Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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)

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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.

Friday, 13 November 2015

BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem Jansons Concertgebouw Orchestra

BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem
Genia Kühmeier, soprano
Gerald Finley, bass
Netherlands Radio Choir
Concertgebouw Orchestra
RCO Live RCO 15003 (SACD)

 Recent recordings from Mariss Jansons have been a mixed bag. There have been many releases on the own labels of his two orchestras, the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Concertgebouw, some excellent, others less so. He always gives well-controlled and finely crafted performances, which are certainly virtues, but they separate him from the younger generation of conductors with whom he competes in the core repertoire. Their key qualities - excitement, dynamism, unpredictability – are notably absent from his more measured accounts. That can be fatal in his Shostakovich and Mahler, and it is a mixed blessing in his Bruckner (his Seventh was good but his Sixth plodded). Fortunately, the one composer for whom Jansons never fails is Brahms. His Second and Third Symphonies with the BRSO has been one of the finest releases from their label, and was followed by a First and Fourth that were well regarded, as was the Second Symphony on the Concertgebouw label (RCO 05002).
The sheer craftsmanship and elegance of Jansons’ approach perfectly aligns with Brahms’ lyrical but always highly intelligent Romanticism. Jansons never goes to extremes, of tempo or dynamic, but then Brahms never calls for them. Instead, the focus is always on creating flow and line, but within clearly delineated and elegantly proportioned structures. And, his moderation aside, there is always drama in Jansons’ Brahms, and never any feeling that his sophistication is diminishing the emotional experience.
All of which bodes well for this German Requiem, and the recording certainly lives up to expectations. It is taken from live performances in September 2012, and the reasons for the delay in its release are unclear. But it was worth the wait, as this is an involving and compelling account.
Tempos, as ever with Jansons, are midrange and steady, which, when combined with the plush sound the Concertgebouw Orchestra makes for an ideal sense of solemnity. The SACD audio (heard in stereo) is good, and, as so often with this label, is used to intensify the atmosphere rather than focus in on the details. The result, from orchestra and chorus alike, is a warm and rich tone, expansive at the tuttis and always suitably consoling.
Gerald Finley, listed here as a bass, is in fine form. He brings valuable operatic qualities to his solos, but keeps that trademark expression and depth of emotion in line with Jansons’ reading, the focal point of the music, but never the standout star. Genia Kühmeier seems less emotionally engaged, but the purity of her tone is very attractive. Hers is a fine performance, but it’s not in the same league as Finley’s. The performances of both soloists feel integral to the ensemble, and to the performance as a whole. Perhaps the Concertgebouw acoustic plays a role in that, and, as ever, the hall’s distinctive aural character is well conveyed by the Polyhymnia recording team.
A standout release, then, among Jansons’ many recent offerings, and a version that does full justice to the work. The German Requiem is hardly a rarity on disc, but this recording has a fair claim to being the finest since Klemperer, a version with which it shares many key qualities.