Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 3 August 2019

BACH Organ Concertos Bart Jacobs Les Muffatti

BACH Organ Concertos: in d, after BWV 169 and 49; in d, after BWV 146, 188, 1052; in d, after BWV 35 and 1055; in g, after BWV 1041 and 1058. Sinfonias: in G, after BWV 156; in G, after BWV 75; in D, after BWV 29 and 120a
Bert Jacobs (org); Les Muffatti
RAMÉE 1804 (79:59)

This album presents an audacious reconstruction of Bach organ concertos with a tenuous, though credible, historical justification. In 1725, Bach gave a concert at the Sophienkircke in Dresden to demonstrate the new Silbermann organ there. According to a newspaper report, he performed “various concertos with sweet underlying music.” The following year, 1726, Bach composed several cantatas with organ obbligato movements, most of them reworkings of lost violin and oboe concertos. The premise here is that the concertos performed in Dresden were those violin and oboe concertos, arranged for organ, and that these were the organ concertos that were then reused in the cantatas.
Bert Jacobs, the organist as well as the editor of the reconstructions, concedes in his well-translated liner note that speculative decisions have been made at every turn. Even the organ obbligatos in the 1726 cantatas are only written on two staves, requiring a keen understanding of contemporary performance conventions to establish the relationship between the left hand and the pedals. Fortunately, an organ has been found that has impeccable Baroque credentials, the Thomas organ in Bornem in Belgium, modeled on Silbermann’s 1721–22 organ for the Marienkirche in Rötha. The one complication is that it is tuned to A=440, with a fairly tame modern temperament, but even so, its small palette of timbres gives plenty of Baroque flavor, especially from its woody diapasons. But it is a small organ, just two manuals, largely controlling the same small group of registers, and a pedalboard with two eight-foot and two 16-foot stops.
The orchestra, Les Muffatti, is a Belgian collective, named for Georg Muffat and mostly working in early Baroque repertoire. On this recording they are a 10-piece string orchestra, plus harpsichord continuo. Jacobs writes that oboe parts have been omitted because they largely double the violins, but the incompatibility of Baroque oboes with the modern tuning of the organ seems a more likely cause.
As so often with rejigged Bach concertos, the listening experience here moves from comfortable familiarity in the opening tutti to the jarring introduction of an unfamiliar solo instrument. But Jacobs plays with smooth legato lines and well-chosen, if modest, registration choices, and ear soon adapts. These arrangements work best in the fast movements, and Jacobs makes much of the cascading sequences, subtly overlaying one note into the next to create warmth and flow. The orchestral sound is clean and precise, and benefits from the harpsichord continuo support, the only percussive sound in the entire ensemble and a valuable source of rhythm and propulsion. The slower movements are less effective, and here even the imaginative continuo struggles to maintain the shape of the music. Jacobs relies more on the elegance of his legato than on the colors the organ can provide, but the results feel bare. In two slow movements, BWV 156 and the Larghetto from BWV 1055, a temulant is added, but it feels intrusive and soon outstays its welcome.
Nevertheless, Bert Jacobs is clearly an adventurous and sensitive organist. And while his arrangements sometimes stretch the limits of historical credulity, he clearly has a close affinity with this instrument and shows it off to beautiful effect. The orchestra benefits from the church acoustic, giving warmth and body to the tutti textures. Good balance between organ and strings too, bringing the soloist to the fore, but without obscuring any orchestral detail.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

WAGNER Götterdämmerung Fjelstad Flagstad Svanholm

WAGNER Götterdämmerung
Øivin Fjelstad, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Brünnhilde); Set Svanholm (Siegfried); Egil Nordsjø (Hagen); Waldemar Johnson (Gunther); Ingrid Bjoner (Gutrune); Eva Gustavson (Waltraute); Per Grönneberg (Alberich); Norwegian St Op Ch & O; Oslo PO
ELOQUENCE 482 8809 (4 CDs: 264:05)

This 1956 Götterdämmerung is of significant historical interest for several reasons. It was the first version ever to be commercially released. It was also Kirsten Flagstad’s last performance as Brünnhilde—she had retired from the stage in 1953. Finally, and this might be pushing the historical angle a bit far, it marked the professional debut of Ingrid Bjoner, as Gutrune and the Third Norn. The whole project had a complicated history, but an engaging account is given in one of the liner essays, by Fanfare’s own Raymond Tuttle.

To paraphrase: Flagstad was coaxed out of retirement by Norwegian Radio for this studio production, with an almost all-Norwegian cast, the major exception being Set Svanholm as Siegfried. When John Culshaw heard about the project, he sought the rights to release the recording on Decca, a coup both for Flagstad’s involvement and for the claim to be the first-ever complete Götterdämmerung on a commercial recording. But it turned out the recording was not complete; around 40 minutes had been omitted. So Culshaw organized a team to go to Oslo, and in March 1956 recorded the missing sections, mainly the first scenes of acts I and II. Unfortunately, they ran out of time before they could record the scene change into Act II, scene 2, and so the recording was eventually released as “substantially complete.” But Decca still got in first, even if today we associate that period in the work’s history with the Furtwängler/RAI Ring cycle and the Keilberth from Bayreuth, both from 1953, but neither receiving official release for several decades because of singer contract issues.

The good news about this Götterdämmerung is that both of the lead singers were (still) on fine form. Flagstad, at 60, is a little more narrow of tone than in earlier years, but her voice still has presence and power, even in the high register. It is certainly a mature-sounding voice, but not matronly or plummy. Perhaps there is a little agility lacking, but that is not a huge loss in such a declamatory role. Svanholm was a mere 51, but if anything he sounds older than Flagstad. Both singers bring extensive Wagnerian experience to the project, and you end up admiring the idiomatic and dramatically engaged assumptions of the two roles more than worrying about technical deficiencies. I hear a slight wobble from Svanholm, but it’s of little concern against the strength of his vocal support and the sheer elegance of his every line.

The rest of the cast is reasonable, but without any standouts. Bjoner sounds suitably human as Gutrune, though she is clearly not in the same class at Flagstad. Eva Gustavson gives a passionate Waltraute, but without drawing much attention away from the star. Egil Nordsjø is convincing as Hagen, but he lacks weight, especially in “Hoiho! Hoho!” Waldemar Johnsen is a swoopy, wobbly Gunther, though all the notes are there and he fits well into the ensembles.

Conductor Øivin Fjelstad leads a carefully paced account. He accompanies the singers well, giving each plenty of space to shape and color phrases. But the reading lacks the frisson of a live staging, or of a studio account that can successfully recreate it. And he is not helped by an orchestra that lacks precision and focus. The strings often sound approximate in fast passages, and the brass intonation is also problematic. The horns do well though—no splits at the opening of act III or in any of the other horn calls.

This Eloquence release claims to be the first CD release on Decca and remastered from the original tapes. But, of course, most of those are Norwegian Radio tapes, and while the sound is a serviceable and quite vibrant mono, it is a significant step down from Decca’s stereo projects at the time in Bayreuth and later in Vienna. Curiously, the worst-sounding section is the opening, which was recorded by Decca—tape deterioration perhaps? On other labels, the recording has previously been released by Urania, Walhall, and Naxos. The first two of these are available on Spotify, where they sound more congested than the present release and have much more crackle. So whatever cleaning-up has gone on, it has brought more immediacy to the sound and reduced extraneous noise. Although we are not told anything about the remaster, documentation is otherwise very good. The front cover of the liner reproduces the original LP, where the work is titled “Die Götterdämmerung.” As well as Tuttle’s essay, there is a biographical essay about Flagstad, a recollection of her from Richard Bonynge, and an essay about the work, which includes a synopsis.

This is a recording that was clearly significant in its day, even if it was soon obscured by major Wagner releases in the 1960s, and on the same label. It is worth revisiting today for Flagstad and Svanholm, even if nobody else in the cast approaches their stature.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

BACH Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust

BACH Violin Concertos: in d, BWV 1052R; in E, BWV 1042; in g, BWV 1056R; in a, BWV 1041. Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R. Concerto for 2 Violins, BWV 1043. Cantata No. 174: Sinfonia. Cantata No. 21: Sinfonia. Cantata No. 182: Sonata. Trio Sonatas: in C, BWV 529; in d, BWV 527. Overture (Suite No. 2), BWV 1067. Sinfonia, BWV 1043
Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck (vn); Xenia Löffler (ob, rec); Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI 902335.36 (2 CDs: 143:48)

Isabelle Faust takes a generous approach to Bach’s violin concertos, and a surprisingly collaborative one too. The three concertos that survive in that form are supplemented with three that are reconstructed from keyboard concertos, plus, for good measure, a suite, two trio sonatas, and instrumental movements from three cantatas. The result is a well-filled twofer offering impressive musical variety, and with as much attention paid to the orchestra—the excellent Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin—as to Faust herself.
Even in the solo concertos, violin and orchestra are presented as equals, with Faust integrated into the orchestral textures. Everything has a warm, bottom heavy sound, a result both of the relatively large ensemble, with three cellos and two basses, and the rich recording ambience. The recordings were made at the Teldex Studio in Berlin, produced by the ever-dependable Martin Sauer. He is a stickler for sonic detail, and has no qualms about including players’ breathing in the final mix, or the rasp of bow hair engaging with strings, so you’ll hear plenty of extraneous noise. You’ll also hear details from within the ensemble that you never knew were there—a rare quality in a concerto recording.
Faust is a lively and imaginative soloist. Straight tone is no impediment for her to create warm and welcoming timbres. Her ornamentation is extensive and flowing, an integral part of the melodic lines more than decoration. Tempos are generally brisk, but Faust has an intuitive ability to gently relax the momentum by holding back on the last few notes of a phrase or run, each time creating an entirely new perspective on Bach’s allegro or vivace. The orchestra, led from the concertmaster chair by Bernhard Forck (also co-soloist in BWV 1043), is more disciplined with tempos, but displays an impressive sense of phrasing, with small but emphatic dynamic swells and subtly varied articulations in the strings.
As the album progresses, it becomes increasingly easy to forget this is a concerto recording at all. In the Trio Sonata, BWV 527, arrangement, for example, the oboe is given the top line over the violin. Oboe/recorder player Xenia Löffler excels here, as she does in Sinfonia from Cantata 21, Sonata from Cantata 182, and the Two Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1060, here rendered/reconstructed as a double concerto for oboe and violin. A mention too for continuo keyboard player Raphael Alpermann, whose move from harpsichord to chamber organ for the Cantata 21 Sinfonia takes the orchestra’s sound in a satisfying liturgical direction.
Packaging, as ever from Harmonia Mundi, is colorful if a little obstructive: a three-way card gatefold, but with no track listing on the back, and the one inside obstructed by the liner booklet and omitting the final work. No information is given on who carried out the reconstructions and arrangements, and you’ll have to go into the liner essay itself, by Peter Wollny, to find out exactly what they were arranged from. All of which suggests a project designed more as an exploration of the musical potential of this expanded repertoire than an academic survey of its history. That is all to the best for an album that offers much to enjoy, not least the surprising variety of ensembles and genres from one work to the next. Isabelle Faust is on top form here, but the orchestra and its soloists deserve equal billing.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Norwegian Saxophone - Ola Asdahl Rokkones

Norwegian Saxophone - Ola Asdahl Rokkones
ROMBERG The Tale of Taliesin
HABBESTAD Un rêve norvégien

Ola Asdahl Rokkones (sax)
Fabio Mastrangelo, cond
St. Petersburg Northern Sinfonia
LAWO 1162 (71:39)

This disc presents three Norwegian works for alto saxophone and orchestra, all dedicated to the soloist, Ola Asdahl Rokkones, who also had a hand in each of the commissions. None is described as a concerto, and although the Aagaard-Nilsen and Habbestad works are each in three movements, the title would seem inappropriate for music so unconcerned with virtuosic display. Perhaps that reflects an element of Rokkones’s own personality, a musical perspective that looks beyond the superficial to explore more subtle and complex layers in the music.
The three works are varied in style, but all are based on literary inspirations. Martin Romberg’s The Tale of Taliesen draws on Welsh mythology. It tells a complex story, which is paraphrased in the liner, but the music’s narrative quality is clearly evident without foreknowledge. Romberg’s style is well suited to such storytelling, tonal and illustrative throughout. So much so, in fact, that it often resembles film music, although all the story is in the notes. A common feature of all three works here is a light touch in the orchestral writing, and Romberg always emphasises colour over visceral impact in his use of the ensemble. The work opens with a wistful viola line, over which the soloist plays an elegant folk-infused melody, setting the mood for the music to come. Rokkones plays with a warm tone, but with a satisfying reedy edge and just the faintest hint of vibrato.
Bør, by Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, is based on a contemporary poem of the same name by Stein Mehren. The word variously translates as ‘burden’, ‘rainfall’ and the verb ‘ought to’, and the poem itself is similarly abstract. Even so, Aagaard-Nilsen structures the music strictly to the text, the three movements linked to the poem’s three stanzas. The composer describes the work as ‘poetic music’, and relates it to the various evocations of light in the poem. He also describes it as an exploration of the saxophone itself, and these two interests result in a wide range of extended performance techniques to create colours and moods, especially multiphonics. The orchestra is again used with discretion, most often with quiet and inscrutable string sonorities gently supporting the soloist.
The final work, Un rêve norvégien by Kjell Habbestad, seems to continue the aesthetic of the Aagaard-Nilsen and take it even further. The literary source here is a medieval Norwegian ballad, Draamkvedet, considered a national epic there. The music draws moods rather than stories from the text, as the movement titles demonstrate: Dream, Bliss, Vision. This is mostly slow music, on an epic scale commensurate with the poetic source. It is another exploration of extended performance techniques on the saxophone, although the music also has a sophisticated modal structure, and the accompaniment, while again subdued, presents a wide range of instrumental colours, the woodwind chorales of the second movement particularly effective.
Ola Asdahl Rokkones has recently been doing much to promote the classical saxophone in Russia, and since the release of this disc, he has appeared as a soloist with the orchestra of the Mariinsky. The disc itself was also recorded in St. Petersburg, with another SPB orchestra, the St. Petersburg Northern Sinfonia under Fabio Mastrangelo, an Italian who is based in the city and who is rapidly becoming a figurehead of the musical establishment there. The orchestra is fully conversant with the varying styles of these three composers, bringing plenty of colour and energy to the Romberg, and imbuing the Aagaard-Nilsen and Habbestad with suitable mood and atmosphere, their control of the often quiet textures particularly impressive.
This album brings a new perspective to the classical saxophone, with delicate, warm and often subtly complex sounds. It also offers an intriguing portrait of soloist Ola Asdahl Rokkones, who is clearly intent on taking the instrument in a new and intriguing direction.