Graham Williams Reviews

Superlative Schumann from Ticciati

SCHUMANN: THE SYMPHONIES, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/LINN CKD450 (2) SACD Judging by the number of recorded cycles of Schumann Symphonies that have appeared in the last year or so from conductors as diverse as Simon Rattle, Parvo Järvi, Thomas Dausgaard et al., it would appear that record companies believe that the public has an insatiable appetite for new versions of these works on disc. Nevertheless, whilst the market may be reaching saturation point, there is always room to accommodate a set as brilliantly performed and recorded as this latest one from the charismatic Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Having been greatly impressed with Ticciati’s performances of Berlioz, Brahms and Bruckner both in the concert hall and on disc I was keen to see how he tackled the music of one his favourite composers about which he colourfully writes “Struggle, love, suicide, drinking, prostitutes, fragrance, flowers, poetry ecstasy, passion…for me the Schumann symphonies have everything in them that define Romanticism”. Suffice it to say I was not disappointed. Continue reading

First-rate Mahler 9 from Stenz and Oehms

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO.9, ADAGIO FROM SYMPHONY NO.10, Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, Marcus Stenz/Oehms OC 654 SACD  This release marks the completion of the Mahler symphony cycle by Marcus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne. In addition to Mahler’s nine symphonies and the ‘Adagio’ from his unfinished 10th, Stenz’s cycle, has also encompassed a very fine disc of Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ Lieder. The whole enterprise has been notable for the conductor’s fresh and unmannered readings of these works. Tempi, in general, have been on the fast side, no bad thing in Mahler, and the combination of committed orchestral playing and opulent recorded sound makes this cycle stand out even amongst the embarras de richesses that Mahler aficionados have available to them on disc. These qualities are once again evident in the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that occupies the first disc of this two disc set which was recorded in the ample acoustic of Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne in January 2014. To be able to listen to the symphony in one unbroken span of 78’12” is hugely advantageous for the listener, something that is not always the case on rival recordings. Stenz gives a riveting and strongly delineated performance of the opening ‘Andante comodo’ (26.48), one of Mahler’s finest creations, moving convincingly between the calm resignation of the opening theme and its intensely passionate counterpart. Stenz is perfectly attuned to the ironies of the “leisurely Ländler” (14.51) that is the work’s scherzo, without undue exaggeration of its gawky rhythms. Some may find it slightly under-characterised, but I found it refreshing and full of humour especially when compared to some of the ponderous accounts found elsewhere. The mocking Rondo-Burleske (12.36) is appropriately hard driven, testing the mettle of the Gürzenich players to the full, while the contrasting tranquil middle section is beautifully expressive and undeniably poignant. As is expected the final ‘Adagio’ (23.53) is deeply moving, but never overwrought, in Stenz’s performance; the fervency of the opulent string textures at the beginning of this movement gradually giving way to the evanescence of the closing pages. Continue reading

Beethoven from Harmonia Mundi is CD Set of the Month

Korngold jacket

KORNGOLD STRING SEXTET, etc., Camerata Freden/Tacet Blu-ray Audio 0198-5 Some may regard it as a gimmick, but there is no denying that the placing of individual instruments in each surround channel (as Tacet is wont to do) makes for a completely immersive experience for the listener. And Korngold’s emotive chamber music is here delivered with great sensitivity in Tacet’s SACD mix. Now the company has moved from SACD onto Blu-ray audio, Tacet provides the best possible advocacy for the medium. RESPIGHI: BELKIS: QUEEN OF SHEBA complete ballet/Stella Doufexis (mezzo soprano) Metodi Moratzaliev (tenor) Julia Jentsch (narrator) Tschechischer Philharmonischer Philharmonic Choir Brno, Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conductor Gabriel Feltz/Blu-ray Dreyer Gaido BR21081/4260014870815  A cherishable world premiere. If you can try to tune out the dull and unnecessary narration (in German), this is an absolute must for admirers of Respighi. In June 2007 Gabriel Feltz was conducting in Milan and during a break in rehearsals visited a well-stocked music shop and made an amazing discovery – the score from a ballet by Respighi which he had never heard of: Belkis, Queen of Sheba. Premiered in 1932, it was one of the most extravagant ballet productions ever staged with over 200 musicians and at least as many dancers. After a few performances, the work was forgotten until it was rediscovered by Gabriel Feltz and the decision made to film the concert. The recording is released on Blu-ray and DVD.  CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD SET OF THE MONTH: BEETHOVEN COMPLETE STRING QUARTETS, Tokyo String Quartet/Hamonia Mundi SACD 807641-8 (8 SACDs).  As each individual episode in this complete traversal of Beethoven’s quartets has appeared, critics have largely speaking been immensely enthusiastic, but arriving as a collective set (in superb SACD sound) this will clearly become the collection of choice for those seeking the a key modern expressions of Beethoven’s genius in the quartet format. Individual quibbles aside, and there are one or two controversial tempi), this is an absolutely magnificent set; Beethovenians need not hesitate.  PROKOFIEV SYMPHONIES 1&2, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop/Naxos Blu-ray audio NBD 0044 The sheer impact of the sound on these dramatic and idiomatic performances renders them first choice in this repertoire, although there are rival sets under way.  WALTON, HINDEMITH CELLO CONCERTOS São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Christian Poltera, Frank Shipway/BIS SACD  A welcome debut in the surround sound medium for two of the most distinctive of modern era cello concertos played with immense sensitivity and grace. A warning, though, the cellist Christian Poltera takes loud and intrusive inhalations of breath before most leading phrases which will rule the disc hors de combat for many listeners.  RACHMANINOV: TRIO ELEGIAQUE, The Borodin Trio/Audite SACD 92691  The Borodin Trio, sensitive as ever in Rachmaninov. Recommendable, but there are problems, however. In order to tame the very close piano sound of the Audite recording, the violin and cello here sound distinctly muted. Nevertheless, the performance here is exemplary, finding all the nuances of the composer’s highly individual sound world.  GLIERE: SYMPHONY NO.3, IL’YA MUROMETS, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, Naxos Blu-ray audio NBD 0041 Glorious though the sound stage presented on most SACD discs is, it is equalled by the high-definition audio content on such Blu-Ray audio discs as this cherishable new entry from Naxos? The disc comes in 24 bit 96KHZ stereo and surround sound – all of which greatly enhance the stunning orchestral picture presented here. The epic symphony is given a truly exhilarating reading by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. The piece is, of course, the calling card for the composer, and has enjoyed a variety of readings (of different merit) over the years; this is undoubtedly one that balances the more dramatic, brass-heavy sections of the music with its subtler, more poetic moments and may make people hungry for more Gliere from this particular combination of artists.  BEETHOVEN COMPLETE PIANO SONATAS, Mari Kodama/PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 4190 (10 SACDs)  First of all: the piano sound. Rarely in the history of recorded music has the sound of the piano been rendered with such felicity as the PentaTone engineers have achieved here. The effects is of an instrument in a modest sized hall with impeccable acoustics, and renders with the greatest exactitude of the instrument utilised here. As for the intensely musical performances themselves, individual issues have been generally well received, although no one has claimed that Mari Kodoma rivals such masters as Daniel Barenboim in representation of this greatest body of work for the piano. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy here, and lovers of the keyboard will be continually astonished by the fidelity of the sound.  MENDELSSOHN IN BIRMINGHAM VOL. 2 /Chandos SACD CHSA 5139  These sensitive and ebullient performances have not been received without reservation (and previous classic performances have been cited in comparison), but they remain useful and attractive for those collecting Mendelssohn symphonies in typically impressive Chandos surround sound.  RÜTTI: SYMPHONY, DIETHELM:- THE LAST WORKS FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, SPCON, Rainer Held/Guild, GMCD7407/2SPCON  While his music will not be to everyone’s taste, Carl Rütti has established himself internationally as the leading Swiss composer of his generation, with a number of fine  recordings of his large-scale choral-orchestral and organ music, and  this magnificent new release reinforces his reputation with the world premiere recording of his major symphonic work, the Symphony ‘The Visions of Niklaus von Flüe’ a large-scale composition for soprano solo, organ, percussion and chamber orchestra on a Mahlerian scale in terms  of length, a score which demonstrates the composer’s mastery of large-scale creation. It is coupled with a major work by Caspar Diethelm, one of the composer’s final scores. 2 CDs for the price of 1.  ELGAR: THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, SEA PICTURES, Soloists, Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA5140(2)  As Graham Williams’ separate review (up shortly) attests, this is a sterling Gerontius, and I largely concur with his very positive judgment. However, I feel about this Chandos version much as I did concerning the recent (excellent) PentaTone. Terrific sound, moving performance – but it’s not just Barbirolli’s conducting on the vintage EMI set or Janet Baker’s Angel whom their successors cannot compare. Both of the newer tenors produce a kind of beautiful, if generalised tenor sound with good attention to the words, while the sometimes–criticised Richard Lewis (for Barbirolli) made every single nuance and change of mood count; there simply isn’t anyone to compare with him. Similarly, Janet Baker’s recording of Sea Pictures-remains the benchmark for this piece, although Sarah Connolly does full justice to them – and what’s more, the use of the organ part in the songs add immeasurably to the impact.  BERG: BY ARRANGEMENT MUSIC FOR STRINGS /Toccata Classics Toccata 0247  So slender is the body of purely orchestral work by the composer Berg that aficionados will be grateful for this unusual collection. It features orchestration of the Piano Sonata along with the Lyric Suite in the composer’s own arrangement supplemented by that of other hands. Performances are nuanced and characterful, although it has to be said that Berg’s restricted sound world here undoubtedly means that the listeners might be better advised not to play the whole disc at a single sitting. BLACKFORD/SAINT-SAENS: THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/Nimbus Alliance B00LH119DFY  The use of the recorded sound of animals in the Blackford piece here may make this a useful CD to introducing orchestral music to children; adult listeners, however, will be attracted by the new orchestration (also by Blackford) of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.  ORGAN POLYCHROME: THE FRENCH SCHOOL, Jan Kraybill/ Reference RecordingsRR-133HDCD  This premier solo recording of French masterworks for the organ is something of a revelation, as much for the thoroughly individual character of the music as for the typically wide-ranging Reference Recordings sound.  BAX: PHANTASY, ETC., BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos CHAN 10829  Can there really be more of Bax’s more obscure orchestral music to be dusted off and recorded? Yes, it seems there is – and this collection of little-known works by the composer proves not to be just chippings from the work desk but thoroughly characteristic and attractive pieces. Admittedly, there are assuredly no undiscovered masterpieces here, but Baxians will want to supplement their collections with his disc (and it’s surely safe to assume that Bax enthusiast will already possess the matchless box of the symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, also from Chandos?). PROKOFIEV VISIONS FUGITIVES Camerata Nordica conductor/BIS SACD 2126  It is particularly cheering to welcome this first appearance in the surround sound medium of the Rudolf Barshai arrangement for string orchestra of Prokofiev’s knotty Visions Fugitives. And if that were not enough, the companion pieces are almost equally interesting, notably Bartok’s lively divertimento strings (although the Webern Five Piece may be for his admirers only).  MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONY NO. 3, SCOTTISH/THE HEBRIDES/SCHUMANN PIANO CONCERTO, London Symphony Orchestra, Maria Joao Pires, London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner/LSO Live SACD LSO 0765  More Mendelssohn, this time from the impressive forces of the LSO under John Eliot Gardiner. While the Barbican acoustic here is less subtle than that on the Chandos disc discussed above, the performances have more fire. Listeners will have to decide for themselves which of the two approaches they prefer. Both have their virtues, but Gardiner is the more dynamic of the two.  FILM AND TV SPORTING THEMES, Various Artists, Silva Screen Records, SILCD 1457  If, like this reviewer, you have zero interest in sport, the appeal of this disc has to be purely musical, and there are several very attractive pieces here, notably John Williams’ ebullient at Olympic theme, although the spirits drop with the inevitable Chariots of Fire – the continuing success of the piece (beyond its associations) remains inexplicable.  ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, George Schaefer, director/VAI DVD  The cinema is littered with great musicals that were shorn of some of their best songs in the transition from stage to screen, from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms and Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town to Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That doesn’t, of course, mean that the resulting films, were not be solid pieces in their own right, but aficionados of the musical always regret this filleting process. The film of Kurt Weill’s musical One Touch of Venus (written with the participation of top American humourists Ogden Nash and SJ Perelman), though shaved of most of its songs, was a perfectly creditable piece of work with a radiant Ava Gardener, but it is a real pleasure to welcome this famous – but previously difficult to see — 1955 telecast of the show which retains most of the songs and even the Agnes DeMille ballets. It’s an absolute must for admirers of musicals (crude though the technical quality is), not least for the presence of Janet Blair, incandescent in the title role and being allowed to sing such Kurt Weill tunes as Speak Low.



Limited Edition Wagner Box from PentaTone

wagnerIn 2010, PentaTone decided to embark on the ambitious project of recording the ten major Wagner operas with the same musical forces. Never before had a record company recorded all of Wagner’s operas with the same orchestra, choir and conductor, even the same producer, within a period of two and a half years.  On top of that, all of the operas, including the Ring Cycle, were recorded for the first time in multi-channel surround sound and with the highest technical quality. Continue reading

Oramo’s Elgar, Gardner’s Mendelssohn: Graham Williams Reviews


ELGAR: SYMPHONY NO. 1/COCKAIGNE OVERTURE, Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS SACD 1939  The internationalism of Elgar’s music is now so well established that it is hard to believe that for many it was once regarded as the preserve of just English conductors and orchestras. How much that has changed is clear from a glance at the current Solti in the main Allegro Oramo does not disappoint when the ‘big tune’ arrives at 6.50. The remainder of the movement and especially its triumphant closing pages are notable for the magnificent brass of the Stockholm orchestra. Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne’ Overture, here receiving only its second recording on SACD, is given a stylish and idiomatic performance in which freshness and energy are the key features. The sound here has an almost tactile quality, but though Oramo includes the organ in the closing pages its pedal notes are lacking in weight so those expecting a floor list of recordings of Elgar’s 1st Symphony on SACD where only one of the six currently available versions is performed by a British orchestra and conductor. Sakari Oramo has long been a champion of British music as his tenure as musical director of the CBSO in the post Rattle era (1999-2007) attests. During this period his enthusiastic advocacy of Elgar’s music in Symphony Hall culminated in an impressive CD release of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ and the ‘Enigma Variations’ – issued in 2007 to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. On this impressive new coupling of Elgar’s 1st Symphony and ‘ Cockaigne’ Overture Oramo elicits thrilling playing from every section of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and has the added benefit of some of the finest recorded sound these works have received. Oramo’s moderate pacing of the Symphony’s first movement happens to be identical with that of Hickox but the aural picture is quite different. The BIS recording is more immediate and sharply focused, clearly demonstrating that the string body of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is no match for those of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in richness of tone. This is especially evident in the exciting scherzo where the articulation of the Stockholm players could hardly be bettered. One might, however, question Oramo’s sudden broadening of the tempo at 4’29”, something that briefly impedes the movement’s forward drive. The slow movement, surely the clincher in any performance of this work, is glorious. It unfolds with the utmost expressiveness at an ideal tempo, its concluding bars establishing a mood of absolute tranquillity. The finale is terrific and though perhaps lacking a touch of the fire and drive of say shaking experience may well be disappointed. As I have suggested the recordings of both works made in the Stockholm Concert Hall some six months apart are superb possessing a wide but natural sounding dynamic range that, aided by the conductor’s antiphonal seating of the violins, misses not one iota of Elgar subtle handling of his themes. I hope that BIS will give us more British music from these artists and especially having just heard a magnificent Prom performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Job’ from Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra I would put that work and a new cycle of the Symphonies at the top of my wish list.

BRUCKNER: ‘STUDY’ SYMPHONY 00 IN F MINOR, Hamburg Philharmoniker, Simone Young/Oehms OC 686 SACD  This is the seventh release in Simone Young’s fine cycle of Bruckner Symphonies recorded live with the Hamburg Philharmoniker. Bruckner’s F minor symphony was composed in 1863 and was given the name ‘Study Symphony’ by Leopold Nowak when he compiled his ‘Bruckner Complete Edition’. It is also known as Symphony No. 00 to indicate that it pre-dates Bruckner’s early D minor Symphony No.0. Both these works were annulled by the composer and were omitted from his numbered canon. Though not typical of Bruckner’s more monumental later style they are well crafted and definitely worth hearing, so any new recordings of them are most welcome. The F minor ‘Study Symphony’ begins with a lively and beguiling ‘Allegro molto vivace’ whose freshness immediately brings Mendelssohn to mind, though the remainder of the symphony is more reminiscent of Schumann. The second movement is a deeply felt ‘Andante molto’ that unfolds with a leisurely beauty in Young’s sensitive account and benefits from much fine playing from the Hamburg orchestra. The brief ‘Scherzo’ that follows does give a hint of the scherzi found in Bruckner’s later symphonies while Young keeps a firm grip on the ‘Finale’, arguably the weakest of the four movements. The live recording made in the clean and reverberant acoustic of the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg is excellent, and shows no evidence of the presence of an audience apart from a slight rustling between the movements. Though there are many recordings of this symphony on CD the only competition on SACD is from Marcus Bosch on Coviello Classics. Bosch despatches the work in 36.29 which leaves room for him to include Symphony 0 on the same disc. Young’s more spacious performance takes 41.59 and has no fill-up ( Bruckner’s early Overture in G minor also dating from 1863 would have been be an obvious candidate – a missed opportunity).Admirers of Simone Young’s Bruckner interpretations will be well satisfied by this latest instalment.

FASCH: QUARTETS & CONCERTOS, Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan/LINN CKD 467 SACD  This is an enchanting disc of music by the little-known Baroque composer Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758)  – a perfect follow-up to the recent release of Zelenka Sonatas by Peter Whelan’s excellent Edinburgh based period group Ensemble Marsyas. Fasch’s long tenure as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst began in 1722 and continued  there until his death. He produced a considerable body of work much of which is still being unearthed from collections in Dresden and Darmstadt. The generous collection (72min.) of eight of Fasch’s works recorded here comprise four Quartets written for two oboes, obbligato bassoon and continuo, the same line-up that Zelenka used in some of his sonatas, a Horn Quartet, a Recorder Quartet and a couple of concertos – one for bassoon and one for recorder. All the music on this SACD is immediately engaging thanks both to its varied instrumentation and especially the virtuosity and enthusiasm of the performers. For a taste of what is on offer try the opening of the Quartet in B-flat where the bright and pungent oboes pleasingly contrast with Peter Whelan’s smooth and sonorous bassoon, or marvel at Pamela Thorby’s virtuoso account of the  F major Recorder – a work that has only come to light in the past few years. Linn’s hybrid multi-channel  recording was made in the intimate acoustic of London’s Wigmore Hall (9-11 August 2013) and expertly balanced by engineer Philip Hobbs while Brian Clark’s detailed biographical notes on Fasch and the works recorded here add to one’s appreciation of a most enjoyable disc. Highly recommended.

MENDELSSOHN IN BIRMINGHAM VOL. 2, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5139 SACD  The second volume of Edward Gardner’s “Mendelssohn in Birmingham” cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra follows the same pattern as the previous issue – two Symphonies preceded by an Overture. Here it is the fine Overture to “Ruy Blas” that opens Gardner’s programme in an alert and winning performance. This is followed by, in order of composition, Mendelssohn’s first and last mature Symphonies. Symphony No. 1 in C minor is in fact the final one of the composer’s 13 symphonies for strings that at the age of 15 he scored for a full orchestra and published in 1831 . It is a marvellously confident work that demonstrates the young Mendelssohn’s prodigious compositional gifts. One can only imagine that its comparative neglect in the concert hall is partly due to the absence of a sobriquet unlike each of the other four symphonies. Gardner’s beautifully paced account of this work will make it many new friends, and one’s only regret is that its clarity would have been further improved by antiphonal seating of the violins – especially in the fugal passages of the Symphony’s finale. This is something that Mendelssohn certainly would have expected, but which Gardner unfortunately eschews. Gardner’s straightforward account of Symphony No. 3 ‘Scottish’, whilst not especially distinctive, does not disappoint. The abundant charm of the music is never in doubt in Gardner’s performance. Melodies are elegantly shaped and the playing of the CBSO is incisive with plenty of rhythmic vigour especially in the finale. Bayan Northcott’s informative liner notes state that Mendelssohn was insistent that the four movements should follow each other without a break, but here we have the usual few seconds break between them. The sound quality matches that of the earlier issue which is hardly surprising as both symphonies were recorded at sessions within a couple of days of those on Volume 1. Though the rather over reverberant acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall gives an occasional and unwelcome steely edge to the violins there is a generally pleasing bloom to the sound – enhanced for those listening to the  multichannel layer by further ambient information. Wind, brass and timpani are exceptionally clear and vividly reproduced. Competition on disc in these works is intense, but those collecting Gardner’s Mendelssohn series will be unlikely to be disappointed with this release.