Graham Williams Reviews

Brahms – via Schoenberg, via PENTATONE

BRAHMS: 1ST PIANO QUARTET OP.25, ORCH. SCHOENBERG, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrecht/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186398  One early manifestation of Arnold Schoenberg’s admiration of Brahms as a progressive composer is his orchestration of the latter’s 1st Piano Quartet Op.25 that he undertook in 1937. In a letter to the music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle two years after the premier Schoenberg gave a number of cogent reasons for undertaking his arrangement of the quartet. I like the piece” “It is seldom played” “It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” “My intentions: To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today.” Continue reading


‘ROMANTIC METAMORPHOSES’: VIEUXTEMPS: VIOLA SONATA, ZEMTSOV: MELODIE IM ALTEN STIL, BLOCH: SUITE, Dana Zemtsov, viola, Cathelijne Noorland, piano/Channel Classics SACD CC SSA 37215  The young viola player Dana Zemtsov’s first disc for Channel Classics, entitled ‘Enigma’, immediately confirmed her as an artist of immense talent and musical intelligence. On that disc she confidently delivered an exacting group of compositions for unaccompanied viola that challenged both listener and performer. In complete contrast, her latest recording ‘Romantic Metamorphoses’ comprises a varied and well-chosen programme that explores the various manifestations of the word ‘romantic’ in musical terms. Continue reading

Walton in London & Other New Discs


WILLIAM WALTON: LONDON CONCERT, Soloists, LSO, Andre Previn/Arthaus Blu-ray 109111 Watching the new Arthaus Blu-ray of William Walton: London Concert from 1982 has been a trip in a time machine for me. Apart from watching a relatively youthful Kyung Wha-Chung give a superlative performance of the Walton Violin Concerto, I can see — over the top of Andre Previn’s head – my younger self, enjoying every second of this superlative tribute to one of the greatest English composers – with a frail-looking Walton himself in the Royal box, visibly moved by the energetic performance that Belshazzar’s Feast is given. Thomas Allen is a superbly declamatory soloist in the latter, and the whole concert is a delight – but a certain historical indulgence is required, technically speaking. The picture is (of course) Academy ratio, and not inordinately sharp, despite the Blu-ray wash-and-rinse, and the sound — while largely impressive — shows its age in a certain tubbiness. But as a document of one of the great evenings in the Royal Festival Hall, this is unmissable – and it goes without saying that Walton aficionados need not hesitate.

MANKELL: PIANO CONCERTO OP. 30; GÖSTA NYSTROEM: CONCERTO RICERCANTE, Anna Christensson, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Roberto Paternostro/CAPRICCIO: C5240 There may be a market for this disc, which has nothing to do with the classical music industry. The composer Henning Mankell is not (as some may assume ) the talented and influential Swedish crime writer and creator of Kurt Wallander, but is the latter’s grandfather. This fact will inspire some interest — but (frankly) will it be rewarded? Swedish composer Henning Mankell was a private teacher of piano and music theory in Stockholm, a music critic and a member of the board of the Academy of Music. His works, from the last decades of his life, were given labels such as ‘impressionist’ or ‘futurist’, and although he was probably interested in French Impressionism, he did not identify with it. To this listener, the music by the older Mankell is relatively anonymous, and I can’t see that I will be returning to it very often; there is, however, no denying its efficiency and expertise. The Mankell pieces find a stylistic allegiance in the music of Gösta Nystroem, the stablemate here

BERNSTEIN: SYMPHONY NO.3, KADDISH, etc., Marin Alsop/NAXOS 8.559742  I definitely count myself among passionate admirers of the composer Leonard Bernstein, and have tried over the years to respond positively to the ‘Kaddish’ Symphony, but the self-indulgent, hectoring narrative which is such an integral part of the piece has always acted as a disincentive to me – even in the understated reading it is given here by Claire Bloom (very different from the over-stated histrionic efforts by previous narrators). But if you can cope with the narration, then it’s hard to see the symphony being given a more committed performance than that by Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé, who has written fondly and extensively about studying with him. This disc presents Bernstein the vocal composer performed in largely original editions by one of his best contemporary interpreters.

SCHUMANN: SONG CYCLES James Gilchrist, tenor Anna Tilbrook, piano Lynne SACD CKD 474  The tenor James Gilchrist has frequently demonstrated that he is one of the most sensitive and nuanced of modern singers, and delivers this set of Schumann song cycles with maximum sensitivity. If the great performances of the past (notably by the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) are not unseated, those preferring these cycles delivered by a higher voice will not be disappointed. Linz SACD sound captures every subtlety.

FUČÍK: A FESTIVAL OF FUČÍK: EINZUG DER GLADIATOREN, OP. 68 ETC;, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS CHSA 5158  Now, be honest: if you have heard of Julius Fučík at all, you will know him for one piece: Entry of the Gladiators, which now has more association with circuses of the clown and elephant variety than those on which Roman gladiators spilled their blood. That lively piece may inspire you to wonder what the rest of his music is like, and now in this splendidly recorded anthology, you have a chance to find out. Frankly, there are no great discoveries here, but it is all pleasant and likeable fare. Thirty years after having recorded Dvořák’s complete Symphonies on Chandos, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and its laureate conductor Neeme Järvi tackle another romantic Czech composer, Fučík, famous for his more than 400 polkas, marches, and waltzes, some of the best of which are featured here. Fučík studied violin in his early years, switching later to the bassoon, with a subsidiary in percussion and timpani. Playing in Austrian regiments, he gained invaluable experience of writing for military band and became a very prolific composer of marches. The most famous of these is of course Entry of the Gladiators, completed in 1899 and performed throughout the world ever since.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 1 ‘TITAN’, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Thierry Fischer/REFERENCE SACD FR-715  The first thing that strikes one about this new recording of Mahler’s First Symphony from the redoubtable Reference label is how the recorded sound is subtly different from most of the impressive previous entries from the company. Rather than providing a concert hall-style panoply, there appears to be a close miking of many of the instruments, rather in the fashion of Decca’s Phase Four engineers recording Stokowski in the 1970s. But it’s none the worse for that, as the ear soon adjusts to this new aural canvas. The performance here has the kind of kinetic sense of drama we associate with Fischer, and in a highly competitive field, the performance deserves attention. The Utah Symphony, celebrating its 75th anniversary, is one of America’s major symphony orchestras and a leading cultural organization in the Intermountain West. It is recognized internationally for its distinctive performances, commitment to music education programs and recording legacy. Reference Recordings have released this new performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 as part of the orchestra’s two-year Mahler Symphony Cycle.

HAYDN: SYMPHONIES NOS 31, 70 & 101, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/LINN SACD  With an impressive ongoing Haydn series from Bruno Weil and ARS, it’s pleasing to find another Haydn symphonies disc as crisp and authentic-sounding as this, giving the music vigorous new life in similar fashion to Weil. Of course, this is no surprise to those who have bought earlier discs by Robin Ticciati , who is undoubtedly on something of a roll at the moment, with a universally acclaimed series of discs of music from very disparate composers. And it is not just Ticciati’s razor-sharp readings which have been gleaning plaudits, but the beautifully focused and sympathetic sound accorded to his performances by the Linn engineers. As is very much the case of with these-performances, which are truly splendid.

