Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 20 December 2019

REGER Organ Works Vol 6 Gerhard Weinberger

REGER Introduktion, Passacaglia und Fuge, op. 127. Choral Preludes, op. 67: selections. Chorale Preludes, op. 79b: selections. 12 Pieces, op. 80: Nos. 5 and 6. Prelude in c, WoO VIII/6. Fugue in c, WoO IV/8. 30 Chorale Preludes, op. 135a. Prelude and Fugue in d, WoO IV/10.  Postludium in d, WoO IV/12
Gerhard Weinberger (organ)
CPO 777 539-2 (2 SACDs: 125:22)

This release is volume 6 in Gerhard Weinberger’s complete Reger organ works for CPO, and, given that each is two well-filled discs, presumably the penultimate installment. The recordings were made on two organs, the Steinmeyer organ of the Christuskirche Mannheim for disc one (opp. 127, 67, 79, 80) and the Bittner organ at the Pfarrkirche St. Walburga in Beilngries for disc two. The instruments date from 1911 and 1913 respectively, and the recording is billed as “played on historical instruments from Reger’s days.” Given the continuing loyalty to German traditions and tastes in more recent instrument construction, that claim is of dubious significance, and all of the updating to the organs in question, digital consoles and the like, also stands in the way of any implications of historically informed authenticity. But no matter, these are both fine organs, perhaps a little smaller in scale than many that are used to record Reger’s more gothic offerings. Both have plenty of power, but give a sense of contained might; volume, yes, but also a depth to the tone and complex, well-balanced richness, especially in the mid-register.
The main offering here is the Introduktion, Passacaglia und Fuge, op. 127, a truly colossal concert work, timing here at over 31 minutes. It begins with a series of huge minor chords, only distantly related, and linked tenuously with chromatic descents in several voices. But things settle down quite quickly, and the quieter music that follows is particularly luminous under Weinberger’s fingers. James Altena, who has consistently favored the Bernhard Buttmann series on Oehms over these Weinberger recordings, has complained (Fanfare 41:5) that Weinberger lacks the grasp of form that Buttmann demonstrates. That is certainly a crucial factor in huge sprawling works like this, but, to my ear, Weinberger makes a virtue of his focus on the moment, especially in these quieter passages. The melodic lines are played with elegant legato, and the counterpoint is easy to follow, and although the results can seem directionless, the sheer beauty of the textures is hard to resist.
Another of Altena’s complaints was about the seemingly random order in which the works are included in the various releases, and that certainly remains the case here. The logic seems to be that Weinberger is choosing his programs to fit the organ that he is playing at any given time, another aspect of that spurious authenticity drive. Any complete Reger set is going to be filled with a large number of chorale preludes, music for liturgical use that was never intended for anthology, so perhaps breaking up these sets is a virtue, or at least a mercy. In fact, Weinberger is able to maintain interest across all of these collections with his subtle but inventive choices of stops. The Bittner organ on disc two is a smaller instrument—three manuals to the Steinmeyer’s four—but it has plenty of character, if a little less weight. Weinberger makes greater use of the reed stops on this instrument, often taking the hymn tune down to just a solo stop to contrast the nebulous diapason accompaniments. He also finds occasion for tasteful use of the tremolo on the second manual in the op. 135 Chorale Preludes.
Recording quality is excellent from both churches. Surround sound is used discreetly to add warmth, especially in Beilngries, where the church resonance is more apparent than in Mannheim. Documentation includes full organ registrations, photographs of the instruments and consoles, and interesting notes on the instruments and repertoire with readable, if not wholly idiomatic, English translations.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

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.