Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 20 December 2018

BUTSKO Diary of a Madman Yakovenko

BUTSKO Diary of a Madman. Lacrimosa for String Orchestra. The Canon to the Menacing Angel
Arnold Kats, Gennady Cherkasov, Stanislav Kalinin, cond; Sergei Spiridonov (ten); Sergei Yakovenko (bar); Anton Zarayev (bs); Moscow Conservatory Ch & C O; Novosibirsk PO
Melodiya 10 02556 (2 CDs: 129:32)

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Yuri Butsko (1938–2015) was a prolific and influential composer in the last decades of the Soviet Union, but his reputation hasn’t travelled far beyond his homeland. When the 60s generation of “unofficial” composers began voicing their dissidence through religious themes, rather than outright Modernism, in the 1970s, Butsko was one of the pioneers of Orthodox music rendered as instrumental concert music. His experiments with harmonies from Orthodox chant, especially tetrachordal modes, were influential to Schnittke, a school friend of Butsko, and also undoubtedly to Rodion Shchedrin, whose Polyphonic Notebook is similar in spirit and technique to many of Butsko’s keyboard cycles. But, as this release demonstrates, religious works were just one aspect of his diverse output.
The set opens with a “mono-opera,” Diary of a Madman, based on a short story by Gogol. Frustratingly, no libretto, or even ploy synopsis, is included, but Gogol’s story, as its title suggests is written as a personal diary, so suits this treatment as a one-voice opera. Butsko was still a teenager when he wrote the work, making its subtle and dynamic dramatic style all the more impressive. The opera is more often performed with just piano accompaniment, but this recording presents the full orchestral version. In fact, this too features a very prominent piano part, and the other orchestral instruments are always used sparingly. The style is tonal and very Russian. Comparisons with Shostakovich are tempting, and no doubt the work show some influence. But there is less angst here, for all the dramatic impetus—Butsko may be working in the same cultural milieu as Shostakovich, but his personality is completely different. Baritone Sergei Yakovenko is a convincing madman, sometimes erratic, but always expressive, and with a leading, narrative quality, ideal for the work. The recording was made in 1976, but the sound quality is excellent, consonants a little fuzzy but otherwise close to modern standards.
The second CD begins with Lacrimosa for string orchestra from 1982. The work is dedicated to a family of Old Believers who were discovered by a geographical expedition in the foothills of the Altai in the late 70s. It is an excellent example of Butsko’s liturgically inspired instrumental writing: the music built on complex polyphony but always clear in texture and harmony. Unfortunately, both the performance and the sound recording let the work down. The orchestra is a student ensemble, so concessions can perhaps be made, but not for the audio, which sounds several decades earlier than its recording date of 1988.
Much better is the final performance, of The Canon to the Menacing Angel, one of Butsko’s final works, from 2009 and recorded in 2011. The oratorio sets texts by Ivan the Terrible, again frustratingly omitted from the literature. Given the late date, Butsko’s style now sounds conservative, though it hasn’t changed significantly. The work is more closely aligned with the sound of Orthodox liturgy, employing tenor and bass soloists, choir, and an ensemble of keyboards and percussion (a typical Butsko combination). The two soloists, tenor Sergei Spiridonov and bass Anton Zarayev, excel, both clearly conversant with Orthodox chant customs. The choir (another student group) is also very fine, singing with that combination of lyricism and unforced power that characterizes the best Russian vocal ensembles.
Lack of texts aside, the presentation is excellent. Melodiya include several evocative watercolor portraits of Butsko himself, and he appears to have styled himself a religious ascetic type, with long white hair and goatee. The liner notes are translated into a reasonable English (with German too, and the original Russian), and provide more information about the composer than any other English-language source to date. The album has been released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Butsko’s birth, and serves as a fitting memorial, even if it only scratches the surface of a hugely diverse life’s work.  

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:4.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1–4. Győr PO, Berkes

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos.  1–4. Tragic Overture. Academic Festival Overture
Kálmán Berkes, conductor
Győr Philharmonic Orchestra
NAXOS 8.503296 (3 CDs: 183:30)

The city of Győr is located in the Northwest of Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. Its Philharmonic Orchestra appears to be a well-respected, if provincial, ensemble. This set of Brahms symphonies has been released to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, although its roots go back further: The orchestra was founded in 1894, but only in 1969 became full-time and professional. The release takes the form of three separate discs (9.70276, 9.70277, 9.70278) in a cardboard slipcase. They may be available separately, but, unlike previous Naxos releases in this format, they don’t appear to have been released previously. All have recording dates, but two omit the year, the other was recorded in 2017. Liner notes are in English and Hungarian, suggesting Naxos are courting the orchestra’s home market.
Conductor Kálmán Berkes takes a traditional view of Brahms, with most of the musical gestures played out on a grand and sweeping scale. But he also keeps tight control of the music, often phrasing the melodies strictly, especially the second subject themes in the first movements of the Second and Third Symphonies. He is also keenly engaged at the big transition points, such as the move from the slow introduction into the Allegro at the start of the First Symphony. And although he seems to favor weighty textures, there are many moments of lightness and elegance, like the second movement of the First Symphony, and the beautifully flowing opening of the Fourth. First movement exposition repeats are taken in the First and Third Symphonies, but not in the Second.
The orchestra is good, but not great. The biggest problem is a decidedly ordinary string sound, which often lacks focus in tuttis. High violins rarely soar, and the low strings often sound murky, draining the First Symphony finale of atmosphere at its opening, and the first movement of the Second Symphony too. The woodwinds are more impressive, with broad, characterful tone to each of the soloists (local color?), and crisp ensemble as a section.
Extras are the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture. The former suffers from insecure brass, while the latter is given a slick, atmospheric account that rounds off the collection well. Even so, two of the discs are well under an hour, and there are plenty more Brahms fillers to chose from. Sound quality is reasonable, though a little congested in the mid-register and towards the back of the stage.
There is probably little of interest here for collectors, but if this were the only Brahms cycle in your collection, you wouldn’t be doing him a disservice.

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)

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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