Graham Williams Reviews

New Discs from BIS, Linn, Chandos

NIELSEN SYMPHONIES 2 & 6, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo/BIS BIS-2128 SACD  This issue completes Sakai Oramo’s impressive cycle of the Nielsen Symphonies with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS that now joins the other two complete cycles on SACD from Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) and Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the Dacapo label. On this new release Oramo couples the composer’s 2nd and 6th Symphonies (“The Four Temperaments” and “Sinfonia Semplice”) two compositions with radically different complexions yet both unmistakeably the work of the Danish master. In a recent interview Sakari Oramo opined “Nielsen doesn’t allow conductors to display their personalities, because the music is best served by leaving it mostly alone, taking it on trust, producing the drama, giving the fullest energy possible and not stopping for detail.” The adoption of such an approach has already served Oramo very well in the previous two volumes (Symphonies 4 & 5 and Symphonies 1 & 3) and does so here with predictably impressive results. The opening ‘Allegro collerico’ of the 2nd Symphony explodes with almost pyrotechnic force and savagery yet Oramo brings great breadth and nobility to the third movement – marked ‘Andante malincolico’ – allowing abundant rich and expressive playing from the strings of splendid Stockholm orchestra. The Symphony’s second movement flows gracefully at what I consider to be an ideal tempo, while the buoyant finale has all the swagger and confidence that makes this conductor’s Nielsen so thrilling to experience. The same propulsive energy is evident in much of the enigmatic 6th Symphony, but again Oramo allows his players to bring poetry and a sense of mystery to the more reflective sections of the first movement whilst never underplaying the irony and bitterness that permeates much of the work. The final bars where Nielsen, to paraphrase from David Fanning’s excellent liner notes, ‘gives death the finger’ is delivered by Oramo with an appropriate disdainful finality. The sound quality of the 5.0, 24-bit / 96 kHz recording is, as usual from BIS, magnificent with the full dynamic range of the music vividly reproduced. Though the reverberation period of the Stockholm Concert Hall is generous, the BIS engineering team have achieved marvellous clarity throughout. Altogether this is a fitting conclusion to what is arguably the finest and most consistent cycle of Nielsen Symphonies on disc.

ATTERBERG: SYMPHONIES 1 & 5, Neeme Järvi/Chandos SACD CHSA 5154  This the third release in Neeme Järvi’s ongoing survey for Chandos of the orchestral and symphonic works by the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974). Volume1 and Volume 2 included all the composer’s even numbered symphonies while this latest disc is occupied by the 1st and 5th Symphonies. Those who have acquired the two earlier issues will know exactly what to expect in terms of an interpretive stance from Järvi. As so often, he favours fast speeds that impart a sense of urgency and drive to the outer movements of both symphonies – an approach that in the context of these two dramatic compositions works particularly well. But the lovely second movement of the 1st Symphony is taken at a flowing andante rather than the marked ‘Adagio’, while the central ‘Lento’ of the 5th Symphony, that gives the work its title ‘Sinfonia funebre’, is powerfully lamenting as opposed to anything that suggests funereal solemnity. To be fair, listeners encountering these works for the first time are unlikely to feel that excessive haste is a problem. When, however, one compares Järvi’s slow movements with those on the fine CD versions by Ari Rasilainen and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the latter’s more measured tempi and expansive phrasing may be considered by some to bring an extra eloquence to the music that Järvi misses. Conversely the visceral excitement that Järvi engenders in both works, aided by electrifying playing from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, who have never sounded better, is not to be underestimated. The 5.0 multi-channel recordings (24-bit/96kHz) made in the Gothenburg Concert Hall by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn and Torbjörn Samuelsson in February 2014 (Symphony No. 5) and January 2015 (Symphony No.1) are open and spacious, with a wide stereo spread. Those primarily seeking the best possible sound quality will almost certainly go for this Chandos SACD, though the Rasilainen / CPO recordings made in the 1990s still sound pretty good. Recommended.

MAHLER/SCHOENBERG: LIEDER EINES FAHRENDEN GESELLEN,ETC., Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock/LINN CKD 481 SACD  In a number of respects this is the most interesting (and certainly varied) release so far in this series for Linn of recordings from Trevor Pinnock and the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble. As with the first two volumes they explore chamber reductions of works written for larger ensembles in the spirit of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society for Private Musical Performance’ that he founded in 1918 to both create and educate an audience for modern music in post-war Vienna. Mahler’s familiar ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ is already so transparent in texture in the composer’s own orchestral version that Schoenberg’s ingenious arrangement does not seem radically different from the original. The four songs are performed by Gareth Brynmor John whose light baritone is well suited to the narrative of the cycle and Pinnock’s flowing accompaniment is delivered with much sensitivity by his talented young players. Only at the climax of the third song ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (2.14) did I miss the force of Mahler’s full orchestra – a piano being no substitute for a cymbal crash. Busoni’s haunting and deeply moving ‘Berceuse élégiaque’ – subtitled ‘The man’s cradle song at his mother’s coffin’– was premièred by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mahler in his final concert in New York in 1911. Here it is presented in the arrangement by the Schoenberg disciple and pupil Erwin Stein, its poignancy arguably gaining from the spare lines of Stein’s chamber version. Stein did make a nine instrument arrangement of just two of Zemlinsky’s ‘Sechs Gesänge’ Op 13, but here we have a new version of all six made by the conductor, teacher and orchestrator Christopher Austin. The ‘Sechs Gesänge’, based on poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, were composed originally as songs with piano accompaniment (1910-1913) and later orchestrated in 1924. Like many artists of the period Zemlinsky was attracted to Maeterlinck’s mysterious poetry and philosophical symbolism and in their glittering orchestral garb the composer’s settings represent a striking example of late-romantic voluptuousness. Mindful of this, Christopher Austin has included an accordion and a vibraphone to enrich the palette of his chamber scoring. The vocal soloist is the young mezzo-soprano Katie Bray who, barring some occasional unsteadiness, possesses both the necessary power and beauty of tone to do full justice to these challenging songs. The final item on the disc is Wagner’s popular ‘Siegfried Idyll’ in its original version for a small chamber orchestra of thirteen players. The work’s beauty, charm and intimacy is conveyed in a way that full orchestral accounts can never match, and one could hardly imagine a finer performance than it receives here from the excellent Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble. Like the previous releases in this series the recording was made in St. George’s, Bristol (February 2014). The sound is very clean and detailed, but not lacking in warmth, thanks to the fine acoustic of the venue and the capable engineering of Philip Hobbs. Linn’s fulsome liner notes include texts and translations, though strangely there is no mention of either singer until you reach page 38 of the booklet! Altogether a most enjoyable and fascinating issue.

MOZART: OPERA ARIAS & OVERTURES, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Elizabeth Watts, Christian Baldini/Linn CKD 460 SACD  Rather than issuing a disc made up solely of either Mozart arias or Mozart overtures, Linn have had the happy idea to combine the two for this beautifully performed and recorded programme that not only showcases the remarkable talent and musicianship of soprano Elizabeth Watts but also the stylish orchestral playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Each of the six overtures on this SACD, expertly recorded by Philip Hobbs in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, (3rd to 6th June 2013), is followed by a soprano aria from the respective Mozart opera (or in the case of Don Giovanni both of Zerlina’s arias), something that makes for a more varied and interesting recital than is often the case. The creamy soprano of Elizabeth Watts seems perfectly suited to Susanna’s aria ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ from Act IV of the ‘Marriage of Figaro’, but she is equally adept in the more stylised world of Opera Seria, as is demonstrated by her dramatic and fiery delivery of the recitative preceding Ilia’s aria ‘Padre, germani, addio! from ‘Idomeneo’. Throughout this recital Watts’ firm and beautifully controlled singing meets the challenges posed by the diverse characters portrayed in these six Mozart operas and, thanks to her feeling for the words and immaculate diction, she is most successful in differentiating between each of them; no easy task in programmes of this type. Christian Baldini elicits lively, but never hard driven, performances from the thirty six members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra whose period influenced style (natural horns, timpani played with hard sticks etc.) is a delight. Elizabeth Watts’ voice is set in perfect perspective with the orchestra ensuring that the characterful winds are always audible. Full texts and translations and are included, and Philip Borg-Wheeler’s liner notes provide useful background information on each of the operas as well as placing the respective arias in context. Wherever you dip into this disc you will find singing of great character, freshness and refinement that marks out all of Elizabeth Watts’ performances, making this a disc to return to often with much pleasure. Highly recommended.

Fischer’s Mahler, Lintu’s Sibelius

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 9, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics SACD CC SSA 36115  One imagines that it must be a daunting prospect for any conductor to contemplate the recording of a cycle of Mahler symphonies, particularly in view of the abundant recorded legacy available from some of the greatest conductors of the past such as Walter, Klemperer, Bernstein, Solti, Abbado.. the list goes on. Ivan Fischer’s cycle of these works with his hand-picked Budapest Festival Orchestra has emerged gradually over the past ten years, and even with this outstanding new SACD of the Symphony No. 9 we have the enticing prospect of Symphonies 3, 7 and 8 still to come. The slow gestation period of this Mahler cycle has meant that Fischer has been able to refine and deepen his interpretations of these works with his marvellous orchestra in the concert hall before committing them to disc in the studio. The magnificent results are plain to hear in what many consider to be the apogee of Mahler’s symphonic output. Continue reading

