Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 29 March 2013

Bruckner Symphony No. 7 Runnicles BBC SSO

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7
Donald Runnicles, cond; BBC Scottish SO
HYPERION 67916 (60:02)

Every successive performance, broadcast, and now recording, from the BBCSO under its new chief conductor further vindicates the orchestra’s decision to welcome home Scotland’s prodigal son. For his first recording project in this position, Runnicles has taken a small step from the Wagner for which he is best known to Bruckner’s most popular symphony. The results are impressive, and show Runnicles to be a Brucknerian of considerable insight and conviction. He has yet to get the orchestra playing this music with the fully idiomatic sensibility that he might expect from a Central European band, but this is still a Bruckner Seven that’s well worth hearing.
Patience is Runnicles’s watchword throughout this reading. He has a clear vision of the work’s structure and, by carefully choosing his tempos, which are often on the steady side, he ensures that no single section disrupts its overall balance. Phrases are shaped with very subtle rubato combined with more overt dynamic swells. He sometimes lingers on the Ruhig placeholder sections in the transitions, but never abandons the underlying tempo. There is gravitas aplenty in the tuttis, but the power of his climaxes is achieved more through the contrast between these sections and the lighter episodes. That sense of lightness is all too rare in Bruckner interpretation, and it’s a real asset here, especially in the playful interludes of the Adagio and the opening of the finale. Even more impressively, he is able to finely grade the long transitions from one to the other. Runnicles has obviously put a lot of thought into how the long build-ups can work, and his only noticeable deviation from the score is to occasionally begin these crescendos a few bars earlier than written. The precise control that he exerts over the sound throughout these crescendos gives them all the more impact, and the patient preparation for the climax of the Adagio is particularly impressive.
The orchestra is sympathetic to Runnicles’s approach and matches his interpretation in its balance of discipline and passion. The only downside to this recording—and it is quite a serious one—is that the band doesn’t provide the warm, enveloping sound that we are used to hearing from German orchestras in this repertoire. The strings have good ensemble and intonation, but their sound is just too thin. The same goes for the brass, especially the trumpets. The woodwinds give some excellent solos, but when heard together don’t have the fine balance of ensemble that Bruckner regularly requires. Occasionally, the focused orchestral sound works to the music’s advantage. At the opening of the Adagio and in the Trio of the Scherzo, the strings find a measure of warmth, which goes some way toward compensating for the narrowness of their textures elsewhere.
Given Runnicles’s short tenure to date with the BBCSO, we might consider this partnership to be a work in progress. Runnicles proves here that he is an inspiring Brucknerian, and it would certainly be in the orchestra’s interests to continue exploring this repertoire under his baton. In fact, a rumor has reached me from north of the border that this Seventh Symphony is soon to be followed by a recording of the Eight. If it is of this quality, then that too will be well worth looking out for, and if in the mean time the orchestra can work on the warmth of its sound, at least when playing Bruckner, then so much the better.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 36:5.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Gál Symphony No.2 Schumann Symphony No.4 Kenneth Woods

Gál Symphony No. 2, Schumann Symphony No. 4
Hans Gál: Symphony No. 2 in F Op. 53
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor Op. 120
Kenneth Woods conductor
Orchestra of the Swan
Avie AV2232 [73:11]

Avie’s Gál/Schumann symphony cycle reaches its conclusion with this, the fourth instalment. As with the previous releases, there are plenty of surprises here, and the two symphonies, Gál’s Second and Schumann’s Fourth, find their respective composers at their most adventurous and experimental. With the previous couplings, it has taken a stretch of the imagination to find common ground between the respective works, but here the connections are clear, even suggesting direct influence. Both works are experimental in their structure, but both seek to temper that radicalism with fairly conventional themes and localised discourse. Problems arise in both cases, especially in the imbalance of dramatic weight between the movements, and in the fact that the structural experiments lead to durations for both works that their thematic material struggles to justify. But both are well worth hearing, and are given excellent readings by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan.

Gál’s Second Symphony was written in 1942-1943, a period of intense personal tragedy for the composer, whose German/Jewish family suffered as much as any in this period. It seems perverse to highlight any good luck that he may have had, but from an artistic point of view his move to the UK was in some ways fortuitous. Gál’s later music often gives the impression that he had adjusted his style to fit the Pastoral tastes of his adopted homeland, but listening to the Second Symphony, which was written when he had only just arrived, it is clear that he actually brought that style with him. There are German elements too, particularly the rigorous thematicism and regular use of contrapuntal textures, although neither of these are as evident in the Second as they are in his other symphonies. The four movement form begins with a calm introductory movement, followed by a rigorous Sonata-Allegro, then an intensely emotional Adagio, and concludes with developmental but ultimately resigned finale. The best music is to be found in the Adagio, and Gál originally sanctioned performances of this movement as a standalone work. At 15 minutes (of a 45 minute symphony) it is long, but never outstays its welcome. Elsewhere, and especially in the second movement, Gál seems to struggle to make his “light music” style fulfil the dramatic functions his innovative form requires. But Woods makes an excellent case for this work, always finding an appropriate balance between that intrinsic lightness and the music’s symphonic function. The work opens and closes peacefully, and Woods and his orchestra excel in both of these passages. The ending in particular has a Sibelius-like quality; perhaps Gál himself would have disapproved, but the music responds well to this controlled but resigned approach.

The Schumann is also a Second Symphony, chronologically speaking, although the version given here is the final one, from 1851, which led to its being numbered as the Fourth. As with previous releases in this series, it takes a cold heart and a cynical ear to pick out the minor flaws that distinguish this Schumann recording from the very best. Technically, the orchestra is on top form; there’s nothing “regional” about their playing. They are also able to combine passion and energy with that technical precision, and the results are always dynamic and engaging. The timpani and winds could do with more presence in the mix, but this is probably a consequence of having to balance them against a relatively small string section. Not that the string section sounds small, and the players make the most of Schumann’s densely-voiced chords to give a full symphonic sound despite their numbers.

If you follow Ken Woods’ blog, you’ll know that he is a committed advocate of exposition repeats, so it is no surprise that all marked repeats are diligently observed here. Woods makes an excellent case for the exposition repeats in both of the outer movements, maintaining, even increasing, the momentum at the second appearances. That can’t last for ever though, and the temperature drops significantly in the first movement development, and it takes Woods a few minutes to regain the initiative. And not even he can persuade us (or me anyway) that the many, many repeats in the Scherzo are justified. Still, his is a coherent approach, and one that finds meaningful answers to most of the open questions the work’s structure poses.

Since Kenneth Woods was brought on board this Gál/Schumann project (the first instalment was conducted by Thomas Zehetmair) he has become its most enthusiastic advocate. He provides the liner notes to this disc, which are informative and particularly useful in the case of the Gál. He has also written extensively about the background to the project at his website: It sounds like there is plenty more music by Hans Gál waiting to be rediscovered, so now this symphony cycle is complete, it will be interesting to see which aspect of the composer’s repertoire Woods will focus his attentions on next.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Sandra Mogensen: Grieg Piano Music Vol. 3

Sandra Mogensen: Piano Music of Edvard Grieg Vol. 3 CHM 120819

Sandra Mogensen is taking a fascinating approach to the piano music of Edvard Greig. Knowing that most listeners (and I include myself here) are only familiar with a small proportion of this literature, Mogensen has devised a series of programmes, of which this is the third, that mix together the familiar with the obscure. Moods rather than themes or subjects link the programmes together, and the balance of continuity and continual variety is skilfully maintained. This approach allows Mogensen to demonstrate the surprising consistency in the quality of Greig’s piano writing, and also the strength of his melodic imagination, which doesn’t fail him once over the course of these 22 works.
Among the more famous works presented are Sylph Op. 62/1 and, as the climax to the programme, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen Op. 65/6. But Mogensen teases us even with these. She programmes the more obscure She Dances Op. 57/5 ahead of Sylph to show that there is at least one other work in Grieg’s catalogue that shares the latter’s style, mood and quality. Similarly with the Wedding Day, which is preceded (albeit nine tracks previously) by Leaping Dance Op.47/6, which again shares the more famous work’s style and spirit.
The programme requires a few conceits to justify its pick-and-mix approach to Grieg’s repertoire. After all, every work here is part of a larger published set, so a substitute logic must be found for the composer’s original ordering. As a result, the disc is presented as a recital in all but name, even to the point of adding an ‘encore’ (Op. 71/7), a curious gesture given that this is a studio album.
The playing is natural and lyrical throughout. Mogensen works within fairly narrow constraints of tempo and dynamics, which allows her to make the one fortissimo outburst, the recapitulation of Wedding Day really sound like the climax to the whole programme. In general, melodies lead harmonies, and the balance between the hands is ideal. The recorded sound of the piano is serviceable, although no better. The mid register sounds boxy and the bass lacks presence, but neither really distracts from the playing.
Morgensen writes in her (all too brief) liner notes that her three albums now encompass all of the works in Opp. 41, 52, 57 and 62. For those of us ignorant of the fact that Greig’s piano repertoire could even fill three discs, it comes as a pleasant surprise just how much of it there is. If the remainder of Grieg’s piano music can support at least another album of this quality and interest from Mogensen, then further recordings would be very welcome indeed.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Rzewski The People United Kiilerich

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Ole Kiilerich piano
Bridge 9392
 Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a modern classic in every sense. In the almost 40 years since its premiere, this mammoth variation cycle has more than vindicated its composer’s ambitious goals. He set out to write a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations and succeeded in creating a work capable of standing comparison, not only with that, but also with the Goldberg Variations too. Between them, the three sets chart the history of the keyboard variation form, each the iconic work in the medium for its respective century.
The discography that The People United has amassed is as good an indicator of its status as any. Leading pianists of successive generations have been drawn to it, and competition in the catalogue is fierce. Ursula Oppens, who premiered the cycle, recorded it in 1979 and the disc went on to win a Grammy. The composer himself has also performed it widely, and a video of one of his recent performances is among the competition. But, as with any great work, The People United relies on the performer’s distinctive interpretation to have its full effect. In fact, there’s an irony here, in that a piece founded on ideals of communality and solidarity should require a high degree of individuality in performance. The Danish pianist Ole Kiilerich gives a performance that is as distinctive as any, and the result is an outstanding success.
Kiilerich has an easy-going attitude to the work. His career to date has encompassed as much improvisation as it has classical music, and this comes through in the immediacy and freshness of his interpretation. This forms an ideal balance against Rzewski’s radical politics, and deflects any suspicion ideological dogma. The theme at the opening for example, sounds much more like the folk song that the piece originally was than the protest song it later became. And Rzewski’s subsequent exploration of different textures and colours seems playful and inquisitive, despite the work’s rigorous structuring. Kiilerich goes easy on the more dramatic variations, and his approach never feels overly insistent. He is game for the whistles, shouts and knocks on the piano case, but plays down the theatricality of these effects.
The sound quality is good, although by avoiding the absolute extremes of dynamics, Kiilerich make the sound engineers’ job a little easier. The recording is made in a warm acoustic, yet all the detail is clear. In fact, Kiilerich almost always emphasises the flow of the passage work, through flexible legato and careful pedalling, and this too gives the music a sense of warmth.
No doubt there will be many more recordings of The People United in the years ahead, and hopefully many more that are as distinctive as this one. Most recordings I have heard up until now have been more consciously virtuosic than this. Kiilerich isn’t interested in that; he’s out to have fun. And the piece proves adept to this approach. It’s not a ‘mainstream’ interpretation, but it’s not one that distorts the music either. For a work that is already very well represented on disc, that’s probably the best way that a further addition can be justified.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Bruckner Symphony No. 4 Ivor Bolton

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4 (ed. Nowak), Ivor Bolton, cond; Salzburg Mozarteumorchester, OEHMS OC 407 (67:20) live

Ivor Bolton’s Bruckner cycle, of which this is the seventh installment, has been a competent and occasionally absorbing affair, but never an exceptional one. Bolton himself aspires to laudably old-fashioned values in his Bruckner: he’s looking for drama, weight, and gravitas. Sadly, these qualities are regularly undermined by a lack of coherency in his tempo choices, clumsy gear changes, and variable standards from his ensemble, the Salzburg Mozarteumorchester.
Previous installments have occasionally given the impression that much of this was deliberate. The orchestra has a thin and often monotonous string sound, which, combined with its name, could suggest that the ensemble is small and is aspiring to classical or chamber qualities. But no, Bolton’s efforts to make this Fourth Symphony sound monumental demonstrate that none of this is intentional, and that he is trying—in vain sadly—to get the maximum color and character out of his players. The top of the string section isn’t too bad, and the violins are just about able to cut through the tuttis with their high tessitura tremolos. But when the melody moves to the cellos, all the life and energy goes from the tone. The winds are generally better, and the horn section is the only one that is able to make a lighter sound seem like a virtue; their nimble calls at the start of the third movement a rare redeeming feature. For the tuttis though, the horns need more weight, and on the regular occasions that Bruckner carefully balances them against the trumpets, the trumpets always dominate.
Whatever the failings of Bolton’s approach, he can never be accused of running on autopilot. He uses some quite extreme rubato to shape the phrases, and also often makes a point of big downbeat entries by leaning on the upbeat. Holding a tenured position with a respected Austrian orchestra, he’s obliged to get the second movement Ländler right, and the rustic feel of these sections does come off well. But elsewhere his interventions are extreme to a fault. The second movement comes in at just over 15 minutes, which is not exceptional at all. But from the lack of any apparent underlying tempo in the opening phrases, it is easy to get the impression that the movement could be about to last twice that long. The lack of weight and impact is most apparent in the climax to the second movement and the coda of the finale. In both cases, Bolton suddenly puts the brakes on, presumably in order to move to a statelier tempo. But both times the music just grinds to a halt, and, even though the preparation for both climaxes is good, the tension is immediately lost.
             So, not really a contender then, although others may judge it less harshly than I. I’ll admit at this late stage to a certain prejudice against British conductors attempting Bruckner, as I’ve never experienced either a live performance or a recording of a Bruckner symphony under a British baton that was any better than barely competent. Bolton’s cycle seems unlikely to disrupt that pattern, which is a real shame, because, unlike most of his compatriots working in this repertoire, Bolton knows how this music should work and repeatedly attempts to point it in the right direction. That makes it even more frustrating that almost every interpretive decision here seems to either backfire or just fall flat. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 36:4