Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 30 September 2011

Mahler 8 Nagano

Mahler Symphony No. 8 in E flat major
Sylvia Greenberg, soprano; Lynne Dawson, soprano; Sally Matthews, soprano; Sophie Koch, alto; Elena Manistina, alto; Robert Gambill, tenor; Detlef Roth, baritone; Jan-Hendrik Rootering, bass.
Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey, director); MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig (Howard Arman, director); Windsbacher Knabenchor (Karl-Friedrich Beringer, director), Sigurd Brauns, organ. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Recorded in Berlin, April-May 2004
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It's a bit of a juggling act conducting Mahler's Eighth. The conductor must continually make balance and tempo decisions to fully exploit the choir, orchestra and soloists. Or at least, that is the impression Kent Nagano gives in this re-released 2005 recording from Berlin. Rather than impose a single interpretive approach on the entire work, he focusses instead on the individual sections, often changing tempo quite suddenly at the start of a phrase to present it at an appropriate speed. He still keeps and eye on the bigger picture, although this is most apparent in the louder sections and the movement climaxes.
But for the rest of the work, he tries hard to give the vocal soloists the space to lead the music. That is a sensible approach, which overcomes one of the main problems of the score, the over-orchestration of the solo music. Take, for example, the opening section. After the grand choral introduction there is a sudden gear shift at the first ensemble section for the soloists. On first listening this can be a little jarring, a sudden slowing that cuts against the work's symphonic credentials. But the sheer beauty of this section, and of later sections of solo singing, more than justifies the intervention.
And in fact, the second section is much more symphonic anyway. The quiet introduction is taken very slow, and Nagano's idea seems to be to gradually build up through the movement to it's climax. Of course, there is a lot of drama and recitative type music to fit in along the way, but on the whole it works well.
Nagano's collaborators do him proud. The choirs have a robust tone and good ensemble. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin are punchy and precise, the brass and woodwind tone sometimes a little angular perhaps, but that only improves the music's focus. The cast of soloists has a unified tone when required, yet each of them is able to distinguish themselves in terms of timbre and articulation for their individual solos. I find soprano Sylvia Greenberg's vibrato a bit heavy, and tenor Robert Gambill is a little prone to swooping around between the top notes. But otherwise the lineup more than justifies the space that Nagano makes for them in the music.
The recorded sound is good but not exceptional. The Philharmonie in Berlin has hosted some of the finest sound recordings of recent decades, but sadly this isn't one of them. The sheer number of performers is perhaps the problem here, but the front of the stage, the soloists in particular, is far better served than the back. When this recording was first issued, in 2005, it was on SA-CD, so it is slightly concerning that only six years later it has reappeared in standard CD format. I'm confident though that Harmonia Mundi are not planning to give up on high definition audio technology anytime soon. In fact, their recent new releases include an impressively high number of SA-CDs. In this case, though, it seems that the recorded sound, serviceable as it is, did not warrant the expense going down that route for the budget reissue.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Bach Flute Sonatas Elizabeth Walker

Bach Flute Sonatas BWV 1030, 1033, 1034, 1035. Partita BWV1013.
Elizabeth Walker flute
Michael Overbury harpsichord
Christopher Poffley cello
Quartz Music QTZ 2086
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Bach's Flute Sonatas are a relative rarity on disc, but listening to this fine recording it is difficult to tell why. Elizabeth Walker and her colleagues present four sonatas, which is almost all of the composer's surviving and definitely attributed essays in the genre, and complement the set with an unaccompanied Partita BWV 1013.
We have a mixture of modern and period instruments here, but it never feels like a competition. The harpsichord is tuned to Vallotti temperament,which was apparently the temperament, or a temperament, used in Bach's time. It can be quite astringent in some keys, although it never grates. Liz Walker speculates in her liner note that Bach would have been well aware of the limitations of this temperament, and would have written his music accordingly. Whatever the answer, it certainly works, adding an interesting frisson to the whole project and never goes awry, even when we reach the distant key of G sharp minor.
The liner note goes on to discuss the flute design innovations of Johann Quantz, a contemporary of Bach. The suggestion that Bach knew of these is used as an implicit justification for the use of a modern instrument. The flute is of wood, but has a modern (Boehm I presume) key system and bore profile. Liz Walker explains that she has incorporated elements of baroque performance technique, and certainly the varied articulation links these performances directly with the work of period instrument performers. She also deliberately associates different dynamics with individual pitches to emulate the under- and over-blowing required of Baroque players to compensate for the tuning deficiencies of their instruments. Perhaps this is how she manages to stay in tune with the exotically tempered harpsichord. And whatever the rationale behind this recording, the intonation and ensemble are excellent throughout.
Cellist Christopher Poffley completes the continuo group. His performance is understated and very much accompaniment. But then, the generic status of these works is very difficult to pin down. Of the four sonatas, only the B minor BWV1030, the last on the disc, has a written out obbligato keyboard part. That makes it much closer to a trio sonata than the other three, which have strictly continuo accompaniments. I can imagine that the three players have had to do some experimenting to work out the balance and structure of their ensemble, with the result that the cellist has been pushed right to the back of the texture. It would have been nice if they'd given him a bit more room for dynamic variation and cadential ornaments though.
But the real star, of course, is the flute. Elizabeth Walker has a satisfyingly reedy tone on her wooden instrument. She could perhaps go even further in emulating the idiosyncrasies of early flutes in her playing. I don't know if it is a modern or a period performance tendency, but many of these movements sound surprisingly slow. That allows greater scope for enjoying the tone quality of the flute and the simple beauty of individual melodic lines, but sometimes the propulsion is lacking.
The sound quality is good. The balance favours the flute perhaps a little more than it actually needs, but the sense of presence the solo instrument is afforded is welcome. The recording was made in the church at Pilton, better known as the home of the Glastonbury Festival. It is a good acoustic, bright but not smothering.
All round a very enjoyable disc. Certainly one for the flute fans, and also for those of you who like your Bach historically-informed but without the pedantry of many period instrument players.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Schumann Violin Concertos Wallin

