Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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)

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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)

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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.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Ustvolskaya Violin Sonata Duet Sorkin Andreeva

USTVOLSKAYA Violin Sonata. Duet for Violin and Piano
Evgeny Sorkin (vn); Natalia Andreeva (pn)
DIVINE ART 25182 (49:19)

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This release is entitled Galina Ustvolskaya: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, but that turns out to be just two works, both fairly early. Fortunately, they are both substantial—though this is still a short disc—and typical of her austere “desk drawer” style. The Violin Sonata dates from 1952 and the Duet for Violin and Piano from 1964. By 1952, Ustvolskaya was already writing music without much rhythm, or rather, as the liner notes describe, music in 1/4 where there are no weak beats, just a succession of equally stressed quarter notes. The Duet is more varied, its seven movements embracing more varied textures and tempos, and even if the overall mood remains somber, the musical language becomes more varied, with violin harmonics adding an icy sheen to the still insistent piano lines.
The recording project was initiated by pianist Natalia Andreeva, who recently released a two-disc set of Ustvolskaya’s solo piano works on the same label (251 30). Here, she is joined by fellow Russian and fellow Australia resident Evgeny Sorkin, the recording made in July 2018 at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where Andreeva teaches. The liner notes are by Andreeva herself and give an idiosyncratic picture of the composer, though an informed one—Andreeva’s Ph.D. thesis is on Ustvolskaya’s piano music. She discusses some textual issues (apparently the published editions vary from Ustvolskaya’s manuscripts, which Andreeva has consulted at the Paul Sacher Stiftung) before going on to some imaginative readings of the music itself. For Andreeva, the sonata speaks of the Stalinist terror and includes highly veiled allusions to chorales and church bells. The Duet is described as a dramatic dialogue between the two players, its “plot” traced by name ciphers so obscure that even Andreeva herself cannot identify them, although she adds that they are only of interest to the performers anyway.
Given this detailed exegesis, it is surprising how objective and dispassionate the readings are. The recording acoustic is very dry, which only adds to that sense of detachment. Fortunately, the approach feels very much in tune with Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising aesthetic. The performers rarely exaggerate the dynamic extremes—and there are plenty of dynamic extremes notated in the scores—and seem as concerned with maintaining tight ensemble and careful balances as with exploiting the music’s Expressionist drama. Sorkin plays with a controlled vibrato, which adds color, but without tipping the music over into overtly Romantic expression. And the fact that Andreeva is the guiding force behind the project is apparent from the amount of detail and commitment in the piano playing, to the extent that the piano often becomes the center of attention. 
The two works here are available in several other recordings, all fairly recent. A 2017 release from Melodiya (99122) includes the sonata, played by Mikhail Waiman and Maria Karandashova, but is let down by a poorly tuned and dreadfully recorded piano. Also from 2017 (though apparently a remaster), a recording of the Duet by Vera Beths and Reinbert de Leeuw, offers atmosphere, intrigue, and menace. Similarly, the ECM version from 2014, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Markus Hinterhäuser, is a highly characterful and compelling account. In many ways, it is at the other end of the spectrum from Sorkin and Andreeva, with the violinist dominating, putting across a huge amount of personality, and all in a warm, enveloping ECM sound envelope. Sorkin and Andreeva give an account that needs a little more empathy from the listener, but which remains involving. We might argue that the more nuanced and underinflected playing here is more in the composer’s spirit, but Beths and de Leeuw would still be my first choice.