Classical CD Reviews: Gloria Cheng’s The Edge of Light, Matthias Goerne’s Erlkönig, and Emmanuelle Bertrand plays Shostakovich

The winter doldrums may be upon us, but the first few months of 2013 have been anything but uninteresting when it comes to releases from Harmonia Mundi (HM). Below are reviews of three albums either just out or soon to be; more will follow in coming weeks.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Olivier Messiaen and Kaija Saariaho are the focus of pianist Gloria Cheng’s new disc, The Edge of Light, which pairs two pieces by the former (the 1929 Préludes and 1991’s short Pièce pour piano et quatour à cordes) with three by the latter (Prelude, Ballade, and Je sens un deuxième coeur). To say that Ms. Cheng is a brilliant pianist is an understatement: yes, she has technique to burn, but, unlike some of today’s more flamboyant virtuosi, her abilities are guided by strong musical convictions and sensibilities. As a result, her performances often reveal depths of expression in the music that showier performers miss, and the fact that she tends to focus her efforts on contemporary music rather than the Romantic warhorses makes her one of the most interesting and compelling pianists on the scene today.

And The Edge of Light is nothing if not interesting and compelling. Messiaen’s Préludes are a relatively early composition, written in response to the death of his mother and—remarkably—lacking the underlying liturgical impulse that informs nearly all of his later music. Ms. Cheng’s approach to the piece’s eight movements emphasizes their shifting, kaleidoscopic colors as well as the music’s latent dramatic urgency.The focal point around which this performance hinges is the massive sixth prelude (its title translates as “Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell”), which, in Ms. Cheng’s hands, receives a reading that is gripping in its clarity and disturbing in its direct expression of profound loss.

Pianist Gloria Cheng

The other major work on the disc, Saariaho’s Je sens un deuxième coeur, shares much in common with both Messiaen’s emphasis on instrumental colors and his sense of musical drama. Its material is drawn from Saariaho’s 2003 opera Adriana Mater, a work that recounts the horrific experiences of its title character but ends in the hope of redemption. Though that trajectory is clear in Je sens, what grabs the ear in this performance is the thoroughly committed playing of Ms. Cheng, here joined by the Calder Quartet. All five seem to be inhabiting this music in a very deep way as they play it, and one can’t help but be drawn in as a result—just listen to the sensuous unfolding of the opening movement, the manic violence of the fourth, or the mysterious dreamscape of the third and try not to be captivated. Saariaho isn’t always the easiest composer to figure out, but this performance offers a powerful introduction to her work for the uninitiated and a welcome addition to her discography for her fans.

The shorter pieces make for satisfying filler, but this album is really about its two big scores, and it’s hard to imagine either of them receiving better performances than they get here.

* * *

Franz Schubert is a composer who has certainly been very well documented on record, so additions to his recorded legacy don’t necessarily merit a mention unless they stand out from the pack. And the German baritone Matthias Goerne’s new compilation of 19 lieder titled Erlkönig does just that.

Mr. Goerne studied with two of the twentieth century’s greatest lied interpreters, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and it shows. Indeed, this repertoire was Fischer-Dieskau’s domain for a long time, and Mr. Goerne draws some very positive comparisons with his teacher. For one, his voice possesses an enormous range of shadings, from liquid to steel, and they are put to powerful use here. Mr. Goerne’s low register is particularly rich in tone, bringing to mind (in addition to Fischer-Dieskau) the incomparable Thomas Quasthoff, especially in “Erlkönig” and “Auf der Bruck.”

Also, Mr. Goerne is capable of imbuing even the most languid passage with intensity, and that allows him to take his time in the opening tracks, “Im Abendrot” and “Der Wanderer,” without making the music feel slow. His account of the dreamy “An den Mond” is simply ravishing. Mr. Goerne’s dramatic background (he appears frequently on the stage in both Europe and the United States) further informs his music making: his deep understanding of the various texts comes across clearly, and the sense that he’s living out these songs as he sings them is ever present.

And I should take a moment to commend his diction. Mr. Quasthoff and Fischer-Dieskau were among the finest singers of the German language, capable of making its rough-hewn peaks and crags somehow sound natural to sing. Now add Mr. Goerne to that short list.

In all, this is a marvelously musical album. Andreas Haefliger, who brings a finely tuned attention to detail to the by no means secondary keyboard parts, sensitively accompanies Mr. Goerne throughout.

* * *

Compositions for cello by Dmitri Shostakovich are the focus of the final disc of this trilogy. The French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand is the featured soloist, and she delivers strongly etched accounts of both the Cello Concerto no. 1 and the D minor Sonata for Cello and Piano; a three-minute long Moderato for cello and piano rounds out the album.

Though it dates from 1959, it’s hard to hear the Cello Concerto no. 1 and not think of performances by its dedicatee, the great Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich’s documentations of the piece captured all the irony, tragedy, and bitter humor of Shostakovich’s mature, late-middle period style and stand as forbidding testaments to a grim era in recent world history.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Bertrand doesn’t bring the same sense of first-hand intensity to her performance of this piece as Rostropovich did, but she’s got quite a bit going for her in this reading, all the same. In the outer movements, she holds nothing back in terms of tempo, and the results are breathtaking: some of the most fiendishly difficult writing for the cello sounds like child’s play (and, thanks to a fine balance between soloist and orchestra—the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Pascal Rophé—you can hear it all in perfect clarity). The opening of the slow, second movement, though, would have benefited from a weightier character: it feels a bit aimless in its opening minutes before settling and concluding in a satisfying manner. The third movement cadenza continues in this focused vein.

The novelty on this disc is Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor, and what a piece it is. Written in 1934, this is a powerful score that foreshadows the Fifth Symphony (written, coincidentally, in the same key) and marks a stylistic departure from the modernist tendencies of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that, two years later, got Shostakovich into such trouble with the cultural authorities of the day.

Cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand

Like the later symphony, there is much ambiguity in Shostakovich’s handling here of a conventional form, and Ms. Bertrand (joined by pianist Pascal Amoyel) revels in its violent contrasts of mood, character, and tonality, presenting a haunting account of this relatively little known masterpiece. The wandering, Romantic first movement broods and sings, sounding much like Schumann displaced by a century, while the macabre waltz of the second ticks away like a bomb. Few composers captured bleak despair as powerfully as Shostakovich, as Ms. Bertrand’s take on the slow, third movement demonstrates. In this context, the pungent sarcasm of the faux-Haydnesque finale bites deeply.

The short Moderato makes for a bittersweet filler, but, like The Edge of Light, this is a disc about the two big works and, especially in the case of the Sonata, an unforgettable one, at that.

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