Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance, Marcus Creed, SWR Vocalensemble Stuttgart

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance (Bussverse), Voices of Nature
SWR Vocalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed director
Hänssler Classic SACD 93.281
Buy/download from:

East meets West in the music of Alfred Schnittke. The composer's Slavic and German roots led him to explore musical traditions from both sides of the iron curtain, and often to bring them together in mutually illuminating ways. But even he conceded that choral music traditions rarely mix. As a result, he recommended that his works based on Catholic liturgy, the Requiem and the Second Symphony, should ideally be sung by Western choirs, while his Orthodox inspired works were best suited to Slavic choirs.
The Psalms of Repentance (known here as Bussverse) fall squarely in the second category. The work was written in 1988 to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Russia. It takes Orthodox choral traditions and intensifies all the latent emotion by applying a searing dissonant harmonic language. I think it is one of the composer's many underrated masterpieces, a piece that sits in a curious and tangential relationship to his better known Choir Concerto, but that demonstrates an even more profound and emotional response from the composer to the music of Orthodox liturgy.
Marcus Creed and his SWR vocal ensemble are one of the few professional choral outfits willing to tackle the dissonant choral repertoire of the 20th century. Their earlier disc of Jolivet choral works demonstrated a positive relish from the singers for the technical challenges that close harmony dissonant textures pose. It is surely this, rather than any anticipated lack of interest from listeners, that has prevented the Psalms of Repentance from being recorded and performed as often as the Choir Concerto, a work which has now firmly established its place in the repertoire.
This is the third commercial recording of the Palms of Repentance. The first two are from the Danish Radio Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir respectively. The Swedish version, under Tonu Kaljuste (ECM 453 513-2) is an exceptional disc and is to be highly recommended to anybody with an interest in Schnittke or in recent developments in Orthodox choral music. This SWR recording isn't quite in the same league, but it offers a different approach on the work, and is well worth hearing in conjunction with Kaljuste's version.
The Swedes really go for a Slavic liturgical sound. So there is plenty of resonance, plenty of space between the phrases, and while the choir is mixed it is the bass voices that dominate throughout. Creed and his SWR forces take a more analytic approach. The tempos are stricter and consistently a notch faster too. The balance is more even between the voice groups. The choir is, I think, smaller, allowing the details of the choral counterpoint to come through better.
The attitude toward the many dissonances in the score is also very different. Kaljuste is happy to treat the more astringent harmonies as suspensions, always anticipating resolution, even when none comes. Creed, in contrast, makes the most out of each of these unusual chords, treating them as a kind of sonoristic basis for the work's harmonic identity. So the dissonant chords are often emphasised, and are always very precisely and evenly pitched, allowing the listener to dissect their mismatched internal intervals.
The result is a recording that emphasises the uniqueness of this remarkable score. The tensions within it are brought to the surface, raising all sorts of questions about the work's genesis and the meaning of the negative emotions that the music repeatedly returns to. Kaljuste does that too, but by highlighting the liturgical nature of the music, presents the dark side of the score more as a series of transient doubts in a religious context otherwise infused with hope.
Voices of Nature is the ideal filler, not least because it picks up almost exactly where the last movement of the Psalms of Repentance leaves off. Creed and the ladies of his choir have no trouble creating a sense of atmosphere here, and Schnittke gives them a helping hand by crowing their harmonies with a halo of overtones on a vibraphone. This is another fine performance, although it adds little to what is already available on disc.
But the Psalms of Repentance are given a genuinely new appearance on this recording, and it is well worth hearing as a result. Unlike most Modernists, Schnittke's music really needs interpretation. As a result, there is a great deal of scope for multiple readings of his greatest scores. This one isn't quite as convincing as the Swedish Radio Choir version, but it is a viable and distinct alternative, and the comparison of the two puts the work in a fascinating new light.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Strauss, Alpine Symphony, Edo de Waart, Royal Flemish Philharmonic

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
An Alpine Symphony Op.64
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Edo de Waart conductor
recorded live at Queen Elisabeth Hall, Antwerp, 14-15 May 2010 Stereo DDD
RFP Live RFP001 [51:58]
Buy from:

Given the geography of the Low Countries, it is surprising that musicians there have such a natural affinity with Strauss' Alpine Symphony. This release on the Royal Flemish Philharmonic own label comes just a few years after a very similar release from the Concertgebouw on their own label. The work is, of course, a fabulous orchestral show-piece, so it is no surprise that these orchestras are using it to show off their skills, and in fact the LSO has also recorded the work for their own label in recent years.
The comparison between this reading and that from the Concertgebouw under Jansons is very interesting. Jansons opts througout for broad, expansive textures. Edo de Waart takes a different approach. He certainly makes the most of the climaxes, but he also injects momentum and drive into the quieter passages. This recording is only a few minutes shorter than Jansons', but de Waart is able to make it seem faster than it actually is. Some atmosphere is lost in the process, but the payoff is a much more coherent, more symphonic Alpine Symphony. Given the vast array of high quality recordings on the market (Karajan's 1981 version usually tops the list), it is just as well that there is something distinctive about this reading. I'll concede that I prefer a more expansive approach, but this one might just be for you if you think Strauss needs saving from his own excesses.
The orchestra are on fine form, and the woodwind and brass solos restore some the epic quality that escapes de Waart. The balance is good, especially at the summit and in the storm, where the brass and percussion can so easily overwhelm. There are one of two slightly ragged entries where the front and back of the (admittedly huge) orchestra fail to synchronise, but from a technical point of view that is the only discernible problem.
The recording quality is excellent, and bares comparison with the SACD audio on the Concertgebouw version. And even without that extra bit-depth, the clarity and presence of the orchestral sound is close to ideal. The bass in the mix is just right, with enough power to rumble the floor if you turn it up, but retaining a sense of natural balance across the range.
The serial number suggests that this is the first release on the RFP Live label, and if so they are off to a great start. The informative liner give some interesting insights into the influence of Nietzsche on the work. As you'd expect from an own-label release, there is a full orchestra list. There are track listings, but unusually no timings. Perhaps this is to hide the disappointingly short runtime of just 52 minutes. There's space for another half hour of music here, and any of Strauss' shorter tone poems would have been a welcome filler.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 16 April 2012

Bruckner 5, BBC SO, Wand

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.5 in Bb Major
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Günter Wand conductor
recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 9 September 1990 NTSC DVD, LPCM Stereo
ICA Classics ICAD 5049 [79:00]
Buy from:

Günter Wand's Indian summer is surprisingly well documented on DVD, and this Bruckner 5 from the Proms follows similar video releases of the 6th, 8th and 9th Symphonies from the same period with the NDR Sinfonieorchester. But Wand's conducting technique, and the aura that he projects from the podium, make each of these well worth watching. Even from audio-only recordings, it is clear that Wand was a living embodiment of Bruckner's art, and that impression is all the stronger for actually seeing him at work.
When this was filmed, in 1990, Wand was 78 years old, and he certainly looks his age. His profile at the podium is as distinctive as any, with his shock of white hair, the pronounced hunch to his back and his long, old-fashioned tails. His baton technique is, for the most part, traditional, and from a technical point of view his conducting is flawless, with every downbeat and every entry clearly indicated. His left hand is busier than his right, carefully shaping the dynamics and phrasing in almost every passage. The emotional complexity and substance of the work are conveyed through Wand's facial expressions, and for all the discipline and rigour in this reading, it is clear that he has a deep emotional attachment to every note.
The interpretation is classic Wand, and is as coherent, dramatic and emotive as any of his recorded Bruckner readings. The BBC SO are on good form, and their ensemble and intonation are close to flawless. Their sound quality however leaves something to be desired. The strings often sound brittle and the brass have an uncomfortable edge to their tone. This is where the performance falls short of Wand's more famous audio recordings of the work, with the Berlin Philharmonic and the WDR, both of which present very similar interpretations, but with orchestras known for their superior tonal control.
To be fair, the quality of the recording doesn't help the orchestra, nor of course does the catastrophic Albert Hall acoustic. The video was made by the BBC, presumably for television broadcast, and although it is 20 years old, it looks and sounds even older. Presumably the BBC never anticipated that the recording would be issued in this form, but even so the sound quality could be far better. The camera work is a little fussy, with more close-ups of players' faces and fingers than are strictly necessary. The great frustration today is that the camera so often moves away from Wand, whose legendary posthumous status now means that he is the only performer here that we really want to see. For some reason, the camera always pulls away about three seconds before the end of each movement, so we are denied the chance of seeing how Wand affects his impressively definitive endings.
An interview with Wand is added as a bonus track. The cover says it was with Michael Berkeley, who doesn't appear, but who must presumably have been speaking German, as Wand himself does. It is just three minutes long, but is well worth see. Wand states very succinctly that powerful Bruckner interpretation is achieved by always thinking about the overall structure and by doing exactly what it says in the score. Berkeley doesn't press him on which of his contemporaries he thinks takes liberties. But Günter Wand was such a gentleman, it is hard to imagine him naming names.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Langgaard String Quartets, The Nightingale Quartet

