Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 9 October 2017

Braunfels String Quartets Nos 1 and 2 Auryn Quartett



Walter Braunfels: String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, “Verkündigung,” op. 60. String Quartet No. 2 in F, op. 61
Auryn Quartett
CPO 999 406-2 (59:14)


Walter Braunfels came late to the string quartet medium, and his Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (of three) date from 1944, when he was in his early 60s. At the time, he was based in Überlingen on Lake Constance, an internal exile in Nazi Germany, having been forcibly removed from his position as director of the Cologne Academy of Music on account of his part-Jewish ancestry. Immediately after the war he was reinstated, and the two quartets were premiered in Cologne in 1946.
The light and gracefully melodic nature of this music gives little impression of the traumatic times in which it was written. Braunfels devoted much of his time in southern Germany to chamber music, and was clearly engaging with Classical-era models. The structure and scale of the two works harks back to middle-period Beethoven, as do many of the expressive features, the rigorous thematic development and the modest but proficiently voiced counterpoint. Some of the textures are more radical, especially the regular division of the quartet into two pairs of instruments in the First Quartet, and the harmony is a little more advanced as well, but, from a technical perspective, everything here speaks of a composer who came of age at the turn of the century.
The First Quartet is the more adventurous of the two in terms of mood and texture. Its subtitle, “Verkündigung” (Annunciation), refers to the opera Braunfels composed in 1933–5, from which the quartet derives most of its themes. A sense of operatic mood setting is apparent in the sprightly opening phrases, and in the third movement scherzo, where flageolet harmonics give a spectral quality to some of the later variants. The Langsam second movement is conceived on a grand, operatic scale, yet retains a sense of intimacy for the refinement of the textures and melodic language.
The Second Quartet is more Classical in conception, more upbeat for its major key and for its light bouncy textures, often with delicate melodies in the violins supported and propelled by repeated-noted figures in the cello. The middle movements of the First Quartet have German performance directions, whereas in the Second all are Italian, an indication, perhaps that Braunfels was focusing more on Classical models in the latter work.
The Auryn Quartett gives energetic and elegant readings of these two works. The unity of ensemble is impressive, especially in the passages of rhythmic unison, such as the opening of the Second Quartet. The tonal control is impressive too, although the sound sometimes takes on an abrasive edge in very loud passages, of which there are many in the First Quartet—but better that than hold back for the big climaxes. While sound is mostly rich and warm, the Adagio of the Second Quartet sounds a little thin, a consequence perhaps of Braunfels’s Classical inclinations here.
This release is not described as a first recording, but it is the only version of these quartets currently available. It is a reissue of a release from 1998: The reissue is simply a renewed distribution of the original disc in its original packaging, no doubt designed to cash in on the Braunfels revival that has recently been taking place in Germany, a canny move on the part of CPO, and fully justified, given the label’s central role in bringing it about in the first place.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 41:3.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Kurtág Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir Reinbert de Leeuw


Four Capriccios to poems by István Bálint, Op. 9 
Four Songs to Poems by Janos Pilinszky, Op. 11 
Grabstein für Stephan Op. 15c 
Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, Op. 17 
…quasi una fantasia…op. 27 No. 1 
Doppelkonzert, Op. 27 No. 2 
Samuel Beckett: What is the word 
Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op 18 
Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 
Colindă-Baladă 
Brefs Message

Netherlands Radio Choir (chorus), Natalia Zagorinskaya (soprano), Gerrie de Vries (mezzo-soprano), Yves Saelens (tenor), Harry van der Kamp (bass), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Elliott Simpson (guitar), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Csaba Király (pianino, spoken word)

Asko | Schoenberg Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw


The new music world waits patiently for Kurtág’s long-delayed and much anticipated first opera, Endgame, initially commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, but now tentatively penciled in for La Scala in 2018. Meanwhile, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw has been documenting, with equal patience, Kurtág’s existing large-scale vocal and instrumental works, with these recordings made in Amsterdam and Haarlem between 2013 and 2016. The composer himself was not directly involved, but the project is only one step removed from his influence: Leeuw and his ensemble have previously recorded all these works under the composer’s supervision, and these new recordings also carry his blessing, albeit after the fact.
The set is entitled Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir, but that doesn’t give much of an idea of what is included. Song cycles predominate, with a single voice and ensemble featured in Four Capriccios, the Pilinszky songs, Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova, and the Akhmatova settings. Vocal soloist, choir, and ensemble are heard in the Beckett setting and Colindă-Baladă. The Songs of Despair and Sorrow are for choir and instruments, and the remaining works, Grabstein für Stephan, …quasi una fantasia…, the Double Concerto, and Brief Messages, are all for instrumental ensemble.
Kurtág’s style is aphoristic, and even in these large-scale works, ideas are brief and pithy, and phrases are short. That makes extended listening a challenge. But it is a worthwhile one, not least for the invention and variety, even within individual movements. Although his voice is distinctive, Kurtág has a tendency to go back to basics with every new work, to forget everything he has done and to start from scratch with the basic building blocks of sound. That often means using very unusual instruments as if they were completely mainstream. So, for example, a choral movement might be accompanied throughout by just a cimbalom or accordion, playing delicate but inscrutably complex harmonies.
Performances and recordings here are excellent throughout. Kurtág’s personality shines through in the atmosphere of every work, that unnerving dichotomy of surface stillness and underlying Angst. In the songs, the solo singers are balanced equitably with the ensemble, but retain their clarity of diction and tone. Both the soloists and the choir tackle the extended vocal techniques with apparent ease, giving the impression—vital for Kurtág—that these are standard expressive devices rather than exotic additions. The audio is studio quality, and, thankfully, ECM has not applied its usual dreamy resonance, allowing the music a more precise and clear sound profile. Many of the works, notably Grabstein für Stephan, are written for groups of ensembles in specific spatial arrays, something that surround-sound could have better conveyed, reason enough, perhaps, for another traversal of these works in the future.
The most valuable aspect of this release is the access it offers to Kurtág’s larger-scale works. He is well-represented in the catalog: ArkivMusic currently lists 87 discs devoted to his music, but most of these focus on a small number of chamber works, the music for string quartet; Signs, Games, and Messages, Játékok, and the Kafka Fragments. Nothing on this set is a first recording, but most of the music is difficult to obtain elsewhere. A Hänssler disc from Marcus Creed and the SWR Vokalensemble is entitled György Kurtág: Complete Vocal Works (93174), but, bizarrely given the “complete” claim of both releases, shares only a single work, Songs of Despair and Sorrow—also on the SWR release are Omaggio a Luigi Nono, op. 16, and Eight Choruses, op. 23. Songs of Sorrow and Despair sound good in both versions, but Reinbert de Leeuw has the edge in terms of clarity and focus of tone. Grabstein für Stephan is also available on an excellent DG recording from Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, with Jürgen Ruck the guitar soloist (0289 479 0341 3), but that recording is of the full-orchestra version, whereas this is for a smaller ensemble. Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova is available in several versions, including recordings conducted by Boulez and Eötvös. It is a piece that relies above all on the Pierrot-like versatility of the soprano soloist, and Natalia Zagorinskaya here more than holds her own against the competition.
The packaging is in the usual arty, high-concept ECM format, the discs in separate envelopes within a card slipcase. The booklet includes some of Kurtág’s own artwork, which is fascinating, along with essays from Reinbert de Leeuw and Paul Griffiths, as well as an encomium from the composer himself endorsing the project. Texts are included, in the original Romanian, Hungarian, and Russian with parallel English translations (Russian is Cyrillic only). Finding the track listings among all the full-page images can be tricky, and linking performers to works requires tedious cross-referencing, but all the info is there.
An important document then, of major works from one of the great Modernist composers of our era. The presentation seems to encourage extended listening, but individual works are better appreciated in isolation. So treat it as a resource, and you’ll find yourself returning time and again.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Philip Sawyers Symphony No 3



Sawyers Symphony No. 3. Songs of Loss and Regret. Fanfare
Kenneth Woods, conductor
April Fredrick, soprano
English Symphony Orchestra
Nimbus 6365 (66:54)


Philip Sawyers’s Third Symphony is a major new work from a distinctive voice in British music. Sawyers was formerly a violinist in the Royal Opera Orchestra, but has been a full-time composer since 1997. His music has been championed by the Nimbus label, and by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra; orchestra and conductor have previously recorded the Second Symphony for the same label (with the First also available, performed by David Lockington and the Grand Rapids Symphony). Sawyers is currently John McCabe Composer in Association with the English Symphony, so expect further collaborations.
The Third Symphony was an English Symphony Orchestra commission, and Kenneth Woods encouraged Sawyers to expand his orchestral palette, from the Mozart-sized orchestra of the Second Symphony, to a larger ensemble. Sawyers has risen to the challenge, producing a 40-minute work on an impressively grand scale, with the large brass and woodwind sections well-integrated into the music’s conception. Sawyers is clearly a product of the 20th-century English symphonic tradition, with Robert Simpson and Havergal Brian obvious predecessors. Like Simpson, Sawyers combines elements of Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen—the Sibelius most apparent in the recourse to weighty bass pedals, the Nielsen in the sprightly third-movement Intermezzo. But Sawyers also leans towards Mahler, particularly in his Adagio second movement, which opens with what almost sounds like a quote from the Ninth Symphony, a swooping upward octave in the violins, though it soon goes its own way. Technically, the music is a mix of post-Romantic harmony and serial technique. The first movement opens with a 12-tone theme, which is rigorously developed, although elsewhere shorter motifs are subject to similar manipulations, and within a broadly tonal context, so more Brahms than Schoenberg. The upbeat finale owes more than a little to Walton’s First, not least the plaintive trumpet solo mid-way, and also the affirmative closing gestures. But all these influences are well-integrated into a work of impressive symphonic unity and drama.
I was at the premiere of the symphony, by the same forces at St. John’s Smith Square in February 2017, a well-attended and well-received performance. It was billed as the first in a series entitled The 21st Century Symphony Project. The project is headed by Kenneth Woods, who plans to commission and perform nine new symphonies over the coming years, and already has David Matthew’s Ninth penciled in for the spring of 2018. Given the conductor’s zeal, a commercial recording of that is a fair bet.
This recording is not of the premiere, it was made in the studio (Wyastone) shortly before—yet another indicator of the care with which Woods prepares his projects. The performance is good, with Woods finding all the drama in the music, but without laboring the sometimes terse tuttis. The English Symphony Orchestra could do with a few more desks of strings—though it is a financial miracle that the recording happened at all, so that’s a minor grumble. The lower brass and timpani sound a little recessed, which I’m inclined to blame on the recording, as they sounded fine live. Otherwise, this recording does the new symphony proud.
The program continues with a song cycle, Songs of Loss and Regret, and a Fanfare, both of which were also performed at SJSS, the Fanfare written specially for the event. Both are in a more openly diatonic style, the song cycle pastoral, perhaps, although its bleak string textures again tending toward Nordic models. The big draw here is April Fredrick, a young and versatile soprano who has worked extensively with Woods and the English Symphony (she sings the title role in their recording of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre, Somm 263-2, another very impressive premiere on disc). Sawyers makes emphatic use of his texts, poems from Housman, Tennyson, and others, and Fredrick clearly intones every line, her distinctively English tone and accent proving ideal.
The Fanfare is an occasional piece, which worked well at the premiere, where the brass choirs where positioned antiphonally on transept balconies. It is little more than filler here, but a welcome filler nonetheless.
All round, then, an excellent introduction for Philip Sawyers’s new symphony, and for Kenneth Woods’s commissioning project. The mind boggles at the financial challenges such undertakings must face, but the English Symphonic Tradition seems to have many passionate advocates, not least the record label, conductor, and orchestra presented here. Its future looks bright.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Brahms Symphonies Kubelik Vienna Philharmonic



Brahms Symphonies 1–4
Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic
Decca Eloquence 482 4969 (2 CDs: 158:23)



Rafael Kubelík doesn’t have the reputation he deserves. The reason may be that, as a Czech conductor, we expect him to excel in Smetana and Dvořák. His recordings of those composers are undoubtedly fine, but when compared with other Czech conductors of the mid-20th century—Neumann, Talich—he is found wanting. In fact, Kubelík’s greatest strength was his distinctive approach to the core Austro-German repertoire, marrying a keen sense of architecture with a lyrical freedom of expression. These Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic are a case in point, and so their return to the catalog, apparently for the first time on CD is most welcome.
At the time of these recordings, in the late 1950s, Kubelík was effectively an itinerant conductor, though was coming to the end of a short tenure at the Royal Opera in London, where he was hounded out by Thomas Beecham, who believed foreign artists should not be engaged there. Fortunately, his genius was widely recognized, and he was in high demand elsewhere. Kubelík would later return to the Brahms symphonies, in a period of greater professional stability, recording them with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 1983 (that version now available on Orfeo), then more than 20 years into a close relationship with that orchestra.
Interpretation-wise, the two cycles are similar, both demonstrating Kubelík’s hands-on approach, while still allowing the music to flow. His respective relationships with the two orchestras distinguish the cycles. By 1983, the Bavarian RSO was finely atuned to Kubelík’s approach, giving a sense interpretive unity to all four symphonies. The Vienna Philharmonic, of course, hardly needs a conductor at all in this music, and Kubelík can often be felt to hold back with his interventions. The woodwind soloists are given greater freedom, and the few ornaments in the melodic lines are presented in a surprisingly flamboyant manner, presumably just the way this music is played in Vienna.
Kubelík’s tempos tend to be on the steady side, although every movement bar one (Symphony No. 4, movement 2) times out faster here than in Munich. The third movement of the Fourth Symphony is particularly patient and deliberate, while the third movement of the First eventually reaches a scherzo pace, but only after Kubelík gradually approaches the tempo from a similarly steady opening. Kubelík’s tempo interventions are usually subtle, for instance the first movement of the Second Symphony flows elegantly through the exposition, only becoming slightly more angular in the drama of the development. The first movement of the Third Symphony gets more intervention from the podium, with some intrusive tempo changes in the transitions. Only the Third Symphony is played with the first movement exposition repeat, though the first movement repeats are observed in the First and Second Symphonies in the BRSO cycle.
The recordings were made in Vienna’s Sofiensaal between 1956 and 1957, in other words just before the same orchestra recorded Solti’s Ring cycle there (and, indeed, John Culshaw is among the recording producers listed). The greater attention afforded to those Solti recordings by remastering engineers may be the reason for the difference in sound quality, but Kubelík’s Brahms doesn’t come close. Generally, the sound feels top heavy for a lack of weight in the bass, so the woodwind-dominated opening of the First Symphony comes off much better than the cello and bass oriented opening of the Third. On the other hand, the recordings are in stereo, a rare bonus in that era. The stereo separation is not too exaggerated, although the left and right positioning of the first and second violins is clearly apparent.
The Bavarian RSO version remains the Kubelík Brahms of choice, not least for the audio—the comparison is very much one of “modern” vs. “historical” sound, but this set makes a fascinating complement. Eloquence squeeze the four symphonies on to two well-filled discs, the first over 80 minutes, and include an excellent booklet note on the history of the recordings by Rob Cowan, Kubelík’s most eloquent and enthusiastic advocate of recent times.