Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 15 November 2018

WAGNER Götterdämmerung Zweden Hong Kong Philharmonic

WAGNER Götterdämmerung 

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brünnhilde)
Daniel Brenna (Siegfried)
Shenyang (Gunther)
Eric Halfvarson (Hagen)
Michelle DeYoung (Waltraute)
Amanda Majeski (Gutrune)
Peter Kálmán (Alberich)
Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak, Hermine Haselböck (Rhinemaidens)
Sarah Castle, Stephanie Houtzeel, Jenufa Gleich (the Norns)

Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus
Bamberg Symphony Chorus
State Choir Latvija
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
NAXOS 0075 (Blu-ray audio: 263:42)

The Naxos/Hong Kong Philharmonic here reaches its climax, with a Götterdämmerung that is easily the equal of any of the previous installments. The overall success of this project is great news for the orchestra, who play magnificently here, and for their conductor, Jaap van Zweden, although he doesn’t want for prestige now, given that he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic mid-way through the project. It is great news for Naxos too, whose otherwise encyclopedic opera catalog has so far been short on Wagner. The label has also used the cycle to trail their Blu-ray audio technology, which comes out on fine form here, offering surround sound that is a model of clarity and warmth.
Jaap van Zweden is a dynamic Wagnerian, but he doesn’t take the driven, up-tempo approach of many of his contemporaries. His reading is well-paced, sometimes relaxed, but always alert. His slower tempos offer breadth, but, good as the Hong Kong orchestra is, it doesn’t produce the sort of luscious textures he can wallow in, so Zweden always maintains a sense of pulse and line. He is particularly alert to the score’s changes of tempo and mood: an atmospheric scene opening, such as at the start of act II, will suddenly transform into a dynamic dialogue, the continuity maintained, but the new tempo firmly established. That combination of expansive but agile serves Zweden and his orchestra well in all the set pieces as well—Rheinfahrt, Funeral Music, Immolation—but all feel well integrated into the drama too.
The precision of the orchestral playing is impressive. The recording is drawn from two live performances, but that’s not usually enough to get all the horn calls at the opening of act III without splits: The passage is perfectly rendered here. One or two tiny slips in the string ensemble in fast passages is the only technical problem to note, and perhaps a lack of control on some of the accented lower brass entries.
The cast includes a few big names—Michelle De Young, Eric Halfvarson—but unfortunately not in the lead roles. And there is one disappointment here, Daniel Brenna, who makes for an uninspiring Siegfried. He has all the notes, and the power too, but his articulation is imprecise, and he occasionally swoops up to top notes, or launches into them in a very labored way. No such complaints about Gun-Brit Barkmin, as Brünnhilde. She has a narrower tone that some of her famous predecessors, but she compensates with a lyrical and precise delivery, wonderfully dramatic and expressive. Having a native German speaker in this role is a benefit too, especially one with such clear diction.
Eric Halfvarson was a last-minute substitute for Mikhail Petrenko in the role of Hagen. His voice is too deep really, much deeper than that of Peter Kálman as Alberich, which makes a nonsense of act II, scene 1. But his “Hoiho”s in act III are suitably strident. Gunter and Gutrune are well represented by Shenyang and Amanda Majeski. Shenyang has a clear, projecting tone, although he too sounds a little too low for the role. Majeski sings with heavy vibrato, and exaggeratedly rolled “r”s, but she delivers a convincing and emotionally engaging reading. Michelle de Young returns to the Hong Kong Ring, having sung Fricka in Die Walküre. Her amber-toned mezzo makes for luxury casting in the role of Waltraute—too bad it is over so soon. A huge chorus is assembled, made up of the Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir, and Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus, and despite the size, their singing is well disciplined, as is their whispering at “Was ist?” in act III, a magical moment.
The chorus sounds distant in the surround-sound environment, but otherwise the audio is very engaging. The soloists are all grouped in the center channel, but the orchestra spreads around them across the speakers. The percussion come across particularly well, especially the timpani. And the lower end of the orchestra is well represented, though without the lower brass dominating.
A box-set of the Hong Kong Ring cycle is being released to coincide with this Götterdämmerung, and it should be an attractive proposition, especially at Naxos prices. The less than stellar casts in each of the installments will likely deter some, although it is difficult to think of any significantly better cast versions in modern audio. With that proviso noted, the conducting of Jaap van Zweden, the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the excellent audio (engineer Phil Rowlands) all count in the project’s favor. I was particularly impressed by the audio on this last installment, but there is no doubt that it is a major selling point for the entire cycle.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 42:4.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Casablancas Dove of Peace Krieger