RODRIGO: CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ, etc., Narciso Yepes/PentaTone Classics SACD PTC5186209   Like many listeners of a certain age, this reviewer first discovered the Concierto de Aranjuez in the classic Decca recording by Narciso Yepes, and of his subsequent ventures into the world of the Spanish composer, this PENTATONE reissue proves that Yepes had lost not an iota of his sensitivity and soulfulness .The seeds were planted in the early 1970s when Deutsche Grammophon realised what amazing results could be achieved by recording on multichannel tapes, with either four or eight channels. Yet, due to a few restrictions, they never fully blossomed. Flaws in the playback equipment meant that music connoisseurs were prevented from enjoying these recordings in the way that artists, producers, engineers and other professionals intended, even though recording technology was already way ahead of its time. Now over a quarter of a century later and thanks to the arrival of the multichannel Super Audio CD, there is finally a system available which permits this precious recording to be released in SACD, a medium that does it full justice.

RESPIGHI: METAMORPHOSEON; BALLATA DELLE GNOMIDI; BELKIS, REGINA DI SABA, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/BIS SACD 2130  There are other performances on SACD of these breathtaking pieces by Respighi, and arguments can be made for or against them individually. But while this new disc does not match the last Respighi recording by the conductor, it is a very useful anthology, which collects the first time these three pieces on one disc Three orchestral works by o Respighi are gathered here. Ballata delle gnomidi (‘The Ballad of the Gnomes’), composed in 1920 and inspired by a poem depicting satanic rituals, sexual abandonment and blood sacrifice, is here framed by two later and longer works. Metamorphoseon (1930) was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it is in fact something of a concerto for orchestra, the 30-minute long work consisting of a theme and twelve variations or ‘modes’. The disc closes with the suite from Belkis, Regina di Saba, a full-length ballet depicting the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. John Neschling has previously recorded two acclaimed discs of Respighi’s music for BIS. The most recent instalment also featured l’Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, in a performance of Impressioni brasiliane

IBERT: THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL, THREE BALLET PIECES, FAIRY SONG OF MADNESS, ELIZABETHAN SUITE, Slovak Philharmonic Chorus Orchestra, Adriano NAXOS 8.555568  Ibert remains a neglected composer, but perhaps this new disc will go some way to redressing the balance. Based on Oscar Wilde’s impassioned text Le Ballade de la Geôle de Reading, Jacques Ibert’s first symphonic work astonished and impressed audiences with its dark atmospheres of anguished madness and terror. The Trois Pièces de Ballet portray society guests with colourful music-hall wit, contrasting with the impressionistic symphonic poem Féerique and the horrors of war expressed in Chant de Folie, while the Suite Élisabéthaine introduces ancient styles to enhance Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

MOSOLOV: IRON FOUNDRY; PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1; LEGEND OP. 5; SONATA OP. 3; FOUR NEWSPAPER ANNOUNCEMENTS, Steffen Schleiermacher, Ringela Riemke, Natalia Pschenitschnikova, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Johannes Kalitzke/Capriccio C5241  Many composers are only known for single piece… but a piece that lasts only 3 minutes? Among his contemporary countrymen Alexander Mosolov certainly underwent one of the most individual developments. Although most of his compositions have remained unknown both in the Soviet Union and abroad, a single piece has ensured that his name has stayed lastingly present: the Iron Foundry from the ballet Steel (1926/27), a work that was at odds with Socialist Realism gradually becoming established in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union.

KLUGHARDT: SYMPHONY 4 IN C MINOR, Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau, Antony Hermus/CPO 7777402 Those hoping for a major rediscovery along the lines of many other composers whose work has been dusted off by CPO may be disappointed by this relatively quotidian music, but there is no denying its unpretentious appeal. This third CPO disc sets down more neglected orchestral works by August Klughardt. A live performance of the music on this disc, Symphony 4 in C minor was described as: “…a thoroughly noble work, with a simple thematic structure, filled with beautiful ideas, rich in its melodic invention.” This characterises Klughardt’s oeuvre as a whole, which becomes evident from the other works included here, performed by the Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau, and conducted by Antony Hermus.




