Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 15 December 2016

WAGNER Meistersinger Kempe Semperoper Dresden

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Sachs - Ferdinand Frantz, Veit Pogner - Kurt Böhme, Sixtus Beckmesser - Heinrich Pflanzl, Fritz Kothner - Karl Paul, Walther von Stolzing - Bernd Aldenhoff, David - Gerhard Unger, Eva - Tiana Lemnitz, Magdalene - Emilie Walter-Sacks
Chorus of Staatsoper Dresden, Staatskapelle Dresden
Rudolf Kempe, conductor
Recorded 1951
PROFIL PH13006 (4 CDs)

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On April 9, 1950, the Semperoper Dresden staged its first Meistersinger since the war. This was a significant event for the company, which prided itself on its long association with the work: Dresden had been only the second house to present Meistersinger¸ in 1869, the year after the Munich premiere (and long before it reached Bayreuth). To commemorate the 1950 milestone, the company took the work into the studio the following year, making this recording for MDR. The tapes were archived at the Berlin Radio Research Centre, and have now been remastered for this release, Volume 6 of the Semperoper Edition, a commemorative venture undertaken by the Semperoper, MDR, and Profil.
The CD remastering was carried out by Holger Siedler at the THS Studio in 2013, but no further information is given about the restoration process. The sound is excellent for its age, presumably through a combination of state-of-the-art recording, careful preservation, and some modern-day digital retouching. There is absolutely no tape noise or any other noticeable artifacts (my suspicious ear picked out what sounded like pre-echo in one of the quieter passages of act II, but I’m not going to swear to it). The recording, and perhaps the restoration too, focuses on the singers, bringing them impressive clarity and presence, while the orchestral tone is less distinct, although woodwind solos often jump out disconcertingly.
The performance itself more than justifies the attentions of the restoration engineer. It finds Rudolf Kempe near the start of his career, during his 1949–51 tenure at Dresden, and a few years before his more renowned Wagnerian successes at Bavarian State Opera and Covent Garden. His communication with the performers here, especially the soloists, is exemplary, and the entire recording has the feeling of a closely knit company performance. The sense of drama is also palpable—it’s a recording that, first and foremost, tells the story through the music—perhaps a unique achievement for a studio recording of the work.
Kempe often chooses daringly slow tempos, or so it seems to modern ears, yet the music’s flow and progression are never compromised. He also maintains a lightness and immediacy, his rubato continuous and intuitive, energizing and shaping the phrases. Many of the set pieces are structured to emphasize climaxes, rather than to fit seamlessly into the musical fabric. For example, Pogner’s solo early in act II, and “Wahn! Wahn!” in act III both begin at very slow, with the orchestra brought down to a whisper, but then gradually, almost imperceptibly, build in intensity. It is a coherent and convincing approach, although it sometimes feels overindulgent, especially the way Kempe leans on cadential pauses; everything momentarily grinds to a halt, for example, at “O Le-ne! Le-ne! O Mag-da-le-na!”
The cast is excellent, another strong justification for setting the production down for posterity. The clarity of pronunciation from every soloist is exceptional, with every word crisply articulated. The male voices all sound deep for their respective Fach, a consequence perhaps of the restoration process, although these are undeniably big voices. Technically, there is little to fault in the singing, but stylistically some of the interpretations jar, at least with my modern tastes. Bernd Aldenhoff is an emotive Walther, but his liberal legato is wearying, especially in the Prize Song, where he continually slides around between the notes. As Eva, Tiana Lemnitz is more disciplined vocally, but her pronunciation is very plummy, with a curious inflection to all her vowels. The splendidly named Emilie Walter-Sacks was, no doubt, destined to appear in Meistersinger one day. Her Magdalene is a good balance for Lemnitz, with a similar vocal quality but a more direct delivery. Gerhard Unger is an excellent David, clear and bright, and convincingly youthful-sounding (he was 34 at the time). A few high notes tax him, but even then his tuning remains secure. As Sachs, Ferdinand Frantz is suitably commanding, but also nimble and intimate as required. His portrayal feels like a collaboration between singer and conductor, making the most of each of his set pieces, and while Kempe sometimes overindulges in the rallentandos, Frantz always has the vocal support to carry through. Heinrich Pflanzl is an articulate and emotive Beckmesser, though with little overt comedy in his characterization. And Kurt Böhme is an exceptionally deep Pogner, his voice weighty and imposing, bringing ideal authority to the role.
Choir and orchestra exhibit the company’s impressive Wagnerian credentials, the tuttis and ensembles all delivered with class and with a tonal luster, readily apparent even from a 1951 recording. That said, the string sound lacks body and substance, though this is the only aspect of the early recording that significantly impinges on listening pleasure. But the technology cannot be blamed for some surprisingly scrappy ensemble in the brass, especially the horns, whose quiet ensemble entries in act II are poorly co-ordinated.
Such minor technical issues apart, this is a satisfying Meistersinger, and a valuable document of its times. The substantial liner is big enough to be a libretto. It’s not; instead we are offered artist bios, a detailed essay about the history of Meistersinger in Dresden, right up to the present day, and many stills and sketches for set and costume designs from the production—conservative by today’s standards, of course, but useful context for this always engaging performance.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Reger Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano Odom Samolesky

Reger Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano Odom Samolesky
Reger Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1-3, Albumblatt, Taranetella
David Odom, clarinet
Jeremy Samolesky, piano
ALBANY TROY1648 (76:00)

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Clarinetist David Odom and pianist Jeremy Samolesky enter what is rapidly becoming a crowded field with their new recording of the Reger clarinet sonatas. ArkivMusic lists eight recordings of the First Sonata, four of which from the last two years. The composer’s centenary celebrations may have contributed, but an equally significant factor seems to be the discovery of this music by American clarinetists, or perhaps newfound opportunities they have for recording them.
This new version is close in spirit, and in duration, to the Alan R. Kay/Jon Klibonoff recording on Bridge (9461), which was the subject of a Fanfare interview in 40:2. Kay and Odom both opt for slow tempos. Kay explained in the interview that he was following Reger’s tempo markings, and that the tendency for faster readings is a result of Reger’s long phrases and the difficulty of supporting the line. Odom and Samolesky are presumably also faithful to Reger, and their versions are slower still, though not by much, around a minute in each sonata. Even so, this makes them, I think, the slowest on record, with the notable exception of the glacial Janet Hill and Jakob Fichert on Naxos 8.572173.
The best of these new readings comes in the slow music, and David Odom finds valuable breadth in his slower tempos, always able to sustain the line and, with Samolesky, create a warm and luxuriant atmosphere. It is occasionally too luxuriant though, and the sense of direction (always there in Reger, whatever his detractors say) requires greater concentration from the listener to follow. The faster music is less successful. Phrases are not shaped adequately, and cadences lack urgency.
The sound quality is good, but not exceptional. The piano sounds recessed, giving it a rounded sonic profile: good for atmosphere, but poor on detail. Odom has a beautifully rich tone in the lower register, which the audio picks up well, but a thinner tone at the top, for which the recording does no favors at all.
The most radical aspect of this recording is the running order, with the Third Sonata, op. 107, placed first. That is a great idea, and a daring one too. The Third is less immediately attractive than either of the first two, and it takes longer to warm too. It is in Reger’s late, more harmonically direct, style, but expressively it is the most complex of the series. It usually languishes in third place on disc (apart from on the otherwise excellent Florent Héau/Patrick Zyganowski recording, Zig-Zag 090303, which omits it altogether) and so the listener is obliged to consider it an appendix to the more stylistically interconnected first two. But hearing it first gives the piece a new lease of life: Here, it is not an answer to anything, but a bold, independent statement, even if its sentiments are mostly inward looking and nostalgic.
On the subject of running orders, Odom and Samolesky don’t seem quite sure what to do with the Albumblatt and Taranetella, the two short additions required to justify the Complete Works for Clarinet & Piano of the album’s title. Placing them at the end makes them into an afterthought, an impression confirmed by the performances, which, at each around the two-minute mark, probably are the slowest on record. Sadly, that only reinforces the impression given by the whole disc of needless languor in music that, while atmospheric, often needs more impetus than it gets here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Schreker Orchestral Music from the Operas

Schreker: Orchestral Music from the Operas
Royal Swedish Orchestra
Lawrence Renes, conductor
BIS 2122 (SACD)

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Franz Schreker enjoys a modest but enduring reputation in the opera houses of the German-speaking world, and appearances of his music on disc follow suit—occasional but not uncommon, and mostly from Germany. So this Swedish recording of orchestral excerpts is a welcome exception. It’s an impressive disc, the selections presenting the composer at his finest, and all performed with precision and feeling, and recorded at the high standards associated with the BIS label, still laudably loyal to the SACD format.
The five tracks all relate to separate operas, in the case of the Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper, to an unrealized opera project about the Egyptian god Memnon. The feeling throughout is of operatic drama, Wagnerian in spirit through often with a light, lyrical touch that suggests a French influence (a chord sequence in the Das Spielwerk Prelude sounds identical to the sunrise in Daphnis et Chloé, with which it is almost exactly contemporary). But the program also works well as a series of standalone works, and all were arranged as such by the composer, so there are no bleeding chunks.
The most famous of the operas here is Der ferne Klang, the ravishing “Nachtstück” of which rounds off the program, although Horst A. Scholz’s liner note informs us that Der Schatzgräber was the most successful of Schreker’s operas in his day (Gerd Albrecht’s recordings of both full operas have recently been rereleased on Capriccio 5178 and 5175—fine recordings if you can see past the cheap library-image covers and negligible documentation). The Schatzgräber Interlude opens the program, with an uncharacteristic tutti outburst that soon falls back into the composer’s more typical languid textures. The orchestration in this first work is also typical of what follows, imaginative and continuously colorful, but without ever drawing too much attention to itself. So we hear a solo violin (beautifully played) for just a few bars, and later on there are elegant woodwind ensembles, subtle percussion effects, and discreet celesta interjections. Die Gezeichneten provides the second track, in the form of the work’s Prelude. The setting for this opera is 16th-century Genoa, and Schreker gives the music a Medieval flavor, although his late-Romantic style prevails, with plenty of swooning Romantic melodies to support the love story. (A video of the full opera is currently available on The Opera Platform web site, from L’opera de Lyon, and is well-worth investigating:
Lawrence Renes and Royal Swedish Orchestra do a fine job with Schreker’s music. The performances feel more disciplined than in Schreker recordings of the past, but no less passionate for it. A little more bravura from the brass, especially the trumpets, might have added to the climaxes, and a case could also be made for more warmth from the strings, but both are minor complaints. All of these works, apart from the Die Gezeichneten Prelude, also appear on two recordings from Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos (9797 and 9951), both of which were well received when released in 2000 and 2001. But this new recording stands up well on its own merits: welcome indulgences in Schreker’s expertly crafted orchestral sound world, and tantalizing tasters for his full operas, most of which are also well served by recent recordings.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Brett Dean Shadow Music

Brett Dean: Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, Short Stories. Beethoven (arr. Dean) String Quartet op. 59/1: Adagio. Dean: Testament
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Brett Dean, conductor

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Brett Dean has a rare gift, an ability to make the avant-garde accessible, and without any compromises. He now holds a position similar to Luciano Berio in the previous generation, as the composer of serious Modernist music that always keeps its face to the audience. Both composers often employ a Postmodern element in their music to achieve this, writing works with clear links to the much-loved music of earlier eras. But both also pursue more abstract paths, though even then giving helpful clues—evocative titles, clear thematic or textural ideas—to allow listeners to keep up. The five works presented here come from relatively early in Dean’s career and present a compositional voice gradually approaching full maturity. All of the textural, timbral, and even structural ideas that make his more recent works so successful are already securely in place, but what’s often missing is a sense of substance, of having an important message to express.
Or perhaps that is the wrong way to approach this music. The opening work, Etüdenfest (2000), was inspired by the sounds emanating from conservatory practice rooms. It is filled with extended string techniques, playfully layered and juxtaposed. There is a quiet and often haunting atmosphere to the work, but Dean seems determined to ground the music in its own prosaic origins: Just when you feel something emotionally profound is about to happen, he introduces an obbligato piano, incessantly practicing his arpeggios. And then the work ends. A playful étude and nothing more.
But the brittle, half-lit atmosphere of Etüdenfest continues throughout the program. In Shadow Music Dean orientates the entire work around the idea of shadows, with dark sounds and eerie percussive effects looming out of indistinct background textures. Winds and percussion are added to the ensemble, following the strings and piano of Etüdenfest, but this is still predominantly string music, and while Dean writes proficiently for every orchestral section, it is always the strings that get the majority of the interesting extended techniques.
Short Stories (2005) is, as its title suggests, more pictorial and more narrative. The five “interludes” each have a different character, the quieter ones following the shadowy mood of the previous two works. A narrative quality comes through more strongly in the faster music, where we hear long, weaving violin lines drawing the ear onwards through the ever-beguiling textures. No actual stories are told (or at least acknowledged by the composer), apart from in the penultimate movement, “Komarov’s Last Words,” a memorial to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first casualty of space flight.
A greater emotional depth is evident in Testament (2002, rev. 2008), a work inspired by Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testimony.” Dean prefaces the work with a chamber orchestra arrangement (flute, clarinet, and string orchestra) of the Adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 59/1. The arrangement itself is very elegant, and Dean’s penchant for held string pedals informs his settings of the accompanying textures. Testament follows the mood of the Beethoven movement, but the actual allusions to Beethoven’s work within Dean’s are subtle, brief quotations from the Adagio, and also, apparently, allusions to the upbeat character of the finale of the quartet. The result, in Dean’s words, is an ambivalence “somewhere between languor and resolve.”
The BIS label has done great service to Brett Dean’s music, and this is just the most recent in a long line of excellent SACD recordings. Dean himself conducts here, and the focus on textures and balances that characterize his composition transfer well to his work at the podium. The pace at which he unfolds these works always feels patient, searching for, and achieving, excellent clarity in each of the textural ideas he presents. Orchestral playing is excellent throughout: It always seems to be with Brett Dean’s music, a virtue, no doubt of his idiomatic writing. Recorded sound is very fine, too, clear SACD audio, not the kind that shows off its high fidelity credentials, but instead articulates the details without any harshness or edge and gives subtle but valuable weight to the bass.
None of these works is labeled as a first recording. With Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, and Testament, BIS is here catching up with ABC, who recorded the three works with the Tasmanian Symphony (ABC 4763219, released 2014). The latter work is an orchestral arrangement of a piece by the same name for 12 violas, written in 2002, and the original is available on BIS 2016, as a filler for the Violin Concerto “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” to date perhaps Dean’s most accomplished work. No other recording of Short Stories appears to be available at present, but, given the huge interest in the composer’s work from a range of record labels, it is probably only a matter of time before the next appears. No need to wait though—these composer-led versions are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ustvolskaya, Silvestrov, Kancheli – Works for Piano and Orchestra, Elisaveta Blumina

Galina Ustvolskaya: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani
Valentin Silvestrov: Four Postludes, Hymn
Giya Kancheli: Sio for Orchestra, Piano, and Percussion

Elisaveta Blumina, piano
Thomas Sanderling, conductor
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
Grand Piano GP 678 (58:03)

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Elisaveta Blumina and the Grand Piano label have done sterling work in recent years in promoting the piano, both solo and concertante, music of post-Soviet composers. The aesthetic politics here are complicated: Silvestrov and Kancheli are both of a religious Minimalist persuasion, even when writing music, as here, that is completely secular. But that school has increasingly moved into a radical, even confrontational position, with tonality and textural simplicity presented not only without apology, but almost in deliberate contravention of Western tastes. The challenge to Modernism here is obvious, but both composers go further, and if the West is willing to concede a neo-Romantic or Postmodern dimension to recent musical culture, even that is challenged. Kancheli is quoted in the liner note extolling Romanticism, with no “neo-” attached, as ‘a high dream of past, present, and future.’ Conflict seems inevitable, if only at the level of the individual listener coming to terms with this radically ahistoric stance. Blumina herself is Russian but based primarily in Hamburg, a city with a long tradition of supporting recent Russian music (thanks largely to the music publishing industry there), so presumably performs for audiences accustomed to the challenges this music presents. She and her colleges perform the music with real conviction, and there is no sense that the players share my reservations. As such, then, this is an important release, not least because it presents two world premiere recordings, and excellent performances of two other rarely heard works.
Such reflections have little relevance to the first work on the program, although it somehow manages to fit neatly into the ethos of the recording. Galina Ustvolskaya’s Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani was written in 1946 when she was 27 years old and just completing her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory (following a long disruption caused by the siege). The style is some distance from the austere Modernism of Ustvolskaya’s mature work, the single movement written predominantly in the keys of C Major and C Minor. As well as being in a single movement, the music also seems monothematic, with a four-note trochaic motif dominating from start to finish. The composer herself resisted comparisons with her most famous teacher, Shostakovich, but this motif, and its emphatic recurrence, are reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. On the other hand, that insistence, the continual focus on a single idea, repeated through different textures and harmonies, is similar to the approach in her later music: For all its tonal convention, this is music of an insistent and uncompromising bent. And, as often with Shostakovich, the positive and optimistic ending feels at least slightly ironic—exaggerated almost to the point of satire.
No such mixed messages in Silvestrov’s Four Postludes of 2004. Silvestrov specializes in music with a sense of belatedness, hence the regular us of “postlude” in his titles. That can come through in stylistic play, but just as often, as here, it is achieved through an unspecific sense of nostalgia. The music, throughout, is quiet and reflective, typically with the piano giving attacks to chords and textures, which the strings then sustain in clear, uncomplicated, diatonic harmonies. Silvestrov displays an impressive skill in handling this simplicity. The way that silences are integrated into the discourse is always seamless. And although the music is nostalgic, it is never sentimental, giving a sense of focus, even efficiency, to the work’s 16-minute span. The Hymn (2001) that ends the program is in a similar spirit. This work is shorter and is written for strings alone, one to a part. The dynamic never rises above mezzo-piano, and is usually lower, and so the music requires careful concentration, and, again, a sense of deep stillness and reflection is the listener’s reward.
Between, we hear Sio for string orchestra, piano, and percussion by Giya Kancheli. The work is based on, or at least invokes, the folk music of Kancheli’s native Georgia. He explores the available textures and sounds, including some prominent tuned percussion, over what feels like a series of loosely structured variations. Occasional abrupt changes of texture and mood help to define the contours of the work, and to distinguish it from the more flowing and even Silvestrov scores that frame it. But, like Silvestrov, Kancheli favors simple, diatonic textures, doubled between the piano and the strings, and the simplest of accompaniments. For all its melodic appeal, this remains, at least for me, a radical, even provocative aesthetic stance.
Excellent performances throughout from Blumina and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling. This music isn’t about virtuosity or high level technical skills, but the sheer amount of rhythmic unison and the radical simplicity of the textures make perfect ensemble and tuning a key requirement, and that is exactly what we hear. The climax of the Ustvolskaya feels a little underwhelming, but it is difficult to decide whether the performers or the, still little-experienced, composer are to blame. I could also imagine the junctions in the Kancheli to be more pointed, although excessive drama would probably ruin the effect. At the other end of the spectrum, the delicate, quiet string textures are ideal, especially for the Silvestrov. Maintaining that sound throughout the Hymn must be real challenge, and the last of the Postludes gradually disappears to nothing, a beautiful effect, especially as presented here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3
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