February 2024 Classical Record Reviews

Reinbert de Leeuw: Der nächtliche Wanderer / Abschied
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Reinbert de Leeuw & Edo de Waart
Challenge Classics CC72957 (CD, reviewed as DSD). 2023. Anita Wijnen, prod.; Jan Stellingwerff, Frank Mathijssen, engs. Abschied eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

The music of composer/conductor/pianist Reinbert de Leeuw (1938–2020) is as astounding as anything I've heard. His final two orchestral works, both recorded live, may have been composed 40 years apart, but both are complex, layered, and filled with dark, aggressive, and soul-shakingly violent energy.

When de Leeuw wrote his Abschied (Farewell) in 1973, he felt he had said all he could possibly say through composition. He went out with an emphatic bang, with an almost 23-minute piece with an air of emphatic finality that sounds like universes colliding repeatedly until everything collapses, only to resume colliding once again. Thanks to extraordinary digital restoration by Bert van der Wolf and Oude Avenhuis of Northstar Recording Services, the 2017 live recording, conducted by Edo de Waart, is guaranteed to blow you away, assuming your system can handle it.

Despite writing a few subsequent works, de Leeuw eschewed composition for full orchestra until 2013, when he created and conducted the world premiere of his 46-minute, single-movement Der nächtliche Wanderer (The Night Wanderer) for orchestra and taped accompaniment. (The tape includes accordionist Bart Lelivelt, and actor Steven Scharf reciting, in German, the poem on which the symphony is based.) After the remarkably realistic sound of a dog barking in the night, the live recording unfolds softly and slowly. Silence and texture are central to haunted passages eventually punctuated by tremendous percussive jolts and violent threats. The horror and terror of the music grows and accelerates until Hölderlin's chilling poem about fear, strangling, and death reaches our ears. The ending is as unforgettable as all that precedes it.—Jason Victor Serinus

Sandrine Piau: Reflet
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Orchestre Victor Hugo, Jean-François Verdier
Alpha1019, CD (reviewed as 24/96). 2023. Vincent Mons, Laure Casenave, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Sandrine Piau is something of a miracle. Fifty-seven at the time of this recording, she sounds almost as fresh and free of voice as she did in her late 20s. Her interpretations have grown deeper with the passage of time, but she retains an understated simplicity that transport us with sincerity rather than a surfeit of word painting.

Reflet consists entirely of French songs about light, illusions, and "the land of luminous transparency." Setting poetry by Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Hugo, Verlaine, and others, it begins with the oldest song on the program, Hector Berlioz's "Le spectre de la rose" from Les Nuits d'Été. Although Piau voices the highest notes with less volume than those immediately below them, her voice is so beautiful, the sound so sublime, the song's mystery so perfectly conveyed that the rendition convinces. Then come two of Henri Duparc's best known songs, "Chanson triste" and "L'invitation au voyage." No one can replace Maggie Teyte's haunting slowdowns and idiosyncratic emphases, but Piau's beauty is profound, the magic of Duparc's orchestrations fully realized.

Scattered between gloriously played interludes by Debussy—"Claire de lune" from Suite Bergamasque, orchestrated by André Caplet and "Pour remercier la pluie au matin," orchestrated by Ernest Ansermet—come Ravel's Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Britten's Quatre Chansons Françaises, and Koechlin's less well-known Quatre Poèmes d'Edmond Haraucourt. Whether the mood be of sensual abandon amidst the twin pulls of love and death (Ravel's "Soupir"), the intoxicating mix of daytime scents and nighttime wonders (Britten's "Nuits de juin"), or sheer fantasy (Koechlin's "Aux temps des fées"), Piau lives each song as if composed for her. This is a marvelous recital.—Jason Victor Serinus

Prokofiev: Symphony 5
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda
LSO Live LSO0379 (CD). 2023. Nicholas Parker, prod.; Neil Hutchinson, ed.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

From the start, when the winds project the opening theme with a stately dignity, Noseda lays out the Fifth with a gratifying clarity and a solid sense of direction. The firm, lyrical flow, far from undercutting the grinding interjections, render their intrusions more ominous. The second theme is conspicuously faster; the forthright development underlines the obsessive-compulsive quality of some accompaniment motifs. Throughout the movement, the broad, powerful climaxes build without straining, and the sonorities, even at their loudest, remain transparent.

In the Allegro marcato, the perky clarinet and other melodic elements, punctuated by lean, slashing accents, stand in sharp relief against the tick-tock accompaniments. The arrival at the Meno mosso is full-throated; the passage builds affirmatively, and its return is more reflective. The accented basses provide sufficient tonal weight to bring off the flowing Adagio; the music slides almost unnoticed into and out of more dissonant, menacing episodes. At the climax, the brass triplets are clean and pillowy, not heavy and portentous; the high violins ease smoothly into the opening theme's final recap. After a ruminative opening, the propulsive closing Allegro giocoso chugs along nicely; the whirling themes give way to relaxed, lyrical inflections in the second group.

The LSO, as suggested, contributes posh, sensitive playing—kudos to the principal reeds, especially the clarinet, who keeps busy. The wide-ranging engineering, without a trace of stridency at the peaks, is equally fine. All told, this is certainly the best new Fifth I've come across in a long while, one that steers an expert middle course between the mild grandiloquence of the standard reading and the brisk, terse approaches of Szell and Jansons.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4
Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst
The Cleveland Orchestra TCO0009 (16/44.1 WAV). 2023. Elaine Martone, prod.; Gintas Norvila, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics *****

If you're looking for a resplendent Fourth, here it is. The big, deep brass reproduction in the opening fanfares; the clean woodwind definition within a natural acoustic; the rich, resonant bass support as the textures expand—all this makes for the most "present," vividly colored production ever.

Musically, we're on slightly shakier ground. In the first movement, Welser-Möst avoids marking off sections in the customary manner, playing it "all of a piece." In the process, however, he can push forward breathlessly. The horns shave time off the longer notes in their opening fanfare; the Moderato bumps unceremoniously through its first major cadence; and the motto theme's returns are hectic—it's like a run-on sentence. Even when the conductor allows the clarinet to relax, he doesn't trust it, moving things along shortly thereafter. In the first big climax, the dominant strings push ahead of the woodwind countertheme (discreetly obscured by the engineers).

The middle movements go well. The oboe sings simply in the Andantino, which makes a soft landing on the central section; the pizzicato Scherzo, in this context, is surprisingly moderate. The Finale suffers bouts of instability, the woodwind runs are—well—runny, the return of the motto speeds up, undercutting its ominous power. Still, it's bright-eyed and joyous, with nice delicacy in the second group.

The playing is first-rate. The strings are silky and mysterious at the Moderato's start—though the bows sometimes sit unnecessarily long—and the Finale's forte runs are spanking clean. The reeds are sensitive, the brass firm and forthright. The textures are clear, even at full throttle with the percussion going; quiet passages are all a notch above the indicated dynamics but retain a gentle demeanor.

So much excellence; I wish it were consistently maintained.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet & Quintet
Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov
Harmonia Mundi 902695, CD (reviewed as 24/192). 2023. Stephan Cahen, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

This dream of a recording unites five of our finest period instrument soloists in two of Schumann's greatest chamber works. Composed in 1842 just a few weeks apart, these glorious compositions for piano and strings share with the songs of 1841 a love of beauty and life tempered by high-Romantic sorrows and dramas.

The quartet begins deceptively in a mournful mode before the clouds lift and lyricism abounds. Even so, amidst the music's romantic flights, joy can never be assumed. The second movement scherzo scurries about restlessly before ending on a hopeful note, at the very end. Song is at the heart of the next movement; the melody is gorgeous and tender. Only in the spirited finale does Schumann finally seem to say that he's writing music like this because he can, so let's drop our guard, celebrate, and enjoy the chase.

I haven't listened to Schumann's chamber music for many years. I was delighted to find myself greeting the opening bars of the Piano Quintet with the thought, "Oh, it's this one!" Once you hear the music, you may feel similarly, because the opening melody and wild tumble that follow are unforgettable. The contrast with the second movement's funeral march is intense. Its melody, too, has such a profound effect on listeners that it's no wonder that it surfaced in Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander and in less sublime fashion in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The 3rd movement scherzo is another wild chase, up and down, culminating in delightfully energetic fashion. Romance reigns in the final fugue, which leads some of the most marvelous music to ever end a quintet.

Sonically, the gut strings occasionally sound a mite grainy in fortes, but generally the authentic sonorities of the period instruments seduce.—Jason Victor Serinus

Charles E Flynn's picture