Graham Williams Reviews

Berlioz Times Two from PENTATONE

BERLIOZ: LA DAMNATION DE FAUST, Soloists, Boston Symphony Orchestra , Seiji Ozawa/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 212 (2 discs)  This is the first recording of Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ to appear on SACD and it represents a remarkable improvement on the previous LP and CD releases of this 1973 set. For this remastering PENTATONE have used the original 4.0 channel quadraphonic Deutsche Grammophon tapes which have been expertly remastered by Polyhymnia to produce a pretty spectacular realisation of the work – one that sonically, at least, does full justice to the composer’s description of the piece as a ‘Légende dramatique’. Continue reading

Eclectic Excitement with Tintomora

TINTOMARA Wim van Hasselt/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA36315  The exciting choice of music for Wim van Hasselt’s second SACD for Channel Classics – entitled ‘Tintomara’ – is even more eclectic in both its compositional periods and styles than his first. The virtuoso trumpeter is partnered here by Jörgen van Rijen, the principal trombonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as other diverse instrumentalists, in an unusual but thoroughly entertaining programme of music whose composition ranges over more than 300 years. It includes not only works specifically written for trumpet and /or trombone but also transcriptions of music originally written for other instrumental combinations. The disc opens with three delightful Purcell arrangements in which the duo of Wim van Hasselt and  Jörgen van Rijen  are supported appropriately by a group of musicians playing recorders, theorbo, cello,  baroque guitar and organ. Continue reading

Visionary of modern classical recording dies

One of the great visionaries of the modern classical recording industry, Brian Couzens, has died. Couzens — the founder of Chandos Records – died  peacefully on the morning of 17th April 2015 following a short illness

From Opera to Film Composers

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MONTAGE: GREAT FILM COMPOSERS AND THE PIANO: MUSIC BYJOHN WILLIAMS, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, RANDY NEWMAN, etc. Gloria Cheng, piano/ Harmonia Mundi B00QB4MRFA  This reviewer last met the film composer John Williams at a performance by Andre Previn of Williams’ First Symphony, which he has since withdrawn. I’ve always found that a source of regret, as it struck me as a closely argued and impressive piece in Waltonian vein. The composer’s other serious works are — largely speaking — a world away from the instant dramatic appeal of such scores as Superman, as is evidenced from the knotty rather uncommunicative piece to be found on this disc played by Grammy-award winning pianist Gloria Cheng. Nevertheless, the collection proves that all the composers involved have much more in their compositional armoury than the film work we know them best for. But it’s not a particularly ingratiating disc.

PUCCINI: TURANDOT, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Zubin Mehta/ Decca Blu-ray Audio 478 7815DH3  After the astonishing achievement by Decca in condensing the complete Solti Ring onto one (one!) Blu-ray audiodisc, a similar process has been utilised for the company’s classic recording of Puccini’s final masterpiece Turandot, admittedly a less daunting task than fourteen hours of Wagner. But there are strong parallels: once again, this is the nearest to a nigh-definitive performance of the opera as one is likely to encounter with Pavarotti and Sutherland at their absolute peaks, and the reprocessing of the sound is quite as impressive as the Solti set. It is truly heartening to see these classic opera performances making second appearances in the Blu-ray audio format, sounding better than they ever did in their heyday.

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: CONCERTO ITALIANO, etc., Tianwa Yang SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg, Pieter-Jelle de Boer/Naxos Almost single-handedly, the Naxos label has rescued the composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco from obscurity in terms of recorded repertoire. There was a time when the composer’s charming guitar concertos were all that was available, but now we can see that he was a musician of considerable range, thanks to the Naxos program. If the Concerto Italiano is not as immediately appealing as the Shakespearean overtures recorded elsewhere, it is still a piece full of the colour and invention  we now expect from the composer, and it is performed with suitable affection here. Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered the 1924 Concerto Italiano to be his first truly symphonic venture. This tuneful, fresh and transparently scored concerto receives its world première recording from violinist Tianwa Yang, supported by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg under Pieter-Jelle de Boer.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SERENADE/SHOSTAKOVICH: QUARTET NO. 2 ARRANGED FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, Scottish Ensemble; Jonathan Morton/Linn SACD/CD CKD 472  In the early days of the super audio CD medium, aficionados were hungry for favourite works to be given the deluxe treatment in the best possible sound, but the measure of how far we can come (despite the supposedly parlous nature of the medium) is the fact that we can now choose between different interpretations of the same works in splendid SACD sound. Here is a sterling example: while both of these pieces have enjoyed recommendable interpretations before, this particular coupling – performed with suitable panache – allows the listener to compare two great Russian masters from different eras. Under the directorship of Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble adds the Tchaikovsky Serenade, regarded by the composer as one of his finest works, to its impressive Linn discography. The piece is imbued with the classical spirit of Mozart, but with Tchaikovsky’s style to the fore. This recording also marks the premiere of Jonathan Morton’s 2013 transcription of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2, not quite as incisive as the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, but still immensely musical.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 5 & 6., New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert/DACAPO SACD While this reviewer is more inclined towards the recent SACD cycles of Nielsen symphonies by Sakari Oramo and the late Colin Davis, there are many advocates for the concurrent cycle conducted by Alan Gilbert. On DACAPO, the final issue in the acclaimed cycle of the symphonies from the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert is impressive. Recorded live in Avery Fisher Hall in October 2014, this SACD presents the Danish national composer’s last two symphonies, Nos. 5 and 6, the latter of which had never previously been performed by the orchestra. Alan Gilbert states that both works represent ‘the battle between good and evil, and are profound, dramatic works by a mature composer who knew that his days were numbered’..

ENESCU: SYMPHONY NO.1, etc., Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Hannu Lintu/Ondine  Ondine finally releases the much-anticipated conclusion of their George Enescu (1881–1955) symphony cycle from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the dynamic Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu. The disc includes two neglected masterworks: the First Symphony, filled with youthful energy, and the poetic and lyric Symphonie concertante for Cello and Orchestra. The soloist is the award-winning cellist Truls Mørk. A bracing conclusion to a splendid cycle.

THE CLASSIC FILM SCORES OF FRANZ WAXMAN, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt /HDTT Blu-ray Audio HDBD423  This is a fascinating experiment which, while not entirely successful displays some distinct possibilities. Utilising the Blu-ray audio medium in a very creative fashion, the original tapes for these dynamic and colourful Franz Waxman scores have been mastered from Quad tapes so that this is a genuine multichannel experience, presenting these scores (with their rattling percussion and exhilarating brass writing) in a sonic experience quite different from that presented by the LP which many of us have known for years. But the caveat is that the echo in the multichannel experience is slightly out of sync, which gives the impression of hearing the pieces in a large cathedral; there is also a loss of some treble compared to the original CD. Nevertheless, it is an experiment to be encouraged, and further issues may present more opportunities.

STRAVINSKY: THE FIREBIRD Kirov orchestra, Valery Gergiev/ Euro Arts Blu-ray 2061084  This is a highly creative interpretation of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking piece which does far more than simply record the ballet from the proscenium arch; it’s a genuine film with all the apparatus of cinema utilised to create fascinating effects (The Firebird, for instance, actually flies, looking rather like a superhero). It goes without saying that Valery Gergiev has the measure of the Stravinsky score while the choreography by James Kudelka and the direction by Barbara Willis Sweete is completely at the service of the material.

WISEMAN: WOLF HALL, Locrian Ensemble of London, Debbie Wiseman/ Silva Screen SI LCD 1472  In an era of dumbed-down television, Wolf Hall was a shining beacon of intelligence, with Hilary Mantel’s novels treated in an unhurried but intensely dramatic fashion that demanded concentration on the part of the viewer (those not prepared to give such intention could switch channels to brain-dead reality or celebrity shows). And one aspect of the show’s success was much remarked upon, the superbly understated score by Debbie Weisman performed by the Locrian Ensemble of London. And this welcome CD is the perfect opportunity to examine that score in isolation; like the best film scores, it functions perfectly well on its own – it is a particularly egregious canard that film music only functions well within the context of the film.

SAINT-SAËNS SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Martin Fröst/Naxos  While Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony (with its dramatic sections for organ) has always enjoyed a great deal of recorded attention, the earlier symphonies have been less well served, although they have had a fitful on hold the repertoire. No one would suggest that they were in the same category musically as the Third, but these performances make a very strong case for them. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra has a distinguished track record of Naxos recordings, and with this new release they embark on a series of the Saint-Saëns symphonies. Complete Saint-Saëns symphony cycles are rare, the only readily available version is the venerable 1970s set conducted by Jean Martinon. The prospect of this new three volume set, richly embellished with other orchestral works and conducted by acknowledged French music expert Marc Soustrot, will provide a welcome alternative.

Argentina! New Channel Classics & Chandos, reviewed by Graham Williams

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THE ARGENTINIAN ALBUM, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thomson/SACD Channel Classics CCS SA 33014 Adventurous programming and scintillating playing are just two elements of this thrilling SACD from Candida Thomson and the prodigiously talented players of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. ‘The Argentinian Album’ features works by three 20th century Argentinian composers – Astor Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera and Osvaldo Golijov. Piazzolla’s ‘Cuatro Estaciónes Porteñas, also known as the ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’, are a set of four tango based compositions written between 1965 and 1970 that were originally envisaged as separate compositions rather than one suite. The composer’s potent blend of Argentinan tango, jazz and classical music has immediate appeal, and the work has received a number of recordings in recent years. In fact, it has already appeared from Channel Classics on Rick Stotijn’s album ‘Basso Bailando’ in an arrangement by Marijn van Prooijen, but here it is presented in the more familiar arrangement made in the 1990s by Leonid Desyatnikov that links it to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by inclusion of both playful quotes from that ubiquitous work as well as elements of the baroque concerto grosso. Candida Thomson and her marvellous players bring a heady mixture of sultriness, visceral excitement and panache to these exciting pieces. For a number of years Piazzolla studied with Alberto Ginastera – following his introduction in 1941 to the slightly older contemporary composer by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (not Anton Rubinstein as stated in the liner notes by Willem de Bordes). Ginastera is probably best known for his exciting ballet scores ‘Estancia’ and ‘Panambi’, but his impressive ‘Concerto for String Orchestra’ dating from 1965 and based on his earlier 2nd String Quartet  is a wonderful addition to the SACD catalogue, particularly when performed with such fierce commitment as here. The opening movement is a set of variations on a theme whose sinuous melody is ruminated on by each of the string section principals and interrupted by violent outbursts from the main string body. An aptly titled ‘Scherzo fantastico’ that follows includes all manner of intriguing instrumental effects and considerable challenges for the players throughout its brief and ghostly span.  An intense and disquieting slow movement highlights the sensitivity and unanimity displayed by these performers, while the ‘Finale Furioso’, that begins like a swarm of angry bees, demonstrates their amazing virtuosity. ‘Last Round’,Osvaldo Golijov’s tribute to Piazzolla, is a nonet written for a double string quartet and  double bass. The composer’s own account of the form and genesis of this deeply felt 14 minute piece describes it perfectly. “The title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, the metaphor for an imaginary chance for Piazzolla’s spirit to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life). The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneon.  The first movement represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of the song ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires’, composed by the legendary Carlos Gardel in the 1930’s). But ‘Last Round’ is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestras. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in criss-crossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure pattern.” The Piazzolla and Golijov pieces were recorded in April 2014 in the Stadsgehoorzaaal, Leiden while the recording of the Ginastera ‘Concerto for Strings’ took place in the Bachzaal, Amsterdam some six years earlier. Irrespective of location, the sound quality of Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD production is all that one could wish for. There is an almost holographic realism to it that does full justice both to the music, the artistry of Candida Thomson and the musicians of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Edward Gardner’s fine survey of the Mendelssohn Symphonies reaches its conclusion with this impressive  performance of the Symphony No. 2 ‘Hymn of Praise’ that, in order of composition, is the composer’s penultimate symphony. As with the two earlier issues the coupling is a Mendelssohn Overture, in this case ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’. Gardner and the CBSO give a lovely account of this entrancing overture conveying the tranquillity and stillness of the composer’s opening seascape with the utmost sensitivity. The sudden change of mood to one of elation, heralded by the woodwind, is perfectly judged, and the vigour with which the conductor drives the piece to its joyful conclusion is most exhilarating. The two sections of the overture are assigned separate tracks on this disc. Mendelssohn aptly designated his 2nd Symphony a  ‘Symphony-Cantata’, and the purely orchestral three-movement Sinfonia that opens the work contains some of the composer’s finest writing. Gardner’s propulsive approach is again evident here, though it never sounds rushed and allows for much felicitous playing from the CBSO.  At this point it should be noted that as this Chandos series is entitled ‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’ the cantata section of the symphony is sung in English, not German, in the rather free translation by J Alfred Novello (1810-1896)  –  so definitely ‘Hymn of Praise’ not ‘Lobgesang’. The solo soprano parts are sung by the sisters Sophie and Mary Bevan. The former sounds rather forced in ‘Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit’ (Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele) and it is delivered with surprisingly poor diction, but the duet with her sister ‘I waited for the Lord’ (Ich harrete des Herrn) is clear and mellifluous. The sweet-voiced tenor soloist Benjamin Hulett is really excellent. His enunciation could hardly be bettered whilst his considerable operatic experience allows him to make the most of the dramatic recitatives and cries of ‘Watchman will the night soon pass?’ (Hütter ist die Nacht bald hin?). His duet with Sophie Bevan is a further example of the elegance of his singing. The excellent CBSO chorus trained by Julian Wilkins sing with commendable attack and enthusiasm though occasionally the clarity of their words is compromised  by the acoustic. Wilkins also plays the impressively room-shaking organ that makes its appearance in the latter sections of the symphony. The recordings were made in the ample and pleasingly reverberant acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall (February 2014) by the reliable team of Brian Pidgeon (producer) and Ralph Couzens (engineer) who have balanced orchestra, soloists and chorus with remarkable skill. The sound is clean with vivid winds and crisp timpani, though the acoustic of the venue possibly renders the strings in a less favourable light when playing forte or above. There is an ample choice of recorded versions of the Symphony on disc to suit all tastes including, at the time of writing, eight on SACD; but those who have acquired the first two volumes in Gardner’s Mendelssohn series will be more than satisfied with this one. Recommended.

BRAHMS: MOTETS, Swedish Radio Choir, Peter Dijkstra/Channel Classics SACD CCS SA 27108  The familiarity of Brahms’s symphonic, chamber and piano music both on disc and in the concert hall means that, apart from ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’ or the ‘Alto Rhapsody’, we very seldom hear live performances of his other works for choir and orchestra that include ‘Nanie’, ‘Gesang der Parzen’ or the ‘Shicksalslied’. Of even greater rarity are his motets written for unaccompanied chorus and composed when the mature Brahms was at the height of his powers. For their latest release on Channel Classics Peter Dijkstra and his peerless Swedish Radio Choir bring together all of Brahms’s motets for mixed voice choir. These ten motets, that span the years from 1864 and 1890, were written in four groups – Zwei Motetten Op.29 (1856-1860), Zwei Motetten Op74 (1877),  Fest und Gedenkensprüche Op.109 (1888-89) and the Drei Motetten Op110 (1889) . In addition the disc also includes a performance of the ‘Missa Canonica’ Opus posth. of which Brahms only completed three movements. These motets clearly indicate the depth to which Brahms had studied the old masters, especially Schütz, Gabrieli and Bach on whose music they are closely modelled in their external formal characteristics – the use of the canon, the chorale fugue and the like – and they also show how deeply Brahms’s Lutheran upbringing in Hamburg had provided him with an understanding of the Bible and the ability to choose appropriate texts for different purposes. The Swedish Radio Choir is an ideal size for this music, with voices that are perfectly blended throughout the vocal ranges.  The precision of their attack and marvellous control of dynamics is stunning – something easily illustrated by the firmness of the cry ‘Warum’ at the very start of the two Opus 74 motets. It need hardly be said that intonation is spot on and the complexities of Brahms’s contrapuntal writing and chromaticism, particularly in Op.109 and 110, are handled effortlessly.  The supreme accuracy of the singing is never at the expense of the expressive delivery of the words and though the voices always cohere as one body, the personalities of the individual members of the choir are not subsumed. The motets were recorded in September 2013 in the Engelbrekt’s Church, Stockholm –  a venue whose acoustic provides just the right amount of reverberation while still allowing absolute clarity of the vocal lines. Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD recording recreates the warm ambience of this church with startling realism. Text are only given in German in the booklet notes but the diction of these singers is so beautifully clear that reference to the words printed in the liner notes is hardly necessary. Those requiring translations can refer directly to the Holy Bible or can find them at www.recmusic.org. A wonderful disc that all lovers of the music of Brahms will surely wish to add to their collections.