Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 27 April 2020

CPE Bach Keyboard Concerto in d Christian Zacharias Orchestre national d’Auvergne

 C. P. E. Bach Keyboard Concerto in d, Wq 23; Rondo in D, WD 59/5.2
Christian Zacharias, piano and conductor
Orchestre national d’Auvergne Live (29:00)

Available on Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Napster, Tidal, iTunes, and KKBox

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This release is the sixth in just a year from the enterprising Orchestre national d’Auvergne Live label. It is a small-scale affair, taking individual works, or sometimes whole concerts, from the orchestra’s live schedule and making them available via streaming platforms. As the orchestra sees it, streaming is the future, and while record collectors might disagree, the logistical benefits are clear—minimal overheads but potentially global exposure for the regional orchestra.
The orchestra itself has a full-time string section, to which a part-time wind section is occasionally added, as on the Beethoven Seventh which the label was launched. But the majority of the orchestra’s concerts are of string orchestra repertoire. The group regularly engages high-profile conductors and soloists. That’s a boon for marketing, but it makes artistic sense too, given the profound effect a distinctive soloist can have on the sound and style of a medium-sized ensemble. On a previous release, Thomas Zehetmair led a program of Strauss and Bruckner arrangements, bringing his sinuous but focused Romantic phrasing to both, then clearing the air with a lively Haydn violin concerto.
This latest release features Christian Zacharias, leading a C. P. E. Bach concerto from the piano. Zacharias is a respected authority on the keyboard music of the Classical era, but his many recordings over the decades have mostly focused on the biggest names: Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven. The orchestra’s publicity for this release emphasizes that, not only was this Zacharias’s first appearance with the group, but it is also his first recording of the concerto.
Both the composer and the work sit at the turning point between the Baroque and Classical eras. The concerto, from 1748, is scored for solo keyboard, strings (seemingly one to a part), and figured-bass continuo. Most of the available recordings (three of the four others that appear on a brief search) present the solo part on harpsichord, with only Michael Rische playing the concerto on piano, on a recent Hänssler release (19043) with the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra. Zacharias makes the most of the opportunities the piano affords, clearly distinguishing melody and accompaniment, and subtly blending the sound in some of the passagework. But otherwise, the choice of piano over harpsichord is less significant than it might seem. The performance is no slower than the period instrument alternatives, and the string section, while expanded from the score’s implied one-to-a-part, is nimble and light, with excellent coordination. A harpsichord continuo is also included, and is well captured by the engineering, but its delicate ornaments at cadences never sound anachronistic against the piano.
The second movement is marked poco andante, but is taking daringly slow. The movement unfolds as a single utterance, with the piano playing almost continuously throughout, its line gradually become more elaborate, but always retaining its lyrical melodic flow. Towards the end the orchestra begins to struggle with the sheer concentration required, and the ensemble begins to loosen. Fortunately, Zacharias carries the day, and delivers us safely into the finale, marked allegro assai, but not rushed here, so much as gently propelled through the precise string articulation.  
The ending is abrupt. Bach doesn’t include any final flourishes, and a separate conductor might have had more scope to fashion a conclusive ending. All of the applause is included, which seems an indulgence, but it leads into a gratifying encore, a solo Rondo, here given a light and playful reading by Zacharias. He and the orchestra are clearly attuned to C. P. E.
Where other performers, especially on the harpsichord, invite us to question whether Bach looks to the past or to the future, Zacharias and the Auvergne orchestra instead find an ideal style for the music, combining Baroque and Classical elements as needed, leaning more towards the latter, but resolving any tensions between them through the sheer exuberance of their sound.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:6

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Taneyev Romances and Poems

Taneyev Romances and Poems
Sergei Taneyev
10 Romances, op. 17
10 Poems from Ellis’s Immortelles, op. 26
4 Poems, op. 32
5 Poems, op. 33
7 Poems, op. 34
Marciá Porter (sop); Janet Hopkins (mez); Hugo Vera (ten); Christian Elser (bar); Jacob Will (bbar); Lynn Kompass (pn)
CENTAUR 3749/50 (2 CDs: 106:28)

