Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 29 July 2011

Lucia Di Lammermoor: Gergiev, Dessay, Beczala, Mariinsky Opera

Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Piotr Beczala (Edgardo), Vladislav Sulimsky (Enrico), Dmitry Voropaev (Arturo), Ilya Bannik (Raimondo), Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Alisa) & Sergei Skorokhodov (Normanno), Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus, Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Recorded Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg, 12-16 September 2010

Mariinsky MAR0512 (2SACDs)
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The Mariinsky Label has been gradually expanding its cultural horizons over the first two years of its existence. The first three releases were all of Russian repertoire. Artistically, that was probably sensible, but if the decision had been imposed by marketing managers, Gergiev had the last word when it came to the actual works on those discs, all of which were from the 20th century. Then in 2010 they released a Parsifal, another brave move and on the whole a successful one. The big question the critics where asking then was whether a Russian company could sound German enough to pull off this most German of scores. Hiring in a few singers from the West made a big difference to the result, Rene Pape in particular bringing his authoritative Gurnamanz to bear on the project. My own view of their Parsifal was that the singers and players all gave excellent and stylistically acute performances, and that the only factor standing against the recording was Gergiev's idiosyncratic tempo choices.
So now from the heart of the German operatic repertoire the company moves to the heart of the Italian repertoire. Again the same suspicions start creeping in about how well a Russian company is going to cope with music that most listeners know better from performances from the composer's home country. It is probably worth bearing in mind though, that this is a full time opera company, and while they don't often make recordings of non-Russian repertoire, they must perform these works on a regular basis. So we shouldn't be too surprised when the results to stand up to comparison with the best from any other country.
That said, there is something distinctively Russian about this Lammermoor. All those Italian melodies flow beautifully, and the orchestra achieves a fabulous lyrical cantabile quality, especially in the woodwind solos. But there is a sense of drive and purpose about this performance that seems, to me at least, distinctively Slavic. Accents are punchy, sforzandos are muscular and immediate, and the sheer weight of the orchestral texture in the tuttis seems at odds with the music's Italian heritage, and indeed its date. The chorus too is very Russian, but in all the right ways. Power and precision are the hallmarks of their singing, and when Gergiev gets huge tuttis out of the orchestra, it is at least in part because he knows the chorus can match them.
As with Parsifal, the cast here is led by two imported singers, although neither from Italy. Lucia has become a signature role for Natalie Dessay, so her many fans will no doubt take an interest, as this is the first time she has recorded the role complete. Comparisons with Sutherland are inevitable, but Dessay takes a very different approach to the role. Both singers give it their all, producing full-blown, impassioned coloratura performances. But unlike Sutherland, Dessay doesn't make it sound easy. Her voice has a narrower tone, and while she copes with all the top notes, they don't all sound pretty. Perhaps she brings a little more urgency to the role than Sutherland, which is useful in this typically driven Gergiev reading. Her vibrato is narrower and less pronounced than Sutherland's as well, which perhaps reflects modern tastes. I enjoyed the Mad Scene, although it's not the maddest I've heard. Dessay structures it well, always saving something in reserve for the build-ups and outbursts. Some excellent glass harmonica playing from Sascha Reckert (there is a video of him discussing the instrument here), and the balance between the exotic instrument and Dessay is just right, the result, it seems, of some significant recent advances in glass harmonica technology.
Piotr Beczala puts in a solid performance as Edgardo. His tone is rich and even, and his sound production is never threatened by the extreme dynamics that Donizetti writes, and that Gergiev frequently exaggerates. The supporting cast, all of whom are Russian, support well. There are no stand out voices here, but then in fairness there are no stand out roles either.
The sound quality is good, and certainly benefits from the SACD audio. This isn't the sort of piece to show off that technology at its best, but the clarity of the orchestral textures in particular works to the benefit of Donizetti's score. The recordings were made live at concert performances at the Mariinsky Concert Hall. The acoustic is good, but one consequence of the high quality audio is that the ambience is very much that of a concert hall and not of an opera theatre. The experience that is being reproduced is the experience of hearing a concert performance. That is standard practice for operas on own labels these days, so listeners are probably used to it, but still it seems at least two steps removed from the true operatic experience.
In comparison with the famous Sutherland/Boynyge recording, everything on this new release sounds very angular. The high quality audio means that there is no blurring of the orchestral colours, Gergiev makes a point of highlighting all the details, and Dessay's voice has that narrow, focussed quality that picks out every note in the melodic line. As a result, this is much less comfortable listening. That is as it should be perhaps, given the subject matter of the opera, but it is a recording that commands the listener's attention from beginning to end: an intense but satisfying experience.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Goldberg Variations Nicholas Angelich

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Nicholas Angelich piano
Recorded at Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music, Cork, Ireland, 23-26 February 2011 Stereo DDD
Virgin Classics 50999 0706642 9 [79:58]

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Whenever I have heard him in the past, Nicholas Angelich has seemed like a very heavy-handed pianist. Everything about his playing is strident and confident, not percussive as such, his sense of phrasing and legato is developed enough to avoid that accusation, just heavy. That sort of approach works well enough for Brahms, his recording of the Second Concerto (50999 266349 2 0) is excellent, but he only has to take it back as far as Beethoven and the textures begin to get swamped by the sheer weight of his playing.
How then will the Goldberg Variations fare? Surprisingly, the answer is that on the whole it works fine. His assertive style is everywhere evident, but not everything is loud. In fact, he seems to exaggerate the quieter dynamic to balance out his more boisterous dynamics in the louder movements.
At 5:20, the opening aria is on the slow side. The duration is partly explained by the fact that he observes the repeats, but even so it is also very slow. He plays the opening chord and then there is a pregnant pause as you wait for the second, it feels like forever. After a few bars, the ear becomes accustomed to the pace and the music takes on a feeling of momentum, without actually speeding up. In fact, Angelich is fairly disciplined with his tempos, and while this is a Romantic reading in most senses, the stability of the tempos in each individual movement compensates for some of the indulgences of dynamic and articulation later on.
When the variations proper begin, Angelich's trademark heavy touch begins to make itself apparent. With the exception of the quieter variations, the playing throughout is forceful and confident, but always flowing and lyrical. Angelich lifts many of the textures through carefully judged details. The relationship between the written notes and the ornaments, for example, is fascinating. By presenting the written notes with such surety, he is able to contrast the ornaments, which are usually lighter and often very slightly belated. That's a nice touch, although perhaps the contrast is a little heavy.
Something else that is very heavy is Angelich's bass lines. The question again arises over whether they are appropriately articulated of just heavy-handed. I would inclined toward the former, especially given the structural significance of these bass lines, and the fact that most other pianists emphasise the melodies to the detriment of left hand clarity.
The recorded sound suits Angelich's playing. The liner doesn't mention what piano is used, but it has a warm, round sound and plenty of power towards the bottom, ideal for showing off this pianists strengths. The recorded sound emphasises atmosphere over pinpoint clarity, but there is no excessive resonance, and Angelich ensures that every line of the counterpoint shines through.
Bach isn't the sort of repertoire that you would expect to benefit from Angelich's Lisztian pianism, but there are a surprising number of insights here that more timid pianists, let alone harpsichordists, don't quite manage. That combination of lucid, legato phrasing and confident keyboard technique deliver satisfying, and always musical results. But musical as it undoubtedly is, I would struggle to describe this recording as subtle. However, if like me you feel that there is too much subtlety in most Bach interpretation these days, Angelich might just be the man for you.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 25 July 2011

Anneke Scott, Kathryn Cok: Sonatas for Horn and Fortepiano by Beethoven and Krufft

Nikolaus von Krufft: Sonata in E Major
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F Major
Joseph Haydn: Largo (after the "Rider" Quartet)
Maximillin Joseph Leidesdorf/Camilla Bellonci: Sonata in E flat

