Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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)

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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

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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.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Szymanowski Slopiewnie Sinfonia Concertante Steffens

Szymanowski: Concert Overture, Slopiewnie, Sinfonia Concertante,  Nocturne and Tarantella
Marisol Montalvo, soprano
Ewa Kupiec, piano
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz
Karl-Heinz Steffens, cond.
CAPRICCIO 5280 (61:00)

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This is a fascinating disc of Szymanowski rarities—early, middle, and late. It is part of an adventurous series from Karl-Heinz Steffens and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz entitled Modern Times, also including releases of similarly obscure Zimmermann, Dallapiccola, Dutilleux, and Ginastera. The aim with this Szymanowski release seems to be to fill in gaps (though none are recording premieres) in a discography heavily weighted towards violin concertos and chamber works. In their absence, we instead hear the progression of Szymanowski’s artistic outlook, from the Romantic but undistinguished Concert Overture, through the Impressionistic song cycle Slopiewnie, to the relative austerity of his late style in the Sinfonia Concertante (a.k.a. Symphony No. 4).
The Concert Overture was apparently intended as an act of musical provocation against the stuffy Polish musical establishment when it was premiered in 1906, the composer then 23 years old. But its radicalism is difficult to perceive from a century’s distance. The informative, if esoterically translated, liner notes by Christian Heindl point out that Strauss’s tone poems are a strong influence. To these British ears, the work sounds surprisingly like Elgar, although the undoubted influence of early Strauss on both composers may be the link. An elegant and energetic work though, proficiently orchestrated. It certainly deserves a place at the top of occasional concert program today.
The song cycle Slopiewnie (op. 46bis) dates from 1921, and Heindl attributes the significant change in the composer’s style since the overture to the privations of war. The cycle sets poems by Julian Tuwim, which take in nature imagery and magical themes (texts are included in the booklet, with German translations, but no English). The work shows some tangential folk influence, we are told from the music of the Goral people of southern Poland. The cycle originally had piano accompaniment, as is clear from the straightforward textures of the chamber orchestra (in the composer’s own setting), which still retains a prominent part for the piano. It is unusual to hear a non-Polish singer performing works with Polish texts, but American soprano Marisol Montalvo sounds suitably idiomatic (though I’m no expert) in her pronunciation, with her gamely rolled “R”s helping the lines to flow. Montalvo has an ideal tone for this harmonically advanced by texturally reserved music: She is secure in all registers, but never overly forceful, with an attractive delicacy at the top. She employs a steady and narrow vibrato which also sits well with the style of this music.
The Sinfonia Concertante is probably the most popular and often recorded work on this disc. As its dual title suggests, the concertante piano part vies for dominance with the orchestra, although it is a friendly dispute, with the two more often working in close accord. Polish pianist Ewa Kupiec makes an excellent case for the work, her playing nimble and focused but undemonstrative. It is curious to learn that the work was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein (misspelled in the liner), a pianist whose superior technique would surely have been little taxed by the solo part. Everything in this work is about color and life, but within tight stylistic and dramatic confines, and Steffens and his orchestra give the music its due in a sprightly and engaging performance. The sound engineering does a good job of balancing the piano with the ensemble, with both always clearly heard.
The program closes with two violin and piano works arranged by the conductor (who premiered the Concert Overture as well as much else of Szymanowski) Gregor Fitelberg, Nocturne and Tarantella. The liner note describes these as encores, but they are more substantial than that suggests. Fitelberg gives more flamboyant orchestrations than the composer himself might have done, but they are attractive and colorful, and are given excellent performances here. As in previous releases on the Capriccio label, the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz comes across as a proficient and versatile ensemble, the string sound a little bland, but the technical standards impressive throughout. The recording was made in collaboration with Deutschlandradio Kultur and SWR, who were presumably responsible for the sound engineering, which does the orchestra proud.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:5.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 Thielemann

Bruckner Symphony No. 6 (Ed. Haas)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, cond
C MAJOR  738304 (Blu-ray: 63:00)

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Thielemann’s Bruckner cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden is now well past its mid-point, with this Sixth Symphony following similar DVD/Blu-ray releases of Nos. 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9. C Major has also released several videos of Thielemann conducting the Munich Philharmonic in Bruckner, although this appears to be his first commercial recording of the Sixth. Those who have been following the cycle will know what to expect, and this is a classic Thielemann account. His sense of line is everywhere evident, and his structural thinking always clear and impeccably communicated. The Dresden orchestra plays magnificently for him, and the close working relationship between conductor and players is evident both in the unity of artistic intent and in the minimal gestures Thielemann requires to express his vision. But if you don’t like Thielemann’s Bruckner, this Sixth is unlikely to convert you. To say that it lacks urgency is an understatement. At just under 57 minutes (excluding intro and applause), it is a slow account, although not exceptionally so. But the focus is always on breadth, with expansive phrases clearly defined and separated. Thielemann offers distinctive Bruckner, at least among contemporary interpreters, and if his musical values are old-fashioned, the conviction with which he presents them makes it easy for doubters to overcome their objections.
The opening of the symphony is presented with particular delicacy, with Thielemann giving minute gestures, which the strings follow in their timid repeating-note figures. A steady pace is maintained throughout the movement, with the exceptional tonal support of the winds keeping the rich tone afloat. Audio quality (listening in PCM stereo—5.1 is also available) is good, but there is an unusual emphasis on the woodwind soloists, especially the clarinet, whose accompaniment figures often stand out, even from tutti textures. Seeing the players close-up helps to focus attention on their individual contributions, and, although this isn’t a particularly horn-dominated symphony, watching the first horn makes you realize just how important his contribution is. The duet between horn and oboe at the start of the first movement coda is exquisite—a real highlight of the performance.
In the Adagio second movement, it is the turn of the strings to shine. The Staatskapelle string sound is rich, unified, and anchored in a satisfyingly solid bass, all of which comes through in this movement. The Scherzo is given a weighty and emphatic reading. Bruckner writes Nicht schnell, and Thielemann takes him at his word, although still manages sufficient contrast with the Langsam Trio. The richness of the brass tone is a defining feature of the finale, achieving a heroic, strident quality, but always within moderate dynamics.
The video direction, by Henning Kasten, is constantly mobile, but never to distraction. Close-ups predominate, and long shots always involve slow pan or zoom. Portraits of Thielemann appear all over the packaging, so it is no surprise that the camera continually returns to the podium to pick up his many small gestures. The Semperoper stage provides a good, spacious arena, especially as Thielemann conducts without a score, and microphones and cameras are well concealed, the mike heads just peaking over the players’ stands.
A classic Thielemann account, then, and a committed reading of one of Bruckner’s less loved symphonies. The sheer consistency of this cycle is one of its greatest strengths, with Thielemann giving as convincing an account here as of any of the later symphonies. If he can maintain that standard through the earlier works, where even more inspiration is required to maintain coherency and focus, this could shape up to be one of the more impressive Bruckner cycles of recent years, one where, if you love a single installment, you’ll love them all.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:5.