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra
Concerto in A minor for Violin and Orchestra (version by the composer of the Cello Concerto Op.129) [22:31]
Fantasy in C major Op.131 [16:20]
Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra WoO.1 [32:22]
Ulf Wallin violin
Frank Beerman conductor
Recorded at the Lukaskirche Dresden June 2009 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
BIS-SACD-1775 [72:30]

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You could be forgiven for not knowing that Schumann wrote any concertante works for violin and orchestra. The reputations of these three pieces have suffered a bizarre series of misfortunes, but listening to this fine recording, it is hard to believe that the music itself is at fault. Virtually every performer who encountered these works in the first century of their existence felt the need to correct of improve them. Rostropovich decided that the Cello Concerto, of which the A minor Concerto is an arrangement, required wholesale re-orchestration by Shostakovich. Fritz Kreisler felt the need to 'rescue' the Fantasy in 1937 by essentially recomposing it. The D minor Concerto suffered the worst fate of all. It was rehabilitated in the 30s, but by the Nazis, keen to find a substitute for the Mendelssohn Concerto they had banned. So it is hardly surprising that the work's post-War reputation has been poor.
Most of the revisions and edits to these scores over the years have been justified by the belief that they are excessively gloomy pieces in need of brightening up. Ulf Wallin and Frank Beerman have had the good sense to go back to Schumann's original scores to see if that is true. And no, its not true at all. There are shades of Beethoven in one of his more earnest moods in many passages, but like Beethoven, Schumann has the lightness of touch, both in his voicing of harmonies and in his orchestration, to keep the music afloat.
The full range of the violin is used throughout all of the works, and Schumann takes more interest in the instrument’s lower register than most. In the case of the A minor concerto, this may be because the work was originally written for cello. (The version for violin is the composer's own, and was only discovered among Joseph Joachim's papers in 1987.) But the other works are violin originals, suggesting that the composer took a real interest in these lower notes. Those lower register passages impose unusual technical challenges, the solo part must retain its flair without the benefit of the projection that high notes can bring. Balance is another issue, and good as Schumann's orchestration is, the string writing in particular is often quite dense.
Fortunately these players are well aware of all the potential problems, and the results are excellent. The SACD sound is good, and this is one of those high definition recordings that manages to use the clarity of sound to convey atmosphere as well as detail. It does highlight a slightly lack of precision in the string ensemble, but nothing serious. The relationship between soloist and orchestra is also presented with both clarity and subtlety. Wallin is clearly distinguishable but also sounds as if he is positioned very close to the orchestra. This is a real benefit, especially in the D minor concerto, where Schumann often blends the solo line subtly into the background textures.
Ulf Wallin is an expressive soloist, but a disciplined one too. His vibrato is infinitely variable, but also tastefully restrained. Neither he nor Beerman take many liberties with the tempos, and when the music builds up to a climax, or one of those many localised fortes at the top of a phrase that you find in Schumann, there is often a very slight accelerando accompanied by an evenly graded crescendo in the strings. And when the music requires, Beerman has no qualms about overpowering the soloist for one of these brief climaxes, all the better to highlight the violin's return to dominance in the following phrase.
The time has certainly come to reassess these fine works after a century and a half of wholly undeserved neglect. Perhaps the challenges they pose are not the sort of challenges that 19th century virtuosi relished. The soloist must work very closely with the orchestra to achieve the required balance and interaction. The lower register of the instrument must sing in the same way as the upper register in other concertos. And the soloist must put in hard work, yet retain a sense of modesty while weaving in and out of the often equally important orchestral textures. Ulf Wallin is a soloist who clearly relished these kinds of challenges. Here's hoping he can inspire future generations of violinists to take them up.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Duo Gazzana: Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janacek, Silvestrov

