Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 22 June 2012

Die Walküre, Elder, Hallé

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre – music-drama in three acts (1870)
Stig Fogh Andersen (tenor) – Siegmund
Yvonne Howard (soprano) – Sieglinde
Clive Bayley (bass) – Hunding
Egils Silins (bass) – Wotan
Susan Bullock (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Susan Bickley (mezzo) – Fricka
Miranda Keys (soprano) – Gerhilde
Elaine McKrill (contralto) – Ortlinde
Sarah Castle (mezzo) – Waltraute
Linda Finnie (mezzo) – Schwertleite
Katherine Broderick (soprano) – Helmwige
Alison Kettlewell (speaker) – Siegrune
Ceri Williams (mezzo) – Grimgerde
Leah Marian Jones (mezzo) – Roßweiße
The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 15-16 July 2011 and in rehearsal. DDD.
Booklet with synopsis included. Text and translation on CD5.
HALLÉ CDHLD7531 [4 CDs: 71:32 + 68:13 + 30:59 + 77:13 + CD 5: libretto and translation]
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Mark Elder insists that he and the Hallé Orchestra are not in the process of recording a full Ring cycle. That's a great shame, as this Walküre is as fine a recording as their previous and much-lauded Götterdämmerung. Wagner recorded live in concert is rapidly becoming the rule rather than the exception, and full Ring cycles in that format from both Gergiev and Janowski are scheduled for the composer's bicentenary in 2013. No doubt both will be impressive offerings, but it is hard to imagine that either will have anything further to say on Walküre than what Mark Elder sets down here.
The performance was split across two consecutive evenings at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. There were no patch sessions, but the mics were in place at the rehearsals, and some of this has been edited in. The result manages to capture the best of both worlds – it's as note perfect as a studio recording, but as atmospheric and dramatically coherent as a concert performance.
From Mark Elder's description of the project, the whole thing was much more precarious than the assured quality of the recording suggests. The concerts were only made possible through sponsorship hastily convened by the Manchester Festival. And the cast includes three singers, Sarah Castle, Yvonne Howard and Elaine McKrill, who were drafted in as short-notice replacements.
But Mark Elder is clearly the sort of conductor who would only embark on such a project if he knew he could do it full justice. He has rehearsed the orchestra magnificently, not only to follow his occasionally esoteric tempos, but also to maintain a consistency of spirit and tone across the huge spans of each of the acts. Elder also has that crucial operatic quality of being able to give his soloists, both vocal and instrumental, the space they need to shape their melodic lines, while still maintaining the symphonic logic of the whole. And the orchestra repays his confidence in them with inspired playing at every turn. The horns deserve a special mention. They are kept busy throughout this opera, but rarely have the horn parts sounded so fresh and vital as here. Great woodwind playing too. The woodwind soloists really benefit from the quality of the sound recording, which both balances them against the ensemble, and picks them out from the centre of the group with consistent clarity. You'll also hear better trumpets and trombones here than on most other recordings of the work.
The performance is very much an interpretation, with Mark Elder imprinting his musical personality on every phrase. Elder's pacing of this music is similar to the way he speaks. It is steady, clear and undemonstrative. Clarity of phrase and rhythm comes though accentuation, from the heels of the strings' bows and from the brass, while the passion and drama are projected through the very wide dynamic range. The orchestral set pieces – the Act 1 Prelude, the Ride of the Valkyries, the Magic Fire music – are all on the steady side as far as tempos go. But the definite and deliberate accentuation ensures that the slower speeds never threaten the atmosphere or drama. Everything feels like an emphatic statement, and nothing is ever treated as trivial or transitory. In the context of other famous recordings of the work, Elder's steady tempos resemble Haitink, the agogic weight from the orchestra approaches Solti, while the communication from the podium and the immaculate preparation are more akin to Karajan.
There are no huge names in the cast, which ironically helps to maintain consistent quality between the singers. Every one of them is equal to Wagner's challenges, and despite the concert hall setting, there is a real feeling of dramatic involvement from each of the leads. Susan Bickley is a suitably angry Fricka, while Susan Bullock's Brünnhilde sounds both wayward and emotionally complex. The singers also articulate the German with a rare clarity, another quality that benefits from the excellent sound engineering. The bass in the mix is particularly strong and well-defined, all the better to hear the excellent performances from the lower male voices, Clive Bayley as Hunding and Eglis Silins as Wotan.
No cast for a Wagner opera is completely flawless of course. Susan Bullock is considered one of the finest Brünnhildes of today, but I find her wide, penetrating vibrato excessive, especially on the top notes. But her performance here is less abrasive than on the recent recording of the work from Frankfurt Opera (Oehms Classics OC 936). Despite the fact that the opera was divided across two nights, some of the singers can be heard to tire, which is perfectly understandable given the duration and intensity of many of the monologues. So Stig Andersen's Siegmund sounds much fresher at the start of Act 1 than at the end. Eglis Silins has similar problems towards the end of Act 2, although he's back on form for Act 3, and then manages to maintain the tone right until the end.
These are minor quibbles though, and the overall impression this recording gives is of consistently high musical standards from singers and orchestra alike. Excellent sound quality too, all of which suggests significant investment to make the recording the best it could possibly be. The packaging is a little less opulent. The booklet gives only a track listing, very brief synopsis and orchestra list, all on unlaminated paper. An additional CD-Rom is included with images of the concerts and a pdf libretto. In fact, there are only three photos, a cursory offering at best, and the libretto seems redundant, considering that it is widely available online. Personally, I'd rather a pdf of the full score, which could easily be added at no further expense to anybody.
But the packaging is the only concession to economy here, and if the qualities of the recording itself were not enough to recommend the release, the budget price tag ought to seal the deal. Even the reissues of Solti and Karajan conducting the opera cost more than this brand new one. So here's hoping that the resources and opportunities will be found for a Rheingold and Siegfried in the same series. Should they materialise, this could become one of the great Ring cycles of our times.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Brahms Symphonies Andrew Manze Helsingborg Symphony

