Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Smetana: The Bartered Bride, Belohlávek, BBC SO

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jirí Belohlávek

Jeník – Tomás Juhás
Marenka – Dana Buresová
Kecal – Jozsef Benci
Krusina – Svotapluk Sem
Ludmilla – Stanislava Jirku
Vasek – Ales Vorácek
Ringmaster – Jaroslav Brezina
Esmeralda – Katerina Knezíková
Indian – Ondrej Mráz
Háta – Lucie Hilscherová
Micha – Gustáv Belácek
First Child – Maxim Dusek
Second Child – Babette Rust
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The following review is by guest contributor, the novelist Igor Zap:
After his symphonic poem Má vlast, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, is arguably his most popular work. The overture and dances have become standard orchestral repertoire and you can often hear the skoncná, or Dance of the Comedians from Act 3, pumped through PA systems in shopping malls and even seaside piers. How surprising then, that after the one hundredth performance celebrations, Smetana gave vent to a big sulk - “If you think you give me any special pleasure when you praise The Bartered Bride so highly, you are quite wrong.”  Whatever his reasons (he was apparently taunted by the charge that he couldn’t write anything in a light style) this bucolic comic opera, with its star-crossed lovers and marital machinations, has become his signature piece; if not all of it, then without doubt, the three energetic dances. This recording, issued by Harmonia Mundi, is taken from a live concert performance at The Barbican in May 2011, and leaves one in no doubt as to why Jirí Belohlávek has made the Czech repertoire such a splendid calling card during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Jirí Belohlávek is not a flamboyant conductor who has the audience stamping and cheering, but his musical integrity and love of his native music shines through every note and phrase. The effect on the orchestra and cast is truly palpable. He wisely surrounds himself with a Czech cast, who inhabit their native idiom with a natural fluency, adding greatly to the lively sparkle that prevails throughout. To Western ears, the Czech language may sound like emptying bathwater, but in indigenous hands it bounces along delightfully. This is never more so than in the rapid passages of Kecal, the scheming, bureaucratic marriage broker, sung by Jozsef Benci, whose rich, plummy bass, trips the light fantastic like a seasoned Gilbert & Sullivan patterer. And my, how he relishes his long, bottom notes, like a sonorous yawn down a storm drain.
All the principal singers excel. Dana Buresová’s Marenka soars into the heavens with astounding force and clarity, her top notes ablaze with intensity. She is equally matched by Tomás Juhás as Jenik her lover. He is certainly no Wagnerian heldentenor, and there may be some who find his brittle, nasal tone a bit irritating, but in vocal terms he is the perfect foil to Dana Buresová’s hard-edged brilliance. Ales Vorácek’s performance as the naïve, stuttering simpleton Vašek, is a masterpiece of characterization, giving poignancy and depth where it is so often portrayed as caricature; his stammer is beautifully executed and very touching.
However, the real accolades rest firmly on Jirí Belohlávek’s shoulders. The Bartered Bride may be a comic opera with farcical moments but it has other, darker hues as well, and getting the balance right is very tricky. Belohlávek pulls this off in spades. Much of the action occurs outside, i.e. the village green, and Belohlávek’s rhythmic drive, neither forceful nor plodding, gives everything a tangy, open-air freshness. Whilst the tender, more intimate moments are lovingly sculpted, the overall effect is one of infectious, bouncy joy. The BBC Symphony Orchestra are clearly in thrall to their outgoing Chief Conductor and play with their hearts nailed to the village May pole – never before have I heard such a penetrating, iridescent piccolo. Played in one sitting and you have a classic romantic opera-fest, performed with wit, exuberance, and great élan.
With a comprehensive set of multi-lingual sleeve notes, including a full libretto, and Mucha’s whimsical 1902 painting of Claire de Lune on the cover, this 2-CD set fully justifies its top end price tag.
Igor Zap

Monday, 17 September 2012

Die Meistersinger Glyndebourne DVD review

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Sachs Gerald Finley, Walther von Stolzing Marco Jentzsch, David Topi Lehtipuu, Sixtus Beckmesser Johannes Martin Kränzle, Eva Anna Gabler, Magdalene Michaela Selinger, Veit Pogner Alastair Miles, Fritz Kothner Henry Waddington, Kunz Vogelgesang Colin Judson, Konrad Nachtigall Andrew Slater, Balthasar Zorn Alasdair Elliott, Ulrich Eisslinger Adrian Thompson, Augustin Moser Daniel Norman, Hermann Ortel Robert Poulton, Hans Schwarz Maxim Mikailov, Hans Foltz Graeme Broadbent, A Nightwatchman Mats Almgren
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski , Director David McVicar, Designer Vicki Mortimer, Lighting designer Paule Constable, Movement director Andrew George, Fight director Nicholas Hall

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The Mastersingers took a very long time to reach Glyndebourne. When John Christie founded the house in the early 30s, he had every intention of staging Wagner operas on a regular basis, and putting Die Meistersinger at the heart of the company’s repertoire. Financial pressures soon quashed that dream, but the idea has been quietly simmering on the back burner for the last 80 or so years. Last year they finally managed the impossible, not only bringing Meistersinger to the Glyndebourne stage, but doing so in a production perfectly suited to the house. Now the results are available on DVD/Blu Ray, and are a treat not to be missed.

David McVicar was chosen to direct this historic production. Given the context, he wisely avoided any radical reinterpretations. The action is updated to the early 19th century, which, as McVicar explains on one of the documentaries in the Extras, has two clear benefits. Firstly, it provides an opportunity for costumes and visuals that are more colourful than the dull rags you would need to depict 16th century Nuremberg. But also, the issue of German nationalism can be meaningfully addressed, and in a relatively benevolent light. McVicar’s idea is that, prior to unification, ideals of German identity were just that, aspirations without yet any aggressive or militaristic connotations. In truth, I would struggle to write a meaningful description of this staging that didn’t make it sound politically naïve. But, like all great opera productions, this one creates its own artistic environment and political logic. Compared to Katarina Wagner’s production say, or Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s at Cologne, this staging seems to be in complete denial about the work’s reception history. But then, everybody in the audience knows all about that anyway, so perhaps McVicar is right to imply that the time has come to move on.

The size of the stage, pit and auditorium at Glyndebourne could be seen as a problem for this, or any Wagner opera. But McVicar, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, make the smaller scale work to their favour. There is a great deal of intimacy in this staging, and the director takes his responsibilities seriously when it comes to depicting dynamic and meaningful relationships between the characters.  That means that everybody in the audience can feel like they are part of the action (I did, and I was sitting on the back row). It also makes the production ideal for video presentation. So too does the lightning design, from Paule Constable, which favours bright side lighting from a low angle, and also ensures maximum visibility, even in the night-time setting of Act 2.

Jurowski’s approach to the music is similarly bright and airy. The size of the pit limits him to a small orchestra, but the only real disadvantage is a lack of string tone (it is a real shame you can’t hear the cascading violins over the last bars of the overture). But an impressive balance is achieved between the stage and the pit, and even the minor problems you could hear in the hall have been adjusted for the recording. If there’s one criticism I would make of Jurowski’s conducting, it is a slightly lack of humour. He takes a symphonic approach, driving the music on and always fitting individual passages into the larger musical logic of each act. That’s good, but there are many occasions when playfulness would be a more fitting virtue, and while the singers can all manage to lighten the mood when required, they often have to compete with the more disciplined tempos they are being directed to follow.

The production is excellently cast. Not all of these voices would be large enough for a Wagner production at a large house, but that doesn’t matter here, and each of the leads brings distinctive and valuable qualities to their respective parts. McVicar says in the documentary that he relished the opportunity to cast younger singers on the grounds that it makes much of the story more believable. That’s certainly true in the cases of Walther, David, Eva and Lena, but perhaps not for Gerald Finley as Sachs. Dramatically, he doesn’t quite know what to do with the part, but from his actions and his facial expressions, that clearly isn’t for want of trying. Fortunately, his singing more than compensates. Finley has an attractive tone, all the power he needs, and all the stamina too.

Marco Jentzsch is a similar case as Walther, an excellent voice but with occasionally wooden acting. But the real highlights of this cast are Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Alastair Miles as Pogner and Anna Gabler as Eva.  Kränzle puts in an ideal comic turn as Beckmesser, routinely stealing the limelight from whoever he shares the stage with. Miles’ Pogner is richly sung and emotively portrayed. And Gabler is a magnetic presence as Eva. She is a singer to look out for. This performance from her is excellent, and combined with her Gutrune in the recent Bavarian State Opera Götterdämmerung , she is clearly a very versatile Wagnerian who we are going to be hearing much more from.

I remember some grumbles at the time of the premiere about Gabler’s singing, but I don’t remember what the specific problem was, and you’d be hard pressed to deduce it from this recording. Personally, I found Topi Lehtipuu weak as David when I saw the production, but perhaps he was just having a bad night, as he sounds much better here.

Even if you saw the live webstream of this production last summer, it is still worth seeking out the DVD. The picture and sound quality are of course far superior, and the postproduction editing has allowed the team to add in a good number of close-ups and cutaways. That is a real boon given McVicar’s attention to detail. So, for example, a discourse from Sachs will include plenty of close-ups of Finley, but will also be intercut with close-ups of the other characters as they react, which they invariably do. And the small stage, framed by an all-encompassing set, is ideal for video presentation. It’s almost like a studio set, and the camera work gives you the impression that you’ve got a detailed view of everything that’s going on.

The presentation from Opus Arte is up to the high standards of both the production itself and the video editing. The liner contains an essay from John Allison entitled ‘England’s Bayreuth’, about the long history of attempts to get Wagner on the Glyndebourne stage. This is reprinted from last year’s Glyndebourne programme, but is well worth reading again. The extras are two docs, one behind-the-scenes and the other interviews with the creative team.

What more could ask for? McVicar’s production is specifically tailored to the Glyndebourne house (although it is a co-production with the Chicago Lyric and SF Opera, so I hope it works in those houses). A little empathy is therefore required on the part of the viewer for the unusual venue – at least for Wagner. Musically, the performance is chamber-like in that all the detail comes through with unusual clarity. But there is grandeur here too, especially in the finale. I’m happy to give this the highest recommendation, and also to suggest that it is now the best available choice on DVD. Not that the competition is great: Katarina’s Bayreuth version is an acquired taste (although musically it is excellent) and Otto Schenk’s staging, available from both the Met and Vienna, is stolid and drab in comparison to the crisp, nimble images and sounds achieved by McVicar and Jurowski. This might not be the last word on Wagner’s effervescent and kaleidoscopic score, but as far as video productions go, it’s likely to remain the version of choice for years to come.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Nielsen The Masterworks Vol.2: Chamber and Instrumental Works

Nielsen The Masterworks Vol.2: Chamber and Instrumental Works
Dacapo 8.206003 (6 CDs)

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'Dacapo Records' a note in this box set informs us 'was founded in 1986 with the purpose of releasing the best of Danish music past and present.' With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that the company has the majority of Nielsen's music in its catalogue. He's a quirky composer, but he's also a national icon, and his work is excellently served here by Danish performers who really get inside the music.
You might not guess from the elegant packaging, but this 'Masterworks' series is a reissue project, made up of recordings that span almost the entire history of the Dacapo label. Each of the six discs in this box has been previously released, and although much thought has gone into the design, the individual discs retain a certain autonomy. That's partly because of the ordering of works, which is roughly chronological on each disc, so switching from one disc to another usually involves a leap back from the 1920s to the 1880s. The programme notes from the original releases are combined in the liner, making for an impressive 20 pages of information. Even more impressively, the two discs that were originally released on SACD (the string quartets) remain on SACD.
The chronology on each of the discs allows the listener to trace a narrative from Nielsen's folky nationalism of the 1880s to his more brusque anti-Romantic style of the 1920s. However, his output in the various genres represented here varied wildly from period to period. So the string quartets on the first two discs are almost all from the 1880s, while the wind music on the third disc is mostly from the 1920s. Listeners who are after that typical Nielsen sound, that constructivist/Shostakovich thing that makes his symphonies so distinctive, should focus on the later music, discs three and four in particular. The string quartets aren't nearly as remarkable or interesting. Even so, they are given excellent performances here, with strident and lively playing from the Danish String Quartet. Stylistically, these quartets require a fine balance between the Classicism of Schubert and Beethoven, to which Nielsen regularly refers, and the grounded folky gestures he adds to ensure his Danish identity is not forgotten. That last quality comes through in a (no doubt deliberate) unevenness in the sound, with lines from the middle of the texture often rising to the surface as a phrase plays out. Some of this string quartet playing is also surprisingly aggressive, in the Scherzo of the Op.13 quartet for example, but never to the point of excess.
The SACD audio for the string quartets is good, but the studio sound is a little constrictive, and ironically the normal CD audio on the third and fourth discs is superior. The third opens with an early Piano Trio in G major, which is even more Schubertian than the early string quartets, but it then moves on to some classic Nielsen. Serenata in Vano from 1914 takes us straight into the composer's mature style, with all its grace and wit. This is followed by his Wind Quintet Op.43 of 1922, to my ear the most accomplished and distinctive work in the whole set.
The violin works on the fourth disc are also impressive, especially the sonatas. The First perfectly encapsulates the Nielsen sound of the 1890s, mixing as it does lively rhythms and a bright sound with a feeling of groundedness that comes from the music's now distant folk roots. The Second Sonata is from 1912 and is a considerably more complex and sophisticated work. But violinist Jon Gjesme draws on a palette of colours and sounds that is ideal for both works, and his performances are matched in quality by those of Tue Lautrup, who concludes the disc with two extended works for solo violin.
The first four discs were all recorded in 2006/7, but when we reach the fifth we jump back to 1981. The pianist Herman D. Koppel apparently played Nielsen's piano works to the composer himself when he was young. By 1981 he was in his 70s, but his playing still has remarkable dexterity. Nielsen includes a bit of everything in his piano music, and there is plenty of humour here, but plenty of drama too. Koppel shies away from big, charismatic readings, but his performances are still convincing. The dynamic range isn't huge, but it is difficult to tell if this the result of reserve on the part of the pianist or limitations in the sound technology. Despite its vintage, the recording is digital. A little more bloom on the piano sound, and perhaps a little more bass resonance, would be welcome, but otherwise the sound quality is eminently serviceable.
Listening to these discs back-to-back, the over-riding impression they give is of a composer who was as eclectic as he was accomplished. The liner notes lament that his work for string quartet falls away before his more distinctive mature period. But as the third disc demonstrates, woodwind instruments were a far better vehicle for this later style anyway. The quantity of material here, and the quality in which it is performed and presented, allows interested listeners to make there own minds up about the relative merits of Nielsen's various chamber works. Personally, I like the new stuff better than the old stuff.

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: