Monday, September 29, 2014

Gerd Schaller's Bruckner 5

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 5
Philharmonie Festiva

Conducted by Gerd Schaller

Profil Hänssler CD PH14020

The summer festival at the abbey church of Ebrach has been an important Bruckner venue since its inception in 2008 by Gerd Schaller, the founder and continuing artistic director. Schaller has recorded a complete Bruckner cycle there with the Philharmonie Festiva, a festival orchestra whose core is drawn from the Munich Bach Soloists, supplemented by hand-picked soloists from the other Munich orchestras. After this release of Symphony No. 5, only No. 6 remains (together with the Study Symphony, for completists).

The music festival has released a nice promotional video of Schaller conducting a 5 minute extract from the symphony. The video shows the magnificent surroundings. For those fortunate enough to have attended the performance the overall effect of hearing Bruckner in an ecclesiastical location so close to the spirit of the composer and his music must have been very special indeed. Those listening at home, though, can’t help but notice the very real acoustic trade-off that comes from recording in such a cavernous setting. The video also shows the extraordinary number of microphones used by Bavarian Radio to record this live performance from July 2013. On the one hand the reverberation and echo of the cathedral threatens to obscure some of the fine details of the score. But on the other those very same features help to create a very rich and magnificently developed sound, particularly in the strings and brass.

Acoustically the pros in this performance far outweigh the cons. The first movement suffers a little in clarity of articulation, particularly in the climaxes. But magnificence wins out in the last movement – surprisingly perhaps, given that the last movement is Bruckner’s most contrapuntally complex movement (but then again churches and complex counterpoint have a long history together).

As I observed in an earlier review of Schaller’s Bruckner 4, his approach to Bruckner is majestic rather than monumental or mystical. This pays off in Symphony No. 5, particularly given the classical architecture of the final movement. He also has a fine ear for Bruckner’s changes of tone in the Adagio and Scherzo.  Finally, there is some exceptionally fine playing by the solo oboe and clarinet (particularly in movements 2 and 4 respectively).


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sokolov plays Beethoven, Scriabin, and Arapov

Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 7 in D major (Op. 10 no. 3)
Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 27 in E minor (Op. 90)
Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor (Op. 111)

Alexander Scriabin Piano Sonata no. 3 in F sharp minor (Op. 23)

Boris Arapov Piano Sonata no. 2 (1978)
Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Percussions with Chamber Orchestra (1973)

To say that the legendary Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov is somewhat under-recorded is to put it mildly. If you have the 10-CD collection put out in 2011 by Naïve Records in 2011 and the single DVD of the 2002 recital in Paris issued by Medici Arts in 2002, then you’ve got more than the lion’s share. This contrasts, for example, with the 318 recordings by Sviatoslav Richter available for purchase in Archiv Musik – or the 148 by Emil Gilels, who chaired the jury when Sokolov won the Tchaikovsky prize in 1966 at the age of 16.

So this double CD from Melodyiya is very welcome indeed. Sokolov is often compared (justly) to Gilels and Richter as a giant of the keyboard and there is nothing on these two discs that would make anyone rethink. The recording of Beethoven’s last sonata in particular is monumental.

I imagine that most people will buy this recording for the Beethoven performances. The exciting performance of Op. 10 no.3 shows Sokolov’s trademark combination of great power and delicate lyricism throughout, but particularly in the initial Presto. The slow movement is spell-binding. Flexible tempi work very well in both movements of Op. 90, with real profundity emerging from Sokolov’s searching exploration of the first movement.

Sokolov is almost an ideal match for the Op. 111 sonata, whose two movements display the two dimensions of his playing style. His incredible technical mastery is firmly on display in the tempestuous first movement, but clearly in service to his sure grasp of the movement’s architecture and never drowning out the expressiveness of the music. The theme, variations, and coda of the second movement are almost perfectly suited to Sokolov’s meditative and lyrical approach. He projects a clear sense of progression through the massive movement, not an easy thing to achieve given its structure. In all the performance is one of the greats.

The second disc contains Scriabin’s third piano sonata, fairly standard fare for Soviet/Russian pianists, and, more unusually, two pieces by the Russian composer Boris Arapov who died in 1995. Arapov’s piano sonata no. 2 is a workmanlike piece, but the Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Percussions with Chamber Orchestra is an intriguing piece, almost certainly unique in the line up of soloists!

The weak link in the chain is the presentation. The cover design and font is cheesy in the extreme and the program notes very breathless. But anyone concerned about that can purchase the download. The sound quality varies from fairly good (for the 1974 recording of Op. 10 no. 3) to good for the later recordings (Op. 111 was recorded live in Leningrad in March 1988). This is a must-buy.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mario Venzago's Bruckner 8

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8

Konzerthausorchester Berlin

Conducted by Mario Venzago

CPO 777 691-2 (CD)

Mario Venzago’s Bruckner cycle is nearly complete. Of the nine major symphonies all but the Fifth have been recorded for the CPO label. Each disc in the cycle is accompanied by an essay by the conductor in which he lays out his views on performing Bruckner and why he feels it necessary to add yet another cycle in a crowded market-place. The basic premise of Venzago’s approach is that, despite the lack of explicit direction in Bruckner’s own scores, an unjustified tradition of massiveness and solemnity has grown up around the nine symphonies. Against this tradition Venzago proposes a trimmer, more Schubertian tone, together with what he terms a “rubato-rich bar-line-free playing style".

It is hard to know what to make of the idea of a playing style that is rubato-rich but bar-line-free. The whole point of rubato is occasional and expressive divergence from the basic underlying tempo and in most forms of music you need bar lines to establish a tempo. But of course the real issue is not how Venzago articulates his approach, but how it works in practice. Venzago describes himself as impressed by what he sees as the “church opera” aspects of Bruckner’s music. He allows himself dynamic liberties to allow “the sensuous opulence of the music to come out”. The real question is whether those liberties add up to a coherent vision of the score.

The challenge for Venzago is that Bruckner’s music (in all his symphonies, but perhaps none more so than the Eighth) is built up a gradual progression through great blocks of sound. Venzago deliberately turns his back on the steady and disciplined tempi that many conductors use to impose order on Bruckner’s huge soundscape. Does he have anything to put in their place?

I don’t have a clear answer. Vanzago’s rhythmic fluidity works better in some movements than others. Of the four movements, the Scherzo and the Finale work best. The closing minutes of the Finale are very effective, despite some of the exaggerated accelerandos and ritardandi leading up to it. But the logic of the Adagio does not emerge and the build up to the grand climax of the movement lacks the architectural weight it deserves. Many listeners are likely to object to what they see as ghastly distortions of the musical line, particularly in the Adagio, but also in the opening movement.

This recording of the Eighth is probably worth listening to, if only for the perspective it gives to the tradition of massiveness and solemnity. I’d be surprised if Venzago’s Eighth had many converts, but at least it makes us appreciate what we might otherwise have taken for granted!