Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Parsifal Sinopoli Bayreuth 1998 DVD

Wagner: Parsifal
Falk Struckmann – Amfortas
Matthias Hölle – Titurel
Hans Sotin – Gurnemanz
Poul Elming – Parsifal
Ekkehard Wlaschina – Klingsor
Linda Watson – Kundry
Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival
Giuseppe Sinopoli - conductor
C Major 705908 [2 DVDs]
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This Parsifal production is only 13 years old and yet it is already a piece of history, and an important one at that. The two most significant figures attached to the production, conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli and director Wolfgang Wagner, have both since died, and while the world of Wagner interpretation has certainly moved on, they are both giants of their era who did much to shape our perceptions of the great man's music dramas.
The downside is that everything here feels very dated. The production is one of the last forays for Wolfgang Wagner's "neo-Bayreuth" style, that viusal aesthetic where everyone wears chiffon robes in pastel shades and the scenery is all abstract and suggestive. All that was innovative in the 50s and 60s, and helped Bayreuth productions out of the rigid literalism that had held sway since Wagner himself was in charge. By the 90s it must have seemed nostalgic at best, an effort to cling on to a sense of apolitical abstraction as other houses began exploring the more unpleasant undercurrents of Wagner's works.
The abstraction has certain values. Parsifal, more than any of Wagner's other operas (with the possible exception of Tristan) is more about the music that the visuals, a balance that a lean production helps to maintain. In the first act, tall, irregular pillars in iridescent green represent the forest. When they are moved away, the stage becomes a simple shrine, with an octagonal alter at the centre surrounded by similarly shaped concentric figures in the floor. This serves the outer acts well, but is changed little for Klingsor's castle in Act 2, which is disappointingly understated.
Wolfgang encourages a naturalistic acting style from his singers. Of course, throughout much of this opera there is very little for any of them to do apart from stand and sing. But even so, Hans Sotin makes a compassionate Gurnemanz, Linda Watson a fascinatingly troubled Kundry and Poul Elming an appropriately naïve Parsifal. Their voices are all equal to Wagner's many challenges, and while the cast is equally competent in terms of the vocal performances, there are few star turns. Sotin has a good range of timbres to express Gurnemanz' various emotions, and also to keep his long narratives in Act 1 interesting. His voice lacks weight in the bottom register though, and also precision at the top. Elming has all the notes for Parsifal. He doesn't sound like a traditional heldentenor, his voice is more earthy and grounded. What his singing lacks in beauty, it makes up for in dramatic urgency. With Ekkahard Wlaschina as Klingsor, the reverse is true. His voice seems light, at least in comparison to the demands of the role. Otherwise he is fine, he just that he doesn't sound as menacing as the part requires.
Given the date, the sound quality is unexceptional, and it does none of these singers any justice. The orchestra sounds OK, although the string sound wanders disconcertingly between the two channels of the stereo mix. But everything on the stage sounds very distant, as if the only microphones were in the auditorium, and deep in the auditorium at that. The video direction, by Horant H. Hohlfeld, is appropriately conservative. There is no point in introducing distracting camera angles and editing in a piece, let alone a staging, as static as this. The three(ish) cameras are put to good use, and the restrained editing seems ideal for the staging.
Sinopoli was a controversial figure in his day, and this reading of Parsifal is likely to divide opinions as much as anything he did. Everything is very matter of fact. The Prelude, for example, starts at a slightly brisker pace than in most recordings, but then maintains that pace throughout, with little recognition of the shape of the music of the gravity of the climaxes. It is a disciplined reading, and that discipline certainly pays off in the orchestral playing, which is note perfect (if that even needs to be stated with the Bayreuth Orchestra) but is also very finely balanced. This allows for some real delicacy in much of the playing and in much of the singing.
If Sinopoli shows little interest in the dramatic shape of the individual phrases, that might be because he is saving it up for the main climaxes. Both musically and dramatically, the saving grace of this production, at least for me, is the staging of the grail rituals at the ends of the first and third acts. In both cases, a huge chorus gradually files onto the stage, and then sings magnificently, with warmth, precision and solemnity, and with every word crystal clear. Sinopoli carefully grades the ascent up to these focal points in the narrative, allowing them all the weight they need. On both occasions, the effect is crowned by the appearance of Falk Struckmann as Amfortas. He is just brilliant, the best Amfortas I have ever seen. Every moment he is projecting his burden of pain, both in his body language and in the tone of his voice. When he is on the stage, he completely steals the show. Wolfgang Wagner seems intent on keeping the staging as simple as possible so an not to detract from the singers. Struckmann more than any of his colleagues puts in a performance to repay the director's trust.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 30 May 2011

Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble
Todd Reynolds Quartet
w/The M6, Montclair State University Singers
ECM 476 4307
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"Songs of Ascension" brings together many of the musical strands that have run though Meredith Monk's career. Voices are at the centre of everything, and the vocal writing is fresh and interesting throughout. Instruments are also involved, albeit in a more peripheral capacity. The work is "minimalist" in a number of senses, but most obviously through the fact that almost every movement is based on repeated figures.
As ever, ECM provide an impressively illustrated liner, but more unusually, all of the images presented are actually relevant to the work on the disc. "Songs of Ascension" is a site-specific composition, it was written to be performed in the tower, designed by Ann Hamilton and built on the grounds of the Oliver Ranch in Geyserville, California. The tower is cylindrical with two intertwined spiral staircases lining its walls. Clearly, the idea of ascension, with all the transcendental implications that carries, is central to the concept of the tower, and so too to the music that Monk writes to fill it. In the most literal sense, ascending themes often appear in the music, most notably in the climax at the end of the piece. But there is often a more abstract feeling of floating or of physical ascent suggested by the disembodied voices and ethereal instrumental textures.
The best music by far is in the vocal parts. In the second movement, called "strand (gathering)", Monk seems to mimic the unison vocal textures with complex interrelated phonetics of Stockhausen's "Stimmung". The later vocal movements move between Cathy Berbarian style extended vocal techniques from a small group of singers and legato movements with a large choir. Two of the movements, one for string quartet and one for choir, are called "clusters", but it is difficult to tell why, as in both cases the harmonic language is simpler and more euphonious than the term implies.
The use of instruments in the piece is of variable quality and interest. Monk includes one or two very exotic instruments, such as a khaen (a kind of bamboo mouth organ from southeast Asia) and a number of shruti boxes, an accordion type instrument from India used to play single note pedals. When these sounds appear under the vocal textures that add some interest and often seem to inform the vocal innovations by suggesting timbres for the voices to imitate. A string quartet is also used in some of the movements, but Monk's writing for this more conventional ensemble is less successful. She writes in a kind of John Adams type anodyne minimalist style, with two of three note figures endlessly repeated over very boring major chords.
I also struggle with Monk's own vocal contribution, particularly in the penultimate movement, in which she performs for almost five minutes, producing strange and, for the most part, unpleasant vocal sounds over the drone of a shruti box. It's fine if you like that sort of thing, I suppose, but if you are not a dedicated fan, patience very quickly wears thin.
Of course, Meredith Monk has a considerable fanbase of listeners who are likely to forgive her these various indulgences. They should find this new recording very worthwhile, especially given the quality of the performance and the recording. Sadly, it was not recorded in Ann Hamilton's tower but instead at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The sound is richly resonant, but presumably with a different resonance from that of the tower. It is a classic ECM resonance though, that warm, rich sound that is one of the company's trademarks. In fact it is an ECM classic all round - it's just you might have to be a committed fan of Meredith Monk to enjoy everything you find here.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 23 May 2011

James Tibbles: North German Baroque Organ Music

Works by Bruhns, Böhm, Bach, Buxtehude, and Lübeck
James Tibbles organ
Recorded on the Jürgen Ahrend at Monash University, Melbourne
Paladino Music pmr0015
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James Tibbles is the best kind of scholar/performer. His playing is based on rigorous research into the organology and performance practice associated with his repertoire, but he is not one to bore you with the details, and he is just as interested in producing lively and entertaining performances. This disc focusses on North German Baroque repertoire up to, and including, Bach. And while there are a lot of questions that could be considered at length about the appropriate way to perform this music, Tibbles satisfies himself with a few pages of salient facts in the liner notes, outlining his approach, the reasons for his choice of repertoire and the reasons for his choice of instrument.
In fact the instrument is the defining factor here. Tibbles' last recording was made on an antipodean copy of a North German instrument, a NZ harpsichord after the elaborate Christian Zell instrument in Hamburg (see my review here). This recording follows a similar pattern, being recorded on the organ by Jürgen Ahrend at Monash University in Melbourne. The organ is modelled on surviving baroque instruments in the Hamburg area, so Tibbles has put together a programme appropriate to its design.
And what a great programme it is. He manages, somehow, to avoid the problem that almost always besets "Bach and his contemporaries" programmes, namely that the contributions from JSB usually completely overshadow those from the other composers. But the Bach works here, a Toccata in G BWV916 and An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV653b, fit almost seamlessly into the programme, and without doing the great man any serious injustice. The two works are chosen for their stylistic links with the North German tradition, the Toccata has generic links with toccatas by other composers in the area, while An Wasserflüssen Babylon fits into an established tradition there of improvisatory works on that chorale. Most of the other works on the programme are fairly grand, not to say loud, offerings, but there is plenty of variety too. The Buxtehude Te Deum Laudamus and Preludium in d minor find the composer at the top of his game. The two works by Vincent Lübeck make up a significant proportion of the dismally small number of his composition that have survived. His Nun laßt uns Gott, dem Herren chorale variations offer some of the greatest variety on the disc, with the quieter textures giving Tibbles a chance to show off the organ's surprisingly subtle tremulant. Georg Böhm is another composer who is well known to organists, but whose run-of-the-mill reputation seems unjust when his work is performed to this standard. His Vater unser im Himmelreich chorale prelude is a particular treat, adding in some French colour that was apparently all the rage in 18th century Hamburg.
Tibbles claims that the mechanical action of the organ allows for a much greater sensitivity with the articulation of notes and phrases, and certainly the care and detail that go into his phrasing bear this out. In general, he is quite modest with his ornaments, and very subtle with his rubato. But both are there, and both help bring these works to life.
The sound of the organ is very clean, leading me to wonder if German organs in the 17th and 18th centuries could possibly have worked this well. There is not reason why they shouldn't I suppose. However, it is very clear that this instrument is not in a church, which does raise certain authenticity issues. I'm not complaining though, I find this bold, clean audio presentation very attractive. And it is, no doubt, the result of deliberate choices on the part of the engineer and of Tibbles himself. The microphones seem to have been placed close enough to avoid too much reverberation, but not so close that the action is audible or the balance is distorted. I notice the engineer on this recording is Thomas Grubb, a man trusted by Australian organists the world over, who shows here that he knows exactly what he is doing.
All round then, an impressive recording. With his inventive programming, Tibbles shows us that Bach is not the only game in town when it comes to Baroque organ music of North Germany, nor that his predecessors need necessarily be though of as also-rans. He also makes an interesting point in his choice of instrument. There are many Australian and New Zealand organists out there these days, putting out a good number of recordings. But most go to Northern continental Europe to find an instrument they think worthy of their various projects. Tibbles shows there are advantages to be had in working a little closer to home.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Lutoslawski Orchestral Works

Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphonic Variations [8:52]
Symphony No.1 [24:43]
Funeral Music [13:30]
Symphony No.2 [31:22]
Concerto for Orchestra [28:27]
Jeux Vénitiens [12:58]
Livre pour Orchestre [21:12]
Mi-parti [14:35]
Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra
Witold Lutosławski conductor
recorded 24-28 May and 21-25 July 1976 and 13-16 December 1977, Studio of Polish Radio and TV, Katowice, Poland Stereo ADD
EMI 50999 9 07226 2 2 [78:39+77:32]
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Lutosławski's instrument was the piano, but his mastery of orchestration was second to none. The diversity of the works on these two discs is impressive, from the neoclassicism (or at least neo-Stravinsky) of the Symphonic Variations (1938), through the socialist realism of the First Symphony (1947), to the Modernist works of the late 50s and 60s, but the common thread that runs through everything is the sheer dexterity of the composer in his use of the orchestra. Even in the earlier works, where stylistic constraints keep many aspects of the music locked in a kind of mythical 19th century, the use of the orchestra is always right up to the minute. And when he starts using his 'limited aleatory' techniques in works such as Jeux Vénitiens, these too seem perfectly matched to the instrumentation, as if the loosening of synchronisation has had the effect of liberating the individual instruments.
It is this later music that is most interesting, at least to me. The Symphonic Variations, First Symphony and Concerto for Orchestra feel like a grounding in the composer's past before the real business begins, starting with the incomparable Funeral Music of 1958 and on to the Second Symphony of 1966-8, which is perhaps his greatest work. That said, the composer's most popular, or at least most performed, orchestral work, is his Concerto for Orchestra, so perhaps these earlier pieces do have an audience after all. The format of the two discs is to begin with earlier works in both cases before moving on to the later material, so if you want to know what makes Lutosławski distinctive, you'd probably be better off starting the first disc on track 6 (Funeral Music) and the second on track 4 (Jeux Vénitiens).
The performances are as good as any, which, considering how much interest there has been in Lutosławski from recording companies in the years since his death, is no mean feat. The composer leads the orchestra with a steady hand. Little of this music requires overt interpretation; the scores (even the aleatory ones) give enough detail that the composer's intentions can be followed precisely however is at the podium. Despite a certain Impressionism that informs much of the music, detail matters, and Lutosławski makes a point of bringing out the significant orchestral effects. He is fond of large percussion sections and rasping brass, but is also able to find the ideal balance between these potentially disrupting forces and the strings and woodwind.
But great as these recordings are, it is worth bearing in mind what they are not. One thing this release certainly is not is the complete orchestral music of Witold Lutosławski. Naxos are currently undertaking such a project and it has already reached Vol.7. The composer had almost 20 years of creative activity ahead of him when he conducted these sessions in 1976/77, and of the later orchestral scores, the three Chain works and the Third Symphony stand out.
Something else that this is not is new. The two discs were originally released separately in the late 70s. They were then remastered and re-released in 1994. These were then reissued as a two disc box on the EMI Double Forte label in 2000, and have now reappeared in this 20th Century Classics series. This is still the 1994 remaster, and good as it is, if you've heard these discs before, don't expect anything new from this release.
That said, the sound quality is not at all bad. EMI sent their own engineers to Poland for the sessions. They weren't recording in digital by that stage, but the results are still convincing. The worst that can be said is that the sound often seems slightly muffled and the back of the orchestra, particularly the percussion, seem strangely distant. The slightly dated sound is what distinguishes these recordings from the more high-tech ones that have appeared in recent years. From an interpretive point of view, it is nice of have the composer at the podium, but every conductor who has recorded this music since has heard these discs, and none has strayed significantly from the model presented. An important historical document then, but an enjoyable listen too.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Gál Schumann Third Symphonies

