Monday, July 10, 2017

Thielemann's Bruckner 4 and 6 on Blu Ray

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 4
Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 6

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann

C Major 732604        (Blu-Ray)
C Major 738304        (Blu-Ray)

These two Blu Ray discs mark the continuation of Christian Thielemann’s video cycle of the Bruckner symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden (I have reviewed the 5th, the 8th, and the 9th - all favorably). Thielemann and the Staatskapelle have stuck with the formula that has worked until now – live performances in the Semperoper Dresden with the same video directors (Agnès Meth for the 4th and Henning Kasten for the 6th, who between them have covered the other discs in the series.) The sound quality is excellent (I listened in PCM stereo) and I have no complaints about the cinematography. Musically speaking, however, the formula works much better for the later and less familiar 6th symphony, than for the frequently played and recorded 4th.

It is hard to fault the Staatskapelle Dresden in the 4th. The playing is of the highest quality, with the solo parts in particular uniformly excellent. However, to my ear the performance, particularly in the first two movements, lacks life and excitement. The Blu Ray box quotes an unnamed reviewer describing the original performances as “tone-painting” of the highest order. This is a telling comment, capturing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the performance. The price paid for tone-painting is a loss of architectural drama – a good example being the build-up to the climax of the slow movement.

Things improve in the last two movements. The Scherzo reveals an internal sense of structure that is lacking in the performance as a whole (in, for example, the balance between the Scherzo and the embedded Trio). The Finale has a much more impressive opening, clearly helped by a brass section comfortable with the monumental, and the coda is most effective. Overall, however, this rendition of the 4th fails to convince. It is probably the least successful performance to date of this cycle.

Thielemann and the Staaskapelle more than compensate in the 6th, however. The well-shaped and dynamic opening sets the tone. The first movement is chameleon-like in its sudden swings and changes of direction, so maintaining momentum is crucial for continuity. Thielemann does a great job of setting up a tremendous coda (well described by Michael Steinberg as one of Bruckner’s most splendid). The momentum of the first movement is matched by the intensity of the slow movement, and the Scherzo offers a fine transition to a powerful Finale. The end of the symphony is met with very strong applause, not just from the audience but also from the orchestra for the conductor. It is well-deserved. This is an outstanding performance of the symphony that Bruckner himself thought his most audacious.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Barenboim's Parsifal from Berlin on BluRay

Richard Wagner, Parsifal

Gurnemanz RENÉ PAPE


Costume design ELENA ZAYTSEVA
Chorus master MARTIN WRIGHT

HD recording: Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin – 04/2015
Bel Air Classiques Blu-Ray BAC428

For many of us Daniel Barenboim is the finest living Wagner conductor. Some might demur from quite such a sweeping judgment, but few would deny that he is one of a tiny handful of dominant interpreters of Wagner. This Parsifal, recorded live at the Berlin Staatsoper in April 2015, further cements his standing and reputation. Musically it is simply outstanding. Visually and conceptually it falls a little short of outstanding, but it is never less than thought-provoking. The combination is not quite one for the ages, as is his celebrated Ring with Harry Kupfer from Bayreuth in 1991-2, but it is definitely one of the most satisfying Parsifals that I have come across for a while. 

Dmitri Tcherniakov represents the home of the Knights of the Grail as what looks like a cavernous factory interior. Steering away from explicitly modernist productions, though, this factory has colonnades. Its inhabitants are dressed in generic mid-twentieth century costumes. Think Warsaw Uprising, postwar Germany, or a Solzhenitsyn gulag – dark colors and wintry, vaguely military outfits. In Act 1, Parsifal stands out with brightly colored T-shirts that he occasionally changes on stage, pulling a new one out of the rucksack that accompanies him throughout. There is much more color in Klingsor’s palace in Act 2, which Tcherniakov presents as a schoolroom painted in institutional blue, with the Flower Maidens wearing school uniforms, supervised by a benign-looking and bespectacled Klingsor, looking rather like a Latin teacher approaching retirement. 

