Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Der Rosenkavalier, Welser-Möst, Kupfer

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Krassimira Stoyanova (The Feldmarschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Mojca Erdmann (Sophie), Silvana Dussmann (Marianne Leitmetzerin), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Annina), Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau), Adrian Eröd (Herr von Faninal), Kresimir Spicer (Valzacchi), Stefan Pop (A Singer), Tobias Kehrer (A police inspector), Martin Piskorski (Faninal's Major-Domo), Franz Supper (The Marschallin's Major-Domo), Lucas Singer (A notary), Roman Sadnik (An Innkeeper)
Wiener Philharmoniker, Franz Welser-Möst
C Major/Unitel 719308

Buy from:

A classy Rosenkavalier this, but a sinister one too. The production was the Salzburg Festival’s major contribution to the Strauss 150 celebrations of 2014, and the DVD is part of a Strauss series that has been appearing across the anniversary year. True to form, the Salzburg Festival gathers an world-class team, and the singing here is particularly impressive. But the production itself may be the most interesting aspect, one that engages closely with the spirit of the work but isn’t afraid to address some of its more unsavoury aspects face on.
Harry Kupfer updates the action to the early 20th century, the era of the work’s composition. The set designs, by Hans Schavernoch, elegantly evoke Vienna’s faded charms with a suitably nostalgic fin de siècle feel. Huge monochrome photographic images form the backdrop, cathedral roofs, cobbled streets, misty parks, that sort of thing. The sets are simple but effective, with two parallel conveyers, upon which are moved into position a bed and a doorway for the first act, a giant mirror for the second, the inn for the start of the third (this a more elaborate design), and a simple park bench for the conclusion. It is an approach that manages to fill the huge stage, although one that creates setting more through suggestion than literal representation.
This isn’t the most comical Rosenkavalier you’ll see on DVD. Kupfer engages with the various power dynamics at play in the story, which are brought into uncomfortably sharp relief. So Ochs, sung by Günther Groissböck, is not the lovable rouge we usually encounter, but instead a manipulative and decidedly unpleasant character. His rustic buffoonery is played down, replaced by a more urbane and calculating persona. We don’t laugh when he loses his wig – we’re too concerned about what his reaction might be.
In what is surely a deliberate contrast, the Sophie of Mojca Erdmann is petite and vulnerable. She lacks stage presence and vocal authority, and the character is hardly developed at all. Erdmann is capable of far more than this, but she is kept in check, musically and dramatically, to emphasise her victim status. Perhaps that dynamic, between Ochs and Sophie, is exaggerated, but it is powerfully presented nonetheless. Everything about Ochs here is predatory and self-serving – Strauss and Hofmannsthal might laugh that off, but Kupfer is not going to.
Similar dynamics could arguably be evoked between the Marschallin and Octavian, but Kupfer is less confrontational here, and both characters are presented in a more traditional way. Krassimira Stoyanova sings the Marschallin with the perfect combination of maturity and vocal agility, impressively nimble in the first act, and suitably emotive in the last. Even in this strong cast, hers is the standout vocal performance. Sophie Koch makes for a surprisingly masculine Octavian. Her costume is thoroughly ambiguous, a ponytail but sideburns too, while her voice is quite angular and brittle – not inelegant though, and certainly right for the part. Adrian Eröd is a suitably pompous and officious Faninal – another character that’s played straight without any comedic additions.
Kupfer keeps the stage fairly busy, and often has characters lingering in the wings when they should already have left. It’s not too fussy an approach, buy it’s one that involves many important details in the peripheries of the action. None of which makes life easier for video director Brian Large. He opts for close-ups most of the time, and we very rarely see the full stage. But the montage is patient, and the cameras are more inclined to linger on a face than to cut between them. It’s not an ideal compromise, but it’s one that is made necessary by Kupfer’s grand but detailed staging.
Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic – a team arguably more qualified to render Viennese waltzes even than the composer himself. And certainly the Viennese lilt is much in evidence whenever the music does slip into a waltz, as it very often does. At other times, though, Welser-Möst can be a complacent. He rarely emphasises the drama of the score, and he has little interest in pointing up the often surprising orchestral colours that Strauss evokes. All of which is a shame, especially as his more accepting approach to the work is at such odds with Kupfer’s more confrontational reading. That said, Welser-Möst knows how to conduct the singers, who sound all the better for the space he gives them to phrase and shape.
Musically, then, this Rosenkavalier is more satisfying for the singing that the conducting, but it is the production itself that makes the release interesting. It is not the only way to present the opera, and many may feel that comedy is lacking. But there is a sense of honesty about Kupfer’s approach which puts the opera in a new light – less a Komödie für Musik, more a study in the dynamics of sex and power.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Tchaikovsky Iolanta Netrebko

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Anna Netrebko
Sergey Skorokhodov

Alexey Markov
Vitalij Kowaljow
Slovenian Chamber Choir
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra
Emmanuel Villaume, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon 479 3969 (2CDs)

Buy from:

Anna Netrebko is amazed, so the liner notes tell us, that nobody outside of Russia knows Iolanta. And perhaps she is right to be. It is a wonderful piece, a short, one-act opera with a fairy-tale story, elaborated with memorable themes and colourful orchestration. It is closer in mood to Tchaikovsky’s ballets than to his more famous operas. As it dates from his final years (it was his last stage work), it also shows affinities to the Pathétique, especially in the way that the composer is able to convey deep passions through seemingly carefree melodic ideas.
The plot is slender. The setting is southern France in the 15th century. Iolanta is the daughter of the King René. She is blind – hence the Braille on the cover image – but does not know this, as she has been confined alone to a secret garden her whole life. She is betrothed to Robert, but when he appears, she instead falls for his companion Vaudémort. Over the course of the opera’s 90 or so minutes, she is released from her original betrothal, cured of her blindness by a physician named Ibn-Hakia, and generally elevated from her pitiful state in time for a radiant finale.
The piece is also an excellent vehicle for Netrebko, who dominates the opera in the title role. She is placed far forward in the sound stage, and while the audio puts her voice under forensic examination, the evenness and purity of her tone are never found wanting. Perhaps she is a little fresher at the beginning than at the end, but only by a fraction. The libretto (by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest) and music are contrived to give each of the principals at least one big number, and then to combine them into favourable combinations for the scene climaxes. The whole cast is strong, but the other two singers who really stand out are Sergey Skorokhodov as the tenor love interest, Vaudémort, and bass  Vitalij Kowaljow as King René. Both are ideally Russian, but not to the point of stereotype. Skorokhodov brings an Italianate lyricism to the part, though his singing is still coloured and firmly articulated by all those voiced Russian consonants. Kowaljow is powerful and authoritative, but without the thundering profundo we might expect from a Russian in the role. No weak links in the supporting cast, and impressive performances from choir and orchestra too.
Big record labels don’t dominate the classical music world the way they used to, but this release demonstrates the benefits they can bring to a recording project. The recordings were made live in concert in 2012, in what sounds like a fabulous acoustic at the Philharmonie in Essen. Netrebko and co were there as part of a tour, organised by U Live, the concert management arm of Universal. And this release has been timed to coincide with another tour with the same work in 2015. Naturally, the label wants to show its star soprano in the best possible light. The hand-picked and predominantly Russian cast helps there, as does the well rehearsed ensemble, who have clearly become intimate with the opera over the course of the tour. Audio standards are spectacular – perhaps a recording that wasn’t an artist vehicle would give less dominance to the soloists and a more even balance with the chorus and orchestra, but that’s a minor grumble. And the packaging is to a standard that few smaller labels would even contemplate, even including a full libretto, in French, German, Russian (transliterated – I guess they’re not planning to market it there) and English. So far, almost every Netrebko release on DG has been a mixed recital disc (a DVD of La bohème the exception), but this new release is doubly attractive: Not only does it present Netrebko herself at the height of her powers, but it also introduces a scandalously neglected work, presented here in a compelling and convincing interpretation.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Fauré Nocturnes Grimwood

Fauré Nocturnes
Daniel Grimwood: Piano
Edition Peters EPS 001 [72:14]

Buy/download from:

A new disc from a new record label. In 2011, the German music publisher Edition Peters set up a London-based artist management agency, and now with this release they are adding a record label to the portfolio. There is plenty of precedent for this sort thing, of course, even if it does suggest an industry shrinking to the point that companies must cover all bases to remain viable. Edition Peters brings all the production values of its sheet music to the project. The packaging is attractive, the texts readable and relevant, although a little more on the music itself might have been nice: We get a short essay from the pianist himself about the works, and of course an artist bio. Peters also includes a cheeky advert for their own edition of the music.
Fauré’s nocturnes are an excellent choice for this first release, attractive and engaging music that is all but unknown, with only a handful of competitors in the catalogue. It is difficult to hear them as a cycle – they span opp. 33 to 119 – but there is remarkable stylistic consistency here. And variety too. Fauré regularly strays from his brief and indulges in dramatic and virtuosic climaxes. The nocturnal mood is always retained though. And whatever else we might say about this music, there is never any suggestion that the composer is under Chopin’s thumb.
Most of the competition on disc is from French pianists, Pascal Rogé and Jean-Michel Damase among them. Daniel Grimwood’s readings aren’t as dreamy as theirs, but they are just as convincing. One of the points Grimwood makes in his liner essay is that Fauré’s harmonies are radical, if in a modest “conservative revolutionary” way. The pianist goes out of his way to present these unusual harmonic progressions with the utmost clarity. There are also many unexpected suspensions and piquant dissonances, which he always relishes and even lingers on.
The recording was made at Nimbus’ Wyaston Estate Studio and the audio is excellent, a little on the dry side but always involving and clear. Recommended then, as much for the fine performance and recording as for the fascinating and too rarely heard repertoire.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Beethoven Piano Sonatas 16-20 Pollini

Beethoven Piano Sonatas Opp. 31/1-3, 49/1-2
Maurizio Pollini: piano
Deutsche Grammaphon 479 4325 [75:19]

Buy from:

Pollini reaches the end of his Beethoven sonata cycle with this release. In fact the recordings began in the 1970s, so “cycle” may be the wrong word – not that that has stopped DG from using it in all their publicity. But there is more to this recording than just filling in the gaps. Pollini takes a chronological sequence of sonatas and gives us a series of sensitive and insightful readings. There is nothing extreme about his playing, yet every phrase is filled with character. The results will certainly satisfy Pollini’s many loyal fans, but should also find appreciative audiences further afield.
Given that he is in his early 70s, listeners can be forgiven for approaching Pollini’s recent recordings with a sense of trepidation about the maintenance of his technique and interpretive abilities. Technically, there is little to fault here. He is as dexterous as his interpretations require. There is rarely any sense of virtuosic display, but then Pollini no longer needs to impress anybody. Instead the interpretations are always fairly grounded, more Classical than Romantic, and with a clear sense of underlying pulse dictating all tempo choices. That said, some his playing is surprisingly fast. The opening movement of Sonata No. 16, for example, is sprightly, although without ever seeming hurried.
His palette of dynamics and articulations is quite restricted, although there are always impressive subtleties within that range. His touch is usually legato, with fine variations of attacks within the flowing lines, but rarely any emphatic separation. The arpeggio figures in the first movement of Sonata No. 17 flow and cascade satisfyingly – velvety waves of sound. But the ever-present Classical restraint returns to the fore in the middle movement, surprisingly slow, but stately and dignified.
Perhaps that restraint goes too far at times. There is always formality here, but only occasionally does it feel like it has tipped into insensitivity. Which brings us back to issues of age and experience. What are the excesses that Pollini is trying to avoid? And does his “knowing” approach tell us more about the music through his efforts to prevent it becoming distorted? These performances work best when Pollini is able to convince us of his personal investment in the music, when his narrow range of articulations and dynamics becomes a language of intimacy rather than restraint. And he doesn’t always sound like the all-knowing old man. The final movement of Sonata No. 18 sparkles with a naïve-sounding joie de vivre, a straightforward jollity devoid of aesthetic pretentions.
The sound quality, from sessions at Munich’s Herkulsaal, is excellent, so good we occasionally hear Pollini himself humming along, no doubt much to the chagrin of the engineers. It’s never a distraction though. All round, a solid Beethoven sonata recording. The completion of a set, maybe, but it doesn’t feel like the end of a road. And on the strength of these performances, Pollini is still going strong.