Takemitsu: Distance de fee
Hindemith: Violin Sonata
Janacek: Violin Sonata
Silvestrov: Five Pieces
Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
ECM 476 4428

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ECM have excelled themselves yet again with this beautiful recital disc from Natascia and Raffaella Gazzana. If the programme list looks a bit random, the sheer conviction of the players in making it all add up means that there is little or no discontinuity between works. And while each of the composers, Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janacek and Silvestrov, inhabit separate musical worlds, these four works are at the more laid back end of each man's aesthetic.
The French title of Takemitsu's Distance de fee is telling. The work was written the in the early 1950s, when the composer was just 20. The accepted wisdom on Takemitsu's early career is that he was writing Messiaen-esque French music until John Cage introduced him to the music of his native Japan. This piece certainly bears out the idea that Messiaen was a major early influence. In many ways, this short work is similar to the early music of Morton Feldman, in that it is relatively conventional but hints at the scope and individuality of the composer's later work. An interesting discovery, and certainly worthy of broader attention.
If the names Takemitsu and Hindemith seem strange appearing together in the same sentence, the transition from the first man's work to the latter's Violin Sonata shows that they have more in common than you might think. In fact, it takes two or three hearings even to pinpoint exactly where one ends and the other begins. The programming here is brilliant, with the tranquillity of the Takemitsu leading into the similar tranquillity of Hindemith's first movement, both of which provide an atmospheric background to the more tumultuous climax of Hindemith's second movement finale.
Natascia Gazzana doesn't have a particularly round tone, instead her playing has a slightly nasal edge. Its not unpleasant, in fact the tonal focus is valuable in this 20th century repertoire. It is especially appropriate to the Janacek Sonata, in which it sits somewhere between a concert violin tone and the more edgy sound of the folk fiddles that inspired the work. That said, the Janacek does lack bite. It could do with more punchy accents and more gutsy rhythms. This more laid back reading allows the work to fit more easily into the relaxed programme, and into the "ECM sound", but also does the work an injustice.
No such complaints with the performance of Silvestrov's recent Five Pieces. I'm not a big fan of Silvestrov's recent music, especially works like this that rely on an unashamedly 19th century Russian Romantic aesthetic, with added echo effects and such like to represent time and nostalgia. Nevertheless, the performance here, and the context, give the music more appeal. I'm reminded of Arvo Part, perhaps it is not quite as repetitious as Part, but like him Silvestrov give the performers plenty of space to shape the music themselves and introduce their own emotive twists.
Given the continuity of the ECM brand, the company must rely on loyal buyers to keep their classical projects afloat. Those buyers are not going to be disappointed by this release, which has everything going for it of the company's best work. I do wonder about the performers though. Presumably Manfred Eicher lays down the law in A&R matters, and probably also in matters of interpretation too. No doubt you have to give up a good deal of musical autonomy to work with ECM. But as this disc amply demonstrates, the sacrifices are worth making.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 19 September 2011

