Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bruckner Symphony No 9 completed Josephson Gibbons

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 (with finale reconstructed by Nors S. Josephson)     
John Gibbons, cond; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra   
 DANACORD 754 (80:31)

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Few conjectural finales seem as surplus to requirements as that of Bruckner’s Ninth. The ending of the Adagio, with its somber yet consoling Wagner tuba chords, feels like the ideal conclusion to a perfectly formed three-movement work. Bruckner himself, of course, didn’t see it that way, laboring over the finale for the last year and a half of his life, and still working on it on the morning of the day he died. The work’s tortuous history suggests that listeners, if nothing else, have a personal obligation to the composer to perceive the symphony in terms of a four-movement whole.
In fact, the finale as Bruckner left it is not as skeletal we’d like to believe. Bruckner completed approximately the first half, left most of the remainder in short score, and only the coda is missing. The apparent perfection of the three-movemenet version has led to this incomplete finale being almost completely ignored, at least by performers and listeners. Scholars, on the other hand, have taken the matter more seriously. Bruckner’s surviving sketches (there is some evidence that material for the missing coda was pilfered by trophy hunters soon after his death) reside in the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna and the Viennese Hochshule für Musik. They were first published under the editorship of Alfred Orel in 1934 (now available online at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ excellent new Bruckner web site, Looking at that edition, it is clear that much interpretive work is required for the second half of the movement. The short score is usually on four staves and usually only includes two lines, typically a melody line and a repeating accompaniment figure.
Then there is the issue of the coda. From the finales of Bruckner’s earlier symphonies, we can infer that he would have brought back some of the thematic ideas from the earlier movements. But how to do that without the results sounding cheap? As so often with Bruckner, his (inimitable?) genius shines through in his ability to make the obvious sublime.
The first completion of the Ninth Symphony’s finale was made by William Carragan in 1983, with revisions up to 2010. Gerd Schaller included this in his traversal of Carragan’s Bruckner editions, although Simone Young, in her competing Carragan Bruckner cycle, did not. The Oehms web page for Young’s Ninth (which is excellent, incidentally) seems curiously apologetic, “Simone Young presents Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony here in its three-movement version – the last movement was never completed by Bruckner and is therefore not included in this cycle.”
Young’s reticence may be a result of more recent editorial activity, specifically the new completion by a team of four Bruckner scholars led by Nicola Samale. The first Samale version appeared just a year after Carragan’s, with revisions up to 2011. This 2011 version brought the whole project of Ninth Symphony completion into the public eye, thanks to Simon Rattle and his recording of it with the Berlin Philharmonic.
All of which makes the present recording seem slightly anachronistic. It presents, for the first time, the edition made by Nors S. Josephson in 1992. Comparing the Josephson with the Samale, we find the same kinds of issues that separate the various completions of Mahler’s Tenth. Josephson, like Deryck Cooke, avoids ostentatious additions wherever possible. As a result, the sound is often threadbare: grandly orchestrated, but with harmonies based on excessive doubling, and a notable absence of counterpoint. That makes it all the harder for him to justify quotations from earlier movements that appear in the coda, which now seem all the more pasted on. That said, that standard Bruckner tropes are all elegantly served, the brass chorales are suitably voiced, and the running string lines are well balanced within the section.
Sadly, the performance itself does no favors to the edition it is designed to champion. There is little drama or tension in the earlier movements, and the generally slow tempos that John Gibbons takes never lend the music any of the grandeur he seems to be aiming for. The scherzo is the most successful movement here, for the breezy, light-hearted approach Gibbons takes (in stark contrast to the rest of the reading). But throughout the performance the Aarhus orchestra is on poor form. The string sound is thin and scratchy, and the brass intonation is very poor. These problems are particularly apparent in the Adagio, which is ironic, given that this is exactly where the performance needs to excel in order to make the best cast for the finale to follow.
It is difficult to separate the performance issues from the editorial issues in the finale itself. However, the first 235 bars were completed by Bruckner, making direct comparisons possible. The conviction and dramatic momentum that Rattle and the Berlin Players bring to these opening five minutes or so leave Gibbons and the Aarhus Symphony for dust. As the two recordings diverge, the editorial issues no doubt come into play, but Rattle is on top form here, and imbues a sense of inevitability into the Samale edition through the sheer force of his interpretive conviction. Going back and listening more closely to the Samale, many of the same issues start to become apparent, particularly the excessive repetition and the thin chord voicing disguised under heavy orchestration. But comparisons with the present recording elevate everything in the Rattle/Samale version. If you want a Bruckner Ninth finale that feels like the real thing, listen to Gibbons/Josephson and then listen to Rattle/Samale. The comparison is like a journey straight into the mind of the composer. Otherwise, avoid this recording, and this edition too. Neither makes a remotely convincing case for hearing the Ninth Symphony as a four-movement work.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Mahler Symphony No 9 Fischer Elder

MAHLER Symphony No. 9    Iván Fischer, cond; Budapest Festival O    CHANNEL 36115 (SACD: 75:55)

MAHLER Symphony No. 9    Mark Elder, cond; Hallé O    HALLÉ 7541 (2 CDs: 81:56) Live: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 5/22/2014

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Two excellent new Mahler Ninth Symphonies, similar in spirit and execution, and both highly recommendable. A difficult task, then, to tease them apart and make a preference.
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra are nearing the end of a well-regarded Mahler symphony cycle for Channel Classics. Audio quality throughout the cycle has been up to the company’s usual high standards, and this release is no exception. Both conductor and orchestra have a natural affinity for this music, but in some earlier releases that seemed a mixed blessing. The First Symphony recording (Channel 33112) often felt like it was lapsing into complacency, so comfortable were the players with the idiom. That impression also returns occasionally here in the Ninth, although to a lesser extent, and others may hear it as deliberate detachment, the composer increasingly distancing himself as he makes his long goodbyes.
Mark Elder’s recording with the Hallé is of a live performance (a single night, but with patches from rehearsal). The sense of occasion, and possibly the generous acoustic of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, may account for the extra five minutes he takes over Fisher. It is a taught and dramatic reading though. If the players are less naturally sympathetic to Mahler’s central European sound, they compensate with a more gutsy and emphatic performance. Nothing ever coasts here, and Elder always ensures a high level of concentration and focus.
Both orchestras sound very fine. The Hallé strings have the upper hand over their Budapest counterparts, both for the corporate elegance of their tone and the sheer accuracy of their playing. For woodwind and brass, however, the Budapest players take the palm. Their playing is more accurate and more idiomatic, the latter perhaps due to their equipment, wider woodwinds, narrower brass.
Interpretively, there is little else to separate the two readings. Even though Fischer and the Budapest players sound more comfortable, they always provide plenty of drive and excitement. Their faster pace is evident in every movement, but most acutely in the first, where the drive rarely lets up. Elder, by contrast, makes the interludes more relaxed and the thematic statements more punchy, with greater dynamic and contrast and harder accents. The results are more expansive, but no less focused.
No real distinctions between the readings of the inner movements, both of which just under a minute longer under Elder. That central European woodwind sound gives Fischer the upper hand in terms of coloring the rustic dances, but again, Elder’s ability to highlight subtle contrasts and immediately change the character from phrase to phrase makes his an equally engaging approach.
If Iván Fischer gets the recommendation, it’s due to the final Adagio, or at least the way that the SACD audio (heard in stereo) presents it to us. Early on in the symphony, the SACD seemed less significant. In fact, the opening of the first movement seems overly emphatic: The Hallé’s cellos can fade in from silence; in superior audio the Budapest players don’t have that option. However, in the last 10 minutes of the symphony, the high-quality sound comes into its own. The quiet, sustained high notes from the violins and woodwind have a beautiful, crystalline quality for Fischer, which the Hallé engineering can’t match. You can turn the dial up, but the results are still muddy, at least by comparison. It is a great shame that the Hallé own label hasn’t gone down the SACD route (or perhaps some other high definition format). Their excellent Walküre a few years ago (Hallé 7531) could have benefited immeasurably, and so could this Mahler. Where it not for that, both of these Ninth Symphony recordings would be of equal standing.

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 39:2

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Alissa Firsova Russian Emigres

Russian Émigrés

Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2 (1913 version), Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Elena Firsova: For Alissa 
Dmitri Smirnov: Piano Sonata No. 6, “Blake” Sonata
Alissa Firsova: Lune Rouge

Alissa Firsova, piano

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The multi-talented Alissa Firsova is not new to discs – at least two currently available CDs feature her compositions – but this new release represents her recording debut as a pianist. It’s an impressive recital, cleverly mixing new and old into a coherent and musically focussed programme.
The disc is structured around two major Rachmaninov works, the Second Sonata (1913 version) and the Corelli Variations. If I’ve one grumble about this recital, it is the sheer ubiquity of the Second Sonata on pianists’ debut recital discs: very rare the Russian pianist who chooses not to include this on their first CD.  Still, it gets an excellent performance from Firsova. Her reading is disciplined and precise, but with plenty of drama too. The sheer clarity of her touch is impressive, and there are always nuances of dynamic and articulation distinguishing the melodies from the accompanying textures. Firsova plays a Fazioli, whether by choice or circumstance, and it is the ideal instrument for her pianism – elegant and clear without ever sounding forceful. The opening of the sonata is suitably thunderous, though even here there is never any sense that the music is carrying her away: She’s always in control. The dotted rhythms in the second subject are not overly emphasised – here and elsewhere, the music’s dramatic contrasts are clearly acknowledged, but without any exaggeration or undue pathos. All round, this is a committed and involving performance, but one that always feels focussed, directed and clearly articulated.
Both of Firsova’s parents are composers. Their emigration from Russia, along with Rachmaninov’s several decades earlier, is the theme of this recital (the disc’s title is Russian Émigrés). It’s just an excuse, of course, for programming Rachmaninov with works by Firsova’s own family, and in the case of the Second Sonata, written before Rachmaninov left Russia, it wears thin. Fortunately, the musical connections linking all the works together are so strong that the “Émigrés” theme becomes secondary to the sheer musical coherence of the recital. Elena Firsova (Alissa’s mother) composed the following work, For Alissa, after hearing her practising the Corelli Variations, which appears later on. That may explain the surprisingly Romantic sound of the work’s opening passages. In fact, this short piece is a set of variations, and the music quickly increases in complexity and harmonic intrigue. Yet, true to form, Firsova maintains a strong sense of unity and stylistic focus. The music always retains its initial lyricism, even when the textures become more turbulent and dense. Everything moves by smooth transition – despite the sectional structure, the work gives the impression of a single utterance. And while it quickly moves away from Rachmaninov’s soundworld, it always sounds undeniably Russian, especially with sound of tolling bells from the repeated fourths deep in the instrument’s bass as the work closes.
At only seven minutes, the Elena Firsova work only gives a frustratingly short glimpse of the composer’s talents. Fortunately, Dmitri Smirnov, Alissa’s father, is represented by a more substantial work, his Sixth Piano Sonata, the “Blake” Sonata. Firsova tells us in her detailed liner notes that Smirnov has a long-held fascination with William Blake, having composed over 40 works based on the writer and, even more remarkably, translated everything he ever wrote into Russian. The relationship between this music and Blake’s work is abstract, beyond the use of letters from his name to make musical cyphers. In fact, the question of the relationship between Blake’s mystical spirituality and Smirnov’s often devotional, often clear-eyed and rational, intonations is probably a very productive way into this music.
But whether treated as exegesis or pure musical form, this is a masterly work that deserves the widest audience. Again, the music here has a strong Russian accent – it is clearly the work of a composer from the last generation of Soviet-trained Russians. Smirnov is a master of counterpoint, and the clarity of the contrapuntal lines here – often just in simple canonic relations but ranging right across the keyboard – makes the music continually engaging. I often hear Schnittke’s piano music in the background. I doubt Smirnov himself would appreciate the comparison, and it is probably more to do with shared technical apparatus than common artistic goals. For example, the use of monograms based on names often leads to single, highly expressive lines (but monody rather than melody, as per Messiaen). So the sparse opening becomes reminiscent of Schnittke’s First Piano Sonata, and the sparse ending of his Piano Quintet. We also hear homophonic chordal/choral textures – a link perhaps to Schnittke, or, more probably, and like Firsova’s tolling bells, to the shared inheritance of the Russian tradition. But such comparisons apart, this is an impressively distinctive, original and assured work – the highlight of the programme.
Given the clarity and care that Alissa Firsova applies to the Rachmaninov Sonata, it is little wonder that the Corelli Variations suit her even better. When the Folia them appears after the Smirnov Sonata, it brings a refreshing break from the highly emotive music we have just heard: Having the Rachmaninov follow straight on from the Smirnov without a break is an inspired piece of programming. As the variations go on, the dance-like grace of the music becomes the defining character of Firsova’s reading. Again, we have drama and contrast where required, but continuity and focus are always the more apparent virtues.
To close, one of Alissa Firsova’s own works, Lune Rouge, written for Imogen Cooper in 2005. The liner reproduces the first page of the Rachmaninov Sonata inside the front cover and the first page of Firsova’s work on the inside of the back. The two look remarkably similar, with repeating figures in the treble accompanying a long-ranging melody in the mid-register. But Firsova’s soundworld is closer of Liszt’s La campanella, for the continually ringing sounds of the treble accompaniment – it’s those Russian bells again, you can’t get away from them.
Firsova’s work at the end feels like a brief encore after the more substantial Corelli Variations, the real climax of the programme. It is as if Firsova the composer is deliberately taking a back seat so as not to steal the limelight from Firsova the pianist. That is a delicate balance, but one that this programme manages well. All three of the Smirnov/Firsova family deserve more exposure as composers, but that is only a secondary concern here. As a debut recital disc, it does everything it sets out to do, not only demonstrating the Firsova’s impressive talents, but also giving a clear picture of her musical personality. Strongly recommended, primarily on those grounds, but also for Smirnov’s “Blake” Sonata, which has the makings of a modern masterpiece.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Lutosławski Piano Concerto Zimerman Rattle

