Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Reger Violin Concerto Elena Denisova

REGER (arr. Kolisch) Violin Concerto
Elena Denisova (vn); Gustav Mahler Ensemble; Alexei Kornienko, cond
OEHMS 1862 (47:00)

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“Reduced” versions of Reger’s Violin Concerto are becoming increasingly popular on disc, both in the chamber orchestration by Adolf Busch and, as here, the even smaller ensemble version by Rudolf Kolisch. The implicit slight against Reger’s own orchestration seems unfair—his use of orchestra isn’t the most imaginative aspect of his art, but it’s more than serviceable, and both of his concertos (this and the Piano Concerto) play out on a grand symphonic scale that only a full orchestra can convey.
The Kolisch version was intended for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances (the two men were brothers-in-law), although the society had disbanded by the time it was complete, and the first performance took place in Vienna in 1922—this from the excellent liner notes to the present release, by Dr. Jürgen Schaarwächter. They also tell us that Reger was the most performed composer at the society’s concerts, a startling revelation, given his more recent obscurity, and the difficulty we have today in acknowledging his place in the history of Modernism. The manuscript of the Kolisch arrangement was lost after the first performance, and only came to light in 1986, among the violinist’s papers, by then at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
In common with other SPMP arrangements, this one fills out the missing mid-range textures with piano and harmonium (the other ensemble instruments are flute, clarinet, horn, string trio, and double bass). Listening to other SPMP arrangements, those by Schoenberg himself and by Erwin Stein, one of the goals appears to have been to hide the keyboard instruments, so they offer support but only as a background presence. Kolisch is less subtle, and the piano in particular is often dominant in the textures here, especially so in the present recording, emphasizing the chamber dimensions. But the playing of the ensemble is excellent, particularly from the wind soloists: the horn becomes particularly prominent in Kolisch’s arrangement, and the round but emphatic tone of the player here is ideal.
That roundness of tone may be aided by the recorded sound, although the engineers (from ORF, who made the recording) have misjudged the resonance. Microphones seem to be placed well back in a very warm acoustic (the Nuer Saal des Kärnter Landeskonservatoriums, Austria, where the recording was made in 2003). This may be intended to compensate for the small ensemble, to give a sense of orchestral scale, but the result is a wash of sound, with much ensemble detail lost.
Even the soloist, Elena Denisova, sounds distant, although, fortunately, she has a sufficiently focused and muscular tone to maintain the necessary presence. Her sound is warm, and her phrasing generous, and my only complaint is a slight lack of security in some of the more tortuous passagework—all the notes are there, but the evenness of tone production sometimes suffers.
This recording follows another of the Kolisch transcription, from Winfried Rademacher and the Linos Ensemble (Capriccio 5137). Aside from the drier acoustic, the biggest difference is the running time, with the Rademacher at least 10 minutes longer. That difference may be due to the fact that Denisova engages the services of a conductor, Alexei Kornienko, who sculpts and propels the phrases convincingly, while the conductorless Linos Ensemble has a tendency to wallow and meander.
Both are good performances though, and, as the rendition of the solo part should be the guiding concern, there is little to separate them. That said, chamber arrangements of Reger’s orchestral works remain curiosity items at best, especially as the original version of the Violin Concerto is also well represented on disc, with Ulf Wallin (CPO 777736) and Tanja Becker-Bender (Hyperion 67892) current favorites for the top spot.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:5.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Schnittke Musica Nostalgica Leonard Elschenbroich

SCHNITTKE Cello Sonata No. 11. Suite in the Old Style1. Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan. Musica Nostalgica1.
ELSCHENBROICH Shards of Alfred Schnittke1
Leonard Elschenbroich (vc); 1Petr Limonov (pn)
ONYX 410 (60:00)

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Is Schnittke’s music really nostalgic? I ask because Leonard Elschenbroich has entitled his new CD Musica Nostalgica, and the idea permeates his every interpretation. Admittedly, the title comes from one of Schnittke’s own works, which is included, but in general, the composer’s attitude to the past seems more complex than simply a lost Utopia. Elschenbroich explains in his liner note that the Russian equivalent, nostalghia, “is a feeling more painful, more severe, regarded with respectful fear.” That translates, in these readings, as a deep expressive intensity, which works well for all the chosen works. Some interpretive decisions are open to question, but the coherence and commitment that characterizes Elschenbroich’s Schnittke are not, and the results are stimulating and emotionally engaging throughout.
The First Cello Sonata begins with a simple, unaccompanied monologue for the cello, which Elschenbroich delivers in a whispered, straight tone—a beautifully eerie effect. He treats the movement as a single dramatic arc, gradually increasing the intensity, although glossing over some of the moments of repose in the process. The same is true of the moto perpetuo second movement. Again, Elschenbroich begins at a whisper, and the sudden left-hand interjections from pianist Petr Limonov are spectacularly powerful. Both cello and piano are well recorded, with the bass of both instruments particularly intense, giving a real sense of presence to these dramatic moments. But, again, the contrasts towards the end of the second movement are downplayed to emphasize the gradually building intensity: It’s a legitimate approach, but not the last word. Speaking of last words, the obbligato figure at the top of the piano at the end of the third movement is played with a wistful rubato that completely changes the effect—that feeling of nostalgia creeping in again.
Suite in the Old Style is presented in nostalgic terms too. This is Schnittke at his most Neoclassical, but Elschenbroich and Limonov take a more Romantic than Classical approach. The first movement Pastorale is marked Moderato, but is here presented at a very stately pace, with much expressive rubato. So too the “Pantomime” finale, again at a slower pace than the Andantino marking suggests. But it is not all sentimental indulgence, and the one discord in the work, a double-stopped semitone clash held for nine bars, is presented with real menace.
The Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan is a rarity on disc, at least in the cello version (it was originally for violin, naturally), making Elschenbroich’s reading all the more valuable. This is another heart-on-sleeve account, and one that makes no concessions in terms of drama and intensity for the music’s apparent lack of substance—just two pages of unaccompanied cello music, none particularly virtuosic. But, as in the sonata, Elschenbroich makes a real statement out of every note, fully exploiting the wide-ranging dynamic markings for his expressive ends. It’s the highlight of the disc.
Musica Nostalgica may seem like overkill, given that it is derived directly from the Minuet movement of Suite in the Old Style, heard just a few minutes earlier. But Schnittke takes the music in a different direction, adding queasy glissandos to the cello part and making the previously unambiguous major tonality a little more complex.
The program ends with Elschenbroich’s own Shards of Alfred Schnittke, a pastiche of several of the works already heard. We hear the Neoclassicism of Suite in the Old Style, the moto perpetuo of the sonata’s second movement, and the high piano obbligato of the third, all mixed together into the kind of the nebulously structured homage that Schnittke himself often wrote on the music of earlier composers. But, again, there is more nostalgia here than Schnittke would have brought to such a project, at least in Elschenbroich and Limonov’s wistful, emotive reading.
An impressive album, then of Schnittke’s cello works. With the exceptions of Madrigal (currently only available on one other recording, from Torleif Thedéen on BIS) and Elschenbroich’s own piece, all are well represented on disc. But these are distinctive readings, deeply expressive and with often surprising dramatic impact. That impact is also aided by the audio quality, which is excellent throughout. There are enough cello works by Schnittke to fill another disc, so a second visit by Elschenbroich to this composer’s work would be welcome indeed.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:4.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Reger String Chamber Music

REGER Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, op. 42/1 and 2, op. 91/2 and 6. 3 Duos, op. 131b. Piano Trio, op. 2. 3 Suites for Solo Viola, op. 131d. Aria, op. 103a/3. Caprice & Kleine Romanze op. 79e. Albumblatt in EI, WoO II/13. Caprice in A, WoO II/10. Wiegenlied, op. 79d/1. Wenn die Linde blüht, op. 76/4.Mariä Wiegenlied, op. 76/52.

KLENGEL Kleine Suite for 3 cellos. Scherzo for cello and piano in d, Op. 6. Hymnus for 12 Cellos, op. 57 

Erich Höbarth, Catherine Meyerscough, Sara Glombitza, Hannah Burchardt, Daniel Tauber, Jueyoung Yang, Jae Jun Park, Tatjana Masurenko (vn); Friedemann Hecker, Neasa Ní Bhriain, Ronen Shifron (va); Peter Bruns, Martina Biondi, Carmen Dreßler, Timothy Hopkins, Jungin Huh, Moritz Klauk, Elisabeth Kogan, Angèle Legasa, Lukas Plag, Nerea Sorozábal, Friedrich Thiele, Fermín Villanueva, Margarethe Vogler, Dana de Vries (vc); Alexander Schmalcz, Annegret Bruns, Ayako Tanaka, Mizuki Waki (pn)

Querstand1617 (3 CDs: 200:37)

Querstand is a Leipzig-based label, so it is little surprise that they have put out a Max Reger release for the centenary of his death in 2016, given the extensive performances and commemorative events that city organized to for its one-time celebrity resident. This collection is entitled String Chamber Music, and boxes together three previous, but recent, releases, Works for Violin, Works for Viola, and Works for Cello.
The project came about as a result of a focus on Reger at Leipzig’s Mendelssohn Hochschule, where 25 string students were given the opportunity to study the composer’s music with the violinist Erich Höbarth, violist Tatjana Masurenko, and cellist Peter Bruns. This culminated in a series of recording sessions in the Hochschule’s Grosser Saal in November and December 2015, hence the huge number of contributing artists to these three discs.
Given that background, the most surprising aspect of this release is its consistency, in both audio quality and the standard and style of the performances. Unaccompanied works make up the bulk of the violin and viola discs, the opp. 42 and 91 Sonatas and the op. 131d Suites respectively, and none of the student performers are found wanting for the high degree of exposure. Technically, there are a few, very minor issues with consistency of articulation and security of pitch, but nothing to challenge the utterly professional standard throughout. Even picking out the teachers from the students is a tricky task. And perhaps it is the influence of these teachers that lends the recordings such consistency. The style of performance on the violin and viola discs is disciplined, with few Romantic indulgences of articulation and rubato. The cello performances are a little broader, slower and more flexible, but not to a fault.
That said, the sheer discipline of these performances is what prevents them from competing with the very best. Most of this music is now well represented on disc, with numerous performers demonstrating how individuality can be projected, even through the strictest of Reger’s neo-Baroque textures: I’m thinking of Ulf Wallin in the solo violin music, Tabea Zimmermann in the viola works, and Alban Gerhardt with the cello music. Obviously, it is a tough call to expect conservatory students to compete with their like, but the overall impression here is that individuality has been constrained for the sake of consistency. If so, it has succeeded, but at what cost?
Otherwise, my major objection is the brazen randomness of the programming. The op. 131d Viola Suites is the only such collection of works presented here in its entirety. The other two collections jump around Reger’s prolific output, making orientation very difficult. The viola disc opens with the op. 2 Piano Trio, hardly a “work for viola” and also, as juvenilia, a poor substitute for the far more distinctive and accomplished op. 102 Piano Trio. Also, as a sampler of Reger’s chamber music, the focus on unaccompanied works places too much emphasis on his neo-Baroque style, and we hear very little his high Romantic music, which makes up more of his chamber music and which is, again, more distinctive. The cello disc is the exception here, offering an accomplished rendition of the op. 116 Cello Sonata from Peter and Annegret Bruns, the highlight of this collection.
That sonata was dedicated to the cellist Julius Klengel, another name closely associated with Leipzig, so the cellists have taken the opportunity to include two of his own works (not that Reger’s own cello catalog is remotely exhausted). Klengel’s style is mainstream, post-Brahms Romanticism, and the three works, a Suite for three cellos, a scherzo for cello and piano, and Hymnus for 12 cellos, are proficient and elegant. The harmonic style may not actually be as conservative or as relentlessly consonant as it sounds here, but that is what comes of being programmed with Reger.
This is a collection of satisfying recordings by excellent young musicians, but the bizarre programming makes it difficult to identify an audience. It’s not comprehensive enough for collectors, nor representative enough for those wishing to sample Reger’s chamber music. The discs are available separately, so Works for Cello gets a nod, for the excellent op. 116 Cello Sonata and for the Klengel rarities.