Graham Williams Reviews

New BIS & Chandos

SIBELIUS: Kullervo, Finlandia (choral version); KORTEKANGAS: Migrations, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone), YL Male Voice Choir, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor) BIS SACD

Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä’s superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions. Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Continue reading

Top-Notch Strauss, Dvorak & Prokofiev

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STRAUSS: ELEKTRA & DER ROSENKAVALIER SUITES, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-722  All Straussians will be intrigued by this latest release from Manfred Honeck and his marvellous Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of orchestral suites from what many would regard as the greatest of the composer’s fifteen operas – Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, (though I would also include Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten in any shortlist). Honeck has already demonstrated his mastery of the Strauss idiom in his previous fine accounts of some of the tone poems for both the Reference Recordings and Exton labels so the bar is set very high for any new release in this series. The first item on the disc is the world premiere recording of a suite from Strauss’s fourth opera Elektra. This opera, the composer’s first collaboration with the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, could fairly be described as a tone poem with voices, since the orchestra is without doubt the main protagonist. Of course, as well as being fully staged in the opera house, Elektra is often given in concert performance and this is possibly one of the reasons why Honeck, in collaboration with the Czech composer Tomáš Ille, has produced this ‘Symphonic Rhapsody’, first heard in Pittsburgh in 2014, as a means to bring the appreciation of Strauss’s searing masterpiece to an even wider audience. Honeck and Ille have carried out what was surely a challenging task with considerable skill and fashioned a coherent and gripping single-movement piece lasting 33’39” that convincingly encapsulates both the dramatic power of Strauss’s music and the crux of the original blood soaked tragedy. In the liner notes accompanying this superbly recorded SACD, Honeck provides a guide (with timings) to the music he has selected for his arrangement. Continue reading

Davis Takes Up the Vaughan Williams Challenge

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Job / Symphony No. 9, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis/ CHSA 5180  There are those (such as this listener) who found the death of the late Richard Hickox particularly affecting as his commitment to English music was particularly strong, and his advocacy had been immortalised in a series of remarkable readings for the Chandos label. A particular jewel in his crown was the series of recordings of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, cut short by Hickox’s death. Over the years, rumours that other conductors would complete the cycle had been rife, so it’s fortunate indeed that it is Sir Andrew Davis who has taken up the RVW baton in this impressive surround sound coupling of the composer’s final symphony and his ballet masterpiece Job. The result is particularly cherishable, even if (in the final analysis), Davis’s reading of Job lacks the monumental quality of Hickox’s stereo-only recording. On the other hand, the recording here is infinitely richer and more powerful than the Hickox, with the organ passage for Satan particular cataclysmic in its impact. The Ninth symphony, too, receives a performance of great distinction. The late Hickox left a remarkable legacy in the Vaughan Williams discography and he has posthumously found the perfect successor in Davis.

WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies, Piano Quintet (Orchestrated), Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer: violin, Yulianna Avdeeva: piano, Mate Bekavac: clarinet, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: conductor/ ECM New Series 2538/39 2-CD 0289 4814604 8  if you are a completist (like so many classical music lovers), it’s particularly easy to obtain all the symphonies of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler — many recordings of each, of course, in the cases of those composers. But if you’re one of the steadfast (if restricted) band of admirers of the Russian composer Weinberg, it’s a considerably more ambitious job, as he was practically as proficient as Haydn in the symphonic medium. In fact, more and more of the symphonies are currently becoming available – and, thankfully, the work of this talented colleague of Shostakovich is gradually appearing on disc. This latest addition from ECM is particularly welcome, and not just because it plugs some symphonic gaps. There have previously been serviceable recordings of Weinberg’s Chamber Symphonies three and four, but this very welcome disc provides us with superb readings of the first and second symphonies in performances by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla which find all the plangent feeling located deep in the core of the composer’s music. The recording, too, is exemplary, although one might wish for SACD sound – but perhaps that’s looking a gift horse in the mouth. However, the real pleasure of this two disc set is not in the chamber symphonies, welcome though they are: it is in the newly orchestrated version of the Piano Quintet (arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion), which turns out to be a remarkably winning new version of the piece; It’s this new find as much as the chamber symphonies which makes the disc an essential purchase for admirers of Weinberg.

DVORAK: Symphony No. 9, The Noon Witch – Staatsphilharmonic Nurnberg, Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg conductor Marcus Bosch/Coviello Classics COV91618  When competition is so fierce, something special has to be pulled out of the hat to make any new recording of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony one to be reckoned with – even in the surround sound medium, in which there are several excellent readings. The Marcus Bosch cycle is proving to be highly distinctive, although perhaps without the rigour and freshness of his recent much-acclaimed Bruckner sequence. Nevertheless, this is a competitive ninth. With the nickname “From the New World” it is, of course, one of the most popular of classical pieces; the lesser-known symphonic poem, “The Noon Witch”, is the colourful fill-up. Hopefully, we can look forward to the completion of the cycle with the Brahmsian first Symphony, which has not yet appeared in the SACD medium.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, Frank Peter Zimmermann, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Alan Gilbert/ BIS2247  Although the BIS label is not trumpeting the fact, this is the first time that Shostakovich’s two violin concertos have appeared on the same SACD, and this is a highly competitive issue, if not quite in the same category as some of the great readings of the past. Nevertheless, the recording here has all the nuance and drama of the troubled Russian composer’s style, and the sound palette (in excellent surround sound) is immensely faithful. If the notion of having both concertos on one disc appeals, you have no reason to hesitate. Shostakovich completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1948, at a time when he had fallen out of grace with the Soviet authorities. Throughout the work there are allusions to the composer’s situation, such as the D-S-C-H motif that appears in so many of his works and which in the second movement is closely related to a theme reminiscent of Jewish popular music, as a symbol of Shostakovich’s identification with the suppressed Jewish culture. He completed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1967 after suffering a heart attack only the year before. Strong, focussed performances from Frank Peter Zimmermann with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, conducted by Alan Gilbert.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2, Overtures, Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier /MDG SACD 937 1977-6  It seems strange to report the fact that one of the greatest (if not the greatest) of all composers has yet to have some key works available in the SACD medium. Not the symphonies, of course, of which there is a plethora of choice, but some of the overtures. This distinctive disc goes some way to redressing that balance with powerful, authoritative performances of some of the less recorded overtures alongside a strong and characterful reading of the Second Symphony. As a conductor of Beethoven, Stefan Blunier proves himself to be sui generis.

SMETANA: Ma Vlast, Bamberger Symphoniker, Jakob Hrusa/Tudor SACD 7196  There are a wide selection of recordings of this colourful, nationalistic masterpiece available, but the choice in the SACD medium is more restricted. If this reading by the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jakob Hrusa is not quite in the upper echelons, it still crammed full of drama and energy, making it a competitive issue. The recording has a suitably wide dynamic range, typical of the Tudor label.

BE GLAD THEN, AMERICA: Robert Russell Bennett, William Schuman, National Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati/Eloquence 482 2884  This is a particularly enterprising programme, showcasing two remarkable American composers, neither of whom has quite received the due to which they are entitled to. William Schuman’s calling card piece, the New England Triptych, here receives a vid and kinetic reading (as might be expected from Antal Dorati, always masterful in American music) and the piece by Robert Russell Bennett despite its unfortunate title, ‘The Fun and Faith of William Billings, American’, has much of the charm of the composer’s little-known music — proving once again that there was much more to him than the definitive orchestrator of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter shows.

MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner/LSO Live SACD & Blu-Ray 822231179221  First, the good news. This is as pointed and full-blooded a performance of Mendelssohn’s orchestral music to Shakespeare’s play as one is likely to hear, finding both the poetry and the exquisite delicacy of the orchestration. And now, the caveat — and it’s a major one. Why on earth did the producer opt to interject great chunks of Shakespeare’s text in between the musical passages? While the Bard may be our greatest writer, most listeners of this piece will not want to hear these lengthy sections again and again, and while it works admirably in the accompanying Blu-ray, the text quickly becomes tiresome on the SACD. Nevertheless, there is no denying the appeal of the performance of the music and if the text is not a problem for you, then you need not hesitate.

CASELLA Divertimento per Fulvia, DONATONI Music for Chamber Orchestra†, GHEDINI Concerto grosso†, MALIPIERO Imaginary Orient† Orchestra della Svizzera italiana (OSI), Damian Iorio, †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING/Naxos  Minor stuff here, but mostly attractive, with the Casella and Malipiero items unsurprisingly being the most accomplished pieces on the disc (the uningratiating Donatoni is not likely to detain many listeners for long). This programme of four complementary works for small orchestra enshrines the lighter side of four twentieth-century Italian composers, concentrating on Alfredo Casella’s Divertimento for Fulvia, composed for his young daughter. Casella’s friend Gian Francesco Malipiero wrote Oriente immaginario (Imaginary Orient) for a Futurist play by Achille Ricciardi (1884-1923).

HOLBROOKE: Auld Lang Syne (Variations for full orchestra, Op. 60); Concerto for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 59 ‘The Grasshopper’; The Raven (Poem No. 1 for orchestra, Op. 25), Judith Ingolfsson, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Howard Griffiths/ CPO 777636-2  Holbrooke is something of a discovery among neglected composers, although his actual level of achievement can be (it has to be said) hit or miss. This selection is not quite in the higher reaches of his achievement, but will be welcomed by those who have been collecting his other orchestral tone poems, notably those inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven here is particularly winning. When this symphonic poem after Poe, celebrated its premiere in London in March 1900, the critics extolled the virtues of its young composer. His sole violin concerto, The Grasshopper, can also be heard here.

TISHCHENKO: Symphony No. 8, Concerto for violin, piano and string orchestra, Three Songs to Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, Yuri Serov/Naxos The find here is the symphony, which is a piece that most purchasers of this disc will be returning to most often. Obviously written in the shadow of Shostakovich, it nevertheless has its own individual character, even though the more famous composer’s fingerprints are all over it. Tishchenko was an important Russian composers, whose star has dimmed compared to that of his mentor. The Symphony No. 8, one of his last completed works, was written to be performed immediately after Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, to which it makes reference. Also on the disc are his Concerto for violin, piano and string orchestra and Three Songs to Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. Tishchenko set the words of this important Russian poet to music three years ahead of Shostakovich.

GARRIDO-LECCA: Peruvian Suite, Andean Folk Dances • Laudes, Symphonic Tableaux, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/Naxos  Colourful and appealing pieces are offered on this unusual disc; certainly, they are not (by any stretch) undiscovered masterpieces, but make a very beguiling programme. A native of Peru, Celso Garrido-Lecca is one of the foremost Ibero-American composers, integrating a unique blend of musical elements that include serialism, the native sounds of the Andes, and the influence of the ‘Nueva Canción Chilena’ movement.

SZYMANOWSKI: Concert Overture, Op. 12; Slopiewnie, Op. 46bis; Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony No. 4), Op. 60; Nocturne and Tarantella, Marisol Montalvo, Ewa Kupiec, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Karl-Heinz Steffens/ C 5280  The first few bars of Szymanowski’s Concert Overture will have the listener convinced that they are hearing a little-known tone poem by Richard Strauss, but many composers were under the German master’s influence. The piece enjoys an exhilarating performance here, coupled with an intelligent and sympathetic reading of the Fourth Symphony, which is much more in the characteristic refulgent Szymanowski style. The composer’s earliest works were clearly influenced by the late Romantic style, but, halfway through the First World War, he became particularly attracted to Impressionism. From then on he remained committed to tonality, but pushed it to its very limits with lush, seductive blazes of colour that find their closest parallels in the music of Alexander Scriabin, attested to by this recording.

REIJSEGER: The Volcano Symphony – Forma Antiqva, Winter & Winter, Ernst Reijseger (cello) Forma Antiqua conductor Aarón ZapicoJosef/Winter & Winter 9102402 8.95/0025091024025  Despite the jeremiads that bedevil the classical recording industry, many labels still have enterprising recording programs – and not just reheatings of well-worn repertoire pieces. Here, for instance, is an opportunity to discover a composer and a piece most listeners will not have heard of. I have to say that I did not find the music distinctive or individual, but it is certainly given the best possible advocacy here. And if you’re more persuadable, you may find this an interesting issue. Composer and cellist Ernst Reijseger presents his first symphonic poem, “The Volcano Symphony”, written for the Baroque orchestra Forma Antiqua conducted by Aarón Zapico. The symphony (we are told) ‘tells of death and life’’. Soprano Eugenia Boix embodies the voice of Pele — not a footballer but the goddess of the volcanoes, according to Hawaiian belief.

THE FILM MUSIC OF WILLIAM ALWYN, VOLUME 4, BBC Philharmonic | Rumon Gamba/ CHAN 10930  Chandos’ commitment to recording the film music of William Alwyn has been particularly commendable, given that his music for the cinema has not enjoyed the currency of better known composers such as Vaughan Williams and Walton. Alwyn, in his dramatic vein (as opposed to the more disposable light music-style items on offer here) is a match for his better-known contemporaries. This fourth volume is a particularly arresting issue, bringing new recordings of music from the prolific decades of the 40s and 50s, during which Alwyn scored a number of famous films. These scores show to perfection Alwyn’s supreme skill in providing music totally attuned to the subject.

STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos† (Symphony-Suite, arr. D. Wilson Ochoa), Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – Suite, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING  If, like me, you are a collector of orchestral suites drawn from operas, you need not hesitate with this charming confection drawn from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. The cohesion between the various pieces is persuasive, and the performance finds the gentle charm of the composer in his more companionable vein. Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite was one of his own favourite scores, incidental music that combines the composer’s romanticism with his admiration for the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

HOLST: The Planets / STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, CBSO Youth Chorus / National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain / Edward Gardner/Chandos CHSA 5179 see also Graham Williams review opposite    For its first album on Chandos, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain brings enthusiasm to a dramatic programme with playing that prioritises energy over finesse. Edward Gardner marshals his youthful forces with skill, utilising the acoustic of Symphony Hall, Birmingham in a surround-sound recording markedly different from most of the company’s SACD recordings.

