Featured Reviews

Honeck’s Beethoven & Strauss

GRAHAM WILLIAMS WRITES:

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO.3, R. STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-728  Manfred Honeck’s tenure at the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began in 2008 has arguably transformed this orchestra from an already first class one into a great one. It is no surprise therefore that the orchestra has extended his contract until 2020. Thanks to the Reference Recordings Fresh! series this transformation can readily be experienced by listeners world wide, as some of their choicest performances have been, and continue to be, captured in superlative multi-channel sound and issued both on SACD and as high resolution downloads. This latest release, the eighth in the series, pairs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Op 55 (“Eroica”) with the Horn Concerto No.1 of Richard Strauss. At a first glance this might appear an odd combination, but coupling a concerto written for the most heroic instrument of the orchestra with Beethoven’s “heroic” symphony – both works incidentally sharing the key of E flat major – certainly makes sense. Continue reading

New from CPO, Chandos, PENTATONE, Tacet: Graham Williams Reviews

LARSSON: SYMPHONIC WORKS, VOL. 3, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Manze/CPO 777673-2 SACD  This is the third and final release from Andrew Manze and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in CPO’s valuable survey of the orchestral works of Lars-Erik Lassson (1908-1986). The first two volumes were reviewed by me in 2014 and 2015, but why collectors have had to wait almost three years for this latest release to appear is a mystery since the music on all three volumes was recorded in 2011! Though not a prolific composer Larsson’s compositions encompass most musical genres – orchestral, works for solo instrument, chamber and opera. His music spans late romanticism, neo-classicism and he even adapted aspects of serialism to his own needs. It is perplexing as to why this fine composer has not gained greater popularity outside his native Sweden as his best music possesses the wide range of distinctive qualities that one associates with many of the greatest Nordic composers, Sibelius, Nielsen, Stenhammar et al. As with Volumes 1 and 2 the pattern is the same here. A symphony (in this case No.3 from 1944-45) is coupled with compositions from a different period in the composer’s compositional career. Larsson’s Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.34 the main work on this SACD is an arresting and dramatic work. As Christoph Schlüren, writer of the most informative liner notes suggests, the shade of Beethoven’s 5th is evoked by the driving five note theme of the opening ‘allegro con brio’. Contrast arrives with a wonderful romantic and expansive melody on the horns before both themes are satisfyingly developed with Larsson’s customary skill before reaching a surprisingly curt ending. The deeply felt slow movement is full of yearning lyricism and warmth while the brief scherzo that follows possesses both a delicacy and urgency beautifully conveyed by the crisp articulation Manze elicits from his Helsingborg players. The finale begins with a brief solemn introduction that quotes the aforementioned horn theme from the first movement before the arrival of the scampering allegro molto. The music dances along with considerable wit and boisterous exuberance that will delight the receptive listener. This is only the second commercial recording of the Symphony since its premiere in 1946. Larsson’s self doubt and sensitivity to criticism led to his withdrawal of the work immediately after its premier in 1946 (as was the case with his earlier two symphonies) though the finale was given a new life in 1948 as Concert Overture No.3 (Op.34). The ‘Adagio for String Orchestra’ Op. 48 and the ‘Three Orchestral Pieces’ Op. 49 that follow were composed in the 1960s and are examples of his free use of 12-tone style, though they are a world away from the composers of the 2nd Viennese School. On this disc the ‘Three Orchestral Pieces’ are placed before the ‘Adagio for String Orchestra’ rather than the chronological order ( Op.48 then Op.49) as Andrew Manze considers that the final minutes of Op.49 lead naturally into the opening of Op.48. The final work on this disc is ‘Musica permutatio for Orchestra’ Op.66. Dating from 1980, it was commissioned by Swedish Radio and was Larssson’s final work. It demonstrates that the composer had not lost his creative spark nor his ability to handle contrapuntal complexities while at the same time fashioning an inventive piece free from dry academicism. Andrew Manze achieves the same clarity of texture and focus in these pieces that are familiar from his many outstanding period performances, and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra respond to his direction with committed playing throughout. The works were recorded in the Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden (August 16-18, 2011 (1-4) September 20-22, 2011 (5-9) by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn (producer) and Torbjörn Samuelsson (engineer) and, as with the previous issues, the sound is clean, spacious and well balanced. Larsson’s appealing and fastidiously fashioned music deserves much wider dissemination and it is to be hoped that, thanks to the advocacy of Andrew Manze, his fine Helsingborg musicians not to mention CPO’s excellent recording, this will be soon expedited.

COPLAND: SYMPHONY NO. 3, LETTER FROM HOME, DOWN A COUNTRY LANE, CONNOTATIONS, BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson/Chandos CHSA 5222 SACD  John Wilson’s illuminating and finely engineered series of recordings for Chandos of the orchestral and symphonic works of Aaron Copland has been especially noteworthy not only for the inclusion of the composer’s most familiar compositions but also for a number his lesser known pieces that rarely, if ever, appear on concert programmes. This latest volume continues the pattern by coupling Copland’s monumental 3rd Symphony with a pair of comparatively light-weight and accessible pieces plus a major neglected composition from 1962. This latter work is ‘Connotations’ commissioned by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for a gala concert inaugurating the orchestra’s new home in Lincoln Centre. The celebrity audience at the premiere included the First Lady Jackie Kennedy, fellow composers, distinguished politicians and leading figures in the arts world. ‘Connotations’ is composed in a single movement lasting around twenty minutes (here 18.42) that certainly challenges the listener. It uses Copland’s own take on serialism and contrast of mood is provided by alternating fast and slow passages. The brilliant orchestration features pungent strings, harsh winds and pounding percussion. Wilson’s committed and incisive performance combined with the superb playing of the BBC Philharmonic could hardly do more justice to this uncompromising but rewarding piece. Copland’s 3rd Symphony has appeared only once before on SACD in a most recommendable version from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony.John Wilson opts for a slightly more energetic and lively approach to the score than Kalmar without short changing the vital breadth and expansiveness of the Symphony’s outer movements. The jazzy second movement and perky central section of the third certainly benefit from the precision and rhythmic bite that Wilson engenders from his Manchester based musicians. The Chandos sonics reflect the clarity of the recording acoustic (MediaCityUK, Salford) and allow the climaxes to be delivered with considerable punch. Pentatone provide a warmer, less immediate, sound that beautifully captures the acoustic signature of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Kansas. A clear choice between the two versions is frankly impossible and for many listeners it may well be determined by their respective couplings. In 1944 the bandleader Paul Whiteman established the Creative Music Fund to commission a series of short works, to be played by his own orchestra, for a late night radio show. The generous financial incentive offered ($1000) tempted a number of leading composers to submit their compositions. These included, amongst others, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Roy Harris and Igor Stravinsky. ‘Letter from Home’ was Copland’s contribution and it was duly premiered by Whiteman in 1944 October. Copland subsequently revised the piece twice and it is his final version for chamber orchestra that is recorded here. ‘Down a Country Lane’ is also scored for small forces. Originally written as a solo piano piece, Copland orchestrated it in 1964 and in its orchestra garb it became a popular choice for school and youth orchestras. With their finely paced and idiomatic performances, Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic convey the homespun simplicity and melodic warmth of these two engaging and unpretentious pieces making a fitting conclusion to what is another most impressive addition to this valuable series.

RICHARD STRAUSS: ABER DER RICHTIGE: VIOLIN CONCERTO AND MINIATURES, Arabella Steinbacher WDR Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster/PENTATAONE SACD PTC 5186653  It comes as no surprise to learn that Arabella Steinbacher’s parents, as ardent lovers of the music of Richard Strauss, named their daughter after the eponymous heroine of the composer’s tenth opera composed in 1933. This album entitled ‘Aber der Richtige…’ is conceived as the violinist’s personal tribute to a composer she greatly admires and was recorded at the Kölner Philharmonie (23-24 and 26-27 May 2017) by West Deutscher Rundfunk engineers. The main work on this SACD is Strauss’s early ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor Op.8’, written in 1881-1882 when he was just 17 years old. Though an impressive achievement for a teenager it shows little or any traces of his future genius, its style being modelled largely on Mendelssohn, Bruch and Schumann. Steinbacher’s gives an ardent and beautifully executed account of the long first movement, receiving splendid support and playing of both great vitality and finesse from the WDR Symphony Orchestra directed by Lawrence Foster. The song-like ‘Lento ma non troppo’ that follows benefits from the violinist’s richness of tone and her hushed ethereal playing that together perfectly capture the movement’s sense of repose. Naturally she dispatches the high jinks of final Rondo with all the winning virtuosity and crisp articulation that one could wish for. It is also pleasing to note that throughout the balance between soloist and orchestra on this recording is very natural with no highlighting of the former as is so often the case on many concerto recordings. Altogether a most recommendable version of an admittedly minor work. Regrettably Strauss in his long career composed just two solo violin works; the concerto discussed above and the ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in E flat Op18’. Arabella Steinbacher has already recorded a lovely account of the latter for PENTATONE so inevitably the rest of her programme on this disc consists of arrangements for violin and orchestra of pieces not conceived for this instrumental combination and described here as “Miniatures”. The transcription of the early ‘Romance in F major’ for cello and orchestra certainly loses little when transferred to the violin, and Steinbacher’s warmly expressive reading does full justice to this melodic composition. The arrangement by Peter von Wienhardt of the fourth of Strauss’s ‘Five Piano Pieces Op.3 also sparkles thanks to the soloist’s zestful playing. The remaining works on the disc are transcriptions of four of Strauss’s most well-known songs and the aforementioned ‘Aber der Richtige…’duet from Arabella. Few would argue that Strauss’s vocal writing, especially for the female voice, is one of his greatest achievements, as can be evidenced throughout his extensive Lieder and operatic output. Though one can not deny the ravishing beauty of Arabella Steinbacher’s renditions, it must be admitted that the violin is no substitute for the range, power and unique qualities of the human voice in these songs. That noted, the many admirer’s of this artist’s recordings need not hesitate in adding this most enjoyable SACD to their collections.

MOZART: SYMPHONIES KV 425 “LINZ”,” KV 385 “HAFFNER”, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Gordan Nikolić/Tacet S230 SACD  A new release coupling of two of Mozart’s most popular symphonies in multi-channel SACD would appear to be unremarkable, even when performed by such a fine body of musicians as the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra directed by their long time musical director Gordan Nikolić. This, however, is no ordinary SACD but one recorded in TACET’s astonishing and, to some, controversial ‘Real Surround Sound’. TACET’s philosophy is to use the whole acoustic space available in one’s listening room by making full use of the 5 or 5.1 channels usually available on a Blu-ray disc or SACD. Whereas the majority of multi-channel recordings attempt, with varying degrees of success, to create the illusion of a concert hall layout by using the front channels to carry the musical performance and the rears to add the acoustic signature of the venue through extra ambient information, TACET’s approach is crucially different. The musicians sit in a circle (its diameter dependent on the number of performers involved) facing the centre where the microphones are positioned. The comprehensive booklet notes that accompany this SACD illustrate the instrumental layouts for each of these symphonies. Careful adjustment of levels and speaker positioning are needed to realise accurately engineer Andreas Spreer’s visual representations and success will, of necessity, be determined by one’s own system and domestic surroundings. The rewards are well worth the effort as one hears these familiar works as if with fresh ears. Both symphonies were recorded in the most agreeable acoustic of the NedPho-Koepel (the former Majellakerk), Obiplein, Amsterdam in February 2017. Of course none of this technological wizardry would matter without the correspondingly high musical values evident in these performances. Gordan Nikolić is probably most familiar to UK audiences as an outstanding concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra but also for his many recordings as both a conductor and soloist for a variety of record labels. His performances of both the ‘Haffner Symphony’ and the ‘Linz’ are crisp, polished and evenly paced, the only possible exception being the slow movement of the ‘Haffner’ which though lovingly phrased seems to me a tad too measured, especially with the repeat included as here. The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra perform on modern instruments but with the use of natural horns and trumpets and timpani played with wooden sticks – a nod to so-called “period style”. Though some will regret the absence of hell-for-leather tempi and vibratoless string playing, these eloquent performances capture both the festive nature and grandeur of these masterpieces in a way that will give much pleasure to many, whether listening in 2-channel Stereo or 5.1 Real Surround Sound. Highly recommended.

I Saw Eternity the Other Night by Timothy Day; Chopin’s Piano by Paul Kildea

I Saw Eternity the Other Night: King’s College, Cambridge and an English Singing Style by Timothy Day Allen Lane, £25

When a German critic (not Brahms, as often erroneously attributed) described England as ‘Das Land ohne Music’ (‘the land without music’),’ it wasn’t true then, and it is even less true when the legacy of such composers as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten began to be known throughout the world. And certainly one area in which the UK has excelled is in an indigenous choral singing style, best exemplified by the nonpareil work of King’s College, Cambridge. Timothy Day’s fascinating study could not be more timely, as this year is the hundredth anniversary of the College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. In a style which is fastidiously intelligent but always accessible, Day (for many years curator of Western art music in the British Library’s Sound Archive) traces the King’s College style from its Victorian origin (noted initially for its rough and ready approach, with the singers only having the barest essentials of musical knowledge), to the high level of professional endeavour that is the norm today. Day is also an authority on recorded music, and notes how the advent of the longplaying record in the 1950s and 1960s that disseminated the sound of the choir. Under the direction of the much-respected David Willcocks, the choir perfected the celebrated King’s sound which — with its clarity and feeling — quickly established itself as the status quo for English choral singing. I Saw Eternity the Other Night also addresses such issues as the background of the societies and communities that typified the approach described in the book – mostly, of course, middle-class, but stretching in appeal beyond what might be perceived as the natural fiefdom of such music. The author’s earlier books include A Century of Recorded Music as well as a study of Hereford Choral Society, which makes him the natural chronicler of this subject. Such is the authority of the book that it’s hard to imagine another study doing the kind of justice to the King’s College sound that Day accords it here.

 

Chopin’s Piano: A Journey through Romanticism by Paul Kildea Allen Lane, £20

When in November 1838 Chopin and Georges Sand took a trip to Majorca to escape from the rigours of the Parisian winter, they stayed in an abandoned monastery in the Palma mountains where the composer finished the creation of one of the key works of the piano repertoire: his 24 Preludes. This fascinating document – quite unlike anything that Chopin aficionados will have encountered before – looks at the history of the composer’s masterpiece and the various instruments on which it has been played, along with its many gifted interpreters. Kildea’s unorthodox book makes for a fascinating study, and the subtitle, ‘A Journey through Romanticism’, shows that by concentrating on one particular topic, the author has — inter alia — opened a window on to a whole musical field.

Holst from Chandos, Shostakovich from LSO Live

SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONY NO. 8, London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda/LSO Live LSO 0822 SACD  Few orchestras have the measure of one of Shostakovich’s most cogent symphonic utterances, the imposing Eighth Symphony, to the degree that the London Symphony orchestra demonstrably does – and under the exemplary direction of Gianandrea Noseda, they have produced (in surround sound of the greatest impact) a highly competitive reading of striking weight and power.

