Graham Williams Reviews

Superlative Mendelssohn from Gardiner


MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), LSO0769 (2 discs)  The first two issues in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s ongoing cycle of the Mendelssohn Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra placed them at a stroke into the top echelon of the most recommendable versions of these justifiably venerated and much recorded works. This coupling of the composer’s 1st and 4th Symphonies confirms without doubt that position. Sir John’s pre-eminence in the field of historically informed style is well known from his many recordings with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the English Baroque Soloists. Here he brilliantly imparts his expertise to the responsive players of the LSO with predictably exciting results. As is to be expected the violins are antiphonally divided, the strings use little or no vibrato and the timpani is played with hard sticks. What is not apparent in an audio only release is that in all the concerts of this cycle from which these recordings are taken the violin and viola sections play standing up. Gardiner believes that this gives the players a freedom that translates into a different type of dynamism and energy in the performances. Continue reading



SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO.3, ‘ORGAN’, ETC., Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern/Reference Recordings RR-135 SACD  The relationship between the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and Reference Recordings has, over the past few years, yielded some outstanding recordings. Not surprisingly in view of the label’s audiophile credentials much, but not all, of the repertoire the orchestra has committed to disc has been of ‘demonstration’ worthy material. Reference Recordings is one of the few companies to use HDCD encoding, a system that is compatible with CD, so many will be delighted that this release which appeared last year in the CD/HDCD format now comes as a spectacular hybrid 5.1 multi-channel SACD. The two hors’d’oeuvres that precede the Symphony are well chosen. Continue reading

New Chandos, Channel Classics & LSO Live reviewed by Graham Williams


COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra* / Symphonic Ode / Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) /Orchestral Variations John Wilson / BBC Philharmonic / Jonathan Scott (organ)* Chandos SACD CHSA 5171 This rewarding second volume in the Chandos’s survey of Copland Orchestral works from John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic could hardly be more different from the first that appeared in January this year. Vol.1 featured three of the composer’s most popular ballets – immediately accessible music full of memorable tunes and catchy syncopated rhythms. Though the music here is somewhat more astringent, it does possess an uncompromising muscularity that will be appreciated by admirers of this composer, especially when as well performed and recorded as here. Copland began his imposing 1924 ‘Symphony for Organ and Orchestra’ in France while he was still studying with Nadia Boulanger to whom the work is dedicated and it was this piece that first brought fame to the young composer. Unusually it has three movements like a concerto which is possibly why Copland wrote that the “ organ is treated as an integral part of the orchestra rather than as a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment”. Nevertheless the work is in most respects a virtuoso concerto, and, as Jonathan Scott the superb organ soloist on this recording notes, the organ writing is deceptively complex from both rhythmic and technical viewpoints. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic give a scintillating performance of the Symphony with vivid and incisive playing that makes the most of Copland’s brilliant scoring, especially in the propulsive jazzy scherzo and the sweeping grandeur of the finale. Best of all, the recording of the Organ Symphony took place in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (16 January 2016) one of Britain’s finest concert halls in terms of its spacious acoustic and tonal clarity. Naturally Jonathan Scott is able to demonstrate to the full the range and capability of the hall’s magnificent pipe organ built by Marcussen & Søn of Aabenraa in Denmark, while organ buffs will enjoy reading the instrument’s full specification printed in the liner notes. The Chandos engineering team have excelled themselves in capturing both the subtle detail and also the awe-inspiring scale of the piece in magnificent 5.0 multi-channel sound. The remaining three works on the disc were recorded in the orchestra’s home studio at MediaCityUK, Salford. In 1957 Copland made an orchestral arrangement of his ‘Piano Variations’ – originally composed in 1930 – in response to a commission from the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. This is one of the composer’s least performed orchestral works, its generally stern demeanour, jagged harmonies and taut construction seemingly not to have found favour with the public at large. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic though make a very strong case for the piece with their committed and crisply recorded performance. Copland’s Short Symphony (Symphony No.2), dedicated to his friend the composer Carlos Chávez who successfully premiered the work (after no less than ten rehearsals!) in 1934, is cast in three connected movements (fast-slow-fast). It is a playful and vivacious piece with immediate listener appeal that at times seems to anticipate both the later Cowboy ballets and ‘El Salon Mexico’. Listening to the almost effortless assurance with which the brilliant BBC Philharmonic musicians manage the rhythmic intricacies of this score it is hard to believe that it was once thought to be unplayable.
The imposing ‘Symphonic Ode’ (1927-29) that completes this programme was originally scored for a huge orchestra requiring eighteen brass players and an enormous percussion section. Declamatory passages for heavy brass alternate with both jazzy and more reflective sections and the piece eventually builds to a pounding, almost Mahlerian, peroration. Copland revised it in 1955 for the more modest forces heard here but, in spite of his attempt to make it more accessible, this austere work has made little headway in the concert hall. Wilson obviously believes in the piece and his orchestra perform it with their characteristic flare. Once again the Chandos recording is first rate with pin sharp detail and a spacious sound stage typical of the MediaCity studio and the excellent work of engineer Stephen Rinker. Strongly recommended.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE, Rachel Podger (violin, director), Brecon Baroque, Channel Classics, SACD B01I4CIFBQ  For her latest release on Channel Classics, Rachel Podger turns to Bach’s late masterpiece ‘The Art of Fugue’. She is joined in this enterprise by the four key members of her expert period ensemble Brecon Baroque: the violinist Johannes Pramsohler (who also plays second viola), Jane Rogers (viola), Allison McGillivray (cello) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord). Bach began to assemble the constituent parts of ‘The Art of Fugue’, in the early 1740s, but it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1750. The work comprises 14 fugues and 4 canons, each based on a single subject, and though he did not specify an order for the pieces, they are usually performed in order of increasing contrapuntal complexity. But as so often with a work left incomplete at the time of a composer’s death many intriguing questions are left unanswered. In this case the main one is that because the work is written in open score and Bach did not indicate any instrumentation then how should it best be realised for performance? For the majority of recorded versions the answer is on keyboard instruments (harpsichord, piano or organ), but the use of other instrumental combinations is equally valid as demonstrated most successfully on this compelling SACD. Rachel Podger and her colleagues are justly celebrated as exceptional artists in the period performance field and they deliver wonderfully expressive performances of each of the eighteen fugues and canons that make up Bach’s astonishing work with a technical finesse that is beyond reproach. The varied combinations of string instruments used here add spice and variety to each of the pieces. There is a rich mellownness to the string sounds and throughout the players ensure that every line is clearly defined so one can follow even the most complex strands with ease. Special praise is due to Marcin Świątkiewicz for the fluent and thoughtful playing of his two allotted solos, the Canon alla Duodecima (tr.13) and Canon alla Decima (tr.15). The final fugue (Contrapunctus14) is performed unfinished, as Bach left it, a poignant reminder of the transience of life. It need hardly be stated that Jared Sacks’s multi-channel DSD recording is, as always, state-of-the-art, capturing the warm acoustic of London’s Church of Saint Jude-on-the- Hill to perfection and giving the instruments an almost holographic vividness set within a realistic sound stage. Scholarly and thought provoking notes by John Butt complete a most desirable issue.

RACHMANINOV: SYMPHONY NO. 1, BALAKIREV: TAMARA, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), LSO Live LSO 0784  This is the fourth and possibly final disc of the survey of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. The main work here is the composer’s 1st Symphony but the disc also includes Balakirev’s symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ making only its second appearance on SACD. Both pieces were recorded on 19th February 2015 at the Barbican. The bad press that Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony received following its 1897 premiere in Moscow has faded into history, and the work has long been accepted as a bold and imaginative piece worthy of the composer at his finest. The fact that the original score was lost and eventually reconstructed in 1945 from a set of orchestral parts discovered at the conservatory in Saint Petersburg has led some interpreters to ‘spice up’ the score with extra percussion, especially in the central section of first movement and it is worth noting that Gergiev eschews such additions. With the LSO in top form Gergiev’s powerful and committed interpretation impresses from the outset. As usual, he seats the orchestra with double basses on the left and the violins placed antiphonally. The benefits of this are clear to hear not only in his purposeful account of the opening movement but throughout the symphony. The two middle movements are paced with an assurance born of experience. The scherzo is fleet, with delicate contributions from every section of his responsive orchestra, while the flowing tempo he adopts for the slow movement, combined with beautifully nuanced orchestral playing, ensures that any longueurs are avoided. The finale is urgent and builds magnificently to a forceful percussion capped climax whose impressive sonic impact is only slightly constrained by the familiar acoustic limitations of the Barbican Hall. Gergiev’s recording of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony also included his account of Balakirev’s ‘Russia’, but here we are given a much more compelling composition by the same composer. The symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ is a colourful orchestral work based on a ballad by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov and was dedicated to Liszt. Though Balakirev began the piece in 1867 it had a long gestation period and did not receive its first performance until 1883 when it was premiered with the composer conducting. The story tells of a beautiful but evil princess who lives in a tower above the river Terek. Her singing lures travellers to a night of orgiastic passion after which she kills them and throws their bodies into the river. Gergiev gives a fine account of the work, establishing plenty of brooding atmosphere at the start and building to a thrilling climax thanks to the virtuosic playing of the LSO. This disc is a worthy successor to the conductor’s previous Rachmaninov recordings and admirers of those need not hesitate to add this one to their libraries.

Chandos Atterberg cycle completed; Pentatone, Linn, LSO Live


ATTERBERG: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC, VOL. 5: Symphony No. 7, Op. 45 Sinfonia romantic, Symphony No. 9, Op. 54 Sinfonia visionaria*, Anna Larsson ǀ soprano*, Olle Persson ǀ baritone*, Gothenburg Symphony Chorus* Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/Chandos SACD CHSA 5166  The publisher Virago once did sterling work in reissuing the novels of unjustifiably neglected women writers, but a point arrived when there was a sense that all the best novelists had been once again made available and that some on reissued writers on whom the dust of history had settled perhaps deserved their obscurity. All of this this is a preamble to talking about Chandos’s ongoing commitment to recording (in their customary top-notch sound) some composers who l have been relatively neglected. And thankfully, there is no sign yet of any barrel-scraping – clearly there is still a great deal of excavation work of remarkable music to be done. The composer Atterberg cannot be said to have been neglected, with other companies recording his very winning symphonies, but not in the splendid SACD sound that Chandos have accorded their series (with one puzzling exception, issued in stereo only rather than surround sound– why? ). This last volume is one of the most dynamic and committed of the series, finessing an enterprise that has proved to be one of the company’s great initiatives; for this listener, it has had the effect of making me hope that someday Chandos will finally complete its Vaughan Williams cycle  of the symphonies, left incomplete at the death of the conductor Richard Hickox. The final volume in the Atterberg series with Neeme Järvi and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra features two late rarely performed symphonies. The seventh, from 1942, is recorded here in its final, three-movement form, fourteen years after the Dollar Symphony. Originally in four movements, the work only acquired its final shape in 1969, when Atterberg decided to remove the last movement from the original score. The disc writes a satisfying finis to a wonderful series.

BARTOK CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, DANCE SUITE, MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION AND CELESTA, ETC., London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti/Decca Eloquence 480 6872  This welcome two-CD set is a reminder of just how definitive an interpreter of Bartok his fellow Hungarian Georg Solti was, and most of the performances here are non-pareil — although the once-demonstration-class sound is showing its age. That is particularly true of a much sought-after performance, that of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This particular reading has been something of a holy grail for Bartok aficionados for years, and is making its first appearance on disc here (other, less dynamic readings by Solti have been in circulation). It is still as pointed and vivacious as one could wish for, although the sound, once ear-tingling, now sounds somewhat muffled. Still, a useful set.

HANDEL: APOLLO E DAFNE, Soloists, Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan/LINN CKD 543  There was a time when admirers of Handel’s operas and oratorios had to be content with some very inauthentic performances of the rarer works – simply because there was not the range of recordings available that there is today. Some of these sets which we once happily listened to in lieu of any alternatives else were conducted at stately tempi with little or no continuo — and certainly no crisp pointing of rhythms. This very welcome set of the composer’s Apollo e Dafne is proof of just how far we’ve come since then, and it’s hard to imagine a more committed and sympathetic reading of the work than the one presented here by Whelan and his forces. This is one of the most ambitious of the composer’s cantatas, and this new disc may create some friends for the piece.

MENDELSSOHN SYMPHONIES 1 AND 4, ‘ITALIAN’, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner LSO live LSO 0769  While the perfectly serviceable alternative recordings by Edward Gardener on Chandos have rightly received plaudits, most pundits have given the laurels to this rival set from LSO Live from another (differently spelt) Gardiner, sharper and (surprisingly) better recorded. This latest issue is one of the most enjoyable so far, with a particularly brisk and lively ‘Italian’ symphony.

MARTINŮ: ARIANE LYRIC OPERA IN ONE ACT, H 370 (1958), DOUBLE CONCERTO FOR TWO STRING ORCHESTRAS, PIANO AND TIMPANI, H 271 (1938) Essener Philharmoniker, Tomas Netopil/Supraphon SU4205-2  Another gap in the Martinů story is re-plugged with this very welcome issue which brings an intriguing vocal piece by the composer to light – and it turns out to be a particularly lyrical short essay in operatic form, though no masterpiece. To make the disc even more attractive, there is a strong and persuasive performance of one of the composer’s calling card pieces, the Double Concerto, which might not quite match the classic Mackerras account in sombre intensity, but is slightly better recorded and a worthy successor to the earlier disc, The composer wrote: “I am writing a new small opera, a one‐acter, as I would also like to have a rest from the grand-scale opera, The Greek Passion, which has taken its toll.” Martinů composed Ariane within a mere month, in the summer of 1958. The Greek myth of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, who helps Theseus slay the Minotaur, has been set to music by a number of renowned composers. Martinů was captivated by Georges Neveux’s drama Le Voyage de Thésée, on which he based his own libretto. Theseus is portrayed as a split personality, struggling with himself and overwhelmed by love for a woman. Tomáš Netopil and his Essener Philharmoniker have made a new recording of the opera some 30 years after the one created by Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic which very effectively plugs a gap in the repertoire.

MOZART: PIANO CONCERTOS, KV 414 + KV 453 Alfred Brendel (Piano), Academy of St Martins in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner/PentaTone PTC 5186236  When Phillips quadraphonic discs were originally issued in the 1970s, I, like many listeners, only had the facility to hear them in stereo, and frankly, most of them seemed a little opaque and underpowered. But how splendid most of them now sound in the new leases of life given to them in the SACD medium by PentaTone – such as this Mozart disc, a perfectly judged performance from the great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel. Brendel, one of the most important exponents of the German-Viennese Classical and Romantic traditions, possessed an intellectual rigor and poetic spirit. As one of the founding fathers of the German-Viennese classical tradition, Mozart’s contribution to music history speaks for itself, and, one of his greatest achievements in composition is the piano concerto. While improvising and experimenting from the keyboard, he masterly combined instrumental and operatic styles. This interaction between instrumental and operatic elements can particularly be heard in the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, which on this album is coupled with his Piano Concerto No. 12.

MOSZOWSKI: FROM FOREIGN LANDS: REDISCOVERED ORCHESTRAL WORKS, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West/Reference Recordings RR 138 CD  With its evocative tile, ‘From Foreign Lands’, this is an unusual issue from the always reliable Reference Recordings brings out of obscurity a variety of short orchestral works by a neglected composer. Moszowksi is known (if at all) for his piano works. All of the pieces here are given an amiable advocacy, and although one cannot honestly say that there are any undiscovered masterpieces to be found, the music is tuneful and orchestrated with professional skill.

GINASTERA: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Arturo Tamayo/Capriccio C5271  This collection of rigorously ordered pieces by Ginastera is perhaps not the best introduction to the composer; these works represent a him in his more strictly ordered vein, rather than in colourful mode. Nevertheless, for aficionados of the composer, this will make a functional adjunct to other more approachable discs.

PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONY NUMBER 6, WALTZ SUITE, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra Marin Alsop/Naxos8.573519  This remarkably invigorating performance of the Prokofiev Sixth Symphony is every bit as striking and appealing as earlier discs in this much-acclaimed series. But there is a caveat. Earlier issues in this series of enjoyed astonishing Blu-ray audio surround sound, and this latest issue is in acceptable but hardly spectacular two-channel stereo. Those who have been buying earlier discs in the series will note this fact with some disappointment.

DURUFLÉ: REQUIEM, FOUR MOTETS. MESSE CUM JUBILO, Choir of Kings College, Stephen Cleobury/Kings CollegeKG50016  Always popular with choral societies, Duruflé’s ingratiating Requiem is here granted a very sympathetic performance, with Stephen Cleobury balancing his choral forces with great acumen.

MAURICE JARRE: IS PARIS BURNING? City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Nic Raine/Tadlow Music 2 CDs TADLOW023  Once again, the reliable team of producer James Fitzpatrick, conductor Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra do sterling work in dusting off some unfairly neglected orchestral film scores from the days before far less ambitious and complex music took over – and with nary a hectoring rap theme song in sight. Maurice Jarre was one of the great film music professionals, initially making his mark with such French classics as Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face before having his greatest success with the epic films of David Lean. This is Jarre in militaristic mode, cheekily borrowing motifs from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, but coming up with something possessing its own individual character. A particular plus here is another wartime film score by Jarre, The Night the Generals. As ever, Raine and his highly professional forces do a great service to this music.


Shakespeare Songs from Bostridge and Pappano on Warner Classics


Froam Warner ClassicsGrammy® Award winners Ian Bostridge and Sir Antonio Pappano have been working together on the stage and in the recording studio for over 20 years. Together they have produced award-winning recordings and played sold out concert halls all over the world to huge critical acclaim. Now they embark on a project marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare with a new album out in September. Shakespeare Songs celebrates the four centuries of music and performance that his plays and sonnets have inspired. Shakespeare’s peerless feeling for the music of the English language has inspired countless composers, from those who set the Bard’s verse during his lifetime to musicians as diverse as Britten, Finzi, Korngold and Stravinsky. Ian Bostridge and Sir Antonio Pappano, together with four outstanding chamber musicians, delve into the rich Shakespeare legacy for this brand new recording, marking the playwright’s quarter-centenary with a delectable programme of works written for Jacobean productions, Restoration revivals and the modern concert hall. As guests Ian has invited his friends the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, and for Stravinsky’s Three Songs flautist Adam Walker, violist Lawrence Power and clarinetist Michael Collins.