Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Schnittke Anniversary Edition Melodiya

SCHNITTKE Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Piano Quintet. Violin Sonata No. 2. Concerto for Piano and Strings. Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Violin Concerto No. 4

Gennady Rozhdestvensky (pn), cond; Dmitri Kitayenko, cond; Viktoria Postnikova, Alexander Bakhchiev, Vladimir Skanavi, Eliso Virsaladze (pn); Liana Isakadze, Gidon Kremer (vn); Borodin Qrt; Moscow PSO; SO of the USSR Ministry of Culture; SO of the Moscow Conservatory

MELODIYA 10 02630 (2 CDs: 145:09)

This two-disc album presents broadcast recordings of Schnittke’s music from concerts at the Moscow Conservatory between 1977 and 1990. Most of the works were very recent at the time of recording, and although there are no premiere performances here, several of the players are dedicatees of the music they perform.
The conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky is a looming presence throughout all of this music, though he was only directly involved in the composition of the first piece, the piano six-hand work Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). This 1980 recording features the same three players who gave the premiere the previous year, Rozhdestvensky (in a rare outing as pianist), his wife, Viktoria Postnikova, pianist Alexander Bakhchiev. The 1979 concert for which Rozhdestvensky commissioned the work was devoted to four-hand and six-hand works for a single piano, and also featured music by Czerny, Grainger, Smetana, and Moscheles. Schnittke emphasizes the sense of humor of his three dedicatees, taking quotations from Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age, Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale, and Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo for four bassoons. The composers are also represented by monograms, and the material is carefully layered among the parts. It is a light-hearted program opener—though the quotations are obscure—and is played well here.
The Second Violin Sonata (1968) marked a turning point in Schnittke’s music, away from the serial techniques he had employed in the early 60s and towards the polystylism for which he is best remembered today. Emphatic G-Minor chords punctuate the piano part, as if to reclaim the sonority, but there is still no functional tonal harmony. A motif based on the B-A-C-H monogram also appears, harmonized with unrelated diatonic harmonies. The work was written for Mark Lubotsky, who premiered it in 1969. This performance, by Liana Isakadze, dates from 1977. Melodiya also released a recording of Isakadze performing the work in 1978 (S 10-10831-2), but that was presumably a studio version, although it was with the same pianist., Vladimir Skanavi. Their playing here is propulsive and vigorous. Isakadze is less aggressive than some in this music, but she is able to maintain the sense of unpredictability, with each of the new ideas and transformations presented as a fresh and original idea.
The Piano Quintet (1972–76) was written in response to the death of Schnittke’s mother. It introduced an elegiac character into his music that continued for a decade. Ghostly waltzes and ethereal chorales add a polystylistic dimension, but everything is somber and reflective, avoiding the extreme stylistic contrasts of the sonata. The work is well-represented on disc, but this performance, from 1984, is a revelation. It is given by the Borodin Quartet and pianist Eliso Virsaladze. Although these players did not give the work’s premiere, the piece was originally written for the Borodin Quartet, and the fourth movement opens with a chord derived from each of the player’s initials. In this performance, they capture the contemplative mood perfectly, but, like Isakadze, they maintain a focussed narrative quality throughout. Virsaladze is able to blend the piano into the string sound, or at least project a feeling of unity within the ensemble, without any sense that the strings and piano are in competition.
The Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) extends the religious imagery that Schnittke had been experimenting with in the Piano Quintet, and most of the music is made up of allusions to Orthodox chant and to Russian bell ringing. The work is harmonically dense, as both the chorales and the bells are usually presented through bitonal harmonies, cleverly voiced to give the impression of clear triads projecting though the dissonance. That sort of religious imagery pervades the work, but only comes through if the pianist has a feel for those unexpected moments of clarity. Vladimir Krainev gives a compelling account, with just the right mix of mystical contemplation and fervid aggression. The concerto was written for Krainev, and this recording, from February 1980 was made just two months after he had given the premiere in Leningrad. Unfortunately, the strings of the Moscow Philharmonic don’t match his precision, and Schnittke’s (admittedly complex) textures are often muddied by poor ensemble. This work is also well represented on disc. Top choice is the version with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conducting the London Sinfonietta (Erato 45742). But also consider the brand-new recording from Denis Matsuev with Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin under Rainer Honeck (DG 4838489, see review this issue), an expansive and highly Romantic account, a little lacking in bite, but rich in expression and with excellent ensemble.
The second disc opens with an address from Rozhdestvensky to the Moscow audience, ahead of the performance of the Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. He speaks in Russian, but an English translation is included in the booklet. He seems to be concerned that the audience will struggle with the work’s double affiliation, but his explanation is clear and succinct. The first movement is the Concerto Grosso, for violin, oboe, and harpsichord soloists and in the Bach-focused neo-Baroque style that Schnittke had developed in his earlier grossi. It then develops into a Mahlerian symphony, by way of an arrangement of a piano quartet fragment that Mahler wrote as a 16-year-old. The work was written for the Royal Concertgebouw, a commission to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary in 1988. Rozhdestvensky’s performance is the Moscow premiere, given in 1990. The Concertgebouw had recorded the work, with Riccardo Chailly, in 1989 (Decca 430698), and that remains the benchmark. Chailly is more fluid in the Mahlerian music—Rozhdestvensky more frenetic. The Concertgebouw playing is far superior to the Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture, heard here, but the latter does sound satisfyingly Russian, with narrow woodwinds and blaring brass.
The Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) was written for Gidon Kremer, who plays it here, and a monogram based on his name is one of the main motifs. The work is a companion piece to the more famous Viola Concerto, and in both, Schnittke experiments with the effect of corrosive banality, as a deliberate expressive tool. So the music regularly drifts into light dance rhythms or other incongruous allusions, like the Big Ben chimes with which it opens. A serious undercurrent balances these effects, and the “real” music that Schnittke writes here is similar to the quasi-Mahler in the Fifth Symphony, lyrical but freely atonal and dissonant. Kremer also recorded the work with the Philharmonia and Christoph Eschenbach in 1996. That was part of a variable complete set of Schnittke’s violin concertos (Warner 3984-26866-2), but fortunately it was the most convincing of the four recordings. Superior playing by the Philharmonia seals the deal—Kremer is consistently fine across the two accounts—though Rozhdestvensky is more laid back here than in the symphony, and is in perfect sympathy with Kremer’s approach.
Sound quality is reasonable to good. The first disc is noticeably older than the second in terms of recording standards, but both have a dry sound that suggests overly zealous remastering. The packaging is lavish, with the release described as an “Anniversary Edition,” marking Schnittke’s 85th birthday, which fell in 2019. The recordings have obvious historical significance, but they are also fine performances in their own right. The range of repertoire is also impressive, and even though the Piano Quintet is the only top-choice recording, the album should also serve to introduce new audiences to Schnittke’s music.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:1.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Fibich Symphony No. 3 Marek Štilec

