Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Hovhaness Symphonies 1 and 50, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No.1 'Exile', Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Symphony No.50 'Mount Saint Helens'
Seattle Symphony, Ron Johnson (marimba), Gerard Schwarz (conductor)
Naxos 8.559717
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For all the diverse influences on Hovhaness' music, it is worryingly easy to characterise his huge catalogue in just a few sentences. Woodwind solos predominate, and the brass are usually used for quasi-liturgical chorales. The strings are given well-structured but always simple textures. Percussion is used regularly, but strictly for colour. Complexity, such as it is, almost always comes through Fuchsian counterpoint. And a distinctly folk-like flavour is imparted through the use of, apparently Armenian, modal harmonies.
The three works on this disc span a period of over 45 years, yet all those characteristics are as present in the First Symphony of 1936 as they are in the 50th of 1982. Hovhaness settled on a three movement structure for his first numbered symphony, which remained his preferred model throughout his long career. The simplicity of this three movement form reflects the simplicity of the constituent music, and it could be argued that Hovhaness music is hardly symphonic at all, eschewing as it does drama and developmental rigour. Instead, each movement presents a mood, and usually a fairly peaceful one at that.
The First Symphony begins with a beguiling clarinet solo over pizzicato strings and exotic tuned percussion. Further woodwind solos follow, interspersed with brusque interjections from the brass. This texture wouldn't feel out of place in the 50th Symphony at the end of the programme, so for all the talk of successive periods and styles in Hovhaness' output, it is difficult to sanctions notions of development of progression in his style. In the finale of the First, the strings play long, even lines, based on some white-note mode and in strict counterpoint between the parts. To my British ears, this sounds for all the world like Vaughan Williams, but the liner notes assure me that the ethnography points to Armenia.
The second piece takes us even further east. Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints dates from 1965, soon after the years Hovhaness spent travelling in Asia. It is a concertante work for marimba (ably performed by Ron Johnson) and orchestra, the tuned percussion seemingly intended to imitate the Japanese koto. There are some fascinating orchestral textures here, for example the trombone section playing a melody in unison over a marimba obbligato. But, as with all of Hovhaness' work, the resulting textures are very straightforward and always clearly delineated.
The 50th Symphony is named 'Mount Saint Helens' after the volcano that erupted in Hovhaness' adopted Washington State in 1980. Given the serene and orderly style that predominates throughout the composer's work, it is difficult to anticipate what he will do to represent such an event. The answer is: lots of percussion. The results are effective, and certainly dramatic, but always retain that clarity of texture and simplicity of line. The first two movements represent the calm before the storm, or rather the mountain when it was still a tranquil forested idyll, and the geological forces beneath it were still dormant. The predominantly string based textures of the first movement are accompanied by a repeated figure from the celesta that sounds uncannily like a mobile ring tone. Had the piece been written 20 years later, the composer may have thought twice about using this effect, inadvertent as the association of course is.
The recording, by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwartz is excellent in every respect. All of the woodwind principals make the most of their solos, the unity of the strings is exemplary, and the balance between percussion and ensemble is ideal. The recording first appeared on the Delos label in the early 90s, and is now reissued on Naxos thanks to one of those close business alignments that the latter company is so good at. The clarity of the recorded sound is impressive, and is all the more valuable for the directness and simplicity of Hovhaness' orchestral textures, which get every chance to shine here. No doubt Naxos have a good number of further recordings of this composer’s music lined up for reissue. I await them with great interest.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Bach Motets Gardiner

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Monteverdi Choir
John Eliot Gardiner conductor
Recorded live at St John's Smith Square, London, 3-5 October 2011 stereo DDD
Soli Deo Gloria SDG 716 [72:27]

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The Bach Motets may be easy on the ear but they're a tough sing. That's the point John Eliot Gardiner is making with the image of high wire artist Philippe Petit on the cover of this disc. We will have to take his word though, because the Monteverdi Choir make them sound like child's play. The choir's repertoire covers an increasingly broad range of Renaissance and Baroque music, but few other works demonstrate its exceptional talents as vibrantly and concisely as this series of miniature masterpieces. Instrumental playing and vocal solos are kept to a minimum here, but there is no shortage of variety in the choral writing. Nor indeed in the choral singing, and although the performance stays well within Gardiner's historically-informed stylistic boundaries, the subtle gradations of tempo, dynamic and timbre ensure continuous variety and interest across the disc's generous 70 minute span.
The album is taken from live recordings made at St John's Smith Square in October 2011. Gardiner and his choir have recorded in dozens, even hundreds, of fine church acoustics, so they know what they are looking for. Even though Gardiner fields a large choir for the Bach Motets, the relatively dry acoustic of St John's turns out to be ideal. There is atmosphere aplenty, but the detail of the sound is clearly a more important concern for the performers. Delicacy and precision characterise the choral singing in every track. The balance between the voice groups allows every detail of the counterpoint to shine through. The basses sometimes sound a little weak, although support from the continuo group (cello, double bass, bassoon, organ) ensures the balance is retained. In fact, the discretion of this support is one of the many wonders on the disc. Listen, for example, to the opening of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, where the chamber organ makes its presence felt, but using registers so close to the human voice that it quickly blends into the choral sound and disappears.
The singers give a real questing quality to all the counterpoint, as if they are exploring these intricate textures for the first time. Their approach to the homophonic textures is just as sophisticated. So, in Furchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, the chordal setting is presented with impressive dynamic gradation, building up the volume across the movement, but also creating subtleties of shading and nuance between each of the individual phrases.
The size of the choir means that emphasis, when required, can be placed using only the weight of the sound, without recourse to heavy accents. That is a particular benefit in 'So nun der Geist des' from Jesu, meine Freunde, where the music itself is considerably more elegant than the consonant-heavy text. Not that the words are overlooked, rather each line is presented with clarity and emotion, but without ever a hint of sentimentality.
The cover has occasioned some controversy, but few could complain about what is to be found within. The disc comes in a hardback booklet style case, which includes the texts, facsimile pages from the autograph score and an insightful eight-page essay from Gardiner himself. An impressive package all round then, and one that deserves the highest recommendation. Not that any is necessary given Gardiner's reputation when it comes to Bach.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Otto Nicolai: Psalms 'Herr, auf dich traue ich', Kammerchor Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius

Otto Nicolai: Psalms 'Herr, auf dich traue ich', Kammerchor Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
Carus 83.299 [50:35]
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You thought Otto Nicolai was just an opera composer? Think again. It turns out his day job for most of his short career was as a cathedral music director in Berlin, a position he inherited from Mendelssohn. And listening to the liturgical choral music presented here, most of it in premiere recordings, it is easy to hear stylistic connections with Mendelssohn's work. As a result, Nicolai takes on a role as choral composer similar to that of Ferdinand David in his concertos: the two men providing us with glimpses of what Mendelssohn's career may have been like had he lived long enough to produce a more substantial body of work in either genre.
The programme for this disc begins with excerpts from a full Protestant liturgy, followed by some German psalm settings, and concluding with some Catholic material, an Offertorium and a Latin setting of Psalm 54. The music is Classical in conception but Romantic in execution. Each of the movements is short, and the phrasing and rhythms are all regularly structured. But the contours of the melodies and the occasional richness of the harmonies makes for impressively emotive music, although liturgical function always comes first.
Interplay between soloists and ensemble is an important aspect of many of these works, especially the opening liturgy, where Nicolai sets words usually spoken by the priest as incantations for the soloists, with the full choir singing the responses. Frieder Bernius and his excellent Kammerchor Stuttgart are able to perform tuttis with such unity that the difference between soloist and ensemble becomes one only of tonal weight. Generally speaking, the textures are simple, and the liturgical function of the music means that the words always come first. The music is performed with a similar focus on clarity and articulation. The choir is small but the venue – the Immanuelskirche in Wuppertal – is large. That allows for plenty of atmospheric resonance, but the WDR/SWR engineers ensure that it never obscures the detail, nor those all important words.
The two Latin works at the end of the programme are fascinating. Nicolai visited Rome in 1834 and presumably got a good dose of the Palestrina tradition at the Vatican while he was there. These two works were written after his return (the Psalm very soon after), and show just how much of an impression Palestrina had made. Nicolai follows Palestrina's imitative counterpoint, with ascending passage work passing between the voices. But his polyphony is much more basic, and his harmonies locate this music very firmly in the early 19th century.
Carus are to be congratulated for bringing this fine, although by no means revolutionary, music to light. It turns out, though, that they have an ulterior motive. The label also has a publishing arm, which offers sheet music for all these works. Chamber choirs and church choirs looking for new repertoire may find something of interest here. The Stuttgart forces make this sound easy, although I'm not sure the music is quite as straightforward to perform as the recording suggests. Even so, Nicolai clearly writes with his singers in mind. It's all enjoyable to listen to, and I'm sure it's rewarding to sing as well.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Reger Organ Suites Kirsten Sturm

Max Reger: Organ Works Volume 12
Suite No.1 in E Minor Op.16, Suite No.2 in G Minor Op.92
Kirsten Sturm
Sandtner Organ, St Martin's Cathedral, Rottenburg am Neckar
Naxos 8.572821

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This is the sort of music that gives Reger a bad name. If you look at the scores for these two organ suites (they're on IMSLP here and here), you'll find long, rambling movements, seemingly obsessed with Baroque counterpoint, but largely indifferent to the civilising influence of tonality.
Or that's the stereotype that Reger's detractors would have us read into this music. These suites, and the first in particular, may live up to that image on the page, but it is up to the performer to convince us that they are worth hearing nonetheless. The young German organist Kirsten Sturm takes a sensible approach to this seemingly thankless task. She's not in the business of disguising this music, or of pretending that it is any less megalomanic than it clearly is. Rather than glossing over the contrapuntal density, she does everything in her power to draw the ear into the interplay of voices. She is working on a big organ too, so the result powerful and beguiling, but always on the heavy side.
The two suites date from 1895 and 1906, which me could describe as Reger's early and middle periods. The first was Reger's first published organ work. The long shadow of Bach hangs over everything here, and the concluding Passacaglia is a particularly clear homage. Interestingly, the work is dedicated to Brahms, suggesting a more conscious historicism to these Baroque stylisations that we usually give Reger credit for.
The counterpoint certainly is impressive, but the scale and structure of the work weighs everything down. On this recording the running time comes in at 45 minutes, and there are precious few let ups over that duration in the contrapuntal complexity. The Adagio second movement is one, and Sturm gives it an elegant performance with the focus squarely on the melody throughout. She has clearly mastered the considerable power of her instrument, as is admirably demonstrated by the gradual increase in weight she affords the textures through this movement. A little more rhythmic flexibility may have helped the following Intermezzo come to life, but the concluding Passacaglia is as free and flowing as anyone could wish for. And just listen to those pedal trills in the closing pages – an impressive conclusion by any standards.
The Second Suite is a superior composition in many respects. At just under half an hour, its scale is more manageable. Just as importantly, Reger gives us more chances to catch our breath with a series of interlude movements between the more demanding fugues.
Generally speaking, Sturm favours weight and impact over colour and transparency in her choice of stops for both works. That's certainly in the spirit of the music, and there is never any sense that the performer is seeking to correct the composer's mistakes, to lighten his textures or clarify his counterpoint. The engineering also favours atmosphere over intimacy. The resulting sound is certainly imposing and only occasionally overbearing.
Personally, I'd have liked to hear a little more clarity in the counterpoint, especially in the huge outer movements of the First Suite. There are some imprecisions in Sturm's passage work as well, although given the sheer number of notes she has to contend with, these are surely forgiveable. But in general this is a traditional reading of Reger. It's not one that's likely to win the composer any new admirers, but if you already have a taste for his organ music, there's probably something for you here.