DEBUSSY AND HOSOKAWA: Point and Line, Momo Kodama: piano/ ECM New Series 2509 CD 481 4738  Listeners may not be attracted by the little-known pieces by Hosokawa recorded here but they will find them a very pleasant surprise – particularly when recorded alongside very persuasive readings of the better-known Debussy piano pieces. Kodama proves to be the most sensitive of interpreters, both in Hosokawa and Debussy, Born in Osaka, educated at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris, Momo Kodama is well-placed to approach music from both Eastern and Western vantage points, as she does in this album.

Can ATILLA: Symphony No. 2 ‘Gallipoli – The 57th Regiment’, Angela Ahıskal, Soprano • Onur Şenler, Cello Bilkent Symphony Orchestra • Burak Tüzün  Another enterprising issue from Naxos, although this listener was not seduced by the straightforward and workmanlike music of the Turkish composer Can Attila, one of the leading Turkish composers of his generation. Success in film and television music has been accompanied by comparable achievement in the orchestral repertory. The Gallipoli campaigns in the First World War have always held particular significance for Atilla, and Symphony No. 2 ‘Gallipoli’ – The 57th Regiment is a war symphony, composed for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the battle. This powerful elegy, in which the first two movements have an important role for solo cello, commemorates the tragic Turkish 57th Regiment and is also dedicated to the Anzac soldiers who perished in the battle.

BARTÓK: Concerto for 2 Pianos, Percussion & Orchestra, Victor BABIN: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra Piano Duo Genova & Dimitrov, Dobri Paliev, Plamen Todorov, Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yordan Kamdzhalov/ CPO 555001-2  An earlier performance of Bartok’s transcription of his Sonata for Two pianos and Percussion by Simon Rattle had more point and precision, but this is a still a powerful and persuasive reading, making for an attractive disc. Particularly, in fact, when coupled with the winning Babin Concerto which will be unfamiliar to most listeners The Hungarian composer, pianist, folk music researcher, editor, and teacher Béla Bartók moved the piano or pianos closer to the percussion family.

LOKSHIN: Symphony No. 5 ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’; Quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello; Variations for piano, Ivan Mozgovenko, The Komitas Quartet, Maria Grinberg, Yan Kratov, Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai/ MELCD 1002446  . This is unusual repertoire which is unlikely to be on the radar of most listeners. It is mostly intriguing stuff, well performed by the great Rudolf Barshai, a friend and admirer of the composer, and creator of the first Soviet chamber orchestra – the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

SIBELIUS: In the Stream of Life, Gerald Finley | Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra | Edward Gardner/ Chandos CHSA 5178 [PREMIERE RECORDINGS]: see also Graham Williams review opposite  One has to admire the imagination which this particular program was put together. Sibelius’s songs, particularly in a baritone iteration, require careful handling to avoid aural monotony — and that is precisely what they receive in these exquisite orchestrations – not to mention the clever interpolation of some of the composer’s tone poems to balance them. The exceptional collaboration and friendship between the late Einojuhani Rautavaara and the internationally acclaimed bass-baritone Gerald Finley culminates in this unique album of orchestral songs by Sibelius, on which the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Edward Gardner. The album offers orchestrations, by Sibelius and others, of songs which Sibelius originally wrote for voice and piano, and includes the premiere recording of In the Stream of Life, seven songs orchestrated by Rautavaara for his friend.

 

 

Shostakovich and Co. from Challenge, BIS, Chandos

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SHOSTAKOVICH & TCHAIKOVSKY: VIOLIN CONCERTOS Linus Roth (violin), London Symphony Orchestra & Thomas Sanderling/Challenge Classics SACD CC72689   There are those admirers of the SACD medium (and this listener, I have to confess is one of them) who are always pleased when a colourful piece of 20th-century music is accorded a first reading in the medium. Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto has already enjoyed that privilege, but here for the first time is the more enigmatic (but no less masterly) secondly concerto making its debut in surround sound. What’s more, Linus Roth pairs it with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – the world premiere recording of its original version. With the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling, the real find here is the Shostakovich, which receives a reading of concentrated intelligence that is the equal of many of the great readings of the past; it is something of a revelation. The Tchaikovsky is inevitably up against formidable competition, but this performance, for textural reasons, is somewhat different from versions listeners will have encountered before. This is the first recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto that takes the new Urtext, published by Henle Edition as a source. There are a few different notes, phrasings and bowings from what is usually played but the most obvious audible difference is that the whole second movement is played with the mute on. Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto is a late work written when the composer was already ill and aware that his life would be soon over. The conductor Thomas Sanderling, was a friend who knew Shostakovich well in his late years and provides unique musical insights into the piece.