From Weil’s Haydn to Gardner’s Janaček


HAYDN: LONDON SYMPHONIES, VOLUMES ONE, TWO AND THREE, Capella Coloniensis, Bruno Weill/ARS SACD 38061, 2, 3  The first three volumes in this impressive series establish a benchmark in the surround sound medium for this immensely civilised music which would be hard to match, let alone exceed. Played with full attention to current modes of authenticity (but with academic fustiness thoroughly banished), Weill and his forces provide the kind of treatment now requisite in Haydn’s symphonies (particularly the spirited No. 99), the scores sounding fresh as paint in these readings which scrub away the accretions of less energetic performances of the past. Sound quality is matchless, and makes the listener impatient for the final volume in the series. Live performances, but with barely a trace of ambient noise and, thankfully, no applause.

ATTERBERG: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 3.: Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 3 / Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 20 ‘Sinfonia funebre’ Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS CHSA 5154  However glorious the orchestral tone poems of Richard Strauss are – or the symphonies of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams – there are (dare one say it?) times when the listener has heard them so often that something new is new is needed to freshen the palette. Or at least something which is less familiar than these much-loved classics. Such a palette-freshener is the music of the Nordic composer Atterberg, which has only recently begun to obtain the kind of listenership that is its clear due. Not least because of initiatives such as the BIS set of the symphonies and this new Chandos sequence, capturing the symphonies, this time in glorious surround sound. This is music teeming with invention and colour, with all of its nuances winkled out by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Järvi’s Atterberg survey has now reached this third volume of symphonies. The composer sent the first three completed movements of his Symphony No. 1 to Stockholm’s Royal Academy, seeking a scholarship in order to travel to several cities in Germany to attend musical performances. When he came back he added a finale with an introductory Adagio in which he, as it were, ‘reminded’ himself of what he had already composed. Like everything else on this disc it is strong and memorable

MENDELSSOHN, TCHAIKOVSKY: VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Arabella Steinbacher, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Charles Dutoit/ PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 504 Surprising as it may seem, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto has not made many appearances in the SACD medium, and it is particularly welcome in a poetic reading such as this. The Tchaikovsky, however, is (unsurprisingly) more often to be heard in the medium, and once again Steinbacher delivers a highly competitive performance, although this reading does not displace any of its illustrious predecessors, being perhaps a touch cooler and steadier in approach than most. PENTATONE (the caps now de rigeuer when writing the name) is a prestigious classical music label specialising in high-end surround sound recordings, and adds to its solid catalogue with this disc featuring violinist Arabella Steinbacher and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under the baton of Maestro Charles Dutoit.

SHOSTAKOVICH: UNDER STALIN’S SHADOW, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons/DG CD 479 505N Many admirers of the music of Dimitri Shostakovich have wondered what it would have been like to have a private conversation with the composer and discover what he really felt about the tyrant who ruled his country. However, we have to read Shostakovich’s attitude to Stalin in the interstices of his music, and few issues have been as eloquent in that regard as this new disc , the first instalment of a major collaboration with one of the most exciting young conductors of our time: Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The goal of this partnership is a complete Shostakovich cycle on Deutsche Grammophon with the Boston Symphony. The theme of the first album with Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth is a reflection on Shostakovich and Stalin. Symphony Nos. 5, 8, and 9, as well as incidental music to Hamlet will be released in a 2-CD set in May 2016;, and these works will be recorded during the BSO’s 2015-16 season.