Leonid Desyatnikov: The Leaden Echo

Leonid DESYATNIKOV (b.1955)
Return for oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello and tape [10:06]Du côté de chez Swan for two pianos [12:34]Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling for cello and piano [8:34]Wie der Alte Leiermann...for violin and piano [14:40]The Leaden Echo for voice(s) and instruments to the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins [13:49
Main Theme from motion picture
Moscow Nights arranged for violin and string ensemble by Roman Mints [3:40]
Alexei Goribol piano, Anton Dressler clarinet, Anna Panina violin, Fedor Lednev conductor, Pavel Stepin double bass, Serj Poltavski viola, Evgeny Rumyantsev cello, Petr Kondrashin cello, Dmitri Sharov trombone, Yuri Kolosov trombone, Kirill Koloskov trombone, Dmitri Vlassik timpani, Asya Sorshneva violin
Recorded at Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, GDRZ Studio 1, Moscow, and Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, 2009-2010 (Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling recorded 1995) Stereo DDD
Quartz Music QTZ 2087 [65:24]
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Leonid Desyatnikov is a Russian composer who is very difficult to categorise. In fact, even calling him Russian is to oversimplify, as his was born in Ukraine, although he is now a big wheel in Moscow. As with almost every Russian composer since the 80s, you can attach a series of "post-"s to his work: post-tonal, post-Romantic, post-minimalist...If all this sounds like it is going to add up to post-modernism, that's fair enough, but Desyatnikov's post-modernism is so subtle and so idiosyncratic that it seems to fall well outside the commonly accepted boundaries.
Relationships with the music of the past – Haydn, Saint-Saens, Schubert – are the basis of many works on this disc, but in most cases, you'd have to read that in the liner to know. Unlike Schnittke, the most obvious Russian predecessor in this respect, Desyatnikov cultivates healthy and close relationships with his historical models. So there is none of that anxiety of influence that you find played out in Schnittke, most often through the collision of musical styles. Instead, Desyatnikov reinvents his personal voice for each piece, bringing in stylistic elements of the earlier work, reinventing it for modern ears.
That could sound presumptuous, and I suspect that many of Desyatnikov's listeners are unlikely to appreciate having their musical tastes anticipated in this way. Even so, his music works. A combination of astute cultural cosmopolitanism and sheer quality of compositional technique allows him to get away with his various indulgences. His music is largely tonal, or at least consonant, yet there is something eerie that is difficult to pin down. Like many of his Russian predecessors, Desyatnikov has worked extensively in the cinema, and visual editing techniques have clearly been influential in the way he structures his work. Jump cuts between one relatively static minimalist texture and another happen in a way that you would never find in Glass or Reich, pulling the listener out of the comfortable situation they have just been in and dropping them in a different environment entirely.
Each of the works on the disc is scored for a different ensemble. Return is for winds and strings, acting as a sort of imitation of a Japanese Gagaku orchestra. In fact, the work is all about the issue of imitation. Desyatnikov takes a recording of traditional Japanese music, arranges it in the most culturally insensitive way possible for Western instruments in Western temperament, then juxtaposes this sanitised version against the original by playing the original version on a tape at the end.
Du cote de chez Swan has nothing obvious to do with Proust. Instead it is an arrangement of Saint-Saen's The Swan for two pianos in an aggressive minimalist style. Why? It's hard to say really. The composer say that it is, amongst other things, a homage to the Ligeti's Three Pieces for Two Pianos, and there are shades of that great work, but most of it is closer to American minimalist models. Variations on the Obtaining of a Dwelling and Wie der Alte Leiermann...are solo works with piano accompaniment for cello and violin respectively. The first is based on Haydn and the second on Schubert, but I'm only reading that out of the liner, I wouldn't have worked it out for myself. The violinist is Roman Mints, a Russian who has been doing a great deal in recent years to promote the works of his compatriot composers. This album, I suspect, is his project, and he certainly puts in a convincing performance here.
"Leaden" is a very appropriate word to appear in the title of The Leaden Echo. This Gerard Manley Hopkins setting is long, dour and repetitive. There is nothing wrong with a composer taking his work seriously, of course, nor of setting downbeat words in a downbeat style, but it does take some perseverance on the part of the listener to get to the end. The last track, the theme tune from Moscow Nights, gives us a taste of Desyatnikov's work for the big screen, which is competent, atmospheric and melodic, but not half as clever as the concert works that precede it.
The performances and sound quality are good. A little more definition in the piano sound might have been nice in Du cote de chez Swan, and pedantic Anglophone listeners would probably appreciate more clarity in the diction of Manley Hopkins' words in The Leaden Echo, although it is difficult to tell if the sound production or the singer are to blame there. Otherwise, this is an excellent introduction to the work of one of Russia's most important living composers. It is beguiling and curiously disturbing music, despite its almost uniformly civilised surface. The music stays with you in an unsettling way, and even after repeated listenings it is impossible to tell why.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Anders Hillborg: Eleven Gates

Anders Hillborg: King Tide, Exquisite Corpse, Dreaming River, Eleven Gates
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, Alan Gilbert, Esa-Pekka Salonen conductors
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Anders Hillborg fits quite snugly into the standard mould for contemporary Scandinavian music. He's Swedish, but like many of his Finnish contemporaries, he is into wide orchestral vistas, long pedals with sudden bursts of activity over the top, extrovert percussion writing, glassy harmonies that sit somewhere between Impressionism and Minimalism...If you know the music of Magnus Lindberg, Sebastian Fagerlund or Esa-Pekka Salonen, you'll know what to expect here.
Like those composers, Hillborg continually tries to marry Modernist techniques with an otherwise populist sensibility, and American minimalism is an important precedent to which he continually returns. The first work on the disc, King Tide, uses repeated semiquavers, with each of the repeated note lines appearing from silence, growing and then contracting again. There is clearly an element of klanfarbenmelodie here, a legacy perhaps from the composer's electronic music days, but Steve Reich’s Desert Music is much closer to the surface than anything by Schoenberg.
The issue of form in these pieces is very interesting. There is no traditional structure in the sense of reprises or recapitulations, and instead the form of each of the works has an almost narrative quality. The music is usually quite associative, if not actually descriptive, and a clear progression takes place, which usually justifies the relatively long durations. That said, from a structural point of view, the most successful work on the disc is the last, Eleven Gates, and that is because it is written in 11 short movements. The textural and harmonic relationships between the movements ensure work's coherency. The two central works, Exquisite Corpse and Dreaming River, also seem to be based on sectional forms, although not as explicitly articulated.
Hillborg's approach to orchestration is original, and is usually based on densely woven combinations of unrelated timbres. Solos are rare, but even though the textures usually involve a large number of players, there is still plenty of variety in terms of both timbre and volume. Ligeti is clearly an important influence on Hillborg's orchestration, especially the works of the late 60s and early 70s, like Lontano and Melodien. Hillborg has an excellent ear for percussion, which is also evident in these two central works. Considering the size of his percussion sections, it is also impressive how well he integrates the percussion writing into the rest of the orchestra.
Although the same orchestra, the Stockholm Philharmonic, perform on each track, the conducting responsibilities are shared between Sakari Oramo, Alan Gilbert and Esa-Pekka Salonen, all of whom are very familiar with both the orchestra and the composer. It is difficult to asses how much interpretation this music requires, the orchestral textures perhaps need careful balancing, but the phrase structuring speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the performances are all very good, and each conductor succeeds in evoking the appropriate sense of atmosphere, an essential ingredient in this music.
The sound engineering is good, with excellent clarity of texture from within the orchestra. BIS are to be commended for presenting so much contemporary music in SACD format. They are about the only major label to do so, and this disc demonstrates as well as any the advantages the technology can bring to intricately orchestrated new music.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Dufay: Isorhythmic Motets, Huelgas-Ensmeble, Paul Van Nevel

O gemma lux: the isorhythmic motets of Guillaume Dufay
Paul Van Nevel
Harmonia Mundi HMG 501700 

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Here is yet another gem from the Harmonia Mundi back catalogue. Dufay's isorhythmic motets (presented complete here) are a high point, perhaps the high point, of late Gothic polyphony. The technique behind them is a bit complicated. It is based on short rhythmic cells superimposed onto longer pitch sequences. I'm not going to try to explain though, because the excellent liner notes do a much better job than I ever could, and anyway you don't need to understand the details to get the most out of the music.
That's because, although there is rigorous maths behind these works, they are highly expressive and varied. No doubt that is as much a product of the editing and performance as it is of the actual composition. But if, like me, you are willing to trust the scholarship, and indeed the musicianship, of Paul Van Nevel and the Huelgas-Ensemble, the awards are considerable. The expression and feeling of this music is not gained at the expense of its musical rigour. Certainly, the accompaniment and choir size changes, but there are few indulgences of rubato or portamento.
The acoustic of the Abbaye-aux-Dames, Saintes is warm and welcoming but without too much distortion. Dufay sets different words simultaneously in the separate lines, and these can get obscured by the acoustic. On the other hand, the singers do everything in their power to keep both words and music clear, and the result achieves a fine balance between precision and ambience.
Some interesting instruments are used on occasion, either doubling the singers or playing the tenor beneath them. Frustratingly, the liner doesn't tell us exactly which instruments these are, but early trombones certainly play an important part, and I'm sure I heard a rackett playing some fruity bass notes.
Dufay's isorhythmic motets have a reputation for mathematical rigour, but don't let that put you off this disc. The works are presented here as lively and approachable, but the clarity of the counterpoint is always retained, allowing the listener to marvel at the sheer complexity of it all. What is most amazing of all is the date, the last of the motets was written in 1442! If I didn't know better I'd have placed them at least 200 years later.
Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Brahms: Piano Trios, Eskar Trio

