Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bach Cantatas Vol 55: Freue dich, erlöste Schar, Suzuki

Bach: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69, Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30, Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191
Hana Blažíková, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, Peter Kooij
Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki

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And so the Masaaki Suzuki Bach Cantata cycle draws to a close. Like the similar Harnoncourt/Leonhardt and Gardiner projects, it’s been something of a pilgrimage, and there is a real feeling of ground covered and experience gained in this final volume. But there has also been an impressive consistency of standard and style across the project, with many vocal soloists appearing from beginning to end, and instrumentalists often returning for many volumes. Adopting SACD when it became available about half way through the project was a smart move, not that the audio standards had been lacking previously. In fact, the exact opposite: the sound engineering, the quality of the orchestral playing and near ideal acoustic of the Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel all contributed to recordings that really made the most of the higher resolution that SACD offered and showed the technology off at its best. Masaaki Suzuki clearly isn’t the sentimental type, but he’s allowed himself the small indulgence of a one-page introduction at the start of the liner, looking back on his original plans and considering how it has all worked out. In 1995, his official line was that the cycle would take “at least” 15 years, but his anticipation that it might take longer was not based on  concerns about his own industry or that of his colleagues: he was harbouring a dream that a significant number of the lost cantatas would be discovered over the course of the project, theoretically extending the repertoire substantially. That never happened, as he now ruefully admits, but the sense of optimism that this attitude demonstrates has been one of the defining characteristics of his music making throughout the cycle.
Suzuki’s roughly chronological approach brings us out at the end in the 1740s, with three very late cantatas, which, as luck would have it, are all grand, celebratory works, making for a fitting and satisfying conclusion. However, Bach’s habit of recycling material has a significant impact on the later works in the cycle, and there is very little music here that has not previously been recorded under another guise earlier on, albeit in different contexts and usually with different words. But no matter, these performers always make Bach’s music sound fresh, and the quality of both the original music and the later adaptations is never in doubt.
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69, was written for the inauguration of the Leipzig City Council, probably in 1748. The music is fittingly grand and regal, with a large orchestra often creating thick instrumental textures through doublings between the families. As ever, Suzuki and the BIS engineers balance the music finely, even in the tuttis. So, for example, in the opening chorus, the harpsichord in the continuo is as clear as the trumpet (the inimitable Jean-François Madeuf) it is heard beneath. Suzuki’s control of instrumental colour is also exemplary, and when, later in the chorus, Bach merges the trumpet sound into that of the oboe, the transition is seamless. The choir is clear and precise throughout, making even the complex counterpoint of this cantata sound easy, and the vocal soloists, all familiar names by now, give performances as good as anything in the previous volumes. There is a touch of other-worldliness about Robin Blaze’s countertenor, but again it is never taken to an extreme and adds an interesting colour to the mix.
Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30, was written for the Feast of John the Baptist, 24 June (Johannestag!), but is based on a secular cantata Bach wrote to a Picander libretto with an allegorical theme: Time, Happiness and Fate all appear in the original as sung parts. It is an interesting exercise to try working out which of them each of the singers correspond to at any given moment, and Peter Kooij is surly Old Father Time in his aria “Ich will nun hassen…” A great performance here from Kooij, lyrical and well supported, without any hint of failing vocal powers, as occasionally happened in earlier volumes: he’s proved the cynics (myself included) wrong and kept the quality going right up to the last volume.
And to conclude – a truly glorious work, Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191. The music here is lifted almost directly from the Gloria of the B Minor Mass, so the compositional quality is of the highest possible standard. So too is the performance, even better, it seems, than when the same forces tackled the Mass itself some years ago. Having the music extracted to form a shorter work gives Suzuki the opportunity to present it in a lighter, less histrionic way. The results are ebullient and bubbling with energy and joy. The exact reason for the composition/arrangement of this work is not known, but a plausible theory has it that it was to celebrate the end of the Second Silesian War in 1745. Here it provides the celebration for an ending of another sort and the ideal conclusion to a spectacular cantata cycle.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Bruckner Mass No 3 Janowski

BRUCKNER Mass No. 3 in F Minor
Marek Janowski, cond; Lenneke Ruiten (sop); Iris Vermillion (mez); Shawn Mathey (ten); Franz Josef Selig (bs); Rundfunkchor Berlin; O de la Suisse Romande 
PENTATONE 55186501 (62:13)
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Janowski’s Bruckner isn’t for everybody, but his interpretations are always fresh, and even the most cynical listener will find new insights in each of the releases in this PentaTone series. Having completed the symphony cycle, Janowski and his Geneva forces now move on to the Masses. As with his parallel Wagner cycle, the symphonies have all been characterized by strict and often fast tempos. Janowski’s approach has often seemed anti-romantic, or at least opposed to excessive sentiment. There has been plenty of emotion here too, though, but always within disciplined and highly structured interpretations.
Some of the symphonies have responded better than others to this treatment. The early symphonies in particular have been shown in a new light, with Janowski’s classicizing tendencies helping to elucidate their structural logic, and his eschewal of grandeur reducing the  otherwise overblown rhetoric down to a scale more appropriate to these shorter works. The Mass in F benefits too, but in different ways. As ever, Janowski’s tempos are fast and strict. But the scope for indulgence here is less than in the symphonies, and even the grand old men who dominate the Bruckner discography—Celibidache, Jochum etc.—seem fairly reticent to apply excessive rubato to this music. Janowski is a little faster than both of them, shaving a minute of two off each movement, but his tempos don’t feel that much stricter. There are one or two points that invite grandeur, and these are where Janowski pulls away from the crowd. The conclusion of the Gloria is one example: traditionally this music is all about scale and weight, but Janowski transforms it into a study of detail and texture. But Bruckner’s tempo indication is Sehr langsam, so there’s not much room to maneuver, and the pace here is little faster than in any of the classic recordings.
The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande plays as well for Janowski here as it has for each of his symphony recordings. So, as in those previous installments, the conductor’s emotional distance is ideally balanced by the warm and rich string sound. The trombones and horns also have an excellent tone in each of their chorales, and the various woodwind solos and obbligatos are all presented with both expression and precision. The choir matches the quality of the orchestra. The Rundfunkchor Berlin sounds like a large ensemble, but it is a well-trained one, and the clarity of the singing is ideal. The choir sounds a little distant at times, suggesting the microphones have been set at a distance, perhaps to increase the homogeneity of their sound. If so, it works, and the tone of both the orchestra and the choir has a luminous and unified quality throughout.
The vocal soloists are all up to the task, but the men are on finer form than the women. Bass Franz Josef Selig is the most impressive of the four, his tone rich and focused, and particularly impressive in the lower range. Tenor Shawn Mathey has a few small intonation problems, but he too has a rich and distinctive tone, which mixes well with the instrumental solos at the start of the Credo. Both soprano Lenneke Ruiten and mezzo Iris Vermillion have very operatic voices, and Ruiten in particular sounds a little too florid for this devotional context. Vermillion has the best diction of the four, although it is unlikely that many listeners will be unfamiliar with the words.
As ever, PentaTone achieves very high reproduction standards with their SACD audio. A particularly impressive effect is the sound of the pianissimo pedals from the cellos and basses that often underpin the choir. Instrumental obbligatos are often played very quietly too, Janowski presumably aware that he can trust the engineers to bring out these subsidiary details.   
Not a bad addition, then, to Janowski’s ongoing Bruckner series. In the symphony recordings, his disciplined approach has often had the effect of readjusting the balance between the classical and the romantic traditions within the music, reducing its Mahlerian pre-echoes and instead acknowledging its debts to Schubert. With this Mass the historical lineage stretches back further, to the sacred music of the Renaissance. Again, Janowski’s asceticism serves to remind us of the music’s roots, especially through those imposing and austere trombone chorales, and in the emphatic declamations from the choir. Perhaps the results are anachronistic, but any obsession with the past that we might perceive is Bruckner’s: Janowski is only acknowledging what he finds in the score.

This review apprears in Fanfare Magazine issue 37:2.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Karajan conducts Mozart, Bruckner Royal Festival Hall 1962

MOZART Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter.” BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 (ed. Haas) 
Herbert von Karajan, cond; Vienna PO
ICA 5102, mono (2 CDs: 92:36) Live: Royal Festival Hall, London 4/6/1962

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Karajan’s visit to London with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1962 was evidently a significant occasion. The newspaper reviews, as quoted by Richard Osborne in his liner essay, were effusive, suggesting that, even by this date, British critics were not yet fully aware of Karajan’s interpretive skills. He had been Director of the Vienna State Opera since 1957, making him the de facto Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic too. He’d also been Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1954, but, as Osborne writes, he treated the two ensembles very differently. While he was keen to impose his interpretive views on the Berlin orchestra, he treated the Vienna Philharmonic more reverently, seeking dialogue with their interpretive traditions in the core repertoire. Even so, what we get here is classic Karajan, masterly readings of both symphonies, each with the conductor’s trademark combination of grandeur and grace.
The recordings were made by the BBC. But before anybody gets excited about the Corporation finally opening up its archives to commercial record labels, that’s not what’s happened. The source for the tapes is the Music Preserved charity, who in turn sourced them from the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. The BBC’s logo appears on each of the discs though, suggesting they have at least endorsed the project. The sound quality is reasonable given the age. The mono sound is clear, but the almost complete absence of tape noise suggests some quite intrusive processing at the remastering stage. There are one or two clicks in the sound here and there, presumably tape damage, but they have been reduced virtually to silence. The sound of the orchestra is clear but not particularly involving.
The first disc opens with recordings of the British and Austrian national anthems from the start of the concert. I’ve no idea who these are intended to benefit; the musical interest they offer is limited to say the least. Some of the advertising literature for this release states that the concert appears here complete, so perhaps their presence is intended to enhance that impression. In fact, the encore is missing, a performance of the Meistersinger Overture, which would have been much more welcome. Unfortunately, though, the BBC technicians had turned their machines off by then and returned their listeners to Broadcasting House.
Osborne draws parallels between Karajan’s “Jupiter” and Strauss’s. Apparently Strauss’s performances of the Symphony were the model that Karajan aspired to. Certainly, the combination of elegance and propulsion that we find in Struass’s version is present here, but in general, Karajan’s version is much slower, or at least seems so. To modern ears, the whole Symphony feels very under tempo, although, this being Karajan, the music always flows and the tempo choices always seem logical. The finale, in particular moves at what feels like a glacial pace, a stark contrast to Strauss’s nimble and highly-charged version. In fact, the Karajan is almost exactly the same duration (5:45 to Strauss’s 5:37 in 1926), but everything about it is weightier; Strauss sounds positively frivolous by comparison.
The Bruckner is a similar case: fast by Karajan’s standards but slow by today’s. Osborne informs us that, at 63:07, the performance is faster than any of Karajan’s commercial recordings. It doesn’t feel it though. All the majesty and splendor of his studio versions are present. Perhaps the slightly faster tempos allow him to increase the drama in the outer movement climaxes, but he was more than capable of doing that through his manipulation and maintenance of the orchestra’s tone. That’s where this recording of the Bruckner fall down, sadly. The thinness of the orchestral sound, especially the strings, compromises Karajan’s reading throughout. If that is a result of over-zealous restoration, then it is a great shame, although it may just as likely have originated from the original tapes. Some of the playing is a bit scrappy too, at least by this orchestra’s standards. The woodwind occasionally struggle with their ensemble and often lack unity of intent.
             An interesting historical release then, but hardly an essential one. It proves, if any proof were needed, that Karajan could conjure as much magic in the concert hall as he could in the recording studio. The faster tempos in the Bruckner may separate this reading from his commercial releases, but they make very little difference to the listening experience. A worthy supplement to Karajan’s impressive discography of both composer’s music, but separated from his studio versions only by the smallest of interpretive details. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:2.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Matthew Passion René Jacobs

Matthew Passion René Jacobs
Werner Güra, Johannes Weisser, Sunhae Im, Bernarda Fink, Topi Lehtipuu, Konstantin Wolff, RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi (2 SACDs) HMC 802156.58

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René Jacobs is not new to the Matthew Passion. In 1985 he recorded the work, but as countertenor soloist in Philippe Herreweghe’s celebrated version. Now on the podium, Jacobs draws on his long experience, showing a keen affinity with the music, but reimagines at every turn. We’re long past the days when period performance was judged in terms of right and wrong, which is just as well, as Jacobs’ use of the historical sources is creative to say the least. Even so, the idea of ‘recreation’ is at the heart of this interpretation, and whatever liberties the conductor takes, he always gives the impression that his innovations are in the spirit of the music.
The two-SACD set (Part II is split after the chorale “Wer hat dich so geschlagen”) comes with a DVD containing a “making-of” documentary, produced for the release by Harmonia Mundi. On it, Jacobs explains that he is ‘recreating’ the antiphonal effect that the Thomaskirche congregants would originally have experienced, when the second choir and orchestra were placed in a gallery at the back of the church. I’ve only been listening in SACD stereo, but I’m guessing that the second ensemble is positioned in the rear channels to create this effect. What Jacobs doesn’t mention is that it’s been done before, by Jared Sachs and Jos van Veldhoven on a Channel Classics recording in 2010 (see my review). In fact the two recordings are very different, the van Velhoven live, this one in the studio. Jacobs also has a very different approach to the issue of spatiality. He interprets many of Picander’s lines to suggest that narrative concepts of distance should be recreated in the performance. So the second choir actually sounds distant, as do many of the vocal soloists. Sadly, all of this is a bit lost in the stereo SACD mix. Where Sacks thoughtfully redistributed his choral forces to left and right for stereo listeners, this Harmonia Mundi recordings just flattens out the surround, with the result that much of the singing just sounds frustratingly distant, and for no apparent reason.
The forces that Jacobs employs are surprisingly large. pace Joshua Rifkin, he uses choirs that amount to around 40 adults and 15 boy choristers. He also employs a second set of soloists, positioned at the rear with the second choir. Again the intention is to create aural perspectives that contrast proximity with distance, but in the stereo mix it is quite difficult to work out who is singing what.
Despite this being a studio recording, the sound favours atmosphere over detail. The counterpoint in the large choral numbers is surprisingly opaque; it’s all there if you know what to listen for, but there is never any feeling that Jacobs is highlighting the intricacies for the listener’s benefit. But the payoff is a big, warm sound that is always inviting and always attractive. All of the performers are on top form, the choral balance is excellent (the emotional variety between the chorales is particularly impressive), and the tonal control of the orchestral players is close to ideal. The chamber organs are surprisingly prominent, presumably emphasised to emulate the larger instruments of St Thomas’. The boys’ choir sing at the tops of their voices in the opening chorus, but the organ is equally prominent in the cantus firmus here. In later numbers, a great deal of time and effort has clearly been invested in getting the balances just right. Obbligato instruments are always distinct form the ensemble and just a shade beneath the vocal soloists. The viola da gamba is gratifyingly clear, and the perpetual balance problems that it poses in this work have been effectively addressed.
Among the solo voices, the standout performances come from alto Bernada Fink and bass-baritone Konstatin Wolff. Fink always sings with deep expression, and her free-flowing phrasing always carries the ensemble with her. Wolff has an extraordinary voice, his tone is soft and round, but he projects clearly and his tone is completely even across the entire range, even in the very lowest register. Werner Güra is a convincing Evangelist, finding just the right balance between straight narration and emotional engagement. Johannes Weisser is competent as Christ, but not as engaging as some of the singers in more minor roles.
One of the many interesting insights on the documentary is the extent to which this is a collaborative interpretive effort. Orchestra leader Bernhard Forck explains that the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin doesn’t usually perform with a conductor, suggesting that he himself usually makes the decisions. The film then cuts to a planning meeting, where the soloists seem to be having far more of a say than Jacobs is comfortable with. Then there is a priceless piece of footage: Forck and Fink are preparing to record “Erbarme dich”.  They are standing at either side of Jacobs and discussing a range of musical details – in German. Jacobs sits between them looking disgruntled and after they’ve finished he mutters something under his breath in French. He needn’t worry though, because then they do a take and the results are magical. We see Fink struggling to hold back tears as she listens to Forck’s rich and elegantly ornamented obbligato line.
Ornamentation is quite liberal throughout this recording, raising the question of how much of that side of the interpretation Jacobs brought with him from Ghent and how much he was presented with when he arrived in Berlin. But however collaborative this project has been, the final results show a real unity of intent, and Jacobs’ interpretive fingerprints are evident on every phrase. True to form, Jacobs has created a distinctive reimagining of a familiar classic that doesn’t afford simple comparisons with the competition. This is a warm, emotive and very human Matthew Passion, less austere than most period performance recordings, and with all sorts of liberties taken with the historical evidence. But it is very convincing on its own terms and is performed throughout with conviction and with a real sense of collective musical insight. Warmly recommended.