Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 27 June 2019

SUK Asrael Belohlavek Czech Philharmonic

SUK Asrael. Fairy Tale
Jiří Bělohlávek, cond; Czech PO
DECCA 00028948347971 (2 CDs: 87:37)

This recording appears in a Decca series entitled Bělohlávek The Last Recordings, made in the years 2012–2017, his second stint as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. The recordings were unreleased at the time of his death, and are now trickling out. They are proving a fitting coda to an impressive recording career, with Má Vlast, the Glagolitic Mass, and the Dvořák Stabat Mater all well received. As with the Dvořák, Suk’s Asrael is a fitting work for posthumous release, its subject the Angel of Death in the Old Testament and in Islamic tradition. Naturally, then, it is a serious work, but it’s not all doom and gloom, and Bělohlávek brings a valuable lightness of touch to the score, marshalling the imposing and disciplined forces of the Czech Philharmonic, the results impressively dramatic, but dynamic and nimble too, in a way that not all the competition can match.
That said, the competition is certainly impressive. Many of the top names in Czech music are represented in the work’s current discography: Ančerl, Mackerras, Pešek, Neumann (plus Talich nla). Other interesting contenders include Kirill Petrenko on CPO (555009), one of only two commercial recordings the conductor had made when he was named to succeed Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. The work’s imaginative orchestration benefits from high-resolution audio, so it is good to see two SACD releases, from Ashkenazy on Ondine and Claus Peter Flor on BIS, the audio standards on the BIS release particularly impressive. This new version is Bělohlávek’s third commercial recording and at least the third from the Czech Philharmonic as well, so there is plenty of experience behind the interpretation.
Curiously, the differences between all these readings are slight. Suk gives no metronome markings, yet most recordings come in at within two minutes of the 60-minute mark (this one 58:48), and even the usually brisk Petrenko is in the middle of the pack. But what distinguishes the superior readings, and Bělohlávek’s latest in particular, is the dynamism that keeps the weighty textures from grinding down the work’s symphonic flow. The symphony is eccentrically structured (this is the first recording I’ve seen that doesn’t acknowledge Suk’s grouping of the five movements into two parts), and the conductor must pull through many tersely orchestrated passages towards long-term goals and climaxes that are not always immediately clear. That’s where Bělohlávek’s experience with the score pays off, his reading confident and focused, but with a lightness and grace that make Suk’s often eccentric harmonic progressions and instrumental combinations seem intuitive and logical.
Naturally, the Czech Philharmonic has a keen sensitivity to the style of this music, and particularly the Dvořák-like folk influences sublimated beneath the symphonic fabric. But the sheer quality of the orchestral playing also deserves comment. The strings have elegance and character, the woodwinds warmth, and the lower brass impressive weight and clarity. On the technical front, the sound is immediate and arresting, with the orchestra sounding close, but with the space of the Rudolfinum acknowledged in satisfying, if low-key, decays, especially after the final chord of the scherzo Third Movement.
A short second disc is included, featuring Suk’s earlier Pohádka (Fairy Tale). It is an unnecessary addition, probably included for the sake of comprehensive coverage of Bělohlávek’s as-yet unreleased recordings. The work is based on incidental music, for Julius Zeyer’s play Radúz and Mahulena. The music is attractive and evocative, with even more folk influence than in the symphony. As with the symphony, the work is well-represented on disc, and a previous version from Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic is currently available in an eight-disc Bělohlávek set from Supraphon (Recollection, Supraphon 4250). But the music is pleasant enough, and receives another excellent reading here, with particularly elegant solos from the orchestra’s leader, Jiří Vodička.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 43:1.

Thursday, 6 June 2019


Maddalena Del Gobbo (baryton, vdg); Robert Bauerstatter (va); David Pennetzdorfer (vcl); Ewald Donhoffer (hpd) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 8034 (73:39)

HAYDN Trios for Baryton, Viola, and Cello: in D, Hob. XI:113; in D, Hob. XI:27; in D, Hob. XI:97. 
LIDL Divertimento in G for Baryton, Viola, and Cello. HAMMER Viola da Gamba Sonata No. 1 in A. 
A. TOMASINI Trio in C for Baryton, Viola, and Cello

