Graham Williams Reviews

Naxos Blu-Ray Audio: Great Comedy Overtures

GREAT COMEDY OVERTURES: THE BARBER OF BAGHDAD, DONNA DIANA FRA DIAVOLO, MARTHA, IL MATRIOMONIO SEGRETO, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR,• MIGNON SI J’ÉTAIS ROI, SUSANNA’S SECRET, ZAMPA, ZAR UND ZIMMERMANN, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Lance Friedel/Naxos Blu-Ray Audio NBD 0043  These days one would be lucky to hear any of these wonderfully crafted eleven Comedy Overtures in the Concert Hall let alone encounter a complete performance of the works from which they are taken. For that reason alone the attractive selection of music performed on this disc is most welcome. The majority of the Overtures performed here were written in the 19th century whilst just two – Domenico Cimarosa’s ‘Il matrimonio segreto’ and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s ‘Il segreto di Susanna’ – stem from the 18th and 20th centuries respectively. All these pieces are beautifully orchestrated by their respective composers and crammed full of beguiling melodies. They can hardly fail to be enjoyed, whether listened to all at once or simply randomly dipped into. The American conductor Lance Friedel directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in efficient well-drilled performances (that include some fine wind solos), though there is sometimes a lack of charm and nuance evident, especially when compared with accounts from more charismatic conductors from the past such as Beecham, Karajan, Szell and especially Paray, whose incomparable account of Auber’s ‘Fra Diavolo’ overture can be heard on a marvellous Mercury Living Presence SACD. The recordings were made in the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, – the orchestra’s main rehearsal and recording studio – a venue not renowned for its acoustic richness – and engineered by the usually reliable Phil Rowlands. Wind, brass and percussion are cleanly reproduced, but the acoustic does not flatter the strings which can sound rather shrill when playing forte or above. This multi-channel Blu-ray audio disc offers a choice of 2.0 Stereo (24-bit 96 kHz) and 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio selectable at the touch of a button on the player. In stereo the sound is well focused and has a pleasing ambience, but the 5.1 Surround mix is disappointing. Though some sound does emanate from the centre channel there is virtually nothing at all from the surround speakers. Further, the overall volume when listening in multi-channel seems much reduced. You can watch and listen to the orchestra performing the overture to Peter Cornelius’s ‘Der Barbier von Bagdad at which provides a taste of what to expect. In spite of the reservations stated above this generous collection (79′.41”) has much appeal.

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

Bernstein’s Carmen to Zhang’s Szymanowski: Graham Williams Reviews


BIZET: CARMEN, Soloists, Leonard Bernstein/ PENTATONE SACD5186 216 (2)  When Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Bizet’s Carmen first appeared on LP in1973 it won a Grammy and sold over 100,000 copies as well as marking the start of Bernstein’s relationship with Deutsche Grammophon, one that lasted right up to his death in1990. Thanks to this superb SACD re-mastering by PENTATONE of the original DGG quadraphonic tapes, the qualities of Bernstein’s striking, if controversial version, of Bizet’s opera can be assessed as never before. This recording was made at sessions in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in September 1972, during a run of performances of a new production of Carmen conceived by Bernstein and Göran Gentile, the Met’s new general manager, who sadly was killed in a car crash before the production opened. It uses an appropriate amount of the spoken dialogue of the Fritz Oeser edition rather than the sung recitatives of the Guiraud edition heard on many earlier versions and, in spite of some less than idiomatic French accents from the singers, this works well. Like many Bernstein recordings this one has its controversial aspects, the conductor’s choices of tempo being the most obvious. For example, the opening Prelude is taken at a very deliberate pace and elsewhere some unusually steady tempi, as well as fast ones, will surprise many listeners, but Bernstein’s compelling exposition of the tragic drama is so persuasive that one quickly gets used to these idiosyncrasies. The cast is a strong one, crowned by Marilyn Horne’s impressively sung portrayal of the heroine. Her rich singing is both seductive and powerful, yet she never sacrifices beauty of tone for theatrical effect and gives a fully rounded characterisation of the part. James McCracken is a virile sounding Don José and though his drift into falsetto voice at the end of the Flower Song sounds frankly bizarre elsewhere he sings with much sensitivity. Adriana Maliponte is a touching Micaëla with a lovely soaring vocal quality and Tom Krause provides a forthright and firmly sung Escamillo. The many smaller roles are also generally well cast. The singing of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus is enthusiastic as is that of the Manhattan Opera Chorus (a replacement for the Metropolitan Opera chorus who had demanded higher payments for their services) trained by John Mauceri. The incisive playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is simply magnificent, its quality shining through in every bar, and the way it responds to Bernstein’s direction clearly indicates the rapport the conductor established with the musicians during the course of the staged run. The gorgeous Entr’acte before Act 3 illustrates the point perfectly. As an opera Carmen is action packed, and the DGG engineering team made full use of the possibilities offered by multi-channel sound to re-create the drama in purely aural terms. Off-stage effects – choruses, trumpet fanfares and the like – are brilliantly realised using the 4.0 channels most imaginatively. The sound throughout is pristine, with excellent balances between voices and orchestra – a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns. The two well filled discs ( CD1 79’25”, CD2 80’35”) are handsomely presented in a hard-backed book with the full libretto in French and English. Lovers of Bizet’s Carmen have a bewildering selection of recordings from which to choose, but Bernstein’s uniquely haunting and individual conception should be heard in this outstanding re-incarnation of a classic set. A remarkably rejuvenated and most welcome re-issue of a unique opera recording from 40 years ago.

SZYMANOWSKI: VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, ETC., Rosanne Philippens, NJO, Xian Zhang/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA36715 Nowadays Szymanowski’s luscious 1st Violin Concerto is appearing ever more frequently on disc thanks both to the public’s greater appreciation of this composer’s music and to the advocacy of many star violinists of the younger generation. This latest recording from the prodigiously talented Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens is certainly amongst the finest that I have heard. In the Concerto she is accompanied by the NJO (National Jeugd Orkest) which is the Netherlands Youth Orchestra for players under 30 years of age. They are directed by the charismatic and dynamic conductor Xian Zhang who elicits passionate and supremely confident playing from her committed orchestra. Unlike some recordings of this work the violin is not spotlit so the many fine solos from members of the NJO can be fully appreciated. The huge tuttis have a sumptuousness appropriate to the composer’s ecstatic writing and here the orchestra’s horn section deserve special mention for their burnished tonal glow. Szymanowski wrote a number of works for violin and piano that span his entire career, and two of these – ‘Myths’ Op 30 and ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ Op 28 – are given dazzling performances that perhaps even more than the concerto show the quality of Rosanne Philippens superb musicianship. In these works she is accompanied by the pianist Julien Quentin whose alert and sensitive playing is in perfect accord with that of his partner. The three movements of ‘Myths’ – ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’, ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Dryads and Pan’ – reflect Szymanowski’s interest in Classical mythology and each place formidable technical challenges for the players that are met in full by Philippens and Quentin. The ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ that, like Myths, was written in 1915, is delivered with tremendous attack and rhythmic verve; both performers driving the music with a controlled virtuosity that leaves one breathless. The disc also includes a transcription of the ‘Song of Roxanne’ from the second Act of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger made by the composer and his friend the violinist Pawel Kochański. Rosanne Philippens and her partner brings a wonderful stillness and mysterious sensuality to her performance of this haunting piece.  The three Stravinsky pieces included in this generously filled SACD can best be considered as delightful encores to the main Szymanowski programme. The ‘Chanson Russe’, Stravinsky’s own arrangement of an aria from his comic opera ‘Mavra’ is played with affectionate warmth and delicacy while the transcriptions of the Berceuse and Scherzo from ‘The Firebird’ confirm both the poise and exuberance that these consummate musicians bring to their performances. I do, however, think that the sleeve note writer Clemens Romijn is clutching at straws trying to make links between these two composers, and I would certainly question his view of the main work as ‘the Violin Concerto Mahler never wrote’. The Concerto was recorded (August 2014) in the spacious acoustic of the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam and the rest (September 2014) in the more intimate Muziekcentrum, Eindhoven. In both venues Jared Sacks’s engineering of the 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. Enthusiastically recommended.

XENAKIS: PLÉÏADES, REBONDS, Uniko, percussionist/LINN SACD CKD 495  For her third release on the Linn label, entitled Xenakis IX, the virtuoso percussionist KUNIKO turns to two of the most inventive and challenging works of the Greek-French avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). ‘Pléïades’ was composed in 1978 and premiered by the six members of Les Percussions de Strabourg. It has four movements of roughly equal length and lasts, in KUNIKO’s performance, 45 minutes. The titles of each of the movements – Mélanges (Mixtures), Métaux (Metals), Claviers (Keyboard) and Peaux (Skins) – indicate the type of instruments used and hence the differing tonal colours produced. The work also uses an instrument named the SIXXEN made up of metal bars with irregularly distributed pitches. KUNIKO herself selected 120 steel square tubes to produce the sonorities she wanted to achieve from six of these instruments in ‘Métaux’. Xenakis suggested two possible orders for performance with ‘Mélanges’ placed either first or last. KUNIKO has chosen the former, that allows the listener to experience the full kaleidoscopic percussion panoply before the instrumental groups separate for the subsequent movements. Her thrilling performance of this remarkable piece is astonishingly confident and absolutely hypnotic. ‘Rebonds’, composed between 1987 and 1989, was written for the respected percussionist Sylvio Gualda whose complimentary note to KUNIKO is reproduced in the liner notes with this SACD. The work is in two parts simply labelled A and B that can be performed in any order. Part A uses only skinned instruments – bongos, tom-toms and bass drums – while Part B adds a set of 5 wood blocks and a tumba to the instrumental line-up. KUNIKO makes light of the mathematical and rhythmic complexities of Xenakis’s compositional technique in her authoritative performance of this work. The recordings (24-bit / 192kHz) were made in the fine acoustic of Lake Sagami Hall, Kanagawa, Japan at dates between December 2013 and October 2014 by engineers Kazuya Nagae and Yuji Sagae and the sound quality is superb whether one is playing the disc on a stereo or multi-channel set-up. The latter, however, makes maximum use of the surround speakers for the various instrumental groups thus adding to the excitement of the whole listening experience. Excellent notes by KUNIKO complete this most recommendable issue.

JOPLIN: TREEMONISHA, Soloists, Houston Grand Opera, Gunther Schuller/PENTATONE SACD 5186 221 (2)  For many the music of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) will be associated with his numerous ragtime compositions, including ‘The Entertainer’, that were used in the 1973 film ‘The Sting’ starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. However, Joplin, who as a child was introduced to the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin by his piano teacher Julius Weiss, had more serious ambitions than to write merely syncopated ragtime music. He wrote two operas and a ballet but only his second opera ‘Treemonisha’ has survived. It received a single unstaged public performance in 1915 in Harlem just two years before Joplin’s early death from syphilis. Thanks to the efforts of the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller who sympathetically orchestrated and arranged the music from the piano score, in what was obviously a labour of love, the work was successfully staged in 1975 by the Houston Grand Opera in Houston,Texas and later it transferred to Broadway. It is this production recorded at RCA Studio A, New York in October 1975 that is the basis for this splendid recording, one that wears its years lightly, conducted by Schuller. The plot tells the story of Treemonisha, a foundling discovered under a tree who, thanks to her adoptive parents Ned and Monisha, is taught to read, write and do arithmetic by a white woman. She then attempts to lead her community against conjurers who prey on their belief in sorcery and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when she is rescued in the nick of time by her friend Remus. The community accept the forces of right (education) over those of wrong (superstition) before electing her as their leader. Touchingly naïve though the story may be it surely has deep resonances for our time. Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera as Joplin himself was at pains to point out, though it does have a number of ragtime elements in such catchy sections as “We’re goin around” and “Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn”. The music is unfailingly melodic and often sentimental suggesting the milieu of a light 19th century opera. The cast is a generally strong one with fine singing from Carmen Balthrop in the title role. Edward Pierson delivers a sonorous Parson Alltalk and a 29 year-old Willard White as Ned makes the most of his big aria “ When villains ramble far and near”. The original slightly dry studio recording has been transformed on this PENTATONE reissue of the 4.0 quadraphonic tapes in a way that really bring this work to life. The surround channels are used as much as the front ones. Singers often appear from the rear and sides as do the various chorus groups while the orchestra always remains at the front. This imaginative use of surround sound enhances the whole production and is a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns, the doyen of Deutsche Grammophon engineers. The two SACDs are handsomely packaged in a hard backed book that includes the full English libretto and notes on the opera. Most definitely recommended.


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


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.