Hans Gál: Symphony No.3 in A Op.62
Robert Schumann: Symphony No.3 "Rhenish" Op.97
Orchestra of the Swan
Kenneth Woods conductor
AVIE Records AV 2230
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Each successive release of Hans Gál's orchestral music fits another piece into the jigsaw, and yet his musical persona remains as difficult as ever to define. This Third and final symphony [correction, there is a Fourth, see postscript] was written in 1951-2. It is complex but conservative, modestly-scaled but expansive in scope, rigorously Austro-German but also rule-breaking at every turn. There is a curious dichotomy between the sophistication of the orchestral textures and the staid harmonic language, creating a listening experience that is always interesting despite lacking emotional turbulence.
It is tempting to hear British influence in this music, written by an Austrian émigré living in Edinburgh. Elgar in particular is a voice that seems to be hidden somewhere behind many of the textures. But no, I think it is rather the case that Elgar and his successors were writing in a style that was heavily influenced Brahms and his Viennese contemporaries, as was Gál, whatever country he happened to reside in at the time.
The Third Symphony is written for a relatively small ensemble, but it makes the most of the limited orchestral resources, giving every player a real workout. The young players of the Orchestra of the Swan respond well to the many challenges the score presents. One or two of them, I'm thinking of the oboe, flute, clarinet and horn soloists in particular, seem to be playing exposed lines almost throughout, and all rise to the challenge magnificently.
There is an endearing sense of nativity to the music, and I can't decide if this is the result of the composition or the performance. Gál's post-Brahmsian orchestration and counterpoint have a certain matter-of-fact quality, especially in the absence of any meaningful transient dissonance, which Kenneth Woods amplifies by maintaining fairly strict tempos throughout. That's not to say the performance is in any way rigid, but rather when the score provides opportunities to linger, discipline is always maintained and the performance moves on. The only place where this discipline feels excessive is the opening passage of the second movement. This is marked Andante tranquillo e placido, which surely gives license for a little more indulgence. But then, Woods knows that his woodwind soloists can give him all the emotion the music needs, without him having to pull the tempos around, and they more than repay his trust.
We are told on the cover that this is the world première recording of the symphony, but according to the liner note, a recording was made in 1954 under the composer's baton. It probably wasn't a commercial recording, which may explain the disparity, but I'd be fascinated to know if it still exists, and to what extent Kenneth Woods has based his own interpretation on it. Of course, this sort of music gives scope for a wide range of interpretations, and he would be fully justified in completely ignoring the composer's recording, but great as this recording is, another view of this score would certainly be a valuable asset.
The coupling of Schumann's Third may seem like an opportunistic commercial move, but the logic is impeccable. Gál was, after all, the author of a book on Schumann's orchestral music, and the stylistic legacies are crystal clear. The comparison does make Gál seem a little more 'academic' than he might otherwise, remaining loyal to the intellectual thematic structuring of the German 19th century symphonic tradition without quite managing the free spirit of its greatest masters. But any excuse for a new recording of the Rhenish is to be welcomed, and this one isn't bad at all.
The players give an enthusiastic but focussed performance that works best in the inner movements. Here we find some really sensitive ensemble playing and a wonderful elegance of tone from every section. I was particularly impressed by the trombones at the start of the fourth movement. The astronomical register of the alto part here daunts most players, who are happy to be able to get the notes out at all. So to hear it played with this apparent ease and, most importantly, serene elegance is a real pleasure.
If this Rhenish is a level beneath the greatest on record, it is because of the ensemble in the outer movements. In the first movement in particular, the sheer enthusiasm of the players occasionally threatens the unity of the ensemble. It's not a big problem though, and anyway, the Schumann is only a bonus on this disc, which is well worth buying simply for the Gál symphony.
Gavin Dixon
To find out more about Hans Gál, please visit the website of the Hans Gál Society:

Kenneth Woods has contacted me with a correction and an addition. Hans Gál did, in fact, write a Fourth Symphony, which Woods will be taking into the studio next December. It is a concertante work for violin, cello, flute and clarinet, so there should be plenty of scope for the Orchestra of the Swan's principals to show off thier considerable talents. Also, he tells me that he has had access to Gál's own recording of the Third Symphony. Neither the orchestral playing nor the sound quality are good enough to merit commercial release. With regard to tempos, Gál has a habit of easing into tempos, and then taking things slower than the metronome marks in the final score. This may be a concession to the orchestra, or the metronome markings may be the result of later editing. Whichever way, Woods is surely right to trust the score over the apperently questionable recording.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Bruckner 2 Marcus Bosch Aachen Symphony Orchestra

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.2 (1872 version)
Aachen Symphony Orchestra
Marcus Bosch conductor
Recorded live at St. Nikolaus Kirche, Aachen 22 and 24 May 2010 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Coveillo COV 31015 [66:21]

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Bruckner's Second Symphony is not usually counted among his finest works, but listening to a performance of this quality it is difficult to tell why that should be. Marcus Bosch and his Aachen forces don't make any concessions to the score, they approach it as if it were the Eighth or Ninth, and in doing so uncover levels of depth and sophistication wholly absent in most recordings. There is a sense of life in every phrase, partly a result of sensitive tempo fluctuations and partly the commitment of the players, that allows everything to make perfect sense. This is an expansive reading, yet there is never any suspicion of megalomania or redundancy – a rare achievement indeed.
The recording was made in the St. Nikolaus Kirche in Aachen, a grand, Gothic edifice with a very high ceiling. Recording Bruckner in churches and cathedrals is a risky business, you inevitably loose clarity of detail. But the essence of Bruckner is not in the detail, it is in the bigger picture, and if the conductor and orchestra can work with the acoustic, the results can be magisterial. And that is exactly what happens here. The disc is the penultimate in a Bruckner cycle (assuming they are leaving out No.0 and No.00), and the seven recordings they have previously made in the venue have given them an innate feeling for which tempos work, and for the gaps required between phrases for the decay. Resonant as the space is, it has a clean acoustic with an even decay, ideal for a recording such as this.
The combination of a resonant acoustic and high quality SACD audio leads to paradoxical virtues. Rather than show off the detail of the orchestral sound, the audio instead intensifies the sense of atmosphere. The engineers have clearly taken measures to include the spacious acoustic in the recording, but the orchestra never feels distant. And the quality of the orchestral playing helps to bring the effect off. The strings play with fantastic ensemble, the brass sound is punchy but always round, and the woodwind solos are all distinctive and lyrical, even the bassoon in the Adagio. A lesser orchestra could easily be defeated by the emulsifying effect of the acoustic, but this orchestra is more than a match for it.
The other potentially radical choice is the use of the 1872 'original' version of the score. The main difference between this and the better known Nowak edition is that the scherzo comes second and is considerably longer than in the later edition. But it never outstays its welcome, and given that the whole symphony still fits comfortably on a single disc, there seems little justification for the edits (admittedly Bruckner's own) that are now considered the norm.
The highest musical honours should go to Marcus Bosch, who coordinates and energises this extraordinary performance with insight, energy and passion. Given the acoustic, you might expect generally slow tempos, but he knows that his orchestra has the timbral focus to keep things together at faster speeds. The first movement in particular is taken at a satisfyingly brisk pace, and the scherzo also gets some healthy propulsion. On the other other hand, the adagio and the quieter passages in the finale make the most of the resonance by pulling back and revelling in the moment. None of the tempos are extreme, but they are always fluid, allowing each of the mighty phrases to breath and to unfold at its own pace.
A great recording then, and one that amply demonstrates that high quality audio is not just about highlighting the details. It might be asking too much to expect this disc to convert Bruckner sceptics, but if you have a taste for the man's later work and have previously been unmoved by the Second Symphony, then this could be the disc to change your mind. Marcus Bosch doesn't do anything very much that hasn't been done before, but somehow it all comes together in a way that few manage with this work. Highly recommended.
Gavin Dixon
This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 13 May 2011

Joseph Moog: Liszt Recital

1 Hexameron- Grandes variations de bravoure sur la Marche des Puritains de
Bellini 18’04
2 Polonaise No 1 in C minor 9’36
3 Trauerwalzer-Variationen after Franz Schubert (D 365 No 2) 6’35
4 Ballade No 2 in B minor 12’46
5 Adelaïde after Beethoven 9’21
6 Valse-Impromptu 4’38
Prelude and Fugue after J.S. Bach (BWV 545)
7 Prelude 1’47
8 Fugue 3’25

Joseph Moog piano
Claves 50-1108 [66:45]
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This disc of Liszt compositions and transcriptions fully deserves the title 'recital'. The sheer variety of works here is spectacular, from the grand opener, Hexameron, through various arrangements and stylistic homages to fellow composers, right up to the Bach Prelude and Fugue transcription that forms the majestic conclusion to the programme. Listening to this wide variety of styles gives a glimpse of what a recital by Liszt himself must have been like, with every work stylistically distinct, yet each moulded in Liszt's own image.
That puts some huge requirements on the pianist, Joseph Moog, whose stylistic sensitivities must be two-fold, taking in both the Liszt himself and the other composers he references, be it Beethoven, Chopin or Bach. The issue is particularly acute in the case of the opening work, the Hexameron – Grandes variations de bravoure sur la Marche des Puritans de Bellini. The work is a portmanteau, with contributions from a range of pianists: Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and, remarkably, Chopin. The thread that weaves these diverse contributions together is not the theme itself, but Liszt, who edits the variations together for his own unique performance style. The piece isn't played much today, and the liner notes make excuses for the vacuous virtuosity of many of the variations. In fact, they needn't, because despite the multiple authors, the whole work, even the Chopin variation, sounds like vintage Liszt. Of course, it needs a performance that can do justice to both the technical virtuosity and the stylistic diversity, and that is exactly what it gets here.
The First Polonaise, and later the Second Ballade, also find Liszt in a Chopinesque mood, and to Moog's credit, he manages to find the ideal balance between the performance styles appropriate to the two composers. So the melodies flow as in Chopin, but the left hand accompaniments are quite regimented and picked out in precise detail. Elsewhere, Liszt turns his attentions to Schubert and Beethoven. In these works, Liszt's compositional style comes much more to the fore, he was hardly a historicist after all. A transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue BWV545 completes the programme, and here we get a glimpse of Bach as perceived in the Romantic era.
Or rather, Joseph Moog offers his interpretation of what Bach may have sounded like in the Romantic era. After all, Liszt's only contribution here is to integrate the pedal part into the left hand. But what a great excuse for some unreconstructed Romantic Bach! And Moog really makes the most of it, providing a thundering conclusion to his recital.
Joseph Moog is still only 23, a young age to be tackling Liszt. The good news is that his technique is completely flawless. There are no complexities that Liszt can throw at him that he does not tackle with ease. The audio on this recording is first class, all the better to hear how he picks out the detail in the various left hand figurations. If I've one complaint, it is that the detail and precision often come at the expense of feeling. That's not really a problem in the louder passages, the toccata like opening of the Hexameron is stunning. But in some of the quieter passages he risks sounding slightly mechanical. Better that than going too far the other way, as many of his older colleagues are wont to do with Liszt, but if he were to free up his tempos just a little here and there, he would come very close to perfection in most of this repertoire.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bacewicz Quintets Krystian Zimerman

Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
Piano Quintet No.1 [26:03]
Piano Sonata No.2 [18:47]
Piano Quintet No.2 [20:03]
Krystian Zimerman piano
Kaja Danczowska violin
Agata Szymczewska violin
Ryszard Groblewski viola
Rafal Kwiatkowski cello
Deutsche Grammaphon 477 8332 [65:09]

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We owe Krystian Zimerman a debt of gratitude for putting the weight of his celebrity behind the work of the under-appreciated Grażyna Bacewicz, and getting this top quality album of her works into the DG catalogue. By all reports it has been a struggle. The recordings were made on the back of a tour of Poland to mark the composer's centenary in 2009. But Zimerman also wanted to include a recording of Bacewicz herself performing one of her violin works (she was a virtuoso player). Negotiations with Polish radio for the rights to the recording have been going on for the intervening two years, but have come to nothing.
Nevertheless, listeners are unlikely to come away from this recording feeling short-changed. Bacewicz was active in almost every genre, but considered her chamber works to contain her greatest music. Certainly, the piano quintets and sonata presented here are music of the highest quality. The two quintets are also indicative of the two stylistic periods of her career. She had studied in Paris in the 1930s, and the disciplined neoclassicism she encountered there put her in good stead with the Communist authorities in Poland. But then in the late 1950s, everything opened up in terms of the stylistic constraints on Polish composers, and Bacewicz followed the lead of the younger generation in exploring tone colour and musical textures rather than traditional tonal argument in the construction of her music. The two quintets date from 1952 and 1965 respectively, so give a taste of both styles.
Calling Bacewicz's 1st Quintet neoclassical is to do it a disservice though. Certainly, the structuring is based on a classical sense of proportion and an underlying tonality can usually be perceived, but in every other respect this music is very adventurous indeed. Much of it is quiet and slow, with the phase structuring only implicitly defined. But it also regularly builds up to dense climaxes. The composer's innate knowledge of the instruments' capabilities allows her to created dense sounding textures without compromising the linear focus of each of the parts. It's well constructed music, but that craftsmanship never impedes its sheer expressive power.
The 1st Quintet suggests parallels with Prokofiev, parallels that become even clearer in the 2nd Piano Sonata. Again, there is plenty of discipline and fine crafting here, but the overriding impression is of music with a broad emotional sweep. Long phrases range across the keyboard, seemingly simple melodies begin, but are then forced into sophistication by the complexity of the accompanying figures that accrue beneath. She comes across here as a sort of Expressionist Chopin.
The 2nd Piano Quintet is more of a puzzle. It is clearly influenced by the sonoristic innovations of Lutosławski and Penderecki, but the music remains essentially linear, and its structure retains at least vestiges of the classical forms of her earlier work. The harmonies are inscrutable, but never ugly. The reduced role of tonality means that the larger chords are not as iridescent as before, imparting a sense of introspection, which may or may not be deliberate.
One certainty though is that this music does not play itself and requires committed interpretation. Krystian Zimerman and his colleagues give it everything and the results are magnificent. Zimerman gives a reading of the sonata that is as passionate as it is precise. He is a player who knows all about making the most of the moment, so when Bacewicz calls for a phrase to appear out of nowhere and take the audience by surprise, Zimerman gives the effect all the immediacy and physical power it needs. He doesn't hog the limelight in the quintets, which benefit from excellent balance between the instruments. Excellent sound quality all round actually, and well presented packaging, with a liner essay that tells us something about the player's relationship with the music rather than just the standard composer bio. Highly recommended.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Beethoven Tilson Thomas Emanuel Ax

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 [33:57]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58 [34:20]
Emanuel Ax piano
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
Recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 9-12 December 2009 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
SFS Media 821936-0037-2 [68:17]

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First impressions of this new disc from the San Francisco Symphony are of the sheer quality of the production values. The orchestra, especially under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, has a legitimate claim to a place in the pantheon of the world's great orchestras, so their own label ought to be showing off some impressive strengths. And that is exactly what happens here. The sparkling SACD audio does full justice to every section: the woodwinds are chirpy and distinct, the horns are brazen, the lower strings are given presence and weight by the strong bass response.
But great as the orchestra and their esteemed conductor undoubtedly are, the best reason to buy this disc is the contribution from pianist Emanuel Ax. There are no shortage of recordings of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, and even among the SACDs, there have been two other strong recent contenders, from Dejan Lazić and Yevgeny Sudbin. Ax is easily the equal of both of these, and is perhaps closer to Sudbin in his interpretation. Like Sudbin, he is able to combine muscular pianism with a lyrical melodic style, although he leans more towards the weight than the lyricism. He arpeggiates the opening chord, in accordance with Beethoven's verbally stated, although never written, wishes. From then on his performance is all about immediacy and agility. It is heavy, but then that is what the work requires. There is lots of pedal, and the acoustic of the concert hall also blurs the edges. A little more detail might have been nice, especially since the SACD audio would be more than capable of picking it up. But this interpretation is more about the bigger picture, and Emanuel Ax is more interested in whipping up a whirlwind than pondering over the minute details of the score.
Michael Tilson Thomas approaches the Fifth Symphony in a similar spirit. Any thought of period performance is out of the window, and instead we get a turbulent, in-your-face reading that pushes the drama, especially of the outside movements for all it is worth. But it doesn't quite hit the mark. The tempos are often slow and rarely have the flexibility the music requires. And where Carlos Kleiber (to make an unfair comparison) builds the intensity through carefully graded crescendos and slight tempo increases, MTT is more inclined to slow down for the monumental climaxes. A legitimate approach, but not half as engaging or exciting as it could be.
The orchestra are on top form throughout. Despite the size of the string section, they never hold the music back and their ensemble is as good as any. The horns are wonderfully raspy in the second movement of the symphony, as are the trumpets in the fourth.
So if you are thinking of buying this for the concerto, do so. I have reservations about the symphony, but I have at least three recordings of the work that are worse, and most other collectors probably do too. And whatever MTT is doing on the podium, he couldn't ask for a better response from his orchestra. They sound great throughout, and the audio puts them in the best possible light. Would that all orchestra own labels matched the quality of SFS Media.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Mahler 3 Jansons Concertgebouw

