Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 30 August 2013

RIHM Symphonie “Nähe fern” Gaffigan

Wolfgang Rihm: Symphonie “Nähe fern”
James Gaffigan, cond., Luzerner Sinfonieorchester
Hans Christoph Begemann, baritone
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902153

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Why so few homages to Brahms? He exerted a huge influence on many composers in the half century following his death, but few, if any, chose to acknowledge that debt through dedications or Brahms-themed works. In more recent times, Ligeti was commissioned to write a piece commemorating Brahms. His response was that he didn’t like Brahms very much, but in order to fulfil the terms of the commission he would write a work that used the same instrumentation as one by Brahms, his Horn Trio. The situation is particularly puzzling when compared with Mahler, for whom no end of 20th and 21st century homages have been composed. The answer lies, perhaps, in the nature of the two composers’ musical discourse. Mahler’s music is always open to a variety of interpretations. His symphonies draw in styles and ideas and invite the listener to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. Brahms, by contrast, usually insists on having the last word.  When we appreciate a Brahms symphony, we reach a state of agreement with the composer about the musical conclusions he himself has already drawn. There isn’t much more to say.
So when Wolfgang Rihm was commissioned by Numa Bischof Ullmann, Director of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, to write orchestral responses to each of Brahms’ four symphonies, the task must have seemed daunting. Fortunately, Rihm is the sort of composer for whom inspiration flows without too much difficulty, and, if his comments in the liner note are anything to go by, he was soon able to fashion responses to each of these stubbornly non-dialogic works. And although he argues to the contrary, the process of breaking Brahms’ insularity, rather than the earlier composer’s developmental method, seems to have become the subject of each of these four symphonic “pendants”.
The title “Nähe fern” (distant proximity) suggests as much. Brahms remains at arms-reach throughout this cycle. Short motifs and melodic passages appear, but always out of context, or rather in a new context that Rihm seems to have deliberately styled to oppose the harmonic fabric and developmental logic of Brahms’ scores. The passage of history is acknowledged: the more granular passages often sound like Webern, and the more grandiose ones the post-tonal symphonism of Robert Simpson (though I doubt that is a deliberate reference). Rihm is no stranger to homage projects (he has since written A Tribute, which he describes as a ‘homage to English music’ – intriguing!) and this sort of work brings out his gentler side. So the harmonies are open and warm, not tonal as such, but not aggressively dissonant either. There is an air of Impressionism about the way that the music moves from texture to texture, only very rarely punctuated by hard accents or cadential closure. And across the top of these flowing textures appear tiny snippets from Brahms’ symphonies, often over stacked fourth or seventh chords, or against repeating-note accompaniments that oppose their tonality.
As individual works, each of these movements was no doubt very successful, especially as each premiered in concerts where they were coupled with the relevant Brahms symphony. But Rihm has brought the four works together, added a Goethe setting for baritone and orchestra as the second number, and now calls the result a symphony in its own right. That move has certainly facilitated commercial recording, and may even find these movements further performances, but artistically it is problematic. The individual “pendants” don’t function as symphonic movements, and the relationships between them, both musical and dramatic, are too limited in scope for the overall work to add up to more than a sum of its parts. Rihm might tell us that this is a symphony, but it is really more of a commentary on the idea – a metasymphony perhaps.
Leaving that problem aside, this is a very fine recording and is well worth hearing, especially for followers of Rihm’s recent music. The forces that first performed this music, conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, are sympathetic and skilled interpreters. The problem for them is working out whether to play this music like Brahms or like Rihm, but they find an ideal balance that clearly favours the latter. Good sound, good liner notes and elegant packaging seal the deal. Wolfgang Rihm remains, as ever, on adventurous form, so it is great that Harmonia Mundi continues to have faith in his wayward and unpredictable genius, presenting commercial recordings of his recent music with production values that most contemporary composers can only dream of.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Bruckner Symphonies 3 and 6 Venzago Bern SO

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 3 (1889 version). Symphony No. 6
Mario Venzago, cond; Bern SO
CPO 7776902 (2 CDs: 105:09)

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A sense of brinksmanship pervades this cycle of Bruckner symphonies from Mario Venzago. He’s not the only conductor currently ‘modernizing’ Bruckner—Thomas Dausgaard and Marek Janowski are two other names that readily spring to mind—but he seems intent on becoming the most radical of their number. Each installment seems more extreme than the last, more rigid, faster, and generally opposing everything that could be considered as a performing tradition in this repertoire.
The previous installment (CPO 777 617-2) covered the problematic symphonies 0 and 1, and, given that no interpretive approach can fully hold these works together, Venzago’s innovations seemed justified, or at least as justified as more traditional approaches. But this time round, his interventions seem more perverse, at best producing indifferent results, at worst actively opposing the musical substance. The cycle is entitled A Different Bruckner, and an essay from Venzago justifying his approach appears with each release. Last time round, the results seemed to bear out some of his thinking, but the sheer perversity of what he does with the Third and Sixth symphonies invites a closer reading of his essay to find out exactly what is going on.
The basis of Venzago’s argument is that Bruckner does not specify very much in his scores about how they should be interpreted, especially in terms of tempo and dynamics. He argues that a performing tradition has accrued to the music, and that, rather than empowering performers, it simply produces performances that all sound the same. He laments that recordings today do not have the variety that we find between Furtwängler, Jochum, and Günther Wand. I would take issue with that view, and suggest instead that the reason why similarities can often be found between two recent recordings today is that there are (thankfully) so many new recordings of these works being produced all the time. Some of Venzago’s innovations are justified on grounds of historically-informed performance, particularly the smaller string sections he uses in the earlier symphonies, but others are simply intended to dispense with, or oppose, tradition. Venzago writes “The outmoded [his italics] expression must be replaced by a new one, one that is closer to us and that we can feel directly.” But why are traditional approaches “outmoded?” And why do they need to be replaced? Without answers to these questions his approach seems like change for change’s sake, rarely a constructive musical policy.
Another of Venzago’s big ideas is to ensure that each symphony has a clearly separate identity within the cycle. Perhaps this is why the last two volumes have each included two works, to demonstrate the differences between them. There is certainly a big contrast here, with the Third Symphony given the more traditional reading (relatively speaking), and the Sixth taken to almost comical extremes. The Third opens at a leisurely tempo—nothing particularly controversial here—but the abrupt gear change into the exposition gives an idea of what is to come. Venzago does away with rubato almost entirely (despite claims to the contrary in his liner note essay) and instead articulates the structure of each of the movements with abrupt changes of tempo and dynamics. Crescendos leading into climaxes are executed strictly in tempo, making each seem mechanical. Sequences in transitions are similarly unshaped, with the result that they seem to lead nowhere.
Venzago also states that he is seeking a Schubertian sensibility in his Bruckner, something that he best achieves in the second movement of the Third Symphony. Here the scale and pace of the music approach Mozart, although inevitably the results sound rushed and underpowered. The small string section obliges the brass to play down, which they do by reducing the agogics as much as the volume. This is particularly damaging to the third movement, which is seriously lacking in momentum and punch as a result of their feeble accents. In his essay, Venzago claims that the tradition of ‘massiveness’ in Bruckner is relatively modern, as is the equation of slow tempos with solemnity. In the finale of the third, he opposes both by speeding up when he reaches each of the grand climaxes, as if to write them off before they have even begun. Very frustrating.
All these complaints apply to the Sixth Symphony, and most of them to a greater extent. For the most part, this reading is fast, lacking in gravity (which is deliberate), and lacking in interest (which is perhaps less so). The scherzo is given a fairly uncontroversial reading, and the accenting here is more apparent than in the same movement of the Third. But otherwise, Venzago seems intent to bring this music down to earth at every available opportunity.
Perhaps Venzago is right that the big, romantic interpretations of Bruckner symphonies go too far, and that Karajan’s approach worked in his day, but that it is time to move on. But other conductors, Thomas Dausgaard in particular, are able to present light and agile Bruckner without reducing the music’s spiritual and emotional dimensions to this extent. No doubt, as this cycle continues, Venzago will have new things to say with Bruckner’s symphonies, but on the strength of this installment, I’d suggest that the losses far outweigh the gains.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 37:1

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Bruckner Symphony No.3 Jaap van Zweden

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 3 (1877 version, ed. Nowak 1981) 
Jaap van Zweden, cond; Netherlands Radio PO 
CHALLENGE 72551 (59:35)

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Jaap van Zweden is living proof that the best training for an orchestral conductor is experience in the rank-and-file. In fact, Zweden never sat at the back: his playing career began at the age of 19 with one of the most prestigious orchestral positions in the world—leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. As a conductor, he has since spent eight years (2005-13) in charge of another great Dutch orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. This recording of Bruckner’s Third is one of the last installments in a well-received Bruckner cycle with the latter ensemble. The standards remain as high as ever, and the results are certainly impressive.
It is tempting to look for the roots of Zweden’s Bruckner in his Concertgebouw days. How many times must he have performed Bruckner’s Third there under the baton of Bernard Haitink? Listening to this recording, you could mistake it for the work of that conductor and that orchestra. The orchestral sound approaches that of the Concertgebouw. The brass has a similar feeling of effortless gravity, there is a warm, luminous glow to the woodwinds, and the strings have a satisfyingly complex and infinitely variable tone. Zweden’s reading of the score, much like Haitink’s, is broad and expansive, with liberal rubato, but with discipline too where it matters. Like Haitink, he is also able to create a sense of urgency and drive, but without actually increasing the tempo. Zweden is less emphatic with accents, and his approach favors homogeneity rather analytical clarity of texture. But the overall impression this gives is one of refined taste rather than indifference to the emotions in the score. He is also excellent at evoking atmosphere in quieter passages, and in building drama into the climaxes, both of which ensure that his interpretation always sounds truly ‘symphonic.’
If there is one serious charge that can be made against Zweden’s reading of Bruckner’s Third, it is the occasional feeling of complacency. For example, in one the second movement variations, Bruckner sets a theme in the woodwind against a pizzicato counterpoint in the strings. Zweden knows that his string section will be able to cleanly articulate the passage, but it still needs a little more focus and emphasis. Similarly, the tuttis at the ends of some sections and movements sometimes give the impression that the drama is over: the home key has triumphed so there’s nothing left to say. That is certainly the feeling that we get in the last page of the finale. The brass sound here is simply stunning: broad, weighty tones with immaculate timbral control, even at the loudest dynamics. It is as if they could be giving far more, but the occasion just doesn’t warrant it. But these are minor concerns, and it is far more satisfying to listen to an orchestra give this music more panache than it needs than to the many recordings in which the tonal quality begins to deteriorate midway through each of the long crescendos.
The SACD audio here is of the highest standard. Zweden’s Parsifal with these forces, and on this label (CC72519), seemed to rely on the acoustic of the Concertgebouw to create its impressive atmosphere and warm but precise sound. But this recording demonstrates that that was not the case. It is made in a studio in Hilversum and sounds just as good. There is plenty of space around the orchestra, a sense of presence to every section, and as much detail in the string sound as you could wish for. (Interestingly, this reveals the stings to have a complex and variegated texture, balancing their clear unity of articulation and ensemble with a microscopically textured sound that inferior technology would no doubt miss.)
A high recommendation then, for this Bruckner Three. Zweden gives a spacious account, which is never rushed, but never stalls either. The orchestra produces weighty, but never ponderous, textures for the tuttis, and luminous, elegant sounds for the quieter passages, especially those in which the woodwind predominate. All of these sounds are clear, but they’re complex too, and the superior audio does a great job of picking up all the minute details. But most of all, the disc deserves recommendation for Zweden’s interpretation, which is expansive and dramatic, but also patient and focused, an ideal combination that makes this one of the most satisfying and compelling recent recordings of the work.