The First Surround Sound Symphonia Domestica reviewed by Graham Williams


  1. STRAUSS: SYMPHONIA DOMESTICA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 507 All Straussians will be delighted with the appearance of this handsome SACD release of Richard Strauss’s ‘Symphonia Domestica’ from Marek Janowski and his splendid Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Janowski’s pre-eminence in Wagner may have overshadowed his reputation as a Strauss interpreter of distinction, but those with long memories will remember that he was the conductor of the first ever uncut recording of Strauss’s opera ‘Die Schweigsame Frau’ for EMI and more recently he made a compelling account of the ‘Alpine Symphony’ for PENTATONE. The ‘Symphonia Domestica’ was written in 1903 and is the penultimate of Strauss’s many tone poems. The work is a musical portrait of one day in the life of the Strauss household and is dedicated appropriately to “To my dear wife and son”.  Shortly after the work’s premiere, which took place in New York during his American tour in 1904, the composer faced considerable criticism, not for the music per se, but for his ‘bad taste’ in depicting aspects of his private life that included his sexual relations with his wife, their frequent quarrelling and the musical onomatopoeic yelling of their baby son at bedtime. Such criticism seems rather quaint, if not ridiculous, from today’s standpoint in a world dominated by social media where the most intimate details of celebrities’ lives are frequently open to pernicious scrutiny with ease via the Internet. Though the work has four sections that roughly correspond to the movements of a symphony, including a ‘Scherzo’, ‘Adagio’ and a ‘Finale’, it is probably best viewed as a large-scale symphonic poem in one continuous movement integrated by the constantly recurring themes of its three characters (husband, wife and child) that are presented in the opening section. The instrumentation of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’ is even more extravagant than that of Strauss’s previous tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’ – triple woodwind, that unusually includes an oboe d’amore, eight horns, four saxophones a large percussion section, two harps and strings. Strauss uses these gargantuan forces for the most part with surprising delicacy and only in the complex polyphony of the fugal ‘Finale’ does he unleash them with an exhilarating élan that while thrilling can verge on the bombastic. There have been many fine recordings of the piece, including some from conductors who knew the composer personally – Krauss, Szell, Karajan and Reiner – and other more recent recommendable versions to which this new one can certainly be added.  Somewhat to my surprise Marek Janowski directs a fairly spacious and relaxed performance of the work, but one that does allow beautifully shaped and affectionate phrasing from the players of his responsive Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the many solos that Strauss gives them throughout the work.  Thanks to meticulously judged balances Janowski manages to achieve the utmost clarity and precision throughout; seemingly undaunted by the challenges presented by the huge orchestra’s complex textures, especially in the Finale. His meticulous control of dynamics is also most impressive, whilst the brilliance of the playing ensures that all the big climaxes are thrillingly delivered. Janowski’s buoyant and supple account of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’, sumptuously recorded by the Polyhymnia team in vivid 5.0 multi-channel DSD, is surely one that all who admire this piece will wish to add to their libraries. What, however, makes this release quite unmissable is the second work on the disc – ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (Times of the Day) for male voice chorus and orchestra – a real Strauss rarity. In 1924 Victor Keldorfer conductor of the Vienna Schubert Society took the opportunity to ask Strauss to write something for the choir, and suggested that texts by Josef Eichendorf might be suitable. Though initially dubious, Strauss eventually agreed and by 1927 the work was completed. The four Eichendorf poems that Strauss sets are ‘Der Morgen’ (morning), ‘Mittagsruh’ (afternoon rest), ‘Der Abend’ (evening) and ‘Die Nacht’ (night). Strauss’s artistry in matching words and music is incomparable, and each of the four settings possess a glowing mellifluousness and melodic richness that bring to mind the late operas ‘Daphne’ and ‘Capriccio’ and especially the ‘Four Last Songs’, where Strauss again turned to Eichendorf for the final song ‘Im Abendrot’. The firm, disciplined yet sensitive singing of the gentlemen of the excellent Berlin Radio Choir could hardly be bettered, and Janowski elicits the most gorgeous and luminous sonorities from his orchestra. The neglect of ‘Die Tageszeiten’ in the concert hall is perplexing and one can only hope that this beautiful recording will help to bring it into greater prominence. PENTATONE’s liner notes do include full texts and translations of the Eichendorf poems. A most enthusiastic recommendation is warranted for this release.

Orchestral Splendour from PENTATONE, BIS & CHANDOS


SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO. 7, ‘LENINGRAD’, Russian National Orchestra, Parvo Järvi/PENTATONE SACD PTC5186511  How do you solve a problem like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony? The reputation of the piece has, of course, varied wildly across the years, from its initial massive acclaim in the West to the routine dismissal of what was seen as its banal first movement (parodied by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra). Now the dust has settled, we can see it as one of the composer’s most substantial works, if not in the class of his fifth or tenth symphonies. The work needs careful advocacy – along with an important decision regarding conceptual approach. How to treat that relentless first movement with its unvarying side drum? Unsurprisingly Järvi takes exactly what many listeners now consider to be the right approach in current perceptions of the work: that is to say, lean, sinewy and free of bombast — but never at the expense of the sheer overwhelming force of the music, which is always given full measure in this remarkable reading. Swifter than most (it is accommodated on a single disc), this performance is accorded one of PentaTone’s most wide-ranging recordings, and the sheer impact of the climaxes is nigh overwhelming.

RICHARD STRAUSS: AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW, Erich Schulz, director, C Major Blu-ray  Those used to more conventional examinations of musical genius may find this curious patchwork documentary something of a challenge, but Eric Schulz’s approach (which utilises a variety of voices, from conductors to pianists to musicologists) paints a provocative and intriguing portrait of the composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Der Rosenkavalier that captures the astonishing fecundity of Strauss’s compositional identity as well as his pawky Bavarian humour. The film is even-handed when dealing with Strauss’s dealing with the Nazis (whose philistinism he cordially loathed). But there are curious omissions: no mention, for instance, of his most important collaborator, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and a great deal of the glorious orchestral music is heard – perversely – in piano transcriptions. But this film is still essential viewing for Straussians, not least for its detailed analysis of the composer’s understated talent as a conductor, which is given an almost forensic attention. The Blu-ray has the splendid pictorial values that are the sine qua non of the medium.

ARNOLD: THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES. CD 1: Symphonies Nos. 1* and 2* / CD 2: Symphonies Nos. 3* and 4* / CD 3: Symphonies Nos. 5*, 6*, 8† / CD 4: Symphonies Nos. 7† and 9†. London Symphony Orchestra* / Richard Hickox*. BBC Philharmonic† / Rumon Gamba† CHAN 10853(4) He may have been cast aside during the Sir William Glock serial music-oriented era of the BBC when accessible modern music such as his was distinctly out of favour, but it’s good to see the fortunes of the late Malcolm Arnold being reversed – and thankfully, he lived long enough to see a revival of interest in his remarkable oeuvre. This four-CD box set presents the complete cycle of the award winning recordings of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Symphonies under two of the finest conductors of their times, both exclusive to Chandos: the late Richard Hickox and Rumon Gamba, respectively conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic. The set is a must-have for all fans of Arnold as well as for those who want to know more about his symphonic compositions. Among the English symphonists of the twentieth century, Malcolm Arnold is one of the very few prolific high-profile masters of the genre – comparable to Vaughan Williams and his nine symphonies. The emotional and colouristic range of his style, together with his structural originality, sets his achievements apart from those of his compatriots who, likewise, engaged with the symphony to any significant extent.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/MACMILLAN: OBOE CONCERTOS, etc. Nicholas Daniel, oboe, Britten Sinfonia, Macmillan/SACD Harmonia Mundi HMU 807573. With a lambent and sensitive recording, this first appearance of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto on SACD is a winner – for those, that is, who are open to its subtle charms, which do not reveal themselves instantly to the listener. The same might be said of the contemporary music on this disc, but Macmillan’s Oboe Concerto, which — while it may not be to every taste — is performed with was great subtlety and musicality

MESSIAEN L’AMOUR ET LA FOI TROIS PETITES LITURGIES DE LA PRÉSENCE DIVINE (1943) FOR FEMALE VOICES, PIANO, ONDES MARTENOT, CELESTE, VIBRAPHONE, PERCUSSION AND STRING ORCHESTRA; O SACRUM CONVIVIUM! (1937) A CAPELLA; CINQ RECHANTS (1948) FOR 12 SOLO VOICES Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish national Concert Choir, Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Marcus Creed (Cond.)./6.220612 Those who are seduced by the immense impact of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony often search in vain for other music from the composer with the same overwhelming impact. The pieces here are definitely not in that category, but share the same sound world. Three of Messiaen’s most passionate vocal masterworks are presented on this programme, from the visionary “Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine” (Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence) for sixteen solo strings and eighteen sopranos (Messiaen’s original version), the popular O sacrum convivium! and the extraordinarily difficult Cinq Rechants (Five Refrains) of 1948. Choral conductor Marcus Creed’s contribution is non-pareil.

SCRIABIN SYMPHONY NUMBER 1, POEM OF ECSTASY, Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev/PENTATONE SACD PTC5186511  Given that the SACD medium is perfect for accommodating music of the widest possible dynamic range, it is surprising that Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy has had such a limited amount of interest in the surround sound medium. That neglect is remedied with this overwhelming performance, as orgiastic as the composer might have wished. A good case is also made for the composer’s lesser-known First Symphony, which may win new friends in this strong and intelligent performance.

KORNGOLD VIOLIN CONCERTO, VIOLIN SONATA,  Kristóf Baráti violin, Philharmonie Zuidnederland, Otto Tausk conductor Gábor Farkas piano/Brilliant Classics 95006BR  This latest performance of Korngold’s glorious concerto — while not unseating other classic recordings — is more than serviceable. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy (his musical talent was compared to that of the young Mozart) and his early works are written in the tradition of Mahler and Richard Strauss. He later emigrated to America and became one of Hollywood’s most successful film music composers. Korngold’s Violin Concerto is a fascinating and eclectic showpiece, exquisite Mahlerian harmonies alternate with Hollywood sentiment, the violin indulging in soaring melodies and exuberant virtuosic display. The Violin Sonata was written 30 years before the concerto.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: BURSTS OF ACCLAMATION/ALBION’S VISION, Various artists/ALBCD 021, ALBCD SAMP  These discs – the first, a two-disc collection Vaughan Williams’ organ music and transcriptions, the second a sampler of his lesser-known music are proof (if proof were needed) that the enterprising Albion label continues to do great service for British music and – in particular — that of RVW. Aficionados of the composer will leap on these discs, even if not everything on the organ set, however superbly played by David Briggs, fully convinces. The transcription for organ of The Wasps overture somewhat saps its energy and the dancing quality of the piece, but there are many delights here, not least the astonishing Passacaglia. Albion’s Vision, too, has much to enchant, pieces drawn from previous issues by the company.

SUCHOŇ: BALADICKÁ SUITA, OP. 9 / METAMORFÓZY / SYMFONIETTA RUSTICA. Estonian National Symphony Orchestra// Neeme Järvi. CHANDOS CHAN 10849  How does Chandos do it? How are they still able to come up with neglected orchestral music of great colour and verve? Perhaps one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but just accept with gratitude discs as winning as this. Although his music is rarely performed nowadays, Eugen Suchoň (1908 – 1993) was the most influential and respected Slovak composer of the twentieth century. Three of his greatest symphonic works are performed here by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and its artistic director, Neeme Järvi. The works were composed during the years which Suchoň spent in Bratislava, where he turned his interest to the origins of Slovak folk music and to extended tonality. In the four-movement Baladická suita (Balladic Suite), of 1935, Suchoň incorporates some Slovak folk elements and demonstrates his mastery of orchestration in an almost impressionist piece of great power and vitality. Written in 1953, the Metamorfózy (Metamorphoses) reflects the composer’s own impressions during the war years, from a relatively tranquil pre-1939 to more disturbed wartime emotions in the Allegro moderato, the last two movements respectively peaceful and triumphal.

LISZT: SCHUBERT SONG TRANSCRIPTIONS: WINTERREISE (WINTER JOURNEY) SCHWANENGESANG (SWANSONG), Avan Yu, Piano/Naxos  More cherishable rarities from Naxos – with a disc calculated to appeal to lovers of both Liszt and Schubert. Liszt had a particular affection for the music of Schubert whom he considered to be “the most poetic musician who ever lived”. Ordered according to key relationships rather than the narrative content of the verse, his transcriptions of Schubert’s two great song cycles, Winterreise and Schwanengesang are outstanding examples of the genre and formed a popular part of his concert programmes during his years as a travelling virtuoso. Avan Yu, one of Canada’s most exciting pianists, won the Gold Medal at the Canadian Chopin Competition at the age of seventeen

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 2 & 6 Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo BIS SACD BIS 2128 This is a very welcome release. Indeed, it’s fair to suggest that Oramo’s performances of the complete Nielsen symphonies are among the most recommendable in the current catalogue (particularly for those of us lucky enough to have heard them live) – and possibly the best single set as a complete entity. The final instalment of the Nielsen Symphony cycle with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo is released on BIS this month. Symphony No 2 The Four Temperaments, dates from 1901–02 and some 23 years later the composer completed his sixth and final symphony, the Sinfonia semplice (‘Simple Symphony’). In the meantime, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies had brought Nielsen the greatest measure of professional recognition he ever enjoyed in his lifetime.

WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS 5, 10 The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin; The Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai/Melodiya MEL CD100228   After a drought comes a flood. After the many years in which Weinberg’s remarkable symphonic output languished in obscurity, the positive cornucopia of new issues continues unabated. Weinberg’s vivid style combines elements of Jewish, Polish and Russian musical cultures. Featured here are his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 10 composed during the period of the composer’s most intensive creative activity in the 1960s. The Fifth Symphony was recorded by Kirill Kondrashin in 1975, and the Tenth by Rudolf Barshai in 1970; these two conductors, along with the orchestras they founded respectively, played a significant part in popularizing Weinberg’s works.

PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONY NO. 3, SCYTHIAN SUITE, AUTUMN – SYMPHONIC SKETCH, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop/NAXOS BLU-RAY AUDIO 30099 00746 If you have neighbours, prepare to upset them when you play this immensely dramatic and colourful reading at the volume it cries out for. This fourth volume in Marin Alsop’s acclaimed Prokofiev symphonic cycle features two of his most viscerally exciting works. Using material salvaged from his opera The Fiery Angel, the Third Symphony was hailed by Serge Koussevitzky at its 1929 première as ‘the best symphony since Tchaikovsky’s Sixth’. Originally commissioned as a ballet by Sergey Diaghilev but rejected as un-danceable, the Scythian Suite has become a popular orchestral showpiece, while Prokofiev retained a lifelong fondness for his dark-hued early symphonic sketch Autumn. Judging by the response to the previous volumes of this fruitful partnership with Marin Alsop and the excellent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra this new release will have no problems in becoming a market leader.

BERNSTEIN: THIRTEEN ANNIVERSARIES, PIANO SONATA, SEVEN ANNIVERSARIES, MUSIC FOR THE DANCE NO. II:• NON TROPPO PRESTO, Alexandre Dossin, Piano/Naxos  Don’t expect the colour and the verve of Bernstein’s more approachable orchestral works; these are largely speaking performances for the cognoscenti, including several world première recordings. Known for his large-scale compositions, Leonard Bernstein also wrote for his own instrument, the piano. The sequence of four Anniversaries, published between 1944 and 1989, are brief, deftly evocative vignettes written to celebrate his many friends, colleagues and family members. The early Piano Sonata is imbued with youthful self-confidence, and explores certain compositional techniques to which he was to return in more mature works. The rhythmically incisive Music for the Dance No. II is another important early work.

WHITESIDE: DICHROIC LIGHT, Whiteside IMBT 001 Matthew Whiteside received a Quality Production award from Creative Scotland to compose a new work for viola d’amore, live electronics and motion sensor and to record an album of his music. ‘Dichroic Light’ features collaborations with clarinettist Joanna Nicholson, performances by Scotland’s contemporary music ensemble Red Note and the premiere of a new work for viola d’amore, live electronics and motion sensor. Whiteside’s work has been performed internationally at Salem Artworks in New York, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Glasgow City Halls and the Belfast International Festival at Queen’s. Dichroic Light builds an enveloping soundscape of the calm drone-like quality of the cello and the players own voice; on Ulation the composer uses electronics to extend the sonic world of the viola.

SIBELIUS: PIANO WORKS #1 Joseph Tong/Quartz LC28888  Sibelius’ neglected and elusive piano music is often considered to be a closed book, even to the composer’s admirers, but Joseph Tong’s poetic approach may change listener’s minds.

HERRMANN: OBSESSION, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Nic Raine/Tadlow Music Tadlow 019 CD & Blu-Ray Audio  For some considerable time, the producer James Fitzpatrick has been putting collectors of the finest orchestral film scores in his debt with a continuing program of new recordings from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under the estimable conductor Nic Raine. For a time, it seemed as if the dynamic recording of the complete score for Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba was the high water mark of the company, but this issue, enshrining a complete performance of one of the last film scores by Bernard Herrmann, is something special. Why? The reasons are principally sonic: the first disc in this two-disc set is a CD version of the score, impressive enough in its own way, but paling in comparison to the amazing dynamic range of the accompanying disc which is in the Blu-ray audio media — and showcases the massive dynamic range of Herrmann’s score, notably its ground-shaking organ passages in the fullest possible sound picture. If this is anything to go by, one can hope that for all future Tadlow Music issues, the company utilises Blu-ray audio.

HERRMANN, GERSHWIN, WAXMAN, COPLAND Nash Ensemble Hyperion CDA 68094 More Bernard Herrmann, but this time of a more intimate nature: his charming and melancholic Souvenir de Voyage, the centrepiece of a subtle collection of small-scale works by composers (Gershwin apart), better known for their film scores. All the music here is dispatched with a combination of nuanced feeling and perfect attention to the colour of the restricted sound palette.

Bernstein’s Carmen to Zhang’s Szymanowski: Graham Williams Reviews


BIZET: CARMEN, Soloists, Leonard Bernstein/ PENTATONE SACD5186 216 (2)  When Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Bizet’s Carmen first appeared on LP in1973 it won a Grammy and sold over 100,000 copies as well as marking the start of Bernstein’s relationship with Deutsche Grammophon, one that lasted right up to his death in1990. Thanks to this superb SACD re-mastering by PENTATONE of the original DGG quadraphonic tapes, the qualities of Bernstein’s striking, if controversial version, of Bizet’s opera can be assessed as never before. This recording was made at sessions in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in September 1972, during a run of performances of a new production of Carmen conceived by Bernstein and Göran Gentile, the Met’s new general manager, who sadly was killed in a car crash before the production opened. It uses an appropriate amount of the spoken dialogue of the Fritz Oeser edition rather than the sung recitatives of the Guiraud edition heard on many earlier versions and, in spite of some less than idiomatic French accents from the singers, this works well. Like many Bernstein recordings this one has its controversial aspects, the conductor’s choices of tempo being the most obvious. For example, the opening Prelude is taken at a very deliberate pace and elsewhere some unusually steady tempi, as well as fast ones, will surprise many listeners, but Bernstein’s compelling exposition of the tragic drama is so persuasive that one quickly gets used to these idiosyncrasies. The cast is a strong one, crowned by Marilyn Horne’s impressively sung portrayal of the heroine. Her rich singing is both seductive and powerful, yet she never sacrifices beauty of tone for theatrical effect and gives a fully rounded characterisation of the part. James McCracken is a virile sounding Don José and though his drift into falsetto voice at the end of the Flower Song sounds frankly bizarre elsewhere he sings with much sensitivity. Adriana Maliponte is a touching Micaëla with a lovely soaring vocal quality and Tom Krause provides a forthright and firmly sung Escamillo. The many smaller roles are also generally well cast. The singing of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus is enthusiastic as is that of the Manhattan Opera Chorus (a replacement for the Metropolitan Opera chorus who had demanded higher payments for their services) trained by John Mauceri. The incisive playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is simply magnificent, its quality shining through in every bar, and the way it responds to Bernstein’s direction clearly indicates the rapport the conductor established with the musicians during the course of the staged run. The gorgeous Entr’acte before Act 3 illustrates the point perfectly. As an opera Carmen is action packed, and the DGG engineering team made full use of the possibilities offered by multi-channel sound to re-create the drama in purely aural terms. Off-stage effects – choruses, trumpet fanfares and the like – are brilliantly realised using the 4.0 channels most imaginatively. The sound throughout is pristine, with excellent balances between voices and orchestra – a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns. The two well filled discs ( CD1 79’25”, CD2 80’35”) are handsomely presented in a hard-backed book with the full libretto in French and English. Lovers of Bizet’s Carmen have a bewildering selection of recordings from which to choose, but Bernstein’s uniquely haunting and individual conception should be heard in this outstanding re-incarnation of a classic set. A remarkably rejuvenated and most welcome re-issue of a unique opera recording from 40 years ago.

SZYMANOWSKI: VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, ETC., Rosanne Philippens, NJO, Xian Zhang/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA36715 Nowadays Szymanowski’s luscious 1st Violin Concerto is appearing ever more frequently on disc thanks both to the public’s greater appreciation of this composer’s music and to the advocacy of many star violinists of the younger generation. This latest recording from the prodigiously talented Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens is certainly amongst the finest that I have heard. In the Concerto she is accompanied by the NJO (National Jeugd Orkest) which is the Netherlands Youth Orchestra for players under 30 years of age. They are directed by the charismatic and dynamic conductor Xian Zhang who elicits passionate and supremely confident playing from her committed orchestra. Unlike some recordings of this work the violin is not spotlit so the many fine solos from members of the NJO can be fully appreciated. The huge tuttis have a sumptuousness appropriate to the composer’s ecstatic writing and here the orchestra’s horn section deserve special mention for their burnished tonal glow. Szymanowski wrote a number of works for violin and piano that span his entire career, and two of these – ‘Myths’ Op 30 and ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ Op 28 – are given dazzling performances that perhaps even more than the concerto show the quality of Rosanne Philippens superb musicianship. In these works she is accompanied by the pianist Julien Quentin whose alert and sensitive playing is in perfect accord with that of his partner. The three movements of ‘Myths’ – ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’, ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Dryads and Pan’ – reflect Szymanowski’s interest in Classical mythology and each place formidable technical challenges for the players that are met in full by Philippens and Quentin. The ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ that, like Myths, was written in 1915, is delivered with tremendous attack and rhythmic verve; both performers driving the music with a controlled virtuosity that leaves one breathless. The disc also includes a transcription of the ‘Song of Roxanne’ from the second Act of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger made by the composer and his friend the violinist Pawel Kochański. Rosanne Philippens and her partner brings a wonderful stillness and mysterious sensuality to her performance of this haunting piece.  The three Stravinsky pieces included in this generously filled SACD can best be considered as delightful encores to the main Szymanowski programme. The ‘Chanson Russe’, Stravinsky’s own arrangement of an aria from his comic opera ‘Mavra’ is played with affectionate warmth and delicacy while the transcriptions of the Berceuse and Scherzo from ‘The Firebird’ confirm both the poise and exuberance that these consummate musicians bring to their performances. I do, however, think that the sleeve note writer Clemens Romijn is clutching at straws trying to make links between these two composers, and I would certainly question his view of the main work as ‘the Violin Concerto Mahler never wrote’. The Concerto was recorded (August 2014) in the spacious acoustic of the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam and the rest (September 2014) in the more intimate Muziekcentrum, Eindhoven. In both venues Jared Sacks’s engineering of the 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. Enthusiastically recommended.

XENAKIS: PLÉÏADES, REBONDS, Uniko, percussionist/LINN SACD CKD 495  For her third release on the Linn label, entitled Xenakis IX, the virtuoso percussionist KUNIKO turns to two of the most inventive and challenging works of the Greek-French avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). ‘Pléïades’ was composed in 1978 and premiered by the six members of Les Percussions de Strabourg. It has four movements of roughly equal length and lasts, in KUNIKO’s performance, 45 minutes. The titles of each of the movements – Mélanges (Mixtures), Métaux (Metals), Claviers (Keyboard) and Peaux (Skins) – indicate the type of instruments used and hence the differing tonal colours produced. The work also uses an instrument named the SIXXEN made up of metal bars with irregularly distributed pitches. KUNIKO herself selected 120 steel square tubes to produce the sonorities she wanted to achieve from six of these instruments in ‘Métaux’. Xenakis suggested two possible orders for performance with ‘Mélanges’ placed either first or last. KUNIKO has chosen the former, that allows the listener to experience the full kaleidoscopic percussion panoply before the instrumental groups separate for the subsequent movements. Her thrilling performance of this remarkable piece is astonishingly confident and absolutely hypnotic. ‘Rebonds’, composed between 1987 and 1989, was written for the respected percussionist Sylvio Gualda whose complimentary note to KUNIKO is reproduced in the liner notes with this SACD. The work is in two parts simply labelled A and B that can be performed in any order. Part A uses only skinned instruments – bongos, tom-toms and bass drums – while Part B adds a set of 5 wood blocks and a tumba to the instrumental line-up. KUNIKO makes light of the mathematical and rhythmic complexities of Xenakis’s compositional technique in her authoritative performance of this work. The recordings (24-bit / 192kHz) were made in the fine acoustic of Lake Sagami Hall, Kanagawa, Japan at dates between December 2013 and October 2014 by engineers Kazuya Nagae and Yuji Sagae and the sound quality is superb whether one is playing the disc on a stereo or multi-channel set-up. The latter, however, makes maximum use of the surround speakers for the various instrumental groups thus adding to the excitement of the whole listening experience. Excellent notes by KUNIKO complete this most recommendable issue.

JOPLIN: TREEMONISHA, Soloists, Houston Grand Opera, Gunther Schuller/PENTATONE SACD 5186 221 (2)  For many the music of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) will be associated with his numerous ragtime compositions, including ‘The Entertainer’, that were used in the 1973 film ‘The Sting’ starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. However, Joplin, who as a child was introduced to the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin by his piano teacher Julius Weiss, had more serious ambitions than to write merely syncopated ragtime music. He wrote two operas and a ballet but only his second opera ‘Treemonisha’ has survived. It received a single unstaged public performance in 1915 in Harlem just two years before Joplin’s early death from syphilis. Thanks to the efforts of the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller who sympathetically orchestrated and arranged the music from the piano score, in what was obviously a labour of love, the work was successfully staged in 1975 by the Houston Grand Opera in Houston,Texas and later it transferred to Broadway. It is this production recorded at RCA Studio A, New York in October 1975 that is the basis for this splendid recording, one that wears its years lightly, conducted by Schuller. The plot tells the story of Treemonisha, a foundling discovered under a tree who, thanks to her adoptive parents Ned and Monisha, is taught to read, write and do arithmetic by a white woman. She then attempts to lead her community against conjurers who prey on their belief in sorcery and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when she is rescued in the nick of time by her friend Remus. The community accept the forces of right (education) over those of wrong (superstition) before electing her as their leader. Touchingly naïve though the story may be it surely has deep resonances for our time. Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera as Joplin himself was at pains to point out, though it does have a number of ragtime elements in such catchy sections as “We’re goin around” and “Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn”. The music is unfailingly melodic and often sentimental suggesting the milieu of a light 19th century opera. The cast is a generally strong one with fine singing from Carmen Balthrop in the title role. Edward Pierson delivers a sonorous Parson Alltalk and a 29 year-old Willard White as Ned makes the most of his big aria “ When villains ramble far and near”. The original slightly dry studio recording has been transformed on this PENTATONE reissue of the 4.0 quadraphonic tapes in a way that really bring this work to life. The surround channels are used as much as the front ones. Singers often appear from the rear and sides as do the various chorus groups while the orchestra always remains at the front. This imaginative use of surround sound enhances the whole production and is a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns, the doyen of Deutsche Grammophon engineers. The two SACDs are handsomely packaged in a hard backed book that includes the full English libretto and notes on the opera. Most definitely recommended.