Thursday, 19 January 2017

CD Reviews - January 2017

Max Reger (1873-1916) was a prolific composer, yet his music is not so well known today, although the 100th anniversary year of his death saw an influx of new recordings.  His music might be seen as backward looking, in that he was particularly focussed on counterpoint and fugal writing, with a strong interest in Bach, and he definitely saw himself following the direct line from Beethoven and Brahms, rather than looking forward and embracing the innovation and radical developments of other early 20th century composers such as Schoenberg.  Robert Oberaigner (clarinet) and Michael Schöch (piano) have recorded all his works for the two instruments, namely three Sonatas and two short works, a Tarantella and Albumblatt.  The two Sonatas, Op. 49, written in 1900, just six years after Brahms composed his two Sonatas, and three years after the latter’s death.  Reger clearly admired Brahms, and his influence here is strong, particularly in the lyrical slow movements.  Reger has a tendency to wander a little at times, and doesn’t always have the intense focus of Brahms’ late works, but this is nevertheless warmly attractive music, and Oberaigner’s sweet tone is matched well by Schöch’s flowing touch.  The opening movement of the Sonata, Op. 107, composed eight years later, is a case in point for Reger’s wandering style, and at over thirteen minutes, it could perhaps have had greater forward momentum in places here.  However, they give full expression to the lyrical slow movement, and the finale has graceful poise.  The disc is finished off nicely with the sprightly Tarantella and the beautifully warm Albumblatt, completing a highly satisfying survey of these underrated works.

Neatly following on from Reger, we turn to his key influence, Brahms, for the final disc in Barry Douglas’ complete survey of his Piano Works.  Given his mixed programme approach to the previous five discs, we are thankfully not left with a mopping up exercise of obscurities, Douglas having saved gems such as the beautifully dark Intermezzo No. 6 from the Op. 118 set, and three pieces from the Op. 76 set.  There are some rarities here too, though, with some of the highly challenging Studies, Brahms’ virtuosic arrangements of works including a Chopin Étude, a Weber Rondo and two Bach solo violin movements, including the stunning arrangement for the left hand of the mammoth Ciaccona from Partita No. 2.  Douglas gives the darkly intense works such as the Op. 118 Intermezzo and the Op. 76 pieces the right balance of weight, delicacy and brilliance where required, particularly in the C major Capriccio.  Then he shows sheer dazzling virtuosity in the lightening Weber Rondo, and the added complications Brahms brings to the Chopin Étude, not to mention the respectful yet impressive Bach arrangements, particularly the Ciaccona.  The selection of Hungarian Dances, in Brahms’ solo piano version (originally he wrote them for four hands) provide great colour, and Douglas is full of life here.  A perfect conclusion to the series, this final recording exemplifies the variety in Brahms’ piano music that may be unexpected to some, as well as demonstrating the broad range of Douglas’ playing.  A benchmark set if ever there was one.

Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is not far from the end of a complete cycle of Bruckner Symphonies with his latest live recording of the Symphony No. 2, with the Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain.  As ever with Bruckner, there are the revision issues, but the version here is the relatively standard edition made in 1938 by Robert Haas, combining Bruckner’s 1877 version with features from previous versions.  The second is not the most exciting of Bruckner’s symphonies, but it has a youthful energy, and avoids some of the overblown excesses to which Bruckner can be prone.  The opening movement begins as if out of nowhere, and Nézet-Séguin launches his players in with immediate energetic impetus, which sets the right tone for the rather stop-start opening movement, contrasting the moments of lighter repose with a sense of forward urgency.  With Bruckner, a sense of the overall architecture is always important, and here, there is a good sense of onward progress.  The slow movement has plenty of scope for the woodwind and horns to demonstrate their skills with frequent solo passages, all performed with great control here.  Nézet-Séguin manages the ebb and flow of the music, which often threatens a mammoth climax, but pulls back to stillness and calm.  The bombastic scherzo is suitably driven, and the dramatic finale, with its twists and turns, builds to a triumphant conclusion, with an emphatic contribution from the brass on this powerful live recording.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January 2017)