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Sergei Taneyev’s output was modest, his published works running to just 36 opuses, but it is notoriously difficult to pin down. Early works can seem late, through high number designations, such as the early string quartets, published after his death as Nos. 7–9. And many other works not published in his lifetime never received opus numbers at all. This album presents “The complete song opuses for voice and piano,” a carefully worded claim, omitting at least 20 songs that were never collected into opus sets. The chronology of the published songs broadly follows the opus numbering, but the relatively high number of the op. 17 10 Romances is misleading. It was published in 1905, the set made up mostly of earlier songs, some of which he revised for pubication, plus two new ones. This was effectively the start of Taneyev’s retirement, the year he stood down from his position at the Moscow Conservatory. The later sets, all designated “Poems” were written in 1908 (op. 26) and 1911–12 (opp. 32—34). Taneyev’s choices of texts are catholic, if sometimes obscure. The op. 17 songs begin with texts by Shelley, translated into Russian by Balmont, but continue with Russian poets: Fet, A. K. Tolstoy, Nekrasov. The op. 26 set are all of Russian translations of foreign poets—French, German, English, Spanish, Italian—while the last three opuses all set the poetry of Yakov Polonsky, a popular poet of the 19th century, working in Pushkin’s milieu.
The intricate counterpoint that characterizes Taneyev’s orchestral, choral, and chamber music is entirely absent here. Instead, lyrical vocal lines are accompanied by conventional, if sometimes florid, piano accompaniments. That simplicity is usually a virtue, allowing the melody and the words to come through without competition. But the sheer simplicity of the accompaniments can be surprising—the fourth song of the op. 10 set, for example, “The blessed star has gone”—plays out over a pastiche of the “Moonlight” Sonata. In the later songs, Taneyev occasionally indulges in evocative scene setting. Op. 26/4 is titled “Stalactites,” and the piano accompaniment evokes the sound of water dripping in a forgotten cave. And the last song of the op. 32 set, “The Winter Road,” is propulsive and menacing, in the spirit of Schubert.
These songs are rarely recorded as complete sets, so the present album is of considerable documentary value. Unfortunately, the performances and production standards are no more than serviceable. The liner note (by pianist Lynn Kompass) points out that the designation “Romances” referred to a sentimental song style in the 19th century. Accordingly, all of the five singers present the vocal lines in a operatic, coloratura style. It is hard to question the commitment and passion of the results, but none of the voices match the musical demands. It shouldn’t be necessary to have Russians singing this music, though this is the only recording I’ve found not to be sung exclusively by a Russian singer, but the Russian qualities of focused tone and cleanly articulated consonants are noticeably absent. The best pronunciation comes from mezzo Janet Hopkins, while the most musically satisfying performances are from soprano Marciá Porter and tenor Hugo Vera. Pianist Lynn Kompass makes a good job of setting the mood and atmosphere for each song, though she is hampered by the recessed sound of the piano, which, while balanced well against the singers, sounds distant in the sound picture. The singers themselves are reasonably well captured, though with more resonance than this often-intimate music requires.
Documentation is skimpy. A full track listing tells us who is singing when—the singers interchange almost continuously, though their voices are sufficiently similar to allow continuity. No texts are printed, but a link and QR code take you to a pdf online with the English translations, though not the sung Russian texts.
No claim is made for any of these to be first recordings, but the scarcity of currently available competition suggests that any previous complete sets were on long out of print Melodiya LPs. The only other complete opus set that appears to be available is an MDG release featuring mezzo Marina Prudenskaya and pianist Olga Gollej in the op. 34 Poems (3071917). Elsewhere, individual numbers turn up on celebrity recitals, the most high profile being Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s 2013 release in this moonlit night (Ondine 12162), with pianist Ivari Ilja. Hvorostovsky includes op. 17/5, 9, 10; op. 26/6, 9; and op. 32/4. It is hardly fair to compare any of the singers here to him, but it is fair to say that Hvorostovsky raises this music to a completely different level.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:6.

Friday, 24 April 2020

From Shadow To Light - Sonora Winds

FROM SHADOW TO LIGHT Sonora Winds MSR 1702 (50:55)

 LUTOSŁAWSKI Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon

SZAŁOWSKI Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon

ŻUŁAWSKI Aria Con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon

WALENTYNOWICZ Trio For Reeds (Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon)

BAIRD Divertimento for Flute, Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon

GARŚCIA Tema Con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon

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This album presents five wind trios (flute or oboe, plus clarinet and bassoon) and one wind quartet from Poland in the middle decades of the 20th century. The program is arranged chronologically (only the Lutosławski is brought forward for an imposing opener) and spans the years 1937 (Szałowski) to 1967 (Garścia). These were turbulent times for Poland, but the stylistic unity, and generally high quality, of these works suggests a continuity in the nation’s musical culture. Today, we remember the Polish late Romantics, up to Moszkowski and Paderewski, and then also the 60s radicals of the Warsaw Autumn generation, but the composers here all fit into the considerable gap in between.
Where the Polish late-Romantics looked to Russia for inspiration, this music is more indebted to France—perhaps partly on account of the dominance of French composers in chamber music for winds. Everything here could be classed as Neoclassical, for its tonal orientation and the crisp, highly contrapuntal textures of most of the works. But there is no looking back to the past here, and no knowing self-reference: The French Neoclassical models are applied in the service of cleanly articulated post-Romantic textures. And, although the chronological ordering does give a slight sense of gradually expanding horizons—presumably the intention of the album title, From Shadow to Light—the personalities of the individual composers have a much greater bearing on the modernity, or otherwise, of the results.
That is particularly true of the Trio by Lutosławski that opens the program. Lutosławski spent much of the war performing as part of the piano duet with Andrej Panufnik in Warsaw. This Trio dates from 1945, soon after he had fled the capital. The textures are lively and vibrant, but the music maintains a down-to-earth quality through some sour, though never outright dissonant, harmonies. In retrospect, we can hear the music as transitional, towards Lutosławski’s more frenetic, aleatoric approach. This music is just as colorful, and none the worse for being a little more orderly.
Antoni Szałowski (1907–1937) was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, a significant link with the French Neoclassical school that influences much of this program. And his Trio (1937) is the closest in style to that Boulanger/Stravinsky axis, though again, without any knowing references to the past, but rather lively, contrapuntal wind textures modelled along Classical lines. Wawrzyniec Żuławski (1916–1957) and Janina Garścia (1920–2004) both provide variations sets, and while both are inventive, neither moves far stylistically from its opening theme. The Garścia Thema con Variazioni is the latest work on the disc, from 1967, but it is a modest affair, written for educational purposes, the liner tells us. That is also true of the 1952 Trio by Władysław Walentynowicz (1902–1999), a Gdańsk-based composer, pianist, and educator. Walentynowicz’s first movement “All in Harmony” is particularly satisfying, with sophisticated but light contrapuntal textures, all created through simple scale patterns in each of the instruments.
The most interesting work on the program is the 1967 Divertimento by Tadeusz Baird (1928–1981). Like Lutosławski, Baird would go on to become one of the leading lights of the “Sonorism” Modernist movement in Poland, but this piece is very much a transition towards that. The (uncredited) liner note tells us that the work employs serial techniques, but on first acquaintance, it seems as efficiently Neoclassical as the rest of the program. But the serial rigor soon becomes apparent, with motifs inverted and melodic lines strung out to full note rows. But Baird always retains a sense of reserve, his exploratory techniques never compromising the refinement of his textures.
The recording was made in Minneapolis in 2018, and seems to be a product of that city’s close links with Polish culture. The Twin Cities Polish Festival and the Polish American Cultural Institute of Minnesota are both credited as sponsors. Sonora Winds is a collective of young freelance orchestral musicians from the area, and two of their four names are Polish (bassoonist Marta Troicki is also credited as a producer). They have uncovered some interesting music here, most of which seems to be appearing for the first time (though there are several other recordings of the Lutosławski). Performances are spirited and vibrant, with good balance between the players, but also with the independence of line that woodwind chamber music thrives on. The recording was made in a church, the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Minneapolis, an overly reverberant acoustic, which, combined with distant miking, makes the ensemble sound recessed. That is a shame, but it doesn’t significantly affect the clarity of the textures. A fascinating release, largely of documentary value, but well worth hearing for the Lutosławski and the Baird.