Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 Woods English Symphony Orchestra

BRAHMS Piano Quartet No. 2, op. 26 (orch. Woods)
Kenneth Woods, cond; English SO
NIMBUS 6364 (49:14)

Kenneth Woods writes that his first impulse for orchestrating the Brahms Second Piano Quartet came from coaching a chamber music course in the work and finding himself asking the players to imagine the opening as a quartet of hunting horns. His orchestral rendering makes a good case for this association, although most of the music that follows is more abstract. But Woods always keeps Brahms’s orchestra in mind, and the result is a version of the work that, with a few minor exceptions, could easily be mistaken for an arrangement by Brahms himself. Woods evidently has a keen understanding both of the quartet and of Brahms’s orchestral practice, but he also demonstrates an impressive discipline in keeping this large-scale music within the Classically proportioned orchestral framework that Brahms would have favored.
The orchestra employed is that of the Brahms First and Third Symphonies, so there is no percussion beyond timpani and no tuba, but there is a discreetly employed contrabassoon, and the string section sounds large enough to afford the music symphonic scope. Woods makes particularly idiomatic use of the woodwinds and horns. String statements are often followed by woodwind refrains, where the combination of bassoon bass line and flute melody sounds particularly Brahmsian. So too does the interplay of solo horn and clarinet in the second movement. Listening for deviations from Brahms’s orchestral technique quickly seems futile, as it only brings up the smallest details: an occasional uniformity in the tutti textures and an anachronistic reliance on the lower end of the trombone tessitura. It is also tempting to speculate how Brahms might have adapted the movement endings for orchestral performance. Woods remains faithful to the brief codas of the outer movements, but Brahms himself would no doubt have expanded these into something more fitting to the scale.
Comparisons with the Schoenberg orchestration of the First Quartet are inevitable, but they only serve to demonstrate the different artistic aims of the two arrangers. Where Schoenberg lays on thick orchestral textures, rich in doublings, Woods opts instead for transparent, clear textures, always sufficiently forceful, but never outside of the chamber-music spirit of the music itself.
Another inevitable association is the idea that Woods is providing a new Brahms symphony for modern audiences—and we could argue that he has already done so with his revelatory recordings of the Hans Gál symphonies. But the Second Quartet is early Brahms, stylistically distinct from the symphonies proper. So we are not dealing with Brahms’s Fifth Symphony here so much as his Third Serenade.
The performance, by the English Symphony Orchestra under Woods himself, is excellent. Woods writes that his first obstacle in making the arrangement was the high register required of the horns to play the work in A. The horn quartet is certainly stretched, but their ensemble and tone are rarely compromised. The string section also shows impressive discipline and stamina in the long melodic lines, and the balance and color within the woodwind section fully justifies Woods’s regular recourse to their solos and ensembles. Woods is as disciplined in his tempos as he is in his orchestration, maintaining brisk chamber music tempos in the outer movements, but affording some welcome breadth in the Adagio. The recording, made at Wyastone Concert Hall, is clear and bright. The back of the orchestra seems a little distant, although this has the surreptitious advantage of bringing a sense of distance and perspective to the evocative horn calls at the start. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:2.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Alissa Firsova Fantasy

A. FIRSOVA Tennyson Fantasy. Bride of the Wind. Expressions. Here in Canisy. Unity. Fantasy for Cello and Piano
Tippett Qrt
Mark van de Wiel (cl)
Ellie Laugharne (sop)
Nicholas Crawley (bar)
Simon Mulligan (pn)
Alissa Firsova (pn)
Tim Hugh (vcl)