NIELSEN: CONCERTOS, Nikolaj Znaider, Robert Langevin, Anthony McGill SACD 6.220556  In the ranks of recordings of Nielsen’s remarkable (and often spiky) concertos, competition is stiff, and it takes something special to rise above the rest. That particular magical ingredient is present here, and these are cherishable readings of these masterworks (if not quite in the first rank). Talking of his development as a composer, Carl Nielsen himself said: “I think in terms of the instruments themselves – I sort of creep into their souls”. Indeed, his 3 solo concertos for violin, flute and clarinet are expressive and highly individual works which stand all stand as key works in 20th century instrumental repertoire. For this concluding Nielsen Project issue, Alan Gilbert wished to use the New York Philharmonic’s own principal wind players, following Leonard Bernstein’s now legendary recordings from the 1960s. The Philharmonic’s renowned Canadian principal flute Robert Langevin sparkles in the flute concerto and Anthony McGill presents himself as the orchestra’s new principal clarinet. For the violin concerto, Gilbert invited the Danish star violinist Nikolaj Znaider who grew up immersed in the composer’s music. Like the symphonies, the 3 concertos are all recorded in surround sound in live performances at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN CMINOR, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden/Challenge Classics SACD CC 72556  In a highly competitive field, the performances of Bruckner symphonies by these forces have (with only the occasional misstep) been self-recommending (while not quite possessing the gravitas of older classic accounts), and this recording of the Novak edition of the First Symphony presents a strongly characterised reading that shows particular attention to the energy of the music. Recording (as in other discs in the series) is exemplary.

DVORAK: SYMPHONY NO. 9, THE NEW WORLD/AMERICAN SUITE, Bamberger Symphony Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/Tudor SACD 7194  The conductor Robin Ticciati has been on something of a roll recently in terms of critical esteem, laying down some nigh-definitive performances of classic pieces which banish any suggestion of the routine. If this New World is not in the class of some of its recent predecessors from the conductor, it possesses the not inconsiderable virtue of making the very familiar music seem fresh and unhackneyed.

JANÁČEK: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2.: Jealousy / The Fiddler’s Child* / Taras Bulba/ The Ballad of Blaník / The Danube† / Violin Concerto ‘The Wandering of a Little Soul‡ Susanna Andersson (soprano)† James Ehnes (violin)‡ / Melina Mandozzi (violin)* Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD  It’s something of a mystery as to why the colourful, energetic and wide-ranging orchestral music of Janaček has only intermittently found its way into the SACD medium, and that omission is being supplied in welcome fashion by this extremely approachable new program from Edward Gardner. This latest issue in the series is particularly interesting is its mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, all delivered in nonpareil performances. The first piece featured here is Jealousy – his first declared piece of programme music, originally written to preface the opera Jenůfa but never included in any production of it during his lifetime. Both The Ballad of Blaník and The Fiddler’s Child (also known as a ‘ballad for orchestra’) are characterised by the use of musicals symbols, reflecting the Czech poems on which the pieces are based and also some of the composer’s personal reflections and responses.

NIELSEN: MASKARADE, Soloists, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt/Dacapo (2 SACD box set) 6.220641-42  Nielsen’s signature opera Maskarade has been relatively lucky on disc, and this latest performance is one of the most exuberant and life-affirming that the piece has ever received. Dacapo Records present this millennium’s first complete studio recording of Carl Nielsen’s 3 act opera with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra led by Nielsen expert Michael Schønwandt. The cast has been selected from The Royal Danish Opera’s finest soloists, including Johan Reuter, Stephen Milling and Dénise Beck.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONIES, VOL. 2 SYMPHONY NO. 3, SYMPHONY IN A MAJOR, LE ROUET D’OMPHALE Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Marc Soustrot/Naxos 8573139  Pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, check that your neighbours are out, and turn the volume on your hi-fi up as far as it will go without distortion and treat yourself to this sonic splendour. Needless to say, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony is an absolute natural for the surround sound medium and this Blu-ray audio is a treat. Inspired by Liszt, to whose memory the work is dedicated, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 is ground-breaking in its inclusion of organ and piano. For the composer this represented ‘the progress made in modern instrumentation’ and the result is a work both spectacular and grandiose. By contrast the Symphony in A, his first completed symphony, is a youthful piece, fully revealing his admiration for Mozart, whilst Le rouet d’Omphale, dating from the 1870s, is an impressively atmospheric tone poem.

