Graham Williams Reviews

VIVALDI: THE QUATTRO STAGIONI, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA40318  For the countless admirers of the playing of Rachel Podger and her Period group Brecon Baroque this latest recording of Vivaldi’s ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ (The Four Seasons) – the most celebrated four violin concertos drawn from his Op. 8 set of 12 violin concertos entitled ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ (The Trial of Harmony and Invention) – will be a mandatory purchase. Having already made superlative accounts for Channel Classics of Vivaldi’s ‘La Stravaganza’ Op.4, ‘La Cetra’ Op.9 and ‘L’Estro Armonico’ Op.3 (the latter with Brecon Baroque) – thirty six concertos in total – it is perhaps not surprising that Podger has, until now, avoided adding to the hundreds of recordings of ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ competing for attention in the catalogue. The violinist’s celebration of her 50th birthday has been the stimulus for this latest enterprise and it proves to be worthwhile in every way. The world-class virtuosi who together comprise Brecon Baroque have an unrivalled grasp of period style and this may be one reason why Podger decided to perform the work with one instrument to a part, a decision that brings each of her trusted colleagues into the spotlight as much as the principal soloist and director herself. The line-up consists of Johannes Pramsohler and Sabine Stoffer (violins), Jane Rogers (viola), Alison McGillivray (violoncello), Jan Spencer (violone), Daniele Caminiti (theorbo) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord/chamber organ) who both individually and collectively contribute as much as the soloist to the success of these performances. For some listeners used to performances with larger bodies of strings the relatively lean textures here may come as a shock, but one’s ear quickly adjusts to this and we are able to relish to the full the remarkable purity of the burnished sound and the colouristic opportunities offered to each instrumentalist, especially from the lute and theorbo. Needless to say Podger’s peerless execution of the solo part in each concerto is beyond reproach as is the abundant imagination she displays in ensuring that every aspect of Vivaldi’s pictorial imagery is perfectly defined for the listener. Pacing of the outer movements all four concertos is relaxed, but always full of rhythmic zest, while the reflective central movements are imbued with a mesmerising beauty, free from any indulgence. Most (though by no means all) versions of ‘The Four Seasons’ on disc add one of more fillers to the main work. Here the theme of Vivaldi compositions with programmatic titles is continued with the addition of three such concertos – the intimate ‘Il Riposo per Il Santissimo Natale’, RV 270, the lyrical’ Concerto L’Amoroso’ RV271 and finally the spectacular ‘Concerto Il Grosso Mogul’ RV208 – that add up to give this SACD a generous total playing time of 75.24. Rachel Podger’s lovely cantabile playing and seamless line characterise the first two of these concertos while her dazzling virtuosity is given free rein, especially in the scintillating cadenza that concludes the latter. It will come as no surprise to discover that the Channel Classics team (recording engineer Jared Sacks and producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood) have done full justice to these musicians by providing a beautifully balanced recording (5.0 channel DSD) of unparalleled realism that perfectly recreates the fine acoustic of St. Jude’s Church, London where from the 9th to the 12th of October 2017 the sessions took place. With the ever-burgeoning multiplicity of recordings of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ it is difficult for any newcomer to demand attention in what is arguably the most fiercely competitive market for any classical work. However, here we have a fresh, uplifting account of Vivaldi’s ubiquitous masterpiece performed impeccably by one of the world’s finest period violinists and recorded in state-of the art sound. What more needs to be said?