Brahms Piano Trios 1-4
Eskar Trio
CPO 777 642-2 (2CDs)
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Everything about this recording of the Brahms piano trios sounds modern and up to the minute. The high sound quality distinguishes it from the more venerable offerings of yesteryear with which it shares catalogue space, but so too does the interpretation. These readings are certainly passionate, but they are also impressively disciplined. The excesses of tempo and dynamics that you often meet in recordings of these and Brahms' other chamber works are largely avoided. The result is chamber music that sounds like chamber music: passionate but never monumental or symphonic. To my ear, Brahms works both ways, so this makes a fine complement to the Beaux Arts et al.
Rather than save up the passion and intensity for the climaxes, the Eskar Trio instead maintain the level throughout, and manage to do so without exhausting either themselves or the listener. This impression is partly a result of the sound engineering, which gives each of the players a real presence and immediacy. The piano sound is a little generalised, but otherwise the sound is transparent and clear, especially for the violin and cello. But the players also contribute by intensifying the passion of every phrase. You'll find plenty of rapid swells on individual notes, and this tends to be how the phrases are articulated, rather than with tempo changes.
These localised dynamic changes are impressively coordinated between the players. The Eskar Trio project a sense of firm control over the music. It does slip once or twice, the finale of the First Trio for example begins to creak at the seams for the sheer quantity of volume. But on the whole these are confident and forthright readings by players who are able to rely on rock-solid technique and deep musical communication within their ensemble.
The photograph of the three players on the back of the liner is captioned "Ekar Trio", which I assume to be a typo. I also initially suspected the album's title of containing a fairly major error: "Piano Trios 1-4" – where on Earth have they found a Fourth Piano Trio from Brahms? The answer is that the work, a trio in A major, is of questionable attribution. It was found in a manuscript collection in Bonn in 1924, and has since been linked to Brahms based on its stylistic links with the Op.8 Trio. I'd say it is a bit presumptuous to describe it as "Brahms Piano Trio No.4" on those grounds, although that is certainly more inciting than "Piano Trio No.0".
Whatever its history, the piece is well worth hearing, so this is as good a place to record it as any. I'm almost inclined to say that the strongest evidence against it not being by Brahms is that is just sounds too much like Brahms. It presumably dates back to a time when Brahms was not yet famous enough to have imitators. Even so, it sits stylistically somewhere between Schumann and Brahms, without the psychological complexity of the former or the technical sophistication of the latter, even in his youngest days. The resulting clarity of texture makes it the ideal work for the Eskar Trio. The way they always seem to be trying to clarify Brahms' complex textures in his mature work to create big, intense sounds – this piece, with its clear, bold harmonies and easily articulated dramatic structure does half of that job for them.
This release isn't the last word when it comes to Brahms' Piano Trios, but it is a welcome addition to the catalogue. The Eskar Trio are able to make a big impact with every phrase, yet without resorting to interpretive excesses. And the clarity of playing is matched by the clarity of the sound recording. If they have a friend who plays viola, I'd love to hear what they could do with the Quartets.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Richard Cross A Walk on the Wild Side

 "Ten lush trombone quartets"
Richard Cross – trombone (multitracked)
Turned on Music TMC-001

Richard Cross offers "ten lush trombone quartets" on this CD A Walk on the Wild Side. As the description suggests, they're all pretty jazzy, mostly laid-back standards that will be familiar to jazzers, but that come out sounding sprightly and fresh in Rich's arrangements.
All of the arrangements here are by Richard himself, and the disc has been produced partly to promote his publishing enterprise He has been making quite a name for himself with these quartet settings in recent years, and performers who have taken them up include Don Lucas, president of the International Trombone Association, and Bones Apart, Britain’s only all-girl trombone quartet.
If the four players on this disc all sound similar, that's because they are all actually Rich himself, doing some clever multitracking to add all the parts in. That tactic has its pros and cons. There is not much room for rubato – there's some but it's not exactly spontaneous. Also, it is a shame that the bass trombone part is not played on a bass trombone, although Richard's playing in the lower register is rich and focussed, and rarely lacks weight. The pros of the multitracking plan are that all the parts are played to an equally high standard and with equal stylistic sympathy to the music.
This is obviously the kind of music that Richard loves. The fact that he is both performer and arranger raises questions about exactly how many of the ornaments are actually on the page. There a few cheeky wobbles and slides here and there, for instance in "The Nearness of You", that really bring the music to life. He occasionally goes right up to the edge of good taste with these, but he never crosses it.
The arrangements themselves are all very slick. It sounds like he keeps all the players busy, although obviously it is difficult to tell exactly who is doing what. For anybody considering playing these, they sound like the sort of arrangements that create maximum impact without overtaxing the players. And the first trombone part hardly ever goes up into the stratosphere, which will be a relief for some. The "Summertime" arrangement is particularly elegant. The theme is followed by a complex set of variations, which I assume are by Gershwin himself, but which fit very neatly into the quartet format. And the opening track is a stunner – "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by the recently deceased John Barry. It seems like an obvious choice for a trombone quartet arrangement, and Rich plays it for all it's worth. If he's thinking of a sequel to this disc, he could easily fill a whole album with James Bond theme tune arrangements.
The recorded sound is good. It is quite a dry studio acoustic but the trombone sound is always clear and immediate. The producer for the album was none other than Kevin Morgan, principle trombone of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, so it is little surprise that all the qualities of the trombone sound are perfectly captured.
A fun disc then, and one containing all sorts of gems for trombone quartets in search of some new repertoire. If you're in that world, you will probably bump into Rich and his trade stand at some event or other in due course. When you do, pick up a copy of the disc, and the dots for "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" – the perfect opener for your next concert!
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Enescu Piano Quartets Schubert Ensemble

