Graham Williams Reviews

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

Surround Sound Splendour from Channel, CPO, Ondine and Linn

MESSIAEN: TURANGALÎLA SYMPHONY, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Soloists Lintu/ SACD Ondine ODE 1251-5  Since its Boston premier – given by Leonard Bernstein in December 1949 – Messiaen’s exotic and lavishly scored Turangalîla Symphony has received many fine recordings, including some with the imprimatur of the composer and some that additionally feature both Yvonne Loriod, the composer’s wife playing the virtuoso piano part written for her, and Jeanne Loriod, her sister, performing the important part for the eerie sounding electronic instrument the ondes Martinot. No performance or recording of this challenging work is likely to be undertaken without intensive rehearsal by the artists involved which is why I have yet to encounter a badly executed performance of it on disc. It is unlikely that, with over twenty recordings available on CD, any potential purchaser will have much difficulty in finding a performance to suit their own taste. Nevertheless, leaving aside artistic considerations, Messiaen’s kaleidoscopic orchestration and complex juxtaposing of the various sections of his vast orchestral forces (that require a minimum of eight percussion players) call for a recording of exceptional sound quality, such as only SACD or Blu-ray can provide, in order that every manifestation of the composer’s aural palette be made audible. This new recording from Ondine is only the second of this sprawling work to appear as a multi-channel SACD. The first was the 1992 version from Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca. This was re-mixed, for its release on SACD, from the edited master tapes by the producer Andrew Cornall and the recording engineer John Dunkerley to produce the multi-channel version. Continue reading

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

BIS1939

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.

 

 

Impressive New Study of Debussy

DEBUSSY by Eric Frederick Jensen (Oxford University Press)  Many music lovers have shelves groaning with biographies of their favourite composers, and there is a daunting array of choices out there (even more, if you’re prepared to trawl the shelves of second-hand bookstores). But over many years, there has been one yardstick for the composer bio genre: the concise but extremely well-informed (and notably well-written) Master Musician series, of which this latest volume is a shining example. Much has been written about Debussy, but Eric Frederick Jensen manages to find fresh insights into the composer’s life while dealing frankly with the many problems which beset him (not least his health and sexual life). Importantly, the book includes the most recent scholarship concerning the composer (such as the unearthing of previously obscure compositions), and offers the most up-to-date record of the life and achievement of one of the geniuses of French music. Debussy was born into poverty and failed as a piano student at the Paris Conservatoire, but nevertheless became the most famous composer of his day with such scores as La Mer revolutionising modern music in a different but equally significant fashion to that effected by his contemporary Stravinsky. As well as dealing with the composer’s music, Jensen also addresses Debussy’s attitude to the other arts as well as his career as a music critic. And perhaps most valuably, the lively analysis of the music itself sends the reader to listen afresh to these endlessly inexhaustible masterworks.