Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

DE RIBERA & NAVARRO: Masters of the Spanish Renaissance

RIBERA Vox in rama. Beata mater. Dimitte me ergo. NAVARRO Laboravi in gemitu meo. Ave regina. Codex Santiago, Work Without Text. Ecce ascendimus hierosolimam. Erat Iesus eiiciens daemonium. Simile est regnum caelorum. VIVANCO Magnificat 1º tono. Sanctorum meritis. VICTORIA Salve regina a 8

José Duce Chenoll, dir; Ministriles de la Reyna; Amystis
BRILLIANT 96409 (48:27) 

 


This album focusses on the yearly years of Tomás Luis de Victoria. The composer was born c. 1548, and his earliest musical training was as a boy chorister at the Cathedral of Ávila. In 1565 he moved to Rome, where his training continued at the Roman College. The works presented here give a snapshot of the Victoria’s formative musical influences, from two composers who were dominant in liturgical music in Ávila in the mid-16th century, Bernardino de Ribera (c. 1520–c. 1580) and Juan Navarro (c. 1530–1580). The program is rounded off with two works by Sebastián de Vivanco (c. 1551–1622), a classmate of Victoria in Ávila, and a Slave Regina a 8 by Victoria himself.

The motivating force behind this project is the musical director, José Duce Chenoll. He explains in the (excellently translated) liner note that the recording came about as a result of his research into original sources in archives at Valencia, Ávila, Toledo, and Valladolid. Most of the works have been recorded before, but are presented in new critical editions by Chenoll himself. There are several recording premieres though, most of the Navarro works and the Sanctorum meritis, a short hymn by Vivanco. These are taken from the Santiago Codex, an early 17th-century manuscript containing works by many composers of the day, but dominated in both quantity and quality (so writes Chenoll) by the music of Navarro.

Chenoll also writes about the difficulties of recording this album during the pandemic, in September 2021. But impressive results have been achieved, in the acoustic of the Church of Santa Maria in Requena, Valencia. The choir, Amystis, is made up of two female sopranos and alto, countertenor, tenor, and bass. The singers are accompanied throughout by Ministriles de la Reyna, performing mostly as a cornett and trombone ensemble, but with two players also doubling occasionally on dulcian.

The results are warm and clear. The quality of the music is high, and the Victoria work that closes the program does not overshadow its predecessors. Perhaps there is a little more variety in the elaboration of the counterpoint in the Victoria, where the other composers employ stricter imitation and shorter phrases, but it is a matter of degree. The singing tone is bright but not bland. The instrumental ensemble is particularly impressive, the cornetts played with plenty of character and the trombones are richly voiced for Renaissance narrow-bore instruments. Chenoll tells us that the singers employ period Spanish pronunciation of the Latin texts, but their articulation is not good enough to make this out.

One final word on the album cover. It shows Chenoll holding out his left hand and pointing at the inside knuckle of the little finger. This is a reference to the Guidonian Hand system of choral direction, a didactic tool for liturgical singing in the Renaissance, of which the young Victoria would no doubt have been familiar. That is a nice touch, and it makes for a striking image to introduce this original and enlightening album.

 This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Rihm Jagden und Formen Ollu

Rihm Jagden und Formen (2008 version)
Franck Ollu, cond;
Members of the Bavarian RSO
BR 900640 (61:41)

 


Jagden und Formen was a huge hit on the European contemporary music scene in the early 2000s. In a genre dominated by short, aphoristic works that sit uncomfortably together in concert programs, Rihm’s score is a substantial hour of music, with an innovative structure that fully justifies its scale. It is written for chamber orchestra, but with single strings, ideal for new music groups like Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the London Sinfonietta, all of whom performed the work after it appeared in 2001, and to great acclaim. A recording was made for Deutsche Grammophon in 2002 by Ensemble Modern conducted by Dominique My (4715582, reissued in 2014 as 479345), and it too was highly praised.

The title means “Hunts and Forms,” and relates to Rihm’s highly intuitive approach to composing the work. In a 1996 interview published in the liner of the present release, Rihm explains his ambition: “There is a moment when the chase after (a) form suddenly shifts into (its) form. But that moment cannot be captured; at best, it can only be conjured up.” In other words, the music is in a state of contingency, with its material resisting the formalizing tendencies of repetition and even of traditional development. Themes and ideas continually recur, but transformed and merged. The results play on the mind: you often feel you have heard the same music earlier in the piece, but you’re not sure, and if it is the same, the transformation is beguiling. Rihm employs repeated-note textures, and often dry, woodwind-forward sounds. The sonic palette owes much to American Minimalism (especially late Reich), but the harmonies and rhythmic complexity come from European post-war Modernism.

That dichotomy, between hunts and forms, transcends the structure of the work itself and also applies to the music’s genesis and revision history. The 2001 score was based on three shorter works written in the 1990s. Rihm’s “hunt” for a larger form meant expanding the transformations with those works into the 50 minutes of so of the 2001 score. And even then, he made clear that the score remained provisional, that it was in the nature of the music never to have a completed, definitive edition. Accordingly, he then returned to the score again, and the version recorded here is from 2008. The good news is that Rihm never reduces the quantity or sophistication of his material; each version maintains everything from before, enriched with “comments, admissions, expansions, overwritings, insertions, and so on.”

This new recording is 10 minutes longer than its predecessor. The interpolated sections include many smaller ensembles, and the score now has a greater focus on the alto range, with the duet of English horn and viola a prominent element. The “overwriting” involves more lines of counterpoint in the ensemble textures. This is all very rhythmic music, and the increased rhythmic sophistication has the result of distancing the music from its earlier associations with Minimalism. The music is no longer driving and insistent in the same way.

But revisions aside, that impression may come from differences in performance between the two recordings. Ensemble Modern achieved a very high standard in their original account. The atmosphere is electric, and Dominique My is able to maintain a sense of febrile unpredictability across the work’s huge span. DG create a detailed and immediate sound picture, with biting percussion and rich bass (especially from the electric bass guitar). This new recording, made in Munich by members of the Bavarian RSO in June 2021, doesn’t match its predecessor in atmosphere or sonic detail. It is still good, and the woodwind playing in particular is fully up to the strenuous demands of the score. The audio, from Bavarian Radio, is good too, especially for those woodwind ensembles. But the sound lacks the presence of its predecessor, and the bass is less substantial. Conductor Franck Ollu successfully navigates the complexities. The greatest challenge is to maintain the overall continuity, while also creating different moods and textures in each of the sections (the disc has 16 tracking points for these, the DG account has 15). He manages that well, and also gauges the balance between the sections astutely.

The album is valuable for recording Rihm’s most recent thoughts on this score. It is a satisfying “Jagd” to go over the two versions and identify the changes—an extension of the listening experience within the work. But this new account does not supersede its predecessor, in large part because the DG account was so fine. The recording is released on Bavarian Radio’s Musica Viva imprint to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday. Herzliche Glückwünsche, then, to Wolfgang Rihm!

 

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:6.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Bach Viola da Gamba Sonatas Robert Smith Sarah Cunningham



BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. SCHAFFRATH Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in A, CSWV:F:29. ROBERT SMITH Dido’s Torment
Robert Smith (vdg)
Francesco Corti (hpd)
RESONUS 10278 (62:51)

 

BACH Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–9. Trio Sonata in a, BWV 1031 (arr. Cunningham). Flute Sonata in a, BWV 1013: Allemande (arr. Cunningham)
Sarah Cunningham (vdg)
Richard Egarr (hpd)
AVIE 2491 (56:16)


 

Bach’s viola da gamba sonatas are staples of the repertoire, but, as these two releases show, there is plenty of scope for interpretation. Of the three, only the G-Major, BWV 1027, survives in Bach’s own hand, and the later sources differ considerably in terms of articulation and phrasing. There is also a satisfying stylistic diversity between the three works. They were previously thought to date from Bach’s Cöthen period, 1717–23, but recent research by Christoph Wolff and others points instead to the 1730s/40s and Leipzig. Tellingly, the style of the works themselves is little clue: Bach remained the staunch Baroque contrapuntalist, even as the Classical age was unfolding around him. That is clear both from his choice of solo instrument and from his close alignment to the trio sonata model, especially in the G-Major Sonata, but significantly so in the other two sonatas as well.

Gambist Robert Smith and harpsichordist Francesco Corti are at the stricter end of the period performance spectrum in their accounts of the sonatas. Smith’s gamba (Pierre Bohr, after Colichon) has a light tone, and his delicate bowing emphasizes the higher partials. Tempos are brisk and steady, and Corti’s harpsichord (Christoph Kern, after Mietke) provides an even, cleanly defined texture beneath. The harpsichord, too, is light of tone, and the balance between the instruments is always well maintained, with the duets between the right hand and the gamba playful and clear. This recording presents the three sonatas in the reverse of the BWV order: 1029, 1028, 1027. That focusses attention away from the G-Major, 1027, a smart move given its greater familiarity.

The three sonatas don’t fill a disc, and there are no obvious fillers, even from Bach’s vast catalog. Smith makes two additions. The first is a sonata by Christopher Schaffrath (c. 1710–1763), a younger contemporary, based in Dresden. Schaffrath, too, is looking back in his writing for gamba, but not as far as Bach, and this is a much more galant work, with longer melodies and less focus on counterpoint. An elegant addition, especially in this sparkling rendition. The other filler is a work of Smith’s own devising, Dido’s Torment, an updated gloss on Dido’s Lament. The fact that this also fits into the program (just!) highlights the variety of styles and moods in the Bach sonatas. Smith’s sound is much broader here, suggesting that the lighter tone he adopts for the Bach is a conscious choice.

Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr take a different approach. Although harpsichordist Egarr has more name recognition, he takes a back seat to gambist Cunningham, who very much leads these accounts. She applies rubato—or at least emphatic phrasing—the way you might expect in an unaccompanied suite, and Egarr follows her lead. The tempos are slower than from Smith and Corti, and considerably slower than the norm. That can be a risky strategy: when a long note is held on the gamba, there is no scope for vibrato, and plainness of tone can become an issue. But Cunningham applies imaginative bowing techniques, often subtly modulating the sound towards the end of a held note. And Egarr always has much counterpoint to contribute beneath. A more resonant instrumentarium also helps, the gamba by Jane Julier, after Bertrand, the harpsichord by David Rubio, after Taskin. Another problem for gambists is the narrowing of tone in the upper register. That comes to the fore in the second movement, Allegro ma non tanto, of the G-Major Sonata. Both gambists sound more attenuated here, but Cunningham comes across best, still maintaining color and vibrancy in her tone.

The fillers on the Cunningham release are more traditional, a Bach trio sonata arranged for gamba and harpsichord, and the Allamende from the Flute Partita, BWV 1013, transposed down an octave and a half for performance by solo gamba. In the trio sonata, the high register again becomes an issue, and the fact that it is so rarely a problem in Bach’s own gamba sonatas suggests he was aware of this. The Allemande is elegant, but Cunningham’s stately pace draws it out to almost 10 minutes, which seems an indulgence.

Two attractive recordings, of much-performed repertoire. Sarah Cunningham and Richard Egarr offer the more approachable version, more directly expressive and warmer of tone. Robert Smith and Francesco Corti seem more disciplined by comparison. They are probably closer to the HIP consensus in a version that is more about rhythm and accent than tone and sustain. Take your pick.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:6.

 


Thursday, 31 March 2022

REGER Suites for Solo Viola Tonya Burton

REGER Three Suites for Solo Viola, op. 131d
Tonya Burton (va) 

TONSEHEN 009 (52:21)

 


The Reger Viola Suites are a staple of solo viola repertoire. That can partly be explained by the paucity of chamber music for solo viola, but also by how deftly Reger fills the gap. The three suites are part of his op. 131, which also includes Preludes and Fugues for Solo Violin, Canons and Fugues for Two Violins, and Three Suites for Solo Cello. All are in an uncontrived neo-Baroque idiom, with Reger channeling Bach at every turn, yet always retaining his late Romantic outlook and never resorting to pastiche. All four of the op. 131 sets are deservedly popular, the Viola Suites particularly so, given Bach’s oversight in not providing solo works for the instrument himself.

Tonya Burton is a DC-based violist. She is active in chamber music, as a member of the KINETIC ensemble and Natonya duo (with clarinetist Natalie Groom), and as an orchestral player with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles. She is also studying towards a Doctorate in Musical Arts at the University of Maryland. This album is her debut release.

The big interpretive question with this music is how to balance the Baroque stylings against the predominantly Romantic idiom. Burton’s approach is to play with broad and direct expression, while avoiding excesses of rubato and dynamic. Here, and throughout his work, Reger gives copious dynamic markings. Burton acknowledges most of these, but avoids the sudden and extreme dynamic shifts that the markings often imply. The result is a greater sense of continuity, allowing Burton to project the music’s long lines with apparent ease.

Technically, her performance is close to perfect. The richness and evenness of tone that she achieves in the lower and mid-range is sometimes compromised in the upper register, where her sound can become astringent, but even here the tuning is impeccable. Vibrato is tasteful and modest, and double-stops are all even and clear. Rhythms are more regular than we might expect in a Baroque suite, and Burton does not dig into the lower strings on downbeats for rhythmic impetus. However, in passages of continuous running sixteenths—in the finales of all three suites—she makes emphatic rallentandos into the returns of the main theme, much as a cellist or violinist would in Bach. Reger’s themes are always inventive, but when his developments tend toward uniformity, usually as protracted sequence episodes, Burton is always able to keep the performance interesting through imaginative phrasing.

The recording was made in the Church of the Resurrection in Lutherville, MD, and the sound is nicely resonant without being obtrusive. The viola is recorded up-close, but there is a suspicious absence of extraneous noise—bow sounds and breathing are wholly absent. Packaging is a slim, three-way gatefold with cursory notes on Burton, Reger, and the Suites. No duration is given on the packaging or in any of the publicity, so take note that this is a short album at only just over 50 minutes.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:6

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

BACH Sonatas for Violin and Piano Rahel Rilling

BACH Sonatas for Violin and Piano, BWV 1014–1019
Rahel Rilling (vn)
Johannes Roloff (pn)
Hänssler 20082 (2 CDs: 87:54)


This album is titled Pure Bach. That’s a good description of what you get—clean, well-balanced, and modern-sounding accounts that let the music speak for itself. In repertoire now dominated by the HIP movement, that could seem like a provocative or dissident approach, but the mood here is generally relaxed, with the performances are amiable throughout.

Rahel Rilling is the daughter of Helmuth Rilling, another advocated of modern-instrument Bach. She has pursued an impressively diverse career. She leads a crossover string quartet combo called Die Nixen, who seem to do a bit of everything: there is a clip of them playing bluegrass on YouTube. She is also a DJ for jazz, funk, and soul, resident at the Myslivska club in Berlin-Kreuzberg. She has been active as a violinist for 15 years or so, although this is her debut album.

The sound profile of the recording is warm, clear, and up-close. That suits Rilling’s approach, which is all about broad, bright tone and straightforward, emphatic phrasing. As well as HIP practice, she also avoids Romantic stylings. There is some vibrato to her tone, but it is narrow and unobtrusive. Ornaments too are modest, lightly decorating cadences. Tempos are generally on the slow side, although clear accents from Rilling’s precise bowing maintain a sense of propulsion. Curiously, though, the Presto finale of the Second Sonata is no faster than the Allegro finales in the others.

Pianist Johannes Roloff gives a similarly modern-sounding rendition of the keyboard part. His piano is warm and resonant in the sound picture, and the engineering carefully matches the two instruments in volume. But this is clearly Rilling’s show, with Roloff keeping pace at every turn, even matching her cadential trills in exact rhythmic unison.

Given the dominance of HIP in these works, this recording should be considered an outlier. The use of piano, rather than harpsichord, makes for a completely different sound, and the sheer resonance of the piano emphasizes the difference. The slower tempos, modest ornamentation, and vibrato in the violin are also part of that identity, although, as noted, none of this ever feels confrontational or polemic. The danger is that it can tend towards monotony. Evenness and clarity are presented here as musical virtues, and so they are, but after a few movements, it feels that more emphatic contrasts in tempo and timbre, and more adventurous ornamentation would benefit the listener, especially if they are planning to listen to all six sonatas in one sitting. But the purity of Pure Bach remains attractive, and the warm, round sound, both from the players and the engineering, gives the music a sense of immediacy and directness too often absent from gut string and harpsichord accounts.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:6.


Monday, 28 March 2022

BRUHNS Cantatas and Organ Works Vol 1 Suzuki

Bruhns De profundis. Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt. Praeludium in e. Mein Herz ist bereit. Alleluja, Paratum cor meum. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet. Erstanden ist der heilige Christ
Masaski Suzuki (org), dir
Dann Coakwell, James Taylor (ten)
Paul Max Tipton (bs)
Yale Institute of Sacred Music
BIS 2271 (SACD: 86:14)


Nicolaus Bruhns (1665–1697) was a distinctive voice in the North German middle Baroque, but he fits uneasily into our Bach-focused understanding of the era. Bruhns was a pupil of Buxtehude. After his studies with Buxtehude in Lübeck, and a short period in Copenhagen, Bruhns took up a position as organist in his home town of Husum, close to the present-day border with Denmark, and died in post aged just 31. Contemporary accounts tell us that he was a proficient violinist, but the small body of his work to have survived is made up of only church cantatas (called “sacred concertos”) and solo organ works. This album, titled, Cantatas and Organ Works Vol. 1, gives a good overview of that surviving music. BIS has squeezed over 86 minutes of music onto the disc, a feat that should mean they can complete this Bruhns survey with just one more volume.

The organist and director here is familiar, Masaaki Suzuki, the ensemble less so, Yale Institute of Sacred Music. This is a graduate center at Yale, which apparently takes an interdisciplinary approach to its subject, while clearly focusing on early performance practice for instrumentalists and singers at postgrad level. The orchestra here appears to be a mix of faculty and students. The three singers are all professional, and one of the tenors, James Taylor, is professor of voice at Yale. That mix suits Bruhns, as his vocal music poses significant challenges to the soloists—especially in the long cadential melismas—while the instrumental writing is more straightforward and demure.

Suzuki (and BIS) bring the same sound profile to this music as they do to Bach recorded in Japan. The tempos are fashionably brisk, though never sounding rushed by HIP standards, rubato is used sparingly to shape vocal phrases, and vibrato is absent. Of the three singers, bass baritone Paul Max Tipton gets the most exposure. He is a younger singer than we usually hear for low voice parts in Baroque music, and the agility and freshness of his tone are a real bonus. Tenors Dann Coakwell and James Taylor are just as impressive. There is little to distinguish them, but the result is a satisfying blend when they sing together. The Bruhns cantatas are generally around 10–15 minutes, sectional but without distinct movements, without choir and without punctuating chorales. Nevertheless, most are derived from Lutheran chorale themes, though there are some Latin texts too, including the De Profundis that opens the program. The instrumental forces are modest: two violins, sometimes violas and gambas, and continuo, here made up of cello, theorbo, dulcian, and organ.

The recording was made at the Marquand Chapel at Yale, which is evidently a mid-sized church with an ideal acoustic for this music. The sound is immediate, but with sufficient resonance for a liturgical aura. Suzuki plays the chapel’s Krigbaum organ (2007), an instrument so well suited to this repertoire as to suggest it was the main reason for recording the album. The cantatas are punctuated with two solo organ works, and both are highly distinctive. The Praeludium in E Minor begins with an extraordinary chromatic flourish. It soon settles down, but that chromaticism still occasionally comes to the surface in the contrapuntal lines, as it does in the second solo organ work, the fantasia on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.

The character of the organ no doubt defines many aspects of this performance. The pitch convention is a very high 465 and the temperament is 1/4 syntonic coma meantone. That, combined with the vibratoless strings, makes for an uncompromisingly HIP sound palette. But that is balanced by the warmth and expression of the vocal performances, and by Suzuki’s always inventive registrations. Full texts and in informative note from Yale’s own Markus Rathey round out a compelling release, well up to Suzuki’s impeccable standards.  

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:6

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

ENESCU String Quartets Quatuor Athenaeum Enesco

Enescu String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, op. 22
Qrt Athanaeum Enesco
CPO 999 068-2 (69:52)


 

Enescu grouped his two string quartets under the same opus number, 22, but they were composed more than 30 years apart. The First was written 1916-20, straight after the Third Symphony, the Second in 1951, four years before the composer’s death. In fact, the Second had been in gestation for decades, so there is more continuity than the dates suggest. That said, the two works are stylistically distinct. The First is long (over 45 minutes) and complex, the Second is shorter, though still around 25 minutes, more folk-oriented but also more modern in its language, combining elements of serialism with the (still clearly functional) G-Major tonality.

Both are satisfying works, especially the First. It presents the listener with a constant stream of new textures and ideas. This is sophisticated and inspired music, and it never gets bogged down. Enescu keeps the textures light and the rhythms fluid. As a virtuoso violinist himself, he knew how to draw effective textures from his ensemble, and in this work regularly gives detailed instructions for bowing and phrasing. One favorite sound is high harmonics played sul ponticello, an eerie, glassy effect that comes to define the sound.

That effect returns in the Second Quartet, but in general this work feels more linear and discursive. The folk elements are more ubiquitous than the serial techniques, and the melodic lines are often gracefully ornamented. Both works recall the contemporaneous quartets of Bartók, but Enescu is always more consonant, and usually more relaxed.

The performances by Quatuor Athenaeum Enesco are excellent. Balances between the instruments are finely judged, and the clarity of texture, so crucial to the First Quartet, is carefully maintained. Only in the sustained climax at the end of the First Quartet does the tonal control begin to slip, with the first violin’s (very) high notes beginning to grate. The recorded sound is very warm and resonant, but that suits the aura of this music, which always tends towards coherent, inclusive textures, even at its most contrapuntal. The recording dates from 1992, and if there is a slight sense of haze around the ensemble, that is the only clue to the recording’s vintage. And, again, it fits well with the music.

The recording was originally issued in 1993 and is now being reissued in exactly the same packaging, albeit at mid-price. Since it first came out, an impressive alternative has also appeared, from Quatour Ad Libitum on Naxos (8.554721). Interpretively, the two accounts are very similar, though the Athenaeum version is more atmospheric, while the Ad Libitum has more structural focus, especially in the sprawling First Quartet. More significantly, the Naxos recording does not have the expansive, resonant sound of the CPO; it is a more traditional studio ambience, and the results feel more intimate. But the Athenaeum version is equally recommendable, whatever the reasons for its reappearance.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 45:6

Friday, 11 February 2022

MESSIAEN La Transfiguration Nagano

MESSIAEN La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. Poèmes Pour Mi. Chronochromie
Kent Nagano, cond
Jenny Daviet, sop
Bavarian R Ch & SO
BR Klassik 900203

 


Kent Nagano is a seasoned interpreter of Messiaen’s music. The conductor befriended the composer in the early 80s, regularly visiting Paris and taking piano lessons with Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod. To date, his recordings of Messiaen’s music have been few, but each has been notable. His 1999 recording of the composer’s only opera, Saint François d’Assise (DG 445 176-2) remains the benchmark, and his recording of the Turangalîla-Symphonie with the Berlin Philharmonic (Teldec 8573820432) leads a crowded field. Nagano’s relationship with the Bavarian RSO is more tenuous. He is familiar to Munich audiences from his tenure at Bavarian State Opera 2006–2013, but has only guest conducted the radio orchestra. However, the relationship has developed in recent years, with Nagano taking up the slack as Mariss Jansons became increasingly frail. These recordings are taken from live performances 2017–19, and find both conductor and orchestra on top form. The box set has been issued by BR to mark Nagano’s 70th birthday.

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1965–9) is a rarity on disc, and with good reason. The large-scale oratorio calls for a huge chorus as well as soloists on flute, clarinet, xylorimba, vibraphone, marimba, cello, and piano. All have challenging parts, yet this is hardly a virtuoso showpiece. Instead, the theological implications of Christ’s transfiguration are pondered at length. The basic texture is slow, homophonic choral writing, regularly interrupted by the orchestra, and by the soloists, whose parts are dominated by birdsong. It’s like Turangalîla-Symphonie but without the erotic edge. Fortunately, this performance gives the work its full due, with Nagano and his ensemble beautifully projecting Messiaen’s rich colors and textures. Pierre-Laurent Aimard—a regular Nagano collaborator—is criminally underused, but his playing is bold and focused. The score is dominated by percussion, both solo and ensemble, which is all captured in excellent sound. In particular, the spacious resonance around the solo xylorimba and marimba make you feel like you are the hall with them.

The oratorio takes up the first two of this three-disc set. The final disc is devoted to a song cycle, Poèmes pour Mi (1936–37) and an orchestral showpiece, Chronochromie (1960). French soprano Jenny Daviet is ideal in the song cycle. Her voice is rich and operatic, with a robust but well-controlled vibrato. Although the orchestral playing is excellent throughout the set, the strings and winds take a back seat, to the percussion in the oratorio and to the soprano in the song cycle. But in Chronochromie, they get a chance to shine. German precision and sophistication can be a mixed blessing in Messiaen. When Rattle performed Turangalîla with the Berlin Philharmonic, the velvet sheen of their strings seemed like a distraction from the composer’s clean, penetrating textures. Fortunately, the Bavarian strings don’t sound too plush. They don’t sound French either, but it’s no great loss. The orchestra provides Nagano with the precise, powerful sound he needs. When, for example, Messiaen writes a huge unison/octave crescendo for the whole orchestra, Nagano carefully shapes the sound, timing the increase of intensity with astonishing precision. And again, the engineers of Bavarian Radio do an excellent job with the sound, raising the question of why the acoustic of the Gasteig is so controversial.

The packaging for this set is overly indulgent. A reorganization could easily have reduced the three discs to two, and the box they come in is big enough for 10. The booklet includes texts, with German and English translations. There is also an essay from Nagano about his time with Messiaen and Loriod. Frustratingly, this comes in place of any information on the works themselves, a serious omission, especially given the obscurity of La Transfiguration.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:5

Monday, 7 February 2022

Dvořák String Quartets 2 and 5 Vogler Quartet

Antonín Dvořák
String Quartet No. 2 in Bb, B 17
String Quartet No. 5 in f, B 37
Terzet in C, op. 75
Vogler String Quartet
CPO 555 451-2 (2 CDs: 101:55)


 

Exploring the early works of Antonín Dvořák is always rewarding. The composer himself saw the 1850s and 60s as a kind of apprenticeship, a long and arduous transition from orchestral viola player to full-time composer. But he was prolific in these years, and there are some real gems in the catalog. The István Kertész recording of Dvořák’s First Symphony (1865) revealed the sheer energy and vitality of this long-forgotten score. A 2014 recording of Dvořák’s first opera, Alfred (1870, Arco Diva 0089948426097), is another eye-opener, a work of real dramatic conviction, at least on CD. Few of Dvořák’s early scores were performed during his lifetime. When the composer finally established a reputation, in the 1870s, he was happy for these early works to be passed over, and given the quality of his later music, audiences were happy to take that instead. Fortunately, many of these early works were revived in the mid-20th century, scholars often having to reconstruct scores from parts, as in the case of the Second Quartet, B 17, which opens this program.

The Second Quartet (the number was only attributed after his death) was one of three quartets, Nos. 2–4, that Dvořák composed under the influence of Wagner. That influence was far from direct. Dvořák had performed a concert under Wagner’s baton in Prague in 1863, and the result was a complete cessation of composing for several years. The three quartets followed on, this one probably around 1868, and show Dvořák experimenting with new and radical approaches. The entire quartet is based on a single motif, a rising arpeggio figure, and the work is huge, just under 50 minutes in this performance. But those Wagnerian attributes are balanced against a relatively traditional four-movement form. In the first movement, the textures veer between thinly voiced parallel octaves and startlingly complex counterpoint. Development, in all the movements, is ambitious but meandering—the Beethovenian rigor of the later symphonies is nowhere apparent. Nor is there much Slavic flavor, even in the sprightly Scherzo. Dvořák’s later habit of incessantly repeating a heavily accented motif is heard, but without yet the textural richness to justify it.

The Fifth Quartet, B 37, dating from around five years later, 1873, is closer to the Dvořák we know. The scale is more manageable, just over 30 minutes, and the music has more character and focus. The slow (Moderato) introduction is particularly attractive, and the way the movement gradually builds as it goes on is beautifully handled. The second movement, Andante con moto quasi allegretto, is a classic Dvořák serenade, a breezy violin melody over a gentle but insistent pizzicato bass.

The Terzet, op. 74, is a much later work, from 1887, awkwardly shoehorned into this program to fill a gap in CPO’s complete Dvořák quartets edition. Dvořák found himself in an ad hoc ensemble of two violins and one viola, and composed the work for lack of any other repertoire for this combination. It is more a collection of vignettes than a suite or trio, but all are attractive and well proportioned.

The Vogler Quartet give clear, precise accounts. Thier tempos are steady and rubato is minimal. In the early quartets, this serves to emphasize the distance from Dvořák’s mature style, and the Second Quartet, in particular, sounds highly experimental in this account. The recorded sound has some studio-applied resonance, but it lacks warmth. A marked stereo separation between the violins (left) and the viola and cello (right) gives the impression of a close perspective, but this is compromised by the resonance around the violin sound.

Comparison with other recordings—the accounts in the complete Dvořák cycles from the Panocha Quartet (Supraphon) and Prague String Quartet (DG)—shows a range of approaches to these problematic scores. The light, violin-prominent textures of the Vogler Quartet may be down to Dvořák’s lack of experience in scoring for string quartet. The two Czech quartets are able to ground their textures in a stronger bass, in the case of the Panocha Quartet partly through the intensive vibrato of the cellist. The Czech players also have a more organic conception of the music’s structure: The first movement of the Second Quartet doesn’t sound as fragmented or episodic in those accounts. And the Voglers’ lack of sympathetic rubato is highlighted by the flowing phrases and smooth transitions of the earlier accounts. The Panocha Quartet also adds ornaments to the melody of the Second Quartet’s third movement, bringing out some Czech character absent from the present account.

The Vogler Quartet gives a more modern reading of these scores, and the cleaner textures are often more attractive than those of the vibrato-laden earlier accounts. But the cost is a reduction in drama and involvement. All of which raises the question—are the Panocha and Prague String Quartets raising Dvořák’s early music to the status it deserves, or are they just saving the young composer from himself?

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:5

 

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Humain non Humain I and II, Ensemble Variances Thierry Pécou

PÉCOU Méditation sur la fin de l’espèce for Solo Cello, Processed Whale Songs and Ensemble. Mada la baleine for Ensemble and Processed Whale Songs. MÂCHE Vigiles for Flute, Clarinet, Piano, Sampler, Guitar and Recorded Bird Songs. BLACKFORD Murmuration for Flute and Clarinet
Thierry Pécou, cond; Ens Variances OHUANA no catalog number (45:00)

PÉCOU Nanook Trio for Clarinet, Saxophone, and Piano. Piano Sonata. Sikus for Cello and Electronics. Chant inuit for Solo Cello
Thierry Pécou, cond; Ens Variances OHUANA no catalog number (39:14)

 



 

This double album (download/stream only) from Ensemble Variances is entitled Humain non Humain I and II. Both showcase the work of the Ensemble’s conductor and resident composer, Thierry Pécou. His music takes in various ethnic influences, here from the Americas, and sounds from nature, particularly whale song. The results are atmospheric but always modern-sounding, and always engaging enough to be more than mood music. Crucially, Pécou applies his environmental ideology with a light touch: His ideas permeate the music, but this never feels like concept album or moralistic discourse.

The first album is titled Chants d’espèces. The main work here is Vigiles by François-Bernard Mâche. The concise but well-translated liner note tells us that Mâche has been experimenting with birdsong and sounds from nature in his music for many decades, and he is clearly a major influence on Pécou’s own music. Vigiles is for a small woodwind/keyboard/guitar ensemble and recorded birdsong (nighttime birds, including nightingale). Mâche transcribes the birdsong and then arranges it for the ensemble. Rather than notate every detail of its structure, Mâche instead just gives the broad outlines, and when these are played along to the original, the result is an engaging but relaxed heterophony. More complexity is introduced later on, with call and response between the birds and the ensemble, but the concept is always clear. The sound of piano and solo woodwinds playing fast, complex music in unison is reminiscent of the Ensemble Modern album of orchestrated versions of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies (RCA 09026 61180 2). The difference is that you never get the feeling here that Mâche is exploring complexity for its own sake.

The album opens and closes with works by Pécou based on whalesong. Méditation sur la fin de l’espèce is for solo cello, ensemble, and “processed” prerecorded songs of humpback, killer, and beluga whales. The most compelling sound in the mix is that of the cello, playing sliding double-stops on its lower two strings to imitate the whale sounds. High flageolet is also put to effective submarine use. In the ensemble, the contrabass clarinet has a lot of useful sounds here too, growls and overtones. The relationship with the recorded whales is free, with the instruments more predominant than the whales. A short work for ensemble and tape closes the album, Mada la baleine. This seems like a study for the first work (both are dated 2017), this time with a humpback whale on the tape and the ensemble improvising on motifs derived from its song. Also on the album is Murmuration for flute and clarinet by British composer Richard Blackford. Despite being the only non-French composer on this set, Blackford is the closest to Messiaen in his approach to birdsong. It’s not quite as erratic as Messiaen though, as Blackford is also attempting to trace the contours of flocks of birds in flight. He achieves this effectively through broad dynamic contours and subtly evolving textural shifts.

The second album, Grands espaces, focusses more on the “Humain” side. Nanook Trio for clarinet, saxophone, and piano, is based on music that Pécou composed to accompany the 1921 silent film Nanook of the North. In the second of its three movements, Pécou emulates a technique of Native American singing that he describes as a “hiccup.” A simple, repetitive melody is divided up between two voices, here clarinet and saxophone, resulting in erratic interactions, sometimes dialogue, but just as often overlay. The outer movements are more generalized evocations of snowscapes, the textures often brittle, especially from the upper register of the piano. The album closes with Chant inuit, a more straightforward setting of the second movement melody for solo cello.

Pécou’s Piano Sonata has no explicit subject or narrative, but explores a similar sound world. The composer tells us that it was “inspired by the kabbalistic concept of the Sephiroth, the 10 emanations of the primordial light.” He translates this to 10 chords, which are heard “wriggling” throughout the piece, through tremolo and arpeggiation. The result tends towards Spectralism, although with less complex harmonies and more movement in the broken chords. Pécou understands “sonata” here though its etymology “to ring,” and so the structure is more an exploration of these resonances than a traditional developmental progression.

Pécou’s approach to ethnography is always abstract and creative, never more so than in Sikus for cello and electronics. The starting point here was research by the ethnomusicologist Mónica Gudemos into the music of pre-Hispanic civilizations of the Andes. Pécou talks of attempting to reconstitute this music in his work. Thankfully, though, his creative energies are more focused on the broader social and religious significance of music in these cultures. In the work, he samples Andean pan pipes, and then creates a complex, prerecorded environment for the cello, with the pipe sounds radically transformed and then projected to eight speakers around the audience and soloist. The soloist responds in much the same way is with the earlier whale song, imitating the overtones and formant identities of the recorded sounds, in increasingly sophisticated dialogue with the tape.

The performances by Ensemble Variances are excellent throughout. Special mention should go to the cellists, David Louwerse, Stéphanie André, and Lucien Debon; the instrument is clearly central to Pécou’s musical imagination, and both players are on his wavelength. The recorded sound is warm and clear, and well balanced between the prerecorded tracks and the performers. It is a shame, though, to miss out on the eight-track spatialization in Sikus. Thierry Pécou is a unique voice in the world of environmentally engaged new music. He’s somewhere between John Luther Adams and Gérard Grisey, and fans of either of those luminaries will find much to enjoy here.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:5