I found the staging in Act 2 somewhat disconcerting – casting children holding dolls as temptresses certainly has the power to shock. But the scene where Parsifal is beset by the (underage) Flower Maidens is suitably de-sexualized, and Tcherniakov certainly offers a new take on this scene, helped by some very fine singing from the chorus. When Kundry arrives on the scene she certainly has no difficulty projecting herself as the only adult in the room. The only part of Act 2 that fell flat for me was the final confrontation with Klingsor, where the sense of drama emerging from the orchestra pit was not matched by events on stage.

The two most striking feature of this production are definite additions to Wagner’s narrative. In Act 1 the celebration of the Knights’ sacred ritual takes a definitely cannabilistic turn, with the Knights draining the blood from Amfortas’s wound and passing it around in a chalice. And in the final moments of the drama, Gurnemanz’s increasing antipathy to Kundry culminates in his stabbing her (in the back!) while she is locked in a passionate embrace with Amfortas, turning Wagner’s ideas about Kundry’s redemption on their head (or alternatively, taking them to their logical conclusion). I was not particularly moved by either innovation, although both certainly succeed in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the Knights of the Grail, who do come across as an even more unpleasant bunch than usual.

The real strengths of this production are in the conducting and singing. Barenboim sets the tone with a masterful and magisterial prelude. His pacing maintains momentum and drama through the long discursive sections of Act 1, building up to a spectacular denouement with the massed ranks of the chorus. Parsifal is hard to pace because it is relatively static,  Barenboim’s feel for the pulse of the music, and his ability to drive the action on the stage from the pit while maintaining balance between voices and instruments, is evident throughout.

There are no weak points among the principals. René Pape is a fine Gurnemanz, who rises to his set-pieces (“Titurel, der fromme held”, for example) but is a commanding presence throughout. Wolfgang Koch offers us a suitably tortured Amfortas in the opening and closing acts, conveying both the character’s pathos and his weakness. Tómas Tómason’s Klingsor suffers from the sensible sweater he is forced to wear, but sounds suitably menacing at the end of Act 2. Parsifal and Kundry are both first-rate. Andreas Schager’s Parsifal develops from a spoiled adolescent in Act 1 to a compelling leader in Act, singing with power, control, and delicacy throughout – a rare combination in contemporary Wagner tenors. Anja Kampe is a very fine Kundry,  whose singing and acting encompasses the multiple personae of this complex role – from servile handmaiden to passionate seductress, to candidate for final redemption.

My only misgivings with this production are the woefully inadequate liner materials (no more than a sketchy act-by-act summary), and my perennial bugbear of the credits rolling during the prelude. But sound and visual quality are both excellent, with two-channel and multi-channel options available. So I recommend this BluRay very highly indeed. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Thielemann's 2015 Tristan from Bayreuth on BluRay/DVD

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Stephen Gould (Tristan),
Evelyn Herlitzius (Isolde),
Georg Zeppenfeld (König Marke),
Iain Paterson (Kurwenal)
Raimund Nolte (Melot)
Christa Mayer (Brangäne)
Tansel Akzeybek (Ein Hirt)
Kay Stiefermann (Ein Steuermann)
Tansel Akzeybek (Junger Seemann)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Katharina Wagner (stage director)

Deutsche Grammophon BluRay 00440 073 5254

This splendid production of Tristan und Isolde, recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival in 2015, is the first issue in a multi-year collaboration between Deutsche Grammophon and the Bayreuth Festival, which will see the label exclusively releasing new productions at the Festpielhaus. On the strength of this recording, this initiative is looking most promising. Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann have produced one of the most satisfying Tristans in recent years.

Purists may balk at Katharina Wagner’s production, but (on this occasion) I have little sympathy with them. If there is a concept to the production, it is Fate and Necessity. No potion is needed for the first embrace between Tristan and Isolde in Act 1, for example – they fall into each other’s arms as soon as they see each other, and in Act II Mark and his men are plainly in view above the stage, so that their eventual appearance is more of an inevitable consequence of the great duet than a surprise. The production is revisionist, but in a thoughtful way plainly intended to illuminate the drama rather than to score political or other points.