WALTON: VIOLA CONCERTO, etc., James Ehnes / BBC SO / Edward Gardner CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5210  The third release in Edward Gardner’s excellent Walton survey for Chandos features three of the composer’s less frequently performed works, beginning with his Viola Concerto. This was composed in 1928/29, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and was originally intended for the eminent viola player Lionel Tertis who initially rejected it. Walton revised the concerto in 1936 and again in 1961 in which the composer rescored the work for a smaller orchestra – double instead of triple woodwind, the omission of one trumpet and tuba but adding a harp – and it is this final version that is given here with the incomparable James Ehnes as soloist. Ehnes has already recorded Walton’s Violin Concerto for another label (unfortunately not on SACD), but on this new release he demonstrates that he is equally adept on his second instrument. The Viola Concerto is essentially a romantic work full of lyrical melancholy, ideally suited to the viola’s uniquely introspective timbre, though the central scherzo displays Walton’s characteristic rhythmic pungency. Ehnes, performing on a viola made c. 1740 by Carlo Bergonzi, gives a superbly poised and typically nuanced account of the work. The opening ‘Andante comodo’ allows appreciation of the silken sounds he draws from his instrument while the movement that follows marked ‘Vivo, e molto preciso’ demonstrates his unforced virtuosity to the full. The accompaniment from Gardner and the BBC SO is always alert while the balance between soloist and orchestra is very natural with no undue spotlighting of the solo viola. I can’t imagine Ehnes’s recording of this concerto being equalled let alone surpassed in the foreseeable future. In 1970 the conductor Neville Marriner tried unsuccessfully to persuade Walton to write a brand new work for his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, but Marriner was able to persuade the composer that his String Quartet of 1945-47 might be transcribed for string orchestra. With the assistance of Walton’s colleague and friend Malcolm Arnold the work was undertaken resulting in the ‘Sonata for String Orchestra’ heard here.The work is much more than a mere transcription of the Quartet. Walton made a number of changes to the original 1st movement and, by alloting many passages to solo instruments, he was able to provide intriguing contrasts in each of the four movements in addition to keeping textures clear. Aided by the wide-ranging Chandos recording, the interchange between the passages for solo quartet and the full string ensemble are startlingly etched, while the richness and athleticism of the BBC SO string section is beyond reproach. Walton’s ‘Partita for Orchestra’, the final work on this SACD was the result a commission from George Szell in 1955 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra of which he was the musical director. Amazingly Szell’s 1959 recording of this brilliant work was an early release on single layer SACD and is still in the catalogue. The work has three short movements whose titles are self explanatory. The two vigorous outer movements (Toccata Brioso and Giga Burlesca) use the full orchestra and require the maximem virtuosity from the players, while contrast of mood and pace are provided by the central ‘Pastorale Siciliana’ that opens with a duet between solo viola and solo oboe. To quote from the composer’s typically laconic programme notes for the first performance: “My Partita poses no problems, has no ulterior motive or meaning behind it and makes no attempt to ponder the imponderables”. Gardner and the BBC Symphony rise to the challenges of this engaging piece with terrific incisive playing in which the outer movements fairly crackle with kinetic thrust, while the middle movement moves with an easy grace thanks to the conductor’s flowing tempo. The crisp Chandos recording captures every detail of Walton’s spicy orchestration making this version in every way a worthy successor to Szell’s classic recording of the piece.In addition to the excellent engineering of Ralph Couzens, all three works benefit from the warm acoustic of the Watford Colosseum where they were recorded (17 and 18 June 2017) and I hope we will not have to wait too long for further Walton releases on SACD from this team – Belshazzar’s Feast and the two Coronation marches immediately spring to mind. Highly recommended to all Walton admirers.

 

