Graham Williams Reviews

Invigorating New World & St John Passion

 

DVORAK: Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Orozco-Estrada/ PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 574  This, the third and final release of Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s survey with the Houston Symphony of Dvorak’s four most popular symphonies for the PENTATONE label is completed by the composer’s most popular work, the celebrated Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’. With a plethora of recordings of the New World Symphony available on both CD and High Resolution formats (SACD and Blu-ray) collectors face a daunting though pleasurable task in choosing one or more versions for their libraries. Continue reading

New BIS & Chandos

SIBELIUS: Kullervo, Finlandia (choral version); KORTEKANGAS: Migrations, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone), YL Male Voice Choir, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor) BIS SACD

Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä’s superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions. Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Continue reading

Complete Duel in the Sun from Prometheus

Tiomkin: Duel in the Sun (complete score)  Speaking to the film composer Jerry Goldsmith at the National film Theatre some years ago, he pointed out to me that he had just seen the Hitchcock film I Confess with its Dimitri Tiomkin score. ‘Not the way I score films!’, he said. ‘Tiomkin did not allow a moment of the film to go by unscored — and silence gives contrast!’ One wonders what Goldsmith would have made of Tiomkin’s score for the King Vidor film Duel in the Sun, for which Prometheus CDs have now given us the world premiere recording of the complete score — at nearly two hours, over two discs. As the disapproving Goldsmith would note, there is hardly a moment that goes unscored in the film, and your reaction to this may depend on whether you agree with the new set’s producer James Fitzpatrick. That’s to say: Fitzpatrick as a young man or Fitzpatrick today, as he has changed his views. In refreshingly frank liner notes, he admits that he has long had a love/hate relationship with Tiomkin’s music but now has clearly come down on the ‘love’ side of that dichotomy. And for those who admire the rich orchestral scoring of the golden age of film music, this score is pretty hard to resist. It is full-throated, romantic fare with the orchestra used exuberantly throughout (Tiomkin was a master orchestrator, although he had help on this score). In fact, the composer’s approach is rather similar to that of Korngold – treating the entire film as an opera without words and underlining the dramatic points with maximum impact. The final effect is of a glorious wallow, particularly in the committed and full-blooded performance it is given by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus, conducted by the ever dependable Nick Raine, non-pareil in music such as this.

Tiomkin: Duel in the Sun (complete score)/Prometheus XPCD180

A magnificent Missa Solemnis from PENTATONE

Conductor Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin continue their critically acclaimed collaboration with Pentatone in a magnificent reading of Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis, recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie in September 2016. With the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven created a startlingly original and dramatic large scale work marshalling the disparate elements of liturgical, secular and operatic expression in a wholly original and compelling way. Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin are joined on this recording by the world famous MDR-Rundfunkchor Leipzig and soloists Re

Falla, Elgar et al from PENTATONE, Chandos, Challenge, Naxos

DE FALLA: NOCHES EN LOS JARDINES DE ESPAÑA AND, EL SOMBRERO DE TRES PICOS, ETC., Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Kazuki Yamada/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 598  Some orchestral pieces simply cry out for the extra dimension that full-blooded multichannel surround sound can give them – pieces such as the exuberant Falla works on this generously filled disc. It’s something of a surprise that such colourful, brilliantly orchestrated music is making its debut in the SACD medium, but at least it’s coming from the most impeccable of sources – PENTATONE, a specialist in the SACD field who have brought all their engineering skills to work on these evergreen pieces. The performances are suitably energetic and the haunting languor of Nights in the Gardens of Spain is captured with a markedly poetic feeling by Kazuki Yamada and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. There are, however, a couple of caveats. Perhaps the all-important percussion in these pieces might have been more closely recorded as it is such a key element in Falla’s orchestration, and regarding the fill-ups, one hopes that the appearance here of the Ritual Fire Dance means that the company won’t attempt a complete El Amor Brujo. The sultry warm atmosphere of an Andalusian night is almost palpable in Falla’s spellbinding Noches en los jardines de España. With its shimmering, sensuous harmonies, exquisite orchestral colours and exuberant melodies and rhythms, it’s perhaps Falla’s most impressionistic work. Using a large orchestral canvas on which he paints with deft, luminous strokes, Falla skilfully integrates a virtuoso piano part to create lovingly evocative music, full of captivating beauty. Elsewhere with the sensational ballet El sombrero de tres picos, Falla conjures up music steeped in Andalusian culture which is boisterous, full-bloodied, and urgent.

