Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Well-Tempered Clavier Céline Frisch

BACH Well-Tempered Clavier, book I
Céline Frisch harpsichord
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Harpsichordist Céline Frisch has an impressive discography on the Alpha label, and since 2000 has been making well-received recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, including the Goldberg Variations and, with Café Zimmermann, the keyboard concertos, and gamba and violin sonatas. More recently, she has branched into French Baroque repertoire—Rameau, d’Anglebert—as well as making some interesting forays into more modern music, with discs of de Falla and Yanov-Yanovsky. This set marks a return to Bach, with an account of perhaps the most central work in the harpsichord’s canon. It’s an impressive reading: engaging, vibrant, and distinctive, though without ever sounding idiosyncratic.
The liner notes, by Peter Wollny, survey the work’s history and the temperament innovations from which it grew, but tell us nothing about the performer or her instrument, which is only briefly alluded to elsewhere in the liner as “harpsichord 1995, Anthony Sidey & Frédéric Bal from Silbermann original.” That suggests an instrument modeled on one from Bach’s time, the 1730s perhaps, and its robust and resonant sound suggests something substantial with two keyboards. The instrument’s ability to sustain is remarkable, though almost certainly aided by the recording acoustic, at the Saint Rémi Church at Franc-Warret in Belgium. The instrument also has an attractive buff stop, used to good effect in the FT-Minor Fugue. Mechanical noises are minimal—a virtue, no doubt, of using a modern instrument—although there are some heavy clicks at the ends of several movements.
The instrument has a clear tone and plenty of bass, which, combined with its enviable sustain, gives Frisch a great deal of interpretive flexibility. It allows her to take the AI-Major Prelude faster than any piano could manage, and without ever congesting the textures. Similarly, the FT-Minor Prelude is agile and crisp, the instrument’s weighty resonance giving way to a lighter, more nimble tone palette. Frisch often invokes a sense of stately procession, as in the E-Major and BI-Minor Preludes, the melodic lines well supported by the substantial bass. Elsewhere, that heavy bass sound becomes ominous, even oppressive, such as in the fast bass lines in CT-Major and CT-Minor Fugues. But balance between treble and bass is never compromised, and in the CT-Minor Prelude, where the two diverge towards the registral extremes, the conversation between them never lurches too far one way or the other.
Frisch applies a subtle rubato to many of the movements. Gently accelerating into the F-Minor Fugue allows it to build pace in line with its expanding texture. The FT-Major Prelude is given a nonchalant air through seemingly casual, if always miniscule, tempo changes. And, while no arpeggiation is applied, the way that Frisch relaxes the synchronization in the EI-Major Prelude affords the individual lines greater independence, and the overall texture greater breadth, but never at the expense of clarity.
The engineering is excellent, detailed and immediate, but with plenty of the warm resonance in the mix. Each prelude and each fugue is tracked separately. Documentation, as mentioned, is a little lacking with regard to the interpretation and the instrument, but otherwise a very attractive proposition. Book II awaits.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Bach Without Words Anna Christiane Neumann

Anna Christiane Neumann, Anja Kleinmichel (pn) 
GENUIN 15375 (69:33)

Transcriptions of chorales and chorale preludes for piano and piano four hands by Kurtág, Riemenschneider, Busoni, Neumann, Lambert, Kempff, Berners, Howells, Walton, Willner, Vaughan Williams, H. Cohen, Reger, Bridge, M. Hess
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It’s not often Ralph Vaughan Williams and György Kurtág appear on the same track listing. The list of arrangers and transcribers here is amazingly diverse, although, perhaps predictably, the results are more unified. But each has a subtly different take on Bach’s music, and the results are continually fascinating, engaging, and all do justice to the great man’s work.
The arrangers’ art is not the primary focus of this album. It is titled, Bach Without Words and, as its slightly pretentious liner notes (with quotes from Heidegger, among others) explain, the primary issue here is the viability of Bach’s vocal music separated from their texts. This must be a greater concern for native German speakers than it is for the rest of us, and the extent to which the album needs to justify itself may give us more secular listeners pause for thought—how much are we sacrificing by not engaging with Bach’s words and the liturgical culture in which he worked?
The sheer popularity and fame of many of the transcriptions here suggests that the battle for them is already won, and despite the pianist’s stated aims, the over-riding impression is of a celebration of the art of transcription, and of the versatility of Bach’s music, even his vocal music, in contexts beyond those for which it was intended.
The program moves between Bach’s chorale harmonizations and his chorale preludes based on the same themes, typically presenting the chorale followed by a prelude based on it. The chorale harmonizations are taken from the Albert Riemenschneider anthology, and if, like me, you spent many undergraduate years studying this purely as a textbook, you will be pleasantly surprised at what satisfying piano music it makes. Pianist Anna Christiane Neumann, no doubt with the words of each chorale going round her mind as she plays, gives elegant and beautifully shaped renditions, appropriately strict in style, but always with the emotional experience of the listener as the primary concern.
Among the arrangers of chorale preludes are some familiar suspects. The appearance of Busoni’s name comes as no surprise, and the warm, flowing textures that he achieves with this music are satisfying indeed. But the success of every selection here calls into question the amount of input that each of the arrangers has had. Obviously, the pedal line must be integrated into the music for (mostly) two hands, then there is the question of realizing ornaments, and finally of adding phrasing and dynamics in ways that the organ might not be able to express. Frank Bridge deals with the extra notes from the pedal part in Komm süßer Tod, BWV 478, with some audacious broken chords, but all the other arrangers manage to avoid this. Arthur Willner’s (1881–1951) arrangement of “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, is the most ambitious downsizing project. It fits well into the tone of the album, even though, unlike in the organ music, there is a definite feeling of missing out, on extra counterpoint as much as on vocal and instrumental texture.
Neumann gives excellent performances throughout. Most of these arrangements are from the Romantic era, and that is exactly where she locates the album’s aesthetic, playing with a warm, rounded tone, and not skimping on the sustain pedal when required. The Mendelssohn-Saal of the Leipzig Gewandhaus has an ideal acoustic, the perfect balance of clarity and warmth, captured with gratifying immediacy by the engineers.
To further vary the program, Neumann is joined in five numbers by a colleague, Anja Kleinmichel, for four-hand arrangements by Reger and Kurtág. The Reger, which closes the program, is a curiously restrained transcription of Air on a G-String, which has a certain austere beauty but feels bare without any ornamentation, written or improvised. The Kurtág, by contrast, is the absolute highlight of the disc. The sheer imagination that he puts into distributing the lines among the four hands far surpasses any of the more dutiful Romantic-era contributions. Kurtág transcribes Bach to play with his wife, Márta. She is the professional pianist, and gets all the knotty counterpoint. He plays the cantus firmus, often leaning over her to play between her hands, or taking the lines right up to the top of the piano. He’s also fond of doubling the chorale themes at a distance of two or three octaves, an effect at once stately and ethereal. The Kurtág arrangements here are the opening Sonata from Cantata 106; O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687; and Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her’, BWV 711. All are given exemplary and profoundly moving readings by Neumann and Kleinmichel. Simply exquisite.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Bruckner Symphony No. 5 Lance Friedel London Symphony Orchestra

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (Nowak ed.)
Lance Friedel conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
MSR 1600 (73:19) SACD

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An impressive release this, and a near miraculous one, given how rare studio recordings by symphony orchestras have become in recent years. The liner notes give little away about how MSR managed to finance the venture, and to book the London Symphony Orchestra, no less. The venture is even more surprising given the relatively unknown conductor, Lance Fridel. MSR has had a previous success with him, a disc of Nielsen with the Aarhus Orchestra (1150), but even so, his name alone is unlikely to promote sales. That of the London Symphony might, however, and the SACD format – a luxury that almost always rewards in Bruckner.
Artistically, the gamble pays off. Friedel shows himself here to be an accomplished and distinctive Brucknerian. He comes as close as any I have heard to the Holy Grail of modern Bruckner interpretation: a performance that is fashionably fast and dynamic, yet which also retains the grandeur and depth that so many present-day conductors are happy to sacrifice. The running time of 73:19 places this among the fastest I’ve heard. Most of the time is made up in the first movement, which here runs to 18:35, against an average of 22-25. The scherzo is on the fast side as well, although the Adagio and finale are closer to the average.
The opening of the first movement is slow, and the initial tuttis are suitably monumental. But when Bruckner gets busy with his thematic working, Friedel increases the tempo. On the whole it works well. Although the tempos are fast, they are a supple too, and Friedel knows how to structure the music at every level. I was sometimes frustrated by the lack of space between the phrases, which tend to run one into another. Given the generous acoustic (of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak – what a luxury to hear the London Symphony recorded somewhere other than the dreadful Barbican Hall!), there are many opportunities to let the sound die away before the tackling the next phrase. But that’s not Friedel’s way, he’s thinking in longer paragraphs and rarely lets the momentum drop. It’s an effective approach, although some of the tuttis later on sometimes sound a little rushed, and while he creates an appropriate sense of finality in the coda (no mean feat), the final chords of the first movement are a little lacking in gravitas.
The second movement is taken at a more traditional pace, even slower than many versions in some passages. Excellent balance here, for instance with the pizzicato accompaniment to the opening oboe solo. Friedel gives the woodwind soloists ample space the phrase eloquently. He also leads the strings in some delicious phrasing as the movement develops. The scherzo is also characterized by impressive balance, especially with the brass, who provide weight but without excessive volume. At 13:31 this is a fast reading of the scherzo, but it’s power and dynamism come from carefully weighted accents and precise playing as much as from sheer speed.
In the opening of the finale, Friedel recounts faithfully the various tempos of the earlier movements as their themes are reprised, still managing to integrate them effectively. The chorale, when it first appears, seems a little underpowered. But Friedel knows what he is doing, and gradually builds up from this point to the coda, adding volume, but again using increasing agogic weight and impact from the brass as much as he does sheer power to achieve the effect.
All round, this is an approach that makes the most of the world-class orchestra the MSR has put at Friedel’s disposal. Sound quality is excellent, with renowned engineer Phil Rowlands giving his very best. (Just another brief plea here: please LSO, can we have some recordings from this venue on the LSO Live label.) Interpretively, the fast tempos, especially in the first movement, may be unforgivable for some, but they are not fast-fast – we’re in Günter Wand or Marcus Bosch territory here, not the super-slick world of Neeme Järvi or Thomas Dausgaard. And, in the finale, Friedel makes an excellent case for his tempo choices by integrating them all towards a compelling, and monumental, climax. All round then, an impressive Bruckner Five, certainly a contender in the work’s rapidly growing SACD discography.