Graham Williams Reviews

Surround Sound Splendour from Channel, CPO, Ondine and Linn

MESSIAEN: TURANGALÎLA SYMPHONY, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Soloists Lintu/ SACD Ondine ODE 1251-5  Since its Boston premier – given by Leonard Bernstein in December 1949 – Messiaen’s exotic and lavishly scored Turangalîla Symphony has received many fine recordings, including some with the imprimatur of the composer and some that additionally feature both Yvonne Loriod, the composer’s wife playing the virtuoso piano part written for her, and Jeanne Loriod, her sister, performing the important part for the eerie sounding electronic instrument the ondes Martinot. No performance or recording of this challenging work is likely to be undertaken without intensive rehearsal by the artists involved which is why I have yet to encounter a badly executed performance of it on disc. It is unlikely that, with over twenty recordings available on CD, any potential purchaser will have much difficulty in finding a performance to suit their own taste. Nevertheless, leaving aside artistic considerations, Messiaen’s kaleidoscopic orchestration and complex juxtaposing of the various sections of his vast orchestral forces (that require a minimum of eight percussion players) call for a recording of exceptional sound quality, such as only SACD or Blu-ray can provide, in order that every manifestation of the composer’s aural palette be made audible. This new recording from Ondine is only the second of this sprawling work to appear as a multi-channel SACD. The first was the 1992 version from Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca. This was re-mixed, for its release on SACD, from the edited master tapes by the producer Andrew Cornall and the recording engineer John Dunkerley to produce the multi-channel version. Continue reading

Previn’s Walton First Challenged by Chandos

WALTON: VIOLIN CONCERTO / SYMPHONY NO. 1, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Tasmin Little (violin) / Edward Gardner/ Chandos CHSA 5136 SACD  Walton’s 1st Symphony has been especially well represented on record over many years with fine performances that not only include some from the composer himself but more recent ones from Vernon Handley, Charles Mackerras, Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink and Colin Davis – though for many,  André Previn’s 1966 recording with the LSO remains the bench-mark. The combination of blistering intensity and breathtaking sweep that Previn elicits from the LSO is something hard to equal let alone surpass. That 58 year-old recording taped in the fine acoustic of Kingsway Hall still sounds well, but really the finest audio quality – such as SACD can provide – is necessary to appreciate the full beauty and brilliance of Walton’s writing. Continue reading

The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams Alain Frogley & Aidan J Thomson, editors

When this writer was interviewing Simon Heffer about his sympathetic study of Vaughan Williams, I took gentle exception to his claiming the composer for the political Right (he was adducing RVW’s quintessential Englishness); ironically, when the interview appeared and I mildly suggested that Elgar rather than Vaughan Williams might have been of a Tory nature, I received a deal of critical mail, interpreting my comment as an attack on Elgar. God forbid — I had simply tried to draw a distinction between the left-leaning Vaughan Williams (whose political persuasions and agnosticism were not automatic characteristics of his class) and the older composer, but I wonder what my critics might make of this superbly readable anthology which goes far further in placing the composer in a political context, and left-leaning one at that. In fact, it is that element more than anything else — the rigorous and balanced setting of Vaughan Williams in a sociopolitical context — that distinguishes this collection of essays from any of its predecessors. Which is not to say, of course, that the composer’s genius is not celebrated in perspicacious and penetrating essays from such writers as David Manning (talking about RVW as a public figure) and Eric Saylor discussing his music for stage and film. But for those like myself — who love every aspect of the composer’s work from the exquisite beauty of his string writing to the muscular brass fanfares of the Fourth Symphony and Job — this is perhaps the most valuable book on the composer to appear in many years. And its new perspectives mark it out decisively from the work of such perceptive earlier critics as Michael Kennedy. It goes without saying that any admirer of Vaughan Williams should have it on their shelves.

The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, Alain Frogley & Aidan J Thomson, editors is published by Cambridge University Press

 

From Strauss to Superman: New titles from PentaTone, Silva Screen, etc.

BIS1939

ELGAR SYMPHONY NO.1/COCKAIGNE OVERTURE Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/SACD BIS-1939 (CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTHOne shouldn’t be surprised. Given the immense acclaim that greeted the recent recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony by these forces, one would have been surprised by an indifferent follow-up – and this is anything but that. The First Symphony has been particularly lucky on record, and that syndrome continues here with a beautifully focused, impeccably recorded reading that may not quite have the fiery energy of (for instance) Georg Solti’s fondly remembered reading for Decca, but captures Oramo’s perfectly judged, forward moving impulse along with the music’s profound and nuanced feeling (essential in Elgar). If the disc is not quite as revelatory as Oramo’s recording of the Second Symphony, it is nevertheless a highly competitive entry in the catalogue, and many will be tempted by this disc – not least for its ebullient reading of the Cockaigne overture. The customarily impressive BIS surround sound is a given.

PUCCINI: MADAMA BUTTERFLY, Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert Von Karajan/DGG Blu-ray  Recordings of Madama Butterfly (both visual records such as this and on CD) may come and go, but one reading remains the gold standard in both mediums – and it is this moving and exquisitely sung performance with both singers at the very peak of their form. This Blu-ray version of a previously issued DVD increases the capabilities of both the visual and aural palette and becomes at a stroke the definitive recording in the medium. Certain things, admittedly, have the picture is inevitably in constricted Academy ratio, and some of the make-up looks ill-advised today (such as false buck teeth on Japanese characters), but the performances are as astonishing as ever. One wonders if any future recorded versions of this opera will give Karajan and his singers a run for their money? 

WEINBERG: SYMPHONY NO. 21; POLISH TUNES, Veronika Bartenyeva, Siberian Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Vasilyev/Toccata Classics TOCC 0193 I don’t know about other classical music aficionados, but I have now had to inaugurate a checklist of the ever-proliferating Weinberg symphonies to find out just what has appeared – but that’s not a complaint.From the days when the oddMelodiya recording of Weinberg’s music appeared to the current embarrassment of riches, it’s hearting to see this neglected (and discriminated against) composer belatedly achieving his due. Since his death in 1996, Weinberg’s vast output – which includes 26 symphonies, 7 operas and 17 string quartets – has enjoyed increasing recognition as some of the most individual and compelling music of the twentieth century.

BALLET MUSIC BY STRAUSS; LISZT; KORNG OLD; BUSONI; SCHREKER, Orchestre De La Suisse Romande; Kazuki Yamada, PentaTone Classics SACD PTC5186518  Magnificent though the music is, one does not always want to settle down with something as challenging as The Ring or one of Bruckner’s longer symphonies. The palate occasionally need something lighter, and this well-chosen collection is the perfect amuse bouche. The performances of these delightful pieces are impeccable, with the kind of wide-ranging recording that PentaTone is celebrated for. Perhaps the only blot on the escutcheon is a rather unseductive performance of Strauss’s The Dance of the Seven Veils. The second CD in PentaTone’s dance music series lets the listener savour vibrant compositions from the German speaking countries; there are vigorous performances, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande plays with élan.

TURINA: LA PROCESIÓN DEL ROCÍO, OP. 9 / CANTO A SEVILLA, OP. 37/ DANZAS GITANAS, OP. 55 / RAPSODIA SINFÓNICA, OP. 66, María Espada (soprano), Martin Roscoe (piano), BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena/CHANDOS 10819  Over the years, Chandos has again and again demonstrated its commitment to recording music of vibrancy and colour, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before the company got around to the vivid compositions of Joaquin Turina. This particular collection is immensely winning, with conductor, pianist, orchestra and singer all fully in tune with the composer’s very individual sound world. La procesión del Rocío, Turina’s first orchestral work, was inspired by memories of a procession held in the gypsy quarter of Seville and is filled with lively dance rhythms. Canto a Sevilla, a song cycle with orchestra, is a heartfelt tribute to Seville and its culture, taking on themes such as the vibrant Easter Procession, Seville’s beautiful ornamental fountains, and even a ghost that haunts the streets at night. Danzas gitanas, a collection of Andalusian gypsy dances, introduces a nocturnal atmosphere into a style normally characterised by bright orchestral colours and extravagant rhythmic intricacies. The Rapsodia sinfónica, one of Turina’s last works, represents a more mature, reflective composer.

HINDEMITH: NOBILISSIMA VISIONE, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz/Naxos 8.572763  Over the years, there have been several recordings of Nobilissima Visione which have done justice to its fascinating mixture of sinewy strength and utterly focused orchestration; we now have another reading to join these impressive ranks. A series of powerful, largely radical works in the early 1920s saw the establishment of Hindemith as Germany’s leading young composer. In 1936 he was asked by choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine to collaborate on a ballet project and Hindemith proposed scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. The resulting ballet, Nobilissima Visione (The Noblest Vision), is a work of lyricism, elegy and majesty performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz. This is the first recording of the complete ballet score, and is accompanied on disc with the Five Pieces for String Orchestra, an earlier, spirited work dating from 1927.

DEBUSSY: CHAMBER MUSIC: PRÉLUDE À L’APRÈS-MIDI D’UN FAUNE, CELLO SONATA, RÊVERIE, VIOLIN SONATA, LA FILLE AUX CHEVEUX DE LIN, PIANO TRIO NO.1, Prazák Quartet, Kinsky Trio Prague/Praga Digitalis SACD PRD/DSD250302  One might have thought that there would be a large variety of choice on disc for Debussy’s chamber works, but in fact this is not quite the case – which is what makes this beautifully played disc so welcome. Apart from ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune’, which is of academic interest only in this reduced version (the ear is constantly filling in the exquisite orchestration which is not here), this is a very cherishable collection. Better known for his works for orchestra or solo piano, Claude Debussy also composed a wealth of beautiful chamber music. This disc featuring the Prazák Quartet and the Kinsky Trio Prague (and invited guests) offers a selection of six works, ranging from the Piano Trio No.1 of 1879, via the above-mentioned chamber arrangement of ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune’ to his last work, the Cello Sonata written in 1915. This audiophile quality multi-channel SACD presents these works in a unique coupling, not featured on any other disc.

KHACHATURIAN: VIOLIN SONATA AND DANCES FROM GAYANEH & SPARTACUS, Hideko Udagawa, violin, Boris Berezovsky, piano/Nimbus BOOJEEOG41  To some degree, Khachaturian is a victim of a similar syndrome to that affecting the colourful music of Respighi: the complete dominance of one or two pieces casting the rest of the work in the shade. This impressive reading of the Armenian composer’s muscular Violin Sonata should hopefully go some way to redressing the balance.

SCHUBERT: THE LATE PIANO SONATAS D784, 958, 959, 960, Paul Lewis, piano, Harmonia Mundi HMC902165/66 Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are the staples of many a pianist’s repertoire, but Paul Lewis readings of Schubert’s late essays in the genre may inspire other pianists to investigate these masterpieces. Paul Lewis is today regarded as one of the leading pianists of his generation, having won the most coveted prizes of the great classical institutions, for both his concert career and his recordings on Harmonia mundi, topped by three Gramophone Awards including Record of the Year in 2008. He is also the first pianist in the history of the BBC Proms to have played the complete Beethoven concertos in a single season (2010).

BEETHOVEN: COMPLETE STRING QUARTETS III: STRING QUARTET IN C MINOR, OP. 18, NO. 4, ‘GREAT FUGUE’ IN B FLAT MAJOR, OP. 133, STRING QUARTET IN F MAJOR, OP. 59, NO. 1,Quartetto di Cremona/Audite SACD 92.682  If you have been collecting the recordings by the Quartetto di Cremona’s of the Beethoven quartets (in analytical wide-ranging SACD sound), you will need little persuasion to investigate this latest addition to the cycle. Comparisons have already been drawn with the imperishable readings by another Italian Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano, and while such parallels are perhaps a little tendentious, this is nevertheless proving to be a truly impressive cycle. In the Quartetto di Cremona’s third volume of the Complete Beethoven String Quartets, enthusiastically received by press and audience alike, the ensemble undertakes a bold triple jump through Beethoven’s different stages of musical development. Presented here are the C minor work from the first, ingenious set of quartets Op. 18, the first of the highly virtuosic ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets Op. 59, as well as the Große Fuge [Great Fugue], a pinnacle of musical artistry.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.7 IN E MAJOR, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer/ Channel Classics SACD CCSSA33714 Fischer’s recordings with the Budapest Festival Orchestra are among the glories of the current music scene, and although this latest edition has occasioned some controversy over the speed of the readings, those who do not lament Fischer’s eschewingof funereal-style readings of the composer will find the liveliness and energy here winning, if a touch unpoetic. “Bruckner is the saint, the tzadik, the bodhisattva, the guru among composers. He is the purest and most capable of religious ecstasy.” So opines Ivan Fischer in the liner notes to this new recording of the 7th Symphony. Fischer is founder and Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This partnership has become one of the greatest success stories in the past 25 years of classical music. Intense international touring and a series of acclaimed recordings for Philips Classics, later for Channel Classics have contributed to Fischer’s reputation as one of the world’s most  successful orchestra leaders.

HAYDN: SYMPHONIES 92, 93, 97, 98 & 99, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis/ LSO Live SACD 0702  Leonard Bernstein had little truck with the authenticity movement when it came to the music of Haydn, and these recordings by the late Colin Davis suggests that the sound world of later composers such as Beethoven were in the conductor’s mind .The late Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra present a collection of Haydn’s London Symphonies alongside the spirited Oxford Symphony. Davis was long recognised as a pre-eminent Haydn interpreter. During his Indian summer with the orchestra he recorded both ‘The Creation’ and ‘The Seasons’ for LSO Live. The symphonies presented here were recorded in 2011 and make for revelatory listening. Entering a new chapter after the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s forward-looking late symphonies were conceived on a large scale and exude all the hallmarks of the composer’s protean maturity. Surpassing even his own high standards and received to an enormous success, their expressive strength and inventive mastery of form gave his international reputation a substantial boost: Haydn’s contrapuntal mastery and thematic rigour are fully evident.

JANACEK: STRING QUARTETS 1 & 2, PIANO CONCERTINO, Quatuor Prazak Praga Digitalis SACD DSD 250301  The long playing times of SACDs have led to some intriguing pieces of programming, very much the case here in the highly individual chamber works of Janacek. This is an unusual late Janacek chamber programme including the Concertino, an adventurous, amazingly experimental work. Its ‘programme’ recalls the naturalism and anthropomorphisms of the adventures of the ‘Cunning Little Vixen’ and the concluding Allegro, opening with an unpredictable, almost swaggering recitative, is progressively hinged on an increasingly rapid rhythm that leads to a popular scene of jubilation that foreshadows the fanfares of the Glagolitic Mass.

TEN YEARS OF MUSICA ITALIANA Selected highlights from the series Musica Italiana Gianandrea Noseda /CHANDOS 241-47  Inevitably, there is not much of a through line for this collection apart from its Italianate quality, but there is some glorious music here. This special ‘2 for 1’ compilation release celebrates ten years of Gianandrea Noseda’s Musica Italiana series. Recording with both the BBC Philharmonic and the Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino, Noseda has shown a remarkable commitment to championing long-forgotten scores by well-known composers as well as the finest works by altogether neglected ones. On Disc 1 he revives several works long absent from the concert hall. His recordings of the Symphony No. 2, Symphonic Fragments and Concerto for Orchestra excerpted here have brought Casella’s music to a new and passionate audience. Luigi Dallapiccola, a composer particularly close to Noseda’s heart, is known for his lyrical, Italianate take on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system; three contrasting works are represented here. Noseda’s highly acclaimed Respighi recordings heard here look beyond the tone poems for which the composer is best known, shining a light on some equally ravishing scores. Disc 2 presents a collection of orchestral movements from the richly romantic Italian operatic repertoire.

SAWYERS Cello Concerto/Symphony No. 2 Nimbus Alliance NI6281  Another intriguing composer deserving of our attention — one who admittedly does not give up all his secrets on first hearing, but who has a great deal to offer. Philip Sawyers’ works have been performed and broadcast in many countries worldwide including USA, Canada, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic, France and UK. Music-web International described the Nimbus Alliance CD of Sawyers’ orchestral work as “music of instant appeal and enduring quality”. Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source described the premiere of the second symphony by the London Mozart Players as a “deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic… one of the finest new symphonies by a British composer I have heard in years…” Sawyers began composing as a teenager, shortly after picking up the violin for the first time at the age of 13.  However, it has only been in the last few years that his talent has begun to be recognised with major commissions and performances by orchestras in the USA and frequent performances in Europe. His work has been performed by the London Mozart Players, Grand Rapids Symphony, Orchestra of the Swan, Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias, Fort Worth, Albany NY, Tuscon, Tulsa, Omaha and Modesto Symphony Orchestras.

BERLIOZ LA CAPTIVE, LA MORT DE CLEOPATRE, Het Gelders Orkest, Antonello Manacorda, Lisa Larsson/SACD Challenge Classics CC72639  Berlioz’s dramatic cantatas have enjoyed several successive readings of varying merit, but this is among the very best, captured in truly impressive surround sound. At times, even the classic Janet Baker reading is challenged – if not, finally, surpassed. Nevertheless, a striking disc.

THE MUSIC OF HANS ZIMMER, Various Orchestras/Silva Screen Records SILCD 1453  The last generation of great film composers has been thinned out over the years (we have lost such giants as Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein), although thankfully we still have John Williams with us, and – despite his age — in prime form. So who are the leaders of the new generation of film composers? Hans Zimmer undoubtedly has to be a key contender; extremely prolific, his inventive scores (which combine modern techniques with powerful Holstian orchestral writing) have become the default soundtrack for superhero movies, with the new screen incarnations of Superman and Batman enjoying his attention. This handsome six-CD box encapsulates and celebrate his achievement; I’m sure that Zimmer would be the first to admit he is not the class of Goldsmith and Co., but he is a composer of immense skill, and this boxed set makes for exciting, varied (if at times repetitive) and intriguing listening.

Freni, Domingo Butterfly for Blu-Ray

The Classic Karajan recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (also featuring Christa Ludwig, Robert Kerns and Michel Sénéchal) is a  long-time bestseller from the Unitel catalogue and has already been available in different video formats; it is now available on Blu-ray. It is staged, directed and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle