Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Elgar Symphony No. 1 Petrenko

ELGAR Symphony No. 1. Cockaigne Overture
Vasily Petrenko, cond; Royal Liverpool PO
ONYX 4145 (63:19)

The symphonic credentials of Elgar’s First are not immediately apparent. The work opens with an imperious largamente theme that could grace any of his orchestral works, and it is only when the sprightly second subject begins that the music displays any sense of symphonic contrast or argument. The standard approach is to not worry too much about architecture when Elgar is absorbed in his long melodies and to compensate elsewhere, especially by heightening the drama at the movement climaxes.
Vasily Petrenko takes a different approach. Everything in this new recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic works on a symphonic level. The opening theme is taken at a surprisingly slow pace, creating a mood of serenity rather than grandeur. And when the second subject begins, it is not with a sudden jolt so much as a gentle nudge towards the new tempo. Yet within each of these sections, the tempos are finely judged. Petrenko’s rubato is slight but continuously applied, so the main theme breathes, and the second subject, although introduced without ceremony, soon builds up the appropriate sense of drama.
That emphasis on coherency can go too far, and valuable contrasts are often glossed over. There is also a sense of spontaneity in the finest recordings of Elgar’s symphonies which is rarely apparent here. Petrenko is more daring in the development section of the first movement, on several occasions bringing the tempos right down, even as the textures build. In doing so, he is able to bring out details that are usually lost, but often at the cost of the music’s momentum and drive. On the other hand, the symphonic weight of the musical argument is often carried by the bass end of the orchestra: When Elgar repeats phrase endings, each time an octave lower, into the bottom end of the string section, Petrenko ensures that we hear every note of the double basses—for a few moments each time we are in the world of his Shostakovich cycle, before an incoming woodwind melody returns us to Elgar.
The inner movements are also taken at slower than usual tempos. The second is more a stately march than a driving scherzo, making the transition into the Adagio all the more smooth. This movement too feels slow, although perhaps more for the gently contoured melodies than for the actual tempo choices. The finale is more dramatic, and builds to an appropriately grand conclusion. But even here, Petrenko focuses on instrumental detail over orchestral weight, the contribution of the piccolo one of the many aspects of this movement I hadn’t previously heard.
The disc opens with Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, which provides another demonstration of Petrenko’s skilful tempo manipulation. Here he can’t avoid immediate changes of mood and texture, as Elgar imposes one melody after another, with clear contrasts between each. But again, Petrenko finds ways of maintaining continuity, sometimes seemingly by sleight of hand, raising the tempo at points where it will be noticed least. It’s all very clever, but is it necessary?
The symphony too raises the question. Many of Petrenko’s predecessors have demonstrated that the work holds together fine with angular tempo changes between sections and with the developmental drama played out on a more modest scale. But Petrenko always hears this music in broader terms. Since this disc was released, an Elgar Second has been released on the same label (ONYX 4165). Given the grander scale of that music, it may prove a better fit for Petrenko’s approach.

Friday, 3 March 2017

WAGNER Das Liebesverbot Teatro Real

WAGNER Das Liebesverbot Ivor Bolton, cond; Christopher Maltman (Friedrich); Peter Lodahl (Luzio); Ilker Arcayürek (Claudio); Manuela Uhl (Isabella); Maria Miró (Mariana); Ante Jerkunica (Brighella); Ch & O of Teatro Real OPUS ARTE 7213 (Blu-ray: 160:00)

Kasper Holten took on a formidable challenge in staging Wagner’s unloved second opera in Madrid. Das Liebesverbot, a light-hearted sex comedy (at least as presented here), was a flop at its first staging, in 1836, and although there have been several attempts in recent decades to revive its fortunes, most have reinforced the opinion that it deserves its obscurity. But Holten makes the most of this light and unassuming work, with a colorful and imaginative production. Details are added to modernize the action (there are a lot of cell phones, and Angela Merkel makes an incongruous appearance), and while these mostly fail, the gaudy carnival setting that Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing adopt suits the story, and the production makes a reasonable case for the work, only rarely stretching the drama beyond its narrow limits.
As ever, Wagner writes his own libretto, this one based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The setting is moved from Vienna to Palermo and the ban on love in the original is extended to a ban on carnival festivities as well, it being the season. Sub-plots are shorn, and we are left with a straightforward narrative: Claudio is imprisoned and awaiting death for transgressing the eponymous ban. His friend Luzio entreats Claudio’s sister Isabella, a nun, to plead for his life with the governor, Friedrich. Friedrich falls for Isabella, and agrees to free Claudio if she agrees to “spend a night with him,” as the booklet puts it. Isabella agrees, but then tricks Friedrich into seducing his own wife, Mariana, now disguised as Isabella. All ends well, with Isabella falling for Luzio, and Friedrich’s tyrannical rule of Sicily brought to an end by the King of Naples (that’s Merkel).
Holten and Aarfing exploit the carnival setting for a garish visual profile that makes no effort to fit into any particular era. The set is an elaborate arrangement of staircases, illuminated with neon signs for the street scenes, but accommodating alcoves and smaller spaces for prisons and private chambers as required. A conveyer is set up width ways across the stage, allowing much of the discourse that would otherwise require static singers to take place on the move, even if just walking to stay still. There are a lot of projections onto the set, particularly for the cell phone element, with text messages projected, always in Spanish and without translation, although it would be difficult to get lost in this story.
The Teatro Real has assembled a strong cast, the most notable lead Christopher Maltman as the governor Friedrich (his first Wagner role, where could this lead?). Maltman has the ideal comic touch for this Pasquale-like character, and certainly looks the part in his broad-rimmed circular spectacles. Strong performances too from Peter Lodahl as Luzio and Manuela Uhl as Isabella, who between them have the major share of the singing. The only disappointment, vocally, is Ilker Arcayürek as the imprisoned Claudio. His tone is unsteady and he has a habit of sliding around between the notes. The pick of the comprimario performances is Ante Jerkunica as the police office Brighella. Holten has a lot of fun with this character: In the courtroom scene in the first act, Brighella takes charge before Friedrich arrives, and seems intoxicated with the power. Then, in the finale, when Brighella arrives to pronounce the ban on carnival, the hypocrisy is revealed by his removing his uniform to reveal his own carnival costume, a kind of neon valkyrie, all of which Jerkunica carries off beautifully, and with a fine bass voice too. Ivor Bolton leads a propulsive reading of the score, the tempos brisk but supple, and the orchestra on fine form. Some ensemble problems in the chorus are evident in the opening scene, although they make a much stronger showing in the finale.  
The video direction, by János Darvas, is heavy on close-up, although it gives a good impression of the overall stage setting. The Blu-ray image and audio are excellent. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese, and Korean. The staging was a co-production between the Teatro Real, the Royal Opera, and the Teatro Colon. It reaches Buenos Aires at the end of April 2017, though no London dates have yet been announced. Here’s hoping that, when it does arrive, Christopher Maltman will still be aboard.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:6.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Lutosławski Complete Piano Works Corinna Simon

Lutosławski: Bukoliki (Shepherd Songs). 2 Studies for Piano. Folk Melodies. Pieces for the Young. Invention. Zasłszana melodyjka (An Overheard Tune) for 4 Hands. Piano Sonata
Corinna Simon, piano
AVI 8553341 (62:57)

This disc is entitled Lutosławski: Complete Piano Works, but it would be more precisely named Complete Surviving Works for One Piano. Lutosławski’s most famous piano piece is, of course, the Paganini Variations for piano duo, not included here, although pianist Corinna Simon does perform a short four-hand work, Zasłyszana melodyjka, all four of the hands her own in a studio overdub.
Almost all of Lutosławski’s piano works are early, the short Inwencja dates from 1968, but everything else from the period 1934–1957. Lutosławski excelled as a pianist in his early years, and his compositional output, from his student days onwards, focused heavily on the piano. But much of this was lost when the composer left Warsaw shortly before the Uprising in 1944. Of the present program, only the Two Studies for Piano (1941) and the substantial Sonata (1934) are from an earlier era.
The Piano Sonata was written while Lutosławski was still a student, and was apparently something of a calling card, with the composer performing it regularly, although he later distanced himself from the work and never sought publication. It is substantial, coming in at almost half an hour, and tightly argued, especially the first movement, which lands running, the main ideas presented up-front without an introduction and then rigorously developed. The style suggests Szymanowski, and perhaps also Debussy and some of the Russian late-Romantics. Connections with mature Lutosławski are more difficult to pin down, certainly the fluency of line and keen ear for appropriate and well-voiced harmony—matters of technique and compositional craft, then, more than of style or intent.
The sonata ends the program, and the works the preceded it are all short. The Bukoliki (Shepherd Songs, 1952) and Folk Melodies (1945) are both reminiscent of Bartók in their uncomplicated but often innovative and angular piano settings of folk themes. The other works are in a similar vein, if not as explicitly folk-orientated. In terms of technique, the first of the Two Studies for Piano (1945) sounds like an imposing challenge for the pianist, as, inexplicably, does the first of the Pieces for the Young (1953).
 Corinna Simon gives engaging and characterful accounts of all the music here. She is at her best in the sonata, where the breadth of the musical argument matches the commitment and emotional engagement of her playing. She also excels in the virtuoso movements mentioned above, and there is never any question of the music ever challenging her technique. But in the folk music arrangements, her touch is a little too even and legato. Many of these short movements pick out a staccato motif or accompanying line as the basis for the music’s character, and too often the touch here is overly rounded and delicate. There is also too much pedal in many of these movements, an impression not helped by the audible dampers strangling the note endings as the pedal rises.
The recording was made in a church, the famous Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, and the acoustic also contributes to the rounded-out effect. But the audio quality is good—in fact the piano is a little too immediate, the brightness of the tone often overpowering at climaxes. All round, an interesting program, though, and a useful window on Lutosławski’s early career. Worth hearing, especially for the sonata.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 40:5.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Dvořák Symphonies Nos 6 and 7 Nézet-Séguin London Philharmonic

Dvořák Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. Otello Overture Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond; London PO LPO 0095 (2 CDs: 99:09) Live: Royal Festival Hall, London 2/3/2016, 5/27/2009

Some very attractive performances here, of Dvořák symphonies from the London Philharmonic and their dynamic principal guest conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The blurb tells us Nézet-Séguin secured that position with an earlier performance of the Sixth, in 2007 when he must have been impossibly young, so there was some logic in his returning to the score and for the LPO Live label to take it down.
Nézet-Séguin, while a specialist in the late Romantics, usually tends towards heavier fare—Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich. That tendency is apparent here in his emphatically symphonic approach to the two symphonies. Everything is done on a grand scale, with broad, flowing phrases. Tempos are often on the steady side, but nothing sags, thanks to the solid string tone and definite accents. A strong agogic sense maintains the connection with the Bohemian folk sources; just listen to the way that Nézet-Séguin leans into the downbeats of the Sixth Symphony’s adagio—it’s slow and broad, but it’s never static. Orchestral playing throughout these performances is excellent, the string sound and the lower brass always solid, and the woodwind soloists suitably characterful and energetic. The only lapse is in the strings in the Sixth Symphony scherzo. Nézet-Séguin may be pushing them too hard here, as the violins sound scratchy in the top register, keeping up with the conductor’s fast pace, and often at top volume too.
The Seventh is a better fit for Nézet-Séguin’s emphatically symphonic approach. Where others keep the tempo of the first movement exposition steady, to give a cyclical quality to the many returns of the opening theme, Nézet-Séguin is more dynamic, gradually building into the main argument. He loses some momentum in the development but returns to form with the return of the main theme.
That is a recurring impression in these recordings, of the conductor giving weightier interpretations than the music can sustain. Yet there is a consistency here that makes every interpretive decision seem logical. And even if Nézet-Séguin sometimes tends towards the overly dramatic, he can never be accused of affectation. Just listen to the inner movements of the Seventh. The Poco adagio is a case study in lyrical simplicity, with the conductor simply relying on the elegance of the woodwind solos to carry the melodies. The scherzo third is marked Vivace, but, unlike in the Sixth Symphony scherzo, Nézet-Séguin here errs on the side of caution, taking a moderate tempo but shaping the music effectively simply through emphasizing the swells at the start of each phrase.
Distinctive readings then, probably most attractive to those who like their Dvořák properly symphonic. The first disc opens with a filler, the Otello Overture, curious programming, as the work is surely better served when presented with the other two overtures of the set (which would have fitted, although concert programming naturally dictates the choices here). On the other hand, Otello is the least performed and least loved of the three, so is most deserving of a solo outing. And Nézet-Séguin’s approach here is ideal, again highly dramatic and cleanly articulated, with an ideal storytelling quality expressed though the varied tempos and strongly delineated structural sections. It seems unlikely that a full symphony cycle is on the cards, but more exposure to Nézet-Séguin’s Dvořák would be welcome, the earlier symphonies could benefit from his broad, dramatic approach, as could some of the more obscure tone poems.