Monday, 22 June 2015

CD Reviews - June 2015

Agostino Steffani’s (1654-1728) operatic output has been overshadowed by his more famous ‘successor’ Handel, yet interest has been growing in recent years, perhaps on the back of the longstanding revival of attention for Handel’s operas.  So much so that two recordings of Niobe, Regina di Tebe (‘Niobe, Queen of Thebes’) have come out almost simultaneously, one live recording from the Royal Opera House’s production in 2010, and another from the production at Boston Early Music Festival in 2011 (although recorded recently) on Erato. It’s a complicated story of Greek myth, with the usual themes of unrequited love, power, magic and tragedy.  As is often the case with opera recordings, a good synopsis and texts is crucial if you are to have any chance of following what’s happening, which the ROH give us – I would have like to have seen a few more production pictures to get a sense of the design world (although there are pictures available online). In terms of the performances, Véronique Gens as Niobe and Iestyn Davies as Creonte (the love interest) stand out as exceptional, both infusing their singing with strong characterisation without being overly mannered.  The male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione, the King of Thebes certainly divides listeners.  His incredibly high voice, and the vocal pyrotechnics he demonstrates are highly dramatic, and I suspect on stage this added power and presence to his role, but I found on disc his voice a little over-harsh and extreme in comparison to the other voices. However, it is the instrumental forces of the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock that shine out of this recording.  Steffani’s instrumentation is always striking and never dull, despite the steady flow of so many relatively short arias and duets (over forty in this version, which already contains some significant cuts).  The appearance of trumpets and drums straight away in the overture signposts Steffani’s daring and dramatic scoring to come.  I enjoyed discovering this highly individual music and look forward to catching a production of this or another of Steffani’s operas in the near future, as I am sure more will follow on the back of this.

Singing in Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Symphony of Psalms in last year’s Brighton Festival (Brighton Festival Chorus, the Philharmonia Orchestra and John Wilson -review here) reawakened my interest in perhaps one of the most individual and significant composers of the twentieth century. So pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performing his complete works for piano and orchestra, with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, promised much, and certainly did not disappoint.  The first thing that stands out is the diversity of this one composer’s output, from the youthful exuberance of Pétrouchka, through the neoclassical Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, and the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, right up to Movements.  The Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments comes first, and in its neoclassical style, there are also nods to the Baroque and Bach in the middle slow movement in particular.  Yet this is pure Stravinsky, and the driving final movement, as well as the challenging yet precise writing for piano throughout, is given a rousing performance from Bavouzet and the combined wind and brass players here.  The Capriccio, composed some five years later, is somewhat less intense in style, and the presence of strings here almost smoothes out the textures, although the dazzling piano part has plenty of life, and Bavouzet has great fun with this.  We jump forward thirty or so years for Movements, a serialist work of five short movements, influenced by Webern, entirely based on a single tone row first heard on the solo piano before its serialist manipulation.  Cerebral perhaps, yes, but by no means inaccessible.  The piano tends to lead small chamber groupings rather than taking a central solo role, and although the piece goes by in just under ten minutes, Bavouzet and the orchestra perform with intensity and tight ensemble.  Stravinsky’s ballet score, Pétrouchka is there to complete the disc, not being technically a piano ‘concerto’, the piano being more a part of the orchestra than a solo instrument – and Bavouzet describes in the notes how much he enjoyed being part of the orchestra for a change.  This lively ballet score from 1911 still sounds fresh and innovative, combining simple tunes with quirky scoring, bitonal harmonies and dramatic balletic use of rhythm throughout, and the performance here is full of spirit, yet precise and sharp, a great conclusion to an exceptional disc.

Czech born composer and violinist Johann Stamitz (1717-1757) was influential in the development of the Classical symphony, writing around 50 of them, and primarily establishing the conventional four-movement pattern.  He was also the director of the renowned orchestra of the day, the Mannheim Court Orchestra. So, whilst not a household name today (and often confused with his two sons Karl & Anton, also violinist/composers), he is known predominantly for this influence on orchestral works and performance.  Yet he also composed a fair amount of chamber works, concertos and some choral works, as well as his set of six Violin Sonatas, Op. 6, which violinist Stephan Schardt has recorded with harpsichordist Michael Behringer. The works are problematic in terms of source material, with the printed edition published after the composer’s death containing errors in both parts.  Schardt and Behringer have researched the available sources, as well as other works by Stamitz to establish a performing edition, and this has proved very successful, with characterful yet appropriate articulation from the violin, with tasteful and sympathetic accompaniment from the harpsichord.  The structure of the six sonatas is the same – a slow movement, followed by a fast central allegro, and ending with a minuet – a standard approach at the time, as the conventions were still developing and becoming established. The allegros are perhaps where the most technically demanding music comes, although harmonically they are not necessarily very advanced.  The adagios however contain some highly ornamental writing, and the fifth sonata has the violin playing two separate lines throughout. The minuets are elegant, with more adventurous harmonic interest in their central trio sections. The sound on this SACD recording is clear as a bell, and the two performers prove the strongest of advocates for these sonatas, and their pivotal position in the development of early Classical style and form.

(Edited versions of some of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2015)

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