Graham Williams Reviews

Berlioz Times Two from PENTATONE

BERLIOZ: LA DAMNATION DE FAUST, Soloists, Boston Symphony Orchestra , Seiji Ozawa/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 212 (2 discs)  This is the first recording of Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ to appear on SACD and it represents a remarkable improvement on the previous LP and CD releases of this 1973 set. For this remastering PENTATONE have used the original 4.0 channel quadraphonic Deutsche Grammophon tapes which have been expertly remastered by Polyhymnia to produce a pretty spectacular realisation of the work – one that sonically, at least, does full justice to the composer’s description of the piece as a ‘Légende dramatique’. Continue reading

Eclectic Excitement with Tintomora

TINTOMARA Wim van Hasselt/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA36315  The exciting choice of music for Wim van Hasselt’s second SACD for Channel Classics – entitled ‘Tintomara’ – is even more eclectic in both its compositional periods and styles than his first. The virtuoso trumpeter is partnered here by Jörgen van Rijen, the principal trombonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as other diverse instrumentalists, in an unusual but thoroughly entertaining programme of music whose composition ranges over more than 300 years. It includes not only works specifically written for trumpet and /or trombone but also transcriptions of music originally written for other instrumental combinations. The disc opens with three delightful Purcell arrangements in which the duo of Wim van Hasselt and  Jörgen van Rijen  are supported appropriately by a group of musicians playing recorders, theorbo, cello,  baroque guitar and organ. Continue reading

From Opera to Film Composers

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MONTAGE: GREAT FILM COMPOSERS AND THE PIANO: MUSIC BYJOHN WILLIAMS, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, RANDY NEWMAN, etc. Gloria Cheng, piano/ Harmonia Mundi B00QB4MRFA  This reviewer last met the film composer John Williams at a performance by Andre Previn of Williams’ First Symphony, which he has since withdrawn. I’ve always found that a source of regret, as it struck me as a closely argued and impressive piece in Waltonian vein. The composer’s other serious works are — largely speaking — a world away from the instant dramatic appeal of such scores as Superman, as is evidenced from the knotty rather uncommunicative piece to be found on this disc played by Grammy-award winning pianist Gloria Cheng. Nevertheless, the collection proves that all the composers involved have much more in their compositional armoury than the film work we know them best for. But it’s not a particularly ingratiating disc.

PUCCINI: TURANDOT, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Zubin Mehta/ Decca Blu-ray Audio 478 7815DH3  After the astonishing achievement by Decca in condensing the complete Solti Ring onto one (one!) Blu-ray audiodisc, a similar process has been utilised for the company’s classic recording of Puccini’s final masterpiece Turandot, admittedly a less daunting task than fourteen hours of Wagner. But there are strong parallels: once again, this is the nearest to a nigh-definitive performance of the opera as one is likely to encounter with Pavarotti and Sutherland at their absolute peaks, and the reprocessing of the sound is quite as impressive as the Solti set. It is truly heartening to see these classic opera performances making second appearances in the Blu-ray audio format, sounding better than they ever did in their heyday.

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: CONCERTO ITALIANO, etc., Tianwa Yang SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg, Pieter-Jelle de Boer/Naxos Almost single-handedly, the Naxos label has rescued the composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco from obscurity in terms of recorded repertoire. There was a time when the composer’s charming guitar concertos were all that was available, but now we can see that he was a musician of considerable range, thanks to the Naxos program. If the Concerto Italiano is not as immediately appealing as the Shakespearean overtures recorded elsewhere, it is still a piece full of the colour and invention  we now expect from the composer, and it is performed with suitable affection here. Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered the 1924 Concerto Italiano to be his first truly symphonic venture. This tuneful, fresh and transparently scored concerto receives its world première recording from violinist Tianwa Yang, supported by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg under Pieter-Jelle de Boer.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SERENADE/SHOSTAKOVICH: QUARTET NO. 2 ARRANGED FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, Scottish Ensemble; Jonathan Morton/Linn SACD/CD CKD 472  In the early days of the super audio CD medium, aficionados were hungry for favourite works to be given the deluxe treatment in the best possible sound, but the measure of how far we can come (despite the supposedly parlous nature of the medium) is the fact that we can now choose between different interpretations of the same works in splendid SACD sound. Here is a sterling example: while both of these pieces have enjoyed recommendable interpretations before, this particular coupling – performed with suitable panache – allows the listener to compare two great Russian masters from different eras. Under the directorship of Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble adds the Tchaikovsky Serenade, regarded by the composer as one of his finest works, to its impressive Linn discography. The piece is imbued with the classical spirit of Mozart, but with Tchaikovsky’s style to the fore. This recording also marks the premiere of Jonathan Morton’s 2013 transcription of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2, not quite as incisive as the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, but still immensely musical.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 5 & 6., New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert/DACAPO SACD While this reviewer is more inclined towards the recent SACD cycles of Nielsen symphonies by Sakari Oramo and the late Colin Davis, there are many advocates for the concurrent cycle conducted by Alan Gilbert. On DACAPO, the final issue in the acclaimed cycle of the symphonies from the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert is impressive. Recorded live in Avery Fisher Hall in October 2014, this SACD presents the Danish national composer’s last two symphonies, Nos. 5 and 6, the latter of which had never previously been performed by the orchestra. Alan Gilbert states that both works represent ‘the battle between good and evil, and are profound, dramatic works by a mature composer who knew that his days were numbered’..

ENESCU: SYMPHONY NO.1, etc., Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Hannu Lintu/Ondine  Ondine finally releases the much-anticipated conclusion of their George Enescu (1881–1955) symphony cycle from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the dynamic Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu. The disc includes two neglected masterworks: the First Symphony, filled with youthful energy, and the poetic and lyric Symphonie concertante for Cello and Orchestra. The soloist is the award-winning cellist Truls Mørk. A bracing conclusion to a splendid cycle.

THE CLASSIC FILM SCORES OF FRANZ WAXMAN, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt /HDTT Blu-ray Audio HDBD423  This is a fascinating experiment which, while not entirely successful displays some distinct possibilities. Utilising the Blu-ray audio medium in a very creative fashion, the original tapes for these dynamic and colourful Franz Waxman scores have been mastered from Quad tapes so that this is a genuine multichannel experience, presenting these scores (with their rattling percussion and exhilarating brass writing) in a sonic experience quite different from that presented by the LP which many of us have known for years. But the caveat is that the echo in the multichannel experience is slightly out of sync, which gives the impression of hearing the pieces in a large cathedral; there is also a loss of some treble compared to the original CD. Nevertheless, it is an experiment to be encouraged, and further issues may present more opportunities.

STRAVINSKY: THE FIREBIRD Kirov orchestra, Valery Gergiev/ Euro Arts Blu-ray 2061084  This is a highly creative interpretation of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking piece which does far more than simply record the ballet from the proscenium arch; it’s a genuine film with all the apparatus of cinema utilised to create fascinating effects (The Firebird, for instance, actually flies, looking rather like a superhero). It goes without saying that Valery Gergiev has the measure of the Stravinsky score while the choreography by James Kudelka and the direction by Barbara Willis Sweete is completely at the service of the material.

WISEMAN: WOLF HALL, Locrian Ensemble of London, Debbie Wiseman/ Silva Screen SI LCD 1472  In an era of dumbed-down television, Wolf Hall was a shining beacon of intelligence, with Hilary Mantel’s novels treated in an unhurried but intensely dramatic fashion that demanded concentration on the part of the viewer (those not prepared to give such intention could switch channels to brain-dead reality or celebrity shows). And one aspect of the show’s success was much remarked upon, the superbly understated score by Debbie Weisman performed by the Locrian Ensemble of London. And this welcome CD is the perfect opportunity to examine that score in isolation; like the best film scores, it functions perfectly well on its own – it is a particularly egregious canard that film music only functions well within the context of the film.

SAINT-SAËNS SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Martin Fröst/Naxos  While Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony (with its dramatic sections for organ) has always enjoyed a great deal of recorded attention, the earlier symphonies have been less well served, although they have had a fitful on hold the repertoire. No one would suggest that they were in the same category musically as the Third, but these performances make a very strong case for them. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra has a distinguished track record of Naxos recordings, and with this new release they embark on a series of the Saint-Saëns symphonies. Complete Saint-Saëns symphony cycles are rare, the only readily available version is the venerable 1970s set conducted by Jean Martinon. The prospect of this new three volume set, richly embellished with other orchestral works and conducted by acknowledged French music expert Marc Soustrot, will provide a welcome alternative.

Argentina! New Channel Classics & Chandos, reviewed by Graham Williams

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THE ARGENTINIAN ALBUM, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thomson/SACD Channel Classics CCS SA 33014 Adventurous programming and scintillating playing are just two elements of this thrilling SACD from Candida Thomson and the prodigiously talented players of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. ‘The Argentinian Album’ features works by three 20th century Argentinian composers – Astor Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera and Osvaldo Golijov. Piazzolla’s ‘Cuatro Estaciónes Porteñas, also known as the ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’, are a set of four tango based compositions written between 1965 and 1970 that were originally envisaged as separate compositions rather than one suite. The composer’s potent blend of Argentinan tango, jazz and classical music has immediate appeal, and the work has received a number of recordings in recent years. In fact, it has already appeared from Channel Classics on Rick Stotijn’s album ‘Basso Bailando’ in an arrangement by Marijn van Prooijen, but here it is presented in the more familiar arrangement made in the 1990s by Leonid Desyatnikov that links it to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by inclusion of both playful quotes from that ubiquitous work as well as elements of the baroque concerto grosso. Candida Thomson and her marvellous players bring a heady mixture of sultriness, visceral excitement and panache to these exciting pieces. For a number of years Piazzolla studied with Alberto Ginastera – following his introduction in 1941 to the slightly older contemporary composer by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (not Anton Rubinstein as stated in the liner notes by Willem de Bordes). Ginastera is probably best known for his exciting ballet scores ‘Estancia’ and ‘Panambi’, but his impressive ‘Concerto for String Orchestra’ dating from 1965 and based on his earlier 2nd String Quartet  is a wonderful addition to the SACD catalogue, particularly when performed with such fierce commitment as here. The opening movement is a set of variations on a theme whose sinuous melody is ruminated on by each of the string section principals and interrupted by violent outbursts from the main string body. An aptly titled ‘Scherzo fantastico’ that follows includes all manner of intriguing instrumental effects and considerable challenges for the players throughout its brief and ghostly span.  An intense and disquieting slow movement highlights the sensitivity and unanimity displayed by these performers, while the ‘Finale Furioso’, that begins like a swarm of angry bees, demonstrates their amazing virtuosity. ‘Last Round’,Osvaldo Golijov’s tribute to Piazzolla, is a nonet written for a double string quartet and  double bass. The composer’s own account of the form and genesis of this deeply felt 14 minute piece describes it perfectly. “The title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, the metaphor for an imaginary chance for Piazzolla’s spirit to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life). The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneon.  The first movement represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of the song ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires’, composed by the legendary Carlos Gardel in the 1930’s). But ‘Last Round’ is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestras. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in criss-crossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure pattern.” The Piazzolla and Golijov pieces were recorded in April 2014 in the Stadsgehoorzaaal, Leiden while the recording of the Ginastera ‘Concerto for Strings’ took place in the Bachzaal, Amsterdam some six years earlier. Irrespective of location, the sound quality of Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD production is all that one could wish for. There is an almost holographic realism to it that does full justice both to the music, the artistry of Candida Thomson and the musicians of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Edward Gardner’s fine survey of the Mendelssohn Symphonies reaches its conclusion with this impressive  performance of the Symphony No. 2 ‘Hymn of Praise’ that, in order of composition, is the composer’s penultimate symphony. As with the two earlier issues the coupling is a Mendelssohn Overture, in this case ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’. Gardner and the CBSO give a lovely account of this entrancing overture conveying the tranquillity and stillness of the composer’s opening seascape with the utmost sensitivity. The sudden change of mood to one of elation, heralded by the woodwind, is perfectly judged, and the vigour with which the conductor drives the piece to its joyful conclusion is most exhilarating. The two sections of the overture are assigned separate tracks on this disc. Mendelssohn aptly designated his 2nd Symphony a  ‘Symphony-Cantata’, and the purely orchestral three-movement Sinfonia that opens the work contains some of the composer’s finest writing. Gardner’s propulsive approach is again evident here, though it never sounds rushed and allows for much felicitous playing from the CBSO.  At this point it should be noted that as this Chandos series is entitled ‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’ the cantata section of the symphony is sung in English, not German, in the rather free translation by J Alfred Novello (1810-1896)  –  so definitely ‘Hymn of Praise’ not ‘Lobgesang’. The solo soprano parts are sung by the sisters Sophie and Mary Bevan. The former sounds rather forced in ‘Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit’ (Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele) and it is delivered with surprisingly poor diction, but the duet with her sister ‘I waited for the Lord’ (Ich harrete des Herrn) is clear and mellifluous. The sweet-voiced tenor soloist Benjamin Hulett is really excellent. His enunciation could hardly be bettered whilst his considerable operatic experience allows him to make the most of the dramatic recitatives and cries of ‘Watchman will the night soon pass?’ (Hütter ist die Nacht bald hin?). His duet with Sophie Bevan is a further example of the elegance of his singing. The excellent CBSO chorus trained by Julian Wilkins sing with commendable attack and enthusiasm though occasionally the clarity of their words is compromised  by the acoustic. Wilkins also plays the impressively room-shaking organ that makes its appearance in the latter sections of the symphony. The recordings were made in the ample and pleasingly reverberant acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall (February 2014) by the reliable team of Brian Pidgeon (producer) and Ralph Couzens (engineer) who have balanced orchestra, soloists and chorus with remarkable skill. The sound is clean with vivid winds and crisp timpani, though the acoustic of the venue possibly renders the strings in a less favourable light when playing forte or above. There is an ample choice of recorded versions of the Symphony on disc to suit all tastes including, at the time of writing, eight on SACD; but those who have acquired the first two volumes in Gardner’s Mendelssohn series will be more than satisfied with this one. Recommended.

BRAHMS: MOTETS, Swedish Radio Choir, Peter Dijkstra/Channel Classics SACD CCS SA 27108  The familiarity of Brahms’s symphonic, chamber and piano music both on disc and in the concert hall means that, apart from ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’ or the ‘Alto Rhapsody’, we very seldom hear live performances of his other works for choir and orchestra that include ‘Nanie’, ‘Gesang der Parzen’ or the ‘Shicksalslied’. Of even greater rarity are his motets written for unaccompanied chorus and composed when the mature Brahms was at the height of his powers. For their latest release on Channel Classics Peter Dijkstra and his peerless Swedish Radio Choir bring together all of Brahms’s motets for mixed voice choir. These ten motets, that span the years from 1864 and 1890, were written in four groups – Zwei Motetten Op.29 (1856-1860), Zwei Motetten Op74 (1877),  Fest und Gedenkensprüche Op.109 (1888-89) and the Drei Motetten Op110 (1889) . In addition the disc also includes a performance of the ‘Missa Canonica’ Opus posth. of which Brahms only completed three movements. These motets clearly indicate the depth to which Brahms had studied the old masters, especially Schütz, Gabrieli and Bach on whose music they are closely modelled in their external formal characteristics – the use of the canon, the chorale fugue and the like – and they also show how deeply Brahms’s Lutheran upbringing in Hamburg had provided him with an understanding of the Bible and the ability to choose appropriate texts for different purposes. The Swedish Radio Choir is an ideal size for this music, with voices that are perfectly blended throughout the vocal ranges.  The precision of their attack and marvellous control of dynamics is stunning – something easily illustrated by the firmness of the cry ‘Warum’ at the very start of the two Opus 74 motets. It need hardly be said that intonation is spot on and the complexities of Brahms’s contrapuntal writing and chromaticism, particularly in Op.109 and 110, are handled effortlessly.  The supreme accuracy of the singing is never at the expense of the expressive delivery of the words and though the voices always cohere as one body, the personalities of the individual members of the choir are not subsumed. The motets were recorded in September 2013 in the Engelbrekt’s Church, Stockholm –  a venue whose acoustic provides just the right amount of reverberation while still allowing absolute clarity of the vocal lines. Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD recording recreates the warm ambience of this church with startling realism. Text are only given in German in the booklet notes but the diction of these singers is so beautifully clear that reference to the words printed in the liner notes is hardly necessary. Those requiring translations can refer directly to the Holy Bible or can find them at www.recmusic.org. A wonderful disc that all lovers of the music of Brahms will surely wish to add to their collections.

 

Solti’s Ring on a Single Blu-Ray Audio Disc

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WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN Nilsson, Windgassen et al, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Decca Blu-Ray Audio 478 6748  In the long history of recorded music, there are very few recordings can be claimed as the greatest achievement of the medium. But even non-Wagnerians are prepared to acknowledge that Solti’s Ring – the first compete stereo recording –may be the summit of the art. Most of the of those who possessed that bulky but impressive LP boxed set as the centrepiece of their classical collection will have replaced it with various CD upgrades over the years, and may have been slightly wary of the much-trumpeted new single disc Blu-ray audio issue which – amazingly – compresses the entire 14 hours of the cycle onto a single disc. It now arrives in a more compact package: a handsome box with complete libretti, and everything you have heard about it is true. It is – let’s not mince words – a quite amazing achievement. The sound quality is so clear and wide-ranging that the operas sound as if they were recording yesterday; what’s more, noise reduction techniques have left the upper register clear and pellucid while taking out any inherent hiss. It is completely unnecessary to rehearse the merits of this set (or the handful of qualifications), Wagner’s magnum opus in the Solti/John Culshaw reading is simply de rigueur. If one has a single caveat, it is regarding the lack of documentation, which fails to point out the fact that each individual opera has been allocated (for access) its own button on the Blu-ray control: red, yellow, green and blue bring up Das Rheingold etc. separately. It took me a while to figure this out, but perhaps this was an intelligence test that I failed. Nevertheless, this set is quite simply an unsurpassed achievement, and having it on a single disc is a justification for modern advances in Blu-ray audio technology.

WALTON: SYMPHONY NO. 2 / CELLO CONCERTO* / IMPROVISATIONS ON AN IMPROMPTU OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Paul Watkins (cello)* / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5153  Several decades ago, this writer would ask (at intervals) the conductor Andre Previn how Walton’s 3rd Symphony was progressing ; the composer (living in his idyllic Capri garden retreat) had tentatively promised that he would provide a successor to the sardonic Second, but as Previn ruefully admitted to me, it would probably never be written. Which is a shame, as the two existing symphonies are so different; perhaps the massive Sibelian First and its more compact successor might have been set off in an appropriate fashion by a third symphony. The second has never quite enjoyed the acclaim it clearly deserves (not even when Previn set down an impressive account for EMI), but Edward Gardner’s highly impressive new disc (in which he conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is a worthy successor to his much-acclaimed recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and Violin Concerto, a notable bestseller for Chandos. Gardner’s clear sympathy for the music is luminous in every bar. Unlike the recent BIS/Hughes recording, the Chandos engineers have set the prominent piano part some distance back in the orchestral mix, which those who have enjoyed this piquant detail of orchestration may find disappointing. But everything else about this performance is exemplary, with Gardner coaxing out every nuance of the music and its nervous electric energy. Walton’s Second and final Symphony was commissioned for the 750th anniversary, in 1957 – 58, of the founding of the city of Liverpool, but, delayed by the composition of the Cello Concerto. It was only premiered in 1960. It is scored for a large orchestra, utilising as a model as the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, in its concision and the use of the key of G minor. The Cello Concerto, brilliantly played here, was premiered in London in 1957 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra itself. The last piece on this winning SACD has an improvisatory nature, and is based on the ‘Impromptu’ of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NUMBER 5/SYMPHONY NUMBER 9, Gewandhuas Orchester/Riccardo Chailly/ACCENTUS BLU-RAY ACC 12O284/ACC 10299  Riccardo Chailly’s Mahler has long been one of the great glories of modern recording, channelling the drama and insight of the great conductors of the past (from Bruno Walter to Leonard Bernstein) but enshrining his performances in recordings that make his predecessor’s discs sound positively antediluvian in terms of recorded sound. Vying for the upper echelons of the audiophile market now are Blu-ray audio discs, as these two impressive performances from Accentus presented on Blu-ray, as opposed to the SACD format with which they are increasingly coexisting. And in terms of sheer sonic splendour (leaving aside the felicities of the performances), these are among the most wide-ranging and exhilarating since the classic Michael Tilson Thomas performances from San Francisco. Of the two symphonies, Chailly manages an impeccable balance of sensitivity and dynamism in the Fifth, while the adagietto is limpidly beautiful, even allowing the listener to forget just how hackneyed this piece has become. It perhaps does not quite find the final ounce of tragic grander in the monumental slow movements of the 9th Symphony, the performance is still among the best that this much-recorded piece has enjoyed in recent years. If you possess a Blu-ray machine and a decent speaker setup I have three words of advice: do not hesitate.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 3, OP. 151 / CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 4, OP 153. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146  Those who remember some impressive Melodiya discs of Weinberg symphonies (when he went under the de-Semitised name of Vaignberg) will be celebrating the positive avalanche of new recordings of his music, and this new disc is one of the most intriguing. The ongoing SACD series of orchestral works by Weinberg now explores some lesser-known, late works of the composer. This disc features the last two Chamber Symphonies, which reflect a largely hidden, yet still busy period for the composer. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, recording with Chandos for the first time, is conducted by the able Thord Svedlund. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 is among the last music that Weinberg completed, and has a valedictory air, suggesting his unhappy final years, It is a piece of immense feeling. The Chamber Symphony No. 3 is aligned with the fifth String Quartet No. 5, Op. 27 and is yet another neglected Weinberg masterpiece.

RICHARD STRAUSS: FEUERSNOT Markus Eiche, Lars Woldt, Simone Schneider, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer/CPO 777920-2  A very welcome issue for one of Richard Strauss’s most neglected operas; this is a set which makes a strong case for the piece. Just after the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, CPO’s concert performance of Feuersnot reveals Strauss’s riff on Wagner as something of a hidden gem, with Ulf Schirmer and his cast nailing the opera’s quirky mix of homage and parody.

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES 2 & 7 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Sondergard/LINN CKD462  Perfectly serviceable performances of these two very different Sibelius symphonies, but it’s hard to judge the readings objectively, given the decision to record the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a rather non-analytic acoustic. Sibelius’s master of orchestration certainly makes its mark, but some incidental detail remains opaque, and that is not helpful in the case of this glorious music. For those who do not possess (for instance); the complete SACD set of Sibelius symphonies on DG by Järvi – also, it has to be observed not without its problems — this might be a competitive issue, but one hopes that more incisive readings and a more wide-ranging recording will accompany future issues and resources.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN C MINOR, ETC., Orchestre National de Lyon, Vincent Warnier/Naxos Blu-ray Audio NBD0045 Blu-ray audio continues to make its mark with yet another stunningly recorded disc, and this Saint-Saëns collection was recorded to celebrate the inauguration of the newly restored former organ of the Palais du Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The Orchestre National de Lyon and their organist-in-residence, Vincent Warnier, present two major works for organ and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, both of which are historically linked with the great Cavaillé-Coll organs. Saint-Saëns’ inclusion of organ and piano in his Symphony No. 3 in C minor was unprecedented at the time, and is a spectacular example of music both resplendent and grandiose. This is coupled here with the rare and poignant Cyprès et Lauriers, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

PETRASSI: CORO DI MORTI* / QUATTRO INNI SACRI† / PARTITA / NOCHE OSCURA* Giorgio Berrugi (tenor)† /Vasily Ladyuk (baritone)† / Coro Teatro Regio Torino* Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino / Gianandrea Noseda/ CHAN 10840  when will it end? When will the enterprising recording company Chandos run out of neglected composers for new advocacy? Not for some time, if this collectable disc is anything to go by. This new Petrassi recording with Gianandrea Noseda and his Italian forces is part of the company’s ongoing Italian music series. As with Noche oscura and Quattro inni sacri, composed round 1950, the Coro di morti is proof positive that of Petrassi’s skills at the beginning of the 1940s. It remains one of the most admired and frequently performed of his compositions. According to Cardinal Andrea Lanza, the work, composed and premiered during the Second World War, reveals a marked ‘opposition in discourse… between the solitude of man and the destruction surrounding him’, all of which is clearly relayed in the harrowing contrast between relaxed choral lines on the one hand and solid conglomeration of instruments on the other. The Partita is one of the earliest works Petrassi composed.

NIELSEN: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo BIS SACD 2048 For those of us (such as this writer) who are enjoying the current live performances by Oramo as he works his way through the unique symphonic cycle of Carl Nielsen, it’s a reminder that we are in something of a golden age for the composer. Colin Davis’s Indian summer recordings were set down with the LSO and were a remarkable achievement – as this latest cycle is proving. The recent recording of the Fifth Symphony with its aggressive side-drum was one of the most impressive since Horenstein’s groundbreaking recording, and this new coupling is almost equally competitive in a crowded field The first volume of this new cycle was widely acclaimed upon its release in December 2013 (BIS2028). Symphony No. 1 owes much to Schumann and was completed in 1892, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. Symphony No. 3 marks Nielsen’s true breakthrough, twenty years after the first symphony, and rapidly established itself as a mainstay of concert repertoire for Europe’s leading orchestras.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.4, ‘ROMANTIC’, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-713SACD Bruckner’s avowedly religious sympathies are less in evidence in his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (“Romantic”). This secular, pantheistic symphony is perhaps his most popular work, and The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and ther Music Director Manfred Honeck have – in a very short space of time – become one of the most exciting teams in the modern classical world, with recordings that combine superlative musicianship with unparalleled recording quality (courtesy of Reference Recordings). And so (as with the previous Dvořák/Janaček coupling) it again proves here, as we are offered a striking  new interpretation of this imperishable masterpiece, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Honeck present the 1878/80 version. the version that was utilised for the symphony’s premiere in 1881.

DEBUSSY: IMAGES, LA MER, ETC. Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS SACD1837 When the SACD medium was a new venture, early adopters were keen to discover favourite works in the new medium. It’s a measure of the success of the medium (despite its being precipitately dropped by major companies such as DG) that we now have a variety of choice for such masterpiece as these Debussy classics. And Lan Shui proves to be among the most able interpreters of these pieces; no surprise in the case of this reading of La Mer, which has previously appeared in another coupling. This new Images proves to be highly competitive, if not quite rivalling great performances of the past – though the sound quality here is, of course, state of the art.

MUSIC FOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, John Mauceri/Toccata Classics TOOCC 0241 With music from the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, this excellent disc is a salutary reminder how judicious the Master of Suspense was in his choice of composers. Admittedly the original soundtrack recording have (in most cases) more bite, but it’s useful to have these superb scores on one disc in ear-pinging modern sound.

DVORAK: STRING QUARTETS 10 & 11, Zemlinsky Quartet/PRAGA DIGITALSPRD/DSD250 305  Performances of great colour and élan by the Zemlinsky Quartet, finding new things in these idiomatic pieces. The surround sound medium is used with sensitivy.

SCRIABIN/MEDNTER PIANO CONCERTOS BIS SACD 2088  I suppose I should nail my colours to the mask regarding this release; despite the following it has obtained in recent years, Medtner’s piano concerto remains something of a closed book to me, its charm elusive — even in a performance as persuasive (and as well recorded) as this one. But I have no such reservations about the Scriabin which is here given a performance to rival the classic reading by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yevgeny Sudbin’s releases are eagerly awaited, and the pianist confronts the difficulties of these works with aplomb, aided by the Bergen Philharmonic and their chief conductor Andrew Litton.

VIVALDI: THE FOUR SEASONS Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Gaede, violin Tacet 0163-4  In their customary piquant technique of placing the listener dead centre in the surround sound mix, this is a novel and ear-pleasing approach to an over-familiar masterpiece. A lithe and lean performance enhances the experience.

WEINBERG: Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 4, Kaspszyk, Warsaw Philharmonic / Ilya Gringolts / Jacek/Warner Classics 0825646224838  Yet more Weinberg. The Grammy Award-winning Warsaw Philharmonic, the most significant Polish orchestra of international renown, has begun a major new recording project with Warner Classics, under the baton of Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk: a new album of orchestral music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). The album cements Weinberg’s growing posthumous reputation as one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century (he wrote no fewer than 22 works in the genre), along with his mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, the latter counting among the younger composer’s admirers. The Weinberg release follows the Warsaw Philharmonic’s Grammy Award win in 2012 and marks the orchestra’s first recording with its new maestro and artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, renowned for his innovative approach to programming and his championing of new music.

IMPROMPTUS: CHOPIN/SCHUBERT/FAURÉ, Tomasz Lis/Klangoglo CDKL1511 A very promising debut album from Tomasz Lis, whose approach to these pieces is traditional but full of subtlety and sensitivity.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Not everyone has been persuaded by this ambitious cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies from Chandos, and certainly the conductor’s Walton cycle (see above) is much more of an unalloyed success. But there are very good things here not least in the performance of Hymn of Praise in which Gardner manages to some degree to shake off the fusty Victorian ethos of the piece. This is the third recording in the Mendelssohn in Birmingham series, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor.The symphony is synthesis of Cantata and symphony, and remains obstinately non-heterogeneous. But a good case is made for it here.