination of precisely articulated orchestral performance and the superior audio engineering ensures that very little is lost. He was a great contrapuntalist too, and you don't have to wait for the final fugue of either work to hear some exceptionally intricate and elegant counterpoint.

This may be sacrilege, but to my ear van Kempen has the edge over Böhm. Both are able to maintain tight ensemble (even by BPO standards) without constraining the various solos and contrapuntal lines. But there is just a bit more energy to van Kempen's Hiller Variations than there is to Böhm's Mozart. Listen, for example to the 3rd Variation of the Hiller. The energy and drive here are excellent. And then comparing the two final fugues, van Kempen is the conductor who best manages to shape that gradual increase in intensity as solo theme expands into full orchestral interplay.
But both are great performances. There is a tendency with more recent recordings of Reger's orchestral music to lay off the drama, to make it all sound like civilised salon music. Not here though. True, Reger's moments of dramatic intensity tend to be fleeting, but all are given their due by both conductors.

Audio-wise, you can't expect miracles from recordings made in the mid 50s, but German recordings from that period tend to have the edge over most others, and these aren't bad at all. There is no peak distortion, the quiet passages (mostly woodwind solos) are clear enough to be enjoyable, and the range of dynamics in between is plenty wide enough for Reger's purposes.

What you'll find on this disc may not be sufficient to convert you to Reger's cause, but if you already know these works, then these recordings offer a fascinating perspective. Historically, they are about half way between the composer's own time and ours. Artistically, though, they are as close to the composer's musical world as you are likely to find at this level of audio quality.

Gavin Dixon

Friday, 20 August 2010

Beethoven Violin Sonatas 9 and 10 Dusinberre Korevaar

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata no.9 in A major Op.47 'Kreutzer' [37:45]
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major Op.96 [27:28]
Edward Dusinberre – violin
David Korevaar – piano
Recorded 6-9 August 2009 at Wyastone Concert Hall, Wye Valley, UK Stereo DDD
Decca 476 3898 [65:13]

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This is a great recording, and I've no hesitation in recommending it warmly. Beethoven's Violin Sonatas have been cursed in recent years with more than their share of mediocre recordings, but this certainly is not one them. The performance is excellent, both technically precise and interpretively insightful, and the recording quality is the best you'll find anywhere short of SACD.

Edward Dusinberre is the leader of the Takács Quartet, and while his colleagues are no doubt in a similar league, this solo outing demonstrates just why that group has the superlative reputation it does. His playing here is varied, richly felt, emotive, expansive...there is really very little you could want from him that he does not do at some point on the disc. Given the recent trend for period performance recordings of Beethoven's chamber music, it is probably worth pointing out that this is in a more traditional vein. It's Romantic Beethoven, which some may object to in principle, especially for the middle period Kreutzer, but Dusinberre is not arguing a case here, rather he is demonstrating the validity of his interpretation, and few could argue with the results.

I love the way that both players are able to continually come up with surprises, especially in such well known works. Take, for example, the transition from the introduction to the exposition about a minute and a half into the first movement of the Kreutzer. The introduction itself is performed with such precise, studied control that it lulls you into thinking the whole movement is going to continue at that pace. But then the main theme just erupts out on nowhere, bringing with it that sense bubbling energy and ebullient joy. There is no trickery going on here, and nothing is really added that is not already in the music, but the players are able to demonstrate that beneath Beethoven's imposing furrowed-brow reputation of genius, his greatest music is founded on simple pleasures.

The 10th Sonata Op.96 is a similar case. If anything, this performance is even more direct and unaffected. It is a more straightforward work, I think, so this approach is entirely appropriate. But here again the players are able to take even the most seasoned (and cynical?) listener by surprise. The coda of the first movement has a short figure repeated over and over until a final iteration at a louder dynamic. When that last one comes, it is as if the players themselves have been taken by surprise. But don't take that for naivety; there are plenty of episodes which have clearly been meticulously prepared, with the dynamics and phrasing articulating impressively large-scale thinking. The development of the first movement of the Kreutzer is all based on long crescendos and diminuendos, with various permutations of the main theme going on over the top. The players achieve an impressive juggling act in maintaining the drama of the former while laying out the almost mathematical logic of the latter. 

The sound quality is excellent throughout, the robustness of the violin tone elegantly matched by the similarly imposing piano sound. There is a real immediacy to the sound, which really benefits both players. The varied timbres and dynamics of the piano are particularly impressive, especially in combination with the finely judged balance, which allows all that piano detail to act as a backdrop to the violin without ever threatening to overpower.

Are Dusinberre and Korevaar planning a full Beethoven Sonata cycle? Let's hope so, because if they can maintain this phenomenal standard, it could easily become the benchmark for a generation to come.

Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Barbirolli in New York 1959

Barbirolli in New York 1959
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Introduction and Allegro for Strings
Haydn: Symphony no.88
Mahler: Symphony no.1
Barbirolli (arr): An Elizabethan Suite (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book)
Holst: The Planets (excerpts)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.8
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
John Barbirolli - conductor
West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6033 (4 cds)
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A fascinating historical document this, but there is also much music making here that is well worth hearing in its own right. It is not a reissue as such, given that the recordings have (inexplicably) never been issued. The sources are tapes of radio broadcasts made in New York at the start of 1959. Neither the history of the tapes nor the processes involved in the remastering are laid out in the liner, but the sound quality is in the good to moderate category. Of the eight pieces presented, at least three are given in performances that easily transcend the limitations of the technology, and in the Gerontius in particular it is easy to forget all about crackle and limited band width.

Barbirolli's month in New York in January 1959 was a poignant episode in the later years of his career. He had formerly been the principle conductor of the New York Philharmonic for seven years in the 30s and 40s, so his brief stint with them some 15 years later brought back emotional memories for everybody involved. Even the hard-nosed New York critics recognised a return to the top quality music making that had previously been the norm under Barbirolli's baton. For his return visit, he stuck to what he knew best, and the programmes were dominated by 20th century British music.

And what astonishing results! The highpoint of this set is a Gerontius which is up there with the best of them. Richard Lewis would go on to be one of the most acclaimed Gerontiuses of his generation, and this early recording shows that he had the measure of the part from the very start. And Barbirolli knows just how to get the NYPO strings to play Elgar. (Critics at the time noted the sophistication that had returned to the NYPO string sound with Barbirolli, but sadly the sound quality makes that difficult to assess.) The Westminster Choir, don't quite live up to their name; you can tell that the American singers are struggling to emulate the British choral sound. But on the whole this is a Gerontius to cherish, and as I say, one that has qualities that far transcend the limitation of the sound.

The other two excellent performances are of movements from The Planets and of Vaughan Williams' Eight. Again, Barbirolli is able to make the most of both worlds, combining his own deep knowledge of the repertoire with the unparalleled professionalism of the ensemble. The Vaughan Williams has a sense of energy and inner life that is all too rare in more sedate recent recordings. The sound quality becomes an issue in the louder passages of The Planets, but on the whole this too is a recording that is well worth hearing, despite the limitations of the audio. Saturn and Neptune are missing, and my first thought was that the restoration engineer had met his Waterloo with crackly old tapes of quiet music that he had failed to extricate from the noise. But no, it turns out that Barbirolli omitted these movements from the performance, and in hindsight it seems he knew what he was doing; at least one reviewer commented on the work that it was far too long, so imagine if they'd heard the whole thing.

The other works are more of historical interest, but are interesting all the same. Barbirolli's Mahler 1 is good, but it is no surprise that it has disappeared off the radar, considering the far superior quality of Bruno Walter's studio recording with the same forces the following year. Both Haydn 88 and Barbirolli's own transcription of movements from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book show their age in terms of performance practice. We are in Stokowski territory here. I understand that sort of thing is gaining a new audience, but I can't say it is to my taste. The Brahms Violin Concerto and the Elgar Introduction and Allegro are primarily of interest because of the identities of the violinists, the former played by Berl Senofsky, his NYPO debut, and the latter with a string quartet led by John Corigliano, then leader of the orchestra but now better known as the father of the composer who shares his name.

This purchase is a must for Barbirolli fans, as much for the Gerontius as anything else. The front of the box says that the four CDs are selling for the price of three. That's a reasonable offer, but to my ear there is at least a CD's worth of redundant material here; the Brahms, the Haydn and possible the Mahler could be omitted without reducing the artistic, or even the historical, value of the result. The sound, as I say, is fair to middling, and there is more crackle on the last disc than on the other three. Most of the biggest climaxes disappear into the mirk, but the fact that neither Elgar nor Vaughan Williams are overly affected by this just goes to demonstrate the tasteful modesty of their orchestration. The blessings of both of those composers on the conductor's interpretations, combined with the justified reputation of the orchestra ought to be all the recommendation that this set needs.

Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Messiaen Quatour, Vingt regards, Harawi, MacGregor

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940)* [47:07]
Zygmunt KRAUSE (b. 1938)
Quatuor pour la Naissance (1985)* [17:45]
Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus I-X (1944) [56:41]
Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus XI-XX [71:25]
Harawi (1945)** [51:35]
Joanna MacGregor (piano); Madeleine Mitchell (violin), David Campbell (clarinet), Christopher van Kampen (cello)*; Charlotte Riedijk (soprano)**
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk April, October 1993 (Quatuors); 17-21 September 1995 (Vingt regards); St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol June 2002 (Harawi)
WARNER CLASSICS SOUNDCIRCUS 2564 68393-2 [4 CDs: 66:07 + 56:41 + 71:25 + 51:35]

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My guess is that if you're considering this purchase you already own a recording of at least one of these works, and it is probably the Quartet for the End of Time. Don't let that put you off, because the Quartet recording here is well worth having, even if you do own one or more already. The other works are similarly well performed and recorded, and it is a box set that should appeal to Messiaen aficionados and newcomers in equal measure.

With the exception of Harawi, which is a new(er) recording, all of these discs are reissues from the 1990s. Joanna MacGregor is good at making the most of business opportunities when they come up, and so far as I can tell, the Quartet and Vingt regards originally appeared on the now defunct Collins Classics. In the mean time, MacGregor founded her own independent label Sound Circus, which just in the last year or so has been taken on by Warner Classics and Jazz. MacGregor is clearly something of a catch, even for a mutli-national like WCJ, and they are making a big deal out of the collaboration with her, not only releasing a number of new albums (the Live from Beunos Aires disc is great) but also licensing and reissuing pretty much the whole of her back catalogue.

And it is a welcome reminder of just what a great recording artist she is, not to mention advocate of new music. The performance standards here are consistently high, and even though the Quartet and Vingt regards are already represented by burgeoning discographies, both recordings on this compilation are pretty close to the top of the heap.

It often seems with recordings of the Quartet for the End of Time that one of the players, usually the clarinettist or the cellist is out to make the work into a solo vehicle for themselves. That approach can make individual movements excel, but usually to the detriment of the whole. Well, there is none of that here; it is very much an ensemble approach. The Quartet and Vingt regards were both recorded at Snape Maltings, which is the ideal acoustical environment for Messiaen's glassy yet resonant textures. The sound is perhaps a little distant, in other recordings you often get the feeling of being in amongst the players, but the sound coheres better with slightly distant microphones, increasing that sense of communal endeavour. The first disc concludes with Zygmunt Krauze's Quatour pour la Naissance, a pleasant and strongly Gallic work for the same forces. It sits uneasily in this compilation though, not just because it is not by Messiaen, but also because the composer has obviously tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in freeing himself from Messiaen's influence. It is an interlude as much as anything else, a respite from the deep psychological and theological explorations of the other works.

MacGregor's reading of Vingt regards is up there with the best of them. She has a real feeling for the changing colours and harmonic densities of the work. Her performance of the quieter movements is the best I've heard anywhere. However, since the first release of this recording, another has come along, the one by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, which has significantly raised the game and pushed all of its predecessors, this included, aside. Aimard too manages to convey all those glassy sonorities and all of the quieter passages of refracted lyricism. But he also has the hammer-like intensity required for the louder passages and, most crucially of all, the ability to gradually increase the dynamics as he builds up to those shattering climaxes. MacGregor also does this well, just not quite as well. However, it is a close thing. Both pianists are well served by excellent sound, and both are worthy of recommendation.

