Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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