George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Piano Quartet No.1 Op.16 [39:08]
Piano Quartet No.2 Op.30 [27:37]
Schubert Ensemble: Simon Blendis (violin), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), William Howard (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 6-7 December 2010 and 12-13 February 2011 Stereo DDD
Chandos CHAN 10672 [67:00]
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Two committed and passionate works get committed and passionate performances on this latest release from the Schubert Ensemble. Enescu's Piano Quartets make a natural pairing, the composer's distinctive musical personality links them, but the 35 years that separate their composition mean that each has a distinct individual identity. Martin Anderson points out in his liner note that this is only the third CD to pair the two works, and he is right to infer that the composer suffers serious neglect.
Like many emigre composers working in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century, Enescu developed a distinctive voice by combining elements of the folk music of his homeland with the cosmopolitan sophistication of the French capital. Ravel is clearly an important influence on both these works, with many of the movements indebted to his heady, swirling chamber music textures. The Romanian folk music element is less marked, but comes through in dance melodies and occasional modal-inflected harmonies. In truth, there isn't much here that is particularly "ethnographic", but just enough to separate Enescu's music from that of his Parisian mentors.
The First Quartet is the longer and the more involved, but it is also more coherent and tightly constructed than its successor. The first movement builds up over a 15 minute span, gradually increasing the textural density right up to an intense climax at the end, which while obviously intended to sound brutal and raw, is so close in style to Ravel that Parisian sophistication wins the day. Throughout this First Quartet, Enescu employs dense, unremitting textures, with lots of octave and unison doubling. That could pose a challenge to performers' ensemble skills, but the Schubert Ensemble execute every phrase with precision and clarity. The sheer density of much of this writing could bog the work down, but the players carefully shape and articulate each phrase, creating a sense of lightness, and often in spite of the composer's heavy chord voicings.
The Second Quartet is more rhapsodic, with less of that textural density, but less structural logic too. The challenge for the performers here is to find a way for the movements, and the work as a whole, to cohere. They manage by concentrating as much as possible on the melodies and the moments. By balancing the weight and emotional involvement of each of these phrases against each other, the work balances out. Enescu's use of the instruments is more varied and more interesting in this Second Quartet, and each player is given regular moments in the spotlight. The performance succeeds because each of the players is able to play their snatches of melody in a similarly passionate but disciplined style.
The balance of the ensemble is also impressive, and there are never any concerns about the relative weight of the piano and the other instruments. The recording gives the piano a round, warm sound, that mixes in well with the melodic lyricism of the string playing. Atmosphere is important in this music, so the resonant sound that the engineers derive from the Potton Hall acoustic is ideal.
Despite the advocacy of these excellent players, it seems unlikely that Enescu's Piano Quartets are going to find a wider audience any time soon. What stands against them more than anything else is their weight and continuous emotional involvement, which in the case of the First Quartet in particular can make the experience of listening a wearing one. But much of this music is very attractive, and given the continuing popularity of Ravel's similar chamber works, there may well be potential listeners out there who will take an interest. They will certainly be well served by this recording, which makes the most of what lightness there is in these scores. This is involved music, but the Schubert Ensemble ensure that every phrase of it is delivered with elegance and panache.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bruckner 7 Janowski

Anton BRUCKER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.7 in E Major (Nowak version)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Marek Janowski conductor
Recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland October 2010 DDD/DSD Stero/Surround
Pentatone PTC 5186 370 [66:04]

