Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde Robert Reimer

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde Robert Reimer
Juyeon Song (Isolde)
Roy Cornelius Smith (Tristan)
Tamara Gallo (Brangäne)
John Paul Huckle (King Marke)
Brian Davis (Kurwenal)
Alexander Kaimbacher (Melot, Hirt, Young sailor, Shepherd)
Ostrava Op Men’s Ch
Janáček PO
Robert Reimer, cond
NAVONA 6321 (3 CDs: 210:59)


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The unassuming packaging for this release—a three-way card gatefold—belies the remarkable recording within. This is a live concert recording of Tristan und Isolde, made in southern Poland with a Czech Orchestra and a predominantly American cast. The whole project was underwritten by the Claude Heater Foundation (founded by the American Heldentenor), whose aim seems to be to provide a platform for Korean soprano Juyeon Song. That is does, and Song gives us an excellent Isolde. The rest of the production is serviceable, with a nimble orchestra and with only a few weak links in the cast. A surprisingly candid note from conductor Robert Reimer in the packaging concedes that rehearsal time was tight, and that is sometimes apparent in the ensemble, but the results are always listenable, and very often thrilling.

Juyeon Song has a bright tone and good support. She is a little lacking in color, especially at the top, but all the notes are there. The microphones may have been positioned to favor her, and there is never any danger of her being overwhelmed. Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith is a good match as Tristan. His voice is round, although he can tend towards a hollow sound at the loudest dynamics, and, while forceful, he lacks the sheer vocal power that the role demands. Brian Davis is a solid Kurnewal (he also doubles as Steersman), rich and focused. Tamaro Gallo is less impressive as Brangäne, her tone loose and uneven, especially at the top. Alexander Kaimbacher is a characterful Melot, and also takes on a handful of compiramrio roles. John Paul Huckle brings gravitas to the role of King Marke. His voice has the presence and weight that much of the cast lack, though he has a frustratingly loose vibrato.

Robert Reimer leads a swift and efficient account of the score, which fits snuggly onto three CDs. His tempos are steady, and he is cautious with rubato, although the big climaxes are given their due. The orchestra plays well, and the string soloists are all impressive, though the woodwind solos are dull. Also, the tutti strings are dry, with a lack of bloom to the sound.

That might be a consequence of the sound recording, which favors some of the performers over others. Both Song and Smith are miked closely, but many of the other singers sound distant, and the boomy acoustic of the venue, the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, is not adequately tamed by the engineers.

As mentioned, the packaging for this release is skimpy, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it as an excerpts album. The printed material runs to bios for conductor and cast and production credits. There’s no libretto, of course, but nothing about the opera itself either. This is an attractive recording, although hardly competitive, but worth hearing for Juyeon Song’s impressive Isolde. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:5.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Mahler Symphony No 7 Alexandre Bloch Orchestre National de Lille

Mahler Symphony No. 7

Alexandre Bloch, cond; Orchestre National de Lille
ALPHA 592 (74:16) 

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Mahler’s Seventh is a problem child, but that makes it an enticing challenge for conductors. The music is wildly divergent, with regular and radical changes of tempo and mood. And Mahler’s unusual structuring means that conductors have few conventions to fall back on. But when it works, it is a triumph, the finale one of Mahler’s few unclouded expressions of joy, concluding in a triumphant blaze of C Major. Gustavo Dudamel took up the challenge in 2013, touring European orchestras with the work. His strategy was to play down the music’s excesses, to rely on orchestral color rather then extreme rubato to project the music’s garish side, while keeping tighter control on tempos and dynamics. I heard him on that tour with the Philharmonia in London, and got the impression that he was trying to move away from his reputation as enfant terrible and project the image of a mature conductor instead.

Alexandre Bloch is 35, and this Mahler Seven is only his fourth commercial recording, suggesting that similar motivations are in play. Bloch is currently music director of the Orchestre National de Lille, whom he conducts here, as well as principal guest conductor of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, having previously held a similar position with the London Symphony. His repertoire to date has been dominated by French composers, which again makes the Mahler Seven sound like a brave step.

He clearly has a close and constructive relationship with the orchestra, which he has led since 2015, drawing fine playing from the musicians and maintaining tight ensemble. But, like Dudamel, he gives a cautious reading of the work. Tempos are well within established conventions, and he rarely takes up Mahler’s invitations to sarcasm or excess: The string portamentos are delivered but not dwelt on, and the instruction Mit grossem Schwung elicits greater pace but no swaggering rubato. The result is a highly accomplished reading, and one that finds all of the structural logic in the score (it’s there if you look for it) as well as all the radiant joy in the outer movement climaxes.

This release appears just a few months after Osmo Vänskä’s account in his ongoing Mahler cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2386). Vänskä outclasses Bloch, but both have their merits. Vänskä can rely on the enhanced soundstage supplied by BIS’s SACD sound, and you hear that right from the opening string accompaniment figure, which has depth and resonance for Vänskä. Bloch treats it just as a background effect. Similarly, the “Nachtmusik” movements are all atmosphere and flickering shadows from Vänskä, while Bloch tends to be brisker and more rhythmic. But, again, Bloch’s reading is well within the spirit of the music, and the details he is able to highlight in Mahler’s intricate scoring always ensure interest from one moment to the next.

Vänskä has the superior orchestra too, but not by much. I prefer Bloch’s tenor tuba (Lilian Heurin) to Vänskä’s (R. Douglas Wright), but that’s just a matter of taste—Heurin has less vibrato. For the rest of the brass section, the Lille orchestra can’t compete with the solid sound from Minnesota, and the sometimes flaccid timpani also lack punch. But the string sound of the Lille orchestra is bright and attractive. The strings are nimble too, allowing Bloch to negotiate some abrupt tempo changes without breaking the continuity of the line.

This new Mahler Seven is a credit to both Alexandre Bloch and his Lille orchestra. In a work that trades in contrasts between darkness and light, night and day, Bloch gives us an energetic account that emphasizes the brightness of its many ecstatic climaxes. That is an attractive proposition, and should go some way towards securing the symphony’s still precarious status in the canon. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:5.

Monday, 15 February 2021

DUBOIS Piano Quartet Piano Quintet Triendl

Théodore Dubois Quintet for Piano, Violin, Oboe, and Cello. Piano Quartet

Oliver Triendl (pn); Nina Karmon (vn); Stefan Schilli (ob); Anja Kreynacke (va); Jakob Spahn (vc)

 CPO 555 357-2 (59:51) 


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Posterity is rarely kind to conservative composers, and Théodore Dubois (1837–1924) was as conservative as they come. He was primarily a church musician, most notably as organist of the Church of the Madeleine, where he succeeded Saint-Saëns in 1877. He is best remembered today for his organ music, but even that has only a limited following, and exclusively in France. But he was prolific too in opera, orchestral, and chamber music. In the 1870s, he was one of the founders of the Société National de Musique, the aim of which was to sperate the French music of the day from German influence. He was also an important teacher, particularly of counterpoint, on which he wrote a treatise. From 1896 to 1905, he was director of the Paris Conservatory. This tenure secured his reputation as a staunch conservative: he was forced into early retirement after attempting to use his influence to deny Ravel the Prix de Rome, on account of Ravel’s Modernist tendencies. The French government appointed Fauré in his place, a small but important step in aligning the establishment with the new trends in French music.

These two chamber works date from the time of that scandal, the quintet from 1905 and the quartet from 1907. They are very much in the style of the earlier generation. The style resembles that of the (similarly obscure) chamber works of Saint-Saëns, and, but for Dubois’s staunchly conservative harmonic palette, Fauré too. Dubois’s background in church counterpoint is everywhere apparent, and in almost every movement, we are presented with an attractive melody, which is then woven into contrapuntal textures. Dubois knows how to handle his instruments, and the textures are always clear and bright. That devotion to counterpoint is the most endearing aspect of Dubois’s conservatism—the downsides are his strict adherence to Classical forms and, most frustratingly, his unimaginative and overly emphatic cadential formulas.

The quintet is written for an unusual combination—piano quintet, but with oboe in place of the second violin. And it is very much the second violin rather than the first that has been replaced, with the violinist clearly leading the ensemble, and the oboe an added color. For much of the work, it is unclear why the substitution has been made. In the first movement, contrapuntal textures typically begin with the violin, then followed by the oboe before cascading down into the lower strings. But the oboe is put to better use in the Adagio non troppo third movement, often given the lyrical melody over string accompaniment. The quartet is for the traditional piano quartet instrumentation, but again, Dubois’s use of the available instrumental combinations is the most interesting aspect of the music. He is particularly generous to the viola in terms of solo turns and melodies, and the cello is also regularly highlighted. These lower-string textures occasionally call to mind Elgar—though the common link is most likely the reluctant but inevitable influence of Brahms.

This release is the second in a series from CPO dedicated to Dubois’s music; it follows a 2018 album which featured the Violin Concerto (CPO 7779322). Despite the apparent obscurity of this music, it is all available on other recordings, and a 2007 ATMA album offers the same program (ATMA 22385). Both versions are highly attractive, with the Quebecois Trio Hochelaga and friends a little more laid back on the ATMA release and the German players assembled here more energetic in the counterpoint. But there is little to separate the two versions. As on many CPO releases of obscure chamber music, the key figure here is pianist Oliver Triendl. He and his colleagues are presented in a generous, warm acoustic, which enhances the resonance of the oboe and gives some real presence to the lower strings. All round, an attractive recording, even if the music itself is inconsequential, and already available elsewhere in similarly fine accounts. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:5.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Schnittke Works for Violin and Piano Daniel Hope Alexey Botvinov

Alfred Schnittke: Suite in the Old Style. Polka. Tango. Violin Sonata No. 1. Madrigal in Memorial Oleg Kagan. Gratulationsrondo. Stille Nacht 

Daniel Hope (violin) Alexey Botvinov (piano)


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This new recording of Schnittke’s violin music brings Daniel Hope full circle. The violinist has had a long relationship with Schnittke’s music, and his introduction was hearing a performance of the First Violin Sonata in 1989. Ten years later, Hope made his first commercial recording, an ambitious program for Nimbus that included the orchestral version of the First Sonata (along with Weill and Takemitsu, Nimbus 5582). That is the work that he returns to here, but in its original form, for violin and piano. Hope’s second recording for Nimbus also included Schnittke, the Third Sonata (5631), and in 2004, he went on to make the first ever recording of Schnittke’s Sonata No. 0 (Warner 2564 61329-2), a student work from 1955 that was only published that year. In the years since, the violinist’s star has risen rapidly, ensuring that this new recording, for Deutsche Grammophon, is a major event.

The First Sonata is an early work too. It dates from 1963, early in Schnittke’s serial phase. The sonata is an exercise in tonal serialism. Each of the four movements is based on a different series, but all are constructed of stacked thirds, allowing the composer to create triadic harmonies. Stylistically, the music is a short step beyond Shostakovich, and there is also some Prokofiev in the mix; the flageolet ending to the third movement closely resembles the ending of Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, op. 35bis. But Schnittke takes advantage of his tight serial/tonal construction to set each of the movements in different style and mood. It is an attractive and engaging piece all round, though historically it has suffered for being overshadowed by the composer’s Second Violin Sonata (1968), a manifesto for his later polystylism and undoubtedly one of his most important works. Even so, the First Sonata is well represented on disc, with 17 other versions currently available. The most important of these is the version by Mark Lubotsky, for whom the work was written (Ondine 800), but the more obvious competition is from Roman Mints, whose two-disc release in 2016 (Quartz 2116) presents all of Schnittke’s works for violin and piano in superlative performances.

Everything about Hope’s account is large-scale—expressive and Romantic. He and pianist Alexey Botvinov are presented in a generous, resonant acoustic, which suits their approach well. The tempos are generally slower than in the Mints recording, but Mints seems closer to the norm, while Hope is pushing the boundaries. It is a compelling account, and Hope’s passion for this music is clear from every phrase. The resonant acoustic contributes to the sense of atmosphere, but ultimately that comes from the players. The feeling of claustrophobia they illicit from the slow introductory movement never completely disappears, even in the faster movements later on. The second movement, Allegretto, feels tentative and nervous, but is also given a sense of groundedness and weight through Hope’s rich, earthy tone. Mints sounds lighter and more nimble, and a little more varied in his tone and textures, a modern account in comparison to Hope’s more Romantic reading. That said, Hope takes the flageolet ending of the third movement surprisingly fast—the one moment we would expect him to linger—and the fourth movement, Allegretto Scherzando, is brisk too. There are several passages with weighty bass textures in the piano here, and Hope and Botvinov are wise to lighten their approach here to keep the music buoyant.

Hope has said in interviews that he thought hard about the programming for this disc, but the result seems chaotic, as if it was decided by committee. The Suite in the Old Style is placed first, and the sonata is surrounded by a group of five short, occasional pieces. No claims are made for comprehensive coverage, but even so, it is strange that the Second Sonata is not included, especially as it is the only major violin chamber work by Schnittke that Hope has yet to record. Presumably, this reflects a concern that the Second Sonata might overshadow the First, which is clearly the main object of Hope’s affections here. The varied program does have the advantage of including many aspects of Schnittke’s diverse output, early and late, serious and flippant.

The Suite in the Old Style is even more popular than the First Sonata, and Mints was wise to present it on his album in an unusual arrangement for viola d’amore, percussion, and harpsichord. Stylistically, the piece is a conundrum. It is based on music that Schnittke wrote for two films, Adventures of a Dentist (1965) and Sport, Sport, Sport (1970). The “old style” alternates between Baroque and Classical, the contrapuntal textures suggesting Bach and the dance movements Mozart. But Hope and Botvinov again take a broad, Romantic approach. There is no sarcasm here, no telling nods towards modernity; they play it straight. It works fine, and the sheer technical accomplishment of the composition allows it to stand on its own musical merits. Again, there are many moments of quiet introspection in this account, but they never last long, and the propulsion of the underlying rhythms is well maintained. The effect is to bring the music closer to how it originally sounded on the film soundtracks, from a time before historically informed practice put a question mark against even these fleeting allusions.

The short works are all played with gusto. There is more film music, the Tango from the film Agonia (1981), which also appears in the Concerto Grosso No. 1 and the opera Life with an Idiot. The Polka is taken from Schnittke’s incidental music to the play The Census List, while the Gratulationsrondo is another neo-Mozart pastiche. All of these works have catchy tunes, and Hope again plays them with feeling and without irony. Roman Mints takes the opposite approach. He exaggerates all the gestures, so that the Polka becomes bitingly ironic, and the Gratulationsrondo insipid and kitsch. I prefer that approach in these short works, but again, when Hope plays them straight, the sheer technical skill with which the music is constructed still makes for a satisfying experience. Madrigal in Memorial Oleg Kagan is a late work for unaccompanied violin. There is a Webern-like transparency about the work, which is well balanced by Hope’s resonant sustained sound. As with his 2000 recital disc on Nimbus, Hope again ends the program with Stille Nacht, a disturbingly dissonant take on Silent Night. I find the humor here dark, and it makes for an unsettling conclusion (Mints ended his program with the upbeat Polka). But Hope clearly feels differently, as is apparent from his naively sentimental reading, again in stark contrast to the bleak and chilling account from Mints.

This high-profile release is clearly a major addition to the Schnittke discography, even if there is plenty of competition for all of these works. Hope and Botvinov offer distinctive accounts and demonstrate that this is music that benefits from performers who can project a musical personality. They are most successful in the First Sonata, which is the meat of this program, even if DG would rather have us focus on the more popular Suite in the Old Style. Perhaps the performers were leaned on by A&R to include the Suite, and the shorter pieces too. Either way, it is all played with passion and is highly convincing. And while the omission of the Second Sonata is curious, it leaves the door open for a sequel, which would be welcome indeed.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:5.