Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 12 December 2019

EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies Frankfurt Opera

EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies, Nikolai Petersen, cond; Dmitry Egorov (Ogla); David DQ Lee (Mascha); Ray Chenez (Irina); Eric Jurenas (Natascha); Krešimir Stražanac (Tusenbach); Iain MacNeil (Werschinin); Thomas Faulkner (Kulygin); Barnaby Rea (Soljony); Mark Milhofer (Doctor); Mikołaj Trąbka (Andrei); Michael McCown (Fedotik); Isaac Lee (Rodé); Alfred Reiter (Anfisa)
Oper Frankfurt, Chor der Oper Frankfurt
OEHMS 986 (2 CDs: 103:36) Live: Frankfurt 9–10/2018

This recording is the latest in a hugely ambitious collaboration between the Oehms label and Frankfurt Opera. Given the stultifyingly conservative repertoire of most opera companies, and of record labels when it comes to opera, it is astonishing to flick through the “also available” section at the back of the liner here and find operas by Reimann, Glanert, Franco Leoni, Korngold, Antonio Cesti, and Flotow. Tri sestry (Three Sisters, based on the Chekov), by Peter Eötvös, is as ambitious and unusual as anything on that list, although it has received several stagings in Europe since its premiere, in Lyon in 1998. The work is dramatically complex, and you get an impression of its theatrical scope from this audio recording, but musically, the work is rich and varied, and very much worth hearing, even without the visuals.
Eötvös and co-librettist Claus H. Henneberg take considerable liberties with Chekov’s text. The original five acts are compressed to three “Sequences,” and the original chronology is abandoned, the events redistributed, and even occurring multiple times (the fire in the town, for example, occurs in both the First and Second Sequences). The liner essay, by Francis Hüsers, argues that the original play lacks a sense of plot anyway, and that the cyclical approach to narrative time imposed by Henneberg and Eötvös is equally valid. Remarkably, the resulting structure can be paraphrased in a brief synopsis, given in the liner, which, although disjointed, seems broadly logical. The librettists worked with German translations, and their work was then translated back to Russian, the language in which the opera is sung. It is a shame, then, that no libretto is included, although even with one, a listener could only hope for a broad outline of the drama.
Two ensembles are employed, a stage orchestra, which is positioned behind a gauze backstage, and a pit orchestra, hence the two conductors credited. The distinction between them is not apparent in the audio, and the generally intimate scale of the music belies the presence of two full-sized ensembles. The liner is generously illustrated with stills from the Frankfurt production, which show a 1950s setting, in one scene a house  interior, and in another a playground.
The composer seems at pains to make everything here strange and unsettling, and one very effective device to this end is casting the three sisters as countertenors, all cross-dressed as 1950s housewives here. In fact, the whole cast is male, with the two other female characters, Natasha and Anfisa, also sung by men. But the variety and invention of Eötvös’s vocal writing ensures that there is never any risk of monotony.
As a purely aural experience, Tri sestry is beguiling but never intimidating. At the start, we hear the aspirated tones of an accordion, a typical sonority in the accompaniments that follow. A diverse percussion section is employed, creating a soundscape of dry, hollow tones, from untuned metallic instruments such as cowbell. Violin glissandos are another regular feature, and Eötvös structures the Sequences through large-scale musical progressions, but made up of very simple devices—such as continuous upward glissandos in the strings. Loud climaxes are rare, but are disjointed affairs, the instrumental groupings—presumably the two orchestras—seemingly oblivious to each other. But for the most part, the musical fabric is made up of sophisticated vocal lines with modest, if colourful accompaniments. There is much melodrama, speaking over instrumental accompaniment, and the clear diction of the singers, none of whom are Russian, means that even a modest grasp of the language can help you find your bearings.
The performance and recording are excellent. Given the complex interplay of drama and music in this work, recording from a live staging is clearly a benefit. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team, who use radio microphones to ensure that singers are never recorded from a distance. That makes the recording of the voices clear and present, although it creates another barrier for listeners trying to get a grasp of the staging. This is actually the second commercial recording of the opera. A recording from the first production, in Lyon, was released on DG (20/21 459 694-2) and is now available on the Budapest Music Centre label. That version was well received, and the presence of Eötvös himself as one of the conductors adds authority. But either version would seem to be recommendable. Whatever its theatrical ambitions, this is an opera that works as an audio experience, and, as such, offers a valuable insight into the composer’s musical world.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

WAGNER Siegfried: act III (abridged) Inkinen Lindstrom Vinke

WAGNER Siegfried: act III (abridged)
Pietari Inkinen, conductor 
Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) 
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
Deutsche RP Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern 
SWR 19078 (59:12)

This release should probably be treated as a sampler. It presents a cut-down version of Siegfried act III—scene 1 with the Wanderer and Erde is omitted—from 2018 concert performances in Saarbrücken. That’s not much use for building a library, but it does offer a tantalizing glimpse of two major talents on the rise: conductor Pietari Inkinen and soprano Lise Lindstrom. Since this recording was made, Inkinen has been named the conductor of the new Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He has already conducted the Ring for Opera Australia, where Lindstrom sang Brünnhilde, an important stepping stone for both Wagnerian careers. But this is the first commercial recording to feature either of them in Wagner, so expectations run high.
Inkinen proves to be a patient but insightful Wagnerian, with a good eye for detail and an ability to structure the music well around the dramatic high points. The performance—presumably a concert second half—begins with the act III prelude, performed with precision and clarity by the Saarbrucken orchestra. Tempos are moderate from the start, and while the climaxes are impressive, the music lacks the gritty intensity of Solti or Boulez. The transition to scene 2 is smooth: After the prelude, we hear the first number of act I, “Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach’!,” but orchestra only, with the Wanderer omitted, then, immediately before Erde’s entry, we cut to scene 2, with Siegfried’s “Mit zerfocht’ner Waffe.” Unless you already know, you won’t hear the join. From here, Inkinen leads the singers well, and the unity between the orchestra and the voices is impressive, particularly the interplay between Lindstrom and the solo oboe, which seems to imitate her timbre. The orchestra is on good form throughout, and sounds well rehearsed. The strings sometimes lose focus at the climaxes, but the brass compensates with a dark, controlled tone, delivered with plenty of power. Inkinen’s tempos and rubato are generous without seeming indulgent. The Siegfried Idyll section is gorgeous, free and flowing, but I wonder if it would work as well on stage?
Lindstrom brings instant star quality to the role of Brünnhilde. Her voice clear but rich, and with plenty of character, even in the high register. Her vibrato is wide and slow, and ever-present, so there is never any sense of gradually warming long notes—it’s right there from the start. Stefan Vinke is more of a known quantity as Siegfried. He also sang the role in the Opera Australia production, but if you’ve heard the Met, Leipzig, or Covent Productions recently, you’ve probably come across him. He has also recorded the role, in the Seattle Opera production. Here, he comes across as reliable but not exceptional. In act III of Siegfried, the Brünnhilde usually has the advantage over the Siegfried of a fresh voice, but not so here. Even so, Vinke lacks color and sometimes wanders slightly below pitch. These are minor grumbles though, and are only brought into focus through comparison with Lindstrom.
SWR may be caching in here on Inkinen’s recent Bayreuth celebrity, and perhaps too on Lindstrom’s growing fan base. Both artists prove worthy of the hype, and Lindstrom fans in particular should seek out the recording. Bios of the three artists are included, in German and English, but no libretto, nor any explanation about the abridged performance.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Weinberg Penderecki Schnittke String Trios - Trio Lirico

Weinberg Penderecki Schnittke String Trios - Trio Lirico
Audite 97.753 (54:57)

The German ensemble Trio Lirico made an impressive debut on disc in 2016 with the two string trios of Max Reger. For their second album they have ventured further into the 20th century, with recordings of the string trios by Weinberg, Penderecki, and Schnittke. The liner note draws connections between the three works by presenting them all as messages of defiance against communist regimes, and as two of the three players grew up in the GDR, this angle no doubt has a personal resonance. But the three works are characterized more by contrast than similarity, and the program is cleverly structured to move from the Shostakovich-like tonality of the Weinberg, via the complex mix of Sonorism and tonality in the Penderecki, and finally on to the more austere utterances of Schnittke.
Now that Weinberg has been fully recognized as a distinctive musical voice, comparisons with his close friend Shostakovich seem increasingly redundant. But the music of the String Trio, composed in 1950, comes closer than most, especially in its outer movements. The difference is more one of temperament than style—the chamber music of both composers works within the remit of Socialist Realism, but Weinberg is less focused and furrow-browed. His musical discourse is substantial and well argued, but you get the feeling that he could just drop it all at any time, and make out it was all a joke. Many of Weinberg’s endings give that impression too, functional but abrupt, without any grandstanding. This trio seems to just grind to a halt, an impression beautifully realized by the players. The other interesting feature of Weinberg’s String Trio is the distinctly Jewish Andante middle movement, with a melody rich in augmented seconds and played with daring portamento by violinist Franziska Pietsch. Performance-wise, this is the highlight of the disc, and it’s little wonder that Spotify trailed the release with this as a preview: It’s clearly the single of the album.
Penderecki’s String Trio opens with a series of polytonal dissonances. The work was completed in 1991, but this opening looks back to the composer’s avant-garde period in the 50s and 60s. It soon moves into other areas—expressive, lyrical, even Minimalistic at times. Trio Lirico give an impressively even account, maintaining the directness of expression while acknowledging the music’s textural fluidity. Schnittke’s String Trio is probably the best-known and most often recorded work here. It was written to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alban Berg in 1985, with Schnittke drawing on his own German roots (his father was a German Jew and his mother Volga Deutsch) to plug into the Second Viennese School aesthetic. In fact, the work demonstrates that Schnittke’s musical outlook was more Russian than he would be prepared to admit; structurally ambiguous, filled with progressions between unrelated harmonies, and regularly interrupted by the sound of Orthodox Chant. The music is by turns anguished, furious, and meditative, moods that Trio Lirico express with a direct passion.
The most obvious comparison for this release is a disc on Avie (2315) from 2014 by the now-disbanded Ensemble Epomeo (review here). They presented an identical program, but also included a collection of Signs, Games and Messages by Kurtág. Trio Lirico have the better audio quality (surround-sound downloads are also available from the website,, but the difference of interpretive approach in instructive. In the new recording, Trio Lirico lives up to its name, and when any of these composers lets their musical argument give way to a beautiful melody—and they all do at some stage—the players really make the most of it, applying rubato that often seems audacious against the Epomeo accounts. That really benefits the Weinberg; the Andante movement comes to life here in a way that makes it seem like a different piece compared to Epomeo’s more pedestrian reading. In the Penderecki and Schnittke, the superior audio gives an immediacy to the grinding dissonances that the earlier recording can’t match. But there is something about Epomeo’s more austere accounts that is lost in the floating and ethereal sound to Trio Lirico. That is particularly the case in the Schnittke, where the Orthodox chant should feel like a voice from beyond, an interjection into the musical discourse rather than a continuation. But the sheer listenability of the Trio Lirico recording is an advantage in all these works. The fact that the players can spin their melodic lines, often across continually dissonant harmonies, allows the ear to follow the musical argument in a way that requires much more effort with the earlier release. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

Friday, 25 October 2019

GOLDSCHMIDT Beatrice Cenci Bregenz Festival

Johannes Debus, cond; Christoph Pohl (Count Francesco Cenci); Dshamilja Kaiser (Lucrezia); ​ Gal James (Beatrice); ​ Christina Bock (Bernardo); ​ Per Bach Nissen  (Cardinal Camillo); Michael Laurenz (Orsino); ​ Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger (Marzio); Sébastien Soulès  (Olimpio); ​ Peter Marsh (A Judge); Prague P Ch; Vienna SO

C MAJOR 751504 (Blu-ray: 107:00)

The Bregenz Festival has an impressive track record for reviving neglected operas. The festival has two stages, and most of the international attention focuses on the Spiel auf dem See, the floating stage on Lake Constance. That one tends to show the more traditional repertoire, leaving their indoor venue, the Festspielhaus, free for more adventurous projects. In 2010, the Festival staged Weinberg’s The Passenger, kick starting a major revival of the composer’s work, culminating in centenary celebrations around the world in 2019. And since then, the programming has been just as adventurous, with commissions from Detlev Glanert and Judith Weir, as well as The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikovsky, Amleto by Franco Faccio, Nero by Arrigo Boito, and this, Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt and his powerful second opera have not suffered the complete neglect that befell many of those other names, but both have been sidelined and deserve greater attention. The composer was active in Weimar-era Germany, but was only in his early 30s when he was forced to flee the Nazis, moving to London, where he spent the rest of his life. His music received little attention in the UK, where he was more active as a conductor, notably giving the first performance of Deryck Cooke’s realization of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, at the Proms in 1964: Mahler was a key figure for Goldschmidt, that much is clear from the music of Beatrice Cenci. He lived into his 90s, long enough to see a small but significant revival of his music, headed in the early 1990s by Simon Rattle and the CBSO.
Beatrice Cenci was written in 1949, for a competition associated with the Festival of Britain, and although it won, the promised staging never materialized. But the score surfaced during the revival of Goldschmidt’s music, and was given a concert performance in London in 1988 and its first full staging at Magdeburg in 1994.
The libretto, by Martin Esslin, is based on a play, The Cenci, by Shelley. (The libretto was written in English, but the Bregenz production used a German translation by the composer himself.) The action takes place in Italy at the end of the 16th century. It’s a story of a disfunctional father-daughter relationship—common currency in opera, but this one even more perverse than anything you’ll find in Verdi. Beatrice (Gal James) is the daughter, and she, her brother Bernardo (a trouser role, Christina Bock), and stepmother Lucrezia (Dshamilja Kaiser) live under the oppressive tyranny of her father, Count Francesco Cenci (Christoph Pohl). Shelley’s five acts are whittled down to an efficient three. In the first act, a priestly contingent discuss the count and the many crimes in which he has been implicated. Beatrice appeals to Orsino (Michael Laurenz), who is about to take religious orders, for the Church to grant her permission to marry without her father’s consent, though a complex relationship between Beatrice and Orsino then ensues. The act concludes with a feast, at which the count’s tyranny is demonstrated when he drinks a toast to the death of two of his sons, murdered in Spain. In Shelley’s play, the scene concludes with the Count raping Beatrice, although Esslin’s libretto is mercifully coy on this point. By the second act, almost everybody in the story has a motive to murder the Count. That eventually happens, and Beatrice is implicated. The third act is a prison and trail scene of the Spanish Inquisition kind, leading ultimately to Beatrice’s execution.
Given the date and place of composition, the music is remarkably Romantic and remarkably Austro-German. Goldschmidt described the score as bel canto, and it is certainly voice-focused and lyrical, too lyrical perhaps for the subject matter. The influence of Mahler comes through in the playful mix of styles, eclectic though always coherent. The music also recalls the Expressionism of early Schoenberg, and the operas of Schreker and perhaps Strauss, although the tonal style is more consonant, leaning more towards Zemlinsky or Pfitzner. Goldschmidt’s orchestration is particularly attractive, employing a large orchestra, but always ensuring clarity of texture. The tuba has a particularly important role in the first act, and that bottom-heavy brass sound is used effectively to underpin the Count’s menace. There is also impressive use of xylophone and glockenspiel throughout, with the orchestral textures light enough for both to shine through. The most memorable music is in the third-act prison scene, with lots of richly voiced string writing beneath Beatrice’s appeals, the melodies presumably Beatrice’s Leitmotif’s, now coming to the fore as she becomes the center of attention.
The production, directed by Johannes Erath with sets by Katrin Connan, acknowledges the 16th-century setting, but also the rich color and Expressionism of the music, the result a Pre-Raphaelite-tinged Renaissance world. The table for the feast scene is a long glass box filled with gold. This reappears in the second act, but with the gold replaced by the bodies of the Count’s murdered sons. There are one or two Regie indulgences that stand out as excessive, or at least provocatively anachronistic. In the feast scene, a microphone is set up centre stage, and several of the Count’s and Beatrice’s monologues are delivered into it like a stand-up comedy routine. There are also a lot of pistols, most gratuitously a gold pistol that Orsino points at the Count throughout the feast scene and eventually shoots himself with. And Beatrice has a child, represented here by a large doll, which she gradually dismembers in the last act—presumably to portray her deteriorating mental state, but it’s wholly unnecessary. But these are exceptions in a production that otherwise remains faithful to the spirit and setting of the opera, and the staging is visually coherent and logical.
Although the cast is fairly large, with nine named characters, plus chorus, the drama revolves around Beatrice and the Count, both of whom are well cast. Christoph Pohl has an athletic frame, and his fast, slick movements make the character of the Count all the more maniacal and menacing. His voice is a little light, but Goldschmidt’s clear orchestration ensures that he never has to compete. It seems a great shame when he is killed off in the second act, though just when you are starting to miss him in the third, the director brings him back for a totally superfluous mute recollection scene, and you he hadn’t. Gal James also looks and sounds the part for Beatrice. Again, she sounds a little underpowered, but is never obscured by the orchestra, and the sheer passion she brings to the role elevates proceedings, especially in the final act. James’s eyes are not quite straight, which gives her an imposing glare. That, combined with the Pre-Raphaelite wild red hair wig, makes for an always-distinctive stage presence.
Johannes Debus leads a convincing account of the score. The Vienna Symphony bring life and color to Goldschmidt’s music, a job made easier, no doubt, by the composer’s always idiomatic writing, even for his unusual instrumental combinations. Video director Felix Breisach keeps the cameras busy, often zooming slowly in full-stage shots, and with plenty of close-ups, but never to distraction. The video was a co-production with ORF, but Blu-ray viewers get superior sound and visuals (you can see the wig lines, and the piles of gold don’t look realistic under this scrutiny, but never mind), as well as subtitles in German, English, Korean, and Japanese. All round, an impressive production, given a faithful rendering on video, and, provided you can overlook a few Regietheater indulgences, a compelling account of a neglected opera fully worthy of repertory status.