Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Die Walküre Weigle Frankfurt Opera

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

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bach Passions Koopman

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

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

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 14 November 2011

Schumann String Quartets Doric Quartet

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

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 11 November 2011

Bach Well Tempered Steinway Findlay Cockrell

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

Monday, 7 November 2011

Schnittke Violin Sonatas Huebl Wait

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

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

Friday, 4 November 2011

Late Beethoven – Luisa Guembes-Buchanan

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

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