DEBUSSY: IMAGES, JEUX & LA PLUS QUE LENTE, San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas SFS0069 821936006924 SACD  Those who eagerly collected the Mahler Symphony cycle by these forces under Michael Tilson Thomas will be well aware that this is a musical combination which can almost always be relied upon to offer something special, and that  proves once again to be the case with this Debussy collection. One of the hallmarks of the series has been the remarkably vivid and detailed recordings, a plus factor once again making for a splendid disc (although some may find that the conductor’s notably elastic approach to tempi leads to unorthodox readings). However, Jeux in particular receives a reading that identifies an impeccable logic at the heart of this often evanescent music, and is frequently reminiscent of a reading that many listeners of a certain age will have grown up with, that by Pierre Boulez. This latest release in Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s award-winning discography also features Debussy’s exquisite miniature La Plus Que Lente and a superb Images.
GINASTERA: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2, Xiayin Wang / Manchester Chamber Choir / BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena/ CHAN 10924  Those masters of the serendipitous recording art, Chandos Records, continue their excavation of eth composer Ginastera with another cherishable disc. Panamabi has already enjoyed some persuasive recorded performances in the past, but few, however, have been as colourful as this one — which leads to one caveat: what a shame that Chandos did not accord this music the surround sound recording which is their particular speciality. The keen musicality and sweeping virtuosity of Xiayin Wang meet the sumptuous sound of the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena in Ginastera’s late Second Piano Concerto.

RACHMANINOV & PROKOFIEV: Works for Cello & Piano, Johannes Moser, Andrei Korobeinikov/PentaTone SACD B01M6V42LP  The chances are that admirers of the Russian masters Rachmaninov and Prokofiev will be unfamiliar with this aspect of their chamber music, and to some degree this is music that will sort out the casual listener from the hard-core aficionados. Neither work is immediately ingratiating in the manner of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev’s other music.. Nevertheless, as concentrated expressions of the musical identity of the composers, both of these cello works are immensely revealing, and it’s hard to imagine  more committed and sympathetic performances than they receive here. The musicians have talked about how they bore in mind images of nature and Russian folklore during recording sessions. The influence of this inspiration is, of course, impossible to quantify, but the results speak for themselves — and those wishing to move beyond more familiar works by these composers need not hesitate.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: FANTASIA ON A THEME BY THOMAS TALLIS, BRITTEN: FRANK BRIDGE VARIATIONS, ELGAR: INTRODUCTION AND ALLEGRO/LSO String Ensemble, Roman Simovic/LSO Live SACD LSO 0792  The classics of English music on this disc have enjoyed a variety of first-rate performances over the years, even (one might add) in the SACD medium, so competition is fierce. But Simovic and his impeccable ensemble deliver readings of great authority and feeling with a sound picture that does full justice to one of the great orchestras of this country. Following two well-received releases, the LSO String Ensemble continues with Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a visionary fusion of folksong and sacred music; Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a challenging landmark of 20th-century string writing; and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a work with a special significance for the LSO, having been composed for and premiered by the Orchestra. If, in the final analysis, the performances do not unseat other readings, they nevertheless make for a competitive disc.

LAJTHA: SYMPHONY NO. 2, VARIATIONS, OP. 44, Pécs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolás Pasquet/Naxos 8.573643  The welcome series of reissues of Marco Polo recordings of the composer László Lajtha’s music continues with some of his most approachable scores, delivered in performances that make a strong case for these neglected pieces. Along with his contemporaries Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi, László Lajtha was one of the leading Hungarian composers in the first half of the twentieth century, and while his reputation may not be the equal of his contemporaries in terms of either inspiration or influence, his music will be a revelation to many. Of his nine symphonies, Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 dates from 1938 and is an intense, sombre and brooding work as if foreshadowing the horrors of the war to come. When asked to compose incidental music for Georg Höllering’s film of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Lajtha responded with three autonomous compositions of which one, the monumental Variations, Op. 44 from 1948, is recorded here.  

BRAHMS: STRING QUINTETS, Mandelring Quartett, Roland Glassl, violin/Audite 97.724  A particular kind of musical sensibility is required to find the rigour within these demanding entries in the chamber music canon, but the Mandelring Quartett and Roland Glassl have those resources aplenty and this is a particularly impressive set, finding all the panoply of feeling and mood within both works.

SCHREKER: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC FROM THE OPERAS, Royal Swedish Orchestra, Lawrence Renes, BIS SACD 2212  Those already acquainted with the orchestral music, of Schreker will need no cajoling to investigate this sumptuous disc – particularly as the music will be unfamiliar to most listeners, even to admirers of the composer. There is, inevitably, a fragmentary nature to most of the pieces here, but there is never a sense of bleeding chunks as Lawrence Renes manages to maintain an inner cohesion in each extract. And the music (which bears echoes of both Mahler and Debussy) is often inspired despite the occasional passage of conventional writing. With the première of the opera Der ferne Klang in Frankfurt, 1912, Franz Schreker’s operas – with their symbolist, often erotic subjects – were triumphantly successful, and he was seen as one of the most prominent representatives of ‘New Music’ – Arnold Schoenberg even called him ‘one of the foremost among us’. Schreker composed almost exclusively operas, and with few exceptions to his own librettos, thus ensuring that his subjects were suitable for, even demanding of, musical treatment.

FAURÉ: PIANO MUSIC, Hannes Minnaar, piano, Challenge Classics SACD CC 72731  The delicate poetic qualities of Fauré’s piano pieces requires the most sensitive of touches from the pianist tackling them, and it’s clear within a few bars of Hannes Minnaar’s selection that he is comfortably a master of the idiom. A particular pleasure is here is the First Nocturne, which opens the collection, as is a perfectly judged reading of the Fifth Impromptu. If the entire program listened to at a sitting might not be heard to best to the best advantage as the sound world is narrow in scope, it is nevertheless a judiciously chosen selection for admirers of the composer.

ASPECTS, Aquarelle Guitar Quartet/CHANDOS CHAN 10928  Those lucky enough to have heard the Aquarelle guitar quartet live will be aware that they are in for a treat with this delectable disc, in which musical virtuosity complements a lively selection of pieces (and the choices are eclectic indeed). And although the disc may be best listened to in separate sessions rather than straight through, that is hardly a criticism. The disc is a cogent demonstration that the quartet have not lost their ability to make four guitars sound as rich and colourful as an orchestra. ‘Aspects’ showcases the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet’s love of musical diversity. The album includes original works for four guitars, arrangements that have been made by members of the group, and even a new work written especially for this project.

HANDEL: MESSIAH (New Concert Edition by Sir Andrew Davis) Erin Wall / Elizabeth DeShong / Andrew Staples / John Relyea. Toronto Mendelssohn Choir / Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5176(2) [PREMIERE RECORDING]  Over the years, Messiah has enjoyed a remarkably varied series of readings for the recording medium from Sir Thomas Beecham’s enjoyable (if overinflated) classic reading through to the pointed and athletic Colin Davis performance (with such soloists as Heather Harper) a clear forerunner of the authentic, carefully research performances of the present. In that respect, the radical and experimental approach to the orchestration here is something of a throwback to the needlessly interventionist past, but that does not make the reading any less enjoyable — although it is not one for purists. Recorded live on SACD, this unique version makes use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements. Without detracting from the innate power of the original, the conductor’s score calls for moments of drama, pathos, and even, sometimes, whimsicality. It is supported by substantial brass and woodwind forces, and several percussion instruments (including marimba!).

RICHARD STRAUSS – EIN HELDENLEBEN / MACBETH, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Pentatone SACD   Richard Strauss’s orchestral masterpiece Ein Heldenleben is here coupled with a far lesser known piece, but one admired by aficionados of the composer, the tone poem Macbeth. Both works have enjoyed persuasive performances in the surround sound medium, but the choice here is not quite as clear-cut as it may be, with performances of authority rather than bravura. However for those not possessing other recordings of the works, these readings are alert to the nuances of Strauss’s consummate orchestral writing. Perhaps the last ounce of panache in Ein Heldenleben may be more discernible in other readings from the past (Luisi on SACD, for instance), but having said that, the recorded sound — as so often with PentaTone’s SACDs — has great impact and allows much detail customary customarily obscured on ordinary CD recordings to emerge with great clarity. If you’re tempted by this particular coupling, there is no doubt that conductor and orchestra do considerable service to Strauss’s writing.

DVORAK: COMPLETE SYMPHONIES VOL. THREE (SYMPHONIES THREE AND FOUR) DRPSK, Karel Mark Chicon/SWR 19009 CD  While the later symphonies of Dvorak has been well served on disc, the earlier works, notably the third and fourth, have had considerably less representation — so it is encouraging to be able to welcome this sensitively played set, which offers readings of the third and fourth Symphony which are often reminiscent of such great interpreters of the composer as Istvan Kertesz. While the recording does not have a range of SACD readings, it is more than acceptable in catching the orchestral nuances of this very attractive set.

BRUCKNER: COMPLETE SYMPHONIES 1-9, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden/Challenge Classics SACD CC72707  Those who have been collecting the individual recordings of these imperishable masterpieces conducted by Jaap van Zweden will need little recommendation when it comes to this integral set. The conductor has clearly thought long and hard about his approach to this difficult music and there are echoes here of many of the great readings of the past, although van Zweden is very much his own man. For instance key tempi are always totally at the service of the individual symphonies, unlike the striking recent complete set by Bosch, there is not necessarily the same muscularity but a dramatic monumentality which, while never ponderous (in the Klemperer manner) refuses to go for more straightforwardly kinetic solutions to the faster music. One persistent characteristic of these remarkable recordings (which are almost a summa of the possibilities of the surround sound medium) is the combination of the best aspects of concert hall ambience with a clarity and precision only possible in a domestic setting. With recordings possessing this degree of analytical precision, this is a remarkable set, and many will find themselves choosing it as a default selection.

