Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 28 February 2020

VASKS Lonely Angel Trio Palladio

VASKS Lonely Angel (Vientuļais eņģelis) (version for piano trio). Episodi e canto perpetuo. Plainscapes (Līdzenuma ainavas) (version for piano trio)
Trio Palladio
ONDINE 1343-2 (62:05)

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Like most of the composers loosely grouped into the “Eastern Minimalist” school, Pēteris  Vasks regularly makes arrangements of his works for different ensembles. This disc presents three piano trios, but only the second, Episodi e canto perpetuo (1985), was originally written for these forces. The opening Lonely Angel (this version 2019) was originally the fifth movement of Vasks’s Fifth String Quartet, composed in 1999 for the Kronos Quartet, while Plainscapes (2011) was originally for violin, cello, and choir, that version written in 2002 and premiered by Gidon Kremer. But the sound of solo violin and cello is a common factor linking each of these works in their various versions, “my beloved strings” as Vasks describes them in justification for the original scoring of Plainscapes.

Lonely Angel and Plainscapes are both classic Vasks, slow-moving, contemplative scores, the individual lines based on repeating phrases, but the music always retaining a sense of mystery through the harmonies, tonally ambiguous and often resting on mild but sustained dissonance. The music also has a sense of direction and evolution that distinguishes it from the more static scores of Arvo Pärt, yet the direction itself remains nebulous and intangible. Vasks talks in mystical terms about Lonely Angel, dedicated to his own guardian angel, and also inspired by a painting by Hugo Simberg, The Wounded Angel. Plainscapes is inspired by nature, specifically the Zemgale plain region of Southern Latvia. The original version culminates with the choir imitating birdsong, an effect that Vasks has reworked into a spectacular, though still atmospheric, piano solo. The work apparently has a sectional structure of interconnected sub-movements, but the aural experience is of gradually evolving continuity.

Episodi e canto perpetuo is an early work, and a fascinating window onto the early development of Vasks’s style. The piece was written in response to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and even without hearing it, a connection seems obvious between the serene slow-moving string solos of Messiaen’s score and similar textures in Vasks’s mature music. Episodi seems like a transitional stage between the two. Like Messiaen’s quartet, it is structured in eight movements. A quiet and meditative mood prevails, but the serenity of the string solos is emphasized through contrast to a series of oppressive climaxes, where heavy, dissonant textures are hammered out by all of the instruments, and sustained too long for comfort.

Not an easy listening disc, then, and even the quieter works have an expressive intensity that focuses the listener’s attention. The performances are excellent. Trio Palladio is an all-Latvian ensemble, made up of pianist Reinis Zariņš; Eva Bindere, concertmaster of Kremerata Baltica; and Kristīne Blaumane, principal cello on the London Philharmonic. The players are pictured with Vasks in the liner, which also states that the arrangement of Lonely Angel was made specifically for the album. The sheer virtuosity of the string playing is an asset in all three works. The recorded sound is warm and involving, an ECM-style sound picture, ideal for this music. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:5.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Tishchenko Harp Concerto Marinutsa Sugako

Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010) To My Brother, op. 98. Testament, op. 96. Harp Concerto, op. 69
Ionella Marinutsa (hp)
Anara Khassenova (sop)
Artem Naumenko (fl)
Anna Homenya (org)
International Parisian Symphony Orchestra
Mikhail Sugako, cond

NAXOS 8.579048 (53:25)

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Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010) is routinely described as the direct successor to Shostakovich, including on the blurb for this release. So are many other Russian composers of his generation, especially when, like Tishchenko, they specialized in symphonies and concertos. Tishchenko studied with Shostakovich, and also with Ustvolskaya, and inherited much from both, though in the case of Ustvolskaya, only from her “official” side. But Tishchenko’s music is rarely as anguished as theirs. While conservative in style—and fully meeting Socialist Realist requirements—there is a questing, exploratory aspect to his music, often experimenting with unusual tone colors and exploring surprising instrumental combinations.
Those are the strongest qualities of the three works presented here. The disc is titled Complete Works for Harp, which seems arbitrary, given that the program is made up of a substantial concerto with two short songs as filler, both with harp in the accompanying ensemble. But the program does make sense, as the soprano from the songs, Anara Khassenova, returns in the concerto to provide a vocalize obbligato in the fourth of its five movements.
The two songs were composed in 1986, the first in memory of the composers’ brother, Mikhail. Confusingly, the two works both set poems called “Testament,” the first by Lermontov, the second by the Modernist poet Nikolay Zabolotsky. In the first, soprano and flute are equal partners, exchanging lyrical phrases over the harp’s sometimes petulant accompaniment. Testament replaces the flute with an organ, which balances the percussive interjections of the harp.
The concerto was composed in 1977, for the composer’s third wife, Irina Donskaya-Tishchenko. Her recording has been reissued on Northern Flowers 9963. Although the work is long—over 40 minutes—the scale of the musical expression is generally modest. Perhaps with an eye to balance between harp and ensemble, Tishchenko rarely employs the full orchestra (just a chamber ensemble in any case), instead matching the harp to solo instruments for extended duets. This often plays out as Klangfarbenmelodie, as one accompanying instrument gives way to another of similar tone. Tishchenko also takes a coloristic approach to modality, and the soloist moves between two harps with different tunings. The harp writing is fairly conventional, though more adventurous than the continual arpeggios that make up most orchestral writing for the instrument. There are occasional glissandos, but otherwise most of the solo part is made up of single-line melodies and chordal interjections.
Ionella Marinutsa is a Russian harpist, based in Paris. In fact, the conductor and all of the soloists are from former Soviet republics but now Paris-based. Marinutsa gives fine performances, suitably elegiac and reflective in the concerto’s many quiet moments, and always sustaining the melodic line. Soprano Khassenova has a rich, even tone, which balances well against the harp. The International Parisian Symphony Orchestra appears to be a pick-up group, founded as recently as December 2018 by the present conductor and here making its recording debut. The players cope well with the exposure of their minimally accompanied solos, but the ensemble playing is ordinary and lacks color. Packaging and documentation are the usual Naxos bare bones, though Richard Whitehouse’s generous liner note includes translations of the poems, but without the Russian originals.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:5.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Karl Weigl String Quartets 7 and 8 Thomas Christian Ensemble

Weigl String Quartets Nos. 7 and 8
Thomas Christian Ensemble
CPO 555 201-2 (54:45)

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The CPO label regularly unearths composers of the late-Romantic era who have fallen into obscurity. Karl Weigl (1881–1949) fits that bill, although he is not completely unknown on records, and this is one of 12 discs of his music currently available, on a range of labels—though the only one to present either of these works. Weigl’s path to relative obscurity is a wearingly familiar one: a Jewish musician in Vienna, well-respected and reasonably successful, forced to flee the Nazis, then exiled in America and forgotten. But Weigl’s story doesn’t quite fit the mould, especially as his time in the States was more successful than that of his many colleagues, especially Zemlinsky, who had been his teacher, and Schreker, who had previously conducted Weigl’s orchestral works. Weigl arrived in New York in 1938, and established himself as a piano soloist, and also performed piano duets with his wife, the composer Vally Weigl. He also pursued an increasingly successful career as a teacher, with appointments at the Hartt School of Music, the Boston Conservatory, and the Philadelphia Academy of Music. These two string quartets, his last, were written during these years, in 1942 and 1949 respectively. The Eighth was one of his final works, and neither was performed in his lifetime.
  Weigl brought to America a wealth of Viennese tradition. His outlook was largely traditional, yet his position in the culture wars of turn-of-the-century Vienna is difficult to pin down. The excellent liner note, by Michael Haas, offers some clues. Schoenberg admired Weigl’s music, and described him as “one of the best composers of [the] older generation … ” a curious statement, given that Schoenberg was seven years younger than Weigl. What he meant was that Weigl was “ … one of those who continued the dignified Viennese tradition of the Porporas, Fuxes, Alberchtsbergers and Sechters.” But the fact that Schoenberg rated Weigl’s music at all suggests that he was far from a reactionary conservative. The aesthetic path of Weigl’s music paralleled the Second Viennese School, at least in the first decade of the century. And even if it remains tonally-oriented, and broadly Romantic, right up to the end, there is a radical streak here, and an individual voice. Brahms is an over-riding influence, as he was for almost every composer of the era, but Weigl shapes the Brahmsian model—of rigorous counterpoint and intricate rhythmic working—in a satisfyingly personal way.
Of these two string quartets, the real find is No. 7. Both quartets are on a similar scale, 30 and 24 minutes respectively, and both traditionally structured, but the Seventh is much the more involving. The opening movement resembles Reger, with Brahmsian counterpoint over adventurous harmonies, but is less fraught. The second movement, an Allegro molto scherzo, is biting and rhythmically focused. Mid-way through a stamping folk dance appears in the cello, but, typically for Weigl, it dissipates after just a few bars, giving way to rigorous development of its motifs. The slow third movement is a gem: one of those Adagios were time seems to stand still, with long melodic lines, always logical but never predictable, and a background that merely suggests tonal areas and chordal warmth. It is a direct successor to the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and just as engaging.
The Eighth Quartet is more austere. Again the textures are mostly built on extended passages of rigorous counterpoint, but, unlike in the Seventh, this seems more the subject than the medium. Harmonies are colder, and the textures more brittle. But the music is often involving too. The slow opening of the last movement is particularly attractive, another atmospheric moment of delicately contoured counterpoint, hanging weightlessly in the upper register of the instruments, an effect of almost orchestral sophistication.
The performances and recordings here are excellent. The Thomas Christian Ensemble is a chamber music collective organized by the eponymous Christian, who here leads an quartet of Raimund Lissy, second violin; Robert Bauerstatter, viola; and Bernhard Naoki Hedenborg, cello; that last name familiar from the roster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Weigl’s contrapuntal style it well represented in performances of great detail and clarity. Vibrato is kept to a minimum, and balances within the group are carefully gauged. Christian’s violin dominates the sound picture, and his tone sometimes narrows in the upper register, but again, this isn’t the sort of music that invites warmth and richness from its players. The CPO recording is similarly dry and detailed, though not claustrophobic or overly analytical. A fascinating release, recommended primarily for the Seventh Quartet.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:5.