Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 25 February 2013

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 1 Janowski

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 1 (1866 version, ed. Nowak), Marek Janowski, cond; O de la Suisse Romande, PENTATONE 5186447 (SACD: 47:08)

Of all Bruckner’s numbered symphonies, the First needs the greatest help from the podium. The music’s drama regularly exceeds its scale, so the conductor must impose a clearly defined sense of structure and proportion. Marek Janowski is just the man for the task. His interpretations always work within strict, self-imposed limits of expression, and a level-headed approach to musical structure informs all his tempo choices. The results here can be occasionally frustrating, but for the most part, Janowski aids rather than hinders Bruckner’s expressive aims by setting his often wayward romanticism within a rigorous classical frame.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling that most of Janowski’s recent recordings for PentaTone have been a waste of talent and resources. In both his Wagner cycle from Berlin and his Bruckner cycle from Geneva, the orchestral standards are exceptionally high (something Janowski himself should take some credit for), the casting in the Wagner is almost flawless, and the SACD audio is as fine as any you’ll hear. Yet the personality of the conductor is imposed on every bar, and in such a way that, if you don’t like his readings, you’re not going to get much musical satisfaction. Janowski’s approach is fashionably strict, with generally fast tempos and, more frustratingly, an apparent allergy to almost any form of rubato.
All those musical attributes are in evidence here, but for once their benefits outweigh their disadvantages. Janowski uses the Linz version of course—how long will it take for the music world to forgive Bruckner for returning to this score in later life?—and while that is the most familiar version, the music is transformed into something sleeker and more efficient than we usually hear. Brisk, rigorous tempos in the first movement highlight the affinities to Schubert and even to Mozart. The various woodwind solos and string interludes in the inner movements can cause the work to lose its way in more relaxed interpretations, but Janowski is able to keep the focus throughout. And the tempos selected for the finale, many but not all of which are extremely fast, ensure an ideal balance between the monumental scale of the tuttis in the often-ignored requirements for direction and momentum.
The high standard of the orchestral playing ensures that less expression is lost than might otherwise be the case at this speed. The outer movement tuttis, rigorously paced as they are, all benefit from excellent orchestral tone, with the weighty sound of the horn section a particular asset. Similarly, the many phrases that Janowski stubbornly refuses to shape with rubato, particularly in the first movement transitions, retain their lyricism through the intensely musical playing of the strings.
            Like everything that Janowski has recorded recently, this interpretation of Bruckner’s First is certainly distinctive. For once, that is not a wholly bad thing. If, like me, you’ve struggled to find much musical pleasure from his Bruckner or Wagner recordings, this might be the disc to help you to at least start changing your mind. It won’t be going anywhere near the top of my favorites list, and comparison with the greatest recordings results only in a list of idiosyncrasies and missed opportunities on Janowski’s part. But if you listen to this recording on its own terms, it makes a lot of musical sense. Janowski hasn’t quite squared the circle in terms of balancing this work’s modest scale against its huge expressive aims, but by toning down the latter he has come closer than most.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine 36:4

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wagner Die Walküre Gergiev Mariinsky

Wagner: Die Walküre
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), René Pape (Wotan), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Gerhilde), Irina Vasilieva (Ortlinde), Natalia Evstafieva (Waltraute), Lyudmila Kanunnikova (Schwertleite), Tatiana Kravtsova (Helmwige), Ekaterina Sergeeva (Siegrune), Anna Kiknadze (Grimgerde), Elena Vitman (Rossweisse)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev looks set to silence many of his critics with this new Walküre, the first instalment of a Ring cycle with the Mariinsky. He is credited with singlehandedly instigating a tradition of Wagner performance in Russia, but so far the results haven’t been all that impressive. His recent Parsifal recording with the Mariinsky, while finely played, sung and recorded, was marred by stiff and unidiomatic conducting, while the small-scale Ring cycle that the company has toured around the world has attracted little praise at any of its stops.
All of which means that the exceptionally high standard of this Walküre comes as an unexpected surprise. In this Wagner year, and indeed in the run up to it last year when this recording was made, top flight soloists must be difficult to secure – demand far outstrips supply at the best of times. But Gergiev has the clout, and presumably the financial backing, to assemble what must be the closest thing to a perfect Wagner ensemble since Keilberth. His orchestra is on absolutely top form, the recording itself is a textbook demonstration of the capabilities of SACD audio, bringing depth, precision and presence to orchestra and singers alike. And, most significantly of all, Gergiev gives an interpretation that’s fully accordant with the spirit of the music, drawing on plenty of his trademark dynamism, but also giving the music (and the soloists) space to breathe. The result is a dramatic and expansive reading that’s unlikely to be bettered by of the competition this year.
That expansive quality is apparent from the very first bars. Where Gergiev might be expected to drive through the opening storm sequence at breakneck speed, instead he takes a moderate pace, but expresses the drama by accentuating every detail of the orchestration. This approach relies on both the exceptional ensemble from the orchestra and recording quality that is able to pick out every note, which is exactly what it gets. The opening of Act 3 is similar, and The Ride of the Valkyries becomes a completely new musical experience when you can hear every single demisemiquaver of the rising string figures. The audio benefits from the fine acoustic of the Mariinsky’s new concert hall, which here sounds warm but not overly resonant, with no significant decay to mar the silences between phrases. The bass in the mix is rich and resonant, while always sounding completely natural, or at least expertly maintaining that allusion. The score of Walküre is characterised by bass clarinet solos, obbligatos from the solo cello and thumping pizzicatos from the basses, all of which have an almost visceral presence in the mix. The middle of the texture is also well represented, and the timbral separation between the strings and winds is exemplary. A photograph in the liner of one of the concerts from which the recordings were taken (each act was given in a separate programme and all were repeated) shows the singers standing behind the orchestra stage left, where you would normally expect to see the trombones. That’s exactly where they appear in the stereo mix, just a little to the left of the right speaker. But all have ideal clarity and presence and there is never any danger of the singing being swamped by the orchestra.
The cast is led from the top by Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. This is her first Brünnhilde recording in any of the Ring operas (although she’s almost certain to appear on Janowski’s version later in the year) and in that respect it’s a stunning debut. As with her Isolde, which she’s recorded at least twice, her Brünnhilde is rich and varied in tone. She clearly always has more power in store, but also has the control to always keep her projection at an ideal level. Her sound is as attractive and warm in the upper reaches as it is in the mid-register, making her probably the only singer active today who can sing the Hojotohos accurately and still make them sound pleasant.
René Pape is rapidly become a stalwart of Gergiev’s Wagner, and his Gurnemanz was easily the most impressive aspect of the Mariinsky’s previous Parsifal recording. His Wotan here is relatively light, not as light as Terfel’s but just as nimble. He too has power in reserve though, and can sound truly terrifying when he gives it his all in the lower register. Jonas Kaufmann is similar in spirit and tone to Klaus Florian Vogt as Siegmund, not quite as light but similarly expressive and dramatic. The evenness of Kaufmann’s tone across his range is particularly impressive, and, like Stemme, he is able to skilfully integrate the high notes into the texture through his sheer technical proficiency at the top. The Act 2 dialogue between Brünnhilde and Sieglinde is particularly effective thanks to the similar but not identical tone of Stemme and Anja Kampe in the latter role. Kampe has a heavy, penetrating vibrato that sometimes sounds forced, but it is also very carefully controlled and impressively even. She also has a tendency to slide between notes. The clarity of her line is not affected, but the effect stands out in a cast otherwise characterised by crisp and unsentimental diction.
The Russian contingent in the cast consists of the Valkyries, who are able to dominate the opening of Act 3, even with the orchestra going at full pelt, Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding and  Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka. You’d be hard-pressed to tell that either Petrenko or Gubanova are Russian from their diction or style of singing here, such is the skill with which they fit into the otherwise Western cast. A little more weight from Petrenko may have helped the characterisation of Hunding, but his diction and vocal support are excellent.
The placement of the singers together to one side at the back of the stage demonstrates that little effort is made here to replicate the sound of a staged performance. That suits Gergiev’s approach, as his interpretation is more symphonic than dramatic in the theatrical sense. He gives the impression occasionally that he is treating scenes as symphonic movements, sometimes leading to awkward tempo decisions in the transitions between them. The prologue to Act 3, scene 3, for example, is surprisingly stiff, with the music’s deep emotions little reflected in the rigid, although not rushed, bass clarinet solo. Wotan’s invocation of Loge at the end is also curiously paced. Gergiev seems to be hanging onto each of the silences here and waiting until the last possible moment to unleash the fire. That’s a risky strategy, and for a moment it seems that the music has ground to a halt. Andrew Clements ( has criticised Gergiev’s pacing in Act 2, saying that the focus comes and goes. I’d say that’s true of Act 3 as well, and that in both cases it’s a consequence of Gergiev trying to structure and pace the music in symphonic rather than dramatic terms. He’s relying on the set pieces to hold the recitative-like sections together, another risky strategy, but not one that’s automatically doomed to failure.
But better to take these risks than to turn in yet another by-the-numbers reading with no character or individuality. And, whatever else might be said about this Walküre it is certainly a distinctive and original interpretation. We’re still only just over a month into Wagner’s anniversary year, and plenty more recordings are likely to appear to mark the event. Unfortunately for them, Gergiev has now raised the bar very high indeed, and if we hear any more Wagner recordings of even a similar quality this year we’ll be very lucky indeed.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

BARTÓK, EÖTVÖS, LIGETI: Violin Concertos, Kopatchinskaja

BARTÓK Violin Concerto No.2.1  
EÖTVÖS Seven.1  
LIGETI Violin Concerto2
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (vn); Peter Eötvös, cond; 1Frankfurt RSO. 2Ensemble Modern
NAÏVE V 5285 (2 CDs: 89:00)

Peter Eötvös evidently wants us to hear his music as the continuation of a grand Hungarian tradition, in which he is only two steps removed from the country’s greatest ever composer. This album makes the case, and without over-emphasizing the connections. The individuality of each composer is just as evident as their similarities, and the connections themselves are subtle. The portamento-based sliding textures, for example, in the Eötvös concerto, when heard in any other context may seem like a legacy from electronic music, but when placed directly after Bartók’s Second, there is a clear link with the earlier composer’s trombone glissandos. There’s Bartók in the Ligeti too, or rather, there’s Ligeti in the Bartók; the strident woodwind chords in Bartók’s second movement sound surprisingly similar to Ligeti’s ocarinas and distuned horns.
But this narrative is merely a subplot to the album as a whole, and despite the fact that one of the featured composers stands at the podium, it is the soloist who dominates proceedings. Patricia Kopatchinskaja has a distinctive voice as a violinist, with both her style and her technique marrying Eastern European gypsy music with Central European classical traditions. She is drawn to classical works that include folk elements, and by emphasizing their earthy textures and infectious rhythms, she is able to rescue them from both the formality and the arbitrary sophistication of the concert hall.
The distinctive flavor of Kopatchinskaja’s playing is most clearly evident in the Bartók, where comparison with the already burgeoning catalogue demonstrates just how different her approach is. Kopatchinskaja’s tone is focused and vibrant. It has a kind of neon aura that could almost suggest electronic manipulation of the sound. The cult (or myth?) of naturalness that pervades the classical recording industry means that this sort of sound is all but unheard in the concerto repertoire. As a result, her timbre alone makes Kopatchinskaja sound like an import from the folk world. Something has to give, of course, and while Kopatchinskaja gives an intensely musical reading of the Bartók, many will find it lacking in a number of respects. Kopatchinskaja’s sound is either on or off: she can play quietly, but even then she dominates proceedings. And the quieter passages, especially in the first movement, don’t have that urbane late-Romantic sensibility that most violinists find there. The pay-off is in the loud and propulsive music, and here Kopatchinskaja comes into her own, dropping all pretentions to classical respectability and going back to her roots as a folk fiddler, roots Bartók himself would surely have recognized.
The Eötvös concerto is entitled Seven and was written in memory of the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. Not that it is a particularly mournful piece. The emotional profile of the work balances the enthusiasm and excitement of space exploration with this significant reminder of its dangers. So the music is full of invention and sonic exploration, but is continually reined back to a human scale, not least by the focus on the soloist within the large ensemble. (In fact, seven ensembles are used, spaced judiciously around the hall—there’s certainly a case here for a surround sound recording.) The most radical aspect of the concerto is its form: four accompanied cadenzas, each more substantial than the last, and culminating in finale proper. The work was not written for Kopatchinskaja (it was premiered by Akiko Suwanai) but her insistent and incisive tone works to the benefit of the complex textures. Eötvös lets his imagination run free in his use of the orchestra, but there is never any danger of the soloist getting lost in the sound. Her playfulness is also an asset here, and when Eötvös’s score begins to sound too intellectual for its own good, the vibrant musicality of the soloist always ensures a sense of immediacy and emotional engagement.
Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is possibly the ideal vehicle for Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s unique approach. Elsewhere she seems to be continually fighting against classicized and normative models of Eastern European folk music within the established canon—even in the Bartók. But Ligeti speaks her language. Ligeti’s late music relies heavily on intractable sound complexes, and on mind games of order and chaos. But both are motivated by a desire to get back to his Eastern roots, to short-circuit the sophisticated mechanisms of new music and reveal beneath them the more astringent and primal sounds from which all music originally grew. And there is no violinist better suited to this paradigm than Kopatchinskaja. Comparisons between her reading and those already available—Saschko Gawriloff, Christina Åstrand, Frank Peter Zimmermann—shows that the qualities she brings to the work are similar to those we find in the Bartók. Her focused ever-present tone prevents the opening appearing out of nothing. And the solo line always dominates, even on the rare occasions when it shouldn’t. But the polyrhythmic complexity of the solo writing is clearer and more engaging here than on any previous recording. And, most importantly, there is never any feeling that Kopatchinskaja is trying to civilize this music. She knows exactly where Ligeti is coming from, and like him, she has no intention of rounding off the edges in pursuit of spurious classical elegance.
Eötvös the conductor is a sensitive and perceptive accompanist. Twenty years ago, Pierre Boulez would have been the natural, perhaps only, choice for conducting a program like this (he conducted the premiere of the Eötvös and the first recording of the Ligeti). Eötvös has been gradually taking over that role in recent years, and the clarity he brings to the textures, the impeccable orchestral discipline, and the feeling of life and vibrancy in every orchestral passage, show him to be ideally qualified as Boulez’s successor. Great playing too from both the Frankfurt RSO and Ensemble Modern, with both ensembles and soloist recorded in transparent and immediate audio.
A triumph, then, for all concerned, and a must-have for anyone interested in the music of Ligeti or Eötvös. Those thinking of buying the set for the Bartók should be warned that Kopatchinskaja’s reading is idiosyncratic and bypasses much of the classical sophistication heard on other recordings. But Kopatchinskaja works only on her own terms, and as with her previous discs, everything here is as distinctive as it is compelling. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine, issue 36:4