Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 31 October 2022

Barry In The Asylum Fidelio Trio

All day at home busy with my own affairs
Le Vieux Sourd
Baroness von Ritkart
In the Asylum
Triorchic Blues

Fidelio Trio
Darragh Morgan (vn)
Rose Redgrave (va)
Adi Tal (vc)
Mary Dullea (pn)
Gerald Barry (pn)

MODE 332 (63:00)

The Irish composer Gerald Barry (b. 1952) has a singular voice. He studied in Cologne with Stockhausen and Kagel, the two teachers passing down iconoclasm and absurdist humor respectively. Barry’s music avoids direct expression, favoring instead mechanistic repetitions and angular but unpredictable rhythmic processes. Repeating note cells churn away, without nuance but with pauses interspersed seemingly at random, as if satirizing the concept of phrase structure. It is a confrontational aesthetic, more often met in the concert hall or opera theater—Thomas Adès has championed his orchestral music and his operas, most notably The Importance of Being Ernest, have been well received on both sides of the Atlantic, his humor taken as a bold corrective to the seriousness of other major contemporary opera composers. Here, we have a collection of chamber works, for various combinations related to the piano trio (plus or minus one instrument) that demonstrates a similar aggressive playfulness, set in an even clearer perspective by the austerity of means.

The program opens with 1998 for violin and piano. In his typically esoteric liner notes, Barry compares the course of the music to the trajectories mapped in a particle accelerator. But he has no intention of telling us where the music came from, just how it appears to him now, “It is as if it were written by someone else and I woke to find it at the bottom of my bed like a Grimm fairytale.” The performance, by violinist Darrah Morgan (the motivating force behind the project) and pianist Mary Dullea, is excellent. The expression, or rather lack of it, is deadpan from both players, but the Pointillistic textures are maintained, without flagging or fatigue, for the full 22 minutes of the work’s duration.

All day at home busy with my own affairs is a short solo piano work performed here by the composer himself. It dates from 2015 and also forms part of his as-yet unperformed opera Salome. Does this recording date from the same sessions as the other works? The piano seems duller and less immediate, but that might just be Barry’s more sullen approach to keyboard technique.

Midday is performed here in a version for violin and piano, but it also exists, the composer tells us, in a “loud version” for eight horns and two wind machines. That is hard to square with the delicate pizzicato textures and high violin filigrees we hear throughout this version. Les Vieux Sourd for solo piano, is a chaotic disassembly of Auld Lang Syne. Baroness von Ritkart is a series of three very gentle miniatures for violin and piano. These show a different side to Barry’s compulsive aesthetic, closer to the daydream ambivalence of early Cage. The two following works also open with gentle textures, In the Asylum, for piano trio, which gives the album its title, and Ø, for piano quartet. But the disorder is soon ramped up, making the listening experience increasingly surreal and disorientating. Finally, Triochic Blues, not a blues, of course, but a portrait of a three-testicled castrato on the run from Dublin magistrates. As ever with Barry, the music is only slightly less lurid than the composer’s own descriptions, with the three instruments of the piano trio matching each other in exact unison in an erratic caper around registral extremes.

The Fidelio Trio and friends do an excellent job of presenting Barry’s music, presenting everything straight-up, without any direct acknowledgment of the humor and sarcasm, which are more than capable of making themselves felt. The recordings were made at the Music Department of Queen’s University, Belfast and, with the curious exception of the composer’s piano solo, all sound fine. The liner notes by the composer are as infuriating as the music itself, short aphoristic texts relating, often tangentially, to each work and an autobiographical essay, “Never was a shade” that defies any description from me. In sum, a representative survey of Gerald Barry’s often challenging chamber music, and a fine addition to a discography otherwise dominated by recordings of his operas.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.




Thursday, 13 October 2022

Reger Organ Works Volume 8 Weinberger

Monologe, op. 63 Book 1/1-4, Book 2/5-8, Book 3/6,7

Leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen, op. 67/1–5,8–11,16,15–18,23,25,30,31,35

Variationen und Fuge über “Heil, unserm König, Heil,” WoO IV/7

Leicht ausführbares Präludium und Fuge, op. 56 Nr. 4

Kompositionen, op. 79b/5–7,10,12. Präludien und Fugen, op. 85/1,2,4

Gerhard Weinberger (org)

CPO 555 342–2 (2 SACDs: 128:31)





This double-SACD album is Volume 8 in Gerhard Weinberger’s Reger Organ Works series on CPO. By my reckoning, that makes it the final installment, although there is nothing in the publicity to say as much. The programming for this cycle has been eccentric, to say the least, with Weinberger dividing up the many large collections of short works and distributing them across several volumes. The reason for this appears to be that many different organs are used, and Weinberger presumably wishes to allocate the individual works as best suits the instruments. But the consequence for this final volume is that there is a lot of mopping up to do. Most of the works presented here are modest processionals and interludes for liturgical use, some Catholic (op. 63), some Protestant. Other works from the opp. 56 and 79b sets appeared on the previous release. But there, as in previous installments, Weinberger slotted those short works in as fillers behind more substantial concert pieces. This time round, it is just the small works. That makes for an agreeable consistency across the program, and keeps Reger’s megalomania at bay.

Disc 1 is recorded on the Walcker organ of the Lutherkirche in Wiesbaden. That was an important town in Reger’s life, but the instrument was built in 1911, after he lived there, so he probably would not have known it. Even so, the thinking behind this cycle has been to chose “historical instruments from Reger’s days,” and all have proved to be splendid. The organ is of medium size, with three manuals and a disposition that fits on one page of the liner. The size feels just right for these Monologues and Preludes. The most obvious competition is from Bernhard Buttmann on Ohms. He plays these works on a larger organ, which can sometimes feel constrained and underused. Weinberger, by contrast, seems to approach the capacity of his instrument. Also, the recorded sound is closer, with less reverberance than for Buttmann, which gives the overall sound profile a straightforward, no-nonsense character. There is still warmth, but everything is within the modest scale of the music. The first disc closes with an oddity, the Variations and Fugue on “Heil, unserm König,” i.e., “God Save the King,” i.e., “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” At the time—1901—it was assumed the work had been written to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, but it was written earlier. Reger wrote that the piece is as easy as possible, in order to appeal to organists with “weak technique.” Here, and throughout the program, Weinberger uses the straightforward textures to display the range of tone colors at his disposal. And in this work, the recognizability of the melody allows us to hear Reger’s contrapuntal working with unusual clarity.

Disc 2 is recorded on the Jehmlich organ at the Stadtkirche, Pößneck in Thuringia. This instrument is about the same size, but the church is smaller. A photograph in the liner shows an ornate organ case with filigreed pillars, almost touching the flat ceiling above. Again, the program is made up of short works for Protestant liturgy. The most substantial pieces are the three preludes and fugues from op. 85. Weinberger selects airy, open-sounding stops here, and provides much variety though his range of dynamics. The first prelude begins particularly quietly, and the music often returns to this level. You might need to raise the volume occasionally, but these quiet passages are particularly lovely.

As usual, CPO provides full organ registrations and extensive liner notes, on both the organs and the works, well translated for the most part. Given Weinberger’s choice of instruments, this deserves to be considered a period-performance cycle of Reger’s music. The difference that makes is slight in most volumes, but in this, presumably, final installment, the modest scale of the organs employed is an interesting and attractive feature.



This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.


Sunday, 9 October 2022

Telemann Johannis-Oratorium Willens

 TELEMANN Gelobet sei der Herr. Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand

 Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Rahel Maas, Elena Harsányi (sop); Elvira Bill (alt); Mirko Ludwig (ten); Klaus Mertens (bbar); Mauro Borgioni (bs); Kölner Akademie

CPO 555 271-2 (78:47)


Michael Alexander Willens has been surveying Telemann’s sacred choral music for several years on CPO. After numerous releases of sacred cantatas, in 2019, he turned his attention to the Michaelis-Oratorium (CPO 555 214-2, reviewed by James Altena 43:2). Telemann’s sacred oratorios are much like his cantatas, musical interludes for church services. They are loosely structured around Biblical narratives, but with regular contributions for allegorical characters too. They are generally grand affairs, designed for special occasions and feast days. The major work here, at almost an hour, Gelobet sei der Herr, was written for the Feast of St. John, and Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand for Misericordias Domini, the Third Sunday after Easter. The librettos are by the Hamburg poet Albrecht Jacob Zell, and when published were dedicated to the more familiar Barthold Heinrich Brockes.

Zell takes a tangential approach to the birth and naming of John the Baptist, taking his narrative instead from the Book of Exodus, the common themes prophesy and salvation. The story tells of the flight from Egypt, from the death of Pharoh’s son to the parting of the Red Sea. The chorus variously portrays the Israelites and the Egyptians, most dramatically at the Red Sea, “Das Meer ist zerteilt,” where the two groups alternate, back and forth, across the waters.

For all the implied drama, note writer Ute Poetsch informs us that Telemann had only about 20 instrumentalists at his disposal, which is about the number Willens employs. Still, there is plenty of dramatic tension here. There is also an interesting solo timpani number near the end, which segues into drum-themed chorus of praise, “Schlaget die Pauken.” The chorus is also of modest size (15 singers listed) but delivers forceful accents and swift dynamic shifts as required. Telemann writes some elegant woodwind obbligatos, and the warm sound of the Baroque flutes in a modest church acoustic (the recording was made in the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal) is a satisfying support to the aria “Als Sklaven mussten wir am Joch der Sünden ziehen.”

That number is taken by bass Mauro Borgioni, in the role of “Divine Contemplation” (he also plays a timorous-sounding God). He is one of several young soloists employed here for the brief arias and recitatives. Sopranos Rahel Maas and Elena Harsányi are also ideal, both singing with pure but warm tone. More controversial, though, is Klaus Mertens, who dominates the first part of the oratorio in the role of Pharoh. When this was recorded, Mertens was already in his 70s. Generally, his tone is stable and clear, but Telemann has a tendency to raise the tessitura when things get dramatic, and Mertens struggles at the top.

The second oratorio, Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand, takes as its theme the Good Sheppard of parable. Zell concocts a scenario in which the Good Shepherd must pass on his knowledge and values to a group of hirelings. So it is Mertens again as the Shepherd instructing the chorus, as his hired help. Borgioni is now a solo hireling, and there are also arias for Maas and Ludwig in the allegorical roles of Prayer and Consideration.  

Generally, Willens avoids the worst excesses of HIP orthodoxy. In both works, he strives for warmth from his modest forces, and tempos are never excessively fast. In the first oratorio, he employs emphatic accents and clear dynamic changes to carry the drama. That is less of a requirement in the more contemplative second work, but the generally relaxed atmosphere is punctuated with occasional fast movements, notably the chorus “Wir fressen das Fette.”

CPO makes no claim to the effect, but these appear to be first recordings. The music is classic Telemann, though possibly on a smaller scale than the billing suggests. The only objection that the performance raises is to the decaying tone of Klaus Mertens, but given that Alexander Willens, Rudolf Lutz, Masaaki Suzuki, and so many other luminaries of the Baroque world remain faithful to him, I’m willing to concede my view as a minority position.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 46:3.