Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 22 October 2021

Wagner-Régeny Genesis Kalitzke

Rudolf Wagner-Régeny: Genesis. Orchestermusik mit Klavier. Mythologische Figuren. Fünf Französische Klavierstücke
Johannes Kalitzke, cond.
Michaela Seliger (alt)
Steffen Schleiermacher (pn)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin RSO
Capriccio 5413 (60:22)


At first glance, this album looks like a compilation of orchestral excerpts from Wagner operas, arranged by one “Régeny.” In fact, it is nothing of the sort, but rather a selection of works by Rudolf Wagner-Régeny (1903–1969), who was one of the leading composers in the first decade of the GDR. That isn’t saying much, but music from East German has had a difficult time in the years since reunification, and politics clearly plays a role in its neglect. Fortunately, the Capriccio label is putting things to rights, and as well as this release, the same conductor and orchestra have also recently released an album of film music by Hanns Eisler (Capriccio C5289).

Wagner-Régeny was born in Transylvania. The “Régeny” was an affectation, designed to both acknowledge his roots and distinguish him from Richard. He studied in Leipzig and Berlin, and spent the war years in the German capital, mostly writing operas, and after the war headed the Hochschulen für Musik in Rostock and then Berlin. Wagner-Régeny enjoyed a prominent position in public musical life under both the Nazis and the Communists, yet remained distant from both, and generally ambivalent about politics. Apparently, his war-era operas (Die Bürger von Calais, 1939, has been released on Myto MCD00285, nla) contained subversive satire of the regime, but so subtle or well-disguised as to avoid censorship. But his GDR-era music—everything here apart from the earlier (1935) Orchestermusik mit Klavier—is particularly interesting as an example of a musical era all but forgotten, a bizarre turn of events, given the rich musical heritage of Saxony and Thuringia.

The main work on the program is the oratorio Genesis (1955–56). The East German authorities were initially reluctant to suppress the Church, especially as the history of Protestantism was so ingrained into the culture of the region. So Wagner-Régeny’s biblical subject was not contentiously dissident. The composer went through a series of stylistic phases, all documented here, but all are characterized by a straightforward linear style and clear, chordal textures with little counterpoint. So, in Genesis, much of the melodic material is derived from chorale melodies, but they are generally presented homophonically by the chorus. There are shades of Carl Orff, especially in the declamatory choral style and percussion rich ensemble writing. The orchestra is small and sparingly used, and a solo piano often serves as accompaniment. The writing for the mezzo soloist is more lyrical and expressive, and Michaela Selinger gives an attractive and engaging performance.

Orchestermusik mit Klavier is basically a piano concerto, its confrontational title designed to evoke Die neue Sachlichkeit. The style here is much like early Neoclassical Stravinsky, but with the simplification of material and treatment taken to an even more extreme level. Melodies are generally scale patterns, and harmonies are clear and orderly. The solo part is well played by Steffen Schleiermacher, who submits to the simplicity of conception and resists the temptation to over-interpret.

The final two works, Mythologische Figuren for orchestra and Fünf Französische Klavierstücke both date from 1951, and both explore serial techniques—yet another surprise from GDR music! It turns out that Wagner-Régeny’s clean, angular approach is well-suited to serialism, which brings a similar sense of order to the melodic lines that the composer instinctively applies to his textures and harmonies. In fact, the serialism of the orchestral work is limited to fragmentary rows, applied as repeating motifs. The “French” piano works apply tone rows more consistently, but again to sparse, sustained harmonies, the result suitably Impressionistic and often just a step removed from Debussy.

Performances here are excellent, although there is little suggestion that this straightforward music posed any challenges to the musicians. The recording was made in the Haus des Rundfunks studio in Berlin, but significant reverb has been added, and the result sounds more like a concert hall. Notes, by Christian Heindl, are in excellent English, and a libretto is included for the oratorio, but only in the sung Latin and German translation.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:3.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Schnittke Cello Sonatas Østerlind Gryesten


Schnittke: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2. Suite in the Old Style. Musica Nostalgica

Carl-Oscar Østerlind (vc)

Emil Grysten (pn)

DANACORD 878 (55:32)


A disc of Schnittke works for cello and piano is an attractive proposition for performers. That is primarily because of his First Cello Sonata (1978), which is one of his most popular works. The piece distils Schnittke’s religious and meditative sensibility at the time—his mother had died in 1972, precipitating a gradual adoption of the Christian faith through the 70s—but also has a turbulent and virtuosic middle movement, that comes off well both live and on disc. The makeup of such a program is a more complicated issue though. There is about a disc and a half of cello and piano music available, and the choice is either to stick with the somber mood of the sonata, or introduce some of the lighter, occasional works that Schnittke arranged from his film music. Like most cellists, Carl-Oscar Østerlind takes the latter course, but he also includes the Second Cello Sonata, which is a rarity on disc, and he really excels in this abstract and challengingly ethereal music.

In the First Sonata, Østerlind is up against strong competition—Gutman, Rostropovich, Geringas, Wallfisch, Elschenbroich, Gerhardt, but above all Alexander Ivashkin, still the touchstone in all this repertoire—but he holds his own. The first movement monologue is presented in hesitant, cautious phrases, a very confessional and intimate sound. The Presto second movement is faster than the norm, but gains in urgency are off-set by a loss of gravitas. The piano of Emil Gryesten is somewhat distant from the microphones, and his staccato octaves in the bass lack heft. The cello, by contrast, is up close, and when the moto perpetuo begins, the cellist’s fingers are audible tapping against the fingerboard. Again in the finale, both the cello and the piano suffer from a lack of bass presence. But the performance of the work’s ending is impressive: again, the music reduces to a plaintive monologue for the cello, and Østerlind’s bare, fragile sound is ideal.

Suite in the Old Style is a series of Baroque/Classical pastiches derived from Schnittke’s film music and originally arranged for violin and piano. Østerlind and Gryesten again give a propulsive, dynamic reading, boisterous in the fast movements and ironically austere in the slower sections. Although the entire work is in well-behaved tonal styles, Schnittke adds one searing dissonance near the end, highlighting the work’s satiric nature. The effect does not really come off here, it’s a violin effect really, but other cellists are better able to punch it through the texture.

The Second Cello Sonata dates form 1994 and is one of Schnittke’s final works. It is a tough work to interpret, its musical language pared back, but its drama and expression as vivid as in any of his earlier music. Østerlind and Gryesten exploit that austerity, making the textures particularly brittle and confrontational. The fast movements, Nos. 2 and 4 of a five-movement arch form, are propulsive and highly charged, while the slower ones are reflective but unsentimental. This is the finest performance on the disc, and the players are to be congratulated for the including the work. It’s just a shame that, like almost every other duo to have tackled this literature, they omit the Epilogue from Peer Gynt. To my mind, that is Schnittke’s greatest cello work, but at almost half and hour, its omission is understandable.

Instead the program closes with Musica Nostalgica, another film music transcription, this time written directly for cello (for Rostropovich). It is a lightweight work, and feels like a stopgap, although it is a standard selection for Schnittke cello recordings.

Much as I appreciate the inclusion of the Second Sonata, and the fine performance it receives, the important work here is the First Sonata, which has now been staple repertoire since the 1980s. Østerlind and Gryesten lack some drama and heft in the work, but their reflective and confessional approach is attractive on its own terms, and highlights an aspect of the music that more overtly virtuosic readings overlook.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:3.


BACH 21 Elisaveta Blumina

 BACH Fantasie in c, BWV 906. French Suite No. 6 in E, BWV 817. English Suite No. 6 in d, BWV 811

MDG 904 2232-6 (SACD: 71:39)


This is a very personal recital for pianist Elisaveta Blumina. In her liner notes, she explains that her associations with each of these works comes down to colors and keys—so a synesthesia. In fact, Blumina is an artist herself, and her paintings are reproduced, in vivid color, in the liner. Blumina recounts that when she began working on the French Suite No. 6—crucially, in E Major—she began “quite unconsciously, painting pictures in predominantly yellow tones.” Clearly, then the keys of the works presented here are as important as their background, and Blumina goes to some lengths in her discussion of the French and English Suites to distance them from those national associations.

Blumina is Russian born and trained (St. Petersburg Conservatory), so we can naturally expect to hear lots of Russian technique here. And right enough, Blumina’s touch is very focused and decisive. But her articulation is less emphatic than we might expect, a product, perhaps, of her desire to bring out the color of this music. Her counterpoint is clear and focused, and her voice-leading benefits from a lyrical, legato touch. But she doesn’t emphasize thematic entries, so much as weave them seamlessly into the texture. It is an attractive approach, and one that creates continuity across individual movements. Occasionally, Blumina employs that large-scale thinking to dramatic effect, as in the Gigue from the English Suite No. 6, which builds to an impressive climax to close the program. But elsewhere, she is happy to enjoy the moment and not push the music on, as in her delicate and inquisitive reading of the Sarabande from the same suite.

Despite that coloristic approach, tempos are usually brisk. The Courante from the French Suite No. 6, for example, is fleet, carried by impressively crisp counterpoint. And even when tempos are fast, there is never any sense of rushing. The opening Fantasie in C Minor gets the recital off to a bracing start, but the textures are characterized more by delicate, legato passagework than heavy accents.

In the spectrum of Bach performance, this is clearly modern piano playing, with no obvious concessions to the music’s harpsichord origins or to the HIP movement. Even so, it is performed on a historical instrument, a 1901 Steinway at the Marienmünster Abbey near Hanover. From its condition, you would never guess its age. But the tone is rounder and softer than a modern Steinway, especially in the mid-range. There is less bass presence too, although the sound engineering ensures a good balance for all voices. The recording was made in the concert hall within the Abbey grounds, and the sound is resonant and spacious. The surround mix spreads the piano sound broadly across the front speakers for an impressively immersive experience.

A very personal take on Bach, then. Unless you share Blumina’s synesthesia, the associations and contrasts that she discusses might pass you by. But, by including her own paintings, we are offered a glimpse of how this inspires her interpretations. Attractive, vivacious playing, captured in excellent sound, and with impressive production values all round.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:3.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Karnavičius String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 Vilnius String Quartet

 Karnavičius String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 

Vilnius String Quartet

ONDINE 1387-2 (62:02)


This CD completes a two-disc survey of the string quartets of Lithuanian composer Jurgis Karnavičius (1884–1941) from the long-standing Vilnius String Quartet. Karnavičius is a liminal figure in the history of Lithuanian music. He studied in Russia, before and after the Revolution, but returned to his homeland in 1927. His reputation there is based primarily on the stage works that he composed in the following years, most notably Gražina (1932) and Radvila Perkūnas (1937), which both lay claim to being the founding work of the Lithuanian operatic tradition. But the Lithuanian character of these later works seems to have been a deliberate choice on the composer’s part, and the music of his St Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad period is more cosmopolitan in style. The String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 date from 1922 and 1925 respectively, and demonstrate a surprisingly varied array of influences. Karnavičius had studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory, primarily with Maximilan Steinberg, but also with Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glazunov. Curiously, none of their styles is remotely apparent in these two works, suggesting both a broad exposure to contemporary music from around Europe and a distinctive personal voice that is difficult to pin to any one national style.

The Third String Quartet is dedicated to the memory of Antonio Stradivari, of all people. The swooping phrases of the opening are reminiscent of Delius, but the association doesn’t last long. It soon becomes clear that Karnavičius has a taste for involved counterpoint, and that he is happy to sacrifice the tonal purity of his, generally conservative and tonal, harmonies for the sake of the intricate voice-leading. Both quartets are in three movements, but each is a half hour in duration, so they are substantial works. The liner gives tempo indications for each of the movements, but these are clearly just those at the start of each, and the structure and drama are more sophisticated. In particular, slow, quiet interludes, often involving cello solos, often interpolate the otherwise knotty contrapuntal Allegro sections.

The Fourth Quartet is less contrapuntal than the Third. It has the same austere melodic profile, but this time the melodies are more often heard over sustained pedals and harmonies in the lower strings. The result is more elegiac, but, although pizzicato is used more extensively, the limited timbral palette avoids Impressionistic miasma and locates the style further east in 1920s Europe.

The Vilnius String Quartet have the measure of this music. There playing is as reserved as the melodic writing, too reserved perhaps, and the Third Quartet in particular sounds as if it would benefit from more dramatic weight. The players’ vibrato is narrow and contained. That suits the Fourth Quartet better, and in the second movement, the octave/unison passages are played with impressive unity of intonation. The recorded sound is clear and bright. The players are recorded up close, and the balance is a little top heavy, which ill-suits the contrapuntal equilibrium of the Third Quartet.

The Third Quartet was only published in 1969, though, unlike the Fourth, it does have an opus number (10). The Fourth Quartet has not been published at all, and these are both world premiere recordings. Karnavičius’s later operas seem to have overshadowed his earlier chamber music in Lithuania, which is understandable, given that his later stage works were written in a consciously Lithuanian style, and his earlier chamber music was written in Russia. The Vilnius String Quartet give a convincing presentation of the music, although a more expansive and Romantic approach would be equally warranted. Nevertheless, a welcome introduction to a distinctive and surprisingly unclassifiable musical voice. 

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:3.