Sonic Splendours: Graham Williams on Szymanowski, Wagner and Goldmark

szymanowski_sym_3_4_gergiev 

SZYMANOWSKI: SYMPHONIES 3 & 4, STABAT MATER London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev LSO Live SACD LSO0739  This is the second release in Valery Gergiev’s survey of Karol Szymanowski’s four symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra. The three works on this disc comprise Szymanowski’s 3rd and 4th Symphonies as well as his ‘Stabat Mater’. Symphony No. 3 subtitled ‘Song of the Night’ was written between 1914 and 1916 when the composer returned to Poland following a visit to Sicily and North Africa and represents the first important example of his mature style when he had cast off the earlier influences of Wagner, Strauss and Reger. This strikingly original and exotic work is a setting for tenor, chorus and large orchestra (including organ, bells, tam tam, piano, celesta and two harps) of words by the thirteenth-century Persian mystical poet Jalāl ad-Din Rūmi. Gergiev handles his forces with an expert hand and the work’s huge climaxes are unflinchingly delivered by the recording, though I would have welcomed more presence and weight from the sustained organ pedal note with which the symphony begins. Toby Spence impresses with his ardent delivery of the taxing tenor part and the well-drilled LSO chorus sing with admirable commitment. There are already a number of excellent versions on both CD and SACD of Szymanowski’s 4th Symphony, a work written in 1932 and one of the composer’s final compositions. Its subtitle ‘Symphonie Concertante’ is an apt one as there is often much interplay between the important piano part and other solo instruments such as flute and violin. The Russian virtuoso Denis Matsuev gives a typically athletic and powerful performance of the solo part while Gergiev and the LSO accompany with precision and panache. In between the two symphonies we have Szymanowski’s beautiful setting of ‘Stabat Mater’ for soprano, contralto, baritone, chorus and orchestra. The music is set to a Polish translation of the familiar medieval Latin poem by Jacapone da Todi. Surprisingly, and most effectively, it evokes both the ecstatic pagan atmosphere of his opera King Roger as well as the simplicity of Polish folk music. Of the three soloists heard here only Ekaterina Gubanova sounds entirely comfortable. Sally Matthews is rather unsteady in the opening movement – no match for the ethereal Elzbieta Szmytka on Simon Rattle’s EMI recording (CD only) – and the baritone Kostas Smoriginas tends to shout. Gergiev though does elicit some lovely playing from the LSO and the chorus sing with conviction. For this performance Gergiev has chosen not to use the ad lib organ part – which is a pity. The timings given for the movements in the booklet are incorrect – those given for (ii) and (iii) being reversed and (v) lasts 2’49” not 2’23”). All three works were recorded in the Barbican, London, at concerts given between December 2012 and March 2013 by the Classic Sound team of James Mallinson, producer and engineers Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson. Unlike Gergiev’s first Szymanowski disc the Barbican acoustic does not for the most part work against the music. The immediacy of the close-miked sound is assuredly exhilarating, particularly if the disc is played at a ‘realistic’ (= loud) volume. Clarity rather than opulence is what we have here. Though competition on record is intense in all three works featured here, this disc is a timely reminder of Szymanowski’s position as one of the most individual composers of the 20th century and only increases one’s admiration for his unique style and sophisticated tonal palate. Recommended with reservations.

WAGNER: ORCHESTRAL WORKS Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5126  Purely in orchestral terms Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have done Wagner proud over the past few years with their four discs of Henk de Vleiger’s ‘orchestral syntheses’ of seven of Wagner’s most well-known operas – each superbly played by the RSNO and recorded in sumptuous sound quality by Chandos. In addition, Järvi has also given us a fifth disc of rarities that included his two early, and quite rarely performed, symphonies. This new SACD – issued quite appropriately towards the end of the Wagner bi-centenary year – collects together some of the fill-ups from the previous five discs and also includes a previously un-issued fiery account of the Overture to ‘Der Fliegende Holländer’. Its generous playing time of 80 minutes makes it a most attractive proposition for those wanting a collection of Wagner Overtures and Preludes, but unwilling to purchase the earlier issues. The order of the nine pieces on this disc follows that of the Wagner Werk Verzeichnis (WWV). So playing this disc through from start to finish enables one to follow the remarkable development of the composer’s style from his earliest completed opera ‘Die Feen’ (1833) with its debt to Weber and Marschner up to its confident maturity in ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ (1868). As has been noted in reviews of the earlier issues, some of Järvi’s generally fast tempi are occasionally questionable – sometimes verging on the eccentric (the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde being a case in point), but overall these pieces are given thrilling performances splendidly recorded in 24-bit/96kHz 5.0-channel surround sound by engineers Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper in the spacious acoustic of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. Strongly recommended to both Wagnerites and audiophiles alike. GW

GOLDMARK: RUSTIC WEDDING SYMPHONY, ETC., Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS SACD BIS 1842  Very little, if any, of the music of Karl Goldmark (1830 -1915) is heard in the concert hall today, and like so many lesser composers of the 19th century it is solely thanks to recordings that his well-crafted and melodious compositions can be enjoyed. Though a fairly prolific composer of music in most genres, it is by three works, coincidentally bearing consecutive Opus numbers, that he is mostly known. These are – the Rustic Wedding Symphony Op.26, the opera ‘The Queen of Sheba’ Op 27 and the Violin Concerto Op.28. The first of these is the main work on this excellently played and recorded BIS SACD. In spite of the title it is not really a symphony in the formal sense of the word, but is more akin to a five-movement suite; each movement of which has a title pertinent to the work’s subject – a rustic wedding. It opens with a ‘Wedding March’ which consists of an engaging set of 13 variations on an amiable theme – first stated on the lower strings and beautifully articulated on this recording by the players of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The four movements that follow are ‘Bridal Song’ ,’Serenade’, ‘In the Garden’ and finally ‘Dance’ that recalls music from the earlier movements. It is easy to see why this piece was so admired by Brahms – Goldmark’s younger contemporary – for both the thematic confidence of the writing and clarity of its instrumentation. Conductors, as different in temperament as Beecham and Bernstein, considered this piece worthy of their attention and both made memorable recordings of it. Lan Shui’s affectionate reading on this SACD is hugely enjoyable and will surely make many new friends for this charming neglected work. His awareness of the nostalgic sadness that pervades much of Goldmark’s music is evinced by his ravishing performance of the work’s 4th movement while the work’s livelier sections are delivered with winning élan. Goldmark’s 2nd Symphony Op 35 composed some twelve years after the ‘Rustic Wedding Symphony’ is, in its conventional four-movement layout, exactly what one might expect of a symphony dating from this period. The opening movement has a fine muscular drive that clearly indicates the influence of Brahms, but to this listener, also something of the early symphonies of Dvorak in its freshness and immediate appeal. The third movement is pure Mendelssohn, though the movement’s trio section surprises with an unexpected and confidently played songful trumpet solo. The sound quality on this BIS recording (Op.26 24-bit 44.1kHz, Op.35 24-bit 96kHz) is, bar a touch of shrillness on the upper strings, well up to the usual house standard of excellence. This SACD is a most welcome addition to the catalogue and Lan Shui’s performances of Goldmark’s unpretentious and heart-warming music can be confidently recommended. GW

CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTH

RAVEL: MA MER L’OYE, ETC., Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi/Tacet SACD 0207-4 This is an absolutely entrancing issue from TACET and will surely be essential listening for anyone who already has, or is considering investing in a multi-channel sound system. TACET’s approach to recording music in what they describe as ‘Real Surround Sound’ is to take advantage of the whole acoustic space available, and to enhance the listener’s musical experience by utilising the possibilities of current multi-channel technology (in this case 5.1) to the full. No attempt is made to re-create the illusion of sitting in a concert hall; instead the listener is placed at the centre of the performance. Andreas Spreer explains his recording philosophy in some detail in the booklet notes and though purists might frown at his ideas, I can truthfully say that I found the results entirely convincing. The majority of TACET’s earlier releases are of chamber music or music from the classical or baroque eras, but with this latest issue we move into the 20th century with a programme of orchestral works from that consummate master of orchestration Maurice Ravel, and the results are stunning. Carlo Rizzi, perhaps more well known in the UK for his fine conducting of opera, elicits sensitive playing from the excellent Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in each of the works on this SACD. His fleet and insouciant account of ‘La Valse’, full of Gallic elegance and wit, is especially gratifying and typical of his fastidious yet fresh approach to this familiar music. The fragile delicacy of works such as the suite from ‘Ma mère L’Oye’ benefit from Rizzi’s subtly nuanced approach, and here, as throughout the disc, the recorded sound has a lovely openness and clarity. Ravel’s evocation of bird song in ‘Petit Poucet’ emerges strikingly with extra vividness in surround as does the terrifying double bassoon that represents the beast in ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête’. Only in ‘Tzigane’ did I feel that the soloist was rather too close to the microphone, but when this fearsome piece with its double-stopping, crystalline harmonics and coruscating arpeggios is delivered with such panache by the versatile Gordan Nikolic one has little cause for complaint. The comprehensive booklet notes that accompany the SACD illustrate the different instrumental layouts for each of the five works, so success in realisation of Andreas Spreer’s visual representations will be determined by one’s own system and domestic surroundings. Careful adjustment of levels and speaker positioning will be rewarded with some of the most marvellous sound I have heard from a multi-channel SACD. Were this just a normal stereo SACD I would happily recommend it both for its musical worth and fine sound quality, but in ‘Real Surround Sound’ it is unmissable. GW

SZYMANOWSKI: HARNASIE, ETC., BBC Symphony Orchestra Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5123 The increasingly valuable and comprehensive survey of Polish music in Chandos’s ‘Muzyka Polska’ series conducted by Edward Gardner has now reached Volume 7 with this SACD devoted to two of Szymanowski’s finest works from the 1920s, his ‘Stabat Mater’ and the ballet ‘Harnasie’ – making a first appearance on SACD. Gardner’s account of the ‘Stabat Mater’ is a breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising one. From the first notes of the introduction to the solemn opening section ‘Stala Matka bolejaca’ one is entranced by the sensitive playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the conductor’s well-judged tempi for each of the work’s six sections. Among the three excellent soloists, the soprano Lucy Crowe is quite outstanding. Her pure and perfectly controlled voice possesses the ideal devotional quality required for this work. The young Hungarian Gábor Bretz delivers his two brief solos with great force and authority whilst Pamela Helen Stephen’s voice blends seamlessly with that of Lucy Crowe in the tender third section ‘Matko, zrodlo wszechmilosci’.The BBC Symphony Chorus sing with much precision and assurance throughout, but particularly in the work’s a capella 4th section ‘Spraw, niech placze z Toba razem’ , a section enhanced by the clean acoustic of the recording venue, Fairfield Halls, Croydon while the wonderful plea to the Virgin ‘Panno slodka, racz, mozolem’ is given its full majesty thanks to the splendid weight of the organ – something conspicuously lacking in Valery Gergiev’s recent recording of the piece. In both terms of performance and recording quality Gardner’s performance of the ‘Stabat Mater’ outclasses that on the recent LSO Live version and I would unhesitatingly place it at the top of the list for anyone seeking the finest current recording of this masterpiece. When Szymanowski returned to Poland in 1922 after a period in the United States he decided to live in the town of Zakopane in the Tatra mountains where he became fascinated by the culture , music and dance of the region. That in turn led to the idea of a ballet and resulted in ‘Harnesser’ his final composition for the stage. ’Harnasie’, often described as a ‘Ballet -Pantomime’ (on this disc is it is called a Góral Ballet – a góral being a ‘highlander’ native to the region of the Tatra mountains in Poland) is a work that occupied the composer for a considerable period of time from 1923 until its completion in 1931. It is an ambitious piece requiring a large orchestra, chorus and a tenor soloist. Like most ballets though it does have quite a simple plot. The ‘Harnasie’ are a band of highland robbers who, led by their leader Janosik (Harnaś) abduct a young girl being forced by her father to marry a man she does not love. The opening music is both exotic and indicative of the pungent folk-music of the region in which the ballet is set. Szymanoski paints a wonderful picture in glowing orchestral colours of the tranquility and isolation of a mountain pasture with, as Adrian Thomas points out in his excellent booklet notes, passages that immediately recall the opening of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. As the ballet progresses and the story unfolds, the music builds in excitement, its raw earthiness effectively conveyed by the vivid orchestral playing and the enthusiastic contribution of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Though Szymanowski’s scoring is quite dense Gardner and the Chandos engineers make an excellent job at keeping textures as clear as possible. There have been a number of fine recordings of this work on CD – including those conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI) and, my personal favourite, Robert Satanowski (KOCH Schwann) – but none have the richness and opulent sound quality delivered by the Chandos 5.0-channel (24-bit/96kHz) recording on this SACD. Recommended without reservation. GW

WAGNER: DAS RHEINGOLD Soloists, Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev Mariinsky SACD MARO 526 Hot on the heels of Marek Janowski’s very fine recording of ‘Das Rheingold’ for PentaTone comes this, the second release in the Mariinsky label’s Ring cycle that follows their impressive ‘Die Walküre’ released earlier this year. In that opera Gergiev had a cast of predominantly top international Wagner specialists, but here twelve of the fourteen cast members are Russian – the only two non-Russian singers being the bass-baritone René Pape (Wotan) and the tenor Stephan Rügamer (Loge).The results of this ‘home-grown’ casting demonstrate, for the most part, the very high standard of singing from members of the Mariinsky company as well as their increasing familiarity with Wagner interpretation. Much of the credit for this must be given to Valery Gergiev who has over recent years demonstrated his tireless commitment to both the music of Wagner and the Mariinsky. René Pape is an imposing ‘Wotan’, here making an even greater impression than he did in ‘Die Walküre’ . His rich, velvety and beautifully projected legato singing are a constant joy throughout this recording while his immaculate diction and complete identification with the character confirm his pre-eminent position as one of the most accomplished Wagner interpreters of our time. Try Disc 2 tr. 14 “ Abenlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” to get a flavour of his consummate performance. As Wotan’s long-suffering spouse Ekatarina Gubanova, who made an excellent impression in Gergiev’s ‘Die Walküre,’ is once again a warmly expressive ‘Fricka’. She sounds more youthful than many mezzos on disc who have undertaken this role and her poised singing encapsulates both Fricka’s dignity and her disappointment with her errant husband. The giants, Fasolt and Fafner are sung magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko both of whom now have huge experience of singing Wagner outside Russia. Their dark well-contrasted bass voices sound absolutely ideal for these roles and needless to say they have an excellent command of German notwithstanding a trace of Slavic inflexion. Nikolai Putilin is a dramatic and malevolent sounding ‘Alberich’ . He uses his powerful voice to great effect in a well-rounded interpretation of this key role. The vivid depiction of his brother, the sly and cowardly ‘Mime’, by Andei Popov might be regarded as too histrionic for some tastes, – the performance of Gerhard Stolze heard as ‘Mime’ on the Karajan Ring comes to mind – but he really makes the character come alive. Stephan Rügamer’s elegantly sung Loge brings a welcome touch of bel canto to this rewarding role, though his fine singing never fails to portray both the humour and wily nature of the character. The performances of the other gods vary in quality from the majestic and splendidly sung ‘Donner’ of Alexei Markov whose “Schwüles Gedünst schwebt in der Luft” is especially thrilling to the disappointing Freia of Viktoria Yastrebova whose woolly diction requires use of the libretto to follow her words. The same criticism regarding diction could intermittently be levelled at the three lively and most attractively sung Rhinemaidens, though this could be due to their placement some way back in the sound picture. Zlata Bulycheva makes a good impression as a vibrant and imposing ‘Erda’ delivering her warning forcefully from the rear of the platform. Gergiev’s command of the score is most persuasive and his interpretation rarely, if ever, fails to convince. His steady unfolding of the narrative never lacks dramatic thrust, thanks above all to the superlative playing that he elicits from his mahogany-toned Russian orchestra with its sonorous burnished brass, crisp percussion and distinctive woodwind. The orchestral passage that links scenes 1 and 2 of the opera perfectly demonstrates Gergiev’s subtle control of his forces as we move from the depths of the Rhine to spacious mountain heights, while the descent into Nibelheim (Disc1 tr. 14) is absolutely spine tingling with terrific sounding anvils. These are just two passages of many on this recording that make listening to it such an enthralling experience. This recording was compiled from concert performances given in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre between 2010 and 2012. In spite of this wide time span there is no audible evidence of any changes in the overall sound. The producer is James Mallinson and the engineer is Vladimir Ryabenko who was also responsible for the editing and mastering of the 5.0 multi-channel recording – no specific mention of any involvement from Classic Sound on this occasion. The aural picture has a quite different perspective from that accorded to Janowski. Here the listener is placed rather less close to the platform and some of the singers are clearly behind the orchestra which gives a balance more akin to what one would hear in the opera house, with voices occasionally dominated by the orchestra. In addition, Gergiev’s seating of his players, with violins divided left and right and basses far left, also alters the overall orchestral balance to produce a sound which is more coalesced than on the Janowski version. The surround channels are only used to provide extra ambience to a sound-stage that is both wide and deep. The presentation of this two-disc set is excellent as usual from the Mariinsky label, and includes a full German/ English libretto as well as brief biographies of all the singers. As I have hopefully made clear, in terms of continuity Gergiev is less radical than Janowski, but no less compelling and his cast is equally fine. Overall timings do on this occasion accurately reflect the pacing of the work by Janowski and Gergiev. Janowski 140′ 27”, Gergiev 147’42” while for comparison Solti comes in at 145′ 45”. Wagner devotees now have an embarras de richesses, even on SACD, and will find it difficult to make a choice between these two excellent though very different accounts of ‘Das Rheingold’.The choice is yours. GW

 

 

 

 

 

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