Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 16 November 2012

RAYKHELSON Violin and Viola Concertos

RAYKHELSON Violin Concerto in c, Viola Concerto in a    Nikolay Sachenko (vn); Yuri Bashmet (va); Claudio Vandeli, cond; Alexander Slatkovsky, cond; Novaya Rossiya O    TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0130 (60:27)

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The Modernist era wasn't too kind to the violin concerto, so its easy to understand why Igor Raykhelson takes the last generation of Romantics as a starting point for his work in the genre. Raykhelson's career to date has been divided between Russia and America. It has also been divided between jazz and classical, with the emphasis shifting decisively towards the classical in recent years.
Both dichotomies are played out in these concertos. Rachmaninov is a clear model (to the point of quotation in the Viola Concerto), with Raykhelson drawing on his predecessor's success in bridging Russian and American tastes. But the Romanticism is up against competition from Raykhelson's jazz side, with swung rhythms and jazzy chords appearing in the finales of both works. In fact, these concertos, which date from 2007 and 2005 respectively mark an endpoint in the composer's journey from jazz pianist to classical composer, so the jazz only has a nominal presence in what is otherwise a predominantly late Romantic aesthetic. It integrates well enough, but it always feels constrained, with the soloists only occasionally breaking into jazz rhythms and never even contemplating improvisation.
Raykhelson looks back to the 1920s and 30s for his 'Classical' sound. The opening of the Violin Concerto sounds like a quotation from the Berg, with a rising and falling figure of open fifths. But if the melody is Bergian, the treatment is very much Rachmaninov. The orchestral textures are expertly voiced, but are always on the thick side. This provides valuable support when heard beneath the soloist's meandering melodic lines, but only those with a very sweet tooth will appreciate the saccharine effect it produces in the tuttis.
The concertos are well served by both soloists, and violinist Nikolay Sachenko has nothing to fear from comparison with his more esteemed viola playing colleague. Both give engaged and precise accounts, and both are able to dominate the orchestra without their tone ever sounding forced. They are both able to switch straight into the jazz when required, and Bashmet's louche hotel lobby sound is a particular treat in the finale of the Viola Concerto.
The Novaya Rossiya Orchestra presumably draws on years of experience performing Rachmaninov to give these beautifully flowing and expressive performances. There are a few moments of poor ensemble from the strings in the first movement of the Violin Concerto, but otherwise the playing is ideal. The Violin Concerto is a studio recording while the Viola Concerto is taken from a live concert. The difference is only apparent in the acoustic, with the dry studio sound no match for the more conducive resonance of the concert hall.
This disc should provide an excellent introduction for anybody seeking to explore the soundworld of Igor Raykhelson. It's a world of unreconstructed and unapologetic Romanticism. Adorno would turn in his grave at the thought of it, but those with a taste for expressive melodic writing may be more sympathetic. And if you're curious about what violin and viola concertos by Rachmaninov might have sounded like, they would probably have sounded something like this.

 This review first appeared in Fanfare Magazine issue 36:2

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Reger Violin Sonatas Wallin Pöntinen

REGER Violin Sonatas: No.3 in A; No.2 in D. Albumblatt and Romanze op. 87    Ulf Wallin (vn); Roland Pöntinen (pn)    CPO 777 445-2 (64:36)