During the Prelude the camera takes the viewer on a tour of the set, which for Act 1 is the interior of a ship – all metal stairs and railings. Usually I actively dislike visuals during the Prelude, but here they work well, with camera angles used to good effect. The lighting designer (Richard Traub) is the star of the production in Act II, where the torch is a spotlight and Tristan and Isolde sing ‘O sink herneider’ against a backdrop of avatars walking into pools of light (with the avatars turning into little children at Brangäne’s entrance). Lighting is also very important during Tristan’s delirious monologue in Act III, where Isolde is a constant on-stage presence in a triangle of light, constantly disappearing only to reappear in different places and elevations. It is very imaginative and also (not to give anything away) on occasion macabre.

Stephen Gould is a terrific Tristan. He sings with great delicacy in Act II after the arrival of Mark and his men, and offers a commanding performance in Act III. There is currently no shortage of heldentenors who can belt out a heroic-sounding Tristan, but few with Gould’s combination of powerful projection, expressiveness, and careful phrasing. He is well matched in all these respects by Evelyn Herlitzius’s Isolde, who enters ferociously in Act 1 and sings with great intensity throughout. Herlitzius does not have the most classically beautiful voice, but nor did a number of the great Wagner sopranos of the past. She acts and sings with power, plainly living her role.

König Marke has not been done any favors by the costume designer (Thomas Kaiser), and I was not convinced by his dragging Isolde off-stage in the closing bars. But the role is sung very well by George Zeppenfeld, who strikes the right balance between anger, grief, and resignation. The other two principal roles are very well sung – Iain Paterson as Kurwenal and Christa Mayer as Brangäne.

There are not many Wagner conductors who rank with Christian Thielemann when he is on form, as he most definitely is in this performance. The Act I Prelude is rich and dramatic and sets up a flow and pace that the Orchester der Bayreuther Festpielhaus maintains throughout. Thielemann maintains the balance between orchestra and soloists, not just in “showpieces” such as ‘Mild und leise’ but also (and even more tellingly) in busy scenes such as the arrival of König Marke and his men in Act III. The orchestra maintains a high level of dramatic movement, even though the characters are actually standing still on the stage. The ending is beautifully placed.

All in all, I was very enthusiastic about this first production on first hearing and subsequent listening confirmed first impressions. The sound and audio quality on the BluRay are excellent (I listened in PCM stereo, but DTS 5.0 is also included). Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bruckner's Fourth from the Pittsburgh Symphony (Honeck), and Fifth from the LPO (Skrowaczewski)

Anton Bruckner

Symphony No. 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Manfred Honeck
Reference Recordings FR – 713 (Hybrid CD/SACD, 5.1 and stereo)

Symphony No. 5
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
LPO 0090 (CD)

Here are two very different but very worthwhile approaches to Bruckner, both captured in live performances from the in-house labels of the Pittsburgh Symphony and London Philharmonic respectively. Compared to Skrowaczewski, who was 92 in December 2015 when this recording was made, Manfred Honeck is a mere stripling, and Honeck’s Bruckner discography is a fraction the length of the legendary Skrowaczewski’s (whose complete and highly recommended Bruckner cycle with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra was recently re-released by  Oehms records at a budget price).

Honeck’s liner notes describe the Fourth Symphony as “almost a tone poem in the robe of a symphony”. He takes Bruckner’s gushing about knights on proud horses and rustling forests quite literally and thinks that they provide a guide to interpretation. Personally I find this most implausible. Would our appreciation of this great symphony be any the less if some austere editor had removed all traces of Bruckner’s program? Surely not.

Yet, setting aside his fondness for the program, Honeck is certainly on to something when he observes that this symphony does not always lend itself to what he calls “a rigorous reading of Bruckner as a master of the organ and counterpoint”. Instead Honeck calls for flexibility of tempi and expression to bring out the full range of Bruckner’s emotional palette, which ranges from the earthiness of the scherzo to the deep melancholy of the Andanta (a melancholy that, as Honeck points out, has ironic overtones). The strengths of this recording include a great sensitivity to orchestral balance, keeping the brass on a tight leash so that they do not drown out the strings. He is particularly attentive to the violas and the richness of the orchestra comes out very well in the excellent SACD sound (I listened in 2 channel).

Honeck’s approach to the Fourth seems completely inappropriate, however, for the Fifth, which is Bruckner’s most contrapuntal and organ-inspired symphony. Despite the odd humorous moment, the Fifth has little by way of earthiness and rusticity. So it is not surprising that Skrowaczewski is almost the exact opposite of Honeck, with measured and steady tempi that characterize the “cathedral of sound” model of performance. It is difficult to fault Skrowaczewski’s grasp of the architecture of the symphony. This is not the most dramatic interpretation (listen to the end of the first movement, for example), but in both the slow movement and the Finale Skrowaczewski and the LPO achieve an extraordinary consistency of pacing and flow of the musical line. There is excellent playing from the solo oboe (Adagio) and clarinet (Finale). This is a terrific performance, as well as a fascinating testament to many decades of immersion in Bruckner’s music.  

Both discs are recommended.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Imogen Cooper's Chopin

Imogen Cooper’s Chopin

Polonaise No. 7 in A flat major, Op. 61 'Polonaise-fantaisie'
Two Nocturnes Op. 62
Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Nocturne No. 16 in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57

Imogen Cooper, piano
Chandos CD CHAN 10902

This disc represents Imogen Cooper’s first recorded foray into the music of Chopin. She is, of course, best known for her probing and often intense explorations of Schubert and Schumann. Somewhat disarmingly the liner notes contain a few paragraphs from the performer entitled ‘Why Chopin, why now?’ There she speaks of her “persistent feeling that Chopin is old-fashioned, difficult to program in this age of fabulous, exotic, and novel mixtures.” She goes on to ask (rhetorically): “Does this explain the feeling that a fresh personal discovery entails a considerable effort, an effort to delete the long accumulated data and reach for the suffering (and not always sympathetic, let us be honest) man and poet? To look at his language anew and not take a single note for granted?”

Cooper certainly casts a fresh eye. Her playing is refreshingly free of the clichés of Chopin interpretation, but the mention of suffering is telling. Cooper’s Chopin is unrelentingly melancholy. For many of us Chopin’s genius lies in his extraordinary versatility. He could write for the salon, for the dance floor, or for the confessional – sometimes for all three in the same piece. Cooper’s selection of pieces are all overwhelmingly introspective. There are no mazurkas, waltzes, or polonaises (the Polonaise-fantaise is really more of a fantaisie than a polonaise). The weight of the recital is taken by the first and fourth ballades and a selection of rather dark nocturnes. Each of the pieces played is an undisputed masterpiece, but the cumulative effect is to make Chopin sound rather one-dimensional.

Anybody who cares about Chopin will want to listen to this recording. Cooper is too important a pianist to miss, and her interpretations are certainly powerful. I suspect, though, that many will feel, as I did, that there is something missing here. Even in his darkest moments Chopin had a graceful lightness of touch. Imogen Cooper plumbs the depths, but leaves behind some of the most important things that are on the surface.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Performances of Bruckner 9 by Mariss Jansons and Christian Thielemann

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Conducted by Mariss Jansons

RCO 16002 (SACD/Multi-channel DSD 5.0)

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9
Staatskapelle Dresden
Conducted  by Christian Thielemann

Unitel Classica/C major  LC15762 (Blu-Ray)

Here are two very different performances of Bruckner’s Ninth. Both are live, and both are contributions to ongoing cycles, but the resemblance stops there. The stopwatch tells the tale. Thielemann’s performance weighs in at just over 62 minutes of music, while Jansons comes in at 54”44’. I have reviewed Thielemann’s Fifth and Eighth favorably (here and here, respectively). In both of those cases the weightiness of his interpretation worked to good effect. Here I am not so sure. Jansons seems to me to provide a more compelling interpretation, despite his less distingished pedigree as a Bruckner conductor.

Thielemann’s interpretation falls short in the first movement. His approach is too smooth. The problem is a lack of contrast – not dynamic contrast (of which there is plenty), but rather affective contrast. It fails to present enough tension for subsequent resolution. The climax before the coda has all the trappings of drama, but misses the depths that in the best performances make the coda more effective. The legacy of the opening movement weakens the later movements. The Adagio is more compelling taken on its own terms, and the affective contrast works better – not surprisingly, given that this is some of Bruckner’s most dissonant music.  But considered within the symphony as a whole it does not have the force that it should have, because it rests on a weak foundation.

To my ear Thielemann is too reverential. Many listeners, though, will find Jansons going too far in the opposite direction. His tempi are definitely on the brisk side (some might say rushed) and some of his accelerandi and ritardandi are very noticeable indeed. Nonetheless I found his approach to the first movement more satisfying than Thielemann’s. There is a real sense of urgency (in the build-up to the first climax, for example) and as a consequence the tension and drama come across more effectively. There is a real sense of release with the first movement coda. Jansons’s scherzo has a more driving rhythm, which sets up the Adagio nicely. He luxuriates much less than Thielemann in the third movement (and is nearly six minutes quicker!), but the climaxes and overall structure are at least as convincing.

Curiously, the Jansons performance, which feels more authentically live, was actually recorded over three different live performances in Amsterdam in March 2014, while the Thiemann Blu-Ray appears to have been recorded in a single evening (May 24, 2015). The sound quality is good on both, with the Jansons recording from RCO Live coming in SACD format with stereo and surround sound options (I listened in 2-channel, as usual). The videography by Agnes Méth on the Thielemann Blu-Ray is skillful, but occasionally a little too involved.

Of the two my recommendation would be Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw. But I would not dissuade anyone from buying the Thielemann Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sokolov plays late Schubert and late Beethoven

Grigory Sokolov: Schubert, Beethoven, Rameau, Brahms

Franz Schubert, Impromptus D899
Franz Schubert, Three Piano Pieces D946

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 29 in B flat major (Hammerklavier)

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tourbillons
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Cyclopes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, La Follette
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Sauvages

Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo in B flat minor op. 117 no. 2

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5426 (2 CDs)

Grigory Sokolov, the legendarily under-recorded genius of the piano, is now slightly less under-recorded. At the time of writing this double CD release of concert recordings from Warsaw and Salzburg brings the recorded repertoire to a grand total of 14 CDs and one DVD – a remarkably small tally for a pianist widely held to be one of the greatest living exponents of the keyboard, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition fifty years ago in 1966 at the age of 16. This set is the second release to emerge from Sokolov’s exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. I think it’s safe to assume that the future holds a steady trickle of live performance releases. We should all be grateful to DG for bringing an end to the lean years.

The meat of these discs are classic Sokolov repertoire – late Beethoven and late Schubert. The Schubert pieces were recorded at Warsaw’s Philharmonia Naradowa on May 12, 2013 and the Beethoven at the Salzburg Festival on August 23 of the same year. The set is rounded by the six encores played at the Salzburg concert – five of Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin, and then the second of Brahm’s Op. 117 Intermezzi.

The combination is surprisingly effective, and the encores are certainly not “lollipops”.  The nicely crafted five Rameau pieces provide a delightful counterpoint to the intense performances that precede them, and the beautifully played Brahms Intermezzo, a resigned and autumnal piece, is an excellent capstone to the set, as it must have been to the original concert at Salzburg.

Still, the recording will be justly celebrated for the Schubert and Beethoven performances. One of Sokolov’s most distinctive strengths at the piano (in addition, of course, to his technical mastery) is the depth and intensity that he brings to slow movements. So he is ideally suited to the melancholy lyricism of late Schubert. The D899 Impromptus are all very fine, with No. 1 particularly standing out – at Sokolov’s hands it stretches to over 10 minutes, without any moments of longeur or impressions of self-indulgence. For me, though, Sokolov is even more impressive in the Three Piano Pieces (D946), which he succeeds in making as deeply expressive as the famous last three piano sonatas.

The highlight of Melodiya’s 2014 release of Sokolov performing Beethoven, Scriabin, and Arapov (which I reviewed here) was a wonderful performance of Op. 111, Beethoven’s final piano sonata. That outstanding performance is matched by the Hammerklavier presented here. The slow movement in particular is spellbinding – better performances do not readily spring to mind. And while the Adagio Sostenuto is plainly the performance’s center of gravity, Sokolov maintains expressive balance across the other three movements.

The sound quality is as good as one would expect from Deutsche Grammophon (with a little audience noise for verisimilitude). My only reservation is that the liner notes are breathlessly sycophantic. Hopefully future releases from DG will have some analysis amid the hagiography. This is a relatively minor quibble and these two discs are highly recommended to all music-lovers.