Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Röntgen Piano Concertos Kirschnereit Porcelijn

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

Monday, 5 December 2011

Johannes Passion Cantus Cölln Konrad Junghänel

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