Respighi from BIS, Schmitt from Chandos

SCHMITT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, SUITES FROM ‘ANTOINE ET CLEOPATRE’, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/Chandos SACD CHSA5200 Over many years record companies have somewhat fitfully mined the rich seam of works by the French composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). To many listeners, I suspect, the bulk of his prolific output remains pretty well unknown; the only possible exception being ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ Op. 50. That “drame muet” has received a number of fine recordings including one on SACD from Chandos. Like many of his Gallic contemporaries born in the 1860s and 70s Schmitt was influenced by both the legacy of Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy, but his music does possess a distinctive character of its own as is clear from the three works making their SACD debut on this outstanding new Chandos release. In 1920, Schmitt provided the incidental music for a lavish new production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in an adaptation by André Gide that was staged at the Paris Opera by the celebrated dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein. From this incidental music Schmitt later extracted the two extended Suites heard here. Within a few bars of the languorous opening of the 1st ‘Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite’ it is clear that Schmitt’s sound world is reminiscent of that of Ravel (especially the ballet ‘Daphnis and Chloe’), whilst Richard Strauss is also clearly an important influence on this sumptuously orchestrated and atmospheric music. The titles of five of the six movements relate directly to the play, but the middle section of the 2nd Suite is a thrilling ballet marked ‘Orgie et Danses’ that illustrates the composer’s complete mastery of his large orchestral palette. Sakari Oramo and the musicians of BBC Symphony Orchestra relish the opportunities Schmitt provides in this ravishing music and respond with beautifully cultured playing full of style and panache. The recordings (made in the generous acoustic of Watford Colosseum 29-30 October 2017) are wonderfully detailed, but with a sumptuous quality typical of this label. The other work on this disc is the Symphony No. 2 Op137 – the composer’s final orchestral composition – completed in 1957 when Schmitt was 87 years old. It received its first performance in Strasbourg in June 1958 in the presence of the composer and conducted by Charles Munch. The Symphony is in three movements (fast-slow-fast) and from the start it is immediately apparent that Schmitt, even in old age, has not lost his creative powers nor his ability for brilliant orchestration, demonstrated here by his fastidious use of an extensive percussion section that includes triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, xylophone, bass drum and bells. The music of the Symphony is both tonal and melodic; the energetic and engaging outer movements characterised by rapid and quirky changes of rhythm and mood that keep the players (and listeners) on their toes. The deeply felt slow middle movement with its yearning horn solos provides a sense of repose and perhaps a hint of nostalgia for earlier times. It quickly becomes clear that Sakari Oramo has the full measure of the complexities of this work and both he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra meet its technical challenges with ease. Once again the superb Chandos recording does full justice to Oramo’s masterly and sympathetic reading of Schmitt’s rewarding composition. Thanks both to the sonic benefits of multi-channel SACD and the quality of the performances, this release is a major addition the discography of this unduly neglected composer and can be unreservedly recommended.

RESPIGHI: VETRATE DI CHIESA; IL TRAMONTO; TRITTICO BOTTICELLIANO, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/BIS2250 SACD  There can be little doubt that John Neschling’s comprehensive series of recordings of Respighi’s orchestral works for BIS has set a standard in both performance and sonic terms that future competitors will find hard to emulate let alone exceed. The series began some eight years ago with a spectacular release of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy that not only fully embraced the benefits of multi-channel sound but also indicated the conductor’s empathy with Respighi’s music. Neschling’s orchestra then was the São Paulo Symphony, but for the four subsequent releases, including this one, he has collaborated with the fine Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège whose eloquent playing has additionally been enhanced by the superb acoustics of the Salle Philharmonique in Liège. This disc opens with Respighi’s charming ‘Trittico Botticelliano’ inspired by three of the Renaissance painter’s most famous canvases. The composer’s orchestral mastery is evident in every bar of these miniature tone poems for small orchestra that perfectly evoke the subject and mood of each of the paintings – ‘La Primavera’ (Spring), ‘L’adorazione dei Magi’ (The Adoration of the Magi) and ‘La nascita di Venere’ (The Birth of Venus). Neschling takes a more measured view of all three movements than many of his competitors on disc, and while this allows the listener to relish the clarity and luminous quality of the superb BIS recording, a touch more forward impetus would definitely have been advantageous. This is especially true of ‘La Primavera’ which lacks a modicum of the lightness and sparkle appropriate to its subject. Incidentally the liner notes lists this movement’s duration incorrectly as 4.54 when it is in fact 6.06. Respighi composed his exquisite setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Il Tramonto’ (The Sunset) in 1914. Though originally written for mezzo soprano and string quartet it is the version with string orchestra that is performed here. The choice of Anna Caterina Antonacci as the soloist is most welcome. The sensitivity of her ravishing singing and ability to communicate every nuance of the text to the listener is clearly a product of her wide experience on the opera stage, while Neschling’s flowing accompaniment is always attentive to the needs of his soloist. The BIS liner notes helpfully reproduce both the Italian and English text of Shelley’s poem. Finally we enter blockbuster territory with Neschling’s imposing account of the four-movement ‘Vetrate di Chiesa’. This work started life as ‘Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies’ and after the addition of a fourth piece, the composer orchestrated them and added evocative titles to each of the movements that suggest scenes that might appear on the stained-glass windows of a church.Here Neschling’s measured approach pays dividends giving Respighi’s Gregorian melodies a majesty and grandeur captured in a recording of unsurpassed splendour. The calm and poetic music of ‘La fuga in Egitto’ ( The Flight into Egypt) allows for some beautifully turned wind solos from the Liège players while the devotional ‘Il mattutino di Santa Chiara’ (The Matins of St. Clare) also features subtly nuanced string playing towards its close. Neschling is particularly successful in the pacing and dramatic thrust of the exciting ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ (St. Michael Archangel). The atmospheric off-stage trumpet solo in the middle of this piece is perfectly distanced on this recording and provides a moment of repose before the build up to the spectacular triple forte tam-tam crash that ends this section. The final and longest movement of the work is ‘San Gregorio Magno’ (St. Gregory the Great) and here the conductor’s clear sense of purpose and masterly control of his gargantuan orchestral forces, that include an organ and large percussion section, is never in doubt. He unfolds this imposing Gregorian fantasia with impressive solemnity before bringing it to a blazing peroration that will lift you from your seat. As I have already indicated the recording team of producer Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production) and sound engineer Martin Nagorni (Acantus Musikproduktion) have captured Neschling’s eloquent performances in state-of-the-art sound that could not conceivably do more justice to Respighi’s sumptuous scores. In every way this is a worthy addition to the finest Respighi survey on disc for many years.