HOLST: ORCHESTRAL WORKS VOL. 4, BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA 5192 Remarkably translucent SACD sound distinguishes this latest addition to a highly collectable Holst series. The progress of this very welcome project has been attenuated (to say the least), but patient admirers of the composer have been rewarded by a sympathetic set of readings of Holst’s music, both familiar and less familiar. This latest volume largely concentrates on the latter, and while even the most ardent Holst admirer would not make any great claims for the rather uncharacteristic Cotswolds Symphony, it’s still an acquisition that will please many – as will the orchestration for strings of the wind band piece A Moorside Suite. The real gem here, of course, is Indra, an exotic and colourful piece that has all the distinctive fingerprints of the composer. Sir Andrew Davis’s exploration of Holst’s orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic is the continuation of a series initiated almost ten years ago by the late Richard Hickox. This latest collection of orchestral works by Holst is something of an overview of his career, ranging from such early works as A Winder Idyll (composed in 1897 when he was still studying at the Royal College of Music) to the Scherzo of a symphony on which he was working towards the end of his life. None of the music recorded here was published in his lifetime, but all of it is worthy of the attention of Holstians.

BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 3, ALTO RHAPSODY, HUNGARIAN DANCES, SCHUBERT SONGS, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard/BIS 2319 SACD  Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this disc is its unusual collection of ancillary pieces, all of which will make the purchase of the disc de rigeuer for the Brahmsian. As for the performance of the Third Symphony, it is perfectly efficient but perhaps lacks the distinction that Thomas Dausgaard and his forces previously bought to their cycles of the symphonies of Schubert and Schumann. The 40-odd members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and their conductor Dausgaard are well on their way to completing their series of Brahms’s orchestral works. This disc opens with the Symphony No. 3, followed by the rare orchestrations of six Schubert songs, with Anna Larsson and Johan Reuter as vocal soloists. As on previous discs, Dausgaard has included a set of the much-loved Hungarian Dances in his own orchestrations. The disc closes with one of Brahms’s most personal works, the Alto Rhapsody that he composed after having learned that Robert Schumann’s daughter Julie, with whom he was secretly in love, had become engaged to another man.

LARSSON: SYMPHONIC WORKS, VOL. 3, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Manze/CPO 777673-2 SACD   If you are the kind of listener who is seeking out something more adventurous than the standard repertoire, it is perhaps time for you to make the acquaintance of the music of Lars-Erik Larsson. And there is no better place to start than with this highly engaging reading of his Third Symphony, music of the modern age which nevertheless takes of the pleasures of tonality and approachability. CPO’s series of recordings of Larsson’s symphonic works is now finally complete. The composer’s Third symphony (a four-movement work) is a masterpiece, and it is difficult to understand why Larsson withdrew this symphony shortly after its premiere and retained only the finale, now with a new, lengthier slow introduction and the title Concerto Overture No. 3. This finale is in fact a movement of especially captivating elegance, a unique humorous quality, and outstanding craftsmanship, but the symphony has to be experienced in toto – as here.

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO.3, R. STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-728  The more genned-up classical listener will have added to their mental lists a particularly unbeatable combination: the dynamic conductor Manfred Honeck (with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) and the American classical label Reference Recordings, whose mastery of audiophile values now has few rivals in the field. In a continuing series of impressive recordings, the conductor, orchestra and the label have managed to bring a fresh perspective to some familiar music — and they have presented themselves a particular challenge on this enterprising disc. But you might ask why I’ve utilised the adjective ‘enterprising’ when this is yet another recording in the endless stream of takes on Beethoven’s third Symphony — but a fresh reading of Strauss’s first Horn Concerto sets both works in a new context and forces the listener to listen afresh. When so many recordings of the mighty Eroica have done considerable justice to Beethoven’s masterpiece, something special is needed for each new recording, and that is precisely what Honeck and his forces offer in this incisive and exhilarating reading. The disc was recorded in Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and mastered in wide-ranging audiophile sound by the team at Soundmirror. (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)

BERLIOZ: REQUIEM/GRANDE MESSE DES MORTS, Bergen Philharmonic, Soloists, Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD CHSA 5219  When Roger Norrington’s remarkable surround sound recording of the Berlioz Requiem appeared, utilising all available channels (and thus replicating the composer’s stated intention of putting the audience at the centre of the music), it seemed that a definitive reading – and recording of immense range – had assumed default position as a listener’s choice. But now that Norrington set has an imposing rival which similarly utilises all the resources of multichannel recording to great dramatic effect, and the choice between the two becomes difficult. If Norrington’s choir and soloists have slightly more pointed articulacy (at least as accorded to them by the engineers), there is no denying the sheer impact of the forces made available to Edward Gardner who has been proving through his series for Chandos his immense flexibility and versatility as a musician. The new recording thoroughly utilises the spatial possibilities of Grieghallen in Bergen. As has been pointed out, the music is not that of an orthodox believer but of a visionary (as with the similarly sceptical Vaughan Williams and Brahms).

CHOPIN: NOCTURNES, Ingrid Fliter/Linn CKD 565   These exquisite masterpieces for the piano could hardly be said to have been neglected over the years, and with so many impressive performances on disc, Ingrid Fliter (as she is no doubt aware) is entering a crowded field. Those who know her earlier Chopin performances will not be surprised to learn of the poetry and musicality of these recordings, sadly only in CD stereo sound rather than Linn’s superb earlier use of the SACD medium. Some extraneous vocal noises by the pianist are not distracting.

SCHREKER: THE BIRTHDAY OF THE INFANTA – SUITE, PRELUDE TO A DRAMA, ROMANTIC SUITE, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta/Naxos  if your personal yardstick for full-blooded late romantic music is a tone poems by Richard Strauss, but you have played to exhaustion your discs of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan, then there is a lesser-known composer who may slake that late romantic thirst. Franz Schreker was a prominent figure in early 20th-century Austro-German music, his reputation as an opera composer rivalling that of Richard Strauss. The Prelude to a Drama is the concert overture of Schreker’s acclaimed opera Die Gezeichneten, a lurid drama involving murder and madness. Conceived as a theatrical pantomime, The Birthday of the Infanta adapts Oscar Wilde’s tragic tale of an ugly dwarf who dies of a broken heart. Perfomances her do full justice to the music, while not quite matching the idiomatic readings of the concurrent Chandos Schreker series.

Classical CD Choice Disc of the Month  MOZART: SYMPHONIES KV 425 “LINZ”,” KV 385 “HAFFNER”, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Gordan Nikolić/Tacet S230 SACD  When the Tacet label extols the virtues of its ‘real surround sound’, it is speaking with nothing less than the absolute truth. The company’s policy of placing the listener absolutely central in any musical experience – in other words, utilising all available channels of the SACD medium for more than just ambience and locating the instruments both behind and in front of the listener — has at times been a controversial one, but the impressive results speak for themselves. For those with a proper equipment (and that naturally includes classical listeners with a taste for the richest and most comprehensive reproduction of sound values), the Tacet discs are a truly exhilarating listening experience. That is very much the case with these pointed and athletic performances of two of Mozart’s best loved symphonies. Part of the success of the Tacet label is the fact that with this particular recording method, every strand of the orchestration can be heard with total clarity – and this Mozart disc is the perfect calling card.

HANDEL: ODE FOR ST CECILIA’S DAY, Dunedin Consort, John Butt/Linn CKD578  With its dramatic and colourful sound values, this recording of Handel’s ever-popular choral piece bids fair to be the most impressive reading of the piece in years – and one that at a stroke become the definitive available version. While taking on board current practices in Handel performance, there is a warmth and affection to the reading that is pleasantly redolent of an earlier era – the best of all possible worlds, in fact. A rich and colourful tribute to music’s patron saint, recorded during this year’s Misteria Paschalia Festival in Poland, the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day sees them joined for the first time by tenor Ian Bostridge and soprano Carolyn Sampson. Bostridge demonstrates the technical mastery and vocal precision that has seen him win many of the major international record prizes in his twenty-five year career. Highly sought-after for her refined Baroque sensibilities and pure intonation, Sampson’s lyric soprano is ideally suited to Handel. Led by John Butt, with singers from the Polish Radio Choir, this rich and colourful tribute to music’s patron saint is the latest in their much-lauded Handel discography, which includes Messiah, Acis & Galatea and Esther, each having won widespread acclaim.

HANDEL: ABBANDONANTA: ITALIAN CANTATAS, Carolyn Sampson, at the Kings Consort, Robert King/Vivat 117  Along with the recording of Handel’s Ode to St Cecilia’s Day discussed above, this disc clearly proves that we are living in something of a golden age of Handel recordings. Apart from its considerable musical values (notably a strong, incisive approach to the cantatas, with Carolyn Sampson in glorious voice), this is something of a deluxe presentation with a 60 page booklet as part of the package.

PARRY: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales / Rumon Gamba/ CHAN 10994  Admirers of Vaughan Williams sometimes turn to the music of one of his tutors, Parry, to hear pre-echoes of their favourite composer. But it has to be said that this is usually done more in the spirit of optimism than realism, as Vaughan Williams was by far the more radical musician. But Parry’s music has its appeal, as this disc from Chandos Records proves, and this is an attractive collection, if hardly proof that Parry belongs along with on the slopes of Mount Parnassus with such composers as Elgar and Britten. To commemorate the centenary of Parry’s death, Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales offer this rare album of major works never recorded before, at the centre of which stands the original version of Parry’s Symphony No. 4.

RIMSKY AND CO. : ORIGINALS, Various orchestras, Major Arjan Tien/Channel Classics CCSA 4818  This is a novel concept, brought off rather winningly. Lesser-known pieces by Prokofiev (the Athletic Festival March) and Khachaturian’s To the Heroes of the Russian War (both, as their titles suggest, a touch tub-thumping — if fun) are set against more familiar pieces by Stravinsky and Shostakovich in lively enthusiastic performances.

A FESTIVAL OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury/King’s College Cambridge Double CD  The first observation that should be made about this mellifluous recording is just how faithfully the sound engineers (in the later recordings) have captured the experience of hearing the music in situ. We are used to impressive recordings of the Choir of Kings College from their own label, so there is not a quantum leap here – merely a continuation of the recording tradition established earlier in which the finessing of the distinctive timbre of the choir is matched with performances that do full justice to the perfectly judged musical values. The attraction here is partly due to the fact that this special double album presents the lengthy history of the choir via such directors of music as David Willcocks, Philip Ledger and (of course) Stephen Cleobury in recordings which reach from the late 1950s to the present. It is a fascinating aural history.

STRAVINSKY: PETRUSHKA, JEU DE CARTES, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky SACD MARO577 Interestingly, this is the second of two recordings of Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes to surface in the same month, and it’s a close call as to which is the first to appear in the surround sound medium. Needless to say, Gergiev has the measure of this winning (if neglected) Stravinsky piece, and if his Petrushka is more rough and ready than most, it does not shortchange the listener in terms of excitement or vitality.

RICHARD STRAUSS: ABER DER RICHTIGE: VIOLIN CONCERTO AND MINIATURES, Arabella Steinbacher WDR Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster/PENTATAONE SACD PTC 5186653  While even the most ardent Straussian would hardly make a claim for the modest Violin Concerto being one of his masterpieces, it is an amiable enough piece (if not particularly characteristic), and enjoys the best possible advocacy by Arabella Steinbacher here. The violinist, we learn, is called ‘Arabella’ after Strauss’s opera (her parents were both Straussians), and the violin and orchestra transcription of that opera’s most famous aria, Aber der richtige, gives this collection its name. It is poetically played, as are the transcriptions of songs, etc., which make of the second half of this SACD. Not major Strauss, but a disc that will find favour with many.

STRAVINSKY: THE RITE OF SPRING, FUNERAL SONG, GAME OF CARDS, CONCERTO IN D, AGON, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gustavo Gimeno, Pentataone SACD PTC 518 6650  This highly useful two-disc set is an extremely convenient way for listeners to accrue (in excellent SACD sound) some familiar and lesser known pieces by Stravinsky. For many it will not be the appeal of yet another Rite of Spring that makes this an attractive set, but the opportunity to acquire such works as Jeu de Cartes (see the rival reading above) and even to reassess the knotty but intriguing Agon. We are also given the first recording in surround sound of the recently discovered Funeral Song.