Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Beethoven Schnittke Violin Concertos Vadim Gluzman

BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto. SCHNITTKE Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra 

Vadim Gluzman (vn); James Gaffigan, cond; Lucerne SO

BIS 2392 (SACD: 67:28)


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Most of the music on this album is by Beethoven, but the program is actually a homage to Alfred Schnittke and the diverse trends in his music of the 1970s. In 1974, Schnittke’s First Symphony was premiered, the work a manifesto of his “polystylistic” approach. Initially, Schnittke’s polystylism involved violent stylistic clashes between quotations of music from different eras. But it soon settled down into more subtle interactions between styles. His cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto was composed in 1975 and demonstrates this new approach, combining themes from the concerto with those of several 20th-century violin concertos, but always to highlight the similarities rather than the differences. But Schnittke’s output was moving in two different directions at the time. In 1972, his mother died, and many of his works in the following years took on a somber, memorial character in her memory. That trend is represented here by his Third Violin Concerto, written in 1978, a dark and quasi-liturgical piece in stark contrast both to Beethoven’s vibrant concerto and to Schnittke’s ingenious contributions to its cadenzas.

The first movement cadenza for the Beethoven was composed at the request of Mark Lubotsky, who began including it when he performed the concerto around the world. This proved hugely controversial, and immediately established Schnittke’s reputation as an iconoclast. The cadenza was soon taken up by Gidon Kremer, who also asked Schnittke to write cadenzas for the second and third movements. Kremer recorded the cadenzas with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips 6514 075). But the fad soon passed, and, to my knowledge, the Kremer is the only previous commercial recording of Schnittke’s cadenzas.

Between his First Symphony and his Beethoven cadenzas, Schnittke had become acquainted with the Berio Sinfonia. Where Schnittke’s First Symphony is an anarchic mix of styles and quotes, the third movement of Berio’s work is a carefully wrought tapestry of snippets from 20th-century orchestral works, all appearing in their original keys but all fitting together seamlessly. Schnittke’s first-movement cadenza is a similar project. It includes the timpani strokes that appear in Beethoven’s own cadenza to the piano version of the concerto. From here, he exploits the fact that the Bach chorale Es ist Genug, as quoted in the Berg Violin Concerto, is very similar to the rising scale theme of the Beethoven Concerto. He then weaves in quotations from the violin concertos of Bartók and Shostakovich, before coming back round to the duality between Beethoven and Bach/Berg, with which he opened. The second-movement cadenza is a brief, one-minute transition into the finale, with the finale cadenza is a more dramatic affair. The timpani returns, and 10 orchestral violins appear at the cadenza’s climax, segueing back to the main theme with a rising glissando-trill effect.

It seems churlish to complain about performers taking liberties with cadenzas, but Vadim Gluzman does so here. When Kremer recorded the work with Marriner, he made several changes and cuts. He made a major cut in the first movement cadenza, bars 91–98, and replaced the second movement cadenza with one of his own. He also prefaced the third movement cadenza with 8 bars, again presumably of his own invention, and removed about 6 bars of Schnittke’s cadenza as written. Gluzman does likewise. His accounts of the cadenzas follow all the cuts and additions in the Kremer recording, but he makes an additional cut in the first movement, bars 53–64 (wholly omitting the quote from Bartók’s First Concerto), and comes up with his own second movement cadenza, and brief downward-scale flourish. Performance-wise, Gluzman emphasizes the continuity over the contrast in the first movement cadenza. That is a shame, because Schnittke goes to some lengths to distinguish the Beethoven theme from the Bach/Berg theme, initially presenting them in arco and pizzicato respectively, a contrast that Gluzman plays down. But the payoff is a heightened unity to the cadenza that demonstrates Schnittke’s sheer skill in constructing it from untransposed quotations (Schnittke compared the task to building a house without nails).

The rest of the Beethoven Concerto is a workaday affair. The timpani at the start sound flaccid, although that rough-around-the-edges sound gives more impact to their unexpected reappearance in the cadenzas. James Gaffigan leads a clear but underinflected account from the Lucerne players. Gluzman plays with emphatic articulation and always into the strings, a very Russian sound in other words, that suits Beethoven’s declamatory utterances. There is a valuable clarity to Gluzman’s tone, but his lower register lacks weight, at least in this music, and the result is an occasional lack of drama and heft.

Gluzman’s catalog for BIS to date has focused primarily on modern music from Eastern Europe—his recent recording of the Pēteris Vasks Violin Concerto, “Distant Light” (BIS 2352) is a highlight—and so his stylistic sympathy for the Schnittke Third Concerto comes as no surprise. The work was written to be performed with the Berg Chamber Concerto, and is written for a similar ensemble. It moves from an erratic unaccompanied opening, via austere and quasi-liturgical wind textures to a neo-Romantic conclusion. Gaffigan handles all these moods well, and the precision of the Lucerne winds, combined with the trademark high-end audio from BIS, does the music full justice. Gluzman’s focused tone is ideal here, and he creates all the atmosphere the music needs without exceeding its chamber music scale. Among the four versions of the concerto now available, this is the clear favorite. Gidon Kremer’s box set of all four Schnittke concertos with Eschenbach (Teldec 3984-26866-2) is a useful reference, but lacks enthusiasm from all involved. The other leading contender is also from BIS (517), a 1991 account with Oleh Krusa and Eri Klas. That version is more febrile and unpredictable, but the faster tempos and cleaner textures in Gluzman’s account better suit the music’s contemplative and austere elegance.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.


Wednesday, 16 June 2021

SCHREKER Der ferne Klang Weigle

Sebastian Weigle, cond; Jennifer Holloway (Greta), Ian Koziara (Fritz), Nadine Secunde (Ein altes Weib), Barbara Zechmeister (Frau Graumann), Magnús Baldvinsson (Herr Graumann), Anthony Robin Schneider (Wirt), Iurii Samoilov (Ein Schmierenschauspieler), Dietrich Volle (Dr. Vigelius), Ch  of Frankfurt Op; Frankfurt Op and Museum O

OEHMS 980 (3 CDs: 156:26)


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This new recording of Schreker’s Der ferne Klang brings the opera full-circle. It was premiered at Frankfurt Opera in 1912, and this is the first recording of the work from that company. The opera has had a turbulent history in the intervening years. It was Schreker’s greatest success, and was performed regularly in Germany up until the Nazi era, when it was banned as Entartete Musik. Schreker moved to America, where he died in obscurity in 1934. Interest in the opera gradually revived from the late 80s, and two recordings were made in close succession, with the Hagen Philharmonic under Michael Halász in 1989 (Naxos 8660074-75) and with the Berlin RSO under Gerd Albrecht in 1990 (reissued as Capriccio 5178). Since then, several other contenders have joined the market. Leon Botstein led the American premiere of the work in 2007, and a recording of that concert performance was available for a time. There is also an SACD release of a staging from Augsburg under Dirk Kaftan (Ars 38080).

Ears prick up at the mention of hi-res audio, because Schreker reaches towards a sonic ideal in this opera that may be all but unattainable. He even writes that idea into his self-authored libretto. The story concerns a composer, Fritz, who imagines a “distant sound” within himself, but ends up destroying his own life, and that of his love, Greta, in pursuit of it. Schreker’s music is harmonically and texturally ambitious, employing a huge cast, chorus, and orchestra, and a harmonic language, which, while still tonal, is forward looking for its time. All previous accounts on disc have been found wanting in one way or another. The vocal demands on the cast are extreme, and the colors that Schreker seeks from the orchestra are ill-suited to a modest band situated in a theater pit.  

This new account is taken from live, staged performances, of a production directed by Damiano Michieletto. The sumptuous liner booklet offers tantalizing glimpses. Michieletto sets the story within a framing narrative, at an old peoples’ home, where the (surviving) characters look back nostalgically on the events. A lot of the mise-en-scène involves the principals front of stage, while shadowy actions are projected against a blue back-drop—just out of reach, like Fritz’s distant sound. The company is in a good position to do this music justice. They have a large chorus and orchestra and a good track record with Oehms for well-produced opera recordings. The recordings are made in-house, and the Frankfurt team employ close-range microphones, incorporated into the costumes, ensuring clarity and balance between stage and pit. There is some stage noise here, but it is never distracting.

Sebastain Weigle has his champions and his critics. All agree that he is a reliable conductor in the German Romantic repertoire, although some find him pedestrian. This recording supports both views. He understands the importance of orchestral color to this score, and brings out elegant textures from the orchestra. The lower winds—bass clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba—are particularly well represented. But the upper string tone is sometimes thin, and the celesta and harp could have been brought forward more—but we’re already back to the sonic ideals that even the composer himself acknowledges are unattainable. Weigle shapes the phrases carefully and clearly. Too much so perhaps: Gerd Albrecht is more flowing and free in his account. But the audio here is preferable to the Albrecht, arguably a more significant virtue in this music.

Greta, rather than Fritz, is the main character in the story, and has the most to sing. (Another important plot strand concerns her father losing her in a game of skittles and her protracted descent into prostitution.) It is therefore the most important role to cast, and American soprano Jennifer Holloway is up to the task. Her voice is bright and powerful with a well-controlled vibrato. As Fritz, tenor Ian Koziara doesn’t match her in vocal power, but he too has an attractive voice. Schreker often uses a device in which Greta and Fritz sing together, quiet and high in octaves in a tremulous tone, and the two singers seem to have been chosen specifically to bring off this effect. Elsewhere, Koziara’s lack of heft can be a liability, but careful post-production balancing keeps him to the fore. The rest of the large cast in generally strong. The only weak link is Barbara Zechmeister as Greta’s mother, which is unfortunate, as it is a major role.

Oehms, as ever, provide elegant packaging. The documentation includes a detailed essay about Schreker’s harmonic language, although some of the technical terms are garbled in translation. A libretto is included. Its only in German, but this is still progress, as this seems to be the first ever release to include one. Three CDs seems indulgent, when the other accounts are all on two, although that does mean no break in the second act. And while the discs themselves are very elegant, no clear indication is given as to which is which—to find the next act you have squint to read the catalog number.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:1.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Bruckner Michael Haydn Motets Philipp Ahmann

 Bruckner Graduale: Locus iste. Offertorium: Inveni David. Graduale: Christus factus est. Offertorium: Afferentur regi. Hymnus: Pange lingua. Graduale: Os justi. Motette: Ave Maria (1861). Hymnus: Vexilla regis. Graduale: Virga Jesse.

M. Haydn In Coena Domini ad Missam: Graduale: Christus factus est.  Responsoria in Sabbato Sancto: O vos omnes. Ecce quomodo moritur Justus. Graduale: Christus factus est. Salve Regina. Tenebrae factae sunt

 Philipp Ahmann, cond; MDR Leipzig R Ch PENTATONE 5186 868 (SACD: 61:52)


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This disc pairs motets by Bruckner with those of (Johann) Michael Haydn (1737–1806), Joseph’s younger brother and longtime court composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg. The liner notes, by Markus Schwering, explain the logic of the coupling. Both composers were raised in the tradition of “Austro-Danubian Catholicism,” and both are representative of a movement in Austrian church music that consciously moved away from prevailing Italian models. More compellingly, though, we know from surviving records at the St. Florian Monastery, where Bruckner was a choirboy, that Michael Haydn’s sacred works were regularly performed during that era, and so Bruckner must have known them well.

Haydn spent most of his career as a church musician, and sacred choral music dominates his catalog. Unaccompanied motets and hymns, however, only make up a small part of this (there are 47 Masses and seven oratorios among his larger choral works) and so the six works included here give a reasonably broad survey. Comparisons with Mozart (Haydn’s predecessor in the Salzburg post) are continually suggested by his high Classical style, but Haydn is more austere, and led more by harmonic progression than melodic line. Although the harmonic language is plainer than Bruckner’s, there are clear textural connections that may imply direct influence. In particular, a cadential device in Bruckner, where the upper lines move to the offbeat for a series of mild suspensions before coming together at the end of the phrase, and this is a favorite device for Haydn too. The Haydn selections include two settings of Christus factus est, and Bruckner’s famous setting is also included, offering direct comparisons. As Schwering notes, the fairly rapid modulations and the irregular phrase patterns in Haydn’s settings look forward beyond the Classical era, and those melismatic cadences link even more directly to Bruckner.

The selection of Bruckner motets is imaginative and spans his career 1861–1892. Several of the better-known motets are included, such as Locus iste, Os justi, and the 1861 Ava Maria, but most of the others are more obscure, or at least rarely anthologized. Trombones are included, but only for two numbers, Inveni David and Afferentur regi.

The MDR Leipzig Radio Choir is a professional chamber choir, and their discography on Pentatone to date has focused on opera, plus a Missa Solemnis under Marek Janowski (5186 565). Here, they perform in the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, an 19th-century Jugendstil affair to the south of the city center. The nave is tall and narrow, and not especially large. Despite the size of the choir, about 50-strong, and the church setting, the Bruckner in particular feels underpowered. A sessions photo in the liner shows long-armed microphones all around the singers, and yet the church acoustic is all but absent, with even the rear channels in the surround mix giving little sense of atmosphere. The singing is generally proficient, although the textures are sometimes a little blurred in the middle voices. Tempos, from Philip Ahmann, who took charge of the choir in 2020, are slow and steady, as if to accommodate the church resonance that we don’t hear. All of which makes the performance and recording style better suited to the Haydn than to the Bruckner. The Haydn sounds crisp and clear, while the Bruckner often feels in need of more space and warmth, especially given the well-documented ability of surround sound to reproduce generous church acoustics.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.

Monday, 14 June 2021

ZEMLINSKY Es war einmal Hans Graf

Hans Graf, cond; Eva Johansson (Princess); Eva Johansson (Prince); Per Arne Wahlgren (Kaspar); Aage Haugland (King); Danish Natl R Ch & O

CAPRICCIO 5440 (2 CDs: 104:04)


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Capriccio first released this 1987 studio recording of Zemlinsky’s fairytale opera Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) in 1990, and are now reissuing it to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The opera was written early in Zemlinsky’s career, 1897–1900, and taken up by Gustav Mahler, who conducted the premiere in Vienna and also assisted in revising the score, including adding 50 bars of his own music at the end of act II. As a fairytale opera, the work closely resembles Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel; both composers are writing for young audiences, which in Zemlinsky’s case means clear harmonies and emphatic dramatic devices in the music. The influence of Mahler is everywhere apparent, in the flowing orchestral textures and the military fanfares and the rustic dances. But unlike Humperdinck, Zemlinsky maintains a conservative harmonic palette—there is little Wagner here. The composer’s later operas often rely heavily on speech, as Sprechgesang or melodrama, but there is none of that here, and the prominence of the orchestral writing, including a substantial prelude, makes the audio-only experience all the more satisfying.

This recording is the only complete traversal of the score since a Mannheim production in 1912. Danish Radio does the work proud. The early digital sound is bright and clear, although the singers are more forward of the orchestra than is comfortable. The all-Scandinavian cast is led by Eva Johansson, a bright lyric soprano in the role of the Princess. Her fall from grace, and eventual redemption, are engineered by the Prince, Kurt Westi, whose rich but nimble matinee-idol tenor is ideal. His accomplice is Kaspar, sung with Baron Ochs-like pomp by Per Arne Wahlgren, who seems to be a fairytale opera specialist in his native Sweden, taking on similar roles in Hänsel und Gretel and La Cenerentola.

The first release was a lavish affair, including a 104-page booklet with all the trimmings plus a complete German-English libretto. Disappointingly, then, this reissue is bare-bones, with an irrelevant library image on the front, and a booklet of just 15 pages. So there is no libretto, but the detailed synopsis, presumably from the first release, is well translated and very readable. The minimal packaging is frustrating, although it aligns with the budget price, and even without the original trimmings, this is still a good way to experience an attractive and unduly neglected opera.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Ligeti Piano Etudes Danny Driver

Ligeti: Piano Études, Books 1–3

HYPERION 68286 57:52


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Danny Driver’s new and definitive account of the Ligeti Études completes the music’s rapid assimilation into the core piano repertoire. The two completed books received their first commercial recordings from Volker Banfield (Wergo 60134-50, 1987) and Frederik Ullén (BIS 783, 1996), respectively. But the most important event in their recording history was the composer-endorsed version from Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony 62308, 1997). Aimard presented the music as tenuously controlled chaos, the textures in most of the movements febrile and unstable, always seemingly on the edge of complete breakdown. That approach relied on percussive attacks and dry textures, light on pedal but heavy on dynamics, especially in the many codas where the music spins out of control, finally disappearing off one or other end of the keyboard. The Études soon became vehicles for virtuosic display, and throughout the following two decades, a steady stream of recordings appeared by young new-music pianists, keen to show their credentials—like Ferneyhough and Sorabji as the Liszt or Godowsky for our times.

The music certainly is virtuosic, but Danny Driver shows there is much more to it than that. His informative and reader friendly liner note lists the many influences that the composer absorbed in the 1980s—jazz, music from Latin America and Africa, Renaissance polyphony—and only then goes on to mention chaos theory and fractal geometry; the lyrical and ethnic elements here taking priority over the math that inspires the music’s complexity. Driver treats the music as historically codified, canonic and therefore open to new interpretations. His interpretation emphasizes continuity and structure over foreground events, though without ever simplifying the music or imposing any more order than is necessary.

Tempos are slower than the norm, and this may be the slowest account on record. In part, that suggests Driver is distancing himself from the overt virtuosity of previous interpretations, but Ligeti gives metronome markings for many of the movements, and Driver is consistently slower than those as well. In most Études the difference is just a few seconds—though that can be significant in such short and densely textured works—but in “Automne à Varsovie,” the finale of Book 1, his 4:52 is a half minute longer than Ligeti’s suggested 4:20.

Coupled with this is an unusual warmth of texture. The recording was made in a church, St. Silas, Kentish Town, London, on a Steinway. Although the resonance is not church-like, the piano sound is always warm and resonant. And Driver’s approach to Ligeti’s fast-running accompaniments is usually one of flowing, even legato. The First Book of Études were written at a time when Ligeti was in the process of rediscovering melody, after several decades in the avant-garde. For Driver, this music is all about melody, and the tunes are always emphasized and lyrically shaped. Despite the slower tempos, Driver highlights large-scale progressions to add a valuable sense of unity and progression. In the First Étude, “Désordre,” for example, there is a long and gradual crescendo—well over a page of music—and Driver carefully grades this progression, making it the prominent aspect of this passage, rather than the complex accompanying textures that dominate all other accounts here.

The slower tempos and more reflective approach are particularly valuable in the quiet numbers. Ligeti described Étude No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel,” as a jazz number (he cited Bill Evans), and it has never sounded so much like one as here. Another revelation is “Fém,” the second étude of Book 2. All recordings that I have heard take this movement faster than Ligeti’s metronome mark. Driver does too, but he is still considerably slower than most. The title means “metal” in Hungarian, and the piece is a proto-minimalist mechanical-sounding web of interlocking open fifths. The greater space that Driver allows between each sonority gives an austere, crystalline quality that other pianists miss in the rush.

Ligeti began a third book of études, but only completed three numbers before he died. Early complete recordings omitted these, as they had not yet been written, but that seems to have given license to later pianists to omit them as well. That is not such a bit thing, as the music here is different, gentler and more reflective, and is only worth including if the pianist actually has something to say. Fortunately, these three short numbers are ideally suited to Driver’s approach. They require a much greater subtly of texture to create the necessary contrasts—hence the title of the first number, “White on white”—and Driver’s delicacy and responsiveness bring this music to life as never before. As with the first two books, these are definitive recordings, and any questions about their inclusion in the canon, Ligeti’s own or that of the piano itself, are now decisively settled in the affirmative.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:1.