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 [45:30]
Haydn Variations [18:58]
Symphony No.2 [45:08]
Tragic Overture [13:35]
Academic Festival Overture [10:16]
Symphony No.3 [36:35]
Symphony No.4 [40:39]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
Recorded Helsingborg Symphony Hall, Sweden, 2009/10 stereo/surround DDD/DSD
CPO 777 720-2 [64:36+69:04+77:19] 

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We live in post-h.i.p times. That's post historically informed practise to you and me, the term Andrew Manze uses to describe his Brahms interpretations. But he's hardly alone in that approach, Norrington, Harnoncourt, Mackerras and Gardiner have all performed Brahms with modern orchestras but using ideas from the period performance world. And all seem to have moved on further from h.i.p. dogmas than Manze, whose loyalty to the letter of the score and unwillingness to apply rubato occasionally make him seem positively reactionary. Evidently it's post-h.i.p. to be square.
Nevertheless, these recordings have much to commend them, and Manze achieves his goal, whether h.i.p. or post-h.i.p., of breathing new life into works stifled by their own performance traditions. Manze discusses his approach at length in his liner note. He comes over as erudite but makes no excuses for his occasional idiosyncrasies. Other scholars and conductors have been through the source materials before, but Manze has found new insights by studying the composer's own piano duet arrangements, which have many phrasing marks that didn't make it into the orchestral scores. Manze also traces the gradual changes in Brahms interpretation through the 20th century, his aim to extrapolate back to Brahms' own time in the hope of capturing something of the original feel of the works. Of course, these days everybody knows that's a fool's errand, but the musical insights that result make for satisfying listening, whatever the historical veracity of the approach.
In terms of tempos, Manze contends that the allegros have gotten slower and the adagios faster over the years. There has also been, he suggests, a huge increase in the amount of rubato applied, and since Brahms himself wrote not to slow up unless the score says so, Manze is surely justified in his more austere approach.
The effect is to bring out the Classical character in this music. You'll often hear echoes of Beethoven and even Mozart that don't come through in more liberal interpretations. In the first movement of the First Symphony, for example, the music is fast and steady, creating a sense of inexorable, tragic and even fatalistic momentum. And in the first movement of the Second, the trombone chorales sound for all the world like the graveyard scene of Don Giovanni.
Critical reaction so far has been surprisingly uniform in its praise. I'd anticipate a little more disagreement among listeners as these recordings become better known, as they surely will be. Comparison with Harnoncourt or Gardiner reveals a slightly modular feel to Manze's structuring. When you hear Karajan's Brahms, it always flows, with the phases seamlessly weaving together. That's an approach that most in the post-h.i.p. world have maintained, but it requires more rubato in the transitions that Manze will permit himself. The result is a greater focus on the moment.
Fortunately then, the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra ensures that every moment in these recordings is worth focussing on. The balance is excellent, a result perhaps of Manze going for a moderately sized string section. Vibrato in the strings is present but minimal, while the woodwind soloists are permitted a little more wobble. The constrained tones of the horns and trombones contribute most to the 19th century atmosphere of the orchestral sound. The SACD audio is excellent, and the recording really benefits from the warm but clear acoustic of the Helsingborg Concert Hall.
Something different, then, to add to your Brahms collection. Manze pursues his aesthetic ideology quite doggedly here, but never to the expense of the results. He's too much of a professional to let his scholarship ever stand in the way of his intuitive musicianship, which must surely have played just as big a role in the formation of these interpretations. When you go back to to your Karajan, or your Bernstein, or even your Carlos Kleiber, after hearing this, nothing will seem quite as inevitable or beyond dispute. But who knows, you might end up liking those earlier interpretations all the better for hearing them stand up to a thorough challenging.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 18 June 2012

Bruckner Symphonies 0 and 1 Venzago

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.0 [44:00]
Symphony No.1 (Linz Version) [44:32]
Tapiola Sinfonietta
Mario Venzago conductor
recorded at Tapiola Hall, Espoo, November 2010 stereo DDD
CPO 777 617-2 [44:00+44:32]
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Mario Venzago describes this cycle as "a different Bruckner", but it's not as different as he seems to think. Some ideas from the period instrument movement are brought into play, but these only serve to highlight the conventionality of the "modern" performance conventions with which they rub shoulders. It's a fascinating combination though, and the results are deeply satisfying, even in these earlier works.
So what's new and what's old? Well, Venzago limits the vibrato from the strings. He also uses a small string section. As a result, the strings are able to play with exceptional clarity and intimacy. They are also able to balance the brass in the climaxes, and perhaps their metal strings are to thank for that. Venzago sees rubato as a virtue and his tempos, while often brisk, are always fluid. This allows him to really build up to the climaxes, despite his reduced forces and lack of string vibrato. Another interesting feature of Venzago's approach is his conviction that much more of Bruckner's orchestral music is chorale-based than we think. As a result, he always tries to make the quieter woodwind ensemble passages to sound like male voice choirs, with round, euphonious timbres and clearly articulated phrasing based on the players' breathing. Again, this isn't really a radical departure, but it allows Venzago a slightly different focus for his interpretations.
Both of these works are usually considered in need of serious help from the podium. In most recordings, the conductor will try to justify programming Nos. 0 or 1 by doing everything in their power to make the work in question sound like one of Bruckner's last three. Venzago rightly sees that approach as anachronistic. He also strives to present each of the symphonies as an individual work, and so never stresses any interrelations between them.
He demonstrates conclusively that neither piece needs apology or excessive intervention. Schubert is his model in these earlier symphonies, and the clarity of the textures that Venzago draws from his reduced orchestra certainly highlights the continuity between the symphonic languages of the two composers.
Personally, I'm convinced that the Zero Symphony is superior to the First, but in Venzago's hands it is the First that really shines. The precision of the textures, the subtle gradation of articulations and the fluidity of the tempos all come together to make this a dramatic and thoroughly convincing reading. The ending of the first movement, for example, is as powerful and incisive as any on record. The second movement initially seems constrained, but by loosening his grip in some of the louder tuttis, Venzago is able to effectively counter any suspicions of Classical formality. The third movement is given propulsion and gravitas, not by dynamic extremes, but by the range and weight of the accents from the woodwind and brass. And the finale attains a truly symphonic scope through the interplay of powerful orchestral tuttis and chamber-like interludes.
The Zero Symphony, great as it is, doesn't quite have the same dramatic or rhetorical potential for Venzago to reinvent as he'd like. It's still a great performance, and earns its place in the catalogue through the insights that the smaller orchestra and Schubertian performance practice bring.
It is interesting that these two symphonies have appeared so early in the cycle. This is only the second instalment, after a first which coupled Symphonies 4 and 7. The programming on the first release was clearly based on commercial concerns, but putting these earlier works on the second seems more like a statement of intent. I suspect that these will be the most distinctive readings of the whole cycle, but they auger well for some individual and accomplished versions of the more famous symphonies later on.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: 

Brahms Ligeti Horn Trios

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Horn Trio in E flat major Op.40 [21:07]
Kalevi AHO (b.1949)
Solo X [7:39]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Horn Trio [22:47]
Marie-Luise Neunecker horn
Antje Weithaas violin 
Silke Avenhaus piano
recorded July 2010 at Studio Gartnerstrasse, Berlin and July 2011 at Osteraker Church Sweden DDD/DSD stereo/surround
BIS-SACD-1859 [59:16] 

Ligeti's Horn Trio was written as a somewhat reluctant homage to Brahms in 1982. He may have been quite indifferent to Brahms' historicist approach, but this didn't stop Ligeti from writing the ideal companion piece to a chamber work, which until then had stuck out like a sore thumb in any programme. Since then, a wealth of excellent works have appeared in the genre from composers like Hans Abrahamsen, Poul Ruders and Hugh Wood, but it is the Ligeti that remains the standard coupling. That's quite an achievement considering Ligeti doesn't compromise anything about his modernist aesthetic to fit into the 19th century chamber music format.
Horn player Marie-Luise Neunecker is an authority on Ligeti's music for the instrument. Ligeti's 'Hamburg' Concerto was written for her, and it was she who played the Horn Trio in the Ligeti Edition recordings that the composer supervised in the 1990s. As with everything by Ligeti, the sheer technical demands of this music limit the number of musicians willing to perform and record it. But neither Neunecker, nor her colleagues violinist Antje Weithaas and pianist Silke Avenhaus, find anything here problematic.
Neunecker has a fascinating horn sound. She distinguished effectively between open and stopped timbres, but even her open sound is quite narrow and constrained. No doubt she has another sound entirely when she plays in an orchestra, but this more intimate chamber tone is very attractive indeed. It focusses her tone and allows her to integrate into the unusual ensemble, giving the full range of dynamics without overpowering in the louder passages.
The Brahms is given a wistful and nostalgic air, not too much of course, but enough to bring out the feeling of reminiscence that pervades so much of the music. Again, Neunecker's slightly constrained and distant tone is ideal here, as is Weithaas' focussed but playful violin work. The performers ensure that neither the Brahms nor the Ligeti are oblivious of each other. The former is played to highlight the sense of overbearing history that Ligeti heard in it, while the latter emphasises the connections to Brahms, despite Ligeti's own protestations to the contrary.
Kalevi Aho provides the filler, in the form of a new work for unaccompanied horn, Solo X. It's a work of dynamic extremes and extreme virtuosity. Placing it between the two trios was a smart move, as it shakes the listener out of the comfortable 19th century aesthetic and prepares the ear for what is to come. Aho doesn't have the subtlety or sophistication of either of his colleagues here. But it integrates into the programme largely thanks to Neunecker's distinctive tone. It is easy to spend the seven minutes of the Aho piece speculating as to which of the other works it comes closest to. I'd say it has the lyrical flow of the Brahms but the tempo and dynamic extremes of the Ligeti.
Great performances and excellent SACD sound make this disc highly recommendable. It is encouraging to see that, as it turns 30, the Ligeti Horn Trio has been granted full repertory status, to the extent that a recording of the Brahms without it would now seem remiss. It's not adventurous programming any more, so any new recording has to fight on the merits of its performance. Fortunately then, this one stands favourable comparison with the best of them.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Enescu: Symphony No.2, Chamber Symphony, Hannu Lintu, Tampere Philharmonic

George Enescu: Symphony No.2, Chamber Symphony
Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra
Hannu Lintu conductor
Ondine ODE 1196-2
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A curious coupling this, bringing together major works from the beginning and end of Enescu's creative career. His technical skill as a composer is just as evident in both works, but the intervening years, between the 2nd Symphony in 1912 and the Chamber Symphony in 1954, made him the distinctive musical voice we think of today.
When Enescu composed his Second Symphony, he was an itinerant violin soloist, visiting many of the cultural centres of Europe. This may explain the many musical influences pulling the music in all sorts of different directions. When Ensecu writes swooning Romantic music it sounds like Rachmaninov, but when he's being more restrained he sounds like Elgar. A French accent can also be detected throughout much of the piece, while its sometimes terse thematicism leans towards Brahms. But it all holds together, thanks in large part to Enescu's skills in melodic contouring, efficient counterpoint and colourful orchestration. The use of percussion, both tuned and untuned, is particularly imaginative, but is about the only forward-looking aspect of this otherwise resolutely 19th century piece.
The Chamber Symphony, in contrast, is clearly a product of its time. The title suggests influence from Schoenberg, but the connection is difficult to pin down. Like Schoenberg's Chamber Symphonies, this piece makes a musical virtue of its ability to produce symphonic textures from limited instrumental means. Piano and trumpet often dominate the textures, and there are also a number of appealing flute solos. This is the music of an old man: Enescu was in his 70s when he composed it and is was to be his final work. But you get a sense of a lifetime's musical experience being distilled into this concise score. It's not as flamboyant or overt as the Second Symphony, but it's just as attractive.
Conductor Hannu Lintu finds the ideal tone for both works with his Tampere forces. The playing is lively and inspired, and the ensemble and balance are excellently controlled. Lintu doesn't go in for excesses of rubato or dynamic extremes, and the Second Symphony sometimes feels a little repressed as a result. It's the right approach for the Chamber Symphony though, where precision and clarity are all.
The Ondine label had been dabbling with SACD before the company was taken over by Naxos a few years ago. It looks like that has come to an end, which is a shame. The sound quality here isn't bad though. A bit more bloom on the string sound could benefit the Second Symphony, and some sections of the winds sound a little distant.
Otherwise this is an attractive release. Erudite liner notes from no less an authority than Jim Sampson act as a welcome guide for those of us who don't know our Enescu quite as well as we might. It is clear from this disc that his symphonic music deserves wider recognition than it is currently afforded.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Weinberg: Chamber Music for Woodwinds

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
Sonata for Clarinet & Piano Op. 28, 12 Miniatures for Flute and Piano Op. 29, Sonata for Bassoon solo Op. 133, Trio for flute, viola & harp Op. 127
Wenzel Fuchs (clarinet),Elisaveta Blumina (piano),Henrik Wiese (flute), Nimrod Guez (viola), Uta Jungwirth (harp), Mathias Baier (bassoon)
CPO 777 630-2
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The fascinating and diverse music of Weinberg was once an unkown quantity. Not any more though, as a range of adventurous labels have embarked on recording projects to bring his work to a wider audience. But there are still plenty of surprises to be found, especially among his chamber works.
This selection, curated and accompanied by Elisaveta Blumina takes a roughly chronological approach to Weinberg's works for solo woodwind. That's a sensible policy, as his more accessible early compositions offer a valuable handle on the more opaque style of his later years. Most listeners come to Weinberg's music in the knowledge that he was a close associate of Shostakovich. The two composers certainly influenced each other's work, but Weinberg always retained a distinctive musical personality, and moved progressively further from Shostakovich's shadow as the decades went by.
Or that's the narrative this album follows. The Clarinet Sonata with which it opens was written in 1945, around the time the two composers first met. The Sonata mirrors the angular lyricism of Shostakovich's war era works. A tension is felt between the soloist and the piano, with the clarinet singing out its melodic lines, while more sinister forces lurk in the piano part. Repeated pedal notes from the piano's left hand recall Shostakovich’s more militaristic style, and when the piano shadows the clarinet's line many octaves below, a similarly sinister mood results.
It's not all doom and gloom though. The other famous fact about Weinberg is that he was in touch with his Jewish roots, so listeners coming to his Clarinet Sonata can justifiably expect to hear some Klezmer. That comes through in the high-register lines for the clarinet, the instrument's astringent tone balanced by some light, lilting rhythms.
The '12 Miniatures for Flute and Piano' have a combined duration of 17 minutes, yet each of them contains enough material for a sonata movement. Weinberg switches from one mood to another with deceptive ease, allowing each of these short vignettes a remarkable autonomy. But the work as a whole also holds together with a paradoxical unity that is difficult to define in formal terms. Flautists often complain that their recital repertoire is meagre, so this piece, virtuosic as it clearly is, may offer them some salvation.
The programme then jumps 35 years to 1981, when Weinberg composed his Sonata for Solo Bassoon. Yet again, the composer defies the odds that his chosen genre sets him, producing more than 20 minutes of solo bassoon music of continual fascination and interest. Music for solo bassoon always runs the risk of unintentional comedy, but Weinberg's mastery of his musical rhetoric ensures that, even in the lighter passages, we always laugh with him and never at him. Both the Bassoon Sonata and the Flute miniatures belie their technical difficulties through their relatively conservative style. The music is diatonic, but that doesn't mean it is easy to play. The regular extremes of dynamic and tessitura make that point explicit, but it is still easy to listen to the disc from one end to the other without fully appreciating the challenges the players have been put through.
The virtuosity of the players themselves must surely play a part in this, and also in the drama and engagement that each of the works achieves. The players also show remarkable restraint when the music requires. Those passages in the Clarinet Sonata, for example, that approach Shostakovich at his most symphonic, remain resolutely chamber music: evenly paced, well balanced, and with dynamics and accents never taken to extremes further than the music permits. The quality of the recorded sound is also a credit to the project, with each the solo instruments given immediacy and clarity and the piano ideally balanced and positioned within the stereo array.
The concluding work, a Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp, is the most problematic, at least to my ears. This later style of Weinberg's uses the same musical devices as before, angular rhythms, repeating ostinatos, diatonic lines that move freely between tonalities, but the direction of the music is more difficult to follow, and the function of its constituent parts never becomes clear. It is going to take me a little longer to get comfortable with this late music, but I'm looking forward to doing so in the company of these enthusiastic and persuasive advocates.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Lohengrin Wagner, Neuenfels, Nelsons, Bayreuth 2011 DVD

Wagner: Lohengrin recorded live at the 2011 Bayreuth Festival
König Heinrich Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa Von Brabant Annette Dasch
Friedrich Von Telramund Jukka Rasilainen
Ortrud Petra Lang
Der Heerrufer Des Königs Samuel Youn
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus
Director Hans Neuenfels
Conductor Andris Nelsons
Television Director Michael Beyer
Recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival, August 2011
Opus Arte DVD OA 1071D (also Blu Ray OA BD7103 D)

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Rats! Thousands of them. If you've only heard one thing about the Hans Neuenfels production of Lohengrin at Baryreuth, it is undoubtedly the fact that he infested the stage with vermin. Neuenfels is known for his radical takes on familiar works, and the rats have certainly helped him maintain that reputation. But as the DVD of this production reaches our shores, it becomes clear that there is much more to it. The director adds a strong political dimension to the piece, but not at the expense of the actual story, which is presented and explored with surprising loyalty. The result is a production in the best Regie tradition, offering a range of new angles on the work and providing a handful of clearly thought visual ideas to enhance its message.
But impressive as the staging is, the most remarkable aspect of this Lohengrin in the music. Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was only 31 when he first took the baton for this staging. The DVD was recorded in 2011, the production's second year, by which time he had clearly mastered the various acoustic anomalies of the Bayreuth pit to create a musical interpretation that is among the finest on record. Nelsons is strict with the tempos when he needs to be, sometimes nudging on the various transitions and modulations to maintain the momentum. But all the magic remains. He draws a range of expansive and luscious sounds from the orchestra, particularly the woodwinds. And, most importantly, he gives the singers the space they need to embody each of their characters within the music.
It helps of course that he is working with a dream cast. In this second year of the production, two new singers were brought on board: Klaus Florian Vogt replaced Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Petra Lang took over the part of Ortrud from Evelyn Herlitzius. It is a shame not to have heard Kaufmann's Bayreuth début, but we should be grateful of any opportunity we get to hear Vogt sing Wagner. His simple, unaffected tone surely finds its ideal vehicle in Lohengrin, and even within this strong cast he makes sure that, musically as well as dramatically, the hero is in charge.
Annette Dasch was a surprise choice for Elsa the first time round. Not only had she not sung the part before, but she had never Wagner before either. But the gamble paid off, and her bright, clear soprano proves ideal for the role and the ideal complement to Vogt's similar tone. For all Neuenfels' efforts to make this a more mobile production, there is still a lot of stasis in many scenes. But Dasch acts with her huge eyes, so it really doesn't matter that she's rooted to the spot for scenes on end. Georg Zeppenfeld has a similar approach to the part of King Henry. In this production, the king is represented as weak and indecisive, and again all the characterisation for the part is represented in Zeppenfeld's facial gestures. He is a very young singer to be taking on the part, which also helps to convey the sense of compromised authority. He could do with a little more weight in the bass register, although this too serves to convey the characters weakness. Petra Lang puts on an abrasive and unattractive tone in the role of Ortrud. I say 'puts on' as she is clearly capable of more elegant sounds. But characterisation is all, and this penetrating, angular sound is just what the part needs.
And so to the rats. Neuenfels and his stage designer Reinhard van der Thannen devise a scenario in which Brabant is an animal testing laboratory. The chorus (but not the leads for some reason) are depicted as lab rats, with experiments conducted on them and various points in the story. Political repression is of course the point of this allegory, although Neuenfels makes that idea considerably more subtle through his similarly weak and subordinate King Henry. There are some elegant Watership Down-like animations involving the rats, which are more difficult to interpret but which considerably reinforce the iconography.

So far so controversial. But the curious thing is that, with the exception of the rats, almost everything else in this production is conventional. The leads wear unassuming modern dress. The swan offers any director of this opera a range of opportunities for symbolic representations, and Neuenfels takes up as many of these as any of his colleagues might. The interaction between Lohengrin and Elsa is explored at length, and presented as a much more troubled relationship than in most productions, which under the circumstances seems appropriate. One of Neuenfels' great strengths is his musical literacy. This comes across in the way he paces the action to build up to the climaxes at the end of each act. That works best in Act 2, where the wedding scene is as visually powerful as the music. Neuenfels saves up a nasty little shock for the conclusions of each of the outer acts. The one at the end of Act 3 (I won't give the game away) is even more disturbing than the rats, but will leave you scratching your head as to what exactly it means.
The video production is well conceived and undistracting. Unlike the Meistersinger DVD from Bayreuth the previous year, there are no hidden cameras in the sets or tight closeups of faces. Instead there are just a few cameras secreted around the proscenium arch, including one high above the stage and one in the prompt box. The high angle shots are good for the chorus scenes, and the movements of the rats seem much more rat-like from above.
The extras on the DVD include those Watership Down animations again and a series of five minute interviews with Katharina Wagner, Neuenfels, Vogt and Dasch – a reasonable offering. Interviews with irate audience members might have been more fun. Katharina says in her interview that, in this second year, the audience was much more accepting of the production. It's all relative of course, and considering the 2011 festival opened with Sebastian Baumgarten's even more controversial Tannhäuser, the audience were probably taking the lab rats in their stride by this point. That said, there is a nice touch in the editing of the applause at the end of Act 1. Somebody manages to get a very loud boo in just before the clapping starts, and this is left on the soundtrack. A small reminder of the controversy this production courted the first time round.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Raphael Wallfisch plays Dvořák and Dohnányi Concertos

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto Op.104 [40:03]
Ernö DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra Op.12 [24:12]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
rec. St Judes Church, London, 4-5 July 1988. stereo. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10715 X [64:17]

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Expectations run high for any disc of Charles Mackerras conducting Dvořák, and this one doesn't disappoint. He is at the top of his game here, and with an orchestra and soloist to match. No doubt this is among the first of many Mackerras reissues that will be appearing over the coming years. If they are all to this standard, then we are in for a real treat.

These recordings of Dvořák and Dohnányi date from 1988, but there is no need to make any concessions for their age in terms of sound quality, which could be considered of the highest standard, even if recorded today. The church acoustic makes the Wallfisch's cello sound a bit reverberant and lonely on the few occasions when he plays alone, but the recorded sound of the orchestra is close to ideal, as is the balance between soloist and ensemble.

Wallfisch's reading of the Dvořák brings Rostropovich to mind. Like Rostropovich, he has a glowing, bronzed tone, a bit more hazy perhaps, and not quite as incisive, but always leading the ear seductively through the solo lines. He also resists the Slavic tendency to push the sound through to the very ends of the phrases. This adds lyricism, but is slightly at the expense of the drama.

Mackerras's credentials with Dvořák, and with Dohnányi too, hardly need restating. His ability to bring out the drama and passion of this music, yet without ever taking the dynamics or tempos to extremes, speaks of his decades of experience with the Czech repertoire. The London Symphony Orchestra is on top form as well. You get a real sense of deep communication between conductor and ensemble, despite the fact that their recordings and appearances together were relatively few.

The Dohnányi 'Konzertstück' deserves to be called a concerto, although its alternative title discourages unwarranted expectations of a work of the same stature as Dvořák's. Nevertheless, the two works make for an excellent coupling. They are in a similar late-Romantic, folksy but dramatic Czech idiom. The difference is that Dohnányi works on a grander scale: despite the shorter duration of his piece, it gradually prepares climaxes, and gradually recedes from them, on a Brucknerian time-scale. Dvořák's structuring seems sectional and localised by comparison.

Both works are presented at their very best here. In terms of other recordings, the Dvořák has plenty of competition. The high quality of performance here, to my knowledge, is only matched by much earlier recordings with poorer sound. The Dohnányi apparently appears here for the first time in a complete recording - obviously with provisos about its reissue status. Given the quality of this music, it is hard to understand why it has yet to take its rightful place at the heart of the cello repertoire.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: