Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

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