Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 18 December 2015

TANEYEV String Quartets Nos. 6 and 9 Carpe Diem String Quartet

TANEYEV String Quartets Nos. 6 and 9
Carpe Diem String Quartet
NAXOS 8.573470 (65:42)

Buy from:

When the Carpe Diem String Quartet completes this cycle, we will have two excellent recordings of the works to choose from. The relationship between the two cycles is tortuous. The Taneyev Quartet made their recordings for the Russian Northern Flowers label in the 1970s. But when the Carpe Diem Quartet began their survey, the Taneyev Quartet version was out of print. The Carpe Diems and Naxos did the repertoire a double service by prompting Northern Flowers to release their recordings on CD, in 2005, no doubt seeking to capitalize on the former’s success.
I’ve been torn between the two, but this new release definitely gives the advantage to the Carpe Diem Quartet. The Taneyev Quartet readings are generally slower. They are also more indulgent in terms of rubato and the rich, sustained tone they apply to most of the music. The Carpe Diem versions are cleaner, stricter, and more precise. In fact, Taneyev works well both ways. There is as much Classical elegance in his chamber music as there is Romantic expression, and it is up to the performers to decide which way to take it.
But precision and accuracy of performance are not matters of interpretation, and direct comparison between this and the corresponding volume of the Taneyev Quartet cycle (Northern Flowers 9936) demonstrates some very poor tuning in the earlier version. Without the comparison, the Taneyev Quartet doesn’t sound too bad, but listening to the Carpe Diems, it becomes clear just how much the better tuning and ensemble can benefit the music. While the Carpe Diem version is leaner, their readings are highly expressive, and always fully committed. Some surprising portamento stands out in some places (perhaps this is marked in the score?) but it is the nearest thing you will find to an indulgence in either work.
The early Quartet Number Nine benefits particularly from the Carpe Diem’s Classicizing tendencies. There is a Mozartian elegance to much of this performance that the Taneyev Quartet completely misses. Quartet No. 6 doesn’t quite benefit to the same extent stylistically, but technical issues give this version the edge. The complex counterpoint, especially in the inner parts, is projected so much better here, a combination of the precision of the playing and ensemble and the modern audio (although the sound on the Northern Flowers reissues is more than acceptable).
The earlier recording is longer by over five minutes. Most of that difference is accounted for by the slow second movements of the two quartets. In Quartet No. 9, the Taneyev Quartet gives a sweeping, lyrical account, which I find marginally preferable to the stricter Carpe Diem version—although, in their defense, it is marked Andante. In the second movement of Quartet No. 6, though, the Carpe Diem version is easily preferable. This is one of Taneyev’s great contrapuntal creations, all taking place over a solemn ground bass in the cello. At the Carpe Diem’s faster pace, this bass line really coheres, giving the music an ideal sense of structure and momentum.
A fascinating new take, then, on excellent and too long neglected works. Out of the two cycles, my favorite work is the Quartet No. 2, Taneyev’s masterpiece in the medium, and I’ve a marginal preference for the Taneyev Quartet in that work (Northern Flowers 9937). But after that, this recording takes a close second place. Easily recommendable on its own merits, but all the more so on a Naxos price tag.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 39:4

Mahler Symphony No 5 Myung-Whun Chung Seoul Philharmonic

MAHLER Symphony No. 5
Myung-Whun Chung, cond;
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra 
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 154-0 (72:56) 
Live: Seoul 5/22-23/2014

Buy from:

