Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 Skrowaczewski LPO Live

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 (ed. Skrowaczewski)     
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, cond; London Philharmonic Orchestra
LPO Live 0071 (68:56) Live: Royal Festival Hall, London 10.24.2012

Buy from:

For Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s less observant fans, myself included, the announcement of this concert in 2012 seemed little short of miraculous. Skrowaczewski has never been in the very top league of conductors, but he has established a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, in the US for his tenure with the Minnesota (then Minneapolis) Orchestra in the 60s, and in the UK for his work with the Hallé. His Bruckner credentials were secured in 2002 by a symphony cycle with the Saarbrücken RSO (OEHMS 207), one of the true greats. But given that he was approaching 80 when that set was released, his apparent silence in the intervening years could have been taken as a sign that he’d moved on to a better place.
As it turned out, the better place in question was Tokyo, as Skrowaczewski is still very much alive, and has spent much of the intervening period leading the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. This concert with the London Symphony was just one of his many Bruckner performances with European orchestras in the 2012-13 season; a Fourth Symphony with the Bergen Philharmonic (obligingly webstreamed live) proved equally revelatory.
In the Saarbrücken cycle, Skrowaczewski takes a different approach to each symphony. Some are sharply articulated with punchy accents, others smooth and undemonstrative. But the overriding concern in each is for line and form, he’s a conductor who understands, and is able to clearly communicate, the architecture of these works. The Saarbrücken Seventh is one of the smoother ones. Skrowaczewski relies on the work’s long, flowing melodies to propel the music and, for the most part, eschews surprising twists or emphatic drama. His reading is slow, Karajan or Haitink slow, and seems even slower for the continuity of tempo he maintains between sections. But this has the effect of concentrating the work’s musical focus, integrating everything into a single, organic unity where individual sections only make sense as part of the whole.
Ten years later and Skrowaczewski’s approach is much the same. If anything, the qualities that made the previous version so distinctive are even more pronounced. That sense of continuous, unbroken concentration remains, as does the feeling that the conductor has nothing to prove to anyone, he’s just presenting the music as he hears it. Tempos remain slow, especially in the first movement, which is magisterial in its almost tectonic flow. The Adagio is perhaps the most conventional movement, simply because many other conductors also take this continuous, even approach here. The Scherzo is more about elegance than drama, although there is plenty of both. And the Finale is a real culmination, like the end of some great journey.
With all due respect to the Saarbrücken RSO, the most significant difference between this and the 2002 recording is the quality of the playing from the London Philharmonic. Skrowaczewski really needs a luminous, round, and even string tone for his interpretation to make sense, and that’s exactly what this orchestra gives him. Also the woodwind solos have more character and the trombone and Wagner tuba chorales have an evenness and precision very rarely heard, even in this oft-recorded work. In fact, the LPO seems to be intent on positioning itself as the UK’s leading Bruckner orchestra. Other releases on its own label include (old, obviously) recordings of the Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth symphonies with Tennstedt, and a Sixth with Christoph Eschenbach. That Sixth really took me by surprise when it was released a few years ago; unlike Skrowaczewski, Eschenbach is hardly known for his Bruckner. But it is a stunning reading, and my review at the time was so effusive in its praise that it is quoted in the liner for this one. 
I should concede that Skrowaczewski’s Seventh probably won’t be for everyone. His refusal to emphasize climaxes, or even to push the tempos when Bruckner specifies, could be considered perverse. His solution to the coda of the first movement is a case in point. He increases the volume continuously and evenly up to the last chord, but without varying the tempo; less sympathetic listeners may hear this as obsessive or even unfeeling. No one could accuse him of being boring though, nor formulaic. Whatever else you think of this Bruckner Seven, there is no doubt that it is completely distinctive. And those sympathetic to Skrowaczewski’s approach will find every note of it utterly compelling.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 37:3.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Schnittke Choir Concerto Dijkstra Bavarian Radio Chorus

Schnittke: Choir Concerto, Three Sacred Hymns, Voices of Nature
Pärt: Dopo la vittoria
Bavarian Radio Chorus (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Peter Dijkstra, cond.
BR Klassik 900505
Buy from:

The continuing popularity of Schnittke’s music is fuelled as much by the enthusiasm of performers as by that of audiences. That’s especially true of the Choir Concerto, although the motivations of the choirs who have approached it have not always worked in the Concerto’s favour. The music is based on 19th-century Russian Orthodox traditions, so the aesthetic is largely tonal, or at least modal, but the demands on the singers are extreme. Extended passages in loud dynamics and encompassing the far ends of the tessitura are the rule rather than the exception, and many professional choirs have seen the piece as the ideal vehicle to showcase their virtuosity. Unfortunately, the result has been many performances that have been given just to show that the performers can sing the work at all, not that they can sing it well.
When it comes to recordings the situation is very different. There are only a handful on the market, but all are good, and this new one from the Bavarian Radio Choir sits well alongside the competition. The benchmark remains Valery Polyansky, whose two recordings, from 1988 and 1991, perfectly capture the liturgical atmosphere of this music but without sacrificing any detail. He also has the advantage of Russian singers, with all the benefits that suggests in terms of pronunciation and focussed, weighty bass. Polynasky’s two recordings are very similar, the first, with the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, was released on the state-owned Gramzapis label, while the second, with the Russian State Symphonic Cappella, is on Chandos. It would take a keener ear than mine to hear the differences between the two, and as the venue and production team are exactly the same, it raises the suspicion that these are in fact the same choir and the same recording. But whatever Chandos was up to here, the company has certainly done the work proud, later releasing a second recording, with the Danish National Radio Choir under Stefan Parkman. It has the same liner note, but is a markedly different reading, more expansive and less focussed. It too is excellent, but Polyansky retains the edge. Since then there has been a British contender, from the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton on Hyperion. That’s a good recording too, but like the Danes the Holst Singers emphasise atmosphere at the expense of detail. In both cases, the choir is relatively small and has really to push to get the volume required for the louder passages.
This new recording from Peter Dijkstra is probably the best one since Polyansky. He has an impressively large choir at his disposal, and an impressively professional one too. His reading is considerably faster than all the others on the market. On all the previous recordings, the first movement comes in at over 17 minutes, but Dijkstra delivers it in 14:48. Yet it never sounds rushed, and the singers retain a sense of poise throughout. This is, I think, the first commercial recording to be made in a studio rather than a church, which may explain the shorter running time. The sound is reverberant enough for the music’s liturgical character, but Dijkstra never has to wait at the end of phrases for the sound to die away before continuing.
My only major complaint is the lack of agogic definition. Schnittke’s setting of the text skilfully propels the music through the use of hard downbeat consonants, and in the second movement in particular, those regular and rhythmic entries give the music pulse and pace, however much reverberation is involved. Here the accents are often lost in the sonority of the textures, a result perhaps of his large choir, although not an automatic one. Also, the far ends of the tessitura are not served here as well as they are by Polyansky’s choir(s). Enough basses are deployed to ensure the sound is bottom-heavy when required, but the singers don’t have the focus of tone that a smaller Russian basso profundo group could offer. And the sopranos occasionally struggle with the loud high passages. That’s true of all the commercial recordings, but again, Polyansky gives us the best high notes.
Compared to the substance and dramatic weight of the Concerto, the remaining works seem insubstantial indeed, but they’re worth hearing nonetheless. The Three Sacred Hymns were all written in a single night, and show a fluency of melodic and harmonic writing that comes with masterful composition at that speed. The Hymns are the closest Schnittke ever got to actual Orthodox liturgical music and fit within most of the stylistic prescriptions, the only exception being that he uses mixed choir. The Bavarian voices are less taxed here technically, although they are still at a disadvantage to their Russian colleagues in terms of style. But actually they do a very good job of sounding like a Russian church choir and the music is given a very fine performance. Voices of Nature is a work for 10 female voices singing vocalise and a very subtly deployed vibraphone. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between Orthodox liturgy and the more consonant sonorism of late Penderecki. Like the Three Hymns it is fairly inconsequential music, and poses few problems for the singers here.
Several other minor works by Schnittke could have been chosen to round out the programme, but instead we are offered Arvo Pärt’s short unaccompanied cantata Dopo la vittoria. The comparison between this and Schnittke’s Choir Concerto would put Pärt in a poor light, but the comparison that the programme instead suggests is with the Sacred Hymns and with Voices of Nature. The similarities are strong, and attest to the fact that the composers where close friends for many years. We don’t tend to think of Schnittke as a religious minimalist these days, but the comparison with Pärt here shows that he did at least dabble.
Recording quality here is very good (why no SACD?) and the choir throughout sounds immediate and clear, but without that detail detracting from the overall warmth of sound. Chances are that Schnittke’s Choir Concerto will continue to appear on commercial recordings in the years to come, but it is unlikely that any subsequent releases will be significantly better than this one.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Superbrass Brass Taps

Superbrass: Brass Taps SBCD02

Buy/download from:

That tricky second album. How to follow up on the success of your debut with something both familiar and different? The 14-piece brass and percussion combo Superbrass has found a way. The first album, Under the Spell of Spain, was a mixed programme with a Spanish flavour. For Brass Taps the group has taken water as its theme, performing 11 new works and arrangements, all tailored to their laid-back but highly virtuosic style. In fact, the water theme is pretty tenuous, much more so than the Spanish connection the last time round. But it doesn’t matter a bit, because all the tracks here share common stylistic traits. Most are in a jazzy swing/big band idiom, all are easy on the ear, and at every stage the overriding impression is of highly skilled performers, maintaining world-class standards, but also letting their hair down and having fun with the music.
Superbrass is evidently a very democratic, or at least communal, operation. The soloists don’t get credited on the individual tracks, nor, more surprisingly, do the composers and arrangers. Even the conductor, Douglas Mitchell, only gets a small-type listing, no more prominent than those of the players, in the back of the liner. The liner itself has an imaginative nautical theme, and in the performer listing, bass trombonist Roger Argente makes the grade of Captain. That’s fair, as the whole Superbrass project is his baby. But having done all the organisation and gotten everyone together, he’s happy to take his seat at the bottom of the trombone section. Not that he shrinks from the limelight even there; the bass trombone playing is spectacular – just listen to the big fat low brass riff at the start of Wade in the Water or the beautifully focussed pedal on the last note of Underground Plumbing Blues.
In fact, everyone shines. The players come from a mixture of orchestral and jazz backgrounds, and the net result is a style that is predominantly straight orchestral brass playing, but with just a hint of jazzy flair. The instruments are orchestral, apart from occasional colouring from flugel and euphonium, including a nice euph solo on Underground Plumbing Blues. The percussion section drives most of the numbers, but usually keeps to the background – tight, steady drumming seasoned with just a touch of exotic instrumentation (did I hear a wobble board on one of the numbers?).
The album starts in chaotic densely contrapuntal mode with the introduction to Icebreaker, but that first number soon settles into a laid-back jazzy style that characterises most of what’s to follow.  Some clean unison riffs launch Firewater, a curiously episodic number with some imaginative mute choices in the quieter passages. The slow numbers are Inchcolm and The Healing Stream, both of which allow the players to show off their controlled sustained timbres through some gorgeous harmonies. The style strays close to brass band in the spirituals Wade in the Water and Deep River, but neither ever gets too maudlin.
The album doesn’t all work. Two successive numbers about half way through, Enormous Pick Jellyfish and Highforce, are repetitive and too long for their slender material, but things soon pick up afterwards, and overall the album doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Another impressive offering then from Superbrass, and a worthy successor to their excellent debut disc. One of the acknowledgements in the back of the liner mentions that a Kickstarter appeal helped to launch the project. So congratulations to the online benefactors for their confidence, which has surely been repaid here. And congratulations to Capt. Argente and his crew. Album number 3 eagerly anticipated.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Der fliegende Holländer/Le Vaisseau fantôme: Minkowski

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer (1841 Paris version)

Pierre-Louis Dietsch: Le Vaisseau fantôme ou Le Maudit des mers


Cast Dutchman:
Dutchman: Evgeny Nikitin
Senta: Ingela Brimberg
Donald: Mika Karès
Georg: Eric Cutler
Mary: Helene Schneiderman
Steersman: Bernard Richter


Cast Vaisseau fantôme:
Minna: Sally Matthews
Magnus: Bernard Richter
Troïl: Russell Braun
Éric: Eric Cutler
Barlow: Ugo Rabec
Scriften: Mika Karès


Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, Marc Minkowski (conductor)

Naive (4 CDs) V5349

Buy from:

This set offers an imaginative solution to a complex problem: how to make a French contribution to the Wagner bicentenary celebrations. Given the poor treatment the composer received in Paris, from management and audiences alike, the best that could be expected is some kind of atonement. In a way that’s what this is, but it’s much more exciting than that suggests. Marc Minkowski retraces Wagner’s steps as he arrives in Paris in 1839, determined to write a successful work for the Opéra. He failed, falling at the first hurdle, but the whole episode eventually gave rise to two operas, and Minkowski here presents them both.
Wagner was unable to convince the opera director Léon Pillet to commission his, then only fragmentary, Flying Dutchman but did manage to sell him the idea of a ‘Ghost Ship’ opera, while retaining sufficient rights over it himself to allow him to continue work on what eventually would reach the Dresden stage in 1843. In the mean time, Pillet passed the scenario to librettists Paul Foucher and Bénédict-Henri Révoil, and to chorusmaster-cum-composer Pierre-Louis Dietsch, who between them came up with Le Vaisseau fantôme.  Both works (Wagner’s in the original version) are brief one-acters, designed to precede an evening of ballet, so Minkowski combined the two into a single evening, giving performances in various European countries this summer.
The original, 1841, version of the Dutchman is itself a novelty, this only its second recording.  Just as unusual are the use of period instruments in Wagner (my only other experience to date was the Rattle/OAE Tristan act II in the Proms a few years ago), and the studio recording, a rarity for any opera these days. Minkowski’s orchestra is, no doubt, modelled on the French conventions of the day, so narrower bore brass are employed, even than in the OAE’s Tristan. The focus of the brass tone brings a valuable sense of clarity to the tuttis, although the woodwind don’t offer the same broad range of colours that made Rattle’s Tristan such a revelation. The gut strings reduce the ferocity of the storms, but so too does Minkowski’s interpretive approach. This is quite a reserved Dutchman, without the pyrotechnics you might hear from Barenboim at the other end of the spectrum. It is certainly dramatic, but Minkowski relies more on his singers than his players to provide the excitement. He’s assembled an excellent cast, admirably led by Evgeny Nikitin in the title role. He’s a known quantity in this role (apart from at Bayreuth, but that’s another story) and he doesn’t disappoint here. Ingela Brimberg is an impassioned and strident Senta, but she’s always in control of her tone, knowing exactly how close she’s getting to the edge in the more histrionic passages. In fact, the whole cast is excellent, each performance distinctive and dramatic, but all fitting into the ensemble, and into Minkowski’s tempered reading, with ease.
In a sense, Pierre-Loius Dietsch’s only opera is done a disservice by being coupled with this or anything by Wagner. The Dietsch has its merits, but they seem meagre indeed by comparison. It’s well worth hearing though, lacking in originality, but not in dramatic flair.  As a German working in Paris, Dietsch has an interestingly cosmopolitan perspective. The basis of his style is French Grand opera, but there are also elements of Rossini, Weber and...well, just about every other significant opera composer in Europe at the time. The overture is distinctly undramatic, at least compared to Wagner’s, but as soon as the singing starts the interest increases. The ensembles and choruses provide some of the most satisfying listening, although even here the music rarely approaches the level of drama that Wagner achieves. Minkowski sensibly engages an almost completely different cast, partly because of endurance issues in the live performances I suspect, but also because Dietsch’s writing is more lyrical and requires a more bel canto approach. The standout performance here is Sally Matthews as Minna (as Senta has now become). Her tone is distinctive and engaging throughout, without detracting from the generally rounder sounds of this score. Russell Braun is good as Troïl (the Dutchman – although here he’s Swedish), his performance not as memorable as Nikitin’s, but the score may be partly to blame for that. Two singers appear in both operas, Eric Cutler as Georg/Éric and Bernard Richter as Steuermann/Magnus. This last role is based on Erik, in that he is Minna’s (ie Senta’s) sometime other half, but his main role in the music is as the lyrical tenor who belts out the top notes, including two top Ds in a single aria, which Richter handles with ease.
The sound is good throughout, with the singers well balanced against the orchestra, if a little recessed at times. Playing standards are high, especially given the instruments in use. The set can be easily recommended solely for the Wagner, one of the most interesting and distinctive contributions to his discography in this anniversary year. It’s not the most dramatic reading out there, but it compensates in all sorts of other ways. The Dietsch only really has novelty appeal, but it’s well worth hearing at least once. A well-conceived project all-round, made all the more appealing for the high performance standards with which it is presented.