Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lachenmann String Quartets JACK Quartet

Helmut Lachenmann: Gran Torso, Reigen seliger Geister, Grido
JACK Quartet
mode 267

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The string quartet is a natural medium for Helmut Lachenmann. He has pioneered extended performance techniques on all sorts of instruments, and made them central to his art, but string instruments have always offered him the widest range of possibilities. The chamber music context is also ideal for expressing Lachenmann’s curious relationship with silence. He often takes his music right down, and beyond, the limits of perception, an effect that a small ensemble of strings is ideally suited for.
Lachenmann’s three quartets (they’re usually numbered, but not here) punctuate his career. Gran Torso was completed in 1972, Reigen seliger Geister in 1989 and Grido in 2001. All are around 20-25 minutes, and so comfortably fill a CD. Stylistically, the similarities outweigh the difference, but they are clearly distinct pieces. Gran Torso is the best of them. It is a kind of manifesto of Lachenmann’s approach. Pitched notes are very rare here, replaced by growls, pops and slides. The textures are ascetic, the better to hear the sounds in the individual parts, and the ensemble works through a kind of shared commitment to a sound that, at any given time, could probably be created just one or two players. It is sophisticated music though, and deeply involving. Reigen seliger Geister, composed around the time Lachemann was beginning work on his opera The Little Match Girl, introduces more conventional sounds: pitches, usually held, overtone series played as harmonics, even recognisable rhythms. Yet these feel like guests in a musical environment still dominated by the scratches and pops. By the time we get to Grido, in 2000-2001, Lachenmann has expanded even further into the traditional vocabulary. Textures are denser here, and the musical ideas often involve some or all of the players working as a unit. There are even suggestions of harmony, although the chords in question are acerbically dissonant.
The JACK Quartet, one of the better young quartets dedicating themselves to avant-garde music at the moment, worked closely with the composer in the preparation of these performances, and the results are excellent. Despite the earthy, and often imposing, soundscapes, the JACK players are able to bring life and detail to all the textures. Tone colour is clearly the basis of much of this music, and in these performances that is always the driving concern. The sheer variety of colours and textures the players find in these scores ensures continuous interest. They are also able to provide these diverse sounds at the very lowest dynamics.
There are at least two other recordings available of the three quartets, from the Stadler Quartet on NEOS and the Arditti Quartet of Kairos. All are good, but this new JACK Quartet version deserves the top ranking. The Ardittis, as ever, are a tough act to follow, and their version has the advantage of a sweeter, rounder tone (if that is an advantage here – they seem to make it so). The Ardittis programme the works in reverse order, perhaps because the Third Quartet is dedicated to them. Curiously, both their recording and this one where produced in collaboration with WDR. But the sound quality here is superior, giving greater immediacy to the ensemble and greater depth to the soundstage. This is music that needs to be felt as much as heard, and you really get the feeling of tactile engagement here in a way that previous recordings haven’t quite managed. Given the unusual performing techniques, being able to see the players would also be an advantage, and, as it happens, this recording is also available on DVD, and with surround sound. Even better still.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Kirill Gerstein Imaginary Pictures

Mussorgsy: Pictures at an Exhibition
Schumann: Carnaval
Kirill Gerstein, piano
MYRIOS MYR013 (SACD: 63:08)
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These two piano cycles may seem disparate – they certainly sound very different – but Kirill Gerstein has good reason to programme them together. As he points out in his liner notes, both are filled with vivid portrayals, or Imaginary Pictures as the album title has it. That comparison only goes so far: Mussorgsky’s landscapes are more literal and Schumann’s portraits more psychological, but Gerstein never overstates his case, ensuring the works also retain their distinct identities.
His readings are assured and well conceived. They build on the representative aspects of the works though a real focus on the atmosphere and character of each movement. His technique is “Russian” in many ways, specifically his very definite touch – even in the more mystical movements, the textures are always founded on clearly audible individual notes, each with its own articulation. The SACD audio helps bring out that level of detail, but the sound is not unduly analytical, and the technology is used as much to bring atmosphere and presence to the piano sound.
Gerstein has plenty of physical power behind his playing, but it is always used sparingly. Climaxes and heavy downbeats are just as often emphasised through slight delay as actual force. That rubato is often applied quite daringly, in the first Promenade of Pictures, for example, and in Bydło. It is unusual in both cases, given their processional character, but, as befits the theme of the album, it invites programmatic responses. Our visitor to the exhibition is, after all, promenading – he’s not marching so there is no reason his steps should be even. Similarly the ox pulling the cart seems here to be straining under the weight, its gait becoming plodding and slightly irregular. The momentary dissonances in the middle of the left hand texture are also brought out to impressive effect, and some surprising staccatos in the melody add character, but without disrupting the flow.
There is an earthiness about Gerstein’s playing that lends atmosphere and gravitas to many of the Mussorgsky movements. The Old Castle is given a particularly characterful reading, and more from the tone colour than through any indulgences of rubato or dynamic. Some of the faster movement lack lightness, or at least that quality often seems hard-won. Tuileries is quite slow, and doesn’t quite find the capriccioso quality prescribed in the score. Similarly with The Market Place at Limoges, although Gerstein brings back his daring rubato here, which serves to enliven the proceedings.
Similar dichotomies abound in Carnaval. Much of the music seems heavier than in the Mussorgsky (thicker chord-voicing perhaps?) yet the playing is always propulsive and never weighed down, either by the details Gerstein applies or by his interpretive aims. But again, the pictorial dimension of the music comes through more in the earthy qualities of Gerstein’s tone and in the variety of means by which he invokes drama and passion – so more Florestan than Eusebius.  The latter gets his due, though, especially through the warmth and lyricism that Gerstein often finds in the quieter movements.
As the Schumann goes on, it seems Gerstein gets further and further from his aim of drawing parallels between the two works (an aim that seems particularly pressing at the start, where the Schumann begins immediately after the Mussorgsky has finished). But in an impressive stroke of programming genius, he brings us back round in the finale by presenting the Davidsbündler march almost as a recollection of The Great Gate of Kiev. Both are bold, strident and joyous, with Gerstein finally giving his performance the full physical power he is capable of, while still maintaining the absolute precision and detail. Memorable conclusions to impressive readings of both works.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Schoenberg Moses und Aron Cambreling SWR SO Baden-Baden und Freiburg

Schoenberg Moses und Aron
Sylvian Cambreling, conductor
Franz Gundheber, Moses
Andreas Conrad, Aron
SWR SO Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Hänssler 93.314 (2 SACDs)

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Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is a work more discussed than listened to. That’s a shame, as it’s a really enjoyable opera. The writing for orchestra, and especially for the chorus, is continuously inventive and original, and the work’s dramatic conception is as bold as its music. It’s not without its flaws though, one of which is a feeling of stasis for long periods, especially in its first act, where philosophical issues are debated at length, but without anything else much happening. Arguably, that makes it a better candidate for audio-only presentation than most operas. Schoenberg seems to internalise much of the dramaturgy into his choral writing, something that can be fully appreciated on disc, provided the singing and the audio do justice to the music.
This recording was made by Sylvian Cambreling and the SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg Orchestra in 2012. That orchestra has since fallen on hard times, and is scheduled to be merged with another radio orchestra in 2016. A great shame, given that, as this release demonstrates, the orchestra is particularly strong in Modernist 20th-century repertoire, much of which is often in need of such specialist attention. From the recording dates and venues listed in the liner, the orchestra appears to have performed the opera in concert, touring it to four different cities – Berlin (the Philharmonie), Lucerne, Freiburg and Strasbourg. Each concert was recorded, and this commercial release was edited together from the results. Or perhaps all that work was done by SWR for broadcast, then licensed to Hänssler. Whichever way, the result is surprisingly consistent in terms of the sound quality, and the performance itself in impressively coherent given all the postproduction editing.
Cambreling’s reading is dramatic but carefully paced. He skilfully negotiates the problems of co-ordinating the large orchestra, choir and soloists, and both he and the recording team ensure that balances are carefully maintained. The two lead singers (or vocalists, let’s say) are both proficient, neither particularly ostentatious, giving performances that seem to serve the work rather than using it as a vehicle for their own talents. Franz Gundheber, as Moses, weighs the Sprechstimme more in favour of speaking than singing: his performance is rhythmically sensitive to the music, but otherwise predominantly a spoken rendition. Andreas Conrad gives a muscular performance as Aron, suitably defiant and imposing. Both the choir and the orchestra meet the music’s technical demands, although there is a frustrating lack of detail, more a fault of the recording I suspect that the performances.
That is a great shame, as this is the opera’s first outing on SACD. The recording is certainly involving, that partly a result of Cambreling’s narrative approach, leading the ear from one contrapuntal intrigue to the next. But a little more detail in the sound could have made this a much more satisfying, and revealing, experience.
Despite the rarity of performances of this work (in the UK at least), it has fared well on record, and there are at least a dozen different versions currently available, many of which are DVDs of staged productions. It is rare for any to include anything from the incomplete final act, and this recording, as is conventional, only runs to the end of act II. Competition is strong, and I suspect one of the front runners is the Boulez recording with the Concertgebouw (DG 449174). The vitality and colour Boulez draws from the orchestra is on another level, and although the recording is almost 20 years old, the detail and clarity of the sound is never compromised by the audio quality.
Cambreling’s version sounds more solemn, more ritualistic. It’s a different take on the work, and on its own terms it’s very impressive. The quality of the singing and playing is impressively high, and although the interpretive approach is less lively, it is certainly valid, and well-realised. The audio quality is acceptable, but not exceptional, which is a shame given what the technology has to offer. A conditional recommendation, then, with the proviso that other available versions are also worth exploring.