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Anneke Scott and Kathryn Cok demonstrate here that performance on period instruments need not be a dry or academic exercise. In fact, the four works they play here would have little to commend them were they to be played on modern instruments. But the great benefit of the handhorn and the fortepiano is the sheer variety of tones and colours that they are capable of producing, bringing something new to each successive phrase.
An interesting, if purely theoretical, debate is often sparked by the performances of virtuoso period instrument players. Namely, when the music was written, were there virtuosi of the same calibre about? And if not, do performances of superior technical skill have any claim to authenticity? In the case of the early 19th century handhorn, the answer to the first question is a definite yes. It was a period when solo handhorn players were rising to superstar status across Europe, and while the quantity of surviving virtuoso music written for them is relatively small, the sheer technical difficulty of the music presented here demonstrates that their skill must have been to a very high level indeed.
But first and foremost, this recording is great fun. It is not a history lesson in any sense, and while the historical research behind it clearly erudite, it is the immediacy of the music that leaves a lasting impression. Without the mediation of valves, the horn is acoustically a very simple instrument, if performance-wise a very complex one. And the composers represented make little concession for the physical contortions the player must execute to play their various scales, runs, ornaments etc. Every note of the scale has a different timbre, something Scott is keen to emphasise, while keeping the dynamics and contours of the phrases impressively even. I'll confess to astonishment at the precision of her tuning, and even go as far as to suggest that her 19th century forebears would have made more intonation slips than she does.
The compositions are serviceable without being exceptional. At the risk of offending Beethoven devotees, I would say that the Krufft is the best of them. Like the Beethoven, and indeed the Leidesdorf/Bellonci, it is in a fairly conventional Classical-era style. The sort of music you would normally expect to hear on a clarinet or perhaps a violin. I don't know how many of the ornaments are written into the score, and it wouldn't surprise me if the players are adding in their own complications just for the hell of it. But all the filigree decoration fits well into the style of the work, and the horn writing, or at least the horn playing, at the end of the third movement is as complex as you'll find anywhere.
I've never been much of a fan of the Beethoven sonata. The story that it was dashed off on the afternoon of the performance is all the more convincing for the uninspired results. Or so I thought before hearing this. But that insipid conformity that pervades the whole piece when played on a modern horn falls away when presented on a period instrument. The variety of tone colours that the handhorn adds into the mix really makes the piece worth hearing. As I say, the Krufft is more fun, and certainly deserves its top billing on the programme, but this reinvention of the Beethoven is another highlight of the disc.
The Largo from Haydn's Rider Quartet, presented here in an arrangement by an unkown hand, offers a few minutes respite before the grand finale of the final sonata. At the risk of labouring the point, I'm not much of a fan of the original of this piece either. But again, the performance on handhorn adds to the interest. It is an interesting demonstration of the fad amongst music publishers in the early 19th century to issue famous works in arrangements for every imaginable combination of instruments.
Kathryn Cok is an energetic but sensitive accompanist. Like Scott, she never treats the classical repertoire, nor her historic instrument, with undue reverence, and she plays every piece with energy and spontaneity. Her fortepiano (by David Winston 2007) is in excellent condition with a bright a vibrant sound, but also with just enough of that boxy, nasal quality to distinguish it from its modern relatives. The recorded sound in general is very good, quite resonant but with all the details clearly presented. The liner contains an interesting essay about the works from Anneke Scott. The two handsome photographs of the photogenic performers are welcome, but some photographs of their instruments would also have been of interest. But as I say, this disc is not about the technology upon which the recordings were made, and the 'historical' nature of the whole project is abundantly clear from the sound quality of every note. Instead it is about lively and spontaneous music making. From that point of view, I'd recommend it to anybody, and not just to those with a specialist interest in period instruments.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Vivaldi Sacred Music Vittorio Negri

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Sacred Music
RV 586, 587, 588, 589, 591, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 601, 602, 604, 605, 606, 607, 608, 609, 610, 611, 613, 615, 616, 617, 618, 635, 636, 639, 642
Soloists: Sally Burgess, Susan Daniel, Felicity Lott, Margaret Marshall, Anne Collins, Ann Murray, Birgit Finnilä, Linda Finnie, Jochen Kowalski, Nico van der Meel, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, Anton Scharinger, Thomas Thomaschke
John Alldis Choir
English Chamber Orchestra (CDs 1-5)
Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra (CDs 6-7)
Vittorio Negri conductor
Recorded: Wembley Town Hall November 1976, St John's Smith Square April 1978 and July 1979, Church of Maria Minor Utrecht February and May 1990. Stereo DDD/ADD
Newton Classics 8802045 [65:11+67:08+66:45+66:03+69:02+69:59+52:57]
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It may seem ungrateful, but my first reaction listening through this box set of Vivaldi sacred music was that there is just too much of it. 457 minutes of this stuff, which even its advocates would agree, all sounds very similar, is more than the mind can comfortably contemplate. Presumably, Newton Classics bought the rights as a job lot, and from a financial point of view it would have made little difference if they had only included three or four discs. Even so, there are some technical problems with the reissue and a frustrating lack of information in the liner, both of which may have been resolved if the same money had been invested on a shorter programme.
The recordings themselves are good. Italian conductor and musicologist Vittorio Negro was considered an authority on Vivaldi back in the 1970s, and it is easy to hear why. Without any particular concession to the then fledgling period performance movement, he directs performances that have energy and sparkle. His vision for each movement and work is easily communicated thanks to the high performance standards of the players and singers. The unity of the string section is rarely in question, and the choir, whilst they sometimes become a little blurred in the inner parts, never fail to clearly articulate the counterpoint.
The list of soloists reads like a who's who, and listening to these discs back-to-back the individual identity of each of them really becomes clear. Solo movements for ladies voices (or at least taken by female singers) predominate, so there is more here for fans of Margaret Marshall and Anne Murray than for those of Anthony Role Johnson.
The first five discs date from 1976-1980, while the last two were recorded in 1991. It is a testament to the quality of the 1970s analogue masters that there is no perceptible difference between them and the later digital ones. The engineering quality of the originals is explained by the fact that the recordings were made by Phillips. The earlier recordings have been the subject of at least one re-release on the original label, perhaps to coincide with the release of the later ones, but Universal has clearly decided that their earning potential has now declined to the point that licensing to a budget label is their most useful role.
This isn't the place for aesthetic ideology, but it has to be said that if these discs were released on the Phillips label today, they would seem hopelessly dated. The period performance movement now has such a hegemony over the core Baroque repertoire that even modern instrument recordings show the influence of those performance techniques. And great as these recordings are, it often seems, at least to my 21st century ears, that I'm listening to Elgar. Some people still have a taste for this sort of Vivaldi, but even so, it does raise the question of what, or who, this reissue is intended for. The encyclopedic nature of the programming suggests it is aimed at listeners who want to cover the broadest Vivaldi repertoire. But they are not well served by recordings that don't acknowledge the developments that have been made in performance practice and scholarship in recent decades.
And even listeners attracted by the nostalgia value of these recordings are going to be frustrated by the production values of the reissue. The liner essay is about the works rather than the recordings, and there is only so much you can say about eight hours of music in three and half small pages. The track listing only gives the initials of the soloists for each work, requiring frustrating cross-referencing between the pages. There is no indication of which recordings are analogue and which digital, admittedly obvious for recordings made in 1977 and 1991, but what about 1980?
The most serious problem is the mastering flaws on the discs themselves. There are silent gaps midway through movements, and at least one of the discs has tracking problems towards the end, causing it to skip. I'm not sure what the cause is of these problems, but I'm sure that financial constraints play a part. Like many budget reissue labels, Newton Classics works on the principle of the greatest possible duration for the lowest possible cost. In these straightened times, that is one of the few business models left with scope for even a modest profit margin. Even so, the long-term viability of the whole concept it surely dependent on customer satisfaction, so there is definitely a case for raising the price by a few pounds if that will raise the standard of the product to a minimum threshold of quality.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Strauss: Don Quixote, Prague Symphony Orchestra

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote Op.35, Death and Transfiguration Op.24
Prague Symphony Orchestra (Symfonicky orchestr hl. m. Prahy FOK)
Jiri Kout (conductor), Jiri Hurnik (violin), Pavel Perina (viola), Milos Jahoda (cello)
Recorded live at Smetana Hall, Prague 16 and 17 September 2009
FOK 0004-2 031

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Richard Strauss with a Czech accent? Well yes, up to a point. Some aspects of this recording are typically Czech. The brass sound is punchy and focussed, while the woodwind soloists have a wider, warmer sound. The passionate playing from the orchestra is also typical, and is what really makes this recording come alive. In truth, this recording is a product of cosmopolitan times, and at a blind listening I would be hard pressed to locate its country of origin. But the standard of performance is excellent – really a world-class offering, whatever its source.
Jiri Kout directs Don Quixote with playfulness and humour. It is a dramatic score, but on a comic theme, so it is just as well that the dramatic climaxes are not treated like Mahler. It is certainly dramatic enough, but the quieter passages, and the concertante passages in particular, are treated as the main focus. And the soloists all shine, particularly Milos Jahoda, representing the knight himself on the cello. A little more power in the bottom register from would have been nice, but otherwise this is an ideal reading. The sound engineers haven’t gone to great lengths to distinguish the soloists from the ensemble, or if they have they have covered their tracks well. But Jahoda is able to dominate the orchestral textures from within, which really helps this multifarious score to cohere. The woodwind soloists are a great asset to this orchestra, and Strauss puts them through their paces. The freedom that Kout affords them gives them all the space they need, but without ever compromising the symphonic flow of the music.
Death and Transfiguration is a curious coupling, but this recording of Strauss' relatively neglected tone poem is a valuable addition to the catalogue. In fact, the pairing works well, because the same high performance values are brought to both works, as well as the same stylistic sensitivity to Strauss' textures. And while the atmosphere of the two works is very different, the fact that both are presented in such an immersive way means that, as a listener, it is very easy to move straight on to the more sombre textures when the second work begins.
The strings are the focus of attention for most of Death and Transfiguration, and for the most part they do very well. There are one or two slightly shaky moments for the strings in the opening pages of Don Quixote, which are made all the more apparent through comparison with the note-perfect soloists when they enter. But the strings put in an excellent performance in Death and Transfiguration. The sombre textures are dark and substantial, while the dizzying climaxes are all swirling and ethereal.
The sound is good, although it emphasises atmosphere over detail. The recordings were made at live performances in Prague. You don't hear a peep out of the audience, and the only reason you would know that they were there at all is from the muted and brief applause that is included at the end of the second work, although not the first for some reason. The string sound in Death and Transfiguration deserves slightly closer micing, but the winds and the string soloists all cope well in this acoustic environment.
The tone poems of Richard Strauss are great vehicles for showing off the prowess of orchestras, and the Prague Symphony Orchestra do themselves proud here. Their sound may or may not be distinctively Czech, but it is identifiably Central European. To bracket the orchestra with its more famous Austrian and Eastern German contemporaries is to do it no disservice. Many of them would be proud to have made this recording.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 18 July 2011

Reger Sonatinas Op.89 Wolfram Lorenzen

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Sonatina Op.89 No.1 [13:49]
Five Humoresques Op.20 [11:37]
Sonatina Op.89 No.3 [12:31]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Joh. Seb. Bach Op.81
Wolfram Lorenzen piano
Recorded Saarbrücken SR 1992 Stereo DDD
Troubadisc TRO-CD 01438 [68:22]

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Reger's piano music is a mix of small and large. This disc gives a taste of both, with two Sonatinas and five Humoresques occupying the first half of the programme and a second half devoted to the monumental Bach Variations.
The contrapuntal intricacy asociated with Reger is apparent in many of these movements, although simpler textures are also common, especially in the Sonatinas. Reger's adventurous harmonies are also evident in most of the works, but especially in the variations. The Sonatinas and Humoresques have a sense of lightness that is in direct opposition to Reger's dour reputation. True enough, the music occasionally gets too involved for its own good, and the main difference between these short works and similar music by, say the young Brahms, is the lack of memorable melodies. Perversely though, that lack adds a certain quality of its own, it means that the ear is not distracted by catchy melodic lines, and can concentrate instead on the subtle and variegated piano textures.
Reger was, after all, a concert pianist, and he clearly had a good ear for the instrument's capabilities. Working in the 20th century meant that the instrument he had in mind was closer to today's grands than anything Beethoven, Schumann or even Brahms would have known. So when he wants to put some weight into climaxes, or even sudden sforzandos, he can rely on the instrument itself to provide the drama. He often helps it out by adding octave doublings, but these are always skilfully integrated into the contrapuntal textures.
As its title suggests, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Joh. Seb. Bach" owes a great deal to Brahms. Comparing Reger with Brahms always seems to me unfair on the later composer, but here more than anywhere else, Reger seems to be actively inviting such comparisons. Reger's harmonies are a little more adventurous than those of Brahms, and he also has a tendency to fragment the theme in ways the Brahms would usually avoid. But like Brahms, Reger is able to maintain the beauty and identity of the Bach theme (taken from the cantata Aus Christi Himmelfahrt allein ich meine Nachfahrt gründe BWV 128) to retain a strong sense of identity across this long set. And the fugue at the end forms an impressive and stirring conclusion.
Wolfram Lorenzen gives excellent performances of these works. He achieves impressive clarity, even in Reger's densest textures, but never at the expense of the music's drama. Reger includes a large number of dynamic indications in his piano works, and Lorenzen sensibly takes these more as a guide than as gospel, but always shaping the music in the way the notated dynamics suggest.
The recording was made in 1992, although this is, I suspect, its first release. The sound quality is good but not exceptional. The dry acoustic suggests a studio environment, but the piano sound is boomy in some registers, especially at the bottom. Nevertheless, an enjoyable recording, and a valuable introduction to one of the most neglected areas of this still scandalously neglected composer's work.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Rusalka: Bavarian State Opera, Tomas Hanus

Dvorak: Rusalka
Rusalka - Kristine Opolais
Prince – Klaus Florian Vogt
Foreign Princess – Nadia Krasteva
Water Goblin – Gunther Groisbock
Jezibaba – Janina Baechle
Forester – Ulrich Ress
Kitchen Boy – Tara Erraught
Hunter – John Chest
1st Wood Nymph – Evgenia Sotnikova
2nd Wood Nymph – Angela Brower
3rd Wood Nymph – Okka von der Damerau
Choir and Orchestra of Bavarian State Opera
Tomas Hanus – conductor
Martin Kusej - Stage Director
Thomas Grimm - Video Director
C Major 706408 (DVD)

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This production of Rusalka is fascinating, but is not going to be to everybody's taste. Director Martin Kusej indulges in some Regietheater indulgences that would be hard to imagine on the London stage. The work is updated to a modern setting. with the water nymphs as prostitutes held in a subterranean brothel. The Water Goblin is the sadistic pimp and Jezibaba the witch is a backstreet abortionist.
Harrowing stuff, but clever too. Rusalka is, after all, a victim of oppression in both worlds, and the libretto lets all of her tormentors, especially the Water Goblin and the Prince, off very easily indeed. The liner to this DVD describes the original fairy tale as naïve, and it certainly seems so by comparison. Obviously, there isn't much fairy tale left in this interpretation.
Visually, the staging emphasises polarities and opposites. The distinction between the world beneath the lake the human world is represented as indoors vs. outdoors, static vs. dynamic, and most powerfully of all, wet vs. dry. So the point towards the end of the second act when Rusalka returns to the deep is powerfully represented by her jumping into a goldfish tank, the image that appears on the front of the box.
Dvorak and his librettist make a more emotive distinction between the two worlds by making the underwater world a more homely and welcoming place for Rusalka, contrasting the human world where compassion is in short supply. By doing away with that small comfort, Kusej makes both environments hostile to the heroine, hostile in different ways perhaps, but for the audience the distinction ceases to be emotive, and the two worlds become alarmingly similar.
The reinterpretation tilts the focus of the narrative towards the Water Goblin. I suspect that finding a meaningful representation for this tricky character was one of the motivating forces behind the whole interpretation. By making him a callous pimp, Kusej is able to inject some logic into the first act: not only does Rusalka want to enter the human world to pursue the Prince, she also wants to escape the brothel. (Incidentally, the violence and particularly the sexual violence, meted out by the pimp on his charges in this first act is strong stuff. I'm not in favour of film censorship myself, but if this DVD were not exempt from the deliberations of the BBFC I suspect it would qualify for an 18 certificate.) In the second and third acts, the Water Goblin as pimp idea becomes more strained. He shows compassion for Rusalka – he is her father after all – but by this point the production has painted itself into a corner and is forced to just ignore this aspect of the libretto.
The DVD comes with a making of documentary, which is most talking heads, all saying pretty much the same thing. But one points that is repeatedly made is that Martin Kusej is not the sort of conceptual director to just find an inventive scenario and then leave the singers to get on with it. He really directs them, and expects more acting from them than you will usually find on the opera stage. So his Water Goblin as pimp ruse depends above all on the performance, both singing and acting, of Gunter Groissbock. He puts in a powerful and harrowing performance. He looks just right, with a spivvy pencil moustache and shabby suit. He dominates every scene he is in, something that most singers taking the role manage with the help of a fat suit, but which Groissbock can do with just his stage presence. He has the ideal voice for the part too, powerful and penetrating, with plenty of support in the lower register.
The other standout performance is from Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais in the lead role (no singer bios in the DVD liner sadly). She too is able to really act the part in a way rarely seen, or rarely expected, on the opera stage. Kusej seems intent on making the opera into a kind of psychological drama, with the privations and abuses to which the heroine is subjected continually reflected in her fragile mental state. Again it works largely thanks to the impressive acting and singing from Opolais. By focussing attention to her inner torments, her performance compensates for the drabness of the setting and the deliberate lack of fairy tale atmosphere. Her voice is confident, powerful and precise. The crispness and accuracy of her top notes is impressive, and the sheer emotion she brings to every line marks her out as a leading interpreter of late 19th century heroine roles. There is a certain angularity to her voice that I have more trouble with. Her singing is always emotive and involving, but isn't always pretty. Perversely, that makes her the ideal lead singer for this production, where every pretty or pleasant thing that Dvorak puts into the score is ridiculed or turned on its head.
The singing and acting from the rest of the cast is good, not uniformly so, but enough to carry both the music drama and the director's concept. Klaus Florian Vogt delivers a solid performance as the Prince. He doesn't give the kind of power that he would for Lohengrin or Walther, which is probably just as well, but like those roles, he is able to imbue the Prince with a real sense of humanity. Nadia Krasteva is suitably sultry as the rival love interest. Neither the Prince nor the Foreign Princess are roles that Kusej reinterprets in any radical way, so the solid performances that these two singers put in work thanks to the traditional operatic values they bring as much as anything else. Janina Baechle is not quite sinister enough as Jezebaba, especially as this is one of the radically reinterpreted roles. Her voice isn't quite deep enough for the part either, and the demands Dvorak makes on her lower register are not always fully met.
The video presentation, by Thomas Grimm, brings the viewer up close to the action, with close camera angles predominating. Despite this, the editing is discrete and the camera work never draws attention to itself. An atmospheric opening sequence is added at the start, before the overture, to make the video look like some kind of film noire. That's a nice touch, and by only lasting a minute or so, just about justifies its pretensions.
The sound quality on the DVD is very fine, about the best I have heard on this medium. The orchestra in particular are clear and punchy. Part of that impression is due to the bass, which is artificially amplified, at least on the stereo mix. That would stick out like a sore thumb on CD, but seems more justified in this context, especially given the cinematic styling of the post-production.
An uncompromising Rusalka, then, but one that succeeds on its own, admittedly indulgent, terms. For radical reinterpretation to work, an absolutely solid musical presentation is required, if only to ensure that the staging doesn't dominate the whole experience. Fortunately, the power of the musical presentation here is sufficient to balance the intense spectacle. It is likely to be the most shocking Rusalka you've seen, but the psychological power of this reading is more than enough to justify it's sensationalism.
Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Theodore Wiprud: Fire in Heaven and Earth

Hosannas of the Second Heaven
String Quartet No.1 "Refining Fire"
A Georgia Song
Saxophone Quartet
Performers: Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, Ciompi Quartet, Darryl Taylor, Tim Ries, Maria Corley, Five Letter Four
Albany TROY1267

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This fascinatingly diverse sampler shows the many faces of composer Theodore Wiprud. We have an opulent orchestral prelude, an acerbic string quartet, a jazzy vocal setting and a punchy saxophone quartet. Wiprud is clearly open to a wide range of musical ideas, and each of these works draws on different influences and musical cultures. It all feels very contemporary, but not in an avant garde way, rather in its up to the minute reinvention and combination of established musical styles and ideas.
Wiprud himself considers his music to draw on both American and European models. He studied with David Del Tredici at Boston University and later with Robin Holloway at Cambridge. It is difficult to imagine a finer neo-tonalist pedigree. I have to say that from this side of the pond, the music all sounds very American. If there is an influence from Holloway it is in the messiness of some of the textures. In the orchestral piece "Hosannas of the Second Heaven", the textures are constructed along post-minimalist lines, with repeated notes and figures building into larger textures. But you wouldn't mistake this for John Adams, everything is denser and more fractured.
That said, John Adams and the other composers of his generation are clearly influential. The "Americanness" of this music comes through, to me at least, through reminiscences of other American composers: Adams as mentioned in the orchestral work, Bernard Herrmann in the string quartet which calls to mind the score for Vertigo, and Gershwin in the song setting and the saxophone quartet. These last two works bring in jazz influences, but like Gershwin do so with the utmost care, achieving a skilful stylistic balance that prevents the music from seeming like voyeuristic crossover.
The question of tonality is a tricky one. According to the liner, Wiprud employs a "freely tonal approach to harmony". That's very true, but doesn't tell us very much about how his music sounds. If it is intended to reassure us that there are no crashing dissonances here, well that is true as well. He has an impressive knack for constructing harmonies that are slightly acidic, without resorting to excessive density or dissonance. His String Quartet No.1 "Refining Fire" is the best example of this on the disc, and to my ear the most accomplished work here all round.
The question of jazz is also a tricky one. In "A Georgia Song", Wiprud sets words by Maya Angelou. Wiprud writes "How can a white composer offer an authentic musical response to African-American poetry rooted in a history of striving against oppression?" His answer seems to be to write some heartfelt vocal music and to accompany it with a jazzy sax obbligato. In fact, the sax part isn't just jazz pastiche, but its very presence allows a certain sense of cross-cultural, not to mention cross-racial, engagement. Wiprud is able to draw on the excellent example of George Gershwin when wrestling with these questions, and if the results often sound close to Porgy and Bess that is no bad thing.
The performances and recordings are all good. The Czech-based Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra cope well with the often unusual textures that Wiprud expects from them. The Ciompi Quartet play with energy and passion. There are one or two slight tuning problems in the string quartet, but nothing serious. Tenor Darryl Taylor maintains the interest in the Angelou setting, and the Saxophone Quartet is giving a clear and bright reading by the group Five Letter Four. All round, this is a very interesting disc, presenting a composer who surely has many more interesting projects to come.
Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Jan Pĕruška: Vranický, Benda, Rejcha Viola Concertos

Viola of the Czech Emigration
Viola concertos by Antonín Vranický, Jiří Antonín Benda and Josef Rejcha
Jan Pĕruška – viola
Members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Andreas Sebastian Weiser – conductor
Artesmon AS 737-2

Czech viola concertos are something of a rarity on CD. The three presented here are all by Czech composers working abroad in the 18th century. Antonín Vranický and Jiří Antonín Benda were both based in Vienna, while Josef Rejcha settled in Bonn. As with so many Czech musicians of the 18th century, these three men appear to have integrated seamlessly into the Germanic traditions of their adopted cities. Vranický and Benda, bring a bold and forthright melodic style from the music of their homeland, but balance this well with a Viennese sense of sophistication and restraint. Rejcha, who as kapellmeister in Bonn was one of Beethoven's first teachers, is closer to the Mannheim school, bringing French and German influences into the mix. The Rejcha concerto also sounds a little like Mozart at times. Like Mozart he is has a valuable lightness of touch, which prevents the formality of the 18th century musical rhetoric from ever weighing down the music.

Jan Pĕruška performs the concertos with sensitivity and imagination. He is not the sort of viola player to try to make the instrument sound like a violin. Instead, he maintains a rich and grounded tone. There is plenty of variety in his sound, and he is always able to dominate the textures without ever having to force his tone. His ornamentation is modest and the cadenzas (by Matĕj Kroupa) are lively but never extravagant.

The orchestra, which is made up of members of the Czech Philharmonic, put in a fine performance. It is a modern instrument performance, but the sensitivity to nuances of phrasing and dynamics, from soloist and orchestra alike, suggests a certain influence from period performance practice. The versatility of the orchestral players is impressive, and all too rare. Very often, a chamber ensemble with players drawn from members of a symphony orchestra just sounds like a symphony orchestra with some of the players missing. This, by contrast, sounds like real chamber music, and the music of all three composers benefits immeasurably from intimacy and precision of the ensemble.

The sound quality is reasonable but not exceptional. The Rudolfinum has a long and venerable history as a recording venue, but usually imparts more resonance and warmth to the sound than we find here. A little more detail in the orchestral textures would also be welcome, although the soloist himself is well represented in the mix.

Those slight reservations about sound quality aside, this is a fine recording. The works presented are not ones you are likely to meet very often, marginal as they are to the world of 18th century music and even to solo viola music. But they are interesting enough to deserve the outing, and Pĕruška gives them a lively, sensitive and stylistically astute performance.

Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Yakov Kreizberg conducts Scheherazade

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Borodin: Polovtsian Dances
Mussorgsky (ed. Rimsky-Korsakov): A Night on Bare Mountain
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
Choeur de l'Opera de Monte-Carlo
Yakov Kreizberg conductor
OPMC Classics 003
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There is something slightly macabre about the gradual release of final recordings after the death of a major artist. Yakov Kreizberg, in his relatively short career, managed to build up a respectable discography, although for some reason he never seems to have veered far from the core repertoire favourites.
No surprise then, that one of his final discs should be a selection of Russian lollipops. The disc is released on OPMC Classics, the newly founded label of the Monte Carlo Orchestra. Its packaging is interesting. The whole orchestra appears in four different photographs, giving the players more exposure than most orchestra own labels manage. There is also a photo of Princess Caroline, taken by, or at least credited to, Karl Lagerfeld. Diaghilev makes an appearance, presumably more for his links with Monte Carlo than with the repertoire. All round it is a glitzy affair, as you might expect from the principality.
The performances are serviceable but nothing special. Kreizberg brings a valuable Russian sensibility to this core repertoire of his homeland. Everything is deeply felt and nothing is trivial. But the readings are as safe as the repertoire choices, and given the hundreds of recordings that are already available of the three works, there is little here to make this one stand out.
There is also a curious lack of momentum, which is especially apparent in the movements where it is really needed. The second movement of the Rimsky-Korsakov is slow and lacks drive, almost to the point of grinding to a halt in places. A Night on Bare Mountain also gets a very relaxed reading, a welcome antidote to the excesses of some conductors, but not exactly inspiring.
Amongst the orchestral sections, the strings come off best. They have a lush, even tone and are able to fill out the textures to maintain the life even when the momentum drops. The woodwind and brass are less impressive, the woodwind struggling with tuning in places and the brass losing tonal focus in the louder passages.
Not Kreizberg's finest hour then, and not the sort of recording to do his posthumous reputation any favours. He is certainly a conductor we are going to be talking about for a long time yet, but conversation is more likely to focus on his PentaTone recordings with Julia Fischer than on this.
Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Victoria: Missa Trahe me post te, Westminster Cathedral Choir

Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Trahe me post te [3:35]
Missa Trahe me post te [24:07]
Alma redemptoris mater [6:58]
Ave regina caelorum [4:51]
Regina caeli laetare [4:09]
Salve regina [12:03]
Magnificat primi toni [11:07]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Iain Simcock organ
James O'Donnell conductor
Recorded at Westminster Cathedral 14-18 March 1994 Stereo DDD
Helios CDH55378 [67:30]

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Hyperion's series of Westminster Cathedral Choir reissues just keeps getting better and better. Victoria is, of course, core repertoire for the ensemble, and they sing it as well as anybody. In fact, the performances here are superior even to the recent Palestrina reissues in the same series, which is saying something, because they too are about the best recordings of that composer's work you'll find anywhere.
If you have heard any recording of the Westminster Cathedral Choir before, then you'll know what you are getting. The way they are able to clearly articulate the counterpoint, while always maintaining an even tone, sets them apart. The tuning of the boy's voices is an occasional problem in these recordings, but not here (an organist is credited so perhaps he helped keep the pitch but you don't hear a peep from him on the recording). Also, the clarity of the inner parts is sometimes compromised on other discs, but again there is no sign of that problem in this recording.
The main piece on the programme is the Missa Trahe me post te, as good a mass as any from Victoria's catalogue. It is a parody mass, based quite loosely on his motet of the same name, which opens the programme. The mass is in six parts, although apart from the Agnus Dei it is effectively written in five. Not the most expansive of Renaissance choral writing then, but the choir sing it for all it is worth, lending weight and depth to the textures, and without over-complicating the simpler ones.
They leave the best until last. The disc concludes with five antiphons, two for five voices and three for eight. It is these eight part double choir works that impress most. The penultimate track, Slave Regina, has it all. It starts with just a single boy's voice, before gradually opening out to include the whole of one of the choirs. Later sections introduce the two choir textures, and various forms of interplay, both grand and intimate. It is like a catalogue of the contrapuntal techniques of 16th century choral music. And, needless to say, the performance is superlative.
A highly recommended disc then, especially at this budget price. Palestrina is the biggest name in choral music from this period, and Hyperion's Westminster Cathedral Choir reissues have so far been dominated by the more famous Italian's work. Victoria compliments Palestrina well, perhaps not as grand or imposing, but in these recordings, the balance between the individual lines of the counterpoint and the overall effect is more stimulating. Simpler textures are perhaps the key, but that is not to say that Victoria's music is simple. Direct is perhaps a better word, and in this recording that directness shines through, imbuing the myriad contrapuntal devices focus and meaning.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: