Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Röntgen Piano Concertos Kirschnereit Porcelijn

Röntgen Piano Concertos Kirschnereit Porcelijn
Julius Röntgen: Piano Concertos nos.2 (Op.18) and 4
Matthias Kirschnereit piano
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
David Porcelijn conductor
CPO 777 398-2
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These two concertos both have much to commend them, but they also have one very big problem – a complete lack of originality. Julius Röntgen was obviously very keen on Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Wagner, Verdi, and above all Brahms. Given the premium status afforded to originality in the Romantic era, Röntgen's willingness to just rip off these composers for tunes and harmonic progressions is surprising, and it is tempting to listen to this disc as just a string of homages/ripoffs of the great German composers of the 19th century.
But that's only fun for a couple of minutes, and a much better way to approach this music is to listen in for its own considerable merits. Röntgen's loyalty to Brahms wasn't unusual among composers of his generation, and like them he added something of himself to his thinly veiled imitations. If, like me, you find Brahms' piano concertos a bit heavy, the levity of Röntgen's versions is very welcome. His music isn't based on the same sense of tight symphonic argument. Instead, it usually takes a more laid back and free flowing melodic approach. That often brings him closer to Schumann's concerto, another work that he comes dangerously close to plagiarising wholesale.
And the technical skill in Röntgen's writing, both for the piano and the orchestra, is undeniable. In the 2nd Concerto he often gives melodies or obbligatos to solo woodwind instruments, and the way that these lines match the timbres of the instruments is very finely judged.
I find the slow movements of the two concertos the most satisfying, especially that of the Fourth. Ok, so the movement starts off sounding just like the second movement of Bruckner 7, but it then evolves into something surprisingly individual and heartfelt. And emotion is something all of this music has in spades. The piano writing in particular is always in the grand heart-on-sleeve Romantic tradition.
Like all of Röntgen's works, these concertos have suffered more neglect than they deserve. The derivative nature of the musical prose may be partly to blame, but the sheer difficulties of the solo part must also be a factor. The outer movements of the Fourth Concerto in particular make the kind of demands that you will only find in the most complex of Romantic concertos. Credit then to Matthias Kirschnereit, who plays everything with grace and panache. He puts in quite a lot of rubato, but no more than the music itself suggests. The clarity of his touch is a real asset. Röntgen's piano writing, difficult as it is, doesn't really need help in terms of clarity from the player. Even so, this expressive yet clear sighted reading is exactly what is needed to do the music justice.
The NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover are sympathetic accompanists, and conductor David Porcelijn follows the contours of Kirschnereit's phrasing with pinpoint precision. The recording quality is excellent, with a lively sound from the piano, clearly delineated sections in the orchestra and a perfectly judged balance between the two.
An interesting addition then to the CPO's Röntgen Edition, but one that highlights his failings as much as his qualities. It's well worth hearing, just as long as you're not expecting anything radical or new.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Johannes Passion Cantus Cölln Konrad Junghänel

Bach: Johannes Passion (1749 version)
Cantus Cölln
Konrad Junghänel conductor
Accent ACC 24251(2CDs)
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Bach wasn't in the habit of making major changes to his completed liturgical works, even when he was dusting them down for a repeat performance. The St John Passion is therefore unusual in having been through four separate versions. Tracing the progress from one to another is no simple task, as revisions in one version tend to be reversed in the next. But the 1749 edition is, to all intents and purposes, the original 1724 version with slightly different orchestration. The biggest difference between the various versions is the opening chorus, and here we get the glorious Herr, unser Herrscher, in place of the equally glorious O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross, which also makes an appearance in the Matthew Passion.
But more significant than the version in use are the performing conventions and the size of the ensemble. Cantus Cölln fields a choir of eight, so that's two to a part. The sopranos are female, as is one of the altos. The orchestra numbers 11, and includes a viola da gamba, although no contra-bassoon. That's a shame, but the continuo manages well enough without it, providing rich, early bass textures. I'm sure that Bach's intentions for the size of the forces in this work are open to question, but I suspect that most scholars would expect to hear more musicians than perform here.
Yet the sound never feels constrained, and this isn't the sort of chamber music Bach that you'd normally expect from such a small group. The recording was made at the church of St Osdag, Mandelsloh, which is a modestly sized venue, although it doesn't sound it on this recording. The microphones have been set at some distance to pick up the resonance and meld the textures. The chorales come across best in this approach, with each phrase a continuous wave of sound. The solo numbers have all the clarity they need, and some valuable ecclesiastical atmosphere as well. But the choruses loose valuable detail in their counterpoint. It's not a big problem, and all the notes are audible, its just that contrapuntal clarity is the big gain of small ensemble Bach, so its a shame not to exploit it to the full.
Konrad Junghänel chooses lively tempos, but he's not going for any world records. His speeds work well with the resonant sounding acoustic, although again don't really exploit the flexibility offered by the small ensemble.
Among the singers, the most famous name, at least for British audiences, will be Amaryllis Dieltiens, a regular with the Netherlands Bach Society as well as many others. She sings well here, with some vibrato but not enough to upset the purists. The soloists are all good, and are well matched in terms of both style and quality. Tenor Hans Jörg Mammel offers friendly and reassuring guidance through the story as the evangelist. He has an impressive ability to reduce the colour of his tone for the plaintive recitatives. He also has a seductive baritonal quality in his lower register.
As far as period performance goes, this is a very round and warm sounding Bach recording. It achieves a sense of atmosphere that you'd scarcely think possible from just 19 musicians. Yet there is intimacy too, and many of the qualities that period instruments have latterly restored to the piece are in evidence. The only problem is the resonance, and the efforts the engineers have gone to to assure us that we are in a church. It is hard to imagine hearing this piece without the halo of a church acoustic round its angelic harmonies, but you can easily have too much of a good thing.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Die Walküre Weigle Frankfurt Opera

Wagner:  Die Walküre
Siegmund: Frank van Aken, Hunding: Ain Anger, Wotan: Terje Stensvold, Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brünnhilde: Susan Bullock, Fricka: Martina Dike, Gerhilde: Anja Fidelia Ulrich, Ortlinde: Mona Somm, Waltraute: Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Schwertleite: Bernadett Fodor, Helmwige: Christiane Kohl, Siegrune: Lisa Wedekind, Grimgerde: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Rossweiße: Monika Bohinec
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester
Sebastian Weigle
Oehms Classics OC 936 (4 CDs)
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This second instalment in Frankfurt Opera's new Ring Cycle has some high expectations to meet. The Rhinegold that was released earlier this year is a very fine recording indeed, with excellent sound engineering, uniformly fine singing and a really distinctive interpretive approach from Sebastian Weigle (read my review here). Die Walküre poses different, and in many respects, greater challenges, at least from a musical point of view. Ensemble is the key in Rhinegold, but Walküre relies on exceptional solo singing from the leads. This it gets, although while all the singers are good, one or two of them really stand out.
But, as with the previous Rhinegold recording, what really makes this Walküre distinctive is the contribution of conductor Sebastian Weigle. His patience with this music is wonderful. He knows that Wagner doesn't need any help in building up his climaxes or creating the drama that the story needs. So tempos are usually steady, and build-ups are achieved through dynamics and orchestral colour rather than accelerando. At the start, the storm is raging in the orchestra, but it is not an all-out assault from the orchestral forces, instead it is menacing, with a steady pace and moderate dynamics. Weigle gets all the drama he needs from the tone of the orchestra and the carefully graded articulations. Similarly, The Ride of the Valkyries achieves a continuous sense of ecstatic power, but without excesses of tempo or dynamics.
Weigle never seems to exert too much control over the proceedings. He keeps the orchestra tightly synchronised, but the singers do occasionally enter ahead or behind his beat. The music doesn't suffer, in fact it adds to the sense of theatre. In a time when audio recordings of staged Wagner operas are rapidly losing ground to those of concert performances, the feeling of actually being in the theatre is a valuable asset, and this recording really gives you that sense.
The sound recording plays an important part in this effect. Somehow, the team manages to give the singers a sense of placement on the stage, but without any of them actually sounding distant. A subtle use of the stereo array is a key to this I suspect. Almost every new recording of Wagner these days, be it audio or video, has both a surround and stereo mix, and the stereo usually comes out as a second best. But here it is used to ideal effect. The balance between the pit and the stage is ideal. The tone of the string section can sometimes sound a little dull, but the woodwind and brass are crisp and vibrant throughout. Weigle often gets a real bite out of the brass, a tone that has volume but also has edge. That is a real strength of this orchestra, and comes over well in the recording.
Among the singers, the real standout performance is from Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. She has got everything this part needs: warmth, passion, humanity – and of course precision and stamina. Over the last couple of years, Westbroek has been singing the role in houses around Europe, and receiving acclaim for it everywhere. She has already recorded it twice, at Bayreuth and with the Berlin Philharmonic, but even so, her performance here alone is worth buying the set for.
And Frank van Aken is the ideal partner for her as Siegmund. The two are in fact husband and wife, and their musical interaction is spectacular. Westbroek has an open, powerful sound, which she mediates with controlled but never excessive vibrato. van Aken gives pretty much exactly the same sound but an octave lower. And he too has the power, control and stamina to ensure that every phrase is ideally presented.
Terje Stensvold is an effective Wotan, but not a particularly loud one. He brings gravitas to the role, mainly through the richness of his tone. He sings the lower notes like a true bass, but brings that bass richness to the upper notes as well. Martina Dike is appropriately stern and disciplined as Fricka. Her singing has an almost Baroque sensibility, and you could almost imagine her singing Bach cantatas in this style, albeit under 1950s performance conventions. But again, chemistry is the secret to her success, and she provides an excellent complement of Stensvold, with a similar sense of drama in her voice but a similar moderation to her dynamics.
The one voice in the cast that I have reservations about is Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde. She too is a seasoned Wagnerian, and is much acclaimed around the world for her interpretation of the role. Some of her singing here is very good. The Annunciation of Death scene is emotive but steely of tone, an ideal combination. But the louder and higher passages, of which there are many, often grate, and there is little continuity between the these and the quieter passages. She has a kind of vibrato where the volume fluctuates rather than the pitch, and that can get wearing on the ear. Its a tough part, of course, and there are certainly inferior performances to this available elsewhere, but in a cast that is otherwise excellent, she is the one slightly weak link.
Otherwise, this is a very fine Walküre. There is no shortage of competition, and even the Oehms label is currently engaged in another Ring Cycle project with Hamburg Opera. But like the Rhinegold before it, this Walküre has the particular advantage of having Sebastian Weigle at the podium. His measured approach isn't going to be to everybody's taste, but he is one of the few Wagner conductors working today who does something distinctive with the music. His control of the orchestra is ideal, but so too is his intuition for giving the singers the freedom they need. There are plenty of musical challenges ahead in the last two instalments, but Frankfurt Opera should be feeling confident that their conductor has what it takes.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bach Passions Koopman

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Matthew Passion, John Passion, B Minor Mass
Guy de Mey tenor
Peter Kooy bass
Christoph Prégardien tenor
Gerd Türk tenor
Barbara Schlick soprano
Kai Wessel alto
Klaus Mertens bass
De Nederlandse Bachvereniging (Passions)
Amsterdam Baroque Choir (Mass)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Ton Koopman director
recorded Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, Oudkarspel, June 1992 (Matthew), Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, March 1993 (John), Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, March and May 1994 (Mass). Stereo DDD
Erato 2564 67361-6 [70:21+41:50+52:32+59:33+49:06+53:54+53:35]

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You either love or hate Ton Koopman's Bach, which is ironic as he is pretty middle of the road. His detractors will point out that he has a very rigid approach to tempo, especially in the string accompaniments to wind and vocal solos. But there is plenty to like about his performances, the grandeur of the choruses, the interpretive coherence, even the sheer quality of the musicians he works with. But what he offers you have to except on his terms. If you like a single aria in one of these recordings but don't like the choruses that surround it, that's unlikely to be enough for you.
Despite his undeniable pedantry with tempos, many aspects of Koopman's readings of these three great works hark back to the pre-period-performance days, to Richter, Karajan et al. Many of the choruses (the opening movements of the Matthew and the B Minor Mass are great examples) are taken at a stately pace, perhaps not quite as slow as Richter, but certainly in his spirit. To Koopman's credit, he is able to maintain the immediacy and the excitement of this music at these relatively slow speeds. He also keeps the choral counterpoint (his use of large choirs will also be considered as a throwback in some circles) nice and clear, despite the fact that the recorded sound tends to emphasise atmosphere over detail, at least where the choirs are concerned. Personally, I'm in favour of these slower speeds. What I don't like is the sudden gear changes in the lead up to cadences. Considering the strait-jacket tempos these movements have been held under until their final bars, these closing gestures seem extreme to say the least.
Recitatives and arias are also kept at fairly strict speeds, but don't seem quite as constrained because all the vocal and instrumental soloists know how to make their music sing. Special mentions should go to Guy de Mey, an Evangelist as good as any, Peter Kooy, recorded here when he was still at the height of his powers, violin soloist Andrew Manze (it is nice to see his name cropping up in this surprising context), and oboist Marcel Ponseele, who could do with a little more space from Koopman, but who otherwise demonstrates just why he is held in such high regard.
The choirs, The Netherlands Bach Society in the Passions and the Amsterdam Baroque in the mass, are both on fabulous form. As I mentioned, the sound engineering isn't geared to giving the choirs clarity or presence, but the singers more than make up for this with punchy consonants, clear vowels, and most importantly, exact ensemble. It is interesting to see that the choir master listed for The Netherlands Bach Society is Jos van Veldhoven. These recording were made in the early 1990s, but van Veldhoven is now the choir's principle conductor, and is releasing various Bach works on the Channel Classics label. No doubt he has learnt much from Koopman over the years, but to my ear he has also surpassed him in the subtly and sophistication of his Bach readings.
But then, fifteen years is a long time in Bach interpretation, so comparing recordings of today with those of the early 90s does seem anachronistic. Even though Koopman continues to perform Bach like this, it is worth bearing in mind that this box set is a reissue. That's not entirely clear from the packaging, although anybody who has even a vague familiarity with the industry will have worked it out simply from the box-set format. Things have moved on, and in a sense this is a historical document. That's not to say that all change is good, and this look back to Bach of yesteryear demonstrates some of the ways in which recent performances could improve. I'm particularly taken by the sense of breadth that Koopman achieves in the choruses, especially in the Matthew. With the fast tempos and small ensembles of today, you just don't get that any more, which is a real shame. Then there are Koopman's collaborators, all of whom do him proud. Tastes may change in matters of instrumentation, ornamentation, tempo or dynamics, but world-class performance standards are never going out of fashion.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 14 November 2011

Schumann String Quartets Doric Quartet

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
String Quartets Op.41
Quartet No.1 [24:29]
Quartet No.2 [20:56]
Quartet No.3 [28:31]
Doric String Quartet
recorded Potton Hall 9-11 February 2011 stereo DDD
Chandos CHAN 10692 [74:15]
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After a very impressive disc of Walton, the Doric Quartet have now moved into the core repertoire, with an equally assured reading of Schumann's Op.41 set. Everything comes together on this disc. The ensemble of the quartet is beyond reproach, the sensitivity of the playing makes every phrase seductive, and the quality of the audio recording is up to the high standards that we have come to expect from Chandos.
Given the number of recordings that already exist of these works, it is to the Doric Quartet's credit that they are able to do something new and individual with them. Attention to detail is the basis of their approach. They are also careful to keep an eye on the bigger picture, although the structure of these works is fairly conventional, so there isn't much new to say about the way that they progress and cohere. And the details, which are picked out as much by the high quality audio as by the playing, are presented as ingredients in the emotive structure of the works. Schumann has a natural gift for scoring for string quartet, but the interplay between the individual instruments is always put to resolutely expressive purposes. The stereo array of the recording really separates out the players, and it is as if the listener is sitting in among them. That makes the bouncing around of musical ideas within the ensemble all the more fascinating.
The atmosphere of each of the movements is beautifully rendered. Quartet no.1, by the far the finest of the three, is made all the more symphonic through the contrast between the serene third movement and the energised fourth. And again in this finale, indeed all three finales, the energy of the music seems all the more vital for being passed around the players to the left and right of the listener. The audio quality is so good that you can hear which of the players is leading the ensemble at any given point, and Schumann's regular inversion of the textures to give the viola or cello the melody means that the music is not always led from the top.
The quartet's adherence to Schumann's tempo and dynamic markings is laudable, although some might feel it tends towards pedantry. This is mainly an issue in outer movements, where Schumann often sets up a catchy, propulsive rhythm, but then opposes that momentum with rubato markings or sudden dynamic contrasts. It is a tricky circle for any players to square, and the Doric Quartet are, I think, right to present the dichotomy to their listeners rather than just pushing through.
To me, this is close to ideal Schumann interpretation, and it augers well for the future recording career of the Doric Quartet, especially as Chandos now seem confident to let them loose on the core repertoire. I just wonder if they are going to get labelled as 'intellectual' players, in the way that Brendel was. Again, whatever is said about Brendel's 'thoughtful' interpretations, I really struggle to see that as a problem. In fact I think it is the very quality that distinguished him from most other pianists of his generation. But many others disagree, and they are probably the listeners who are going to have problems with this considered and elegant Schumann disc. The answer, I suspect, is to head straight for the repertoire in which profoundly thoughtful interpretation is an undisputed virtue – the late Beethoven quartets. The Dorics will have to get round to them one day, and as far as I'm concerned the sooner the better.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 11 November 2011

Bach Well Tempered Steinway Findlay Cockrell

The Well Tempered Clavier (Book 1 Preludes)
Two Part Inventions (selections)
Four Duets
Ricercar a Tre (The Musical Offering No.1)
Findlay Cockrell – piano
Findlay Recordings FC-02
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Findlay Cockrell offers familiar favourites but with a twist on this fascinating Bach recording. He is one of many Bach interpreters to mix the modern with the historically informed, but his configuration of those two poles is probably unique. The piano he plays is a modernish (1916) Steinway concert grand. There is plenty of debate about what sort of keyboard instruments Bach would have known, but he certainly would not have been familiar with anything like this.
However, Cockrell opts for so-called 'well temperament' in the tuning of the instrument. The history of keyboard tuning is a long and convoluted one, usually best left to the specialists, but is of relevance here. Bach's aim in writing the Well Tempered Clavier was to demonstrate the flexibility of the new tuning system, which for the first time allowed music to be performed in every major and minor key. But this has led to a misunderstanding that the tuning system he was using was exactly the same as the equal temperament of today. It wasn't, it was a little less equal and favoured the key signatures with more white notes than those with more black notes. Cockrell uses the temperament that Bach's instrument (which was probably a harpsichord) was tuned to.
This gives the sequence an interesting narrative, but in a sense it is the reverse of what Bach had in mind. The composer starts out in C major, on just the white notes, then gradually moves towards the predominantly black notes keys. For Bach, this was a progression into more and more daring territory, and perhaps it is for Cockrell too. For modern listeners the effect is to move further and further from familiar tunings: the C major prelude sounds as you'd expect, but by the time we get to the B major, things are starting to get strange.
That said, the differences are subtle. Certainly each of the preludes has a more distinct identity as a result of the temperament, but the deviation in tuning from today's norms really is quite small. It is most apparent in keys that have a black note in the tonic chord. Approaching the final cadence, you expect the last chord to resolve the apparent dissonances that have been set up, but when it arrives, it is just as dissonant, leaving an uneasy lack of resolution.
Aware that the tuning may be unsettling for his listeners, Cockrell makes sure that every other aspect of the recording is familiar. His interpretations are lively, and they're often fast, but he has a very clear touch, and a very clean approach to phrasing and articulation. Ornamentation is kept to a minimum, as is rubato. On the other hand, there are plenty of dynamic swells and contrasts to impart drama and structure to the individual works.
The relationship with the Steinway company clearly goes further than the pun in the album title. On the cover, Cockrell is pictured sitting in front of a framed image of the company's logo, and the same logo also appears on the back. It is surprising then that the instrument used is almost 100 years old. It has a rounder, more friendly sound that a modern grand. In fact, it is in excellent condition and sounds beautiful, a great advocate for Steinway craftsmanship.
Cockrell only gives us the preludes, not the fugues, and only from the first of the two books. That accelerates his progress into the unknown territory of well temperament, but does mean that it is over quicker. As compensation, he continues with some of the Two Part Inventions, the Four Duets and the opening Ricercar of The Musical Offering, bringing the running time up to a respectable 70 minutes. These extras are all well played, and are certainly welcome. After the effort, pleasurable as it is, to attune the ear to the temperament, it is good to stay in the zone for as long as possible, so well tempered Inventions and Duets seem like an excellent way to round the programme off.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Schnittke Violin Sonatas Huebl Wait

Alfred Schnittke: Violin Sonatas Nos.1,2,3 and 0
Carolyn Huebl violin
Mark Wait piano
Naxos 8.570978

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Like so much of the 20th century repertoire, the Schnittke Violin Sonatas are ideal for the Naxos approach. There are already a good number of recordings of these works (although the 1955 Sonata is a rarity), but the quality of what is on the market is variable, and until now none has been available at budget price.
The fout Sonatas neatly précis Schnittke's career. The 1955 Sonata, usually called No.0 although not here, is a student work in an early 20th century social realist style. No.1 is more adventurous, mixing some serial technique into still relatively consonant but harmonically adventurous textures. No.2 was Schnittke's route into polystylism, and while it isn't as eclectic as the later polystylistic works that made his name, it is certainly in a similar spirit. And finally No.3, which is typical of his late style, with simpler textures, white note harmonies, and a transcendent quality that makes the reduced musical resources always seem sufficient.
It is an open question whether Schnittke's music requires a Russian approach in performance. He doesn't rely on heavy, muscular bowing in the same that Shostakovich does. But he does expect a real sense of interpretive focus, not serious as such, but committed in every phrase.
Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait are audibly distant from Soviet Russian performance traditions, but that's no bad thing. There is as much commitment here as you could want, and the structuring and atmosphere in most of the movements is really convincing. But both players, and Huebl in particular, have a lighter approach to much of the music, almost dancing with the rhythms at times. This works to the greatest advantage of the 0 and First Sonata. The First in particular is given an energised and propulsive reading. It is a surprise listening to the first movement how rhythmically inventive the music is. The two players never make the music sound trivial, but they do make it sound natural in a way that few others achieve. The violin's intonation is spot on, which given some of the technical demands, like the passages of double stopping and artificial harmonics, is no mean feat.
Sonata No.2 is less convincing. It isn't bad, not by any means, but this is music that really needs that guttural, physical (Russian?) approach to bowing and articulation. The interpretation is still impressively coherent, and Schnittke's graphic notation is convincingly rendered, but there isn't the shock factor that the music needs to make its impact. Perhaps the performers were taking the structural issues too seriously, the build-up to the final climax is excellent, but by saving it all up for the end, much of the preceding music just seems too casual. Sonata No.3 works better. Again, this is a thoughtful and carefully planned reading. Schnittke was never one to put more performance directions into his scores than he had to, often leaving the performers, not so much to interpret, as to decipher what he has in mind. And in this Third Sonata their decisions certainly convince. No.0, which is sensibly put at the end of the programme, also benefits from some imaginative interpretation. Quite significant dynamic and tempo changes are often added, but they all seem to make sense.
As usual from Naxos, the sound is good but not of the highest quality. The recording was made in a concert hall, and the resonance suits the violin better than the piano, which has a curiously boxy sound. It's still worth hearing though, and it is great that these fine works have made it onto the Naxos catalogue. Sonata No.2 will always be the most famous for its heralding of Schnittke's polystylistic phase. But No.1 is a better work, and it is No.1 that comes over best in this recording. The performance of that piece alone is enough to recommend the CD.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Late Beethoven – Luisa Guembes-Buchanan

Piano Sonatas Opp.101, 106,109, 110, 111
Cello Sonatas Op.102 (with Philipp Weihrauch)
Bagatelles Opp.119, 126
Klavierstuck WoO 60
Diabelli Variations Op. 120
Luisa Guembes-Buchanan - piano
Del Aguila DA 55306 (6CDs)

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The title of this Beethoven box set "Con Alcune Licenze" (with some licences) seems surprisingly cautionary. Licences are taken by pianist Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, but with such confidence and in such sympathy with the music, that no excuses are necessary. Beethoven's late piano works make contradictory demands on the performer in almost every phrase. The music must be supple and light, but usually solemn and emotionally engaged as well. It sits on the fault line between the Classical and Romantic, obliging the performer to find their own balance between formality and expression.
Guembes-Buchanan is both a scholar and a performer, and she has clearly put a great deal of thought and research into her interpretations. That's not to say they are overly intellectual, in fact they are surprisingly free and lyrical. But she communicates a real understanding of the often convoluted logic that underpins these works. She gives them the gravity they require, but without the music ever becoming turgid. And she has a wonderfully intuitive sense for Beethoven's melodies. In other hands, the innovative textures and counterpoints of this music can predominate, but Guembes-Buchanan shows that a more melodic approach can solve many of the interpretive issues without bypassing any of the music's deep emotion.
The question of where "late" Beethoven begins is complex. This six-disc set gives the impression that it started out as a recording of the late sonatas, but then expanded to include pretty much everything with an opus number over 100. The second disc is devoted to the Op. 102 Cello Sonatas, with the justification that many scholars consider these works the starting point of the late style. There is certainly a stylistic continuity between the two sonatas and the rest of the music in the set. And the performance by cellist Philipp Weihrauch is very much in keeping with that of the pianist. They are both agile performers, who are able to maintain the gravity and power of the music, despite often reducing the texture and balancing the solemnity with welcome moments of lightness. The cello's intonation is flawless and the balance between the two players is ideal.
Of the other five discs, three are devoted to sonatas, one to shorter posthumously published works, and one to the Diabelli Variations. It seems very generous to include so many of these fine works, and fine interpretations, as a single box. The Diabelli Variations on there own, for example, would be an equally attractive proposition, as would the cello sonatas. Bringing them together shows some interesting continuities. The last sonatas are often very episodic in their structure, with short sections based on fugue, aria and other established genres. As such, they are similar in both form and spirit to the Diabelli Variations. And the Diabelli is shown to be a profound and powerful work able to stand up to comparison with the sonatas.
The recording was made at the Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin on a modern piano. The acoustic provides the ideal balance to Guembes-Buchanan's precise touch, always warming and never obscuring. The microphones are set close to the piano, adding to the sense of engagement for the listener. The dynamic range is wide, both in the engineering and, I think, in the performance itself. That can be disconcerting, but does mean that the recording always demands the attention that the music deserves.
The box this set comes in is fabulous, a real feat of paper engineering. When you slide the discs out of one side, a draw opens at the other to offer you the liner booklet. And the booklet itself is very elegant. It includes comprehensive notes from Guembes-Buchanan and is illustrated with facsimiles of the autograph scores and title pages of the first editions. It can be a bit tricky navigating the text, as the English and German versions are mixed together and randomly punctuated by pages of illustrations.
But that's a small inconvenience, and otherwise this set is very fine indeed. Guembes-Buchanan gives us a refreshing alternative to the more ponderous and weighty versions of the late sonatas on the market. Yet there is nothing reactionary about her interpretations. They are as intense as anybody's, but have the grace and poetry required to make listening to six discs of this music a continuous pleasure.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Parsifal: van Zweden, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal – Klaus Florian Vogt, Gurnemanz - Robert Holl, Kundry – Katharina Dalayman, Amfortas – Falk Struckmann, Klingsor – Krister St. Hill, First Gailknight - Brenden Gunnell, Second Grailknight - Thilo Dahlmann, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, State Male Choir 'Latvija'
Jaap van Zweden conductor
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 11 December 2010 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Challenge Classics CC72519 [63:22+42:56+66:00+73:46] + DVD 81:00

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Parsifal on SACD – ears prick up! This recording has many virtues, not least of which is the sound quality, which is very fine indeed. It is a great performance too, not perfect, but what Wagner recording ever is? It is well cast, well paced, and imparts a real sense of theatrical drama, despite being taken from a live concert recording.
The event it records was a concert performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in December 2010. As well as the four hybrid SACDs, the box also contains a DVD of highlights from the event. From a musical point of view, the DVD suffers from the bleeding chunks syndrome – just as you're getting into the music it stops and cuts to something else – but video does give an idea of the sheer visual splendour of the hall. It also shows that this was strictly a concert performance, with no "semi-staged" element. The size of the choir can come as a surprise on the audio recording (there are more Flowermaidens than I've ever heard before), but the sound of the ensemble makes more sense when you can see them all lined up on the stage.
Before listing the recording's many merits, there are two issues which I suspect are going to make it contentious. The first is Jaap van Zweden's interpretation, which could best be described as matter-of-fact. Better that, I suppose, than going too far the other way, but this is a no-nonsense reading, with strict tempos and very few indulgences in the phrase shaping. Just listening to the first pages of the Prelude gives you an idea of what is to come. Zweden imparts solemnity to the music through his rigorous tempi, but with at a cost to the music's emotional engagement. This is more of an issue in some places than others. The Flowermaidens' music and the quiet opening of act three feel far too rigid, at least to me, while the Gail ritual at the end of act one and the dramatic conclusion to act two both come off better.
The other major sticking point is the number of slips in the orchestral playing. No recording dates are given in the liner, but these localised problems suggest that, unusually, the recording was made at a single event, rather than the more usual two or three plus patch session. If so, that is perhaps to be lauded from the point of view of the coherency of the result. But Parsifal is a work with a long history of note-perfect recordings, so the splits and wrong notes from the orchestra really do stand out. In fairness, there aren't all that many of them, perhaps ten in the whole opera. The woodwind and brass are the culprits. The brass also struggle at times to play together. And the vibrato on the first horn solos isn't to my taste, although I suspect that is a trademark of Dutch orchestras.
But those provisos apart, everything else on this recording is excellent. The casting is based on the principle that if you have world-class singers in the roles of Parsifal and Gurnemanz, everything else will fall into place. Klaus Florian Vogt and Robert Holl both have enviable reputations as leading Wagnerians, and their performances here are as good as any Wagner recording either has made before. Vogt has an instantly recognisable tone, intimate and sometimes narrow, but always with enough penetration to carry over the orchestra. Holl has all the vocal authority he needs for Gurnemanz, with plenty of support for the lower notes and impressive clarity of diction throughout.
The rest of the cast is a wrung below these world-class talents, but still delivers the goods. The best of them is Krister St. Hill, whose Klingsor is among the most sinister on record, but whose icy clarity of tone is curiously seductive. Not being a big fan of heavy vibrato, I found Falk Struckmann's Amfortas and Katarina Dalayamn's Kundry both a little wobbly, but in all other respects they are both ideal for their roles. Ante Jerkunica sounds appropriately distant and drained as Titurel. His pitching sometimes veers towards the approximate, but again it is a performance that is ideal for the dramatic context.
The sound quality is excellent, and anybody who has heard the recent Concertbegouw Orchestra recordings on their own label will know how well the hall responds to SACD reproduction. There is a curious paradox here, in that the hall's acoustic is so well represented that it is immediately clear that we are not in an opera house. Perhaps the hall is a little too resonant for the singers, although it is absolutely ideal for the orchestra, but whichever way, the sheer sense of atmosphere that it imparts is very seductive.
The release draws inevitable comparisons with Gergiev's offering with the Mariinsky last year. Both are SACD recordings of concert performances of Parsifal. The comparisons go further still, in that both Zweden and Gergiev conduct the work in idiosyncratic ways. Both come from outside of the core German tradition, which may be the reason. Like the Gergiev recording, this one isn't going to be for everybody. Personally, I prefer Zweden's interpretation, I prefer his cast too. But they both have their merits, so to any Wagner fans who are feeling flush, I'd recommend buying both.

This Review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Berlioz Requiem McCreesh

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [88:42]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players & Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
rec. Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław, 13-15 September 2010
Latin text and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD280 [48:25 + 40:17]
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The word 'ambitious' doesn't even come close to describing this inaugural release on Paul McCreesh's Winged Lion label. The Berlioz Requiem is a gargantuan work, and while it does get its fair share of performances, most rely heavily on amateur performers, and so don't reach the musical standards required of a commercial recording. But the number competent performers required is only one of McCreesh's problems, as he has chosen to record the work in Poland, and on predominantly period instruments. All of these issues have bearing on the results, but on the whole his collaborative, international approach pays off handsomely.
For all the considerable merits of this recording, the benchmark Berlioz Requiem is still the Colin Davis/LSO version of 1969 (Philips 416 283-2). But the differences between the two readings are such that we are hardly comparing like with like. In fact, hearing McCreesh's version puts the Davis interpretation in a whole new light. Davis achieves gravity in this music through steady and, on whole, slightly slower tempos. He also uses modern instruments, and has a smaller choir and a dryer acoustic (the recording was made in Westminster Cathedral). The cleanliness and clarity of the sound all work in Davis' favour.
But McCreesh is after something else. His choir is truly enormous, his orchestra mixes period and modern instruments (predominantly period instruments, but with the strings bolstered with modern instrument players) and, most significantly of all, the recording is made in the very resonant Mary Magdalene Church in Wrocław. He achieves a much more Gothic sound, more thundering in the Dies Irae, and more vulnerable in the quiet movements, especially the Quid sum miser and the Offertoire. Paul McCreesh talks in his liner note interview about the paradox in the work between its liturgical and operatic identities. By comparison with Davis' very operatic reading, McCreesh has made an excellent job of reclaiming its liturgical side.
His tempos are surprisingly fluid, especially given the size of the forces he is coordinating. The drama in many of the movements, especially the Dies Irae, is significantly increased through subtly graded tempo changes. McCreesh is more faithful than Davis to Berlioz' many articulation and dynamic markings. The orchestration and chord voicing in much of this music is very strange indeed, and McCreesh makes no effort to normalise or flatten out these anomalies. The results seem truer to the composer's conception.
The sheer size of the forces here means that coordination is never going to be absolutely precise, and that is the main virtue that Davis has over McCreesh. It is a tricky balance with a work of this scale, you either have a choir big enough to shake the earth or one modest enough to maintain the intonation and ensemble you are after. And in a sense, the slight inaccuracies of the massed choral singing increase the sense of scale. Without actually having been there, the listener gets a better idea of the sheer size of the performing group from its occasionally approximate synchronisation. The tenors in the choir sometimes struggle with the higher notes, but again, when this happens it seems that Berlioz is deliberately stretching them for dramatic effect. On the other hand, the tenor soloist, Robert Murray, is ideal in the Sanctus. He gives a beautifully lyrical and French-sounding performance, briefly recapturing the operatic side of the work.
There are some revelations in the orchestral playing that you'll never get from modern instruments. The woody woodwind solos all have real character. The hybrid string section plays with minimal vibrato, but with sufficient power, especially at the lower end, to balance what is going on behind. But it is the brass and percussion that are truly revelatory. Narrow bore trombones can sound dreadful in the wrong hands, but here they sound just great, bringing real focus to the Tuba Mirum and a wonderful earthy quality to the pedals in the Hostias. The horns are often required to play stopped notes and various other constrained and muted sounds. The narrow bore instruments here achieve those effects far better than any modern instruments. And in the percussion, the small tinny cymbals add a fascinating colour, while the period timpani increases the percussive quality and reduces the resonance and fixed pitch of their sound.
The packaging is unusual. The discs come in a shiny silver slip case, which when you turn it over gives the full info in Polish. It's all very innovative, although I do have a few small grumbles. The two exterior faces are identical, so you are actually reading the text inside before you have worked out if it is the English or the Polish side you are looking at. When you have worked that out, there is no track listing on offer (Disc 2 begins at the Offertoire if you're interested), and the catalogue number is only given on the underside of the discs. Hugh Macdonald's liner note, informative as it is, is just a rehash of his preface to the 1978 Bärenreiter score.
Nevertheless, this release is a very promising start of Paul McCreesh's new recording enterprise. As the many Mahler 8s that are appearing on the market at the moment demonstrate, it can be very difficult for a conductor to make his mark on a very large scale work. The practicalities of performance usually end up ironing out the interpretive individuality. But McCreesh has done something genuinely new and interesting with the Berlioz Requiem. If future releases on Winged Lion are as distinctive and accomplished as this, it promises to be one of the more worthwhile of the many own-label projects currently taking over the market.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Toshio Hosokawa Landscapes

Toshio Hosokawa: Landscape V, Ceremonial Dance, Saukua für Otto Tomek, Cloud and Light
Munich Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Liebrich (conductor), Mayumi Miyata (shō)
ECM 476 3938

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Programming a whole disc of music by Toshio Hosokawa must be a tricky job, as the similarities between his works seriously outweigh the differences. The result here is a typical ECM ambient/world/contemporary classical mix, rarely reaching above the mezzo forte, and with no disconcerting changes of pace or mood.
The focal point for all four of these works (even the one in which it does not appear) is the shō. This mouth organ type instrument has become a favourite with Japanese composers of 'Western' classical' music, at least since Takemitsu's Ceremonial in the early 90s. In some senses, its presence is very restrictive, it is very quiet and in cannot play fast. But its soundworld is unique, all airy wispy chords subtly blending into each other to create a continuum of sound.
Hosokawa, like Takemitsu and others before him, explores how an orchestral string section can complement this esoteric soloist. His solution is to write string music that breathes with the shō. Chords, often of inscrutably complex construction, emerge from nothing and then swell into the foreground, before receding back to silence. The sensitivity of this approach is laudable, but the variety within it is at a microscopic level. The frustration for the listener, or for this Western listener at least, is that the music seems essentially ambient, yet you can't just let it flow over you. To pick out those tiny changes and developments you must listen hard, but there just aren't enough notes to justify that level of concentration.
Nevertheless, there is variety here. The first work, Landscape V, is an arrangement for shō and string orchestra of a work originally written with string quartet accompaniment. Then comes Ceremonial Dance, also for string orchestra, although this time without shō. Even so its presence is felt throughout, and this is a work very much in the same spirit, ambient and intellectual in equal measure. The last work on the disc, Cloud and Light, ambitiously couples the shō soloist with a full orchestra. The variety of colours offered by the wind and percussion is very welcome, and there is also a greater variety of pace, with the louder sections nudging the speed up just a little. But the phrasing here is still based in the in-and-out breathing of the shō soloist, so the music is essentially just a small progression on from the string writing in Landscape V.
The most impressive piece on the disc is the third track, Saukua für Otto Tomek. This is a work for shō solo, without the trappings of a string section or orchestra accompaniment. The music has its roots in a Japanese folk song, although the lineage is complicated. Hosokawa made a choral arrangement of the song, which he prefixed with this shō solo. The resulting work seems too abstract and ambient to actually be a song setting, but the range of sonorities he draws from the instrument is magnificent. Writing for the shō must be a specialist skill, requiring a deep knowledge of the instrument's mechanics and history. Coupling it with Western instruments is harder still, and the other works on this disc show that the results are inevitably going to be hit and miss. But in this solo work, he manages to combine advanced harmonies and elegant atmospheric writing with the instrument's distinctive musical identity. In comparison, the orchestral writing in the other works, competent as it often is, just seems like a distraction.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Rossini William Tell Pappano

Giaochino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell (sung in French)
Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell)
John Osborn (Arnaud)
Malin Byström (Mathilde)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Hedwige)
Matthew Rose (Walter Furst)
Frédéric Caton (Melchtal)
Elena Xanthoudakis (Jemmy)
Carlo Cigni (Gesler)
Carlo Bosi (Rodolphe)
Celso Albelo (Ruodi)
Dawid Kimberg (Leuthold)
Davide Malvestio (Un Chasseur)
Orchestra e coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano – conductor
Recorded live at Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome 16-20 October and 18-21 December 2010 stereo DDD
EMI Classics 50999 0 28826 2 8 [74:16+79:26+54:33]

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William Tell is always going to be a problematic work. There is plenty of drama in there, but the shape of each of the acts never quite makes musical sense. The characters seem well defined in isolation, but are all curiously similar when heard together. Most problematic of all is the overture, which is both unrelated to the opera proper, and which easily overshadows everything that follows it.
Antonio Pappano gives us a warts-and-all concert performance, with no real efforts to excuse or smooth over the score's many problems. Large, but apparently conventional, cuts are made to the third act, and while I don't know what I'm missing, what remains seems plenty long enough. But Pappano's genius with opera, and especially Italian opera, is to bring out the drama and the urgency in every bar, and that is exactly what he does here. The performance of the overture is exemplary, with lots of bass, lively percussion and wonderfully free woodwind solos. The quality of the music immediately drops when the singing begins, but the performance maintains the pace and continues the drama of the overture well into the first act. Pappano has assembled a fine cast, and Gerald Finley's many fans are not going to want to miss his rendition of the title role. He is more subdued than most of his colleagues, not quieter as such, but always singing with a round, intimate tone that endears every phrase. The other soloists are perhaps more stylistically suited to Rossini's overt vocal writing, but Finley's sophistication is a welcome contrast.
I've just been reading Richard Osborne's review of the recording in Gramophone, and it is clear that he likes it less than I do. I certainly agree with his point that the sound recording is not ideal, although most of the soloists come off all right. The choir sounds distant and generalised though, and the back of the orchestra sounds better than the front for some reason. But for all that, the general impression that the sound recording gives is of sharp-edged and crisp precision. When Pappano builds up one of Rossini's famous climaxes in the choir and orchestra, the audio is able to intensify everything, even though the details remain obscured.
Osborne's main criticism, and I certainly agree with this myself, is that the release is obviously a by-product of a live performance (or rather six), and the live situation causes more problems than it is worth. Not so long ago, a label like EMI could be relied upon to take projects like this and devote studio time at Abbey Road to getting them just right. Of course, the finances at EMI now mean that it is a miracle they are releasing any CDs at all, so perhaps we should think ourselves lucky. The liner demonstrates the dichotomy. We are given the full libretto in French and English, something only a major label would do. But the rest of the liner is pretty inconsequential, and light-heated in a way that really jars. There is even a picture of the Lone Ranger on the inside of the back cover – there's no need for that, surely?

This review first appeard at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Tchaikovsky 6 Pletnev Russian National Orchestra

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6, Capriccio Italien Op.45
Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev conductor
PentaTone PTC 5186 386

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Tchaikovsky fans will no doubt already have shelves bulging with superlative 6th Symphony recordings, but they should do their best to make space for Pletnev's latest, which is as good as any. It is in fact the third time he and his Russian forces have visited this score. Their knowledge of it pays dividends, and there is never any sense that over-familiarity is breeding contempt or boredom.
Every phrase sounds like you are hearing it for the first time. There is nothing particularly radical about the reading, but the freshness and energy of the orchestral playing endear every phrase. And Pletnev achieves an impressive balance between the suave elegance of the dance passages in the first two movements and the sinister moods later on. The opening too is fabulous, with real atmosphere and dark foreboding.
The Polyhymnia team make a great job of the sound recording. They too manage to square a circle by giving us both absolute clarity to all the orchestral textures and a seductive sense of atmosphere. SACD audio usually manages one or other, but rarely are we afforded both. I particularly like the bass in the mix, which is clean and penetrating, but never exaggerated. So the double basses balance well with the rest of the strings, but when the bass drum is required to cut through, it does just that.
Excellent playing from every section of the orchestra. The strings play with precise ensemble, but also manage an impressive array of colours and moods. The woodwinds each bring a strong sense of individuality to their solos, enriching the corporate identity of the orchestra rather than compromising it. The brass are powerful when needed, but always have an elegant tone, and come into their own in the pianissimos, especially the trombones. The ending of the first movement is particular treat, with the trombone section matching the elegance of the strings that precede them, and bringing it to a conclusion with all the grace and precision you could want.
I'm at a loss to understand why anybody could every want to listen to the Capriccio Italien more than once. It is surely one of the most trivial orchestral works ever composed. And tacking it onto the end of the sublime 6th Symphony only emphasises its insignificance. Even so, the performance here is very good, and if nothing else, the work acts as a showcase for Pletnev's impressive orchestra. Pretty much every section gets a moment in the spotlight, and all play to an equally high standard.
The recording was made in Moscow in June 2010 (a studio rather than a live recording, which is all too rare these days). Only a few weeks later Pletnev found himself under arrest in Thailand. The charges were later dropped, but not before the whole affair had forced him to cancel appearances at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. Tchaikovsky had been on the planned programme for both events. Listening to this recordings gives an idea of what those audiences last summer missed.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Suzuki Bach Cantatas 49 "Ich habe meine Zuversicht"

Ich habe meine Zuversich BWV188
Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe BWV156
Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem BWV159
Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm BWV171
Rachel Nichols soprano, Robin Blaze alto, Gerd Turk tenor, Peter Kooij
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki conductor

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Masaaki Suzuki writes that "The history of transmission of [Cantata BWV188] can only be described as highly unfortunate." That's the understatement of the century. The first movement of the work, a glorious organ solo, became detached from the manuscript at an early stage. The rest of it remained in one piece until some point in the 19th century, when it was cut into strips and distributed as relic-like souvenirs.
Fortunately, it has proved easier to reconstruct than many of Bach's missing cantatas. And all the works on this disc are from 1727-8 a period of extraordinary cantata loss. It is thought that Bach wrote a cantata for every Sunday over that year, each to a Picander text, but only a handful survive, and many of those only in fragmentary form. Suzuki, to his eternal credit, looks on the bright side of this situation, saying that he looks forward to lost cantatas resurfacing as they surely will at some point in the future.
When that happens, he will no doubt have to pick up where he left off with his cantata cycle, now nearing its end. It is proving to be one of the best cycles, and possibly the best cycle to have been put down. It is certainly the most consistent in terms of style and quality, and if you know any of the previous instalments, you'll know what to expect here.
The four cantatas BWV156, 159, 171 and 188 have just the right balance of stylistic consistency and variety between them to make for a satisfying album. The first two, Ich habe meine Zuvershicht and Ich steh einem Fuss im Grabe, both open with a concertante instrumental movement, for organ and oboe respectively. And both those solo instruments remain as an obbligato presence throughout each of their respective cantatas. I'm guessing that organist Masato Suzuki is Masaaki's son (frustratingly he doesn't get a bio in the liner). He is certainly a musician in the same spirit and of the same skill as the conductor. Like everything on this disc, the organ playing sounds free and vital, yet the registration choices are restrained and the rubato is kept to an absolute minimum. It is great to finally hear the organ of the Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel. The organ, which sits atop a rood screen, has been pictured in every volume of the cycle to date, but this is the first one I have heard it in. It has a satisfyingly rustic, early German sound, but is of course in tip-top condition with excellent internal balance and a beautifully sympathetic relationship with the chapel's acoustic. Masamitsu San'nomiya is the oboe soloist in BWV156. This too is a masterful performance, again freely expressive and warm, but without any ostentatious ornamentation and hardly any rubato.
Another feature linking two cantatas on the disc (BWV 156 and 159) is the device of an aria based on a chorale, where the freely inventive solo line is given to a lower voice, and the choral theme is sung in unison by the sopranos of the choir. Perhaps it was Suzuki's idea to contrast the solo line with the unison voices for the chorale. If so, it is a stroke of genius, a beguiling mash-up of the two genres. Both movements are taken surprisingly slowly, and I'd imagine that many or most in the period performance movement would consider this an indulgence too far. But Suzuki knows when to base his work on scholarship and when to follow his musical instinct, and his instinct rarely fails him.
Presumably Suzuki's musical instincts are given free reign these days when it comes to choosing vocal soloists. The four here, Rachel Nichols, Robin Blaze, Gerd Turk and Peter Kooij, all seem like old friends, and have made numerous appearances in previous instalments. All are on top form and do Suzuki proud. Nichols only has one aria and one recitative this time round, but makes up for the lack of quantity with quality of the highest order. Blaze and Turk have the bulk of the solo work. Both have a few minor intonation problems, Blaze at the top of his register, Turk at the bottom, but nothing to worry about. Kooij has seemed past his best on recent instalments, but Suzuki has kept faith with him, and it has paid off handsomely here. His tone is warm and elegant, and never strains at either end of the register.
Another instant classic then from Masaaki Suzuki and his Japanese forces. There can only be a few more releases to go before this cycle is complete. (The Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cycle ran to 60 discs, but I'm sure that with today's technology and some forward planning, BIS will bring it in on a few less.) I'll miss these new releases when they do finally stop appearing, especially if, as seems likely, the remaining discs are up to these impressive standards.