 

 

New BIS, Chandos, PENTATONE

RACHMANINOV: PIANO CONCERTOS 2 & 3, Yevgeny Sudbin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS 2338SACD  From the composer himself onwards, recordings of Rachmaninov’s two most popular piano concertos (1 and 4 remaining less celebrated) have done considerable justice to these titans of the piano repertoire, and any new entry has to have a persuasive reason why it should be a contender. While Yevgeny Sudbin may not displace some of the talents of the past, this is a powerful, dramatic reading of both works, with the inestimable advantage of a typically impressive surround sound recording from BIS. Over the course of almost 10 years, Sudbin has been recording Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. The journey began in the U.S.A. in 2008 with the Fourth Piano Concerto, and what Classic FM Magazine described as ‘a glorious recording’ with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn. For the Paganini Variations and Piano Concerto No. 1, Sudbin continued to Asia and highly praised collaborations with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lan Shui. The grand finale of Sudbin’s Rachmaninov cycle combines the two best-loved concertos – No. 2 in C minor and No. 3 in D minor. His partners in these are the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor Sakari Oramo, the perfect companions.

BIZET: LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES, Soloists, Orchestre Nationale de Lille, Alexandre Bloch/ PENTATONE PTC 5186 685 (2 discs)  The confusion over the various versions of Bizet’s colourful (if absurd) operatic masterpiece continues to this day, but those seeking the most authentic version will find that the new PENTATONE recording amply fulfils their needs. What’s more, it’s sung with great conviction and passion, doing full justice to those sinuous vocal lines. Les Pêcheurs de Perles contains a quintessentially French blend of lyricism, exoticism and drama, and the four soloists (Julie Fuchs as Leïla, Cyrille Dubois as Nadir, Florian Sempey as Zurga and Luc Bertin-Hugault as Nourabad) belong to today’s best performers for this specialist repertoire. Their vocal excellence is matched by the choral contributions of Les Cris de Paris. The rich sound palette of Les Pêcheurs is fully brought to life by the inspired playing of the Orchestre National de Lille under the baton of its new Music Director Alexandre Bloch.

WALTON: VIOLA CONCERTO, etc. James Ehnes / BBC SO / Edward Gardner CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5210 (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)  The Edward Gardner series of recordings for Chandos have proved consistently excellent, maintaining the company’s long commitment to this glorious British composer. The selection on this latest disc, is particularly cherishable, given that none of the works on offer have been massively over-recorded. What is certain, however, is that these are among the most striking readings the pieces have ever enjoyed on disc, even stretching back as far as George Szell. ‘With Walton’s Viola Concerto, none of the writing is impossible but a lot of it is close. And in a way that is exactly where you want it to be: on the edge of technical limitations. There’s a tremendous amount of excitement in that.’ So says James Ehnes, who switches from his violin to tackle a monument in the viola’s literature, all superbly captured in surround sound

KORNGOLD: SYMPHONIC SERENADE, OP. 39 IN B FLAT MAJOR; SEXTET, OP. 10 IN D MAJOR (ARR. FOR STRINGS BY HARTMUT ROHDE), NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra, Hartmut Rohde/CPO 555138-2  It’s not difficult to spot the key reason for buying this disc: an orchestration of Korngold’s Sextet which does full justice to the composer’s full-blooded manner (if without that final ounce of mastery that he himself might have provided). For lovers of the ripely romantic music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, this is something of a treat. Not only is the performance of the Symphonic Serenade by Rohde and his forces more pointed than the otherwise admirable one by the BBC Philharmonic under Bamert (Chandos), we are given what is essentially a new Korngold orchestral piece: a sympathetic orchestration of the Sextet Opus 10. The arrangement for string orchestra by the conductor is perfectly attuned to the composer’s Straussian (but still highly individual) compositional character, and it’s a delightful piece — without replacing the original.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE PASSIONS OF VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Philharmonia Orchestra, Richard Hickox, Rachel Roberts, Alistair Mackie, Schola Cantorum of Oxford, James Burton/CRUXGZ001DVD   The days when Vaughan Williams’ achievement as one of the great English composers had slightly slipped out of modern favour are, thankfully, in the past. Almost every note that he composed has found (or is finding) its way onto disc. This Crux selection is a particularly enjoyable collection, performed with great affection by a variety of artists (including the late Richard Hickox) – and make for an intriguing programme.

MESSIAEN: CATALOGUE D’OISEAUX, Pierre-Laurent Aimard PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186670: Triple SACD + BONUS DVD  Classical CD Choice ran an interview with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard last month about this very set, and it’s heartening to report that the discs themselves do full justice to the pianist’s vision of his teacher Messiaen’s work. The performances are full of nuance (with perhaps a slight caveat that the pianist’s vocal interjections sometimes interpose themselves over the music). The renowned French pianist inaugurates his PENTATONE commitments with Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. The pianist had intimate ties to the composer himself and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, for whom Messiaen wrote the Catalogue. This is Aimard’s first recording of Messiaen’s most extensive, demanding and colourful piano composition. The luxurious CD box set contains an accompanying bonus DVD, on which Aimard shares his vast knowledge of and love for Messiaen’s work from behind the piano.

BIZET: DJAMILEH – COMIC OPERA IN ONE ACT,• Jennifer Feinstein, Eric Barry, George Mosley, Poznan Chamber Choir, Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Łukasz Borowicz/DUX 1412  While PENTATONE have supplied an exemplary reading of Bizet’s more familiar opera The Pearl Fishers (see above), it’s good to see the more neglected Djamileh appearing in a fine new reading on disc. And this is a very charming take on the one-act opera with a libretto by Louis Gallet. Djamileh tells an oriental love story between the title slave Djamileh and Cairo sultan Haroun. The plot, bringing to mind the atmosphere of One Thousand and One Nights, is a quite typical example of Romantic fascinations with the East. From the very beginning it raised Bizet’s doubts, who considered it to be too difficult for a stage adaptation. However, the artistic craft of the creator of Carmen balanced the libretto’s deficiencies, surrounding the story of oriental lovers with a suggestive sound aura, achieved thanks to an original instrumentation and bold, chromatised harmonic language. The craftsmanship of Jennifer Feinstein, performing the title part, allows the listener to enjoy all values of this little known opera.

MORYTO: WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA,The Witold Lutosławski Chamber Philharmonic in Łomza, Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, DUX  For those with adventurous tastes, this could be a CD well worth their time. This DUX CD is a review of Stanisław Moryta’s latest orchestral work, an outstanding contemporary composer, organist and teacher. Born in 1947, professor Moryto can boast of an exceptionally versatile artistic publishing activity, focused on Polish organ music and rich compositional output. Listening to the recording made by members of the Chamber Philharmonic Witold Lutosławski in Łomża, under the direction of Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, the listener will encounter original elaborations of motifs from Kurpie music and then follow the extensive dialogues of solo instruments in the Concerto for percussion, harp and string orchestra. Four Pieces in Polish Style for String Orchestra, Seven Kurpie Sings for Soprano and Orchestra, Suite for String Orchestra, Concerto for Percussion

BARTOK & KODALY: CONCERTOS FOR ORCHESTRA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša/PENTATONE PTC5186626  For a long time, Georg Solti’s readings of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra were nigh-definitive, but in the SACD years, we have been provided with new and dramatic readings. That’s the case here, although earlier readings (such as the recent Hungaroton recording by Kocsis) are not displaced. The Kodaly Concerto for Orchestra is more of a rarity, although listeners new to the piece should be aware that it is minor work by him, unlike the Bartok which is one of the composer’s key pieces. These exuberant pieces are collected in vivid performances from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the podium sensation Jakub Hrůša on this release.

GRIEG: PIANO CONCERTO IN A MINOR, OP. 16; SKETCHES FOR PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN B MINOR – PREMIERE

FREDERICK DELIUS: PIANO CONCERTO IN C MINOR (1907), Mark Bebbington, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig/ Somm 269  While the well-known the first concerto of Grieg is given a strong reading here, it is the orchestrated sketches – and solo piano passages – of the composer’s unfinished second piano Concerto which is the drawing point here. In the event, rather disappointingly, it turns out to be only eight minutes or so of music, and hardly indicates what the finished work would have been had the composer completed it. Nevertheless, it is intriguing listening for those who love Grieg, and the other piece here, the Delius piano concerto, is given any very sympathetic reading.

KARAYEV: SYMPHONY NO. 1, VIOLIN CONCERTO *, Janna Gandelman, Violin *,Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky/Naxos 8.573722  While many music lovers are content to spend their listening time in the company of old favourites from Beethoven to Respighi, there are those of us who are always on the lookout for something new to tickle the ear. New, that is, in the sense that while the music may be composed sometime in the past, it has largely remained unfamiliar. Case in point? Kara Karayev was one of the most prominent figures in the music of 20th-century Azerbaijan, and an inspiration to subsequent generations of Azerbaijani composers. His eloquently expressive and tautly dramatic First Symphony is a significant work in Karayev’s output, reflecting both the harmonies and melodic characteristics of the South Caucasus region and, in its orchestral brilliance, the influence of his mentor Shostakovich. The Violin Concerto shows a notable shift in style, exploring the serial techniques that add astringency and inventive depth to Karayev’s already richly coloured and vividly diverse palette.

VIVALDI: THE QUATTRO STAGIONI, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA40318 (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)  Not another Four Seasons, I hear you cry? Yes – and a very welcome one, given the absolute (and very typical) commitment to the music shown by Rachel Podger and the Brecon Baroque. Earlier readings by these forces have made very persuasive cases for the various scores that they have tackled, but they have set themselves a particularly challenging task in this case, with the music so overfamiliar for most listeners that a truly fresh and energetic approach is required – precisely what The Red Priest gets here. The sheer athletic prowess of the players provides music-making that banishes all thoughts of those interminable waits on phone lines with ‘Spring’ on a perpetual loop. We can hear it afresh in this new recording, which becomes one of the definitive readings at a stroke. Together with the star players of Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger guides us through the seasons of nature and life. The musical range is sensational and matched all the way by Jared Sacks’s luminous and emotionally engaged recorded sound.
OTHER NEW DISCS

Also worthy of attention are a brace of new discs with notable individual qualities. The Audite label has a colourful and idiomatic quartet of readings of Strauss (RICHARD STRAUSS: MACBETH, DON JUAN, TOD AND VERKLARUNG AND THE FESTMARSCH IN C) with the Staatskaplle Wein conducted by Kiril Karabits, while the Alpha imprint boasts a very competitive reading of Scandinavian works (SIBELIUS, RAUTAVAARA: VIOLIN CONCERTOS) played by the virtuoso Tobias Feldmann and the Orchestre Philharmonique conducted by the authoritative Jean-Jaques Kandorow; there are many impressive readings of the Sibelius in the catalogue, but this is a real contender. From Linn, BIBER: THE MYSTERY SONATAS is granted an emotional reading by the Boston Baroque with Christina Day Martinson and Martin Pearlman, while from Les Soloistes de L’OSM, we are given intriguing versions of the BEETHOVEN’S SEPTET and a chamber version of STRAUSS’S TILL EULENSPIEGEL on the Analekta label. Finally, impressive readings of RAVEL, FRANCK, LIGETI AND MESSIAEN: CHAMBER WORKS from the Duo Gazzana on the ECM New Series imprint; the attention to detail on this fine disc is fastidious, with highly impressive results.

Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh, Faber, £20

If you are an admirer of the greatest of all French Impressionist composers (with Ravel running him a close second), your library will probably sport several biographies of Claude Debussy. So why should Stephen Walsh’s new attempt to assess the life and achievement of the composer be worthy of your attention? The answer — quite simply – is that it is one of the most astute and sympathetic studies of the composer that you are likely to read. In fact, Walsh’s own description, ‘A biography of sorts’, suggests the particularly astute balancing act he performs between celebrating the exquisite music and the turbulent life of this difficult, temperamental man. Walsh’s study, couched in elegant prose, never falls into the simply sequential. With fresh insights into such masterpieces as La Mer as well as little-known works such as Debussy’s unfinished opera based on Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, this becomes at a stroke a definitive guide to the life and work of a great French composer.

Barry Forshaw

Channelling Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard talks to Classical CD Choice

Pierre-Laurent Aimard on his new recording for PENTATAONE of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Classical CD Choice spoke to the much-acclaimed French pianist about his illustrious teacher

Your new recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux is one that surely would have pleased the composer. You studied with him; did you feel his presence metaphorically at your side as you recorded the piece for PENTATONE? 

Well, you might say that I felt Messiaen’s presence – in a spiritual sense at least. Certainly, when I was playing this piece, I was conscious of how the composer not only created a new language of music, but also of how he instilled in the listener an immersion into a new meditative state – the experience of a composition by Messiaen should possess a variety of extra-musical elements which a pianist such as myself must try to realise. In many ways, it’s the perfect music for our own over-busy, invasive world in which sound can be a source of distraction rather than beauty or transcendence.

How important is your shared nationality with the composer? Is there any reason why a French pianist such as yourself might find it easier to enter the Francophone world of Messiaen?

Shared nationality? Not important at all! I consider myself more European than French in any case, and all great music must have a universality which means that performers from all countries could do justice to it. In the case of Messiaen, just look at how many musicians from your own country are superb interpreters of the composer — Jennifer Bate in his organ music, for instance.

Which is more important in this piece: peerless technique or entering on an emotional level the world of the composer’s mystical relationship with nature?

I think I can answer that by saying that the technique is a vessel through which the music must pass. Of course, you have to have the technique under your belt, but a piece like Catalogue d’Oiseaux must never simply become a showcase for the pianist. And as for that relationship with nature, I was reminded how crucial that was by giving a performance recently in a hide for birdwatchers – in fact, the audience was half birdwatchers and half music lovers, and I noticed that the birdwatchers had the patience and perceptiveness required to respond to music that most of them would not have heard before. I found it a very enlightening experience!

Catalogue d’Oiseaux is demanding on both the performer and to some degree the listener (though immensely rewarding). How much would you recommend the domestic listener consumes at a sitting – more than one disc? 

That’s up to each individual listener, but I suppose someone new to the piece must approach it with care and patience — hopefully they will find it rewarding enough to develop their capacity to experience exactly what Messiaen was attempting to convey.

The PENTATONE company has a particularly analytical surround sound recording technique in which every pianistic nuance is registered. Does this place more demands on you as a performer?

Frankly, I’m very grateful that I have recorded this music at this particular time in my life, when recording techniques such as those practised by PENTATONE are so advanced, and can do full justice to the entire range of the piano sound. Just listen, for instance, to the timbre of the piano that the engineers have accorded the music. I like to think that Messiaen would have been very pleased by this recording; the reproduction of piano sound has moved on considerably since his day.