Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Matthew Taylor Symphonies 4 and 5 Kenneth Woods

Taylor Symphonies 4 and 5, Romanza for Strings
Kenneth Woods, cond;
English Symphony Orchestra
BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Nimbus 6406 (63:56)



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The conductor Kenneth Woods has been devoting much of his time and energy in recent years to his “21st Century Symphony” project, a commissioning scheme to support the British symphony as a contemporary medium. This new release from Nimbus presents the latest symphony from the project, Matthew Taylor’s Fifth (2018) along with his recent Fourth Symphony (2016). The two works form a contrasting pair and offer a range of insights into Taylor’s art.

I first came across Matthew Taylor as a conductor. A monumental recording project by Hyperion to record the complete symphonies of Robert Simpson, conducted by Vernon Handley (box set Hyperion 44191/7) was interrupted by Handley’s death, before he could record the 11th Symphony, the final work in the cycle. Taylor took up the baton, and his account of Simpson’s 11th matches the high standards that Handley had maintained throughout the earlier recordings. In fact, I hadn’t made that connection until I started listening to Taylor’s Fourth Symphony, which instantly reminded me of Simpson’s style—and Simpson’s music is certainly a fine model for any contemporary symphonist. Taylor shares Simpson’s sense of architecture and symphonic scale. He also uses several orchestral devices that hark back to Simpson’s work: percussively accented repeating-note figures in the high violins, chords gradually accumulating around a central pitch, especially as accreting dissonances in the brass. But Taylor’s music feels more focused and more tightly structured. It is symphonic in the sense of closely argued interaction of themes as much as in its breadth. There is humor too, and, like Simpson, Taylor reveres Haydn, whose influence here serves to lighten the discourse, with the textures often moving over to lighter woodwind sounds.

Woods characterizes the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies as a contrasting pair, the Fourth as bright and energetic, the Fifth as tragic. Despite Taylor’s apparently traditional approach to symphonic form, the Fourth Symphony is in three connected sections, while the Fifth is the composer’s only symphony to employ four movements, and even here in an unusual configuration. The scale and mood of the Fourth Symphony are apparent from its bright, woodwind-saturated opening—shades of Petrushka, or of Ravel in the same era (curiously, Taylor does not seem to be influenced by any British music prior to Robert Simpson). The symphony opens strongly, but some of the later music gets weighed down by the composer’s structural ambitions. The development section of the first part is based on the idea of increasing intensity while maintaining a single tempo. This idea is taken from Simpson’s Ninth Symphony, but here fits uneasily with the more traditional structure, impeding the flow of the music. Fortunately, Taylor finds his form again at the end of the first part, where a climax of dissonant brass gracefully recedes until only a solo harp is left to conclude. The second section, Adagio teneramente, is lyrical and somber. Despite Taylor’s broadly tonal language, and his largely traditional orchestration, he studiously avoids Romantic excess. The result here is music that is expressive and expansive, but without ever feeling sentimental or overwrought. Nielsen is mentioned several times in the liner note, and his balancing of personal expression with Neoclassical efficiency is clearly a model of Taylor’s slow movements. The Finale buffa takes us back to Haydn, or at least Haydn via Robert Simpson, the music scuttling and bright, often dominated by percussion, but always playing out on a suitably symphonic scale.

The filler between the two symphonies is Romanza for strings, an arrangement of the slow movement of Taylor’s Sixth String Quartet, written for his wedding in 2006. It is a less ambitious work, but the voicing of the textures in the string parts is always elegant, and the breadth of the unfolding melodic line sits well with the two symphonies.

The Fifth Symphony is written for a smaller orchestra, but is, if anything, more dramatic and intense than the Fourth. Taylor tells us that the first movement was an attempt to recreate the energy and rhythmic focus of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. The music doesn’t sound much like Beethoven, but the idea of continuous momentum is felt in the way that the melodic ideas are passed around the orchestra, that sense of pace taken up by each instrumental group in turn. The movement builds to a climax dominated by overlapping trumpet calls—the brass throughout this work creating an illusion of larger orchestral forces—before a manic timpani cadenza brings the movement to a decisive, if fraught conclusion.

The second and third movements are short interludes for reduced orchestral forces. Taylor relates this idea to Brahms, but the music is more Impressionistic than that comparison suggests. The fourth movement is a large-scale Adagio. Mahler is obviously mentioned as a source, and the music here engages with the sullen, somber sonorities of Mahler’s Ninth and 10th Symphonies. But, as in the slow section of Taylor’s Fourth, the music’s often intense expression never gives way to sentimentality. The ending is particularly dark, a string threnody cut short by a single minor chord from the trombones—an unusual conclusion, but it works.

Kenneth Woods gives impressive readings of these two symphonies. That ending to the Fifth requires a real feeling for the music’s sense of muted drama, and Woods knows exactly how to handle it. He also has a good feel for Taylor’s expressive, but not overtly Romantic milieu, and for the long lines that articulate his structural thinking. The Fourth Symphony was recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, and the Fifth with Woods’s own English Symphony Orchestra at St. Jude’s on the Hill, London (just before the premiere, also in London). The BBC National Orchestra of Wales comes across as the superior orchestra, especially for the unity of their strings, although the vibrant brass tone of the English Symphony Orchestra is a real asset in the Fifth. The recorded sound from Cardiff is better too, through the church resonance is also attractive for the Fifth. A fascinating release, and another success for Kenneth Woods’s “21st Century Symphony” project.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:4.

Monday, 21 December 2020

HELDIN Juyeon Song Arias of Wagner and Strauss

Wagner: Die Walküre: Hojotoho!. Seigfried: Ewig war ich. Götterdämmerung: Immolation Scene. Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod
Strauss: Salome: Ah du wolltest mich nicht; Ah, ich habe deinen Mund geküsst Jochanaan
Juyeon Song (sop)
Neils Muus, cond
Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava
AFFETTO 2005 (50:00)


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This CD, titled Heldin, is the debut album for Korean soprano Juyeon Song. She is being touted as the next major Wagner soprano, and, according to her liner bio, is “Becoming the Isolde of today….” Her age is not given anywhere in the publicity, or online, but she is certainly young to be taking on these heavyweight roles. But her career so far looks promising. She sang in a concert performance of Tristan in San Francisco in October 2019, and her publicity is filled with glowing reviews of that performance. She is also making an impression on the still-nescient Wagner scene in Eastern Europe. She sang in a concert performance of Tristan in Poland, just before her SF appearance, which led to a recording of the full opera (Navona 6321—review to follow). Like this recital, that was given with the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, though with a different conductor. She also sings Abigaille in Nabucco, although that, along with the roles on the present disc, seems to be the limit of her professional repertoire.

On the basis of these performances, Song has a clear and focused soprano voice. The sound can be narrow, especially in the upper register, so it is not a big sound, although she projects well above the orchestra. Her vibrato is narrow and slow, but very well controlled, with gradual increments up to the climaxes. Intonation is mostly secure, although she sometimes hits the higher notes a little under tone, but immediately corrects. Her articulation is excellent, and the texts in both the Wagner and the Strauss are always crystal clear—and sufficiently idiomatic to please my admittedly non-native ear. My only major concern is a lack of character. The singing is certainly passionate, but the style and sound hardly change from Brünnhilde to Isolde to Salome.

The program is short, and some of the excerpts are needlessly stingy. The “Hojotoho!”s from Walküre are given a two-minute slot, which seems to begin and end mid-way through orchestral phrases. But the Götterdämmerung and Salome excerpts run to the end of the respective operas (Hagen’s final interjection is omitted) and between them make up the bulk of the program.

The Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava is a bit rough round the edges but plays with passion and commitment. Conductor Niels Muus seems to find more musical interest in the Strauss excerpt than in the Wagner, and makes the most of the colorful woodwind and percussion writing there. Balances are fine, with Song recorded close-up for the Wagner but sounding a little more recessed in the Strauss. Documentation is cursory, mostly given over to the singer’s bio. All round, a promising debut, if sometimes underwhelming on its own terms. The standout performance here is the Liebestod, so the full Tristan recording may offer greater vocal riches.


This review appears in Fanfare issue 44:4

Thursday, 17 December 2020

LIGETI Piano Etudes Eric Huebner

György Ligeti: Études pour Piano, Books 1 and 2. Horn Trio
Eric Huebner (pn)
Yuki Numata Resnick (vn)
Adam Unsworth (hn)
NEW FOCUS 269 (64:03)



This album of Ligeti’s Études pour Piano, named Désordre after the opening number, is a collegiate project from the University at Buffalo. Pianist Eric Huebner is a new music specialist. He is also pianist of the New York Philharmonic as well as associate professor of music at the university. The recording was made there, at the Lippes Concert Hall, and supported by the Music Department. Huebner has previously appeared as ensemble pianist of many new music recordings, and this seems to be his third solo album, after a program of music by Daniel Rothman on Albany (967) and a recital of Schumann, Stravinsky, and Carter, like this one on New Focus (159).

Ligeti’s Études are now well established in the repertoire. The First Book was completed in 1985 and was soon recorded on Wergo by Volker Banfield (60134). After the Second Book was completed, in 1994, the first recording of the two together was made by Fredrik Ullén on BIS (783). Around that time, Ligeti was in collaboration with Sony on their György Ligeti Edition. This aimed to present all of Ligeti’s music in definitive, composer-approved interpretations. The Piano Études were recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (62308), a recording that has easily retained its definitive status, despite stiff competition in more recent years from pianists as venerable as İdil Biret (Naxos 8.555777) and Jeremy Denk (Nonsuch 530562).

The music demonstrates Ligeti’s fascination in the 1980s and 90s with chaos and order, and with the then-fashionable mathematical theories that presented the concepts as two sides of the same coin. So, in the Études, the two hands are often running at different tempos, or in different modes, creating complex cross-rhythms in which the ear picks up traces of a higher order. The trick for a pianist is to maintain that ambiguity, to present the interacting rhythmic hierarchies as part of a bigger picture in which rigid musical order is both an essential and a compromised ingredient.

Eric Huebner is particularly good at bringing out the details of this music. For instance, in the First Étude, each hand plays a theme in octaves accompanied by running eighth notes between. The right hand plays white notes and the left hand black notes, and the theme and accompaniment textures in the two hands gradually move out of synch. Huebner gives us immaculate clarity in those two-part textures, maintaining the structural hierarchy within each of the hands, and setting off the interaction between them like a well-oiled, but always percussive, mechanism. The result is more order than chaos, and so the effect can feel corporal and earthbound. Aimard smoothes the eighth-note accompaniment into a flowing, even texture, and the result is more nebulous. The sound recording here, by Adam Abeshouse, also adds to this sense of clarity and order. The piano is recorded up-close, with a welcome sense of immediacy, but it lacks weight in the bass register. The result is greater focus, but less drama. All round, it is a more mathematical approach, which is reasonable, given the mathematical inspiration of most of this music. It works best in the fast movements—which is most of them. The slower Études need more atmosphere. Ligeti described the Fifth Étude, “Arc-en-ciel,” as a jazz piece, but you wouldn’t know it from Huebner’s staid account. The slow number in Book 2, “En Suspens,” is more successful, as this time Ligeti creates the placid mood from judicious application of the cross-rhythms at which Huebner always excels.

The program is a curious mix. Ligeti wrote four numbers for a projected Third Book of Études, but these rarely get included in recordings, and do not appear here. In fact, only one of those four late Études is fast, so Huebner is probably right to avoid them. There is also enough early music for solo piano to complete a program, as both Ullén and Aimard did, though this is so far from the Études stylistically that it is not an obvious coupling. Instead, we get the Horn Trio, a much more stylistically aligned work, written just before the First Book of Études, in 1982. Huebner is joined here by violinist Yuki Numata Resnick and hornist Adam Unsworth, both of whom are clearly on the pianist’s wavelength in terms of clarity and precision. Resnick plays with little vibrato, and her penetrating tone in the upper register cleanly delineates the textures, which are otherwise often in a veiled alto register in both the piano and the horn. Abeshouse again mikes the instruments closely, and the sound of the horn can be boomy, especially in the lower register. But the pay-off, again, is exceptional clarity, in a reading where detail and precision are clearly of the highest importance to the musicians.

Ligeti’s music of the 80s and 90s can be heard as transitionary, from the high Modernism of his earlier work, to a late style more influenced Ligeti’s Hungarian roots, and especially by Bartók. The liner essay, by Nicholas Emmanuel, a grad student at Buffalo, highlights those Hungarian connections and provides valuable context for all of this music, a context that is only now coming into clear perspective, 15 years after the composer’s death. But the performers take the opposite approach, highlighting the Modernism and mathematical rigor of the music. The results sometimes lack atmosphere, but the performances are always engaging, thanks to Huebner’s skill in playing out Ligeti’s complex rhythmic games.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:4.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

HEFTI Die Schneekönigin

David Philip Hefti Die Schneekönigin
Mojca Erdmann (sop); Delia Mayer, Max Simonischek (speakers)
Tonhalle Orchestra
David Philip Hefti, cond
NEOS 12028 (78:19)


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David Philip Hefti (b. 1975) is a prolific Swiss composer who is performed widely in his home country and also has a presence on the German new music scene. This album presents Die Schneekönigen (The Snow Queen), a theatrical concert work for children. The piece was commissioned by the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich, and premiered in that city in November 2018, the recording taken from the premiere performance.

With audio-only releases of music theatre works, especially of new works, you often get the impression of only hearing half the story. But Hefti weighs the drama heavily in the direction of the music, rather than the staging, so the loss is minimal. The work is scored for a soprano (Erdmann) and two speakers (Mayer and Simonischek). In the premiere performance, which is described as semi-staged, the speakers stand at the front of the stage, and Erdmann at the back, raised about the chamber-sized orchestra. The story, based on Hans Christian Andersen, tells of two children, Gerda and Kay. Gerda must rescue Kay from the enchantment of the Ice Queen, which she does with the help of a crow. Mayer takes the role of Gerda and acts as narrator, Simonischek is Kay and the crow, and Erdmann is the Ice Queen, plus several alter eros that the Ice Queen takes on over the course of the story.

Hefti’s music is modern but child-friendly. Musical evocations of ice and chill underline everything in the score, and Hefti has a keen sense for the orchestral sounds he can employ to create these effects. Icy untuned percussion plays a role, but there only seems to be one percussionist, and the composer does not overly rely on percussion sounds. More ubiquitous are the low woodwind and brass, especially the contrabassoon and bass clarinet, which are regularly employed to create sinister moods and to evoke creaking ice. The music occasionally drifts into tonal harmonic order, but for the most part is freely atonal, though usually consonant.

The German libretto is also child-friendly, which has the added bonus of making it non-native speaker friendly too. The speakers are both admirably clear (and obviously were amplified in the hall to ensure that clarity), and with a basic level of German you can follow the story. And if not, a full libretto is supplied, in German, English, and French, though not side by side sadly.

Mojca Erdmann is best-known as a Mozart specialist, and her voice is characterized by a lightness and clarity of tone. Hefti makes significant demands on her, especially in the upper register, where she regularly hangs for long stretches in quiet, fragile cantilena. The result is a narrow, unsettling tone, an icy vocal characterization ideal for the role, but not always pretty.

The composer conducts with a sure hand. Despite the modernity of the score, there are no serious challenges for the ensemble here, but the players are clearly well rehearsed and fully engaged. Packaging from NEOS is elegant, with enough stills to give a good impression of the semi-staging—the stage is dominated throughout buy a giant ice crown, from which the conductor seems to emerge. All-round, a fairly modest new-music project, but one that succeeds on its own terms.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:4.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Kenins Violin Concerto, Percussion Concerto, Beatae voces tenebrae, Andris Poga

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919–2008)
Violin Concerto
Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra
Beate voces Tenebrae
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra
Eva Binere, violin
Andris Poga, cond.
SKANI 088 (54:37)


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Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919–2008) was a Canadian composer of Latvian birth. He was a prominent figure in Canadian music, teaching at the University of Toronto and writing works for many Canadian ensembles. Ķeniņš left Latvia in the 1940s, fleeing the Soviet occupation. But the country remembered him, and many performances of his music have been given there since the fall of the Soviet system. This album is the first offering on a new label, Skani, from the Latvian Music Information Centre. It offers diverse perspectives on Ķeniņš’s art with a skillfully performed program of his orchestral works.

Before moving to Canada, Ķeniņš studied in Paris, including with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. A French influence is clear in all this music, especially in Ķeniņš’s fluency with orchestral color. That Impressionistic side stands in opposition to his Neoclassical tendencies, towards order and clearly defined forms. The result is an expressive but sometimes acerbic style, the music often moving into terse, percussion-led textures, but never sustaining that tension for long, and subsiding instead to calm, lyrical lines, these clearly the composer’s lingua franca.

The Violin Concerto dates from 1974. It was written for Steven Staryk, who, fortuitously, was a neighbor of Ķeniņš in Toronto. The solo writing is initially angular and rhythmic—shades of Bartók here—but soon settles into a more relaxed lyrical style. Ķeniņš’s taste for proportion and order is apparent from the work’s five-movement arch form, another Bartók trait. But there is rarely any sense of urgency or progression in this music, and Ķeniņš is always happy to luxuriate the textures he invokes. Violinist Eva Bindare gives a suitably focused reading, gritty and terse where required, but lyrical for the long melodies. Her viola-like tone in the lower register is particularly attractive, and Ķeniņš’s careful scoring ensures she is never swamped.

The Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra dates from 1983 and was written for orchestra and soloists from Ķeniņš’s department at the University of Toronto. The composer evidently had a passion for untuned percussion, which dominates the orchestra in the Violin Concerto too. But the Percussion Concerto is a different work entirely, the style much more consonant and neo-Romantic. Although there are five percussion soloists, the balance of the work leans heavily towards the orchestra, with the expanded percussion usually prominent but rarely the focus of the musical argument. The soloists do get a chance to shine, though, in occasional duets between percussion and orchestral soloists, such as the xylophone and piano passage at the start of the scherzo third movement (this concerto is also in a five-movement arch form).

The program closes with Beate voces Tenebrae, an elegiac orchestral work from 1977. The music gradually grows from low, sustained textures, and even though it builds to imposing climaxes, again with plenty of percussion, the mood is somber and restrained throughout. Fragmentary quotations appear, from Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, but as nebulous reminiscences within the music’s dreamlike atmosphere. This is an intriguing work, although, as in the Percussion Concerto, the Romanticism can be cloying, especially compared to the clean orchestral lines of the Violin Concerto, a style to which Ķeniņš seems more naturally drawn. Here, and throughout the program, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra plays well under Andris Poga. Ķeniņš’s orchestral textures are often innovative, but are always presented with clarity and warmth by the players. The recordings were made in the Great Guild Concert Hall in Riga, presumably under studio conditions. The orchestral sound is a little recessed, but the fine balance against the soloists compensates for any distancing.

The music of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš has previously appeared on several Canadian labels, mostly in chamber music compilations (omit the diacritics if you are searching online). Paul Rapoport, a champion of Ķeniņš’s music, reported in Fanfare 8:4 that a recording of the Violin Concerto by Staryk was still (in 1985) available on the CBC label, but it is out of print now. If the Latvian state agencies are planning a broader reappraisal of Ķeniņš’s work, there is plenty of orchestral pieces to explore, including eight symphonies and 10 more concertos. 


This review appears in Fanfare issue 44:4.