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Reger’s Violin Sonatas lay bare the many contradictions of his art. Elegant, free-flowing melodies float across dense, chordal accompaniments. The forms of movements look back to Baroque and Classical models, yet the scale and emotional involvement of the music places it firmly in the late-Romantic era. And the harmonies are complex and filled with chromatic inflection, but outright dissonance is almost wholly avoided.
The Second Sonata dates from the earliest years of Reger’s compositional career, while the Third demonstrates some of the greatest achievements of his maturity. Yet the similarities between them outweigh the differences. Both are cast in four movements, with a large-scale Allegro followed by a brief scherzo, a lyrical adagio and an upbeat finale. Compositionally, the Third is the finer Sonata, but its wayward harmonic progressions can be difficult to fully appreciate at first listening. Fortunately, the quality of playing from Ulf Wallin and Roland Pöntinen makes repeat auditions an attractive option. Wallin has an excellent command of the music’s long, weaving phrases, while Pöntinen injects a sense of levity and flow into every accompanying texture, however dense the notation.
Wallin’s focused tone helps to clarify the direction of Reger’s melodic lines. He plays with a narrow and unobtrusive vibrato, allowing him to project an impressively muscular sound in the louder passages. We hear the occasional scratch of bow against string when Reger demands both intense volume and superhuman speed, but it rarely distracts. Wallin also has an excellent low register, producing a rich, even tone on the G string. That is a particular benefit in the slow third movements of each Sonata, where the melodies often explore the lower reaches of the violin’s range.
Reger is often accused of writing dense and unimaginative music, but the inner movements of both Sonatas demonstrate how wrong that perception is. The second movements, an Intermezzo in the Third Sonata and a Scherzoso in the Second, are as light and nimble as anything you might find in Schumann, or even Mendelssohn. And the melodic contours of the slow movements are as seductive as any. The largo third movement of the Third Sonata is a particular treat, and is a masterly demonstration of variation form, one of Reger’s greatest strengths.
The program concludes with the curiously asymmetrical op. 87, made up of a short Albumblatt followed by a much more substantial Romanze. Both are finely crafted, but the Romanze is the real gem. Like the slow movements of the sonatas, it is based on a long flowing melody, which seems to roll on continuously for the movement’s entire 12 minute duration.This disc marks the end of a complete cycle of Reger’s Violin Sonatas from Wallin and Pöntinen. Although recordings of the individual sonatas make occasional appearances, their technical and expressive demands make complete cycles a rarity. As a result, these fine recordings look destined to become the benchmark for years to come, combining as they do musical precision, artistic expression and sound engineering of the highest order. 

This review first appeared in Fanfare Magazine issue 36:1

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Götterdämmerung: Sebastian Weigle, Frankfurt Opera

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Lance Ryan, Johannes Martin Kranzle, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Gregory Frank, Susan Bullock, Anja Fidelia Ulrich, Claudia Mahnke, Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra / Sebastian Weigle. OEHMS OC 938 (4 CDs)

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Perhaps I should tone down my praise for Sebastian Weigle’s Wagner. My review of the Walküre in this cycle was so effusive that an extended quote from it ended up as the basis of his Wikipedia entry. But I stand by my words, and they are just as applicable to this magnificent Götterdämmerung. I fear the recording won’t get the praise, nor the wide audience, it deserves, because the cast is low on big names. But the singing here never falls below the admirable, and is often very fine indeed. And, as with the previous instalments in this cycle, it is the sound engineering and the conducting that make this recording special: It gets the highest recommendation from me on both counts.
Peter Tobiasch, the head of the in-house recording team at Frankfurt Opera, has written a perceptive liner essay for this release. Sadly, he doesn’t discuss his own part in the project (something I would also love to read about) but instead writes a personal tribute to Weigle’s conducting of the cycle. He states that Weigle’s reading “is neither particularly fast nor monumentally expansive”. Instead, Tobiasch suggests, the conductor aims for a more narrative approach to the music by emphasising the rhythms over the leitmotifs, and the flow of the music over the drama of the individual moments.
Weigle’s tempos are patient, but never slow. He has a direct connection with the music’s inner sense of drama, but he knows that Wagner doesn’t need any help from the podium to get this across. His reading is detailed and precise, but it’s also lively and sensitive. It probably won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it is the exact opposite of Solti’s maniacally-driven approach, which I understand many Wagner fans have been turning away from in recent years. Weigle’s Ring is much closer in conception to Haitink’s with the BRSO. I’d suggest it is better though. Both conductors opt for steady pacing, and there are moments in both cycles where the music comes close to running out of momentum. But in each of these episodes, Weigle turns the situation to his advantage by bringing out inner lines and counterpoints from the orchestra, and showing us that the music contains more than enough interest to do without the overt histrionics.
So, for example, with the transition into the second scene in Act II, in which a bass clarinet solo leads into a series of horn calls. Weigle makes everything here sound majestic, but dark too and, as with almost everything in this recording, emotionally complex and paradoxical. Similarly with the opening of Act III, where Weigle again emphasises clarity in the orchestral textures, but with the counterintuitive result that the music is all the more atmospheric and unsettling as a result. The one let down among the orchestral interludes is the Funeral Music, which needs a bit more bite, but Weigle redeems the third act with an Immolation Scene that is among the best on record, at least in terms of the pacing, atmosphere and the sense of compromised but definite finality.
If you are looking for a Götterdämmerung with exceptionally and consistently fine singing, you should probably look elsewhere (although among recent recordings it is hard to think of a version better sung than this-Thielemann’s Bayreuth recording perhaps?) Every singer here is equal to the task, but most of the leads have minor flaws. Lance Ryan is a convincing Siegfried, but his voice isn’t commanding enough to lead the cast. He also has some tuning problems in the first act, although these are addressed later on. Considering the engagements that Susan Bullock gets to sing Brünnhilde in the most prestigious houses around the world, public opinion of her reading must be higher than mine. I find her upper register narrow and penetrating in a way that does the music no favours. That said, the sheer quantity of emotion that she brings to the role is admirable and rare, and the range of colours she can employ in the mid register allows her to move from an almost speaking tone to the most flamboyant of coloratura as the drama demands.
Gregory Frank is an appropriately sinister Hagen, with an eerily dark tone. He does occasionally have problems though, with his vocal support towards the ends of phrases. Jochen Scheckenbecher articulates clearly as Alberich, although his tone is a bit light for the part.
One of the most interesting casting choices is Johannes Martin Kränzle as Gunther. British listeners will remember his Beckmesser at Glyndebourne, a fine performance both vocally and dramatically. There, as here, he sings with a distinctive and noble tone. That’s ideal for Beckmesser, as it forms part of the pompous personality that Wagner spends so much of the last act deflating. Here it makes Gunther sound all the more human, an attribute that can be all too easily sidelined in this magical context. This is a great performance from Kränzle, and, as with Glyndebourne’s Meistersinger, he comes out on top vocally, although perhaps this time without stealing the show.
The sound engineering is excellent throughout. It is difficult to know if Weigle or Tobiasch is to be credited with the ideal balance between stage and pit, and the absolute clarity of the orchestral textures. The answer, I suspect, is that the two men complement each other’s work perfectly. So, for example, when Weigle conducts a descending accelerando run in the lower strings, but ensures that, even to the final note, every single articulation is heard, both the patient detailing from the conductor, and the high quality audio play a part. The orchestra generally justifies the scrutiny that this superior audio subjects it to. My only complaint about the playing is the bass/contrabass trombone player, who has a penetrating, raspy tone. Occasionally in this cycle, that sound has endeared, like in the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, where the penetrating bass line from the contrabass trombone served to ground the otherwise top-heavy textures. But by the end of the cycle, this piecing tone can be wearing, and it is a shame that Wiegle was not able to reign the player in. 
But these are minor concerns, and the overall impression that this Götterdämmerung gives is of a distinctive, coherent and modern reading. Oehms and the Frankfurt team are to be commended for their continued commitment to recording operas on the stage. These days, most Wagner on CD is taken from concert performances, and while the audio is often good, the best such a project can hope for is to recreate the concert hall setting. But this recording is very clearly of a staged production, with the drama coming through in the pacing, the interaction between the singers, and in their always apparent placement in the stereo array. This makes for a satisfying and absorbing experience, and for one of the most convincing Götterdämmerungs of recent years.