Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki

Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki
Schnittke: String Trio
Weinberg: String Trio
Kurtág: String Trio
Penderecki: String Trio
Ensemble Epomeo
AVIE AV2315 [71:21]

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Four modern masterpieces are presented here in distinctive and engaging interpretations. The idea of “interpretation” may seem anathema to musical Modernism, as many 20th-century scores seem to require little more of their performers than faithful execution. But none of the works here is in that category, as is amply demonstrated by the differences of tone and approach between these recordings and most earlier versions. It’s a diverse collection, but Ensemble Epomeo applies similar criteria to each. The tone is elegant but focussed throughout. Tempos and articulations are quite strict, with few indulgences of rubato or portamento. Yet within these self-imposed interpretive limits a great deal of expression and variety is achieved. The title of Ken Woods’ excellent liner essay is “Reconciling the old and new”, and that dichotomy is apparent in the performances through continual balancing of Romantic expression and Modernist austerity. Every ensemble approaching these scores, especially the Schnittke and the Penderecki, has to work out that balance for themselves, but more often than not, this group seems to achieve the impossible by having it both ways.
Ensemble Epomeo was founded in 2008 to perform the Schnittke String Trio, and the players’ close affinity with the work today is clear from every note of this recording. It’s not an easy piece, and it is rare to find a version on disc with the sheer level of technical accuracy of this one. The interpretive questions come down to the relationship between the work’s tight, and fairly conventional, structure and its inclusion of various stylistic references, specifically Viennese waltzes and Russian Orthodox chant. In this recording, structure and progression take the upper hand. The various styles are acknowledged, but never to the point of leading the music off course. Again, discipline is the watchword. The opening statement is delivered with a blank, emotionless tone (I was reminded of the opening Aria of Glenn Gould’s first Goldberg recording). There’s no portamento here, no expressive swells, and no attempt to make the music sound sentimental or distant – all of which we might expect from earlier recordings. Instead, these players make the opening the starting point on a journey, with the music and its expression becoming ever-more complex as the movement goes on. For all its sophisticated structuring, the work is also quite sectional, with juxtapositions of mood and style between successive phrases. But continuity is achieved here by moving seamlessly from one into another. That is partly achieved by avoiding gaps between phrases, but also by keeping down the louder dynamics. Those vicious tuttis retain their bite though, through the acerbic timbres that the players apply. Although a little lacking in the sheer abandon that can make this music so compelling, another advantage is that the harmonic basis of these sections becomes clear. Schnittke usually superimposes diatonic triads to create his dissonances here, a principle demonstrated in this recording with unusual clarity.
The Schnittke is the main work on this programme, but the other three are more than just fillers. Weinberg’s String Trio dates from 1950, difficult times, not only was Weinberg’s music then suppressed due to the Zhdanov decree of 1948, but it was also the era of the most intense repression of Jews in Soviet cultural life, which would culminate for the composer a few years later in arrest in connection with the “doctor’s plot”. But the Trio is wholly unapologetic, especially in its use of Jewish folk styles and klezmer. Ensemble Epomeo finds an ideal balance between the works structure and its many stylistic divergences. And again, clarity of tone and of interpretive focus elucidates the work’s structure and logic. There is also a sense that the players have half an eye on the overall programme of the disc as they perform this piece. It is the most stylistically conservative of the four, but by giving it a more modern edge, they fit it more logically between the Schnittke and the Kurtág.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, an ongoing project represented here as a series of seven short and aphoristic movements, perhaps comes closest to anything on the disc to the model of Modernist music that requires little interpretation. But even so, all those qualities of clarity of tone and intent are again brought to bear, and to impressive effect. Kurtág’s art relies heavily on expressive extremes, so Ensemble Epomeo expand their self-imposed dynamic constraints for him, especially for the louder outbursts, which have astonishing impact here. But there’s plenty of subtly too, for example in the ways that the sounds of open strings are contrasted to those of stopped strings, or in the curiously inverted or contrived balances he seeks in some of his harmonies. The work is given a clear-eyed interpretation, but that clarity never diminishes the sophistication of the music.
A big surprise at the start of the Penderecki. His String Trio opens with three huge, dissonant chords, wrenched from the instruments with painful deliberation. Or that’s what usually happens – here the opening is played fast and at a moderate dynamic. The chords are there all right, but are presented as a casual opening gesture. Like the Schnittke, this piece sits on a borderline between different styles in its composer’s output. It was written in 1990-91, by which time Penderecki had long turned his back on the sonorist Modernism of the 50s and 60s and had seemed to settle into a more consonant and tonal idiom. But in the String Trio many aspects of his earlier self return, not least his fluency in dissonant discourse and his taste for expressive extremes. In fact, these aspects are somewhat superficial to a more tonal language and classical form, and it is these more traditional aspects that the present recording emphasises. Again, the players are reconciling new and old, although in this case the two terms are reversed, at least in terms of the composer’s artistic trajectory. As in the Schnittke, the result is impressive for the clarity of textures achieved and for the discipline applied to music that can elsewhere tend towards anarchy. Perhaps the control goes a little too far though, and it is surprising that, on this disc, the Penderecki sounds closer to the Weinberg than it does to the Schnittke.
But again, the sheer individuality of this interpretation sets it apart. All four works are given compelling interpretations, often unusual but never to their detriment. The sound quality is very fine, finer than on any other recording of the Schnittke I know, the packaging is elegant, and the liner essay by Ken Woods is well worth a read. Recommended.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Sergei Zhukov Piano and Violin Concertos