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This CD charts a significant but little-documented episode in the history of Western music, the decade-long obsession of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy for the baryton. The instrument is a Baroque-era elaboration of the viola da gamba, similar in shape and with seven gut playing strings, which are bowed and stopped at frets. But the baryton also has 10 sympathetic strings, which run under the fingerboard. A hole in the back of the neck allows the player to pluck these strings with the thumb of the left hand, and in the Baroque era, music for baryton often consisted of a bowed melody line accompanied by a plucked thorough bass.
But all of this was rapidly becoming history by the time Prince Nikolaus was introduced to the instrument in the mid-1760s. The excellent liner notes for this release, written and eloquently translated from German by Christoph Prendl, tell the story of the instrument at the Esterházy court: Travelling baryton virtuosos were still to be found in the courts of Europe, and one, Carl Franz, was also the first horn player in the Esterházy orchestra. Prince Nikolaus began playing the instrument, and commissioned many works for his own performance, most notably, but not exclusively, from Joseph Haydn. Haydn composed 163 pieces for baryton, including solo works, concertos, cantatas, and trios. Of these, only the trios survive (mostly, as here, for baryton, viola, and cello), but in substantial quantity; all 126 of Haydn’s baryton trios collected together in bound volumes at the Prince’s request.
Haydn learned to play the instrument himself, practicing secretly at night in order to master the instrument’s eccentric demands. From a compositional point of view, the most pressing of these was to find enough variety. The instrument’s sympathetic strings are tuned to a scale of D Major, limiting the instrument to that and neighboring keys. All three Haydn trios here are in D Major, though we are told that he did venture as far as C Major, F Major, A Minor, and B Minor, but didn’t employ the plucked sympathetic strings for works in these keys.
By contrast, the three Haydn trios here appear to have been chosen to demonstrate Haydn’s inventive use of the sympathetic strings. The combination of baryton, viola, and cello is one of a Baroque solo instrument accompanied by more modern, Classical-era descendants, and in the Minuetto of  Trio No. 97, Haydn makes that contrast explicit by giving the melody to the viola, accompanied, in the Baroque manner, by the baryton’s plucked bass line. In the Adagio of Trio No. 113, by contrast, the baryton’s bowed melody is accompanied both by its own plucked sympathetic strings and by the other two instruments also playing pizzicato.
Despite the unusual repertoire and instrumentarium, this CD is an artist-focused release, as is the modus operandi of DG.  The artist in question is the Italian but Vienna-based viola da gambist Maddalena Del Gobbo. This is her second release on DG, the first an viola da gamba album (48145232) featuring works dedicated to another aristocratic player, Princess Anne Henriette of France, daughter of Louis XV. That might explain why there is so little information about Del Gobbo in the literature for this release, which focuses almost exclusively on the repertoire. She is well photographed though, giving multiple opportunities to also picture the baryton itself, an ornately decorated instrument with an elegantly contoured body and a head carved onto the scroll. The recording location gets due mention and illustration too, the Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Castle in Eisenstadt, a fitting venue if ever there was one.
Del Gobbo draws a warm tone from the baryton, rich, although not as resonant as one might expect given the sympathetic strings, and with a satisfyingly husky burr from the gut playing strings. The resonant acoustic adds to the warmth, but without obscuring the detail—some audible breathing suggests close-up miking, but the instrumental tone never suffers. Haydn’s compositional skill is evident in his ability to make this reticent instrument, its part written for an amateur, the focus of attention, even when accompanied by two more modern and robust counterparts. Violist Robert Bauerstatter and cellist David Pennetzdorfer prove amenable and graceful partners, and what a surprise to hear Haydn passing the melody so often to the viola, something all but unknown in the string quartets!
The program is filled out with works by three baryton virtuosi-cum-composers, Andreas Lidl (unkown–c. 1789), Franz Xaver Hammer (1741–1817), and Aloisio Luigi Tomasini (1741–1808), all associated with the Esterházy court. The Hammer work is actually a sonata for standard viola da gamba, accompanied here on a very modest-sounding harpsichord by Ewald Donhoffer. The Lidl and Tomasini works are both trios for baryton, viola, and cello. Both works are attractive enough, although in a conventional Classical-era style, the Tommasini in particular very generic. Neither composer employs the plucked strings here, surprisingly, given that we are told Lidl was master of this technique. Fortunately, the players afford just as much interpretive conviction to these lesser composers as they do to Haydn, performing their outer movements with vibrant energy, and the middle movements with elegant lyricism.
It is Haydn who ends the program, and with a typically unexpected joke. The Trio 97 was written for Prince Nikolaus’s birthday, occasioning an unusual coda from the composer. Most of the trios are in three movements, and this one is too, but Haydn then adds four very short additions, a Polonaise, Adagio, Menuet, and fugal Finale, each less than two minutes long. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, that on a disc dedicated to an unusual instrument and its aristocratic patron, it is Haydn, as so often, who gets the last laugh.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:1.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Wagner Siegfried Elder Hallé

WAGNER Siegfried 
Mark Elder, cond; Gerhard Siegel (Mime); Simon O’Neill (Siegfried); Iain Paterson (Wanderer); Martin Winkler (Alberich); Clive Bayley (Fafner); Malin Christensson (Woodbird); Anna Larsson (Erda); Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde); Hallé Orchestra
HALLÉ 7551 (4 CDs: 261:47) Live: Manchester 6/2–3/2018

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Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra here conclude an impressive and unlikely Ring cycle. When the project began, with a similar concert performance of Götterdämmerung in 2009, Elder played down the idea of a complete cycle. Back then, the focus of his press interviews was the sheer magnitude of the task of just one installment, the logistics, the expense, and, most significantly of all, the musical demands made on the orchestra. But success led to success, and 10 years down the line, we now have a complete Ring. Bar Rheingold, each opera was presented over multiple nights, with this Siegfried presented over a weekend in June 2018, acts I and II on the Saturday, act III on the Sunday. The benefit for the CD listener is fresh voices and a fresh-sounding orchestra for the final act, and standards are certainly maintained across this four-CD set, the close as thrilling and atmospheric as the start.
Though well-known in the UK as an established Wagnerian, Elder has been poorly served on record for his Wagner interpretations. He stood in at late notice for a Lohengrin with the Concertgebouw, who went ahead nevertheless with an own-label recording (RCO Live 17002), but for some reason the pieces didn’t fall into place. Similarly, a Parsifal with the Hallé (Hallé 7539) received mixed notices, an aging John Tomlinson the weak link there. So, for complete operas, this Ring cycle would seem to be Elder’s only Wagnerian legacy on record—so far at least. Fortunately, the whole project has been executed to a consistently high standard, and the quality and distinctiveness of the results are largely thanks to Elder’s personal contribution.
The Ring operas were all presented in semi-staged performances, meaning concert performances in the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall, but with the singers coming and going, and interacting with each other. I notice from a press photo that Iain Paterson, as the Wanderer, wore a hat and eye patch, but that was the extent of the costumes and props. Elder makes a virtue of the concert presentation; freed from the constraints of the opera house, he can pace the music on its own terms, and tell the story purely through the score. Throughout this cycle, his tempos have been steady, but this isn’t grand or imperious Wagner, it is more about teasing out the details of the score, and about giving all of the musicians, and particularly the orchestral soloists, the space to inhabit the music. The dramatic flow is never threatened, with Elder demonstrating an intuitive grasp of the structure and pace of each act: The music-making always feels urgent, but never hurried.
One reasonable criticism of this cycle, to which the Siegfried is not exempt, is the feeling that the orchestra always comes first. The Hallé sounds fabulous here, with excellent ensemble from the strings, palpable weight from the lower brass, and characterful solos from the woodwinds. The orchestra also includes a cameo appearance by horn player Ben Goldscheider, a recent finalist in BBC Young Musician, for Siegfried’s Horn Call. He brings plenty of character to it, and, again, Elder gives him plenty of space. The players are well recorded too, the sound clear, vibrant, and involving. The singers are well recorded, but they certainly don’t take precedence over the orchestra, and it is easy to get the feeling that our attention is being drawn to the latter. The packaging bears that out, with the orchestra’s name given first on the cover, and the otherwise skimpy documentation including a full orchestra list.
This isn’t star-driven Wagner then, so it is fortunate that an impressive cast has been gathered nonetheless. There are no international superstars here, but, with one glaring exception, all give convincing and satisfying readings, fully commensurate with Elder’s dramatic but carefully paced approach. In act I, we meet the menacing and dark-toned Mime of Gerhard Siegel, a dominating presence whenever he sings. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson is still in his mid-40s, so is young for the role of the Wanderer. That comes through in a lightness of tone, which may perhaps darken in the years ahead. Dramatically, though, he is ideal, bringing all the necessary shades to this complex role. Act II is well served by the light-toned Malin Christensson as the Woodbird and by Clive Bayley’s eloquent, if not overly bassy, Fafner. The best voice in act III, and probably in the whole opera, is that of Anna Larsson as Erda. Hers is a deep alto, warm and round of tone. She is perfect for the role, and this recording catches her in her prime. Rachel Nicholls doesn’t shine quite as brightly as Brünnhilde, but she too is well cast, with a bright and well-supported tone. She has a heavily pronounced vibrato, but it feels right for the role.
If you haven’t guessed, the big hole in this cast is Simon O’Neill in the title role. He is just wrong for the part, his tone narrow and nasal and all his lines rendered comical by his posh English accent (yes, I know he is from New Zealand). In fairness to him, these are issues of style more than technique, and technically, he is fine, consistently well supported and with excellent intonation and articulation. And others clearly feel differently about him than I do: He has been the Wagner and Verdi tenor of choice (at least when Kaufmann et al have not been available) at Covent Garden, the LSO, and many other British institutions for decades. So, if on the off-chance you do happen to be following his career, this is the first time he has sung this opera, and, for better or worse, it is consistent with all his previous Wagner outings.
The Hallé own-label makes a policy of spending money on the sound recording and economizing on the peripherals. So, true to form, this box set comes with a very brief liner, printed on unlaminated paper, and just giving a track listing, synopsis (without cue points), and orchestra list. The benefit is a budget price tag that belies the quality of the recording itself. Recommended, then, especially for Mark Elder’s insightful conducting and the vibrant playing of the Hallé, but with a serious proviso attached about the Heldentenor.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:1.