This portrait disc of Alissa Firsova as composer follows a previous release, Russian Émigrés, on the same label, where she made her recording debut as a pianist. There is symmetry, in that Firsova and her family (her parents the composers Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova, her brother the artist Philip Firsov) left Russia for the UK in 1991. Where Russian Émigrés looked back to the family’s Russian connections, this release is more focused on Britain, in particular through inspiration from English-language poetry. The whole concept offers a refreshing perspective on the UK, increasingly regarded as a hostile environment for immigrants, but here celebrated, in Firsova’s words, as “paradise on Earth.”
The program opens with Tennyson Fantasy, a string quartet written in 2016 in which each movement is inspired by a Tennyson poem. In live performance the poems are to be recited, but here they are wisely omitted, though the texts are included. Intriguingly, Firsova uses excerpts from the poems in lieu of performance directions, and despite the lack of any performed words, the music has an undeniably poetic quality. The lines are long and lyrical, and supported by open and abstract harmonies. It is difficult to pin down Firsova’s style. Harmonies are broadly consonant but only fleetingly tonal. There is a clear influence from French Impressionism, but the expression is more direct and focused—the harmonies are deliberately ambiguous, but never merely atmospheric. Those paradoxes are highlighted in the performance from the ever-adventurous Tippett Quartet, who commissioned the work. While the players afford the music its melodic and expressive breadth, they are also very definite in their articulation and phrasing. The recorded sound brings the players up close as well, increasing this sense of focus and definition.
Bride of the Wind for piano duet (one piano, four hands) was inspired by Kokoschka’s painting of the same name, which also appears on the cover. That, in turn, was inspired by the painter’s relationship with Alma Mahler, and represents the two of them as Tristan and Isolde. Firsova’s approach is again Impressionistic, but now more turbulent and psychological. Despite the four hands, and the plentiful sustain pedal, the textures are remarkably clear, even if the mood is decidedly murky. And again, the harmonies are more complex than they first seem: The textures are reminiscent of Ravel, or perhaps early Scriabin, but the harmonic structure is much more mobile and ethereal. Firsova and Simon Mulligan give a compelling account, particularly impressive for the clarity of detail in the ever changing sound fabric.
Three clarinet works follow, collectively entitled Expressions, two with piano accompaniment and one for clarinet quintet. The quintet, Loss, is the most substantial, and the most expressive. Again, Firsova’s ability to infuse melodic lines with a direct, lyrical impulse makes the clarinet writing particularly effective. Clarinetist Mark van de Wiel, principal of the Philharmonia, plays effectively and finds few challenges. The accompaniments are straightforward, indicative perhaps of these being earlier works.
Two songs make explicit the underlying poetic inspiration behind the album. Here in Canisy refers to the town in Normandy, also memorialized in Hommage to Canisy by Elena Firsova, while Unity takes a more philosophical approach to the “Paradise on Earth” theme, concluding that “the true paradise can be found in one’s own garden.” The texts are by Peter Wolrich and pose a real challenge for musical setting, composed as they are in free, apparently unstructured verse. But Firsova’s flexible and accommodating melodic lines just about meet the challenge, and her now resolutely tonal, though still imaginative, accompaniments offer solid support. Singers Ellie Laugharne and Nicholas Crawley give expressive readings, although the range goes too low for Crawley at times, and both would benefit from warmer recorded sound.
Firsova herself accompanies the songs, and is particularly evocative in the bell chimes of the first. She also accompanies on the last work of the disc, Fantasy for Cello and Piano, performed by Tim Hugh, principal of the London Symphony Orchestra. Though this is a substantial work, it has the feeling of a reflective epilogue to the program as a whole. It is beautifully performed, too, by Hugh and Firsova, both players giving the music its full measure of breadth and reflective, even nostalgic, expression.
The close-up sound, here and throughout the recording, denies the music some of the atmosphere and warmth that it could clearly benefit from. But otherwise, the production values here are top class. As ever, the Vivat label pulls out all the stops, with elegant packaging, detailed recording information, an informative essay from Firsova herself, and full texts (even the modern ones they have to pay rights for). Commercially and artistically, this is a brave venture for the label, their first substantial foray into contemporary music, and hopefully not their last.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:2.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Bruckner Symphony No. 1 Thielemann

Bruckner Symphony No. 1 (1868 Linz version)
Christian Thielemann, cond;
Staatskapelle Dresden
C MAJOR 744608 (DVD: 56:00)

Christian Thielemann has long been associated with Bruckner, and his current discography includes 25 recordings of Bruckner symphonies, with various orchestras and labels. But up until now he has avoided the earlier symphonies, with only a single recent account of the Third, and none for the four that precede it. Unlike his previous Bruckner recordings with the Munich Philharmonic, this set with the Staatskapelle Dresden is shaping up to be a complete set, so the time has come to address these early scores.
If you have been following this cycle, which now includes Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, and 9, you’ll know what to expect. The Dresden orchestra performs in an ideal eastern German style, with nasal horns and a woody but resonant woodwind tone, all over a lush but timbrally complex bed of strings. Thielemann conducts from memory, and looks completely obsessed with the music. He conducts with small, emphatic gestures, with glancing cues and few downbeats. Even so, there is never any doubt that he is in complete control.
The camerawork is mobile, with close-ups of the soloists—the excellent first horn gets a starring role—and plenty of Thielemann himself. The recording was made live at the Gasteig in Munich, not as picturesque a venue as their home at the Semperoper, used in previous installments, but it offers good sightlines and the audio is excellent.
My only complaint is with Thielemann’s approach, which is grand and imposing, on the same scale as his readings of the later symphonies. The First Symphony isn’t a small-scale work, but it is more modest than the Seventh or Eighth, and while it shares their style of symphonic discourse, it needs a lighter touch. Thielemann’s heavy and overtly symphonic approach works well in some passages, particularly in the Scherzo, which has real punch, and much of the Finale, but elsewhere feels overblown. The Adagio in particular is too emphatic, too architectural and lacking in melodic flow—when the camera turns to Thielemann’s face, his stern expression and furrowed brow seem to be etched on to the music.
But this is how Thielemann always approaches Bruckner, and everything else, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just one last grumble: If Thielemann is going to take this approach to the First Symphony, then why not use the Vienna version? For the revisionist school of Bruckner performance, the conductors who favor fleet tempos and light textures—Schaller, Janowski, Venzago—the Linz version of the symphony makes perfect sense, but the more polished and cosmopolitan later version would seem a better fit for Thielemann’s approach. The musical world still hasn’t forgiven Bruckner for setting aside his Ninth Symphony to revisit the First, so his final version seems destined to remain a rarity on disc. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:1.

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 Kubelík

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 Kubelík
Rafael Kubelík
Helen Donath (sop)
Teresa Berganza (alt)
Wieslaw Ochman (ten)
Thomas Stewart (bs)
Bavarian R Ch & SO
PENTATONE 5186 253 (SACD: 69:48)

Rafael Kubelík famously made a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with a different orchestra for each symphony, but for the Ninth he returned to his home base, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. By 1975, when this recording was made, he had been the orchestra’s chief conductor for 14 years, and that close relationship is clearly apparent here. Kubelík leads a dynamic but majestic account, old-fashioned perhaps, but compelling on its own terms.
Kubelík never lets a phrase go by without inputting some subtle nuance of phrasing. Yet the results never feel micromanaged or overly detailed. Instead, each movement flows as a single paragraph of music. There is plenty of drama too, the climaxes thundering, and no less emphatic for their careful preparation. The slow movement is classic Kubelík, deeply Romantic and carried by the long melodic lines, again always carefully shaped, but without impeding the music’s natural flow.
Things come slightly unstuck in the finale. In the earlier movements, the controlled but charatcterful woodwind is a defining feature of the orchestral profile. But Kubelík pushes the players too hard at the opening of the finale, and the clarinets play sharp. Soloists and chorus all sing well, but  Kubelík’s pacing in the last few minutes lacks the intuitive logic that he applies earlier on, with problematic tempo shifts between sections and hesitant delays before the final choral entries breaking up the flow of the music. For a few moments, Beethoven’s tenuous formal logic seems to get the better of him, a surprise given Kubelík’s usual gift for making less coherent works sound perfectly proportioned—just think of his early Dvořák symphonies, and especially his recording of Pfitzner’s Palestrina.
Two other recordings of Kubelík conducting Beethoven’s Ninth have also been reissued in recent years, another with the BRSO on Orfeo and one with the New Philharmonia on BBC Legends. The version at hand was made for Deutsche Grammophon, who have released it several times, in 1999 as part of a two-disc set with Nos. 7 and 8, and more recently in box sets of the complete Beethoven symphonies and of the complete Kubelík DG recordings. This new release from Pentatone is significant because it offers the original four-channel quadraphonic sound. The sound is spectacular, and well worth Pentatone’s efforts, which apparently involved sourcing the original tapes and remastering them with the help of the original sound engineers.
Four channels rendered into SACD surround means that the center channel is engaged but silent. The rear channels carry more of the orchestral sound than in modern surround recordings. Even so, the audio profile places the listener well in front of the orchestra, and not within it. My rear speakers are too small to do the recording full justice, but even on a home cinema surround setup, the benefits of the quad audio are clear. The placement of the orchestral sections is particularly detailed, with the timpani often dominating the front right speaker, but never obscuring any of the other sections. For some reason, the chorus is very recessed, and the engineers have made little effort to bring them into the surround environment. The soloists are closer though, and are well balanced and naturally recorded.
This is the 25th release in Pentatone’s Remastered Classics series of 70s quad recordings on SACD, with previous releases including most of the Kubelík Beethoven cycle—only the “Eroica” is currently missing. No doubt the experimental nature of the original recording project led to variable results, but on the strength of this release there is much potential here for today’s audiophile listeners. Recommended, then, for some classic Kubelík Beethoven, especially in the adagio, and for the excellent audio—not something I would expect to be writing about a recording made in 1975.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:1.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

WAGNER Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Matačič

WAGNER Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (sung in Italian)
Lovro von Matačič, cond
Giuseppe Taddei (Sachs); Boris Christoff (Pogner); Renato Capecchi (Beckmesser); Bruna Rizzoli (Eva); Luigi Infantino (Walther); Carlo Franzini (David); Fernanda Cardoni (Magdalena); Vito Susca (Kothner); Chorus & Orchestra of Italian Radio, Turin
DATUM 12310 (4 CDs: 255:14)

Lovro von Matačić was well regarded as a Wagner conductor in the decades after the war, but few of his many Wagner recordings have made it to CD. He worked closely with Wieland Wagner, and made several appearances at Bayreuth: A Bayreuth Lohengrin from 1959 is one of only two other Matačić Wagner recordings currently available (Orfeo 691063; there is also a 1957 Rienzi from Stuttgart, Archipel 555). The reason may be that Matačić was more active in regions without well-known Wagner performing traditions. My only previous encounter with his Wagner was a Lohengrin from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires from 1964. That one is a curiously macaronic affair: The leads sing in German while the chorus sings in Italian. It was released in 2010 on the Columa Música label (0229), presumably to capitalize on the impressive performances of Victoria de los Ángeles as Elsa and Christa Ludwig as Ortrud, but it’s no longer in print.
This Meistersinger has a similar story. It is a stereo studio recording, made in Turin in 1962, and, as well as Matačić himself, includes two starry names among the cast, though neither well-known for Wagner: Giuseppe Taddei as Hans Sachs and Boris Christoff as Pogner. The sound quality is good for the age, with wide stereo separation, and the soloists close-up—the chorus sounds more distant. The sound is certainly good enough to register the most unusual feature, that it is sung in Italian. Given the politics of opera in the vernacular, that alone places the recording in the “historical curiosity” today. I’m not wholly against the idea, though Italian is certainly a more problematic translation for Wagner’s texts than is English. There is a certain flowing elegance to the title I Maestri Cantori di Noimberga, and it is endearing to hear Eva (Bruna Rizzoli) continually referring to Walther (Luigi Infantino) as her “cavaliere.” But it is a shame that no one could think of a single-syllable translation of “Wahn,” which sounds clunky when rendered by Sachs as “Follia! Follia!”
The Italian character of this performance goes well beyond the language, with most of the cast, and the chorus too, performing in a style better-suited to Verdi or Puccini. There is lots of portamento, a generally free approach to rhythm, and lots of emphatic phrasing with big dynamic swells. Most Italianate of all is Infantino as Walther, a matinee heart-throb reading that takes some getting used to. But the presence of his voice, and elegance of his tone, right up to the top, make this an impressive and endearing performance. Similarly with Taddei’s Sachs. This is a dour reading, more stentorian than benevolent, but the tone is solid, and Taddei easily commands the sound stage. Christoff’s Pogner is more traditional—he would have been in his late 40s when this was recorded, so a younger Pogner than in most staged performances, but his voice is ideal, dark and authoritative, but not overly weighty or deep.
The best performance here comes from Bruna Rizzoli as Eva. Perhaps it is the role that allows her to escape sounding overly Italianate, but her performance could sit easily in any German-language recording, and stand out for quality rather than style. She is well served by the recording too, which captures a sweet, broad tone with plenty of support. She has a pronounced vibrato, wide and slow, but it is applied with such natural ease that it is difficult to complain.
A stern Beckmesser from Renato Capecchi highlights a potential problem with this recording, the lack of humor. Capecchi gives a dramatic reading—you feel his pain—but his set pieces, outside Eva’s window and his competition song, almost feel aggressive and lack the required lightness. But perhaps Matačić is as much to blame. Generally, his reading of the score is very fine, dynamic and elegant, and well co-ordinated with the singers. But it feels more symphonic than dramatic. For example, the Prelude to act III is done with great passion; it is emotive and reflective, and all beautifully proportioned. But you don’t get the switch in mood when David enters (Carlo Franzini, a solid performance, but he doesn’t sound young), it’s more a gentle transition. And the moment a few minutes later when David realizes he has forgotten Sachs’s names day again passes without the music registering the humor.  
Matačić also has an annoying habit of pausing briefly just before climaxes, again more a symphonic than a dramatic trait, although in all other respects his interpretation is a fine one. The orchestral strings sometimes lack coherence, and the large choir can be ragged too. Even so, this is an entertaining and distinctive reading of Meistersinger, and makes for an enjoyable couple of hours. The last time this recording was released was on LPs in 1984 by Melodram, which was reviewed by William Youngren in Fanfare 7:3. He listed the inevitable cuts to the score, describing act III as emerging “as something of a patchwork quilt.” The fact that act III here times in at 113 minutes (at least 10 minutes shorter than the modern norm), despite Matačić’s steady tempos, gives an idea of the issue. A lot of Sachs’s music is cut, which may disappoint Taddei fans, but otherwise it doesn’t seem like a deal breaker, especially as nobody—outside of Italy at least—is likely to be seeking an Italian-language Meistersinger for their reference recording.