Sergei ZHUKOV (b.1951)
Piano Concerto Silentium (2001) [37:27]
Violin Concerto Angel’s Day [37:07]
Eleonora Bekova (piano)
Karelia State Symphony Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
Elvira Bekova (violin)
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Konstantin Krimets 

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Tailor-made concertos for piano and violin appear here in premiere recordings by the soloists who inspired them. There is certainly a synergy here, with the composer, Sergei Zhukov, responding to both the technique and the temperaments of his intended soloists, sisters Eleonora and Elvira Bekova, and the soloists, in turn, giving idiomatic and finely crafted performances. But the music itself is heavy going—populist perhaps, but in a furrow-browed, Slavic way—and demands much of the listener, not least sympathy for its high-minded artistic aims and a superhuman attention span.
Zhukov (b. 1951) is a Ukrainian composer of Russian training. On the evidence of this recording, he is an eclectic musical thinker who is happy to steer his music into episodes of jazz or religious Minimalism, always confident that he can get back out again and return to his personal idiom. That basic style is Modernist, with some Expressionist outbursts at times, but usually quite consonant in its harmonies, the dissonances more diatonic than chromatic. While there is no tonal architecture here, some of the individual passages have a strong tonal identity, especially climaxes, which often fall back on film music clichés.
The piano concerto is entitled “Silentium,” after a poem by Osip Mandelstam. The poem itself is recited by the pianist over some mood music near the end, a very direct gesture but one of questionable musical taste. The concerto is in five parts, each addressing in a different way the relationship between sound and silence. The 20 seconds of silence at the start of the first track isn’t tape leader, it’s part of the work. The music gradually emerges from the silence, and regularly returns to it as a point of repose.
The violin concerto carries the title “Angel’s Day,” and explores themes of celestial transcendence as understood in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. It too is a multifarious and semantically complex work, moving in and out of styles and moods, with everything given a feeling of earnest philosophical significance by the sheer symphonic scale of the proceedings. There are occasional quotations, or at least fleeting references, to earlier works. The liner identifies Prokofiev and Glinka, but I hear Wagner and Strauss too. But these evaporate almost as soon as they appear, leaving yet more questions unanswered for the uninitiated listener.
The solo parts are adventurous and as stylistically diverse as the orchestral writing. They don’t sound particularly virtuosic, although that may be a result of the soloists’ proficiency. Zhukov creates some interesting relationships between soloist and ensemble, for example setting the piano against the percussion, or combining the orchestral strings with the violin soloist as a kind of halo around her ethereal lines. The performances are proficient, with the orchestras as atuned to Zhukov’s aesthetic as the soloists. Audio is reasonable, though a little recessed and not very involving. The piano in particular sounds distant and boxy, especially in the upper range, though it is difficult to tell if this the fault of the engineering or the instrument itself. Some audience noise in the violin concerto reveals this to be a live performance, though no recording information is given.
It’s puerile and childish to lampoon the poorly translated liner texts, but I can’t resist. Violinist Eleonora Bekova is, we are told, “both eye and ear catching with an intriguing provenance.” Her being eye-catching is presumably the reason she gets the front cover to herself, but her intriguing provenance is not explained any further. In fact, the Bekova sisters are from Kazakhstan, but both play very much from within the Russian tradition: Both have a precise, emphatic technique, often delicate of tone, but never casual. The bio for violinist Elvira Bekova opens with an encomium from Aram Khachaturian, suggesting she’s no spring chicken. Khachaturian was impressed, though, with what he described as her “fiery temperament and virtuosity,” so too was David Oistrakh, who is quoted describing her sound as “unique,” though it is not clear if he meant that in a good way.
Zhukov’s concertos are serious business, and for those with a taste for mainstream new music from Russia, there is much here to savor. Both works are long, each approaching 40 minutes, and neither attempts to justify that length through continuous invention. Instead, the sheer breadth of the music, with long, arching phrases built on repeating figures, accounts for the duration. Minimalist means to maximal ends.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 38:3.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Bach Cello Suites Viola de Hoog

Bach Cello Suites
Viola de Hoog, cello
Vivat 107 (2 CDs: 135:25)

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Bach’s Cello Suites have rarely sounded as attractive or as melodic as they do here in Viola de Hoog’s new recording for Vivat. These are readings of direct and uncomplicated elegance, in which beauty of tone and the evenness of melodic contour always take precedence. They are a little lacking in drama and emotional weight, but make up for that in the sheer vitality of the performances. The music here is always either singing or dancing, inflected yes, with subtle rubato and careful dynamic shading, but never to the point of seriously disrupting the dance meters beneath each of the movements.   
We are in historically informed territory here, so the strings are gut (although the lower two are over-wound), the pitch is 415, and there isn’t a hint of vibrato. There haven’t been many such recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites; the first was made by de Hoog’s teacher Anner Bijlsma in 1979. De Hoog’s readings are more relaxed the Bijlsma’s, more comfortable in their dance rhythms, and even more distant from the more dramatic tendencies of earlier generations of cellists. The Prelude to the First Suite, for example, usually builds in volume and intensity in the phrases leading up to the final cadence. Not so here; the movement retains its shape, largely thanks to the cleanly articulated harmonica progression, but the playing retains its intimacy throughout. Just a hint of rubato acknowledges the arrival at the tonic chord, just leaning on that first note of the bar for the fraction of a second needed to make the point.
Tempos are never extreme, and if anything often feel slower than the norm. That allows de Hoog to bring out the singing quality in many of the more lyrical movements, such as the Sarabande of the Third Suite. And when the music needs propulsion and energy, de Hoog provides it more through the bounce of her articulation and her forward-looking phrasing than through extremes of speed, as in the final Gigue of the First Suite or the Courante of the Second.
The first five suites are performed on a very attractive-sounding Guadagnini cello of c. 1750. For the Sixth, de Hoog moves to a recently restored Bohemian five-string cello c. 1780. It doesn’t have quite the same richness or evenness of tone, but offers the extra versatility (and notes) the final suite demands. The recording was made in a church setting, at De Oude Dorpskerk, Bunnik, The Netherlands. The resonance the space provides is ideal, adding warmth and context but without detracting from the detail. Credit here too to sound engineer Adriaan Verstijnen for the impressive audio quality throughout. As ever, the Vivat label provides impressive documentation of the music, performer, instrument and recording sessions. All-round, a very attractive release.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Wagner Die Walküre Solti 1961

WAGNER Die Walküre  Georg Solti; Anita Välkki (Brünnhilde); Claire Watson (Sieglinde); Hans Hotter (Wotan); Jon Vickers (Siegmund); Michael Langdon (Hunding); Rita Gorr (Fricka); Marie Collier (Gerhilde); Judith Pierce (Helmwige); Margreta Elkins (Waltraute); Joan Edwards (Schwertleite); Julia Malyon (Ortlinde); Noreen Berry (Siegrune); Maureen Guy (Grimgerde); Josephine Veasey (Roßweiße); O of Royal Op House TESTAMENT 1495 (4 CDs: 225:01) Live: Covent Garden October 2, 1961

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Solti’s first Walküre. Given the iconic status of his Vienna Ring cycle, the first release of this contemporaneous recording from Covent Garden is guaranteed to generate interest. Recorded in 1961, it dates from the very start of Solti’s tenure at the Royal Opera and between the first and second installments of the Decca Ring (between Rheingold, 58, and Siegfried, 62; Walküre was recorded last, in 65). There is much to commend it, even if the proliferation of superior live Ring cycle recordings from the era, particularly from Bayreuth in the 1950s, rules out superlatives on all counts. Even so, it’s a strong performance, well conceived and well sung.
The excellent liner notes, from Tony Locantro, tell of the context, of the Royal Opera’s resurrection in the years following the war, and of the flagship Wagner projects with which the company demonstrated its return to the international opera scene. A new production of the Ring premiered in 1954 under Fritz Stiedry, with later performances conducted by Rudolf Kempe and Franz Konwitschny. It was quite an act to follow by all accounts, but when Solti took over in 1961 that was exactly his plan, with a new production of the cycle and, more significantly, a new conception of the music. And other changes were afoot. Through the 1950s, Royal Opera’s policy had been to present works in English with principals taken from the company, but from the early 60s, there was a reversion to original languages, allowing the company, as here, to book international names for the lead roles.
Comparisons with Solti’s 1965 Vienna version are unfair and largely irrelevant. Only Solti himself and Hans Hotter appear in both. This is a recording of a live staging, unlike Decca’s studio version. It’s in broadcast quality mono, against Decca’s state-of-the-art stereo. And, good as the performers are, they’re no match for the company assembled by John Culshaw. In terms of the aural experience, the biggest difference comes not from the audio quality but from the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House gives a punchy, dynamic reading, but lacks the tonal luster of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially in the strings.
That said, Solti’s reading is essentially the same. His trademark drive and energy are everywhere apparent, though his maniacal temperament seems less overbearing. There is poetry and elegance, but even in the quieter and slower passages, the direction and focus of the music are never forgotten. He also deserves credit for the sheer unity of this performance, for the fact that everybody is clearly working towards a common musical purpose, and one they all seem to believe in, however much they may, or may not, have been harassed into it by the “screaming skull.”
No weak links in the cast, but one or two particularly impressive performances. Jon Vickers, as Siegmund, is captured near the start of his Wagnerian career, he made his Bayreuth debut two years earlier in the same role. His performance here is noble and heroic, but agile and nuanced too. Claire Watson is less imposing as Sieglinde, but makes up for it in the dark richness of her tone, which comes across as an alto-like elegance in the lower register. Anita Välkki has an attractive purity of tone as Brünnhilde, accurate, if unsophisticated singing, characterized by big, round vowel sounds. Hans Hotter produced this staging as well as singing Wotan. The visuals failed to impress the critics, so it is just as well that his vocal performance was up to scratch. There is plenty of authority in his singing, and plenty of drama. Other recordings capture better Wotans from him though, particularly Solti’s Vienna version, where his tone has more focus and seems more controlled. Rita Gorr sounds quite abrasive as Fricka, certainly a dramatic performance but not a pretty one: You never forget she’s angry. The Royal Opera’s previous policy of engaging company singers for lead roles is only maintained here in the case of Michael Langdon, whose Hunding is as dependable as it is deep. And the company really excels in the valkyries it fields, some of whom went on to bigger things: Marie Collier, Margreta Elkins, Josephine Veasey.
The recording was made for broadcast by the BBC and, given its age, is very good. There is no noise at all, and only a few minor pitch fluctuations in the second act. Digital remastering is credited to Paul Baily at Re:Sound, but no details are given of what exactly he has done. Given the flatness of the tone, his noise removal seems to have been quite ruthless on the upper partials. The biggest problem with the source recording is the distance of the singers, and many of the players too, from the mikes. 
Given the recent backlash against Solti’s Vienna Ring cycle, many may feel that another Walküre from him adds insult to injury. Yet, despite the cover design, which features an image of him at the podium open-mouthed—very possibly screaming—and places his name above that of the composer in a much larger font, this recording isn’t really about Solti. He certainly gives the performance drive and focus, but it is a less distinctive interpretation than the one he set down in Vienna. Instead, it is the strong cast that makes this reissue worthwhile, some of the biggest names of the day, working together as a real ensemble.