Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Wagner Das Rheingold Gergiev

Wagner Das Rheingold Gergiev
René Pape (Wotan), Nikolai Putilin (Alberich), Stephan Rügamer (Loge), Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Viktoria Yastrebova (Freia), Zlata Bulycheva (Erda), Andrei Popov (Mime), Evgeny Nikitin (Fafner), Mikhail Petrenko (Fafner), Sergei Semishkur (Froh), Alexei Markov (Donner), Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), Irina Vasilieva (Wellgunde), Ekaterina Sergeeva (Flosshilde)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky label (2 SACDs) MAR0526

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Gergiev’s Ring cycle on the Mariinsky label launched a few months ago with a superlative Walküre. The enthusiasm this release prompted (not least from me) managed to obscure the fact that the commercial release of the cycle had begun with the second opera, even though they were recorded in the correct order. Now that we reach Rheingold, it’s time to assess why that decision was made, and what it means for this opera, now deprived of its introductory status.
Comparison of the two recordings shows that actually there is not too much to worry about, and most of the qualities that distinguished the Walküre are also in evidence here. The decision probably came down more to the draw of the big names, particularly Kaufmann and Stemme, who can be guaranteed to draw publicity to any Wagner project either is involved in. Rheingold is more an ensemble piece and, just as Gergiev has the power to book the biggest stars in the opera world, he also has the resources at the Mariinsky to find a credible ensemble of singers for virtually any repertoire. René Pape and Ekaterina Gubanova again sing the roles of Wotan and Fricka, providing a continuity with the Walküre. And if this time they shine as the star performers in a way that they didn’t seem to the last time round, that has more to do with the work than the performances.
The audio quality is again exceptional, making the Prelude a particular treat. The Mariinsky doesn’t skip on anvils, which are also reproduced with impressive power and presence. The positioning of the singers, at least in the stereo mix, isn’t very imaginative though, apart from Erda (Zlata Bulycheva), who seems to have been placed off-stage somewhere, and a long way from any of the microphones.
The cast is more Russian than the last time round, but no less idiomatic in its delivery. In fact, Gergiev seems to be on a mission to show that the intense and passionate way the Russians do opera is ideally suited to Wagner, and everything on this recording supports his case. Pape and Gubanova give the most impressive performances, both in terms of their vocal dexterity and elegance and in the sheer emotion in their every utterance. No doubt we will have lost all sympathy for the gods by the time we get to the end of the cycle, but for the time being they are effectively presented as the sympathetic characters. Elsewhere we find Rhinemaidens singing more as individuals than as an ensemble (the high definition audio may emphasise this), but creating a more involving opening scene as a result. Nikolai Putilin gives a serious account of Alberich, with none of the buffoonery the role sometimes elicits onstage. Stephan Rügamer is a known quantity as Loge, having recently sung the part in Barenboim’s Ring cycles in Berlin, La Scala and at the Proms (look out for my review of the DVD of the La Scala Rheingold in the next few weeks), and he is just as impressive here. The giants are sung by two of Russia’s finest, Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko. Both give lyrical and musical performances, but surprisingly neither projects their tone with the power that might be expected of them.
Gergiev leads a disciplined performance from the orchestra. The horns at the opening are a particular treat, and he gives the woodwind soloists plenty of space to make the most of each of their appearances. The question of how Russian the orchestra sounds is tricky, but it is interesting to hear the first trumpet continuously trying to suppress his vibrato.
While Gergiev’s reading is intensely operatic, especially in the way that he leads and interacts with the singers, his approach to the music is distinctive and is bound to raise some eyebrows. As with the Walküre, tempos here are generally slow. That aids the clarity of sound, which is also helped by both the SACD audio and the excellent acoustic at the Mariinsky Concert Hall. Sadly, it also compromises the structure and flow of the music. As in the Walküre, Gergiev takes a big gamble on his slow tempos, presumably hoping that the dramatic set pieces will hold the rest together. In my opinion (though not everybody’s) that paid off in Walküre, with even the difficult Second Act cohering his unusually steady baton. But this Rheingold feels more choppy, especially as Gergiev tends to open out the textures for the orchestral interludes, but then snap back into tempo when the singing begins. The entrance of the giants is a prime example. The low brass here is just spectacular, and Gergiev takes their music at a slower tempo than most, or even any, other recordings. But then he jumps back to a steady pulse when they begin to sing, depriving both of grandeur. The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla also falls flat for some reason. Perhaps this time Gergiev is suppressing his urge to open the music out and so just pushes on to the double bar.
A few disappointments then, especially for those hoping for a complete Ring cycle of the quality of the previous Walküre. On the other hand, the two recordings are very much of apiece, and both deserve high recommendation. This Rheingold may not have the coherency we expect of the very best, but many of the key ingredients are of the highest quality. That includes the singing, which for many opera lovers is the over-riding concern. Gergiev’s conducting here, however, may prove to be a more acquired taste.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Hunter’s Bride (Der Freischütz) Film by Jens Neubert

Hunter’s Bride (Der Freischütz) Film by Jens Neubert
Starring Franz Grundheber, Benno Schollum, Micheal Volle, Michael König, Juliane Banse, Regula Mühlemann.
DVD – Arthaus Musik 101692

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Director Jens Neubert describes this project as an attempt to found a new genre: the film opera. He’s exaggerating the novelty; similar film versions have previously been made of Tosca, Carmen and Marschner’s Der Vampyr, with varying degrees of success, but Neubert’s Freischütz feels both more cinematic and more operatic than any of these. His approach is to pace the action according to the opera, retaining all of the music and (I think) all of the spoken dialogue too, while treating the visual aspect in purely cinematic terms. The result is a grand and appropriately gothic production that retains a surprising fidelity to the original, but without ever seeming constrained by it.
The action is updated to Weber’s own time, taking place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, with both Max and Kaspar soldiers in the Saxonian army. We also get a short battle scene at towards the start, although it is a bit low on extras and doesn’t quite convince. Ottokar has an army battalion camped out in the grounds of his house, and at one point hosts a visit from Napoleon himself, a slightly gratuitous cameo. More effective though is the Wolf’s Glen (or ‘Gorge’ as the subtitles have it), which is strewn with the corpses of soldiers, some of which end up being used in the black magic.
The title Der Freischütz is notoriously difficult to translate into English, and this film seems to take two ‘shots’ at it: Hunter’s Bride and The Marksman. The former is more than a slight of hand though; it is a literal translation of Weber’s working title, Die Jägersbraut. This informs the interpretation, with Neubert doing everything in his power to make Agathe rather than Max the central character. Max himself is presented as fat and unkempt (Michael König with plenty of makeup), and his passion for Agathe seems superficial throughout. Agathe, by contrast, is played by the radiant Juliane Banse, who dominates proceedings and is undoubtedly the sympathetic character here. That said, she doesn’t even appear in the First Act, and while Neubert tries to make her the focus of attention in the finale, Weber does little to help him.
Various tensions arise between the two genres that this project is attempting to combine. The operatic pacing doesn’t feel very cinematic. It is good that there is so much spoken dialogue, but it’s not very dynamic, at least not in a Hollywood sense. And everything stops for the arias of course, although this is no more distracting than in filmed musicals, and Neubert introduces a range of interesting visual ideas to ensure that a filmic quality is retained, even in the longer arias.
More problematic is the sound production. All of the music was recorded at Abbey Road before filming began. Sound producer Joel Iwataki gets top billing in the literature for his work in creating a soundtrack that is suitable for the project, and his approach is certainly original. Although the music is performed and presented loyally, the postproduction is quite glossy, the style of sound production you would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster. The sound is attractive, although it is often rounder and more euphonious than we usually hear in opera. But this is clearly indoor studio sound, and no effort is made to reconcile it with the outdoor setting of most of the scenes. Although the LSO play well, a period instrument band would have suited the visual style better, especially as we see the villagers playing contemporaneous instruments, boxwood clarinets and the like.
The audio production style also has the effect of making everything in the music sound absolutely perfect, so it is difficult to criticise any of the singers on technical grounds. Daniel Harding conducts well, although he sometimes struggles to present the music with the sense of urgency it demands, such are the competing demands of the project. The singers also risk anonymity in this highly-produced audio environment. Again though, Juliane Banse shines here. Her rich, deep and distinctive tones can easily survive the postproduction process, and her performance is never less than compelling. Good dramtic turns as well from Michael Volle as Kaspar and König as Max. But Regula Mühlemann doesn’t bring much to the part of Ännchen, and René Pape’s unconvincing turn as the Hermit brings the finale dangerously close to unintentional comedy.
An impressive rendering then, of Weber’s masterpiece, but one with many flaws as well. Neubert sensibly approaches the opera as a stage director might, introducing a handful of interpretive ideas, some in sympathy with the original synopsis, others designed to create constructive tensions. The cinematic side of things is never allowed to get in the way of the work as an opera, although it often seems to run in a sympathetic parallel to the music rather than together with it as a fully-integrated unity.
Thanks are in order to Arthaus Musik for giving Hunter’s Bride a UK DVD release, but it is a shame it didn’t make it into cinemas here. What is it with the UK and Der Freischütz? There hasn’t been a staging of the work here in decades, though it is heard often enough in concert. Here’s hoping this DVD will raise interest and prompt its return to the UK stage.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Bach Cantatas Vol. 54 Masaaki Suzuki Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit

Bach Cantatas Vol. 54 Masaaki Suzuki Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 100
Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14
Gott ist unsre Zuversicht, BWV 197
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, BWV 197a (fragment)
Hana Blažíková, soprano, Damien Guillon, counter-tenor, Gerd Türk, tenor, Peter Kooij, bass, Jean-François Madeuf, trumpet, Kiyomi Suga, flauto traverse, Masamitsu San’nomiya, oboe d’amore, Yukiko Murakami, bassoon, Natsumi Wakamatsu, violin, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

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As Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach cantata cycle draws to a close, the qualities that have made it stand out as one of the great recording achievements of the age remain as evident as ever. This, the penultimate volume, reunites many of the outstanding vocal and instrumental soloists, all of whom are still at the top of their game. The three and a half cantatas (BWV 197a is a fragment) have no obvious connections, nor are there any obvious hits among their movements, but all repay close attention, and there are plenty of surprises to be found in these always finely crafted works.
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan BWV 100 dates from 1734-5, although its exact purpose and occasion remain unclear. Nevertheless, it was clearly written for a celebration of some sort, as the lavish orchestration and jubilant music attest. The opening chorus is a particular treat. It is set quite low for the orchestra, and the ensemble’s colours are dominated by the flaccid but precise sound of low timpani and a low register obbligato from the flute. But the choir here is all lightness and grace, and the singers make the most of the music, which the liner rightly describes as “characterized by festive splendour and the joy of music-making”. There’s another great flute obbligato in the duet that follows and an elegant one from the oboe d’amore in the last aria. Countertenor Damien Guillon has the lion’s share of the singing. His tone is light and precise, his style distinctive but not overly mannered.
Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit BWV 14 opens with a very unusual chorus. The cantus firmus theme is presented by the chorus through a complex system of counterpoint that answers every phrase with its own inversion. The result is complex and introverted, motet-like the liner suggests. It is quite a challenge for the choir, but they handle it well, giving every line of the counterpoint the clarity it requires, but without giving any undue prominence. This and the following cantata (BWV 197) both have prominent trumpet/horn parts, played with his usual flair by Jean-François Madeuf. Unlike in earlier instalments, Madeuf’s precision is not compromised by his use of instruments without tone holes, and this seeming masochism in doing so pays off in the wide array of articulations that he is able to achieve.
Gott ist unsre Zuversicht BWV 197 is a wedding cantata, making it another overtly celebratory piece. Like the wedding cantatas BWV 195 and 120a (recorded by Suzuki on Vol. 51), this cantata is divided into two sections, the later entitled, with presumably unintentional comedy, “Post Copulationem”. The recitatives are taken by bass Peter Kooij, who, despite some shaky patches in previous instalments, seems to be maintaining the quality of his vocal control right to the end of the cycle. Among the obbligatos is one for the bassoon, in the first aria, an effect as beautiful and engaging as it is unusual.
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe BWV 197a comes down to us as just the second half of a Christmas cantata, possibly from 1728. The ten minutes of music that survives suggests a joyous but intimate celebration, more in the spirit of the Berlioz l’Enfance du Christ than of Bach’s more municipal Christmas Oratorio. Peter Kooij again excels, and the lightness of the music and its accompaniment is ideal for his still nimble, if no longer large tone.
An impressive recording all round then, with audio standards as high as on any of the recent instalments in the cycle. Suzuki, as ever, takes fashionably “HIP” fast tempos, but somehow always manages to make them sound both intuitive and relaxed. If the final instalment, due out in the next month or two, is as good as this one, then the series is going to end on a real high.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Schreker Der ferne Klang Gerd Albrecht

Schreker Der ferne Klang
Thomas Moser, Gabriele Schnaut, Victor von Halem, Siegmund Nimsgern,
Radio-Symphonie-orchester Berlin / Gerd Albrecht

Capriccio C 5178 (2 CDs)
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Schreker’s Der ferne Klang deserves a much wider audience than it has so far reached, especially in the English-speaking world, so this reissue of a fine 1991 recording from Capriccio is welcome indeed. The reasons for the work’s continuing obscuring are difficult to gauge; the music here draws heavily on Mahler and the Strauss of Salome  and Elektra, all of which provide ample preparation for any audiences unfamiliar with Schreker’s work. Fortunately, the opera is now well represented on disc, so interested listeners can get the full measure of this magical score, even if seeing a staged production still remains an unlikely prospect.
The composer wrote his own libretto for the work. That’s almost always a recipe for disaster, but Schreker just about gets away with it. The story revolves around a hapless composer, Fritz, searching for a ‘distant sound’ that he has heard in his imagination. The search ends up consuming his life and separating him from his one true love, Grete. As with Strauss’ (much later) Capriccio, the scenario here allows music to become the subject of the story, rather than just its accompaniment, giving Schreker licence to write sumptuous music that in other contexts would run the risk of overwhelming the stage drama. The piece isn’t without its flaws, the narrative lacks focus and the music often seems overly indulgent, but the work’s strong melodic identity, and Schreker’s skilful writing for voices, ensure that everything in the score is engaging and that the music is always properly operatic.
This studio recording was made in Berlin in 1991. Conductor Gerd Albrecht takes a disciplined approach to the score, while still allowing the more expansive textures plenty of space. His many years experience in the opera pit shine through in his conducting of the singers, who are always kept at the centre of attention, despite the often heavy orchestration. When this recording was first released, some critics complained about Gabriele Schnaut’s performance in the lead female role of Grete. I’m inclined to agree that her singing lacks accuracy and that she has occasional tuning problems, but they are minor issues and don’t seriously detract from the listening experience. Few complaints could be raised about the remainder of the cast, who are uniformly impressive. Thomas Moser is certainly up to the challenges posed by the lead role of Fritz, and as well as accuracy and projection he also gives a distinctive and highly emotive performance. The recorded sound is good. In the balance of detail vs. atmosphere it leans slightly towards the latter, but clarity of texture is never seriously compromised.
When this recording was first released, it was one of two available, the other conducted by Michael Halász and released on the Marco Polo label. That version is now available on Naxos and is also good. The cast is not quite as good as here, but the detail in the orchestral sound is greater. The rerelease of the Albrecht recording in 2013 introduces it to a more crowded market with several newer versions now available. The pick of these is the SACD version on the ARS label, conducted by Dirk Kaftan. The improved sound quality made possible by the SACD technology is of considerable benefit to Schreker’s often involved textures, which shine with a new clarity here. That said, Kaftan takes a more relaxed approach to the score, and the pace of the music occasionally drops, leading to longueurs we don’t experience with Albrecht. Kaftan’s Fritz, Mathias Schulz, is the weak link in the cast, although his Grete, Sally Du Randt, gives possibly the finest available performance of the role on record. The Kaftan version also excels in the Bühnemusik, Schreker employs an onstage gypsy band, including D clarinet and cimbalom, all of which comes to the fore in Kaftan’s recording, but is disappointingly muted elsewhere.
The Kaftan probably gets the thumbs-up as the top recommendation then, but in a competitive field where every available version has considerable merits. This Albrecht version is the pick of the budget releases, at least in terms of the recording. Given the paucity of information in the liner, you’ll probably need to consult the internet if you want to find outmore about the opera. All that’s provided is a brief essay from Schreker himself about the work’s genesis, a bio of the composer and a brief synopsis. That’s about standard for budget reissues these days though, so no surprises there. But it’s the music that matters, and on that count this release is strongly recommended.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Shebalin Orchestral Suites Dmitry Vasiliev Siberian Symphony Orchestra

SHEBALIN Orchestral Suites: No. 1, Op. 18; No. 2, Op. 22 
 Dmitry Vasiliev, cond; Siberian SO 
 TOCCATA CLASSICS 0136 (62:19)

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Most students of Soviet music will have heard the name Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963), but only the most dedicated will have heard any of his music. Along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khatchaturian, he was one of the high-profile targets of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree, which cost him his position as Director of the Moscow Conservatory. If the Zhdanov episode seems insultingly arbitrary in the cases of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with Shebalin it seems positively perverse, as Tikhon Khrennikov, one of the main functionaries behind the decree was a Shebalin protégé, and because Shebalin’s music, as presented here, sounds like a perfect example of the Socialist Realism from which these composers had supposedly strayed.
It wasn’t the end of Shebalin’s career though. He returned to the conservatory as Professor of Composition in 1951, and continued to compose until his death, although afflicted in his last decade by the affects of a severe stroke. The two suites presented here reached their final forms in 1962 but are based on incidental music written in the 1930s. If there was one marginally legitimate complaint that Chairman Zhdanov could have raised against Shebalin, it was his association with a known subversive, for all the music here was originally written for the Meyerhold State Theater, and one of the works for a production directed by Vsevold Meyerhold himself, who was later tortured and shot by the NKVD, albeit on trumped-up charges. The First Suite contains music for Introduction by Yury German and The Last Decisive by Vsevold Vishnevsky and the Second music for La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils.
These suites appear here for the first time on CD, although the wording of the track listing suggests that an analog recording of the Second Suite was previously available. The music is certainly of historical interest, and the release is worthwhile on those grounds, but what do these works have to offer in terms of musical satisfaction for the general listener? Well, that depends largely on your tolerance for Socialist Realism. Shebalin was certainly dedicated to the cause, and strove for simplicity and melodic directness above all else. That, combined with the fact that this is incidental music, makes for sparse and insubstantial music. There are some interesting comparisons to be made with the contemporaneous film music, both British and American, and with the incidental music of Shostakovich. Generally, though, Shostakovich is better able to maintain a sense of atmosphere from similarly Spartan musical means. He’s got better tunes too. Shebalin’s greatest strength, after the disciplined professionalism of his melodic and harmonic constructions, is his imaginative use of the orchestra. In the First Suite, for example, we hear short saxophone solos integrated into the woodwind textures, and a flexatone makes a prominent appearance in the percussion section (surely that must be an addition made during the 1962 edit?). In the Second Suite, the otherwise orderly music is interrupted at one point (in the “Potpurri” movement) by discordant flutter-tonguing trumpets.
The recording was made in Omsk in Siberia, the city of Shebalin’s birth, where he is apparently revered as a local hero. The Siberian Symphony Orchestra plays proficiently under Principal Conductor Dmitry Vasiliev, but rarely excels. Intonation and ensemble are fine, but there is little sparkle to the woodwind solos, and little imagination in their phrasing. The brass too sound sullen and monotone, although their balances are reasonable.
Almost a page of the liner is given over to information about the recently renovated Omsk Philharmonic Hall, where the recording was made. The new design was by Nicholas Edwards, better known for the acoustical marvels he achieved at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. The orchestral sound certainly seems to be benefiting from its environment, especially the tuttis, which are always rich and warm. The percussion and winds can sometimes sound distant in the quieter textures, but not to the point of distraction.
As ever, Toccata Classics gives all the peripheral aspects of this release a high level of care and attention. Both the disc itself and the case are very elegant and, more importantly, a comprehensive liner essay (complete with many footnotes) is provided from Anastasia Belina-Johnson. A worthwhile release then, but not a revelation, one that is likely to be of most interest to students of Soviet music who want to hear the works of the composers they’ve read so much about. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:1.