Harawi is a more esoteric repertoire choice, although it fits well into this programme. Incidentally, the works all date from the war years, and the discs are numbered in chronological order. That has the dual advantage of allowing the listener to follow Messiaen's development through these productive years, and also means that the most popular piece comes first. Harawi is actually much closer to the Turangalîla-Symphonie than it is to the Quartet or Vingt regards, but like the other works on this compilation, its primary distinguishing feature is the sheer variety of piano textures. So, here again we have glassy static chords, nervous fractured textures and unexpected consonant sonorities appearing seemingly from nowhere. Messiaen's writing for the voice is, I think, underappreciated, especially in the UK where the art of song has long been denigrated as inferior to other genres. Listening to Charlotte Riedijk, you could swear that she is born and bred French, such is her mastery of the language. The clarity of her diction is a valuable asset, as is the sheer power of her tone. She can be a little shrill in the upper register, but it is not like you are going to be putting this on as background music is it?

All round, then a warm recommendation, and as I say, to Messiaen enthusiasts and first timers alike. Each of these works is already well served in the catalogues, but Joanna MacGregor amply demonstrates just why this music is worthy of that level of exposure. If you search hard enough, and are willing to pay the extra, there are slightly superior recordings of these works available individually elsewhere, but for the budget price tag on this box you can't go wrong.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Schumann Violin Sonatas, Bologni, Bruno

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano
Sonata no. 1 Op.105 [19:03]
Sonata no.2 Op.121 [29:52]
Sonata no.3 Op. Post. [21:24]
Alberto Bologni – violin
Giuseppe Bruno – piano
Recorded Montevarchi, Tuscany 2010 Stereo DDD
Sheva Collection Sheva 028 [70:12]

Schumann's Violin Sonatas are not among his most famous chamber works, but they certainly deserve to be. Given the consistent quality of the three, the neglect, particularly of the Third, which was only published in the 1950s, is astonishing. They all date from the early 1850s, one of Schumann's most productive periods, and the speed of their composition is reflected in the breadth of their melodic lines and in the regular moments of comfort between the more emotionally turbulent episodes.

Alberto Bologni and Guiseppe Bruno have the measure of these works. Their performances are engaging, varied and above all enjoyable. Bologni is at his best when he is performing those long, flowing melodies, and the opening of the First Sonata is a great example. Bruno is a modest accompanist; there is never any danger of his overpowering the soloist. That is just as well, as Schumann takes a fairly traditional approach to the relationship between the instruments, and the piano is very much the accompanist.

If I have a complaint about the performance, it is that there is an occasional lack of gravitas. There are a number of passages, the third movement of the First Sonata, for example, where the piano texture is dominated by very low notes and the violin also performs at the lower end of its range. Schumann is clearly looking for some menace here, some dark tones and some brooding, passionate playing. But that's not what we get. Both performers, and Bologni in particular, seem content to continue in the light, lyrical vein of the Sonata's opening theme. The fourth movement of the Second Sonata is another case in point. Again we have a melody that hovers around the G string of the violin and is accompanied by the piano in the lower register, but the lightness with which the main theme is played seems incongruous.

For all that, there is plenty of variety in Bologni's playing, and he is certainly able to articulate the structure of these, often very long, movements through subtle dynamic shading. And while these are very much Romantic readings, there is an impressive discipline about the violin playing. Bologni resists the continual temptations that Schumann puts in front of him to overindulge in vibrato or rubato, and the clarity of line that results serves the music well.

The sound quality is less impressive. Both instruments are clear enough, but neither is presented at its best. There is a curious boxy quality to the violin sound, and I'm sure that it is not Bologni himself who is at fault. It is a real shame, because he is clearly a player who takes pride in the elegance of his tone. And the piano sounds very distant, with the textures of the accompaniment often indistinct. Perhaps the microphones have been set back in order to facilitate a better balance between the two players. If so, I'd rather they had organised that in the control room rather than the studio.

None of these are big complaints though. The disc is retailing at mid price, and as such this a competitive offer. Schumann is many things to many people, but to Bologni his primarily a melodist. If you agree, then this recording might be well worth considering. On the other hand, if you're looking for some dark clouds and emotional turmoil, the full-price offerings from Gringolts, Widman or Isabella Faust may be better options.

Gavin Dixon

Monday, 16 August 2010

Bach Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year Vol. 11 Kuijken

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year Vol.11
"Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" BWV 12 [13:05]
"Halt in Gedächtnis Jesum Christ" BWV 67 [16:59]
"Ich bin ein guter Hirt" BWV 85 [25:26]
Gerinde Sämann– soprano
Petra Noskaiová – alto
Christoph Genz – tenor
Jan Van Crabben – baritone
La Petite Bande
Sigiswald Kuijken – director
Recorded 27 – 28 April 2008 at Rosario, Bever, Belgium Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Accent ACC 25311 [55:30]

Oh dear. Sigiswald Kuijken appears to have taken a wrong turn on the latest leg of his Bach cantata pilgrimage. Listeners, like myself, who warm to Kuijken's relaxed, period performance approach, are going to get a shock when they put this disc on. The opening chorus of "Halt im Gedächnis" BWV 67 is a car crash of epic proportions. The main culprits, I think, are the strings, whose tuning is at about junior school orchestra standard. The winds aren't as bad, but they are close.

Somehow, the vocal soloists manage to hold it together over all this, but later on in the cantata they too come to grief. Things settle down a bit in the middle movements, but then the strings come to the fore again, in the penultimate movement, the aria "Friede sei mit euch", and we are right back to square one.

So what's going on here? This is only the second instalment of the cycle I have heard, but the ensemble managed to keep it together in volume 10. In fact, in that previous release, Kuijken was able to turn the ensemble problems to his advantage, creating a sense of informality, which to my ears is the ideal counter to the almost clinical precision of the Suzuki cycle, which we should probably consider the main competition. But in volume 11 things go from bad to worse. The string section is slightly larger, which may be part of the problem. The majority of the orchestral players have been replaced between the two volumes, suggesting that La Petite Band has become something of scratch orchestra. That sort of approach is all right if you can maintain the standards, but you have to question the wisdom of it when it leads to such a variance between consecutive releases in a single cycle.

To be fair, the second and third cantatas on the disc BWV 85 and 12 escape the worst of these problems, although they never completely disappear. It is an unfortunate consequence of the liturgical calendar approach that Kuijken is obliged to place BWV 67 first, in any other context there would be the option of salting it away at the end, or even omitting it altogether.

There are a few highlights in the second and third cantatas that are worthy of mention. The second aria of BWV 85 "Jesus ist ein guter Hirt" features Kuijken on cello da spalla as the obbligato. He is a big advocate of the shoulder cello, so it is interesting to hear him perform on it. Sadly, again, there are tuning problems throughout, which could be attributed to the physical problems of playing a cello under your chin, were it not for Dmitry Badiarov's note perfect performances on the instrument in the Suzuki cycle. Some nice baroque trumpet from Jean-François Madeuf (whose name has acquired a hyphen since vol.10) in BWV 12. His nasal reedy tone is ideal for Kuijken's intimate, chamber music approach, although he too is dogged by intonation problems.

I remain a fan of Kuijken's Bach, and of his laid back leadership, but this disc demonstrates the dangers of the approach. Once was the time that the use of period instruments excused problems of intonation and even of ensemble, but not anymore. In fairness, every Bach cantata cycle has its less successful moments; the sheer quantity of music tests the rehearsal capacity of even the hardest working ensembles. I'm still looking forward to the last ten volumes of this edition. Kuijken and his ever-changing forces have had a bad couple of days in front of the microphones, but they are certainly capable of far better things than this.

Gavin Dixon