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I've been reading all sorts of good things about this new Bruckner 7 from Marek Janowski and the Suisse Romande, but I'm having a lot of trouble getting on with it myself. The orchestra play well, but Janowski's interpretation just leaves me cold.
The first movement is slow, not fatally so, but slow enough to make coherent phrasing a struggle for all concerned. The tempo relations between the sections have obviously been worked out with extreme care, but the result is an excessively careful interpretation. Of all Bruckner's symphonies, the Seventh is the one in which the internal structuring of the movements is secure and logical enough that the conductor can afford to take risks. Not Janowski though, he only changes gear when he absolutely has to, creating a stark contrast been sections of exposition and transition.
The second movement is better, but this too is on the safe side. It is in this second movement that the quality of the orchestral playing begins to redeem the performance. Every section of the orchestra gets a moment to shine here. But this too is a safe performance. If anything, it could be slower a lot of the time, and Janowski could certainly allow himself to let go a lot more. Some bigger swells from the strings would help everybody live in the moment, without worrying so much about the architecture. Ironically, when he does reach the climax, he has spent so much effort on preparing it that the moment itself is underwhelming. The cymbal crash is included, which is just as well or the moment could pass you by.
So too with the scherzo and finale. All the notes are in the right places, but there just isn't the excitement in the scherzo to make the thing worthwhile. And the finale, while it has occasional moments of real beauty and rarer but notable moments of real drama too, falls flat. The ending of the work is a problem for any conductor. It has to build up to something monumental, and then conclude without sounding like it has just stopped mid-phrase. As with the adagio climax, Janowski does everything in his power to prepare for the last pages, but when they actually arrive there is nothing particularly monumental or conclusive about them.
The orchestral playing deserves higher praise, as does the SACD audio. In fact, they work in tandem to bring some interesting and often overlooked aspects of the score to attention. The horn section is assertive and bold, and a number of horn counterpoints that I hadn't heard before come through in the scherzo and finale. The lower brass also have impressive clarity, although their tone is sometimes a little raspy. The balance between the top and bottom of the orchestra is always impressive, and this is something Janowski deserves credit for. The quality audio allows the listener to hear the details at both ends of the spectrum, and the relationship between those extremes, between the trombones and violins say, is always ideally balanced.
Perhaps I'm being unfair on Janowski. I've certainly heard worse recordings of the Seventh, and if he takes the first movement too slow and with excessively rigid tempos, that's less of a crime than the many faster and more erratic ones on the market. It is just all a bit too reverential for my taste. Janowski is faithful to the letter of the score, but he misses its spirit. That's a shame, because he has clearly instilled an impressive sense of discipline into his orchestra. Now that they are doing exactly what he wants, perhaps it is time he loosened up a bit himself.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Prince Consort: Other Love Songs, Brahms and Hough

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Liebeslieder Walzer Op.52 [22:54]
Stephen HOUGH (b.1951)
Other Love Songs [21:22]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Neue Liebeslieder Op.65 [18:39]
The Prince Consort: Tim Mead (countertenor), Jaques Imbrailo (baritone), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo), Andrew Staples (tenor), Anna Leese (soprano), Alisdair Hogarth (piano)
Philip Fowke piano (Brahms), Stephen Hough piano (Hough)
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk 25-29 October 2010 DDD/DSS stereo/surround
Linn CKD 382 [62:55]
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This album has already garnered some impressive plaudits in the press, and I'm happy to endorse most of what I have read about it. Brahms' two partsong sets Opp.52 and 65 are masterly examples of the form, making full use of all the colours and textures that the small vocal ensemble offers. But most of all, they are really fun. They are light and cheerful, but without ever sounding frivolous or trivial.
And the music certainly sounds fun when presented by the Prince Consort. Everything here is buoyant and propulsive, and the singers all share an understanding of Brahms' phrasing that helps the textures to cohere without masking the individuality of each of the performers. In fact, the relationship between individual and collective here is interesting. All of the performers, I'm sure, have busy musical careers away from this ensemble, and I have heard two of the singers take major operatic roles in the last twelve months, both putting in show-stopping performances (that's Jaques Imbrailo at Glyndebourne and Anna Leese at Holland Park). In the Brahms here, the vocal ensemble really sounds like a group of soloists, each with their own vocal characteristics. To be truthful, that makes the solo passages and duet sections more successful than the full ensemble songs, and there are a few occasions when the tutti sound could be a little more rounded and unified. But better that than the other way round, and the sheer musical interest that each of these accomplished singers brings to the mix makes up for the occasional roughness round the edges.
The choice of Stephen Hough as composer for the companion piece to the Brahms sets is a curious but ultimately successful one. Hough says that in the interest of variety he made a decision to avoid waltzes. In fact, he has taken the issue of variety a few steps further than that, and written a diverse collection of partsongs, which bear little relation to the Brahms, bar perhaps their genre and scale. "Other love songs", good as it is, is a bit of a mixed bag. The best of them are the comedy numbers, "Madam and her Madam" and "The Colour of Hair". Elsewhere, he does the plaintive, Britten-type thing in "Simon, Son of John" and the declamatory, Ned Rorem-type thing in "All Shall be Well". It is all good, clean fun, and only occasionally stretches the limits of the material's potential. Writing music to go up against Brahms is a tall order, and comparisons between the two composers are unlikely to put Hough's contribution in a favourable light. But it is to his credit then, that even when framed by Brahms' two great masterpieces of the genre, such comparisons don't suggest themselves, and the listener finds themselves appreciating Hough's little songs on their own considerable merits.
The piano playing on this disc is excellent. The group's accompanist, is joined by the composer for the Hough songs and by the equally venerable Philip Fowke for the Brahms. The ensemble between the pianists is absolutely spot-on, and the sensitivity of their accompaniments belies the number of hands and the keyboard. The sound quality is good, I'd say very good by CD standards and about average for SACD. All round, this is an attractive, fun and well executed album, not to mention an adventurous programme. What sort of works we can expect to hear on their next album is anybody's guess.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: