Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Beethoven String Quartets Op 18 Nos 4, 3, 5 Allegri String Quartet

Beethoven String Quartets Op 18 Nos 4, 3, 5 Allegri String Quartet
Vivat 103 [78:41]
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Beethoven String Quartet cycles are hardly at a premium these days, but this first installment from a new one by the Allegri Quartet has much to offer. Their interpretation draws from both the modern and period instrument traditions, finding useful ideas in both to enhance their readings. Energy and drive are the hallmarks of their approach, but the players are also interested in finding rich and diverse tone colours to carry the music. The result is a performance that is both distinctive and highly musical, but one that avoids both the intellectual pretence of period performance and the emotional indulgence of some more Romantic readings.
The Allegri String Quartet is 60 this year, although you wouldn’t know that from the literature that accompanies this release, nor from the photographs of the players, three of whom seem very young indeed. This Beethoven release, and presumably the entire cycle that it introduces, are the first recordings by the ensemble for the Vivat label, a recent start-up by Robert King, now returned to civilised society. Given King’s musical background, it is unsurprising that most of the Vivat releases so far have been of early music. The Allegris use instruments in modern configuration, but there are many aspects of their playing that suggest an affinity with the period performance world, allowing their Beethoven to fit snugly into the Vivat roster.
The players tend to avoid vibrato, or at least favour a strident and direct tone. This is made possible by their almost flawless intonation and articulation, which allow them to present Beethoven’s textures in as clear a manner as we could wish for. The faster movements benefit most from this approach, as it allows the players impressive agility, without compromising their always satisfying tone. The slower movements fare less well though, as the Quartet often opts for surprisingly slow tempos and an evenness of tone that often risks monotony. That said, when Beethoven offers musical variety, as in his rondo finales, the Quartet is able to clearly articulate the sections through subtly contrasting tonal colours.
The recording was made at the hall of the Menuhin School, and whether through the hall’s acoustic or the technical wizardry of the engineers, a warm but clear ambience is achieved. The warmth is particularly valuable when the Quartet’s tone becomes thin, as it allows the music to always retain its sense of presence and immediacy.
The quartets appear in the order Op. 18/4-3-5, which, according to the liner, is the best guess at to the order in which they were composed. Following the chronology of this cycle will be interesting, as there are already so many aspects of the playing in these early quartets that will suit, when they get to them, the late ones. Already, the Allegris are attempting, and to a large extent achieving, a subtle balance between the Classical and Romantic tendencies in Beethoven’s music. The balance changes as the cycle proceeds, so it will be interesting to hear if these players go with the flow or impose a greater sense of order as the composer’s liberties increase.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Jansons

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons conductor
RCO Live 13001 SACD (53:17)

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Of all the orchestra own labels, RCO Live is surely the most consistently impressive in its release after release of outstanding recordings. They have put out one or two discs with unusual repertoire choices (Honnegger 3, some Dutilleux), but on the whole they stick to the big and well-known symphonic set pieces, particularly those by Mahler, Strauss and Shostakovich. The orchestra itself certainly excels in this repertoire, and the acoustic of the Concertgebouw adds just the right ambience. It is a winning combination, and this Shostakovich 10 is as good as anything they have presented so far.
Mariss Janons studied with Ilya Musin in Leningrad, which is all that needs to be said about his familiarity with Shostakovich’s symphonic works. His reading here is fairly slow, not quite as slow as Haitink, but slower than most Russian conductors. At this slower pace, Jansons is able to make the music broad and expansive, which again plays to the strengths of both the orchestra and the hall. But he’s also able to maintain the drama and the tension, partly through the sustained and supported playing of the wind section, but also through very sparing use of rubato. The militaristic tuttis, while slow, are performed with an insistent and driving pulse: the music may be broader, but the Stalinist terror is just as intense. This is particularly evident in the second movement, in which Jansons keeps the mood continuously oppressive for the full five minutes without ever letting up. The finale too is well paced, gradually building up to an appropriately overwhelming conclusion.
The sophistication of the playing, and the resonance of the acoustic, does detract a little from the sheer brutality of much of this music. The punch staccato chords don’t have the dryness you’ll hear on other recordings, and the intimacy of the sound prevents the woodwind solos from sounding as desolate and distant as they might. But given the very high audio standards throughout, it is difficult to consider any of these issues as detractions from the overall experience. The percussion section comes out particularly well in the recording; the timpani have a real presence, and the bass drum has a proper kick.
As so often with Jansons recordings, this one seems to achieve multiple and contradictory aims all at once. Jansons envisions the work in expansive terms, but paradoxically manages to create even more drive and vigour through the larger textures he achieves. He knows exactly how to show off the strengths of this great orchestra, which sounds as good on this recording as it has on any of its recent outings on disc. Most recordings of Shostakovich 10 are faster and less tonally sumptuous than this one, but most are less coherent and less intense as well. Jansons shows us that you can have the best of both worlds, provided that is, you’re conducting one of the world’s great orchestras in one of the finest acoustics available for a release at the cutting edge of modern recording technology.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Yannick Nézet-Séguin

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 6 (ed. Haas)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond; Orchestre Métropolitain
ATMA 22639 (53:16)

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Yet again, Yannick Nézet-Séguin demonstrates that he is one of the most competent Brucknerians among the younger generation of conductors today. His reading of the Sixth Symphony doesn’t go to any extremes, but is distinctive and focused throughout. It is in the modern school of Bruckner interpretation, so tempos are fast and rubato is kept to a minimum, but it is at the liberal end of that spectrum, and in spite of the rigor, Yannick also finds plenty of emotion and heart-on-sleeve sentiment in the score.
The tempo at the opening is fast, and the textures light and crisp. When we reach the lyrical second theme, Yannick draws a warm, singing tone from the strings, phrasing the music through broad dynamic arches but without permitting even the slightest rubato. The orchestra is responsive, but occasionally lacks the finer nuances that he is looking for. The brass are expected to provide weight and gravitas, but without venturing into the very loudest dynamics. They are not always able to produce the goods, so many of the outer movement climaxes feel underpowered. The ensemble in the brass is also occasionally suspect, often compromising the clarity of their textures. The string sound is sometimes thin, and the violins have occasional tuning issues in the uppermost register.
The interpretation unfolds in different directions as the first movement progresses. Yannick’s reluctance to indulge in any more rubato than he needs makes many of the transitions feel rigid, and almost minimalist in their repeating ostinato figures. And when a rallentando is absolutely necessary in a link section, there is a strong feeling that it is being applied under duress. On the other hand, the clarity that Yannick brings to each of the themes ensures that the motivic links that hold the music together are always apparent. And in the development he does (finally) allow the music to breath, his elegantly timed caesuras helping to prevent any sense of autopilot in the otherwise disciplined tempos.
In the second movement, the dichotomy between rigor and emotion becomes even more apparent. Again the tempos are regimented throughout, with moments of tenderness and beauty peeking out from the otherwise highly disciplined phrasing. In fact, Yannick eases off as the movement progresses, and the stiffness of the opening passages is replaced later on by slightly more supple phrasing.
The scherzo responds better to the disciplined approach, although even here the transitions feel stiff and unyielding. But Bruckner’s long crescendos are skillfully handled; each feels both controlled and directed. Again, the climaxes seem underpowered because of the lack of weight in the brass tone, although the horns compensate somewhat in the trio with some satisfying raspy interjections. In the finale, Yannick is able to make more of a virtue out of his brisk tempos and nimble orchestra. Climaxes are again underwhelming, but the quieter passages have real character. The ending is abrupt, but does not sound as arbitrary as in some recordings. 
Atma released the earlier volumes of this cycle in SACD, but they seem to have abandoned that policy, which might be just as well given the ensemble problems here, that higher definition would probably emphasize. Nevertheless, the recorded sound is clear and atmospheric. The interpretation won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it makes musical sense on its own terms. If you like a more modern approach to Bruckner, but find Dausgaard, Vanzago, et al. too extreme in their revisionist tendencies, this might be for you. But Yannick’s indulgences are slight by the standards of previous generations, so there is nothing remotely retro about this Bruckner Six. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 37:1.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Taneyev String Quartets 5 and 7 Carpe Diem Quartet

Taneyev String Quartets 5 and 7 Carpe Diem Quartet
Sergey Taneyev: String Quartet no. 7 in E flat major. String Quartet no. 5 in A major Op. 13
Carpe Diem String Quartet
Naxos 8.573010 [62:15]

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Taneyev’s Fifth and Seventh Quartets make an excellent coupling. Their similarities outweigh their differences, and both come close to perfecting the Classical elegance that so much of the composer’s chamber music seeks. The influences of Bach and Mozart are apparent throughout Taneyev’s work, but in these two quartets, the latter clearly predominates. We hear counterpoint in all the Baroque formulations that Taneyev so loved, but there is never any sense of density or weight to the textures. Instead the music is all lightness and grace, and while the string writing is always innovative it is also outward looking and always seeking, and for the most part succeeding, to appeal even to the most casual listener.
The numbering is misleading here. The Seventh is in fact the earlier of the two quartets, written in 1880 when the young composer was living in Paris. The Carpe Diem Quartet gives a direct and unmannered account of the music, bringing out an almost pastoral sensibility to the thematic expositions. This being Taneyev, a contrapuntal complexity soon intervenes when the themes come to be developed, but even then these players are able to keep the textures open and the rhythms light.
The Fifth Quartet was written in 1903, at the start of the central period of Taneyev’s creative life when he wrote exclusively for string ensembles (this from Anastasia Belina-Johnson’s informative liner notes). It is a shorter work and feels more concise at every level of its structure. Perhaps Taneyev comes even closer here to the model of Mozart in the structure and scale of the music, although his propensity for flowing, lyrical lines makes the Seventh Quartet’s larger scale a better fit for its constituent music. The Fifth is another great piece though, and one that repays multiple auditions. Don’t be fooled by the apparent directness of this music on first listening: each time you hear it something new is revealed.
Throughout this cycle (this is volume three of a Complete String Quartets set) the Carpe Diem players have been up against a single but formidable rival: the Taneyev Quartet recordings, made in the 1970s and rereleased on CD about ten years ago. In previous instalments, I have felt that the Taneyev players have retained the upper hand. Their readings are more involving, more Romantic and more expressive. And the sound quality is very good for the recordings’ age. This volume of the Carpe Diem cycle replicates volume two in the Taneyev Quartet cycle. The Carpe Diem interpretations are lighter and more agile, with less rubato. They are also miked more closely, giving greater clarity if less atmosphere. In previous issues all of these factors have been mixed blessings, but the Classical grace of these two works lends itself better to their approach than do the other works in the cycle. The first movement of the Seventh Quartet seems to benefit particularly, especially as the Taneyev Quartet add more rubato than the phrasing needs and take a pedantically emphatic approach to the thematic statements. On the other hand, the more involved sound of the Taneyev Quartet continues to appeal, as does the greater stereo separation in their recording. I’m going to call this one a draw, while emphasising that anybody with an interest in Taneyev’s chamber music owes it to themselves to hear both versions.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Schnittke Discoveries

SCHNITTKE Six Preludes for Piano. Dialogue for Cello and Ensemble. Yellow Sound. Magdalina. Variations for String Quartet 
Drosostalitsa Moriati (pn); Alexander Ivashkin (vc); Jeremy Bell, cond; Ens Pentaèdre de Montréal; Nelly Lee (sop); Alexander Lazarev, cond; Nelly Lee (sop); Bolshoi Soloists’ Ens; Liora Grodnikaite (mez); Oleh Krysa (vn); Natalia Limeiko (vn); Konstantin Boyarsky (va)
TOCCATA CLASSICS 0091 (78:18) 

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Think you know Schnittke’s music? Think again. This disc offers a range of new perspectives on his diverse output, some of which tally quite closely with his more famous compositions, while others sound like the music of a different hand, and possibly even a different era. The recordings presented here were masterminded by Alexander Ivashkin, Schnittke’s friend and biographer, who runs the Alfred Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Since Schnittke’s death in 1998, Ivashkin has done everything in his power to bring together scores of Schnittke’s lesser-known works and to present them to the world. As well as the performances recorded here, he has instigated an “Alfred Schnittke Collected Works” Edition, a scholarly edition of Schnittke’s music, which is currently in preparation in St. Petersburg and which will eventually include all of Schnittke’s concert music, including both the more famous and the lesser-known works.
At this point I should make a full disclosure about my own involvement. I took a Ph.D. in Schnittke’s music at Goldsmiths, where Ivashkin was my supervisor. I have also performed there with the pianist on this disc, Drosostalitsa Moraiti. I am currently a visiting research fellow at Goldsmiths. Oh, and I’m on the editorial team for the edition as well. Nevertheless, I didn’t know any of this music half as well as I should have, and as the title of the disc—Discoveries—suggests, there is plenty here that is obscure yet of great interest.
The Piano Preludes that open the program are very early works, from 1953-1954, when Schnittke was in his late teens. The style is somewhere between Liszt and Rachmaninoff, a sumptuous romantic sound, pastiched almost to perfection by the rapidly rising composer. From a biographical point of view, these preludes pose some interesting questions. Are we to hear this music as Socialist Realism? Or merely as a series of stylistic studies? The invocation of Liszt seems against character. Schnittke would later describe Liszt as “the man who…brought Satanism into music,” so to hear obedient pastiche of the earlier composer’s style does seem strange. Moraiti gives a good reading of these works, and gets the Liszt/Rachmaninoff sensibility just right. She could be a little more dreamy in the Lento Third Prelude, but that is a minor quibble. The sound is reasonably good, but the mid range of the piano doesn’t sing as it might, suggesting minor tuning issues.
Dialogue for Cello and Ensemble was written in 1967, a time when Schnittke was following the fashion for serialism, while gradually realizing that it wasn’t for him. That comes through clearly in this piece, in which the ensemble plays a pointillist serialism, while the solo cello line over the top is in a more lyrical and heartfelt vein. In later works, Schnittke would perfect that kind of stylistic plurality, but here it is still at the experimental stage. It is still a fascinating piece though, and Ivashkin (now as cellist rather than scholar) gives an emotive yet precise account. This recording was made in Canada, but an impressively Russian-sounding trumpeter has been found to give even the ensemble an appropriately Slavic edge.
The most substantial work on the disc is Yellow Sound, better known by its German title, Der gelbe Klang. Everything about this work is bizarrely improbable. The libretto is by Wassily Kandinsky, of all people, who conceived it as a drama, dance, and music spectacle exploring issues of synesthesia following the example of Scriabin. Schnittke uses a Russian translation of the German words, but follows Kandinsky’s directions quite closely. The piece was written shortly after Schnittke’s seminal First Symphony, and that is the work that it is closest to in style….or rather styles. The whole thing is very Dada, with snippets from different styles, ranging from the baroque to jazz, appearing in short bursts out of silence. There is also some chanting voices and what sounds like electronic manipulation, which is all the more surprising given that it was written in Soviet Moscow in the mid 1970s and recorded there in the mid 1980s. The sound quality, ironically given the subject matter, is a little “gray,” lacking in upper partials and therefore instrumental color, but it’s not bad. This is a live recording of the first staged performance, and it is deeply frustrating not being able to see what is going on.
Magdalina is a setting of a text by Boris Pasternak for mezzo and piano dating from 1977. The reason for its obscurity is that the composer withdrew it shortly before its first performance, saying that the music did not do the words justice. That’s a real shame because is a great piece. It dates from around the same time as Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, and like that work it seems to suppress a brutal anger beneath lyrical and, for the most part consonant, surface textures. The earlier sections also sound a lot like Górecki’s contemporaneous Third Symphony, with the muffled chiming of bells heard in the piano. But in the last few minutes the anger comes to the surface, leading to a violent and dissonant ending. The performance here, by mezzo Liora Grodnikaite and pianist Moraiti is excellent, although a bit more force from the piano might have helped in the last passage, which has volume of sound but lacks weight.
The final piece on the disc, Variations for String Quartet, is one of the very last works Schnittke completed. It is typical of his very late style, in that the music is diatonic and even of tone, yet frustratingly inscrutable. The work opens in a meditative state, similar to some of the more devout utterances from Alexander Knaifel. But in the variations that follow, the music becomes even more simple, consisting almost entirely of major scales occasionally played in contrary motion. The performers here include Oleh Krysa and Alexander Ivashkin, both of whom worked closely with the composer, so I’m not inclined to take issue with their stylistic choices. The music is played very dry, with no vibrato or rubato, and also recorded to minimize reverberation. I’m sure there are other ways of playing this piece, ways that might offer the listener an easier way into the music. But these players just present it as it stands, and I for one, remain completely baffled.
This album offers a range of fascinating music, and is a must-have for any Schnittke enthusiast. The program doesn’t hang together very well, partly because each piece is in a completely different style, and also because the recordings span more than 20 years and three different countries. Fortunately, though the chronological ordering helps to make sense of the package, and to link these obscure works to the periods of Schnittke’s creative life and to the more famous pieces that they occasionally resemble. This album won’t provide an easy way into Schnittke’s music for those unfamiliar with his work. Even for those who do know his more famous music, it poses more questions than it answers. Such is the nature of great art. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 36:6.