Langgaard: String Quartets Nos. 2,3 and 6. Variations on 'Mig hjertelig ne laenges'
The Nightingale String Quartet
Da Capo 6.220575 (SACD)
Buy from:

It's worth persevering with Rued Langgaard. His music is so genial and unprepossessing that it is all too easy just let it pass you by. But repeated listening reveals all sorts of complexities and unique stylistic traits. There are plenty of flaws of course, and in the case of these string quartets the worst is their continual striving for symphonic scope, which is always frustrated. But beyond that the sheer originality of the music, its skilful melodic construction, and its vast array of colours and moods makes it well worth hearing.
The string quartets are all products of Langgaard's industrious youth. His late-Romantic aesthetic, when applied to the string quartet format, comes out sounding like something between Delius and Janacek, although considerably closer to the former. The numbering of the quartets is all over the place, and although the quartets here are numbered 2,3 and 6, the sixth precedes the third by five years.
Quartet No.2, with which the programme opens, has titles for each of its movements, some of which - Landscape in Twilight, The Walk – don't instil confidence that the music is going to be of any interest. Fortunately, these are the movements where Langgaard is at his closest to Janacek, mixing tone painting with a slightly folky/modal nationalist idiom. The second movement is entitled 'Train Passing By', and Langgaard does a great job of representing the repeated, insistent sounds of a steam engine, yet without resorting to Mickey Mouse sound effects. The result is closer to Steve Reich's evocation of trains than it is to Honegger's, but it stands favourable comparison to both.
The Third Quartet, rather than giving programmatic titles, has movements named 'Rapacious', 'Artful' and 'Scoffing'. Again, the character of the music closely matches the intended moods. The titles sound surprisingly like those of Nielsen's Second Symphony, considering the antimony between the two composers.
The Sixth Quartet is in a single movement, but ironically is the most sectional of the three. It's structure is innovative, but seems entirely stable, at least until a curiously naïve sounding folk tune is added in at the end, for no readily apparent reason. And the programme concludes with a set of variations on a chorale, a work of similar scope and standing to the preceding quartets and with an impressive sense of continuity across its seven variations.
The Nightingale Quartet give fine performances, expansive and expressive but also tightly controlled in technical matters of tuning and ensemble. Romantic as this music is, there is plenty of scope for different interpretations, and a more formal, neo-Classical approach might serve these quartets just as well. But the Nightingale Quartet never take any of their dynamic or rubato indulgences to excess, so the music is well served by their readings.
The sound quality is good, although you'd be unlikely to tell that it is an SACD without reading the box. The concert hall venue gives a curious resonance, not distorting as such, but adding a slight boxy edge to the sound. The packaging is very elegant and the liner notes are comprehensive, suggesting that a great deal of care has gone into the production of this disc. The Danish Langgaard revival continues apace, and if future contributions to it are of this quality, he may yet find a meaningful place in the repertoire.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Bruckner 4, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.4 in Eb Major (ed. Haas)
Orchestre Métropolitain
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conductor
recorded at Église Saint-Ferdinand, Quebec April 2011 stereo DDD
ATMA ACD2 2667 [67:47]

Buy/download from:

 Yannick Nézet-Séguin has made something of a speciality out of Bruckner over the course of his career to date, and judging by this recording he certainly has something to say with the composer's music. Given his young age – he's still only in his mid 30s – this is an astonishingly mature interpretation of the Fourth Symphony. It is as coherent and thought-through as any in the catalogue. The orchestral textures are always well balanced and the relative dynamics well-judged. Most interestingly of all, Yannick makes some very original decisions with the tempos, some faster than you'd expect, some slower. But they all add up to an impressively coherent reading.
The opening passage, with the famous horn solo, is taken quite fast, but also without any hint of rubato. That's a sign of what is to come, as Yannick's tempos all tend to be fairly fixed. Not that he ignores the phrase structuring or the tempo changes in the score, but rather that he doesn't use any of these as excuses for lingering or sentimentality.
The first movement is all on the fast side, although usually only just more so than you'd expect. The feeling of propulsion that this gives the music is aided by the lack of rubato, but also by the impressively precise playing from the orchestra. Yannick never exaggerates the dynamics either, and his discipline pays off in the added significance he can then give to more subtle volume changes. And the Orchestre Métropolitain, particularly its brass section, are able to sound grand and imposing without going overboard at the climaxes.
The second movement is unusually slow, and Yannick evidently ignores the Andante tempo marking in order to present the movement as a true Adagio, something the symphony is arguably lacking. This is the most radical interpretive decision on the recording, but one that the conductor is able to pull off through the musical integrity that he achieves at this slower tempo. Again, the precision of the orchestral playing helps. He makes usual demands on the woodwinds and brass here, expecting them to maintain their tone and balance over the elongated phrases, but they always seem to manage.
The Scherzo, by contrast, is fast and punchy. Perhaps the opening of this movement is not as fast as it at first seems, but the contrast with the tempo of the preceding movement certainly gives it a sense of drive. There is also a stark contrast in tempos within the movement, as the trio section reverts to a surprisingly relaxed pace. The tempo changes between the sections are uncomfortably abrupt, a feature that continues into the finale. In fact, the finale really benefits from these. It is the one movement of the symphony that comes in for the most criticism, usually on the grounds that it is too long to its constituent material. But in Yannick's hands the scale seems just right, and he is able to keep the music's sense of drama fresh right up to the last bar. As in the first movement, the secret here may be his unwillingness to lose control in the climaxes. None of the loud sections in the last movement sounds like a conclusion, apart, of course from the last one.
The Orchestre Métropolitain, a Quebec-based ensemble, give him everything he needs to make this interpretation work. The string section is a little light, although not fatally so. The horns do a magnificent job, and not just in the opening solo passage, but also in the second movement chorales and in all the tuttis in the outer movements that they are expected to dominate. The recorded sound is good, although not exceptional. A little more clarity from the back of the orchestra would have been nice. On the other hand, the bass in the mix is ideal, with a real sense of presence and power, but also natural sounding and subtle when need be.
So, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is clearly a Brucknerian to be reckoned with. He is probably unique among his generation of conductors in his ability to shape and control Bruckner's orchestral textures. If anything, he is perhaps a little too controlling, and I suspect that as he matures as a conductor he will find ways to maintain his authority over this music without having to dictate the minutiae of every bar.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 6 April 2012

Doric Quartet plays Korngold

Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Quintet Op.15 [32:24]
String Sextet Op.10 [34:21]
Doric String Quartet
Jennifer Stumm viola
Bartholomew LaFollette cello
Kathryn Stott piano
Recorded at the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk 6-8 July 2011 stereo DDD
Chandos CHAN 10707 [66:58]
Buy from:

The Doric Quartet seem to have a Midas touch and any repertoire, however obscure, they commit to disc comes out sparkling. This is their second Korngold release, following an earlier disc of the composer's String Quartets. Praise for that recording was universal, and this one looks set for a similar reception. Given the rapid ascent of this group's reputation, they could be forgiven for cashing in on the core repertoire. If they were to record Beethoven's Quartets, for example, the results would no doubt be among the best on the market and would certainly sell as such. But that's not their style, and the group's commitment to exploring neglected works is all the more admirable for the fact that, commercially speaking, it is wholly unnecessary.
Just from rough calculations based on the dates given on the back of the box, Korngold was very young indeed when he wrote these two works. They date from his teens and early 20s, but both sound so thoroughly mature that you could mistake them for the work of a composer twice his age. Perhaps the answer lies in the artistic milieu of his times. This is, after all, music from the end of a long and legendary era of Viennese Romanticism, and it is as if the musical wisdom of Beethoven, Brahms and all their followers has been distilled into the musical persona of this young composer. Direct influences are difficult to spot, which is all the more surprising given the composer's youth. Korngold has moved further from Brahms than many of his contemporaries. The chromaticism and free-flowing counterpoint of Schoenberg's expressionism play a part in Korngold's aesthetic. Richard Strauss is also a continuous background presence. The Adagio of the Sextet, for example, opens with a bold two chord statement of a minor chord followed by its tonic major, just like in the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra. Also, like Strauss, Korngold tends to focus the sophistication of his music in the identity and contours of his themes rather than in their elaboration. Not that he shirks his responsibilities in terms of musical development. In fact, he has a rare ability to construct complex contrapuntal textures from his themes without ever making the music sound dense of over-saturated. That makes both works much easier on the ear than, say, Verklärte Nacht or even the Brahms Sextets.
The Piano Quintet Op.15 is in three longish movements, and their very length highlights another strength of the young Korngold's art. There is so much variety incorporated into this music, yet everything fits seamlessly together as a logical an integrated whole. The way that calm interludes interrupt the momentum of the outer movements, briefly transporting the listener into some plane outside of time, that's a thoroughly symphonic trait and it owes much to Mahler. The second movement is a set of variations, but again the music's continuity has the effect of integrating each of these sections into a continuous progression.
The performance and recording are first rate. The Dorics have found an ideal collaborator in Kathryn Stott, who has no apparent difficulties with the music's many technical demands and who fits seamlessly into the ensemble. That is part of Korngolds's plan, I suspect, and he never writes anything that might set the piano in opposition to the strings. In fact, he often uses heavy pizzicatos from the string players to imitate the attack of the piano. This, and many other of Korngold's textural devices, work all the better for the Dorics' assertive but always precise and controlled playing.
Listening to the String Sextet, it is unclear exactly why Korngold chose to use so many instruments. Unlike Brahms, he is not interested in what bass-heavy textures can do for his chamber music. And unlike Schoenberg, he is not after richly-saturated, enveloping textures. Counterpoint is a continual preoccupation, so perhaps the extra players are used simply to provide extra melodic lines. Whatever the answer, there is a surprising lightness about much of this music. As with the Quintet, there is impressive variety too. Perhaps it is not quite to the same compositional standard as the later work, but it's certainly close, and if you didn't know, you'd never guess that it was the work of a 19-year-old.
Again, the Doric Quartet works with collaborators who are clearly well up to the task. Violist Jennifer Stumm and cellist Bartholomew LaFollette have no problems fitting into the ensemble, which is all the more impressive given that Korngold regularly writes passages in unison and octaves, the sort of textures that routinely catch out even the best groups. The interpretation is just as flexible and lively as in the Quintet. Korngold has plenty of surprises up his sleeve in this score too, and the players make an excellent job of switching between styles and moods as the music requires, yet never letting any of these changes affect the continuity of the whole.
As with previous Doric Quartet releases on Chandos, the sound quality is excellent, clear and detailed but also immediate and involving. A louder piano sound could be justified, although in the context of this interpretation the balance seems fine. Similarly with the bass in the Sextet, we could hear more from the bottom of the texture, but instead the engineers have gone for an even response across the range, which better matches Korngold's finely balanced textures.
Even by the Doric Quartet's now well-established standards, this is an impressive release. Hopefully the obscure repertoire won't put off potential listeners, as playing of this standard deserves to find the widest possible audience.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Parsifal, Barenboim, Berlin Staatsoper 1992

Wagner: Parsifal
Poul Elming (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Günter von Kannen (Klingsor), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas), Fritz Hübner (Titurel)
Harry Kupfer director
Daniel Barenboim conductor
EuroArts 2066738 [3 DVDs]
Buy from:

Barenboim's Berlin Parsifal has accrued some high expectations in the 20 years it has taken to reach DVD. By many people's reckoning, Barenboim is the finest interpreter of this score in recent times, and his collaboration with director Hary Kupfer for the Berlin Staatsoper regularly tops the favourites lists of critics who know their Wagner. The historical context is important. The wall had fallen just a few years before, and Barenboim had only just been appointed as the company's Music Director. A new dawn then for opera in Berlin, and a Parsifal to herald the new era.
Everybody involved in the production – the company, the conductor, the director and the cast – already had significant experience with this opera, and it shows. Kupfer negotiates the work's dramatic paradoxes with impressive skill. The setting is a kind of chrome spaceship environment, somewhere between Tron and Stargate. It looks dated, or at least of its time, but that doesn't matter a bit. What's more significant is the way the staging focusses the attention, on the Grail in the acts 1 and 3 finale rituals, and rest of the time on the singers. This is one of the few productions I have seen that maintains a visual continuity between the first act and the second. The iconography of Montsalvat is inverted or parodied by that of Klingsor's castle. And the Flowermaidens scene is about the most bizarre and disturbing you'll ever see.
More importantly though, Kupfer really gets his singers to act. The stasis implied in most of the scenes is overcome by the real sense of emotive interaction between the characters. Dramatically, Kundry and Amfortas are the strongest characters here. Amfortas' suffering makes the finales of the outer acts almost unbearable to watch, while Kundry dominates Act 2, bringing every imaginable emotion to bear.
The cast is about the strongest you could imagine, both in terms of singing and acting. Even 20 years later, all are still working, and still dominating the Wagner world. But in 1992, they were at the peak of their powers, and able to put in some extraordinary vocal performances. Poul Elming is dramatically convincing as Parsifal. He also has the baritonal richness to his voice to compete with all the bass and baritone singers he is up against. Falk Struckmann projects the pain and suffering of Amfortas as much through his impressive vocal performance as through his acting. John Tomlinson is the Gurnemanz of our times. Perhaps he seems a little more authoritative today for his greater maturity, but in 1992 he also had a greater agility to his voice, which really helps this musically supple production. Waltraud Meier is just fabulous as Kundry. It is hard to imagine a better performance, although her voice does start to show the strain towards the end of the second act and her tone begins to thin a little. Günter von Kannen and Fritz Hübner take the roles of Klingsor and Titurel. Both pale slightly in the context of this stellar cast, but both give more than serviceable performances.
I've asked around many Wagner experts, and I can't find anybody to say a word against Barenboim's reading of Parsifal. And I'll agree that he is certainly able to drive the music, and to structure its long acts. He's also got an ear for orchestral detail, but makes sure that orchestra always serves the singers. But for all that, I find his reading slightly rigid. He never slows in crescendos leading to climaxes, which then lose some impact, and a lot of the filigree woodwind writing simply sounds rushed. I'm clearly in the minority, but I'd much rather hear Haitink or Kubelik any day.
The video production and sound quality are also of their time. So far as I can tell, the filming was done for Bavarian television. The style of editing is unusually static. So, for example, in the preludes to each of the acts, we watch Barenboim conducting from an unflatteringly low camera angle, with few cutaways to the orchestra. This static approach to editing serves the stage action better, especially as Harry Kupfer has obviously thought hard about the relationship between stasis and movement, a balance which is little affected by the camera work. Given the date, it is unsurprising that we are in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but that's a shame, as it often relegates the singers to the bottom third of the screen. The sound quality is OK in the pit, but the singers sound very distant. Fortunately they all have voices that really project, so it's not too much of a problem.
A valuable document, then, of a historic Parsifal. Although I've reservations about Barenboim's reading, this is clearly one of the finest productions ever to make it onto DVD. Given the long and glittering careers of everybody involved here, you will probably be able to find them all involved in other Parsifal productions, at least in audio and in many cases on video too. But everything really comes together this time, so we should be thankful that the cameras were there to capture it for posterity.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Xenakis Cello Works Arne Deforce

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
Complete Cello Works
Nomos Alpha (1966) [19:13]
Charisma (1971) [4:31]
Kottos (1977) [10:33]
Epicycles (1989) [12:27]
Paille In the Wind (1992) [5:15]
Hunem-Iduhey (1996) [3:19]
Roscobeck (1996) [7:46]
Dhipli Zyia (1951) [4:52]
Arne Deforce cello
Ensemble Fabrik
James Wood director
recorded at Concertgebouw Bruges 2 June and 5 July 2010, and at Cologne 23 September 2010 (Epicycles) Stereo DDD
AEON AECD 1109 [67:56]

Buy from:

Iannis Xenakis had a natural affinity for numbers and mathematical concepts, but his relationships with musical instruments were a little more complex. His works for solo instruments usually fit under the fingers, but their idiomatic qualities are rarely based on a deep understanding of the repertoire. Xenakis also had a perverse interest in creating technical difficulties for players to negotiate. And you don't do that by just writing lots of notes, it takes a real understanding of what is possible to play and what is not if you are planning to position your music squarely on the border between the two.
The works on this disc span the second half of the 20th century and give a taste of every period in Xenakis' career. The quality and interest peak in the 1960s and then go into slow decline. The most famous work on the disc, and deservedly so, is Nomos Alpha written in 1966. This is one of Xenakis' greatest masterpieces and by any estimation deserves a place among the top few cello works of the 20th century. The mathematical principles on which it is based are derived from successive projections of a rotating cube. Or at least I think that is what's going on, the liner notes are mercifully vague when it comes to the technical end of things. But you don't need any knowledge of maths to enjoy this. As with many of Xenakis' string works, Nomos Alpha calls for heavy scraping on the strings and includes lots of tremolo glissando. So the music is always in a state of flux, either from the continuously changing pitch or through movement across the continuum between noise and sound. The technical challenges here are just extraordinary. At the end, for example, the cello plays a series of scales in contrary motion on artificial harmonics. The mind boggles trying to imagine the contortions the cellist's left hand must go through to achieve those.
None of the other works on the disc quite match this opening track for invention or originality. The two tracks that follow, Charisma for cello and clarinet and Kottos again for solo cello, are unremittingly aggressive. Xenakis chooses the performance techniques that are going to produce the most abrasive sounds and pursues them doggedly. There is musical interest to be had here, but it takes some work.
Epicycles for cello and 12 instruments is similarly unrelenting. The block chords from the brass here resemble those in Eonta. But that work succeeds because the lack of rhythmic interest in the brass is more than compensated for by the piano. Here the solo cello line also lacks rhythmic invention, as if the composer's interests lie only in his harmonic elaborations. Interesting as they are, they don't make up monotony of rhythm and orchestration.
Roscobeck, a more recent work from 1996, achieves an impressive feat by combining cello with double bass and coming up with a range of musical textures and ideas that justify the pairing. The high quality of the sound reproduction helps to clearly articulate these bass textures. And the balance is kept even down at the bottom, with no extraneous bass amplification, all the better to admire these these strange timbral combinations.
The programme ends with an early work, Dhipli Zyia. This shows another side to Xenakis, one that is closer to Bartók than to the post war avant garde. The piece never quite breaks out into a folksong but always feels like it is about to.
No great technical challenges on this last track, but by this point cellist Arne Deforce has earned the right to rest on his laurels. The cello playing throughout is excellent, especially when you consider the astonishing challenges the composer sets. The cellist, his various collaborators, and the sound engineers all make a good job of the brutal noise-like textures, and the sound of the cello always has a visceral immediacy, even though the microphones are usually placed a reasonable distance back.
The first track of this disc is more than enough to recommend it, and the endless fascination of Xenakis' score repays multiple listenings, especially with a performance and recording of this quality. The other works are only likely to be of interest to already committed Xenakis fans. Although if you really want to get your head around the relationships between higher mathematics and Modern music, this would be a great place to start.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: