Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 15 July 2022

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Schnittke String Quartet No. 3
Silvestrov String Quartet No. 1
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8
MATANGI 04 (69:40)



This new album from the Dutch string quartet Matangi is titled Outcast. In the liner notes, they explain, “This is an ode to musical troublemakers and outsiders; three Soviet-Russian composers who wrote music that went dangerously against the tastes of the regime under which they lived. Described as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘western’, they stuck their necks out for their work....” That last statement, about sticking their necks out, is certainly true of all three composers: Schnittke, Silvestrov, and Shostakovich. But the argument is taken too far. To underline their dissidence, all three composers, and their music, are presented as explicitly political, which they aren’t. The idea of any of them being condemned as ‘western’ is also questionable. Later in the liner notes, we read of Schnittke that, “ the 1960s he traveled as much as possible to the West to learn about its various musical styles.” He didn’t. Schnittke lived in Vienna until 1948, but after that did not visit the West again until 1977. I would say that all three composers can equally be heard as Russian/Ukrainian. And, more the point, while they all exercised considerable artistic freedom, none of them did so simply as an act of defiance.

All that aside, the real reason for this program is to find a home for the group’s recording of Silvestrov’s First String Quartet (1974). Matangi has worked extensively with Silvestrov, who has even featured at their (Un)Heard Music Festival in Holland. Their performance of the quartet is stunning. The album was recorded in studio in Belgium, and the engineers have furnished the players with a warm, even ambiance. That proves ideal for Silvestrov’s airy, contemplative textures. The music is not explicitly religious. Rather, it is made up of fragments of motifs and melodic lines. You get the impression that coherent voice-leading is at the heart of the music, but that it has been dissipated and strung out. Matangi maintain just the right amount of propulsion and coherence to keep the focus, and that warm ambience also helps to hold the textures together.

The Silvestrov is framed by Schnittke’s Third String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Eighth. As a continuous sequence, this makes a lot of sense. Schnittke’s work is based on quotes from Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich—his musical monogram that forms the basis of his Eighth Quartet. It begins with a sense of Beethovenian logic and architecture, but gradually becomes more disillusioned with its form, tending to a mediative statis in the last movement. This provides the ideal introduction for the Silvestrov. On its own terms, the Schnittke performance tends a little too far towards this meditative state, partly, no doubt, to fit the ethos of the album, but also because of the warm recorded sound. The Lassus quotation wins out against the Beethoven and Shostakovich, and Schnittke’s allusions to Renaissance polyphony come to the fore.

Similarly, the Shostakovich Quartet begins in the same meditative frame as the preceding Silvestrov, and the first movement is unusually spiritual. Then a jolt with the fast second movement, although again, the warm sound and beautifully resonant tone of the quartet present this music on an epic scale. It lacks bite, and the terse, self-doubting, introspective aspects of the music are barely felt.

But that seems to be the message from Matangi. Shostakovich is expressing “artistic freedom”; its all about him vs. the machine. At the very least, this is a Western perspective on these three composers. The Silvestrov is excellent, and that performance justifies the album’s concept. But in Schnittke and Shostakovich, I like to hear more of the inner psychological drama and less of the public face. 


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.

Casablancas L’Enigma di Lea

Josep Pons, cond; Allison Cook (Lea); José Antonio López (Ram); Sara Blanch (Primera dama de la frontera); Anaïs Masllorens (Segunda dama de la frontera); Marta Infante (Tercera dama de la frontera); Sonia de Munck (Millebocche); Felipe Bou (Milleocchi); Xavier Sabata (Dr Schicksal); Ch & O of Liceu Grand Theatre

NAXOS 0143 (Blu-ray: 122:00) Live: Barcelona 2/12–13/2019


L’Enigma di Lea is the first opera by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas (b. 1949). The libretto is by novelist Rafael Argullol, and the work was commissioned by the Liceu Opera in Barcelona. This video, a collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya, presents the first production, from 2019. Casablancas locates himself in the European Modernist tradition (he was a pupil of Fredierich Cerha), and the opera, too, draws on many of the narrative and character architypes that developed over the course of early 20th-century opera.

The plot begins in “a mythical age,” and with an act of mythical, or metaphysical, violence. Lea dances alone, but is struck down amid complex lighting effects. We are later told that she has been raped by a god, but that this has bestowed on her a secret wisdom that everyone she meets will desire. We then meet two guards, Milleocchi and Millebocche, who are to accompany her as she travels to the modern world. Then comes an encounter with the Three Ladies of the Frontier, warrior types, all of whom have mystical prophesies to deliver. Finally comes Ram, the love interest, although he is introduced in a death-like state, and the relationship is a gradual process of Lea bestowing on him her life force.

The second part takes place in the here and now, i.e., 2019. Lea is confined to a mental institution, overseen by Dr. Schicksal, previously a circus ringmaster but now a megalomaniac psychiatrist. Attention shifts very much to him, but when Ram reappears, the tension becomes between Schicksal and Lea over his destiny. The third part begins in the garden of the institution, but the setting becomes increasingly abstract. A love scene between Lea and Ram is played out in the most symbolist terms, and leads to gently transcendent conclusion. Ram gradually attains a living, human status. Milleocchi and Millebocche are vanquished. Finally, the Ladies of the Frontier reappear and announce that Lea’s actions have redeemed mankind. But the stage action gets increasingly abstract in the last half hour, and all these conclusions are merely suggested, a philosophical ending but also an anticlimax.

As should be clear from this outline, the narrative draws on many operatic plots, most notably, Götterdämmerung, Parsifal, Elektra, and Lulu. But the abstraction of the setting allows these diverse characters to interact without too many logic gaps. The cast is lead from the top by Allison Cook in the title role. Cook is a new music specialist and has a secure tone and commanding stage presence. She is a mezzo, and Casablancas makes good use of her lower register, which always projects clearly, even across the huge orchestra. Millebocche  and Milleocchi are performed by Sonia de Munck and Felipe Bou. So female and male—though their costumes and tessitura are gender ambiguous. The pair are a real menacing presence, something that Argullol emphasizes by making their appearances increasingly rare and brief. As Ram, José Antonio López seems to be made of stone in his early appearances, but gradually takes on human form as the opera goes on, an impressive make-up transformation. Casablancas is clearly intent on avoiding a traditional operatic relationship between Lea and Ram, casting the roles as mezzo and baritone. The most imposing characterization is the Dr. Schicksal of Xavier Sabata. The use of countertenor voice is so ubiquitous in modern opera as to risk cliché, but here it is ideal. The role is modelled on Klingsor, although with much more to sing. The idea of ringmaster-turned-psychiatrist sounds ridiculous, but Sabata pulls it off with his energetic and unpredictable behavior. He also has a huge voice, even in the upper range.

The staging (director Carme Portaceli, sets Paco Azorín) presents the action in a grimy industrial setting. The sets are simple metal grilles, onto which pastel lights are projected. A metal cage descends onto the stage to create the sense of moving from the mythical world to the real world, and then to show the transcendence of the lovers at the end.

Casablancas writes for a huge orchestra. There are occasional ecstatic outbursts from the pit, but on the whole the orchestral textures are reserved. In particular, the percussion is much more in the background than in much modern opera, although the bass drum is used to impressive effect. Instead, the flute and oboe soloists are the focus of the orchestral textures, subtle and songful accompaniments to the melodic lines. Conductor Josep Pons has an impressive background in modern opera and gives a dramatically charged but well-balanced reading here.

The sung languages are a bit of a mix. Casablancas instructs that the soloists sing in Italian, while the chorus sings in the vernacular of the audience, which in this case is Catalan. The difference between them is not great, but the subtitles are most welcome.

The camerawork for the video (director Miquel Àngel Raió) is ... creative. A camera glides on a boom across the orchestra pit, often zooming in on individual players from above. Lots of closeups of the soloists too. Dr. Schicksal has a camera attached to his wrist, which he points at his patients as he interrogates them. Presumably those closeups appear on a screen above the stage as well, but as cutaways in the video edit they really stand out. Sound and picture are good—TV quality—but not excellent. The sound is only in two channels, even on the Blu-ray. The bonus is a short series of interviews with composer, librettist, cast, and crew, each of their soundbites a small but valuable clue to what the opera is all about.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.


Thursday, 14 July 2022

Taneyev Orchestral Works Sanderling

TANEYEV Symphonies Nos. 1–4. Cantata No. 1, “John of Damascus.” Suite de Concert. Oresteya Overture. Oresteya, Act III: Entr'acte: The Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Adagio in C. Overture on a Russian Theme. Cantata for the Unveiling of the Moscow Pushkin Memorial, "Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvorniy" (I Have Built myself a Monument not Made by Hands). Canzona. Overture in d

Thomas Sanderling, cond;
Ilya Kaler (vn)
Gnesin Academy Ch
Novosibirsk Academic SO
Russian PO
Naxos 8.504060 (4 CDs: 301:20)

The Taneyev symphonies are rarities outside Russia, and the best chance you have of hearing one live is from a touring Russian orchestra. But for Russian orchestras, they are familiar repertoire, especially the Fourth, and so a good number of recordings have appeared in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, from conductors and players who clearly have a good understanding of Taneyev’s idiom. The composer was closely linked to Tchaikovsky, leading to inevitable comparisons between their works. Taneyev was more the contrapuntalist, while Tchaikovsky was the better melodist, and indeed the better composer. But Taneyev’s four symphonies inhabit the same dramatic and discursive sphere as Tchaikovsky’s first three, and so performing styles for Taneyev align closely with those for early Tchaikovsky.

This new set from Naxos is titled Taneyev Orchestral Works, but is simply four separate discs, in their original cases, boxed together in a new card sleeve. The recordings date from 2008–2010 and want for nothing in terms of sound engineering. The packaging, however, shows this to be a budget offering, although the liner notes for each issue are by Taneyev specialist Anastasia Belina, and are readable and informative.

Most of the works in this collection—and not just the symphonies—open with quiet brooding introductions, from which the main material bursts forth. For Thomas Sanderling, those introductions are clearly a central element of Taneyev’s message, and each of them here is presented very quietly, and generally very slow. The switch to the faster main themes is a jolt each time, but from then on Sanderling takes steady tempos, usually slightly slower than the norm, and with only modest rubato. The approach works well, and the results always feel well structured and coherent, an impressive feat in this repertoire.

One advantage of a complete Taneyev symphony cycle is the opportunity to explore the less-performed early symphonies. The First (1874) is the shortest at just over half and hour, and it does not have the breadth or dramatic ambition of the later works. Sanderling’s patient but full-bodied account gives it its due, and the orchestra gives a clean and precise account. That high level of orchestral execution is a common feature across this set. The Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra may not have the flair and panache for their Moscow and St. Petersburg counterparts, but their technical precision is on a similar level. The unity of the string tone is particularly impressive, as
is the controlled power of the brass.

The Second Symphony is another pleasant discovery for those exploring Taneyev’s lesser-known works. Like the First, it is an early work, dating from the mid-1870s. Taneyev did not complete the work, and the edition presented here was compiled by Vladimir Blok in 1977. He edited the outer movements and orchestrated the Andante second movement: a planned Scherzo was never even begun. It is all gorgeous music, with heart-on-sleeve melodies and expansive Romantic gestures. And, again, Sanderling’s measured but emotive account feels just right. The Third (1884) and Fourth (1898) Symphonies are more familiar, and both, the Fourth in particular, are recognized as Taneyev at his best, more dramatic and supple than the first two, and also more coherent.

In terms of competition, the Fourth Symphony has the most impressive discography. The Svetlanov account, rereleased on Melodiya in 2015 (10 02374) has the most drama and power of any available account and remains the one to beat. Also worth mentioning is the Neeme Järvi version with the Philharmonia (Chandos 8953). Järvi is in uncharacteristically expansive mood here; the Philharmonia sound surprisingly Russian too. For the first three symphonies, the obvious comparison is with Valery Polyansky’s set on Chandos (the First and Third there described as premiere recordings). Polyansky is generally faster—much faster in the first movement of the Third—and applies more rubato. In particular, he doesn’t make the emphatic shifts between slow introductions and faster main themes, instead smoothing over the tempo changes with coherent orchestral textures from one section to the next. The present accounts have superior orchestral playing, although one could argue that the narrower woodwind tone and more precarious balances of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Polyansky are more authentically Soviet/Russian.

For the next disc, Sanderling moves to the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra (since renamed the Moscow City Symphony) for accounts of the First Cantata, “John of Damascus,” and the Suite de Concert. The First Cantata is a choral spectacular, and it is another work in which the drama grows out of quiet, atmospheric textures. Sanderling’s account is clean and precise, but it lacks both the atmosphere of the quiet music and the drama later on. Again, the top contender here is Svetlanov (coupled with the Fourth Symphony), but Mikhail Pletnev gives a similarly fine account on DG 471 029-2. It is shame that Naxos have not recorded the Second Cantata, “At the Reading of a Psalm,” although, again, they are unlikely to match Pletnev’s superlative account (Pentatone, reissued on Alto). The Suite de Concert is a concertante work for violin and orchestra. It is Russian and rustic, but lacks virtuoso flair. The Oistrakh recording from 1956 (last reissued as EMI 0946 3 61570 2 3) is the benchmark, but violinist Ilya Kaler here gives a fine account, on a par with Lydia Mordkovitch under Neeme Järvi (Chandos 10491), the other modern option.

Finally in the Naxos box, a disc of miscellaneous orchestral works. The most important is the Oresteia Overture, linked with the opera of the same name, but eventually separated off as a symphonic poem (making the Naxos listing, Overture to Oreseia, slightly misleading). It is an excellent work and is given a fine account. Neeme Järvi’s version (coupled with the Fourth Symphony) is also excellent, but in this case, the paucity of available recordings makes any new version a welcome proposition. Most of the rest of the disc is early music, elegantly played but inconsequential.

As that final disc demonstrates, the primary benefit of this set is covering repertoire that may not otherwise be in your collection. On that basis, it is a success, as almost everything here is given in fine accounts. However, the Fourth Symphony and First Cantata deserve to be heard with Svetlanov, and the Second Cantata is a glaring omission, for which collectors should turn to Pletnev. Otherwise, recommended.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.