Lutosławski Piano Concerto. Symphony No. 21 Simon Rattle, cond; Krystian Zimeramn (pn); Berlin PO DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4518 (52:22) 1Live: Berlin 9/2013

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Krystian Zimerman knows how to use his industry clout. Anything with his name on will sell, of course, but even so, the odds against the current recording are extraordinary. Despite his uncompromising Modernism, Lutosławski is a favorite with record labels, and both of these works are available in many other versions, most of them very fine. The Piano Concerto in particular is up against a seemingly unbeatable competitor: the first ever recording, which also features Zimerman (the dedicatee). To compound matters further, that earlier recording is conducted by the composer, released on the same label, and still in print (DG 431 6642). It’s even advertised on the back of the liner to the present release. But we should be thankful that DG took the gamble, because this new version is far superior, and easily takes preference, even over its august ancestor.
Zimerman’s own reading hasn’t changed much since his previous version, made with the BBC Symphony in 1989, the year after its premiere. His effortless virtuosity is equally apparent, then as now. If anything, he has relaxed into the music more. The concerto has entered the canon in the intervening years, so Zimerman knows that he doesn’t have to make such an emphatic case for it. That mellow, sanguine tone that is the trademark of his playing comes through with more ease here—it’s more Chopinesque all round. Which isn’t to say that he plays down the drama, the concerto is just as turbulent, involving, and unpredictable as ever.
Simon Rattle is another ardent Lutosławski champion, but he avoids imitating the composer’s own approach to conducting the work. Tempos are similar (the score’s metronome markings see to that), but Rattle is less impulsive and less emphatic. Even in the fastest music, there is always space around every note, and where Lutosławski pushes the BBC Symphony to extremes of dynamics and accentuation, Rattle always seems to have more in reserve. But again, the dramatic power of the work remains undimmed, and there is never any sense that soloist, conductor, or orchestra are holding back.
The two qualities that raise this above Zimerman’s previous version are the audio and the orchestral playing. The concerto was recorded in sessions at the Philharmonie (the symphony there too, but live), and the hall’s acoustics respond beautifully to the mellow, floating textures. Lutosławski often writes quiet music, but with such detail that every nuance needs to be heard. Every nuance is heard here, and the effect is spectacular. The piano is always apparent across the orchestra, even when their respective textures call its dominance into question. Of course, Lutosławski knows what he is doing, and no doubt he is relying on Zimerman’s always clear articulation and touch to project the piano’s lines.
Rattle’s advocacy of Modernist music with the Berlin Philharmonic has been laudable, but has sometimes seemed to waste their talents. That lush, velvety tone, cultivated over the decades to bring an extra level of sophistication to Bruckner and Brahms, seems out of place in Messiaen, for example, even reducing the impact of some of his more austere scores. But Lutosławski’s lush, complex textures are another matter. The Berlin Philharmonic sound is ideal here, not only for the sheer elegance the orchestra displays, but also for the details that it is able to project, again aided by the excellent audio.
The symphony feels like a bit of a filler, not least because it is a live recording (although that itself is a testament to Rattle’s adventurous programming in Berlin). Comparisons with the composer’s own recording (with the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, currently available on EMI 9072262) again find Rattle in a less declamatory mode. In fact, Rattle’s recording is five minutes shorter, but at every turn it feels more relaxed. The issue may be that Rattle, unlike Lutosławski, is able to rely on both the orchestra and the sound quality to bring out the details of the quiet passages, of which there are many. This new version is certainly satisfying, although from what I’ve read about Edward Gardner’s recent recording on Chandos (5106), Rattle has some serious competition for the top spot here.
          The short running time of this disc should be noted, as I’m sure it is selling at full price. In fact, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angelese Philharmonic offer the same program on a Sony disc (67189) and manage to squeeze in two other works, one of them the substantial Chantefleurs et Chantefables. But that apart, this Zimerman/Rattle collaboration comes highly recommended. Whatever this mercurial pianist’s motivations for returning to the concerto, we should all be glad he did.