ELGAR: SYMPHONY NO. 1 / INTRODUCTION AND ALLEGRO, Doric String Quartet / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5181  The Chandos label has already given us a splendid performance on SACD of Elgar’s glorious First Symphony by the late Richard Hickox, and one imagines that it is their commitment to the conductor Edward Gardner that has led to this rival from the same company. It turns out to be a focused and intense performance if lacking the final element of heft that Hickox (in a slightly steadier reading) brought to the music. Nevertheless, Gardener’s is a very worthwhile addition to the recorded repertoire of one of England’s greatest composers This surround-sound recording brings together some of Chandos’ finest artists for the first time in subtle, passionate accounts of these two Elgar masterpieces. The Doric String Quartet – highly praised for its series of Haydn and Schubert quartets – joins strings from the BBC Symphony under Edward Gardner in the Introduction and Allegro, while the full orchestra appears in the much-loved Symphony No. 1.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Piano Music, Mark Bebbington, Rebeca Omordia, SOMMCD 0164  Even the keenest admirers of the music of Vaughan Williams (such as this reviewer) would not make the claim that his piano music is among his most distinctive work, but it’s certainly easy on the ear, particularly when given persuasive advocacy as here. Following his previous all-Gershwin disc, Mark Bebbington returns to the English fare for which he is best-known, with the Complete Vaughan Williams Piano Music. This SOMM release contains world-premiere recordings, notably the Introduction and Fugue. Here, and in the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, both written for two-pianos, Bebbington is joined by the young Romanian-Nigerian pianist Rebeca Omordia.

WAGNER: SYMPHONY IN C MAJOR, SYMPHONY IN E MAJOR (FRAGMENT), MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Jun Märkl/NAXOS 8.573413   Wagnerians often have a somewhat underwhelming response to these early pieces by the composer of The Ring, and this new disc — while doing the job — did not alter (for this listener) my lack of enthusiasm. But if you’re a completist requiring every note by the composer, then this is a perfectly acceptable way to sample Wagner’s orchestral music. Although he is best known for his innovative operas and iconic music dramas, Richard Wagner maintained a keen interest in symphonic composition throughout his career. Written in his late teens and early twenties, these two symphonies stand as a tribute to Wagner’s passion for his great idol Beethoven. The Symphony in C major utilises elements of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, while the Symphony in E major was alas left unfinished at its beautifully warm and lyrical Adagio cantabile.

PUCCINI: LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Carol Neblett, Royal Opera House Orchestra & Chorus, Zubin Mehta, PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186243  Now this is a real discovery for opera aficionados; comfortably the most acclaimed performance of Puccini’s delicious Western opera is available in the surround sound medium, and details of the orchestration and the timbre of the impeccable singers’ voices are heard coming up as fresh as paint (who would have thought the bass drum in this recording, which we’ve heard over the years since the set was issued in stereo only, had such an impact, albeit – until now – an implicit one?) It’s almost unnecessary to point out how perfectly this set finds the essence of Puccini’s opera, and its virtues as a performance can be taken as read. What is novel here is the astonishing new sound mix that has been granted Puccini’s late opera La fanciulla del West, which bristles with drama and intrigue in this newly remastered classic recording with Zubin Mehta conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House and starring Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and Carol Neblett. With its potent mixture of stark realism and gushing romanticism, this Wild West melodrama builds on the hard-edged style Puccini had used in Tosca, infusing it with Debussyian harmonies and Straussian orchestral colours to produce his most distinctive and original opera. Although recorded in multi-channel sound, these memorable performances have previously been available only in the conventional two-channel stereo format. Using state of the art technology which avoids the need for re-mixing, PENTATONE’s engineers have remastered the original studio tapes to bring the performances to life as originally intended: in compelling and pristine multi-channel sound.

JANACEK: THE KREUZER SONATA, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Terje Tonnessen, LWC124  A very welcome disc with sensitive and sympathetic orchestrations of Janacek’s two superb string quartets, both transcriptions making the best possible case for this kind of endeavour. In fact it’s such an attractive issue that one wonders why space is wasted on the accompanying disc with a reading of the Tolstoy short story that inspired the composer. Great chunks of the Tolstoy piece are interrupted by great chunks of music, which makes one wonder how the company thought listeners would approach this, as the synthesis is maladroit. Forget this superfluous disc and simply listen to the Janacek transcriptions – you’ll get your money’s worth.

HIGDON: ALL THINGS MAJESTIC, VIOLA CONCERTO†1, OBOE CONCERTO†2, Roberto Díaz, Viola1 • James Button, Oboe2, Nashville Symphony • Giancarlo Guerrero, †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING NAXOS 8.559823  The disc of Higdon’s music by Robert Spano on Telarc led many listeners to expect that this inventive and talented composer was worthy of the closest attention, and if this new disc is less of a discovery than its predecessor, it is still perfectly pleasant (although the compositional voltage is considerably lower). Jennifer Higdon is one of the most distinguished composers working in America today, and her music is a perfect fit for the Nashville Symphony, which has long maintained a commitment to championing the country’s most important voices. All Things Majestic is a four-movement suite which vividly captures the breath-taking beauty of the American landscape, and her wonderfully expressive concertos for viola and oboe bring out the unique textures and sonorities of these frequently overlooked solo instruments.

LAJTHA: SYMPHONIES NOS. 3 AND 4 ‘SPRING’, SUITE NO. 2, Pécs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolás Pasquet NAXOS 8.573645  If you’re one of those individuals who did not buy these performances when they first appeared on Marco Polo, that is an omission that should instantly be remedied. This is colourful Bartokian music, delivered in workmanlike rather than inspired performances, but offering the only performances one will find of the music. László Lajtha’s passionate Third Symphony emerged from a fruitful period when the composer was based in London. Its origin was a film score for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the author grateful for a soundtrack to “elevate [his] words and thoughts”. Lajtha’s Fourth Symphony uses Hungarian musical idioms with wit and charm to bewitch the listener from the outset, its escapist joie de vivre belying the dark circumstances that surrounded its creation, while the Second Suite is based on a ballet that uses Classical mythology to poke fun at fascist dictators.

SIBELIUS: KULLERVO, OP. 7; FINLANDIA, OP. 26, Olli KORTEKANGAS: MIGRATIONS, Lilli Paasikivi, Tommi Hakala, YL Male Voice Choir, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä / BIS9048  The dedication of the label BIS to the music of Sibelius continues apace, even though this latest disc is not as distinctive as many of the early entries for the company. ‘The Great Migration’ – as it is sometimes called – of Finns to the United States began some 150 years ago. Many of them settled in the Mid-West, and especially in the so-called ‘Finn Hook’, consisting of parts of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. To celebrate this, the Minnesota Orchestra under its Finnish music director Osmo Vänskä commissioned the composer Olli Kortekangas to compose a work on the theme of migration, of a scale and nature suitable for performance alongside Jean Sibelius’s great Kullervo. Discovering the work of the Minnesota-based poet Sheila Packa, herself of Finnish descent, Kortekangas composed Migrations for mezzosoprano, male voice choir and orchestra, the same forces as in Kullervo, with the exception of the baritone soloist.

A SOUSA CELEBRATION, Kristjan Järvi / Royal Scottish National Orchestra/CHANDO CHSA 5182  Perhaps to be sampled a few tracks at a time rather than en masse, this becomes at a stroke the definitive single disc issue of Sousa’s music — for those who can take it (which, one has to admit is not every listener). Kristjan Järvi exploits the style and panache of the RSNO in a festive programme of works by Sousa, the American ‘March King’. Including such famous pieces as The Stars & Stripes Forever (National March of the USA) and The Liberty Bell (theme tune for Monty Python’s Flying Circus). A celebration enhanced by brightly coloured sound captured in surround sound.

RAVEL: ANTAR – INCIDENTAL MUSIC†1AFTER WORKS BY RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, SHÉHÉRAZADE2, André Dussolier, Narrator1 • Isabelle Druet, Mezzo-soprano2, Orchestre National de Lyon • Leonard Slatkin, †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING NAXOS 8.573448  Despite the opportunity we are given with this disc to hear some extremely rare Ravel, this was something of a disappointment for me, for one simple reason – the interminable narration ladled over the music makes it virtually impossible to listen to consecutively unless you’re prepared to follow the text, or speak fluent French. But in either case, what one really wants to hear is Ravel’s music, and that is largely unfeasible given the unwonted verbal interactions it constantly receives here. The impact of Russian and Oriental culture on Ravel’s formative years retained a hold on him throughout his life. His colourfully re-orchestrated selections from Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite ‘Antar’ and opera Mlada, with interpolations of his own music, as the incidental score for a theatre production are heard here in their première recording, revived and reconstructed alongside a new text that symbolizes the romance and chivalric spirit of Antar the warrior-poet and his beloved Abla. Ravel’s fascination with the exotic is brought together with Debussy’s influence ever present.

MENDELSSOHN: VIOLIN CONCERTO, STRING OCTET, Liza Ferschtman, Het Gelders Orkest, Kees Bakels/CHALLENGE CLASSIC CC72748  That durable but still appealing warhorse, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, has been singularly lucky on disc over the years, with many first-rate performances. But few have done the work such consummate justice as this fresh and colourful reading by Liza Ferschtman and the Het Gelders Orkest under Kees Bakels, which keeps interpretative cliché at bay and offers a variety of new insights into a piece that all of us know intimately. And rather than having another Concerto as fill-up, we are given a persuasive performance of the Opus 20 String Octet. A winning disc.

HAYDN: SYMPHONIES NOS. 53, 64 & 96, Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, PENTATONE PTC5186612  More and more Haydn symphonies are beginning to appear in the SACD medium – and, what’s more, in performances that marry excellent sound with the athletic modern approach that we now regard as de rigueur in this composer; the days of over-inflated stately performances are thankfully now a thing of the past. Kalmar’s disc is another winner, perhaps not offering performances with quite the distinction of the recent sets by Robin Ticciati, but still impressive.

NOVÁK: IN THE TATRA MOUNTAINS, LADY GODIVA OVERTURE, ETERNAL LONGING, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra • JoAnn Falletta NAXOS 8.573683  Other labels have attempted to plug the gap with these Novak pieces, but this is an affordable alternative in extremely able performances. Emerging from the fertile background of Bohemian nationalism, Vítĕzslav Novák’s music achieved cult status in his homeland for its richness of melody and full-blown romantic orchestral colour. The lush timbres and monumental solemnity of In the Tatra Mountains were inspired by the composer’s journeys in this magnificent region. Eternal Longing is based on a poem by Hans Christian Andersen, while the dramatic Lady Godiva Overture, complete with tolling bells at the finale, was written by Novák in two days and is considered one of his most powerful works.

CHOPIN: THE FOUR BALLADES, PIANO SONATA NUMBER OPUS 35, FANTAISE OPUS 49, Angela Brownridge/Challenge Classics CC 72728. The reputation of the pianist Angela Brownridge is sui generis, and any performance she sets down on disc is automatically demanding of attention. Her sympathy and understanding of the music Chopin is evinced by this perfectly realised recital, which has another appealing factor apart from its musical virtues: rarely has the sound of a piano been captured with such fidelity as the Challenge Classics engineers have achieved here. The ambience is that of a medium-size concert hall and the piano sound makes most other recordings sound somewhat, under-nourished. A disc for all Chopin enthusiasts.

HANDEL: MESSIAH, Hanna Herfurtner, Soprano,• Gaia Petrone, Alto, Michael Schade, Tenor • Christian Immler, Bass, Salzburger Bachchor,• Bach Consort Wien, • Rubén Dubrovsky/Naxos Blu-Ray Audio NBD 0061 : The sound quality on this Blu-Ray Audio disc may be the most striking element of this performance (in terms of aural quality alone), but Handel’s durable masterpiece has received a reading with as much of the point and feeling as some great readings of the past – although it never quite captures the heights of the classic predigital Colin Davis performance on Philips with which it has several elements in common. Described by librettist Charles Jennens with typical English understatement as “a fine entertainment”, Handelʼs Messiah was initially controversial as a biblical oratorio written for secular theatres. Within years it was however being “received with universal applause” and its composer’s purpose in delighting and charming his listeners has made this masterpiece an international favourite ever since. This eye-catching, audio-visual recording of Handelʼs masterpiece with its cast of renowned soloists captures the 2016 Easter concert in the impressive baroque

VERDI: REQUIEM, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda/LSO Live SACD LSO00800  With recorded sound of tremendous presence and impact, this is one of the swiftest readings of the Verdi Requiem that the listener is likely to encounter — and if you can accept the fleetness of foot in this impressive take, you should not hesitate. That consideration aside, the conductor Gianandrea Noseda once again shows his immense sympathy and understanding of Italian music. The soloists are uniformly strong, though Erika Grimaldi might have been better served by closer miking.

ADAM SCHOENBERG: Finding Rothko, American Symphony, Picture Studies, Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern/Reference Recordings SACD RR139  Demonstrating its continuous commitment to lesser-known American music, the enterprising label Reference Recordings makes this accessible and attractive music available in typically wide-ranging sound. Perhaps the biggest surprise regarding this the disc is how little the young composer’s listener-friendly music owes to his more challenging namesake; this is incontrovertibly music leaning towards the tonal.

RACHMANINOV: Early Piano Works, Elisa Tomellini piano/Piano Classics  Sometimes the early works of composers lack the distinction and individuality of their more mature pieces, but Rachmaninov’s early piano music is always worth listening to for admirers, as this new disc proves This new recording of Rachmaninov’s early works offers a fascinating insight into the budding genius of the great Russian. A child prodigy at the piano Rachmaninov was obviously drawn to his instrument when composing his first sketches and works. Pianistically challenging and bursting with melancholy and passion they are already vintage Rachmaninov and form the foundation for his later masterworks. The recording contains several character pieces like a Song Without Words and a separate Prelude, the 3 Nocturnes and the recently discovered Suite in D minor, as well as the Morceaux de Salon Op. 10. Italian pianist Elisa Tomellini has the measure of the music.

TIDES OF LIFE: WOLF, SCHUBERT, BRAHMS, BARBER, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thompson violin, Thomas Hampson, baritone, Netherlands Female Youth Choir*, Choir Master Wilma ten Wolde/ CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS38917  Brahms’ Four Serious Songs has received some very striking and dramatic readings over the years, notably from Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker (a particularly striking reading ) and the great baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, but this new version in splendid orchestral guise is one of the most persuasive yet. All the pieces here are given most plangent and affecting readings. In February 2014, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Thomas Hampson made a tour of twelve European concert halls performing a unique programme. The heart of the programme consisted of new arrangements of songs by Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf. Amsterdam Sinfonietta commissioned the English composer David Matthews to arrange this song repertoire for string ensemble and baritone. These intimate compositions were performed in this new version for the first time in large-scale concert halls. The results are both persuasive and eloquent.