SCHOENBERG: GURRE-LIEDER, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs / Edward Gardner / Alwyn Mellor / Anna Larsson / Stuart Skelton / Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke / James Cresswell / Sir Thomas Allen/ Chandos SACD CHSA 5172(2)  It’s hard to imagine a persuasive performance of Schoenberg’s late romantic masterpiece that according here by Edward Gardner, particularly in the wide-ranging multi-directional sound. Personally speaking, it’s a piece whose appeal customarily eludes me, but if you’re already persuaded then you need look no further if you’re searching for a modern performance of the piece. Recorded live on SACD in the impressive acoustic of Grieghallen in Bergen, this epic reading of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder marshals over three hundred performers, including sizeable choral forces, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra – extended for the occasion – and six soloists, conducted by Edward Gardner.

WEINBERG: SYMPHONY NO. 17, ‘MEMORY’, SUITE FOR ORCHESTRA† Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande/NAXOS 8573565, † WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING  A key enterprise of Mieczysław Weinberg’s later life was On the Threshold of War, his symphonic trilogy dedicated to the ‘memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War’. The Symphony No. 17 is the largest-scale of the three and one of Weinberg’s most eloquent pieces. (Naxos has already issued Symphonies Nos. 18 and 19, on Naxos 8.573190 and 8.572752.) The Suite is a less substantial but intriguing piece.

JONGEN: SYMPHONIE CONCERTANTE, OP. 81 FOR ORGAN & ORCHESTRA; PASSACAGLIE ET GIGUE, OP. 90 FOR ORCHESTRA; SONATA EROICA, OP. 94 FOR ORGAN SOLO, Christian Schmitt, (Karl Schuke-Orgel der Philharmonie Luxembourg) Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, Martin Haselböck/CPO SACD 777593-2  It’s a safe bet that this music will be unfamiliar to most listeners, and while these pieces by Jongen are hardly undiscovered masterpieces, they make an attractive proposition for admirers of the unfamiliar. Since concertos for organ and orchestra are relatively rare finds, it is no surprise that Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante op. 81 that has kept his name alive beyond Belgium’s borders. The three works recorded on this CD concentrate on the organ, the orchestra, and interaction between the two.

REZNICEK: SYMPHONIC WORKS: Goldpirol (Idyllische Ouverture); Wie Till Eulenspiegel lebte; Konzertstück für Violine und Orchester in E major; Präludium und Fuge in C minor; Nachtstück für Violine, Hörner, Harfe und Streichorchester  Sophie Jaffé, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marcus Bosch/CPO 777983-2  Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, best known for his Donna Diana overture, is one of the late German Romantic composers whose varied compositional style makes him difficult to classify. Prior to the inauguration of CPO’s grand edition of Reznicek’s major works a few years ago, he was known to classical music fans solely as the composer of the overture mentioned above. But such colourful, lively discs as this may change that perception.

A VIOLIN FOR ALL SEASONS, Tasmin Little / BBC Symphony Orchestra/Chandos SACD CHSA 5175  Is there a piece of classical music more often recorded (I avoided saying hackneyed) than Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Any new entry has to provide something different, and that’s precisely what Tasmin Little and her forces do here. The selling point is the sheer musicality on offer (no surprise there, with Tasmin Little helming the performance, of course) but it is the filler on the disc, which makes it somewhat different from other recordings: Roxanna Panufnik’s Four World Seasons, the premiere recording of a set of inspirational pieces composed especially for the violinist.

VIVALDI: FOUR SEASONS, FRANTISEK JIRANEK: VIOLIN CONCERTO, Ars Antiqua Austria, Gunar Letzbor, Challenge Classics SACD CC72700  In the review above, I noted the ever-burgeoning multiplicity of recordings of The Four Seasons, and here to prove my point is yet another take on the work. Like the Tasman Little performance discussed above, the Ars Antiqua Austria set is also in the surround sound idiom but is markedly different, taking a more pointillist approach to the music and a more stately tempo (which may not be to every taste). However, Gunar Letzbor never allows the individual segments of musical argument to lack coherence, and there is a particular athleticism to be found in the sprung rhythms. Another echo of the Chandos set is the unusual filler, in this case Frantisek Jiranek’s Violin Concerto, which displays many fingerprints of the Vivaldi style in its brief duration. But with these two performances of Vivaldi’s calling card (and who knows how many more since these words were typed?), is it now time for a moratorium on the piece – for a short time at least?

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: DISCOVERIES: THREE NOCTURNES; A ROAD ALL PAVED WITH STARS; STRICKEN PENINSULA; FOUR LAST SONGS, Roderick Williams, Jennifer Johnston, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins//Albion ALBCD028  Discoveries brings together works spanning Vaughan Williams’s career from early maturity in 1907 to his death in 1958. Three living composers are engaged in this realization: Anthony Payne orchestrates two of the 1907- 08 Nocturnes, as well as all of the Four Last Songs, Adrian Williams has composed the symphonic rhapsody A Road all Paved with Stars based on music from the opera The Poisoned Kiss, and Philip Lane has reconstructed the lost score for the film ‘Stricken Peninsula’ from the film’s soundtrack. This recording, featuring two of Britain’s finest singers in this repertoire, Roderick Williams and Jennifer Johnston, was made in conjunction with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (conductor Martyn Brabbins) and BBC Radio 3.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE LARK ASCENDING, SUITE OF SIX SHORT PIECES, THE SOLENT, Jennifer Pike, Violin, Sina Kloke, Piano, Chamber Orchestra of New York • Salvatore Di Vittorio/Naxos 8573530  Once again, Albion music gifts admirers of the music of Vaughan Williams with its commendable agenda of recording pieces which are not likely to be familiar to the RVW aficionado, except perhaps in other readings with different forces. Vaughan Williams withdrew or destroyed many works from his earliest period, but he considered The Solent, with its haunting opening and luminous polyphonic textures, as among his ‘most important works’. The Fantasia is his earliest known piece for solo instrument with orchestra and contains some of his most bravura writing, contrasting with the graceful geniality of the Suite. Depicting a sublimely pastoral scene and now one of the best loved pieces ever written, Vaughan Williams called The Lark Ascending a ‘romance’, a term reserved for his most profoundly lyrical works. This release presents the world première recording of Vaughan Williams’ Suite of Six Short Pieces for Piano, and only the second recording of first editions of rediscovered early works.

KIP WINGER: CONVERSATIONS WITH NIJINSKY, GHOSTS, A PARTING GRACE, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West/VBI B01G3MHHQI  This is something of a find, albeit a modest one. The composer Kip Winger, whose name will be unfamiliar to most listeners in the UK, proves to be a quirky and individual talent. One piece here, Conversations with Nijinsky, proving to be a particularly winning in accessible fashion. The piece is a four movement tribute to the great dancer, and is dispatched with affection by Martin West and his professional forces. If the other two pieces are not as appealing, they both have their charms, and this is an attractive disc.

Second View (see also the Graham Williams review opposite): PROKOFIEV SYMPHONIES NOS. 4 (1947) & 7, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton/BIS Records BIS SACD2134  The days when the Prokofiev symphonies were caviar to the general — and recorded performances were few and far between — seem very distant, and a variety of cycles are appearing which offer classical listeners a wide variety of choice. Litton’s performances are among the very finest these pieces have received, even rivalling the great Russian performances of the past but (needless to say) captured in surround sound which makes the much respected Melodiya readings sound thin and boxy. This third instalment in Andrew Litton’s cycle features the composer’s Symphony No.4, a substantial reworking of the first version of his fourth symphony, which did not enjoy great success. The 1947 version is larger scale score and is granted its own opus number. Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony is unusual in that it exists in two such different versions that the composer considered them quite separate works, giving each its own opus number. The differences between the versions are many, but the principal contrast is that the 1947 version, given the opus number 112, is a much bigger and more ambitious score.

Second View (see also the Graham Williams review opposite): STRAUSS: ELEKTRA & DER ROSENKAVALIER SUITES, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/ Reference Recordings SACD FR-722  I have to make a confession. I’m something of an aficionado of orchestral suites taken from operas, even when the necessary cutting and pasting results in the integuments linking the music being less than smooth. (The Peter Breuer orchestrations of Janacek opera suites are particularly successful). Needless to say, such discs do not replace the experience of hearing the complete works, but there are occasions when one simply want to enjoy the orchestral mastery, and these suites usually put together by other individuals than the composer) offer the listener that particular pleasure. Richard Strauss, of course, was one of the great masters of the orchestra, so many will be tempted by this highly intriguing coupling. We are of course familiar with a variety of suites from Der Rosenkavalier, and that utilised here is played with an emphasis on the sensuous, erotic qualities of the music (which does include most famous orgasm in classical music). There are those who object to the concert ending created for this particular suite, but this listener has no problems with that. The orchestral suite drawn from Strauss’s powerful dramatic opera Elektra is a very different proposition indeed, and the version prepared here does have moments which do not sew together the various sections with the precision that one might wish. But having said that, the performance is full of tremendous dramatic heft and converts the operatic Greek tragedy into a listening experience of considerable tension and excitement. There is little question that the disc needs to be in the collection of any dedicated Straussian.

Thief of Bagdad: The Complete Score

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