Western classical music is big business in South Korea, accounting for 17 percent of all record sales there by some estimates. Little wonder then that Universal has signed up the Seoul Philharmonic and several other Korean artists for the Deutsche Grammophon label. But, as this Mahler Five demonstrates, there is no need to invoke market forces to justify this orchestra’s appearance under the famous yellow banner. The string ensemble is tight, the wind soloists play with real character, and conductor Myung-Whun Chung delivers an interpretation of real power and insight.
The recording is taken from two live performances in May 2014. Presumably DG is one of the few labels that can still afford to make studio recordings, but we should be thankful that they have chosen not to in this case. The thrill of the live experience is powerfully projected throughout: Nothing here ever feels routine. The audience is utterly silent, at least until the eruption of applause at the end. And sound quality is excellent, powerful and involving. Mahler is well served on high definition formats these days, and the inner detail you hear in the tuttis on the best SACDs (Iván Fischer’s cycle on Channel for example) is missing here. But it’s no great loss, as the warm, round orchestral tone that we hear instead is more sufficient compensation.
Chung tends towards a more expansive Mahler, yet always retains a sense of discipline in his tempos and rubato. Paragraphs flow, well shaped but uninterrupted, while important junctions are well defined, especially sudden tutti interjections, which are always given their full dramatic weight. He is particularly good with pregnant pauses, setting them up well as the orchestra fades away or discreetly cadences, and then holding the moment, often just a little longer than you expect. He goes too far at the end o of the first movement though, holding back the final pizzicato so long that you think you, or he, has missed it. The Adagietto times in at 11:28. That’s one of the slowest on record, yet it never feels labored. Chung carries the line beautifully, with continuous subtle inflections of tempo and tone.
The strings of the Seoul Philharmonic lack the velvet elegance of the best central European ensembles, but they have a different identity, and it serves Mahler just as well. It is a round, clean sound, precise but never dispassionate. It is a valuable asset, and it’s what gives this orchestra its specific identity.
No doubt Myung-Whun Chung, who has been leading the orchestra for a decade, is an important aspect of that identity too. He and the orchestra appear to be mid-way through a Mahler cycle: Symphonies One, Two, and Nine are advertised in the liner. DG is hardly short of Mahler symphony cycles, with a catalog that also includes Kubelík, Abbado, and Bernstein. Myung-Whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic need not fear comparison with any of those august figures. 

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 39:4

Friday, 4 December 2015

Bach Secular Cantatas Vol 5 Suzuki

BACH: Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen, BWV 213, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214
Joanne Lunn, soprano
Robin Blaze, countertenor
Makoto Sakurada, tenor
Dominik Wörner, bass-baritone
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki, conductor
BIS-2161 (SACD)

Buy from:

Having completed their survey of Bach’s church cantatas, Mazaaki Suzuki and his Japanese ensemble have moved onto the secular repertoire. This is the fifth volume to be released in the secular cantata series, but it’s my introduction to this follow up project. Given the overlap in the actual music, Suzuki has wisely made a subtle change in the recording profile to distinguish the secular works, moving from the Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel to the Saitama Arts Theater Concert Hall. The hall has a suitably rich and resonant acoustic, but is just a little drier than the chapel and is clearly a distinct acoustical environment. The liner notes tell us that the first of these two cantatas, BWV 214, was written for outdoor performance, so the limits of Suzuki’s verisimilitude soon become clear. On the other hand, a female soprano would presumably have been a more likely proposition outside of the church, so that aspect of Suzuki’s performance surreptitiously falls into line with 18th-century practice.
Suzuki also has a new lineup of soloists. Tenor Makoto Sakurada made a few appearances in the church cantatas, and countertenor Robin Blaze was a regular, but soprano Joanne Lunn and bass-bariton Dominik Wörner are new. Blaze remains the standout voice here, but all give strong performances. Lunn has a highly disciplined Baroque technique, with just the faintest of vibrato on the held notes. A little more expressive freedom might have made her arias more attractive. Wörner replaces the long-serving Peter Kooij, and has a similarly light voice. Presumably this is Suzuki’s preference, but I’d rather hear a more substantial tone in the lower registers.
The soloists are all linked to allegorical characters in both cantatas, yet the dramaturgy here is slight. Both works are birthday cantatas, Lasst uns sorgen written for the 11th birthday of Saxon Electoral Prince Friedrich Christian (represented in allegorical form by the countertenor) and Tönet, ihr Pauken for Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and the Prince-Elector’s wife. The texts may link the works with these celebrations, at least on an abstract level, but most of the music will be familiar from elsewhere, specifically the Christmas Oratorio, written the following year (the canatas 1733, the oratorio 1734) and borrowing liberally from both works. Given the title of Tönet, ihr Pauken it is little surprise that this is the source of the oratorio’s opening chorus, but many of the aria’s are also reused, the texts of course changed.
The forces here are considerably smaller than in most recordings of the Christmas Oratorio, which is probably the most significant factor distinguishing this recording from more traditional seasonal fare. But, as ever, Suzuki carefully balances the voices and instruments, and the results display his trademark clarity of line and texture. The listed instrumental soloists are oboe (and d’amore) player Masamitsu San’nomiya and violinist Natsumi Wakamatsu. San’nomiya is on excellent form in the BWV 213 aria “Treues Echo dieser Orten” and both come together for a fabulous double obbligato in “Auf meinen Flügeln”. Also worthy of mention is trumpet and horn soloist Jean-François Madeuf. He takes a fundamentalist approach to period performance, eschewing the anachronistic tone holes that keep other Baroque trumpeters in tune. He was a late addition to the orchestra in the church cantata series, and there is a certain roughness to his sound that is probably an automatic consequence of his equipment. But it now fits into Suzuki’s otherwise immaculate sound, adding some real character to the choruses the brass obbligatos.

The SACD sound (heard in stereo) is up to BIS’s usual high standards, and the documentation is exemplary, with full texts and translations included.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Smetana Dalibor Bělohlávek BBCSO

Smetana Dalibor
Ivan Kusnjer Vladislav, a Czech king
Richard Samek Dalibor, a knight
Aleš Voráček Vitek, a mercenary
Dana Burešová Milada, Sister of the Burgrave of Ploškovice
Alžběta Poláčková Jitka, a village maiden
Jan Stava Beneš, the jailor
Svatopluk Sem Budivoj, Commander of the castle guard
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek conductor
ONYX 4158 (2 CDs)

Buy from:

A treat here for Smetana fans. Dalibor, his most accomplished and successful opera after The Bartered Bride (though a wide margin separates them on both counts), contains some wonderful music, and while the dramaturgy is sometimes shaky, the musical experience holds up from beginning to end. This is the works first recording of modern times, and it does the opera full justice, with sensitive conducting, an excellent cast, and first-rate audio.
Dalibor tells the story of a 15th century Czech knight, a national hero who took part in an uprising, for which he was sentenced to death. Most of the opera concerns his trail and incarceration, schemes to free him, and some peripheral love interest. So, plot-wise, it is basically a Czech Fidelio. Sonically, though, it has its own identity; there is a distinctively Czech flavour, and some memorable tunes, which are deployed with discretio. Dalibor himself has an elegant Leitmotif, a rising scale theme. There is a bracing march theme to introduce the pageantry and court scenes. And a plot device about a violin, which Dalibor hears in jail, occasions some elegant solos from the concertmaster.
This recording was made live at London’s Barbican on 2 May 2015. I attended, and my review can be found at:
To paraphrase: This is the latest in a series of Czech opera concert performances from Bělohlávek, the BBC Symphony and a cast brought by the conductor from Prague. The cast is uniformly fine, and the success of the endeavour rests largely on the singer’s idiomatic performances and their obvious affinity with the music. But the British contingent is strong too. The BBC Singers are on fine form, especially the basses, who are regularly called upon to represent the judges and knights sitting in judgement over the hero. You wouldn’t mistake the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a Czech ensemble, but the Western qualities they bring to the music are just as valuable, not least the warm rich string tone and the rounded, clear brass. A few minor woodwind ensemble problems were apparent in the hall, and they can also be heard on the recording, but never to the point of distraction.
The performance was described as a ‘concert staging’, but the action was minimal. There was an entry via the auditorium at one point I recall, and a dummy violin – the only prop. None of this has any bearing on the recording, which comes across as a straight concert rendition. One consequence is a slight lack of dramatic engagement; the work is performed with a symphonic breadth that distances it from the opera stage. That said, Jiří Bělohlávek really makes the most of the attention he can lavish on the music without the distraction of staging. And the sheer symphonic coherency of his reading is a redeeming virtue. All the marches sound regal, but never pompous, and the romantic music is always committed and sincere, elegantly shaped but disciplined too.
The recording was made by the BBC and has been released on Onyx. The BBC’s sound here is excellent, and the engineers achieve a sense of warmth and involvement in the Barbican hall that has so far eluded the LSO Live engineers (although their most recent recording, Rattle’s Das Paradies und die Peri is their best yet sonically). There isn’t much opera in the Onyx catalogue, but the label has previously worked with the same conductor and orchestra on a Martinů symphony cycle that has been described by many as the best available, so continuing the collaboration seems wise.

And this Dalibor is also the best on the market. Of the many recordings available, the most recent, to my knowledge, is the 1979 Smetáček version on Supraphon, which I reviewed when it was reissued in 2012. I wrote then that the opera was in desperate need of a good quality modern audio recording, and here it is. An easy recommendation.