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900)
Symphony No. 3
Šárka: Overture
The Tempest, op. 40: Act III Overture
The Bride of Messina: Act III Funeral Music
Marek Štilec, conductor
Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava
Naxos 8.574120 (63:21)

Zdenék Fibich (1850–1900) is one of those many Czech composers who you are well-represented on disc, but who are only ever performed live in their homeland. Even there, Fibich has a checkered reputation. He was active in the 1880s and 90s, a time of high nationalism in Czech lands. But Fibich himself was ambivalent, and happy to follow German models, especially Wagner. That attitude is demonstrated by one of his most famous operas, The Bride of Messina (we get an excerpt here), which was based on a play by Schiller—German-language sources a big no no in Czech opera at the time. But it is easy to exaggerate the composer’s dissidence. The Bride of Messina, for example, won a competition which resulted in it being premiered at the National Theater in Prague in 1884. And listening to the music on this disc, it is obvious that the composer is Czech, even if some of the more adventurous harmonic shifts and sophisticated orchestral textures sound Germanic. In fact, there is often a tension between that cosmopolitan sophistication and the folk-like melodic style, similar to Smetana, though less memorable. There is also a grandiose side to Fibich, which becomes clear when he introduces menacing motifs in the lower brass, as he does in the first movement of the symphony and in the Messina music. The effect is somewhere between Weber and Wagner, although shorter of breath than either.
The Third Symphony was composed in 1898, shortly before the composer’s death at the age of 50. The liner note, by Richard Whitehouse, suggests that the first two symphonies are more Classical in structure, while the Third follows a “darkness to light” trajectory, more associated with the 19th century. If he is implying that this is the most Beethovenian of Fibich’s symphonies, it is notable how much less so it seems than the mature symphonies of Dvořák. In fact, it is difficult to link this music with any direct influence, “the highpoint of his maturity,” as Whitehouse writes. The outer movements are impressively dramatic, and in a clearly operatic vein. The second movement, nominally slow but marked Allegro con fuoco, is schmaltzy but tuneful, and the scherzo has an ideal balance of bite and bounce.
This release is the fifth and final in a series of Fibich orchestral music from Naxos, the first four with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, but this one with the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, all conducted by Marek Štilec. The orchestra sounds Czech, with rich woodwinds and obstreperous brass. But the string sound lacks character, and the ensemble loses focus in the tuttis. As I mentioned, Fibich is surprisingly well-represented on disc, and this version of the Third Symphony is up against three others, all recorded in the 1990s: Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon, rereleased in 2018 as 4250), Gerd Albrecht also with the Czech Philharmonic (Orfeo 350951, rereleased 2019 in the box set 1802), and Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony (Chandos 9682). Only the Gerd Albrecht is available to me for comparison, but the most obvious contrast is the superior playing of the Czech Philharmonic, which gives a greater sophistication to this music, but without loosing its ethnic roots. A review of the Albrecht by James H. North (Fanfare 19:3) compares it with the Järvi and finds Albrecht’s tempos considerably slower. That is little surprise, given Neeme Järvi’s propulsive tendencies, but Štilec is slower again, and not always to his advantage. The first movement gains weight for the slower tempo, although it sounds ponderous in comparison with Albrecht’s sleeker textures (and cleaner ensemble). The second-movement conundrum is taken in different directions by the two conductors: Štilec treats it like the slow movement that it clearly is and ignores the Allegro con fuoco marking, with Albrecht starts at a tempo that reflects the direction—at least twice as fast as here—before settling into the more relaxed music to follow. Clearly, there are many different ways to present this music, and while I prefer Štilec’s approach to tempo, Albrecht wins overall for orchestral performance—with the additional proviso that North also praised the orchestral playing from the Detroit Symphony.
The fillers are orchestral excerpts from three of Fibich’s operas. All demonstrate that grandiose tendency heard in the first movement of the symphony, though it is only an echo in the Funeral March from The Bride of Messina, and the act III Overture from The Tempest is more dreamy woodwind than heavy brass. Confusingly, Fibich wrote two unrelated works with the title The Tempest, an opera (op. 40) and a tone poem (op. 46). This overture comes from the opera, but the tone poem is one of the fillers on the Albrecht Third Symphony recording.
One possible unique selling point for this series is that the conductor has done a great deal of research into sources to recreate the scores as Fibich knew them. Apparently many edits and cuts had crept in over the years within the performing tradition—further evidence, if you are still skeptical, that there is a performing tradition for this music. Štilec includes repeats that had previously fallen from favor. So it is to his credit that the music never sounds repetitious. Otherwise, this is another worthy addition to Naxos’s ever-adventurous catalog, the interpretations compelling, but the orchestral playing challenged by the competition.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten Thielemann

STRAUSS Die Frau ohne Schatten
Christian Thielemann, cond; Camilla Nylund (Empress); Stephen Gould (Emperor); Wolfgang Koch (Barak); Nina Stemme (Barak’s Wife); Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse); Vienna St Op Ch & O
ORFEO 991203 (3 CDs: 209:26)

This recording documents a staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten from Vienna State Opera, recorded from a single performance on May 25, 2019. The production, directed by Vincent Huguet, opened the season and was chosen to mark both the 150th anniversary of the opera house and the 100th anniversary of the opera itself, which was premiered there in 1919. Thielemann, of course, is a seasoned Straussian, and the orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic in all but name, can be considered equally definitive in this repertoire. In fact, Thielemann has recorded the work before with the same forces, a DVD of Christof Loy’s production at the Salzburg Festival in 2011 (Opus Arte 10561, 36:3), which also included Stephen Gould and Wolfgang Koch in the same roles as here and Evelyn Herlitzius, then the Dyer’s Wife, now the Nurse.
The present recording is a co-production with ORF, presumably made for broadcast. The singers come across very well, but the orchestra is curiously subdued. Given the predominance of studio recordings of this opera, that impression may just be the result of Thielemann focussing attention on the stage rather than the pit. But the orchestra sounds much more vibrant on the Salzburg DVD, so perhaps not. In fact, Thielemann is able to rouse the orchestra for its set pieces, and the effect is even more menacing and mercurial for the sudden burst of colour it produces. Thielemann is on top form throughout, clearly engaged with the drama at every stage. The music requires continuous intervention, for tempos and balances, and Thielemann remains in tight control of everything, yet without making the music sound constricted. Other conductors achieve more breadth with this music, but for Thielemann it is all about controlled power, and keeping the music on the same scale as the voices.
That task is made considerably easier by the impressive cast that Vienna State Opera has assembled for its gala staging.  The women surpass the men, though all are impressive. Stephen Gould and Wolfgang Koch are both sounding 10 years older than in the Salzburg recording, and that translates to reduced power, especially from Koch. But dramatically, both are still convincing, perhaps even more so, and Koch’s dark sound is particularly valuable in evoking Strauss’s magical soundscape. Nina Stemme and Evelyn Herlitzius were both making their role debuts as the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse, but both roles are ideal for their now mature Wagnerian voices. Stemme is focussed and expressive, and if Koch sometimes seems underpowered, that is only through comparison to her. Herlitzius is similarly impressive, and she and Stemme are sufficiently distinct in timbre to distinguish them in their many ensembles. Best of all is Camilla Nylund as the Empress. Hers is a properly Wagnerian soprano, and throughout the opera, you feel that she has so much more in store—a feeling wholly vindicated by her stentorian performance at the end of the third act, cleanly delineating her lines and maintaining a rare clarity of tone, even at the highest dynamics.
Orfeo’s packaging is attractive, the discs in a three-way card gatefold which slips into an outer casing. A few stills from the production are included, which show it to be a fairly traditional affair, set among classical ruins and with lots of dry ice. As well as the liner note, the booklet includes an extended introduction to the work by Strauss and a detailed synopsis by Hofmannsthal. Sadly, that is in lieu of a libretto, a serious omission given the complexity of the story. Still, given the strength of the competition, it is unlikely that anybody is going to consider this a reference version. Recommended instead for some fine singing from the female leads, especially Camilla Nylund, who is unsurpassed as the Empress.
This review appears in Fanfare issue 44:1.