GOLDENTHAL: SYMPHONY IN G SHARP MINOR, Pacific Symphony, Carl St Clair/Zarathustra Music ZM008 4.30 0852726005087  Some may criticise the extremely modest running time of this disc – a mere 25 minutes (why no fill-up?) – but the music itself is worth investigating, Goldenthal is a composer who has supplied dramatic film scores for (among others) the Batman movies. Like his fellow film composer John Williams, Goldenthal works in a different idiom with his classical pieces — the case here. Zarathustra Music presents the world premiere recording of Goldenthal’s Symphony in G# Minor performed by Pacific Symphony under conductor Carl St. Clair. Composer, conductor, and orchestra previously collaborated 20 years before when Pacific Symphony commissioned and recorded Goldenthal’s highly acclaimed “Fire, Water, Paper – A Vietnam Oratorio.” For the occasion of the orchestra’s American Composers Festival 2014, Goldenthal composed his 25 minute symphony, in the obscure yet autobiographical key of G# Minor, especially for the occasion. The work premiered immediately after the composer’s 60th birthday in May 2014 and represents Goldenthal’s first large-scale concert work since Fire, Water, Paper. World premiere recording.

FINZI: CHAMBER MUSIC, Cologne Chamber Soloists/MDG SACD 903 1894-6  It is dizzying to think of the amount of music by respected composers which lies neglected – and sometimes, it must be said, with good reason. Not so with the little-known chamber music of Gerald Finzi, which (as this winning disc proves) may not be in the class of some of his better-known contemporaries, but is still full of charm and invention, particularly when played as sympathetically as here. There are no undiscovered masterpieces, but those who love English music should investigate.

A JOHN WILLIAMS CELEBRATION, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel/C Major Blu-ray 730404  With the composer himself in attendance (and clearly delighted by this exuberant tribute), the main appeal of this superbly recorded Blu-ray disc is its unorthodox program, which includes some of the composer’s more serious pieces along with crowd-pleasers such as the Imperial March from Star Wars. Largely speaking, the much-hyped Gustavo Dudamel has the measure of the music, but when Williams himself takes up the baton, it’s perfectly clear that he is the finest interpreter of his own work.

BACH: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould/Harmonia Mundi SACD 807633  In one of Ingmar Bergman’s later films, he has one of his characters describe Bach’s Goldberg variations among the loveliest and most haunting music ever written. In that case, he was talking about a piano version, as it is surely in that form that most of us know the piece (harpsichord versions are relatively rare these days). But of all the various transcriptions this imperishable piece has received, this latest by the Britten Sinfonia (in an arrangement by Dmitry Sitkovetsky) is among the most sympathetic and understanding, uncovering elements of the music which many of us will not have ecountered before. It is a truly exemplary performance, captured in the finest SACD sound.

D’INDY: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 6: Wallenstein, Op. 12 / Lied for Cello and Orchestra,Op.19*/Sérénade et Valse, Op. 28 / Suite dans le style ancien, Op. 24 / Prelude to Act III of Fervaal, Op. 40 Bryndís Halla Gylfadóttir (cello)* / Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Rumon Gamba/ CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5157  A pleasing conclusion for Chandos’ series of recordings of works by Vincent d’Indy (for some reason, the first in the SACD format — why not the earlier issues?). The project has aimed to bring these neglected, eclectic, and richly orchestrated works to a wider audience, confirming Chandos’ reputation as a top label in the groundbreaking search for much-overlooked musical gems. Previous volumes have garnered many awards. D’Indy’s Wagnerian influences are clearly highlighted both in the three interlinked symphonic ouvertures of Wallenstein, which employ leitmotiv techniques and cyclic themes, and in the Prelude to Act III of Fervaal, d’Indy’s first opera, a work of Wagnerian scale and proportions, displaying the influence of Parsifal.

SAINTON: MOBY DICK, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg/Naxos 8573367  While Moby Dick may be somewhat neglected as a film score, the reputation (among some music aficionados) for Philip Sainton’s music for John Huston’s adaptation of the Melville classic has many admirers, and Stromberg does it justice here.

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.