Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

American Violin Concertos: Ittai Shapira

Concertos by Gian Carlo Menotti, Theodore Wiprud and Samual Barber
Ittai Shapira (violin); Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling (Menotti, Barber); Liverpool Philharmonic, Neil Thompson (Wiprud)
Champs Hill Records CHRCD043

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They are obviously thinking big at Champs Hill Records. The label was only founded three years ago, and with the modest aim of recording some of the performances at the eponymous West Sussex chamber music venue. But now, as this new disc demonstrates, they are recording major orchestral works and adding leading orchestras and soloists to their roster. A risky policy? Possibly in financial terms, but there can be little doubt about the artistic merits of this new album. Three American violin concertos are presented, all performed and recorded to an impressively high standard, and programmed in such a way as to offer the ideal balance of consistency and variety.
That’s not to say, though, that the three works are of equally high standard or interest. The programme begins with Menotti’s contribution to the genre, and, to be honest, I think Champs Hill are going to struggle to persuade British and European audiences that there is anything of interest in this work. Perhaps I’m just trying to excuse my own views, but the reception of Menotti’s music has always been much cooler on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve no objections to the Romanticism of this music, only to the patronising simplicity of its construction. Menotti bases each movement on a short motif, which he repeats ad nausem until it feels like time to stop. Anyway, he no doubt has his fans, who are unlikely to be disappointed by this performance, which is wonderfully controlled and precise, but also contains enough passion and commitment to give the work its due, and then some.
Fortunately, the programme takes a turn for the better in the next work, Theodore Wiprud’s recent Violin Concerto “Katrina”. As I write this, the Eastern Seaboard of America is being pounded by Hurricane Sandy, so Wiprud’s concerto about the human cost of the 2005 hurricane in the Southern States seems all the more apposite. Wiprud plays a dangerous game, musically speaking, by imposing a narrative on the concerto, while also closely following the generic conventions of the form. He has the skill to pull it off, and does so by limiting the explicit references to his subject in the music. Wiprud writes in his liner note that the soloist becomes a different protagonist in each of the three movements: in the first a survivor of the disaster, in the second an observer and in the third a refugee. But as with all good programme music, you don’t need to know any of this to get the message as you listen. Wiprud’s two main musical ideas are graphic, often percussion-driven, depictions of severe weather, and abstract allusions to the Cajun music of the Deep South. Remarkably, this is the composer’s first ever concerto for any instrument, but his skill in balancing the competing demands of soloist, ensemble, programme and genre are impressive indeed. The orchestration is particularly impressive, and enables Wiprud to steer the storm music well clear of unintentional comedy. He also prevents the storm from overwhelming the entire work, which is essential for its ultimate message of hope and redemption, another aspect that is delicately handled.
Ittai Shapira premiered this concerto, and he gives a fine performance of it here. The solo part is clearly difficult, but overt virtuosity would sit uneasily with the work’s subject, and so the performer’s technical skills are put instead to the service of the whole. The Liverpool Philharmonic is on fine form. The orchestra was recently heard on another recording of a recent American violin concerto, that of Jennifer Higdon, and, then as now, they show an impressive stylistic affinity for the music (although it should be said that their task is considerably aided by the impressive orchestration skills of both composers).
Barber’s violin concerto sounds like a breath of fresh air after the tribulations of the hurricane. Given their close relationship, it is difficult not to imagine some kind of rivalry between Menotti and Barber when it came to their violin concertos. To Menotti’s credit, his later concerto is very different to Barber’s, but the Barber is clearly superior in every respect.
For the Menotti and Barber, Shapira is joined by the Russian Philharmonic under Thomas Sanderling (who, for some reason, gets only a miniscule credit – it would be difficult to imagine his father being treated like this). I have to confess that I have never heard of the orchestra, but they put in a fine performance, especially given the alien musical world that this American music expects to inhabit. That said, a regular diet of Glazunov and Khachaturian would probably put you in good stead for performing this sort of music. The stylistic connections between all these 20th century Romantics were probably played down during the Cold War, but are becoming increasingly apparent now. The sound quality on the Russian Philharmonic recordings (engineered by a Russian team) is excellent, and is slightly superior to that afforded to the Liverpool Phil, not that I’ve any complaints about the sound quality there either.
A fascinating disc all round, and one with something to suit all tastes. The ordering of the programme may look illogical on paper, but listening to the disc from end to end, it adds up to a satisfying and surprisingly coherent musical experience.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Bach Cantatas Vol. 51 Suzuki

Bach Cantatas:

"Dem Gerechten muss das Licht immer wieder aufgehen" BWV 195
"Nun danket alle Gott" BWV 192
"Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn" BWV 157
"Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge" BWV 120a

Hana Blažíková (soprano), Damien Guillon (counter-tenor), Christoph Genz (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass), Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)
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Only a few discs remain to be recorded in Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Cantata cycle, and it seems that the high standards he and his ensemble have set are going to continue undiminished right up to the end. This 51st volume is the second devoted to secular cantatas. It has all the qualities we’ve come to expect: sprightly and engaged performances, superhuman musical precision, and sound quality of the very highest order. But there are a few surprises too, so it is great to see that Suzuki, even as he comes into the closing straights of this mammoth project, still isn’t taking anything for granted.
The four cantatas were all written for celebratory occasions, but as they are not being linked directly to the church calendar, they have proved unusually difficult to date. The first and last cantatas on the programme, BWV 195 and 120a, were both written for weddings, and both introduce some (presumably unintentional) comedy into the proceedings with a chorale for after the event titled as “Post Copulationem”. Despite their secular designation, the texts are largely on liturgical themes, and the format and scale of each of the works are similar to those of the larger church cantatas. They also have a similarly chequered textural history, with a good deal of reconstruction work required in many cases. BWV 120a is a case in point. Owing to the lack of a complete surviving score, there aren’t many other recordings of this about. That said, most of the movements also appear in the cantata BWV 120, which Suzuki has already recorded: his doing so again shows an impressive dedication to the comprehensive coverage of the repertoire.
The instrumental soloists and obbligatists are always a special treat in Suzuki’s Bach, and so they prove here. There is one name, however, in the orchestra that will come as a surprise, Jean-François Madeuf as solo trumpeter. Throughout the history of the period performance movement, the convention for trumpeters has been to use instruments with tone holes. There is no historical precedent for this, but many deem it necessary for the level of intonational accuracy and tonal consistency expected by today’s audiences. Madeuf has pioneered the use of natural trumpets without tone holes and has demonstrated that intonation need not suffer, at least when the performer has the necessary skills. Even so, this does make for trumpet playing with rough edges. Many of the notes have to be pushed through the instrument in spite of its acoustical properties, and, historically faithful as the results might be, there is an unevenness here that sits uneasily with Suzuki’s manicured, perfectionist approach. The good news is that the clash of performing cultures does not diminish the glories of Bach’s opulent choruses. Madeuf uses dynamics to carefully shape his phrases, and although one or two of them seem to trail off as the physical demands get the better of him on concluding high notes, on the whole he gives a performance that closely fits Suzuki’s established Bach aesthetic.
Elsewhere, flautists Kiyomi Suga and Liliko Ozaki provide magnificent support for solo singers. Just listen to the soprano recitativo “Wohlan, so knüpfet denn ein Band…” with its warm, glowing accompaniment from the two flutes hocketing a rising scale figure. If you listen with a good pair of headphones, this flute sound seems to fill the whole of the Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, bathing its every corner in an iridescent light. Magnificent. The strings produce a similar effect in the opening chorus of BWV 192, and that absolute precision of ensemble pays dividends. Then the choir enters, performing with the same level of care and accuracy, and the results are just wonderful. And listen to how well the SACD sound picks out the details of the choral counterpoint.
The Sinfonia that opens the second part of BWV 120a includes a surprising solo performance from the organ. The instrument provides a running semiquaver solo line throughout this instrumental movement, but, for some reason the organist, Naoko Imai, choses to play it on single diapason register. The resulting sound is arrestingly simple and straightforward, but more angular and assertive than anything we usually hear from Suzuki’s ensemble. Even at Vol.  51 of this project, Suzuki and his players are finding new ways to surprise their audience.
The vocal soloists, on the other hand, are all familiar names. Suzuki’s loyalty to a handful of mainly European singers for solo parts in these cantatas has proved a unifying feature of the set, and another key aspect of the exceptionally high musical quality. To my ear, soprano Hana Blažíková puts in the finest contributions, but it’s a very close contest. It seems that Suzuki is now committed to retaining the aging bass Peter Kooij until the very end of this cycle. He’s had some weak moments in previous instalments, but is on form this time round, and any lingering doubts about his vocal support or stamina are countered by the incomparable stylistic affinity he has for this music, the result of a career that spans the whole history of the historically informed movement.
Another excellent release then, from Suzuki and his (predominantly) Japanese forces. With only about four more discs left, this cycle really is about to come to an end. I, for one, am going to miss the regular updates from Kobe on Suzuki’s Bach journey, but the final instalments are shaping up to be among the finest contributions this remarkable conductor has made to the Bach catalogue.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Soler: Los Villancicos, mystères de Noël

Los Villancicos, mystères de Noël - Padre Antonio Soler

L'Escolania des Petits Chanteurs de l'Abbaye de Santa Cruz
L'Ensemble Instrumental Pygmalion
Direction Jean-Michel Hasler 

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If you know of Antonio Soler from his Scarlattiesque keyboard works, then you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from this album devoted to his choral music. Like those sonatas, everything here is upbeat and rhythmically propulsive. And that Spanish flavour, that always seems more apparent in Soler than in any of his contemporary’s work, runs through every phrase of this music.
The ‘Vilancico’ is a musical genre almost entirely confined to the Spanish Baroque. It is comparable in scale and drama to Bach’s church cantatas, but, if Soler’s contributions to the form are anything to go by, it has more rustic roots and a more celebratory, rather than reverential, style.
Jade, like many French labels, and only French labels in my experience, do not give any English translations in their liner.  (There’s no Spanish either, which is perhaps even more surprising.) But, with the assistance of my Francophone wife, I’ve been able to decipher that a Christmas story is played out through these movements. A priest, a poet and a child are planning a nativity play, but each has different views about how it should be done. The subject is ideal for Soler’s music, combining as it does a celebratory religious theme and a strong rustic folk element. Soler’s music is continuously upbeat here, but he provides enough variety in his textures and melodic contours to prevent it ever sounding monotonous. In fact, the sheer invention of this music is its strongest asset, followed closely by its distincive melodic identity.
The performances are generally good, but are seriously let down by the boy trebles, who are given prominent roles, but whose singing is insecure and seriously out of tune. The rustic identity of the music can accommodate a certain roughness in performance, but not to this extent. This is a real shame, because the rest of the music-making is continuously inspired. The Pygmalion Ensemble specialises in Baroque music on classical and folk instruments. Although I’m sure that Soler’s score does not specify as much, the performance includes contributions from castanets and, even more intriguingly, xaranbel, or perhaps some other Iberian bagpipe. The result is a continuously upbeat and joyous sound, ideal for the Christmas theme.
A mixed welcome then, for this intriguing disc. The sheer enthusiasm of the performers for this obscure repertoire ensures a performance in the ideal spirit for the music. A performance that focussed too much on the precision of ensemble and intonation might miss lose the essential rustic colouring. Even so, the inaccuracies in the singing here really are a distraction, and are all the more frustrating given the limited opportunities we get to hear this music.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Metamorphoses: Celli Monighetti

Music by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, Sofia Gudaidulina, Alexander Knaifel and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Louth Contemporary Music Society LCMS 1202

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The Louth Contemporary Music Society has done it again. They’ve produced another excellent CD of Slavic and Central Asian music, fitting squarely into their already established corporate identity, yet filled with surprises. Each of the composers featured here has already been introduced on previous LCMS releases, but the music each of them provides for this one fully justifies a further showcase of their work.
The theme this time is music for cello ensemble. Cellist Ivan Monighetti is an LCMS regular, a virtuoso soloist who clearly shares the sociey’s taste for new music from Central Asia. He’s also on the staff at the Basle Academy of Music, where he leads Celli Monighetti, an ensemble made up of his present and former students. It is they who feature here, but don’t be alarmed, as these are anything but student performances. The quality and sensitivity of the playing is excellent throughout. Nor are they just a backing group for Monighetti himself; all this music is truly ensemble work, and Monighetti’s solos, fine as they are, are kept to a minimum.
The programme opens with Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes by another LCMS regular Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. Perotin’s famous work is treated as a repeating ground, over which YY plays out a range of ideas and sounds. For those with an interest in the future direction of religious minimalism, this work should provide some reassurance that things are moving on, and in wholly interesting and worthwhile directions. YY is not afraid to repeat, and repeat at length, but he also develops. The result is a musical structure that combines atmospheric minimalism with symphonic rigour. That’s quite an achievement, considering how many composers have tried and failed with that combination in recent years.
Shyshtar Metamorphoses by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is the most ‘ethnic’ offering here. As with much of her work, the piece evokes Ali-Zadeh’s Azeri roots through allusions to the country’s folk music. Cello ensemble proves the ideal medium for this music, as the instruments can convincingly evoke the sounds of Central Asian stringed instruments, but in a sufficiently generalised way that the listener does not spend the whole work trying to identify them. Curiously, the richest and most intense textures in the piece are achieved when the cellos play in unison, a testament to the range of colours Ali-Zadeh draws from the ensemble. And when she seeks a warm, round sound, the players are always able to oblige. (Sound engineer Alexander Van  Ingen deserves credit for this too, and for the richness and clarity of the sound throughout the album.)
Alexander Knaifel’s O Comforter is a real treat. This work is very much in the spirit of his masterpiece In Air Clear and Unseen. Both are slow and quiet works for strings that maintain the interest through unexpected harmonic shifts, and chords that are never quite as consonant as they seem. It is as if Knaifel has resurrected a mediaeval organum style, but one entirely of his own making. The work was originally for choir, but if anything works even better for cello ensemble.
The Knaifel is framed by two works from Sofia Gubaidulina, On the Edge of the Abyss and Mirage: the Dancing Sun. The composer’s famous Canticle of the Sun is evoked by both works, especially the latter, as its name suggests. But the exotic percussion of Canticle returns in On the Edge of the Abyss, this time in the form of two waterphones. But the focus throughout is on the cellos, and (thanks perhaps to her many works for Rostropovich) Gubaidulina has an impressive grasp of the wide range of possibilities the instrument offers. As on previous LCMS releases, the Gubaidulina works  are the most sophisticated and the most successful, especially On the Edge of the Abyss, which has by far the most sophisticated textures of any of the works here. Just one small grumble about it though: it is based on the plainchant for the Dies Irae. When Berlioz did this it was effective, but the extent to which this theme has been repeatedly abused in the intervening years (especially by Rachmaninov) has turned it into a hopeless cliché. Gubaidulina evidently expects us to listen with innocent ears, but that can be quite a struggle.
As ever, LCMS provide classy packaging and detailed notes. The programme notes are by Martin Adams, who does the project a huge service by giving us all the information we need, and without all the abstract and irrelevant rubbish we would have to sift through if this was an ECM release. Nobody has yet told him that Rostrpovich has died however, and I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to him. But otherwise the information here is all pertinent and correct.
These recordings date from October 2011, and LCMS have been engaged in a number of other projects since then (Drogheda seems gradually to becoming Ireland’s capital for new music). So keep an eye out for their next recording. In the mean time, this one is highly recommended.