Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 30 March 2015

Schnittke Symphony No 3 Jurowski

SCHNITTKE Symphony No. 3
Vladimir Jurowski, cond; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
PENTATONE 5186485 (SACD: 52:16)

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Vladimir Jurowski may be the ideal conductor for Schnittke’s Third Symphony. It is the music of a Russian composer, but of German descent, exploring German music musical traditions from both inside and out. Many Russian conductors miss the Classical poise behind Schnittke’s historical references, while Western conductors have a tendency to tame the more chaotic outbursts, to maintain that sense of order when chaos should reign. But Jurowski offers the best of both worlds. He has studied both in Russia and Germany and demonstrates a native competency in both musical languages. Of the many Russian conductors currently active in the UK, Jurowski is the only one who is praised as much for his Brahms and Wagner as for his Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
The symphony, which was composed for the opening of the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1981, was one of the composer’s greatest triumphs. Schnittke dedicated the work to the “German symphonic tradition” and the music explores the history of German music from a range of angles. It opens with a gloss on the Rheingold Prelude, which then evolves into a complex texture based on musical monograms of German and Austrian composers’ names— a roll-call of the big players, all name checked in chronological order. The second and third movements also take a chronological approach, each taking a theme and presenting it in different historical styles. The second movement is the most explicit in its historical allusions, and all the more heterogeneous for it. The third explores the dark side of German culture, a diabolical scherzo in which the main theme is based on a monogram derived from the letters of “Das Böse” (evil). In the finale, Schnittke brings things up to date, at least up to the early 20th century, channeling Mahler and Berg, two of his greatest inspirations.
This is the third commercial recording of the Third Symphony. The first was made in 1984 by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. It was released on Melodiya, but only seems to be available now on Spotify, at least in the UK. A second version was made by Eri Klas and the Stockholm Philharmonic, for BIS in 1989. That is still available, both separately and as part of the BIS box set of Schnittke’s symphonies. Until Jurowski, the Rozhdestvensky was the preferable option. Rozhdestvensky releases the primal power of this music. When Schnittke makes things messy, Rozhdestvensky ensures they are very messy, and that any redemption or clarity is only ever won with a struggle. That sense of embracing the irrational is also evident in some of the less chaotic music. He brings a unique feeling of disorientation to the ending of the first movement, dissolving the complex textures into a kind of timeless cloud of indistinct tones (and in the process making the movement two minutes longer than either of the competitors). That might be viewed as an acceptable interpretive decision, but what is more jarring is his brutal stylistic disjunctions in the second movement. He seems to be going for shock value here, where the composer is seeking something more subtle. The other major disadvantage of the Rozhdestvensky version is the poor quality of the orchestral playing, an issue evident when heard in isolation but brought into sharp relief by comparison with Jurowski’s Berlin players.
The Eri Klas recording is smoother. Klas takes a more symphonic approach, always finding ways to bring the juxtaposed styles into dialogue. But it lacks bite. For all his subtly, Schnittke does have his shock moments, especially in the third movement—sudden explosions of sound, lurid episodes of distorted electric guitars and flutter-tongued brass—and Klas’s take on these is always too civilized. It is better played than Rozhdestvensky’s though, and better recorded.
Vladimir Jurowski trumps both in almost every respect. His reading has the primordial power of Rozhdestvensky, but combined with the broader scope and symphonic coherence of Klas. Rozhdestvensky seems more at home in the chaos, and all the historical references, the Mozart piano concerto, the Beethoven wind chords (all stylistic allusions, there are no quotations) appear as external objects, in the music but not of the music. With Jurowski it is the other way round. He shapes and structures each of these devices as if he actually were conducting a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony, bringing all those ideas into the heart of the work. The finale is particularly impressive, as Jurowski brings the full scope of his Mahlerian experience to bear on music that, in this recording, sounds as fine and as deep as anything in Mahler’s late symphonies.
The one movement where Rozhdestvensky trumps Jurowski is the third. Jurowski’s sense of order here becomes an impediment. This music needs to go closer to edge, to be pushed to excesses, to grate and roar. At the conclusion, the music builds to a huge climax, dense polyphony in which almost every player is doing something different, and all very loudly. But then it distills into just the BACH monogram, which in turn segues into the quiet opening of the finale. Rozhdestvensky makes this into a moment of divine, spiritual transcendence, while Jurowski settles for a smooth and otherwise eventless transition from one texture to the next.
That’s the only major disappointment here though. And it is commensurate with Jurowski’s general approach—to give us an engaged but faithful account of the score as written. Rozhdestvensky often seems idiosyncratic in comparison, which may be reason enough to make this new version the benchmark. But that is not all: The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is on excellent form, and the SACD audio is first rate. Vladimir Jurowski is rapidly becoming the go-to conductor for Schnittke. He is one of the few conductors of his generation to share the passion and commitment to this music of the older conductors who worked with the composer himself. This is his first commercial recording of Schnittke’s music, and it bodes well. Most of Schnittke’s orchestral works are available on disc, but very few of those even approach the standards achieved here. Fingers crossed then, for many more Jurowski/PentaTone collaborations in this repertoire.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Strauss Feuersnot Schirmer

Strauss Feuersnot op. 50
Lars Woldt (bass), Simone Schneider (soprano), Arabella Wäscher (vocals), Monica Mascus (mezzo-soprano), Sandra Janke (alto), Olena Tokar (alto), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (bass), Ludwig Mittelhammer (bass), Michael Kupfer (baritone), Sung Min Song (tenor), Jutta Neumann (alto), Andreas Burkhart (baritone), Markus Eiche (baritone), Rouwen Huther (tenor), Joachim Roth (tenor), Catalina Bertucci (soprano), Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Ulf Schirmer, conductor
cpo 777 920-2 (2 CDs)
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Strauss’ second opera is a rarity, both in live performance and on disc. But it contains some glorious music, from a composer at the height of his powers, so cpo is to be congratulated for what appears to be the first commercial recording in many decades. It is easy to see the work as deserving of its obscurity: the salacious plot got it into all sorts of trouble in the years following its 1901 premiere, and the contrived satire behind it seems self-serving and wholly dependent of the cultural milieu of its times. None to which can be ignored, of course, but the music that Strauss writes elevates the whole project and sets it in a wider context. This is Strauss on his way from tone poet to master of opera, and everywhere the music is looking forwards, particularly to the sophistication of Rosenkavalier and the physiological depth of Die Frau ohne Schatten. It is given here in a performance that brings out all those qualities, and that makes an excellent case for Strauss’ score.
Wagner looms large over everything here. Strauss is dealing with Wagner’s legacy in an open and often confrontational way. The result is a satire of Wagner, of both his music and his ideals. Musically, you’ll hear overt references to many of Wagner’s mature operas, and particularly the Ring, which proves fertile ground for satire, given the recognition factor of its Leitmotifs. Fortunately for Strauss, Wagner is just as well-known today as he was then, and idolised to almost the same extent. So the references are easy to spot, and the deflation of the Wagner cult retains its relevance. The story concerns preparations for a St. John’s Day midsummer celebration. The local mayor has a daughter and there is much debate about her possible betrothal to a newcomer in town. So far so Meistersinger. But the place is Munich (the better to lampoon Wagner himself) and the newcomer, Kunrad, is an apprentice wizard. When Diemut, the mayor’s daughter, rejects Kunrad, he takes revenge by extinguishing the fires that are central to the midsummer celebration. In the end Diemut relents, and the impasse is resolved through “redemption by sex”, a deliberately crass inversion of Wagner’s redemption by love, but a great excuse for one of Strauss’ many erotically charged musical climaxes to close the work.
Despite the relatively straightforward plot and the short running time (it’s a one-acter of 90 minutes) the score includes a remarkable 15 named parts and also calls for choir, children’s chorus and a huge orchestra. So, on top of its questionable morals and taste, there are also practical issues that keep it well beyond the standard repertoire. But for this recording, an excellent company has been assembled. The project is a co-production between Bavarian Radio and cpo. It was recorded at Munich’s Prinzregententheater in September 2014, a few days ahead of a live concert performance there, a video of which is available at
The pick of the cast is Simone Schneider as Diemut. Her voice has a richness and alto-like warmth, right up to the top of the soprano register, always attractive and with excellent intonation and tonal control.  Markus Eiche is also good as Kunrad. He has the lion’s share of the singing, and strain is occasionally evident, especially towards the end of his mammoth 10-minute narration on the second disc. No notable weak links in the supporting cast (impressive given the sheer numbers), and special mention should go to bass Lars Woldt, who perfectly channels Pogner as the mayor. Credit too to the Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtner platz. Strauss places some heavy demands on his children’s choir, but this ensemble is well up to the demands
Ulf Schirmer leads a propulsive and incisive reading, full of rhythmic vitality and crisp, focussed phrasing. The sound is of a good broadcast standard, with plenty of detail although a little lacking in vibrancy and presence. A libretto is included, in German and English (somehow squeezed into the double jewel case) and there is also handy “Kleines Münchner Glossar”.
Competition here comes from historical reissues, a Keilberth recording from 1965 and a Kempe recording from 1958, the latter a leisurely account at the far end of the spectrum from this. There is also a 1985 recording from Heinz Fricke, which received mixed notices when re-released in 2013. Chances are, then, that for the quality of the audio, the consistency of the cast and the vitality of the conducting, this will become the recording of choice for Strauss’ morally suspect but always highly listenable opera.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Bruckner Symphonies 6 7 Jansons

Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
RCO Live 14005 (2 SACDs)

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Patient, controlled, structured, considered: There is no doubt that all of these terms can be applied to Mariss Jansons. What’s more debatable is whether that’s for better or worse. Jansons has a knack for imposing symphonic rigour on even the most tenuously structured works, listen to his Shostakovich 13, for example, or his Mahler 7. What we get with these Bruckner recordings is very much in that spirit. Neither work has ever sounded so compact and logical, and the interconnectedness that Jansons demonstrates in Bruckner’s thinking serves as an effective defence of the composer against most of the criticisms levelled against him. There is plenty of passion here too: These performances are not unduly fast, nor are they ever mechanical. But Jansons works within tight self-imposed limits. The readings are certainly expressive, but discipline is always the watchword.
The combination of the Concertgebouw and Bruckner inevitably calls to mind the legacy of Bernard Haitink, and the comparison is instructive. Haitink too is a fairly disciplined Brucknerian, but he sets his limits differently. His tempos are generally slower, and his tuttis are louder, but the two conductors have similar visions for Bruckner’s music. They also both have excellent rapport with the Amsterdam orchestra, which plays as well for Jansons as it does for Haitink. Given the air of perfection that Jansons cultivates, orchestral playing of the very highest standard is an absolute necessity, and it is exactly what he gets. The players are also able to project the character of their ensemble – the burnished string tone, the warm brass – and add it into Jansons’ precisely calculated equation. Audio is fabulous too, and it is great to see that RCO Live has returned to SACD after a few releases without. Players, hall, and engineering come together to make for an always satisfying aural experience.
The downside though, to Jansons’ approach is the niggling feeling that he is playing it safe. Take the opening of the Sixth Symphony, which starts off at a moderate dynamic, but quickly ramps up to a blazing, trumpet-crowned tutti. This really needs a sense of abandon, as if the sheer exuberance of the orchestra is carrying the music. Of course, Jansons never lets that happen; his sense of control here is clear from the limits he sets on the brass dynamics. His phrasing is always supple, but again without ever going to extremes. He has an excellent feel for the way that some phrases should tail off gently into silence. But those Luftpausen are never dwelt on, and the next phrase is never obliged to wait.
The Seventh Symphony fares better under Jansons’ baton than the Sixth. The later work is Bruckner’s most carefully and traditionally structured symphony, so there is less of a feeling that the conductor is taming or constraining the work. The first movement of the Seventh has an eerie feeling of calm, as if the music’s sense of order has been predetermined and everything is passing as fate decrees. That sense of fate adds and extra dimension to the Adagio second movement. Here, the movement seems to be structured around the chorales; each achieves its incredibly impact partly through the impeccable preparation in the preceding phrases, and partly through the sheer unity and tonal control of the playing. It is that sense of inevitability, of a prophesy being fulfilled, that makes each of these statements so powerful. That comes from a very deep engagement with the structure and expressive language of the music – it’s what makes Jansons unique.
A personal take, then, on two great symphonies. If you are a fan of Jansons’ recent work, you’ll know what to expect here and you certainly won’t be disappointed. It is an unusual coupling, and presumably the fame of the Seventh Symphony is going to be the selling point over the less loved Sixth. That’s just as well, because the Seventh is the standout performance of the two. Not a top choice, but definitely worth hearing for Jansons’ deeply devotional approach, even if his observances are strictly to Apollo and never to Dionysus.