Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 28 August 2021

HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler Bertrand de Billy Theater an der Wien

HINDEMITH Mathis der Maler

Bertrand de Billy, cond
Wolfgang Koch (Mathis)
Kurt Streit (Albrecht of Brandenburg)
Franz Grundheber (Riedinger)
Manuela Uhl (Ursula)
Raymond Very (Hans Schwalb)
Katerina Tretyakova (Regina)
Martin Snell (Lorenz von Pommersfelden)
Oliver Ringelhahn (Sylvester von Schaumberg)
Magdalena Anna Hofmann (Countess Helfenstein)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Vienna SO
NAXOS 0130 (Blu-ray: 190:00)


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Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony is one of his most accomplished and well-known works. The symphony was composed as a precursor and companion to an opera on the same subject, but the success of the earlier work has had the effect of almost completely obscuring the latter. Fortunately, they share much music, the best music of the opera, so listeners coming to fresh to the stage work should be primed to its musical language. The work is set in Germany (Mainz specifically) in the early 16th century, and addresses issues of religion, censorship, and power, against the backdrop of both the Reformation and the German Peasant’s War, 1524–1525. As those familiar with the symphony will know, this scenario induces music from Hindemith that combines high drama with extended liturgical allusions, not consciously archaic in style, but curiously transcendental. The narrative of the opera, complex as it is, makes clear the nature of this dichotomy: Hindemith is addressing highly dramatic historical events, while also interpreting their significance in spiritual and metaphysical terms. That abstraction increases as the opera goes on, increasing the challenges for the stage director from one scene to the next.

Briefly then: Matthias Grünewald (Wolfgang Koch) is a painter of altarpieces, under the patronage of the powerful Cardinal of Mainz, Albrecht (Kurt Streit). Grünewald is sympathetic to the Peasant’s Revolt, led by Schwalb (Raymond Very), and is also in love with Schwalb’s daughter, Regina (Katerina Tretyakova). A letter arrives from Martin Luther (no less) suggesting that the Protestant cause could be furthered by the Cardinal marrying, and plans are made. Grünewald’s loyalties are now divided, and he spends several scenes attempting to pacify the revolting peasants and protect the aristocrats they are targeting, including the Countess Helfenstein (Magdalena Anna Hofmann), whose husband is executed in the fourth scene. (In this production, the Countess is raped in this scene, a gratuitous addition.)  Eventually, Grünewald and Regina retreat into the forest, where Grünewald experiences a series of mystical visions, which place the preceding events in a broader spiritual frame, transcending the various conflicts.

This production from the Theater an der Wien is directed by Keith Warner, who brings welcome visual subtlety to a story that could easily degenerate into graphic violence and crude allegory. The set (designer Johan Engels) is on a rotating stage, at its center a huge replica of a carved figure of Christ on the cross. As it revolves, it reveals three scenes, beneath the figure’s left and right arms, and one above his head. This last is particularly effective: it is used initially for the Cardinal’s reception in scene 2, where the outstretched arms above the action are particularly evocative of a liturgical setting. The opera was completed in 1935, and connections between Grünewald’s struggles and those of Hindemith under the Nazi regime are hard to ignore. There is also a long discourse on book burning in the second scene, something that triggers associations with the Nazis these days, just by default. Impressively then, Warner studiously avoids references to the Nazis or to any 20th-century history. Costumes are in that sort of drab 19th-century style that stage designers use when they are trying to avoid specific historical allusions. Instead, the transition through the story from the corporeal events of the early scenes to the transcendental discourses of the conclusion are represented through a process of increasing abstraction. Relics of saints are another subject of the narrative, and in one of the later scenes, the stage is filled with pristine glass coffins, each containing an elegantly decrepit corpse, an arresting visual device. But Warner is too reticent with the vision scenes at the conclusion. The narrative becomes alarmingly complex here, with the visions involving the appearance of one character from earlier in the story, but who is then misidentified by Grünewald as another character. The staging offers few clues to the significance of these mixed associations. It also misses an opportunity for lavish spectacle—we hear choirs of angels, for example, but then the chorus appears, still in their drab civvies.

Visually, then, the earlier part of the production is the most satisfying. The titular protagonist is Grünewald, of course, and Wolfgang Koch gives a serviceable account. His voice lacks flair, but he embodies the drama, both musically and in stage presence. Perhaps a low-charisma singer was deliberately cast, because the real interest in these early scenes is the Cardinal, sung by the impressive Kurt Streit. Hindemith compromises the gravitas of the Cardinal’s position by writing for a high tenor (if he were writing today, it would probably be a countertenor), and Streit perfectly embodies the hollow pomp of the character, initially appearing in gaudy red leathers, in high contrast to the monochrome setting.

Though an accomplished work, both dramatically and musically, Mathis der Maler is not staged often. That may be because of the demands it makes on the cast. Three strong tenors are required, the Cardinal, Schwalb, and Sylvester, the army officer, here Oliver Ringelhahn. The three female leads are also demanding, Regina, the Countess, and Ursula (Manuela Uhl), the Protestant aristocrat suggested as the Cardinal’s bride. This production clearly benefits from the vocal resources available to the Theater an der Wien. All of the roles are given a serviceable reading, and if none of the voices stands out, for purity or power, that only increases the sense of ensemble. Some may hear Wolfgang Koch as a weak link, but the production copes by finding dramatic and musical interest in the other characters.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy gives a flowing and discursive account of the score. He prioritizes narrative flow over dramatic intensity, and Hindemith’s often dissonant climaxes sometimes feel underplayed. But he communicates well with the singers, and skillfully co-ordinates the many contrapuntal ensembles. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra are generally in fine form, though the tone of the string section is no match for that of their more famous neighbors. Special mention should go to the percussion and lower brass sections, who dominate this score and give excellent performances here.

The clear picture from the Blu-ray technology shows that the singers are wearing head mikes, and the balance between stage and pit is excellent. Frustratingly, though, there is no surround sound offered, just stereo, a serious omission for a Blu-ray release. The filming, by Peter and Paul Landsmann, is good for the first four scenes, unobtrusive, but with discreet close-ups that follow the music and action well. But then after the interval, everything changes. Suddenly we have camera angles from all over the place: the camera on the floor of the stage, in a box adjacent to the top of the proscenium. A curious change, and wholly unnecessary. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Japanese, and Korean. There are no extras.

The rarity of productions of this opera is reflected by its recording history. The most famous account is from Kubelík, and, given that the ubiquitous criticism is that Fischer-Dieskau could not handle the title role, we should perhaps be more sympathetic to Koch on the present account. Elsewhere, an early version from Gerd Albrecht and a more recent one from Simone Young with Hamburg Opera have both received positive notices. Incredibly, though, this seems to be the first ever video release of the opera. If so, it is a much-belated debut. That makes it a welcome release, one that captures the spirit of this complex but compelling work, even if Warner’s production, and Billy’s conducting, both shortchange its dramatic and mystical dimensions. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45

Friday, 20 August 2021

FURTWÄNGLER Symphony No. 1 Haimor

FURTWÄNGLER Symphony No. 1 

Fawzi Haimor, cond; Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen

CPO 555 377-2 (2 CDs: 88:14)


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The success of Furtwängler as a recording artist has been a mixed blessing for his own music on records. He considered himself first a composer and only second a conductor, but the flourishing of his latter career meant that the majority of his compositional activity was early on. The later music is a mix of chamber and orchestral works, a piano quintet, two violin sonatas, a piano concerto (Symphonic Concerto), and three numbered symphonies (an unnumbered symphony dates from 1902). Of these, the Second Symphony is by far the most well-known, a magnum opus although far from a masterpiece. It demonstrates the qualities and flaws of Furtwängler’s mature style. The major flaw is a tendency towards large-scale, expansive structures, which, although in traditional forms, are not supported by the scale or invention of his melodic writing. But if you can overlook this, Furtwängler’s Second has much to offer. He has a conductor’s ear for orchestral color, and although the influences of his favorites are clear—most significantly Bruckner and Mahler—he has a distinctive voice and all identifiable influences are clearly well-absorbed.

The Second is well represented on disc, but its catalog demonstrates another major problem: you really need the composer himself on the podium. The go-to recording is Furtwängler’s studio account with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1951, but his four live accounts, all with different orchestras, are similarly authoritative. Since then, the work has been taken up by several conductors, most of whom had a personal relationship with Furtwängler himself and aspired to his podium presence: Jochum, Barenboim, Asahina. But none are able to bring the combination of gravitas and tempo flexibility that Furtwängler achieves, and that proves vital here. The First Symphony, then, is at a major disadvantage, as Furtwängler never performed or recorded it himself. He was apparently unhappy with the work, withdrawing it 1943, and then tinkering with the score for the rest of his life. But prior to this current recording, two earlier versions have been released, George Alexander Albrecht conducting the Staatskapelle Weimar (Arte Nova 76828 2), and Alfred Walter conducting the State Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra (Opus Arte 8.223295), the latter one of a series of releases from Opus Arte in the early 90s that covered most of Furtwängler’s significant orchestral and chamber music.

The First Symphony was composed between 1938 and 1941. The impetus was a slow movement that Furtwängler had written in 1908, that became the basis for the First Symphony’s Adagio. My earlier contention that Furtwängler had a distinctive voice is supported by the similarly in style and tone between the First Symphony and the Second. In both cases, we hear elements of Bruckner and Mahler, but if you know the Second Symphony, the composer of the First will be immediately apparent. Just for the record, in the First Symphony, the opening of the Adagio borrows from the opening of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Eighth, and the ending of the work resembles that of Mahler’s Third. But connections with Furtwängler’s Second include an insistent and emphatic quality to the voice-leading, prominent bassoon in the quiet passages, and an extraordinary Bacchanalian spirt to many of the tuttis. The two works are similar in scale and duration, and so the First cannot escape similar criticisms about lack of structural focus and imbalance between aphoristic motifs and their extended, if always rigorous, development. But the second movement Scherzo deserves mention as an honorable exception. This is a rare moment of lightness from Furtwängler, and the light woodwind filigrees that characterize the movement are continually engaging and inventive—a real highpoint of the work.

I had previously written off Furtwängler’s First Symphony on the basis of the Alfred Walter recording, and if you are in the same boat, I’d encourage you to give it a second chance with this new one. In comparison, Walter seems to be trying to compensate for the music’s excessive breadth by taking fast tempos and keeping the tuttis under tight control. Where Fawzi Haimor takes 88:14, the Walter is only 77 minutes. (The Albrecht, which I have not heard, times out at 83:12, suggesting that the Walter is the real outlier.) But Fawzi Haimor gives the sort of account that you could imagine from Furtwängler, broad and flowing, with a real focus on the long lines, and always with a keen ear for orchestral color. The first movement makes extensive use of a short motif, which in Walter’s hands become a hectoring and nauseatingly repetitive device. That might be Furtwängler’s bad, but in this new account, every return of the idea is different in tone and texture, wholly avoiding any sense of repetition. The Württembergische Philharmonie also plays much better than the Slovak orchestra and has clearly been prepared well for the score’s many challenges. A lack of depth and richness to the string tone confirms that this is a regional German orchestra rather than one of the big names, and there is also some shaky woodwind ensemble in the finale, but these are minor concerns. CPO provides demonstration quality audio for the project, giving the orchestra valuable presence and particularly benefiting the bass drum, prominent in the first movement.

Fawzi Haimor is an American conductor, and may be familiar to audiences there as a former assistant conductor to the Pittsburgh Symphony. He has since pursued a career in Europe and was music director of the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen when this recording was made in 2019, although his contract there has since expired. On the basis of this recording, he is a major talent, and one to watch. This piece is very much a conductor’s symphony, and comparison with the Walter recording shows that it stands or falls on the strength of the conductor’s interpretation. As with Barenboim and Asahina with the Second Symphony, there is a strong feeling here that Haimor aspires to fill the shoes of Furtwängler-as-conductor. To his credit, this compelling account justifies that ambition.