Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Schnittke Prokofiev Cleveland Welser-Möst

SCHNITTKE Concerto for Piano and Strings.
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 2
Franz Welser-Möst, cond;
Yefim Bronfman (pn)
Cleveland Orchestra


COVID necessity proves the mother of invention for this new release on the Cleveland Orchestra’s own label. Prior to the lockdown, they had a live recording of Prokofiev’s Second Symphony in the can, a recording from Miami in January 2020. When concerts were halted, the orchestra organized a series of online performances, and the Schnittke Concerto was one of these, performed to an empty Severance Hall in October 2020. The Schnittke was chosen because it only requires strings, who, unlike their colleagues in the wind section, could play masked and therefore conform the requirements of the time. But the coupling proves fortuitous, the two works making for a satisfying program.

Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings was composed in 1979, a time of deep spiritual contemplation for the composer. He was gradually moving towards adopting the Russian Orthodox faith, and all of the personal and cultural issues that raised are projected onto his music. So, in the concerto, the piano regularly imitates the sound of Russian Orthodox bell ringing, while much of the string writing is based on Orthodox chant. But there are still playful undercurrents of polystylism in the mix; at one point the pious discourse is interrupted by a jazz middle eight, the fidgety piano solo accompanied by a walking bass in light pizzicato.

All of the external references, and especially the liturgical allusions, give the music a rhetorical character, but neither Yefim Bronfam nor Franz Welser-Möst seem inclined to indulge it. At just under 20 minutes, this may be the shortest account on disc, but it rarely feels rushed. Schnittke often includes silences between sections, but these are never drawn out, which may account for the short timing. Bronfman gives a sinuous and often lyrical account, but stops short of outright violence. The written dynamics go up to fff, and many players take this as an invitation to go wild. But Bronfman always remains conscious of the music’s spiritual roots. The Cleveland Orchestra’s trademark string tone is a real asset here. They are incapable of making an ugly sound. Schnittke tests that to the limit, regularly writing dense harmonies, either based on chromatic clusters or superimposed triads. But he is always looking for a particular resonance or tonal quality. The Cleveland strings provide all those details, and the sheer variety of tone they apply to the various sections is particularly valuable. This is the first recording of the work in hi-res audio (SACD surround), and many details come through that had previously been obscured. The ending is particularly impressive. Here, the piano plays a high, single-line melody over a ppp artificial harmonic cluster in the strings. The halo of sound that this creates is magical here; on most other recordings it is close to inaudible. One miscalculation in the sound engineering though: the piano is too far above the orchestra. That is particularly apparent in the orchestra’s first entry. After a long, unaccompanied piano solo, the strings enter with a gradually accumulating ppp chromatic cluster, which eventually grows into a more complex texture, before dissolving into a descending glissando. But you’ll have to take my word for that, as the whole passage is completely obscured by the piano here.

Prokofiev’s Second Symphony is a machine-age (1924–5) industrial, ultra-modern score. Or at least, it usually sounds like that. Coming straight after Schnittke’s more dissonant but more pious music, the impression is of greater consonance, but also a greater focus on surface detail. In fact, Prokofiev was an important influence on Schnittke’s advanced harmonic thinking. What Schnittke didn’t inherit was Prokofiev’s rhythmic incisiveness, and that too comes to the fore. The audio—this time captured on tour—is again excellent, and the arresting sound of antiphonal trumpets at the opening sets the tone perfectly. After their absence from the Schnittke, the woodwind and brass make a welcome appearance, and Prokofiev keeps them all busy. Solos from the lower end of the woodwind section, especially English horn, are characterful, and the low brass bring valuable weight of tone. As with the Schnittke, this is a relatively fast account, but one that sounds more spacious and luxuriant than its timings suggest. Welser-Möst doesn’t articulate the music with hard or percussive attacks, and it is difficult to imagine that sort of approach according with the broad Cleveland tone. So a score that is usually hard and dry here becomes round and rich. It still works, but the results are not as mechanistic or as radical as Prokofiev seems to have intended.

This is the third release on the Cleveland Orchestra’s own label, and as with the previous two, the disc comes in packaging designed to look like a concert program. The album seems designed for subscription ticket holders, as a stopgap while concerts are on hold. Given that, the programming is impressively adventurous, as was their previous release, which coupled Schubert’s Ninth with Křenek’s Static and Ecstatic. Inside the cover, there is a code to download the album. Mp3 and FLAC downloads are offered, the latter in standard CD resolution. 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:4.


Monday, 13 December 2021

REGER Piano Concerto Joseph Moog

Reger Piano Concerto, 6 Intermezzi, op. 45
Joseph Moog, piano
Nicholas Milton, cond.
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern
ONYX 4235 (61:00) 

The young German pianist Joseph Moog has a been a star signing for the Onyx label. His repertoire for them has been increasingly ambitious, starting out with recital discs of Liszt and Chopin, and then moving into more adventurous repertoire, mostly late Romantic, but also including sonatas by Beethoven and Scarlatti. More recently, he has been recordings concertos, but Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. This album, featuring the Reger Concerto, is a natural extension from the Brahms concertos. But it is a more demanding work in every way, not only in its greater technical challenges, but also in interpretive requirements—to make a coherent statement out of such a long and (in lesser hands) rambling score.

Moog, and conductor Nicholas Milton, take a suitably expansive approach, and both of the first two movements are at least a minute longer than those from Markus Becker (AVI 8553306) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion 67635). The pianist’s greatest asset in the first movement is the clarity that he brings to the textures. Reger’s piano writing can sound knotty and congested, but Moog is able to separate out the notes of the running inner lines, and without disrupting the broad melodic flow. Not all the tempos are slow: the main theme is lively, and the piano’s volcanic outbursts in the development are brisk and powerful. Most importantly, Moog clearly articulates the extremes of the piano writing, both the gradual dynamic changes over long passages and the sudden, abrupt changes of mood and color.

The slow second movement is spellbinding. Moog performs the unaccompanied opening solo with a warm, dark tone and with an unpredictable but natural-sounding rubato. For several minutes, time seems to stop. The finale also opens with an unaccompanied piano statement, so again, Moog sets the tone. He is suitably declamatory here, but playful too, insistent where Reger demands, but also bringing lightness to the passages of delicate upper-register filigree.

The Saarbrucken orchestra is serviceable but lacks finesse. The string sound lacks tonal focus and the woodwinds don’t blend. The recording, from the SWR studio in Kaiserslautern, gives the piano an attractive, warm tone but sets it too far above the orchestra. This may partly be Reger’s fault. For such an imposing work, his orchestration is surprisingly modest. Often, he will accompany a huge, densely chordal piano passage with just a single double bass or cello, or the entire string section, but just playing pizzicato downbeats. The recorded sound brings clarity to these details, but they are usually too recessed behind the piano.

The filler is equally interesting, Reger’s Six Intermezzi, op. 45. These were again recorded at the Kaiserslautern studio, and on the same Steinway D. As so often with Reger, this substantial collection ranges from huge symphonic statements to delicate and nimble character pieces. The generous recording ambience enables Moog to conjure impressive drama in the grander movements, and the clarity of the sound suits the quieter music too.

Moog isn’t new to Reger—he has previously included the substantial Träume am Kamin, op. 143, on a recital disc (Claves 50-1005)—and he clearly understands the interpretive challenges. The Piano Concerto here is given a dramatic reading, but never feels too heavy-handed. With the slower tempos, Moog sacrifices some virtuosic bravado in favor of clarity and detail. But it is still a spectacular account, as symphonic and imposing as the composer intended. That sense of scale continues into the solo work that concludes the program, with Moog proving himself a dedicated and insightful companion to Reger’s erratic muse.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:4.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Buxtehude Complete Organ Works II Friedhelm Flamme

 Praeludium in C, BuxWV 138. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BuxWV 211. Magnificat primi toni, BuxWV 203. Puer natus in Bethlehem, BuxWV 217. Praeludium in g, BuxWV 149. Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BuxWV 182. Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BuxWV 189. Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BuxWV 188. Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich, BuxWV 202. In dulci jubilo, BuxWV 197. Praeludium in g, BuxWV 162. Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn, BuxWV 191. Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn, BuxWV 192. Praeludium in D, BuxWV 139. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BuxWV 223. Toccata in F, BuxWV 156. Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BuxWV 199. Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BuxWV 200. Chaconne in c, BuxWV 159. Praeludium in g, BuxWV 148. Danket dem Herren, denn er ist sehr freundlich, BuxWV 181. Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BuxWV 220. Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BuxWV 221. Praeludium in a, BuxWV 158. Nun lob mein Seel' den Herren, BuxWV 212. Nun lob mein Seel' den Herren, BuxWV 214. Nun lob mein Seel' den Herren, BuxWV 215. Toccata in G, BuxWV 165. Canzonetta in G, BuxWV 171. Praeludium in G, BuxWV 150

Friedhelm Flamme (org)

CPO 555 407–2 (2 SACDs: 140:08)


This album is Volume 2 of Friedhelm Flamme’s Dietrich Buxtehude: Complete Organ Works, a series that should run to three 2-SACD sets. Flamme has previous recorded a 15-disc Organ Works of the North German Baroque, so the complete organ music of Buxtehude is a logical next step. This volume focusses on chorale-based works, the first disc on larger chorale-based fantasies, the second on stricter chorale arrangements, although with some free-form compositions added too. This fairly loose theme allows Flamme to present works from throughout Buxtehude’s career (to the extent that precise dating is possible) and create an attractively varied program. On the first disc many of the works are based on Advent and Christmas chorales, such as Nun komm er Heiden Heiland (BuxWV 211) and Puer natus in Bethlehem (BuxWV 217), and the result is a pleasantly upbeat mood, with Buxtehude’s playful counterpoint rarely weighing down the textures or tending towards the academic.

As in Volume 1, Flamme plays the Christoph-Treutmann organ of the Klosterkirche St. Georg zu Grauhoff in Goslar, built 1734–1737. This instrument is spectacularly well suited for the project for several reasons. Goslar is in Lower Saxony, mid-way between Hanover and Leipzig, significantly further south, then, than Buxtehude’s Lübeck and the heartlands of the North German organ school. But Treutmann himself was very much of that school, having been apprenticed to Arp Schnitger. He also took in influences from further south, and, as the liner note enthuses, the result is an instrument with its own distinctive character, yet still representative of its time and place. The organ is in remarkable good condition: most of the ranks are original, as is the case, but each of the divisions also has one or two higher ranks reconstructed during a renovation in 1989–1992. The organ is tuned to equal temperament, rather than mean-tone, which, combined with its excellent condition, means that it never sounds antiquated. There is some debate about which tuning system Buxtehude himself was familiar with—if or when he moved over to equal temperament—but in three of the works here, the Toccatas in F and G, BuxWV 156 and 165, and the Canzonetta in G, BuxWV 171, the parallel thirds are clearly intended for the pure sound of mean tone, an effect Flamme imitates through a contrasting pairing of stops.

The surround sound is clear and open, with the church’s modest resonance carefully balanced against the organ. A little mechanical noise is sometimes heard, but never to distraction. The best-known work on the program is the Praeludium in G Minor, BuxWV 149, which concludes with a passacaglia-like finale, with the theme clearly pronounced in the pedal. That weighty pedal sound is more the exception than the rule in the program as a whole, and Flamme generally strives for a more even balance between hands and feet—there is only one 32-foot stop, and he only deploys it once, for the final verse of Magnificat primi toni, BuxWV 203.

Organ aficionados are well-used to high production values, and this CPO series is no exception. As well as the excellent audio, the album features compendious registration information and detailed notes, by Gerhard Aumüller, well translated from the German. An excellent release, from a series that is shaping up to be the last word in Buxtehude’s organ music.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:4.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

SCHNITTKE Film Music Volume 5 Strobel

Suites from the scores to The Stars of Day, The Favorite, Father Sergius (arr. Strobel) 

Frank Strobel, conductor; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra  

Capriccio 5350 (53:38)

Conductor Frank Strobel is the acknowledged authority on Schnittke’s film music. His first suites were arranged with the participation of the composer in the early 1990s, and Schnittke gave Strobel permission to continue creating similar suites of his other film scores. Schnittke wrote music for around 85 films, from the early 60s to the mid-1980s, and Strobel has now arranged and recorded about a third of these. This new album is Volume 5 of his Alfred Schnittke Film Music series with the Berlin RSO, and it presents three interesting scores, a diverse selection of war-time drama, The Stars of the Day, a children’s film, The Favorite, and a Tolstoy adaption, Father Sergius.

Volumes 1–4 in this series originally appeared on SACD, but they were later released as a box set in standard red-book. Capriccio seems to have given up on the SACD medium altogether, which is a shame, especially as one of the great advantages that Strobel has over the original soundtracks is the improvement in audio quality. The recording venue has changed to, from the Jesus Christus-Kirche in Dahlem to the Haus des Rundfunks, also Berlin.

Dates and names for Soviet-era films are notoriously difficult to pin down, as a result of often lengthy delays in domestic releases and significant variance in titles for foreign distribution. So, The Stars of Day may be more familiar under the (more literal) translation Day Stars, and listed as 1968, rather than the 1966 given here. The Favorite is more usually listed as The White Poodle (the name of the book on which the film is based) and dated 1984, rather than the 1985 given here. Father Sergius is listed elsewhere as Father Serghy, although its 1978 date seems to be undisputed.

The Stars of Day is a film by Igor Talankin, the second of five on which he collaborated with Schnittke. It is based on the life of the poet Olga Bergholz and her experiences in the Siege of Leningrad. But the wartime narrative is interpolated by flashbacks to her childhood, and by one scene in which she imagines herself at a funeral in the 16th century. Most of the music presented here is based around simple melodies and clear textures, but on several occasions the mood changes, and the textures shift to dissonant and disorientating climaxes. Curiously, the sonic profile of this suite is distinct from that of the film itself. Schnittke wrote choral music, in the Russian Orthodox style, for the funeral scene, but Stroble omits this, despite having a choir on hand for Father Sergius. Also, the sound of church bells is a recurring motif throughout the film and is often incorporated into Schnittke’s cues, but again is absent from the suite.

The Favorite is a story about a poodle who becomes a circus performer. Naturally, then, a great deal of Schnittke’s score is made up of circus music. But nothing is ever that straightforward in Schnittke’s musical world, and again we get several darker asides as the more sinister aspects of the story surface. One of the tracks is an elegant but restrained waltz, which Strobel delivers with impeccable taste and panache. We also hear Schnittke’s trademark harpsichord in the “Crimea – Night – Chase” number.

Father Sergius is another Talankin collaboration, and an equally stimulating one for the composer. In the intervening years, Talankin had taken a greater interest in music, most notably through his 1969 biopic of Tchaikovsky, which was nominated for the foreign language Oscar. As a result, the conception of Father Sergius has an intrinsically musical dimension. Talankin found a waltz that had been composed by Tolstoy himself, and asked Schnittke to compose the film’s music around it. The story concerns a Russian nobleman who, after a failed engagement, becomes a monk, but then still struggles to find spiritual fulfillment. So, again, there is a strong liturgical aspect to the story and to the music—a testament to the liberalization of Soviet Russia by the end of the 70s. As in The Stars of Day, the waltz theme often dissolves into amorphous dissonance, but this time the discords are usually quiet, reflective, and sustained. The final two movements are particularly elegant. “Monlog” is a slow string-dominated meditation. “Epilog” is similar, but this time a wordless female choir sings the melody, moving in and out of synch with the violins to create blurring dissonances. Schnittke also made several settings of genuine Orthodox hymns for the score, but again these are omitted. Even so, Strobel’s work on Schnittke’s scores for Igor Talankin are particularly valuable, as Talankin himself took a laissez faire attitude to Schnittke’s contributions. At one point in the soundtrack, he takes two different cues that Schnittke had composed and overdubs them. In their final collaboration, Starfall (1982), Talankin rejected almost the whole of Schnittke’s score, retaining just a single cue and replacing the rest with Tchaikovsky.

When Schnittke retired from the film business, after his first stroke, in 1985, the same year that The Favorite was released, he lamented that the industry had always frustrated him. He had been required to produce short cues, which were usually shortened further, while his natural tendency was towards broader, more expansive musical expression. Clearly, then, Frank Strobel is doing Schnittke’s film music a great favor, restoring his cues to their original length, and recording them with a fine orchestra—a Western orchestra, but one well able to capture the Slavic essence and sound of this music. Strobel’s choices of music to include in his suites seem to gravitate towards the numbers that are already for symphony orchestra, which sometimes misrepresents the sound worlds of the films themselves, especially The Stars of Day. But the composer’s unpredictable inventiveness, and the surprisingly avant-garde effects in all of these scores, make for a continually engaging musical experience.