Mahler: Symphony No.3
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernada Fink – mezzo
Netherlands Radio Choir
Boys of the Breda Sacrament Choir
Rijmond Boys' Choir
Mariss Jansons – conductor
RCO Live RCO 10004 (2 SACDs)

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Mariss Jansons is the ideal conductor for orchestra own labels. Their tight schedules and (presumably) tight budgets mean that they need to produce something special, usually just from editing together recordings of two live concerts. But Jansons ensures that every performance he gives is to the highest standard and that the orchestra are giving everything they can. And his interpretations, while they are never radical, always include something distinctive, something that justifies yet another recording of the core repertoire works he favours.
Recordings of Mahler symphonies are hardly at a premium just now. This is the first I've heard on SACD, but it is at least the third to have been released on the format after well-received versions from Tilson Thomas and Gergiev. Fortunately, another of Jansons' great strengths is his ability to bring out pertinent details without focussing unduly on the microscopic level. That is another great bonus in the orchestra own label market, where SACD predominates, but where the improved resolution is not always exploited by conductors. Of course, working with one of the greatest orchestras in the world helps. Among the details of the score that I had not fully registered before, but that are crystal clear here, are the contra-bassoon rumblings in the quieter passages at the start of the first movement, the contrapuntal lines in the brass in the first movement's chaotic development, the interplay of the woodwind soloists in the second and third movements...
I could go on, but it is worth stressing that the detail of the sound is only one of the assets this recording boasts. More important, I think, is the sheer quality of the orchestral playing. Tuning and ensemble are close to ideal throughout, the brass playing, particularly from the horns, is a continuous joy, the strings are lush and opulent, and the woodwind solos are all distinctive. It is a shame that there is no orchestra list, because many of these players deserve to be named. I'm assuming that the trombone solos are played by Jörgen van Rijen, who makes an excellent job of maintaining the momentum of the solo line while also putting some real weight behind the sound.
What makes Jansons' reading distinctive is the rubato he introduces into the second and third movements. Many of the woodwind solos, like the oboe at the start of the second movement for example, begin with a pronounced upbeat. Jansons gets the players to lean on these upbeats, with a little more attack than you would expect and a slightly extended duration. This may seem like an affectation to some, but the consistency of the approach throughout the two movements allows it to integrate into the texture of the work. In some ways this is a Jansons trademark, and elsewhere it can occasionally be a problem. In his recent recording of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the BRSO (BR Klassik 900101), the already fragile structural logic of that work is fatally undermined (at least in my opinion) by the liberties Jansons takes with the tempos. But he is more subtle here, and the character that his interventions adds works in sympathy with the character of the music.
This accentuated style is continued in the finale, although I don't find it quite so appropriate there. Where most conductors perform the last movement with an even, flowing legato and shape the phrases with rubato, Jansons instead keeps the tempo even and introduces some occasionally heavy accents into the string lines. It is a legitimate approach, especially as it acknowledges the sheer quantity of articulation marks in the score, but it occasionally approaches pedantry, and demonstrates why most conductors are happy to let the music flow evenly on in the gradual build-up to the final climax, which is as powerful here as in any recording.
Before all that we have the two vocal movements. Despite the precision audio, Jansons is able to maintain some mystery in the sound at the opening of "O Mensch". Bernada Fink gives a commanding performance, although her vibrato is a little heavy for my taste. The ladies choir and boys choir but put in sparkling performances, although the boys takes a few bars to get into their stride.
On balance, there is nothing here to disappoint Mariss Jansons' legions of fans. As ever, he gives a performance that is traditional yet which has some intriguing details. The orchestra are on top form, and the superior audio works to everybody's benefit. If you've liked what you've heard on any of the previous RCO Live releases with Jansons (and what's not to like), then you'll love this.
Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Hasse: Requiem, Miserere, Dresdner Barockorchester