Dove of Peace, Homage to Picasso. Octeto. Four Darks in Red, after Rothko. Mokusei Gardens, A Viennese Notebook. …der graue Wald sich unter ihm schüttelte. Dance, Song and Celebration
Felix Krieger, cond;
London Sinfonietta
SONY 88985468422 (71:34)

Benet Casablancas (b. 1956) is a distinctive voice in contemporary Spanish music. He studied in Barcelona and later in Vienna, where his teachers included Friedrich Cerha. The Central European Modernism of Cerha is a key ingredient of his style, yet he clearly speaks from outside of that culture. There is an openness and directness about Casablancas’s music that feels at odds with the post-war avant-garde, yet there is little sense of tension between the Modernist complexity and the clarity of texture and line that the composer clearly values. Casablancas has been active as a composer since the early 80s (he’s also a well-established scholar and teacher in his native Catalonia), and this release follows several others of chamber music on various labels, including a disc of string quartets with the Ardittis on Tritó and four discs from Naxos.
The present selection surveys recent works for ensemble dating from 2010 to 2014. This is highly caffeinated music: mostly fast and light in texture, and only occasionally letting up for quiet, reflective interludes, none of which last long. Casablancas finds inspiration in the visual arts—two works here are named after Picasso and Rothko paintings—yet retains a valuable abstraction, allowing his work to easily stand alone, without reference to its sources.
The disc opens with Dove of Peace a “Concierto de Cámera” for clarinet and small ensemble dedicated to Picasso. The clarinet proves an ideal vehicle for Casablancas’s light, frenetic lines, but it rarely dominates, as the composer pays equal attention to the ensemble, with each of the instruments used soloistically to construct filigree textures made up of their independent and always audible lines. The following Octeto is a shorter work, in which oboe and flute take over from the clarinet as the focus of the ensemble, achieving similar lightness and transparency throughout.
Four Darks in Red, after Rothko is more knotty music, with harder accents and a more defined rhythmic profile. But that clarity of texture remains, with the harp, for example, shining through, and muted, low-pitched interjections from the trombone creating an earthy sonority, redolent of Rothko’s color palette. Mokusei Gardens, A Viennese Notebook suggests from its title a reminiscence of Casablanca’s studies in the Austrian capital, but also a Japanese influence, as invoked by occasional pentatonic lines. This is the only multi-movement work on the disc, offering a more varied range of textures and moods.
…der graue Wald sich unter ihm schüttelte (The Gray Forest shook under Him) again suggests Vienna, not only in the language of the title, but also in the almost Mahlerian use of the horn, the sound here still modern but now with a distinctively Romantic hue. As with Dove of Peace, this too is described as a chamber concerto, this time with the horn as soloist. The choice of solo instrument brings a more lyrical turn to Casablancas’s writing, although the ensemble retains its light, rhythmically alert profile.
Finally, Dance, Song and Celebration, another ensemble work dominated by perky, active woodwind solos. The instrumental lines feel even more independent here, though their cumulative effect is of a continuously evolving and highly variegated texture.
The performances by the London Sinfonietta are as accomplished as the ensemble’s reputation would have us expect. The clarinet and horn soloists in the chamber concertos, Mark van de Wiel and Michael Thompson, find a natural affinity for the music, which is always idiomatically suited to their instruments. The recordings, made at George Martin’s AIR Studios in London, are close-up, sometimes feeling a little claustrophobic and airless (ironically), but always capturing the teeming detail of the music. Conductor Felix Krieger communicates a deep passion for this Casablancas’s work, both in his disciplined leadership and in his brief but informative liner note. The whole project represents a rare foray into the avant-garde by the Sony label, but given the approachability and directness of the music it documents, the disc should fit comfortably into their diverse catalog.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:3

Friday, 12 October 2018

Bruckner Symphony No. 8 Haenchen

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 (1890 version, ed. Nowak)
Hartmut Haenchen, cond;
Royal Danish Orchestra
GENUIN (69:20)

Hartmut Haenchen writes in his liner note to this release that Bruckner’s attitude to tempo was based on a desire for clarity, emphasizing a vocal quality in the melodic lines, a result of his “Classicist” temperament. In practice, that means fast tempos throughout, and at less than 70 minutes, this is the fastest Bruckner Eighth on my shelf. Haenchen also cautions against “non-notated portamenti,” and duly avoids any such extravagances. Yet the written tempo markings and changes are generally acknowledged, and this is a significantly more fluid reading than many. Haenchen also takes great care with articulation, the accents often emphatic, but never arbitrary. The result is a distinctive take on the symphony, often lacking in grandeur and majesty, but generally coherent and always faithful to the text, at least as Haenchen reads it.
The Royal Danish Orchestra plays with precision and commitment, though the string sound lacks character and the lower brass lacks weight—a slick, professional sound but clearly outside of the Central European tradition. The opening of the first movement feels brisk, although, as Haenchen states, he is also careful to avoid clipped notes, so we get broad phrasing from the strings, even at this pace. The tempo transitions in the movement seem to be conceived with a mathematical precision: They always function perfectly, but there is little poetry in the process.
The Scherzo second movement is the most successful for Haenchen’s approach—fast again, but characterized more by the strong accents in the lower strings than by the tempo itself. The generally light textures here allow those accents to propel the music. Elsewhere, and especially in the outer movements, they tend to make the music sound merely deliberate, rather than imposing.
Clear textures and fast tempos also characterize the Adagio. Haenchen’s contention that the vocal quality of the melodic lines should determine the tempo is generally vindicated here, and although the movement is over in a brief 21:47, it rarely feels rushed. That said, the portamentos that, while not notated, can be considered integral to the performing tradition, are sorely missed. For instance, when Bruckner ends a long phrase with a quintuplet turn before the cadence, surely he doesn’t need to state that the music should broaden? But in the absence of any such indication, Haenchen ploughs on. Similarly with the Wagner tuba chorales, which are integrated into the fabric, rather than appearing as moments of transcendence. Haenchen does slow and broaden for the climax, but loses the flow in the process, leading to ragged phrasing in the coda.
The opening of the Finale is taken too fast for the orchestra (Haenchen this time ignoring the …nicht schnell) and it takes a while for the ensemble to settle down. Again, though, Haenchen makes a convincing case for the dramatic potential of up-tempo Bruckner, even if the relationships between his often surprising tempos are difficult to pin down.
The recording was made at the Royal Danish Opera House, and the orchestra is captured in clear, if slightly dry audio. Although it is not labeled as a live recording, some audience noise gives the game away. The notes don’t tell us that this is the Nowak edition either, although the short running time is a big clue. For reasons unexplained, the album carries the title Mystery, an ironic choice, given that mystery is the one essential Brucknerian quality that Haenchen’s interpretation lacks.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 42:3.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Hans Weisse Clarinet Sonata Clarinet Quintet Roth Berolina Ensemble

Hans Weisse Clarinet Sonata, op. 10. Clarinet Quintet
Friederike Roth, clarinet
Berolina Ensemble
MDG 948 2078-6 (SACD: 70:33)

Hans Weisse (1892–1940) is MDG’s latest discovery from the apparently limitless number of Austro-German late Romantics who have fallen into obscurity. It turns out Weisse has another claim to fame—this one equally  unfulfilled—as a music theorist, as he was one of the key figures in developing the theories of Heinrich Schenker, and to bringing them to the U.S., were they flourished.
The accepted history of Schenkerian analysis has it that two of Schenker’s Vienna pupils, Oswald Jonas and Felix Salzer, left during the Anschluss and established themselves in American universities, bringing Schenker’s writings and elaborating them into the discipline we know today. But Hans Weisse fits in as the Mittelgrund level in this process. He too studied with Schenker, in Vienna from 1902 to 1919 (though interrupted by military service). After a successful academic career in Austria and Germany, he accepted a position at Mannes College in New York in 1931—and that is the true starting point of Schenkerian analysis in America. Jonas and Salzer had been pupils of Wiesse in Vienna, and when he left, initially for Berlin, both continued their studies with Schenker himself. So it was a tight-knit Schenkerian community that transferred across the Atlantic, with Weisse the stand-in patriarch, in the absence of the great man himself. 

As well as analysis, Weisse also studied composition with Heinrich Schenker, yet the music of both men is now almost completely forgotten. The liner note for this release, by Detmar Huchting, makes some overblown claims for Weisse as a composer, an underrated genius in the order of Dittersdorf apparently, but also says that Weisse’s name appears in no reference works, not even Grove or MGG, the latter a particularly egregious omission. Huchting’s notes go on to outline Weisse’s career as a theorist, but don’t mention his music beyond the dates of these two works. Similarly, an article in the Journal of Musicology by David Carson Berry, “Hans Weisse and the Dawn of American Schenkerism” (Vol. 20, No. 1 Winter 2003), gives an excellent survey of Weisse’s contribution to Schenkerian analysis, but without mentioning his music at all. Of the two works presented here, the Clarinet Sonata has an opus number, 10, while the Clarinet Quintet does not, suggesting only the first was published. But that seems to be all the information available on these or any of his works.

The influence of Schenker is certainly felt in this music, especially in its faithful adherence to models from Brahms—a figure as apparent in the choice of genres as in the style of the music. Schenker’s traditionalist approach to tonality, and his elevation of counterpoint as a Germanic musical virtue, translates here into a flowing, lyrical style, with plenty of imagination in the thematic development, but all based on a rigorously diatonic tonal structure. Although it is probably pushing the point, it is tempting to hear this music as Schenkerian analysis made flesh, and you could certainly imagine slipping an Ursatz under this, and rationalizing the melodic lines as elaborated descending scales and the bass as decorated primary-key arpeggiation. Also, Weisse tends to use relatively short melodic motifs, but somehow manages to develop them into substantial works, the quintet alone is 43 minutes—so he was clearly a master of Auskomponierung (elaboration/composing out). 

Of the two works, the Clarinet Sonata, written in 1921, is the more successful. The style is achingly close to Brahms, even to the point of inadvertent imitation. Its three movements are as well structured as we would expect from a music theorist, but the layout is unusual, the second movement an elaborate and diverse scherzo, the last movement slow, although suitably scaled to end the work. Broad arpeggios range across the piano in accompaniment to sprightly and unpredictable clarinet lines, the solo work always lyrical and rarely going to any extremes of dynamic or tessitura. Clarinetist Friederike Roth opts for a more Romantic than analytic approach, which is for the best, and we remain in a Brahmsian sound world throughout. Her tone sometimes narrows excessively in the upper register, and also goes course in the few loud sections—both surprising flaws given the apparently straightforward nature of the writing. Pianist Viller Valbonesi also finds a suitable atmosphere, subtly shaping his arpeggios with a slight and nuanced rubato.

The Clarinet Quintet dates from 1926, so both works predate Weisse’s move to the States. It starts in a declamatory mode, with a decisive falling motif from the strings, but soon settles in to an amenable contrapuntal style. The clarinet rarely dominates the Vordergrund, and often doesn’t play for long stretches. Even when she does, she is sometimes difficult to pick out, but it is difficult to decide if this is a flaw of the present ensemble or Weisse’s instrumental writing. A few moments of scrappy ensemble from the strings are highlighted by the clarity of the textures and the quality of the audio, but they don’t detract. The fact that the Clarinet Sonata does not have a slow movement proper is all the more sad for the quality of the slow third movement here. Weisse finally relaxes his contrapuntal rigor, and gets a little more adventurous with his harmonies, though there’s still nothing here to irk Brahms.

The recording sound is up the usual high standards of MDG. A vibrant bass response serves both the piano left hand the cello well. Surround sound brings atmosphere and warmth, but not at the expense of detail. A satisfying and intriguing release, presenting a new name amongst the Brahms imitators, and very possibly the Brahms-imitator-in-chief. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:3.