Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Taneyev Orchestral and Choral Works Svetlanov

Sergei Taneyev: Cantata No. 1 “John of Damascus”, Symphony No. 4, Suite de Concert, “Temple of Apollo at Delphi” from The Oresteia

Andrey Korsakov, violin  
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra
Academic Choir of the USSR All-Union Radio
Evgeny Svetlanov, conductor
Melodia MEL CD 10 02374 (2 CDs)

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Evgeny Svetlanov has always held a prominent position in the catalogue, but in recent years a good number of forgotten recordings have surfaced on various labels. ICA and Testament have been issuing recordings from London and Berlin, while Melodia has been mining its archives for recordings with Russian orchestras. These have been particularly interesting for the neglected Russian repertoire that Svetlanov championed – and usually performed to the highest standards – notably Arensky, Weinberg, and here Taneyev.
This collection gives a good survey of Taneyev’s most popular works. It’s an excellent starting point for anybody wanting to know more about the composer. It is also competitive with the very best in each of the works presented. The programme is front loaded, opening with the wonderful First Cantata, “John of Damascus”. The cantata is funereal in tone (it’s dedicated to the memory of Taneyev’s recently deceased teacher Nikolai Rubinstein). The two strongest currents in Taneyev’s work, his broad Romantic expression and his interest in Medieval counterpoint, come together here in a work of extraordinary power and conviction. And Svetlanov really makes the most of it, giving a grand heart-on-sleeve interpretation that never sidelines any of the essential contrapuntal details. Despite its uninspiring name, the Academic Choir of the USSR All-Union Radio sings with passion and commitment. Particularly impressive is the way that counterintuitive balances are achieved to clarify the unusual counterpoint. For example, in the very final chord, the tenors almost overpower the rest of the chorus, but this is clearly the sound Taneyev had in mind. A more recent recording of the cantata by Mikhail Pletnev on DG is also impressive, and has superior sound. But Svetlanov achieves a greater sense of dramatic sweep, making this the version of choice.
Taneyev’s Fourth Symphony is a better-known quantity, with at least five recordings in the catalogue. But this too is a very convincing reading, and all the more so for the distinctively Russian sound of the orchestra, the earthy strings and blaring brass. Svetlanov again achieves an ideal balance of drive and breadth, giving a suitably symphonic feel. The Adagio second movement is particularly impressive, slow and expansive, but without ever seeming to sprawl or lose its way.
The Suite de Concert (here rendered as Concert Suite) is Taneyev’s only venture into concertante music. It is not a violin concerto as such, more a collection of symphonic dances with violin solo. Nor is it one of Taneyev’s finest works, although it has remained popular, largely thanks to the advocacy of high profile Russian violinists, notably Oistrakh. Andrey Korsakov gives an impressive reading here, technically secure and delivered with real conviction. He and Svetlanov are of common mind in terms of the drama and weight they apply to this music. Sometimes it goes too far, as in the second movement Gavotte, which feels burdened by the heavy accents and in need of a lighter touch. But Taneyev’s orchestration, imaginative as it is, always allows the soloist to predominate. He may be given a helping hand by the audio, either in the original edit or in the remaster, but it is a fairly subtle balance shift. The audio throughout is fine, nothing special but as good as can be expected from late Soviet technology (the recordings date from 1984-90). There is always plenty of clarity, though sometimes a lack of presence, with the wind and brass in particular lacking bloom.
To conclude, “Temple of Apollo at Delphi”, scene change music from Taneyev’s opera The Oresteia. This is a great little piece, starting out with atmospheric harps, in the spirit of the opening of Khovanshchina, and building to a grand processional, almost worth of Lohengrin. But there’s no forgetting this music’s Russian origins, nor those of the recording. The blaring Russian trumpets completely dominate the climax, just as they should. It’s only six minutes, but it’s a great way to close the programme. A slightly frustrating one though, given that this and the overture are all that’s currently available of what is apparently one of the greatest Russian operas of the 19th century.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Bruckner Symphony No 5 Young Hamburg Philharmonic

Bruckner Symphony No 5
Simone Young
Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra
OEHMS (SACD 73:23)

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Simone Young here completes her Bruckner cycle, and with it her tenure with the Hamburg Philharmonic and Opera. Her reputation has risen steadily throughout the decade she has been there, largely thanks to her impressive recordings on the Oehms label, not least her Ring cycle and her Bruckner symphonies. Both demonstrate how Young has positioned herself as a potent and guiding force within the German musical establishment. Her performances of this core repertoire are always deeply idiomatic, but also have enough personality to stand out from the crowd. Young’s Bruckner (and her Wagner too) is always suitably grand and imposing, but it never drags. Relying on the virtuosity of her Hamburg players, she is able to give the music its full weight and sonic opulence, but usually at tempos slightly faster than the norm. That, combined with a keen sense for the music’s agogic impulses – all the varying accents and attacks that create the foreground texture and articulate the phases – allow her to propel the music, but without ever trivialising it.
One selling point of this Bruckner cycle has been Young’s use of William Carragan’s editions of the earliest versions of each symphony. The Fifth, and before it the Ninth, were presumably left until the end because no such Carragan edition exists for either (a lost 1876 version of the score awaits his reconstruction work). Young chose not to use Carragan’s completion of the Ninth Symphony finale, but compensated by presenting a very fine reading of the standard Nowak. That recording was the highlight of the cycle, the work really responding to Young’s disciplined but dramatic approach.
The Fifth ought to work just as well, and Young’s interpretation is certainly similar, but this recording is not the all-round success of its predecessor. The balance between propulsion and grandeur too often veers towards the former. The fast tempos are not the problem – at 73:23 Young shaves off just two or three from the average – so much as the lack of sympathetic rubato. Brass chorales always seem integrated into their context, rather than transcending above it. That is a minor, if recurrent, problem in the first movement, but is fatal to the finale. The grand chorale, that completely changes the course of the symphony at its first appearance and goes on to form the redemptive conclusion, is introduced without any great ceremony, and its repeated appearances, while always loud, seem lacking in gravitas. All this, combined with a lack of intrigue and mystery at the start of the first and last movements – partly a result of the fast tempos, but probably a deliberate interpretive choice – narrows the work’s dramatic profile, and with it the spiritual conviction on which it relies.
Which is a shame, because in many other respects this is a fine reading. Both of the inner movements benefit from Young’s debonair refinement. Phases in the Adagio are always elegantly shaped, even within the generally strict tempos, and the Scherzo is given a visceral intensity through the combination of hard attacks and weighty textures. On the whole the orchestra plays well, although the brass loses tonal control in the some of the first movement climaxes. Audio standards (listening to the SACD stereo mix) are as high as ever, the strings in particular given real immediacy.
For all its disappointments, this final release in the series has the distinct advantage that it continues an interpretive trajectory common to every release in the cycle. Bruckner recordings today seem to fall into two camps, the old-school weighty and monumental approach of Thielemann and Haitink, and the fleet, dynamic approach that is becoming fashionable and is best exemplified by Gerd Schaller’s competing cycle of the Carragan editions. Simone Young has found an effective way of combining the best of both worlds, and has demonstrated that her distinctive perspective has benefits for each of Bruckner’s symphonies. This Fifth isn’t the best of them, but it is still a decent one to close the cycle. If you haven’t been keeping up with these releases as they have appeared, and want to know what Simone Young can do with Bruckner, the Ninth Symphony recording would be good place to start.