Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 31 December 2010

Bruckner 6 Eschenbach LPO

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.6 in A Major
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach conductor
Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 4 November 2009 Stereo DDD
London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO-0049 [59:59]

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Prospective buyers can be forgiven for some trepidation when approaching this disc, Christoph Eschenbach is not widely known as a Brucknerian, and his Mahler readings can best be described as 'controversial'. He's a method man, who excels in German precession and finesse but often at the expense of the music's passion and humanity. That's fine for the modern music that he seems increasingly to be turning to, but for Bruckner?
As it happens, this is not his first Bruckner 6 on CD. There is another with the Houston Symphony that was released in 2001. And listening to this new version, it is clear that he knows the score like the back of his hand. And the results are great. The 6th is, after all, the most tightly constructed of Bruckner's symphonies. That isn't saying much but it does mean the score responds very well to Eschenbach's disciplined approach. The clarity of the orchestral textures is his overriding priority, but he is also looking for cleanly articulated phrasing. And while precision is the watchword, the music is never mechanical or lacking in grace. True, his rubato is more constrained than that of other Brucknerians, but it is there all right, and he is sure to slow down into a climax whenever the dramatic shape of the music requires it.
Another important factor in the success of Eschenbach's reading is that he never takes anything too fast. We are usually just a notch slower than the average tempo in each movement, although there some wonderfully brisk passages in the first movement that also come off really well. But steady tempos combine well with the conductor's focussed, detail-rich approach to create both intensity and scale. Some may hanker after the more emphatic climaxes that you meet in Furtwängler-era recordings, but Eschenbach demonstrates that it works just as well without. And unlike some of his predecessors, he doesn't make any excuses for the coda of the last movement. That is the one structural weakness of the symphony, and other conductors often compensate by ratcheting up the final bars into a monumental climax that the notes on the page don't quite justify. By not doing so, Eschenbach risks an anticlimax at the end, but even then it doesn't feel right to put all the blame on him.
The playing from the London Philharmonic is superb. There isn't a single section of the orchestra whose performance ever drops below the superlative. One of the greatest strengths of the LPO is its low strings, and their clarity and sheer power provide an impressive foundation for this music. The brass too are on top form, plenty of power from the trombones, punch from the trumpets and subtly from the horns. The horns have a busy time in this symphony, and there are many details of their parts, for example the question and answer interplay between the desks, that I've never heard before and that sound great here.
The sound quality too is very good. The refurbished Festival Hall is turning out to be a great recording venue, both warm and detailed in its recorded sound.
Why no SACD? Many, if not most, orchestra own labels have adopted the technology and in most cases have done their own playing more justice as a result. This recording is crying out for the full SACD treatment. Fairly cursory programme notes too. Still, this is a lower end mid-price release, so you can't ask for miracles. It's a great recording though, and worth every penny. Highly recommended.
Gavin Dixon

This reveiw first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Bruckner 8 Bolton Mozarteumorchester Salzburg

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.8 in C minor
Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
Ivor Bolton – conductor
OEHMS Classics OC751 [80:45]
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British conductors don't have much of a track record when it comes to Bruckner. Perhaps Ivor Bolton is in the process of bucking the trend. This is his 5th Bruckner outing with the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and follows recordings of the 5th, 3rd, 7th and 9th Symphonies. As you might expect, the orchestra clearly knows Bruckner like the backs of their hands, and I often get the feeling in this recording that Bolton is the outsider bringing, or at least attempting to bring, new perspectives to the familiar standards.
He insists on keeping the tempos flexible, which gives much of this music a vitality and unpredictability that is all too rare from other conductors. But the cost is a lack of discipline, both in terms of the music's architecture and in the ensemble of the orchestra. Neither is fatal, but the lack of firm control from the podium is what separates this from the greatest Bruckner 8s, whatever interpretive insights Bolton brings.
His first movement is slow, at 17.5 minutes even slower than Haitink's recent recording with the Concertgebouw. The slow pace allows Bolton to concentrate on the details, including the dotted rhythms, which are almost all played double dotted, a nod perhaps to the the shape of the opening theme. Both of the outer movements suffer from loose ensemble, which reduces the effect of many of the climaxes. Bolton often shapes phrases with some fairly extreme rubato, which sometimes works, but not always. The one place where it is really effective is in the coda of the first movement. This is the only quiet ending of an outer movement in any Bruckner symphony, and it is clearly an interpretive challenge for many conductors. Bruckner doesn't give any tempo indications here, and even though there is a dim, there is always the danger that the music is just going to stop without reaching a logical conclusion. But Bolton carefully structures this page of music. He gradually slows it down, and really focusses on the shape of each of the descending motifs in the middle strings. It is the most convincing reading of the passage I've heard, and is only slightly spoilt by a messy last chord from the strings.
The Scherzo is a fairly standard reading. There are some intemperate outbursts from the brass here and there, but order is more or less maintained. The Adagio is a real treat. Bolton takes it quite fast, relatively speaking, but aims throughout for clarity of line and texture. This is in stark contrast to the opening movement, where the tempos were slower and much more variable. But as with the first movement, Bolton is clearly trying something different here, an unsentimental approach where the notes are left to speak for themselves.
In the Finale we are back to the big, brash textures of the opening. If I've one complaint about the Finale it is a lack of grandeur. We get plenty of volume from the brass in the climaxes, and the build-ups are often carefully paced. But there is little sense of architecture, of the climaxes informing and punctuating the rest of the music.
The orchestra are on good form, although the ensemble in the strings often leaves much to be desired. The brass have a big, warm sound in the quieter passages (excellent Wagner tubas in the Adagio) but can sound course in the louder sections. The sound quality is reasonable for a live recording, but there is little on the technical side of this disc to suggest the audiophile reputation of the OEHMS label.
Mixed feelings, then, about Ivor Bolton's Bruckner 8. There are a few movements of staggering interpretive originality, not least the coda of the first movement and the detail in the Adagio. Bolton's variable tempos are behind many of these interpretive insights, but they are also responsible for a lack of structural logic in the outer movements and the reduced impact of many of the climaxes. Probably the best Bruckner 8 you will ever hear conducted by a Brit, although that isn't saying much.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Wagner Der Ring Karl Böhm

Richard WAGNER (1813-1833)
Der Ring des Nibelungen : Das Rheingold in 4 Scenes (1853-54); Die Walküre in 3 Acts (1854-56); Siegfried in 3 Acts (1856-71); Götterdämmerung in 3 Acts (1869-74)
Theo Adam; Birgit Nilsson; Helga Dernesch; Dorothea Siebert; Anja Silja; Annelies Burmeister; Ruth Hesse; Vera Soukupová; Hermin Esser; Erwin Wohlfahrt; Martti Talvela; Kurt Böhme; Gustav Neidlinger; Gerd Nienstedt; Wolfgang Windgassen; Liane Synek; Gertraud Hopf; Elisabeth Schärtel; James King; Sieglinde Wagner; Leonie Rysanek; Sona Cervena; Danica Mastilovic; Erika Köth; Marga Höffgen; Josef Greindl; Martha Mödl; Ludmila Dvoráková; Thomas Stewart
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Karl Böhm
rec. live, Bayreuth Festival, 1966-1967. Stereo. ADD
DECCA 478 2367 [14 CDs: 13:39:00]

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This reissue might be new, but Böhm's Ring Cycle is already well known to Wagner aficionados, and of course to the internet's legion of armchair pundits. Their opinions vary, but the general consensus seems to be that:
  • it is up there with the best of them, although the question of whether it gets top billing among Ring recordings comes down to your opinions of Solti and Karajan
  • the cast is excellent, almost uniformly so, and has not since been surpassed on record
  • the sound quality is very good for its time, and possibly on a par with Solti's cycle, although the technical problems here are different as it is a live rather than a studio recording.
For most Wagnerites then, it is a straight two horse race between Solti and Böhm. In fact, the two sound very similar, and with good reason. These live recordings were made at Bayreuth in 1966-7 and many of the singers (Windgassen, Neidlinger, Nilsson) also appear on the Solti, which was completed only the previous year in 1965. By the mid 1960s, Decca were clearly world leaders in sound reproduction technology, and the singers in both cycles are served extremely well by the audio, although the orchestra is not as well recorded here as in the Solti, a consequence of the opera house venue.
The most important similarity between this recording and its predecessor is the approach taken by their respective conductors. Like Solti, Böhm is a control freak when it comes to Wagner, and everything here is coordinated with an iron grip from the podium. Both conductors are able to create real architecture from the symphonic shape of each of the acts, and also to ratchet up the suspense at each of the climaxes. Both conductors prioritise drama above all else, and in this sense Böhm has the upper hand. This may be because he is conducting a staged performance, or perhaps it is down to the insights the main singers brought from their time with Solti, but for whatever reason, Böhm makes you feel you are in the orchestra stalls. That's an important asset, although perhaps not the clincher.
The major criticism you'll read time and time again of Böhm's Ring Cycle is that his tempos are too fast. That is a fair judgement, but listening to long stretches of these recordings, it is clear that Böhm has thought through how these fast tempos will work and interconnect, meaning that he is able to generate both dramatic momentum and structural continuity through his often radical pacing. Many of the set pieces – particularly the Rheingold Prelude and the Immolation Scene, feel breathless and even mechanical when heard out of context, but when heard at the start and end of whole acts that are performed this way, they make perfect sense. And it's not all taken at record breaking speeds; Siegfried's Funeral Music is surprisingly slow, and actually quite limp in places.
All the singers give virtually flawless performances, at least to my ears, but they don't all cope as well with Böhm's relentless pace. One or two, and I'm thinking in particular of Theo Adam as Wotan and Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, sound cold and emotionless for long passages. It is hard to judge whether it is the conductor or the singers who are to blame. Certainly, Nilsson would have put in a more moving performance if she had been permitted a little more rubato. Some of the singers push in the opposite direction, giving intense emotion whether the conductor likes it or not. Anja Silja, for example, piles on the vibrato and coloratura as Freia, but her excesses don't necessarily balance Böhm's discipline. James King and Leonie Rysanek do better as Siegmund and Sieglinde, both following the letter and the spirit of Böhm's direction, making Die Walküre the opera in the cycle were everything adds up thanks to a real unity of intent between the stage and the pit. Dramatically, the most convincing performances are from the bad guys. Gustav Neidlinger is as sinister an Alberich as you could want, and Josef Greindl puts in a similarly show-stealing performance as Hagen.
One major advantage Solti has over Böhm is the Vienna Philharmonic. The Festspielorchester here are certainly good, and as you'd expect, they demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the music. But their woodwind soloists aren't as distinctive, their strings don't quite manage the same fullness of tone, and their trumpet section has a nasal timbre that can get quite annoying after a few minutes. The audio doesn't help them, and the thin sound, especially from the back of the pit is the one major disappointment of this cycle.
Another curious anomaly is the almost continuous audibility of the prompter, giving each of the singers their lines a few bars before their entry. I can only assume that Decca let this pass the first time round because home audio equipment then wasn't quite what it is today. In fairness, you have to turn it up high before it is a real problem. But if you are listening on good headphones it is even more evident, and difficult to ignore once you have noticed it.
The budget price reissue has its pros and cons. The main pro is the price, and while this isn't the cheapest Ring cycle on the market, it is the cheapest one that is worth buying. It also significantly undercuts any Solti remaster, which may be a determining factor for some. The packaging has been designed to resemble some sort of metal briefcase or tape canister, they are obviously pushing the archive angle. Wagner's face appears on a postage stamp, which doesn't make much sense to me. Inside, you get a small booklet and the discs each in plain paper slip cases. The booklet contains cast lists, synopses and an essay by George Hall. Impressively, and unusually even for historic reissues, the essay is about the recording rather than the work and is very interesting, although it could do with being at least three times as long.
So, what is the final verdict – Solti or Böhm? Most opera fanatics put the quality of the singing at the top of their list of priorities, and on that count I'd have to call a draw, not least because of the overlap in casting and the superlative performances that the singers give for both conductors. The orchestral playing and the audio from the pit is a significant problem, at least for listeners like myself who place Wagner's skills in orchestration above his many merits in other operatic fields. But then, if it is the orchestra you want to hear, you would be better off with Karajan or Haitink.
Dramatic and structural integrity are the qualities that set Böhm apart from his fellow Wagnerians, and that sense of tight cohesion is increased for the buyer of this set by the fact that it comes in such a small, streamlined box. I can't in good conscience recommend this over Solti's landmark recording (even with the price differential), but I can recommend it on its own merits. However many interpretations of the Ring Cycle you have already heard, this one is definitely worth hearing. And to be honest, if you are even considering buying this set, you almost certainly own the Solti already.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 17 December 2010

Bach Motets Voices8

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied BWV225 [11.45]
Furchte Dich Nicht, Ich Bin Bei Dir BWV228 [7.27]
Lobet Den Herrn, Alle Heiden BWV230 [6.07]
Jesu, Meine Freude BWV227 [18.23]
Komm, Jesu, Komm BWV229 [7.30]
Der Geist Hilft Unser Schwachheit Auf BWV226 [7.15]
The Senesino Players
Barnaby Smith director
Signum Records SIGCD213 [58:31]

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I'm not usually one to judge a disc by its cover, but this cover is very interesting. Signum are clearly hoping to appeal to new audiences with this sort of design. Hopefully the idea is to draw younger listeners into Bach's world, but it is more likely that they are aiming at the already established, and considerably more senior, crossover market. Image is clearly important here, it's not often you meet an endorsement ad for the choir's tailor on the back of the liner. And the liner itself is much more in the rock and roll tradition than the classical: it is a single sheet that unfolds to reveal a large, stylised image of the choir on the back, presumably to stick on your bedroom wall.
The performances are good but are very much what the packaging would lead you to expect. The singing is crisp and accurate, but the tempos are often fast and unyielding. The polyphonic movements are sung with a ping to the accents of each note. Its not all unaccompanied, but it is all a cappella in style. Voces8 seem to be a Swingle Singers type of group, and their Bach is designed to highlight their vocal agility and the precision of their close harmony textures.
The group is made up of former choristers from Westminster Abbey, so as you'd expect they really know the notes. They are joined by two female sopranos, who are good but are a mixed blessing. Obviously, boy trebles wouldn't fit into this kind of sexed-up Bach, but the female voices also stand out. They occasionally have some tuning problems as well, suggesting they are not quite up to the standard of their male colleagues.
The choir have instrumental accompaniment, thanks to the Senesino Players (an orchestra named after a castrato, what are they trying to tell us with that?). But the instrumentalists take a back seat, partly through Bach's refusal to write them any independent parts, but more significantly through the balance of the recording, which clearly prioritises the voices.
There are no movement divisions within the motets, and each occupies a single track. The way the motets are performed is similarly continuous, with very little pause between each of the movements. That may or may not improve the coherency of the result, but is less of an issue than the way that even individual phrases within choruses are run into each other. It is as if the producers are trying to avoid even the briefest of silences, which often robs the music of its poise.
It lacks gravitas as well, but this is probably the point where individual tastes come into play. In their pursuit of new audiences,Voces8 and Signum seem unconcerned about alienating the existing Bach constituency. That is fair enough, you can easily go elsewhere if you want to hear a more traditional reading of this music. But what this one offers is fun. The period performance movement has demonstrated how to bring life and energy back to Bach's choral textures, but none of the big names have produced anything that is quite as fun as this. Obviously, this isn't the last word when it comes to Bach's Motets, but it brings an interesting new angle to the music, and possibly a new audience too.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bach Orchestral Suites Concerto Köln

Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suites BWV 1066-1069
Concerto Köln
Berlin Classics 0300061 BC (2 CDs)

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Precision is the watchword in this new recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites from Concerto Köln. The recording quality is good, the internal balance of the ensemble is finely judged, and the tempos are excellently proportioned.
The recording has been released to mark the 25th anniversary of Concerto Köln. That pedigree really shows, and it would be difficult to imagine a baroque ensemble with greater unity of artistic intent. Conducting duties are shared between three of the players, an excellent compromise for repertoire that needs a guiding hand but that can suffer from the egotistical interventions of a conductor in the 19th century sense. And while the tempos and dynamics are fairly steady, there are also a good number of subtle ralls and caesuras that no doubt require some kind of coordination from the front of the stage.
The orchestral sound is always elegant but never flamboyant. Each of the wind instruments adds a distinctive colour to the mix, but even in the tuttis there is never any suggestion that they are obliging the strings to play above their optimal dynamic in terms of timbre, and when you add trumpets into the mix that is no mean feat. The continuo takes a back seat, which may or may not be appropriate to the repertoire, but the occasional tinkling sounds of the top end of the harpsichord can have the frustrating effect of reminding the listener what they are missing in the bass. Most of the playing is characterised by very smooth articulation, which aids the phrasing, although perhaps at the expense of the textural variety.
But there is a deeper problem with this recording, one that is frustratingly difficult to pin down. Everything is so precise and measured that somehow all of the excitement gets lost. Timbre may play a part in this, like the smooth legato, the roundness of tone of almost all the instruments means that there is no edge here. I'm glad that the contrapuntal lines are not overstated, but these players often go too far the other way, taking the intricate textures for granted in the hope that they can speak for themselves. You often have to listen very hard indeed to make sense of these textures – of course you should be listening hard to any Bach you put on, but the demands made on the listener here are extreme.
Then there is the pitch. The players work to the so-called French pitch of the day a=392hz, which is very low indeed. I'm impressed that the players can maintain there exceptional intonation standards at this unusually low pitch, but I'm also concerned about the overall effect on the music. The tone colour is duller than your ear is conditioned to expect by other recordings, and the lower pitch has the effect of lowering the temperature all round. I don't quite know where the whole issue of authenticity fits into this picture, although I suspect the pitch standard in particular is the result of some speculation.
If you are tired, and many are, of Bach recordings that go out of their way to make everything exciting and new, then this more level-headed approach may be for you. And as I say, there is little, in fact there is literally nothing to fault here from a technical point of view. But it is one for serious Bach fans only, and I can't see it winning him over any new listeners.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Franco Fagioli Canzone e Cantate

Franco Fagioli: Canzone e Cantate
Music by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel, Frescobaldi, Ferrari and Paisiello
Franco Fagioli countertenor
Luca Pianca lute
Marco Frezzato cello
Jörg Halubek harpsichord
Carus 83.361 [60:32]

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This isn't the first CD to feature the voice of Argentinian countertenor Frano Fagioli, but it is clearly intended as a career launcher. And it hits all the right buttons; after hearing it you just want to hear more of this remarkable voice. The countertenor voice is often associated with thin, nasal sounds and emotionally neutral, or at least restricted, interpretations, but there is none of that here. The repertoire may be baroque, but it is Italian baroque, and even for Italian baroque the performance style is elaborate. Fagioli and his colleagues are not afraid to ornament, nor to use a very wide dynamic range. The result is wonderfully operatic, yet there is never any feeling that the performances are at odds with the artistic sensibilities of the composers.
The timbral range of Fagioli's voice is also impressively wide. He can do the straight, focussed recitative style, but he knows that isn't very interesting so most of his singing on this disc is more florid. He has a vibrato that is very narrow but quite pronounced. I've no doubt there are a range of opinions as to how appropriate this is for 17th century repertoire, but it never feels out of place. In fact, it gives his lower register a valuable richness and his upper register a surprising power. His top notes are all there, but when he is at the top, there is always a slight sense of danger, a certain fragility of tone that keeps you on the edge of your seat. He can at times sound effeminate, but I suspect this a conscious choice, and an effect that he only uses sparingly. He often inflects the ends of phrases to the extent of endangering his intonation. But again, this is clearly a deliberate effect, and while he occasionally balances on the precipice, his tuning is never in any real danger.
The repertoire here is made up of arias and cantatas by 17th and 18th century Italian composers: Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Paisiello and Handel (an honorary Italian for these purposes). Most of it is upbeat and elegant, and even though a number of opera composers are represented, there is little here that is overtly dramatic. Accompaniment and interludes are provided by an instrumental ensemble of lute, cello and harpsichord, who provide a more varied soundscape than that limited instrumentation suggests.
The sound is good, and Fagioli has chosen wisely (if it was his choice) to record this Italian repertoire in Germany rather than Italy, given the superior audio standards further north. The recording was made in a studio, but to listen to it you could mistake it for a church. That implies some kind of digital reverb, but if any has been applied it is done very tastefully.
The packaging is stylish, although all the photos inside the liner are black and white, and the compressed page layouts make finding the English quite a project. In general though, this is another high standard release from Carus and yet another demonstration of the impressive results that can be achieved through the collaboration between a committed record label and a German broadcasting corporation, in this case SWR. If you're looking for a Christmas present for a baroque music lover who already has everything, look no further.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Reger Choral Works Consortium

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Choral Works
Der Einsiedler op.144a [11:41]
Drei sechsstimmige Chore op.39 [13:33]
Drei Chore op.6 [13:04]
Drei Gesange op.111b [7:37]
Requiem op.144b [14:50]
Christopher Glynn piano
Andrew-John Smith conductor
Hyperion CDA67762 [66:22]
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A wonderful disc this, and a testament to yet another undervalued dimension of the artistry of Max Reger. Very few of the common complaints about Reger's music apply here, the music is consistently inspired, often light, elegant and wholly free from the stodginess that blights so many of his organ works. The broad theme of the compilation is secular choral music, but all that really means is that none of the music is specifically liturgical. Religious themes certainly make themselves felt, and the music moves between states of devotion, veneration and praise. A few of the poems that Reger sets are genuinely secular, those of Nikolas Lenau for example, and Gustav Falke, but a strong devotional undercurrent flows even though these works. It is a religious feeling borne out of a complete absence of irony, and for a composer working in the age of Mahler and Richard Strauss, the self-imposed seriousness of this aesthetic almost seems to have been transplanted from an earlier age. But while he is always serious, he is never dour.
Stylistically, the most important predecessor to this music is Brahms, and you could be forgiven for occasionally mistaking individual passages here with some of Brahms' early choral works. But then you'll meet an unusual harmonic shift or a flowery piano interpolation that clearly belongs to a later time. Generally though, Reger's approach to choral writing is to use simple harmonies and homophonic textures, but to regularly jump between only distantly related harmonies, often several times within the span of a single phrase. The only exception to Reger's stylistic conventions is the 'Drei Gesänge' Op.111b for unaccompanied women's voices. Here the musical textures are even more simple, and the soundworld tends towards the medieval. This level of musical simplicity really brings out the best in Reger, he wasn't much of a melodist, yet there is a lyricism to much of his music that can really carry these simple, straightforward textures.
Reger died young and the last year or two of his life were extraordinarily prolific. There seem to be many, many works – orchestral, piano, chamber, organ – that are habitually described as amongst his very last. The two major choral works that frame this programme, 'Der Einsiedler' and 'Requiem' apparently qualify too. Together they make up his Op.144 out of a total of 147, suggesting they are indeed very late. The music of both works is almost mystical in its use of widely spaced chords, unusual harmonic shifts and dreamy arpeggios in the accompaniment. The most interesting of the two is 'Requiem', a kind of abbreviated response to Brahms' 'German Requiem', with many stylistic links. Reger's Requiem is a term with complex textual issues. He began a setting of the Requiem mass in his younger years, but it remains incomplete, the fragments having the misleading opus number 145a. The Requiem that appears here is not a liturgical setting but rather a setting of a poem with the same name by Christian Friedrich Hubbel. To complicate matters further, this Requiem (and 'Der Einsiedler' too) were written for choir with orchestral accompaniment, but Reger's version with piano accompaniment predominates these days, to the extent that the work is played at all.
The performances are all good. The choir 'Consonrtium' doesn't have a very inspiring name, but is an impressive ensemble. This is only their second disc, their first being an album of Brahms songs, to which this should provide the ideal compliment. The sound of the sopranos at the very top is sometimes a little abrasive, although I'm more inclined to blame the composer for his repeated use of the upper register than the singers for the occasional brittleness of texture. The choir is small, which aids the articulation and tuning, but sometimes makes for underpowered climaxes. Given that the Op.144 works were written with a full symphony orchestra in mind, the composer's intention must surely have been for a choir at least twice this size. But the music is flexible and retains its symphonic grandeur even in this more intimate environment. Not that it is all psuedo-symphonic, the other works on the disc, especially the 'Drei Gesänge' demonstrate the directness and simplicity that characterises much of Reger's music. It is a surprisingly varied programme, and an impressively performed disc. Any fans of Brahms' choral music would be well advised to take a chance on it.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Beethoven Complete String Trios

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete String Trios
Serenade in D major Op.8 [30:34]
String Trio in E flat major Op.3 [42:27]
String Trio in G major Op.9 no.1[28:22]
String Trio in D major Op.9 no.2 [24:26]
String Trio in C minor Op.9 no.3 [23:35]
Leopold String Trio
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London 3-5 April and 24-26 March 1998 Stereo DDD
Hyperion Dyad CDD22069 (originally released as CDA67253 and CDA67254) [73:04+76:34]

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It is a testament to the size and quality of Hyperion's back catalogue that the company can run two reissue imprints simultaneously: Helios and Dyad. The latter, as its name suggests, offers two-disc box sets, and the deal is two discs for the price of one. Given that Hyperion discs have always been at the more expensive end of the market, or rather that full-price means exactly that from the company, we are still not talking about incredible bargains here, but an opportunity to hear some of the great recordings from the label's past is always welcome.
Beethoven's Complete String Trios comprise three opuses, the Trio Op.3, the Serenade Op.8 and the set of three Trios Op.9. All were written in Beethoven's early years in Vienna, but none are conservative of predictable. Beethoven was writing for some skilled performers, especially in the Op.9 set, and even though they were all published at the time, he seems to have had little regard for the conservative tastes of Viennese audiences, or for the amateur performance market. All of the hallmarks of the composer's later greatness are here: the traditional forms extended almost to the point of absurdity, the tangential key relationships, the virtuoso instrumental writing that always manages to keep at least one foot on the ground. And there is a lightness of touch that may or may not be a result of the composer's studies with Haydn. You couldn't mistake these works for Haydn though, and while they are recognisably 18th century they are also clearly looking forward to the stylistic and technical innovations of the 19th.
Having said that, there is a significant difference between the quality of the works on the first disc to those on the second. The latter is devoted to the Op.9 set, and these three works have a sophistication and maturity that clearly sets them apart from both the Op.3 Trio and the Op.8 Serenade. Interestingly they are not any longer than their predecessors, nor is the thematic density any greater. But the drama in these works, the profundity of there slow movements and monumentality of their finales all put in them in a different league.
The performances too are superior on this second disc. The first disc is also well played, but there seems to be a much greater unity of intent between the players on the second. All the players are technically proficient, although the viola sometimes lags a little behind the violin in terms of dexterity on the first disc. No such complaints on the second though, were only the timbre of the different instruments separates them.
The recording quality is good, with the ensemble sounding clear and crisp throughout. Some may complain about a lack of atmosphere, such is the clarity of the sound, but you can't have it both ways. The violin can sometimes sound brittle and icy in the top register, but I suspect this is a product of the audio. The cello, on the other hand, sounds wonderful throughout. She has a real richness in the lower register and a valuable clarity at the top that really separates the voices in the more closely-voiced harmonies.
This is an excellent Beethoven recording, but the second disc of the set is clearly superior, both in terms of the quality of the music and of the performance. And good as the first disc is, the disparity between them does somewhat compromise the logic of the reissue. If we were offered just the Op.9 Trios at the same price, we would not be losing out very much by not hearing the Op.3 or Op.8 works. Still, the word 'complete' in the title is bound to appeal to collectors. I just wonder how often they are going to listen to disc 1.
Gavin Dixon
This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Ives Piano Sonatas Denk

Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No.1 [31:32]
Piano Sonata No.2 Concord Mass. [42:12]
Jeremy Denk piano
Tara Helen O'Connor flute
Recorded in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College 2010 Stereo DDD
Think Denk Media TDM 2567 [73:43]

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Jeremy Denk wants us to think of Ives as fun rather than dissonant. Fortunately, he doesn't consider the two mutually exclusive, and this recording of the Piano Sonatas excels in both. Whatever historical continuities there might be behind Ives' music (and I suspect they are very slight) it is important to treat him as an original, as a maverick. There is regularly a tension in Ives' music between the borrowed materials – the folk tunes, the allusions to Beethoven – and the context. I think one of the reasons why Denk's interpretations are so successful is that he accentuates that tension. Even when the composer is stating his apparently uncontroversial melodic ideas, there is always something slightly crazed about the way they are played.
Denk provides copious liner notes, which are well-written and informative – Essays After a Sonata if you like. One interesting point he makes is that Ives was distancing himself from the European traditions that were dominant in America at the start of the 20th century. That opens up some intriguing possibilities in terms of performance. Is Denk fostering an un-European piano technique. Well, he is certainly unafraid of offending traditional European tastes. The sheer quantity of pedal in these performances could seem brash and extreme in anything from the European 19th century repertoire. And the almost sensationalist way in which Ives' dissonances are presented, or rather hammered home, seems somehow distinctively American. There is also an urgency about this music, which is distinctively Ives rather distinctively American perhaps, but it comes through in the way that build-ups are affected through accelerating the music while piling on the chords. The processes almost seem external to the music, but achieve their aim through the performer acting on every performance indication, and achieving that loyalty without every risking pedantry.
That's not to suggest that there is no subtlety here. True, this music makes its greatest impact in its louder sections, but there is also an impressive gradation of dynamics and of articulation, although thick legato textures are the norm. It is easy to overlook the many quieter dissonances in these scores, but they allow Denk's technique to shine through in the evenness of balance and control of tone he achieves.
The recorded sound is good, although perhaps a little resonant given the amount of pedalling. The piano has a round rather than a crisp tone, which if anything takes the edge of the most grating of the dissonances. The belated entry of the flute (marvellously played by Tara Helen O'Connor) at the end of the Concord Sonata, is presented with the ideal balance, the piano predominating throughout and the flute apparent, but always distant.
These Sonatas don't get the exposure they deserve, not on this side of the pond anyway, so Jeremy Denk's fine recording is welcome indeed. Both composer and performer are aware that the music needs some explaining, and the excellent liner notes here are almost as useful as the recording itself in getting to grips with the music. But it is the performance that really endears this disc. It isn't easy music, but as Denk demonstrates it is staggeringly original and, much more importantly, it's a lot of fun too.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 3 December 2010

Bach: Cantatas Vol. 47 - Suzuki

Bach: Cantatas Vol. 47 - Masaaki Suzuki

'Schwingt freudig euch empor' BWV 36
'Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden' BWV 47
'Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende' BWV 27
Hana Blažíková (soprano)
Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
Satoshi Mizukoshi (tenor)
Peter Kooij (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)
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As he approaches the home straight, Mazaaki Suzuki could be forgiven for resting on his laurels. But no, this 47th volume of his Bach Cantata Cycle is as good as any of its predecessors. There are plenty of surprises here too, in fact Suzuki and Bach make a good team. They are both endlessly inventive musicians, but both have a real sensitivity to the necessary balance between continuity and innovation in liturgical music. 

'Schwingt freudig euch empor' BWV 36 is a large two-part Cantata for the first Sunday of advent. (Curious then that BIS should choose to release the disc on 29 November, the day after the celebration in question.) It is a great piece and contains perhaps the finest of Bach's many settings of the Luther choral 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland', this one a duet for soprano and alto (counter-tenor). The Cantata is an ambitious work on many levels, and poses a number of tricky musical problems. The obbligato instruments are a pair of oboe d'amore, instruments not known for their soloistic potential. The principled stand by BIS against post-production jiggery-pokery means that Suzuki has to find his own solutions to the balance issues in the opening chorus, where his two alto woodwind instruments are up against the full weight of the choir. Fortunately, the players, Masamitsu San'nomiya and Yukari Maehashi, both have a rich but focussed tone that carries across almost any ensemble. And anyway, Suzuki is clearly just as concerned to project the sound of the continuo here. In general, the recording quality on this disc is excellent, but no individual line is ever exaggerated. The textures can sound a little flat when listening at mid or low volume. But turn it up a notch or two and the whole thing comes to life. 

The scale of 'Schwingt freudig' is demonstrated by the fact that it involves all four of the soloists. They are a diverse group, and none the worse for that. The 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland' succeeds partly because of the contrast between soprano Hana Blažíková and counter-tenor Robin Blaze. Blažíková has a fairly operatic tone, with lots of colour and projection, although thankfully only the bare minimum of vibrato. Blaze has a more collegiate sound, surprisingly grounded for a counter-tenor, but with plenty of energy and no problems at all with the top notes.

Satoshi Mizukoshi is one of the very few Japanese vocal soloists to have appeared on Suzuki's Bach Cantata cycle. Why so few? Who knows, but I dearly hope it is not because the label thinks Mark Padmore and co. move more units. Mizukoshi is great. He has a very heady voice, but it is clear, precise and has an even tone right across the range. Some may find his performances here a little anonymous, but not me, I think this is exactly the amount of personality a tenor needs for the baroque repertoire. Mind, I understand he also specialises in the Evangelist roles in Bach's Passions, so I hope he has a bit more charisma saved up for those appearances.

Bass Peter Kooij has just one aria in the first Cantata, but has more to do in the second 'Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden' BWV 47. I'll confess to having mixed feelings about Kooij's recent contributions to this cycle; he's not a young man, and by comparison with his earlier Bach Cantata appearances under Herreweghe he can seem a little underpowered these days. But then, he was always a soft-toned singer, so perhaps the change is minimal. In fact his singing here is very good, and his soft, round tone adds another dimension of contrast to the line-up of soloists. There are just one or two points though, where the support he gives to longer, lower notes highlights a lack similar stability in the higher passage work.
The Cantata BWV 47 is for the 17th Sunday after Trinity, so (unusually for this cycle) we jumping around the liturgical calender on this album. However, all the Cantatas are from the same year, 1726, and there is a certain continuity of style. However, both the second and third Cantatas on the disc are of a more modest, or at least standard, scale in comparison with 'Swingt freudig'. So the contribution of the choir gradually reduces as the disc goes on, which is a shame because they are great, precise as ever and producing a real range of timbres and textures.

'Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende' BWV 27 takes us back a week, to the 16 Sunday after Trinity. It is the shortest Cantata here and also the most sombre. The orchestration includes a horn, though we don't hear much from him, oboe and oboe da caccia. The textures are quite compacted around the middle register, but as before, just turning the dial up a notch or two brings all the clarity the music needs. The third movement of the Cantata is a counter-tenor aria 'Willkommen! will ich sagen' and it's a real tough sing. The voice is above the obbligato da caccia almost throughout and most of his phrases are long, loud and high. Once or twice you can hear Robin Blaze struggling at the ends of phrases, but on the whole it is a heroic effort.

But just when he thought it was all over, what this? There is a bonus track on the end of the disc which is the same movement but with organ rather than harpsichord continuo. Suzuki explains in his (as ever) comprehensive performance notes that there is some ambiguity in the sources about which instrument to use, so he has decided to record it twice. As it happens, the results bear out the decision; the continuo part is in fast quavers throughout, so playing it on a sustaining rather than a percussive instrument creates a completely different atmosphere. But poor old Robin Blaze! Actually, his second performance of the aria is better, partly due, I suspect, to the reduced competition from the instrumental ensemble.

So, another fine instalment from Suzuki and his team. I'd say this disc is a must for Bach fans, and for anybody interested in what high end audio can do for the baroque repertoire. And just one last mention for that 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland' setting – wonderful, wonderful music presented by performers at the top of their game and recorded in the best audio that modern technology has to offer. If you're in two minds about this disc, that one track should be the decider.

Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Gesualdo Madrigals Book 2 Naxos Delitiae Musicae

Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613)
Madrigals Book 2
Canzon francese del Principe
Gagliarda del Principe de Venosa
Delitiae Musicae
Marco Longhini
Naxos 8.570549
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This CD marks the latest stage in a long a fruitful partnership between Delitiae Musicae and Naxos. The last ten years have seen them release the complete Madrigals of Monteverdi, and now by way of a sequel they have turned to those of Gesualdo. The approach with both composers emphasises clarity of harmony and fluidity of line. The choir is made up of men's voices, and the impressive quality of the countertenors means that the timbre at the top of the textures matches almost perfectly with that at the bottom. The clarity of the diction is impressive, and shows the great advantage of a choir made up of native Italian speakers. With all this precision and clarity, there could be a danger of sterile, lifeless performance, but the sheer energy and variety of these recordings ensures that this is never a problem. Tempos are varied, without ever resorting to extremes, and the articulation follows the varied structures of the texts. The colour of the vocal tone is also impressively varied, often reined back to almost speech-like textures. That takes discipline and control even for a soloist, let alone for a choir.
Gesualdo's first two books of madrigals were published around the same time at the end of the 16th century. We are not yet in the world of crunchy dissonances and beguiling harmonic shifts. Even so, this second book is clearly the work of a mature and distinctive composing voice. As with his later music, there is a vitality here in the rhythms that frees the harmonies to better illustrate the texts. There is a wonderful unpredictability about the harmony and the phrasing, often a phrase will seem to just run out steam and grind to a halt on some narrow spaced chord. Elsewhere phrases are elongated and interpolated to subtly change the structural balance.
Two bonus tracks at the end of the disc present Gesualdo's complete surviving instrumental music. So we have a Canzon played on a muffled sounding clavichord (with some daringly chromatic ornaments) and a 'Gagliarda' here performed by a consort of viols. They are interesting appendices, but seem curiously out of place, especially since none of the instruments had been used to accompany the madrigals (five of which have impressively sensitive harpsichord accompaniment). The presence of the instrumental works is presumably a result of Naxos' 'record everything' approach to A&R, a laudable aim, even if it does lead to some strange couplings.
The recorded sound is excellent. The individual voices are more distinct than in the earlier Monteverdi recordings, yet choral sound is equally unified. I notice they have moved to another Veronese church since their earliest Naxos recordings, and perhaps more than once. This church, Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli, has a warm acoustic, although this is balanced by some close micing. The packaging is impressive too, not only do we get detailed notes about the works by conductor (and edition editor) Marco Longhini, but also the latest instalment in a biography of the composer to be spread over the volumes of madrigals. Then there are the words, with elegant translations by Susannah Howe, and finally – and entirely out of keeping for Naxos – a photograph of the performers on the back of the liner. Naxos obviously think they are on to a winner with Delitiae Musicae. They are quite right, and I look forward to book 3, where things start getting seriously weird.
Gavin Dixon