Johann Adolf Hasse
Requiem in C major
Miserere in C minor
Dresdner Kammerchor
Dresdner Barockorchester
Hans-Christoph Rademann - conductor
Carus 83.349 [70:15]
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Not many composers in the history of Western music have written more than on Requiem setting, and Johann Adolf Hasse may well be unique in having writing two, both in major keys. The C major Requiem was written for the funeral of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, and delivers a paradoxical mix of upbeat state ceremony and reverential mourning. It also mixes the baroque and the classical in a way that makes it very difficult to pin down stylistically. There are traces of Vivaldi here (Hasse studied in Venice) and also of Bach. In fact, the Kyrie, or at least the theme of the Kyrie sounds like it has been ripped off from the B minor mass. But Hasse is his own man, and despite these influences from previous generations, his music must have seemed thoroughly modern and in line with Enlightenment tastes in 1763.
Even so, he poses the problem for period performers of exactly in which period to locate his music. Hans-Christoph Rademann and the Dresden Baroque orchestra and choir err on the side of classical elegance rather than baroque erudition. The vocal soloists are given free rein to emote in their various arias, and the woodwind soloists, whom Hasse keeps busy, often sound like they are performing a Mozart symphony. The results are all very elegant, perhaps not as liturgical as the genre requires, but always engaging, and never at odds with the spirit of the music.
The tempos are usually quite strict, nothing wrong with that, but they are also often on the slow side. This may have been a conscious decision in order to add the missing solemnity to funereal music that is written in a major key, but the music often lacks momentum. The wind-heavy orchestration could also do with more accentuation. The evenness of the playing certainly shows off the technical skills of the players, but Hasse's music occasionally risks monotony and could do with a helping hand from the performers to keep the interest up.
The choir and orchestra are small, and considering the state occasion for which the work was written, I suspect its première was given by considerably larger forces. However, the music has many moments of intimacy, arias, duets and the like, which benefit from the precision available from the small string section. The recording was made in a church, the Ev. St. Marienkircke in Marienberg, and while the resonance is clearly audible, it never overpowers. In fact the size of the ensemble and the size of the space seem ideally matched.
The soloists are generally good, giving characterful and attractive performances. One of the female singers (I couldn't identify which) sings with vibrato that stands out like a sore thumb. Also, the bass, Cornelius Uhle is a little underpowered, even against this chamber sized ensemble. The sopranos in the choir have one or two moments of questionable tuning, but on the whole the singing is fine. The orchestral playing is disciplined, almost to a fault. There is no vibrato here, and there is a slight coarseness to the string sound, not unpleasant as such, but at the more extreme end of the period orchestra sound.
The second work on the disc is Hasse's Miserere in C minor, and despite his moving to a minor key, the composer is still in a curiously upbeat mood. As with the Requiem, the textures here are fairly homogeneous, with appearances from the solo singers rarer than the choral passages. Perhaps the work is a little more baroque, or at least more contrapuntal, but even in the contrapuntal passages, everything is done with classical panache.
The homogeneity of the textures means that there are few opportunities for the audio to pick out details. The microphones are not particularly close to the performers, but the resulting soundscape seems appropriate to the nature of the music.
One thing is clear from listening to this recording, that there are many ways to perform the liturgical music of Johann Adolf Hasse, and that this is only one of them. It is a shame that the music is not recorded more often, as it would be interesting to compare this with performance that was faster, or one with a larger ensemble. Even a Karl Richter style modern instrument performance could have its merits, although we may have missed our chance to hear that one. This recording may or may not represent how the work sounded in the 1760s, but it is certainly accordant with the fashions of today when it comes to the early classical repertoire.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 2 May 2011

Walton: String Quartets, Doric Quartet

William WALTON (1902-1983)
String Quartet (1919-1922) Premiere recording of the original version [35:17]
String Quartet in A minor (1944-1947) [26:47]
Doric String Quartet
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 14-16 July 2010 stereo DDD
Chandos CHAN10661 [62:17]

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Given the relative paucity of string quartet repertoire from the UK, it is surprising that Walton's two contributions to the genre are not heard more often. In the case of his earliest quartet, there are a number of historical factors to explain the fact, but the later quartet is a very fine work indeed. Perhaps if the Elgar and Delius quartets didn't make such a convenient CD-length pairing, we'd get to hear this one more often.
The quartets are unnumbered because Walton considered the first a student work. True enough, he was an undergraduate when he started it. A dodgy first performance didn't help its prospects, which Walton first attempted to improve by introducing major cuts. He later gave up on the whole thing and withdrew the work. Up until now, the work has only been recorded in its shortened form, and this is the first recording of the full version. Walton described the work as 'full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg', which to my ear is only partly true. He certainly goes for Schoenberg's contrapuntal style when it comes to string quartet writing, and the tonal basis for the music is often difficult to pin down. But on the whole this is a very civilised and very English response to central European developments. The urge to cut the score is understandable, if it has one major failing it is that it overstretches its material, and the fugal finale, clever as it is, would make a stronger impact if it were more concise. But that is the only aspect of the music that betrays its student origins.
By contrast, the maturity and accomplishment of the A minor quartet is everywhere apparent. The music here is in the mould of the First Symphony, echoes of which regularly peep though the textures, giving added support to the music's symphonic scope. The Presto second movement in particular, could almost be a transcription of the First Symphony's Scherzo. And unlike the earlier quartet, this work really hangs together and fully justifies its almost half hour length.
The performances are excellent throughout: lively, focussed and with plenty of timbal variety. The Doric Quartet clearly live this music, to such an extent that they even dress in sharp Walton-style suits for the liner photographs. There is simply nothing to fault in their technique or ensemble.
The sound too is very good. Potton Hall provides a warm but clear acoustic, creating an audio environment that is both inviting and engaging. The pizzicatos in the A minor Quartet's Largo movement really benefit from the warmth of the sound, taking on a lilting bounce. There is plenty of bass in the mix, so the cello comes through well, yet the balance is finely judged throughout.
The track record of Chandos when it comes to promoting British music is as good as anybody's, so it is no surprise that a recording of this quality should come from them. Both quartets have their competitors on CD (although the first only in the shortened version) but there is still plenty of space in the catalogue for a recording with this level of commitment, insight and audio quality.
Gavin Dixon
This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: