Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Doric Quartet plays Korngold

Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Quintet Op.15 (1921) [32:24]
String Sextet Op.10 (1917) [34:21]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Simon Tandree (viola); John Myerscough (cello)); Kathryn Stott (piano); Jennifer Stumm (viola); Bartholomew LaFollette (cello);
rec. Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 6-8 July 2011. stereo. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10707 [66:58]
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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. 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. 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 or 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 and 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 Korngold'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 Doric's 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. Unlike Schoenberg, he is not after richly-saturated, enveloping textures. Counterpoint is a continual preoccupation, so perhaps the additional 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 Quaret's now well-established standards, this is an impressive release. It is to be hoped that 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: 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Mercy and Grand: Tom Waits arranged by Gavin Bryars

Mercy and Grand: The music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan arranged by Gavin Bryars, Joe Townsend and Jim Holmes.
Jess Walker mezzo-soprano, musicians of Opera North
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There's only one Tom Waits, and anybody trying to cover his songs does so at their peril. Rod Stewart just about gets away with his imitation of that famous gravelly voice, but most others avoid the Tom Waits sound and instead transplant his tunes into other musical contexts. Gavin Bryars and the musicians of Opera North do a little of both. The vocals here are supplied by the very operatic and very English mezzo, Jess Walker, while the band is much like Waits' own, with a tinny piano, string bass and a handful of wind instruments.
The album is a spin-off from a full length concert, originally given in Leeds in 2007 and later presented at festivals around the country. The programme is bolstered with arrangements of other songs, most notably those of Kurt Weill. The Weill arrangements are all of songs that Tom has himself has sung, and the instrumentation always makes reference of one sort or another to the Tom Waits Band.
The results are a mixed bag, but the hits outnumber the misses. Jess Walker is at her best in the more brazen and sardonically unbeat numbers like A Little Drop of Poison and Innocent When You Dream. An operatic vibrato comes though on the longer notes here, increasing the projection, but moving the sound even further from original. One or two of the songs are performed in keys that take Walker right into the top of the soprano range. That adds another level of creepiness some of the songs, particularly Poor Edward. The slower, maudlin numbers are hit and miss. Broken Bicycles and Alice both work because the no-nonsense delivery matches the directness of the lyric. But with Johnsburg Illinois, the sheer simplicity of the music proves its downfall, and it becomes clear just how much the success of the original relies on the timbral complexity of Waits' voice. A clash of cultures also causes some of the songs to jar, and lines like 'A little rain never hurt no-one' sound very strange sung a plummy English accent.
Most of the arrangements are by Gavin Bryars, but one or two are by Joe Townsend and Jim Holmes. The stage band is so similar to Tom Waits' own backing group that it is often hard to work out exactly what the arrangers have done. None of the instrumental effects are particularly subtle, but most fit well into the respective songs. Poor Edward is accompanied by musical saw and bass clarinet, a bizarre but effective combination. In other songs, Stroh violin is put to good use, as is the harmonium. But contributions from the sax and electric guitar can sometimes take the sound a little too close to the Rock and Roll aesthetic for comfort.
As well as arranger, Bryars features on the disc playing the double bass. He's well amplified, so anybody interested in this side of the composer's art should have a listen. He makes a particularly memorable contribution to Alice, with a solo at the beginning followed by some wonderfully free-flowing bass lines. The only track that sounds like Gavin Bryars doing his own thing is The Briar and the Rose. Here Bryars takes Waits' instrumental number and adds some of his trademark mood-music minimalism. So for a few short minutes toward the end of the album we are briefly taken into the world of The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus Blood. It's a great track, but sadly all too short.
A brave effort then, from Bryars and his Opera North companions. Particularly brave, in fact, from Opera North considering how far this project takes them outside their comfort zone. Among Tom Waits covers, these are as good as any, but they're still no match for the real thing. So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to reacquaint myself with Swordfish Trombones.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

William Bolcom: Complete Gospel Preludes, Gregory Hand

William Bolcom: Complete Gospel Preludes
Gregory Hand (organ)
Recorded on the Skinner Organ at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago, 20 October 2010 stereo DDD
Naxos 8.559695 (budget price, 1 hour 11 minutes)

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The word 'eclectic' doesn't even begin to describe the music of William Bolcom. Seemingly unrelated musical ideas collide in his works with alarming regularity, but also with an underlying logic that allays any suspicion of randomness. He is one of the few postmodernist composers to take ideas of collage and pastiche into the organ loft. We expect more reverential music to come from the pipe organ, but the skill and humour with which Bolcom mixes his styles and genres gives him considerable leeway to explore the instrument's lighter side.
The Gospel Preludes, which run to four volumes, began in 1979 following a commission from the Dallas chapter of the American Guild of Organists. The genre is, of course, based on that of the Baroque chorale prelude. Like Bach and his colleagues, Bolcom freely harmonises his themes, sets them against descants, and extracts motifs for extended contrapuntal elaboration. His lingua franca is a dissonant harmonic style with quasi-improvised melodic lines. The gospel tunes provide the levity to balance this sometimes austere atonality, and jazzy syncopations give the rhythms drive and lift. Bolcom is happy to disguise his sources, often to the limits of recognisability, as in the case of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. But other themes cry out for triumphal exposition over full organ accompaniment, which is exactly how we hear Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages.
Gregory Hand plays the ideal instrument for this repertoire: the Skinner Organ of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. This is a vast instrument its registration alone takes up a full page of small print in the liner but its range of colours and its sheer power are exploited to the full. The organ even has a set of bells, which make a brief appearance in Shall We Gather at the River and are then given a starring role in Nearer, My God to Thee, where they intone a continuous ostinato throughout the prelude. Hand clearly has command of this huge instrument, with only a few poorly timed jerks on the swell pedal suggesting that he could occasionally do with more than four limbs.
Sound engineering is by the German/American organist Wolfgang Rbsam. He knows this instrument as well as anybody, having spent most of the 1980s and 90s as the chapel's organist. Even so, giving clear voice to all of the organ's many registers is a huge task, and in many of the quieter passages the sounding pipes can seem frustratingly distant. Nevertheless the acoustic, resonant as it is, never obscures and gives the recording a valuable sense of space.
Bolcom's Gospel Preludes have been a staple of the American organ repertoire since their completion in the mid-1980s, yet this is their first commercial recording. It's unlikely to be the last though, and Gregory Hand has set a high standard that his successors may struggle to match.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Beethoven Symphonies 2&3 Jan Willem de Vriend

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.2 [34:25]
Symphony No.3 [46:45]
The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra
Jan Willem de Vriend conductor
Recorded at Muzikcentrum Enschede, 18-20 May 2009 and 7-8 September 2010 DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
Challenge Classics CC72532 [34:25+46:45]

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Astonishing as it may seem, this Beethoven symphony cycle from Jan Willem de Vriend and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra has a niche in the market almost to itself. With the notable exception of Jos van Immerseel's ongoing cycle, this is the only one available on SACD and played on period instruments. If your dead set on that combination of attributes, it may be worth considering, but otherwise this is very much middle of the road Beethoven with few artistic merits to elevate it above the hundreds of others available.
de Vriend takes A lively approach to this music, and there is a palpable sense of energy in every phrase. This is just as well, as his speeds, at least for period instrument performance, tend to be on the steady side, with the Scherzo of the Second Symphony in particular weighed down by surprisingly slow tempo choices. But a more serious failing, at least to my ears, is the conductor's unwillingness to bring a distinctive character to each of the individual sections. So the move from the Adagio introduction to the Allegro exposition in the opening movement of the Second, for example, has no real contrast and no sense of surprise. Similarly with the Eroica, a piece that comes with many interpretive expectations, none of which are seriously challenged here.
Beethoven's dynamics, hairpins and accents are faithfully reproduced, in fact they are often exaggerated, but this is the only way in which the phrase structure is articulated. So those punch chords from the brass in the opening movements of both symphonies are driven home, but there is little nuance or shaping in the quieter phrases that follow.
All of which is a shame, because the orchestral playing is generally very good. The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra apparently use modern instruments for more recent repertoire and period instruments for Classical-era works. That sounds to me like an improbable scenario, and I suspect there is a little of both going on here. Certainly, the calf-skin timpani give a 'period' feel, as do the narrow-bore brass instruments. But the overall impression is of a big, brash symphony orchestra with a few period touches added. Given the isolationist politics that has characterised period instrument performance for decades, the conciliatory approach of this ensemble may offer a potential route out of the seemingly intractable division between ancient and modern. But the orchestra does not find a middle way so much as mix elements of the two performing traditions without really offering the best of either.
But of course, all these impressions come through comparison with the many other versions of these works on the market, and the recording could be considered to have merits on its own terms. The Challenge Classics team go for an atmospheric but clean sound for their SACD reproduction. The strings and woodwind could do with a little more definition, but the engineers don't give them the help they need in this respect.
There is nothing actually wrong with anything about this recording, and as I say, the energy and life that de Vriend injects, especially in the outer movements, makes for engaging listening. But if you listen to these and then put on the Chailly or Gardiner you'll realise just how much you're missing.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Strauss: Der Bürger als Edelmann, Musikkollegium Winterthur, Douglas Boyd

Richard Strauss: Suite Der Bürger als Edelmann (Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), Four Last Songs, Wiegenlied Op.41/1, Zueigung Op.10/1 and Morgen! Op.27/2
Lisa Larsson soprano, Musikkollegium Winterthur, Douglas Boyd conductor
MDG 901 1738-6 (SACD) 
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Strauss' middle period was dedicated almost elusively to opera, so his incidental music for Le Bourgeois gentilhomme offers orchestras a rare opportunity to savour the refinement and panache of his neo-classicism in the concert hall. The music is fairly straightforward, but some of the orchestration is unusual, and the small ensemble requires a particularly acute sense of stylistic engagement to balance the tastes of 17th century France with those of early 20th century Germany. 
The Musikkollegium orchestra from Winterthur in Northern Switzerland may be in the ideal position to do just that. There is plenty of life and bounce in their reading of the suite. Strauss himself worked with this orchestra, and they have clearly maintained strong links with his music.
The Suite appears here in its nine movement form, and is therefore more complete than on some recordings, although the two dances added in 1917 are omitted. It is difficult to decide if the orchestra has been reduced to the dimensions that Strauss stipulates. If we are hearing a string section of just 16, then the players are giving an impressively large and round tone, and the acoustic is unusually supportive. Whatever the size of the orchestra, some of chamber-like intimacy of the theatre orchestra is lost in this more symphonic approach.
Fortunately, the variety of styles, tempos and textures survives this more expansive reading. Despite the resonance of the hall, the microphones do a good job of focussing in on the more unusual instruments, particularly the bass trombone and the piano. So even though the Winterthur forces offer a lusher sound than the music usually receives, all its quirks shine through.
The Four Last Songs are even better represented in the catalogue, but it seems unlikely that recordings of them are going to stop appearing any time soon. The Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson sings them with a focussed and precise tone, developed through her earlier work in Baroque opera. She has a slow and shallow vibrato, which imparts the longer phrases an impressive sense of tonal coherence. The balance between singer and ensemble is ideal, and the orchestra never seems obliged to reduce the colour or variety of its sound for the sake of accompanying dynamics.
However, Larsson has some tuning problems at the top, and in particular a tendency to go sharp on the louder, higher notes. That's frustrating given the accuracy of everything else about this recording. The ordering of these songs is also puzzling. As well as the Four Last Songs, we also hear Wiegenlied Op.41/1, Zueigung Op.10/1 and Morgen! Op.27/2. The latter is placed after the Four Last Songs, which may make programmatic sense, Morgen following Abend, but seems illogical from a musical point of view. Otherwise, this is a disc well worth hearing, if not the top choice for any of the works presented.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Tchaikovsky Symphony No.1 Pletnev

Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.1 in G Minor [45:40]
March Slave [9:15]
Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev conductor
recorded at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow April 2011 DDD/DSD stereo/surround
Pentatone PTC 5186 381 [55:21]

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Mikhail Pletnev may have taken the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony – Winter Daydreams – a little too seriously, as his recording of the work is all about reveries and casual asides, with very little in the way of convincing symphonic argument. It is a tricky balance to get right, but Tchaikovsky offers plenty of substance and drama in this score to balance the more atmospheric passages. But time and again, Pletnev emphasises the latter, even through what would otherwise be stirring melodies and key thematic arguments.
As ever, the Russian National Orchestra are on top form, as are the engineers from Pentatone, so Pletnev's daydreams are painted in clear, translucent colours with as much detail as you could hope for. The quiet opening, for example, a flute solo over tremolo strings, draws the listener straight into the music. The richness and warmth of the string and woodwind sound is a real strength of this orchestra, making its tone ideal for Tchaikovsky.
But even from the very start the tempos are on the slow side, and while Pletnev does raise the temperature a bit for the main theme, it's not enough. More serious though, is the lack of accentuation in the tuttis. Without that agogic framework, the music just flows from one theme to another. It's all very pleasant, especially with orchestral playing of this calibre, but it rarely seems symphonic.
The middle movements are similar. Unlike the first movement, the pacing here is more conventional, but Pletnev plays both for their atmospheric qualities. Surprisingly, there is enough atmosphere in the scherzo for it to function on this level, but it is not enough to make up for the distinct lack of drama and drive.
Fortunately things improve in the Finale. After a few minutes of 'Andante lugubre' introduction, as flowing and atmospheric as anything we have heard yet, Pletnev picks up the pace in the long accelerando that leads into the main theme. And then, suddenly, we are into a proper Tchaikovsky finale, with lots of percussion and brass punching out the rhythms. The balance in the mix gives just the right prominence to the bass drum and double basses here, so that when they kick in you really know about it. (The timpani sounds curiously distant, although I'm listening in SACD stereo and it might sound better placed in the surround mix.) Sadly, the energy dissipates again before the end is reached, and the coda lacks the drive that the movement needs to finish decisively. This is partly the composer's fault, as a lot of the music in these last few pages is conventional to a fault. It need not drag though, at least not like this.
March Slave is the filler, or rather the coupling, at 55 minutes you couldn't exactly call this disc full. This piece also runs the risk of sounding underpowered, especially as it shares its theme with the much more richly scored 1812 Overture. But Pletnev is able to make it work. This too is a reserved reading, but not fatally so, and the variety and ingenuity in Tchaikovsky's orchestration give the RNO plenty of chances to shine.
Technically, this disc is beyond reproach, both in terms of the orchestral playing and the sound quality. The interpretation isn't to my taste, though others may disagree. It is certainly the case that Tchaikovsky's early symphonies don't play themselves. Difficult interpretive decisions must be made to reconcile their often contradictory demands. Previous recordings in this series have found Pletnev in complete artistic symbiosis with Tchaikovsky's scores. This time round he makes some radical decisions about tempos and accents, namely to play down both. The results don't really justify the risk.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Friday, 11 May 2012

Rihm Choral Works: RIAS Kammerchor

Sieben Passions-Texte (2001-6)
Astralis (Über die Linie III) (2001)
Fragmenta passionis (1968)
RIAS Kammerchor
Hans-Christoph Rademann director
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902129
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There are so many facets to Wolfgang Rihm's compositional output that it is very hard to keep up. The works on this disc are only a sample of his choral output, but they reveal a side to the composer that you could little imagine if you only know his name from orchestral or chamber compositions. Rihm, it turns out, was raised a Catholic, and his earliest musical experiences were singing in the Karlsruhe Oratorio Choir. The last work on this programme, Fragmenta passionis, dates from 1968 when the composer was just 16 years old. The choir had clearly been singing the Bach Passions, and Rihm had clearly thought to himself that he could do his own version, at least of the crowd scenes. Sieben Passions-Texte is a much later work from 2001-6. That sets it directly after the Luke Passion in the composer's output. The liner note, informative as it otherwise is, does not discuss the relationship between these two works, which on the face of it would seem to be closely linked. In fact, these Passion Texts are very different to the preceding Passion proper. There is little drama here, and the choir is made up of only six voices. It is clearly a very different and more intimate response, albeit to the same subject.
All three works use a harmonic language which is rarely heard in Rihm's instrumental music. The music is atonal, at least at the structural level, but rarely outright dissonant. Rihm uses triads and other consonant combinations, juxtaposing them in environments with no apparent tonal centre. This allows him to delicately control the balance between individual voices and the homogeneous whole, with every texture sitting somewhere between these two extremes. Sieben Passions-Texte is a sophisticated and contained work, its level of musical discourse on a par with that of the early German Baroque. The individual movements are short and repay multiple listenings. This is Rihm at his most reserved. Perhaps piety is the cause, although that seems unlikely. And why did such an aphoristic piece take Rihm, a famously fast-working composer, five years to write? On the surface, this seems the most straightforward of works on the disc, but you don't have to dig very deep before you meet a whole range of paradoxes.
Astralis is the third in one of Rihm's many cycles of works, this one entitled Uber die Linie. It takes the choir to the very extremes of tempo and dynamics, demanding the slowest and quietest performance possible for almost the whole of its continuous half hour duration. Minimalism has clearly been an influence here, particularly that of Morton Feldman. But Rihm is never one to abandon logical progression in favour of atmosphere or mood, and the intellect underlying this music is always apparent. The texts, by Novalis, dictate, or at least inform the structure, with the four stanzas, each of long but variable length, separated by interludes from cello and timpani. Again, the harmonies are open and approachable, but never tonal in the traditional sense. Rihm often adds in slightly sour intervals, tritones and major 9ths, to punctuate the textures. But he never dwells on them, and eventually each disappears back into the consonant whole.
Fragmenta passionis is an extraordinarily accomplished work for a 16 year old. It is experimental, but in all the right ways. The movements are short, and each presents a single musical texture, all of which are innovative, or at least were in 1968. Unsynchronised chattering whispers are one of the effects he tries out, and there lots of glissandos going on too. It is music very much of its time, although while there are similarities to the music of Ligeti and Berio, it is difficult to draw any specific lines of influence.
The Berlin-based RIAS Kammerchor gives excellent performances of all three works. The liner note stresses the difficulties posed by Astralis, but the tuning, balance and tonal control remain impeccable throughout. The engineering is good too, giving us just enough of the acoustic from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche to warm the sound without compromising the clarity. Astralis clearly posed problems in post-production, namely that the continuous and exposed textures gave nowhere to hide the cuts between takes. One or two of these remain apparent, although not to the point of distraction.
Even by Harmonia Mundi's standards, the packing here is very beautiful. The wooden sphere on the front cover is also printed on the top face of the CD, a nice touch. All round, this is a very impressive contribution to the Rihm catalogue. No doubt it is just one of many discs of his work that will be appearing in this, his 60th year, but it is unlikely that many others will be as well produced or innovatively programmed as this one.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Gál Symphony No.4, Schumann Symphony No.2: Kenneth Woods, Orchestra of the Swan

Gál: Symphony No.4
Schumann: Symphony No.2
Orchestra of the Swan
Kenneth Woods conductor
Avie AV2231 [73:09]
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What an exquisitely crafted piece Hans Gál's Fourth Symphony is. The work succeeds against all the odds, facing down a range of problems from outright anachronism to a major crisis of generic identity. The subtitle "Sinfonia concertante" suggests the main title may be simplistic, and indeed four instrumentalists are promoted to starring roles in the music. Another complication is work's continual recourse to chamber music textures, all of which are very beautiful and delicate, but rarely symphonic.
As for the anachronism, the symphony was written in 1974, a time which cared little for neo-Romantic or even neo-Classical music when written without irony. But Gál overcomes, or possibly ignores these many problems and writes a work that succeeds splendidly on its own terms. The music is civilised and contained, but never dry. It is contrapuntal but not overtly intellectual. And although its instrumental forces are limited, every player is put to good use.
Gál never seems quite as committed to the concertante idea as his subtitle suggests. He claims to set the solo instruments – violin, cello, flute and clarinet – in competition with each other in the first movement and then to set soloists against ensemble through the remainder of the work. But for most of the work, the wind players in the orchestra are treated in almost as soloistic terms as the actual soloists, and whether Gál is writing for the solo group or the orchestra, the relationships between the tone colours of strings and winds are always more important than those of soloist and ensemble.
Kenneth Woods now has a great deal of experience in handling the music of this proficient but always understated composer, and the symphony is given a thoroughly convincing performance. Gál occasionally strives for a more dramatic level of musical discourse, for instance in the punchy codas to the outer movements. But in an otherwise chamber music setting, these outbursts could easily seem excessive. Woods' approach is to increase the dynamics as Gál indicates, but to keep the tempos steady, thereby retaining the Classical sense of balance and order. Lightness is another cardinal virtue in this music, especially in the inner movements, and Woods is able to keep the discourse engaging without ever leaning too heavily on the accents, or hinting at musical pedantry of any sort.
The solo group, David Le Page, Christopher Allan, Diane Clark and Sally Harrop are all similarly attuned to Gál's sophisticated but understated aesthetic. All four are able to walk the fine line between soloist and chamber musician that the music requires.
The couplings on this cycle seem to have occasioned more controversy than Gál's music itself. Schumann's Second is certainly a strange choice, the most Classical of Gál's symphonies presented with the most Romantic of Schumann's. And Woods gives the Schumann a highly Romantic reading, as if to accentuate the differences between the two works. Nevertheless, this is another fine performance, never going to any interpretive extremes, but still finding an impressively contemporary feel. All repeats are observed, as are all dynamics, articulations and tempo indications. Woods makes no concessions to the first violins in his choice of tempo for the scherzo, but they cope magnificently. And the later antiphonal sections are enhanced by the placing of the seconds on the right. In fact the stereo separation on the recoding is quite extreme, which helps to pick out the soloists in the Gál. The rits in the second movement of the Schumann are exaggerated a little too much for my taste, and the third movement adagio is just a little too understated. But all is redeemed in the finale, which is lively and energetic while always carefully controlled.
Another triumph then for Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan. The conductor's celebrity seems to have increased significantly over the course of this cycle. The packing for this disc includes six images of him, and his name on the cover appears in a larger font than those of the orchestra or either composer. On the evidence of the recording itself, that status is well deserved. And he's clearly on the same musical wavelength as this fine orchestra, so expect great things from their future recording projects together.